• A fondness for fossils leads to “ground-breaking” museum exhibit
By Christina Whiting
Geoff Coble loves fossils. He loves to collect them. He loves to talk about them. He loves to lead hikes to look for them. He also realizes that others may not share his enthusiasm and may actually find fossils to be gray and lifeless.
“I thought one way I could get people interested in the importance and significance of fossils and the geological history of Kachemak Bay, would be to curate an exhibit,” he said.
On Feb. 1, Coble’s inspiration comes to life when the Pratt Museum presents, “The Living Tertiary.” Beyond featuring local fossils, the exhibit compares local fossil remains to similar plants and animals found both nearby and around the world, drawing comparisons on geologic processes, paleontology and climate change.
The Living Tertiary looks at the geologic history of the local bluffs during the Tertiary Period, a geologic way to describe the period of time 2-65 million years ago. Each fossilized species featured in the exhibit is paired with a similar living plant or animal. When a living specimen could not be physically included in the gallery, pairings include large photographs — like a metasequoia tree recently found in China. Other pairings feature live aquatic species found around Alaska, like freshwater mussels and perch fish.
“To our knowledge, no fossil exhibit has presented these contemporary parallels in such a fashion,” said Scott Bartlett, the Pratt Museum’s Curator of Exhibits. “Each subject is effectively shown both fossilized and live.”
The exhibit contains four main components, including marine brachiopods, freshwater mussels, freshwater fish and plant life. It also demonstrates the formation of layers of coal and sediment of the geologic bluffs around Homer using a model with interactive dioramas and video shot from a helicopter.
“We’re really living among pages of our local rock history, stretching all the way back to the catastrophic event that took place 65 million years ago,” Coble said.
Coble’s interest in geology began when he was a child. His family collected rocks as a hobby, looking for agates in Michigan gravel quarries.
“I’ve liked rocks ever since I can remember,” he said. “I had books on them and loved going out to look at them. One Christmas, I asked for a blast furnace so I could melt them. I really got teased for that.”
In high school, Coble found a job with the Ann Arbor Biological Center company. His job was to sort through barrels of rocks and minerals — like rose quartz and topaz — and make them into squares using an anvil and a hammer. Afterward, they were numbered and labeled and sold as specimen sets for education.
Coble began studying geology at the University of Michigan where his father worked. He then studied geophysics and engineering at the University of Kansas, simultaneously receiving degrees in both. Coble did fieldwork hydrogeology at the Kansas Geological Survey, including pumping tests and studying clay mineralogy. He then worked in Florida as a consultant providing numerical modeling of groundwater problems.
In 1994, Coble and his then wife moved to Homer when she got a job at the Kachemak Bay Campus. Eager to start his own business, he set up shop and formed Coble Geophysical Services.
In the beginning, his work was primarily located on the Kenai Peninsula, but soon took him around the state. In the last year, he’s worked in the coastal delta of the Bering Sea and up into the interior of Alaska. His work to solve groundwater problems has included directing the installation of slant wells under the Kanektok River and groundwater exploration at Manley Hot Springs.
On the geophysics side of the business, Coble’s company measures earth conductivity and other parameters using electromagnetic methods. These are used in contracts to find everything from hard-to-find utilities like water lines in an older part of town, to archaeological artifacts like World War II airport remnants.
A geologist, geophysicist and geohydrologist, Coble loves to share his excitement about the geology and natural history of the Kachemak Bay area. His love for fossil hunting is shared by his son Ben, 11, while his daughter Emily, 15, appreciates the beach walks more. Coble said both kids love to find beach agates and are really good at it.
“This area we live in is an amazing place,” he said. “There are metamorphic processes across the Bay, sedimentary fossiliferous rock in Homer and igneous volcanic processes across the Inlet. Where else can you go to have all of this in one view?”
The Living Tertiary exhibit is the result of months of collaboration between Coble, six universities and numerous friends and scientists heralding from across several states. Locally, Coble collaborated with Daniel Zatz’s videography company, sound and lighting expert Dustin Davis, and organizations like the Pratt Museum, Kachemak Bay Research Reserve and the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies.
The Living Tertiary opens at the Pratt Museum on Friday, Feb. 1, with an official First Friday opening reception on Friday, Feb. 7, from 5-7 p.m. The exhibit will remain in the gallery through Mar. 30.
Meet your Neighbor shares the story of residents of Homer and the surrounding area. If you’d like to suggest someone for a story, contact Christina Whiting at Christina@homertribune.com.
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