Susquehanna University Students Study Geology in the Desert
Central Pennsylvania is rife with sedimentary rocks formed during the Paleozoic Era a half-billion to a quarter-billion years ago. But to witness much more recent geological features, such as plate tectonics and volcanism, it’s best to go west.
That is what eight members of Susquehanna University’s Geology Club did in January during the club’s annual two-credit, winter-break trip, which this year took them to Nevada and California. Led by Jennifer Elick, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, the students experienced geological and environmental phenomena ranging from Death Valley to the snowy Sierra Nevadas in Sequoia National Park. The eight-day camping trip also included the Hoover Dam, Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave Desert.
“We saw all these things we’ve talked about in class but wouldn’t be able to see anywhere else, certainly not in the Northeast,” says one of the trip’s organizers, Collin Littlefield, a senior earth and environmental sciences major from Hummelstown. In Joshua Tree, the group peered down at a pronounced gash in the earth—the San Andreas Fault—that separates the North American plate they were standing upon from the Pacific plate.
“It was really neat to be able to see it and imagine how the plates are actually sliding past each other,” says Littlefield.
Other geological features the students encountered during daily hikes included volcanic steam craters, cinder cones and lava flows, in addition to sand dunes, both active and preserved as Jurassic Age rock formations—testaments to the winds the group encountered that were so strong, several of their well-anchored tents blew over.
Elick also encouraged the students to consider the impact of the geology on the climate and environment. They compared barren Death Valley, which gets less than two inches of annual precipitation, to the rain shadow effect of the Sierra Nevadas, which trap eastward-moving storms and average up to 45 inches of precipitation a year.
For his required post-trip presentation, Littlefield is researching the impact of such contrasting environments on Native Americans who lived in the mountains versus those who lived in the deserts. His trip co-planner, Sara Kern, a senior history major from Lebanon, is researching John Muir’s influence on the creation of the national parks, where she is interested in working.
Says Elick, “The students experienced tremendously different ecosystems, vegetation and geology from what we introduce them to here in central Pennsylvania. I think it makes you a better scientist, a better person, when you have more experiences that you can draw from.”