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Field day in Death Valley

MUN Earth Sciences students hiking into Gower Gulch in Death Valley National Park, southeastern California.

By Kelly Foss

The southeast extremity of Death Valley National Park may not sound like the best place for a vacation, but it turned out to be ideal for 22 Earth Sciences students on a field trip.

The 12-day adventure was part of a fourth-year course and was led by Dr. John M. Hanchar, head of Earth Sciences; Dr. Greg Dunning, professor of Earth Sciences; staff member Robbie Hicks and PhD student Chris Fisher.

The trip began April 23 with a flight to Las Vegas. The group immediately picked up three rental vans and headed west into the desert. By nightfall, they were settled in the tiny community of Shoshone, California, at the southeast extremity of Death Valley National Park (DVNP).

“Over the next five days the focus was on studying the natural history of DVNP,” said Dr. Hanchar. “We studied the spectacular geology and geomorphology of the area and the adaptations of the plants and animals to survive in one of the hottest and driest places on Earth. Over the last days of April temperatures were 21-32 degrees centigrade, moderate by Death Valley standards, but hot for Newfoundland students.”

The geology studied on the field trip included a Precambrian limestone sequence, Mesozoic sedimentary rocks, a Cretaceous granite intrusion, young volcanic rocks, modern debris flows, alluvial fans and the system of extensional normal faults that control the structure and topography of the Basin and Range Province.

“The students climbed a volcanic dome made of obsidian and pumice that is still steaming and powering a major geothermal power plant,” said Dr. Hanchar. “They also climbed down into a basaltic cinder cone that is a few hundred years old.”

Other highlights of the field trip included a lecture on the modern extensional structural history of Death Valley by Dr. Daryl Cowan, University of Washington; and a guided hike by “Charlie the Ranger,” a DVNP Ranger, on modern erosional processes and flash flooding in Gower Gulch. The students also visited the “Racetrack,” a unique attraction seldom seen by park visitors where boulders up to 10 kilograms have been blown by high winds across a perfectly flat playa lake.

Evenings were spent hiking over giant sand dunes at Stovepipe Wells, dining out on a terrace under the stars and sending stories and photographs home by email and Facebook.

On day six the group headed northwest to their next base at Bishop, California, a small oasis town. On the way they stopped at the Coso Geothermal Field, located within the China Lake U.S. Navy Air Weapons Station.

“A highlight in Bishop was seeing the 760,000-year-old Bishop tuff which represents a 100 metre thick layer of ash fallout from eruption of one of the world’s largest super volcanoes, the Long Valley Caldera,” said Dr. Hanchar. “We also visited Long Valley caldera itself as well as boiling corrosive hot springs nearby that have altered adjacent rocks and deposited sulfide minerals.”

“It was a surreal environment, even more so as it contains a perfectly-formed young volcano within it,” said Dr. Hanchar. “The entire Bishop region was a revelation for the students, most of whom had never seen a modern active volcanic terrane.”

The students also visited the Owens Valley Radio Observatory and toured the inside of a telescope. The last two days of the field trip were based in Flagstaff, Arizona, where the students made a pilgrimage to view the stratigraphy of the Grand Canyon Barringer Crater, one of the best-preserved meteorite impact craters on Earth and learned about the ballistics of extra-terrestrial rocks entering Earth’s atmosphere.

Dr. Hanchar said the field trip helped the students learn a new appreciation for the complexity and diversity of environments on Earth.

“They grew to recognize the harshness of life in the desert and appreciate the challenge to staying alive faced by the coyote, mice, fish, mountain sheep, lizards and snakes that they encountered,” he said. “As this was their last field course at Memorial, it provided a suitable launch to their professional careers.”