Print this page

Have a news item you would like featured? Fill out the request here (UW NetID Restricted).

  • A puppy has dug up a 13,000-year-old bone belonging to an ice age woolly mammoth | Inquisitr
    Monday, December 3, 2018
    A Labrador pup named Scout will forever go down in history as the ultimate good boy. The eight-month-old puppy has contributed to an exciting paleontological find after digging up an ancient bone that dates back 13,000 years. Elizabeth Nesbitt, associate professor of Earth and space sciences at the UW and curator at the Burke Museum, is quoted. Read More
  • Congressional bill would keep early earthquake-warning-system projects on track, if Trump signs it | The Seattle Times
    Friday, November 30, 2018
    A bipartisan bill passed by Congress on Tuesday will likely keep the development of early earthquake-warning projects in the Pacific Northwest on track, if approved by President Donald Trump. Harold Tobin, director of UW-based Pacific Northwest Seismic Network and a professor of Earth and space sciences, is quoted. Read More
  • Antarctic scientists begin hunt for sky’s ‘detergent’ | Nature News
    Tuesday, November 20, 2018
    To understand how the sky cleanses itself, a team of Australian and US researchers is heading to Antarctica, using ice cores to track down the atmosphere’s main detergent. Peter Neff, a UW ice-core scientist, says organizing the equipment to do this and transport it to a remote ice sheet has been a huge logistical challenge. By drilling deep into polar ice, the scientists hope to determine how the sky’s capacity to scrub away some ozone-depleting chemicals and potent greenhouse gases has changed since the Industrial Revolution — information that could help to improve global-warming projections. Read More
  • UW polar scientists advised NASA on upcoming ICESat-2 satellite
    Wednesday, November 14, 2018

    NASA plans to launch a new satellite this month that will measure elevation changes on Earth with unprecedented detail. Once in the air, it will track shifts in the height of polar ice, mountain glaciers and even forest cover around the planet.

    instrument on dark sky above Earth

    An artist’s depiction of the ICESat-2 satellite in orbit. Four solar panels, blue, provide energy while six laser beams send 10,000 pulses per second toward Earth.NASA

    Two University of Washington polar scientists are advising the ICESat-2 mission scheduled to launch Sept. 15 from California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base. UW researchers provided expertise in two areas of intense interest for long-term tracking: massive glaciers covering Antarctica and Greenland, and sea surface height in the Arctic and other oceans.

    “ICESat-2 is designed to answer a simple glaciology question very, very well: It will tell us where, and how fast, the ice sheets are thickening and thinning,” said Benjamin Smith, a glaciologist at the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory. “When these data start coming in we will immediately get a big-picture map of how Antarctica and Greenland have changed over the past decade.”

    If you’re up early Saturday morning, you can watch the launch live during a 40-minute window starting at 5:46 a.m. PDT. Or watch a video of what the deployment will look like.

    Read more about ICESat-2 from NASA.

    Smith is a member of the science definition team and the lead author of the document that describes the data that ICESat-2 will provide for ice that covers land.

    “My specific role is to work out how to turn the raw data that NASA generates -- which track the location of individual photons -- into the answer we want to give the scientific community, which is how high the ice sheet surface is at a particular point,” Smith said.

    The instrument, whose full name is the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite, succeeds the original ICESat-1 satellite that operated from 2003 to 2009. Since then NASA has been running annual IceBridge flights to collect data over a few important parts of Antarctica and Greenland during the gap. The new satellite will provide nonstop, higher-resolution data for the Earth sciences community starting this October, one month after it launches.

    “For me, the most exciting aspect of ICESat-2 is its extremely fine resolution,” said Jamie Morison, a polar oceanographer and former leader of the North Pole Environmental Observatory. The new satellite uses six laser beams to get readings every 2-3 feet, each one focused over a 30-foot patch of the surface. For comparison, Morison said, today’s instruments measure surface elevation by averaging over many hundreds of feet to miles between each data point. The new instrument’s orbit is designed to collect more data over the poles, and it can detect very small elevation changes over long timescales.

    Morison is a physical oceanographer on the science definition team, and lead author the document that describes ICESat-2 data for the open oceans.

    “For the oceans, ICESat-2 will yield fine-scale measurements that are important to coastal oceanography, revealing smaller features in the open ocean and even down to the characteristics of larger surface waves,” Morison said. “ICESat-2 will also help measure sea-level change, particularly at high latitudes where the most established radar altimeters don’t go, and it will give us higher-resolution measurements of the sea surface slopes that drive changing ocean circulation.”

