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Digging Deeper with Sophie Warny

AAPG "Energy Insights" Podcast, Episode 3

AAPG "Energy Insights" Podcast, Episode 3


Digging Deeper with Sophie Warny, Associate Professor/AASP Chair in Palynology, Louisiana State University. AAPG "Energy Insights" Podcast, Episode 3.

Full Transcript

VERN STEFANIC: Hello, and welcome to this edition of "Energy Insights," the AAPG podcast, offering interviews with people who are defining, influencing, and leading today's world of Geosciences. I'm Vern Stefanic. And this installment, once again, is Digging Deeper by having a conversation with one of the speakers for the AAPG, AAPG's Foundation's Distinguished Lecture Series. Our guest today is Sophie Warny, Associate Professor and the AASP Chair in palynology in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and a curator of the Museum of Natural Science, also at LSU.

And she's also Director of CENEX, the Center for Excellence in Palynology, funded in part by AASP, which focuses on various aspects of palynological research, including the use of pollen, spores, and algae in bio stratigraphic studies.

We'll talk more about that in a moment, as well as a lot more about Sophie's distinguished lecture for AAPG. But first, we get to know a little bit more about Sophie herself and the experiences and success stories she's had that have brought her to this moment in her career. Sophie, welcome to "Digging Deeper."

SOPHIE WARNY: Thank you very much for having me.

VERN STEFANIC: And the way we're talking about palynology, is that the right way to say it? I want to make sure I'm getting that right.

SOPHIE WARNY: That's perfect.

VERN STEFANIC: Yeah, thank you for that, because that's about dust, isn't it?

SOPHIE WARNY: So it's microfossils that are the size of dust or smaller. Essentially, when you get a rock, or mud or hard rocks, you try to extract that microfossil that are the size of dust.


SOPHIE WARNY: They're about 100 microns and smaller. And they all have organic walls. So we use a specific chemical treatment that's not very safe. We use a lot of HF and HCl, so some nasty chemicals to extract this pollen and spore and algae. But through that process, we can extract these microfossils, and they are collectively called palynomorphs. And so the field is palynology.

VERN STEFANIC: Now scientists are going to-- they'll come up and punch me in the nose for asking this question. But on behalf of some of the people who are listening who are not familiar, so why does this matter that we care so much about these small things?

SOPHIE WARNY: No, thank you for asking. So you can do so much things with palynomorphs. So first, and I think historically, they were studied because of energy. So if you go back to 1700, or when medicine was trying to understand why people were getting sick, and they call that hay fever, it started being studied at that time, because people realized that maybe it's the pollen that's creating these allergies.


SOPHIE WARNY: So people like that several hundred years ago just, focusing on the allergies. And then, our company started realizing that you have different strata of different ages that have different types of pollen, spore, and algae in them. And they realized that you can use them to date these sequences.

And so it started as a field in the industry, where they were using these palynomorphs as biostratigraphic tool.


SOPHIE WARNY: And so that's really how it started. And then, we also started doing environmental research on them. And more recently, we are starting to do forensic studies with them.

VERN STEFANIC: Oh my. So this is actually, just what you said, like a million times more compelling and interesting than maybe somebody, if they just read the word, would think about it. May I ask-- OK, all of us understand the allergies and how that goes. But maybe we, as we lay people, didn't realize that-- so if we go back into the Earth's history, and we can go millions of years ago, we can find specific clues in the dust, basically, that tell us a little bit about what was there, and how this might lead to us having more energy. Is that right?

SOPHIE WARNY: Yes. So essentially, the organic component is going to turn into-- so the pollen, and the spore, the algae. They have in common the organic wall. And this organic microfossil will turn into to your kerogen and your oil and gas with time. So they are really an interesting part of the oil and gas story, really.

So not only they are what will become oil and gas, but they are also what allows you to date the sequences. And you can do that. They've been around since just before the Cambrian, the Neoproterozoic, so pre-Cambrian, Cambrian boundaries. And you find things as very primitive called acritarch. And then as you move to the Paleozoic, you start having more acritarchs, you start finding chitinozoan, the spores, the first basic plants appear.

