Friday, July 27, 2012

The 1st Geolympiad

There have been lots of post in the science blogosphere about all of the interesting scientific aspects of the London games. Thus, on the eve of the Opening Ceremonies I have decided to hop on the Olympic bandwagon as well and write my own Olympic themed post.

Google Images

Imagine a world that was inhabited only by geologists. Not what I would call a pretty sight necessarily, however that is the only conceivable place that such an event as the following Geolympiad could occur. The overall ideals of the Olympics remain the same as the ones we all know and love. Although, I imagine there would be more beer around than there is in the athletes village...and maybe equal amounts of debauchery from what I've heard about the athletes village.

Here is what I think the games of the 1st Geolympiad would look like if they incorporated a geology theme into all of the events.


Mineral Identification: Pretty self explanatory. Fastest identification of 50 minerals. Points deducted for incorrect answers. Points added for chemical formulas.

?????? (Canadian Museum of Nature)

Fossil Identification: Same deal as the mineral ID. Fastest wins. Must be identified to genus and species level. 

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Rock Identification: Again, fastest wins. 

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Mapping: Each competitor is given an area to map. There are medals for the fastest map to have all the basic criteria as well as for the most detailed and accurate map when compared to an already drawn map of the area by the judges. 

Rock hammer throw:  You all know that you have tried this event out in the seclusion of the woods, or competed with friends on one of the those down moments in the field. This event just adds a competitive edge to what is already a sport. I envision three main events: hammer throw for distance, accuracy and at skeet. Just imagine lining up with your hammer in its holster, yelling pull, and then whipping it out and taking out a clay pigeon in a cloud of shrapnel as it whizzes past. Sounds like fun to me!

Track events: The track events would be basically the same as the track events of the real Olympics but with one major caveat: all the competitors must be wearing full field kit and carrying a backpack full of samples. This means boots, vest, hammer, hand lens...the whole deal. I'd like to see Usain Bolt do the 100m with 30kg of rock on his back! He would still destroy everyone, but it would be fun to watch.

Navigation/orienteering: This is kind of already a sport, but it has yet to be included in the Olympics and it  would definitely appeal to geologists. Drop the the competitors off with nothing but a compass, map and their rock hammer and see how long it takes for them to get home. However, if this was done in a geologically interesting area they may never make it having banded together to take samples and characterize the geology.

River crossing: Take the competitors to a large river and make them get across without losing their samples. Sounds many would try and swim weighted down by all those rocks? This is a test of field smarts since this can be necessary in the pursuit of field work. 

Hammer fighting: Not too sure about how this would go down. I could see it getting a bit ugly. However, the regular Olympics have a lot of combat sports so the Geolympics need some fighting too!

(Photo: Matt Herod)
Rock breaking: I realise that this does not sound like much of an event, however it takes real skill to trim a rock in the field. For example, if you are out collecting and find something in a boulder it has to be removed and trimmed to make it possible to carry out. The way I see this event unfolding is that each competitor is given a boulder containing a sample they need to extract. Points for fastest and best job, points deducted for damaging the sample. 

Lava bomb deadlift: This is a pretty obvious one. It is pretty much weightlifting with large rocks. Maybe some throwing too?
Raaagghhh (

Pebble skipping: This one is for fans and Olympians alike!! Medals awarded for distance and most skips. 

The DODECATHALON: All of the above!!!!!!!!!!!! Dodeca is 12 in Greek. 

So there you have the events of the 1st Geolympiad. Might be fun to put it on sometime?? I think I can see the IOC getting in on the fun provided we ensure that there are no doping violations or occurrences of hammer weighting.

Please feel free to suggest any events that you would like to see added to the Geolympics! Also, I have intentionally left the three pictures above un-identified so if you would like to qualify for the inaugural Geolympiad post the answers below.

Enjoy the games!!!


