Press Archive

Tracking Volcanoes: GEON Hosts NAVDAT Database at SDSC

Cyberinfrastructure for Scientific Database Access and Integration

Published 08/04/2004

GEON, the Geosciences Network, has announced that it is now hosting NAVDAT, the Western North American Volcanic and Intrusive Rock Database. The collaborative arrangement is expected to have numerous benefits, including expanding the range of Earth science data collections that geoscientists can seamlessly access through GEON, while at the same time freeing the NAVDAT scientists from having to deal with information technology issues so that they can focus more fully on science. The NAVDAT database can be accessed through the GEON portal at, as well as at the original location at the University of Kansas,

Mt. Shasta in northern California, looking west from the Medicine Lake highland. Shasta is near the southern end of the Cascade chain of stratovolcanoes, which include Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Hood. All are capable of significant eruptions. About 300,000 years ago Shasta released a colossal debris avalanche down its northwest side, about 10 times larger than the one shed off Mt. St. Helens in 1980. Image courtesy Allen Glazner.

Low-altitude aerial view of Obsidian Dome, a pancake-shaped obsidian lava flow near Mammoth Lakes, California. Obsidian Dome is part of a chain of volcanoes that last erupted about 600 years ago. Image courtesy Allen Glazner.

"As more projects join GEON, this is building a rich environment of Earth science data," said Chaitan Baru, co-director of the Data and Knowledge Systems (DAKS) program at SDSC and coordinator of IT research in GEON. "Integrating diverse types of geoscience data is a core part of GEON cyberinfrastructure, and will support collaborations among scientists from different fields in ways not previously possible, transforming the practice of the geosciences." Other scientific data projects that are working with GEON include CHRONOS, an interactive chronostratigraphy and stratigraphic database, and the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science-Hydrologic Information Systems (CUAHSI-HIS). In addition to advancing basic Earth science, the long-term benefits of GEON cyberinfrastructure will include better prediction of geological hazards, improved mineral exploration, and more reliable science-based policymaking.

Collaborative Cyberinfrastructure

With GEON hosting the NAVDAT database, the scientific work of ingesting new data submitted by the community will continue to be handled by the geoscientists who created the database, while the technical tasks of database and network maintenance will be off-loaded to the large-scale environment of SDSC, where economies of scale and concentrated expertise make it efficient to provide reliable state-of-the art support in areas such as networking and technology migration.

Devil's Postpile in eastern California, the centerpiece of Devil's Postpile National Monument. These thick columns formed when a basalt lava flow was dammed behind ice or glacial debris in the canyon of the San Joaquin River. Slow cooling allowed the lava to crack into 5- and 6-sided columns. Image courtesy Allen Glazner.

Cinder Cone, in Lassen Volcanic National Park, California, last erupted in 1650. It spread basaltic cinders over a large area in the northeast part of what is now the park. Image courtesy Allen Glazner.

"Hosting NAVDAT through GEON at SDSC is a good example of how broad cyberinfrastructure really is," said Baru. "Providing a system that will enable scientists to 'plug in' and access computational services anywhere is one benefit; another key is providing a reliable hosting environment with services like high performance networks for data access and replication, and support for sustaining long-term availability of scientific data." This can be a step toward creating the science library of the future, Baru believes, with institutions like SDSC providing permanent access to irreplaceable scientific data sets. "And to make this viable, SDSC needs to maintain its tradition of close collaboration with the domain scientists who create these scientific data sets," said Baru. "It's more than IT alone, it's science and IT working together."

A large NSF Information Technology Research (ITR) project, GEON is a multi-institution collaboration of IT and Earth Science researchers developing technologies to enable geoscientists to integrate, analyze, model, and visualize today's enormous and complex multidisciplinary 4-D Earth science data collections. By providing leading-edge integration and grid computing services to support geosciences research and collaboration on unprecedented scales, GEON is making it possible for geoscientists to weave the separate strands of the Earth sciences into a unified picture of the whole Earth.

Understanding Volcanoes Through NAVDAT

The NAVDAT database, supported primarily by the NSF, is used for research into the causes of volcanism. This helps geoscientists understand the links between petrology - the study of the composition, occurrence, and origin of rocks - and tectonics, including the underlying causes of the patterns or cycles in the history and geographic distribution of volcanic activity. "One of the most compelling aspects of the plate tectonic theory is how well it explains the locations and types of magmatism, and this is a cornerstone of our science," said NAVDAT principal investigator Professor Douglas Walker of the University of Kansas. "The overall goal of NAVDAT is to provide a comprehensive, web-accessible database of a continent-sized area that can be updated and maintained over the long termto better understand magmatism and tectonics, and GEON will be very helpful in this."

