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NSF grant takes geologists to Mongolia

Karl Wegmann ’08 Ph.D., coordinator of the NSF-funded project in Mongolia, studies his field notes inside a ger, a felt-lined tent common in nomadic areas of Mongolia.

Scientists from the department of earth and environmental sciences have received a $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a multidisciplinary research project in Mongolia.

Anne Meltzer, Peter Zeitler and Dork Sahagian, professors in the department, and Bruce Idleman, a senior research scientist, will join researchers from Stanford University, North Carolina State University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, the Mongolian University of Science and Technology, and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences in the five-year project.

The researchers will address high topography and how it is formed. The project is an evolution of the work Lehigh scientists have conducted in Tibet and Pakistan, but the topography in Mongolia offers a new direction for their research.

“We’ve moved from regions of active mountain building or plateau formation associated with continental collisions, to a continental interior,” says Meltzer, who is also dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “There are a lot of regions in the world where, in the interior of continents, you have high topography and it’s not known why.”

Broad plateaus and their influence on global climate

Mongolia presents an interesting study in high topography. The country has broad plateaus that are enigmatic as to why they exist. The topography of Mongolia can dictate where storms form in the Northern Hemisphere, and there’s a growing recognition that high plateaus are important features influencing global climate. Volcanic rocks dating from 30 million years ago to 5,000 years ago can offer information on the earth’s mantle and reveal the timing of events that shaped changes in topography. Even the genetics of a subspecies of fish in the region can provide clues to the timing of the uplifts.

“These types of areas are really interesting because they help us understand how the planet works,” says Zeitler. “The work we do is fundamentally basic research.”

“Understanding surface processes provides insights into not only how the earth works, but how life has adapted to living on the earth,” says Meltzer.

The team will combine methodologies and approaches from seismology, geochronology, geomorphology, geochemistry, and genetics.

Meltzer, a seismologist, will deploy 65 instruments to record earthquakes at stations across a broad area of the country. Recording earthquakes will help the team gain a better understanding of earthquake hazards in Mongolia.

As geochronologists, Zeitler and Idleman will focus on dating volcanics. Zeitler is already conducting analyses on samples from a previous trip.

The dynamics of crust, lithosphere and mantle

Sahagian will conduct work in paleoelevation by looking at vesicles in lavas, which are voids formed when the lavas erupt. Vesicles can determine the atmospheric pressure at which the lavas erupted, and offer a sense of elevation.

“I think there’s a much more integrated picture of how the earth works. The crust, the lithosphere and the mantle all interact and there are ideas of how you can generate these interior uplifts related to the earth’s dynamics,” says Zeitler, adding that the team’s work fits into an emerging paradigm of how the whole planet can be explained as a series of interacting systems.

The genesis of the NSF grant came during a graduate seminar taught by Meltzer and Zeitler, who required students to create a research proposal. A version of a proposal written by Karl Wegmann evolved into the final proposal being funded by the NSF. Wegmann, who earned his Ph.D. in earth and environmental sciences from Lehigh in 2008 and is now an assistant professor of geology at North Carolina State, is the project coordinator.

The grant will also support the creation of a field school for American and Mongolian students in 2012 and 2013. Undergraduates, including students from Lehigh, can join the field school and work on interdisciplinary research projects.

The researchers took their first trip to Mongolia last fall to meet with collaborators and plan logistics for future trips. Mongolia’s landscape and climate require careful planning in advance of the research. Long distances between regions and few paved roads will present some obstacles in logistics. The country is also sparsely populated and some communities move seasonally with their herds, making it difficult to identify local contacts in the field.

During their initial trip, the team also met with representatives from the U.S. Embassy in Mongolia who advised the team on logistics and discussed developing partnerships to help further student and faculty exchanges.

The team will return to Mongolia for the next phase of research this coming summer.


Photos by Peter Zeitler, Anne Meltzer and Karl Wegmann

Story by Tricia Long

Posted on Thursday, January 06, 2011

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