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DISCOVERY MAGAZINE

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Scott W. Tinker

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Economic Geology and Latin America


One of the oldest and largest research facilities at the University of Texas, the Bureau of Economic Geology also serves as the Texas Geological Survey. Thus, it has investigated geoscience and natural resource issues within the Texas-Mexico border area for nearly 100 years. As natural systems do not recognize man-made boundaries, following Texas earth systems into Mexico is a logical extension of Texas-based studies.

The majestic Orinoco Delta in Venezuela
The majestic Orinoco Delta in Venezuela.
Mexico and Latin America offer many exciting opportunities for joint research and other collaborative activities with universities and other entities. Among its activities, the Bureau of Economic Geology (BEG) is building partnerships in Latin America that encourage initiatives in fossil energy research and environmental studies.

BEG’s involvement with Latin America began in the 1960s under the directorship of Dr. Peter T. Flawn, who later became president of the University. Dr. Flawn, together with Mexico’s Instituto de Geología, investigated the famous silver mines of Mexico. In 1970, then-new BEG director Dr. William L. Fisher was invited by the Brazilian oil company Petrobras to present a weeklong course on deltaic depositional systems. This marked the beginning of enriching research collaborations, training programs, student research and UT-conferred geoscience degrees with the people of Latin America’s largest country.

A similar, positive relationship developed between Venezuela and BEG in the early 1970s, when twenty Venezuelan students came to UT Austin to obtain graduate geoscience degrees. One of Dr. Fisher’s first students, current BEG research scientist Dr. Edgar H. Guevara, is a testament to the success of BEG’s mutually beneficial and long-standing relationship with Venezuela. Over the years, BEG and Venezuelan scientists have undertaken many collaborative projects.

In addition to Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela, BEG’s recent history in Latin America includes projects in Argentina, Belize, Honduras, Colombia and Bolivia. Bureau researchers have benefited from the opportunity to study, deliver presentations and conduct workshops and fieldwork in many Latin American countries.

One of the pleasures of research is the interaction with graduate students. For the past thirty years BEG has supported hundreds of graduate students from Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico and Colombia as graduate research assistants. BEG routinely supports about thirty graduate students each semester, about 20 percent of them from Latin American countries. Some of these students have become professors or senior managers and leaders of industry and government agencies in their home countries.

Fossil Energy Research. Bureau scientists have a history of leading-edge research in the development of basic concepts and models for sediment deposition. Their scientific contributions have been of great importance to the worldwide search for and production of fossil energy. Because the energy industry is the major employer of geoscientists, many industry-bound students from Latin America choose to study with the highly respected team of scientists at BEG and the Department of Geological Sciences for their graduate degrees.

Latin American research enables BEG to fulfill many research and educational objectives. Bureau scientists gain access to large datasets on sedimentary basins that enable them to stay on the cutting edge of research. These datasets, usually owned by major oil companies, provide for forefront research that is undertaken by teams of scientists and students. An integrated team may include researchers with expertise in such disciplines as geophysics, sedimentology, stratigraphy, petrophysics, petrology, geochemistry and petroleum engineering. Commonly, technical experts from the host country work with the BEG team on various aspects of each study.

BEG and PEMEX, the national oil company of Mexico, are working together to study Tertiary-age basins in southern Mexico. Results of this study will help guide pemex exploration strategies to meet Mexico’s increasing demand for natural gas resources. This project, to our knowledge the first of its kind to be awarded to a U.S. university, will also contribute to our understanding of the geology of a little-known part of the Gulf of Mexico.

Environmental Research. Nearly a third of BEG’s research is directed toward environmental concerns such as the environmental impact of human activities and society’s increasing need for water resources.

In the Texas-Mexico border area, for example, BEG scientists, together with four UT and A&M border universities, recently completed a project that produced a binational digital database of the border area’s geology. These types of high-quality transboundary datasets are extremely important to those concerned with responsible development and environmental protection in this region.

Another lower Rio Grande Valley project involves the use of new airborne geophysical surveys to determine possible sources of groundwater. This work, if successful, could be easily applied to adjacent areas in Mexico. To assist Mexican researchers in their search for resources, BEG scientists have traveled to Mexico to deliver presentations and have held workshops for Mexican groundwater professionals in Texas.

A small distributary channel meandering over the northern floodplain of the Orinoco Delta
A small distributary channel meandering over the northern floodplain of the Orinoco Delta.
Belize, Honduras, Colombia, Venezuela. During the past five years, Bureau scientists have worked on several collaborative environmental studies with scientists and professionals in Belize, Honduras, Colombia and Venezuela. These studies allowed BEG researchers to apply advanced technologies and modern concepts to areas that have had relatively little study.

Using satellite data and field studies, BEG staff worked with professionals from the Belize Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources to appraise the government’s efforts to limit deforestation and to evaluate land use for better management of protected areas. Scientists from the UT Center for Space Research are commonly part of these investigations when they involve the application of remotely sensed imagery. Bureau researchers presented public workshops in Belize and hosted workshops for Belize scientists at UT Austin. BEG has a NASA-funded project, using test areas in Belize, to determine the applicability of satellite data for analysis of neotropical environments.

