Geology Department

Geology's Brady Foreman publishes new article in Science Advances

WWU Assistant Professor of Geology Brady Foreman has published "Autogenic geomorphic processes determine the resolution  and fidelity of terrestrial paleoclimate records" in Science Advances magazine, along with Kyle Straub of Tulane University.

The full article can be viewed here:



Climate Change, Snowmelt, and Salmon: WWU Faculty Probe for Answers on How to Save a Pacific Northwest Icon

Jim Helfield is in a race against time, and he knows it.

Helfield, an associate professor of Environmental Science at Western Washington University,  is researching ways improve the habitat for spring- and summer-run Chinook salmon on the South Fork of Whatcom County’s Nooksack River. Also known as king salmon, Chinook are the largest Pacific salmon species, growing to sizes upwards of 100 pounds in some rivers.

In conjunction with colleagues in the Nooksack Tribe, Helfield is measuring how large, engineered logjams, placed systematically up and down the South Fork, change the river’s topography and form deep pools for the Chinook to rest and shelter in on their way to their breeding grounds upstream.

“These summer-run Chinook already have a tough task ahead of them,” Helfield said. “They enter the river at a time when its flows are at their lowest and its temperatures are at their highest. When temperatures get above 16 degrees Celsius or so (about 60 degrees Fahrenheit), they really start having a tough time and mortality rates jump. So we are trying to build these deep pools for them to rest in and sort of leapfrog their way upstream.”

These summer-run Chinook already have a tough task ahead of them. They enter the river at a time when its flows are at their lowest and its temperatures are at their highest. 

Fisheries biologists with the tribe have built scores of the large logjams, and more are planned. Helfield plants temperature loggers each summer to gather temperature data above, below and in the pools; checks the temperatures to see if the river’s action of scouring the pools is also causing an upwelling of cool, beneficial groundwater through a process called hyporheic exchange; and just as importantly, also surveys to see how or if the logjams are being used by Chinook and other salmonids.

So far, the results are very positive.

“The vast majority of the early Chinook on the South Fork are using these structures, which is very encouraging,” he said. “In addition, the young salmon that emerge from the gravel are using these structures as shelters as well, going back deep into the root balls and using them to avoid predators.”

But this is where the race against time comes in: water temperatures on the South Fork are only going to get higher.

Unlike the North Fork and Middle Fork of the river, which are fed by glaciers from Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan, the South Fork is fed entirely by snowfields from the Twin Sisters, a massive slab of upthrust rock separated from Mount Baker by the Middle Fork valley.

And according to research by Helfield’s colleague Robert Mitchell, a professor of Geology at Western who specializes in watershed hydrology and numerical modeling, the planet’s rapidly climbing temperatures will in all probability mean far less snow in those snowfields, and thus higher summer water temperatures and lower stream levels.

“As anyone who lives around here knows, we’re often right at that temperature point where incoming storms could be either rain or snow. And sure, in the middle of the winter, during the coldest months, precipitation falling at elevation on the Sisters will fall as snow. But whereas historically we might have seen a lot of additional snowfall in the fall and spring, our numbers show that more than likely, a lot of that precipitation will increasingly fall as rain,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell gathers his data from a variety of established sources and runs 20 different meteorological scenarios, including best-case, worst-case and most-likely case examples, for the South Fork basin – and the results aren’t encouraging.

“It doesn’t take much of a nudge upwards in temperatures to have a pretty big impact on those snowfields,” he said, pointing to a map of the Sisters which shows current typical snow levels as large white patches on the upper half of the mountain. Under most future climate scenarios, the white areas of the map shrink drastically, meaning less snowmelt in the summer for the early Chinook.

“And while this is an issue for the salmon, it’s going to also be an issue for all the towns along the Nooksack in the fall and spring,” Mitchell said. “Because snow is stored liked a moisture bank in the winter. It releases slowly as it melts over the summer. Rainfall isn’t the same way; that moisture that falls as rain instead of snow presents a new problem for all the communities downstream in terms of potential flooding. And the reality is that the South Fork basin isn’t unique in this regard; many of the watersheds in Western Washington face this same kind of pressure.”

All of which makes Helfield feel a sense of urgency as he pauses on a South Fork gravel bar to look at a map with the locations for the next group of planned logjams. It is a sunny, gorgeous late summer day, the sky a cloudless, robin’s-egg blue, and Helfield has just seen a big Chinook making its way upstream.

“Sometimes it feels like we’re fighting a losing battle,” he said, watching the v-shaped wake of the large fish. “Other times, there’s reason for hope – you come out here on a day like today and see these logjams that we’ve built, and these huge salmon hiding down in them, and you feel like there are reasons to be optimistic as well. Time will tell. But in the meantime, we’re going to keep working.”

