Geologist Photographer, Photographer Geologist

The TV screen flickered to life as my family arranged themselves on the couch. On-screen, an aerial photo of Porto Rafti, a small seaside town east of Athens, Greece, marked the beginning of a two-week undergraduate geology department field trip to Cyprus. Figuring it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I had diligently photographed everything notable. I began regaling the family with photos of layered gabbro, sheeted dikes, pillow basalts, slag, boudinage, gypsum, corals, umber, and more. But halfway through, my dad interrupted to ask, “So, were there any people on this field trip with you”?

Or Dinosaurs? Dinosaurs would be fine, too. (Source: Jurassic Park / University Studios)
Or Dinosaurs? Dinosaurs would be fine, too. (Image source: Jurassic Park / Universal Studios)

It was a jarring question, and I realized my family was about to be bored out of their skulls.  If the roles were reversed it would be like sitting through “And here were are standing in front of the Historical Building. And here we are inside The Building. Oh, and this is a great one of your father pointing out the millwork on the ceiling joists”. I had wanted to share with them my portraits of Cyprus and the fascinating geology of an ophiolite. They wanted smiling faces in front of stuff – and not just for scale. The story on screen was not the one they expected, and I wound up fast-forwarding through most of the geology-centric photos.

brittle_ductile_faultsCommon advice when speaking to the ‘public’ is to respect your audience, which would have served me well. Photos are a form of communication, and as in all forms it is important to keep the audience in mind so part of the image stays with them. Sometimes the form is academic, to fill the frame with brittle and ductile faults (right). We can annotate, measure, discuss, hypothesize, and argue about the rocks. These are the sorts of photos to put in conference talks, the simplest “true” photos of the Geologist as Photographer Wedge.

However, geology is a global science, and geologists have the opportunity to photograph some wonderful locations (even in our own backyard, or in the lab). Extending beyond the utilitarian will naturally draw more interest to geological phenomena. There are multiple ways to improve image aesthetics, the simplest of which is to improve technical ability: composure, lighting, post-processing, etc. Tips and resources are everywhere, and a subset deal specifically with geological photography. However, there’s a field resource I think is underused by almost every geologist photographer: Humans. And not just for scale.

People crowd outcrops, poke their head into frame at inopportune times, shy away from the camera, or maybe only ever show their backside. But at the same time, they are interacting with the environment, picking up rocks, and pointing out interesting features. Capturing these aspects can be difficult, but when done properly will make for more dynamic photos. You can still get the academic shots and record sweeping vistas. It’s something I’ve noticed more by following National Geographic’s new blog PROOF, which tells some behind the scenes stories from Nat Geo photographers.

BIF and JeremyAn easy place to start is with your trip leader, as they typically gesture at everything and point out interesting features that everyone can see. Geologists get animated in the field, too, and are more animated in front of an outcrop.

Candid shots are rather more difficult, but it seems worth the effort when a broader audience will be interested in the photos. I think visiting zoos has helped me to practice for the field (not to draw too close a comparison…), because you get a feel for how patient and predictive you need to be to get a good photo. For example, one of my current favorites is of a relatively simple geologic feature, below:

students on rocks
Notre Dame students examine a large-scale reduction band in the Jacobsville Sandstone at Presque Isle Park, Marquette, MI.

Field work (and field trips) typically involve long hours, so it is not uncommon to be in the out for both the morning and evening golden hour. Above, our early morning expedition was rewarded with a clear sunrise on Lake Superior. For the geologists, the reduction band in the Jacobsville sandstone shows up clearly as the large ‘diagonal’ band at our feet. But there’s another layer of texture on top that draws other viewers in. The group was not scattered across the band for long, and I had to get into position and adjust my aperture to get a well-exposed and properly framed shot before the next shift.

People feature in more than half the photos (approaching 65%) from my last two field trips, up from less than a third in the Cyprus trip mentioned above. I’ll end with an encouragement for everyone to try and take more interesting photos of people in the field, and include one more photo below. The two halves show the same thing (ejecta strewn fields) on two planetary bodies, and it is the humans that tie the photos together.

