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The Washington Post: Oil and gas industry is causing Texas earthquakes, a ‘landmark’ study suggests

The study authors took a different approach in the new work — they hunted for deformed faults below Texas.

The Washington Post covered the landmark earthquake research of a team of SMU geophysicists led by SMU Associate Professor Beatrice Magnani in the SMU Department of Earth Sciences.

The researchers tapped seismic data to analyze earthquakes in Texas over the past decade.

The results of the analysis showed that human activity is causing the earthquakes as a result of movement in faults that have been silent for at least 300 million years, until recent injection of oil and gas wastewater.

The article by journalist Ben Guarino, “Oil and gas industry is causing Texas earthquakes, a ‘landmark’ study suggests,” published Nov. 24, 2017.

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By Ben Guarino
The Washington Post

An unnatural number of earthquakes hit Texas in the past decade, and the region’s seismic activity is increasing. In 2008, two earthquakes stronger than magnitude 3 struck the state. Eight years later, 12 did.

Natural forces trigger most earthquakes. But humans are causing earthquakes, too, with mining and dam construction the most frequent suspects. There has been a recent increase in natural gas extraction — including fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, but other techniques as well — which produces a lot of wastewater. To get rid of it, the water is injected deep into the ground. When wastewater works its way into dormant faults, the thinking goes, the water’s pressure nudges the ancient cracks. Pent-up tectonic stress releases and the ground shakes.

But for any given earthquake, it is virtually impossible to tell whether humans or nature triggered the quake. There are no known characteristics of a quake, not in magnitude nor in the shape of its seismic waves, that provide hints to its origins.

“It’s been a head-scratching period for scientists,” said Maria Beatrice Magnani, who studies earthquakes at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Along with a team of researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey, Magnani, an author of a new report published Friday in the journal Science Advances, attempted to better identify what has been causing the rash of Texas quakes.

A cluster of earthquakes around a drilling project can, at best, suggest a relationship. “The main approach has been to correlate the location to where there has been human activity,” said Michael Blanpied, a USGS geophysicist and co-author of the new study.

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Earth & Climate Energy & Matter Researcher news SMU In The News

The Washington Post: Volcanic activity may have shifted the moon’s axis


Reporter Rachel Feltman at The Washington Post covered the research of SMU planetary scientist and research assistant professor Matthew Siegler and a team of scientists who discovered the moon wandered off its axis billions of years ago due to a shift in its mass most likely caused by volcanic activity.

The article, “Volcanic activity may have shifted the moon’s axis,” published March 23. A report on the discovery of the rare event was published today in Nature: that Earth’s moon slowly moved from its original axis roughly 3 billion years ago.

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By Rachel Feltman
The Washington Post

Lots of folks think of the moon as a dead rock that’s orbiting Earth unchanged. That’s untrue — the moon is shrinking and pulling away from us a little bit all the time. But a new study suggests that the moon may have had a much more radical change in its ancient history: The moon may once have spun on a different axis.

In a study published Wednesday in Nature, researchers point to hydrogen-filled deposits near the moon’s poles as evidence that the satellite’s axis — the imaginary line that crosses through it, around which it rotates — was once in a different spot.

These hydrogen deposits are thought to be ice that formed at the moon’s poles. But in addition to the ice expected on the moon’s current poles, scientists found deposits in a different spot — and these spots were directly across from each other. In other words, the ice patches seem to be sitting on areas formerly known as lunar poles. If that’s the case, the new axis is shifted by 5.5 degrees.

“It would be as if Earth’s axis relocated from Antarctica to Australia. As the pole moved, the Man on the Moon turned his nose up at the Earth,” study author Matt Siegler at Southern Methodist University said in a statement.

That’s cold, man on the moon. Real cold.

Scientists call this unusual phenomenon a “true polar wander.” Earth has experienced it several times, and slight axis shifts are common on our planet after earthquakes.

But why on Earth (or on moon, rather) did those poles wander? Volcanic activity may be to blame. A world’s axis is determined by its relative mass, with its lightest regions forming the poles. For the axis to shift so significantly, the mass would have to shift, too. Siegler and his colleagues think that volcanic activity melted some of the moon’s mantle about 3.5 billion years ago, creating a giant, hot blob that was lighter than the colder rock around it. As that magma gurgled around, it slowly shifted the moon’s axis about 125 miles.

