Kimberlites of Central New York Are Focus of Summer Research

Allie Hutchison '10 and Lisa Feuerstein '10
Allie Hutchison '10 and Lisa Feuerstein '10
Hamilton graduate Oren Root (1803-1885) was the first to find igneous, volcanic rocks known as kimberlites in New York State. In 1881, he retired as Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, Mineralogy and Geology at Hamilton, and left a legacy of sage and introspective research for future students and faculty to imitate. This summer, Alexandra Hutchison ’10 and Lisa Feuerstein ’10 are expanding on the study of kimberlites across Central New York and the eastern states. They are working with Associate Professor of Geosciences David Bailey to determine why kimberlites exist in certain places and where they came from. Their projects have slightly different aims, but both revolve around the effort to discern the more reliable theories from those with not enough evidence.

Feuerstein went to Cascadilla Creek near Ithaca, N.Y., to collect and excavate the kimberlites, which form as dikes made out of the ascending magma from the mantle. In geology, dikes are vertical sheets of magma or sediment intrusions. As the magma travels from the mantle to the crust, it solidifies. From an underground cross-section, it looks like cubist, rectangular structure that differs in material from the adjacent rock. Feuerstein crushed her samples into thin sections and observed them under a scanning electron microscope, noting the colors and chemical composition. She found that a particular class of minerals – spinels – was residing in the kimberlitic rock. After researching and inspecting her samples further, she discovered that the magma had picked up the spinels on its way to the crust. Now she is in the process of reading previous studies and looking at trends in her graphs to find out more about spinels and their role in kimberlitic formation.

She is also helping Hutchison with her project, which involves the stretch of kimberlites that runs from Quebec to the Atlantic Ocean, and then turns to form a “J” shape as it tapers off near Tennessee. Some geologists have proposed the Great Hotspot Track Theory, which maintains that as the crush moves over the mantle due to plate tectonics, a hotspot in the mantle causes the rock to melt and raises it to the surface, thereby forming the kimberlitic dike.

However, Bailey does not necessarily agree. He feels that given the dates, samples in or near the Atlantic Ocean could have materialized due to plate divergence, which would then render a series of fractures in the stone. Hutchison is looking at the perovskite mineral species in the crushed kimberlites to compute its ratio of uranium to lead (perovskites, which are smaller than one 500th of a micron, contain uranium, which decays to lead). These numbers might help support or disprove Bailey’s theory.

Hutchison wants to study the mathematical modeling of volcanoes sometime after she graduates, and recently had the opportunity to participate in a first-hand, scholarly conference. This summer the National Science Foundation paid for her to do a presentation on probabilistic modeling of volcanic eruptions at a conference in Colombia.

Her talk was primarily on a volcano called Galeras, which last erupted in March of this year. Hutchison discussed with professional volcanologists the nuances of hazard planning, especially in the example of the Colombian Red Zone, which is a region where indigenous people are subject to arbitrary and unexpected evacuations that the government commands. Sometimes the government becomes so authoritarian that it threatens local citizens’ permanent relocation if they don’t submit to evacuation plans on a routine basis. Hutchison and others debated the effectiveness of this strategy and how hazard maps (that sketch lines like the Red Zone boundary) could be more accurate.

Feuerstein will also participate in an educational experience this fall, as she will teach geology to children in Clinton schools as part of her senior thesis. As a veteran camp counselor, she loves working with children and immersing herself with their enthusiasm. She would love to be a teacher so that she can pass down her gung-ho feelings for the geosciences.

“I mean, it’s the earth,” she gushed. “How it changes, how it forms, the dynamics of it. And it can be very field-oriented and hands-on. There’s something about hiking through a gorge and under waterfalls to find dikes that have been there since the early 1900s.”

Hutchison grew up in Mexico, where she lived among varied rock formations. She decided to major in geoscience late in her college career, but now she sees the beauty in her area of specialty.

“Geology puts everything in perspective,” she said. “It’s such a good feeling to know about everything that surrounds you. It all relates in some way to geology. Everything does.”

Feuerstein is a graduate of Brighton High School and Hutchison graduated from the George School.
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