While most scientific fields focus on a single aspect of our environment, the Department of Geology and Geophysics attempts to tackle problems on a truly global scale.
The department employs a broad, interdisciplinary approach to explore the many phenomena affecting the Earth, Geology and Geophysics chair Leo Hickey said. Currently, department faculty are collaborating with astronomy professors on a new project, the Program in Solar and Terrestrial Physics. Geology and Geophysics professor Steven Sherwood said the main purpose of the program is to take advantage of the two departments’ similarities.
“We are following a new tendency in U.S. government-funded programs, which involves looking more at the Earth-sun system rather than just the Earth by itself,” he said.
Sarbani Basu, an astronomy professor and member of the STP team, said although the departments share much common ground, students intending to study either astronomy or geology rarely verge outside of their disciplines. She said the departments are planning to bridge this gap with jointly taught classes.
“Scientists normally stay in their own little room,” Sherwood said. “We are trying to encourage communication.”
Sherwood — the winner of the American Meteorological Society’s 2005 Clarence Leroy Meisinger Award, which is given to promising young meteorologists — said his personal research focuses on cloud systems. His work determined the impact of tropical forest fires on clouds and, as a result, the earth’s climate.
The smoke causes the ice crystals on the cloud tops to change, which can elicit changes in humidity and atmospheric temperature.
Other geology and geophysics professors are also working on indisciplinary research.
Jeff Park combines geophysics with environmental science to study earthquakes. Park recently discovered the earthquake in Indonesia at the end of last year was stronger than previously thought, registering a 9.0, rather than 8.4, on the Richter Scale. Since the scale operates in a logarithmic fashion, the result suggests that the earthquake was actually two times more intense than most researchers initially believed.
“The earthquake was so long that it went beyond normal measurements,” Park said. “What we are trying to do is to put this large event in context. It was the largest earthquake of the last 40 years, but it’s not necessarily going to be 40 more years until the next one.”
Another geology and geophysics faculty member, John Wettlaufer, who holds a joint appointment in the Physics Department, applies his physics knowledge to the study of thunderstorms. Lightning is created because the top and bottom of clouds carry opposite charges. This difference, he said, is caused by the collision of ice particles in clouds. A thin, quasiliquid film covers the particle surfaces. This liquid is exchanged when ice particles collide, resulting in charge separation, Wettlaufer said.
One of Wettlaufer’s other projects combines physics, biology and astronomy. By examining whether organisms can persist in extremely low temperatures on ice’s quasiliquid surface, he is trying to determine whether life could have existed on the frozen surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.
“Wettlaufer’s research is important because it shows that geologists are not only concerned with inorganic processes,” Hickey said. “Organic processes are also very important. John is a physicist confronted with how his materials behave on the earth itself.”
Alexey Fedorov, who joined the department last July, is continuing geophysical research he started at Princeton University. He said one of his major projects involves working on the dynamics of El Nino and predicting its effects on the Earth’s climate. Fedorov said El Nino can be likened to a pendulum oscillating at a certain frequency while physical forces act upon it at random times.
“One of my most important conclusions is that there are limits to predictability simply because there is too much chaos in the climate system,” Fedorov said. “There is a general pattern, but it is affected by high-frequency events.”