Top: Boulder field at Camelot Crater from the Apollo 17 mission. Panorama compiled by Warren Harold of NASA/JSC. Bottom: Looking outward from the rim of Meteor Crater
Top: Boulder field at Camelot Crater from the Apollo 17 mission. Panorama compiled by Warren Harold of NASA/JSC. Bottom: Looking outward from the rim of Meteor Crater

This was originally intended to be part of Accretionary Wedge #56 (Geologist as Photographer) but wound up heading in a different direction and taking too long to be included.


AW#58: Signs

July’s impromptu Accretionary Wedge is Signs! (geological or geographical). Obviously I’m going geological. Enjoy a photo from the Catskills trip previously featured in the Field Stories Wedge. This photo is from later the same day, as the group discussed structural interpretations of a roadcut just out of frame. Although you can’t see it, you should believe in the road cut because of the FALLEN ROCK ZONE sign. Believe!

Class and Fallen Rock Zone Sign
Caution: Geologists and Fallen Rocks!

Warning signs are great markers for geology stops, and this sign is a classic example from Upstate New York. As a bonus, discussing structures on the side of a busy highway (or on-ramp, in this case) is also a classic “sign you might be a geologist”!

AW#57: Seeing geology everywhere

“Do you see geology in unexpected places? Do you often find yourself viewing the world through geology-tinted glasses? Do you have any adorable cat pictures that could be used to illustrate geology?” Evelyn, Accretionary Wedge #57 call for posts

All liquids spilled on a work desk are naturally drawn to electronics and important papers. No counter-arguments allowed, that’s the rule. But don’t you wish your desk had better drainage? Subtle pathways that divert disastrous fluids to safety? With a little imagination, I think my desk would have pretty good drainage.

What i my desk?
What is my desk? Wood veneer, of course! Click for geology-vision.

I see two parallel N-S valleys with drainage to the south. These hopefully abandoned stream beds are separated by a long narrow ridge with an asymmetric profile like a drumlin. Don’t quite see it on the photo above? Click through for a mockup. And why not a drumlin? This is after all Indiana. Or…maybe Upstate New York? Yes, I rather like that. My New York hometown, here at my desk in Indiana. In fact, it takes no time at all to find similar landforms in a USGS 1:24000-scale map.

What is my desk?
What is my desk? A contour map, of course! A staple for field geologists. (Source: USGS topographic map of a square mile near my hometown)

Although with no elevations for reference, maybe my interpretation is off. Are my drainage pathways in the right spot? Or could those two “valleys” on my desk actually be additional ridges, making this more like a Valley-and-Ridge Province? There’s no way to know for sure, but that’s fine as long as it could make sense.

Creating wood grain landscapes is a fun way to pass the time in waiting rooms…or in your office when your mind goes blank from writing a dissertation. Staring at my desk, which is no longer my desk, but a symbol. A swarm of lines. A wealth of information. The view from a few hundred meters straight up in the air. And in all directions as far as the eye can see, geology is everywhere!

Wedge Fifty: The Catskills Conundrum

The following mystery was written for Accretionary Wedge #50, hosted by Evelyn of Georneys. This month we are invited to:

Share a fun moment from geology field camp or a geology field trip. You can share a story, a picture, a song, a slogan, a page from your field notebook– anything you like!

On to the story…

The Brunton Compass is a field geology staple. Image from the Brunton website (click to visit).

Every geologist worth their rock salt recognizes – and hopefully knows how to use – a Brunton Compass (Evelyn gave them their due in B is for Brunton). Housing a compass (with adjustable declination), clinometer and mirror at less than 10 ounces, the Brunton is important as much for its form as its function. One of the more common uses of a Brunton is to take strike and dip measurements of strata. Strike indicates the compass direction of the originally horizontal bedding plane (i.e. the orientation). Dip is the angle relative to horizontal in the downward direction of the bedding plane, measured with a simple adjustable bubble level.

