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Why Oregon's Scientist Of The Year Loves His Work

OPB | Feb. 22, 2014 8:03 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 26, 2014 11:14 a.m. | Portland

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This weekend, a scientist who helped discover the source of high radon levels in Portland was honored by his peers.

Burns is credited with finding the source of radon.

Burns is credited with finding the source of radon.

Courtesy Scott Burns

The Oregon Academy of Science named Scott Burns its 2014 Outstanding Scientist. Burns teaches Geology at Portland State University. He is known for his his work mapping radon, a naturally occurring form of radiation. It can build up in homes and is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S.

Burns says in the 1990s, health officials asked for his help studying high radon levels in Portland. He discovered that the radon came from granite rock that had been deposited by ice-age floods.

He explained, “I mapped them out, and I said ‘oh my God! It’s the coarse-grained Missoula flood sediments that were causing the greatest amount of radon in houses.’”

Burns is also considered and expert on landslides and terroir, the connection between geology and wine grapes.

OPB chatted with Burns about his varied career.

OPB: What was your first real science experiment as a kid?

SB: That was way back in time. I went to a country grade school in Beaverton, and we never had science in school. I still remember my first science fair project, which was absolutely awful; it was not an experiment, it was about the heart. I really didn’t have any very good science training until high school.

OPB: Why did geologic hazards become a big part of your focus?

SB: As an engineering geologist, which is what I am, we’re trying to help people. Geology is very exciting. Wherever you go in the world there is a story, and you reach out and learn what that story is in the rocks and the soils. It’s like being an investigative reporter every day, it is so much fun. And I take it a step further, saying what are the hazards on this particular site? I don’t want people to be living in a place where they have the potential of losing their property, losing their house, or losing their life. That’s why we put together hazard maps.

OPB: Is there a particular discovery that you are proud of and consider your most significant contribution?

Burns: Well, in the landslide area, we deal with debris flows on volcanoes, which are slurries that come down the valleys. One thing we’ve discovered there is that the valleys on the volcanoes that are most prone are the ones that have glaciers in them. In the area of urban landslides, we’ve learned if you can prevent people from ponding water on the slopes, that will prevent possible landslides.

Another area of research is terroir, and the relationship between geology, soils, climate, and wine. The Willamette Valley is developing as one of the major pinot noir areas of the world, and we’ve been studying this for 20 years. We are now very close to some major findings as to why the different soils: the Jory, the Willakenzie, and the LaurelWood, produce completely different wines if you keep all the other factors constant.

OPB: You mentioned landslides.

SB: That’s my primo area.

OPB: Do you think landslides are an under-appreciated geologic hazard?

SB: Yes. You can buy insurance for earthquakes, for floods, for hurricanes, but normal homeowners insurance does not address landslides. You can, through Lloyds of London, get landslide insurance but it’s rare that people have it.

OPB: How and why did you get involved in radon?

SB: First, radon is a geologic hazard. When you breathe a lot of it in, it can cause lung cancer. It’s the number one cause of lung cancer other than smoking, but we did not know it was a health hazard until 1984.

I’ve taught all over the world, and in Louisiana I did research on background levels of radionuclides in soils. When I came to PSU in 1990 I had this background in radionuclides. At that same time, radon was coming to the surface, and I was the geologist who had a background in radioactivity in the soils. I teamed up with the Oregon Health Division, and they had data on all these houses but they couldn’t figure out why some houses where high in radon and why some were low. And so I mapped them out and said, oh my god! It’s the coarse-grained Missoula flood sediments that are causing the greatest amount of radon in houses. … So we could geologically explain the high values and low values.

OPB: Last thoughts?

SB: I’m just very excited about getting this award. I love science, I love geology, and I love communicating that. In the Pacific Northwest we live in a veritable wonderland of geology and natural history, and lots of people here are very interested in what’s around us.

OPB: If you could mess around with time, is there a particular geologic event you would have liked to watch?

SB: Well, it would have been incredible to watch the Missoula floods come through. You’d want to be above 400 feet elevation. I would have loved to have seen that. There may have been humans here around that time, 15,000 calendar years ago. Wow. I hadn’t really thought there may have been humans here during those floods. The oldest archeological site that has been verified is in Oregon, and it’s the paisley caves. The date on that is about 14,500 years ago, matching up with one of the last Missoula floods. The problem is that humans at that time were probably following salmon up the river, and their sites would have been wiped out by the floods.

On the Web

Oregon Field Guide: Radon

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