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CSULB’s Behl Digging Deep into Geological History

Published: January 15, 2009

Rick Behl
Photo courtesy of Rick Behl
Pictured (l-r) are Rick Behl, Juergen Thurow of University College London, and CSULB student Sara Afshar work on a sediment core from the Santa Barbara Channel.

Ancient sediments buried deep under the ocean floor hold clues to the earth’s climatic and geological history, but usually are too far down for scientists to easily reach. Fortunately, nature has cooperated in the Santa Barbara Channel by uplifting formerly deep sediments to the sea floor through earthquake and tectonic activity.

Geological Sciences Professor Rick Behl has a keen interest in learning what information these sediments hold and spent part of the fall semester traveling to Europe, then out to the deep sea to find the best way to uncover these secrets.

“At the beginning of the semester, I traveled to Potsdam, Germany, as an invited participant in international workshop of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program and the International Continental Drilling Program. The goal of the conference was to develop strategies for obtaining ultra high-resolution paleoclimate records from the earth. Paleoclimatology and paleooceanography are the building blocks of how we understand how the Earth changes and responds to stress,” he said.

“We need to know is what has actually happened in the past. How fast can climate change actually occur? What triggers it? What are the effects? What feedbacks might occur that make things worse or amplify a change? We get all of that from studying the past. The information we gather allows Earth scientists to test climate models that are developed to predict the future by seeing whether we can simulate something we that know actually happened in the past.”

Behl was invited to the German conference because “One of the projects that I’m involved in is a multi-year process of proposing plans for the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) to bring one of its large drill vessels, the JOIDES (Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling) Resolution or the Japanese Chikyu, into the Santa Barbara Channel to extend the work that we’ve done there much farther back in time.” IODP is a major international oceanographic research consortium.

“This is big science,” Behl noted. “It involves many millions of dollars, hundreds of people, dozens of nations.” He and colleagues from UC Santa Barbara and UC Davis have undertaken two exploratory expeditions and obtained several National Science Foundation grants “to prove that this strategy would actually work,” he said. As a result, he said the IODP has favorably ranked their proposal and has moved it toward scheduling sometime in the next several years. He said that in tight financial times for funding the international science projects, IODP is “ranking proposals not by just the quality of the science but what they think the impact will be. Our proposal has been very highly ranked because they think it could quickly have tremendous impact on the scientific community and visibility to the general public.”

One of those exploratory cruises took place recently aboard the RV Melville, a 278-foot research ship operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. “We sailed from San Diego with 33 scientists, students and technicians for a 12-day cruise in November,” Behl explained. “I took five grad students with me—four of them are mine and another one is going to be working on a project that I will be helping with. We joined science students and professors from UC Santa Barbara; UC Davis; Stanford; Scripps Institution of Oceanography; Indiana; Michigan; University College London – where I’ll be doing part of my upcoming sabbatical; the U.S. Geological Survey and some people from private industry.”

The expedition gathered seismic reflection data that enabled them to observe structures and strata deep beneath the seafloor, as well extracted sediment cores that will undergo further analysis. Those cores contain chemical compounds as well as the fossils of microscopic plants and animals that can yield information about how the climate and oceans changed over the course of hundreds of thousands of years.

“All of my grad students are working on different aspects of this work,” Behl said. “One student is studying the history of really large torrential downpour and flood events in the Southern California coast. Another student is studying how the carbon cycle and the ocean system responded to really rapid climate change. Another student is studying the deep crustal stratigraphy and deformation—the history of tectonics and sedimentation in the Santa Barbara Channel. Finally, another one is studying how the sediments respond to climate change and change their physical properties in ways that we can actually image with the seismic data.”

“We gathered fantastic seismic data,” he continued. “We got a lot of really excellent cores that pushed our record back to about 800,000 to 850,000 years from the present. We ran into some trouble in trying to get cores that were over a million years old,” because those sediments are harder to penetrate. The IODP’s larger drilling vessel would enable them to extract cores of up to one-half mile long from older sediments.

Behl will be on sabbatical during spring and summer 2009, spending the first two months working with Professor Juergen Thurow at University College London. “In England, I’ll be learning how to apply new non-destructive analytical techniques to study the geochemical cycles in the sediments. This kind of analyses are important because what ultimately controls climate and ocean conditions are the cycling of important nutrients and chemistry from land into the ocean, into the sediments and back up into the ocean, and so on. So, by studying different fluxes of chemical elements that are critical to life, we can understand how the climate and earth and life interact with each other.”

He’ll spend the remainder of the semester at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, in the lab of Karl Föllmi, an internationally renowned expert on phosphatic rocks and the phosphorus cycle.

Behl, Föllmi and two of their graduate students will begin working on a joint project relating to Southern California. “There is a little-studied but important deposit that marks the onset of Miocene rifting and formation of the Los Angeles Basin. Back about 15 million years ago, this area got torn apart and it started to settle,” Behl said. “There is a widespread phosphatic deposit that the oil companies are interested in, but people have not really studied in the past. It’s directly underneath us in the Long Beach and Wilmington oil fields,” and skirts northward along coastal lands into the Santa Monica Mountains.

“These kinds of deposits have unique chemical compositions that are important economically, but they’re also important in understanding the history of climate and ocean and tectonics,” he continued. “For instance, in order to have a deposit like this, you need to have a fertile ocean above it with lots of plankton and nutrients, but you also need a very slow sedimentation rate. The fact that this is such a widespread deposit tells us that it played a pretty significant role in the geologic events that formed Southern California.”

Oil companies are also interested in the deposit. “It’s one of the important sources of oil for the Los Angeles Basin. The L.A. Basin is the single most productive petroleum-producing area in the world per square foot. It’s a part of the answer to the question of why that is,” he said. “Understanding these phosphatic rocks is both of purely academic interest and of applied value to the oil industry.”

Behl is proud of his department’s growing reputation. “The study of paleoclimatology and paleooceanography is a really cutting-edge field and we’re developing some notable strengths in that here at Long Beach. My colleague, Lora Stevens, is a paleoclimatologist who works on lake sediments. Together, the kinds of work that we do help us put together a global picture because of the different stories they tell. With some of the new analytical capabilities that we’ve developed through IIRMES (Institute for Integrated Research in Materials, Environments and Society) and in the Department of Geological Sciences, we’re able to do really detailed and cutting-edge analyses.”

He said that other universities are coming to CSULB for expertise and analytical laboratory services, as well as for students. “For instance, not only am I supporting all of my grad students on NSF grants that are largely collaborative with these other institutes, colleagues are even saying, ‘We have a grant and we need to get this work to be done, but we don’t have qualified grad students here at UC Santa Barbara who are not taken or who want to work on this. Do you have anyone with interest and aptitude for this kind of research?’ They’ve been so happy with my students that we have another grad student who is going to be doing a project with Dan Francis in our department as his (master’s) committee chair, but his other main committee members are going to be two UC Santa Barbara researchers and it’s going to be their grant that will be paying his salary and expenses. This kind of reputation of our students broadens CSULB’s visibility as well as the students’ connections and future opportunities.”