UI professor researches geology behind ocean formation

Early morning on the South China sea
Sunrise on the South China Sea, where UI professor David Peate is spending his summer researching continental rifts. (flickr/Ivan Herman)
Jenna Ladd | May 19, 2017

The spring semester has come to a close and most UI professors have retreated to their campus labs to catch up on research. Dr. David Peate, on the other hand, is spending his summer days floating on the South China Sea.

This is no pleasure cruise, however. The professor of Earth and Environmental sciences is working 12-hour days to advance scientific understanding of how continents separate and oceans are formed. Peate embarked on the 9-week expedition funded by the International Ocean Discovery Program with 125 other scientists and crew members from around the world, he explained in an interview with Iowa Now.

In the interview, Peate explained that when continents drift apart, the uppermost layer of the Earth’s crust is stretched so much that parts of a deeper layer called the mantle can ooze up into the crust. Sometimes the mantle is so hot that it rises up as lava and forms continental boundaries like those seen in eastern Greenland and northern Europe, he explained. Other times, the mantle rises at cooler temperatures and no lava is formed. The expedition’s primary mission is to understand the difference between these two types of continental rifts.

The continental rift in the South China sea is “different than other well-studied rifted margins. For one, it is not covered by thick piles of lava flows, unlike most other examples of continental rifting, which spawned lava flows,” he said.

The researchers’ ship is equipped with a three mile long steel tube that drills into the ocean floor to collect cores. “That is equivalent to the distance between the Old Capitol and Iowa City West High School,” Peate explained to Iowa Now. Once pulled up, cores are separated into five-foot lengths and prepared for geologists to study. Peate is mostly interested in volcanic rock. Some of the cores will return to Iowa with him. He said, “I will collaborate with other international scientists from the expedition to make detailed chemical investigations of all the volcanic rocks that we find.” Peate continued, “Combining results from the different drilled sites will allow us to build a picture of how the volcanic activity changed through time as the rifting event happened.”

Peate’s other areas of research include the formation and transport of magma in Iceland and the driving forces behind large magma eruptions. His compete interview with Iowa Now can be found here.

IML-CZO Investigator Profiles: Andrew Stumpf (Illinois State Geological Survey)

Dr. Andrew Stumpf (right) is an Associate Quaternary Geologist for the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) in the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Photo: Christopher J. Stohr (ISGS)
Dr. Andrew Stumpf (right) is an Associate Quaternary Geologist for the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) in the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. (Christopher J. Stohr/ISGS)
Nick Fetty | April 1, 2016

This is part of a series of articles featuring investigators and researchers with the IML-CZO project which “works to understand how land-use changes affect the long-term resilience of the critical zone.”

Between roughly 2 million years ago and 10,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene Epoch or “Ice Age,” massive glaciers swept across Illinois and other parts of the country. IML-CZO investigator Andrew Stumpf is studying the history of Pleistocene glaciations and their impacts on the land.

Stumpf, an Associate Quaternary Geologist at the Illinois State Geological Survey in the Prairie Research Institute, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, is contributing in two primary ways to the research program of the IML-CZO project. His first research focus is “to better understand how the Upper Sangamon River Basin (USRB) evolved through the most recent geologic time over the last 2.6 million years,” known as the Quaternary Period. Specifically, he and his research team are looking at how the present-day river system formed. Since the Laurentide Ice Sheet receded back to the north out of the USRB, approximately 20,000 years ago, the river system has continually changed in an effort to reach equilibrium with the natural- and anthropogenic-driven processes affecting it.

“Ongoing natural changes and the latest anthropogenic changes have significantly altered the postglacial landscape,” says Stumpf. “The amount of water moving across the land has fluctuated over time, and continued periods of erosion, sediment transport, and deposition in the river basin have caused shifts in the position of drainage channels. Today, both natural processes and anthropogenic impacts are working in tandem to affect their positions.”

The conversion of much of the natural Illinois landscape into cropland, predominantly corn and soybeans, has also greatly altered the landscape. According to Stumpf, “Land that was either forested and well drained or poorly-drained prairie has been converted in very short time—roughly 200 years—into tilled row cropland. Tile drainage has been successful in reclaiming flood-prone lands and has significantly altered the natural hydrologic system.”