For more information on Helfield’s work, contact him at (360) 650-7285. For more on information on his climate-data forecasting work, contact Robert Mitchell at (360) 650-3591.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017 - 1:44pm

Geology's Liz Schermer publishes new article in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America

Geology's Liz Schermer has co-authored a new article in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America titled "Holocene Earthquakes of Magnitude 7 during Westward Escape of the Olympic Mountains, Washington."

The article was co-written by Alan Nelson, Ray Wells, Nadine Reitman, Lee-Ann Bradley and Stephen Personius of the US Geological Survey and Jason Buck of SHN Consulting Engineers & Geologists.

Study confirms large earthquakes along Olympic Mountain faults

To gain a better understanding of the age, number, and magnitude of earthquakes on the faults, Elizabeth Schermer at Western Washington University and her colleagues plan additional trenching of fault scarps and coring of swampy areas along some scarps later this year.

The new BSSA study suggests that the Olympic Mountains have been moving westward, relative to the Coast Range and Puget Lowland, since the late Pleistocene, said Schermer.

Read more at:

Thursday, September 28, 2017 - 9:13am

Washington’s forgotten volcano before St. Helens

It was almost exactly five years before that infamous peak in southwest Washington rumbled to life when Mount Baker, east of Bellingham in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, belched steam and ash into the air one day in March 1975.

The episode at Mount Baker in 1975 turned out much differently, of course, but it set into motion a chain of events that would function as something of a dry-run for what happened in 1980 at Mount St. Helens, at least in terms of the science.

Don Easterbrook is Professor Emeritus of Geology at Western Washington University and a fourth-generation Whatcom County resident. He’s lived in the shadow of Mount Baker for most of his 82 years.

Easterbrook says that Mount Baker, like many Cascade volcanoes, has always had some baseline amount of thermal activity going on in its crater, with steam occasionally rising from the top of the 10,781-foot peak.

“Mount Baker has been sort of steeping like a teapot for many, many years,” he said.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017 - 10:09am

Summer Field Work: Geology seniors take to the road for capstone course

Geology 409/410 - Advanced Geologic Field Mapping, Methods, and Theory - represents the capstone course for undergraduate Geology majors.  Students in the class spend six weeks exploring and mapping geologic phenomena across the western United States.  In this photo, students from this summer’s class map and analyze large Pleistocene glacial moraines above Wallowa Lake in the Wallowa Mountains, northeastern Oregon.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017 - 9:14am

WWU Receives New $1 Million Grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Submitted by thomps94 on Fri, 06/09/2017 - 11:15am

Western Washington University is one of 24 institutions in the country selected by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Inclusive Excellence Program to receive a five year, $1 million grant to enhance student success in STEM fields, especially those students typically under-represented in the natural sciences. 

The award to WWU was the result of a national-level competition, with a pool of more than 500 applicants from competing institutions, and is the only grant awarded to an institution in the Pacific Northwest.

WWU’s Melissa Rice, Students Attend NASA Workshop for Mars 2020 Mission

Western Washington University Associate Professor of Geology Melissa Rice recently attended a NASA workshop in Monrovia, California with a number of her students to help select landing sites for the Mars 2020 rover mission.

Rice, who is a member of the Curiosity rover science team that has been exploring Mars since 2012, joined 172 scientists in narrowing down eight different potential landing sites to a final three sites.

One of Rice’s graduate students, Joshua Williams of Albuquerque New Mexico, received a travel grant to present his master’s degree thesis work at the workshop. Two other WWU students attended the workshop: undergraduate Katherine Winchell of Arlington, and graduate student Darian Dixon of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

One of the three final sites, Jezero crater, contains remnants of ancient lakes and river deltas. Another site, Northeast Syrtis Major, contains some of the oldest rocks on the planet. The Third site, Gusev crater, is the landing site of the Spirit rover (which landed in 2004), and it contains evidence of an ancient hydrothermal system. An important aspect of the rover mission is to find out if life existed on Mars during the period when the planet had water, so exploring and sampling from these areas is crucial.

Winchell said she thinks that it is important to keep in mind that this mission is mostly about retrieving samples from the planet’s surface.

“This mission is going to be a sample-collecting mission, and that is what is causing most of the debate about where to send it,” Winchell said. “These are probably the only samples that we will get back from Mars until we can actually send a manned mission to the planet.”

Rice said this type of detailed planning and discussion is crucial to a successful mission.

“I am glad that I have a year before the next workshop so I can start thinking about the three sites and try to understand which one is going to be best for this mission,” Rice said.

The next workshop is scheduled for summer 2018 at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Rice will remain involved with the landing site discussion between now and then because she is on the rover’s Mastcam-Z camera team.

