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In the News 2013-2014

Below is selected media coverage of research and other activities at the Jackson School of Geosciences. Find more In the News items here.

Faraway Earthquake Triggered Antarctica Icequakes

Live Science, Aug. 10, 2014

An 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile triggered a series of Antarctic icequakes, each lasting one to 10 seconds. The study, published in Nature Geoscience, was co-authored by Jake Walter, a research scientist at the Institute for Geophysics who conducted the research as a postdoctoral student at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The findings, which offer the first evidence that distant earthquakes can trigger icequakes in Antarctica, suggest that opening or closing of shallow crevasses generated the seismic tremblings. “We think the crevasses are being activated by the surface waves from this big earthquake coming through, and that’s making the icequake,” Walter told Live Science.

Mexican Congress Approves New Rules for Oil Industry

The New York Times, Aug. 5, 2014

The New York Times quoted Jorge Piñon, interim director of the Jackson School’s Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, in an article about Mexico’s Congress approving a massive overhaul of the country’s energy industry that will open it up to international oil companies and allow competition in Mexico’s stagnant energy sector. The new legislation is part of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s plan to improve Mexico’s economy. “The political commitment from Mexico is there,” Piñon told the Times. “The economic and business interest from international oil companies is there. On top of that, there is a need for Mexico to increase production. There is a need for Pemex to grow as a truly independent oil company. So how can it not move forward?”

If It Weren’t for That Meteor, Would There Still be Dinosaurs?

Christian Science Monitor, July 29, 2014

Jackson School research professor Sean Gulick was quoted in a Christian Science Monitor article about what drove dinosaurs to extinction. “It would be a different world” if the asteroid had never hit, said Gulick, who is studying the impact crater. “If there hadn’t been this impact, [the dinosaurs] might have just kept on going.” Gulick suggested, however, that the asteroid may have caused less of an extinction had it hit a different part of the planet. He said the ejecta released may have been less toxic had the asteroid landed in a less sulphur-rich location that was lower in carbon dioxide, such as the middle of the Canadian Shield.

Alejandra Martinez Selected for Education Internship at The University of Texas Institute for Geophysics

Eagle Pass Business Journal, July 16, 2014

The Institute for Geophysics welcomed three public school science teachers from minority-serving districts to take part in the DIG Texas Blueprint project. Elaine Bohls-Graham, Belinda Jacobs and Alejandra Martinez worked with scientists to develop geosciences curricula that will ultimately be shared statewide. Led by the Jackson School and the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University, DIG Texas (short for Diversity and Innovation for Geosciences in Texas) aims to give Texas teachers the training and resources to teach geosciences and to recruit students from the increasingly diverse Texas population into college-level geosciences. Eagle Pass Business Journal highlighted the project and featured Martinez, a seventh-grade science teacher in Eagle Pass.

Chile Goes Off the Beaten Path With Its Energy Pitch

Houston Chronicle, July 2, 2014

More than 140 people from the energy, environmental and renewable sectors gathered for an industry breakfast in Houston to hear Chile energy minister H.E. Maximo Pacheco Matte discuss Chile’s plans to increase the nation’s renewable energy production. Chile’s goal is to meet 20 percent of the country’s energy demand with renewable sources such as solar, wind and biomass by 2025. The Houston Chronicle covered the event, which was sponsored by the Latin America and Caribbean Program at the Jackson School. Jorge Piñon, the program’s director, told the Chronicle that Chile already has an important relationship with the energy sector in Texas as one of the largest importers by volume of diesel and gasoline refined on the Gulf Coast.

Underground Volcanoes Accelerate Glacier Meltingin Antarctic

UPI, June 10, 2014

Researchers at Jackson School’s Institute for Geophysics (UTIG) found volcanic activity beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is significantly contributing to the melting of Thwaites Glacier, the collapse of which would cause a global sea level rise of 1 to 2 meters. UPI covered the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “It’s the most complex thermal environment you might imagine,” said coauthor Don Blankenship, a senior research scientist at UTIG. “And then you plop the most critical dynamically unstable ice sheet on planet Earth in the middle of this thing, and then you try to model it. It’s virtually impossible.”

Though Texas Industrial Water Consumption Steady, Alternative Sources Needed, Panelists Say

Austin Business Journal, May 19, 2014

Jean-Philippe Nicot, a research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology, was quoted in an Austin Business Journal article about the 2014 Texas Water Summit hosted by the Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas. Nicot, a speaker on the “Sector-Based Use and Conservation” panel, said that while some states such as Pennsylvania have high reuse capabilities, that may not be true for Texas. “We can explore alternative water resources such as brackish groundwater,” Nicot said. “But we don’t know the impact of this water. It is possibly more expensive to use, but we still need to think about these issues.”

Using Brackish Groundwater

Houston Chronicle, May 16, 2014

In an opinion column for the Houston Chronicle, Jean-Philippe Nicot of the Bureau of Economic Geology talks about the use of brackish water to meet the increasing demand for water in Texas. “A well-funded statewide program is needed to assess the true potential of—and obstacles inherent to—using brackish groundwater,” he wrote. “The early stages of an immense data collection effort, in which hydrogeologists at the University of Texas’ Bureau of Economic Geology participate, are underway to address these points. This data collection program along with additional studies will allow the state to optimize the use of limited brackish groundwater resources and to develop a drought-resilient water strategy in Texas.”

