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Social distancing at the outcrop: Separate cars, PPE and maybe snorkeling

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    Gloves & mask:  Gloves are a necessity any time you’re dealing with a bank of sharp fossil shells, but Mackenzie Chriscoe ’21 has added a mask to the usual PPE for geological field work during the COVID-haunted summer of 2020.  Photo by Lyra Swaddle
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Geology, by its very nature, requires field work.

Geologists work in their labs, of course, and develop predictive computer models, but all that indoor work is based on samples from the field. Sooner, rather than later, the geologist must go to the outcrop, to the fossil bed, to the coring site and find out what’s actually there.

William & Mary’s geologists regularly include undergraduate students in their field research, which more often than not is scheduled for weekends, breaks and the summer. Mentored field work is excellent experience of course and students majoring in geology can make substantial progress on their senior thesis research projects.

The Department of Geology is going ahead with field work during the COVID-haunted summer of 2020, heading to their outcrops and fossil beds armed with more than their rock hammers. Faculty mentors have come up with an evolving set of common-sense and creative ways to maintain social distance that range from traveling in separate cars to snorkeling.

Chuck Bailey is finalizing plans to take a group of geology students to a geologically interesting spot known as the Gladstone Quadrangle in the center of the commonwealth.

“You can balance the state of Virginia on that quadrangle,” Bailey said. “We chose it because there are three different geologic terranes that come together there.”

Bailey, a professor of geology, received funding last year from the U.S. Geological Survey to complete a detailed geologic map for both the USGS and the Virginia Geologic Survey. The Gladstone Quadrangle is a key component of the survey and Bailey said his group had been surprised to find that the rocks in one of those three terranes had been wildly misidentified in existing maps.

“This is why, if you’re going to do geology, you’ve got to do the fieldwork,” Bailey said. “We wouldn’t have known this, had we actually not been on the ground, been on the river collecting the rocks and teasing out their little secrets.”

The USGS gave Bailey a COVID-related deadline extension and the June trip back to the Gladstone Quadrangle is to finish rewriting that chapter in the natural history of the commonwealth.

Standard operating procedure for such a trip is that everyone piles into the “geology van.” Accommodations are in tents, holding as many geology students as will fit comfortably. And teamwork at the outcrops.

This year, Bailey said, social distancing will mean changes: Everyone will drive their own car. One tent to a person, with the tents spread out over a larger footprint.

“We’re going to have a protocol for how we cook meals,” he said. “One person will cook. One person will clean. Everyone will have their own dishes.”

There will be a change in protocol in the field as well, he said. It’s not a challenge to maintain social-distance on a traverse, but Bailey said division of work will necessarily become more formalized: “One person may collect the rock, another person may come in and make a measurement on the rock samples,” he said.

Bailey said one of his chief concerns is parking. With everyone driving themselves to collecting sites off narrow country roads, finding room for all the cars won’t always be easy.

Parking is not among the challenges that Rowan Lockwood faces in the pursuit of field work. She has three projects on the go this summer. Each involves trips to research sites with students and everyone driving separately — but each project involves only one student.

Mackenzie Chriscoe ’21 has been working with Lockwood on collaboration with the National Park Service. They are compiling a fossil inventory of the Colonial National Historical Park near Yorktown. Chriscoe drives over from her home in Gloucester and Lockwood motors down the Colonial Parkway from Williamsburg.

“The good thing for us is that it’s local fieldwork,” said Lockwood, who currently chairs the Department of Geology. “It basically involves selecting a number of sites in the national park to describe, photograph and collect sediment and fossils. We will put together information on what they have in the park and advise on how they can preserve it.”

The fossils they’re collecting are mostly of oysters and other shellfish. Lockwood and Chriscoe meet at one of several fossil outcrops along the York River. Their first day in the field was at a location known as the Moore House Cliff. Lockwood said it’s a famous location for a number of reasons.

The Moore House itself is a prominent site in the national park. It’s the site of 1781 negotiations between British and American forces, resulting in Gen. Cornwallis signing the Articles of Capitulation marking the effective end of the Revolutionary War. But the location has an even greater importance for a paleontologist such as Lockwood.

“There’s been so much destruction of cliffs along the York River,” she explained. “So, this is a really special area; it’s pretty much the only place left where you can sample from this particular geological unit called the Moore House Member.”

The Moore House Member, a section of the Yorktown Formation, is a great place for Chriscoe to collect specimens for her senior honors thesis, as she is working toward a position with the National Park Service as a geoscientist. Lockwood also said history and earth science overlap at the Moore House Member.

“It’s one of the places that yielded the first fossils from North America to be published,” she said. “Chesapecten jeffersonius — the Virginia state fossil — was first collected here and sent to Martin Lister in England. That would be around 1687.”

With just the two of them out on the Moore House Cliff, keeping a social distance was not much of a problem.

“We wore masks,” Lockwood said. “We maintained a distance of 10 feet from each other. We wore gloves — actually, wearing gloves at these sites is pretty much required because the fossil shells are so sharp.”

She is working on a different set of strategies for a project with Colleen Norton ’21. Norton’s goal is to take Lockwood’s techniques for determining the age of fossil oysters and see how they apply to modern, living oysters. It’s a collaboration with Rom Lipcius, a professor at William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and involves going out on the water, where the oysters live.

“Rom’s got some oyster reefs, what are called ‘relic reefs’ and we don’t know how old the oysters are on them,” Lockwood said. “So the idea is to sample some of the larger ones.”

In non-COVID times, the journey to the relic reefs would involve a vessel from the VIMS fleet, but this summer, Lockwood said, such a voyage would require “a lot of PPE,” especially in a small boat.

“So maybe snorkeling is the way to go,” she said.

She and Norton would swim out at low tide, to reduce the depth they’d have to dive through to collect their oysters. Their equipment list would include an unusual piece of PPE, because there is more that the COVID-19 to worry about.

“We’d be wearing wetsuits in the York River,” Lockwood said. “They have those stinging jellyfish this time of year.”