I often get asked what I do. The first thing that pops into my head is ‘Well, I run a lot, I guess’. The next thing that pops into my head is ‘I could really go for some ice cream right now’, but the third thing that pops into my head is ‘No wait, I do something besides running’. So by that point I’ve spent so much time thinking that the asker is getting uncomfortable, and I blurt out, “I’m a student!”
I figured, since I just spent all week telling people what I do, I could write a little bit of it down while it was still fresh in my mind. Then, when people ask me, I can give them a little card that has this URL on it, and I won’t have to improvise the best combination of words and thoughts to explain what is really a very simple occupation.
To start, I am a student, currently enrolled in a Master’s of Geology program at the University of Buffalo. Master’s programs involve a mixture of classes and research, culminating in the defense and publication of a thesis, usually at the end of a two-year period.
To my pleasant surprise, people are usually pretty hip to the wide world of geology, but for the once-in-a-while person whose thoughts on geology are limited to ‘Well, that means you like rocks, right?’, or ‘Don’t you mean geography?’, geology is a study of earth processes. This covers everything from tectonics to ocean circulation to dinosaurs to climate change. I do like rocks, but I like satellite imagery more. I do like dinosaurs, but I like monogenetic scoria cones more.
What I study at UB is planetary geology, which is, broadly, the geology of anything that is not Earth. The moon, Mars, Venus, comets, asteroids, whatever the hell Pluto is – these things all fall under the purview of planetary geology.
The professor I work with at Buffalo, Tracy Gregg, is interested primarily in how volcanoes have shaped and reshaped planetary surfaces, so that’s what I look at. Believe it or not, traveling to study volcanoes on other planets is prohibitively expensive, so I spend a lot of my time poring over data sent back from NASA’s space missions.
My thesis project is focused on Martian volcanoes. While Mars was once volcanically active, it is now pretty much a dead planet. Geologists can still learn a lot about Mars’ history from the old, dormant volcanoes that remain, however. They can give insight into the thermal and chemical evolution of the planet, allowing us to predict how Earth will change on a cosmic timescale.
Mars houses the largest volcano in the solar system, at 600 kilometers across. By comparison, the ones I look at are around a hundred times smaller (for further comparison, volcanoes similar to mine on Earth are two hundred times smaller). They’re all up in the northern hemisphere, dotting the dusty, boring, low-lying plains of black basaltic sand, and they really have no business being there based on our understanding of Mars’ thermal evolution. There’s no obvious source of magma for these volcanoes, and they all are emplaced in rocks that formed long after the last volcanic eruption.
So what gives? There’s a lot to learn from these guys, but they need to be identified first. That’s where I come in. I use satellite imagery from a variety of NASA instruments to scan the surface, looking for these itty-bitty volcanoes. Sounds easy enough, but finding them can be a real challenge. For one thing, everything in the northern plains is covered by a relatively thick layer of iron-oxide dust (this is what makes Mars red), obscuring many geologic features that can be used to identify volcanoes. In addition, Mars’ surface is absolutely covered in impact craters. These impact craters can look very similar to the volcanoes I’m looking for, resulting in false positives or…true negatives? Whatever the opposite is.
To ensure what I’m looking at is volcanic, I use a two-step identification process. The first thing I do is look at the shape and size to see if, numerically, it lies within the size range for a Martian volcano. I do this using altimetry data from an instrument on Mars Global Surveyor. The diameter, height, and flank slope are all measured, and if the numbers line up, I move in for step two. Using higher-resolution visual imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance, I can tease out a lot of morphological features that indicate whether the target is volcanic in origin or not.
Once I’ve picked out a target, I add it to a cute little database and move on, hunting for other similar features. The database is designed to be a convenient informational resource for people interested in studying these features further, whether to support or debunk my interpretations. It contains geographic information, the basis for my classification, and I also make sure to save a couple images of the feature for a quick visual check. The primary goal of my research is to complete a circumpolar survey of the Martian northern plains and pick out every visible volcano to toss into the database.
To round out my actual thesis project, I’ll perform a clustering analysis to determine whether these volcanoes have a patterned distribution, or are simply randomly spaced out across the northern plains. This will give me a general idea of the shape and size of the source (or sources) of the magma. Is it a bunch of little magma chambers each erupting once? Or could it be one gargantuan fiery hellhole releasing shot after shot of liquid rock on to the surface? These statistics won’t be able to tell me for sure, but I’ll have a much better idea.
There are many other roads to be taken with this research, and the conclusion of my thesis project will certainly not close the book on these volcanoes, but hopefully it will provide a nice jumping off point for anybody else who is interested.
So that’s what I do, in a nutshell. I really do like talking about this stuff, even if it seems like I try to dodge the ‘what do you do’ question. If you have questions for me, I’d be happy to try and answer them. Sometimes I take a lot of the background information for granted and kind of assume everyone knows it, which is super dumb. Leave a comment, or get at me on Facebook, OR let’s go for a run sometime.
Thanks for reading my sheesh.