Springfield, Ohio — After years of studying ancient river deposits each summer in Wyoming, Wittenberg University Associate Professor of Geology Mike Zaleha has decided to study rocks in rivers that flow a little closer to home.
Zaleha submitted a proposal titled "Acquisition of an acoustic doppler current profiler and gauging station to study processes and deposits associated with the evolution of gravel point bars, Mad River, Ohio" to the National Science Foundation (NSF). He was awarded $46,300 from the NSF's Earth Sciences – Instrumentation and Facilities Program for the purchase of equipment to support a program his colleague, Professor of Geology John Ritter, called "leading edge instrumentation that sedimentologists use to study sediment transport."
The new equipment may have uses for other Wittenberg academic departments, and Zaleha is also considering ways to display resulting data on the geology department's Web site or in the Barbara Deer Kuss Science Center. By making his department's research findings as public as possible, he hopes to convey the importance of the research.
"Understanding rivers and water resources, in general, is important to society as a whole," Zaleha said. "For example, rivers erode and deposit sediment; it is their nature, it is what they do. Understanding the area over which this occurs, or could occur, is important for determining set-back distances for any sort of construction, such as housing developments. Understanding the nature of sediment erosion and deposition is also important to engineers who design bridges that we drive over every day."
In addition to the change in location, the new project also represents a significant academic departure for Zaleha.
"For most of my career I have been working on ancient river deposits (i.e. rocks)," Zaleha said. "However, I have a strong background and interest in river processes – to understand ancient rivers, you need to understand modern rivers. I have also done a bit of work on modern rivers but, again, most of my work has been on the ancient, so this research is a significant change in direction from my recent research."
Two pieces of equipment will be purchased: a non-contact gauging station, which will record water-surface elevation in real time to Zaleha's computer on campus, and an acoustic doppler current profiler, which measures the doppler shift of sound waves off particles in the water column to calculate velocity.
"This equipment and the research and activities it supports will make our program distinctive among our peers for its concentration on rivers," Ritter said.
Zaleha, who has a bachelor's degree from Muskingum College, a master's from Ohio University and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University, said he has been interested in studying the Mad River since joining Wittenberg's faculty in 2001. Now with his research in Wyoming completed, he can turn his attention to this local tributary – and the NSF grant will provide the funding to make the work that much more fruitful.
"The study will examine the evolution and character of gravel bars in the Mad River," he said. "The main goal of the study is to make observations before, during and after formative flow events.
"Geologists, sedimentologists in particular, commonly study modern environments to understand rocks that have sediment deposited in comparable ancient environments. This, fundamentally, is the impetus for my project."
Zaleha said that a river's characteristics (width, depth, shape, bars) are formed during periods of high flow, when the water is at or near the top of its banks. The Mad River is good for this study because it tends to reach high flow stages without flooding.
"Geologists have very little information on the nature of these flow conditions because studying flow conditions during this period is difficult and dangerous due to the risk of flooding," he continued. "In the past, the only way that flow could be measured like this was to construct bridges over the river and use a probe stuck into the water. With some new equipment that has been developed it is possible to pull a small boat, called a trimaran, across the river and measure flow while standing on the banks."
In his proposal, Zaleha noted that "there is a paucity of data concerning the nature of formative flows associated with gravelly river deposits." He added that a wide range of professionals will benefit from the comprehensive database that he and Ritter hope to compile, including fluvial sedimentologists, fluvial geomorphologists, river engineers, aquifer and reservoir modelers, field hydrologists and environmental geologists.
Zaleha and Ritter also noted that the resulting research projects are important because they will involve students. In particular, the new equipment will allow seniors to complete research projects through hands-on field experience.
"Involving students is important to the project," said Zaleha, who has conducted research throughout the United States and even did field work on the Miocene Siwaliks in Pakistan from 1988-91. "The equipment will also be used in courses for demonstration (e.g., Gen Ed and upper level courses) and course projects (upper level courses; likely on Buck Creek and possibly some other streams in the county).
"In the past, our students have given presentations at regional Geological Society of America meetings and meetings of the Ohio Academy of Sciences (as well as the Wittenberg Student Research Symposium). Additionally, in 2007 John Ritter was first author on a paper with a student as second author (and me as third)."
Written By: Ryan Maurer