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New fossils intensify mystery of short-lived, toothy mammals unique to ancient North Pacific

Oddball creature, Desmostylia, from waters where “Deadliest Catch” TV show is filmed, ate like a vacuum cleaner and is new genus and species of the only order of marine mammals ever to go extinct — surviving a mere 23 million years

Identification of a new species of the marine mammal Desmostylia has intensified the rare animal’s brief mysterious journey through prehistoric time, finds a new study.

Desmostylians were a big, hippo-sized animal with a long snout and tusks. The new species is 23 million years old and has a unique tooth and jaw structure, said vertebrate paleontologist and study co-author Louis L. Jacobs, Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

Those features indicate it was not only a vegetarian, but literally sucked vegetation from shorelines like a vacuum cleaner, Jacobs said.

But unlike other marine mammals alive today — such as whales, seals and sea cows — desmostylians went totally extinct. Desmostylians, every single species combined, lived in an interval between 33 million and 10 million years ago.

Its strange columnar teeth and odd style of eating don’t occur in any other animal, Jacobs said.

The new specimens — from at least four individuals — were recovered from Unalaska, an Aleutian island in the North Pacific.

While alive, the creatures lived in what is now Unalaska’s Dutch Harbor, where fishing boats depart on Discovery channel’s “Deadliest Catch” reality TV show.

“The new animal — when compared to one of a different species from Japan — made us realize that desmos do not chew like any other animal,” said Jacobs, a professor in SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences. “They clench their teeth, root up plants and suck them in.”

To eat, the animals buttressed their lower jaw with their teeth against the upper jaw, and used the powerful muscles that attached there, along with the shape of the roof of their mouth, to suction-feed vegetation from coastal bottoms. Big muscles in the neck would help to power their tusks, and big muscles in the throat would help with suction.

“No other mammal eats like that,” Jacobs said. “The enamel rings on the teeth show wear and polish, but they don’t reveal consistent patterns related to habitual chewing motions.”

The new specimens also represent a new genus — meaning desmostylians in the same family diverged from one another in key physical characteristics, particularly the tooth and jaw structure, said Jacobs, who is one of 10 scientists collaborating on the research.

Discovery of a new genus and species indicates the desmostylian group was larger and more diverse than previously known, said paleontologist and co-author Anthony Fiorillo, vice president of research and collections and chief curator at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Dallas, and an adjunct research professor at SMU.

“Our new study shows that though this group of strange and extinct mammals was short-lived, it was a successful group with greater biodiversity than had been previously realized,” said Fiorillo.

Unique from other marine mammals in their diet, eating, lifespan
A large, stocky-limbed mammal, desmos’ modern relatives remain a mystery. They’ve been linked previously to manatees, horses and elephants.

Compared to other mammals, desmos were latecomers and didn’t appear on earth until fairly recently — 33 million years ago. Also unusual for mammals, they survived a mere 23 million years, dying out 10 million years ago.

Unlike whales and seals, but like manatees, desmos were vegetarians. They rooted around coastlines, ripping up vegetation, such as marine algae, sea grass and other near-shore plants.

They probably swam like polar bears, using their strong front limbs to power along, Jacobs said. They walked on land a bit, lumbering like a sloth.

Adult desmostylians were large enough to be relatively safe from predators.

The authors report their discoveries in a special volume of the international paleobiology journal, Historical Biology. The article published online Oct.1 at

The research was funded by the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, U.S. National Park Service — Alaska Region Office, and SMU’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man.

Home was the North Pacific, on wave-battered “Deadliest Catch” island
The newest desmo made its home on Unalaska Island, the farthest north of any occurrence of the group, which only lived along the shores of the North Pacific.

“That’s the only place they’re known in the world — from Baja, California, up along the west coast of North America, around the Alaska Peninsula, the storm-battered Aleutian Islands, to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and Sakhalin Island, to the Japanese islands,” Jacobs said.

The Unalaska fossils represent at least four individuals, and one is a baby.

“The baby tells us they had a breeding population up there,” Jacobs said. “They must have stayed in sheltered areas to protect the young from surf and currents.”

In addition, “the baby also tells us that this area along the Alaska coast was biologically productive enough to make it a good place for raising a family,” said Fiorillo.

Just as cattle assemble in a herd, and a group of fish is a school, multiple desmostylians constitute a “troll” — a designation selected by Jacobs to honor Alaskan Ray Troll, the artist who has depicted desmos most.