And as you move to the geological time, you find other of microfossil. The gymnosperms appear, then the angiosperm at the end of the Cretaceous, and so forth. The dinoflagellate, one of the prime, best geographic marker, occurred at the end of the Triassic. So there is always a geological time where you're going to find these markers.

VERN STEFANIC: Oh my. Oh, my goodness. And I also heard you say the word forensic. So this becomes clues in solving big questions. And your lecture that you do for AAPG probably deals with a little bit of that, doesn't it?

SOPHIE WARNY: Yes. So I'll hope I'll explain how it works. So, essentially, if I take a forensic vacuum, which is essentially a vacuum that you attach a filter, and I vacuum-- probably if you have a hat, if I vacuum your hat, you don't wash your hat so often, or your shoes, because you don't wash your shoes, I'm going to find pollen print, a pollen assemblage from your hat or your shoes. And I can have an idea of where you've been by the type of pollen you're going to have in your shoes.

And then we can use that for doing some geolocation, tying an object or a person to a specific location. So I'm really happy that Homeland Security now have two forensic palynologists as part of their team.


SOPHIE WARNY: One is from Texas A&M, and one is from my lab. So it's a very important tool.

VERN STEFANIC: I want to talk a little bit more about that. But first, it occurred to me-- I want to find out, let's introduce people to you, where you're from, how you got too interested in this area. Now, I'm guessing you weren't necessarily born in America. OK.


VERN STEFANIC: Can you tell us, where are you from?

SOPHIE WARNY: So I grew up between Belgium-- well, I'm Belgian, so I grew up mostly in Belgium. But I spent my summer Southern France, where my grandparents were from.


SOPHIE WARNY: So beautiful part of the world.

VERN STEFANIC: Yes. Oh, my god. Yes, yes.

SOPHIE WARNY: I studied geology at the University Catholique de Louvain in Belgium. It's a big university near Brussels.


SOPHIE WARNY: And while I was a student there-- so there, I studied geology, and I knew I always liked marine geology, so after I finished my bachelor, I went to another university, also in Belgium, called University de Liege, where I studied palynology and oceanography. And I didn't really know what to do after that.

But while I was doing my masters, a former professor that I had as an undergrad called me and said, look, I have funding. If you're interested in doing a PhD, we would love to have you back in Louvain at UCL. And it was a six-year contract to do a PhD. And they let me choose my topic, so it was really a great, great chance.

And at that time, I met a faculty in Montpellier in Southern France who had just been asked by the Smithsonian in Washington to do the palynology on some coal from Africa. And it was just a fantastic opportunity for a PhD project, so I ended up studying that with that faculty in Montpellier at my university in Louvain.

VERN STEFANIC: Already, that's a pretty good biography right there. That's pretty great experiences. Can I just back up one bit, though, before we leave it. You just happened to major in geology. How did that happen? I mean, some people want to major in art, or English, or history, and you just said geology? What was it?

SOPHIE WARNY: No, I changed major.

VERN STEFANIC: Oh you did? You did?

SOPHIE WARNY: It's not very glamorous. But I didn't know what you do after high school. I just knew I liked science and math and physics. And so I actually started as a chemist major. And then I had GEO101, Introduction to Geology Class, and I really loved it, and I changed major right away.


SOPHIE WARNY: And then I never regretted it, because that was really my passion.

VERN STEFANIC: So it started with chemistry, though. So looking at things on that scale was already part-- that seemed to be already a part of who you were.

SOPHIE WARNY: You know, it was just-- I really wasn't sure. But I was just, you know, good in science and math, so, you know, it's hard to choose, as you know, when you finish high school.

VERN STEFANIC: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

SOPHIE WARNY: So it I was very lucky for me to take that introduction to Geology class.

VERN STEFANIC: It's always interesting for me to understand if there were family influences that led to people and what they do with their careers and their career choices and everything. Was there anyone in your family that had this kind of science in their background?

