Monday, December 31, 2007

Top Arizona geology stories for 2007

Here are my thoughts on the big stories of 2007 for the earth sciences in Arizona. This is not going to be the traditional "top 10" list of stories nor is it comprehensive. It's biased highlights of what I saw, who I know, what I read.

You can't pick up a newspaper (and fewer are doing that) without seeing a significant story about water in Arizona. There is a growing public realization that we can't continue to over-appropriate an already stretched resource and pretend it will all be okay. Colorado River water is allocated among the western states based on overly optimistic long-term runoff estimates. Besides that, climate change is predicted to hit the Southwest particularly hard in terms of reduced rainfall. Together with booming population growth, these make a water crisis seem more likely and imminent.

Herb Guenther, director of the Arizona Dept. of Water Resources set precedent by rejecting a Nevada company's request to export up to 4.5 billion gallons of water per year to Mesquite, Nevada.

More local jurisdictions, including Pima County, are looking at more realistic assessments of groundwater resources before allowing new developments to be built.

For mining in Arizona, it was the best of times and the worst of times. The price of
copper stayed in the $3-$4 per pound range, keeping Arizona as the number one mining state for the second year in a row. New mines are under construction and exploration is going on everywhere. Old mines are being considered for re-opening from Bisbee to Jerome. Freeport McMoran and Phelps Dodge completed their merger in March 2007, with the new combined Freeport McMoran Copper & Gold now the world's largest copper producer, and headquartered in Phoenix. [above: Morenci mine, courtesy Freeport-McMoran C&G, Inc.]

Mining contributed over $6 billion to the state economy but apparently that is too little to make it worthwhile for some. Pima County politicians are almost tripping over themselves to oppose new mines in the county. Their arguments are that mining is a small part of the overall economy and thus can be sacrificed, that mines bring no benefits and only nuisances or pollution. Representatives Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords jointly introduced HR4228 in Congress, banning mining on federal lands in Pima and Santa Cruz counties.

The battle over Augusta Resource's proposed
Rosemont copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains was the focus of a lot of the mining controversy. Both Rosemont and their opponents, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, ran high profile public relation campaigns, including dueling ads on Tucson's morning public radio station.

uranium exploration is going on full blast in parts of northern Arizona, with the re-opening of a mill near Blanding, Utah. Exploration for gold and a number of other minerals continues unabated although with less fanfare than copper.

The Arizona Geological Society's Ores and Orogenesis
symposium in Marana, drew over 900 attendees from 27 countries and was widely praised as the best such event in the past decade or more.

The EarthScope project finished installing 58 broadband
seismic stations across Arizona as part of the Transportable Array to investigate the earth's crust in North America. The stations are part of a 10-year rolling deployment, and will be here for two years before moving eastward. Efforts are underway to see if we can keep some of the stations here permanently.

abandoned mine was the site of a fatal accident in August when a young girl on an ATV died after falling in. Her sister was rescued. It highlighted the fact that 10,000 abandoned mines are known in the state and as many as 100,000 exist in total.

Flooding hit a few areas but not anywhere to the extent that occurred in 2006. The bigger issue about floods was FEMA's reclassification of areas in Marana as being in flood plains, resulting in massive increases in insurance rates. However, locals argued successfully against some of the analyses that initially claimed levee structures were not adequate.

Earth fissures continue to attract attention. Monsoon rains opened a fissure gully in August in the Queen Creek area, trapping a horse that died despite a massive rescue attempt.

The AZGS released earth fissure planning maps in June, showing for the first time, all the known fissures in the state. Since then, 34,000 maps have been downloaded from our website, along with 10,000 copies of the accompanying report. A separate technical report on what further needs to be done to predict and mitigate fissures has been downloaded over 1250 times alone in just the past 3 weeks.


Matthew J. Fouch from Arizona State University was among 58 recipients of the 2006 prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE).

Matt, an associate professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration was recognized in a ceremony at the White House on Nov. 1. He was honored for "developing new approaches that integrate geophysical data types – seismic and geodetic – to help researchers and students better understand deformation beneath continental North America."

University of Arizona professor Jonathan Overpeck, was one of only 33 lead authors on an IPCC assessment report released earlier this year. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was one of the winners of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. "Peck" as he is known to friends and colleagues, is director of the UA's Institute for the Study of Planet Earth and professor of geosciences and atmospheric sciences. He was a coordinating lead author, Chapter 6 (Paleoclimate), for the IPCC’s fourth assessment report.

By the way, Peck and I shared a grad student office in the unheated attic of the geoscience department at Brown University back in the late Holocene.


The University of Arizona-led Phoenix Mars Mission was picked by NASA as among the U.S. space agency's top 10 exploration and discovery stories of 2007. The Phoenix mission was launched Aug. 4, and will be the first mission to touch the planet's water-ice. The project's principal investigator is Peter Smith of the UA Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.

The UA's center for Sustainability of Semi-arid Hydrology and Riparian Areas (SAHRA) was a co-winner of the 2007 UNESCO International Great Man-made River Prize, that "rewards remarkable scientific research work on water usage in arid areas as well as areas subject to drought and also for the development of agriculture for the benefit of humanity and the environment."

Friday, December 28, 2007

WikiProject Geology aims to improve Wikipedia coverage of geology

Wikipedia recently started WikiProject Geology, "a collaboration area and group of editors dedicated to improving Wikipedia's coverage of geology." The project site lists the editors who will be contributing to the project and proposed subjects (

If you look at geology topics in Wikipedia now, it's pretty incomplete and eclectic. While a number of scientists disparage Wikipedia for its reputation of errors and biases, it is still one of the main online resources, especially for students and others not familiar with geology. It behooves the geologic community to help make sure geology is well represented and accurate online.

