Category Archives: field work

AGU posters 2018: SedEdu and Density Stratification

I’m presenting two posters at AGU this year!

I’m really excited to be sharing a project I’ve been working on which integrates research and teaching. I am giving a poster Friday morning titled: “SedEdu: developing and testing a suite of computer-based interactive educational activities for introductory sedimentology and stratigraphy courses”. The poster will explain my SedEdu project and particularly emphasize the rivers2stratigraphy moduleHere is the abstract. Below is the poster, click the image to view a pdf.

I’m also looking forward to sharing an update on my ongoing research on the sediment transport in the Yellow River, China. This poster will be on Friday afternoon, and is titled: “Suspended-sediment induced stratification inferred from concentration and velocity profile measurements in the flooding lower Yellow River, China”. Here is the abstract.

If you’re going to be at AGU, let’s chat!

Density stratification in fine-grained rivers

2017 was the year of my first talk at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. It was pretty exciting and I was extremely nervous. In the end, it went okay, and I was able to present my work to a broad range of scientists. I presented my ongoing research based on field survey of the Yellow River, China during flood.

I hypothesized that the river would exhibit a density stratification in the flow. Density stratification occurs in a river because the entrainment of sediment into the flow affects the properties of the flow in bulk. I’ll explain with the help of a few graphics below. The below image is a profile of an open channel flow (thick black line is the channel bed) and the top of the graphic is the water surface.

a. the velocity profile of a steady and uniform open channel flow is well described by the logarithmic “law-of-the-wall” or log-law. This log-law takes the form of which predicts time-averaged velocity (u bar) as a function of the shear velocity (u*) and the log of the height above the bed (z). z0 is a reference height very near the bed, and κ is a constant. The equation, evaluated over the flow depth is shown on the left side of figure a. The implication of higher velocities near the surface means that momentum (ρ=mv) of the flow is higher near the flow surface than the bed. This condition is unstable, so momentum is redistributed from the surface to the bed through mass transfer. When the flowing mass of high momentum fluid reaches the bed, it dissipates, forming turbulent eddies that shed off the channel bed and move up into the water column.


b. the turbulent eddies coming off the channel bed cause sediment to be entrained into the flow and brought up from the bed towards the surface. The vertical distribution of sediment through the water column depends on the size of particles and the entraining velocity and can be estimated by the exponential Rouse equation.which predicts time-averaged concentration (c bar) as a function of the time-averaged near-bed concentration (cb bar) as a function of the height (z) above the bed (b) to the flow depth (H) and the Rouse number (ZR) which balances the settling velocity of particles (ws), to the entraining shear velocity (u*). The Rouse equation and log-law work well only in dilute suspensions, that is, flows in which the concentration of sediment is small enough to have no feedback on the flow.


c. In flows where the sediment concentrations are significant enough near the bed to have a feed back on the system a density stratification develops. In short, the high concentration of sediment prevents momentum redistribution from the surface fully reaching the bed, which has the net effect of reducing sediment suspension and enhancing flow velocities near the surface.


Because sediment transport (qs is width averaged transport) is the product of the velocity and concentration profiles integrated over the flow depth:this density stratification could significantly alter total sediment transport rates in fine-grain rivers from existing predictions. My ongoing research in this field is trying to resolve precisely what conditions lead to the development of a density stratification in the river.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under Grant No.1450681. Any opinion, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Hurricane Harvey update

The Greater Houston Metro just got pounded by one of the largest storms (in terms of rainfall) on record: Hurricane Harvey. There was widespread flooding across all parts of the metro, but my home and Rice university were largely spared. The skies are clear today, after ~5 days of nearly continuous rainfall. However, the cleanup effort for this disaster will last years and cost billions of dollars. Nonetheless, I am certain that Houston will come back stronger and better than ever. This ordeal has made me even more proud to be a Houstonian.

At my house, we had a small leak in an interior bathroom, but because we received so much rain over the duration of the event, the roof became saturated and the sheetrock partially collapsed. No one was hurt, thankfully, and repairs are already underway.

