Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Looking At Mars through Arizona

Ryan Jackson

            The southwest is a beautiful place, not due to the plant life which can be quite menacing but instead it has a stark beauty because of the exposed geologic features which abound through the region. This lack of annoying and obscuring vegetation makes it an ideal place to study geology, and in addition the southwestern U.S. bares the evidence of numerous large scale geologic events. This has caused a variety of features from volcanic fields to ridgebacks, and as a result of sheer luck and the arid environment (which doesn’t weather features as quickly as would be seen on the East Coast) the area also plays host to two of the world’s most impressive geologic features—the Grand Canyon and Meteor Crater. These two features, in addition to the volcanic fields, make northern Arizona an ideal place to study Martian analogs.
            So first off, Martian analogs (or planetary analogs) are geologic features on Earth that can be used to gain a better understanding of a feature elsewhere in the Solar System that it corresponds closely to. This works because of the idea of Uniformitarianism which is at the very heart of geology, and can be basically summed up as “the present is the key to the past” and the laws of nature are consistent throughout the Universe. This means that we can look at the processes we see now (like a volcano erupting) and extrapolate this back to a similar lava flow which is hundreds of millions of years old; in addition, because we understand the laws of physics to be uniform throughout space we can extrapolate this event to another planet (allowing for changes in composition, gravity, and other considerations) and understand lava flows there as well.
            This was the basic idea for the field trip, the basaltic Lava Flows of the San Francisco Peaks correlate to basaltic flows all over the terrestrial bodies of the solar system, but in particular the process is representative of hot spot volcanism which also created Olympus Mons, the Solar System’s tallest volcano. Meteor Crater is quite obviously representative of other impact craters which are ubiquitous across the Solar System, but it is rare on Earth as it is so well preserved; and the sedimentary layers exposed within the Grand Canyon could be analogous to the stratigraphy it is hoped the Mars Science Laboratory will find on Mount Sharp in Gale Crater.
            After a day of traveling, our first day was spent in the San Francisco Volcanic Field which is comprised of cinder cones and basaltic lava flows. Cinder cones are small volcanoes made quickly in eruptions which shoot out ash (cinders) which fall back down into a pile, kind of like if you took a handful of sand and poured it out in a stream back onto the ground, the small mound it would form as it piled up is very similar to the formation of the cinder cones. The basalt here has a Hawaiian name “Aa” (pronounced ah-ah) which is named for the sound made when a bare-footed person steps on it—I’m not joking. It is characterized by the blocky texture and is differentiated from pahoehoe which has a ropy texture. This area is important as the volcanism was the result of a hot spot, which aren’t greatly understood, but basically can be summarized by a large plume of magma coming up from the Earth’s mantle and spilling out onto the surface and because Mars doesn’t have plate tectonics, like the Earth does, this is pretty much the only volcanism present there.
            Hotspots are also responsible for some island chains like Hawaii where they form shield volcanoes (the largest type of volcano but they are broad and very gently sloping) which are analogous to Olympus Mons and other giant Martian volcanoes. Hotspots are more or less stationary; however, on Earth the tectonic plates above them move so the volcanism moves with the plate. On Mars, that doesn’t happen so the hot spot continually pumps out lava making the volcano grow larger and larger until the volcanism dies away.
            I have been in large lava flows before, but the scene around our first stop at S.P. Crater (bit of a misnomer as it is a textbook cinder cone) still awed me. The flows stretched out all around us; basalt is my favorite rock and this was a good as Disney Land for me; needless to say my pack was weighed down by samples by the end of the day. The next stop was the apply named Colton Crater, the geology here was very important as this was a volcanic crater which can be at times be very hard to distinguish from impact craters. Colton Crater was once a cinder cone like S.P. but at some point the magma underneath it had come into contact with ground water and turned into a maar. I always imagine maars as giant steam bombs because they kind of are; this giant explosion blew off the top of Colton and left a giant crater there. The coolest part though was the tiny cinder cone within the crater.
            The next day we went to Meteor Crater, the best preserved impact crater on the Earth, to compare the features here to what we saw at Colton. But besides the conspicuously missing slopes we saw at Colton the two sites pretty much looked the same. While we wouldn’t get the chance to observe enough of the crater to see this ourselves, we soon learned that impact craters can be identified by the inverted stratigraphy around the crater. Stratigraphy refers to the different horizontal layers of rock and common sense should tell you the oldest is at the bottom and the layers become progressively younger towards the surface; however, the layers which have been penetrated by the impact are tossed out and flip over past the rim, so that suddenly there are older rocks on top of younger. This set up is a dead giveaway for impact cratering and once it was discovered at Meteor Crater, inverted stratigraphy was used to identify numerous other such impacts all over the world. This concept is highly important for planetary science because on places, like Mars, which has had volcanoes in the past it cannot just be assumed that every crater is from impacts because then it would be easy to miss an important part of the picture. In addition, if maars would be found, it could tell geologists about the ground water present on the planet.
            The last large sight we saw was the Grand Canyon, which was an amazingly beautiful sight, it actually took my breath away when I first saw it. When geologists are feeling poetically they will often compare the rock layers to pages within a book, and talk about “reading” them, if that is the case, then the rock layers would have to be War and Peace. A massive amount of Earth History has been laid bare by the Colorado River, and it is beyond words to describe the phenomenal sight. We hiked down a trail into the Grand Canyon, but as we were limited on time my group only made it about 2.5 miles down the trail akin to just opening the book and skimming the first few pages, but it was still amazing.
            The Grand Canyon’s stratigraphic layers do serve as an analog for Mount Sharp on Mars, in a rough way. The stratigraphic layers in the Grand Canyon were deposited in a variety of different environments, while the depositional environment for Mount Sharp was probably mostly uniform throughout its history. However, the Grand Canyon does provide great practice for reading stratigraphic layers, which will be extremely valuable when the Mars Science Laboratory lands in Gale Crater and begins exploring Mount Sharp. The amazing idea about Mount Sharp is that it is larger than the crater it is in, which means it is impossible for it to have formed during the impact, and must have been built up over time by other process. And like geologists can read Earth history from the stratigraphic layers within the Grand Canyon (or a road cut or just wherever they are exposed) Martian history should be exposed by studying the rock layers exposed within Gale Crater.
            The trip was absolutely amazing, and the opportunity to learn about planetary analogs from numerous scientists who study them was basically a dream come true. The geology we saw are some of the most amazing sites I have ever seen, and being able to connect them to geology across the solar system reminds me why I decided to pursue planetary geology.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Arizona Ramblings