SOPHIE WARNY: Not at all.


SOPHIE WARNY: My dad did work for a chemical company in Belgium called Solvay, but not as a scientist. And my mom owned a grocery store in a tiny village. You know, it's just by luck that I ended up in that class, the geology class, that really sparked my interest.

VERN STEFANIC: Can you remember what-- people talk about having their interest sparked and all. Was there a moment, was there some sort of case study that you were looking at? Was there a teacher who inspired? What was that spark that really came for you?

SOPHIE WARNY: I think for me, growing up in the first in the French-speaking part of Belgium, where you have all these fantastic outcrop of Paleozoic rocks. And then in the French Riviera, we have these magnificent Permian rocks. It was really nice to finally understand what they mean, and what type of deposition in an environment, and looking at them, and not just thinking it's pretty. You know? Just really understanding them. So I really love that. And I think that really, you know, got me hooked.

VERN STEFANIC: At that point, was there career opportunities in this field? It's a very specific niche, right?

SOPHIE WARNY: It's actually a really good question, because when I told my mom I was switching, she almost cried, because all mine, the coal mine, were closing in Belgium at that time. And she was, like you're never going to find a job. but I figured that I had to learn something I love. And if you love it, I think there is always that you're going to make a living, if you're really, you know, passionate about it.

So, you know, I broke her heart probably. But I decided to stick with it and stay with geology.

VERN STEFANIC: That's pretty cool. How did you get to America?

SOPHIE WARNY: So when I was doing my PhD, I was a first year PhD student in Louvain. And my now husband, you know, I didn't know him at the time, was doing a PhD at Rice in Houston. He's from New Orleans. And his advisor at Rice sent him in Belgium for a year, and we met. And then we decided-- he was a first-year PhD student. So we decided whoever gets a job first, we'll move.

And not surprising, he got a job before me because it's a little bit easier here as a geologist, and now he's a geophysicist. So I got the job, and I followed him, and I was lucky to be able to have a career.

VERN STEFANIC: Oh, yes. Now, do the two of you do any projects together? Do you work together?

SOPHIE WARNY: Well, we are very different. And so, we try not to work together too much because we would kill each other.

VERN STEFANIC: Fair enough.

SOPHIE WARNY: But we help each. Like, we are a sounding board. So that helps a lot, when we write a paper or a grant, we help each other by giving an outsider opinion. And we don't have the same-- he's a geophysicist, and I'm a palynologist. So we kind of help each other a lot.

VERN STEFANIC: Good, good. You wear so many hats. I mean, in the introduction, we were going over the many things that you do. You're a teacher, you're a researcher, you're going out on field trips, you're a curator for a museum, you've got your own center of CENEX. How do you make all of that work? My gosh, that's a lot of balls to be juggling, right?

SOPHIE WARNY: So I have a lot of weaknesses, but I think my strongest point is my organization skills. So I think that comes very easily to me, and so that really helps managing everything.

I also get bored very easily, so I like to do different things, just to keep my interest up. And I have a hard time saying no to new opportunities. Like that forensic project, I could have said no to go to that DC meeting. And but it was too interesting to pass. And it's pretty much a story of my life. Each time somebody mentions something that's really interesting, it's really hard to say no.

VERN STEFANIC: Oh. In fact, and I want to talk a little bit more about that forensic aspect of your talk. Being named a distinguished lecturer, what was that like? Was that something you were expecting, anticipating, or complete surprise?

SOPHIE WARNY: It was a complete surprise. So it was a great honor, so I really thank AAPG and the AAPG Foundation for selecting me. I'm not certain how the selection goes. So I know some of the folks that probably nominated me had heard me at some talk. I was at the anniversary AAPG meeting. It was two years ago?

VERN STEFANIC: Yeah. 2017 in Houston. That's right.

SOPHIE WARNY: And that was a great meeting, and we had a really good session there. So I don't know if, you know, that's part of the decision. But I'm really grateful. I've enjoyed my time here very much.

