From the Editor

Some aspects of the natural sciences are better studied from within Earth than from its surface or from space. The earth scientists we feature here all make observations from the subsurface. A second theme that radiates from these stories is the interdependence among research, applied engineering and basic science.

In our first feature, Simon Löw and Herbert Einstein sketch the history of transportation paths over and through the Alps, and describe some of the geotechnical challenges of Switzerland’s efforts to build two of the world’s longest rail tunnels. Unique as these engineered mountain structures are, they must overcome geologic challenges. Löw and Einstein describe how construction de-watering has drawn down the water table and induced surface subsidence — not so different from the way de-watering in Las Vegas, Nev., has caused subsidence (Geotimes, October 2002). Geologic uncertainties, due to incomplete geotechnical information and understanding, has led to the use of risk analysis for construction decision-making, similar to that used for decades in siting nuclear reactors for power generation. Making observations within and from pilot tunnels and from advancing main tunnel faces demand that geoscientists be there.

In our second feature story, Brian McPherson and others describe the proposed EarthLab component of a National Underground Science Laboratory in the United States. A concept under consideration for decades, a permanent subsurface lab would be used for studying neutrinos as well as in situ geomechanics, hydrology, geochemistry, geophysics and geomicrobiology. The authors suggest that the apparent discovery of a “subsurface biosphere has opened a new scientific frontier.” They go on to state: “This effort will require carefully planned collaborative research across many disciplines. Indeed, microbial life is probably one of the most coupled among all processes,” and, hence, among all scientific disciplines.

When it comes to working and building underground, cooperation between geoscience and engineering is inevitable, according to this month’s Comment author, Peter Smeallie, who is the executive director of the American Rock Mechanics Association. Smeallie highlights the engineering, geoscience and political challenges confronting construction of a deep laboratory. Smeallie notes that “the development of any underground facility requires detailed and specialized engineering practice. The knowledge base for this practice has as its basis the geosciences.”

And for the third February in a row, the Geotimes staff writers profile geoscience careers, this time looking at occupations that lead scientists underground. Greg Peterson’s story follows David Leach of the U. S. Geological Survey as he collects water samples and evaluates the geology over miles of underground tunnels in a southern Missouri lead mine. The research will evaluate the potential impact of new lead mines on the state’s groundwater. Lisa Pinsker describes geophysicist Amos Nur’s investigations of the connections between earthquakes, artifacts and human history in caves of the Middle East. Christina Reed wraps up with an intriguing account of geologist Louise Hose’s investigations of sulfur chemistry, oxidizing bacteria and fishing expeditions in a cave in Mexico.

One might be tempted to conclude from these stories that, as we work deeper into the Earth’s crust, geoscience and geo-engineering disciplines are drawn closer by more than a fear of the dark.

Believe your compass and don’t forget your headlamp.

Samuel S. Adams
Geotimes Editor-in-Chief

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