To make the Unalaska and Japanese specimens readily available to scientists anywhere in the world, each fossil was modeled as a 3-D image to reconstruct the skull and provide interactive animations of the fossils, said Michael J. Polcyn, research associate and director of SMU’s Digital Earth Sciences Laboratory.

Also, 3-D renders of the digital models are available to download without restriction at, including instructions for downloading. The renderings are in QuickTime Virtual Reality format, QTVR, and are large files that take time to download. Once downloaded, each fossil can be virtually examined and manipulated.

Journey from the land to the ocean to a quarry
The first Unalaska fossils were discovered in the 1950s in a rock quarry during U.S. Geological Survey mapping.

Others found more recently were on display at the Ounalashka Corporation headquarters. Those specimens were offered to Fiorillo and Jacobs for study after Fiorillo gave a public presentation to the community on his work in Alaska.

“The fruits of that lecture were that it started the networking with the community, which in turn led us to a small, but very important collection of fossils that had been unearthed in the town when they built a school a few years earlier,” Fiorillo said. “The fossils were shipped to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science for preparation in our lab and those fossils are the basis for our work now.”

From there, the researchers discovered that the fossils were a new genus and species.

The researchers named the new mammal Ounalashkastylus tomidai. “Ounalashka,” means “near the peninsula” in the Aleut language of the indigenous people of the Aleutian Islands.

“Stylus” is from the Latin for “column” and refers to the shape of cusps in the teeth.

“Tomida” honors distinguished Japanese vertebrate paleontologist Yukimitsu Tomida.

The article appears in a special volume of Historical Biology to honor the career accomplishments of Tomida upon his retirement from the Department of Geology and Paleontology in Tokyo’s National Museum of Nature and Science.

In addition to Jacobs, Fiorillo and Polcyn, other authors were Yosuke Nishida, SMU; Yuri Kimura, Smithsonian Institution and the Tokyo Museum; Kentaro Chiba, University of Toronto; Yoshitsugu Kobayashi, Hokkaido University Museum, Naoki Kohno, National Museum of Nature and Science; and Kohei Tanaka, University of Calgary.

The Historical Biology article is titled “A new desmostylian mammal from Unalaska (USA) and the robust Sanjussen jaw from Hokkaido (Japan), with comments on feeding in derived desmostylids.” It appears in the special issue “Contributions to vertebrate palaeontology in honour of Yukimitsu Tomida. — Margaret Allen

Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins Plants & Animals Researcher news SMU In The News

Daily Mail: The 17 million-year-old whale that reveals when man first walked on two feet: Mammal’s wrong turn up river sheds light on Africa’s ancient swamplands

The marine mammal’s remains were unearthed 459 miles from the ocean; East Africa was flatter, wet and covered in forest.

17 million year old fossil whale, kenya, Louis Jacobs

London’s Daily Mail covered the research of SMU paleontologist Louis L. Jacobs, a professor in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences of SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

Jacobs is co-author of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Findings of the research provide the first constraint on the start of uplift of East African terrain from near sea level.

Uplift associated with the Great Rift Valley of East Africa and the environmental changes it produced have puzzled scientists for decades because the timing and starting elevation have been poorly identified.

Jacobs and his colleagues tapped a fossil from the most precisely dated beaked whale in the world — and the only stranded whale ever found so far inland on the African continent — to pinpoint for the first time a date when East Africa’s mysterious elevation began.

The 17 million-year-old fossil is from the beaked Ziphiidae whale family. It was discovered 740 kilometers inland at a elevation of 620 meters in modern Kenya’s harsh desert region.

SMU, Meltzer, women, body image
supervolcano, fossil, Italy, James Quick, Sesia Valley

The article published March 17, 2015.

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By Richard Gray
Daily Mail

A whale that swam hundreds of miles up an African river after taking a wrong turn 17 million years ago is helping shed light on a key moment in human evolution.

Palaeontologists discovered the fossilised remains of the ancient ancestor to modern beaked whales in the middle of one of the harshest desert areas of Turkana, Kenya.

It has allowed scientists to pinpoint when the landscape in east Africa began to change as the land around the Great Rift Valley began to rise up.

This was a crucial moment in human evolution from primates as it created the dry open habitats that led our ape-like ancestors to walk upright for the first time.

They say that for the whale to have travelled so far inland in a river the area must have been much wetter, far flatter and dominated by forests.

Professor Louis Jacobs, a vertebrate palaeontologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who led the study, said: ‘The whale was stranded up river at a time when east Africa was at sea level and was covered with forest and jungle.

