I have studied the science behind the scenery of the American West since the summer of 1983. My interest grew out of gawking at atlases and encyclopedias in my basement on Maine Street in Enid, Oklahoma and taking the occasional trip to Colorado. My keen interest in maps paid off when I found Bellingham, Washington, on one. I left Enid in August of 1983 to attend college there. The northwest corner of Washington State is a savagely rugged and dynamic place for anyone to absorb, especially anyone who came of age on the flat plains of Enid.
Higher Education...it worked for me
I earned two degrees from Western Washington University in 1989: BA in Geography (w/cartography minor) and BS in Environmental Geology; and two degrees from the University of Arizona: MS in Geosciences (1991); and PhD in Geosciences (1996). I have since evolved into a professional geologic mapper that specializes in surficial geology and fluvial landscape evolution.
My graduate studies in geosciences at the University of Arizona were guided by Victor Baker, Bill Bull, Katherine Hirschboeck, and Phil Pearthree. My research focused on late Holocene flood stratigraphy of rivers and washes in central and western Arizona; the hydroclimatology of large floods in Arizona; and documenting prehistorical and historical channel changes on rivers in the state. I collected beer cans as a kid and worked on my dad’s beer-delivery trucks in my teens. In one of my first papers about desert floods, I described using beer cans to reconstruct flood chronologies in seemingly desolate desert areas.
During graduate school, I worked at the Arizona Geological Survey with Phil Pearthree. My work there was dominated by surficial geologic mapping projects, geological flood studies, and historical river channel and floodplain evolution in Arizona. The AZGS was a fantastic place to work. I did a lot of field work while a student, and the warm and rugged deserts of western Arizona entranced me.
I did post-doctoral studies (1996-1998) at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, NV with Steve Wells. Various projects at DRI sent me to Italy, Israel, Argentina, and Brazil; but during my tenure in Reno my research was primarily focused on the stratigraphic records of flooding on rivers in deserts of Nevada, Arizona, and Oregon. It was a great couple of years, and I am indebted to those who made it possible.
I got my first 'real' job when I was 33, is that bad?
I was hired research geologist / associate professor at the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology (NBMG) in 1998. NBMG is part of the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), and I became a tenured professor there in 2002. A tenured geologic mapper and part-time teacher? A rare opportunity indeed. Admittedly, I sometimes rue the day I decided to leave. Over 12 years at NMBG, I became a professional geologic mapper. I had the luxury to explore the American western deserts with geologic intent, and I began to think about geology over broader scopes of space and time. I made lots of maps of interesting areas while at NBMG, and I worked with a group of talented geologists and cartographers. I also worked to engage students through collaboration and instruction in geomorphology and geologic mapping. On 8 occasions Between 1998 and 2010, I taught a 7-10 day session on surficial geologic mapping for the UNR summer geology field camp. Teaching field camp for UNR was the personal highlight of my career at NBMG. During those times, I learned how to express my fascination with geology to a range of receptive students. I am proud to have explained to many burgeoning, talented geologists that it is scientifically treasonous to map all Quaternary surficial units as one unit or to refer to them as just various manifestations of 'dirt'. They are sedimentary rocks in the making, of course.
During the NBMG years, I authored or co-authored more than 20 geologic maps of parts of Nevada and surrounding states; served as lead editor of a book on Paleoflood Hydrology; authored or co-authored 20 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters; and authored or co-authored more than ~50 professional talks. I have received 'outstanding paper awards' for 2 peer-reviewed, senior-authored papers that were based on work initiated at NBMG. I have many fond memories of the academic and creative flexibility, salary, and leave opportunities I was allowed at NBMG.
Unlike most of its rivers...I departed Nevada
In the late Summer of 2010, I left NBMG for a permanent mapping position with the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona. It was an ideal and impeccably timed professional move for me at the time, and it was a good change for my family. For us, the move provided an increase in quality of life. Flagstaff is a nice place to live.
I am currently co-leading a major mapping project along the lower Colorado River in Arizona, California, and Nevada. We have a small, but excellent team. The project began a new phase toward more regional scale mapping of the Colorado River system in October 2018. I am also currently wrapping up a major geologic mapping project on the Owyhee River in southeastern Oregon.
Current scientific interests / Why I map
My job is to use mapping as a means to concisely summarize the geologic effects, timing, and signatures of surface processes that drive landscape evolution. An emphasis and reliance on mapping requires me to consider geologic processes over a broad range of spatial and temporal scales, and that is the most informative part of geologic mapping. Sure, great exposures are nice and can spawn numerous niche publications and comfortably pad a CV, but maps tell a much larger story. Since 1990, I have accrued extensive field experience in diverse geologic settings in desert areas of Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, and California through numerous mapping projects. Most of these have tended to emphasize the geologic records of landscape evolution as dictated by combinations of climatic and hydroloclimatologic variability; tectonic activity; mass movements; extreme floods; and volcanism.
