Bethke, Craig M. (earth scientist)

(1957- ) American Hydrogeologist

One of the most important applied aspects of geology today is the study of how fluid flows through rock and soil. It not only dictates our ability to find clean sources of groundwater for drinking and industrial uses, but because there is such a close interaction between ground and surface water, it also affects our surface water quality. In addition, oil and gas flow through rock as they migrate into a reservoir where they can be drilled and produced much in the same manner as groundwa-ter flow. Craig Bethke has quickly established himself as one of the leading hydrogeologists in the field. He mathematically models fluid flow and chemical interactions, both at the surface and in the subsurface, using sophisticated computer programs. Even the more standard computer techniques for such analyses, taken from engineering applications using procedures called finite elements and finite differences modeling, can have many tens of thousands of lines of code. Bethke’s work goes beyond the standard applications and many of his projects require the use of a supercomputer. He is in an elite class in the whole geological community to be able to so quantify such complex phenomena.

Craig Bethke demonstrates the models produced by computer software that he developed

Craig Bethke demonstrates the models produced by computer software that he developed 

Bethke’s main interest has been the fluid migration history in the evolution of sedimentary basins. When sediments are deposited, they are saturated with fluids that typically contain minimal amounts of dissolved solids. As those sediments are progressively buried beneath additional strata, the pressure and temperature build. The pore fluids dissolve material from the sediments in which they are contained or, depending upon conditions, precipitate chemicals in which they are saturated. By this process, they take on the chemical signature of their host sediment. They are then forced to migrate from this building pressure and will chemically interact with any other sediment that they pass through. Bethke models these very complex multicomponent chemical interactions between fluids and sediments during migration. Their study may require him to study detailed clay mineralogy, petrology of the sediments, isotopic analysis, and detailed geochemistry. These studies have great application to petroleum exploration. They have been done on the Denver Basin, Colorado, the Los Angeles Basin, California, and the Illinois Basin, among others.

In addition to these paleohydrogeologic studies which concentrate on flow in ancient systems, Bethke also studies the environmental aspects of aqueous geochemistry (water chemistry) which involve currently active systems. He uses the distribution of isotopic tracers to map out the flow patterns in active settings. This work has taken him to the Western Canada sedimentary basin and the Great Artesian Basin of Australia. A new aspect of his research is to add the interaction of microbiology with geologic processes. This multi-disciplinary study of complex geologic processes is opening up, with great success, an aspect of aqueous geochemistry that has traditionally been overlooked.

Craig Bethke was born on June 6, 1957, in Rolla, Missouri. He attended Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in Earth sciences with distinction in 1979. He did his graduate studies at the Pennsylvania State University at University Park in geo-sciences and at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he earned a Ph.D. in 1985. During his graduate study, he worked as an exploration geologist at ARCO Oil and Gas Co. and at Exxon Production Research Co. and Exxon Minerals Co. Bethke joined the faculty at University of Illinois in 1985, and he remains there today. Bethke has been a visiting professor at both the Academie des Sciences in Paris, France, and Ecole Nationale Superieure des Mines de Paris in Fontainebleau, France. Craig Bethke is married to Abigail Bethke; they have three children.

Craig Bethke is in the early stages of what promises to be a very productive career. He has been an author of 34 articles in international journals and professional volumes. He has also written one advanced textbook and four pieces of software documentation. Several of these are seminal papers on fluid migration in sedimentary basins, including one paper in the prestigious journal Science. He is also the primary author of several widely used software packages including The Geochemist’s Workbench and Basin2. Considering the relatively early point in his career, Craig Bethke has received an astounding number of honors and awards for his research contributions to the science as well as his teaching. He received the Meinzer Award from the Geological Society of America, the Lindgren Award from the Society of Economic Geologists, a Presidential Young Investigator Award from the National Science Foundation, and he was chosen as a Shell Faculty Career Fellow. As a student he was a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow; he received the Best Student Paper Award from the Clay Minerals Society and the Upham Prize at Dartmouth College. At University of Illinois, he was named a Beckman Associate and a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study, as well as having been cited for excellence in teaching numerous times.

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