Oswego researchers studying Appalachian origins

A new grant will enable researchers at Oswego to try to unearth clues in a geological mystery—about a specific type of rock and perhaps how the Appalachian Mountains formed.

Paul Tomascak of SUNY Oswego’s earth sciences department is a partner in a National Science Foundation-funded project with Gary Solar of Buffalo State. The project will provide about $79,000 in funding to Oswego over the course of two years to support undergraduate stipends, experiments and fieldwork.

The pieces of the puzzle the professors and students will examine involve metamorphic rocks called migmatites. Migmatites are mixtures of molten and non-molten components in rocks, with the molten components a sign of lava flow.

The Oswego portion will focus on geochronology, or trying to determine the ages of the various components of migmatite samples taken at two levels of the earth’s crust, to see if they all formed at similar times. Being able to trace the formation of the rocks from beginning to end could help show how they—and surrounding landscapes—developed. Most samples are 270 million to 400 million years old, Tomascak said.

“This is important because even though we’ve been studying the Appalachians for 200 years, there are still a lot of arguments about what happened to build those mountains,” Tomascak said. “This will address the important questions of how the Appalachians evolved. Every year, we learn a little more about how the earth works and apply it to what we are doing.”

Since the Appalachian chain runs from northeastern Canada to Alabama, the range represents a large component of North American geography, geology and even folklore.

Solar and Tomascak have mainly taken migmatite samples from Maine, but completing their current analysis could allow an opportunity for more sampling around New England to further test their theories.

Tomascak and Oswego students will test for age two ways: by crushing the rocks down to separate out minute radioactive elements to check half-lives and by grinding samples to powder to analyze periodic-table elements through bulk chemical composition.

Fine enough analysis could date samples within 1 million years, which may be significant enough to better determine relationships between different pieces of migmatites, Tomascak explained.

“We have enough information to write a paper” at this point, Tomascak said, but further work to bolster and expand findings would make for a more compelling and relevant work.

Tomascak plans to hire a full-year undergraduate assistant, who can use the experience as a thesis topic, as well as part-time students to help prepare the processes. The student involvement is key, he said. The NSF has increased its emphasis on funding undergraduate research, he noted, because it can encourage students to pursue careers in science.

“At any given moment, a student could catch on and excel,” Tomascak said. “I think research is like that in general. Once the students start doing research, they realize it’s more fun than just following along in a textbook or a lecture hall.”

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(Posted: Oct 19, 2005)

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