The Colgate Scene
May 1999
Table of contents
Earth scientist
Geologist David Howell '66 has traveled the world for the USGS

by James Leach
[IMAGE] The yellowing newspaper headline taped to David Howell's office door -- "Dr. Mud" -- identifies him as the USGS spokesman on El Niño.

     When millions of dollars worth of West Coast hillsides turned to mud and slid away under the onslaught of last year's storms, the national and regional news media turned to Howell more than 100 times for expert explanations of the natural phenomenon. For Howell it was just another episode in a professional life spent understanding and explaining the earth's forces.

     The latest of those projects for the U.S. Geological Service is called "Crowding the Rim," a look at how geologic processes might affect the estimated 1.5 billion people around the world who live within 100 miles of the Pacific. The project will culminate in an international conference planned for early in the next millennium.

     "Crowding the Rim has to do with the concept that risk is a consequence of a hazard times a value," said Howell. For example, he explained, a magnitude-eight earthquake in the hinterlands of the Canadian shield, even though it would be a huge natural hazard, would have little social value because the population is so sparse. In contrast, a relatively small earthquake in a densely populated region, such as the one that struck Kobe, Japan, can result in losses over $100 billion.

     "With the growing population in the central Pacific we are inexorably connected," Howell said. "If something happens in Kuala Lumpur or Indonesia, or Honduras or San Francisco, it reverberates." This conference will attempt to understand better the geologic processes that are of a scale to affect that entire community around the Pacific rim. "We are looking at our environment in a broader view, realizing that spiritually as well as ethically and practically we are one people connected to the earth and dependent on land and water," said Howell. "The trick is to convey this whole message and not sound like a flaky Californian."

     Howell grew up in Cragsmoore, New York, "on the Shawngunk Conglomerate," and developed his interest in geology on Adirondack field studies with Colgate Professor James McLelland. He migrated to California in 1967 to enroll in doctoral studies at UC Santa Barbara. His work has literally taken him around the world. Today he works from USGS offices in Menlo Park, where one hallway graphic tells casual visitors more than they may comfortably care to know about the nearby San Andreas Fault.

     As Howell prepares for the international conference, he draws on information from his current research on the San Francisco Bay. There he has mobilized a corps of retired, productive volunteers who work alongside recent-graduate interns, using the San Francisco Bay area as their laboratory to study issues that come to bear on the Pacific rim. "We have a dynamic population of 8 million people," said Howell, "and we have hazards up the kazoo, like earthquakes and El Niño. Basically we are using San Francisco as our experiment. We're trying to develop a model case of geologic information that can be used to make ethical, economic, social and political decisions." He cited landslide insurance as an example where there has been insufficient actuarial data to establish a reasonable program. "We don't think science should determine the outcome," Howell said, "but it should be part of the decision-making process. Everything we learn we put on the web."

Turnarounds
Dean of Students Bill Griffith took Howell aside at the end of his "disastrous sophomore year" and suggested he enroll in a geology course with McLelland, who had just joined the department from University of Chicago. Howell became McLelland's first field assistant, working with him for three summers as they tried to make sense of the geology of the Adirondacks.

     "I was headed out the door until I met McLelland," Howell said. "He made the field exciting." Today McLelland is the acknowledged authority on the geologic history of the Adirondacks, but in those early years, Howell said, the work was "totally confounding."

     Paleontologist Robert Linsley, now professor of geology emeritus, was another important influence in Howell's life, and Jonathan Swinchatt, who joined the faculty in Howell's senior year and subsequently left the college, became a lifetime friend and collaborator.

     The Army provided a hiatus in the middle of Howell's graduate study, drafting him into the corps of engineers. About the time he was serving his country at a base in Germany, the field of geology was making a dramatic shift away from the concept of a stable earth to theories of plate tectonics. Howell embraced the new thinking, "the notion that continents are made up of crustal flotsam and jetsam that come together through processes of plate motion."

     His doctoral thesis, based on a geologic map of southern California, used sedimentology to demonstrate that the area was formed from the collision of land masses that had moved great distances. The same principles of plate tectonics have led to McLelland's understanding of the formation of the Adirondacks.

     After graduate school Howell joined USGS, an affiliation that he described as, "particularly lucky. It's an organization that strives for answers, that strives to be intellectually on the cusp. Like any organization of that nature it has an array of personalities and demands. If you're a self-starter, there's room to move." And move he has.

Worldwide interests
An assignment to New Zealand introduced Howell to international work. From there, his pioneering research on terrane theory developed into global assignments lecturing to professional geologists and university professors in China, Japan and South America. "Terrane theory itself was intellectually stimulating, and I was also genuinely interested in its practical applications, such as the discovery of gas and oil."

     Later Howell managed a marine program that sent a ship to sites throughout the Pacific and to Antarctica. It was, he said, "the last gasp of blue water research for USGS." The trip is documented in a video titled The Voyage of the SP Lee.

     During a one-year assignment based in Paris, working with a colleague from the French Institute of Petroleum Technology, Howell studied the geology of Sicily, taught courses to professional geologists, and wrote a book (Principles of Terrane Analysis).

     In yet another role, he coordinated a year-and-a-half-long effort to define a strategic plan for USGS.

     Throughout his travels, Howell maintained communication with his Colgate professor, Swinchatt. By then colleagues, the two developed a plan in the 1980s to produce a videotape describing the geology of the Canadian shield. The planning had been underway for two years when Howell was offered a rare opportunity to travel in Tibet.

     He described the telephone conversation where he proposed a change in venue to Swinchatt: "I said, `Swinch, why don't we do something on Tibet instead?' There was about a six-second pause and he said, `Let's do it.'"

     So for two years the two traveled in China, Howell delivering lectures to Chinese geologists and simultaneously developing with Swinchatt the script for a 1989 video that is still in use by geology departments across the country. It was the first of a series of video projects involving the two.

     At one point in that early video, Tibet: Where Continents Collide, Howell stepped to the camera to share with his viewers a personal philosophy that appears to have held to this day:

     "It's always seemed to me," he said, "that many of us in geology are rare romantics. We live our lives in a model of fantasy, constrained by only the most meager amount of data. We dream and build and check with what facts may exist, and then we dream and build some more. We're somewhat like the Tibetans who are said to be so skilled at visualization that they can project images and objects so complete and of such substance that others see them and believe in their reality."

Top of page
Table of contents
<< Previous: "Understanding Hope" Next: "Tilting..." >>