Earth & Space Sciences Newsletter

From Chair Winglee

Chair Winglee I hope this letter finds you well. Despite all the depressing talk about the economy and state budget cuts this year, the department had a great year in terms of creating new student opportunities, breakthrough science, national and international recognition of faculty and students, and the department hosted two national/international conferences. Find the stories behind these efforts on the side menus of this newsletter. In addition to these stories let me also congratulate Alan Gillespie, recipient of the Mongolian Academy of Science 2010 Khubilai Khaan Award for collaborative research, Ken Creager and Chuck Nittrouer for their recent election to become AGU Fellows, Bruce Nelson for being the College of the Environment Outstanding Teacher of the Year, John Vidale for being the College of the Environment Outstanding Researcher of the Year, and Theresa Kayzar who is the College of the Environment Dean's Graduate Medalist.

Our efforts have been nationally recognized with ESS being ranked in the top 10 schools in the nation both in geology and in geophysics by US News and World Reports, with our program placing one position higher than last year.

Let me also congratulate the Class of 2011, including 35 BS degrees, 2 MS degrees and 8 PhDs. A job well done by all! But our work is still not done as the number of majors in the program has been continually growing over the last 5 yrs and in fact we saw a sharp rise this year of 30%.

A big thank you to all those that have generously supported the department in so many ways from volunteering efforts to gifts and donations. A special thanks goes out to the the Crossons for creating the the Robert and Mary Alice Crosson Endowed Graduate Student Support Fund and to Jon and Carol Avent, Afton E. Crooks, Edgar Bowman and Gregg Petrie for their continued support of field opportunities for our students.

For a complete list of ESS donors in the past year please click here. Also, if you have not yet made your annual gift please consider supporting the field experience of our students through a gift to the Undergraduate Field Support Fund. This fund helps our students gain invaluable field experience key to their educational and professional growth. To make a gift, please visit the UW Foundation’s secure website here.

It is with sadness that I announce that Prof. John Booker is retiring after 40 years of service to the University. We will be holding a celebration of his efforts in the Fall so stay tuned for the announcement. Judi Gray was recruited by Undergraduate Academic Affairs after nearly 10 years of service to our department, and Nichole Fernkes by the Graduate School after nearly 5 years of service. They will both be missed. Our wonderful replacements are Noell Bernard as Counseling Services Coordinator, and Michele Conrad as Department Administrator. We would also like to welcome Nathan Briley who will be working as the Chair's Assistant as well as Program Coordinator.

Stay well. Until next time,

Robert Winglee


Department of Earth and Space Sciences



What's a nice piece of coral doing in a place like this?

Brain coral on Anegada

A team of geologists, including Brian Atwater, recently revisited Anegada, in the British Virgin Islands, 140 km east-northeast of Puerto Rico, seeking to identify the tsunami or storm that washed over part of this island in the 17th or 18th century. The clues they collected include samples of brain coral that may help show whether the culprit came from Lisbon. They reasoned that the over-wash had scarred Anegada far more than did hurricane Donna in 1960 or hurricane Earl in 2010. No fewer than three large heads of brain coral rest on Anegada's interior sand, a kilometer or more from the nearest coral sources. If their deaths could be dated to 1755, even a skeptical juror would likely find the Lisbon tsunami guilty. Dating of the samples continues using abundances of uranium-238, uranium-234, and thorium-230.

ESS Manages Global Lightning Network


Did you know that ESS is home to the first, real time global lightning location network? WWLLN (World Wide Lightning Location Network - see is a collaboration of over 60 host sites all around the world, primarily at universities and government labs. Each site hosts a VLF (Very Low Frequency) radio wave receiver to detect radiation from lightning. These receivers can typically detect the radiation from lightning strokes up to 8,000 to 12,000 km distance. WWLLN has grown from a few sites back in 2003 to the present global network, which located over 12 million lightning strokes every month in 2010. In recent years, the network has become a powerhouse for scientific studies with 34 peer reviewed scientific papers published since 2005, including 9 in the last 12 months. Recent scientific results include the demonstration that TGF (Transient Gamma Flashes), detected by NASA satellite experiments, are directly caused by lightning. WWLLN data was used to locate the source of these antimatter-producing events. Our most unusual recent research work relates to a USGS funded study designed to use real-time lightning measurements to detect explosive volcanic activity, in which intense ash clouds are lofted above the caldera, and copious lightning is seen by WWLLN. We had our first successful early alert for a volcano in Kamchatka in October 2010, and WWLLN has detected several other volcanic ash cloud events since then.

Erosion at the Top of the World


An ESS project headed by Bernard Hallet, Howard Conway, and Al Rasmussen aims to fill a major gap in knowledge as to whether glaciers accelerate or impede erosion in the Himalaya. ESS graduate student Adam Barker, and former ESS student Taylor Brugh are currently in Nepal to conduct field work to determine contemporary erosion rates for the Khumbu basin, at the foot of Mt Everest, through a detailed examination of the fluxes of ice and rock debris in this drainage basin. The debris flux is directly linked to the erosion rate averaged over the contributing basin. Recent scientific advances, and the availability of an unusually rich environmental database for this region, make it possible to determine these fluxes on three time scales: during the 2-year duration of this project, ~60 years and ~10,000 years. During the duration of the project, contemporary fluxes of ice and debris will be determined from analyses of digital topography and satellite images, a wealth of existing glaciological and geomorphological data, and field studies to determine two components of the debris flux, the debris advected with the ice and accumulating in the lower reaches of the glacier, and the debris that exits Khumbu Glacier through the proglacial stream. The proposed research promises to contribute to the understanding of two timely but controversial issues: how global warming affects glaciers in the Himalaya and, of considerable societal concern, the probable consequences for the vast population dependent on the major rivers that emanate from the glaciers in the Himalaya and Tibet.

Drumbeats and Screams

Alicia Hotovec Harmonic tremor is a variety of continuous seismic signal commonly observed on erupting volcanoes that resembles sounds made by many musical instruments, although at lower than audible frequencies of between 1 and 5 Hz. During the March 2009 eruption of Redoubt Volcano in Alaska, upward gliding harmonic tremor was observed immediately prior to six nearly consecutive explosive events (see spectrograms below). These signals were endearingly dubbed 'the screams' by seismologists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory because of their unusually high frequency content, up to a previously unheard of 30 Hz. Another surprise is that the spectral evolution of the signals is nearly identical from explosion to explosion, indicating a stable and repeatable process is at work in the moments before an eruption, but what? In the ten hours before the first explosion with harmonic tremor, there was a swarm of over 1600 repeating 'drumbeat' earthquakes. Over time, the earthquakes became increasingly frequent, eventually blending smoothly into tremor. Alicia Hotovec (ESS graduate student) and collaborators have developed a theory that the harmonic tremor can be explained as many more of these small, repeating earthquakes that are close together in both time and space. Further evidence seems to suggest that these earthquakes are caused by repeated stick-slip at or near the conduit wall as viscous magma works its way upward. A familiar analog to this case of harmonic tremor might be screeching tires or a squeaky door.

Frequency vs minutes before eruption

Mt. Waddington Ice Core Project

Mt. Waddington Niki Bowerman (Western Washington University), Peter Neff, and Spruce Schoenemann (ESS graduate students) drill into alpine glaciers and polar ice sheets, in efforts to extract valuable climate records from annual snowfall preserved at these icy sites. Their hope is that the ice at Mt. Waddington, British Columbia, Canada dates to several hundreds of years in the past (ice dates to more than 100,000 years at the base of polar ice sheets!). It's incredibly valuable to gain any added insight into natural fluctuations of climate in the past, considering the added influence of humans in the last 100 years. This project is funded by the National Science Foundation and supported by UW, Western Washington University, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, and the Desert Research Institute of the University of Nevada at Reno.

