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By Christina Reed
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With a world of questions, a geologist looks for answers everywhere

In Italy’s small town of Piobbico, where the population is about 2,000, a geologist sits with the townsfolk in a local café discussing a riddle that has intrigued Italians and explorers of the country for generations. Closer to the Adriatic than the Tyrrhenian Sea, Piobbico sits on the Marche side of the Umbria-Marche Apennines mountain range, which dips and rises like waves traveling coast-to-coast across Central Italy.

In the foothills of the Apennines are the historic cities of Florence and Siena. The geologist is Walter Alvarez — most famous for work done with his late father, Louis, on the impact event at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary that killed the dinosaurs. He has returned to Piobbico to examine the surrounding landscape and improve the understanding of its evolution.

Walter Alvarez is this year's GSA Penrose medalist. Courtesy of U.C. Berkeley Dept. of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

“The particular pattern of rivers is puzzling and clearly relates to the tectonics of these young mountains,” Alvarez says. “And in fact, the pattern of rivers around Florence is so curious and striking that even Dante has a reference to the course of the Arno in Purgatory, the second book of The Divine Comedy, questioning how this pattern of rivers and landscape came together.”

Since the 1970s, the Italian Apennines have drawn Alvarez away from the University of California at Berkeley during summer field seasons. Then in December of last year, Frank Pazzaglia of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., contacted Alvarez to tell him about a special session on the Apennines at the American Geophysical Union fall meeting. Alvarez knew the Pazzaglia family in town, but didn’t realize one of their relatives was a geologist in the United States. After lunch and a walk around the poster session, the two both knew they should work together as colleagues.

“Where he has been working for many years happens to be the area and town that my family originally came from,” Pazzaglia says.

Both geologists are working with U.C. Berkeley graduate student David Shimabukuro and geologist Massimiliano Barchi of Perugia University on the evolution of the Apennines. At the Geological Society of America (GSA) meeting this month, the team will present a means to help test some of the recent models that are calling into question long-held beliefs about Italian tectonics.

Also at the meeting in Denver, Colo., GSA will recognize Pazzaglia and Alvarez for their individual achievements. Pazzaglia will share the Kirk Bryan Award of the Quaternary Geology and Geomorphology Division with colleague Mark Brandon of Yale University. Brandon and Pazzaglia reported in the American Journal of Science last year that their study of ancient river terraces through the Olympic Mountains in Washington showed that the region has reached a steady state, in which erosion balances the amount of tectonic uplift when considered over time scales longer than 50,000 years. They also show that the west coast of the mountain region is moving to the northeast at a rate of three meters every 1,000 years, relative to a fixed Puget Sound. The subduction zone under the Olympics drives this motion and accounts for the uplift of the range.

Alvarez will receive this year’s annual GSA Penrose Medal for his lifetime achievements in geology. “Walter Alvarez has made outstanding contributions to geology in a variety of disciplines and areas that include South American geology, Mediterranean tectonics, structural geology and magnetostratigraphy,” says Ron Clowes, chair of the 2002 Penrose Medal Committee. “His greatest and best known contribution is the novel and provocative hypothesis for the mass extinction of species due to a meteorite impact at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, first published in the journal Science in 1980. Tests of this hypothesis were initiated around the world, bringing together disparate fields within the Earth sciences and attracting many of the best minds.”

Part of Alvarez’s success is inherent to his personality, Shimabukuro says. “Walter is the kind of person who is interested in everything.” Alvarez’s fourth-year graduate student, Diane O’Conner, is working with him to study the Permian-Triassic boundary in the western United States. With his graduate students, Alvarez is also working with Berkeley physicist Richard Muller to study a field they have dubbed astrogeophysics, which studies questions involving astronomy, geology and physics.

Alvarez’s high-profile status as a scientist does not intimidate his students. “As an advisor he is always available and always takes time to talk to you,” Shimabukuro says. “Walter immediately puts you at ease.” Indeed, whether talking to local residents and shopkeepers in the hills of Italy or discussing the philosophy of geology with graduate and undergraduate students at U.C. Berkeley, Alvarez continues to bring people with diverse backgrounds together to tackle questions in the earth sciences.