I am currently working on an NSF RAPID grant, which I compiled the following figure for. This figure shows total rainfall during the Harvey event with the City of Houston (CoH) labeled. The precipitation data were collected from the National Weather Service and then summed to produce the total rainfall numbers for the below plot. I am proposing some work on the Brazos River (BR) so this feature is also labeled.

China field work 2017

I’m heading off tomorrow for my third summer field campaign in China. That also means that I’ve completed three years of my PhD.

I always seem to act a bit introspective around this time of the year, reevaluating decisions, remembering achievements, and reliving failures. This year hasn’t been especially easy for me; I’ve lost two important people in my life, and I’ve struggled to get my research moving at a pace that I feel is fast enough. Nonetheless, I’ve done a lot of good things this year too; I will be an author on (at least) two papers coming out this year, I won a service award for my department, and I am starting a new series of symposia at Rice that I’m especially excited about.

Our field campaign marks another journey halfway around the world to collect data on one of the most exceptional rivers in the world. My research goals for this year are to collect water column data during a flood. My analysis of the last two years’ data suggests that at high discharges, the concentrations of sediment become sufficiently high to dampen turbulence in the flow and introduce “density stratification”. I’m hoping to constrain the development of the density stratification in the lower Yellow River during this field campaign.

I’ll be working with some of the best people on our field campaign. Our campaign will be led by myself, Brandee Carlson, my advisor Jeff Nittrouer, and Hongbo Ma, and we will be helped (immensely) by Tian Dong, Chenliang Wu, Eric Barefoot, Dan Parsons, and Austin Chadwick.

Cheers for another year! Wish us luck!

Brandee Carlson and me towards the end of our 2016 field campaign

The exceptional sediment load of fine-grained dispersal systems: Example of the Yellow River, China — Ma et al., 2017

We’ve just published an exciting new paper in Science Advances which assess the transport of sediment in fine-grain river systems. The research is driven by Postdoctoral Researcher Hongbo Ma, who is the first author on the publication. I led the field survey and processed the Multibeam data of the Yellow River channel bed that you see in a few of the figures in the paper.

Hongbo has identified a physical explanation for why fine-grain rivers are able to move so much sediment. In short, it has to do with the organization of the channel bed, whereby dunes are wiped out at high Froude number flows with a small grain size on the bed. This reduces the form drag in the river and allows for more skin friction on sediment to bring into suspension. Hongbo continues to make strides in identifying a “phase transition” in sediment transporting systems that helps to explain the observations made in the Yellow River.

Yellow River at Hukou Waterfall. The river here is a bedrock-alluvial river, but this image provides a good demonstration of the comparatively massive volume of sediment transported by the Yellow River

You can get the paper here, or uploaded to my site as a pdf here.
There is a full article about the research with loads more information, including a video interview, from the Rice press department here. And an article from the National Science Foundation (funding organization) here. A Scientific American video explaining some of the research is available here.


Vibracore extraction tripod engineering drawings — Vibracore system

For our research in China, I was charged with building a Vibracore system. The Vibracore works by utilizing a concrete vibrator to rapidly vibrate an upright thin-walled aluminium pipe into the sand/dirt/mud below. A tripod is then set up over the in-ground pipe to pull it up from the ground. The pipe (now called a core I suppose…) is then cut open with a saw and analyzed/sampled.

dimetric view of assembled tripod

This system is nothing we invented, although I’m not sure of its origin. I based the design for our tripod on an apparatus that our colleague John Anderson has in his collection of field equipment. Our only substantial modification to the design was to make the legs of our system separable so that instead of a solid 10′ pipes of aluminium, we have two 5′ pipes, joined by a coupler. This is quite useful for us, since we send our system to China each year, and it makes it much easier to handle for shipping.

I recently made some engineering drawings of our system for a colleague and figured I would share them here in case they may be helpful to others. You can find the plans as a .pdf file here, or explore the system in three dimensions in the software they were designed in (OnShape CAD) at this link.

example drawing: head assembly top plate

Rice crew Vibracoring the Yellow River delta









In the future, I hope that my colleague Brandee Carlson (who leads the research using the Vibracore) and I can write a bit of an updated guide to the system based on our experiences using the system in the field, but for now I’ll just leave you with a few references for the system design below.

