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Data Dilemma: Stow It, Or Kiss It Goodbye

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Science  12 Jul 2002:
Vol. 297, Issue 5579, pp. 181-183
DOI: 10.1126/science.297.5579.181

As storehouses burst with bulky samples, an NRC committee proposes a temporary cure for geology's down-and-dirty case of information overload

When Woody's Appliance Store in Hutchinson, Kansas, blew up 17 January last year, the 20-meter-high flames immediately got it pegged as a natural gas explosion. Firefighters shut off the city supply, yet the gas and flames still roared. That night, geysers of natural gas and water began to erupt a few kilometers east of downtown. One exploded under a mobile home, killing two people.

Suspecting that the gas had leaked from underground storage caverns, the Kansas Geological Survey (KGS) went in to figure out how the gas was moving. Within hours, survey scientists had created maps of the local geology from digitized records of thousands of wells drilled over past decades for energy exploration. Once they had fingered a particular layer of rock, the geologists went back to the survey's warehouse and dug out a continuous core of rock drilled some 40 years earlier. With this and other information, they quickly advised the gas company where to drill holes to vent the leaked gas.

It was a dramatic step into the limelight for a dusty cylinder of rock. To geoscientists, such archived cores—bored out of rock and sediment by hollow drill bits—are standard reference tools for assessing hazards, searching for oil and other resources, and gathering an array of basic geologic information. Yet across the United States, many collections of cores and other samples are threatened by improper storage or simply being sent to the dump. The vast storehouses of data owned by oil and gas companies are especially vulnerable as industry giants wind down their exploration of the United States. Much of the data would be expensive or impossible to replace. “It's just a crime if we don't find a way to capture these data for general public use,” says Marcus Milling, executive director of the American Geological Institute (AGI) in Alexandria, Virginia.

The problem is a “critical shortage of space for current geoscience collections and data, let alone those gathered in the future,” according to a National Research Council (NRC) report released in April.* While recognizing that not everything is worth saving, the report recommends three new $50 million government-funded centers that would rely on scientific advisory committees to figure out what should be kept. “It's a huge issue,” says paleontologist Chris Maples of Indiana University, Bloomington, who chaired the NRC committee. “I'm just stunned by how much has been lost.”

Up to the rafters

It's difficult to gauge the amount of geoscience data scattered among museums, state geological surveys, universities, federal agencies, and industry. The NRC committee estimates a total of 24,100 kilometers of solid rock cores and the rock chips, called cuttings, that come out of other wells. To that, they add 100 million boxes of fossils, as well as 560 million kilometers of paper logs, such as records from seismic experiments. The committee believes a quarter of these data are at risk, enough to fill the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS's) Core Research Center in Denver, Colorado—one of the largest such facilities in the country—20 times over.

To the rescue.

A warehoused rock sample helped geologists solve a mysterious fire.

CREDIT: HUTCHINSON, KANSAS, FIRE DEPARTMENT

Exactly how much is already gone? “We tried really hard to answer that question, and we failed,” says committee member Warren Allmon, director of the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) in Ithaca, New York. “No one wants to admit that they pitched a collection.” Yet, anecdotal evidence suggests that a considerable amount is missing. “We hear stories all the time of companies hauling cores to the dump,” says KGS director Lee Allison.

Confirmed losses include the core from the deepest well ever in the United States—9583 meters—drilled by an oil company between 1972 and 1974 in Oklahoma. Thrown out after a merger, the core would cost up to $16 million to replace today. And cores belonging to state geological surveys have been damaged or destroyed by earthquakes in Alaska, a collapsing building in Maine, flooding in Kentucky, and collapsed shelving in North Carolina, the committee found.

That's a pity, geoscientists say, because old samples often find new uses. For instance, seismic records from Los Angeles, taken for oil exploration, are now used to assess earthquake hazards. And techniques such as cathode luminescence with scanning electron microscopes can coax old cores into revealing how best to extract remaining oil from reservoirs or how groundwater flows. Industry data are also a boon to academic scientists who can't afford to gather the information themselves. “This kind of material has all sorts of new science left in it,” says AGI's Milling. “That's why we've got to save it.”

