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Geoscience Department News: October 2010

Up-to-date news from the Geoscience Department! If you have any news you would like us to share, just e-mail it to and we will get it up. Check back often (or subscribe to our RSS feed!) for updates.

Coles Joins Education Committee of American Astronomical Society

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Dr. Ken Coles, Department of Geoscience, has recently joined astronomers and professionals from the American Astronomical Society (AAS) to lead a newly organized outreach and education program.

The Division of Planetary Sciences of the AAS has organized a new effort in education and public outreach. Activities will include providing resources for astronomers visiting school classrooms, developing a clearinghouse of information on graduate education in astronomy, and coordinating activities to support the NASA Year of the Solar System program.

Students, Coles visit Pennsylvania Telescopes

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Dr. Ken Coles, Department of Geoscience, and students from the Planetary Geology course recently visited two astronomical observatories near Pittsburgh.

Students from the Planetary Geology course (GEOS 341) visited the Wagman Observatory near Russellton and the Mingo Park Observatory near Finleyville in September 2010. Students in this class are majors in Earth and Space Science Education and/or other science majors.

The observatories, operated by the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh, contain telescopes ranging from a 24-inch research-grade reflector to a historic 11-inch refractor originally commissioned by Andrew Carnegie.

The students enjoyed views of Jupiter, the Moon, galaxies, and other deep space objects as part of their coursework.

Geoscience Seminar on Biological Diversity

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Dr. Matthew Powell, Juniata College, will be speaking at the weekly Geoscience Seminar over the lunch hour on October 15, 2010, on his research into biological diversity throughout Earth's history. All seminars are in Walsh 104 from 12:15 to 1:15 p.m.

Powell’s talk is entitled “The Peak of the Latitudinal Diversity Gradient in Living and Fossil Marine Biotas.”


The latitudinal diversity gradient is the fundamental spatial distribution of living species, and, although data are somewhat limited, a gradient seems to have been present continuously throughout the Phanerozoic Eon as well. Data for several higher taxa, including brachiopods, bivalves, crinoids, and corals, show that peak diversity tracked the region of greatest continental shelf area as it shifted through time. This may indicate either that the present-day gradient, which is commonly assumed to peak at the equator, is an ephemeral feature of the biota that does not represent normative diversity dynamics, or it may indicate a substantial geographic bias in the fossil data.

We find that peak biodiversity of living organisms currently occurs between 10-20°N, even after correcting for a Northern hemisphere sampling bias. Moreover, this peak position is a global phenomenon: it is found across habitats, higher taxa, ecological groups, and evolutionary faunas and within all sampled ocean basins and on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

These results, first, suggest that the fossil record is not geographically biased, and, second, indicate that the position of peak marine diversity at 10-20°N should be considered a fundamental feature of the present-day latitudinal diversity gradient and factor into hypotheses of the gradient's origin.

Taylor Discusses Cambrian-Ordovician Carbonates with Pa. Geologists

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John Taylor, Department of Geoscience, was among ten speakers invited to present at a preconference symposium held in conjunction with the seventy-fifth annual Field Conference of Pennsylvania Geologists in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His talk, “Cambrian-Ordovician Carbonates of the Central Appalachian Piedmont,” provided an update on advances over the past twenty years in knowledge of limestones deposited in this region during the Cambrian Period, roughly 500 million years ago.

More than 200 geologists attended the symposium on September 23. “Tectonics of the Susquehanna Piedmont” set the stage for the two-day field conference that followed on September 24–25, where participants visited numerous natural rock exposures and several quarries in southeastern Pennsylvania. The geologists were taken to these locations as they provided data that resulted in dramatic revisions to depositional and tectonic models for Cambrian rocks in this part of the Appalachians.

Taylor's presentation focused on improved time-control (age-dating) and refined correlations of limestones in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Newfoundland made possible by recovery of fossil assemblages from these areas.

Attendees of the symposium and field conference earned 75 percent of the continuing education credits required for renewal of their professional geologist certifications by Fall 2011. More importantly, they left with greater insight regarding the areal distribution of specific packages of limestone of considerable importance either as a valuable resource for recovery, or as problematic units prone to the development of sinkholes.

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