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Geology professor poses answer to ancient geological puzzle

December 11, 2000

Were the ancient sand deposits in Nevada's Henry Basin formed by volcanic eruption? Or by the wind?

In pursuit of the answer, Dr. Jack Deibert, assistant professor of geology, spent five weeks in Nevada studying that area's unusual sand deposits. Deibert--along with junior geology major Matt McKelvey--then presented a hypothetical answer to more than 7,000 geoscientists gathered for the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in November.

The deposits in the Henry Basin pose a mystery that has intrigued geologists for decades. It seems that ancient deposits of desert sand often display something called cross-bedding, a scientific term for the patterns created by migrating dunes.

The Henry Basin contains ancient sand deposits, and its deposits display cross-bedding. But instead of being made of quartz, the deposits are made of grains of volcanic glass, which as the name would suggest, are typically found only at the site of a volcano.

Which raises the mystery: Was the Henry Basin the result of a volcanic eruption? Or was it created by the wind?

After spending five weeks in the Nevada desert, Deibert and McElvey offered an answer, or more accurately, a hypothesis: They believe the deposits originated from a volcanic eruption, and the wind blew the volcanic particles into the surrounding sand dunes. They presented their hypothesis and their findings to the Geological Society in November.

Their impact of their research goes beyond the obvious. Its also relevant to the study of volcanic hazards near modern volcanoes and--surprise--to sand dunes on Mars.

Deibert and McElvey's research has yet another benefit. "It provides name recognition for the University,” Deibert says. The fact that Deibert's co-researcher was an undergrad also attracted attention to Austin Peay.

“Usually only graduate students get to present at a meeting like this,” Deibert says.