Field Notes: The Hats of Yellowstone


A spate of reports on irresponsible meddling and mishaps in Yellowstone National Park this spring set the stage for my visit there last month. It’s easy to laugh when tourists face the consequences of their determination to get the perfect bison, bear or moose selfie. Less entertaining  was the group who, having spotted a lone bison calf, decided that it looked cold and put it into the back of their SUV. The calf later had to be euthanized when its herd refused to accept it back. All this had me braced to witness misbehavior in the park, with humans proving a danger to themselves and the wild park inhabitants. Just prior to my visit, though, two more incidents  highlighted the dangers of the park itself: in the hydrothermal areas, where geysers and hotsprings bubble up through the ground, a man and his son slipped and were burned, and in a separate incident, another man fell into a thermal pool and died.

My trip took place after the end of a department field trip to Wyoming, and as we got ready to split from the group to head to Yellowstone, everyone, from professors to grocery store cashiers to hotel clerks, repeated the headlines back to us and warned us to be careful, to not leave the trails. At the park, signs everywhere warned the same things: Do not leave the boardwalk. Bear selfies? Not ever. Do not approach within 100 yards of bears or wolves, 25 yards for other animals. Less than a week after a fatal accident, you might think these cautions would be in the front of everyone’s minds, but we still saw people stepping off the boardwalks onto steaming ground, posing for the perfect snapshot. Continue reading “Field Notes: The Hats of Yellowstone”


The Rift’s the Thing


From the western lip of Almannagja Fissure, the view spans continents: the fissure is the western boundary of a graben (a depressed block of rock bordered by two parallel faults) that marks the Mid-Atlantic Ridge cutting through Iceland. The 8 km long fissure is one of the rift features that makes Thingvellir National Park such a dramatic setting, caught between the North American and Eurasian plates. The tectonic plates pulling apart formed the landscape into lava fields and rift scarps, with tall cliffs and shallow rift lakes forming a backdrop to a cultural landscape that is equally impressive. Thingvellir National Park was the site of the Althing, the Icelandic national assembly, from 930 to 1798 C.E. For the Norse, a “thing” was a governing assembly of the free members of society, where laws were set and disputes were settled. Fragments of the stone and turf booths where attendees of the Althing met in the open air are still visible in the park; it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004 for its significance to Icelandic culture and history.


Image credit: Ragnar Sigurdsson ( (distributed via

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This week: M7.5 earthquake in Papua New Guinea

A M7.5 earthquake in Papua New Guinea, recorded at Cornell.

Another large earthquake happened this week in Papua New Guinea; though a tsunami warning was issued, damage was and no serious injuries occurred. Compared to the 7.8 Nepal earthquake, the impact was minuscule – mainly because this quake was much deeper.

Field Notes: Oklahoma

Oklahoma might not seem like a first choice for a spring break getaway, but sun, warmth, and the outdoors make for a good spring break, even if you have to spend it working. If you’re a seismologist in upstate NY you have to follow where the earthquakes go. I’m thinking of saving up for a tricked out pickup and painting “Earthquake Chasers” on the side, like the tornado hunters we kept running into at gas stations, somewhat unnervingly.

Out standing in my field

If you’re hearing earthquakes and Oklahoma in the same sentence and getting confused, welcome to the strange new future where OK was the most earthquake-prone state in 2014, more than California. Since 2009 the number of quakes has gone from 1 or 2 felt events a year to 1 or 2 a day; in an animation from the USGS, you can see earthquakes blossom across the entire central portion of the state: Continue reading “Field Notes: Oklahoma”

Haiti 5 Years Later

This week was the five year anniversary of the earthquake which left Port au Prince and much of Haiti devastated. It was a magnitude 7 event, caused by a strike-slip fault rupturing 8 miles beneath the surface and releasing waves of seismic energy – we talk about it now and then in some of my classes. Describing the technical aspects from a seismology viewpoint doesn’t much get at the heart of what happened after that, though. Estimates of the casualties range from 160,000 to 300,000 killed, with one third of Haiti’s population of 9 million directly affected, and $8 billion in damages. Recovery over the last few years has been slow, with one physician working in Haiti diagnosing the problems caused by the earthquake as “acute-on-chronic.” The severity of the damage – physically, socially, and economically – was greatly exacerbated by already existing chronic problems in the country.

We measure earthquakes in beachballs.
We measure earthquakes in beachballs.

“Acute-on-chronic”: one of the acute symptoms would be the number of buildings that collapsed due to the quake – some 250,000 homes. The amount of destruction is an expression of the chronic problems of rapid urbanization, unsafe construction, and lack of building codes meant to resist seismic hazard. The issue can be traced further; high rates of urbanization followed the collapse of the agricultural industry in Haiti after American subsidies of US rice farms flooded the market with cheap rice – something that Bill Clinton apologized publicly for in the months after the quake. Tetanus cases from injuries in the quake were widespread largely because of failure to vaccinate. The health system was overwhelmed by the disaster, then by the cholera epidemic which followed. Haiti hadn’t had a case of cholera in over a hundred years; it was spread from foreign aid workers.

Haiti leads the Western Hemisphere in ratings of poverty, health, and water security, and any attempt to address those problems needs to look at the history that contributed to them, from the coups and turmoil of the 1980s and 1990s to the exorbitant reparations required by France after Haiti’s revolution cost the French much of their slave trade. In the aftermath of the earthquake, donations and aid poured in, but this week op-eds have abounded on where that money has gone and why more progress hasn’t been made. Of $1.5 billion from USAID, only 1 cent out of every dollar went directly to Haitian organizations; money instead went to international contractors who cost 5 times more than local workers. Providing funds directly to Haitian organizations or government agencies is apparently a sticking point for foreign donors, who have resisted contributing to a UN proposed trust fund that would be controlled by the Ministries of Health and Environment. Complicated problems can require clever ways to address them – I remember reading about aid workers in the immediate aftermath using Google Earth to track what areas needed help because the blue UN tents were visible in satellite imagery. But it seems that having people on the ground who know what they need and what will work, instead of foreign contractors, is a key point. The Health Ministry is one of the few that does receive direct funding, and has apparently made large amounts of progress in HIV treatments and child vaccinations.

If you have a moment or the means to donate, some of the groups doing the best work in Haiti are Partners in Health and Zanmi Lasante, the local Haitian extension of PIH; they run 12 hospitals and clinics in Haiti, and were some of the first medical professionals on the scene after the earthquake. ZL is the largest nongovernment health care provider in Haiti, with a staff of 5,400 Haitians serving 1.3 million. Currently, there is a quiz on the PIH site about maternal health; for everyone who takes the quiz, 50 cents will be donated:

I also recommend; they help provide clean water and sanitation proposals, working with local organizations from proposals put forth by the communities themselves:

Some sources:

To Repair the World, Paul Farmer



AGU2014: Frack Quakes, Black Riders and Failing with Grace

Like wildebeest through the Serengeti, the common Homo geologicus make their way through San Francisco International Airport in droves, identifiable by ever-present poster tubes, hiking boots, and a tendency to flannel. It is once again that time of year, for the long migration known as the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.


Or rather, it was that time of year, since the conference was before Christmas. About 25,000 geoscientists come to this every year, including myself this year; I was presenting a poster on my undergrad research in Tanzania. The posters and talks available are innumerable, so the first challenge is figuring out what to go to first, but the main themes I followed this year were energy, climate, and induced earthquakes related to energy projects.

Continue reading “AGU2014: Frack Quakes, Black Riders and Failing with Grace”

Rules for Fieldwork, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Benefits of Mud Baths.

Everybody’s got to have to have rules to live by, right? Here are a few things that seem to have recurring usefulness for this sort of thing.

1. Never pass up the opportunity to eat, sleep, or use a toilet.

2. Batteries: fear them, and their potential ability to blow you and/or your car up should you forget to tape the terminals.

3. Just because it’s not your mess doesn’t mean you don’t have to clean it up.

Seismic stations should not be full of slime water.

4. Never take anti-malaria meds on an empty stomach, particularly before 6 hour car rides. And if you do, hope there are barf bags available.

5. Why pack multiple pairs of pants that will just get dirty when you can wear the same pair for 2 weeks straight?

Embrace the mud.
Embrace the mud. Do not allow it to embrace you, though. The embrace will last uncomfortably long, like that of a weepy maiden aunt.

6. If you don’t wear a wide brimmed hat and sunscreen of the appropriate SPF, Indiana Jones appears and beats you with his whip.


7. Field notebooks – it’s only science if you write it down! No joke here, the slow march of dirt and destruction across formerly pristine notebooks is one of my favorite things.

8. No matter what you read in outdated textbooks, don’t actually lick or eat your field samples.

Not even if John McPhee tells you to. (Annals of the Former World)
Not even if John McPhee tells you to. (Annals of the Former World)

9. Never go anywhere without your knife.

9a. Or duct tape.

9b. Or your own personal roll of toilet paper.


10. In case of dinosaur attack, remember to remain motionless at all costs.

Courtesy of: the Evil Twin

11. And in case the Ark of the Covenant actually does turn out to be in Ethiopia, unleash on the nearest neoNazis or bigots of your choice!


Field Notes: Ethiopia

Before I fall too far down the rabbit hole that will be my attempts to make up for missing two weeks of the semester for field work, here are some thoughts on my trip to Ethiopia. Yes, it was awesome; no, I do not have ebola; yes, the food was great.

After an unexpected 16 hour layover in Washington DC, my labmate and I arrived in Addis Ababa on the evening of the 16th, ready for the nearest bed. The first morning I was in Addis, we overslept and had to roll out the door to make our meeting with our colleagues from the University of Addis Ababa, and were then thrown into a busy day of packing and shopping. The second day, though, I had the chance to take in a foggy morning panorama of the city from the hotel balcony; joggers passed below to the sound of the morning call to prayer from a nearby mosque. We left that second day for the countryside, skipping breakfast so that we could avoid the morning rush hour – a debatably successful tactic, seeing how the highway at that hour wasn’t full of cars but of boys playing soccer in the lanes. We stopped outside the city for breakfast and coffee at a restaurant with a decommissioned EthiopianAir plane parked next to it; the seating inside consisted of the airplane seats. A cute idea, but less welcome after two days of flying.

Early morning in Addis Ababa

Continue reading “Field Notes: Ethiopia”