CELS PhD student helps communities in Pacific Northwest prepare for future natural hazards

“There’s this common geology phrase: the key to the past will help you understand and prepare for the future,” says Jason Padgett, PhD student in the Department of Geosciences at the College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS). With climate change exacerbating the effects of extreme weather events and natural disasters, Padgett is at the forefront of communicating critical research using past geologic evidence to help coastal communities better prepare for future natural hazards.

In northern California, Padgett developed a keen interest in earth sciences and an affinity for working outdoors. He received his Bachelor of Science in Oceanography with a minor in Geology from Humboldt State University, where he also went on to complete his Master’s degree in Environmental Systems Geology.  

The Pacific Northwest is not only a place of great geologic significance, but also the place Padgett calls home. For visitors and researchers alike, the Pacific Northwest, also referred to as Cascadia, is an extraordinary place teeming with geologic activity and natural wonders, including several active volcanoes and geologic faults, as well as natural sites such as Redwood National and State Parks in California.  

Driven to continue his research and give back to his community, Padgett seized an opportunity to join a sea-level research lab in CELS where he examines geological evidence of large earthquakes and the potential for future high-magnitude hazards.

Although 3,000 miles from home, the University of Rhode Island offered the ideal doctoral program and funding opportunity for Padgett to pursue his work, while still maintaining his research focus in the Pacific Northwest.

“Jason came highly recommended to me by colleagues in Cascadia,” says Dr. Simon Engelhart, Assistant Professor of Geosciences, and Padgett’s academic advisor. “They highlighted his careful and methodical approach to his research and his strong connection to the science and how the results can be applied to improve our resilience to natural hazards.”

Preparing for future coastal disasters requires a thorough understanding of what has happened long ago, a guiding principle for Padgett’s doctoral work.

“My motivation for doing this kind of research is awareness leads to preparedness, which will ultimately save lives,” says Padgett, who analyzes microfossils and single-celled organisms, such as foraminifera, that are shipped to RI from Cascadia to be studied.

Padgett uses these microfossils and salt marsh sediments to reconstruct patterns of past earthquakes and document coseismic subsidence, which is the drop in land-level during an earthquake.

This area of research requires plenty of salt marsh soil samples, and thanks to his 2017 Richard Chambers Memorial Scholarship, awarded by the Northern California Geological Society, Padgett is able to travel back to Humboldt County this May to collect more salt marsh earthquake samples from the field and complete the data set for his research.

Speaking of his connection to Humboldt, “I feel as if I am an aspect of the community and have a responsibility to contribute,” says Padgett. “A way for me to contribute is to improve the understanding of the geological hazards that exist,” he adds of his motivation to pursue the Richard Chambers scholarship.    

When he is not examining mud samples or leading an undergraduate geology lab, Padgett is finding new ways to communicate his research to the broader public. He is one of six graduate fellows in the SciWrite@URI program, a National Science Foundation Research Traineeship that provides CELS graduate students with science writing and rhetorical training.

This summer Padgett will also complete a six-week writing-focused internship with Washington State Sea Grant and the U.S. Geologic Society as part of his SciWrite@URI fellowship. The two-year fellowship allows cohorts of graduate students, faculty fellows, and faculty mentors to participate in workshops, courses, and internships with an emphasis on both academic and public writing.

“It’s important for scientists in general to communicate knowledge effectively across disciplines as well as within the public sphere,” explains Padgett, who will be presenting his research in front of colleagues and future employers at the annual conference of the Geological Society of America this fall.

 “Science becomes successful when it is communicated appropriately.”

Padgett collecting mud samples in Discovery Bay, Washington
Padgett collecting mud samples in Discovery Bay, Washington