Archive for the ‘South Dakota’ Category

GSA 2011, here we come!

Monday, August 15th, 2011

Just a quick note to say that undergraduate research in the G&G department will be WELL represented at the Geological Society of America 2011 Annual Meeting.   Nicole, Rhi, Kristie, Casey and Britt will be presenting their research in the Sigma Gamma Epsilon Undergraduate Research Poster Session, and Cat will be presenting her work in South Dakota in the session titled “Potentially Toxic Elements in the Environment: A session for Students.”

Gotta be proud of these students. I know I am.

Back from the field: what next?

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011

Recently one of my colleagues asked me “How come YOU are working on a project on groundwater pollution?”

Good question.

So far nothing in my academic background or research experience has ever dealt with groundwater issues, pollution, or anything remotely associated with the question we are addressing in Pine Ridge.  At Pine Ridge, we are dealing with volcanic ash layers, not igneous or metamorphic rocks.  The layers are mostly undeformed, not folded or sheared.  The rocks in question are only about 30-40 million years old, not Precambrian.  Even the field techniques we had to use for sampling are very different from the ones I usually follow.

So how come I’m not only working on this problem, but with the help of Cat actually succeeding to get some good data? I think the answer lies not so much in the topic of research but how someone approaches a research question.  No matter what discipline someone specializes in, some essential skills, like critical thinking skills, data organization, analysis and synthesis skills, the ability to see the “bigger picture”… etc. are common in all fields of scientific research.  Add to that a capable, willing and hard working undergraduate student like Cat who is passionate about the project, and mentoring any research project is a breeze.

The passion has to be there, though.  Stereotypically scientists are pictured as dispassionate, as if in order to be objective, one must get rid of all emotions.  Based on my experience I have to disagree with that picture.  I don’t think anyone can willingly invest the hours spent in front of a computer, in the lab or in the field without a passionate drive to understand the different facets of a research question.  As long as the driving passion for a specific outcome does not overshadow the scientific process, I’d have to say that passion is a good asset for research scientists.

So now that we are back from the field, what next? Cat has done some ICP-OES analysis on her water samples for uranium, barium and arsenic.  The results are intriguing, and we need more samples to see for sure what is going on.  The drinking water samples do not show unusually high levels of uranium, which is a relief, but the surface water samples do, and as surface water and groundwater interact with each other, we really need to analyze more samples to see the extent and mechanism(s) of uranium contamination.  I am hoping Kat Converse might be able to send us some more samples… we will see.  Meanwhile Cat will keep working on the GIS map.


Back to Whitewater

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

Cat and I got back from our South Dakota-Nebraska trip on Friday, July 1.  It was a tremendous journey in every sense of the phrase.  We got a ton of work done, made some lasting connections with the land and the people, and of course, there was the feeling of satisfaction that comes from the knowledge that our work will be useful for the community there.

This is one of the main reasons I love geology.  With my background in structural geology I can explore purely scientific questions or I can try to apply my research for helping others.  My research on Precambrian shear zones in granitic rocks fall in the first category… I am fascinated by the processes that make solid rocks behave like silly putty under high pressure-temperature and low strain rates deep within the crust and mantle.  To non geologists, however, that trend of inquiry seems irrelevant.  On the other hand, my current research 0n uranium contamination in drinking water gets everyone’s attention.  People can relate to the problem.  They care.

Our field work is over for now.  We brought back as many samples as we could, and now we get to analyze them and plot the data on GIS.  We will see what our data tells us.

Challenges and victories

Friday, June 24th, 2011

Things don’t always go as expected during field work. There are unexpected challenges at every step, and help from unexpected quarters as well.

Before coming here I had NO idea that the roads around here will pose such a challenge to my little Honda Fit. Most roads we need to take to reach the sample locations are unpaved.  After one of the regular thundershowers we have been experiencing pretty much every afternoon, those roads can be impassable even with 4WD vehicles.  But we managed to gain the assistance of two very knowledgeable people, Hannan and Kathryn “Kat” Converse, who took us around the rez along roads that are slightly better than two tire tracks.  Without them driving us around, we would not have been able to collect any sample at all.

We had to take this road for yesterday's field work

Check out the ruts in the road we had to take while we were searching for natural springs and spring-fed ponds yesterday.  Cat actually measured this rut… it was more than 5 inches deep.

Let me talk a little bit about Kat here.  She is the hydrologist with the Oglala Sioux Tribe Natural Resources Regulatory Agency.  Hannan introduced us to Kat, and she has been kind enough to drive us around in the Natural Resources truck and even in her personal jeep.  It has been extremely helpful to have her with us in the field… without her we could not access any of the sampling sites for our project.

