Science Blog

‘Disaster’ blog puts context on geology

CorrespondentMarch 23, 2014 

Susan Kieffer is emerita professor of geology at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

SUSAN KIEFFER

Cataclysms and catastrophes: If something in nature explodes, collapses or crashes, you can probably read about it in Geology in Motion ( www.geologyinmotion.com), a blog by Susan Kieffer, emerita professor of geology at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

Q. You’ve written a book on the science of natural disasters, and your blog covers such terrifying events as car-swallowing sinkholes and erupting volcanoes. To what degree has science “tamed” disasters by providing data to warn people in advance?

A. Science has done a great deal to advance both our fundamental understanding of disasters and our ability to provide protection to the public. However, scientific knowledge alone cannot provide that protection, but must be coupled with wise policy. When Mount St. Helens first showed signs of activity in March 1980, a rather large region was placed off-limits to the public as soon as the geologists working there understood the significance of the activity. This required cooperation of a number of government agencies, such as the U.S. Geological Survey and the Forest Service … (plus) the tourism and logging industry, and it required enforcement.

Q. Geology seems like a science whose objects of study would be immune from climate change. Is that the case?

A. Not at all! Geology isn’t just the study of rocks, as is sometimes assumed, but of the whole system of planet Earth. (For example), when the ice that covered Yellowstone National Park receded at the end of the last Ice Age, the distribution of weight on the geothermal systems there changed. The un-weighting of the ice in some locales there caused some fairly hefty explosions of hot water, leaving deep craters in the landscape. Rocks get weathered from carbon dioxide stored in rainwater, and thus they contribute to the carbon dioxide balance that is so critical to climate change. This process of chemical weathering has only recently been recognized and has yet to be incorporated into climate change models.

Q. How does geology impact our everyday lives?

A. Geology is around us everywhere – rocks not only provide our building materials but weather to give the soil that provides our food. The water cycle of the planet satisfies our need for water, as well as creates some of our most expensive hazards – floods. Geological processes gave us the fossil fuels we use for power.

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