Sunday, July 25, 2010

A neoGeo-blogger's View of the Geoblogosphere

I just realized that this blog has been up for over a year now.  I haven't been quite as active at blogging as I hoped I might be, but it has been a fun experience to frame up my thoughts, work through the writer's block, and connect with the vast online community.  To celebrate this belated anniversary, I'm jumping into my first official contribution to The Accretionary Wedge blog carnival.

For those unfamiliar with a blog carnival, it's a collection of blogs centered around a specified topic, collected and presented via permalink by a hosting blogger.  The Accretionary Wedge carnival is hosted by a different blogger of the online geo-community every month and solicits entries covering a myriad of geoscience-related topics throughout the year.   This month's theme was derived by Dave Bressan thru his musings with Michael Welland, and resulted in a call for posts that appeared on Dave's blog, The History of Geology.  The question: the role of the geoblogosphere in geology...
The Geoblogosphere comprises and gathers every day the newest articles from more then 200 blogs (and still counting) dealing with the most various earth related themes, ranging from geological excursions, sharing field experiences, philosophizing about earth sciences, life and art, media coverage and daily rock encounters to discussion of the newest scientific discoveries on this planet and others. So philosophizing around (geo)blogging with Dr. Welland many questions raised:
- like how bloggeology can “impact” society and “real geology,” should and can we promote the “geoblogosphere,” and are blogs private “business” or public affairs, and institutions underevaluating the possibilities given by this new method of communication?

This topic resonates with me, even though I am a neoGeo-blogger.  There are many facets to the questions posed so it will be difficult for me to put all my thoughts out on the figurative table.  But I'll try anyway.  

Before I can fully address the role I see for blog-geology, I probably should first explain why I blog and what I hope to gain from it.  Then I should define what the "geoblogosphere" means to me.  

It all started for me with Twitter.  As an amateur webmaster (I designed and currently maintain my company's website and host a php-based message board) and as the spouse to a mega-techie-junkie, tinkering in things like social media are fun little hobbies for me to play with in my spare time. I must pick up some techie-ness via osmosis or something - father and husband both engineers.  Anyway, after hearing friends talk of Twitter I scoped it out, was immediately intrigued, and set out to see what might come from the tweets of mine and the twitter-ers I started to follow.  What an amazing group of geo-tweeps I stumbled upon!  Their posts regarding field trips, research, public policy, news, myths and misconceptions, frustrations, industry events, educational opportunities, and social commentary has been a major inspiration for me.  All of you that I follow - yes, all of you - are awesome.  \m/(>.<)\m/

I started this blog on a late Tuesday night in June, 2009, with overly idealistic goals to share my geologic knowledge and stretch my writing wings a little bit.  I wanted to be a contributing member of the geoblogosphere, because the rest of you are so darn cool.  However, throughout this year I struggled to meet my own expectations for what I wanted this blog to be.  Time constraints played a big role in my blog-ability (working 60+ hour weeks with 3 kids under 10 at home makes for some rocky times),  but the main reason I struggled is because the geology that I know the most about comes from my work experiences, which falls under strict client confidentiality agreements.  All the data I have access to, the interpretations that come together, and the development of geological models are the property of my clients and the survey companies that lease the data to them.  Working in frontier deepwater oil and gas exploration is fascinating stuff, but most of what I do is not in the public domain.  I find that leaves me very little of my own material to present and discuss with any true depth.  The result has been a great learning experience for me to dig deeper into myself to discover something worth sharing or applicable to others  even when stripped down to generics.  I am honored and grateful to have lured anyone into the blog for a short visit, much less a regular follower.   So, big-time thanks if you are still reading this.  :)  I hope that as my geo-blogging experience grows I will find interesting topics to share and the writer's block a little easier to combat.

So what constitutes the geoblogosphere? I define it as the collective geoscience communication network developed via various internet-based utilities, be they formal blogs, social micro-blogs such as Twitter or Facebook, or other academia, industry, or research-based websites.  Just as the many specialties in geology diverge and converge, so do the ways in which geology can be communicated. Members of the geoblogosphere constitute individuals - professionals, students, interested non-professionals, educators, policy makers - as well as corporations, government entities, industry societies, and research groups.  

Institute of Geosciences of the Universidade F...Image via Wikipedia

Back to the main question: what do I perceive to be the role of the geoblogosphere?  For me it is about community.  It is the community that drew me in, educates me, challenges me, and inspires me.  Asking what the role of the geoblogosphere might be is really asking what is the role each of us plays in our community.  Like any real-life community there are a number of roles to be filled: educator, protector, entertainer, supplier, etc.  The geoblogosphere serves all of these things for the geoscience community in some capacity or the other.   Most, if not all of which, have plenty of room and need to grow.

Members of the geoblogosphere educate each other, educate the public, and maybe are educators by profession.  The same can be said for protecting, entertaining, and supplying.  Granted, since there is no self-proclaimed internet police validating the facts shared online, the value of the material presented via the geoblogosphere and elsewhere should be weighed before presuming things as the God's honest truth.  Then again, value depends on who is doing the valuation.  From what I have witnessed, we do a pretty good job of policing each other, QC-ing content and peer-reviewing, although via less formal means than maybe traditional.

In terms of "real geology" I am awestruck by the level of camaraderie and openness that exists in the geoblogosphere and how it allows for communication of real geologic wonderment.  The vast expanse of specialties, geographic representations, and experience available at your fingertips as part of the geoblogosphere is unfathomable.  True geology is shared en masse and those of us with desk jobs in cube farms bask in the joys shared by the offshore and overseas bloggers, the field geologists, and the twittering TA's.  Perhaps the reverse is true, as the field geos are fighting off the cactus and the mosquitos.  The opportunity to learn, share, and experience things beyond your own surroundings is a rich opportunity that shouldn't be skipped.

The value of the geoblogosphere is greatly unrealized by those who are not a part of it.  Although I still consider myself new to the geoblogging community, I strongly promote participation in the geoblogosphere, as I believe it provides a win-win for everyone involved.  The community benefits through a diversified membership base, and the members benefit from the various services offered by the other members, the geoblogosphere as a whole.  

In my professional life I have followed up on references, news, and research I stumble upon through the geoblogosphere that directly contributes to my project work or  introduce alternate hypotheses.  I am enlightened and aware of things outside my specialty that I otherwise would never be exposed to.  I have the opportunity to see points of view from all sides of an issue.  I don't expect my blogging, tweeting, or status updates to return any tangible benefits for myself, other than the satisfaction of sharing experiences or perhaps someday adding to someone else's inspiration.   I promote the geoblogosphere to my peers and fellow Houston Geological Society (HGS) members by maintaining an online message board (, a Facebook page (, and a Twitter account (@HouGeoSoc) for the HGS, in the hopes that they will benefit as I have from these things.  The challenge is educating people how to use these tools, using the tools to their strengths, and maintaining the momentum to keep it all updated. (BTW, I'm looking for volunteers to join the HGS Social Media Committee, if you're interested).  It is a worthwhile cause to connect with people, connect them to others, and to see growth resulting from that connection.  It is something I am strongly passionate about and enjoy being a part of.  

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Geocaching and the SillyBandits

I've heard of geocaching before and thought it sounded cool, but not something I had time to do. Prior to the days of iPhone ownership, a GPS wasn't something I had handy all the time. Well, times have changed, my friends, and GPS devices are pretty much are the caches.

For those unfamiliar, geocaching is like a go-at-your-own-pace treasure hunt. There's an entire community of geocachers out there who hide (and seek) multitudes of goodies. Some cachers are pretty hard-core trying their best to be the FTF (first-to-find). But some caches have been around for years and scanning through the log books can be an awe-striking moment. Micros are pretty small - usually only consisting of a log to keep record of the finders. The most common, traditional caches, are ammo boxes, just large enough to hold a log book, and a few relatively inexpensive trinkets. The thrill is in the adventure of finding the hidden caches, learning about the community around you, and tracking items (like geo-coins that are moved from cache to cache) around the world.

For more info on geocaching or what caches are near you, check out and get started!

My family has been bitten by the geocaching bug. My older daughters (ages 8 and 6) are enthralled with the adventure of looking for a treasure, a welcomed motivator to get them outdoors. We ventured out for the afternoon and made four finds, each one with their own personality. We had some pretty cool eureka moments, all shared together, for no out-of-pocket expense. Compared to a family night at the movies, with tickets and snacks upward of $60 and the lot of us staring off at a movie screen, I'd say geocaching is a win-win for the family and the pocketbook!

As we dive into this family adventure we are learning some of the geocaching etiquette that keeps the game moving along. Obvious things like paying attention to your surroundings, not drawing attention to the cache location (beware of "muggles"), and programs like "Cache in, Trash out" are important mindsets that allow geocaching to work. A nice listing of geocaching pointers are provided HERE, and definitely worth a good read before heading out on your adventures.

My girls have come up with their own geocaching team name - the SillyBandits. They want to leave silly bandz (the many colored, many shaped, over-priced rubber bands) at all the caches they visit. Now when we head out of the house, and across town, we're checking what kind of detours we may make along the way. With an upcoming family vacation, involving driving through multiple states, we are excited see what kind of swag we find, places we visit, and communities we connect with.

Do you geocache? Leave a comment and tell me about your best cache experience or cool swag!

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Down to the Core

I've had the rare priviledge in the course of my project work to be able to truly ground-truth interpretations from seismic data through comparisons with core samples. For onshore projects that may not seem like so much of a priviledge as the norm, but in deepwater environments, the combination of data is much less common, particularly in the early exploration stages of which I'm involved.

I have my interpretation of stratigraphic intervals and the kinds of processes that may be at work based on the regional setting, observed site-specific structures, and by characteristics revealed through various seismic attributes. Then I have core data to add to that interpretation, refining the model of what we think we're seeing. The core data includes various geotechnical properties measured through standard lab tests, such as shear strength, water content, atterberg limits, etc. These lab tests, standard and advanced, are destructive to the sample. For my project we also have a radiocarbon and paleontological dating program planned, to try and understand the depositional rates and timing of events. Selecting the sample locations, considering both time and space (where in the core and from which core), is a critical step towards putting the geologic story back together and involves close inspection of the interpreted seismic data, correlation of geotechnical properties between the physical sample and the geophysical record, and understanding what an age at a particular portion of the core can and can't tell you. Digging out samples for age analysis is obviously destructive to the core also. If you have plans to undergo geotechnical testing, you have to make sure you aren't using material you also want to get an age from. It definitely takes some thinking and planning out.

There are some things that can be done to analyze a core without destroying the sample. A multi-sensor core logger, or MSCL for short, is a tool that allows for geophysical measurements of an unsplit, cylindrical core. Working in the marine environment, we've used MSCL for sub-samples of box cores, as well as gravity cores, piston cores, and jumbo piston cores. Compressional wave (P-wave) transducers allow for velocity measurements of the sediments in the core. Gamma ray attenuation is measured through the core and used to derive sediment density. The labs I've worked with can provide various levels of detail for logging, such as 4 cm samples or higher resolution 2 cm sampling. If the core is later split, or material was sampled from the core ends during acquisition, the densities may be calibrated with the lab measurements taken directly. Velocities and densities also play important roles in how the seismic data behaves, so with the MSCL data, the measured geotechnical properties, and the seismic section you can start to make some correlations. Accurate and precise calibration of the MSCL for your samples and close QA/QC of the data are key to getting the most useful data.

Ultimately, if you want to understand the small-scale features, you have split open the core and take a look at the sediment types and preserved structures. This, too, is a destructive process. Once the core is split, you can't put it back together again.

One of the best things you can do with your split core is to photograph it. As with all geologic-intended photographs you will need something in the photograph to reference for scale. Some people place a measuring tape or ruler along the core edge, others mark directly on the core liner in regularly spaced intervals. In the process of describing your core, you are likely to scrape, smudge, cut, poke, and sub-sample the sediments. You might even taste the sample (Yes, a lot of geologists will taste the dirt). In addition, an open core will dessicate and oxidize much quicker than an un-opened core (even in controlled storage environments), which means color, water content, and other geotechnical characteristics can change. While a core photograph cannot capture the geotechnical properties, it can preserve color and structural relationships to which you can refer to long after your sample has been picked through or discarded. A photograph is an important piece of your compiled data set that may prove useful even beyond its original intended use for your project.

It has been my experience that most labs and researchers rush through the steps of capturing those photos. Some are done with basic point-and-shoot cameras, with little attention to lighting, resolution, or focus. Even photos done meticulously with a high-resolution camera suffer from amateur photographers in control of the picture-taking. My recent project data included high-resolution core photographs taken every 10 cm down the length of the core. A lab technician cropped each image and stitched them together to re-create each core section. The files were 100+MB bitmap images exported out of Adobe Photoshop. The resolution on the images was undeniably good, but most sections were coarsely scraped creating ridges and shadows on the split section, the high water content and lighting caused problematic reflections, and poor light distribution made many of the sections dark and the variable colors difficult to distinguish.

When preparing to photograph your core, there are several things to consider. First, the cores are best viewed in natural light. Flourescent lights tend to add hints of blues to the photo. Incandescent lights tend to add hints of yellow to the photo. Neither are desireable if you want to look at the natural colors. Adjusting the white balance compensates for your light source and allows you to mimic natural sunlight when done correctly. Just a note: Color is not always the best geologic tool in the box, as it can be decieving at times. Be careful with what assumptions you make based solely on color.

Second, you want to look at a fresh surface, which suggests you may need to scrape the sediments exposed in your split core. Scraping the core surface is a delicate procedure. You want to scrape across the core, not down the core. Scraping down the core could contaminate your sample, mixing younger and older sediments as you drag the spatula down the core. Scraping across minimizes that potential, assuming you clean the spatula between each stroke. Many people who scrape a core, particularly if the sediments are soft, mistake the process to be similar to plastering and instead of cleaning the surface to reveal the sediments and structures, they smear the sediments, distorting or disguising the structures. It takes a steady hand and the proper spatula angle to really get it right. Circular polarizing filters can reduce reflectivity of the core surface. Multiple strobes at different angles can minimize or eliminate shadows created by uneven surfaces.

Third, things like focus, scale, and resolution are extremely important. You want to make sure each photo is taken from the same distance with the same focal point. This is true particularly if you plan to stitch the images together. You want to minimize the distortion caused by the camera's perspective view by selecting the right lens, zoom level, and core position. A mounted camera is an absolute necessity, as there is no way anyone can hold the camera still enough or at the appropriate angle for every snapshot. Carefully plan the lighting for the photos and minimize changes in the settings as you are capturing your photos. If you are adjusting things throughout your photo shoot, images you capture at the beginning won't match up well with those you capture at the end. Take a lot of test shots and once you have the settings worked out, then capture your suite of images to preserve your entire data set. When correlating your findings are important for you, you want to make sure you are comparing apples to apples.

So, a few recommendations for those pursuing a core sampling program:
1. Consider MSCL data for your cores, particularly if you have other geophysical data you may be trying to ground-truth.
2. When your core is split, carefully prepare a freshly exposed surface for viewing by meticulous scraping done properly.
3. Train the photographer (or hire a professional) to use the camera and other equipment to its full potential.

You might think these are minor concerns, or that any part-time tech could do this work. But if you were to sit in the core viewing sessions I've had with a room full of geologists and engineers, with nothing but the photos and the seismic sections you would realize how drastically different the interpretations can be based on what you see in the photo. If you never saw the core in person, you might think the reflective streak was a lamination and it's cross-cutting what looks to be other laminations. You may not realize it was caused by irregular scraping and poor lighting conditions. It can make a big difference in your interpretation.

Obviously, you need to take your individual program into account and make decisions about your sampling and testing program that will be suitable for the purposes you need. Your methodology for a single core versus what you may do for hundreds of cores could be drastically different. One thing I believe, though, is that it is worth your effort to do it right and do it well the first time.

If you don't have time to do it right, you must have time to do it again. Only with a core, you usually only get one try.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Plan for the Future: Getting Back to Basics

Things move fast. Technology advances. Efficiency is sought after. Sounds great to be able to automate things. Cookie-cutter our reports. The less you have to think about it the less you can screw up, right? And the more time we'll all have to have fun.

There's a widely recognized phenomenon going on in the sciences, which probably affects most other disciplines too. In the oil and gas industry it's sometimes called The Big Crew Change. Others just recognize it as a generational gap. The Baby Boomers, with all their experience and knowledge, are gearing up for retirement, ready to pass the torch on to the next generation. Houston, we have a problem. Only the problem is two-fold: not enough workforce to carry that responsibility and what workforce is there has half the experience.

For an ambitious young professional, this is the right time to be in the workplace, as there is tremendous opportunity to leap frog to higher positions, faster. Be warned, though. Those positions come with responsibility you need to be prepared to accept and should be trained to address. For science and engineering-based industries, we're heading into a challenging season and have been on that path for some time. The pursuit of science and engineering undoubtedly lead to advances in understanding and evolution of humankind. So how will that advancement progress (or even be maintained) with less human-power behind it? There are so many venues fed by the science and engineering disciplines.

Obviously, we should be concerned about the education offered to the up-and-coming professionals. Schools, starting even at the primary levels, should encourage and support education of the math, sciences, and critical thinking skills. I've witnessed a number of pushes in my local community to bring science and engineering to the young people early on, with career-day activities, extra-curricular programs, and field trips. The geoblogosphere also illustrate examples of this. Higher education needs to invest in hands-on, real-world learning. Things like field camp for geologists shouldn't be cut from the program. (See my earlier post for my thoughts on field camp). Companies, in turn, need to offer competitive incentives and a healthy, constructive work environment to retain and attract the skilled workforce. That's a challenge to companies, as it requires a real investment in the individuals if they want to be truly successful. The oil & gas industry particularly struggles with it's public image, not currently being helped with the ongoing Deep Water Horizon oil spill. John Hofmeister spoke at his keynote address at the 2009 OTC's young professional event (The Next Wave) of the need for companies to change their approach to mentoring and the "bloody" business practices that were the global norm for previous generations.

But it can't stop with the teachers and the businesses. Individuals should strive to learn from the experiences of those who've gone before and be well-versed in the basics. Ignorance won't be an acceptable excuse when things fail, tragedy strikes, and person/property are damaged. Failure is a teacher, but there's too much at stake most times to allow experience to come through failures. Our predecessors had failures, so why would we want to repeat them? The costs are too high.

At the same time, like novelist Kurt Vonnegut said, "True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country." I realized when I heard that the 80's classic movie Karate Kid was being redone that we're about there with my generation. Most annoying, the 2010 version focuses on kung-fu, not karate. Apparently details on the basics aren't any concern. Hollywood is full of this ignorance, as some geo-tweeters point out. (@morphosaurus: Looks like new Robin Hood movie was filmed in a conifer forest. Sherwood Forest is deciduous. As any fule kno.) Makes me wonder what other misconceptions are carried into the workplace (um, boobquake experiment anyone?) or what details someone thinks might not be important.

With all the specialties in every industry, it is easy to have the blinders slipped on and forget that our role affects (or is affected by) things around us. The widget-maker could easily get caught up in the mundane task of widget-making and not realize that the widget breaks (or is dangerous) when it's used, that no one is using the widget, or that changes in the widget are needed. The widget-maker might wonder why the widgets are piled up in the warehouse, a failure to communicate that widgets were even being made. The next generation of professionals will need to be open to cross-disciplinary understanding and be perceptive of what's going on beyond their own contribution. With less workforce available, we'll all have to pick up a little more load than what was traditionally expected. The widget-maker needs to be familiar with widget design, widget marketing, widget troubleshooting, widget de-commissioning and archival, and be open to learning these widget skills. The widget maker is still the expert at widget-making, but without an appreciation for these other aspects of the industry, their full potential at expertness is untapped. That's the challenge for our generation - to balance the generalist with the specialists.

Civil engineers face some of the most tangible examples of how ignorance can play out in their course of work. A bridge collapse near Dublin, for example, was caused by poor understanding of earlier design & utility, combined with not recognizing the problem signs. The collapsed bridge and failed engineering illustrates the lack of appreciation/understanding of what our predecessors have started. M. King Hubbert said, "Our ignorance is not so vast as our failure to use what we know." The Baby Boomers know a lot. They need to share that knowledge, and the next generation needs to take it in, understand it, utilize it. (Photo courtesy of New Civil Engineer,

At the end of the day, it comes down to basics. Understanding the basic principles of science, math, and physics. The scientific method. Basic geometry and algebra. Basic material and mechanical properties. Don't be afraid to get up close and personal to the rock and learn what it can tell you. That's the stuff that forms the foundation onto which all other things are built. Basic soft skills, like communication and networking, are golden nuggets that will help the evolution of progress.

That old mantra K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) still has application today. Just as the present is the key to the past is the key to the future. Knowing where to apply the details (and which key goes in which lock) is where the true art and skill come into play.