Kat has been very helpful in other ways too… she is the only one among us with any background in hydrology, so she has been guiding us through the sample collecting protocol. That was a HUGE help.

The other challenge we did not expect was the intricate process of obtaining permission for getting water samples.  The land owned by the tribe is a complex patchwork… often the groundwater we need to collect will be within privately owned land and we could not get to it. Kat shared the GIS layers showing the locations of the tribal lands and areas where we could collect samples, plus introduced us to the people in the land management office where we got the updated map of the rez and possible locations of springs.

Today was a highly productive day.  Kat took us to a farm where the owner was highly interested in our work.  He let us sample a natural spring on his property, the well water he uses for drinking, another well within his field, plus an ephemeral stream.  His farm is very close to the White Clay Fault, and these samples will help us see whether the fault has any influence on the uranium content of nearby well and springs.

Kat Converse collecting water sample from Alkali Creek

Kat is seriously thinking about getting the members of the local community take an active part in water resources stewardship.  I am so excited to be involved in such a project.

Cat collecting surface water sample

Cat has gained a LOT of confidence in herself.  It is a pleasure to watch her plan out her sample collection strategy, and then simply go about collecting samples, taking notes and doing what needs to be done.

This is the best part of being a mentor, to watch a student grow into his or her full potential as a scientist.  I’m lovin’ it  (Sorry, McDonald’s)


First samples!!!!!

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Cat getting ready for sampling

Cat collecting soil samples

We managed to get water and soil samples yesterday!!!!! YAY!

The quest for nitric acid

Monday, June 20th, 2011

It rained all night Sunday, and the forecast said that the steady drizzle and thunderstorms will alternate all the way until Wednesday.  So we packed out of Hudson-Meng around midday on Sunday… the unpaved roads for getting in and out of camp can become impassable for my brave little car. We stayed at Hannan and Leann’s house yesterday night and came up to Piya Wiconi (Oglala Lakota College Administrative Building) in Kyle, SD, today to pick up some nitric acid to be used as a preservative for our water samples.

Hannan took us around the campus, but most of the people he wanted us to meet were not around.  He did manage to locate some nitric acid, syringes, and gloves for us, so now we are all set for collecting water samples. We just need to get permission from the Natural Resources people for water collection.  We went out to the office today, but the hydrologist was not there.

The weather is NOT cooperating, though.  My least favorite thing to do during camping is having to set up my tent in a rainstorm, closely followed by having to pack up my tent in rain.  We were originally going to camp out tonight near Pine Ridge where we are planning to start our sampling, but we decided to check into a motel for tonight instead.

We will see what tomorrow brings.


Geology and Archeology

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

This might be a good time to describe Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Site where Cat and I have been camping out lately.

Rainbow over our campsite at Hudson-Meng

Double rainbow and Cat at Hudson-Meng

The Hudson-Meng Site is maintained by the Nebraska Forest Services.  The researchers there are working to decipher the hunting and processing activities that went on there.  Based on the presence of different types of stone tools and the conspicuous absence of bison skulls and tails indicate that most likely this site was the place where humans skinned the bison and practiced brain tanning for curing the hides.  The bone bed site/visitors’ center has an excavated pit showing piles of bison bones in the center and maps showing the locations of different types of stone tools used for butchering, scraping and other tasks were uncovered.  This is an on-going research project besides being a cool educational resource.  Several unversities use this site for their Archeology field school… students from University of Nebraska, Lincoln, will arrive there tomorrow for their field school.

The research station is set up with a cook tent with electricity, stove and refrigerator.  There are flushing toilet and shower facilities.  The water system, however, was acting up while we were there, so we only occasionally got to take advantage of the showers.  For the duration of our stay we pitched our tents on the rolling grassy fields in front of the cook tent and ate with the staff in the communal kitchen.

The campsite with the cook tent and parking area at sunset

It is a really cool place to experience the Nebraska Grasslands in all its glory.  The view is without comparison.  Everything seems larger than life here.  The moon seems huge, the wind stronger than anything I’ve experienced, the storms are fiercer, the rainbows extend across horizon.  After being stuck in a city for most of the year, it is refreshing to see the skyline unbroken by man-made structure.  And of course, the geology is breathtaking. I am not used to seeing so much exposed outcrop all around me with no moss covers or forest canopy to hide the rocks.

Classic badland-type rock outcrop at Toadstool Park, Nebraska

Volcanic ash layers showing popcorn weathering


I’m learning a lot about archeology on this trip.  Today Cat and I got to try my hand at flintknapping using authentic tools and techniques.  It was quite interesting. I have always been fascinated by the mechanical properties of different types of rocks, and flintknapping is one of the earliest applications of rock rheology.  Rocks such as flint, chalcedony or obsidian break along conchoidal fractures, and the flintknapper uses that characteristic to create sharp-edged stone tools.  Little pockets of impurities can make a piece of rock practically useless.  It is a long, often frustrating but a rewarding process.

Now back to geology.  Cat and I went  the neighborhood of Chadron State Park yesterday to look for springs and check out the lithology.  Found a fault that might be only be of local importance, but its presence indicates that groundwater from the uranium-rich Chadron Formation might travel up to the Arikaree aquifer above through such faults and fractures.  This is getting exciting every day.

Tomorrow we go to Piya Wiconi, the Administrative campus of Oglala Lakota College at Kyle, SD.  We will get to meet several colleagues of Hannan, pick up some nitric acid to use as preservative for our water sample and finally get to collect some water to take back to Whitewater for analyses.  Hopefully the weather will cooperate and stay dry during daytime… my brave little car can handle only so much muddy unpaved roads.

South Dakota here we come

Friday, June 17th, 2011

There are days when I fall in love with geology all over again. I’ve been living though one such day for the last week or so.

The project that Cat and I are working on deals with natural uranium contamination of groundwater in the Pine Ridge Reservation near the South Dakota-Nebraska border.  We took on this project partly as a challenge and partly as a learning experience for both of us.  We had to get a working knowledge of  groundwater hydrology and stratigraphy  “on the job” just to get the proposal in shape, and we are still catching up on those fields.  But that’s what research is all about.

Previous work by USGS scientists showed that some wells and springs in out study area have quite high amounts of uranium.  The uranium comes naturally from the volcanic ash present in the aquifers from where the residents get their drinking water.  One of the aquifers in the Nebraska-South Dakota region within the Chadron formation has enough uranium in the water to make it economically viable for in-situ leaching (ISL) mining.  The aquifer from which the residents n the Pine Ridge Reservation gets their drinking water is considered to be separated from the uranium-rich aquifer, but the rock layers within the Reservation have not been studied in detail, and the stratigraphy is practically undetermined. This leads to problems when drilling a well for drinking water… people think they are drilling to the aquifer with low uranium content, but may end up in the aquifer with high uranium. On top of that, the faults and fractures in this area have not been mapped in any detail.  Those faults can act like conduits for uranium-bearing groundwater from one aquifer into another. Even before we got here Cat compiled a GIS map of the contaminated wells using the existing data, and we could see that this project can make a difference.

We started collaborating with Dr. Hannan LaGarry of Oglala Lakota College from the very beginning of this project.  Hannan has been working on the uranium problem for more than a decade and he was enthusiastic about us coming over from Wisconsin to work here.

We got here on Wednesday the 15th after driving for about 13 hours (we did stop at Sioux Falls, SD, for Tuesday night).  Hannan wanted us to meet him at the Hudson-Meng Archeological Site where his wife Leanne is working.  So after driving across three states and 22 miles of gravel road, we ended up in a place where prehistoric humans herded and killed bison  about twenty thousand years ago.

We pitched our tents on the area designated for the H-M researchers and started exploring the geology of the area with Hannan on Wednesday.  He is extremely knowledgeable about the stratigraphy and paleontology of the area, not to mention the uranium issue. I’m learning a LOT just talking with him.  We visited the Toadstool Park yesterday with a group of high school students to look at animal tracks from the Pleistocene and looked at the Toadstool fault.  We also collected some blue agate, state rock of Nebraska… silica from volcanic ash gets leached out, follow fractures and cracks in the rocks and form those cool agates.  We could see the thin agate-filled fractures within the ash layers… these agate filled fractures are good indications that fluids can indeed flow though existing fracture systems from one aquifer to another.  Now we need to show evidence whether the uranium-rich water is contaminating the drinking water wells through fractures as well.

Today we get to visit the White River Fault with Hannan.  This fault has been studied in Nebraska, but not so much in South Dakota. Hannan thinks this fault extends to our study area and is a potential channelway for uranium.  We need to do some mapping to test that hypothesis. The plan for us is to look at the geology in the areas where it has been well studied, and then step in the unknown territory across the Nebraska-South Dakota border.

So now Cat and I get to live the dream life of field geologists: we are working on a problem that has not been studied well so far, and we can make some serious contribution to the Pine Ridge community.  We are learning new stuff which is always exciting, but also making a positive impact in peoples’ lives.  We get to be outside, work hard during the day, play hard after work.  What else can be better?