Out of room

The trouble is finding a place to put it. Almost two-thirds of state geological surveys polled by NRC have 10% or less of their storage space available for new collections. Nearly 25% are already full. “We are bursting at the seams,” says Allison of the KGS, which just received a donation of 15,000 boxes of core from BP Amoco. “There's no money out there to build new facilities to expand.” Instead, Allison is juggling space, converting some labs to storage.

With limited shelf space, something must get tossed for every new item added. Petroleum geologist Wayne Ahr of Texas A&M University in College Station has accepted large donations of core from oil companies. But the only place he has to put them is in a wooden barracks on a World War II airfield that's already full to the brim. In fact, it's been filled up three or four times, which brings painful choices. “Whatever we had to throw out, it's gone forever,” Ahr says. “It's heartbreaking.”

Natural history museums are filling up, too. PRI has doubled its holdings in the past 10 years, almost exclusively by adopting collections from universities and other institutions. Now director Allmon says he turns away everything except spectacular specimens and special collections that the museum needs. “If it's a large general collection, it pains me, but we don't have any place to put it,” he says.

Cold storage.

Ice samples, used in climate studies, are well kept. But other samples similar to this rock core (bottom) from Hutchinson, Kansas, face an uncertain future.

CREDITS: (TOP TO BOTTOM) NSF/USGS NATIONAL ICE CORE LABORATORY; LYNN WATLEY/KGS

So scientists do the best they can. Allmon has a barn of his own filled with overflow from PRI, including samples he took from pits in Florida that were later flooded for a housing development. Consulting geologists fill up self-storage units with file cabinets discarded by mining companies that went bust. Many retired geologists keep samples in their basements and garages, says Susan Landon, an exploration geologist affiliated with Thomasson Partner Associates in Denver, Colorado. “They hold out hope that eventually it will find a home … where it will be useful to the community,” she adds.

In the past decade, the problem has gotten worse, notes Edith Allison of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Fossil Energy. As oil companies—which hold much of the data—merged and moved their exploration overseas, they shed cores and other data gathered in North America. “There are billions of dollars' worth of data in the private sector in danger of being lost,” says AGI's Milling. “They have data from areas where you'll never be able to drill another well.” The same trend hit the mining industry.

USGS is also feeling the pinch. Since 1995, the survey has given away almost two-thirds of its fossil collections. Staff at its core research facility, which houses more than 300,000 meters of core, has fallen from eight in 1994 to three, and storage space was reduced by 40% in 1995 to cut rent costs.

There are a few success stories. The NRC panel holds up the National Ice Core Laboratory (NICL) in Lakewood, Colorado, as a model facility. Funded by USGS and the National Science Foundation, the lab has a Web-based catalog, well-documented cores, and a clear policy for removing materials from the collection so that little core is wasted.

The private sector also boasts examples of good practice. When Shell donated 670,560 meters of core to the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology (BEG) in 1995, it threw in a warehouse and $1.3 million for operating costs. In return, the company received tax write-offs. “It's a good model,” says BEG director Scott Tinker, “but it has to be customized for each company.” Tinker expects to announce another major donation of a facility and 400,000 boxes of core shortly. The NRC panel suggests further incentives to encourage this kind of donation.

Such measures, however, address just a fraction of the problem. To make a bigger impact, the NRC panel recommends that the government fund three new centers to hold core and other materials, modeled after the NICL and the core repository of the international Ocean Drilling Program. At $35 million to $50 million, each facility would cover 16,000 square meters, about the size of a Wal-Mart Supercenter. The centers would relieve the problem of data loss for 10 to 20 years, Indiana's Maples estimates.

Mustering support for such a major investment will be difficult. “Storing rock isn't sexy,” Landon says. “It's long-term housekeeping that's always going to have trouble competing with other scientific expenditures.” Yet proponents say such large, unglamorous efforts are the only way to avert every scientist's nightmare: losing irreplaceable samples. “It's a sobering thought, and it's not hard to imagine,” Allmon says. “Even with just benign neglect, all these data could slip away.”

  • *Geoscience Data and Collections: National Resources in Peril.

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