Senior Research Adventures in the Piedmont & Blue Ridge

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    Senior Ari Hartmann discusses deformed sandstone in the Blue Ridge Mountains
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    Fine dining in the dark and under the tarp
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    Senior Adam Gattuso makes his case to a skeptical audience.
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    The Group bundled up at Calvary Rocks in Shenandoah National Park
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    Senior Karl Land and Lauren Parker discuss their research along the James River

The Geology Department has a long tradition of communal field trips that bring together students, from experienced seniors to freshmen in their first geology class, and faculty for a weekend of exploration and learning. This spring’s trip may start a new tradition as a cadre of senior geology majors showcased their research discoveries to peers, younger students, and faculty.

On Saturday morning, March 15th a group of nearly thirty students assembled behind the Geology building and headed west to the Piedmont province (the Heart of Virginia!). Lauren Parker and Karl Lang guided participants from ancient river terraces with their rounded gravels and deeply weathered soils to potholed outcrops in the channel of the James River. Discussion focused on erosional rates and processes. “Caressing those potholes lifted the soul,” gushed senior Stavros Calos. Late in the afternoon, Adam Gattuso lead a hike up the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains to examine one billion year old granite (among the oldest in Virginia) and the “Great Unconformity”, a geologic boundary recording the breakup of an ancient continental mass.

At the campsite a steady rain began as tents and tarps were erected. Geologists fortified themselves with a hot meal of kale soup, piri-piri chicken, rice, and, of course, lots of chocolate. Huddled near the fire or under a large circus-like tarp-tent, participants discussed the day’s events well into the evening.

By early Sunday morning the rain had passed and the trip headed to the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park. A refreshing hike took the participants to Calvary Rocks, where Friedrich Knuth pointed out ancient worm burrows in the Antietam sandstone and discussed his study of deformation in these rocks. At Horsehead Mountain Overlook, Crystal Lemon directed attention to cracks in the bedrock and speculated on the processes responsible for fracturing earth materials. The trip continued northeastward along the Skyline Drive and then descended eastward into the lowlands. In cowpastures astride Beautiful Run, Ari Hartmann showed off newly discovered exposures of sandstone and conglomerate that presage the opening of the Atlantic Ocean approximately 200 million years ago.

“Seeing my friends discuss their research so eloquently in the very area they studied, opened my eyes to the possibilities of undergrad research in the department,” said junior Kristie Dorfler. Soon Dorfler will begin her senior research on andalusite occurrences in the southeastern Piedmont – and in one year’s time, will pass on her wisdom to friends and classmates at next spring’s department field trip. Thus begins a new type of geologic cycle.