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 10.18.17

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Science Seen

In Calif., some Alaska science stories are legend

The USGS shares how a men's room conversation kept the Alaska pipeline from premature meltdown - and a tale of danger in the line of duty in Alaska that changed one geologist's life forever.

“You can’t talk to geologists without hearing stories,” writes reporter Marion Softky in the July 7 edition of the weekly community newspaper The Almanac, based in Menlo Park, California. “Some are about science; some relate to home, family, community; and some are pure adventure—or worse.” With permission, ASO excerpts two that are also Alaskan:
If not for Art Lachenbruch, the Alaska pipeline might have collapsed in a horrid, gooey mess.
It’s legend at USGS that a men’s room conversation about the pipeline led to its complete redesign, and construction.

Lachenbruch, an expert in permafrost and a member of the National Academy of Science, learned in the famous conversation with geologist Irv Tailleur that the oil companies planned to bury the pipeline. He immediately understood that running oil from 10,000 feet underground, at a temperature of about 140 degrees F, through permafrost—the upper layer of ground in the Arctic that never thaws—would create a disaster. Hot oil would melt the year-round ice that supports the pipe. Imagine the rest.

The pipeline was redesigned; it has carried a million gallons of hot oil a day ever since.
“This was an initiative out of Menlo Park,” Mr. Lachenbruch told the Almanac 20 years later. “It was not part of the system, but interested geologists advising their superiors of potential problems.”
USGS scientists also recognized that the pipeline crossed the very active Denali earthquake fault. It was designed with wheels, so that the ground could move under it.
In 2002 the design was tested in a monster earthquake. “The ground shifted 20 feet below the pipeline, and it didn’t leak a drop of oil,” says Bill Ellsworth, chief of the Earthquake Hazards Team in Menlo Park. “Good science prevented an unmitigated disaster.
“That captures the essence of what we’re all about here.”

And, another USGS Alaska story:

Cynthia Dusel-Bacon had been married just five months to vulcanologist Charlie Bacon when it happened.

The young geologist was alone, mapping mineral resources in Alaska, when she innocently surprised a bear napping in the brush.

Fortunately, she had a radio. By the time the helicopter rescued her, Ms. Dusel-Bacon had lost a good part of both arms.

“The bear was the kind we have in Yosemite; she was not a grizzly,” Ms. Dusel-Bacon says.
Amazingly, Dusel-Bacon recovered. She has continued working as a geologist ever since. She manages efficiently and unselfconsciously with two hooks in place of her arms. In 1981, she got the Department of Interior award for an employee with disabilities.

This July, Dusel-Bacon was in the field again, studying the geology of Red Mountain, a promising area for lead and zinc in east-central Alaska. Only this time she was there only for about a week. And she was not planning to go alone. “For 10 days, Charlie [Bacon, her husband] is my field assistant,” she told The Almanac in a July interview.

After serving as field assistant for his wife, Mr. Bacon planned to go back to his main job monitoring volcanoes of the Aleutian Islands, in order to be able to forecast eruptions. “There are about 40 volcanoes with a history of eruption,” he says.

Knowledge of these eruptions is critically important because volcanic ash threatens the safety of the heavy air traffic over the North Pacific. “In 1990, a 747 full of people encountered volcanic ash from a local eruption and lost all four engines,” Mr. Bacon says. “It was going to hit the ground, but the pilots got the engines started.
“That started the program of the Alaska Volcano Observatory.”

Originally published in The Almanac online edition, July 07, 2004. Copyright 2004, Embarcadero Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

[Read more at The (Menlo Park, Calif.) Almanac]

By Marion Softkey / The Almanac | Posted 10.25.04 at 5:54 am


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