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Brian Kortz, a senior geology major from North Rose, N.Y., is working with Dru Germanoski, associate professor of geology and environmental geosciences, to investigate climate changes in central Nevada.

Last summer, as an EXCEL Scholar assisting Germanoski with his research, Kortz traveled with Germanoski to Federal land in central Nevada, where they took soil samples. Now, as a candidate for departmental honors, Kortz is analyzing the samples as part of his senior thesis.

“The main goal of this project is to try to determine climate change over the past 10,000 years in this regional area,” Kortz says. “There have been a lot of erosion problems with the streams in the mountains, and we’re trying to figure out why.”

The entire state of Nevada has an arid climate, Germanoski says. The majority of the water flows down from the mountains in shallow channels or streams. But in last couple of hundred years, some of these shallow streams have cut deep gullies into the earth.

This has a major effect on the ecosystem, Germanoski says. He explains that streams close to the surface of the earth support what’s called a wet-meadow ecosystem, where many plants with shallow roots are able to thrive. As the stream cuts down through the earth – in a process called “downcutting” — the water table drops with it, changing the ecosystem to a dry-meadow ecosystem, which no longer supports the plants and animals who live in the wet meadow.

A project, funded by the U.S. Forest Service, is trying to find out what is happening to make the streams downcut.

“The Forest Service is concerned and want to understand why the streams are downcutting,” Germanoski says. “Is it natural, or is land use having an influence?” The Forest Service leases some of the land to ranchers, who graze cattle on the land. Could that be behind the changing landscape, he wonders.

Kortz’s senior honors thesis is related to the project.

“In each stream we looked at, there were always two distinct layers of sediment, one grayish-brown, the other chocolate brown. It’s interesting to us why there were always these same colors. The sediment has the same source — being deposited by the same stream — so, it should be all the same color.”

Kortz is trying to determine why the color varies. He’s examining the amount of organic material and iron in the sediment.

“It’s very interesting,” Kortz says, “and one of the most interesting aspects is that no one knows the answers to it yet. If I can figure this out this will be my contribution to the project.”

Kortz says the EXCEL and honors research are preparing him well for graduate school and a future career in geology. He credits Lafayette with giving him the opportunity to get valuable hands-on geological experience.

“It has been a good experience,” Kortz says. “I’m definitely glad I came to Lafayette. The whole geology department is great. I can talk to professors not only as professors and professionals, but as friends and companions. My four years here have been just great.”

Germanoski speaks highly of Kortz, whom he calls a self-starter.

“One of his strongest attributes is he works very well independently,” Germanoski says.

Germanoski also says Kortz was able to deal well with the discomforts of field work. During their three weeks in Nevada, they camped by one of the research sites, but still had to ford a waist-high stream and hike about an hour carrying their equipment to the site.

“Brian cheerfully accepted the circumstances,” Germanoski says. “He dealt really well with that sort of adversity and discomfort. It’s always good to get out into the field and start seeing things directly, things you’ve heard about in lectures. Brian made the most of his opportunity to go from the books and the lab out into the field.”

Categorized in: Academic News