Seattle 12th man earthquake goes viral

John Vidale Seismology (with John Vidale and co-workers) reached the interests of the public in a new way this year through football of all things. The source time function was a professional football player: Marshawn Lynch, whose spectacular 15-second touchdown run assured the local Seahawk team an unlikely and coveted victory on January 8th, 2011, and a victory in the playoffs. Through the response of the roar and stomping of the tens of thousands of feet, the ground shook enough that the vibrations were recorded by the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network (PNSN) strong motion station KDK, a block or so away. One station signals are always hard to verify, but the timing matched. Recordings revealed a peak acceleration about 1/20000th of a g, and peak motion about 1/100th of a mm.

The next day, reports appeared everywhere, and the Seattle Times created a great visual (see figure and link). By the end of the week, Google reported 3600 news outlets had the story, many reporters showed a spectrogram, hits on John Vidale's name in Google had bumped up by 5000, and several of his long-lost friends had re-surfaced, and the story ran its course.

Frequency vs minutes before eruption

Vertical acceleration from strong motion station KDK, annotated to illustrate progress of the football play. Drafted by Alicia Hotovec (after figure from Mark Nowlin and Sandi Doughton of the Seattle Times).

Gypsum Freaks at Work

Did the Mediterranean Sea completely dry up and become a desert about five million years ago? This question and an alternative hypothesis—sea level was repeatedly drawn down several hundred meters in an interval of only about 750,000 years—are motivating earth scientists from a wide variety of disciplines to investigate the Messinian Salinity Crisis. Professors Darrel Cowan and Charlotte Schreiber, and graduate student Ryan Thress, are collaborating with scholars at the universities of Parma and Modena in Italy to study an intriguing deposit in western Sicily. During Messinian time, vast layers of evaporites, including gypsum and halite, accumulated in circum-Mediterranean basins. Preliminary findings from our study of one such basin in Sicily suggests that blocks of gypsum, some as much as a kilometer in size, slid out onto the ocean floor. The accompanying photo by Prof. Stefano Lugli, near Santa Elisabetta, Sicily, shows what he calls "gypsum freaks" (Thress, Lugli, Cowan left to right) standing near the top of a gypsum block. More blocks are visible in the immediate background. Note the houses for scale! More information about Prof. Cowan's structure-tectonics research in ESS at his lab page

Gypsum Freaks

Mindlin Lecture Packs Them In

Dr. William Martin On February 9th, 2011, College of the Environment and ESS faculty, staff, students and friends attended the 2011 ESS Mindlin Lecture, presented by ESS and The Mindlin Foundation in partnership with the UW Astrobiology Program. All of Kane Hall's seats were filled with an audience eager to hear Dusseldorf University Professor Dr. William Martin's talk entitled, "The Origin of Life" and his theories on how life on Earth likely originated in hot water gushing through the fissures and fractures in ancient seafloor.


Faculty Happenings

Making a Career of Things

Kate Huntington Assistant Professor Kate Huntington received the prestigious NSF CAREER award to study tectonics and erosion in the NE Indian Himalaya and work with local high school science teachers. She was the Structural Geology and Tectonics Division Keynote lecture at the Geological Society of America meeting on "Plateaus To Paleosols: clumped isotope thermometry of terrestrial carbonate".

Eric Steig (professor) and Kate Huntington (assistant professor), along with Quaternary Research Center faculty, and Paul Dennis (University of East Anglia, England) hosted in April 2010 the First International Meeting on Clumped Isotope Geochemistry. It was a very successful meeting with ~90 attendees from academia and industry from around the world.

"Our Magnetic Earth" Goes to Press

Ron Merrill Emeritus professor Ron Merrill published a book in November 2010 entitled "Our Magnetic Earth" (University of Chicago Press). It is non-mathematical and written at a Scientific American level. So if you want to know such things as to why you do not have to worry about the magnetic field reversing and ending the world in 2012, or you want to know how some animals, ranging from bacteria to primates, sense the earth's magnetic field, you might want to take a look at it.

