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Scott W. Tinker
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.
BEGs 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 Mexicos 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 Americas 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. Fishers first students, current BEG research scientist Dr. Edgar H. Guevara, is a testament to the success of BEGs 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, BEGs 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.
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 Mexicos 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 BEGs research is directed toward environmental concerns such as the environmental impact of human activities and societys 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 areas 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.
Using satellite data and field studies, BEG staff worked with professionals from the Belize Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources to appraise the governments 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 BEGs largest Latin American environmental projects was a study of a major part of the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela. The Orinoco is one of the worlds 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.
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 countrys 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.
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