Jackson School of Geosciences

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Anton Caputo | Daily Texan Staff

Jackson School of Geosciences researchers are one step closer to understanding the properties of frozen methane hydrate, which is a potential future energy resource, with the help of recently obtained samples.

Frozen methane hydrate consists of water molecules that trap methane and can hold 100 times more energy than methane found at Earth’s surface. In May, the research team set out on a Q4000, an oil-field construction and intervention vessel, in the Gulf of Mexico and returned with 21 pressurized core samples of methane hydrate.

“We invested a lot of time and energy into putting this expedition together … and after that first hole we drilled, we were doing terrible,” said Joshua O’Connell, lab manager of the UT Pressure Core Center. “We managed to turn it around and now we have a lab full of core that we can get some science out of.”

The project is part of an $80 million, multi-year national effort that the U.S. Department of Energy selected the Jackson School to lead. The research team consists of 24 members and includes professors and students from UT, Ohio State University and Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, along with scientists from the Department of Energy, the U.S. Geological Survey and Geotek.

“UT is the primary lead on this project, but to accomplish an expedition of this scale we needed a wider group of scientists,” said Steve Phillips, a post-doctoral fellow for UT’s Institute of Geophysics.

Researchers from the Jackson School and UT’s petroleum engineering and geosystems engineering programs are continuing their research to understand hydrate reservoir properties.

“Imagine it like a sandwich,” said Peter Polito, the methane hydrate laboratory director for the Jackson School. “Above and below we have the bread and we want to get the peanut butter and jelly out of it. The hydrate reservoir is sandwiched in between the two things we don’t care about. We just want to study that good stuff at the center.”

In 2020, the research team will go back out into the Gulf of Mexico for 60 days and drill an additional eight or nine holes with an international crew, according to Polito.

The main goal of the research mission is to understand the properties of pressurized methane hydrate and figure out how to use it as a potential energy source.

“Eventually we might want more (natural gas) as electric cars come out and as we get away from gasoline,” Polito said. “Methane hydrate might be something to help us achieve that.”

President Obama awarded the Jackson School of Geosciences’ GeoFORCE Texas program Friday with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring for their work mentoring and promoting students in STEM fields.
Photo Credit: Jack DuFon | Daily Texan Staff

President Obama awarded the Jackson School of Geosciences’ GeoFORCE Texas program Friday with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, one of the highest federal honors for a university.

The Presidential Award is given to programs or individuals, especially to those reaching out to underrepresented communities, that focus on mentorship and promote education in STEM fields. GeoFORCE was the only program honored this year. 

The GeoFORCE Texas program works with incoming high school freshmen through the time they graduate. For a week each summer, students in the program travel to geological sites around the U.S. to learn about earth sciences. During the program, mentors and instructors educate students and provide them with college and career advice. 

Geology senior Victoria Fortiz participated in GeoFORCE Texas from 2008 to 2012 and mentored students for the program her freshman year of college. She said mentors and instructors check in with the students throughout the school year for things such as PSAT/SAT preparation and college application seminars.

“That was really helpful because I was the oldest in my family, and my parents didn’t go to college, so just having the support [was great],” Fortiz said.

Since the program’s inception in 2005, GeoFORCE Texas has expanded from its first partner, Southwest Texas Junior College, to schools in Houston. The program is one of the first to address the shortage of students coming from economically disadvantaged environments, according to Samuel Moore, director of outreach and diversity for the Jackson School.

“In 2010, it expanded to … schools in inner-city Houston,” said Moore. “[The program] targets economically disadvantaged students who might not be aware of the opportunity.” 

Of the students who participate in the program, 100 percent of them graduate high school, 96 percent go to college, and 64 percent choose a STEM field of study, as reported on the GeoFORCE website. 

“[The numbers are] very impressive,” Jackson School dean Sharon Mosher said. “There are no other numbers like that [caliber] that I know of.”

Many of these students never considered the possibility of studying geological or Earth sciences before GeoFORCE, according to Mosher.

“I think the most valuable aspect of the program is that it truly changes lives,” Mosher said. “It takes students who come from underrepresented groups … and has been successful at getting them to go to college and also successful in getting a majority of them to go into a STEM field.”