Visualizing strike and dip can be tough at first, and it’s easier done than said. That’s why, on an undergraduate class trip to the Catskills, our first task of the day was to warm up with some Brunton practice – and we needed some warming up. It was crisp late September morning, and many of us were sporting geology club hoodies, warm hats and gloves. Fortunately the Catskills record a smorgasbord of interesting geologic events to get the blood flowing, and our first stop of the day was a doozy.

The “Taconic Unconformity” near Catskill, NY. Steeply dipping Ordovician sandstone interbedded with shale (right) lies unconformibly below a not-quite-as-steeply dipping Silurian-age limestone and medium-grained sandstone (left).

There is no evidence of deformation on the discontinuity (it is an angular unconformity), but there is a fault zone as well, with slickenlines. Ron Schott’s gigapan of the area shows the broader context, though I couldn’t find any slickenlines. Anyway, Bruntons in hand, we spread out over the outcrop to measure the strike and dip of the surfaces with slickenlines. Some of the not-quite-awake students worked in pairs.

It is not difficult to persuade geologists to climb. Here the structures class swarms an outcrop in the Catskills to practice using a Brunton in taking strike and dip measurements.

After our Professor had made the rounds to see everyone had the general idea, we collected together and reached a general consensus of strike and dip measurements. The slickenlines were striking towards the west-northwest and were dipping around 45 degrees south…I think. My notes from this trip aren’t very good, but everyone seemed to be in agreement. Well, almost everyone.

One student spoke up about some wonky strike measurements she had recorded. Sometimes they would be striking west, but then other areas seemed to say the slickenlines were striking north or southwest. Her dip measurements were spot on, but she was getting no consistency with strike. It wasn’t a method issue, as she demonstrated she used the normal strike-taking steps. We had a mystery on our hands! A nice little brain teaser to start the morning. The Prof started running through a process of elimination to find the source of error.

It is possible for magnetic minerals in rocks to mess with the compass and give erroneous strike measurements, but that was ruled out as the rest of us were getting consistent results. The Prof took strike in one area, then had her measure the same location and it was way off. They swapped Bruntons with the same result. A little frustrated, the student took off her fingerless mittens to get a better feel when taking strike measurements. She remeasured the strike and finally read a west-northwest strike. The Prof gave her back her Brunton, and the needle once again pointed west-northwest. Things seemed back to normal…but what caused the slew of mis-measurements that morning?

The Prof figured it out first. He asked to see a mitten, which had a flap that could be folded back to make a fingerless glove. The student had been using it in the fingerless configuration, with the flap held securely to the back of the mitten. The Prof folded the flap near the back of the mitten and smiled as several small but powerful hidden magnets pulled the flap back into place with a dull thud.

Six days in the crater, day three

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6

This post is part of a slowly unfolding saga of my experience at the Meteor Crater Field Camp that was held from October 17-23, 2010. The field camp was run under the NASA Lunar Science Institute and headed by Dr. David Kring of the Lunar and Planetary Institute.
This post also doubles as my entry into Accretionary Wedge #49: Out of This World, which focuses on extraterrestrial geology and terrestrial analogues. Thanks to Dana at En Tequila Es Verdad for hosting this month’s Wedge!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010.

From above, our deluge of sun hats would appear to run into and froth against the tourist rope corral for a moment before spilling over and around into the area of No Trespassing. Rapidly arriving at a flattened part of the rim, we diffuse and come to rest, idly shifting for something in our backpacks and maybe a better view into the crater. David starts speaking of the plans for the day, and it takes us a few moments to realize we’re looking in the wrong direction. We turn around and he points at a small hill near the side of an access road. Pondering aloud, he wonders What do you suppose that boulder is doing on top of that hill?

Hint: It’s not a geocache.