Field Work Tips

Preparing for field work marks a special time of year to the geologist. It heralds the upcoming field season/trip and the culmination of months or weeks of preparation. In fact, the trip itself is the least important part of field work. The work and preparation leading up is what makes a field trip go great or go horribly wrong. If you prepare carefully and meticulously for the field it has a much better chance of being successful. However, if you wait until the last minute to prepare, or fail to anticipate possible problems...well, the results will speak for themselves. I am in the midst of planning my field work for this summer. I leave in 2 days for Whitehorse, Yukon. It is a short trip this year, but that just makes it more integral that no time is wasted so everything gets done, and done right!

Clearly Charlie Brown and the gang did not prepare for this rainstorm....(Peanuts by Charles Schulz)(
I think the first tenet of field work that every geologist, biologist, oceanographer, etc. has to accept is that there is no such thing as a perfect field trip/season. Something will always go wrong! I know that this seems pessimistic, but my experience over the years is that something will always mess up. It doesn't matter if it is a large or a small thing, it will happen, and the only thing anyone can do is to try to anticipate these problems and come up with some solutions for them in advance. Of course, despite all of the planning you do something you did not account for will happen to throw a wrench in things so it is important to realize that you will be improvising solutions as the trip progresses. Things like weather or occurrences that are just out of your control, such as a closed ferry, cannot be prepared for. The only solution for acts of random deities is to just roll with the punches and take advantage of the times when things are going well. Finally, each field area is different and will present different challenges. Try and learn as much as you can about the area you are going in advance and plan based on that knowledge. 

My field area for this summer. All of my sample sites have been mapped and added into a GPS as well as all possible trails within the watershed. Hopefully this will make getting around and sampling much easier. 
The second tenet of field work is: you can only learn how to prepare by making mistakes or watching others.   It is sad, but true. We have all made mistakes in our preparations such as not accounting for something going wrong or forgetting an important piece of equipment. The only thing one can do is try not to repeat the mistake or the mistakes others make around you. We are all learning as we go so it is just faster to try and learn from each other. For example, one of my more costly mistakes was taking the lab pH electrode into the field. Lab pH electrodes are not hardy, durable items. They are precise, but they are not made to stand up to the rigours of field work. Unsurprisingly, the lab pH electrode broke. Luckily, we had planned ahead and had a back-up, but this mistake was easily preventable and we wasted a lot of money, since this item was worth over 300 dollars. I now know the difference between these pieces of equipment and will never make this mistake again! 

Oops! Notice the cracks and chips along the bottom. (Photo: Ian Clark)
So far I have spouted lots of doom and gloom and it is easy to get discouraged and adopt a bad attitude towards field work, especially when things go badly. Obviously this is the last thing you should do since the only way to solve problems is to remain clear headed and positive. This leads me to my third and final tenet of field work: have fun. Field work is fun, so enjoy it. Getting outside and going cool places in order to further scientific knowledge is a pretty rare opportunity that very few people get to experience, so don't waste it by getting depressed. The only way to be successful at field work and rise above its trials, learn from them and enjoy being out there!

Me enjoying some permafrost drilling by a retrogressive thaw slump in Fort McPherson, NWT.  (Photo: Laura Malone)
Have a safe and happy field season. I know I will!!


Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Accretionary Wedge #48 - Atomic Geology

This month the Accretionary Wedge is being hosted by Charles Carrigan at Earth-like Planet. It is the 48th edition of AW and the topic is "Geoscience and Technology". The technology used by geoscientists has matured over the centuries. It began simply, with compasses, maps, sketchpads and pencils. However, now it has entered into a digital world in which geology is practised with satellites, lasers and instruments with all sorts of fancy sounding acronyms such as ICP-MS, LA-ICP-MS, , IRMS, SEM, TIMS, SHRIMP and a host of others. The use of the simple tools is not forgotten, and is still taught to every geology undergrad, however, at the last conference I went to people spoke a lot more about the odd acronyms above than the latest compass advances.

