Understanding Our Restless Earth

Robert R. Berg Outstanding Research Award

“Skiing,” said Carlo Doglioni, “is a sort of dancing with beauty, forests and landscapes which allow you to reach a peaceful relation with mountains.”

Doglioni, professor of Earth Science at Sapienza University in Rome, along with Mark G. Rowan, is this year’s recipient of the Robert R. Berg Outstanding Research Award, which is presented to honor a singular achievement in petroleum geoscience research. Doglioni received it for “inspiring generations of field geologists, crafting a unified theory of plate movement and earthquake mechanisms, and reminding us that ‘we are the earth.’”

And, yes, you read right – he’s talking about skiing.

Considering Doglioni’s ability to see the interconnectedness between science and the slalom is perhaps reason enough that AAPG should, perhaps, have an award for prose as well.

To Doglioni, the marriage of the data and the experiential is the key to his life in geology and why this award is the perfect recognition of it.

“If you really want to be an active part of the world,” he said, “you have to know it, and geology is the basic knowledge you need to discover in order to penetrate the mystery of the planet we live on.”

‘We Are the Earth’

On the Venetian Alps, where he was born, growing up in the Dolomites – which he called a “paradise of nature,” he said you literally could feel the environment and have a “daily understanding that we are the Earth.”

At Bari University in Apulia in Southern Italy, where he was an associate professor, Doglioni began thinking beyond the obvious stratigraphic relationships and began considering the impact of dynamic tectonics. He looked homeward for inspiration and clarity.

“In Italy there are two mountain belts, the Alps and Apennines, but they are so different. The Alps are higher, involve deep-seated metamorphic rocks, thick-skinned tectonics is dominant, they have two shallow foredeeps, a thick crust and lithosphere, no back-arc basin and a shallow subduction zone. The Apennines are exactly the contrary, having low topography, one single deep foredeep, the accretionary prism is mostly composed by sedimentary rocks, i.e., dominant thin-skinned tectonics, a widespread back-arc basin and a steep westerly directed subduction zone,” Doglioni related.

Image Caption

Southern border of the Dolomites, Venetian foothills in northeastern Italy. Fault-propagation fold associated to the active Belluno thrust. T, Tertiary, J, Jurassic, DP, Upper Triassic. Doglioni and Carminati, 2008 Mem. carta Geologica d’Italia.

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“Skiing,” said Carlo Doglioni, “is a sort of dancing with beauty, forests and landscapes which allow you to reach a peaceful relation with mountains.”

Doglioni, professor of Earth Science at Sapienza University in Rome, along with Mark G. Rowan, is this year’s recipient of the Robert R. Berg Outstanding Research Award, which is presented to honor a singular achievement in petroleum geoscience research. Doglioni received it for “inspiring generations of field geologists, crafting a unified theory of plate movement and earthquake mechanisms, and reminding us that ‘we are the earth.’”

And, yes, you read right – he’s talking about skiing.

Considering Doglioni’s ability to see the interconnectedness between science and the slalom is perhaps reason enough that AAPG should, perhaps, have an award for prose as well.

To Doglioni, the marriage of the data and the experiential is the key to his life in geology and why this award is the perfect recognition of it.

“If you really want to be an active part of the world,” he said, “you have to know it, and geology is the basic knowledge you need to discover in order to penetrate the mystery of the planet we live on.”

‘We Are the Earth’

On the Venetian Alps, where he was born, growing up in the Dolomites – which he called a “paradise of nature,” he said you literally could feel the environment and have a “daily understanding that we are the Earth.”

At Bari University in Apulia in Southern Italy, where he was an associate professor, Doglioni began thinking beyond the obvious stratigraphic relationships and began considering the impact of dynamic tectonics. He looked homeward for inspiration and clarity.

“In Italy there are two mountain belts, the Alps and Apennines, but they are so different. The Alps are higher, involve deep-seated metamorphic rocks, thick-skinned tectonics is dominant, they have two shallow foredeeps, a thick crust and lithosphere, no back-arc basin and a shallow subduction zone. The Apennines are exactly the contrary, having low topography, one single deep foredeep, the accretionary prism is mostly composed by sedimentary rocks, i.e., dominant thin-skinned tectonics, a widespread back-arc basin and a steep westerly directed subduction zone,” Doglioni related.

He said these asymmetries mimic the differences between the eastern (e.g., Cordilleras, Andes) and the western Pacific subduction zones (Aleutians, Marianas, etc.).