He observed that tile drainage pipe is typically installed at a depth of 3 to 6 feet, where it intercepts the infiltrating rainwater and effectively lowers the water table. Infiltrating water that previously reached the lower stratum is now directed through tiles, concentrating runoff along a series of dug ditches. This change in farming practice has reduced the time that water is held in the soil and has increased the rate of runoff, which can exacerbate erosion and affect land that did not flood in the past.

Stumpf’s second research focus in the IML-CZO project involves examining geochemical variations in the “critical zone,” which was first defined by the U.S. National Research Council (NRC, 2001) as the “heterogeneous, near-surface environment in which complex interactions involving rock, soil, water, air, and living organisms regulate the natural habitat and determine the availability of life-sustaining resources;” (p. 37).

“The lower part of the critical zone includes extended intervals of sediment left behind by the glaciers, known by geologists as glacial till” explains Stumpf. “In the river basin, till has a distinctive geochemistry that is influenced by the incorporation of minerals from sedimentary bedrock (shale and dolomite) found in northeastern Illinois, and by far-traveled material ‘erratics’ carried from igneous and metamorphic bedrock outcropping further north on the Canadian Shield.”

However, he adds, “Farmland soil is formed by the physical and chemical weathering of till and the overlying windblown silt and sand, or loess, which is geochemically much different. Soil-forming processes have caused minerals to break down and, in some cases, recrystallize into different minerals or chemical structures,” says Stumpf. “Iron and manganese minerals are common in the soil, and when exposed to oxygen or oxygenated water, they turn orange and brown, giving soil its characteristic color or hue. Plants, a component of the critical zone, interact with the soil through their root systems and absorb certain elements that are concentrated in the vegetative tissue.”

One example is Achillea millefolium, or common yarrow, which has been shown to accumulate zinc. He added, “The presence of certain elements in plants can be useful in predicting the composition or health of the soil.”

Stumpf’s aim is to use his research to inform farmers, land managers, policy makers, and other members of the public about issues that can affect them. Providing outreach and education to these groups is also a focus of the IML-CZO project.

“Understanding how landscapes evolve over time, leading to the formation of soil—soil is the backbone of precision agriculture—is imperative for modeling the interconnected food, energy, and water systems. Competition for natural resources, such as water for food and energy production, can influence water quality for food production and increase competition for available resources (land, nutrients, and water) between biofuel and food production,” says Stumpf. He hopes to apply his expertise to help inform farmers, decision makers, stakeholders, and the public so they can address these complex socio-environmental issues from an informed perspective.

Works Cited: National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Basic Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences. 2001. Basic Research Opportunities in the Earth Sciences. National Academies Press: Washington, DC, 168 p., http://www.nap.edu/catalog/9981.html.

Iowa teams up with the UI

Photo by miss604; Flickr

Iowa is linking its research on water and geological resources with the University of Iowa.

The University of Iowa and the state Department of Natural Resources have reached a cooperative agreement that will transfer some groundwater and geological research to the school’s Department of Hydroscience and Engineering.

The university’s new responsibilities include surveying Iowa’s natural resources in all their economic and scientific aspects, as well as making topographic maps and studying the state’s geological problems.


Increase of earthquakes in the U.S. during the past three years linked to fracking wells

Photo by Leda Kat; Flickr

A recent study conducted by seismologists and geologists has proved that there is a strong positive correlation between waste-water wells and quakes. In the past three years alone, earthquakes in the U.S. have become five times more common than in previous years. Continue reading

Iowa Geological & Water Survey analyzes RAGBRAI route in brochures and podcasts

RAGBRAI riders in Orange City. Photo by mrsdkrebs, Flickr.

The Iowa Geological & Water Survey website has released a series of brochures and podcasts detailing the nature RAGBRAI riders are traversing this week.

The podcasts contain interviews with multiple geologists and other environmental experts. The brochures focus mainly on the geology of each day’s route.

Both the brochures and the podcasts are available here.