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July 07, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, July 07, 2004

USGS in Menlo Park: Stories of people; science; adventure; community USGS in Menlo Park: Stories of people; science; adventure; community (July 07, 2004)

By Marion Softky
Almanac Staff Writer

You can't talk to geologists without hearing stories. Some are about science; some relate to home, family, community; and some are pure adventure -- or worse. There have been catastrophic accidents, even deaths, in the line of duty.

Vulcanologists have some of the most hair-raising experiences. David Johnston lost his life monitoring Mt. St. Helen's explosion in 1980. The mountain blew sky high, but it also blew out a wall of the crater.

There is a monument to Mr. Johnston on the USGS campus -- a brass plaque mounted on a piece of Mt. St. Helen's lava.

When Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991 after sleeping 600 years, a team of USGS geologists was on hand to study the eruption -- and to persuade thousands to evacuate.

"Enormous but not Biblical" were the words that geophysicist David Harlow, then of Menlo Oaks, used to describe the eruption.

Mr. Harlow was one of the last people to leave Clark Air Force Base 10 miles away as a typhoon swept in and the mountain blew. "We had to reach out the window with a squirt bottle to wipe the ash and pumice off the windshield."

Alaska pipeline

But 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.

Mr. 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."

Grisly adventure

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 firmly.

Amazingly, Ms. 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 month, Ms. Dusel-Bacon is 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's there only for about a week. And she's not alone. "For 10 days, Charlie is my field assistant," she says in a joint interview in her Menlo Park office.

The Bacons have lived and worked in Menlo Park for almost 30 years. They met in the rock lab at USGS, and have one son, Ian Bacon, who just graduated from Menlo-Atherton High School.

Like many USGS employees, Ms. Dusel-Bacon has contributed to the city. In the mid-80s she served on the Environmental Beautification Committee, and shepherded a plan for street trees through the bureaucracy. Just recently, she appeared before the City Council to defend the Heritage Tree Ordinance.

After serving as field assistant for his wife, Mr. Bacon will 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."

Local ties

The expertise of scientists at USGS has contributed in many ways to the communities where they live.

Besides planting more than 160 rhododendrons and camellias on the USGS campus, geophysicist Howard Oliver of Menlo Park badgered Menlo Park and Atherton into sponsoring USGS studies of the groundwater basin beneath the cities. The concern was the quantity and quality of groundwater, and whether too many wells might cause the land to sink.

In Woodside, geologists have regularly brought their knowledge to the Town Council and commissions. Bob Page and Tom Moses have both served, and Carroll Ann Hodges, once chief geologist for the Western Region before being laid off in 1995, is still a member of the Town Council.

But geologists have been most effective in Portola Valley, which like Woodside is traversed by the San Andreas Fault and afflicted by unstable slopes subject to landslides.

Starting soon after incorporation in 1964, the late Dwight Crowder pestered the new Town Council into taking into account the town's geologic hazards. "He was a lone crusader," recalls George Mader, who has been town planner ever since. "Then he started hammering on me."

Mr. Crowder was killed in an automobile accident, but his legacy continued with other geologists, such as Rowland Tabor, Chet Wrucke, and Sheldon Breiner.

As a result, Portola Valley created geologic maps showing its hazardous areas, and devised plans and ordinances to guide building and development to safe areas.

The work in Portola Valley was contagious, and soon the USGS performed a similar study of the whole Bay Area. Geologist Bob Brown of Ladera, which also has landslides, directed the groundbreaking study, which developed region-wide information on geology, faults, landslides and other hazards to help planners and decision-makers do a better, safer job.

Mr. Mader concludes, "The USGS got interested in what we did in Portola Valley, and used it as a model."

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