Tectonics as Purpose in Geological Field Camps: The Necessity of Hitting the Road, and Implications for Geological Field Stations

by Peter DeCelles

I recently returned from teaching field camp with a group of 20undergraduate students from the University of Arizona and several other universities. As usual, I had ample opportunity during the five-week course to ponder the issue of how we teach field camp and what we teach. With the experience fresh in mind, I thought the subject might be of interest to members of the GSA SG&T Division. I am also inspired by an informative spread in the July issue of Earth magazine on field camps nationwide. At Arizona, we teach a decidedly tectonics-oriented field camp, based on the principle that tectonics controls virtually all aspects of geology. This approach requires mobility because tectonics is large-scale by definition. I will argue that a mobile, tectonics-oriented approach is the best way to operate a field camp, regardless of the students’ backgrounds and future interests. I will end by suggesting a way in which the existing field station infrastructural base may be more effectively leveraged in order to accomplish the goals of tectonics-oriented field camps. Such a strategy might ensure the future vitality of field-based geoscience education.

Why tectonics? This should be obvious, but the abundance of field camps being run with what I will refer to as the “standard” approach suggests otherwise. Tectonics controls everything—the paleontology and biogeography, paleoclimate, paleogeography and stratigraphy, geomorphology and landscape evolution, the petrology of the rocks, and of course the structural geology. The best way to teach field camp is to base it on a tectonics platform, beginning with the regional and global setting of the field areas. Most field camps in the U.S. are run in various sectors of the Cordilleran orogenic belt, which has a well-understood global tectonic context. That global context is where field camp in the American West should begin.

Each field camp is unique in detail, but most involve mapping exercises that are designed to cover as many different types of geological themes or features as possible, given the geology available. Most field camps expose students to mapping in igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary terranes, with some variety in structural style (a thrust fault, a normal fault), sedimentology/stratigraphy, and geomorphology thrown in for good measure. This approach generally provides students with at least a glimpse of many of the key types of geological problems encountered in the real world. Most field camps are also based at long-established field stations from which a variety of geological problems may be encountered. Unfortunately, the standard approach may limit a student’s understanding of tectonics unless the exercises are carefully designed and chosen in order to build a more holistic picture of a regional tectonic domain, such as a major mountain belt. Moreover, if the field station is not located in a region with crustal-scale access to tectonics problems, it may be prohibitively difficult to design a tectonics-oriented field camp. In this respect, most field stations have some degree of limitation by virtue of their permanence and location.

For many years the University of Arizona operated field camp based at a ranch in southeastern Arizona, but in the mid-1990’s we decided to launch a different kind of effort aimed at providing students with an integrated picture of the North American Cordilleran orogenic belt. This approach developed naturally from the basic scientific interests of the faculty who were teaching the course at that time. In order to get access to a sufficiently broad range of geology representative of the Cordillera we had to take the school on the road and keep it moving along a regional-scale traverse in which the students and faculty could map key features of Cordilleran geology. Naturally, we began at the Grand Canyon; we are from Arizona, after all, but mainly this introduces the students to the stratigraphy of the Colorado Plateau so that they might realize, later during the course, how different it is from the westward expanding miogeoclinal record of western Utah and Nevada, and what that fact implies about the late Precambrian and early Paleozoic tectonic history of western North America. From there we struck north into southern and central Utah, studying Mesozoic strata and Laramide-style structures. Then we veered west into the Sevier thrust belt, the central Basin-and-Range, and the hyper-extended terranes of eastern Nevada. Along the way we studied abandoned Pleistocene shorelines and glacial moraines. Throughout the course, we peppered the students with evening lectures about geophysics and upper mantle structure, structural geology, and regional paleogeography. At the end of that first attempt, we asked the students to create a regional, DNAG-style cross-section from western Colorado to eastern Nevada, integrating all of their mapping areas into a regional framework, and extending the geology to the Moho. Among other items at their disposal the students had crustal seismic reflection profiles (e.g., the COCORP Utah line of Allmendinger et al., 1986, and other shorter lines) and the wealth of stratigraphic data compiled in Lehi Hintze’s “Geologic History of Utah.” Initially aghast, the students settled into the inevitable struggle and emerged with a whole new, unexpected level of understanding. Many expressed gratitude, especially for this final integrative exercise, and we knew we had stumbled upon a new technique for teaching students about geology in the field.

