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HU Receives NSF Grant for Geologic Research



Las Vegas, N.M. – New Mexico Highlands University was awarded a National Science Foundation grant for a geology study that will shed new light on predicting seismic hazards in the Eastern Mono Basin that straddles northern California and Nevada. 

The university’s two-year $154,422 NSF research grant will focus on the continental plate dynamics and evolution of the Walker Lane Fault at the northern boundary of the Mojave Desert, parallel to the San Andreas Fault.

Both fault lines are active, with current movement and some volcanic activity.

The co-principal investigators for the study are Highlands geology professor Michael Petronis, who wrote the grant proposal, and Joe Zebrowski, director of the university’s new cutting-edge geospatial technology lab for advanced map making.

“How the Earth’s crust partitions seismic energy, which eventually leads to earthquakes, remains poorly understood,” Petronis said. “Our research in the Mono Basin is looking at the initiation of a fault line that will eventually evolve into a plate boundary like the San Andreas Fault. Just give it 50 million years or so.

“Our research is designed to help us better understand this region’s slip transfer systems – the area between parallel faults like the Walker Lane and San Andreas. The data will help with ongoing modeling for predicting seismic hazards. We’ll also provide new fundamental data on the geology of the region. For example, paleomagnetic ­– rock magnetic – and age data are lacking in this region,” Petronis said.

He said the study will test the hypothesis that the Walker Lane fault system was located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains roughly 20 million years ago, subsequently moving east to its present location by approximately five million years ago.

The Mono Lake region is familiar to Petronis, whose doctoral work focused on the Candeleria Hills east of the current NSF grant study area.   

Students will be included in all aspects of the grant research.

“The grant funds field and lab research opportunities for five undergraduate geology students and one fully funded graduate research assistant,” Petronis said.

The first phase of the Eastern Mono Basin research involves some reconnaissance.

“First, we’ll examine the satellite imagery for the area and existing digital terrain information,” Zebrowski said. “This will help us zero in on the geographic area for the study.”

The onsite fieldwork at Eastern Mono Basin will begin in late spring 2014 and conclude in summer 2015. Petronis estimates his research team will drill more than 1,000 rock core samples across the study region using a modified chain saw with a diamond-tipped drill bit.

Back at Highlands, the rocks will be analyzed in the university’s state-of-the art paleomagnetic laboratory. In 2008 and 2010, Petronis and fellow geology professor Jennifer Lindline were awarded NSF grants to establish the lab.

The rocks will be cut into thin section samples for microscopic analysis, with other samples sent to another lab for geochronology, or age dating. Other samples will be analyzed for petrology – the origin, structure and composition of rocks. 

The new grant will also fund additional paleomagnetic research instruments to complement existing tools in the paleomagnetic lab. They range from an impulse magnetic instrument to determine magnetic properties of rock samples to dual-bladed rock saws.

Zebrowski said the research team will also map the site, examining patterns and trends. They will use 3-D terrain modeling, geographic information systems, and global positioning systems, as well as conventional field-mapping techniques.

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded Petronis and Lindline a $300,000 grant to fund the university’s geospatial technology lab, where the Mono Basin maps will be generated.

“Building our capacity through this U.S.D.A. grant and the geospatial technology lab makes us more competitive for grants like this new NSF grant,” said Zebrowski, who also teaches GIS courses at Highlands. 

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