Annals of the Former World

In 1978, John McPhee set out to write a short piece for The New Yorker about a road cut outside of New York City. He wanted to tell the story of the rocks, their age and how they came to be along the side of the road. But when he visited the road cut with geologist Ken Deffeyes of Princeton University, what started as a one-day field trip and write-up grew into a much larger narrative. McPhee began to think about following the structure across the country east to west and the story that path would tell. “Once I got into that, I discovered it involved a great deal more than I imagined,” McPhee says. At first he anticipated such a project would take him about a year to complete. Then “the thing you expect to do in one day you do in 20 years, that’s how it goes,” he says. The complete story is told in his book Annals of the Former World, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.

The Geological Society of America (GSA) is now honoring McPhee for the scientific quality of his stories, which have garnered widespread use and acclaim among educators and the public. “Through his writings and books, John McPhee has probably done more to popularize the science of geology than any other writer,” says Mary Lou Zoback, former president of the society. “He not only explains the science in intriguing terms but also talks about the people behind the science and the thrill of discovery that motivates them.” GSA will present McPhee with its 2002 Public Service Award at its annual meeting this month in Denver, Colo.

“I’m immensely honored,” McPhee says. “I’m not a professional geologist and that geologists would think enough of this to single it out and make that award is about as rewarding as anything could possibly be.”

Global tectonics

Richard Gordon of Rice University in Houston is this year’s recipient of GSA’s Arthur L. Day Medal.

“If I could dream of any medal that I might be ever so fortunate to get, the one that means the most to me is the Day Medal,” Gordon says. GSA’s Day Medal makes an important connection between geophysics and geology and recognizes scientists for achievements that have substantially affected both fields. “When I was a graduate student my advisor received this medal, as did his advisor when he was a student,” Gordon says.

In the years since Gordon studied under the late Allan Cox at Stanford University in the 1970s, the understanding of plate tectonics has exceeded the pace of introductory textbooks. Working with fellow graduate students in the 1950s, Cox had pursued the evidence for reversals in Earth’s magnetic field under the advice of geophysics professor John Verhoogen. Today Gordon teaches his students global tectonics, with a skeptical eye on plate boundary maps. “In introductory textbooks the plate boundaries are drawn as if they were all narrow.

Richard Gordon pictured in St. Lucia. Photo by S. Singletary.

While that works well for mid-ocean ridges and the transform faults that offset them, it’s wrong for much of Earth.” He points out for example that the Indoaustralia plate represented in most maps fails to teach the current understanding of the plate’s boundary and internal structure. GSA is honoring Gordon for his use of paleomagnetic data to quantify relative plate motion, study of diffuse plate boundaries and development of the global plate motion model, NUVEL-1. “A lot of the basic results of that model have been verified by GPS,” says Dave Fountain, chair of GSA’s 2002 Day Medal selection committee.

Gordon’s advice to students is: “Trust your own judgment and convince others to trust it too.” The trick to doing that, he says, is to provide high-level documentation and present the material clearly.

Distinguished service

About 40 years ago, Sam Adams of Lincoln, N.H., joined GSA with the idea of serving the geologic community. Currently Geotimes editor-in-chief, Adams is now one of three GSA members to receive the society’s 2002 Distinguished Service Award. GSA is also honoring David Dunn of the University of Texas at Dallas and John Geissman of the University of New Mexico for their outstanding service to the society. And John Lovering of Australia will be named an Honorary Fellow. Lovering is one of the founders of the fission-track geochronology method.

Adams says that volunteering to serve on GSA committees, or any society for that matter provides benefits few students are taking advantage of these days. “Inevitably there is a tremendous return to individuals volunteering in an organization that represents their field of study. By participating and contributing to a society, your circle of colleagues grows, as well as your professional credentials,” he says. “This volunteering business is a joint venture young professionals and professionals take on without merit or ceremony, but it carries with it a lot of responsibility and opportunities for the future. Any young professional who doesn’t seize those opportunities and deliver faithfully has missed a big one.”

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