President’s Column – November 2001

Title: Our Science

Author: Susan Landon

Publication: The Outcrop, November 2001, p. 3, 6-7

One of the major reasons for the existence of the Rocky Mountain Association of Geologists is to foster scientific research. Of course our primary interest tends to be in the fields of science directly related to hydrocarbon exploration and production, although frequently our work impacts other areas of earth science research. I recently finished reading a book that reminded me of this. Rivers of Time, written by Peter D. Ward, is an easy to read and entertaining chronicle of the development of ideas regarding mass extinctions. The book examines three extinctions: the Permian-Triassic, the Triassic-Jurassic, and, of course, the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundaries. He also speculates on a modern mass extinction.

In his discussion of the development of the theories to explain the K-T boundary, Ward recounts the discussions that were frequently very heated among the scientists who espoused various theories. One theme that emerges is a sense of superiority held by physicists and chemists with respect to the earth scientists. We have all felt the public perception that the earth sciences are second-class members of the family of sciences. This was simply another example of that perception being reinforced by our fellow scientists. But the vignette that caught my attention most forcefully was the account of the scientific pursuit of the crater that would be the keystone in the proposed theory of an impact at the K-T boundary. Initial work focused on various lines of evidence that grew out of the discovery of a large iridium anomaly at the boundary in an outcrop in Italy by Walter Alvarez and a team of geologists that included Isabella Premoli-Silva, a paleontologist specializing in planktonic foraminifera. The paleontologic work pinned the K-T boundary in a thin clay layer. Alvarez talked with his father, Nobel Laureate in physics, Luis Alvarez, and together they decided to examine the meteoric dust in the clay leading to the discovery of the iridium anomaly. Then someone discovered shocked quartz, then spherules of melted material, then sedimentary beds along the Brazos River in Texas that seemingly could only be explained by a tsunami 1000 feet high, and so on. Many were convinced of a meteor impact in the Caribbean area but the academic world was having difficulty finding that smoking gun. Finally in 1990, Alan Hildebrand announced that he had found a large circular feature on the Yucatan Peninsula, and in 1991 he published an article in Natural History describing a crater on the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.

A few months later a letter was published in Natural History from a former PEMEX geologist named Glen Penfield. He had identified the crater with gravity and aeromag in 1978 and had published an abstract for a talk at the annual meeting of the Society of Exploration Geophysics with co-author Antonio Camargo. This abstract appeared 10 years before the academic community stumbled over the crater. I thought that Ward’s comment was very insightful. “Penfield and Camarga had hit a scientific home run….The problem was that they gave their presentation to other oil company geologists (whose only interest was whether the structure contained oil), rather than university professors, and the information never made it to the Alvalez group.” I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that this was very sloppy work on the part of Hildebrand. I think a quick literature search, even a check of GeoRef, would have turned up the earlier work.

I had a somewhat similar personal experience a few years ago. Serving on a committee in Washington, I arrived at a meeting not too long after the Northridge earthquake. One of the other committee members was a prominent seismologist from a famous California university. Everyone was quizzing him about the earthquake and his comments were fairly general. He said that, to date, no one had identified or mapped the fault on which the quake had occurred. At that point, I pulled out the AAPG Explorer that had arrived just as I headed to the airport. The staff at AAPG had been able to contact the appropriate industry people in California just before that issue had to go to press and included a seismic line and cross section that showed the location of the epicenter of the quake. The seismologist was delighted when I gave him my copy and amazed at the ability of AAPG to make such relevant information available so quickly. The committee members all expressed surprise and interest in the petroleum industry and their ability to act so quickly and release the information.

We do tend to think about geology and geophysics and related sciences and technologies in the context of what they provide for decreasing exploration risk and increasing effectiveness in development – finding oil and natural gas. We are the foundation of the energy that fuels our economy now and for at least several decades to come. It is also fun to think about the fact that we scientists and technologists in the petroleum industry can, and often do, contribute to a broader range of science. The discovery of Chicxulub Crater is an example of a key piece of evidence that has helped to explain a very significant event in the earth’s history. In California and other seismically active areas, being able to provide information that may assist seismologists in predicting earthquakes can actually save lives and property. There tends to be a disconnect between the science done in our community and that done in more traditional academic institutions. Sometimes, it is easy to think that, like Rodney Dangerfield, we don’t always get respect! But, you can help RMAG, AAPG, SEG, and the other organizations that publish the great work of our profession by supplying excellent manuscripts for publication.