Major volcanic eruptions, which are difficult to predict, are spectacular events with impacts from destroying the local environment with major loss of life to throwing vast quantities of dust and aerosols into the atmosphere, which can temporarily cool the Earth's climate. "Volcanoes seem to erupt in patterns, and NAVDAT gives us a way to study and visualize these space-time-composition patterns," said NAVDAT scientist Professor Allen Glazner of the University of North Carolina. "As we learn more about the basic science of volcanoes, ultimately we hope this will lead to improved ability to predict eruptions, saving lives and property." Another goal of the project is enabling better success in finding geothermal resources, since most geothermal energy is associated with volcanism.

Data that geoscientists submit to NAVDAT is compiled at the University of Kansas site by researcher Todd Bowers, and made freely available online. Data include age, chemical, and isotopic information for igneous rocks, which are formed by the solidification of molten magma. NAVDAT also provides tools such as maps, graphs, and diagrams to aid in data selection. The area covered includes the western United States, British Columbia, and Mexico, and the age range extends from the Late Cretaceous (65 million years ago) to the Holocene (present). Data entry began in 2002, and there are now thousands of samples online, with data sets being added continuously.

The geochemical data in NAVDAT can also be used by teachers and students for undergraduate and graduate petrology and geochemistry classes, and NAVDAT researchers are working with Dr. David Mogk on development of an "educational overlay" for geochemical databases.

In addition to Walker and Glazner, other members of the NAVDAT steering committee include G. Lang Farmer of the University of Colorado; Ross A. Black of the University of Kansas; Richard W. Carlson of the Carnegie Institution; Jeffrey N. Grossman of the U.S. Geological Survey, Reston; and Luca Ferrari, Centro de Geociencias, Campus Juriquilla, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), liaison with Mexico.

NAVDAT is one of several related geoinformatics efforts including PetDB, a petrological database of the ocean floor containing data on oceanic igneous rocks, and GEOROC, a global igneous geochemical database. NAVDAT, PetDB, and GEOROC have also combined some of their efforts under a collaboration known as EARTHCHEM, which hopes to advance data management in all areas of petrology. Related projects include GEON partner CHRONOS, and GERM, the Geochemical Earth Reference Model, also hosted at SDSC, as well as DLESE, the Digital Library for Earth System Education.

As distinct kinds of geoscience data become integrated through GEON cyberinfrastructure, this will give scientists a more comprehensive understanding of the Earth than previously possible. For example, the Earth's timescale is typically calibrated by dating volcanic rocks that are interlayered with fossil-bearing strata. By combining data on volcanic rocks from NAVDAT with the CHRONOS data set, geoscientists will be able to better calibrate the timescale. More importantly, this link will allow them to assess the effects of volcanism on life and climate. Preliminary work has already shown some interesting correlations - for example, it appears that volcanism can be associated with climate, with eruptions being less frequent during glacial periods.

In addition to providing a stable, long-term home for the database, participating in GEON will make NAVDAT data more accessible. When geoscientists come to the GEON portal and use the soon-to-come GeonSearch function to look for suitable data on volcanoes, they will be searching the NAVDAT database, too. In this way, more geoscientists will be introduced to this database and easily able to access the information it contains.

As GEON cyberinfrastructure continues to evolve, projects like NAVDAT will also benefit from early access to advanced capabilities such as visualization and ontology technologies - which SDSC and GEON are developing as generic services - without having to "reinvent the wheel."

"It's exciting to see the collaborative environment of GEON in action," said Baru. "GEON is highly interactive, with advances in IT helping the geoscientists, and new geoscience partners like NAVDAT bringing data and experience that are building the momentum of the whole environment."

Related Links

NAVDAT, the Western North American Volcanic and Intrusive Rock Database -
NAVDAT animations and other products -
PetDB, Petrological Database of the Ocean Floor -
GEOROC, a global igneous geochemical database -
EARTHCHEM, a consortium of NAVDAT, PetDB, and GEOROC -
CHRONOS interactive chronostratigraphy and stratigraphic database -
GERM, the Geochemical Earth Reference Model -
DLESE, the Digital Library for Earth System Education -
GEON, the Geosciences Network -
SDSC Data and Knowledge Systems (DAKS) program -