In The News

Following is selected media coverage of the Jackson School of
Geosciences. Find more at



How the Penguin Got Its Waddle 


James Proffitt, a Ph.D. student at the Jackson School of Geosciences, and the University of London Royal Veterinary College’s John Hutchinson studied penguins at the London Zoo to figure out how they, and their distinctive gait, evolved from ancient seabirds.

The scientists used two tripod-mounted cameras to capture a complete biomechanical picture of the penguins as they walked. The penguin’s waddle appears very inefficient, making the evolution of the flightless bird’s gait a mystery.

“Their body is very weird for a bird,” Proffitt said. But, he noted, during the Antarctic winter emperor penguins can walk some 50 miles to their nest sites; they scramble over cliffs, jump over obstacles, and scale sheer surfaces: “They’re clearly doing some­thing right.”



CO2 and the History of Weighing Smoke

KUT, DEC. 12, 2014

How do we keep track of the CO2 we’re releasing? And just how do we weigh something that floats in the first place? A KUT article answered this question with historical flair by comparing the answer of Sir Walter Raleigh, a 16th century explorer and guest of Queen Elizabeth I’s court, to chemical reality.

“The difference between the weight of the tobacco and the weight of the ashes must be the weight of the smoke!” Raleigh said, according to an early American folk story.

In reality, smoke is heavier than the weight of the combusted material because carbon bonds with oxygen during the combus­tion process — creating CO2, a molecule heavier than carbon alone and invisible to humans.

“If we could see it, it would be… super red,” says Susan Hovorka, a research scientist who works with CO2 at the Bureau of Economic Geology. “It’s infrared. It’s some incredibly more than red color. And you could drive around and see it coming out of every combus­tion source.” So, if you know the amount of fuel you’re burning and its carbon content, you can add the weight of the oxygen, and you have a sense of how much CO2 you’ve created.



UT Jackson School of Geosciences Aims to Enhance Research in Mexico

RIGZONE, FEB. 23, 2015

The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences and the National Autonomous University of Mexico have strengthened collaborations with each other in the fields of energy, environment and sustainability.

The new partnership will enhance the mutual academic opportunities created by Mexico’s recent energy reform.

“In the next two to three years, because of the opening by the energy reform, we are going to have a large number of oil companies that are going to require national engi­neers and geologists,” Jorge R. Piñon, director of the Jackson School of Geosciences Latin America & Caribbean Program, told Rigzone.



Scientists to Dig Deep into Dino-Killing Impact Crater


The catastrophic asteroid crash blamed for the demise of the dinosaurs also left a gaping scar in the Earth. That sprawling crater made 65.5 million years ago may hold the answers to many mysteries surrounding the space-rock event.

“The Chicxulub impact crater has been a remarkable scientific opportunity for the 20 years since it’s been discovered,” said Sean Gulick, a research associate professor at the Institute for Geophysics.

For the first time, scientists have subsurface images from the offshore part of the crater, so they can pinpoint a spot for sampling. They chose a spot along the crater’s peak ring — a ring of mountainlike structures around the center of the crater. By sampling there, the researchers can get a clearer picture of ancient biological and geological processes. & Caribbean Program, told Rigzone.



Peering Inside Greenland’s Ice Sheet in 3-D


Researchers have created a new 3-D map and animation of the Greenland ice sheet that allows them to study layers of ice tens of thousands of years old. The tools will help scientists better understand how Greenland may respond to climate change by revealing how the ice sheet responded to past changes in climate.

The map will “give people that gut-level feel of what an ice sheet looks like on the inside,” said Joe MacGregor, a research associate at the Institute for Geophysics and one of the project’s leaders.



For Tropical Island, a Brief Storm Surge Fuels Big Water Problem


Storm surges caused by massive tropical storms can destroy commu­nities and take lives, but they can also contaminate groundwater that people depend on for drinking.

That’s the case on Samar, an island in the Philippines. Long after Typhoon Haiyan devastated the area in 2013, an aquifer is still at risk of contamination as saltwater from the surge continues to seep through the ground above it. These findings were published in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophys­ical Union.