    The two UW researchers were members of a 12-person science team that consulted on the project over the years leading up to the launch. They also are among the hundreds of scientists who anticipate using the data in their research.

    “ICESat-2 observations will make it possible to study glaciers that are too remote for aircraft to reach, and it will make it possible to detect small changes over large areas, which were difficult to see clearly with older data,” Smith said. “There are a lot of places in Antarctica where we assume that not much is happening, but we don’t have great evidence one way or another. My guess is that when we look carefully, there will be a lot to see.”


    For more information, contact Smith at or 206-616-9176 and Morison at or 206-543-1394. More ICESat-2 multimedia is here.

    They will be available in Seattle until Thursday, Sept. 13, when they will travel to California for Saturday’s anticipated launch.

    Read More
  • When will the Big One hit?
    Wednesday, November 14, 2018
    When will the "Big One" hit? Harold Tobin, the new director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, answered this and more of our earthquake questions. Read More
  • The 19th Century Antarctic air molecules that could change climate models | Discover Magazine
    Thursday, November 8, 2018
    Friends and loved ones bid adieu to members of the latest research team to begin the long trek to Antarctica this weekend. Peter Neff, a postdoctoral researcher in Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More
  • Digitizing earthquake alerts to save precious time in a disaster | KING 5
    Tuesday, November 6, 2018
    Scientists at the UW and the U.S. Geological Survey are working to add hundreds more digital earthquake detectors in Washington and Oregon in the coming years. Paul Bodin, network manager at the UW-based Pacific Northwest Seismic Network, is quoted. Read More
  • Timing a Tsunami | BBC
    Monday, November 5, 2018
    How fast do Tsunamis travel, what makes them so devastating and can we predict when they're going to hit? Jody Bourgeois, professor emeritus of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More
  • Q&A: Provost Mark Richards' welcome lecture asks: 'What really killed the dinosaurs?'
    Monday, October 29, 2018

    The University of Washington this summer welcomed a new provost and executive vice president, Mark Richards, who also has an appointment as a professor in the UW Department of Earth & Space Sciences. As a lead-up to his welcome lecture, Richards sat down with UW News to answer a few questions about his work to solve one of Earth’s most intriguing scientific mysteries.

    The lecture is Tuesday, Oct. 30, at 3:30 p.m. in the HUB Lyceum. It will also be livestreamed and archived at

    How did you get into studying dinosaurs? How does it relate to your expertise in Earth sciences?

    Mark Richards in front of brick building

    Mark Richards, UW provost and executive vice president for academic affairs

    The answer is, honestly, that I really don’t study dinosaurs. I’m not a paleontologist; I’m a geophysicist. I study the events that led to their extinction.

    My expertise is in flood volcanism, caused by plumes of hot rock coming from deep in the interior up to the surface in what are called flood basalts. Mantle plumes also create features like Iceland or the Hawaiian Islands chain or the Galapagos Islands.

    The last four mass extinctions on Earth are all closely associated in time with huge flood-basalt volcanic events. The largest mass extinction event was 251 million years ago, when about 90 percent of all species were wiped out. That event is very closely associated with a huge set of volcanic eruptions in Russia -- the Siberian Traps eruptions.

    2018 Provost Welcome Lecture: “What really killed the dinosaurs?”

    Tuesday, Oct. 30, 3:30 p.m.

    HUB Lyceum

    Only the most recent mass extinction -- the K-T mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs -- is associated with a meteorite impact, the Chicxulub impact. The meteorite impact coincides almost exactly in time with the extinction event. But there was also flood volcanism at that time in India, creating the Deccan Traps. Why does the dinosaur extinction coincide with a big meteorite, and is it related to the volcanism? This has been a real conundrum in the science.

    The Deccan volcanism had started before the impact, so the meteorite didn’t cause the volcanism. But what I and my group have proposed, and found increasing evidence for, is that the rate of volcanism increased by a factor of two or three at the moment of impact. In this case, it looks like there was an ongoing flood-basalt event whose activity was accelerated by the meteor impact. And we propose that the acceleration of the eruptions may have contributed to the K-T extinction 66 million years ago, when 70 percent of everything in the fossil record was wiped out.

    So let’s jump to the question that everyone’s inner 8-year-old wants to know, and that is the title of your talk: What killed the dinosaurs?

    Not to give away the answer, but the truth is that we don’t quite know. We know that it’s one of two things -- meteor impact or volcanism -- and the two events may have been related. It leaves us, right now, not knowing which of those two events was the leading cause of the extinction. My own prejudice is that it probably was the impact, but we just don’t know that yet.

    Have these been the only explanations for how the dinosaurs died out?

