Down to Earth With: Geologist Robert Brinkmann

by Bethany Augliere
Friday, October 12, 2018

Geologist Robert Brinkmann is vice provost for scholarship and research and dean of graduate studies at Hofstra University in New York. Credit: Robert Brinkmann.

As a child, Robert Brinkmann was always curious about rocks. He wondered how they got where they were and why they were different from each other. Brinkmann grew up in the farm country of southeastern Wisconsin, as well as in the woods in the northern part of the state. After one of his first geology classes in college, he went home and finally understood what he was looking at. “It was such an eye-opening experience to be able to read the landscape,” Brinkmann says.

Brinkmann received his bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh before earning both a master’s in geology and a doctorate in geography from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, studying human impacts on the environment and lead pollution in soils. Now, as vice provost for scholarship and research and dean of graduate studies at Hofstra University in New York, Brinkmann pursues science communication to reach broader audiences beyond his students and colleagues. He has authored several books, including “Sinkholes of Florida: Science and Policy,” and the textbook “Introduction to Sustainability.” For nearly a decade, he’s also maintained a blog called “On the Brink,” in which he writes about topics related to the environment, sustainability and higher education.

Brinkmann recently sat down with EARTH to discuss his work in sustainability, the geology and sinkholes of Florida, and how he became interested in science communication.

BA: How would you describe your research interests?

RB: They involve human modification of Earth, and the measurable ways we can make a difference. So, I do a lot of work on a variety of issues related to sustainability, from water issues to economic development. It’s a holistic approach to sustainability.

So many fascinating sustainability issues in the suburbs are emerging at this moment. For example, suburbs are facing serious water issues — whether related to quality or quantity — all over the United States. In my own area of Long Island [New York], we have dozens of suburban water districts in control of a single source aquifer that has serious regional pollution issues.

BA: As a geologist interested in human impacts, what do you think are some of the biggest issues we need to be concerned with in the future?

RB: There is no doubt that climate change is the most existential issue we are facing right now. Of course, the broad cause of this issue is anthropogenic pollution. But climate change is not the only serious pollution problem confronting us. We also have issues with plastics, nutrients and pharmaceutical pollutants as well. We are just now starting to understand how these pollutants impact earth systems.

BA: How did you first become interested in this field?

RB: When I was a graduate student in geology, I worked for a mineral exploration firm that sent me out to collect samples in streams to look for heavy minerals. The areas they sent me to were very heavily altered landscapes, with, for example, sediment coming into a stream from a railroad bridge or roadway. So, what I was collecting was not really a true representation of what would’ve been there naturally.

I became curious and started reading more about human impacts. This was back in the 1980s when very few people were writing about human impacts in the field of geology. I started talking to my professors too, who told me they didn’t do that kind of work. Then I talked to a professor by the name of Robert Eidt, who was a physical geographer trained in Germany. He was studying human-altered soils through time, and he had developed some chemical techniques to measure human impacts of abandoned settlements. So, he totally understood what I was interested in. That was my big “aha” moment that defined my career and steered me a little bit away from traditional geology.

I started to work with Eidt, and that’s how I began researching lead pollution for my doctorate. I ended up managing a state soils lab at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which was one of the first of its kind. That led me to thinking about cities and human impacts on cities. Eventually, I moved to Florida for a faculty position and to research Florida geology and sinkholes. Florida is full of sinkholes.

Brinkmann poses with students studying sustainability at Hofstra University. Credit: Robert Brinkmann.

BA: What’s interesting about Florida geology and sinkholes?

RB: When I first moved to Florida, people would tell me: “Oh, there’s no geology here, it’s just a flat featureless plane.” Many rough and tumble geologists who feel the mountains call to them often avoid spending time getting to know the geology of flat places like Florida. However, if one takes a closer look, they will find that Florida holds clues to understanding the geologic and environmental history of the Cenozoic. There is a nearly continuous fossil record in the state, and the rocks contain assemblages of a fascinating array of plants and animals. It’s incredible what you can learn by studying the geology of Florida.

