Marcia McNutt, the first woman to have held the positions of director of the U.S. Geological Survey and editor-in-chief of the journal Science, spoke to an audience of geoscience students and faculty on Friday.
McNutt's lecture, which was held in the North Ballroom of the Student Union Memorial Center, concluded EarthWeek, a four-day annual conference organized by graduate students from the six departments in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Arizona.
McNutt, a geophysicist, became the 19th editor-in-chief of Science in 2013. She served as the director of the U.S. Geological Survey from 2009 to 2013. During her tenure, the geological survey responded to a number of major disasters, including earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and Japan, and the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Her talk, titled “Entering the Era of the Geosciences,” focused on a number of issues.
"If I were a student in the geosciences today, what would be the project that I would choose to work on?" McNutt asked in her presentation.
Minerals, energy, environmental health, climate change, energy, natural hazards and water – those are the biggest issues facing Earth scientists now, she stressed.
"These are some of the most important problems of society today, and they are all the purview of the geosciences," McNutt said, pointing out that "geoscientists are some of the most important scientists now and in the future."
With the U.S. being heavily reliant on rare Earth minerals and precious metals, McNutt presented data showing that most of those commodities come from countries that do not always have the best relations to the U.S., making such dependence "a major national security issue for us."
"If I were a student today, what would I be thinking about in terms of minerals? My 'out-there' idea would be to look at the seafloor," McNutt said. "Mining companies are looking at mining the deep sea. Currently, the price point is not competitive, but if we made land mining environmentally acceptable, deep-sea mining would be economically competitive."
With respect to energy production, McNutt pointed out that fossil fuels are linked to climate change and negative human health consequences.
"Even solar and wind have environmental impacts, and storage is still an issue," she said. "Plus, the sun is not always shining, and wind is not always on."
"If I were entering this field right now – energy – I'd be interested in geothermal energy," McNutt told the audience. "Unlike solar and wind, geothermal energy is always on."
She said the USGS believes there is enough geothermal energy to power all electricity needs in the entire U.S.
"Right now, we are not using much of that. We could definitely ramp up our geothermal energy production."
McNutt used the recent landslide in Washington and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastating coastal areas in Japan as examples of how natural hazards present an ever-more important challenge for geoscientists.
"Nature is always throwing surprises at us, so we have to identify areas and populations at risk," she said. "We have to design more hazard-resilient communities. We have to create more hazard awareness and develop early warning systems."