The plains surrounding Meteor Crater are afflicted with an excess of flatness. Aside from the crater itself, the only relief is from scattered blocks, mounds and low rises of Coconino Sandstone and Kaibab Dolostone. They are blemishes on the otherwise flat patchwork terrain surrounding the crater. Like the boulder on the hill, many large coherent blocks of ejecta excavated during impact were thrown out of the crater and now rest upwards of 300 feet above where they ought to. Three days in, we were no longer tourists; It was time for science. We started work to answer a few relatively simple questions: Where in the crater did those blocks originate? How big are they? What would it take to launch them tens and hundreds of meters to their current position?

To answer those questions, the group split in two. One team examined the ejecta blocks, recording their dimensions and lithology. The other team measured the distance from crater to ejecta, using a physical measuring tape and recording map position and GPS coordinates to cross-check calculations. It was a rather straightforward assignment that also got us thinking in terms of cratering processes. The furthest blocks we studied were a solid five minute walk from the crater. It is easy to lose sight of something that is no longer present, but after the initial impact we would have been scrambling over several additional meters of ejecta the whole trip.

The measuring group stands on the rim of Meteor Crater as the tape is prepared for the trek to ejecta block E-3. Some members of the lithology group are visible on the white block of Kaibab (limestone) in the distance.

Team Tape and Team Lithology knocked out six profiles over the course of the day, including an assessment of the famous three-story-tall House Rock (a.k.a. Monument Rock). Six blocks is a small sample set to be sure, but one that lays the groundwork for a more thorough and complete ejecta study to be conducted over a number of Meteor Crater Field Camps. With a few simplifying assumptions – radial path, ballistic trajectory, 45 degree angle of ejection – our results indicated flight times for these boulders of three to fifteen seconds at ~60-360 km/hr [~15-100 m/s]. These velocities get well above hurricane force winds (though they pale in comparison to the ~12 km/s impact velocity). And we’re not talking about shingles and trees flying around – these are multi-ton boulders getting hucked out in all directions. Given enough force, ejecta can go anywhere. House Rocks might not get very far, but there are loads of examples of ejecta traveling hundreds of kilometers, into the atmosphere, or even off-planet. We only have fragments of Mars as a result of a few impacts into the martian surface sending material into space and eventually to Earth. Simon Wellings (@metageologist) wrote a bit more about the evidence of impacts in his contribution to the Wedge, What came from outer space.

The Apollo Era really brought to light the importance of impact processes on the evolution of planetary surfaces. Apollo missions also proved a challenge to geologists. No lunar material was collected in-situ, which means the provenance of many samples is uncertain. The provenance of regolith (soil) and impact breccia fragments is still the subject of intense debate. Many of these fragments likely have origins in basin forming events (e.g., the Sea of Tranquility). Boulders like those surrounding Camelot Crater in the above photo, are a bit easier to reconcile with their source. Mapping the distribution of ejecta lithology around terrestrial and lunar craters is the ground-truth to theoretical distribution models. Gravity and atmospheric conditions may differ between the Earth and Moon, but the results of an impact are similar across the solar system.

Top: Boulder field at Camelot Crater from the Apollo 17 mission. Panorama compiled by Warren Harold of NASA/JSC. Bottom: Looking outward from the rim of Meteor Crater. Both images are in color.

Learn more about impact cratering processes with the Lunar & Planetary Institute Impact Cratering Lab

AW#45: Geological Pilgrimage

The 45th Accretionary Wedge is hosted by the life as a geologist blog, which asks us to share “the sacred geological place that you must visit at least once in your lifetime…a single place, which is ‘geologically’ unique, relatively remote, and requires some difficulty to get to”. Now, pardon me while I take some liberties with the English language to write about the Moon.