My early career focused on using geologic information and reasoning to better understand flood hazards in desert areas. The work included stratigraphic studies, hydraulic modeling, and geologic mapping. I carried out research on the paleoflood stratigraphy in the canyons and floodplains of rivers and ephemeral streams in the West to better understand variations in flood magnitude and frequency over long, but socially relevant time frames (100s to 1000s of years). My research on the direct relation between the surficial geology of desert piedmonts and alluvial fan flood hazards has contributed to improved perspectives on floodplain management and regulation in desert areas. I wrote a paper on alluvial fan flood hazards in Laughlin, Nevada that indicated just how problematic regulatory methods for flood hazard assessments on fans can be. This paper was recognized by the American Water Resources Association as the outstanding paper of the year for 2005. My last major flood-related study was in Ivanpah Valley, Nevada.
Recent work in Geologic Mapping and Landscape Evolution
I have been working on unraveling geologic events in the history of the lower Colorado River [the part downstream from the Grand Canyon] for 15 years now. By far the most significant outcome of these efforts has been the discovery of evidence strongly suggesting that the evolution of much, if not all, of the river's course below the Grand Canyon was formed by a series spilling-lakes between 4.8 and 5.6 Million years ago. The key geologic deposits that support this idea lay in the desert on the outskirts of Laughlin, Nevada and Bullhead City, Arizona. The day I finally found/understood the flood deposit that 'clinched' the deal was a good one. In a completely unexpected turn of events in mid-2013, my 2008 paper (written with Phil Pearthree and Mike Perkins) describing the discovery received the Kirk Bryan Award for Research Excellence from the Quaternary Geology and Geomorphology Division of the Geological Society of America. No fooling, this was the truly greatest honor in my professional life to date. Now it is a waiting game while my colleagues try in earnest to disassemble parts of the story. Meanwhile, I keep on mapping in the river corridor and sharing my findings with them. Science is a collaborative process drawn from much individual effort.
I used to spend a lot of time mapping along the rivers and lakes of Nevada, the modern ones and their ancient forebears. I remain awestruck by how rapidly environmental changes can occur and how rapidly and dramatically fluvial, aeolian, and lacustrine systems respond to them. No matter how many times I see, describe, and map the evidence, I am amazed like a child by what has transpired. Sometimes those changes have occurred over thousands to millions of years, other times over single years to decades. I am obsessed with finding and pondering the stratigraphic and geomorphic evidence attesting to these changes, their magnitudes, and their rates. That is part of the occasional bouts of sheer joy that field work can bring. Seriously, what beats finding and pondering the implications of a boulder larger than a pickup truck that blasted out of the mouth of a steep canyon only 500 years ago?
My recent work on the Owyhee River in southeast Oregon added an entirely new dimension to my understanding of the way rivers work. In this case, it involved unraveling the evolution of a desert river that is periodically involved with voluminous and geologically instantaneous infusions of canyon-choking lava flows. The lava flows construct immense dams spanning 10s of kilometers along the river and last for as many as 10,000s of years. This circumstance is quite an affront to a river, and the mappable geologic consequences are mind-boggling. When the Owyhee isn't being choked and repaved with lava, it is being pummeled along its course with huge landslides. The landslide events have less of a lasting impact on the channel than the lava, but they constitute a notable, local sediment pulse and a temporary damming mechanism that is often resolved through catastrophic failure and flooding. In addition to lava dams and landslides, the Owyhee has also had to convey huge flood(s) from pluvial lake overflow out of the Alvord Desert at the foot of Steens Mountain. Spoiler alert: the river always wins, and these obstacles, though seemingly gargantuan, are merely nuisances in the bigger scheme of time.
I worked on the Owyhee with a great research team between 2001 and 2012, with a major burst of research between 2007 and 2012 and then again between 2016 and now (life is complicated, remember?). We summarized key aspects of our Owyhee River work in a paper in 2012, but I am still working hard to complete one of the greatest maps of my career in my spare time. It will happen in 2019, right?
Other Professional Interests and Skills
I am nearly adequately self-sufficient in GIS for generating geologic maps, and am always trying to improve my skills in this arena within reason. Since GIS can devolve into a full-time job, my intermediate skill-set and my available support tends to be almost adequate to balance science with GIS and cartography. In the previous decade, I became interested in the use of new digital devices and methods for improving workflow in the field and the office. I also spent time pursuing social media applications as platforms for disseminating information about these methods and devices to my colleagues and students. In this vein, I maintained a series of geologically themed Blogs (archived on this site). I remain a decreasingly annoying advocate of adopting new technology. Much of what I and a select few other geologists advocated for so strongly between 2007 and 2010 has gained considerable (but as yet, inadequate) traction in the field of geology. This development was inevitable, but it was more fun to surf the early wave than to be crushed by it. I gave up on blogging since my job, family life, and personal disasters have grown more complex over time. Also, it is also a practice made far less fun and interesting when my career changed. Nonetheless, in another fortuitous turn, I and two capable colleagues recently published a chapter in a recent (2013) book: Rethinking the Fabric of Geology. It was published in 2013 in celebration of the 125th Anniversary of the Geological Society of America. The paper is called: Overcoming the Momentum of Anachronism--American Geologic Mapping in a Twenty-First Century World. Looking back, it is fortuitous if not amazing that it got published. But writing it allowed me to produce a personally satisfying coda to the snarky but informative commentary that I tried to develop back then. Momentum of anachronism? That preposterous term grew out of numerous, persistent and soul-crushing spikes of professional frustration that I have encountered since my career transition in 2010. So far the paper has received polarized reviews, which is an obvious outcome. I stand behind the ideas that it presents, particularly as they continually evolve into prescient ones.