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Omaha Magazine

UNO Professor Promotes Plates, Peruses Periods: Prairies to Polar Seas

Oct 05, 2020 10:16AM ● By Jeff Lacey
UNO geology/geography professor Harmon Maher

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Harmon Maher grew up in Garrison, New York, a small town about 50 miles outside of New York City nestled next to the Hudson River. As a boy, Maher spent much of his childhood outdoors. He followed animal tracks, built dams in streams, and explored backroads. True to the Wordsworthian suggestion to “let nature be your teacher,” Maher haunted the woods for hours. “As long as I came home for dinner, my parents were happy with this arrangement,” he explained. 

Part of those outdoor childhood adventures involved collecting gems, minerals, and fossils. At the time, Maher didn’t realize that this aspect of his youth would prepare him for his future career in geology, and, consequently, much larger adventures.

The kind of adventures that require survival training.

Maher is a professor of geology and geography at University of Nebraska at Omaha. His fields of research include the geology of the Great Plains, structural geology, geologic mapping—“sort of like reverse engineering the blueprints of a building,” he explained—geologic fracture development, and structural diagenesis. He has written books and articles on local landscapes, such as Roadside Geology of Nebraska. He spends much of his time in Spitsbergen, an island in northern Norway. Spitsbergen is a place of ice and snow—the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago. It is an area of a little over 15,000 square miles, about 280 miles long, and landscaped with glaciers, fjords, and fields of sea ice. It is untamed; home to polar bears, whales, and seals. The terrain juxtaposes vast beauty and epic danger. Maher visits this isolated, dangerous area of the arctic to read the great plates of the world from which he and his team can learn about natural history and the future of geologic time.

This work sends Maher to different places, in different ways. He has crewed boats from 30 feet long to 100 feet long, spending weeks at a time conducting research afloat. Some days, watercraft is not his favorite way to travel, especially when boats forge through rough arctic waters. “I get seasick,” he explained. “I have a certain threshold.” Much of the time, however, Maher is required to use Zodiacs—rigid hull inflatables that come in all shapes and sizes. They are considered the workhorse of the arctic. Incredibly durable and maneuverable, Zodiacs are the kind of craft Jason Statham might pilot at breakneck speed in the latest soldier-for-hire adventure. In order to be cleared to take a Zodiac, Maher underwent survival training at the Norwegian University of Polar Science. He trained in how to use a survival suit. This training required him to go out in a Zodiac, jump into the freezing water (which ranges from 28 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit), and then climb back in. “If you go into the water, you’ve got five minutes, 10 max, before you pass out,” Maher explained. “They want us to know what we are dealing with in case it actually happens.” 

Maher’s work also relies on helicopters. Maher loves this part of the work. “The helicopter flies us to an arctic ridge, sets us down, and we walk along the ridge. You do your work, and you leave when they tell you they are going to leave. You fly for an hour and a half over such beautiful country. There are sling loads underneath with tents. The helicopter drops you off for two or three weeks. You hope for good weather. Some people have bad luck, and have to wait longer than expected.” Once the team arrives, they are on their own. “I have even had to work in situations where everything’s on my back and we walk for a day.  In those situations, oatmeal and bacon bits get you a long way.”

Whether he arrives by sea or air, once Maher arrives in the Svalbards, he is in love. The landscape appears barren, but is geologically varied and has been shaped by glaciers grabbing rocks as though they are football players heading for an end zone, ice wedging apart chunks of mountain like lumberjacks planning for a long winter, gravity pulling pieces of topography further into the landscape, waves cutting cliffs like a watery Michelangelo, and more. Maher is specifically interested in the geology of that area that appeared in the Triassic period more than 200 million years ago. 

Spitzburg isn’t the only place he has studied. Every year, he takes students on a 10-day geology field trip. He has been overseas to Ireland and Iceland, and stateside to northern California, Mount St. Helens in Washington, and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Some of the trips have been six-day canoe trips, camping on the way. Maher’s willingness to share his adventures have earned him high praise. In 2005, he won a UNO Alumni Outstanding Teaching Award. His colleagues speak highly of him. Robert Shuster, a fellow geology professor at UNO, can’t say enough good things about Maher. “When I think of Harmon Maher, several things spring to mind. Harmon is one of those rare faculty members who excels in research, teaching, and service.” 

Shuster has accompanied Maher into the field, and recalled being especially grateful for one particular experience. “I could tell many stories from one field excursion to Spitzburg, including a midnight visit from a polar bear into our camp, but…the night before we were about to be picked up by the helicopter, none of us could sleep, and about 4 a.m., we heard, and then saw, a pod of beluga whales swimming just offshore in the adjacent fjord. It was so still and serene. We all had a deep sense of wonder and appreciation for the surrounding nature and geology, and I understood why Harmon loves to go to this special place. I thank him for including me in that research project.”

Maher believes his work is more important than ever. “We’ve got an excess of 7 billion people now,” he emphasized. “We weren’t on the edge of resource use a hundred years ago, but we are now.”

Maher continued, “Part of the scientist’s job is to get people to see the world in a new way. We scientists could help with all kinds of things if you’d let us.” 

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This article was printed in the October 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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