My Life as a Geologist

23 09 2008

I have finally returned from my brief stint of being a geologist (and not a rock climber – I haven’t gotten to climb in three weeks!!!). I don’t get the impression that many people actually know what geologists actually do, other than look at rocks, I figured I’d write a post about it.

Most geologists agree that in order to be a real geologist you have to go into the field sometimes to look at or sample real rocks. Geology is not one of those things that you can do only in a lab. But once we’re out in the field, there are a lot of things we could spend our time doing. Different geologists will see different things in the same place, depending on whether they are focusing on small, medium, or large scale features.

My trip was mostly about looking at medium-scale features – beds and “structures” (which are generally faults and folds) that occur on several meter scales. It’s hard to really understand the big picture of what’s going on at this scale by just looking at it and writing some notes. That’s why we “map” what we see – we start with a topo map of the area and draw in “contacts” between different rock units (for example, the contact between a 100ft thick bed of limestone and a 150ft bed of shale) as we trace them around hills and through “structures” like folds and faults. We also pay attention to how the beds are oriented so that later we can understand what’s going on below the surface. I’ve included some examples below.

This is a geologic map of the state of California. We do something like this, but on a much smaller scale, where 1 inch = 500 ft.

This is a smaller scale geologic map of part of the Grand Canyon.

This is a sample of a “geologic cross section” that a geologist can make based on observations from the surface. It shows a hypothesis of what the units look like below the surface. This example is from a folded and faulted area in Tennessee and North Carolina.

So for 18 days, I was hiking around a field area (called Poleta Folds) in the Inyo Mountains (which is the range to the east above Bishop and Big Pine) just above Deep Springs Valley, looking at rocks (but not climbing them). Our field area was at about 6000ft, so it was relatively good exercise to be hiking around off trail with a pack on all day. For most of the trip, we camped at a nice forest service campsite at Cedar Flat, somewhere between 7000 and 8000ft. The days were pretty busy – we would wake up at 7am every morning, cook breakfast and pack lunch, drive to the field area by around 8:30, work until 5pm, head back to camp, cook dinner, “ink” our maps (copying over what you’ve drawn in pencil during the day with pen so it doesn’t smear), and go to bed exhausted around 9:30pm. I hardly had any time or energy to think about rock climbing, although there were no rocks worthy of climbing anyways.

Sweet geology that we unfortunately didn’t get to map. The white flat area in the background is on the valley floor of Deep Springs Valley.

Doing a “field camp” like this is basically a rite of passage for geologists. It’s important for someone studying rocks to know how to function in the field since fieldwork is generally involved with most geological studies. Some field camps are a lot longer than ours – 10 weeks instead of 3 – but I feel like I learned and accomplished a lot in my 3 weeks. Plus, with only 3 other students in the class, I’m not sure we could have spent another 7 weeks together…

One of many cute lizards in the field area.

One of the highlights of our trip was a regional field trip day, when we drove around and looked at stuff instead of mapping. We ended up at the Patriarch Grove in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest at around 12,000ft elevation. Although the day was a bit cloudy, making the view of the Inyos and Sierras a little less spectacular, it was still really beautiful up there. It even snowed on us, which was a big difference from being hot and miserable in the field area (I had to use 55 spf sunscreen because I was getting burned through several reapplication of my usual 30 spf).

Old trees and chilly weather at the Patriarch Grove.

But now it’s back to climbing and rushing to get things done for my senior year of college. WOO!





One response

28 04 2011

I like your blog about a geologist’s life. It gave me an idea of what they do in work. It made me more interested in the field, and it encouraged me to pursue it in college.

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