Occidental geologists travel to far-off places in pursuit of scientific research

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Professor Darren Larson conducted research in Iceland and the Tetons. Photo courtesy of Darren Larson

The Occidental geology department is busy traveling to far-off places, conducting research and furthering their understanding of the geologic world. Margaret Rusmore, chair of the geology department, conducts research funded by the National Science Foundation in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia, a region cut by glacially carved fjords, which are long, narrow arms of the sea bordered by steep cliffs. Rusmore has taken students to British Columbia (BC) in the past to assist with her research, where they work on a very small boat for several weeks to look at rock outcrops.

Rusmore also leads research into the high country of the region, in glaciated mountain tops. Last summer, instead of taking students and doing her own fieldwork, she led a professional field conference. According to Rusmore, her recent project in BC led her to new understandings and gave her a better context for her work. Last summer, Rusmore found that a fault was both longer and more significant than she initially thought.

“It caused a fundamental shift in how I’m interpreting the large scale evolution of western Canada — which involves California as well — so the whole West Coast. It really did change my perceptions of what is going on out there,” Rusmore said. “Hopefully this summer I’m going to take on a new project that’s based on this, in a different part of British Colombia.”

Rusmore said she has been referred to as the “queen of logistics,” having worked as the logistics manager for countless climbing exhibitions to places as far as the Himalayas, and expressed the value of being very systematic in approaching logistics.

“Logistics is an extremely difficult thing when you work in remote terrain. You have to get it right,” Rusmore said. “You can’t rush back out to the store — Trader Joe’s is a long way if you run out of gorp [trail mix] — it’s just a big problem. So you have to get all of the health and safety aspects taken care of. You have to make sure that you’ve got the transportation aspects, that there are back up plans. It’s a huge undertaking.”

According to Rusmore, her research is typically conducted in remote wilderness areas where they probably are some of the very first, if not the first people ever, to walk there — what Rusmore refers to as “frontier geology.”

“There’s usually been some sort of broad study, and I like honing in on what questions I think are really important, that can further our thinking in a larger scale pattern,” Rusmore said. “So I usually pick up those sorts of projects, and I feel like my students have really been able to make some contributions in understanding how mountain ranges and plate tectonics and the world is put together.”

Rusmore said she also takes students to the Mojave Desert many times a year, depending on what her schedule permits. She will take a research group March 30 to look at rocks that have been folded or faulted, and changed from their original form. Rusmore said she enjoys watching her students grow as scientists in the field, because getting immersed in projects is a formative experience for them.

“Watching them mature through the project and through their comps project is really very satisfying, and I see that as an exciting part of being a professor,” Rusmore said. “I wouldn’t be doing the work that I do if I didn’t just like being out there. I grew up as a climber and I like being on mountains and I like being on boats. There’s an aesthetic aspect to it that’s good for my soul.”

Darren Larsen is another professor traveling to remote places to further his research. Professor Larsen and geology major Aria Blumm (senior) traveled to Grand Teton National Park, WY. March 22, where they will snowmobile onto frozen glacial lakes to collect sediment cores from the bottom. According to Larsen, the logistical challenges of traveling to the Tetons involve getting the equipment up into the mountains.

Professor Darren Larson conducted research in Iceland and the Tetons. Photo courtesy of Darren Larson

“These are difficult places to just hike to, let alone carry a bunch of equipment and go up with a team and actually try and perform field work and collect samples and evacuate out safely,” Larsen said. “In the past, much of the work we did in the Tetons was ski-supported, so we were skiing up to these higher elevations. That was certainly challenging.”

According to Larsen, this year they got permission from the National Park Service to use snowmobiles, and then later in May when they go back to access the high elevation sites, they will be using a helicopter.

Larsen will also travel to Iceland in June and July 2019 with students.

Professor Darren Larson conducted research in Iceland and the Tetons. Photo courtesy of Darren Larson

“In Iceland, the logistical challenges are accessing these field sites and kind of figuring out what the access is, because it’s all in the interior of Iceland,” Larsen said. “And then just kind of living and camping and doing fieldwork in the remote interior highlands of Iceland.”

Larsen said Blumm has been taking care of all the logistics for her senior comprehensive project and that she’s very invested in her work. Blumm said her specific focus is on reconstructing earthquakes on the Teton fault, which is the fault that forms the Teton Mountain Range.

“I obviously really love my research, so being able to continue it and ask more questions is always really important to me,” Blumm said. “When you can solve those problems in the field, that’s always really enjoyable because you feel very successful.”

Blumm also said that getting the equipment up into the mountains is difficult.

“We core with this huge equipment that weighs like 50 pounds. So making sure we can get all of that there, to the field site, is a big challenge,” Blumm said. “The actual fieldwork itself is challenging, it’s harsh conditions, if things go wrong you’re in a very remote place and you have to be able to really think on the spot and figure things out.”

Professor Darren Larson conducted research in Iceland and the Tetons. Photo courtesy of Darren Larson

Blumm said she appreciates the community and learning opportunities in the field.

“It’s really nice to have others be there with you and support you and come up with decisions,” Blumm said. “I also get this great opportunity. All the people I do fieldwork with are either grad students or have their PhD. Being able to learn from them is a very exceptional experience. I feel very lucky being an undergrad that gets to do this.”