‘As that part of the continent rose up, that caused the climate to become drier and drier. So over millions of years, forest gave way to grasslands.

‘Primates evolved to adapt to grasslands and dry country. And that’s when – in human evolution – the primates started to walk upright.’

The whale fossil was first discovered in Loperot, west Turkana, Kenya in 1964 by palaeontologist James Mead, a curator at the Smithsonian Instution at the time.

Read the full story.

Follow on twitter at @smuresearch.

SMU is a nationally ranked private university in Dallas founded 100 years ago. Today, SMU enrolls nearly 11,000 students who benefit from the academic opportunities and international reach of seven degree-granting schools. For more information see

SMU has an uplink facility located on campus for live TV, radio, or online interviews. To speak with an SMU expert or book an SMU guest in the studio, call SMU News & Communications at 214-768-7650.

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Fossil supervolcano in Italian Alps may answer deep mysteries around active supervolcanoes

Scientists will study unique exposure of “plumbing,” which can reveal critical understanding of how today’s volcanoes erupt

There’s nothing subtle about the story told by the rocks in northern Italy’s Sesia Valley. Evidence of ancient volcanic activity is all around, says geologist and volcanologist James Quick, Southern Methodist University, Dallas.

But the full story is much less obvious, Quick notes.

Quick led an international team that in 2009 announced they had discovered a 282-million-year-old fossil supervolcano in Sesia Valley. The find was the result of nearly two decades of geological research in the valley and its surrounding mountains.

The discovery has attracted scientific attention worldwide for its unprecedented view of a supervolcano’s internal plumbing to a depth of 15.5 miles.

But that’s not the end of the story — rather the beginning, says Quick, a professor in SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

The supervolcano holds clues — and ultimately answers — to critical scientific questions about the processes by which volcanoes erupt.

“I am certain that continued study of this unique geologic exposure will reveal significant insight into the operation of active supervolcanoes,” he says.

There are six active supervolcanoes in the world, including Yellowstone, Long Valley and Valles in the United States.

Volcanic plumbing, normally hidden from examination deep within the earth, is the internal geological structure through which lava migrates from the earth’s mantle, up through the crust, to ultimately explode. Volcanic plumbing and the processes within it remain matters of speculation, as volcanologists explore how lava forms and traverses through the earth.

News of a supervolcano initially sparked alarm
Supervolcanoes are one of the most potentially violent events in the world.

Sesia Valley's fossil supervolcano could answer the question, "How does magma build up in the crust in the run up to a super eruption?” The fossil supervolcano was discovered by a team led by volcanologist James Quick, a professor of geology at Southern Methodist University. (Photo: SMU)
Sesia Valley’s fossil supervolcano could answer the question, “How does magma build up in the crust in the run up to a super eruption?” The fossil supervolcano was discovered by a team led by volcanologist James Quick, a professor of geology at Southern Methodist University. (Photo: SMU)

They erupt hundreds of cubic miles of lava and ash, and have caused catastrophic changes in global climate.

Sesia Valley’s supervolcano last erupted 282 million years ago, when it erupted more than 186 cubic miles of molten rock, ash and gas.

The discovery by Quick and scientists from the University of Trieste made headlines worldwide in 2009. Sesia Valley residents were alarmed.

“They held a big town meeting in the largest of the communities, Borgosesia, and more than 500 people came from all over the valley,” Quick says. “People were extremely worried the volcano would erupt again.”

The scientists reassured residents they had nothing to fear. A fossil, the supervolcano no longer poses a danger.

Supervolcano is a super attraction for its scientifically unique features
Now its rocks are a popular destination for scientists, college students, villagers, tourists and school groups. Proud residents enthusiastically brand many of the valley’s events and activities with their supervolcano identity.

Even acclaimed Italian winemaker Cantalupo in 2013 honored the unique volcanic origins of its Sesia Valley grapes by labeling its Christmas wine with a painting of the exploding supervolcano.

The supervolcano also is a central feature of the new Sesia-Val Grande Geopark, recently designated by the U.N.’s UNESCO agency.

Residents of the Piedmont region’s Sesia Valley, with diverse history and cultures, joined forces after the discovery was announced to pursue the coveted UNESCO geopark status. One of only 100 geoparks in the world, Sesia-Val Grande Geopark spans tens of thousands of acres and more than 80 Alpine communities.

Chaotic riverbed blocks are key to solving volcanic rock puzzle
Rock strata of the Sesia Valley supervolcano are exposed along the banks of the Sesia River for 22 miles, sitting sideways like a tipped-over layer cake. In some places, the rocks protrude haphazardly from the sides of mountains; in other places they are obscured beneath dense forest, roads, bustling villages, fields and pastures, outdoor sports locales and tourist destinations.

Some of the supervolcano’s deepest sections serve as a backdrop for Varallo, one of many communities in the Alpine valley.

Granite boulders littering the bed of the Sesia River were formed in the supervolcano’s magma chamber.

Atop a hill overlooking Varallo, more than 40 chapels of the 15th century world-famous monumental religious complex Sacro Monte di Varallo were built on the furnace that powered the volcanic system.

So how did an entire valley not see an ancient fossil supervolcano until now?
Like an ant looking at an elephant, it’s difficult to see something so gigantic for what it really is. In the United States, for example, it’s only in about the last 30 years that geologists deciphered that Yellowstone is a supervolcano.

Scientists have known for more than a century, however, about the presence of volcanic rocks in Sesia Valley.

That’s what drew Quick to the area in 1989. He sought insight into the processes in the deep crust that influence eruptions. What Quick found kept him coming back every summer for 16 years, including as head of the Volcano Hazards Program for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Quick’s quest made him the first scientist in more than 50 years — building on the work of Italian geologist Mario Bertolani before World War II — to methodically tramp every mile of the steep mountainsides, sometimes with colleagues, often alone, to extensively identify and map the valley’s rocks.

Years of intrepid geological work yield a supervolcano hiding in plain sight
Quick endured pounding rain, fierce lightning, poisonous snakes, mosquitos, treacherous topography, slippery waterfalls and unexpected sheer drop-offs. More than once he feared for his life.

“Working in the mountains there I was frequently terrified,” Quick said recently, during one of his frequent treks to the valley. “I’d wonder, is this the next traverse that claims my life? I had many frightening experiences. The vegetation looks thick, but underneath the canopy it’s easy to walk, except there are lots of cliffs hidden by the trees. Another problem — locating your position; because you can’t look out and see the topography. We started this before GPS, doing it old school, by triangulation, reading the map, carefully locating where we were, and using altimeters.”

Summer 2005 brought an unexpected breakthrough.

Quick was invited by his Italian colleague to see some puzzling rocks in the riverbed of the Sesia River in hopes he could identify them. Upon seeing the chaotic assemblage, Quick recognized the rocks were gigantic blocks torn from the rim of the volcano and mixed with volcanic ash during the eruption — an assemblage geologists call a megabreccia.

In 2009, following additional work to confirm the discovery, Quick and his team announced their discovery in the scientific journal “Geology.” They estimated the mouth of the volcano when it was active would have been at least eight miles in diameter, although its true size will never be known because much of it is covered by younger sedimentary deposits of the Po Plain.

Fossil supervolcano sits against ancient boundary separating Africa, Europe
In its youth, Sesia Valley’s supervolcano was inland on the supercontinent of Pangea. When Pangea began to break up into smaller continents more than 200 million years ago, the supervolcano was stranded on the coast of what we now call Africa.

About 20 million years ago, another tectonic shift sent Africa colliding into southern Europe. The coastal edges of both continents were heaved upward, creating a massive uplift – the Alps.

The Sesia Valley supervolcano, in the process, was tilted sideways and shoved upward, exposing its plumbing.

Today the supervolcano is a mecca for geologists not only for its volcanic story, but as one of the best samples of the earth’s mantle exposed at the surface.

Calling it the “Rosetta Stone” of supervolcanoes, Quick says the Sesia Valley fossil supervolcano ultimately could solve the mystery, “How does magma build up in the crust in the run up to a supereruption?”

Quick honored for scientific achievements
In 2010 the Italian Geological Society awarded Quick the Capellini Medal, presented to foreign geoscientists for a significant contribution to Italian geology.

In 2013, Quick was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Along with his Italian colleague, Silvano Sinigoi, Quick also was awarded honorary citizenship of Borgosesia, the highest award given to civilians by the largest city in the Sesia Valley.

“The discoveries in the Sesia Valley demonstrate the value of supporting basic research,” says Quick, who came to SMU in 2007 after a 25-year scientific career with USGS. Quick serves also as associate vice president for research and dean of graduate studies at SMU.