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Stump leads global consortium for seismic acquisition, management, open distribution

Brian Stump, Albritton Professor of Earth Sciences in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, has been elected chair of the board of directors for a university-based consortium that operates facilities for the acquisition, management and open distribution of seismic data.

The programs of the Incorporated Research Institutes for Seismology contribute to scholarly research, education, earthquake hazard mitigation and verification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. IRIS was founded in 1984 with support from the National Science Foundation: the late Eugene T. Herrin, Jr., who held the Shuler-Foscue Endowed Chair in SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, was a founding member. IRIS facilities primarily are operated through its more than 100 member universities and in cooperation with the U.S. Geological Survey.

IRIS supports global seismic network, shares information, ideas, equipment
Scientists from member institutions participate in IRIS management through an elected nine-member board, eight regular committees and ad hoc advisory groups. Stump’s term of office as chair of the board is for three years, and will expire at the end of 2013.

“IRIS was formed because it was realized that we needed to support the global seismic network and needed the free exchange of information and ideas,” Stump said. “Instrumentation is so expensive that the seismic community needed to find a way to make equipment available to anyone who needs it for research, regardless of the size or funding capability of their parent institution.”

More than 4000 portable monitors are available through the IRIS PASSCAL facility at New Mexico Tech in Socorro, New Mexico. These instruments proved invaluable to Stump and his SMU team in researching a series of small earthquakes that occurred in North Texas between Oct. 30, 2008, and May 16, 2009. The ability to quickly place monitors at the site of the original quakes allowed scientists to record 11 earthquakes between Nov. 9, 2008, and Jan. 2, 2009, that were too small to be felt by area residents.

“The monitors available to IRIS members are well-used assets,” Stump said. “They’re constantly in service, like library books that fly off the shelves. We never have enough equipment.”

IRIS sponsors Stump as distinguished lecturer
Stump also is one of two distinguished lecturers sponsored this year by IRIS and the Seismology Society of America. One of his four scheduled talks on “Forensic Seismology and Nuclear Testing: The Detective Work of Seismologists” will be at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 29 at the Geology Museum at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

The Global Seismographic Network consists of more than 150 permanent stations around the world. It is operated by IRIS in cooperation with the USGS Geological Survey and allows seismologists to examine large events occurring anywhere to determine if they were caused by natural events such as earthquakes, or man-made events such as mine explosions or nuclear tests.

The connection between seismology and nuclear explosion monitoring began at the culmination of the Manhattan Project with the detonation of the first fission nuclear explosion in Southern New Mexico in July of 1945 and continues today with renewed discussions of ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. All of the data from the IRIS global and portable stations are archived at the IRIS Data Management Center in Seattle, Washington, and are freely and openly available on-line to researchers, educators and the public.

Stump research includes characterization of explosions
Brian Stump’s primary research interests include seismic wave propagation, seismic source theory and shallow geophysical site characterization. Recent work has focused on characterization of explosions as sources of seismic waves. Studies have included the quantification of single-fired nuclear and chemical explosions as well as millisecond-delay-fired explosions typical of those used in the mining industry. The spatial and temporal effects of mining explosions and their signature in regional waveforms have been of particular interest. This research has application to the monitoring of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty where even small explosions will have to be identified using their seismic signatures.

Stump received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, where he held a UC Regents Intern Fellowship. Immediately following his graduate education he spent four years on active duty with the US Air Force as a staff seismologist and ultimately as Chief of the Geological Siting and Seismology Section. He joined the SMU faculty in 1983.

Stump joined the technical staff of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1994 to 1997, where he was program manager of the Nuclear Test Monitoring Group and participated in the negotiations for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in Geneva, Switzerland, as a scientific advisor for the Department of Energy. He was a member of the team that received the Los Alamos National Laboratory Outstanding Performer Small Group Award in 1996. — Kim Cobb

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New York Times: A Last Look at Mush Valley

SMU paleobotanist Bonnie F. Jacobs is sharing with the public her scientific field work in Ethiopia as it happens in real time through posts filed to the New York Times’ “Scientist at Work” blog.

Jacobs, one of a handful of the world’s experts on the fossil plants of ancient Africa, is part of a team of paleontologists hunting plant and animal fossils in Ethiopia’s prolific Mush Valley. Jacobs is an associate professor in SMU’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences.

The Times’ “Scientist at Work” blog features scientists’ first-person accounts of their field work as it unfolds day-by-day.

Jacobs filed her first post on Dec. 27 as the scientific team she is part of arrived in Ethiopia. Her most recent — and final — post of the current field season was published Jan. 21, A Last Look at Mush Valley.

Read the full text of Jacobs’ first post Dec. 27.


