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Beating the odds: NMSU?s geology researchers receive scarce NSF earth sciences funding

Beating the odds: NMSU?s geology researchers receive scarce NSF earth sciences funding


Four people standing in front of maps
NMSU Department of Geological Sciences faculty members Nancy McMillan, center right, Jeff Amato, right, Emily Johnson, center left, and Frank Ramos are photographed at Gardiner Hall. They are working on research funded through three awards from the Earth Sciences Division of the National Science Foundation. Their topics include: tracing the origins of minerals found in Antarctica, analyzing magmas in southern Oregon and discovering how and when some of the Mountains in New Mexico were formed. (NMSU photo by Andres Leighton)

Two thirds of New Mexico State University?s geological sciences faculty has been awarded National Science Foundation grants in the last year and a half, totaling more than a quarter of a million dollars.

?We challenged ourselves to increase our research productivity and just looking at NSF funding right now, four of our six faculty members have Division of Earth Sciences NSF grants,? said Nancy McMillan, NMSU Regents Professor and geology department head in the College of Arts and Sciences. ?The typical success rate for NSF geology awards is about 15 percent so we?ve been quite successful in securing these grants. Every member of the geology faculty is actively involved in national or international research.?

McMillian is among four faculty members in NMSU?s geology department receiving the awards.

NMSU geology faculty research topics range from tracing the origins of minerals found in Antarctica to analyzing magmas erupted in southern Oregon and discovering how and when some of the mountains in New Mexico were formed.

?We are lucky to have spectacular mountain ranges in southern New Mexico,? said Jeff Amato, NMSU professor of structural geology, tectonics, and geochronology. ?These mountains formed through tectonic forces that resulted in earthquakes and uplift over millions of years. The goal of this project is to compare the ages of the mountain belts in the Basin and Range province of southwestern New Mexico, near Lordsburg and Deming, with the ages of the mountains along the Rio Grande rift near Las Cruces and Truth or Consequences. These ages will be used to understand mountain-building processes here in southern New Mexico and elsewhere.?

Amato is collaborating on the research with Jason Ricketts, a visiting research adjunct professor at the University of Texas El Paso. The two are principal investigators on a two-year project to test models for extension in the Rio Grande rift and Basin and Range. They will be using the presence of small amounts of radioactively derived helium in the mineral zircon to determine when the rocks were uplifted from deeper in the earth to form the mountains that we see today.

?The main questions we?re addressing are when the mountains formed and how this happened,? Amato said. ?The mineral zircon is amazing because it can be used to determine the age of the rocks as well as the time when the rocks were uplifted to form the mountains.?

Another team of NMSU geology researchers is studying the origins of magmas erupted in the southern Cascades, a mountain range extending from British Columbia down through Northern California. Volcanoes of the Cascades, like Mount St. Helens, are caused by the subduction, or sinking, of the offshore oceanic plate beneath the continental plate of North America. The magmas erupted at these volcanoes reflect contributions of melts and fluids from the subducted oceanic material (including oceanic seafloor sediments and crust) as well as the mantle. Emily Johnson, college assistant professor of volcanology and igneous petrology is the principal investigator working on the three-year project with Frank Ramos, co-principal investigator and associate professor of geochemistry.

By analyzing the chemical composition of magmas erupted at 10-15 volcanoes in the southern Cascades, their research will shed light on the origins and gas contents of these magmas and when these volcanoes last erupted.

?The idea is that we can use what has erupted at the surface to get back to what?s happening at great depth,? said Johnson. ?This research will provide us with a better understanding of the contributions of recycled oceanic material (crust, sediment) to the magmas, as well as important insights on when these volcanoes were active in the past and how explosive future eruptions might be.?

In addition, by estimating the amount of sediment dragged down through subduction, their work will impact scientists studying the potential for big earthquakes along the subduction zone in the southern Cascades.

McMillan?s research project, in collaboration with researchers at Louisiana State University, will examine the mineral tourmaline in ancient sediment from Antarctica to determine its origins with both laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) and an electron microprobe (EMP).

?Using the LIBS laser and electron microprobe, we will develop a case study comparing data generated by the two devices analyzing sedimentary rocks deposited on the coast of Antarctica about 500 million years ago,? McMillan said.

The mineral tourmaline stores a wide range of chemical elements that reflect the rock environment in which it formed for millions or billions of years. Scientists can then examine grains of tourmaline in sediments to determine their origin. In this study, researchers will use the two pieces of equipment to test the effectiveness of tourmaline analysis by LIBS and EMP to discover the geologic development of the East Antarctic Mountains.

The different grants will have impact not only individual research areas but also will provide opportunities for students and the broader community. Two of the grants will provide support for undergraduate and graduate researchers while the third will create online resources aimed at K-12 schools and the general public.