Geology professors receive grant for study of the “impossible”


The Appalachian Online

Tommy Culkin

Two geology professors at Appalachian State University, Jamie Levine and Gabe Casale, were recently awarded a $139,895 grant by the National Science Foundation to study dome formations in the Tallulah Falls area in Georgia and the Toxaway Gorge area in Western North Carolina.

Mountains are formed by the collision of tectonic plates. Dome formations are elliptical features found in some mountain ranges across the globe, where the ranges seem to be compressing or extending. Casale said this is counter-intuitive to their very nature.

“You think of two tectonic plates running into each other, and you don’t think of finding structures that show that the crust is being pulled apart,” Casale said.

Casale said these structures and the geologic faults under them are so intriguing because they are impossible according to science’s current understanding of geology.

“I say they’re impossible because we can’t, in the laboratory, make those faults,” Casale said. “We simulate faults in the lab all the time. We take pieces of rock and we smash them, and they break in certain ways that are how they break in the field, but these faults break in ways that we simply have never been able to reproduce.”

Those signs of extension have been seen and recorded in mountain ranges all around the world, yet in the case of the Tallulah Gorge in the Appalachian Mountains, it is still the widely-held belief that the signs are the result of shortening. So, the goal of their research is to determine whether the domes are the result of shortening or extension.

“If these domes do in fact form from shortening, they’d be different from a lot of other domes around the world,” Levine said. “So if that were the case, the Appalachians would be unique in some way.”

There are a number of techniques Casale and Levine will use when conducting their research. Samples of rocks are taken from the sites and then studied. They look at how the rocks moved over millions of years, use radiometric dating to determine the age of the rocks, and they measure the temperatures of the rocks.

The temperature at which the domes formed is important because it tells them know whether or not other rock layers pushed on top of them.

Levine and Casale said the most important aspect of their research is the heavy involvement of their students.

“We’re going to be doing experiments, but most of the experiments will be conducted by our students,” Casale said. “Almost all of the preliminary data that we sent to the NSF in some way was either collected, or organized, or interpreted by our students.”

Casale said he believes this sort of fieldwork is an essential part to a college education.

“An important part of a Bachelor’s degree is getting hands-on experience with how things actually work,” Casale said. “Whether these students go on to be scientists or not, it’s important to be an educated member of society, and you should have an idea about how research works.”

Story by Tommy Culkin, News Reporter