“During the storm they didn’t have any water, and all the wells were salty,” said Bayani Cardenas, an associate professor at the Jackson School of Geosciences and the lead author of the paper. “They drank coconuts for the first three days. It may take five to 10 years to flush out the seawater.”



STEMFORCE: Building the Next Generation of Geoscientists

FORBES, JULY 6, 2015

By Bridget Haby, coordinator for GeoFORCE, a high school outreach program in the Jackson School of Geosciences.

The ever-growing age gap within the oil and gas industry workforce is a phenomenon that companies are all too aware of. It is projected that within five to seven years, roughly 50 percent of the industry’s workforce will be retired. STEMFORCE, funded in part by Drillinginfo and founded by the organization GeoFORCE Texas, is a new program that aims to encourage students to pursue careers in the geosciences by exposing high school students to geologic fieldwork.

Last week I took our first STEMFORCE cohort of 36 students from the Dallas and Austin areas to Florida to learn about river and coastal processes. For many of these students, this was their very first time on an airplane as well their first time travelling to another state. Over the first two days of the trip I could tell that many students were having trouble grasping the “big idea” concepts of geology, such as the processes that change the Earth’s surface. Once we were out in the field however, and the students were able to physically see modern beach processes occurring on the Florida coast, I began to see my students having “Aha!” moments as they connected the dots. Showing the students how the Earth’s surface is constantly changing and how these processes are reflected in the rock record is fundamental to their understanding of the founda­tions of geology.


Bureau of Economic Geology Named Top Workplace


After surveys of more than 22,000 workers at 159 companies, the Austin American-Statesman’s 2014 Top Workplaces of Greater Austin project narrowed it down to 100 Central Texas employers worthy of earning Top Workplaces designation.

The Bureau of Economic Geology ranked No. 15 among midsize employers.



The Melting of Antarctica was Already Really Bad. It Just Got Worse.


Totten Glacier, a massive glacier in East Antarctica, is losing mass because warm ocean water is flowing underneath it and compromising its ability to hold back a flow of ice, a study led by Jamin Greenbaum of the Institute for Geophysics found. The findings are “alarming, because the glacier holds back a much more vast catchment of ice that, were its vulnerable parts to flow into the ocean, could produce a sea level rise of more than 11 feet — which is comparable to the impact from a loss of the West Antarctica ice sheet.” The researchers used gravitational measurements, radar and laser altimetry during their flights to study what is occurring underneath the massive glacier.



Early Years of California’s Drought May Be Linked to Lingering Effect of La Niña


On average, La Niña — the cool phase of a natural climate pattern in the tropical Pacific — leads to somewhat dry winters in California. But a new analysis of historical data from scientists in the Climate Program Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests that dryness often deepens into drought the following year, even if the tropical Pacific has technically shifted back to “neutral” conditions. Consis­tent with that pattern, California’s ongoing drought began in 2011-12, during the second year of a La Niña phase, and it persisted into the “neutral” years of 2012-14. Yuko Okumura, a research associate at the Institute for Geophysics, was part of the team that conducted the analysis.



Texas Budget Includes $4.5 Million for UT Quake Research


The state of Texas has agreed to fund $4.5 million for the Bureau of Economic Geology to study seismic activity in Texas. House lawmakers approved the funding 145-1.

Dallas Democrat Rep. Rafael Anchia secured the money in the state budget, which will be used to buy and deploy seismic equipment.

“Our community is rightfully concerned about the unusually high seismic activity in Dallas, Irving and Farmers Branch. This study should help us get to the bottom of it,” Anchia said.



UT Gets Money to Study New Energy Source in Gulf


The University of Texas at Austin has won $58 million to investi­gate a potentially massive energy resource: methane trapped in ice-like crystals under the Gulf of Mexico and oceans around the world. The U.S. Department of Energy is providing $41.2 million toward the grant, one of the largest government grants ever awarded to the university, with the rest coming from industry and research partners. The univer­sity plans to use the funding to harvest and analyze core samples of methane hydrate from sand­stone reservoirs thousands of feet under the Gulf — the first time the deposits have been retrieved from U.S. waters. Peter Flemings, a professor and research scientist at the Institute for Geophysics, is the project’s principal investigator.



