Archive ScienceWatch



(L-R) Robert J. Poreda, Carmala Garzione, Cynthia J. Ebinger, Udo Fehn, John A. Tarduno, Asish R. Basu. Missing is Gautam Mitra.

University of Rochester
A featured institution selection from Essential Science IndicatorsSM

According to a recent analysis of Essential Science Indicators from Thomson Scientific, the University of Rochester has moved into the top 1% of the database in the field of Geosciences. The University's citation record in this field includes 149 papers cited a total of 2,570 times between January 1, 1997 and October 31, 2007.

The University of Rochester's Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences' current chair is Professor Udo Fehn.

In the interview below, Professor Fehn talks with about the history and current activities of Geosciences at Rochester.

  Would you please give our readers a brief history of Geosciences at Rochester?

The department is relatively small; in fact, its current size of seven tenure-track positions makes it one of the smallest Ph.D.-granting geology departments in the USA. Although it is also the smallest natural science department on campus, it has a long and distinguished tradition. Originally called the Department of Geological Sciences, in 1994 it was renamed Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences to recognize the addition of undergraduate tracks in the environmental field. One of the earliest faculty members was Herman LeRoy Fairchild, who contributed substantially in the field of glaciology at the beginning of last century and was among the founding members of the Geological Society of America (GSA).

The tradition of excellence has been carried forward to the present with the recognition of several of our current colleagues as Fellows of AAAS, GSA, or the American Geophysical Union and with the recent award of the Donath Medal of GSA to Carmala Garzione as outstanding young scientist.

  What would you say is responsible for the university's high impact in this field over the past decade?

The department has developed very focused, state-of-the-art programs in order to stay on the forefront of current research. This approach is demonstrated by the fact that all current faculty members have at least one active NSF grant at this time. As demonstrated by the publication list, many collaborations with researchers within the USA and abroad have been and are currently carried out, compensating for the relatively small size of the department. A major part of the research is done with state-of-the-art instrumentation, mostly funded through NSF support. Examples of this instrumentation are several types of specialized mass spectrometers and cutting-edge instrumentation for paleo-magnetic studies.

  What are Rochester's key research goals in this area, in your view?

Research directions developed by members of the department are focused on global issues which can be approached using the instrumentation and methods available in the department. I would like to highlight the recent demonstration that the Earth's magnetic field started at least 3.2 Ga ago, considerably earlier than thought before (Tarduno JA et al., "Geomagnetic field strength 3.2 billion years ago recorded by single silicate crystals," Nature 446(7136): 657-60, 2007), or the rapid uplift of the Andean and Himalayan Mountains with considerable consequences on the development of the global climate (Garzione CN, et al., "Rapid late Miocene rise of the Bolivian altiplano: evidence for removal of mantle lithosphere," Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 241[3-4]: 31 January 2006).

At present, research directions in the department can be roughly subdivided into the geochemistry of fluids and gases in the crust, particularly in subduction zones, the tectonic development of continental margins, the interaction of crust and mantle, and the history of the Earth's magnetic field.

  Have any particular papers become a particular source of excitement or pride, regardless of citations?

Rather than highlighting just one paper, the research activities are better represented by a few comments on some of the papers with first authorship by one of the current members of the department:

Tarduno JA et al., "The Emperor Seamounts: southward motion of the Hawaiian hotspot plume in earth's mantle," Science 301(5636): 1064-9, 22 August 2003: The Paleomagnetic definition of the Hawaiian Hotspot demonstrated that the formation of the Hawaiian-Emperor Seamount chain was caused by the movement of the hotspot itself. This finding changes the overall understanding of hotspot behavior and the interaction between crust and mantle.

Fehn U et al., "Dating of porewaters with I-129: relevance for the origin of marine gas hydrates," Science 289(5488): 2332-5, 2000: Dating of iodine in porewaters associated with marine gas hydrates at Blake Ridge, Atlantic Ocean, demonstrated that the source for methane in these reservoirs is considerably older than the host sediments. The finding indicates that gas hydrates, which form a very large reservoir of carbon in active and passive margins, accumulated as result of large-scale movement of fluids and gases over large distances and over long time periods, an important finding for the understanding of the global carbon cycle.

Basu AR et al., "Chondritic meteorite fragments associated with the Permian-Triassic boundary in Antarctica," Science 302(5649):1388-92, 2003: Basu and colleagues identified meteoritic fragments in sedimentary rock samples from Antartica, which probably are related to an impact event at the Permian-Triassic. This event might have been the cause of extinctions at the Permian-Triassic boundary on a global scale.

The previously mentioned Garzione et al., EPSL 2006: Using oxygen isotopic compositions of carbonates, Garzione and colleagues demonstrated the rapid uplift of the northern Altiplano, part of the Andes Mountains. This rapid uplift is probably related to changes in subduction processes between the South American and Nazca Plates and had profound impact on the global climate pattern.

Additional papers:

The previously mentioned Tarduno JA et al., Nature 2007: The development of techniques to use single crystals for the determination of the paleointensity has allowed the demonstration that the Earth Magnetic Field has had measurable strength as early as 3.2 Ga ago. This finding indicates that the earth was sheltered from solar wind erosion earlier than previously thought and has also important consequences for the understanding of the earth's interior in the early part of its history.

Rowland JV, Ebinger CJ, et al., "Fault growth at a nascent slow-spreading ridge: 2005 Dabbahu rifting episode, Afar," Geophys. J. Int. 171(3): 1226-46, 2007: Seismic studies of current activities at the Afar Rift zone investigate magma intrusion and faulting in this area. These processes demonstrate the active rifting leading to the eventual break-up of the African Plate.

Poreda RJ, et al., "The helium isotopic chemistry of Lake Bonney, Taylor Valley, Antarctica: timing of Late Holocene climate change in Antarctica," Aquatic Geochem. 10(3): 353-71, 2004: Using the helium isotopic chemistry of Lake Bonney in Antarctica, the onset of the Late Holocene Climate Change in Antarctica has been investigated.

Kwon S, Mitra G, and Perucchio R, "Effect of predeformational basin geometry in the kinematic evolution of a thin-skinned orogenic wedge: insights from three-dimensional finite element modeling of the Provo salient, Sevier fold-thrust belt, Utah," J. Geophys. Res. Solid Earth 112(B2): art. no. B02403, 2007: Numerical models were developed in order to understand the progression of faults in an active mountain belt in Montana. The research is important for the understanding of movement and evolution of mountain belts.

  What are the implications of Rochester's work for the future of this particular field or neighboring fields?

We will continue to pursue the current research directions outlined above with an additional emphasis on the interaction of the lithosphere with the hydrosphere and atmosphere. Several of the research activities underway are directly or indirectly related to the global climate, in particular the evolution and uplift of mountain chains, the presence of the Earth magnetic field, and the carbon cycle at continental margins. We are in the process of hiring an additional faculty member with expertise on current or past global climate systematics.

Udo Fehn, Ph.D., Chair
The Department of Earth & Environmental Science
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY, USA

University of Rochester's most-cited paper with 140 cites to date:
Becker L, et al., “Impact event at the Permian-Triassic boundary: Evidence from extraterrestrial noble gases in fullerenes,” Science 291(5508): 1530-3, 23 February 2001. Source: Essential Science IndicatorsSM from Thomson Scientific.
  The University of Rochester was a New Entrant in December 2007.

Institutional Interviews : 2008 : 2008 Mar - University of Rochester