BEG was a pioneer in the 1960s and 1970s in recognizing the importance of geology and geologic processes to development of natural resources and land use, especially in coastal areas. Knowing the location of areas that have a high potential for erosion or flooding, for example, or the distribution of wetlands, should be a major consideration for decisions about land use or the conservation of critical environments. Bureau studies conducted during this time, which resulted in a series of significant reports covering the entire Texas coast, are still primary sources of information for the region. In the 1990s, BEG scientists began applying the principles developed in Texas to regions in Latin America.

One of BEG’s largest Latin American environmental projects was a study of a major part of the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela. The Orinoco is one of the world’s great river systems, and the opportunity to do extensive fieldwork in this remote area was challenging and rewarding. The goal of this collaborative study was to establish a baseline of current conditions and active processes of the delta in order to better guide land and resource development and to minimize environmental impacts. Baselines also make it possible to distinguish development-related impacts from the rapid natural changes in the environment that are common in this area of very active geologic processes.

Experts in geology and biology from Venezuelan universities were an important part of our studies. There is dynamic interaction between this great river and its coast: high tidal ranges, subsidence, mud volcanoes and high annual precipitation result in rapid environmental changes. Many of the geologic elements of the Orinoco Delta, such as levees, crevasses and flood basins, exert control on the location of plant communities so that maps of the geology and maps of the distribution of plant communities have a lot in common.

Bureau researchers were able to document the effects of previous attempts to control flooding and the expansion of agriculture on the upper delta plain. Analysis of sequential satellite images taken over a twenty-year period demonstrates that a dam constructed on a major distributary channel of the Orinoco River resulted in rapid sedimentation and growth of islands at the mouth of the river, the Boca de Guanipe, on the coast many miles downstream. Understanding the effects of previous development and having knowledge of the current processes can provide guidance for responsible future development.

The majestic Orinoco Delta in Venezuela
LIDAR image of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The large oval structure is a soccer field.
Light Detection and Ranging. Three years ago BEG coastal scientists and the Center for Space Research began experimenting with the new technology called Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR). This airborne laser altimetry allows the collection of high-precision topographic data from an airplane. This technology has many applications. Our interest involves using LIDAR to map active geologic environments, such as the Texas coast, where shoreline change is an important issue. LIDAR is considered a unique tool for investigating a broad range of scientific and engineering research problems, shoreline change and wetlands loss, surface hydrology and flooding, earth surface dynamics and landslides, forest structure and ecology, city planning and urban infrastructure mapping and improved data processing and data collection.

Soon after BEG purchased its own LIDAR unit in 2000, the U.S. Geological Survey asked the bureau to participate in an investigation of the impact of Hurricane Mitch that caused great destruction in Central America, particularly in Honduras, in November 1998. The flooding, high winds and landslides destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, and Honduras is rebuilding its housing and infrastructure destroyed by the hurricane.

To minimize the effects of future storm disasters, the Honduran government needed maps that clearly define areas prone to flooding and landslides. The joint BEG-U.S. Geological Survey team surveyed many municipal areas of Honduras. Maps and surveys that would have been nearly impossible using ground-based methods were completed in a few weeks. Although the data are being processed, initial results exceed expectations. BEG feels proud to be playing a small, but critical, role in helping Honduras recover from one of the worst natural disasters in Latin American history.

In addition to flood hazard mapping, BEG scientists made side trips to Copan to conduct LIDAR and GPS surveys of the Maya ruins. Archeologists are using these data to develop a GIS database, a crucial element in the Hondurans’ preservation strategy for its renowned archeological treasure.

The Future. The Bureau of Economic Geology hopes to expand its Latin American research programs in both fossil energy and environmental studies. Dr. Fisher and I traveled to Brazil in spring 2001 to meet with Brazilian academic, government and industry leaders. The meetings, which renewed old friendships and forged new ones, are expected to result in new collaborative projects.

We also hope to build a new program of research and education in Belize. This program will involve the University of Belize and the government of Belize and is based on the success of several environmental projects BEG has conducted in Central America.

In 2001 a group of distinguished visitors from the Escuela Superior Politécnica del Litoral in Guayaquil, Ecuador, visited BEG offices. The Ecuadorians came to Austin to sign an agreement between their university and UT Austin that will facilitate future joint activities.

The Bureau of Economic Geology expects to strengthen and build on the many professional relationships it has developed with academic, industry and government scientists in Latin America. The bureau also anticipates that many more students from Latin America will attend the University of Texas and work on BEG research projects. These projects offer unique opportunities for exciting research and stimulating collaborative relationships with scientists and students in Latin America.

Scott W. Tinker
Dr. Scott W. Tinker is director of the Bureau of Economic Geology, professor of geological sciences, and State Geologist for Texas. Before joining the Bureau of Economic Geology, Dr. Tinker was an advanced senior geologist with Marathon in Littleton, Colorado, where he managed large reservoir characterization studies. His expertise in carbonate sedimentology and sequence stratigraphy led to his selection as a Distinguished Lecturer for the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. Dr. Tinker is actively involved in the BEG’s research projects in Mexico and was instrumental in establishing cooperative agreements with universities in Brazil. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Trinity University, master’s degree from the University of Michigan, and doctorate from the University of Colorado. He can be reached at 512-471-1534.

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May 14, 2002
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