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Rock stars: Geologists meet in Spokane to share research, spark ideas

When folks from Western states and provinces gathered for the annual Geological Society of America (GSA) regional conference in Spokane this month, they weren’t in town to talk about rocks.

Well, not just about rocks.

The GSA Cordilleran/Rocky Mountain Conference was largely a showcase for ideas and a forum for people to share their small parts in piecing together the story of our corner of the planet.

Addison Burke, a geology student at Cal Poly University San Luis Obispo, came to share the early findings from her research into “hard rock” aquifers. Those are zones in which groundwater is locked in dense, tough rocks, such as granite. Such aquifers – and their water potential – haven’t been exhaustively studied.

“We obviously don’t know that much about this,” Burke said. “There’s not much to compare it to, in our case study. So I’m excited to talk to other people and get ideas from them about ideas that they might see that we don’t.”

Most aquifers are found in softer sedimentary rocks and in loosely-compacted sediments near the Earth’s surface (the Spokane-Rathdrum aquifer is an excellent local example). But in dry areas, or places where too much use is draining available groundwater supplies, people might have to turn to hard-rock aquifers to get every drop they can.

“They’re good on small scales, for landowners, which is what we’re looking at here,” Burke said.

Burke’s project was one of about thirty different research efforts highlighted at the conference. Some of them were intended to fill blanks in the West’s complicated geologic history. Many others, like Burke’s, were aimed at answering practical questions, such as where to find mineral resources, and offering clues to the risks of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other geological hazards.

Anne Egger, president of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, said while people may think geology is all about the past, significant parts of the science are about the present. The story of planet’s deep history can furnish clues to changes that lie ahead.

“We need all that information about what Earth was like in the past to help inform us as we try to adjust toward this future that we’re hurtling towards,” she said.

There were dozens of focused discussion sessions to cover new research. Some of the talks were definitely meant for experts. They carried titles such as “New Constraints From the Challis-Kamloops Group on Crustal Evolution During Early Eocene Extension in Southeastern British Columbia and Northeastern Washington.”

The Idaho Geological Survey offered buyers a large geologic map. The state's different rock units are depicted in different colors according to their age and type.
Brandon Hollingsworth, SPR News
The Idaho Geological Survey offered buyers a large geologic map, on which the state's different rock units are depicted in different colors according to their age and type.

But there was plenty to see for people not driven wild by early Eocene crustal extension: For the chic home or office, the Idaho Geological Survey offered a four-foot-high map on which the colors and patterns of the state’s rock units resembled a stained-glass window. Free stickers toasted Washington’s newly-minted state dinosaur, Suciasaurus rex. At another booth, a company offered large globes depicting the geology of the entire world – including the ocean floor. Mining companies showed off glittering samples of the ores bought up from the depths.

On the second floor, away from the hubbub of the main exhibit space, meetings allowed students to quiz working geologists about potential career avenues, such as paleontology and volcanology.

The student sessions were coordinated by GSA’s Jennifer Nocerino. Prospective geologists aren’t always exposed to the spectrum of job possibilities in the field, she said, which creates a role for her organization to serve as a bridge.

“My job is sort of a warm fuzzy,” Nocerino said. “I meet with [students] and help them with resumes, I introduce them to people who could potentially hire them, and they enjoy it a lot. They’re appreciative.”

Undergraduate and graduate students also took part in “lightning talks,” quick verbal summaries of their research, followed by questions from a small audience. The exercise was intended to prepare students for delivering reports at future conferences or academic seminars.

But coming to Spokane to discuss geology was only half the point. The other half was the promise of seeing the region’s rocks in the wild. Retired geologist and North Idaho College professor Dr. Mark McFaddan helped organize this year’s menu of field trips.

“Field trips are where people meld,” he said. “They have a chance to say, ‘What is this? What do you see?’ And then watch somebody patiently go, ‘And now what do you think?’ And what are the good questions? That’s incredible.”

Washington State University's booth at the GSA conference gave visitors a taste of eastern Washington's geologic variety.
Brandon Hollingsworth, SPR News
Washington State University's booth at the GSA conference gave visitors a taste of eastern Washington's geologic variety.

The GSA conference offered 10 separate field trips covering the breadth of Inland Northwest geology, from billion-year-old rocks near Colville and Coeur d’Alene, to gravel left behind by gigantic Ice Age floods on the Palouse. One trip compared fine-grained dust in the Columbia Basin to soils found on the Moon and on Mars. For those who wanted to stick closer to home, the program included a self-guided walking tour of Riverfront Park and the dark volcanic rocks that form the cataracts of Spokane Falls.

A geologist never gets too experienced, too smart, or too old to learn something from a conference like this one, according to McFaddan. He was especially impressed by how veteran geologists and students interacted.

“Look at this enthusiasm,” he said, looking at small knots of people engrossed in conversation in the ballroom of the Davenport Grand Hotel. “Folks just starting out, and old salts who have had a great career, and they remember the history of how conflicts in interpretations evolved. And those are great lessons, I think.”

Jason Elkins, the Geological Society of America’s marketing director, said the conversations that started in that ballroom live and grow well after the exhibits are packed up.

“Geology is so important in our everyday life, from rare minerals to climate change,” he said. “People don’t necessarily understand where geology touches on everyday life, and it happens at conferences like this.”

The geologists, students and educators who attended the Spokane confab headed back home with a better idea of the big questions about the geology of western North America and how it affects the rest of us, who are largely unaware of the natural architecture beneath our feet, but live by its rules and whims every day.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for nearly twenty years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.