Earth’s Secrets Surfacing, Thanks to New Tools
New technologies from a small Silicon Valley company are making it possible to peek under the Earth’s crust and learn how dinosaurs were wiped out, whether mythical pirate ships existed and where earthquake faults lurk.
“With the new instruments and techniques available these days, we’re able to get very fine detail about what the subsurface is made of,” said U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist Rufus Catchings.
Catchings has been using Geometrics’ newest seismographic instruments to survey an active section of California’s San Andreas fault. This will be the first time scientists drill deeply into an active earthquake fault. The hole, planned to be about two miles deep, could reveal what rock is like when it is squeezed and ready to rumble.
In advance of the drilling, Catchings and other geophysicists detonated small explosions on the ground around the fault. As the sound traveled down, the desk-sized monitors tracked the sound waves and then produced an underground cutaway map.
“That subsurface image is the best in the industry,” said Catchings. “We get all kinds of physical parameters of what’s associated down there.”
In a mundane office park surrounded by high-tech firms in San Jose, Geometrics Inc. has quietly spent the last 30 years turning out increasingly sophisticated instruments that reveal the mysteries of the underworld.
Although there are smaller businesses dealing with a narrower range of instruments, geophysicists agree that Geometrics has no major competition.
With recent computer advances, the market leader is now able to give researchers detailed information and pictures from 1 inch to 3 miles below the surface.
“It’s a technology which is always in demand,” said Rob Huggins, Geometrics vice president of seismic sales. “People are always going to want a better picture of what’s under them.”
Last summer, it was a Geometrics instrument that led researchers to a shipwreck off the coast of North Carolina believed to be the pirate Blackbeard’s flagship. The tantalizing underwater trail of gold bars, coins, guns and skeletons, along with a perfectly preserved chunk of what appears to be the ship’s hull, are being analyzed by archeologists.
In Mexico, National University researchers are using another Geometrics device to analyze the borders of a crater scientists believe was formed when a gigantic asteroid slammed into the planet 65 million years ago. They’ll try to find out whether the impact could have blasted up enough dust to change the weather patterns on Earth.
The analysis could buttress the widely accepted theory that dinosaurs vanished because of a collision with a huge asteroid or comet.
The company’s founder, geophysicist Sheldon Breiner, is a Stanford University graduate who used the first cesium magnetometer to discover two colossal Olmec heads carved from basalt and hundreds of artifacts in Mexico in the 1960s.
Breiner returned to the region last summer to help archeologists survey an untouched Olmec site known as Laguna de los Cerros. He brought with him a $25,000 Geometrics portable cesium magnetometer, attached to an 8-foot-long pole and connected to a data recorder with a display screen.
Walking carefully over the ground, Breiner checked his screens but found no anomalies. He said he’d be back.
“Essentially everything we make is to look under the ground and make someone healthy, wealthy or wise,” said Geometrics President Steven Duckett.
It’s a shift for a company that began making instruments aimed almost entirely at discovering oil, gas and other underground minerals.
In the early 1980s, Geometrics’ annual revenues reached $20 million as prospectors searched for oil that could bring in $40 a barrel.
But as the oil crisis abated and the Cold War came to an end, Geometrics was forced to broaden its products.
Today the seismographs, magnetometers and electromagnetic instruments are hand-carried, pulled on bicycles and towed by buggies for archeology, mineral exploration, earthquake research, weapons detection, treasure hunting and even military applications. Prices for the devices range from $5,000 to $500,000.
In the last five years, the company brought in steady profits and has seen revenues increase from about $5 million in 1993 to $13 million in 1998.
The company was purchased 18 months ago by the $500-million Tokyo-based Oyo Corp., a geological engineering survey and research group.
Geometrics executives say they are mulling a public offering with several other Oyo subsidiaries.
“We’re trying to leverage our knowledge base,” said Ross Johnson, vice president of magnetometer sales. “We’re one of the few companies around that can see into the Earth.”