Spring Break 2016 & my first taste of fieldwork!

Written by Sara Warix, BS Geology '18

STOCKTON – This spring break, Dr. Rademacher and I headed to Las Vegas to meet up with a bunch of the scientists we are collaborating with on our Integrated Earth Systems project. Our team of undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty members includes hydrologists and microbiologists from Purdue and the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Once together, our group of six set out for ten days of spring sampling throughout southeastern California. 

Our sampling focused on four major test sites. We started the sampling in the Spring Mountains, spent a few days in Ash Meadows, headed to Death Valley, and then concluded the sampling in Owens Valley before returning to Pacific. At each spring we measured a variety of geochemical and biological parameters. We filled plastic bottles with both unfiltered and filtered water to be analyzed for tritium, strontium, noble gases, carbon-14, chlorine-36, and stable isotopes. These tracers will eventually be used to determine the age of the water and investigate the possibility of inter-basin groundwater flow. We also took several water quality measurements directly in the field. Some of these include flow rate, nitrate, phosphate, and alkalinity. The microbiologists collected water and sediment samples to analyze the microbes within the springs.  

The week of field work lead me to several scientific awakenings. For the first time, I was exposed to the amount of work that goes into a scientific paper. Each spring site required one to two hours to collect all the required samples. Many of the spring locations required us to adapt to unexpected change. The field vehicles were put to the test with some unsavory roads. Finding many of the spring sources was difficult because they were often hidden in thickets of plants and trees (watch out for stinging nettles!) or required us to travel over steep terrain in hot temperatures. The warm weather made it difficult for the pH meter to operate properly. I realized that there is a large amount of work isn’t directly reflected in scientific papers, and scientists must be resilient to conduct research in the field.

This project also allowed me to think about all the possibilities that the field of geology holds. Scientific research allows for critical thinking and analysis for any question that one wants to answer. Geology presents a unique perspective to the scientific method – field work gets to be completed outside

The four sampling locations provided changes in scenery. Ash Meadows consisted of deep crystal blue pools filled with endemic pupfish, scattered throughout dry desert vegetation and rock. Springs in Owen’s Valley were shadowed by the towering peaks of the eastern Sierras. On the sixth day of sampling, we visited Salisberry Spring near Death Valley. The spring was located up a steep hill and would be difficult to reach with all the field equipment.  A graduate student and I left the group and equipment behind to search for the source of water discharge. We ended up climbing a peak in the outskirts of Death Valley. As we climbed I noted the drastic changes in rock composition, the sprawling yellow super bloom below, and the green vegetation that the spring ahead provided. The combination of these events helped me to realize the beauty of geology. I got to visit a remarkable site to further develop my understanding of Earth processes as well as contribute to a project that will spread scientific knowledge. This trend was repeated throughout the entire week of sampling, making me look forward to heading out to the field again.

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