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By Christina Reed
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Basement rocks on the horizon

The American Geological Institute’s 40th member society, the International Basement Tectonics Association Inc. (IBTA), is looking for ideas for its 2006 field conference.

The society is dedicated to helping others facilitate and organize field-oriented meetings on the subject of basement rocks, the crust of Earth below sedimentary deposits. The society began in 1974 shortly after the U.S. Geological Survey’s first Earth-orbiting satellite showed the high degree of lineation in Earth’s crust. IBTA “is a loosely organized, but dedicated, group of earth scientists who believe in early fracturing of Earth’s crust and that this pre-existing fracturing affected and controlled later fracturing in all its many manifestations,” according to its Web site. Since the first conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, IBTA has organized 16 meetings around the world resulting in many research volumes.

This photo, taken in 1978, shows a fresh exposure in the southern Appalachians that will be revisited during the 2004 International Basement Tectonics Association meeting in Knoxville, Tenn. Pictured is the Copper Creek fault along Interstate 75. Rome Formation shale and sandstone (Cambrian; dark colored) are thrust over Chickamauga Group limestone (Middle Ordovician; light colored). Photo by Robert Hatcher.

In May, the University of Missouri-Rolla hosted an IBTA conference on the relationship of basement rock to the rock above, with an emphasis on structures of the mid-continent region. Field trips included studying the involvement of basement structures in the localization of lead and zinc deposits. “Our society is involved in supporting a better scientific understanding of the relationship of basement geology to whatever geologic processes you wish to investigate,” says Krishna Sinha of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, currently the society’s chief trustee. But make sure to include a significant field component, he says: “We want to get outside.”

For 2004, the IBTA has its sights set on Knoxville, Tenn. But the conference itself will end in Columbia, S.C. Following a symposium in Knoxville addressing the 4-D evolution of mountain belts and the growth of continents, the participants will traverse the classic Appalachian orogenic belt from the Valley and Ridge Province to the Coastal Plain. Geologist Robert Hatcher of the University of Tennessee is organizing the five-day field trip. “This is going to be an absolutely first-rate meeting, emphasizing the field-based geologic profile of the southern Appalachians from the Coastal Plain to the Appalachian Valley,” Sinha says.

Visit the IBTA Web site.

Precambrian production

When John Grotzinger first began studying rocks older than the Cambrian, he wasn’t expecting his work to open doors in the petroleum industry. Most oil and gas reserves are found in much younger sedimentary rocks. And looking for oil in rocks that predate most known life-forms may not sound like a good spot to find natural carbonate sediments. Indeed, it usually isn’t. But in a wild turn of events, now Grotzinger, a professor at MIT where he heads the Earth Resources Lab, is pointing out the best Precambrian oil in town.

Grotzinger’s skill at delving into questions about how changes in the environment provided opportunities for life on Earth to evolve has gained him considerable recognition. In April, the National Academy of Sciences elected Grotzinger as one of its 72 new members. “For me the most gratifying aspect of my career has been to turn around and watch the growing number of people working in the Precambrian. There is still so much to do there.”

Indeed, three years ago an opportunity he never expected came knocking. “Oman on the Arabian Sea has a complicated geological environment — almost all of the oil and gas is ultimately derived from Precambrian rocks,” Grotzinger explains. While the country had been producing oil for 30 years, they ran into complications in optimizing their production and exploration efforts. They needed geologists familiar with the Precambrian strata, Grotzinger says.

Grotzinger is working with colleagues Sam Bowring and Roger Summons. “The project in Oman is a wonderful opportunity because it allows us to pursue our academic interests with immediate application,” he says. The MIT team is reconstructing past microbial ecologies and mapping the regions where calcifying metazoans of the Precambrian built reefs, today the reservoirs for oil and gas.

Museum of the Earth underway

Visitors to the Finger Lakes region of central New York next summer should plan a stop at the Paleontological Research Institution’s (PRI) Museum of the Earth, currently under construction and scheduled to open May 2003. “The Devonian geology of New York is the best there is,” says Warren Allmon, director of PRI. “The Finger Lakes are visited by millions of tourists who come because of the waterfalls, lakes and topography. The museum will explain the geology to those visitors.”

Besides the Devonian of New York, the museum will also feature the Triassic and Jurassic of the Connecticut, Hudson and Newark valleys, which are part of the Newark Series rock formation, as well as the Pleistocene of the Northeast. “We’re taking as our mission to cover the entire history of Earth and life. That’s a huge task for such a small space so we’re going to focus on the Northeast,” Allmon says.

Warren Allmon, (left) director of the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) and Chris Maples, PRI president, have much to smile about at the announcement of the Museum of the Earth Campaign on July 8. Photo courtesy of PRI.

Upon entering the 18,000-square-foot museum, visitors will first see a full skeleton of a modern northern right whale PRI acquired in 1999. Next is the mural, “Rock of Ages, Sands of Time,” designed by Barbara Page. The 544 tiles, each 11 by 11 inches across, display the geologic record through the Phanerozoic, with each tile representing one million years. “It’s a dramatic piece of work. She [Page] spent six years after we commissioned the project to complete it.” Page also featured the mural in a a book by the same tittle with Allmon writing the text. The mural is displayed along the wall next to the ramp leading from the lobby to the lower level where the “Tour through Time” exhibit begins.

One of the highlights of the Pleistocene section will be the Hyde Park mastodon, which is 11,480 (plus or minus 60) years old. Larry Lozier discovered the mastodon in his backyard in 1999 and PRI excavated it with the help of Cornell University. “Exhibits such as these are not normally what you see in a small town upstate,” Allmon says. “You’d have to go to Buffalo, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Boston or New York City to get what we are going to have here.” But in order to make the museum a reality, PRI is hoping to raise $2.8 million from the public. Already PRI has $1.8 million from state funding and $4 million from other donors, including the Park Foundation. The project is expected to cost $10.6 million with $2 million of the cost including long-term financing. Anyone interested in donating to the museum’s funding can visit its Web site.

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