As much I enjoy getting out in the field with my compass, most of my work involves using machines with funny acronyms. The coolest of these machines, in my opinion is the accelerator mass spectrometer or AMS.

What is an AMS?

This is part of the 3 million volt accelerator mass spectrometer at the University of Toronto IsoTrace lab. I analyse my samples on this machine. (Photo: Matt Herod)
I like to think of an AMS as a mass spectrometer on steroids. Most mass specs these days can fit on a table. However, AMS is the beast of the class coming in at about 25m long and requiring a large room outfitted with at least a 10 tonne lift built into the ceiling. The smallest AMS that I have ever seen fits into a room about 15m x 15m, most are much larger.

A typical mass spectrometer. This is one of the newer models of Agilent ICP-MS's. Computer and keyboard for scale. (

For anyone not familar with mass spectrometry the principle is relatively straight forward. The sample is placed into the machine and is ionized. The charged atoms are then acceleration from the ion source and bent by a magnet. Once they have been deflected by the magnet they enter a detector where it is counted and then translated into usable data. The key part of mass spectrometry is the deflection of the ion by the magnet.  The deflection of the particles is based on the mass difference between isotopes of the elements in question. For example, if I want to analyze a water sample for oxygen isotopes I would have to deal with three main isotopes of oxygen: oxygen-18, oxygen-17 and oxygen 16, named thus because that is how much they all weigh. This weight difference is caused by differing numbers of neutrons in the nucleus of each oxygen isotope. e.g. 18O has one more neutron than 17O. This weight difference is what causes the deflection by the magnet as the ion flies by. Oxygen 18 is heaviest so it gets bent the least whereas oxygen 16 is lightest so it gets bent the most. We then set up a detector and can detect how much of each isotope there is. 

Basic mass spectrometry diagram illustrating the principle of mass separation by an electromagnet. (

In principle AMS is very similar to this although it has a few more steps...

The first part of an AMS machine, as with any mass spec is the ion source. The sample is prepared in the lab and then the "target" is loaded into the ion source. AMS systems use a cesium ion source that is essentially a large gun that fires cesium ions at the target. Some of these cesium ions collide with the target, knock atoms of the sample off and ionize them. The ionized sample ions then fly out of the ion source and are then bent by an electromagnet. This removes some unwanted atoms. The ions are then enter the high voltage particle accelerator which contains a tube full of gas that pulls electrons off the ions and breaks apart molecules that could interfere with the detection. The, now positively charge ions, leave the accelerator and are then bent by another magnet into the high sensitivity detectors.

Schematic of the AMS machine at IsoTrace in Toronto. This diagram is representative of all AMS systems. (

The sample holder where the targets go.  (Photo: M. Herod)

The 3 million volt accelerator with the stripper canal inside. The flight tube is entering on the left and is all negatively charged.  (Photo: M. Herod)

Flight tube coming out of the accelerator. Everything is positively charged on this side.  (Photo: M. Herod)

Ion source  (Photo: M. Herod)

Flight tube with the rare isotope detector at the end. (Photo: M. Herod)
What is it used for?

AMS has a wide variety of applications in many fields of science. The primary one is the measurement of carbon-14, which is usually used for carbon dating. However, AMS has a wide variety of applications making it an extremely useful instrument in the geologist's arsenal. Up until recently most AMS machines were located in university physics departments and were used almost exclusively for particle physics research. Recently most physicists have lost interest in AMS's and the machines are starting to end up in geology departments around the world. This is opening new doors in applied AMS research and is turning decades old technology into a cutting edge field.

The reason that AMS is different and useful when so many other smaller, and cheaper mass spectrometry systems exist (a new AMS is ~7-8 million dollars) is that it allows for the analysis of rare isotopes that other systems cannot detect due to interferences from other elements. It also allows us to measure much smaller quantities than any other method and allows for the analysis of radioisotopes that cannot be detected using other methods such as decay counting.

