I was pretty excited when Ian asked me to write a piece on the intersection of geology and biology for the RMBL newsletter. My scientific career in soil geomorphology places my research at that intersection and many of my friends and colleagues work in that intersection as well. As you can probably imagine, the boundaries between earth science and biology are somewhat arbitrary. Biology is the scientific study of life at all scales – from molecular biology of cells to evolution of populations and, in general, earth science investigates the abiotic components of the earth system (geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere) as well as the long history of those systems and what that history might tell us about the future. These two scientific branches intersect in interesting and important ways.
For example, the long history of Earth is told in part through investigation of sedimentary layers and the fossils they contain. Paleontology is an obvious intersection of geology and biology. But did you know that the evolution of Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere is also a story of scientific intersection? The rapid rise of photosynthesizing cyanobacteria about 2.5 billion years ago caused our atmosphere to change from oxygen-poor to oxygen-rich. Geologists identified this huge biological change in the geological record as a striking increase in iron oxides (rust) in soils as well as bands of iron oxide deposited in sea floor sediments.
As advances in technology are catching up with our increasing need to predict environmental change, teams of scientists at the intersection of biology and geology are working on ever larger and more integrated projects. Recently, two groups of scientists teamed up at RMBL to better understand how mountains provide water resources around the world. Collaborations between Dept of Energy (DOE) atmospheric scientists (the SAIL project) and scientists investigating watershed-scale biogeochemical dynamics (Berkeley Laboratory Watershed Function SFA) close the gaps in our understanding of how mountains make their own weather, how water is stored and moves through complicated mountain watersheds, and how that water interacts with rocks, soils, and organisms. Maybe most importantly, the results from that research show us how we can most accurately model all those interactions. As water resources change with changing climate, modeling different scenarios in these mountain environments will help humans manage this critical resource.
Of course, modern high-tech research makes headlines, but research at the intersection of biology and geology has long been a part of what RMBL does. One of the best-known examples from RMBL’s early years was conducted when Jean Langenheim and her geologist husband, Ralph Langenheim, collaborated at RMBL in the 1940s and 50s. In her dissertation research, Jean used geologic mapping techniques – quite innovative for a biologist at the time – to map vegetation. Using a geographic information system approach, she overlaid her vegetation maps on maps of geology and related features (e.g. aspect, slope, etc.) to document how geologic diversity has contributed to both a rich flora and the diverse vegetation patterns observed in the Gunnison River watershed. RMBL researchers still build from her work.
If you’ve joined me on a geology tour, you’ve heard my spiel about how local geodiversity explains why Crested Butte is the Wildflower Capital of Colorado. If you haven’t, please join me for a tour next year! And in the meantime, you can check out my book “Geology Underfoot on Colorado’s Western Slope” at Townie Books or the Crested Butte Museum. Happy trails!