Feature Story | 10-Oct-2023

How do you learn about California's volcanic past?

Geosciences students explore northern California to see it firsthand

University of Cincinnati

During a walk among towering California redwoods, University of Cincinnati students Kevin Kruse and Cody Kessler stopped to admire a millennium-old stump.

Kruse began counting the tree’s thousand-plus rings with exaggerated deliberation: “One… two… three…”

“I already made that joke!” Kessler said.

Passing them on the trail, Associate Professor Dylan Ward quipped: “It’s less than a million years old. Who cares?”

A good sense of humor is helpful when students from a Midwestern Research-1 university travel 3,000 miles together to learn about California’s volcanic past by seeing it up close.

Students from UC teamed up with a group from California State University, San Bernardino on a whirlwind geologic tour of northern California — from the Marin Headlands at the foot of the foggy Golden Gate Bridge to the black basaltic sands of Shell Beach to the massive granite outcrops of the Sierra Nevada dating back to the age of Tyrannosaurus rex.

“To understand some of these geological processes, it helps to see them yourself. We don’t have a lot of these examples in Ohio,” Associate Professor Daniel Sturmer said.

Sturmer put together the trip’s itinerary, picking the diverse geological features the group would study. He grew up in southern California and went to school in Nevada, so he was familiar with the landscapes and unique hazards of California.

“My first interest aside from picking up rocks was earthquakes. I remember getting dressed for school in first grade when the Whittier Narrows earthquake happened and getting knocked to the ground,” he said.

The 1987 earthquake caused more than $300 million in property damage.

“It was scary. But it was exciting at the same time,” he said. “It sparked an interest for sure.”

Craig Dietsch, chairman of the Department of Geosciences, said the field trips often leave a lasting impression.

“We’ve had plenty of students go into unrelated careers. But they go on vacation and suddenly they find themselves looking at rocks in cuts in the road,” he said.

He has led more than 100 student field trips in his 33 years at UC.

“The weather is really important, oddly enough,” Dietsch said. “You can see the most fantastic rocks, but it doesn’t matter if it’s pouring rain or it’s cold or people are uncomfortable.”

UC's focus on experiential learning benefits students who want to learn outside the classroom. Through cooperative education or co-ops, students divide the year between classroom instruction and full-time employment in their chosen field. Meanwhile, UC offers plenty of room to explore through study abroad. Each year, students travel to more than 50 countries to broaden their perspectives and learn more about the world.

At each site they visited, students fanned out to examine geologic features. They used hammers to shatter big rocks and study the exposed surfaces using whistle-shaped hand lenses that dangled from cords around their necks.

Then they huddled together for a discussion about the significance of each site.

“What do we know about this outcrop?” Dietsch asked the students “It’s broken, it’s fractured, it’s beaten to hell. What does that tell us? It was deformed at low temperature and pressure.”

Some of the impromptu lectures under the blue California sky lasted for more than an hour, but the students remained engaged, answering questions and asking their own.

“The ones who come along tend to be motivated,” UC professor Ward said. “They’re really eager to get out and see this stuff firsthand.”

The large group in neon-yellow safety vests attracted some attention when they stopped to study exposed outcrops.

On a quiet road, a woman pulled up in a pickup truck to chat with Academic Director Krista Smilek, who explained what the geology students were examining.

“Good luck!” the woman offered before driving away. “There’s gold in them thar hills!”

Most of the students had never been to California. Some like undergraduate Kyleigh Hope had never traveled west of Indiana.

Hope has always been interested in science. She remembers in kindergarten finding coral fossils in her back yard — evidence that the Midwest was the bottom of an ancient ocean 440 million years ago.

“A lot of it is finding new things,” she said. “So there’s a dopamine hit from holding this tangible reward, but also stopping to fathom just how old it is in the palm of your hand.”

She loaded the music playlist for her group, playing an eclectic mix that spanned Twenty One Pilots, Panic! at the Disco, Ella Fitzgerald and AC/DC.

She was visibly delighted to identify ancient river sediment in a highway road cut. She had seen similar features on a geology trip to Illinois, she said.

“You see the pebbles embedded in the side of the hill and really distinct lines that show the degradation of sediments as the braided stream meanders through. It really jumps out at you,” she said.

And she appreciated that the tour featured women scholars such as Cal State Assistant Professor Tandis Bidgoli. While she isn’t sure where her career might take her, Hope said seeing other successful women in science gives her confidence that her future is bright.

“Geosciences is a male-dominated field,” Hope said. “But to see Tandis teaching these subjects, I know I can do it.”

The caravan of vehicles climbed a mountain road to the top of the 7,000-foot-tall Donner Pass offering breathtaking views of its namesake lake. This route through the Sierra Nevada was made famous — or infamous — by the fateful 1846 migration by the Donner-Reed party. Trapped by heavy snow, the party resorted to cannibalism. But the students were there to stand on a glacier-polished granite cliff dating back to the age of the dinosaurs.

UC student Paul Smith spent 20 years in marketing at Cincinnati-based consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble Co. with a master’s degree in business administration before coming to UC to pursue a bachelor’s degree in physics. Today, he is a self-employed author and public speaker — and a junior in astrophysics.

Smith is working with professor Sturmer on a geophysics project, using gravimetric devices to record the relative gravity of suburbs around Reno, Nevada. These tools offer clues about the hidden geology of the earthquake-prone area as part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Hazards Reduction Program.

Since he studies earthquakes, Smith said he was most excited about seeing evidence of California’s famed San Andreas Fault, the villain of 50 years of disaster movies in pop culture. A trail at the Point Reyes National Seashore features a fenceline, since rebuilt, that shifted 16 feet during a 1906 earthquake.

“I’ve been hearing about the San Andreas fault since I was a kid. You expect to see a crevice that goes down a mile, but that’s not at all what you see,” Smith said. “It’s a little anticlimactic.”

At Lassen Volcanic National Park, students hiked a high-altitude trail to a geyser field full of boiling pools and mudpots. They stopped at mountain-sized lava domes known as the Chaos Crags that betray evidence of Lassen’s volcanic history, including an avalanche that hurled boulders more than 3 miles downhill where the students stood.

They found evidence of California’s volcanic history at other stops on their route, including a road cut that exposed a wall of puffy black rocks that looked like burnt marshmallows.

“These pillow shapes and cross section is the classic undersea eruption of basaltic magma,” Dietsch said. “This is classic pillow basalt. So anytime you find pillow basalts, you know you have water, you’re on an ocean crust, you’re off the continental realm and in the oceanic realm.”

The students ended their journey at Point Reyes, where they spied coyotes, elk and mule deer in the sagebrush flats before reaching their destination, the historic 1870 lighthouse. The students hiked down the steep 313 steps to the lighthouse below to examine the surrounding conglomerate of sandstone, quartz and chert and then huffed and puffed back up the stairs.

Doctoral student Kessler ran the steps twice and even managed a smile when he got to the top the second time.

Fellow doctoral student Aaron Fletcher could only watch, incredulous.

“He would have gone a third time, but they were closing the steps for the night,” Fletcher said.

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