Some of the major isotopes that most AMS machines around the world analyse for are: carbon-14, beryllium-10, aluminum-26, chlorine-36, calcium-41, iodine-129 and isotopes of uranium and plutonium. I'll talk about the uses of some of the major ones.

Beryllium-10 and aluminum-26 are isotopes that are used in the field of exposure age dating. Basically, when cosmic rays interact with the mineral quartz they produce 10Be and 26Al. The amount of each isotope and the amount of its radioactive decay products can tell us how long a rock has been exposed at the surface of the Earth. This is useful for estimating erosion rates, dating glacial events, dating landslides, and other stuff like that.

Carbon-14, the dating isotope. Everyone has heard about 14C dating. Basically anything on Earth that contains carbon has some radioactive carbon-14 as well. This means that we can date anything that contains carbon, but only if it less than 50,000 years. However, that encompasses almost all of human history so a lot of really interesting things can be dated this way. Everything from ancient trees and bones to picture frames and historical artifacts can all be dated with 14C. One way to measure 14C is decay counting in which the beta particles coming off the sample are counted and then dated, however, AMS provides a much faster and more sensitive way to detect 14C. This has made it the method of choice for anyone doing carbon dating.

Iodine-129, I could write a whole thesis about this one...oh wait. I'll just give the highlights. 129I has a long half life and is produced naturally and by human nuclear activities. Nuclear fuel reprocessing and nuclear bomb testing are the two major sources, but nuclear accidents such as Fukushima, Tomsk-7, etc. have contributed lots to the environment. The reason that we/I study is that understanding its movement in the environment is crucial for the future storage of nuclear waste. Therefore, we need to establish current levels, determine how it travels, and where it comes from. Also, as an emerging contaminant it is not a health risk yet, however, if concentrations continue to increase it could become worth regulating. AMS is the only way to analyse for 129I reliably at the moment.

Finally, the newest advances in applied AMS detection are to analyse for uranium and plutonium isotopes. These are such heavy and rare elements that it has always been problematic to analyse for them. However, new techniques are making it possible to detect Pu and U. This has applications in the burgeoning field of nuclear forensics. Basically, say a terrorist organization were to get its hands on some enriched uranium. It is very difficult to tell where the got it from, however, if the isotopic signature of the material can be ascertained it makes it much easier for investigators to determine where it came from.

To sum up I have explained only one small part of the rapidly growing intersection between geology and technology, however, I hope that you now have more of an appreciation for AMS technology and the powerful tool that it can be to solve real world problems. If you have any questions or comments please add them below.

Thanks for reading,



Ragnar Hellborg and Goran Skog (2008). Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Mass Spectrometry Reviews (27), 398-427 DOI: 10.1002/mas.20172

IsoTrace Laboratory:


Friday, July 6, 2012

GIS Pics

Sometimes I attempt to use ArcMap 10 to do some mapping. Right now I am trying to make maps of my field area for use later this summer. I am also trying to make hydrological maps of the area as well.

Unfortunately, I am a GIS idiot and most of my attempts end in disaster. However, the silver lining to this is that some of them actually look pretty cool, especially when I change the colour scheme from black and white to other colours. Therefore, I have decided to share a few of the more interesting look outputs...this is mainly so I can feel better about wasting hours of my day waiting for commands to execute that produce what amounts to statistical gibberish in picture form.

This is what happens when you try and make a raster out of topographic data. Pretty, but from what I can tell totally meaningless.

This is a digital elevation model of the Yukon (90m resolution). This is not actually garbage and is useful to me for a bunch of reasons that I am still trying to figure out. 

This is what happens when you enter your DEM into a command and have no idea what it is going to produce. 

A zoomed in view of the above picture. The area in the the grey box is my field area this summer and Whitehorse is somewhere in the top left.
This looks like a scary tree. It is actually drainage into the Pacific Ocean from the northwest corner of BC.