Subsequent Arizona field camps have taken different routes but we continually strive to expose the students to at least half of the Cordilleran orogenic system. In alternate years we operate the field camp in California and western Nevada, with a focus on the subduction accretionary prism, the forearc, and the Sierran magmatic arc. Our near-term goal is to attempt to weld the two field camps into a single trans-Cordilleran effort that would begin at the Mesozoic trench and cross over to the Laramide region. Many of the exercises are designed specifically to provide students with temporal bracketing information on key tectonic events. We recently introduced a running space-time chart exercise that the students use to archive key geological information (e.g., tectonic activity, magmatism, metamorphism, stratigraphy) that they collect during each exercise along the way. The space-time chart provides the first point of departure in their final geological history synthesis that accompanies the crustal-scale cross-section at the end of the course.

In my experience, the key to keeping a field camp vibrant and exciting for the students is to keep it that way for the faculty– stale faculty make for unenthused students, plodding resentfully about the landscape. An advantage to our approach is that we never work the same exercises more than a few times over the years; after mapping a problem three or more times, most faculty are bored stiff and need to see new geology. For me this strategy has provided the opportunity to map classical areas of Cordilleran geology and to see for myself the evidence for many key Cordilleran tectonics principles. Over the last 15 years, we have worked in several major Laramide (and Ancestral Rockies) uplifts (the Wind Rivers, Uncompaghres, and Uintas, along with several of the big Laramide arches in the Colorado Plateau); the strange salt-related structures of eastern Utah; benchmark areas of the Sevier thrust belt in Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho; the Northern Snake Range and Ruby-Humboldt core complexes (where we map both Mesozoic contractional and Cenozoic extensional features); typical examples of Basin-and-Range extensional structures; the Roberts Mountains and Golconda allochthons in central Nevada; and numerous beautiful glacial landscapes. By visiting many of the classical areas, we have rationale to digress into the historical aspects of the development of understanding in important continental tectonics concepts. In a nod to the great geological surveys of the American West during the late 1800’s, the historical component exposes the students, in a small way, to the wonder and joy of exploring new geological terrane. Each spring when I am slated for teaching field camp, I begin to get excited about where to go this time in the Cordilleran candy shop of tectonics problems.

Another key ingredient in keeping field camp exciting is to mix up the scenery and pay special attention to days off. We always attempt to schedule days off (we get only three or four) in areas that provide access to adventure and spectacular scenery. Fishing, climbing, boating, and hiking are the staples, and we urge the students to not let a day go by without pushing themselves into a new adventure. Many students over the years have thanked us profusely for showing them the possibilities in terms of what they can do outdoors. Many of our students have never been in an alpine environment, and most are amazed at the beauty.

The logistics of field camp on the move are daunting at first glance, but the key elements of success are simple and few. Four-wheel drive sport utility vehicles (not the lethal 15-passenger rollover specials) guarantee access to remote sites. Cargo vans carry gear and the all-important 300-gallon water tank that allows us to camp almost anywhere. A competent and good-natured cook, equipped with whatever utensils he or she may need, is essential. A cook’s assistant helps to keep spirits high by helping with lugging gear and shopping. The students handle much of the KP duties on a rotating schedule. We used to carry a generator and electric lamps, but have lately opted for noise reduction and the latest generation of lanterns. We bring along large vertical sidewall tents for use in case of inclement weather, but have not even set them up these last few years. Lightweight folding tables and chairs and a portable white-board round out the major equipment list. Camping on BLM and U.S. Forest Service land is optimal, but we still use a few established campgrounds in the National Forests, Monuments, and Parks.