Jackson School of Geosciences Dean Sharon Mosher

Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of Q-and-A’s with UT’s deans. This interview has been edited and condensed. Sharon Mosher has been dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences since 2009.

The Daily Texan: Can you tell us a little bit about the school and some of the interesting projects going on right now?

Sharon Mosher: A little bit about the school:  We have one academic department and two major research units. Two-thirds of our school are research scientists. One-third are faculty and students. We are the largest academic geoscience program in the country. We graduate the most geoscience students at every level. We work on everything from the core to the atmosphere and also the planet. We work to increase students’ knowledge. We get them involved in internships so they can see what practicing geoscientists do. We even involve undergraduate students in research projects. By doing research, they learn how to solve problems and think quickly. We have a lot different projects going on. A lot of people working on the Texas drought. Everything from soil, soil moisture, interaction between land surface and atmosphere, rivers and river flow. We have large programs in Antarctica and also in Greenland.

DT: Can you tell us a little bit about the genesis of the school?

Mosher: [Geologist and philanthropist] Jack Jackson bequeathed his estate to UT — it was worth $241 million then. He felt very strongly about two things. One was the importance of geoscience in terms of understanding energy, water, minerals and resources in the environment. The other thing  he felt strongly about was UT. In particular, it bothered him that UT’s geoscientists were spread out across several units. We didn’t report to the same people and interact. He felt like we were less than the sum of our parts and that if he could get us to become a school and work together, we could do amazing things. That’s the reason he donated the money.

DT: What is your primary goal for the school?

Mosher: My goal is to have the Jackson School be the best it can be. Or the best in geoscience education. And to have a school where people from different units work well together,  a school that is pushing the frontier of science but also very community based that can help the students meet their potential. We are asked to try to build a national community for future geoscience undergraduate education. 

DT: What is your greatest challenge as dean?

Mosher: The whole University is in severe financial straits at the moment. So one big challenge is to keep everything moving forward in a positive way and yet have less budget every year. Since we became a school, we doubled the size of the faculty, and we also doubled the size of each of the research units. We hire extremely collaborative, interdisciplinary people. My other biggest challenge is keeping other universities from stealing my staff and faculty away from me.

DT: Speaking of the shrinking state budget, do you find you have to fundraise more than you used to?

Mosher: I always fundraise. As of July I will have been dean for six years. Every year I have been dean, I have had to cut my budget. I fundraise all the time. I spend at least two days out of every month out raising funds. Some months more. 

DT: What do most students do after graduating?

Mosher: It depends on if they are undergraduate or graduate students. A large percentage of undergraduate students go to graduate school. Up until this year, with the oil boom, a lot of the undergrads went directly into industry, working mostly for surface companies but also in environmental consulting and for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, different state agencies and the U.S. Geological Survey. Sixty to 70 percent of master’s students will go into energy. A small fraction will go into environmental consulting. The rest will go on for Ph.D.s. 

DT: Is there anything else you want students to know about the school?

Mosher: Two things. One thing in particular that makes us unique is that we are field-intensive. We make sure our students have the opportunity to go out not just locally, but internationally and really see geology. And we do that both at the undergrad and graduate level. That’s a really important part of their education. The other emphasis is students doing research. It’s a very vibrant and intellectually stimulating place. 

In this podcast, Anthony Green and Madlin Mekelburg discuss a $58 million dollar grant given to the Jackson School of Geosciences, the Supreme Court decision to uphold Texas' controversial voter ID law for the upcoming elections, Snapchat's "Our Campus Story" feature and a new option at The Dobie Center to rent rooms.

Bridget Scanlon, senior research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology, authored a study that found unconventional gas and oil production uses about the same amount of water as conventional production. Scanlon’s results will aid future economic and policy studies about the environmental impacts of unconventional energy production methods like fracking.

Photo Credit: Xintong Guo | Daily Texan Staff

A study led by a UT researcher found that the amount of water used for unconventional gas and oil production, such as hydraulic fracturing, is about the same as is used for conventional production. 

The study, published on Sept. 18 online in the “Environmental Science & Technology Journal,” was led by Bridget Scanlon, senior research scientist in the Jackson School of Geosciences.

“We’re using more water for hydraulic fracturing because we’re producing more oil using hydraulic fracturing,” Scanlon said. “It is not because hydraulic fracturing is more water-intensive per unit of oil production.” 

Scanlon said she decided to conduct the study to answer existing questions about the vulnerability of unconventional gas and oil production because of water shortages and the use of hydraulic fracturing.

“There is a concern about using water, especially in times of drought,” said Kristine Uhlman, research engineering/scientist associate. “With this research, people can understand that the method for generating energy is not necessarily what’s causing more water use.”

According to Uhlman, hydraulic fracturing, fracking, is a process in which liquids are injected into fractures of rocks to extract natural gas and oil. Conventional oil and gas accumulates in reservoirs and is extracted through the use of conventional, vertical wells. Unconventional oil and gas is trapped in dense rock, typically shale, and cannot be extracted except through the use of unconventional, horizontal wells. Uhlman said the unconventional oil production method has been useful to reach unconventional oil. 

“Unconventional oil and gas production is helping the United Sates be energy independent,” Uhlman said. “We have enough energy to sustain ourselves because of this new unconventional development of unconventional oil and gas.”

Scanlon said the results of this study could be used in future economic and policy studies about environmental impacts of unconventional energy production. She said the research was based on a well-by-well analysis of water use in hydraulic fracturing and used a number of different databases. 

She looked at thousands of wells used for conventional and unconventional oil and gas production and came up with ranges of how much water is used to construct them. They found the same amount of water is used for both methods.

“The difference is not how much water is used, but when it is used,” Uhlman said.

Uhlman said that this study could provide people with a better understanding of the relationship between water and energy.

Research scientist associate Robert Reedy and research scientist Jean-Philippe Nicot, both with the Jackson School of Geosciences, also contributed to the study.

James Dupree, BP chief operating officer of reservoir development and technology, presents a check to the Jackson School of Geosciences on Tuesday afternoon.

Photo Credit: Michael Baez | Daily Texan Staff

BP donated $120,000 to the Jackson School of Geosciences’ GeoFORCE program Tuesday, bringing the total amount the oil and gas company has donated to the program to $1 million since 2007. 

GeoFORCE is a selective outreach program through the Jackson School that focuses on at-risk high school students in the South Texas and Houston areas. The program is set up for students to apply in the eighth grade, with the goal that GeoFORCE can work with them through all four summers of their high school careers.

From the applicants, around 600 students are accepted and taken on a week-long geological trip all over the United States. During the trip, professors, researchers and other professional geologists help students discover what geology is. Along with geoscience courses, students are encouraged to take on the challenges of math and science courses. 

According to Eleanour Snow, associate director of the program, 481 students from GeoFORCE are enrolled in 85 different universities across the nation. Of those students, 97 are currently enrolled at the UT. Through the program, 97 percent of the campers have gone on to college, and 96 percent of those students returned to school the following year.

Four graduates of the GeoFORCE program attended a Tuesday ceremony in which Samuel Moore, director of outreach and diversity for the program, received the donation check from James Dupree, BP chief operating officer of reservoir development and technology.

“BP is always seeking for diversity and helping out in the communities,” Dupree said. “This is a great opportunity to get kids involved and interested in the geosciences and STEM. By reaching out to them, many of them have the opportunity to become first-generation family members to go onto college.”

Former GeoFORCE member Edgar Aguilar said he was thankful for the opportunities GeoFORCE gave him as a student, as the program helped him realize his passion for geoscience.

“A lot of people do not know about the program,” Aguilar said. “But, if more people knew about it, I guarantee more would be interested.”  

Having started in 2005, the GeoFORCE program just completed its 10th summer. Dupree said BP’s donation will ensure the program continues to inspire and educate high school students.

Research involving the pigmentation of dinosaurs has led researchers at UT to link prehistoric evolution to color.

Julia Clarke, an associate professor in the Jackson School of Geosciences, collaborated with a research team spanning across seven universities to study similarities between living organisms and extinct animals, and found that evolutionary shifts followed changes in the species’ color.

