Niemi’s work often includes thorough examinations of rock. She and her students collect and analyze data used for estimating the probability of natural disasters and quantifying regional hazards.

Disaster Hunter

Uncovering the past to predict future disasters

To many, boulders scattered on the ground are nothing more than big rocks. But for Tina Niemi, Ph.D., geosciences professor and undergraduate geology adviser at UMKC, boulders often tell a story. It’s an opportunity for her to uncover the underlying geological and environmental history.

“Most large boulders require a high-energy event to move them,” Niemi says. “In the Bahamas, where I teach a field methods class over spring break, we have been monitoring how the coastal environment changes with storms and hurricanes. We’ve discovered that hurricanes can move boulders that weigh tens of tons. Previously, only tsunamis were thought to move this type of megaboulders.”

In addition to teaching UMKC students about geology, including a popular class on the archaeology of ancient disasters, Niemi conducts research on disasters ranging from earthquakes and tsunamis to hurricanes and climate change. Niemi and her students collect and analyze data used for estimating the probability of natural disasters and quantifying regional hazards. Her lab at UMKC, the Geoarchaeology, Paleoseismology and Sedimentology (GAPS) Lab, is interdisciplinary and incorporates related subjects such as history, archaeology, geochemistry, paleontology, geophysics and stratigraphy in researching these disasters. Besides the Bahamas, Niemi has conducted research in the Baja region of México, on the San Andreas fault in California, on the New Madrid Seismic Zone in Missouri and on other faults zones in Israel, Jordan, Turkey and India.

“Everything we do involves studying young sediments and artifacts,” Niemi says. “We dig or core into sedimentary deposits and use geophysical and remote sensing imaging technologies to look back in time to find the physical evidence that record past earthquakes or hurricanes, the changes in climate and sea level and to find out how humans have altered the environment in the past.”

Niemi juggles multiple projects while serving as a mentor to numerous undergraduate and graduate students. In fact, her dedication to undergraduate research was recognized in 2016 by UMKC’s Excellence in Mentoring Award. One project that recently concluded, the Baja Basins Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), was a National Science Foundation-funded program that combined research and training in mineralogy, volcanology and neotectonics.

“The Baja Basins REU project that was funded from 2015-2017 sought to encourage undergraduate students to do research and to pursue science careers,” Niemi says. “In our case, we recruited women, Hispanic students and veterans as participants.”

Niemi’s project was unique because it included both field and laboratory components. Fieldwork was conducted each year at a tectonically active rift basin along the Gulf of California, facilitating research in both tectonics and earthquake hazards. In addition to field research, student workers also experienced life on an active copper mine and learned how ore is extracted and processed. The project integrated emerging technology by utilizing field tablets for mapping and drone digital aerial imagery. Then students collected lab data using a variety of analytical instruments and worked with faculty to interpret and present the data. Niemi is hopeful that a three-year continuation of this project will be funded.

Another of her projects focused on the Dead Sea fault system. Niemi said the Dead Sea fault is similar to the San Andreas fault system in California where the land shifts laterally in an earthquake. To date past earthquakes, her team investigated several archaeological sites in Jordan that sit on top of the fault.

“If you know the repeat time of earthquakes, then you can say something about the expected return time in the future,” Niemi says. Niemi’s team also looked at faults and evidence of earthquakes
offshore in the Gulf of Aqaba.

“We actually identified what we think is a large tsunami event that occurred about 2,000 years ago,” Niemi says. “We were analyzing microfossils throughout a core collected in shallow water. The variation in the species with depth tells us something about how the climate has changed over the past several millennia. Remarkably, there’s a zone that is completely devoid of microfossils that appears to record runoff from land in a tsunami. Most of our research focuses on understanding the seismic hazard of an area and a tsunami is not a hazard that is locally recognized.”

On her most recent trip to India, Niemi studied a debris field to understand the history of a previous earthquake to estimate its magnitude. / Photo: Tina Niemi
On her most recent trip to India, Niemi studied a debris field to understand the history of a previous earthquake to estimate its magnitude. / Photo: Tina Niemi

During the summer of 2018, Niemi traveled to India for the fifth time to continue her research on earthquakes at the tectonic boundary between India and Asia. Niemi’s work in India began in 2014 when she received a Senior Fulbright Specialist Award to Kurukshetra University in Haryana, India. She taught tectonics and paleoseismology seminars and interacted with students and scholars.

“The Fulbright Award really opened doors and helped me meet colleagues who are working on earthquake hazards in India,” Niemi says.

Niemi’s new work is on the Himalayan Frontal Thrust fault at the convergent, tectonic boundary between Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Niemi says the fault looks like it pushed up a large scarp, which is a step or offset on the ground surface where one side of a fault has moved vertically with respect to the other. To determine the earthquake history of the fault, Niemi and her students dug a large trench and examined the geology. A grant from the UMKC Funding for Excellence program helped support this effort.

“In India, we are working hard to understand the magnitude and recurrence of earthquakes,” Niemi said. “Everyone is very sensitive about whether a magnitude nine (earthquake) is possible. It would be catastrophic. We’re working with the Disaster Mitigation and Management Center in Uttarkhand State. We are hopeful that the new reconnaissance study in India will allow us to write a National Science Foundation proposal for future earthquake research.”

The purpose of her summer 2018 trip to India will be to examine the large boulders Niemi discovered on a previous trip. She thinks they may be related to a catastrophic event, such as an outburst from an earthquake-dammed lake, and she wants to find out what it was.

Wherever her travels lead on the hunt for evidence, she’s sure to have an adventure and to help us understand potential future disasters.