Camping out for field camp is not as difficult as it sounds. Students and faculty adapt quickly to the challenges presented by camping continuously for more than 30 days. I emphasize that camping is not the goal; rather it is a strategy that we adopted in order to get into the Cordillera at a tectonically meaningful scale. The roving approach may not be suitable for every university, but I would argue that it is both practical and essential for most because of the evolving nature of Geoscience. Whereas certain aspects of teaching field geology will likely never change—the need to teach students how to map, for example—the increasingly sophisticated level of knowledge about the Earth and its systems requires an expanded viewpoint. Most permanent field camps simply cannot expose students to the scale of observation that is required to appreciate Earth systems, particularly those that relate to tectonics.

In my opinion, field stations tend to intellectually and physically shackle field camps. Nevertheless, field stations themselves constitute an enormous educational and intellectual resource, hard-won by enterprising individuals through decades of effort. Field stations should not be closed down and abandoned or sold. Instead, they should be leveraged in new ways to promote a more cosmopolitan and broad-minded way of educating Geoscientists. Wouldn’t it be interesting if field stations could be run as geohostels on a consortium basis, hosting groups of students and faculty for brief periods during their treks across the Cordillera? For example, field stations located within the Laramide region could be used for access to basement-involved tectonics problems; field stations located closer to or within the Sevier thrust belt could be used as base camps for the thrust belt. Field stations located in the hinterland region in Nevada could provide access to the metamorphic core complexes (which themselves provide windows into Mesozoic contractional as well as Cenozoic extensional tectonics) and Basin-and-Range structural evolution, along with regional-scale igneous phenomena such as the ignimbrite flare-up and the flood basalts. Field stations in California could be used to study the magmatic arc, forearc, and Franciscan accretionary prism, as well as the San Andreas transform system. Such a program would also embody a continuing education series for faculty, liberating them from the chains of teaching the same ground year after year. The mind boggles at the variety and scope of tectonic geology accessible in this manner.

This approach would also lengthen the field camp season because of already existing differences among university system schedules. For example, universities in the Southwest commonly break for summer in early May, whereas many California schools typically end the academic year during mid-June. The community could take advantage of this built-in offset in academic schedules to increase flexibility in scheduling. More focused graduate-level advanced courses could be taught throughout the year, depending on the location of a given field station.

For better or worse, field camp remains perhaps the single most memorable event in the academic life of the Geoscience student (see, for example, the July, 2013 issue of Earth). A significant component of many of these memories is the field station itself, which in many cases comes to physically signify the whole, complex experience of field camp. No reason exists for this aspect of the field camp experience to be lost; indeed, by opening doors to a broader constituency, individual field stations could ultimately widen their sphere of influence. Many field stations already host alumni activities and retreats. The consortium approach would simply add a new facet to field station relevance.

But of course this would require a remarkable level of organization and cooperation among the many field station operators, not to mention significant funding. Indeed, such a program would likely require a national level, full-time bureaucratic component, much like IRIS and UNAVCO. Consider that more than 100 U.S. universities (plus about the same number of foreign universities) subscribe to the IRIS consortium. IRIS originated from the recognition by the global seismology community of the fiscal and physical inoperability of a global seismic network without a community based data- and instrument-sharing ethic. Field camp programs face problems similar to those confronted by the global seismology community in declining support for infrastructural maintenance and operation. Perhaps the natural home for such an operation would be under the aegis of GSA, which is committed to supporting geological field education.

Although undergraduate geoscience enrollments have risen steadily over the last 15 years, this comes on the heels of extreme lows experienced in the late 1980’s. Nothing good lasts forever. How often, especially during (inevitable) periods of reduced undergraduate enrollments in the Geosciences, do we hear about field camps shuttering operations permanently in the face of declining institutional support? If we peer objectively into the crystal ball, beyond the current bubble in Geoscience enrollments, field stations remain an endangered species. Adopting a community-oriented approach to field stations within the context of a tectonics-oriented educational agenda could ensure long-term viability of geoscience field education.