Don’t Let Texas’ Excess Water Go to Waste


By Bridget Scanlon, Bureau of Economic Geology Senior Researcher

The past few weeks have highlighted a challenge for water resource managers in Texas: We have either too much water when we don’t need it or too little when we do.

The recent devastating floods have underscored the need for better preparation in not only monitoring but also keeping as much of that water as possible.

One of the main ways of managing water resources in these extremes is to store water in times of excess for use during droughts. Surface reservoirs are the traditional method of storing water, but unfortunately the rate at which we build new reservoirs has slowed dramatically since the 1970s while our population has doubled, halving the per-capita reservoir storage since then. The prime locations for surface water reservoirs have already been developed, and getting permits for new reservoirs is challenging and expensive. So what should we do?

Instead of storing excess water on the surface, where it can evaporate, particularly during droughts, we should store more excess surface water underground using what’s known as aquifer storage and recovery, or ASR. The San Antonio Water System has been doing this since 2004, storing water from the Edwards Aquifer during times of excess in the Carrizo Aquifer. This storage has proved beneficial for San Antonio, especially during the 2011 drought.

There are many more opportunities and much more capacity for ASR across the state, and such storage would complement surface reservoirs and off-channel reservoirs.

The Texas Legislature, particularly state Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio, is a strong advocate of this approach, and a bill passed last month should advance the use of ASR in the state. The legislation would allow a water right holder to use water from existing permits, such as those for reservoir storage during a flood. The bill is awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature.

This is a good first step, but Texas can do more.

Excess water during flooding could be transferred to aquifers for long-term storage. The heavily depleted Trinity Aquifer near Dallas provides a huge potential storage reser­voir for ASR. During the recent heavy rains in Central Texas, excess surface water could have been stored in the saline portions of the Edwards Aquifer in Austin for later use.

Rainwater harvesting is another approach that is expanding, with more households installing systems for nonpo­table water use, including lawn watering. The Texas Water Development Board estimates that the city of Austin could collect about 32,000 gallons of water annually using rainwater harvesting, and Austin incentivizes rainwater harvesting through its rebate program.

While storage is one of the key approaches to managing the extremes, monitoring these extremes is also critical. As shown by the recent flooding along the Blanco River, the existing monitoring program is inadequate. We should expand it by consid­ering citizen science and community-based monitoring. When and where flooding will occur is extremely difficult to predict, but smartphones can inform disaster manage­ment programs if we develop approaches for handling the data.

Water is one of our most precious resources, and although the recent floods have been devastating, they can teach us crit­ical lessons about preparing for the future.

This is reprint of an article that originally ran in the Texas Tribune.



TexasStandard Interviews BEG’s Scott Tinker on Energy and the Economy


Bureau of Economic Geology Director Scott Tinker appeared on the radio program the Texas Standard to discuss the potential impact of Iran’s oil on the world market and the Texas economy, as well as the recent downturn in oil prices.

Tinker said that the amount of oil Iran could export is modest when compared to global consumption habits, so it’s not likely to have much sway on prices. He also said that the downturn in oil prices, though painful in the short-term, could end up being a stimulant for economic growth in Texas. With oil costs low, businesses can expand, which should eventually drive the price of oil back up, Tinker explained.

“I’m not one who over worries about it. I think we’re in a cycle here in Texas a bit, but Texas is strong and it’s going to survive through this downturn and come out the other end probably a little bit more efficient than it was,” Tinker said.



Fracking Uses No More Water Than Traditional Oil Production

NEWS RADIO 1200 WOAI, OCT. 6, 2014

Research done at the Bureau of Economic Geology has cleared fracking of one of the most serious allegations leveled against it by environmentalists who oppose the practice — that it uses a disproportionate amount of water and risks depleting water sources for agricul­tural and residential users, especially in already water challenged South Texas.

