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Juniata Geologist Teaches the Science Behind Natural Disasters

(Posted March 1, 2005)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- When the Indian Ocean tsunami caused countless casualties and damage in East Asian nations on Dec. 26, 2004, a scientific analysis of how the tsunami happened was the first order of business for Juniata College students enrolled in the geology course "Death and Destruction By Nature," taught for the first time this semester.

"We opened up the class for questions on the first day and held a discussion and while the students were well-informed about how it happened, they didn't really understand the earth processes that caused it," says Ryan Mathur, assistant professor of geology at Juniata. "The first week of class we were able to share experiences about the tsunami that made it a great learning experience."

Such scientific serendipity has held true for some of the other natural phenomenon that Mathur will cover in the semester-long course. In recent months, residents of the United States have seen massive landslides in Southern California, hurricanes in Florida, tornadoes in the Midwest and flooding in central Pennsylvania, all areas to be discussed in the new geology class.

Mathur will discuss each category of natural disaster by focusing not on the toll the disaster levied on a human population, but rather on the geological processes that caused the event.

Among the natural disasters covered during the course are:

--Earthquakes: The course will cover some recent earthquakes in California. In addition, students will focus on a 1755 earthquake that leveled the entire city of Lisbon, Portugal. "This earthquake leveled the entire city and destroyed Portugal as a world power," Mathur says.

--Landslides and Mass Movements: The recent landslides in California will be discussed.

--Fires: Mathur will outline how some recent forest fires, such as the huge forest fire in Yellowstone National Park several years ago, affect the earth's geological and meteorological processes.

--Volcanoes: Mathur will use the explosion of Mount St. Helen in the Cascades Range in Washington to illustrate how volcanoes affect the world's geology, as well as other active volcanoes throughout the world. "Although Mount St. Helen was relatively recent, in 1980, most of the students don't know a great deal about it because it happened before they were born," Mathur explains.

--Impacts: Mathur will relate how meteor impacts have affected the earth at various times in its history.

--Global Climate Change: The course will cover how climate change has affected the Earth's development over time.

--Flooding: "The flooding last summer along the Juniata River is fresh in everyone's mind and can be used as an example of the affects of a hurricane," Mathur explains. The class also may take a field trip to the Johnstown Flood Museum and the Johnstown Flood National Historic Site.

--Hurricanes and Tornadoes: The students will study the aftereffects of the three tornadoes that hit Florida and the Gulf Coast last summer.

"There seems to be an amazing number of natural disasters happening all at once this year and last year," Mathur says. "Unfortunately or not, that makes this semester a perfect time to teach this course."

Mathur, whose research interests center on how copper deposits form as the result of volcanic activity, says many of the students wanted to focus on activities that were not familiar to them. "I had the students rate the disasters they most wanted to study and the top vote-getters were volcanoes and hurricanes," he says.

In addition, Mathur will ask all the students in the class to make a presentation during what the geologist calls "Destruction Days." Each student or student team will be asked to imagine a natural disaster at a site in the United States and give a scientific explanation for why it happened and what earth processes contributed to the disasters. Students also will predict how the disaster will affect human populations in the affected area.

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.