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Sedimentary Geology Field School in California

Assistant Professor, Alessandro Ielpi, hosts field school in Death Valley, California 

Alessandro Ielpi, Assistant Professor of Sedimentology at the Harquail School of Earth Sciences, prepares to depart for Death Valley, California to  host a 6 day field school with 6 graduate students. This is the first year this modular, graduate-level course will be running, with participation from four Laurentian students, one Carleton student and one McGill student. 

The course will be focus on remote sensing applied to landscape change, modern sedimentary processes, and application to the rock record. The students will begin the course in class covering topics such as: pricinciples of sedimentology and remote sensing, landscape chande in modern, tectonically active sedimentary basins, and case studies from Death Valley, California. 


Death Valley Field School focus:

  • Hell’s Gate Alluvial Fan: syn-tectonic deposition and progressive unconformities
  • Amargosa River: fluvial channel and floodplain dynamics in a rapidly aggrading basin
  • Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes: eolian deposition and relations to local climate
  • Badwater Basin: playa-lake deposition in the lowermost point of the continent


Field activities included:

  • A lecture on regional geology from Dante's View, a spectacular pulpit atop the Back Mountains and with incredible views on the valley below.
  • A hike up an alluvial fan and canyon to observe recent flood deposits.
  • A hike through the plain of the dryland Amargosa River, a unique stream that is paralleled to some ancient rivers on Mars (due to the absence of vegetation).
  • A hike through the Mesquite Sand Dunes in northern Death Valley.
  • A final day on the salty pools of Cottonball basin, a line of natural springs that deposit salt year round due to concurrent evaporation.

On a normal day, we would get up bright and early since we were camping, sip a cup of coffee and watch the sunrise, get prepared for the field (safety and exercise briefing). Then we would drive to our field location, hike for a few hours and stop at selected locations to collect field data (type of deposits, their textures, interpretation of what processes might have generated them) and observe their significance in the regional geological context. We would be back to the campground in the early afternoon (~2pm), have an hour brake to rehydrate and recover from the heat, and then have a hour-long open discussion on the day's results, with Q&A among groups of students.


Why Death Valley? 

Death Valley is LIVE. All the geological process that we can only infer to have happened up here in the Canadian Shield are actually taking place as we speak in the Great Basin of the western US. A range of tectonic, geomoprhic, and sedimentary processes (earthquakes, sand storms, flash floods) sculpt the region's landscape, with changes that can be appreciated (both from remote sensing and in the field) from year to year -- sometimes even from month to month. Also, it is a very desert region, and the lack of vegetation makes the outcrop exposures plain to appreciate for everyone. Most students are shocked by the quality of the exposures down there!


Plans for next year

The field school will run again next year with a slightly longer camp (~10 days instead of 6 in the field), including more aspects of regional geology. Everyone is invited to apply -- the course is not intended for specialists in Sedimentology.



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