James Swinehart

James Swinehart

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Title Emeritus Research Geologist
Address 818 Atlanta Avenue
Webster Groves MO
Phone 314-968-6340
E-mail sdworm@fastmail.fm
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When Jim Swinehart moved to Nebraska, the California native didn't plan on staying for long. Forty years later, in 2010, Swinehart achieved professor emeritus status, having concluded a successful career as a research geologist and professor in the geology and soils faculty, in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Swinehart was also a faculty member of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences from 1995 to 2008.

Swinehart's career has focused on stratigraphy, the study of how rock and sediment layers (strata) are arranged in time and space; and sedimentology, which examines the origin, structure and history of sediments and sedimentary rocks. His research focused on the evolution of the landscape and Cenozoic stratigraphy of Nebraska and the Great Plains, and the geologic history of the dunes, lakes and wetlands of the Nebraska Sand Hills and north-central China.

In the early 90s, Swinehart began focusing on the dune fields of western Nebraska. He worked with a team of researchers to examine the biocomplexity of the Nebraska Sand Hills. He also worked with colleagues in UNL's Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences to look at the history of dune reactivation during the past 20,000 years, and on mechanisms that control lake-aquifer salinization at both the local and regional or watershed scales in the Sand Hills. Both projects funded by the National Science Foundation.

Swinehart was also involved in geologic mapping and test drilling in western Nebraska. At the end of a long career, he says he feels fortunate to have collaborated with colleagues like Jim Goeke, Bob Diffendal, Joe Mason, Vern Souders, Hal DeGraw, David Loope, Ron Goble, Mike Voorhies and a host of students.

"It was one of those things where you learn on the job and the next thing you know you're an expert," he said.

Swinehart recalls fondly what he called "the drudgery of field and lab work" - using tweezers to pick out tiny seeds for radiocarbon dating, long days drilling test holes in "the boonies of Nebraska," and working outdoors in all weather conditions. Sharing his work with students in the field was a career highlight, he said.

"Field work always had unexpected turns, whether it was being chased out of a pasture by angry bulls or those few, unpredictable 'aha!' moments - leaps of understanding - when your brain makes connections that allow you to see the solution to a big puzzle you've been agonizing over for a long time."

Somewhere in the midst of all the traveling and field work, the state really started to grow on him. "I realized that if you just drove the interstate across Nebraska there'd be a reason you'd keep going, but between the Niobrara River, the Sand Hills, the Pine Ridge, there turned out to be some really nifty geologic phenomena," he said.

The success of the Sand Hills research led to four years of fieldwork in the dune fields of Inner Mongolia of northern China. Working with Ron Goble, UNL Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences; Joe Mason, University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Lu Huayu, Nanjing University; the research looked at dune activity and associated hydrologic change and dust production over the last 20,000 years.

One of the issues examined in both the Sand Hills and China was how the landscapes might change with extended drought brought on by climate change, a topic he started to devote considerable attention to in his environmental geology classes.

"Climate change went from one lecture to two, to two weeks - at which point it was clouding all the other things we had to talk about," he recalled. So when Don Wilhite, then director of the School of Natural Resources, proposed a class on it for undergraduates, Swinehart jumped at the opportunity. With Ken Dewey, he created "Climate in Crisis," which he and Ken co-taught for two years with help from Martha Shulski of the High Plains Regional Climate Center.

Swinehart said he plans to keep talking to the public about climate change as a guest lecturer at schools and universities. He also plans on doing a fair amount of traveling, exploring the geology of the Southwest, visiting children and a grandchild in Colorado, and kicking off retirement with a kayak tour along the coast of British Columbia.

Selected Publications

Miao, X., Mason, J.A., Swinehart, J.B., Loope, D.B., Hanson, P.R., Goble, R.J., Liu, X., 2007. A 10,000-year record of dune activity, dust storms, and drought in the central Great Plains. Geology 35:119-122. Online
Zlotnik, V.A., Burbach, M.E., Swinehart, J.B., Bennett, D., Fritz, S.C., Loope, D.B., and Olaguera, F. 2007. Direct push methods for aquifer characterization in dune-lake environments: The Nebraska Sand Hills. Environmental and Engineering Geosciences. 13:205-216.

Educational Background

  • BS - University of California-Riverside, Geology (1964)
  • MS - University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Geology (1979)

SNR Mission Area(s)

  • Environmental Science

Areas of Interest

  • Stratigraphy
  • Sedimentology of eolian and fluvial sediments
  • Origin, Structure and history (petrology) of rocks/sediments
  • Environmental geology
  • Geological mapping
  • Geology
  • Landscape evolution/structure
  • Mineral resources/identification
  • Petrology
  • Quaternary geology
  • Sand Hills
  • Sedimentology
  • Arikaree Group (fossils, sediments, stratigraphy, water-bearing properties, etc)
  • Hydrology
  • Surficial (near-surface) geology

Currently this page only displays grants that were awarded on 1/1/2009 to the present. If a grant was awarded prior to 1/1/2009 and is still active, it will not be displayed on this page.

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Graduate Program(s)