Land-based Vibracoring and Vibracore analysis: Tips, Tricks, and Traps. Occasional Paper 58. Thompson, T. A., Miller, C. S., Doss, P. K., Thompson, L. D. P., and Baedke. 1991.

Collection and analysis techniques for paleoecological studies in coastal-deltaic settings — Robert A. Gastaldo

Yellow River (Huanghe) 2016 survey plans

I’ll be departing soon for my second field campaign on the Yellow River, China. We traveled there around the same time last year to generate a dataset we could begin to explore and develop research ideas; now, a year later, we will return with a more focused plan to gather the data we need to address our research questions. We will bring with us a suite of sophisticated data collection equipment. Below is a terrible sketch I made to demonstrate most of the data we will collect at each of our stations located on the river.


Pretend that the grey thing floating on the water might look like a boat, viewed from the back. We aim to characterize the mechanisms for sediment transport within the Yellow River at various stages of a flood discharge curve. We use a point-integrating sediment sampler to collect numerous suspended sediment and water samples from various depths in the water column (yellow stars). In order to compare the compositions of suspended material to its source (i.e., the bed), we use a Shipek grab sampling device to collect sediment from the bed for our analysis. Deployed off the other side of the boat, we will can characterize the velocity structure of the water column through the use of an aDcp (acoustic velocity profiler) and a mechanical propeller driven velocimeter for near-bed measurements where the aDcp may lack resolution.

This setup represents only a portion of our survey plans, of course we’ll be there for six weeks that will generate a diverse and (hopefully!) comprehensive dataset for our future work.

Gastroliths in the Morrison Fm

I’ve recently returned from a trip to New Mexico for the field methods class of which I am a TA. It was an awesome trip and great experience for me in teaching, but that’s another story. The field area we work in is within the Jurrassic Morrison depositional basin (active roughly during the Kimmeridigan ~157-152 Ma). Within the Morrison Formation is the Brushy Basin member (abbreviated Jmb), renowned for the abundance of dinosaur fossils found within the rock unit. Jmb is found within our field area, so I told the students to keep an eye out for any good finds when walking with the unit.

Although Jmb has an abundance of fossils, we didn’t find any. BUT, the Morrison is also famous for its bounty of another paleontological tool, the gastrolith. Gastroliths are interpreted as stones that dinosaurs would ingest in order to aid with breaking down food and aiding in digestion. A gastrolith may be more generally defined as “a hard object of no caloric value (e.g., a stone, natural or pathological concretion) which is, or was, retained in the digestive tract of an animal” [1].

There are gastroliths all over within the Jmb, some small, and some larger. Below are three photos of the “best” gastrolith I found on our trip.

gastrolith3 gastrolith2 gastrolith1

Gastroliths are often recognized by their very smoothed and polished appearance (some other examples here). I suppose that to be certain my rock is a gastrolith, and not simply a rock polished by water or wind, it should be found in association with the remains of the animal it was within. Regardless, I’m really glad to be able to add a rock with such an interesting back-story to my collection.



One year of graduate school travel

The 24th of August 2015 marks my one year anniversary of beginning graduate school. It has been an awesome year, filled with new science, great friends, and lots of travel. I kept a record of where I slept every night for the past year to see just how far I made it. I visited three continents (plus Central America), six states, and 32 different cities. I spent just over 30% of the year away from Houston (112 nights). I got to see some really amazing places on the planet. It puts into perspective for me how just how great of a gig being a grad student is — get paid to do cool science.

Below, I made some maps to show where I went. The color of a dot represents when I traveled there during the year (Aug 24 2014 to Aug 24 2015) according to traditional rainbow color order. The maps were made in GMT using this script.


Blow ups:
global map
US map
Gulf Coast map

Cheers to what next year brings!

Back from China!

I’ve finally returned from China after a 6-week field campaign to get a first round look at my field location. We worked hard every single day after our gear was released by China Customs officials on the Yellow River Delta doing Vibracoring for Brandee Carlson’s research and doing Multibeam and river survey work for my work. Below you can see me running our Multibeam setup aboard our research vessel. More pictures and descriptions to come!