In many parts of the country, in the 19th century and earlier, geologists spent a considerable amount of time puzzling out the lithology, mineralogy, structural geology, geomorphology and other issues. Many regions were described in tremendous detail: Geologic maps were created, and articles and books were written about local geologic conditions. This didn’t happen in Florida. While there were some early writers, the geologic literature on Florida prior to the 1950s is relatively slim. My research in Florida focused on puzzling out the complex geologic history of the state through the study of karst landforms. I’m very proud of that work because it was some of the first research on Florida geology.

As far as sinkholes, Florida is lucky because of the early aviation history of the state. There are great aerial photos that go back to the 1920s, and you can see fantastic evidence of these very complicated sinkhole features. Today, many of these [sinkhole-prone] places are covered with houses, so it’s not really a surprise that there is regular property damage in some of these areas because these sinkholes are still forming.

BA: What’s a common misconception about sinkholes?

RB: Well, a sinkhole is a depression on the surface that forms as a result of dissolution of the bedrock beneath the surface. Florida has so many sinkholes because conditions are perfect for their development. What I mean by that is that Florida is underlain by soluble limestone; it is in a wet, warm environment, and there is an abundance of plant life to produce the needed chemistry that aids in dissolution. Often, people think of sinkhole formation as occurring in a single event. But they can take hundreds of years to form because of the nature of the karst geology.

Also, holes in the ground are often called sinkholes even if they aren’t [technically] geologic sinkholes. It’s a challenging terminology issue because, to the public, a sinkhole is any hole in the ground that just suddenly forms. For example, newspapers in New York will report that a sinkhole formed due to a water main break or something. And I’ll get all these calls from people asking what I can tell them about the sinkhole; but it’s not a geologic sinkhole, just a collapse in the ground.

BA: Has your research brought you to other interesting field sites?

RB: I think the most exotic place I ever did fieldwork was in Yemen. When I was working on my doctorate, my advisor, who researched human impacts on soil chemistry, got a call from the American Foundation for the Study of Man, which does work in Yemen, [inviting him along] to go into the field. He didn’t want to go and asked if I did. I said, “Sure!” It was the first time I was ever out of the country aside from visiting parts of Canada. It was such a great trip, and I ended up going for two full field seasons.

We were in remote parts of Yemen, which is such a beautiful country. There’s so much history that we don’t really know about. Yemen was part of the camel caravan for the Queen of Sheba during that era [roughly the fifth century B.C.], and there were all these settlements along the edge of the desert, along the edge of the mountains, and the pre-Islamic people built dams and huge agricultural fields.
These soils are now topographic highs, because people essentially created these elevated deltas. The silt would blow from the desert into the mountains, mountain streams would carry the silt downstream, and it would become captured behind the dams. The dams brought silt-laden water to the fields, and the fields got higher and higher over time. Now, these fields have this tremendous prehistoric record of the region. I was doing a lot of descriptive work, and a lot of lab work afterward in basic soil chemistry and sediment analysis. It was some of the first description of those agricultural fields.

Brinkmann, in 1989, doing fieldwork in Yemen, where he studied the soils of ancient agricultural fields and dam sites built by pre-Islamic settlements. Credit: Robert Brinkmann.

BA: You now do less research and more writing. How did that happen?

RB: I always liked writing. But I hadn’t thought much about it until I was in Miami in the mid- to late ‘90s visiting a friend, and he dragged me to a writing seminar with him. I didn’t want to go, but that seminar changed how I wrote. The seminar was with Julia Cameron, who wrote “The Artist’s Way: The Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity.” She provides a number of really interesting writing techniques that help people like me — people who never really considered themselves writers — turn their ideas into something bigger and more substantial. I started thinking I could write articles that can impact my discipline. Then, I realized that my interests were more interdisciplinary, and I could reach more people by writing more comprehensive books, and that’s what I decided to do.

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