Geologist Looks to Earth’s Past for Hints of Earth’s Future

By Justine Hofherr
BU News Service

In his quest to understand earth’s history, Professor Sam Bowring has traveled to Siberia, Poland, India and China. He has been chased by a black bear for four hours through the Northwest Territories of Canada, eventually ridding himself of the beast by shooting a flare gun into its eye. He has stared into the eyes of a mountain lion all night long in the scrub brush desert of New Mexico, wielding only a small knife and hammer, eventually dozing off as his campfire cooled and awaking to the sound of the lion’s screams in the distance.

Bowring is, first and foremost, a geologist—and he has a mystery to solve.

The adventures the Indiana Jones of geology encounters, whether he’s gathering rocks in South Korea or geomapping in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, are a bonus.

“I’m interested in the origin and evolution of the Earth’s crust,” Bowring said, sitting at his office desk in MIT’s Green Building, the tallest building on the Cambridge, Mass., campus.

Bowring, with bright sapphire eyes and a thick gray beard, has a quiet, serious demeanor as he discusses his work. Behind him, three metal bookshelves span the length of the room. The shelves are full, and every single title is about geology.

“Work is my hobby,” Bowring said, pausing to adjust the collar of his gray button-down shirt. “I like being outdoors and hiking, but I think about science all the time.”

For the past 20 years, Bowring has spent every day of his life trying to understand precisely when–and why 252 million years ago, at the end of the Permian Period, 96 percent of earth’s life disappeared.

Bowring and his colleagues traveled to a set of hills in China where there are rocks from the late Permian, early Triassic period. These rocks contain layers of fossils that show the scientists when certain species went extinct. Not only are there fossils preserved in these rocks, but there is also volcanic ash.

It is a mineral—zircon—in the volcanic ash that proves most useful to Bowring.

Bowring separates zircon, a brownish translucent mineral, from the ash because it has a special property.

When zircon forms in the newly spewed ash, the element uranium fits into the crystal structure quite nicely, he said. But lead does not—it’s radiogenic, meaning, it’s produced by radioactive decay.

“So the day that crystal forms, you have a clock,” Bowring said. “That clock is based on the decay rate of uranium to lead. By measuring that ratio, we can calculate the age of that ash quite precisely.” Bowring smiles as he makes this point.

Bowring thinks that by narrowing the time frame of this mass extinction, he and his colleagues could shed light on what factors might have caused it, possibly exposing parallels between what the environment looked like then, and now.

“Studying this is interesting because this is the largest extinction that animal life has seen on this planet,” Bowring said. “As we push to shorter and shorter time scales, it starts to be relevant to our own existence on this planet and what we’re doing to it.”

Recently, Bowring and his colleagues had a breakthrough thanks to increased precision in measuring rocks—they published a report in January for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences definitively stating that the mass extinction took less than 60,000 years.

While 60,000 years might seem like an incredibly long time to humans, in geology, this is a blink of an eye and means the extinction took place much more rapidly than previously thought.

Bowring describes this knowledge as “sobering” because the scientists have found a clue—spikes in carbon dioxide—that correlates with this narrowed time frame.

“When you look at the fossil record, you see fossils begin to disappear based on physiology and their ability to deal with high CO2 emissions,” Bowring said.

Animals, the ones who “sat in the mud and filtered water,” were the first to go, he said. They just couldn’t handle the accelerated rate of CO2 emissions. The last animals to disappear from the fossil record were the more active organisms.

Another clue Bowring has noted is that right after the extinction, animals couldn’t precipitate shells made from calcium carbonate very easily.

“There’s a dearth of shells in the fossil record,” Bowring said.

A simple way to inhibit the precipitation of calcium carbonate is to drop the pH, or acidity, of seawater.

“Today, people are very concerned that the pH of sea water has dropped about a tenth because of high carbon emissions,” he said.

Though Bowring and other scientists have thus determined that the mass extinction correlates with high CO2 levels and low pH levels in the ocean, they still struggle to understand precisely what could have caused this.

They do know that mammoth volcanoes in Siberia called the Siberian Traps were burping lava around this time for about a million years, spewing between three and 10 million cubic kilometers of scorching lava over the earth. Between three to five million cubic kilometers is enough to put a kilometer of lava over entire the entire United States—so that’s a lot.