VERN STEFANIC: Well, that's great. So the talk itself, the title is "The Evolution of Antarctic Vegetation Cover From the Paleocene to the Pliocene," which sounds like it's pretty lofty. It's also a review of case studies from the Antarctic Peninsula, the Ross Sea, Sabrina Coast, and the Dry Valley. So there's some very specific applications that you get into.

In your talk, actually, in getting to that point, you do talk about some of the forensic examples that the palynology has played in your career and perhaps with your center. Could you talk a little bit about those?

SOPHIE WARNY: Yeah, so one of the things-- when I was asked to come as a DL, I was asked to talk about our research in Antarctica. And so I definitely wanted to do that. And I spent probably about half of the lecture doing that.

But I think that people don't really realize how much more we can do with palynology, not just biostratigraphy, environmental reconstruction forensic. And I really was trying to share that with the public. We need to have people understand the breadth of the type of research we can do. So I hope it will go to when you look at the talk.

VERN STEFANIC: And that brings up an interesting question. How many people are there who are involved in this specific approach?

SOPHIE WARNY: So that's a tough question. So I think with the AASP Society-- so that's the American Association of Stratigraphic Palynologists. And they recently edited their name to dash the Palynological Society, because most of our members are from all around the world. It used to be an American society. It's still based in Houston, essentially.

We realized that-- I think we have about 400 to 500 members right now around the world. So these are many faculty and university, oil industry, biostratigraphers, and now students. And now we have a lot of members from the US, of course, but we have people from all around the world, a lot from South America, a lot from Europe, some from Saudi Arabia. So any groups, really, working with biostratigraphy, we have members that are part of that society.

VERN STEFANIC: Oh, my. So this is a growing number discipline?

SOPHIE WARNY: No, unfortunately not.


SOPHIE WARNY: So I think right now, with budget cut in the industry, a lot of the best geographic team were cut down. And it's a tough time for a lot of people right now. But most big companies only have two or three biostratigraphers that are palynologists, if that many. So it's a very, very specific niche. And we are one of the few labs in the US where you can be trained to become one. So I was very lucky that a few of my former doctoral students are now biostratigraphers.

So I have two with BP, one with Hess, one with BHP Billiton. And I'm probably forgetting a few of them. But a lot of my students were recruited as biostratigrapher.

VERN STEFANIC: With all the different responsibilities that you have, do you find that in your position, you're being kind of the public face for the discipline? Are you promoting it in a way that's trying to encourage other people to be more aware of its importance?

SOPHIE WARNY: Well, it's, you know, not the public face, one of the many, I would say. Dr. Vaugh Bryant at Texas A&M is definitely, I would say, a very public face for forensic palynology in the US. He's done a lot of work. I've been called on a movie set to just do CSI type movies.

And we get some funny phone calls from time to time. I got a phone call from-- I don't know if it was ABC or CBS, but they were doing a study on some of the really expensive honey that you can buy that aren't-- this honey is supposed to have very specific healing powers. And there are a lot of counterfeits. So you can look at the pollen in the honey to make sure that it's coming from that specific plant from New Zealand or Australia, for instance.

So, you know, from time to time, you get these funny calls.


Had a few other funny calls too.

VERN STEFANIC: Oh, well, that's good. And movies and TV shows, then, come?

SOPHIE WARNY: So Vaughn got this. Actually, my weirdest phone call I received was from some people who knew my papers, they had read, because they sounded very knowledgeable. And so I started answering their question. And they wanted to know what type of plants grew in Antarctica, when, and things like that.

And I think it was for the History Channel. So it looked very serious. But then I realized it was for this show-- something about alien. I forgot the title.

VERN STEFANIC: I don't know. Aliens?

SOPHIE WARNY: Yes. It's a TV show. They wanted me-- they wanted to interview me and say that there might have been aliens in Antarctica, and the plants we are seeing grow were crops.


SOPHIE WARNY: So I cut that conversation very quickly.


We get some really weird calls from time to time.

