Dr. Carl Richter is the Department Head in Geology. He talks about his background, what geologists do, and how UL ranked #6 in world competition this past year.

Tell us about yourself.

I grew up in a little village in Bavaria, Aschaffenburg. It sits among beautiful hills, and I was always fascinated as a child because you could find really cool minerals there.

And then someone explained to me that all of it had been under water at one time. So I decided to become a geologist and learn more about the Earth.

Eventually I got my degree in Tubingen, one of the oldest universities in Germany if not the oldest.

After my PhD, I had a two-year appointment at the University of Michigan as a post-doc. I extended that for a third year, and then I got an offer from Texas A&M. So instead of going back to Germany on a 2 year soft-money proposal, I went to A&M. It was a fun job, I worked for the Ocean Drilling Program, we did scientific ocean drilling expeditions in every single ocean of the world.

So you're a shellback?

Yes, I crossed the equator, there was a lot of hazing going on at the time.

I worked for ODP for almost 10 years. I spend a lot of time on the ship. We would be out at sea for two months, no port calls, just 12 hours a day for two months. I got a lot of work done. It's kind of fun, but it's also kind of difficult, because I was in charge of all the scientists who were invited on board. There are typically 30 scientists who worked on each core that we recovered from the seabed.

I've been on two expeditions where we broke the recovery record. The record before that was 4,000 meters of total cores. We hit 6,000, and then 8,000. At then at the same time, we sailed on down the west coast of Africa. That was amazing, it was a long way to go. We sailed from the Canaries to Capetown, and along the way we hit 8,000 meters of core samples.

All of those core samples have to be split and analyzed. The goal is to turn all this mud into a book on what we recovered. So you walk off the ship with a book that you have written during these two months. And that's a tough thing, trust me. Those results are all now on the Internet.

So what does that mean to the average person?

It means a lot because the ocean captures the earth's history, to very high resolution. Each layer in the ocean sediment represents the environment at that time. Because of ocean drilling, we figured out what drives our climate system. We have gone back as far as 200 million years in the sediments. I've not seen that drilled myself, for me 50 million is old.

In looking at geological cores, the most important thing is dating them. Without an age, it's just mud. So we use microfossils-- basically plankton-- and from a geological standpoint, that stuff changed very quickly. So there are specialists who can look at these fossils, and get within a few million years of the date. Without evolution, those organisms wouldn't change, and we couldn't date the core. Without evolution, we couldn't' do geology.

Yes, but not all evolution is organic.

Sure, the Earth itself evolves, it changes. We get some changes from tectonic collisions, but by and large, it's from ice melting and forming, so the oceans rise & fall. If you look at the North American continent, we subdivide rocks by the big transgressions and regressions, where the oceans come in and go out. There have been many times that almost the entire north American continent flooded, there have been many inland seas. So that's another kind of evolution.

So what drives the climate?

The driver is the orbit of the Earth around the Sun, the tilt of the Earth's axis, and the wobble of the Earth. So what happens is that the ellipse that our planet follows around the Sun is not static. It gets bigger and smaller. When we get closer to the Sun, the Earth gets warmer. When the axis tilts closer to the Sun, it's harder for the poles to remain glaciated, so they melt.

And so these three parameters together have cyclicities that cause more or less heat to be received from the Sun. And since the last ice age, we've been on a global warming cycle. Since the last ice age 18,000 years ago, we've been gradually warming.

Has the rate of change increased?

That's a good question, because during what we call the Holocene, about the last 10,00 years, climate has been relatively constant. And what we know now is that the sea level is rising. We have tidal gauge levels for the last 100 years or so, and the rate of sea level rise has increased over the last decade. Those are hard measurements.

So based on this theory of how the orbital change influences climate-- the Milankovitch Theory-- what we've learned is that the theory is correct. The theoretical values that Milankovitch calculated in 1930s, is what we have showed from ocean sampling. It was the first time we could prove that Milankovitch was correct.

So that's one example of why it's important.

The other thing we've learned over the last 40 to 50 years is how our planet operates. Plate tectonics-- how the continents move and collide-- is the main theory, and ocean drilling has contributed a lot of arguments in support of that theory.

