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Meet the new researchers at the USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center in Santa Cruz, California

The USGS Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center welcomed two new permanent employees in January 2019: research oceanographers Amy Gartman and Sean Vitousek.

“We are delighted to have Amy and Sean on our permanent staff,” said Center Director Guy Gelfenbaum. “Both of them have already made significant contributions to the team as postdocs in the USGS Mendenhall Research Program.”

Sean Vitousek

Sean earned a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering in 2013 from Stanford University, where he focused on numerical modeling of ocean waves. In 2014, Sean became a USGS Mendenhall Research Fellow at the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center. He worked primarily with Li Erikson and Patrick Barnard on the Coastal Storm Modeling System (CoSMoS), which forecasts coastal flooding under a range of storm intensities and sea-level rise scenarios.

As part of the CoSMoS team, Sean developed a numerical model for predicting how climate change will alter sandy beaches over the course of decades. He led a group of scientists using this model, CoSMoS-COAST (Coastal Storm Modeling System—Coastal One-line Assimilated Simulation Tool), to project shoreline changes in Southern California by the end of this century. Their results showed that 31 to 67 percent of Southern California beaches may become completely eroded by the year 2100, if sea level rises 3 to 6 feet and human intervention is limited. The paper drew considerable attention when it was published in April 2017 in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

By that time, Sean was at the University of Illinois at Chicago, working as a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil & Materials Engineering. In September 2018, Sean accepted a permanent position with the USGS. He completed his fall teaching responsibilities and then came to the Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center in January 2019. Sean’s research interests include the development of advanced numerical models for coastal processes, such as nearshore hydrodynamics, coastal evolution, coastal hazards, and sea-level rise.

Amy Gartman

A man and a woman, both wearing hats, examine a rock on a dirt trail with trees in the background.
Amy Gartman (left) and Jim Hein examine a rock at Almaden Quicksilver County Park, the site of the New Almaden quicksilver mine, which operated from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. The mine supplied mercury for processing gold ore during the California Gold Rush. (Credit: Kira Mizell, USGS. Public domain.)

Amy earned a Ph.D. in oceanography at the University of Delaware, where she studied hydrothermal vents—fissures in the seafloor that emit hot, mineral-laden water. She received her degree in 2013 and then spent a year examining interactions between microbes and minerals as a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University. In 2015, Amy became a USGS Mendenhall Research Fellow, working with research geologist Jim Hein on the Global Ocean Minerals Project. This group seeks to understand how and where mineral-rich deposits form in the ocean, and what effects mining them could have on the deep-sea environment.

During her time as a Mendenhall Fellow, Amy led a group that achieved the first observation of gold particles in fluids from hydrothermal vents—a phenomenon that had been hypothesized but never before confirmed. Her current research focuses on the formation and dissolution of seafloor massive sulfide deposits around hydrothermal vents. The rapid mixing of cold, oxygenated seawater with hot, metal- and sulfur-rich vent fluids precipitates abundant minerals, forming the charismatic “black smokers.” Companies are likely to mine seafloor massive sulfides soon at sites where hydrothermal vents are no longer active. Crushing during mining will release a new class of particles, different from the natural ones in hydrothermal “black smoke.” Amy is characterizing both classes of particles to compare how they fare in seawater. She's also looking at minerals that exist in low concentrations in these systems and may be toxic, technologically important, or useful as tracers.

Upon becoming a permanent employee in February 2019, Amy succeeded Jim Hein (recently retired) as the leader of the Global Ocean Minerals Project. She had already taken his place as a member of the U.S. delegation to the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The ISA is charged with implementing the Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international treaty governing the use of the oceans and their resources. As science advisor, Gartman helps the U.S. delegates understand the nature and locations of different types of mineral deposits and what environmental protections might be needed if they are mined. Amy is also working to grow the community of scientists studying the potential effects of deep-sea mining.

Welcome, Amy and Sean!

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