VERN STEFANIC: So aliens did not-- aliens are not responsible for Antarctica? Is that what I'm hearing?

SOPHIE WARNY: Not the plant that we are covering.

VERN STEFANIC: Wow. Wow. For the lay public that we have out there who's listening, though, Antarctica wasn't always at the bottom of the earth, is that right?

SOPHIE WARNY: Well, so all the continents have been shifting around since, you know, Earth's existence.

VERN STEFANIC: Right. Scientists know this. Some other people out here listening might not, though, so that's good to get in the record.

SOPHIE WARNY: Yes. So you know, the continents have been shifting. There were a lot of tectonic activities at first when Earth was first created. It's been slowing down. And so, these massive tectonic events really are the reason for some of the super hot planet we had at first.

And so, things kind of calmed down, as you know, Earth's evolved. And the continents are stabilized where they are, so it's moving less fast right now. And the position of the continents move, a lot of the factors on Earth change. Antarctica used to be very green and covered with all kinds of interesting plants and forest.

VERN STEFANIC: Which is what you're-- OK, so now we're getting back to your distinguished lecture, and that's what you really are dealing with, doing some case studies on what we are finding from Antarctica.

Can you please talk a little bit more about that, because that would be pretty fascinating, just right off the bat, knowing that there are all these, in the geologic record, these plants that made up the comprised Antarctica, which people would know now.

SOPHIE WARNY: And it's-- I mean, we are just now starting to have a better understanding. And I'll tell you about it in a few seconds. But to tell you how it's new, when I was doing my PhD in Montpellier, we were studying the dessication of Mediterranean Sea. It's something called the Messinian salinity crisis.

And we were trying to see if it was a sea level event, a tectonic event, or a climatic event. And to know if it's a sea level event, you have to know what's going on with the ice sheet. And so at that time, I started looking, what do we know about Antarctica? Was there any massive ice sheet melting at that time, or expansion of the ice sheet? We didn't really know. And I realized there were very, very little publication on the topic.

And so when I got a job at LSU in the US, and I had to start my own program, I decided that's what I wanted to focus on, because there were very, very few papers on that. And so at that point, I started trying to get sediments, which is very hard to do when you're dealing with Antarctica.

You go there. You need to have NSF funding, which is already very hard to do. You have to compete with a lot of people. Write grants. It takes a year to know whether or not your grant is funded, so it's a very, very long process.

And so I've been trying that for 20 years. And in that span, I was able to be part of about six big projects in Antarctica, where the sediments are acquired by international groups. They go and drill. And then we can get the sediments and extract the palynomorph, and see what type of vegetation used to exist in Antarctica.

And so I've been working a lot with palynologists from around the world. So Rosie Askin, who is retired now. She lives in Jackson. She was one of the pioneer in Antarctica. Ian Raine, who is in New Zealand. Mike Hannah. So a group of people from different continents who specialize-- it's kind of a weird thing to say-- that you specialize in Antarctic palynology. But a few people who are, and so we can share our results, and compare our species, and make sure that we have the right identification.

VERN STEFANIC: This may appear like a smart aleck question, and I don't mean for it to be. But a lot of people would say, why is it important for us to know all of these things about Antarctica?

SOPHIE WARNY: That's really important that you ask that question, because, actually, to get funding to go to Antarctica, we need to justify and show the importance of our work. So otherwise, we would not get the funding. NSF cares a lot about what we can do for a society.

And right now, there is about 53 meters of sea level equivalent on the east Antarctic ice sheet side of Antarctica, and about three to five meter on the west Antarctic ice sheet side of Antarctica. So that's 60 meters of sea level equivalent that's actually stored in the ice sheet.

So we are not concerned with 60 meters flooding right now. That would wipe out most of the planet. But even one feet of melting of the Antarctic ice sheet would discharge most of our coastal cities. Many cities in Florida, which are big tourist attractions, New York, in Louisiana, New Orleans would become an island. So we really need to know what are triggering the melting and how fast it can happen.