Hayley Williamson

I am not a geologist. I will start by throwing that out there.  So only with many, many morning lectures, I have managed to absorb the order of rock layers (Hermit, Coconino, Toroweap, Kaibab, Moen-Kopi, Basalt! See, I got this). Despite that, Arizona was truly eye-opening for an East Coaster like myself.  I have rarely been somewhere quite so dry (which caused the oh-so-memorable episode of pink eye) and brown. I thought the lack of green would detract from the beauty, but the starkness of the desert made it all the more beautiful. The sites we went to were places of awing grandeur, from volcanic craters to the Grand Canyon. I can honestly say that every place we went to filled me with a sense of wonder… and made me feel very, very small.

For a brief summary of my perspective on the trip…  Even from the first day, I was awed. Like some others have said, we drove through what Dr. B called “the most beautiful stretch of highway in the country.” And boy, was it. Huge bluffs of sandstone towered over our caravan, making me want to stare out the window with my mouth open. Which I promptly did. It made the attitude of the Sedona residents seem quite silly. I’m still not sure how anyone could live under those massive rocks and think crystals and fairies are affecting their lives.  However, the beautiful scenery was far more interesting and certainly the highlight of the first day. Well, that and the sunset on the slope of Humphreys Peak.  I enjoyed that dinner immensely.
Day two was volcano day, and a close favorite for me. I don’t know if I’ve ever done that much hiking in one day, and I didn’t even do as much as others! While I didn’t make it to the interestingly named SP Crater, I enjoyed Colton Crater immensely. That was definitely my second favorite natural site, after the Grand Canyon. It was so massive! And to think, that and Meteor Crater are tiny compared to the planetary objects we are studying. Day three was Meteor(ite) Crater and the Painted Desert, neither of which we got to spend a lot of time at, but that didn’t matter. We still had a great time, and were able to finish the day off with a night trip to the incredible Lowell Observatory, a huge highlight for me. I can’t believe I saw where Pluto was discovered! While my school has a small observatory, it is nothing at all like Lowell.  I have to say thank you to Cynthia for organizing that, because it was spectacular. 

Day four was, of course, the Grand Canyon. Like Allison said, I went down with the spectacular Flying Lunar Llamas. I’ll be honest, that day started out pretty miserable because I woke up sick. But the awesome beauty of Nature quickly made up for that. Dr. Jim Rice told us to record our first reactions to the Grand Canyon, and I wrote mine down in my field journal. Briefly, my very first reaction was “It’s… huge.” But as I took in the size of it, I started to feel like I shouldn’t be there, like this was a place where I was an intruder, because it was too big, too… grand. This was a place where humans should have no power because we are simply too tiny, flies on its walls. That sounds silly, I know, but it induced a sense of reverence in me. Pictures don’t accurately capture that feeling, no matter how many shots I took. I could go on and on, but this post is already pretty long so I should wrap it up. While I enjoyed the last day as well, this was truly the highlight for me. Hiking down inside the maw of the canyon, I felt as though the Grand Canyon was some cohesive thing that I was getting to know. And I will never forget that.