Peter DeCelles is a Professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Arizona. He works on the evolution of Earth’s mountain belts and associated sedimentary basins, with a focus on collisional and retroarc orogenic systems in the Andes, North America, Tibet, the Himalaya, and the central Mediterranean. Visit his website to learn more about his teaching and research. This essay benefited from discussions with George Davis, Jay Quade, Barbara Carrapa, and Susan Beck.

13 thoughts on “Tectonics as Purpose in Geological Field Camps: The Necessity of Hitting the Road, and Implications for Geological Field Stations

  1. Hi, Pete. Nicely argued and I agree with all your points: focus on tectonics to promote integrated, cross-scale and discipline thinking, mobility as enabling and enriching, and constant renewal of content. Let me suggest an alternative use for field stations (or other fixed facilities): inclusion of technology and digital geologic data. I am sure you can guess where I am coming from (and going), with my petroleum geology hat pulled down firmly. Our own in-house corporate training has embraced the approach, and we typically include field days (or modules) and complimentary workstation sessions. This lets participants relate “real” geology as seen and interpreted in outcrop to seismic, well, potential field, and other data that reveal the earth in different ways. For example, we and other companies provided funding to the Indiana U field station, which they used to build a new teaching facility including a computer lab. How about a day of seismic interpretation of thrust structure and growth stratigraphy after a day of Montana’s best field geology? Yes, this would need to be designed carefully to not get bogged down in software, but I know from experience we can do that.

    1. That’s a really good point, Bob. We need to integrate field work with seismic data/interpretation, but it doesn’t stop there. It pertains to numerical modeling, physical experiments, remote sensing and all those other sources of information that are available to us today. It all need to be brought together with field observations and real rocks. So yes, a facility where seismic interpretation could be carried out in the middle of a field course would be great! I usually bring seismic lines and sometimes well information/field production data + + in the field for exercises to get students or professional geologists to mentally integrate these different sources of knowledge. The field is the perfect way to do just that. Your Indiana U field station sounds great (although probably available only to certain oil companies, or also to U student field trips?).

  2. Dear Peter:
    Thanks so much for reemphasizing the importance of conducting field camps/geology as an integral component of imparting traditional geology curriculum. It is quite imperative that so many benefits one can achieve and experience through attending field camps and prepare for becoming well-rounded geologists. It does provide a sense of belonging and self-esteem to the participating students and allows much needed-training to become a team player, which I strongly believe is the most essential DNA sought in connection with becoming a professional geologist. You are absolutely right about an indifferent attitude shown by many college administrations when it comes to conducting field camps and often this operation is viewed as unnecessary expenses!! I This is particularly evident in institutions located in urban setting where students often find a dilemma when it comes to signing-up for month-long field geology class and trying to secure additional funding for summer class. Many urban students during the summer need to find a job also to pay bills for the fall or spring session. Communications have been initiated by many academicians in order to ease the situation by suggesting several mini week-end field trips rather than month-long. It is an alternate solution; however probably better than having to do with complete shutdown of the summer or spring field camps. Different proposals are on the table and include combining geology and environmental monitoring aspects together in order to draw larger student participants and financially, this one seems to be getting more attractive and showing potential for additional growth. Of course, there is another avenue that recommends virtual field trips. In any case, I will be very happy to see field camps/geology survives and no matter what blending it takes or shapes into. Outdoor practical experience can’t be simply replaced by any other means, which I think is the most critical components also deemed by many geology practioneers.
    By the way, I still recall your presence at Iowa State Geology Field Station in Shell Wyoming along with Dr. Lee Suttner (Indiana University, Bloomington) in 1987 and quite frankly was amazed and inspired by the level of enthusiasm and excitement you demonstrated during this visit. Thanks again for being vigilant and strong supporter of field geology and continuing to engage and involve geology students in this noble endeavor. Naz

  3. Oh I wish I was 30 years younger and had the chance to experience your field programme as an undergrad!
    Well done Peter.

  4. Terry raises a key point: any more than about 25 students makes a roving operation difficult, especially when camping on unimproved sites in the middle of nowhere. I’m impressed you can pull this off with 50.
    As for digital mapping, we deliberately keep it primitive and simple. For us, digital mapping technology is not ‘there’ yet, and the upside is not worth the hassles you imply, not to mention the issue of equipment maintenance and upgrades. Of course this sort of thing is a question of personal preference, and there’s no reason that things cannot work equally well with either approach.

    1. I know a lot of people still aren’t hooked on the digital mapping, but we’ve been doing it for 5 years in the field class and it works great. charging equipment isn’t the most dificult problem, but it is worth is. Still issues about when to introduce it to students, but we’re working on that.
      If you haven’t tried the technology lately you should look. lots more options. one model we’re planning with students is to use rent to own or provide your own model for equipment; that avoid the replacement issue. stay tuned.

  5. Thanks for writing such a nice, well-reasoned set of comments Peter. As a fellow field camp director with a 6 week course, I’d be curious to know how many projects you are able to do in 5 weeks, and what the mix is between time in the field and travel. I’d also be curious to know how the cost of travel camps compares to those that tend to mostly stay put. Our camp has been going since the early 70’s, and I’ve been running it for 17 years now, but it is a constant struggle to get the proper institutional support, particularly through the periods of lower enrollment you describe. We have considered many options, including shortening our class, and converting it to one that mostly moves about. I would welcome comments from you or anyone out there who would care to write about these aspects of field camp operation.

    As an aside, and it might just be me or my browser, but neither of the two links to articles in Earth worked this morning.

    1. Thank you Mark. We typically run between 10 and 12 projects. Some of these are more or less traditional mapping exercises that take several days to complete, whereas others involve rambling traverses to help students appreciate how to construct regional cross-sections on the run. The latter are sprinkled with stops at key locations illustrating important relationships among the rocks. Travel is the big potential down-side of such an operation, so we work hard to integrate exercises into travel days. The only stretch of potential van-coma-inducing travel is that from Tucson to Flagstaff, but even this stretch of road passes through amazing geology that can be discussed on radios. From there into Utah and Wyoming it is easy to integrate one-day and half-day exercises. We normally take three to four days to get to western Wyoming (if going that far north).
      The major cost element is the fuel and rental of vehicles. The only other major expenses are salaries for a cook and TA, and possibly a cook’s assistant, and the food required to keep a company of 25-30 people moving and in good health. Our faculty do not take salary for teaching field camp, as we generally prefer release time during the rest of the academic year to pursue field work and other goals. With 20-25 students, we typically break even on costs for the whole operation.
      Sorry about those links to the Earth article; that’s out of my control.

  6. Well said Peter, even as your camp cook many moons ago, I learned a tremendous amount about the geology of the area and use many of those experiences in the courses I teach. Thank you for the experience. ~Kelly

    1. Great to hear from you Kelly. Having a graduate student like you along as cook adds an extra element of immersion for the students. They cannot escape geology, even while waiting in line for dutch-oven brownies.

  7. Nice summary! I agree with your philosophy, although it isn’t always easy to pull off. Group size strongly affects what one can do. A group of 20 is easy to handle as a mobile camp, but it gets tough when groups get bigger. It can be done (we’ve traveled with as many as 50) but you need a couple people dedicated to nothing but logistics. Great commentary!
    btw–one important point missing here is the added complexity of traveling when you incorporate digital mapping techniques. One more logistical complexity is carrying a generator, getting equipment charged on a rainy evening, etc.
    Terry Pavlis

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