While volcanic eruptions, even minor ones, can be responsible for sharp spikes in CO2 emissions, Bowring is not satisfied placing blame solely on the Siberian Traps.

“Timing is crucial,” he said. “We know that the Siberian Traps overlap with the extinction, but their eruption took place over a million years. Why, then, did the extinction take only tens of thousands of years?”

This question continues to puzzle Bowring and other scientists—perhaps the extinction was the result of a combination of factors, and the eruption of the Siberian Traps pushed the majority of life’s adaptation capabilities over the edge. But the lack of certainty doesn’t mean they won’t stop trying to narrow the time frame for further clues.

After all, there are no “absolutes” in science, Bowring said.

“I suspect that in the next year we will make that time frame much smaller,” he said.

Regardless of finding the exact cause of the extinction, Bowring believes the raised levels of CO2 from the end of the Permian Period reflect Earth’s current state, but the levels have been rising at a much accelerated pace.

The driving force of climate change, the high emission of CO2 through the burning of fossil fuels, has taken a phenomenon that occurred over tens of thousands of years and has put it on a decadal time scale.

By the mid 21st century, the magnitudes of projected changes for global temperature shift will be substantially affected by the choice of emissions scenario, according to the 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The panel also noted that it is “extremely likely” (greater than 95 percent confidence) that most warming between 1951 and 2010 was human-caused.

This information is depressing, Bowring said, but what’s more depressing is that humans aren’t prepared to change their actions accordingly. Young people are taught that the only successful economies are ones that grow, and they grow at the expense of burning fossil fuels, a quick energy fix that is unsustainable.

This is largely because people only think about climate change on a very small time scale—“How can you expect people to make intelligent decisions about climate change when half the population thinks Earth is less than 10,000 years old?” he said.

In this vein, Bowring thinks a start to solving the problem involves better Earth science education at high schools and universities.

Many Earth science programs have been cut from course curriculum at public schools—even in Massachusetts, a state at the forefront of cutting-edge scientific research, he said.

Furthermore, taxpayers in 14 states will bankroll nearly $1 billion this year in tuition for private schools, many of which are religious and teach that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old, according to Politico.

While public schools cannot teach creationism or intelligent design, private schools receiving public subsidies can and still do. This is fundamentally at odds with students understanding the history of Earth’s environment, and therefore prevents them from understanding the challenges faced in our current environment, Bowring said.

“Anyone who will listen about geologic time and the importance of understanding evolutionary history and applying those lessons to the hard future, that’s really important,” Bowring said. “We don’t do enough of it.”

Bowring said when he thinks about his life’s accomplishments, he’s most proud of the students he has produced who are interested in solving similar problems. He can tick off the names of five students who are now teaching geochronology at various universities around the United States.

“Your scientific achievements—they are just flashes in the pan,” Bowring said. “You’ll get a newspaper article published, but 30 years from now, no one will remember that.”

Julia Baldwin, an assistant professor at the University of Montana, is a former student of Bowring. She took his geochemistry class and he encouraged her to get involved with geochronology research in Saskatchewan, a prairie province in Canada.

When you’re in the field with Bowring, Baldwin said in a phone interview, you collect ten times more rocks than any other day. He encourages students to pull out their giant rock hammers to hack away at rocks, filling their backpacks till they weigh 50 pounds, she said with a laugh.

“He’d say, ‘You might never see this rock again!’” Baldwin said in a phone interview. “He’s just so excited about everything you see.”

Besides his passion for science, she said she was struck by how committed he was to his students.

Completely devoted to undergraduate education, Bowring goes out of his way to lead field trips to Yellowstone National Park before classes start, Baldwin said. That’s how he gets students so excited about geology, she said—he actually gets them outdoors looking at it.

“He puts a lot of responsibility in students’ hands,” Baldwin said. “He first gives you the knowledge then says, ‘Go do great things with this.’ But he doesn’t take credit for it—he just doesn’t have an ego like that.”