“We are in the process of building and testing the cameras that will fly on the new rover,” Rice said. “From the cameras’ perspective, what I am interested in is: What are the landscapes like? What are the colors like? Where are we going to have the most spectacular vistas to photograph? Those are the kinds of things I am going to start thinking about.”

Dixon went to the workshop and is also a part of the rover camera team.

“We went over engineering details and the progress of the camera. We also presented our research and talked about how the camera will work with the different proposed landing sites, which is really interesting,” Dixon said.

Williams said one of the most important goals for the Mars 2020 mission is to find evidence of life in the form of bio-signatures, which is any substance – such as an element, isotope, molecule, or phenomenon – that provides scientific evidence of past or present life.

“My studies are involved in finding the sites with the highest potential for bio-signatures from the planet’s past, because they are actively being destroyed by cosmic radiation,” Williams said.

“So once the final landing site is chosen, we will send the rover to find places on Mars that have the highest potential of finding preserved bio-signatures from the past,” Williams said.

NASA will announce he final landing site and the meeting next summer; until then, Rice and her students will work on planning for all three site finalists.

For more information about Rice’s research with the Mars rover teams, contact her at (360) 650-3592 or at

Tuesday, March 14, 2017 - 9:21am

On Campus: Western's Experimental Earth Surface Laboratory

Senior Geology major Grace Sutherland (Seattle) is working on a project that looks at braided rivers -  a river system that consists of a network of small channels separated by small and often temporary islands called braid bars - and the effect that they have on the environment they are in.

Sutherland has built a model in the Western Experimental Earth Surface Laboratory that allows her to study sediment flow and how braided rivers are created.

Sutherland is comparing her work to a previous experiment done by a colleague in Taiwan, comparing the intensity of the braiding and geometries of the systems. Sutherland hopes to use the data to apply it to real river systems and have it help to interpret those systems' geological history.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017 - 11:14am

Western's Melissa Rice using Microsoft's new HoloLens headset for her research on Mars

Curiosity, the Mars rover that Western’s Assistant Professor of Geology Melissa Rice helps to operate, sends her a 360-degree image of the Planet’s desolate landscape every morning.

As if seeing brand-new images from another planet isn’t amazing enough, the new Microsoft HoloLens headset that Rice recently received uses these photos to produce an augmented reality simulation of the Mars landscape. This allows Rice to explore, virtually, the Mars landscape around the rover.

“I can see everything on Mars to scale all around me in all directions. When I only use my computer screens, I do not get an intuitive sense for how big something is that I see in the images. I never lose that sense of scale with the HoloLens,” Rice said.

The Curiosity rover supplies Rice with both images as well as data from its on-board labs.

“Using that image, we then decide where the rover is going to drive next. We look at the rocks closest to the rover and decide which ones we want the rover to reach out and touch and take a microscopic image of, or take a chemical measurement of,” Rice said. “At the end of our day on Earth, we send those commands to the rover, which then executes those commands when it is morning on Mars. This process repeats itself every day.”

The HoloLens fits around the user’s head and can be tightened by a knob in the back.

 “The HoloLens uses augmented reality, which is different than virtual reality in that it does not block off any of your normal sensory input,” Rice said. “Instead of putting you on Mars, what it does is overlay the Mars landscape on top of your normal reality,” Rice said.

One example of augmented reality is using a smartphone to play the incredibly popular Pokémon Go! game, where “monsters” can be found near the user by looking through the phone’s camera.

Microsoft sent the Jet Propulsion Laboratory 30 HoloLens headsets for team members on the rover mission.

Rice said the goal is for the 400 other scientists to eventually use the HoloLens system for the rover mission.

“We want to all see the same thing and be able to talk to each other about what we see,” Rice said. “The intent eventually is for all 400 of us to communicate through the HoloLens.”

Right now, Rice conference-calls her team on a speakerphone while using the HoloLens to describe to them what she is seeing. She can talk to them and see what other people are pointing at in the augmented reality world as well as hear them on the phone line. 

The HoloLens also allows the team members to create markers that show up as virtual blue flags on the Martian landscape that can be seen by other team members, so they can show each other different rocks, features or places on the surface.

Rice first tested out the HoloLens in spring of 2014 while she was still working at the JPL.

“Microsoft flew me to Redmond to test an early version of the HoloLens,” Rice said. “It was closer to the size of a computer, not wireless, and they controlled the augmented reality through a desktop computer.”

Rice said she is impressed that Microsoft redesigned the HoloLens to be small and work entirely through wifi; all of its software and data is streamed from the cloud.

So while most people wake up in the morning and sip on a cup of hot coffee, Rice is scouring the Mars landscape, talking with the rover team and plotting where Curiosity will explore next - all through the technology of augmented reality.

Monday, January 30, 2017 - 1:45pm
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