But Bridget Scanlon, a senior research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology, tells Newsradio 1200 WOAI that claim is not true.

“The water used to produce oil using hydraulic fracturing is similar to the water used in the U.S. to produce oil using conventional techniques,” she said. “The reason we’re using more water is because we are producing more oil, not because hydraulic fracturing is any more water intensive.”



Franks: New Scenes in Cuba Hint at What Could Be


Houston resident and former Reuters bureau chief Jeff Franks’ first-person account of travel in a rapidly changing Havana describes economic reform and a thaw in relations with the United States. But things are still difficult in Cuba, Franks writes, pointing to the regular blackouts. He turns to the Jackson School of Geosciences’ Jorge Piñon, director of the school’s Latin America and Caribbean Energy Program, to explain the situa­tion. The blackouts, Piñon said, are the indirect result of increased electricity demand from the many new businesses. Cuba can’t afford to buy more oil, so “they control energy demand by purposely switching the power off.”



‘Big Bang’ of Species May Be Explained by Continental Shift


A University of Texas geologist believes he may finally have an explanation for what some refer to as “Darwin’s dilemma”: a major shift in the continents, which created ideal conditions for complex new life forms to evolve.

“The reason people didn’t make this connection before was because they hadn’t looked at all the rock records on the different present-day continents,” said Ian Dalziel, a research professor at The University of Texas at Austin Institute for Geophysics and a professor in the department of geological sciences. Dalziel added that his analysis is the first to look at geological evidence from five continents: North America, South America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica.



Saharan Heat Amped Up by Climate Change


The searing Sahara Desert is getting even hotter, at a rate two to four times greater than the rest of the tropics, say scientists in a new study.

That puts it on par with the Arctic which is also exceeding the global warming average. But whereas the widely studied Arctic “ampli­fication” melts sea ice and permafrost, the Sahara warming could be reducing the huge outflow of dust that blows off Africa and be causing big changes to regional weather — and local people.

“A lot of people live there — three million or so,” said researcher Kerry Cook of The Univer­sity of Texas at Austin who led the study. “And it’s adjacent to the Sahel region, which has many more people.

They results were published in the August 2015 issue of Journal of Climate.

Just why it is warming faster than other regions is not at all clear, said Cook. One possibility is that the hot arid land simply can’t transfer heat up and away, as other, moister lands do.



How Can We Keep Track of Earth’s Invisible Water?


Life on Earth depends on a lot of water that we can’t see, from vapor in the air we breathe to freshwater in deep aqui­fers used to irrigate crops. The podcast Generation Anthropocene went on a continent-hopping tour of the invisible water that drives planetary processes.

Kaustubh Thirumalai, a doctoral student from the Institute for Geophysics, appeared on the show as part of an ongoing series, “Convos with Kau.” Thirumalai recently returned from India, where he was part of a team collecting rocks and sediment from the ocean floor around the Indian subcon­tinent. Their data should reveal more about the history of the South Asian monsoon and how this major player in the freshwater cycle is being affected by climate change.

“We really want to understand when the monsoon turned on and whether the monsoon turned on simultaneously with when the [Himalayas] were built,” Thirumalai said.



UT, LCRA Teaming with NASA on $900 Million Satellite

KVUE, FEB. 6, 2015

The University of Texas at Austin and the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) will be utilizing data from a new NASA satellite to better forecast droughts and floods. NASA launched the $900 million Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite on Jan. 31, 2015.

The satellite orbits the earth approximately every 90 minutes and is capable of measuring the moisture of soil in the ground. Its mission is to vastly improve fore­casting for droughts and floods. The university and LCRA will be working with NASA by working to confirm what the satellite records. The new information comes with a few obstacles.

“It’s challenging on a whole bunch of different levels. It’s challenging from the fact, this data set, that is going to be the first of its kind, and it’s at a fairly large scale and a lot of times we need these estimates, even at a finer scale,” said Todd Caldwell, a research associate at the Bureau of Economic Geology.

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