Hydrologists Find Mississippi River Network’s Buffering System for Nitrates Is Overwhelmed

ScienceNewsline, May 11, 2014

Jackson School hydrogeologists found that the Mississippi River’s ability to filter out nitrates is at or very close to full capacity, meaning the network’s natural filtering process may be inadequate to deal with the high level of nitrates that enter the 311,000-mile-long network of waterways. The news portal ScienceNewsline reported the findings, which appeared in Nature Geoscience. “Clearly for all this nitrate to make it downstream tells us that this system is very overwhelmed,” said researcher and associate professor of hydrogeology Bayani Cardenas.

Gulf’s Bounty Commands Attention Amid Shale Drilling Boom

FuelFix (Houston Chronicle), May 4, 2014

FuelFix quoted John Snedden, senior research scientist at the Institute for Geophysics, in an article about the resurgence of offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf basin “keeps reinventing itself,” Snedden told FuelFix. “We keep finding new plays. And that’s why everybody (oil companies) is here.” The article discusses the costs associated with pulling crude oil from the Gulf—risks many oil companies are willing to accept because of the potential for bigger yields with production that can span decades. Yet areas of the Gulf can vary in crude output. The article compares a relatively high success rate in an area geologists call the Outboard Lower Tertiary trend with poorer results in the Inboard Lower Tertiary and the Jurassic. “We’ve had some successes, but we’ve also had some very expensive dry holes,” Snedden commented.

Acoustic Pingers Not Just for Airplane Black Boxes

Marine Technology News, April 25, 2014

Acoustic pingers are best known for their use on airplane black boxes. But a Marine Technology News article highlights how scientists have long relied on pingers. The article features R. Wayne Wagner, a postdoctoral fellow at the Jackson School who is studying the effects of coastal restoration and hurricane protection projects, or “land building,” in coastal Louisiana. To measure how water moves through coastal estuaries, Wagner uses a Nortek Aquadopp current profiler (ADCP). A Fishers SFP-1 single frequency pinger is attached. “This proved invaluable in a recent survey when the retrieval line on the ADCP was cut and a diver had to be deployed with the PR-1 pinger receiver to find it,” the article said.

UC-San Diego Professor Links Global Warming Hiatus to Rainfall

The Daily Texan, April 21, 2014

University of California–San Diego climate, atmospheric science and physical oceanography professor Shang-Ping Xie gave a talk organized by Yuko Okumura, a research associate at the Jackson School’s Institute for Geophysics, about why global average temperature has remained steady over the past 15 years. The Daily Texan covered the event, at which Xie explained that the decade-long cooling of the Pacific Ocean is likely the major cause of the current global warming hiatus. The heat waves and droughts in the southern United States seem to have resulted from the hiatus event because the precipitation and temperature patterns can be traced back to tropical Pacific cooling, Xie told the crowd. Okumura told the Texan that she thinks some people may still be skeptical about global warming because of the hiatus. She noted the natural variability caused by the interactions of the ocean and the atmosphere tends to overshadow the impact of human-caused climate change. “It’s really hard to communicate the impact of natural variability superimposed on global warming due to anthropogenic forcing, and it’s [a] difficult concept to understand,” Okumura told the Texan.

When Dinosaurs Came in Color

Time, Feb. 12, 2014

Jackson School associate professor Julia Clarke and her co-authors reported in Nature that in the dinosaur lineage leading to birds, the size and shape of melanin-housing melanosomes became greatly diversified, leading to an explosion of color within these groups. Time reported on the findings, explaining “that bright coloration may have been a side effect of a major change in dinosaur metabolism—a change that ultimately allowed one branch of the dinosaur family to escape the bounds of gravity and take to the air.”

Fayetteville Shale Will Continue to Be Major Contributor to U.S. Gas Supplies

LNG World News, Jan. 15, 2014

Researchers at the Bureau of Economic Geology (BEG) forecasted that the Fayetteville Shale, one of the nation’s most productive shale basins, will continue to be a major contributor to U.S. natural gas supplies for years to come. The report was published in the Oil & Gas Journal and reported by LNG World News. “Most other assessments of shale gas reserves have taken a ‘top down’ view of production, relying on aggregate views of average production. In contrast, this study takes a ‘bottom up’ approach, starting with the production history of every well and then determining what areas remain to be drilled, says Scott Tinker, the BEG’s director and co-principal investigator. The result yields a more accurate and comprehensive view of the basin,” the article said.

To Move Energy Forward, Move to the Radical Middle

Austin American-Statesman, Jan. 6, 2014

The Austin American-Statesman published an opinion column from Scott Tinker, director of the Jackson School’s Bureau of Economic Geology. “The government shutdown stalled two crucial policy decisions in the United States involving the movement of energy: the Keystone pipeline and liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals. Even with government running again, these policies may stay mired in futile debate, much of it uninformed, some misinformed by those wishing to promote philosophical positions. Rather than allow extreme arguments to dominate, Americans should demand lawmakers move toward the radical middle on both of these vital issues,” Tinker wrote.