And looking at the pollen from the sediments, we can know when the ice sheet was first formed, because as the ice is advancing, vegetation is decreasing. And so we can see when you had, for instance, some vegetation that were very tropical, then moved to temperate forest, and then into very, very busy tundra. And to the point where you have no vegetation at all. And that would coincide with how much ice you have.

And we can compare these data and know why the ice sheet is growing, understand what are the triggering mechanisms? What are oceanic current, atmospheric currents, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere? You know, tectonic, the opening of the Drake Passage.

So there are a lot of factors that we consider to understand why the ice sheet is growing. And then we can take that knowledge and understand when it's going to melt.

VERN STEFANIC: Have you in your research come across anything that's like, a huge surprise. You just it's like, wow, I didn't expect to find out that?

SOPHIE WARNY: So probably the two biggest surprises I've had in the last 15 years, one, was when we worked with Andrill, and that project was drilling in the Ross Sea. And it was a Miocene recovery. We were trying to understand, how was Antarctica during the Miocene? It's a time when ice sheet was there already. We knew that, and we were not thinking we would find any pollen.

And we were surprised that, actually, during two-time interval, in the peak of the mid-miocene climatic optimum, it was warm enough, which we know from other places on Earth, but it was warm enough to do massive melting in Antarctica, and vegetation came back. So that was a big surprise, and that gave us some really good indication.

And the second one was a project just last year that we've done with some colleague, Sean Gulick at UT, Amelia Shevenell at USC and Amny Leventer at Colgate University. And so we did the palynology for that project, and what Sean and his colleague did is to get a new seismic profile of an area of Antarctica that we are very concerned about for its stability.

And what they found is that, although we were thinking that the east Antarctic ice sheet was very stable, that project showed us that, actually, sometime, mostly during the Miocene, we have a lot of instability, at least 11 phase of instability, which means that that ice sheet that we thought was very stable, the one that has about 50 kilometers of sea level equivalent, is not as stable as we thought.

Not that we will lose the 53 meters, but even, again, losing a little, it would be a big concern. And for that study, we had the cover paper in Nature last December.

VERN STEFANIC: You were a bit of a celebrity on that that paper.

SOPHIE WARNY: No, it was just a lot of fun to have my little microfossil be on the cover. It was a lot of fun.

VERN STEFANIC: I saw that. But still, for science, this was a big aha moment. This was a big insight into us finding out something we didn't know.

SOPHIE WARNY: And really, I mean, the truth is that a lot of the credit should go to my colleague on that project, because without the seismic for hat one project, we wouldn't know the ice was not stable.

So the seismic data are really the key to that, that one story, and that's why Sean Gulick is the lead author, as he should be.

VERN STEFANIC: Well, great. So in some of this, you touch on in your distinguished lecture?


VERN STEFANIC: Yeah. So for you, and just to bring it full circle, we really-- I know people are going to want to listen to your entire lecture now, which was going to be available on our website. But so just to tease them even a little bit more, the point that you're trying to make, and the purpose, and what the intent of your talk would be?

SOPHIE WARNY: Well, I really hope nobody would look at pollen the same way again, and understand how much things you can do with pollen. So hopefully, I'll succeed after you watch the lecture.

VERN STEFANIC: OK. That's great. That's great. Sophie, thank you so much for being with us today.

SOPHIE WARNY: My pleasure.

VERN STEFANIC: We've been talking today to Sophie Warny, Associate Professor and the AASP chair in palynology and the Department of Geology and geophysics at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge and the curator of the Museum of Natural science, also at LSU.

Be sure to catch her lecture at, and then watch this space for more AAPG podcasts that will continue to cover a variety of important subjects, innovative ideas, and intriguing people, including our ongoing Digging Deeper look at the AAPG Distinguished lecturers.

The Distinguished Lecturer Program is operated by AAPG and the AAPG Foundation. We hope you'll take a moment soon to check out the AAPG Foundation website to learn about how you can be part of ensuring the future of Geosciences. But for now, thanks for listening.

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