Bonnie F. Jacobs, a paleobotanist at Southern Methodist University, writes from Ethiopia, where she is studying fossils of ancient plant and animal life. The current field season in the Mush Valley of Ethiopia is financed by a grant to Ellen Currano of Miami University, Ohio, from the National Geographic Society Committee on Research and Exploration.

By Bonnie F. Jacobs
Monday, Dec. 27

This winter’s field season in Ethiopia is my tenth since I began working there, and despite my experience I am filled with anticipation. Our project is a relatively new one — studying rocks and fossils from an important period of history, 22 million years ago — and the location, Mush Valley, is also somewhat new to our team (last year was our first collecting trip here).

Mush Valley is only about 160 kilometers northeast of the modern capital city, Addis Ababa, but it feels as though it could be a thousand miles away. Very little of city life intrudes into the villages of Upper and Lower Mush.

What really takes me away from it all are the rocks and fossils exposed by and alongside the Mush River. They provide us an exciting opportunity to document life, climate, landscape and atmosphere 22 million years ago. As we excavate blocks of fine-grained sediment — primarily shale — looking for clues to the past, the pivotal role played by that ancient time period is always on our mind.

Read Bonnie Jacobs’ full post from Dec. 27.

Read Jacobs’ Jan. 3 post: Eureka! A Fossil Bone, and Water Ferns to Boot

Read Jacobs’ Jan. 4 post: Evidence of Mammals and Legumes, 22 Million Years Old

Read Jacobs’ Jan. 7 post: Amid the Shales, Glimpses of an Ancient Forest

Read Jacobs’ Jan. 21 post: A Last Look at Mush Valley

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Natl Geographic: Can Geothermal Energy Pick Up Real Steam?

In a story about using the potential of geothermal heat from beneath the Earth’s surface as a source of clean, renewable energy, National Geographic Daily News tapped the expertise of SMU geophysicist David Blackwell.

Blackwell is one of the foremost experts on geothermal energy. He heads SMU’s Geothermal Laboratory and his decades-long research led him to map the nation’s geothermal energy potential. The work of Blackwell and SMU Geothermal Lab coordinator Maria Richards recently received extensive news coverage after they released research showing vast geothermal energy potential beneath West Virginia.

Science journalist David LaGesse interviewed Blackwell for the Dec. 28 article “Can Geothermal Energy Pick Up Real Steam?


By David LaGesse
For National Geographic News

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Steam rising from a valley just north of San Francisco reminded early explorers of the gates of hell. Others saw the potential healing powers of the naturally heated water, and still others realized the steam could drive turbines to generate electricity.

It’s been 50 years since power plants began running off the pools of steam that sit under California’s Mayacamas Mountains. The pioneering plants in the area known as The Geysers highlighted the promise of geothermal energy, internal heat from the Earth with vastly greater energy potential than that of fossil fuels. But geothermal, virtually free of carbon emissions and more reliable than intermittent wind and solar energy, still provides only a small slice of the world’s energy.

Now amid the rush to alternative energies, geothermal advocates sense a new chance to mine the heat rising from Earth’s white-hot core. They plan to generate man-made steam by pumping water deep underground into hot, dry rocks in what’s called enhanced or engineered geothermal systems. They also despair that governments and businesses aren’t investing enough in the sophisticated technology needed to unlock the deep-seated energy.

“There’s a window of opportunity where geothermal can play a part in our energy future, and we risk missing it,” says David Blackwell, a geophysicist at Southern Methodist University.

Read the full story.

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Rodents, diverse and abundant in prehistoric Africa, shed light on human evolution

Identification of Africa’s rodents provides important collaborating information on the ecology of the locales and on environmental change through time,” — Winkler

Rodents get a bad rap as vermin and pests because they seem to thrive everywhere. They have been one of the most common mammals in Africa for the past 50 million years.

From deserts to rainforests, rodents flourished in prehistoric Africa, making them a stable and plentiful source of food, says paleontologist Alisa J. Winkler, an expert on rodent and rabbit fossils. Now rodent fossils are proving their usefulness to scientists as they help shed light on human evolution.

Rodents can corroborate evidence from geology and plant and animal fossils about the ancient environments of our human ancestors and other prehistoric mammals, says Winkler, a research professor at Southern Methodist University.

“Rodents are often known in abundance, and there are many different kinds from a number of famous hominid and hominoid localities,” says Winkler. “Many paleoanthropologists are very interested in the faunal and ecological context in which our own species evolved.”