“I’m excited,” Clarke said. “When we started this work we never imagined that trying to figure out aspects of color would lead us to potentially learn something new about dinosaur physiology.”

The research compares the hair, skin and feathers of living terrestrial vertebrates and fossil specimens to find relations in levels of melanin, the pigmented tissue within organisms that determines color, and melanosomes, the organelles that hold melanin.

“Living mammals and birds uniquely show a relationship between the shape of melanosomes and their color — it’s what colors our hair,” Clarke said. “Genes that are involved in melanin-based color are also involved in many other aspects of physiology, like food intake and aspects of reproduction.”

Anthropology professor John Kappelman said the study, which was published in scientific journal “Nature” on Thursday, is expanding the scientific community’s ability to classify the physical characteristics of dinosaurs.

“These results are really exciting because it gives paleontologists one more tool that can be used to study the physiology of extinct species and reconstruct their color,” Kappelman said. “So, unfortunately, Tyrannosaurus rex — while a very colorful character — probably did not have vibrant colors.”

Additionally, the research assists in identifying which dinosaur species were warm-blooded or cold-blooded by comparing similar melanin diversity between living species and extinct specimens, according to integrative biology professor David Cannatella.  

“We know that birds — which are living dinosaurs — are endothermic, or warm-blooded,” Cannatella said. “Whether extinct dinosaurs that are closely related to birds were endothermic or not has been debated for decades, so this work is highly significant as evidence that supports endothermy in this extinct group of dinosaurs.”

Clarke said the study leaves more work ahead to prove their hypothesis linking evolution and color change.

“We are continuing our work in this area,” Clarke said. “We will be looking at more fossils and also hope that more research on the melanin in living vertebrates may also illuminate the hypothesis we’ve put forth.”

UT scientists are surveying the Long Island and New York coastlines to determine how Hurricane Sandy affected the sea floor. 

John Goff, senior research scientist at Institute for Geophysics at the Jackson School of Geosciences, is the principal investigator of the survey. Goff said the team is focusing on areas of the coast that were previously surveyed to see how and if Hurricane Sandy changed the deposition of sediment on the sea floor. The rapid response survey is in cooperation with scientists from Stony Brook University and Adelphi University.

“Our ultimate goal is to understand the ‘sediment budget’ associated with a storm: Where is the sediment being removed?” Goff said. “Where is it being deposited? How is this movement affecting the long-term health of the protective barrier island system?”

Barrier islands are narrow, offshore islands that separate ocean from bays and estuaries that are present off the New York and Texas coasts, Goff said.

“Barrier islands do a lot to protect inland communities from storm damage, as well as create invaluable wetlands,” Goff said.

Goff and his team obtained funding from the School of Geosciences, with additional funding from the National Science Foundation that enabled the team to collect sediment samples. In total, the survey will cost about $150,000.

“The types of data we are collecting includes multibeam bathymetry, which measures the topography of the sea floor, backscatter, which is like an acoustic photograph of the sea floor and helps us determine sediment types, and physical samples of the sediments,” Goff said.

Beth Christensen, an associate professor at Adelphi University, said she hopes information from the survey will be passed on to urban planners.

“There’s also a strong push for scientific communication in Long Island,” Christensen said. “We’ll be able to tell the planners whether the sand is present, whether it’s moved downstream in the offshore current and we’ll also have a feel for how the beach decays.”

Cassie Browne, graduate student in the School of Geosciences, is keeping an “unofficial record” of the cruise with a blog of the crew’s daily activities on the Institute of Geophysics’ website. She describes the importance of taking sediment samples in determining the effects of the storm. 

“These data on the storm are important because we, as a scientific community, do not understand how large storms affect things such as coastal resources or beaches, or plant and animal habitats offshore and in marsh area,” Browne said. “In order to protect and preserve our beautiful beaches for future generations, we must study how storms change them and figure out how to work with Mother Nature instead of against her.”

Norway-based energy company Statoil signed an agreement with UT to fund $5 million of research focusing on geology, geophysics and petroleum engineering over the next five years.

“It invests into our biggest asset, which is our students,” said Tad Patzek, chairman of the Cockrell School of Engineering’s Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department.

Patzek said the growing partnership with Statoil will provide students and researchers with better tools to conduct research and gather more precise data sets.

The agreement will also indirectly help students obtain jobs and internships, according to John Bird, spokesperson for the Geology Foundation at the Jackson School of Geosciences.

“It’s really great when we are able to partner with a company like Statoil. So if you are a student and you are working on a project with Statoil, you are going to come out with a greater chance of getting a job with Statoil,” Bird said.

This is Statoil’s largest research agreement with a university outside of Norway and its first in the U.S. Statoil plans to significantly increase their activities in North America, according to a statement by Bill Maloney, executive vice president for Statoil in North America.

“Universities and academic institutions in North America represent important arenas for Statoil in research and competence development, both on a regional and global level,” Maloney said in the statement.

UT is one of the world’s leading universities in energy research and is an attractive site for energy investment. Texas is the largest oil-producing state in the U.S. and is one of the largest producers of solar and wind energy.

Scott Tinker, director of the Jackson School of Geosciences’s Bureau of Economic Geology, said he hopes the partnership with Statoil will help UT’s program grow.

“[In three years,] UT wants to be the go-to place for any oil related issue and policy-making law,” Tinker said.

By the end of Statoil’s five year partnership, they hope to be No. 1, Tinker said.

“When people say ‘energy,’ they run to UT,” Tinker said. “We not only want name recognition, but also brand recognition worldwide.”

Printed on September 20, 2011 as: Norwegian oil firm to fund $5 million of energy research

With temperatures consistently hitting triple digits, Austin residents are dealing with record-breaking heat on a daily basis. The Daily Texan spoke with Rong Fu, a professor in the Jackson School of Geosciences, about climate change and its effect on UT.

The Daily Texan: What is climate change and what patterns are currently taking place?
Rong Fu:
Climate [refers to] patterns that usually average several decades and maybe even centuries. It’s supposed to be the climate we kind of expect. For local climate, we have seen overall warmer increases of temperatures in summer as well as in winter. We have seen rainfall patterns change, and in Texas, [observations] suggest in the recent decade we tended to have more extreme [conditions] either in terms of lots of rain or no rain.

DT: Is there an estimate of how long the drought we are experiencing may last?
Fu: We know what climate condition might end the drought. A
hurricane in this area could generate a large amount of rainfall and [would] likely end the drought. But the reason we don’t know a time, we do not know whether we’re going to get a hurricane this year.

DT: How does climate change impact UT students? Is there any health, social, economic risks?
Fu: Three-digit temperatures usually have a higher impact on the elderly, and UT students are young. You can still suffer heat exhaustion. If students do not pay special attention to such high temperatures, they could suffer from heat exhaustion. Also, public health studies suggest that under extreme temperatures if you have respiration problems, you’re more vulnerable healthwise. Besides health, you probably pay more on your electricity this year than normal.

DT: What risks does climate change pose for local plants and animals and the ecosystem?
Fu: Extreme temperature is hard on animals and usually extreme temperatures are associated with drought. Texas Park and wildlife agents already report that they see the increase in mortality for wildlife animals, especially the young, and they see low births rates for these wild animals. When streams are dried out, the marine life in the stream will be impacted. On plants, when temperature is beyond 100 degrees and many shade-tolerant plants are very vulnerable to high temperatures so they would be either weakened or dying.

DT: What sort of steps should Austin residents take to reduce these risks?
Fu: We could become more energy efficient, reduce our carbon footprint and also be smart about the urban planning — reduce public pavement, change the roofing. There are many things that we can do to reduce human forces.

DT: How important is it that programs or organizations be created that deal directly with effects of climate change?
Fu: It is very important. Right now, we don’t have a single silver bullet to combat climate change, and it’s really relying on individuals and corporations trying to reduce our carbon footprint as much as we can. We need all options on the plate. We need entire communities to work together to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases.

DT: Anything else you’d like to add?
Fu: The only hope we have to combat climate is our grassroots — everybody trying to do their part. No single organization or government could address these issues without the entire community on board. 

Printed on Friday, September 2, 2011 as: Professor discusses how climate change affects Texas drought.