Recommendations released for predicting, mitigating earth fissures

The Arizona Land Subsidence Group released a new report on "Land Subsidence and Earth Fissures in Arizona" ( and, that calls for research into the origin, mechanics, and behavior of earth fissures and subsidence. The report, jointly authored by the group, also calls for finding ways to identify areas of potential subsidence and fissuring, and developing engineering practices and mitigation measures to reduce risk .

ALSG proposed setting up research centers at Arizona universities, establishing a long-term monitoring program, creating an online interoperable data network, and partnering with other states and countries that have similar hazards.

The AZGS is carrying out a fissure mapping program that is likely the most extensive and sysematic in the nation, but ALSG noted that this is only one step in the comprehensive approach needed to deal with the severity of the problem.

Since the ALSG report was posted on December 12, it has downloaded over 1250 times. The story was covered by several Phoenix area newspapers and KGUN tv (Ch 9 Tucson) weather did a piece on earth fissures that includeda short note about ALSG. Additionally, a summary of one of the newspaper articles was picked up and broadcast by several prominent web sites, including

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Call for a presidential science debate

I signed up today in support of a presidential debate on science. Specifically, I endorsed the following statement:

"Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we, the undersigned, call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Medicine and Health, and Science and Technology Policy."

You can go to to learn more and add your name to the list. The proposal for a presidential debate only went public on December 10 when my colleague, science journalist Chris Mooney and Matthew Chapman (screenwriter and great grandson of Charles Darwin) went public with their proposal. They had lined up a stellar list of endorsements from prominent scientists and political leaders as well as an amazing cadre of bloggers. Their blogs and op-ed pieces hit the nation's news media and airwaves overnight. The national response is amazing - Science Debate 2008 has legs and it rhymes well too!

While I was at the AGU meeting in San Francisco two weeks ago, I met with Steve Croft, a Berkeley astronony and one of the field's brightest young stars (pun intended). Along with Judy Scotchmoor, my fellow conspirator at COPUS (, and Sue Wells, our mutual friend who got us all together, we brainstormed about a meeting Steve set up for the following day with a confidant and major financial supporter
of one of the leading presidential contenders, to talk about the role of science in the presidential campaign. [I'm not saying who and what campaign because it was not my meeting and I don't want to break any confidences.] Steve, along with UCSD astrophysicist Joel Primack and environmental attorney and writer Nancy Ellen Abrams (the latter two recently co-authored "The View from the Center of the Universe"-, spent over an hour with this political insider and heavy-weight, making the case for Science Debate 2008, and describing some of the real impacts of political decisions on science funding, priorities, and results.

Afterwards, I joined Steve, Joel, and Nancy for lunch across from the Moscone Center in SF. They were encouraged with the response they got. No firm commitments but a sense that science is recognized and valued in some political circles.
Too often in recent years I've felt science is on the defensive. It's energizing to see scientists take to the streets, even metphorically, and change the nature of the debate.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Starting salaries for geoscientists and more in new workforce series

"The American Geological Institute (AGI) Workforce Program has initiated Geoscience Currents, a new series covering geosciences workforce and educational data snapshots, that are expected to be released on a near-weekly basis. Geoscience Currents are delivered via email. These data snapshots and short reports shed light into the issue of the overall health of the geoscience fields. From scholarships to employment opportunities, the effect of retirements, to university enrollment trends, Geoscience Currents provides up-to-the-minute glimpses into all areas of the geoscience fields, from academia, government, and industry to educational opportunities and university demographics. Go to to subscribe to these free data snapshots. Also available as part of this website, you will be able to view past Geoscience Current issues, read other reports completed by the Workforce Program, and access other resources pertaining to geoscience careers." - forwarded by the Triangle Coalition

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Buffelgrass invasion will cause more geologic hazards

UA researchers are finding more buffelgrass and at higher elevations in the Santa Catalinas than expected. Because this invasive species pushes out native plants with deeper roots and is much more prone to fire (11 months of the year in this area), brush fires will be more likely to travel from the base of the mountains to the tops throughout the year. Ann Youberg, a geologist at AZGS, warns that, as a result, we can expect to see huge geomorphic changes from post-fire erosion. This could mean more debris flows and over a larger area than before.

Aaryn Olsson, a Research Specialist at the Arizona Remote Sensing Center at UA, is seeking historical photos of the Catalinas to compare them with the current distribution to track the spread of buffelgrass and other invasive species. Forward your photos, with the date they were taken, to Aaryn Olsson,, or 1955 E. 6th St, Rm205, Tucson AZ 85719.

Aaryn's posted some of his photos at, including the one at right of Sabino Canyon in the Catalinas.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

New drilling target in Rosemont area

Mike Clarke with Augusta Resources described an area north of the proposed Rosemont copper mine as an "excellent target" for an underground mining operation, with ore containing up to 1.3% copper. Drilling is underway now around the old Narragansett mine workings, a half mile or so north of the proposed boundary of the Rosemont pit. He also indicated that Augusta is looking for additional targets in the area that may be hidden by faulting.

Mike made his comments in a technical talk at the SME Tucson conference on Monday at the El Conquistador Resort. Attendance was over 380.

Mike's talk offered reconstruction of the structural history of the Rosemont geology, with an early down-to-the-west normal fault that decapitated the igneous intrusion, and after a large rotation, now gives the confusing appearance of a west-verging thrust fault.

Despite a hundred years (plus or minus) of mineral exploration across this section of the Santa Ritas, it's amazing to see what careful geologic exploration can discover.