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Research — Geochronology

NMGRL is involved with a variety of research projects addressing volcanic hazards, climate change, plutonism, and uplift and tectonism (among many others). We are also deeply involved with development of technology for 40Ar/39Ar geochronology and noble gas mass spectrometers.



The projects listed below are a random selection. Use criteria above to search by feature or region. Combining search criteria may provide few or no results.
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Mark Nohl photo (courtesy of New Mexico Magazine)
Geochronologist studies missing rocks

Dr. Matthew Heizler (geochronologist) has just been awarded a three year grant from the NSF tectonics division to study the "Great Unconformity" exposed in western North America. An unconformity is a span of time for which no rock record is represented because it has been eroded away or because sediment was never deposited. The Great Unconformity was coined by John Wesley Powell during his epic run of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, AZ in 1876. Here he noticed that deformed ancient metamorphic rocks were covered by much younger undeformed sedimentary rocks. New Mexico has some of the best exposures of the contact between these very old Precambrian rocks (1.7 billion years) and younger sediments (300 million years) of anywhere in North America.

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Tephra layers in Rio Grande Rift Sediments

The Jemez Mountains volcanic field, in northwestern New Mexico, has been active for at least the past 16.5 million years, and has produced a large number of explosive and effusive volcanic eruptions during that time. Volcanic ash from the Jemez Mountains volcanic field provides a temporal record of the young eruptions from the caldera and many such deposits have been recognized in a number locations in New Mexico. The ash is present as thick deposits near the eruptive source, and as thinner deposits interbedded in ancestral Rio Grande river sediments at greater distances from the vent.

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photo by: Colin Cikowski
New Mexico's Volcanic Hazards

New Mexico is home to many hundreds of volcanoes that erupted during the last several million years. However, the exact timing of these eruptions has proven difficult to determine by many previous studies. An ongoing NSF-funded project, led by NM Bureau of Geology researcher Matthew Zimmerer, examines the timing of eruptions during the last 500,000 years in order to understand the patterns of volcanism in space and time. This information provides the foundation for an assessment of volcanic hazards in New Mexico.

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Uplift of the Tibetan Plateau: Insights from cosmogenic exposure ages of young lava flows

The Tibetan plateau is a product of the most dramatic tectonic event of recent geological history: the collision of the Indian sub-continent with Eurasia. In spite of the topographic and tectonic implications of the plateau, the mechanisms for its uplift remain controversial. The controversy is in large part a result of poorly constrained uplift history. Types of evidence that have been adduced for the uplift history include paleoecological date, cooling histories of plutonic and igneous rocks, and geomorphic interpretations. Some lines of evidence indicate relatively gradual uplift since the mid-Tertiary, while others support rapid acceleration of uplift during the latest Cenozoic, with the greatest portion during the Quaternary.

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Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh my!

Actually, its bacteria and elephants and monkeys and humans, oh my! Geochronology (the determination of a rock's age) has a wide variety of applications; one of which is placing absolute age constraints on evolution. The New Mexico Geochronology Research Laboratory mainly focuses on projects in New Mexico and the Southwestern USA. However, in a role that fulfills its broader commitment to the scientific community, projects are undertaken from throughout the world.

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Volcanic record in Antarctic ice

Volcanic ash and associated aerosol layers in glacier ice offer a uniquely complete record of explosive volcanism. Investigation of these layers, both in bare ice areas of and in ice cores offers insight into eruptive processes, local and regional ice flow processes, and the impact of eruptions on global systems (climate and ozone depletion). The Antarctic ice sheet is an ideal place to preserve a record of volcanic eruptions. The combination of chemical fingerprinting of glass shards, and chemical analysis of volcanic aerosols associated with tephra layers in Antarctic blue ice allows establishment of a high-resolution chronology of local and distant volcanism that can help understand patterns of significant explosive volcanism, atmospheric loading, and climatic effects associated with volcanic eruptions.

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Scientists Use Ancient Ore Deposits to Predict Ground Water Quality and Paleoclimate

Two Bureau of Geology scientists, in collaboration with scientists at the United State Geological Survey, have discovered similarities between ground water systems that formed ore deposits 10 million years ago and modern ground water in the Rio Grande Rift. They reported their work in an invited presentation at the 2000 Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America.

Dr. Virgil Lueth, mineralogist/ economic geologist, and Lisa Peters, senior lab associate at the New Mexico Geochronological Research Lab, have been studying the mineral jarosite in ore deposits from Chihuahua, Mexico, to Albuquerque.

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Dating the Sands of Time

A new dating method, being developed at the NMBG&MR, uses our state-of-the-art geochronology laboratory, funded by NSF and NM Tech, to determine the age of detrital sanidine (tiny volcanic minerals) from sediments.

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Cosmogenic dating of young basaltic lava flows

Cosmogenic dating techniques have been successfully applied to dating of geomorphically-young surfaces, such as glacial moraines, beach terraces, and basaltic lava flows that have intact surface features, and hence have undergone little erosion (e.g. Phillips et al., 1997a and b; Phillips et al, in review, Dunbar and Phillips, 1996; Zreda et al., 1991, 1993; Zreda, 1994; Anthony and Poths, 1992, Laughlin et al., 1994). These techniques rely on measurement of cosmogenic nuclides that begin to build up as soon as a rock is exposed to cosmic rays. Therefore, cosmogenic techniques can be applied to dating of any surface that is composed of material that was not exposed to cosmic rays prior to formation of the surface, and has been exposed more-or-less continuously since. In the case of an extrusive volcanic rock, buildup of cosmogenic nuclides begins when the rock is erupted, so measurement of the ratio of a cosmogenic isotope to a non-cosmogenic isotope can provide an estimate of eruption age (Phillips et al., 1986).

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