Field conference helps write the book on Pennsylvania geology

Geologists tour the Susquehanna Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory near Shaver's Creek Environmental Center in October as part of the 82nd annual Field Conference of Pennsylvania Geologists. More than 200 geologists participated in several days of field trips around Centre County.    Credit: Matt Carroll / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — If Duff Gold set out to write the history of Pennsylvania geology, he’d have a pretty good idea where to start.

Gold, emeritus professor of geosciences at Penn State, said the story can be found in the pages of guidebooks published each year as part of the annual Field Conference of Pennsylvania Geologists.

“If someone was commissioned to write the history of Pennsylvania geology, 90 percent would come out from what’s in those guidebooks,” Gold said.

Penn State researchers got the chance to help write the most recent chapter of that history when the 82nd annual conference came to the area in October.

More than 200 professional geologists and students from across Pennsylvania and neighboring states attended several days of field trips and discussions on and around campus.

It’s the first time in more than 30 years that Penn State has hosted the conference, which is organized by the Pennsylvania Geological Survey. Juniata College co-hosted the event with Penn State.

Much has changed since the conference was last at Penn State in 1985, including the Marcellus Shale gas boom and the Skytop Mountain road construction project, which led to acid rock drainage issues.

These topics and new initiatives and research projects at Penn State were among the focal points of the 2017 conference. Researchers led field trips to the Penn State living filter and arboretum and to the Susquehanna Shale Hills Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) near Shaver's Creek Environmental Center, among other locations.

“We looked at this as a mini-symposium, a chance to put all this information into one publication,” said Gold, who was instrumental in securing the return of the conference to Penn State and in planning the event. “It’s the most up-to-date rendition of geology of the area.”

As the conference travels to a different location each year, new research is highlighted and recorded in the guidebooks published by the Pennsylvania Geological Survey. Those books become an important record of geology research over time.

Kristen Hand, vice chair of the conference and a senior geologic scientist at the Pennsylvania Geological Survey said the event is also important in helping professionals reconnect with their roots.

“As geologists, we often find ourselves strapped to our desks and we don’t get a chance to reconnect with our science in all its aspects,” Hand said. “And if we don’t stay fresh with the new science or developing theories, we can get behind. It’s imperative we stay on developing theories, new research and new developments across the state.”

Gold said one such project is the Shale Hills CZO, part of a National Science Foundation-funded network examining the thin outer layer of Earth that supports all human life. There, cross-disciplinary researchers study everything from the highest vegetation to the deepest underground fresh water, and almost anything in between.

“This Shale Hills observatory is something that’s the new face of geology,” Gold said. “In 10, 20 years when textbooks are written, the stuff being done here will be included. To me, it’s a flagship.”

Roman DiBiase, an assistant professor of geosciences and associate in the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, helped lead the field trip to the CZO. He said researchers tried to showcase the interdisciplinary work happening there.

"The things we talked about ranged from short-term time scale issues like measuring CO2 fluxes from soils to thinking about how the landscape in Pennsylvania has changed over hundreds of thousands of years,” DiBiase said.

Ryan Mathur, a professor of geology at Juniata College, led another field trip to Huntingdon County where participants looked at road cuts exposing Marcellus Shale rock.

“The conference gives a lot of chances for good interactions across disciplines,” Mathur said. “It’s a good thing we have this conference to bring them all together.”

Attendees include college faculty and students and professionals in industry — from environmental consultants to oil and gas professionals to geochemists.

Hand said the conference gives people who might not otherwise interact the chance to talk about their work and make connections for future research.

“The cross pollination of disciplines helps with creative new ideas with developing concepts for research,” she said. “I’ve seen many a new research project come out of field conference conversations.”

Last Updated October 31, 2017