Rodents: World’s most abundant mammal — and Africa’s too
Rodents — rats, mice, squirrels, porcupines, gerbils and others — are the largest order of living mammals, constituting 42 percent of the total mammalian diversity worldwide. That’s according to data drawn from the research literature in an analysis by Winkler and her paleontology colleagues Christiane Denys, of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, and D. Margaret Avery of the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town.

Their review documents more than 130 formally named genera in “Fossil Rodents of Africa,” the first comprehensive summary and distribution analysis of Africa’s fossil rodents since 1978.

The analysis is a chapter in the new 1008-page scientific reference book “Cenozoic Mammals of Africa” (University of California Press, 2010), the first comprehensive scientific review of Africa’s fossil mammals in more than three decades. The book comprises 48 chapters by 64 experts, summarizing and interpreting the published fossil research to date of Africa’s mammals, tectonics, geography, climate and flora of the past 65 million years.

Rodents are human’s best friend?
Rodents have been around much longer than humans or human ancestors in Africa, with the earliest from northern Africa dating from about 50 million years ago. Today scientists are aware of 14 families of rodents in Africa.

Winkler cites locales where fossils of the sharp-toothed, gnawing creatures have been found relevant to our human ancestors:

  • Ethiopia’s Middle Awash, where some fossils date to when the chimpanzee and human lines split 4 million to 7 million years ago and where the famous “Ardi” primate was discovered;
  • Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, dubbed the “Cradle of Mankind”;
  • The Tugen Hills and Lake Turkana sites of Kenya, where important human ancestor fossils have been discovered;
  • In younger southern African cave faunas dating to the Stone Age.

Their fossils also have been found in other older Eastern Africa sites, where apes and humans have been linked to the monkey lineage.

“At many of these sites, identification of Africa’s rodents provides important collaborating information on the ecology of the locales and on environmental change through time,” the authors write.

Rodent diversity likely underestimated; more fossils than scientists
The diversity of ancient Africa’s rodents most likely has been underestimated, say the authors. Just how much isn’t known, though, because the quantity of rodent fossils being discovered far exceeds the handful of scientists who specialize in identifying and studying the specimens.

That diversity continues to expand. The last exhaustive analysis of Africa’s rodents was carried out by R. Lavocat in 1978. At that time scientists recorded 54 genera, 76 fewer than those documented by Winkler, Denys and Avery in their analysis.

Winkler and her colleagues summarize the distribution and ecology of existing rodent families, as well as the systematics, biochronology and paleobiogeography of rodent families in Africa’s fossil record. The diversity they document reflects “the wide variety of habitats present on the continent” and paints a picture of Africa’s paleoecology.

Given the huge rodent diversity in modern Africa, “it is likely that such an extensive fauna was also present in the past,” the scientists write.

Tremendous diversity reflects wide variety of habitats
An example of that relationship is the scaly-tailed flying squirrel, an exclusively African group of forest-dwelling rodents that are not related to true squirrels. They are well known from about 18 million to 20 million years ago in eastern Africa, Winkler says, suggesting the presence of closed habitats, such as forests. That corroborates other evidence of forests from fossil animals, plants and geology, she says.

“Although there are even older scaly-tailed flying squirrels known from the currently arid regions of northern Africa,” says Winkler, “they do not appear to have been gliders, as are most current forms, and the question of when members of the group first developed gliding locomotion still remains.”

Funding for “Cenozoic Mammals of Africa” came from the Swedish Research Council; the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and Museum of Paleontology; and the Regents of the University of California.

Winkler is in the Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences at SMU, and is also an assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. — Margaret Allen

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BBC Radio: PaleoAngola project unearths ancient vertebrate fossils

BBC Radio covered the research in Angola of SMU paleontologists Louis L. Jacobs and Michael J. Polcyn.

Journalist Louise Redvers in August interviewed Jacobs and Polcyn, both members of the Projecto PaleoAngola team.

A professor in Dedman College’s Roy M. Huffington Department of Earth Sciences, Jacobs joined SMU’s faculty in 1983.

Besides Angola, Jacobs also does field work in Mongolia. His book, “Lone Star Dinosaurs” (1999, Texas A&M University Press) was the basis of an exhibit at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History that traveled the state. He consulted on the new exhibit, Mysteries of the Texas Dinosaurs, which opened in 2009.

In the laboratory, Jacobs’ research utilizes advanced imaging and stable isotope techniques to investigate paleoenvironmental, biogeographic and phylogenetic issues of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras.

Polcyn is director of the Visualization Laboratory in SMU’s Department of Earth Sciences and an SMU adjunct research associate.

A world-recognized expert on the extinct marine reptile named Mosasaur, his research interests include the early evolution of Mosasauroidea and adaptations in secondarily aquatic tetrapods. Polcyn’s research also includes application of technology to problems in paleontology.

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