Is Methane Hydrate the Energy Source of the Future?

National Journal, Dec. 24, 2013

The U.S. Department of Energy plans to fund research exploring methane hydrate as a potential source of natural gas and how it could be extracted, the National Journal reported. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the world’s gas hydrates may contain more organic carbon than every fossil fuel in the world combined. “A lot of geoscientists are fascinated by hydrates because of how odd it is that you can take methane gas and add water and have it result in something with such a concentrated store of energy,” Peter Flemings, Jackson School professor and research scientist, told the magazine.

Hydraulic Fracturing Reduces Threat of Texas Drought, Researchers Say

FuelFix (Houston Chronicle), Dec. 20, 2013

Water-intensive hydraulic fracturing ultimately saves water and makes Texas less vulnerable to drought, found a Bureau of Economic Geology study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters. “Hydraulic fracturing can use up to five million gallons of water per well, leading critics to argue that it is overdependent on scarce environmental resources. But UT researchers found that the consumption is offset by the greater water efficiency in generating power from natural gas versus coal,” FuelFix reported. Indeed, the study found that the water saved by shifting a power plant from coal to natural gas is 25 to 50 times greater than the amount of water required to extract the natural gas through hydraulic fracturing.

Long Island Wins Ultimate Faceoff Against Hurricane Sandy

NPR, Dec. 12, 2013

Long Island’s shore face held up well against Hurricane Sandy, scientists found. John Goff, senior research scientist at the Institute for Geophysics, was part of the rapid response team that surveyed damage to the shore after the 2012 hurricane. “We’re going to expect more storms in the future. And so understanding the impact of these storms is really important,” Goff said on NPR’s All Things Considered. Goff found rows of sand dunes 10 feet high that run parallel to shore for about a half mile. “I think of these ridges as kind of cushioning the blow,” Goff said. “After the hurricane, they are still there. We didn’t really see any massive destructive erosion of the shore face.”

Ocean Below Ice of Jupiter Moon May Have Heat, Energy to Sustain Life

UPI, Dec. 3, 2013

Research led by Krista Soderlund of the Institute for Geophysics found the subsurface ocean on Jupiter’s moon Europa may have deep currents and circulation patterns with heat and energy transfers capable of sustaining biological life. Scientists have long wondered whether the salty ocean hidden below Europa’s icy shell makes the moon one of the planetary bodies in the solar system most likely have conditions that could sustain life. Soderlund and colleagues reported the findings in Nature Geoscience.

Earthquake Study Points to Possible Carbon Injection Risks

National Geographic, Nov. 4, 2013

A series of small earthquakes in western Texas was likely caused by the injection of carbon dioxide into oil wells. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to link underground gas injection with earthquakes greater than magnitude 3. National Geographic featured the findings from Wei Gan and Cliff Frohlich of the Institute for Geophysics. “Although injecting carbon dioxide to extract oil differs from carbon sequestration, Frohlich said his study could help scientists better understand possible risks of the technology, which has shown promise for reducing carbon emissions to the atmosphere,” the article said.

The Miracle of Flight

The Alcade, Oct. 31, 2013

In 1971, Douglas A. Lawson, M.A. ’72, made a huge discovery: fossil remains of a gigantic pterosaur. The then-22-year-old graduate student in geology had been doing fieldwork in Big Bend National Park under the supervision of professor Wann Langston Jr. when he found the bones of what he later named Quetzalcoatlus northropi. The Alcade featured Lawson’s discovery of the largest flying creature that ever lived. “Quetzalcoatlus has a way of testing the human imagination in general,” the author wrote. “Forty-two years after Doug Lawson came across its bones in Big Bend, the creature remains a landmark scientific discovery and a crucial inspiration for young paleontologists.”

Global Warming Forecastfor Amazon Rain Forest: Dry and Dying

Live Science, Oct. 21, 2013

A study from researchers at the Jackson School showed the Amazon rainforest’s dry season lasts three weeks longer today than it did three decades ago, most likely due to global warming. Live Science highlighted the findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Scientists believe a longer dry season will stress trees and increase the risk of wildfires and forest dieback. “The dry season over the southern Amazon is already marginal for maintaining rainforest,” says professor Rong Fu, who led the study. “At some point, if it becomes too long, the rainforest will reach a tipping point.”

An American Shutdown Reaches the Earth’s End

The New York Times, Oct. 14, 2013

Joseph Levy, a research associate at the Institute for Geophysics, should have been heading to Antarctica in October 2013 for the Antarctic spring. Instead, he was stuck in Austin. The government shutdown had put Levy’s time-sensitive scientific research on hold. Levy studies ancient buried ice that offers insights into climate change. But with Levy and other researchers told to stand down, valuable time on the ice was being lost, The New York Times reported. “It’s like a biography of the earth with a couple of pages in the middle torn out,” Levy told the Times. “Nature will have taken its course, and we will have not been there to see it.”