    People today seem to think that we always knew there were mass extinctions. But that's not true. Very few people realize that prior to 1980, the majority of paleontologists did not believe in mass extinctions. They had all sorts of other explanations for how species had disappeared. Dinosaurs were fairly large and rare as animals go, so it’s not entirely obvious from the fossil record that they died off suddenly. There are some people even today who maintain that the dinosaurs died off gradually.

    But in 1980, Walter Alvarez and his group at the University of California, Berkeley, published this amazing paper with evidence of an asteroid impact at the time of the K-T extinctions. That paper and the huge controversy surrounding it gave a lot of paleontologists the idea that there could be at least one major event that could trigger extinctions across the globe. When later in 1991 scientists discovered the Chicxulub Crater in the Yucat?n, Mexico, people became very convinced that mass extinction events were possible.

    Since then, paleontology has gotten better and better, and it’s now clear that there are at least five, and possibly six, mass extinction events in the past 600 million years of Earth’s history. The four that have happened since 260 million years ago are very clear in the fossil record.

    How do you carry out your research?

    What I’ve been studying is the causal mechanism of the K-T mass extinction. I’m mainly concerned about the volcanic processes, and how they change the conditions for life on Earth. That involves understanding the nature and timing of the Deccan eruptions.


    Mark Richards, former dean at UC Berkeley, named provost at the UW” -UW News

    UW’s new provost plumbs one of Earth’s most fascinating mysteries” -Seattle Times

    If you think you understand the death of the dinosaurs, you're wrong” -KQED


    For the last four years, our team has been going to India to the Deccan Traps lavas to obtain samples. Prior to the work that we’ve done, the dating had only been precise to about half a million years. But by using the latest methods for argon-argon isotopic dating, we can now date samples to a precision of about 30,000 years. This new technique has allowed us to say with increasing precision exactly when each lava sequence was laid down in layered rock formations that are about 3.5 kilometers (more than 2 miles) in total thickness.

    We can also say rather precisely when the Chicxulub impact occurred. And we see profound changes in the nature of the volcanism in India just at that time. The Chicxulub impact caused a magnitude-11 earthquake, which we think triggered accelerated volcanism almost halfway around the world.

    We had a very precise hypothesis that we were testing, and it’s turned out to be spectacularly confirmed. That doesn’t happen very often in science.

    What should people expect from your talk?

    The talk is designed for a general audience. I’m going to minimize the technical slides, and emphasize the places traveled, the adventure of it all, the people I’ve worked with, and highlight the most important scientific aspects on the way.

    It’s unusual to introduce a provost with a research talk. Was that a deliberate choice?

    Yes. I very much want the faculty and students here to feel that I’m part of the academic mission of the university, and not just someone who lords over their budgets. (Yes, you can actually keep that line.)

    The role of provost is mysterious to many people. How do you like to describe it?

    Officially, the provost is the chief academic and budget officer for the campus. It’s a huge amount of responsibility, especially for a place this large and complex. So, one way to think about it is that the president and the provost are both chief administrators, with the president as the boss and the provost beneath.

    The president is a much more outward-looking person, who is the face of the university and is more publicly and politically visible. The provost is the person who’s more inwardly focused and looking at the running of the enterprise. President Ana Mari Cauce and I talk every day, and we don’t make major decisions without consulting each other. It’s really a partnership.

    How do you balance your research with being provost, and why do you think it’s important to do both?

    I’ve had a lot of practice. I was dean for 12 years at Berkeley, and managed to keep my research going during that time. It’s mainly an issue of time management.

    I think it’s important, if you’re in a position like dean or provost, for faculty to see you as a colleague. The main way to be seen as a colleague is to be a teacher or a researcher. Keeping a research program, which you can schedule during “off-hours,” is much more possible than maintaining a regular teaching schedule.

    On the provost front, any areas that people should look for as initial priorities?

    Some things that I think need renewed attention at the UW -- in no particular order -- are support for graduate students and restoration of infrastructure and facilities. Affordability for undergraduate students and the overall undergraduate experience, and diversity across all aspects of the university community, especially among the faculty are also significant priorities.

    Anything else you would like to say to the university community?

    It’s an exciting university that is innovative and flexible, and I’m really happy to be here.



    Read More
  • 4 volcanoes near Vancouver 'very high threat,' but experts say no need to duck and cover | Globe News
    Friday, October 26, 2018
    Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey have ranked the volcanoes across the country at their current risk to erupt. And the results are troubling for a number of volcanoes located in Washington State. Stephen Malone, professor emeritus of Earth and space sciences at the UW, is quoted. Read More