Geology in the rough

I was pretty sure that the conditions could have been more miserable but I didn’t know exactly how. I was soaked to the skin and my pants were caked with smelly black organic muck–part soil, part sheep dung, and part rainwater–as I slogged up a muddy trail with a heavy pack through the seemingly endless South Asian monsoon and towards the Himalayan timberline. At least I was warm inside my rain jacket as long as I kept moving. The rest of the day would bring roiling streams, a disconcertingly flexible bridge of lashed saplings and pine boughs set across some raging rapids, and one last set of rocky switchbacks to the blustery crest of a moraine set in a remote glaciated valley. And tea. Hot masala chai for warmth at the end of the day’s trek.

Crossing the Bridge of Death

A collection of geoscientists from the University of Cincinnati, Purdue University, and the University of Bayreuth, our group was spending two weeks on foot to collect samples for cosmogenic surface exposure and luminescence dating of glacial deposits high in the Garhwal Himalaya of north central India. We’d also take some soil and water samples to learn about carbon and nitrogen cycling in this remote region. For reasons that gave little comfort at the time, our trek coincided with the last gasp of the wettest monsoon season in anyone’s memory. Talk about drawing the short straw.

Clearing storm and glacier

Meteorological vagaries aside, geology offers many of us the opportunity to travel to places like the Himalaya and do things like map landslides inside a collapsed caldera in Papua New Guinea. On another day, I might be using airborne laser scanner data to identify areas subsiding above abandoned underground coal mines or working with photorealistic 3-D computer models to help prevent rockslides along an interstate highway. Still later, maybe reading up on wavelet transforms or spherical statistics. Or, at a more elemental level, explaining to a homeowner why his house is cracking apart and what might be done to solve the problem.

Being useful is, at least to me, the most satisfying part of the compensation package. The variety, adventure, and intellectual challenges are fringe benefits. Sure, sometimes the conditions are miserable and the problems seem intractable, but in the end it’s quite a career and beats having a real job.

Cairns and clouds

Our trek continued for another week and a half. I’d slip and fall, and fall again, walk up a glacier in a blizzard to cross a high pass, and then limp down in pain on a wobbly knee. We’d eat amazing food–fresh goat curry high in the mountains and spicy samosas in a tea house along the trail–and meet incredible people. We’d get soaked, spend a couple of nights in a wretchedly cold and damp unheated hostel, and surreptitiously buy a duffel bag full of cold beer in a holy city where alcohol is supposed to be forbidden (but can be had just around the corner from another questionable joint offering cooked chicken to anyone who’d made their way down the narrow unmarked alley). In the end, once the samples are analyzed and the papers written, we’ll know a little more about the glacial history, neotectonics, and environmental chemistry of the Garhwal Himalaya.

Above the clouds

And the guy with the cracked house? He was the unwitting victim of expansive soil and a dry summer, a situation likely exacerbated by a neighbor’s large tree.

6 responses to “Geology in the rough

  1. With havin so much written content do you ever run into any problems of
    plagorism or copyright infringement? My blog has a
    lot of exclusive content I’ve either created myself or outsourced but it seems a
    lot of it is popping it up all over the web without my permission. Do you know any ways to help stop content from being stolen? I’d really appreciate it.

  2. Wow, I didn’t realize that there are abandoned coal mines in the Himalayas! The homemade samosas and chai had to taste great after a long day hiking. The pictures are beautiful. I would be interested in the results from your soil and groundwater samples. Could you post them on here?

    • The coal mines that I mentioned are actually in Ohio, not the Himalayas, and the interstate highway project was in the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle. I was thinking about the variety of opportunities and challenges that geology offers, regardless of location.

      One of my colleagues on the trip, Dr. Amy Townsend-Small, presented the preliminary results of the soil and water sampling at a recent meeting of the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography (I was one of her co-authors). I’ll see if I can’t find a copy of her presentation and email it to you at the address you used when you left the comment.

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