Understanding the depth of Kansas: KU scientist wins national Distinguished Service Award
photo by: Kathy Hanks
Rex Buchanan speaks affectionately about his home state as if he’s talking about a longtime friend.
Perhaps that comes from spending decades studying its geological past and the cracks and contours that make up Kansas’ subsurface.
Buchanan, director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas, recently received the Distinguished Service Award from the American Geosciences Institute for his achievements promoting the geosciences and natural resource issues affecting Kansans. The AGI is a nonprofit federation of geoscientific and professional organizations that represent earth scientists.
“Rex is a truly great communicator who always has an insightful story to tell or example to illustrate a point. He has provided exceptional support to our staff, and all of us at AGI thank him for his distinguished service,” said Allyson Anderson Book, executive director of the American Geosciences Institute, in an e-mail to the Journal-World.
Though retired, Buchanan continues to work on various projects from his office on the sixth floor of the Kansas Geological Survey on KU’s West Campus. From 2010 to 2016 he served as interim director of the KGS.
In 2013, Buchanan got another professional challenge. Central Kansas had begun experiencing an upswing in earthquakes.
“Nobody saw that coming,” Buchanan said. “Nobody would have thought that would become a dominant issue. Historically there had been natural seismicity. But what began occurring were far bigger and occurring in the same area where they were seeing a lot of saltwater injection,” a reference to a byproduct from oil and gas drilling that is injected back into the earth.
In 2014, Buchanan was appointed to the Governor’s Task Force on Induced Seismicity, which refers to earthquakes caused by human activities. The group was charged with devising a plan for investigating the cause and solving the problem of the increased earthquake activity.
The KGS installed a network of seismic monitoring stations, and scientists linked the increase in earthquakes to the deep-underground disposal of saltwater.
“It was unpleasant for a while,” said Buchanan, who continues to serve as director of the KGS Consortium to Study Trends in Seismicity.
People were upset and concerned with how to deal with the issue that was so new and unusual in the middle of Kansas. When people needed someone to vent to, Buchanan took the calls. He found that while some people were upset about the earthquakes, they didn’t want the oil and gas companies to leave.
Earthquake activity has died down because oil prices have dropped and production has decreased.
“There was less saltwater to get rid of,” Buchanan said. “Some of it is regulatory actions the Kansas Corporation Commission took, but mostly oil prices drove down production in that part of the world.”
Through the experience, Buchanan accumulated a wealth of knowledge and expertise.
“Today there are things you can do to mitigate the problem in terms of disposal and continue to produce oil without triggering earthquakes. We figured that out over time,” he said. During that period the largest earthquake felt in the state was 4.9 on the Richter Magnitude Scale, at Milan in Sumner County in south-central Kansas.
Another major issue he has tackled during his career has been making people aware of the endangered groundwater resources in western Kansas. He has gathered a lot of data on the ever-shrinking Ogallala Aquifer, which is where the bulk of water used by irrigators, municipalities and industries in western Kansas is drawn from. For years he would travel west with a team to measure hundreds of groundwater wells to help monitor the health and sustainability of the aquifer.
Buchanan has always considered himself a science writer. He is also a radio commentator for Kansas Public Radio, sharing stories about Kansas that he believes people need to know.
He is also the author of several books published by the University of Kansas Press, including “Roadside Kansas,” which he co-authored with James McCauley. He has also published “Kansas Geology.”
Currently, he is finishing a book on petroglyphs (ancient carvings on rocks) in Kansas, which he is co-authoring with Burke Griggs and Josh Svaty. Griggs took the photos, while Svaty arranged visits to private property where the petroglyphs were discovered. Buchanan has done most of the writing. The book is due out in fall 2019.
Buchanan has been a resident of Lawrence for decades. However, he grew up near Little River in central Kansas and owns a pasture near his family farm where his mother still resides. Nearby are some of the ancient petroglyphs that he included in the book.
“I grew up with these things,” Buchanan said. “They are part of the landscape, and no one knows they are out there.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of James McCauley’s name.