Like Bowring, Baldwin also thinks a greater emphasis on earth science education needs to exist, from kindergarten to college.
Students need an understanding of deep time and what it means in order to evaluate the present day climate problems, Baldwin said.

“Students should make decisions with a ‘scientific citizen’ mindset, and be able to evaluate basic science and climate change within the context of geologic time,” she said. “The more they can come into contact with this knowledge, the better.”

Like Baldwin, Professor Ethan Baxter at Boston University said Bowring is a “remarkable” individual, imparting critical earth Science knowledge to his students.

Besides citing him as “the best zircon geochronologist in the world,” Baxter calls Bowring “a good doobie in general.”

Baxter is also a geochronologist, studying the formation of earth’s crust. Instead of zircon, however, Baxter uses garnets to date time.

Fingering a garnet that sits atop his office desk in the Stone science building on BU’s campus, Baxter explains the magic of unlocking the stories that each mineral holds about earth processes—processes related to the past and present.

“Anyone that studies earth history is always thinking about how can we take our information that we have from the past over those tens, to hundreds of thousands, to millions of years time scale, and then apply that to what’s happening today on the decadal time scale,” Baxter said.

Similar to Bowring’s findings in the Siberian Traps, Baxter has found evidence that links spurts of garnet growth around the world with ancient increases in CO2 emissions.

Though he acknowledges that there is still no “smoking gun” in relation to what caused the mass extinction in the Permian Period, Baxter said Bowring’s efforts to narrow the time frame have shown, increasingly, that there are great similarities between the environment then and now.

“Sam’s work with the methods they are using for zircon, he’s reached a resolution in time, which transcends everything we’ve ever dreamed of,” Baxter said.

But despite great leaps in scientific discovery, education lags behind, he said.

When you’re talking about pressing matters like climate change, resource depletion, water quality, sea level rise and the melting of the Arctic ice cap, Baxter said, you notice that comprehension starts with having a basic understanding of earth science.

“A lot of states don’t include it anymore,” Baxter said of earth science education. “It’s a real shame. I don’t think people have a disinterest—they have a lack of awareness.”

Carbon Day 2013

16 October 2013, Boston, MA - A sign thanking Boston Mayor Thomas Menino for passers-by to sign at the Carbon Day 2013 exhibition in Copley Square. Photo by XiaoZhi Lim
16 October 2013, Boston, MA – A sign thanking Boston Mayor Thomas Menino for passers-by to sign at the Carbon Day 2013 exhibition in Copley Square. Photo by XiaoZhi Lim

By XiaoZhi Lim
BU News Service

A treat for passers-by at Copley Square yesterday: Carbon Day 2013! Co-sponsored by Boston University Sustainable Neighborhood Lab and the City of Boston Greenovate, Carbon Day is a public exhibition event to promote awareness about carbon and educate the public about steps they can take to reduce their carbon footprint, according to organizer Linda Grosser from Boston University.

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Extended captions:

Advocates for Literacy in Environmental Sciences, Boston University

Andy Reinmann is a graduate student in biology at Boston University and a member of ALES, a student group at Boston University aimed at helping graduate students and scientists improve in communicating science. At Carbon Day 2013, the ALES booth was designed to allow members of the public try hands-on experiments to learn how various carbon measurements are obtained in scientific research.

Solar Personal Rapid Transit, South Shore Mobility

Solar Personal Rapid Transit is an ambitious plan for public transit to be personalized and sped-up. Here’s an example of Personal Rapid Transit in Heathrow Airport:

According to Judeth Van Hamm, President of South Shore Mobility, the biggest challenge is to increase public support for policy to “provide private service on public right of way.” Currently, private companies that are willing and able to help with financing the solar personal rapid transit project are not able to help because no such option exists in law.

The Great Methane Escape, Boston University

Margaret Hendrick and Bahare Sannie are graduate students in Earth and Environment at Boston University who worked on a project tracking natural gas leaks all over Boston. According to Hendrick, they found that some 38.8 million dollars a year’s worth of natural gas is leaking out of pipes in Boston and currently, providers like National Grid and NSTAR have no financial incentive to repair the pipes. Follow this link to hear the project’s principal investigator, Nathan Phillips, professor of Earth and Environment at Boston University and director of Sustainable Neighborhood Lab talk about the problem on NPR.