That’s right, the Moon. Geologically Unique? Check. Remote? Check. Difficult to get to? Indeed. So much so that a mere eighteen have made the journey to lunar orbit, and only twelve of those have made the descent to the surface. It remains amazing crazy insane to see images and video of the Apollo missions. Human beings! On the Moon! Walking, driving, discovering, singing, and golfing on the Moon! Which brings me to the “once in your lifetime” part of this pilgrimage. The last footsteps on the Moon were made 40 years ago (this December). Back when Nixon was president. Back when there were almost half as many humans on the planet as there are today. Back before I was born. Taking the liberty to use the royal “you” in the call for posts, I would say that yes, the Moon is a place you/I/we must visit at least once in a lifetime.

Every mission was just a few small steps (or drives), but the science grew by leaps and bounds. The final mission, Apollo 17, had the longest surface stay, the first geologist, and the most returned samples, including the highest-Ti basalts in the solar system. Nowadays we’re making progress by taking a step back, with satellites characterizing the Moon from orbit (surface, gravimetrics, ionosphere, etc). Still awesome, but we need a human presence up there to continue exploring and inspiring.

Is the Moon not specific enough? Perhaps…OK, let’s focus on the Aristarchus Plateau. Why? Because it’s there.

The Moon. Aristarchus Crater is an easy-to-spot lunar feature, made even easier by a giant arrow. (Photo by me; 250mm, f/5.6 @ 1/2500s, ISO400; Dec 1, 2009)

Above, Aristarchus Crater is a beacon of light in the low-albedo mare of Oceanus Procellarum. Viewed in another ‘light’, the below RGB image highlights the diversity of features accessible in the region.

Aristarchus Plateau
Clementine RGB false-color ratio of Aristarchus Plateau, including Aristarchus Crater (bright blue-green, 40km diameter). Image is ~500x500km. Colors are based on UVVIS reflectance spectra ratios (in nanometers) where Red = 750/415; Green = 750/950; Blue = 415/750. See Pieters et al. (1994) for more details on spectra.

False-color ratios are used to demonstrate soil and mineralogical differences, and there are subtle variations that I’m not familiar with to explain concisely. At any rate, the Aristarchus Plateau contains a variety of colors features that we geologists should get a chance to see in our lifetime. To name a few: Pyroclastic deposits, sinuous rilles (collapsed lava tubes?), exposures of cryptomare, highlands, unique volcanism, and possibly the youngest surface basalts1. For more information on the A.P., start with one of the many LROC featured images of the Aristarchus Plateau.


LPI Clementine Mapping Project: Source for the RGB false-color ratio image. Request your own map of Clementine satellite spectra! Make a custom spectra map, or request standard RGB false-color ratios, FeO, TiO2, or topography maps.

1Hiesinger, H., et al. (2003) Ages and stratigraphy of mare basalts in Oceanus Procellarum, Mare Nubium, Mare Cognitum, and Mare Insularum. Journal of Geophysical Research 108, E7, 5065, 27pp.

Accretionary Wedge #42: Countertop Geology of two marbles

The Accretionary Wedge is a semi-regular collection of geoblog posts that follow a common theme. Ian Saginor is hosting AW #42 at his volcanoclast blog with the theme of Countertop Geology. For my first ever Wedge, Ian has tasked everyone to:

  • Find great countertops or decorative/building stone, as long as it’s been “separated by humans from it’s source”;
  • Post some pretty pictures;
  • …And maybe hazard an interpretation or two.

Good thing Ian expanded this topic to include decorative and building stone, because it opened up the opportunity to show off two awesome pieces from around the Notre Dame campus. First up is the Kugel Fountain in one of our student centers, the Coleman-Morse buildingThe Marble, as some call it, “contains a 30-inch solid granite sphere which weighs 1,300 pounds and floats on 7 lbs. of water pressure” (via the ND website).

Notre Dame’s Kugel Fountain. The granite sphere constantly rotates – ‘clockwise’ during this 1-second exposure – due to minor differences in supporting water pressure.

Take a closer look…

Unlike most granites, you have to hold this one steady to get a decent photo! Large ovoid alkali feldspars (pink) enclose opaques (dark minerals, mostly hornblende), and in some cases plagioclase feldspar (gray) form rims on alkali feldspars. Click any photo to enlarge.

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