So ocean drilling was a lot fun. But originally I wanted to do that for two or three years, but you get stuck in a job. After eight or nine years, I became unstuck, and wanted to move on to new challenges.

So I applied to a few places, interviewed a few places, and ended up coming to UL. At that time, jobs were tough. Right now, we don't have enough people to fill the openings out there in the Earth sciences.

Tell us about your program here.

In the UL Geology program we have about 100 majors, 30 grad students, about 70 undergraduates. We have two areas in which we specialize: one is petroleum geology obviously, and the other one is environmental geology.

We're a fairly small program, but we try to be really applied. We try to give our students an education that they can use in the oil companies, the supply & survey companies, and the environmental companies. UL has a big advantage here, there almost 300 geologists who live in town, and there are three or four professional societies of geologists, geophysicists, logging scientists, and independent geologists. Our students get introduced to the oil industry, and get connections to people who work in the field in the meetings for these societies. So our Department interacts a lot with the local geological community.

That's really one of the advantages we have over many other programs.

That's one of the unusual things about the community here, is the interaction between the University and the town. The connection between us is very strong. And that really attracts a lot of our graduate students from all over, from Michigan, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, you name it.

 Tell us about your research.

My research is in geomagnetism, interpreting the changes in the Earth's magnetic field over time. And there are two aspects to that: one is that the Earth's magnetic poles switch positions every so often. It is totally random, there is no pattern to it. The last time it happened was 780,000 years ago. When that happens, the magnetic field reduces to almost nothing, and the rebuilds in the opposite direction.

How does that happen?

The exact reason, we don't know. But the core of our planet is nickel iron, and the outer core is liquid nickel iron. And the whole thing spins at high speed.

How high?

Extremely high. The Earth's ground speed is about 1,000 mph at the equator. We know that a magnetic field is induced by differential movement of the nickel-iron, that's the geodynamo theory. They've done some numerical modeling of the geodynamo, and they've found that it reverses, all by itself.

But for me, it's important that we know when it happened. We have very specific ages of when that occurred. So we use these ages to date the age of any sedimentary rock.

How do you do that?

We measure the magnetics of the rock using a magnetometer. You stick the rock in it, and it tells you what the magnetic field was when the rock was formed. So we have to take compass-oriented samples to determine the magnetostratigraphy, the magnetic orientation of the rock. We can use that to date the rocks to within a few thousand years. For geology, that's really significant, because normally we don't care about a few million years up or down.

The other tool is relative paleointensity, where we look at changes in the strength of the ancient magnetic field. It always increases and decreases, and the position of the poles are shifting constantly. And the nice thing is, that's a global signal. So we can extract from the rocks the strength of the field in which rocks were formed. And we have a database that goes back eight million years, where we know the behavior of the earth's magnetic field. And it is a very high-resolution curve that we can use just like a bar code to date sedimentary rocks.

It's a relatively new field, that's technologically challenging.

What are your plans and goals for the Department?

We've seen growth here in terms of student population. We've doubled our enrollment over the last three years. So we also need to grow in faculty, and we need to grow in terms of location. We are limited to this hallway [Madison Hall], and it's hard to find space for our grad students. Our classes are very full, we need to offer more sections. So we need more support from our alumni to be able to provide a quality education for our students. One of my big things that I want to improve is the relationship that the Department has with our alumni, and recruit support from them.

We are a fairly small program, with a small budget. But with the limited personnel and facilities we have, we're doing an extraordinary job of educating our students. The proof of that is the Imperial Barrel Competition. This is an international competition where students get a data set used by the oil industry, to help identify promising new fields for exploration. Teams of students, from any university that wishes to participate, look at that data and try to predict where oil and gas is located. Our team won the regional Gulf Coast competition, and we won 6th place in the world-wide competition this year. Worldwide, 6th place is very, very good, because we compete with universities that have 10 times as much infrastructure as we do in terms faculty, software, equipment, and research money. We beat some very impressive teams.

We do a lot of good things with very little resource. If we get more, we can do even more.