Our Magnetic Earth

Continuing Activities from Eric Cheney

Eric Cheney Since retiring in 2005 Eric Cheney continues teaching and research as an emeritus professor. He teaches ESS' only economic geology course (300- and 400-level). He continues fieldwork in the Leavenworth area. He and co-author Nick Hayman (ESS PhD, 2003) have published an alternative to the standard model that the Chiwaukum area near Leavenworth is a syndepositional graben and represents Eocene crustal extension; they present evidence for post-depositional regional synclines (crustal shortening). Eric also continues publishing and speaking on world oil production in the near future.


Student Life

Congratulations to the Class of 2011! We wish you all the success in the world and hope that you continue to have all the success in the world.

See the graduation photos here.

ESS Field Camp 2010

Field Camp 2010

The six-week course in Dillon, Montana offers a wide variety of geologic processes and lithologies for students to study. Several projects introduce students to geologic mapping, skills and techniques used in the field, and structural processes that change landscapes over time. The field course is a great opportunity for our students to gain invaluable field experience for a future career in geology.

Gone Walkabout in the Australian Outback

Australian Outback excursion 2010

ESS vehicles traversing a creek on the Gibb River Road

In August and early September 2010, 3 faculty, 10 undergraduates and graduate students, and 6 other geology enthusiasts embarked on a trip to the Australian Outback. Once the three off-road vehicles were loaded, the expedition began in Darwin at the Northern Territory, the group made their way south and west, camping in a number of national parks along the way: Kakadu National Park, Nitmiluk National Park (Katherine Gorge), Purnululu National Park (Bungle Bungle ranges), Windjama Gorge were among the many noteworthy camp sites.

ESS 463- Structure and Tectonics field trip to Death Valley

ESS 463 Death Valley trip

During Winter Quarter 2011, Professor Darrel Cowan, 12 students, and visiting scholar Professor Yucel Yilmaz traveled to Death Valley for a week-long structural geology field trip. With accommodations in nearby Shoshone, students learned about structural processes that have shaped the west coast of North America. From small-scale changes to clast shapes, to large-scale faulting events in the Death Valley basin, students were exposed to many of the structural and tectonic processes they had discussed throughout the course of the quarter.

Geo Club's Hawaii Spring Break 2010

Geo Club Spring Break 2010 trip

In March 2010, Professor Olivier Bachmann, 3 graduate students, and 17 undergraduates flew to the big island of Hawaii for a spring break trip. Starting in Kona, the group made their way around the island, visiting beaches, lava flows, and other geologic attractions on the big island. At the USGS Hawaii Volcano Observatory (HVO), the students learned about eruptions at Kilauea, got a tour of the crater, hiked on a lava pool, and watched the crater glow at sunset. Other excursions included a cliff-jumping trip at South Point. Next was Papakōlea, one of two green sand beaches in the United States. The trip came to a close with a walk on fresh pothole flows (less than 5 months old).

Geo Club's Arizona/Utah Spring Break 2011

Geo Club Spring Break 2011 trip

In March 2011, Professor Gorman Lewis and 10 undergraduate students continued the tradition of field trips during spring break and headed into the Grand Canyon and then up into Utah to see Bryce and Zion National Parks. The apparel is a little different from the Hawaii trip but nevertheless it was a great time to explore the very unique geology of the area, hike through different geological ages, and reach high viewpoints with breathtaking vistas.

Higher and Faster in the Skies

Students launching rockets

ESS students took to the skies again this year through their efforts in ESS205: Access to Space class where they launched two weather balloons with student payloads up to a group record of 114,800 ft and captured great images of space and atmospheric conditions along the way. In addition, an interdisciplinary group including ESS students participated in the NASA University Space Launch Initiative to launch a rocket payload 1 mile high in Hunstville, AL. These students plus students from ESS472: Rockets and Instrumentation launched additional rockets at Black Rock, NV, that reached speeds close to Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound).