News Archive

posted 04/15/04

Death Valley Field Trip Challenges Students to Think Like Earth Scientists
by Andria Cimino, CERC Conservation Biology Student

Gower Gulch

Gower Gulch, where it emerges from the Black Mountains onto the floor of Death Valley. Incision of the fan surface has taken place entirely since 1941, as a result of the diversion of the drainage of Furnace Creek Wash into Gower Gulch by the staff of what was then Death Valley National Monument. Photo by Nicholas Christie-Blick.

Death Valley—the name conjures images of a searing, arid wasteland, and its main claim to fame is that it contains the lowest point of land in the Western hemisphere, at 282 feet below sea level. But metaphorically speaking, Death Valley’s unusual altitude is just the tip of its iceberg of geological wonders. With its steep, faulted margins, upturned ancient sea beds, and modern-day volcanic craters, Death Valley offers a front-row seat to a panorama of Earth’s activity that goes back 1.7 billion years and continues today.

There are in fact twenty seats, to be exact. That is how many slots are open to first- and second-year Columbia University students for Dr. Nicholas Christie-Blick’s annual geology field trip to Death Valley. To Dr. Christie-Blick, professor of geology and associate chair of Columbia University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, there is no better way to learn about geology than getting up close and personal with the world-class Death Valley outcrops that best define such terms as extrusive igneous rocks, extensional faults, and fossiliferous carbonate sediments.

Designed for students with little or no background in the earth and environmental sciences, the week-long excursion emphasizes a heuristic rather than show-and-tell approach to learning. “We focus on a small number of contrasting geological vignettes, both modern and ancient, and the students get to develop interpretations of what they see from first principles…The details of Death Valley, as interesting and controversial as they are, are for us a vehicle by which students come to see how the scientific method works in a geological context,” explains Prof. Christie-Blick.

group photo

This image shows everyone in the Spring ’03 group with the exception of one student and TA Gad Soffer, who is presumably taking the picture. We're in the sand dunes in Death Valley. Photo by Hasan Merali.

Students prepare for the field trip by attending several discussion sessions that provide an overview of Death Valley’s geological phenomena. Reading assignments include materials at several levels. Most accessible are those aimed at the general public: the Death Valley National Park website, and chapters from Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and Owens Valley by Sharp and Glazner. Other assignments are drawn from Earth, by Press and Siever, and articles from the mainstream geological literature.

In the months leading up to the excursion, Prof. Christie-Blick also connects the geology to be examined with world events—this year, he discussed the huge earthquake of November 3, 2002, on the Denali fault in Alaska, and the geology of Iraq. “The Denali fault is a strike-slip fault, one that allows adjacent crustal blocks to move sideways. That is also the character of the Northern Death Valley fault zone, which is still active and which we explore during the excursion.

"Iraq lies along the southwestern margin of a mountain belt that is being squeezed horizontally. The faults and folds of the Spring Mountains, which we examine on the first afternoon of the trip, were produced by the same process some 100 million years ago.”

Wilson Cliffs, Spring Mountains, Nevada

Wilson Cliffs, Spring Mountains, Nevada. Eolian sandstone approximately 200 million years old (cliffs) overthrust by 500 million-year-old marine carbonate rocks (top left). Photo by Nicholas Christie-Blick.

Although introductory in nature, the course web site warns that the field trip isn’t “Earth science for poets” or “geotourism.” Students have to come prepared to do real geology. Prof. Christie-Blick emphasizes the scientific practice of making observations and taking notes in a field journal throughout the week, whether the focus of study is at the scale of a mountain side or a speck of sand as seen with a hand lens (magnifying glass). Prof. Christie-Blick and his teaching assistant, Gad Soffer, bring along an array of other tools for specific outcrops: a geological hammer, shovel, whisk broom, Brunton compass, and hydrochloric acid that is needed to test carbonate rock samples. Prof. Christie-Blick warns students to look carefully before they sit down, and to watch where they put their hands when scrambling over rocks because Death Valley is home to both rattlesnakes and scorpions. Far more likely dangers, however, are dehydration and sunburn. Prof. Christie-Blick takes care that students bring plenty of sunscreen and carry ample water.

The days are long, with students heading off at 7:30 or 8:00am and returning at 6:00pm, but “exhilarating,” as one student put it. The daily itinerary includes visits to two key localities and short stops at other notable places. Few of the stops are selected from those most commonly seen by visitors—the best geology is often found off the beaten track—but the scenery is dramatic from virtually any vantage point. After a brief introduction of each site by Prof. Christie-Blick, the students work alone or in small groups to explore, make observations, collect data, and develop hypotheses about what they are seeing. Prof. Christie-Blick then leads discussions during which students are able to debate their ideas.

        Mountains, Nevada

Spring Mountains, Nevada. Eolian sandstone approximately 200 million years old (red rocks) overthrust by and folded to a near-vertical orientation beneath 500 million-year-old marine carbonate rocks (grey). Photo by Nicholas Christie-Blick

Prof. Christie-Blick finds it hard to come up with a list of the best geological examples from the field trip because Death Valley contains so many world-class examples and each is unique and interesting in its own way. That being said, students seem to find the following sites most thought-provoking:

Ubehebe Crater, more than 770 feet deep and half a mile wide, is the result of volcanic activity that took place less than 3,000 years ago, when magma worked its way through a fault at the base of Tin Mountain and ran into rain-soaked bedrock and alluvial fan sediments, causing repeated steam explosions.

Throughout northern and central Death Valley, alluvial fans, which have developed only in the last few thousand years since the disappearance of the 600-foot-deep Lake Manly, are cut and offset by active faults. At Gower Gulch, the students examine these geological phenomena and the unintended environmental consequences of the diversion of floodwater since 1941 from the much larger Furnace Creek Wash.

Of the ancient geological examples examined, among the most impressive are hill-sized mounds, or stromatolites, in the Noonday Dolomite, built by primitive microbial organisms some 700 million years ago, before the advent of modern metazoan organisms.

Ubehebe crater

Ubehebe crater. Photo by Nicholas Christie-Blick.

In the Spring Mountains, marine carbonate rocks more than 500 million years old have been pushed up and over the top of much younger (200 million years), wind-blown sandstones along huge faults. This activity has left the oldest rocks at the highest elevations and the youngest cropping out near the foot of the mountains, where some of the youngest are also upside down. Students developed reasoning for determining the direction in which the sandstones become younger as well as the setting in which they originally accumulated.

Experiencing the life of a field scientist does not end at sunset. Spring break coincides with ideal camping weather in Death Valley. So students “rough it” for two nights, sleeping out in the open under the stars at Furnace Creek. With an annual rainfall of less than two inches, tents are usually considered optional. However, they were quite welcome this year when a freak rainstorm started “dumping buckets of water” on the students in the middle of the night. Students also spend five evenings in bunkrooms at the Shoshone Education and Research Center (SHEAR). Small teams take turns preparing the evening meal for the group, including clean up. To help conserve water, many students enjoy bathing in the segregated hot springs at Tecopa, 8 miles to the south, or taking a dip in the naturally heated spring-water pool at the Furnace Creek Ranch.

Spring Mountains, Nevada

Spring Mountains, Nevada, where marine carbonate rocks more than 500 million years old (grey) in horizontal thrust fault contact with 200 million-year-old wind-blown sandstones beneath (red). Photo by Nicholas Christie-Blick.

Students found the entire experience incredibly rewarding. Andrew Tolve, a second-year Columbia student with a triple concentration in English, History, and Earth Science, said, “Being in an environment where geology was so tangible was unbelievable. Everything was so exposed— twisting fault lines, salt pans, alluvial fans. The course explained geology in a way that no textbook could, it brought it all to life.” When asked what he most appreciated about the course, Mr. Tolve said, “It offered a six-day glimpse into how scientists operate, the mindset in which they approach problems. I realized that geology rests upon simple observations that anyone can make, and from this basis of evidence, scientists can form more complex theories. But the evidence is out there for anyone to find and that’s why the field is such a dynamic one.”

Pearl Flath, a second-year Applied Mathematics Columbia student, said “I really loved the trip, it was awesome. I’d do it again if I could.” She described her favorite day, when Prof. Christie-Blick took the students to a “gigantic lump, this mud mound with lots of layers. At first we thought it was a volcano plug, but then we examined it more closely with our hand lenses and saw all of these little sea critters—we realized we were standing on a fossilized coral reef.” Ms. Flath “really liked the process of figuring out on our own what formations were and how they were formed.” She said that by midway through the trip, students were having lively scientific debates about cause and effect.

Central Death Valley

Central Death Valley, from Dante's View. Telescope Peak (11,049 ft) rises above Badwater (bottom of image, 282 ft below sea level). Photo by Nicholas Christie-Blick.

When asked if the experience changed her ideas regarding a future career, Ms. Flath replied, “The course opened up a whole new area of earth science to me. I never really thought about the field of geology before, never thought geologists had such an exciting time. The nice thing about applied math is that it can be applied to nearly any scientific endeavor, including geology. Maybe I’ll be modeling seismic activity some day.”

Some students were just happy to be away from their hectic city university student lifestyle. “Something about being out in the wilderness, away from the pressures of everyday life, no cell phones, no shopping, it was so calming. Despite hiking all day, the trip was really laid back and relaxing,” said Shari Keller, a second-year Psychology major at Columbia. She also enjoyed “the investigative process…it was so cool to go out there and try to figure the geology out, like putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. It was amazing to learn how much goes into science, you have to think like a detective!”

All of the students mentioned how Prof. Christie-Blick’s enthusiasm for his subject was contagious—“He really encouraged us to ask questions,” said Mr. Tolve. The students appreciated the patience he and his teaching assistants exhibited, especially for answering the ubiquitous “What’s this rock? Ok, how about this one?” Ms. Flath said, “Nick’s a great teacher, he never tires of explaining things.” “He really knew how to make us think in a way that was actually fun,” said Ms. Keller.

Spring group at China Ranch

Spring ’03 group at China Ranch. Photo by Nicholas Christie-Blick.

Professor Christie-Blick doesn’t know how many students have changed their intended majors to Earth Science as a result of the field trip. “I want to give all of them an appreciation for geology in the field, but, more importantly, I want to challenge them to think through things for themselves. Some may not head into the sciences down the road, but they will have had a great Columbia experience that hopefully leaves them with a deeper appreciation for the Earth.” Of course, he would be delighted if a fraction of the students signed up for majors or concentrations in his department.

For those students interested in learning more about the geology field trip (Earth and Environmental Science course V1010y, worth 2 credits), please visit Prof. Christie-Blick’s course web site at He will update it shortly with application information and other details for the Spring Break 2004 Geological Excursion.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is among the world’s leading academic centers for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor.