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posted 02/01/05

Contemplating Himalayas, Columbia Scientist Finds His Groove

Veins of lavas (black areas) reacted to solid rock during a volcanic eruption. In 1980 at age 24, Peter Kelemen, now Arthur Storke Memorial Professor of Geochemistry in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, launched his career with the question, “How could lava have passed through so much rock and not be fundamentally changed?” Photo by Peter Kelemen

At the age of 24, Peter Kelemen visited the Himalayas and found himself looking at now-solidified outcrops of the Earth’s mantle containing veins where lavas reacted with solid rock during their ascent to volcanoes on the surface. He asked himself, “How could lava have passed through so much rock and not be fundamentally changed?”

This question launched an influential career in geology that has spanned over 25 years and brought him to the top of his field. Kelemen, who is Arthur Storke Memorial Professor of Geochemistry in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University, was recently honored for his influential contributions to the field of volcanology, geochemistry and petrology with the 2004 Bowen Award from the American Geological Union (AGU). The award is named after one of the great pioneers in experimental petrology, Norman L. Bowen.

“Throughout my career, especially in graduate school, I have been engaged in research that directly relates to Bowen's pioneering work, ” said Kelemen, “and to a much greater degree than most others of my scientific cohort -- as a graduate student, I imagined that I was involved in a critical scientific discussion with Bowen, which was problematic since he died the year I was born. I studied Bowen's debate with Reginald Daly at Harvard and Clarence Fenner at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and even included a history of science paper on this debate as an appendix to my Ph.D. thesis.

“Though I didn't agree with all of his conclusions, it has always been clear to me that, more than any other scientist, Bowen framed the central questions and provided the basic quantitative tools for the entire field of igneous petrology, and I am honored to be associated with him through this award.”

The award was presented on December 14, 2004 at the Volcanology, Geochemistry, Petrology (VGP) Section reception during the Fall 2004 meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Kelemen’s research spans several areas including melt migration processes in the Earth’s mantle. “I am currently most excited about new projects on earthquakes that are generated along ductile shear zones, rather than by fracture-related processes along faults,” said Kelemen. “This continues the combination of field work on outcrops of the upper mantle with theoretical work on rock mechanics and melting processes. Such an approach has been common to all my research, but these new projects allow me to enter a whole new field of geoscience.”

In addition, Kelemen will travel this summer to the western end of the Aleutian volcanic chain, an area he has studied for ten years but has never visited, with support from the National Science Foundation. He and his colleagues infer from conical seamounts on maps of the seafloor that there are dozens of submarine volcanoes in this region, but they remain essentially unexplored. For example, there is only one rock sample from these volcanoes between Buldir Island and the Russian border, a distance of more than 300 miles. That rock, recovered as part of Cold War reconnaissance by the U.S. Geological Survey in the 1960's, is a lava that is essentially identical in composition to the ancient continental crust. Because of this similarity, it could be that lava formation in the western Aleutians is the best modern analogue for crustal formation in the early Earth. Kelemen plans to obtain more of these samples by examining the catch from “dredges”, chain bags three to ten feet in diameter that will be dragged along the flanks of submarine volcanoes. He hopes his research will provide information on how the continental crust was formed, in a process that began billions of years ago.

The N. L. Bowen Award was established in 1981 by the Volcanology, Geochemistry, and Petrology Section of the AGU to recognize outstanding contributions in the aforementioned fields made during the preceding five years.

Related News:
-- Geologist Ascends Peaks and Dives to the Ocean Floor, Looking for Secrets of Earth's Crust
-- AGU: About the N.L. Bowen Award

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