“All this is in agreement with the global tectonic polarity, i.e., the westward drift of the lithosphere relative to the underlying asthenospheric mantle detected in any hotspot reference frame and manifested by the tectonic equator that is about 28 degrees inclined with respect to the geographic equator. These observations highlight a mainstream of plate motions. Moreover, the Gutenberg-Richter law shows how seismicity is globally controlled; therefore, there must be a force at the planet scale fueling plate tectonics. This supports that mantle convection acts contemporaneously with an astronomical engine and geodynamics is a self-organized chaotic system in which several forces work together,” he explained.

To put it another way, Doglioni said the Earth is forever restless and there needs to be a constant vigil on watching and recording that restlessness.

“Everything in our environment is controlled by gradients, any type of gradients, e.g., pressure, temperature, electric, chemical, economic, societal, etc. The Earth is alive because it steadily regenerates gradients or is controlled by gradients, either internal or external, maintaining the active system. It is essential to fully understand a nd quantify those interdependent gradients.”

More Than Science

For four decades, including his work at the Universities of Basilicata (in Potenza) and Sapienza, as well as global field excursions and visiting posts at Oxford, Columbia and Rice Universities, Doglioni continued studying this living, breathing and sometimes cranky Earth.

“I started my studies in geology when the 1976 magnitude 6.5 Friuli earthquake devastated northeast Italy and caused 1,000 deaths. Four years later in southern Italy, Irpinia, another magnitude 6.9 event had 3,000 victims. In both events, a vast population was homeless and the economy was widely disaggregated,” said Doglioni.

It was, for him, more than a science pursuit.

“It was a duty for me to bring my small contribution in understanding earthquakes in order to eventually minimize the disaster generated by these events. Therefore, studying earthquakes melts together the passion for science with the wish to be useful to society. Earthquakes are part of the lively Earth, so our planet is simply doing its job, manifesting its vitality; we have only to understand how it works,” he said.

To understand the power of such events, he said, he first needed to classify them, as is done in botany.

“I think we need to distinguish them as a function of the energy they dissipate, those that move crust in favor or against gravity. They show different phenomenology, which may allow us to arrive to unravel the basic mechanisms governing the different settings. We must invest in studying the mechanisms of earthquakes and improve the networks for monitoring them in order to have the right numbers of the potential ground shaking and possibly to arrive detecting reliable short-term seismic precursors,” Doglioni explained.

He believes the seismicity in Italy, as is the case in many countries, is a fundamental issue to be faced by science, culture, government regulations and common sense.

He spoke of the 15 million buildings in Italy, most of which are vulnerable to earthquakes.

“In the aftermath of an earthquake, people are very sensitive to the problem and solidarity is very pronounced. However, the tendency is to forget as soon as possible the disasters, counteracting the necessary actions of prevention and possibly prediction of future events,” he said.

Politics in Italy, too, will play a part on future successes and failures.

“The new political shift in Italy (the government, now compromised of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the populist Northern League) will be judged also on how it will act for improving the diffusion of education and how decisions will be science-based,” he said.

Doglioni has worked as well in Japan, El Salvador, taught at Rice and Columbia Universities, and has seen how each nation responds to earthquakes.

He carries it all with him.

“Each country has its outstanding specialists and scientific history. The earthquake problem may be divided into the geological, seismological and engineering aspects. Wherever I have been, I learn something in one of the different disciplines,” he said.

He is not pessimistic, but does see the work ahead.

“I think we still have to work quite a lot for improving the resilience of our countries, both from a scientific and technical point of view and from the communication of risk.”

He wants a more holistic approach to the study and the understanding. To that end, even though he has co-authored more than 200 peer-reviewed research papers – 18 of which were published in 2017 – on seismicity research and activity, he is focusing on new areas of research, communication and service.

The Rest of the Journey

As for the Berg Award, he made special thanks for Alfonso Bosellini, Albert W. Bally, Daniel Bernoulli, Hans Peter Laubscher and Giorgio Vittorio Dal Piaz for not just giving him the knowledge he needed, but encouraging his passion.

“They guided me inside the secrets of stratigraphy, tectonics, seismic interpretation, transmitting to me the love for geology.”

The award isn’t the end of something – it’s the middle.

“Such a recognition is a stimulus to pursue the journey in understanding the mechanisms of geodynamics,” said Doglioni.

Of the teaching he does, which still gives him great satisfaction, he is most empowered by what has yet to happen, both in the classroom and in himself.

“Teaching obliges you to keep updated, but, most important, you feel useful in transferring to the new generations the beauty and power of science in getting a more sustainable society,” he said.

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Comments (1)

Carlo Doglioni
As one of the many field geologists inspired by Carlo, I am delighted to see both the award and the article detailing the career of one of our most outstanding members. Thank you, Mr. Friedman, for an excellent piece of journalism. You've communicated Carlo's compelling philosophy to thousands of readers.
10/5/2018 8:44:33 AM

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