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Focus

Research that Spans the Globe

Research efforts in the department support a sustainable future for humankind and further knowledge in the multiple facets of geological and mining engineering and sciences. International field investigations take research faculty and students to locations across North and South America, as well as to Australia and Southeast Asia. Research funding averages nearly $3 million per year for the department.

The department features world-class computer and analytical laboratory facilities. Specialized laboratories include the Laboratory for Atmospheric Remote Sensing, the Subsurface Visualization Laboratory, the Seismology and Petrophysics Laboratory, the Earthquake Seismology Laboratory, the Hydrogeology Laboratory, and the Earth Magnetism Laboratory.

Hydrogeology and Environmental Studies

Departmental research is conducted in the following focus areas: physical, environmental, and social hydrology; environmental and aqueous geochemistry; water resources management; and watershed modeling and analysis.

Departmental projects in this area include

  • Monitoring hydrologic and chemical outputs from small, select watersheds and comparing the data with the outputs of large watersheds, with the goal of contributing to geochemical cycling models of the Lake Superior basin.
  • Studying the mineralogy and weathering characteristics of local mine waste deposits (stamp sands) to determine whether they pose a potential environmental hazard.

Associated Faculty: Alex Mayer, Jim Wood, John Gierke

Energy and Mineral Resources

Departmental research is conducted in the following focus areas: subsurface visualization and geochemistry.

Subsurface Visualization

Drawing upon available data and technology, studies in subsurface visualization strive to better understand the upper 4–5 kilometers of the Earth’s crust, through visualizing subsurface appearance, structure, and activity. Because all major economic mineral deposits are located in this zone, identifying gas and oil reservoirs and ore deposits is an important facet of subsurface visualization. Other studies focus on visualizing the movement of contaminant plumes or the migration of hydrocarbons.

Associated Faculty: Wayne Pennington, Jim Wood

Geochemistry

Geochemistry is employed in studying metallic ore deposits, geothermal energy resources, petroleum energy resources, and the environment. The applications of geochemical data include characterization of the chemical composition of earth materials, exploration for undiscovered resources, mobility of chemical components in the environment, and understanding earth processes. Geochemical data often require extensive graphical and statistical analysis via computational methods.

Associated Faculty: Ted Bornhorst, Jim Wood

Remote Sensing

Remote sensing is an interdisciplinary field employing advanced technology to remotely collect data and take measurements. Remote sensing techniques are used in field studies when direct sensing is difficult or impossible, on scales ranging from the microscopic to the astronomical. Michigan Tech’s Earth, Planetary, and Space Science Institute (EPSSI) fosters interdisciplinary, team-based collaboration in remote sensing.

The department’s Remote Sensing for Hazards research group focuses on developing remote sensing tools and validation methods for hazard mitigation and resource protection in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Panama and soon Costa Rica. Goals include linking the geoscience agencies in many of these countries and building a new educational system of applied research and engineering.

Remote sensing is also applied to volcano research. Volcanism is measured both on a global scale with satellites, and on the ground with instruments that insure the safety of researchers. The department has been a leader in employing remote sensing techniques to study volcanoes.

Departmental projects in this area include

  • Studying long-term volcanic emissions, and the fates of these emissions, using satellite data on SO2 in the atmosphere.
  • Developing geologic applications, such as mapping and characterization, using a hyperspectral sensor. Research activities span collecting data by aircraft, processing, manipulation, and interpretation.

Associated Faculty: Simon Carn, Louisa Kramer, Thomas Oommen

Volcanology

The current focus of research is highly active, open-vent volcanoes, such as Fuego in Guatemala or Villarica in Chile. Using a variety of seismic, acoustic, and gas-sensing instruments to make observations of low-level activity, researchers construct possible changes in the subsurface. Additional subjects of volcano research include Masaya in Nicaragua, Stromboli in Italy, and Kilauea in Hawaii. Studying the active processes of open-vent volcanoes yields data that helps researchers gain insights into all volcano types.

Due to the dynamic nature of volcanoes, simultaneous measurements are taken on site with multiple instruments. Open-vent volcanoes generate seismic and airborne acoustic energy while fluxing large volumes of gas and radiating heat into the atmosphere. The following measurement techniques and tools are critical in highly eruptive environments:

  • Acoustic (sound through the air)
  • Seismic (through the ground)
  • Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR)
  • Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR)
  • Global Positioning Systems (GPS)
  • Ultraviolet (UV) camera for SO2 flux

Cognate areas of research include remote sensing, volcano seismology, and natural hazards communication.

Departmental projects in this area include

  • The application of remote sensing data to studies of volcanic degassing, volcanic eruption clouds, and anthropogenic pollution.

Associated Faculty: Simon Carn, Greg Waite

Atmospheric Sciences

Atmospheric sciences is an interdisciplinary discipline. Research within the University focuses on

  • improving our understanding of atmospheric processes and impacts related to key issues of societal importance, such as climate change/climate forcing and air pollution emissions, transport, and transformation;
  • understanding the natural atmosphere and the interactions between the atmosphere and the rest of the earth system, including the biosphere;
  • understanding the fundamental physical and chemical processes that govern the behavior of the atmosphere and its interactions with human activities and the natural world;
  • developing and applying new methods for the measurement of atmospheric properties, using novel chemical, physical and remote sensing techniques; and
  • using computer simulations of atmospheric transport and chemistry to study the atmosphere and its interactions with human activities and the biosphere.

Departmental projects in this area include

  • Field-work measurements of nitrogen oxides in the Arctic within the snowpack, and from long-range transport of anthropogenic and boreal wildfire emissions.

Associated Faculty: Simon Carn, Louisa Kramer, Shiliang Wu

Mineralogy, Petrology, and Paleomagnetism

Departmental research is conducted in the following focus areas: mineralogy, petrology, and paleomagnetism.

Mineralogy and Petrology

Mineralogy is the branch of science that centers on minerals, including their distribution, properties, classification, and crystallography.

The world-class A. E. Seaman Mineral Museum is the site for diverse mineralogical research, including characterization of new mineral species, descriptive mineralogy, and the paragenesis of both classic and new mineral occurrences.

Current work focuses on the mineralogy of Canada's Grenville Province and the St. Lawrence Lowlands of northern New York State, including investigations on naturally occurring spherical graphites, as well as lead and other hydrothermal vein minerals.

Departmental activities have also included investigations into clay mineralogy as part of broader mineralogical and petrological research in sedimentary diagenetic systems, geothermal systems, and ore deposits.

Most investigations in metamorphic petrology have emphasized low-grade metamorphism in sedimentary and volcanic rocks. Most igneous petrology is a component of volcanic hazards investigations and establishes the past history and eruptive style of volcanoes being studied. Petrologic research is also a major component of field investigations of Precambrian metamorphic, plutonic, and fold and thrust belts of the Great Lakes region.

Associated Faculty: Ted Bornhorst, George Robinson

Paleomagnetism

Magnetic properties of iron oxides found in naturally occurring sediments have been shown to reflect changes in environmental processes operating on the Earth's surface. Departmental research focuses on the application of magnetism to understanding these global environmental processes.

Much of our work is concentrated on investigating sediments from loess sequences and caves in the Czech Republic, as well as local sediments from Lake Superior and other lakes in the Keweenaw Peninsula. More traditional rock and paleomagnetism research cuts across many disciplines within the department, allowing our students to work toward degrees in either geophysics or geology.

Ongoing projects include determining the effects of alteration on magnetic properties of the oceanic crust, investigating the magnetic properties of tephra, evaluating landslide potential on volcanic islands such as Hawaii, deciphering the details of apparent wander to gain insight into the relative motion of lithospheric plates, and gaining a better understanding of geomagnetic field behavior.

Associated Faculty: Aleksey Smirnov

Seismology

Departmental research is conducted in the following focus areas: earthquake/volcano seismology, exploration seismology, and seismic petrophysics.

Earthquake/Volcano Seismology

Associated Faculty: Wayne Pennington, Greg Waite

Exploration Seismology/Seismic Petrophysics

Reflection seismic data is often used not only to map structures, but also to identify the lithology and fluids present in a formation. The geophysicist processes data to retain true amplitudes and to remove artifacts of acquisition and previous processing steps, and then uses features of the seismic data called attributes to help identify rock types. Some of the identification is purely statistically based, relying on correlations between observations in wells and the character of the seismic wavelet.

Departmental research emphasizes the physical cause of the correlation, striving to improve the usefulness of seismic reflection data by developing more-robust techniques of predicting lithology based on attributes.

Associated Faculty: Thomas Oommen, Wayne Pennington, Jim Wood