100 MPG Priuses, ConVerdant Vehicles

Randolph Bryan is an entrepreneur in a for-profit company, ConVerdant Vehicles, that specializes in refitting Toyota Priuses. ConVerdant’s services include installing a large battery in a Prius to up its efficiency to as much as 100 miles per gallon and installing an inverter in a Prius that would turn it into an emergency generator for homes. Especially after Hurricane Sandy, Bryan says that people have started to take notice of ConVerdant’s work.


350MA is a local group for, an organization working on building a social movement for climate change. Some of their current campaigns include Tar Sands Action against the Keystone XL Pipeline and anti-fracking No Gas Mass. 350MA is about 3000 people strong, one of the biggest 350 local groups. “We’re pretty progressive, but we can do better,” said Sophie Robinson.

At the end of Carbon Day

Julian Phillips, professor Nathan Phillips’ son, is one of 350MA’s youngest workers and their best recruiter, said Sophie Robinson.

Dung Beetles: the World’s Best Waste Management

Some species of dung beetle use their hind legs to roll balls of dung back to their homes. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Craig ONeal.
Some species of dung beetle use their hind legs to roll balls of dung back to their homes. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons user Craig ONeal.


By Poncie Rutsch
BU News Service

This just in, along with being some of the weirdest animals in the kingdom, dung beetles might just help reduce methane emissions on farms.

For those unfamiliar with the dung beetle, it is a group of insect species that eat, roll, and burrow in feces. Some species live and raise their children inside of big piles of poop. It sounds gross, except when you consider everywhere else that feces could be if it weren’t for these insects. Digesting the world’s poop by dung beetle doesn’t sound so bad.

Part of moving fecal matter around is that it helps the nutrients inside decompose – and decompose faster than they would without help. Scientists have known this for a while. In the tropics, for example, dung beetles can get rid of a cow pie in as little as 24 hours.

Now, one team of scientists is saying that dung beetles also reduce the amount of methane that dung emits as it decomposes. Generally, as any organic material decomposes, it releases a number of gases, methane included. Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases; a pound of methane in the atmosphere could have hundreds of times the impact as a pound of carbon dioxide.

But by aerating organic material, a different decomposition reaction takes place. This is why people who compost their food or yard scraps physically stir or turn their compost. In the presence of oxygen, the material reduces less methane.

Eleanor Slade supposed that dung beetles could be reducing the methane that comes from farms – specifically from livestock farms. She enclosed cow pies (she calls them dung pats, must be a British thing) in small chambers to keep dung beetles in or out. She then collected a small amount of gas from each chamber, and used a chromatograph to see what kinds of gases came off of dung pats as they decomposed.

She and her colleagues found that with dung beetles present, the cow pies released about a third less methane than they would without any insect help.

Unfortunately, cow dung isn’t the only source of greenhouse gases on a farm; nor do all farmers keep cows. Slade suspects that overall, adding dung beetles to a farm would reduce the greenhouse emissions from agriculture by about 3%.

People like to argue about how much agriculture contributes to climate change. Depending on the country, agriculture could make up 20% to over half of a country’s emissions. But here’s the thing – adding dung beetles would be easy. Cutting 3% off of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions would make a huge difference worldwide.

These cows would like some dung beetles, please and thank you. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons User Emmett Tullos
These cows would like some dung beetles, please and thank you. Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons User Emmett Tullos

There are about seven thousand different species of dung beetle. They exist on every continent except Antarctica, so introducing species to local farms wouldn’t be so hard. If you’re a farmer, all you have to do is call your local dung beetle breeder.

One gross postscript though – if the dung is too runny, the dung beetles won’t burrow in it. And according to Slade, this is a legitimate problem. Cows eating over-fertilized grass tend to produce runny dung…and a lot of farmers over-fertilize.

Looks like we’ll still need an overhaul of the farming system after all.

VIDEO: Brookline Ban

BOSTON – No more Styrofoam coffee cups or containers, starting next year in Brookline.

Aubrey Jackson reports that residents attending Town Meeting banned the plastic foam, due to environmental concerns.