Treasured Moments

April Frake

 “Give me the splendid silent sun, with his beams full-dazzling…Give me nights perfectly quiet, as on high plateaus west of the Mississippi, and I looking up at the stars…”
~Walt Whitman "Give me the Splendid, Silent Sun"

This is Arizona for me: a collection of sweet moments bound together with a common thread of love and admiration for the masterpieces of our dynamic planet. While the lessons I learned, facts I recall, and visuals I sketched in my field guide all paint a picture of the educational value of the trip—there were moments, the sweetest and my most treasured moments, where all the science behind the landscapes was pushed aside and I simply existed, marveling, at the landscape.

And how do I articulate those moments properly? How do I do them justice- The feeling of total peace felt sitting atop the Grand Canyon listening to the whispers of the Earth,  the awe-inspiring radiance of a sunset viewing over a distant mountain ridge, the sensation of the sun on my skin, or the overwhelming desire to dance in celebration of the beauty of creation?  

For me, science is a calling: A calling to explore; to be passionately curious. And in this curiosity, this yearning to better understand the physics and geography of my surroundings, I am always brought back to the same place: a place of wonder. It is this wonder that propels me, pushes me, drives me to continue discovering, - to continue questioning and amassing knowledge of the physical world in order that my experiences in and as a part of nature are broadened.

So this is Arizona for me: a playground of wonder and a beckoning to continue seeking, journeying, and exploring.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Nature Hunt 2012

Chet Gnegy

Hey kids!
This is the German that I decided I was going to learn when I was on space vacation.

Ich habe unseren Urlaub nach Arizona genossen. Ich habe im Grand Canyon wandern und den Sonnenaufgang beobachten die beste gemocht. Ich ging auf viele fantastischen Abenteuer. Mein Abenteuer nach Phoenix war erfreulichen, weil Breana mir einen Rundgang durch ASU gab. Die Eichkatzen am Grand Canyon waren sehr zahm. Die Natur war gut. Die Natur war sehr gut.

Chet out.

Lessons from the Canyon

Nick Perlongo

The universally obvious reaction to seeing the grand canyon is undoubtedly sheer awe in its immensity and apparent timelessness. While I was struck with some sense of this feeling, I couldn't help but think about how  this assessment is merely the resultant of my experiences and is nearly a misnomer considering the sum of the universe. If  a member of a 10 billion year old civilization with the capability of intergalactic travel visited the grand canyon, they would likely draw the conclusion that it is simply a tiny recent geological feature carved in a barely bigger spec of dust on the rim of the milky way. I think this is a rather instructive conclusion to make in that it proves that reality beyond our own perception and understanding can be even more awesome that we have the ability to imagine. This observation gives further depth and excitement to the study of space physics and exploration. Perhaps one day, humans will be that space faring civilization unimpressed by a similar feature on some other infinitesimal rock.  While this feat may be unachievable to its full extent, the possibility is exhilarating. A project this far reaching will require an unwavering commitment to global teamwork and tolerance intertwined with a deep understanding of the earth and ourselves. This future starts now with us, and NASA is leading the way. 

Notes from a Native

Breana Branham

As someone who grew up in Arizona, I have visited many sights in Northern, AZ since childhood. It was a new experience and quite interesting to see them as an adult and through the eyes of a scientist. I have always appreciated the desert for its beauty, as one can easily gather from a trip through the Painted Desert or the Grand Canyon, but one can easily forget the history that surrounds them in the form of geology. 

The highlight of the trip for me was visiting the Grand Canyon. It may be hard to believe, but after 21 years of living in Arizona, I hadn't yet been to the Grand Canyon. I knew of it, I suppose. There's a picture of it as the background of my driver's license and we watched a short documentary about its formation prior to leaving for the trip. I wasn't fully prepared for the massive wonder that lay up in the northwestern corner of the state. I still can't comprehend its size in either depth or scope, nor can I fathom its history in both formation and human usage. It was so full of life with its abundant vegetation, colorful layers, vibrant tourists from literally all over the world, and slightly too-friendly squirrels. While the rest of the trip was brilliant, the Grand Canyon was definitely what put it over the edge and really piqued my interest in earth science.

A Trip in Pictures

Rose Perea

The trip to Arizona was spectacular, but more than that, it was full of many new experiences for me. It would be what I actually consider my first time hiking anywhere, first time seeing a lava flow (let alone climbing up one), my first time climbing a volcano, and of course my first time seeing the Grand Canyon.

Day 1: Arriving at Arizona, seeing ASU and having dinner on a volcano.

            This was our first arrival in Arizona; our first stop was Sedona where we saw the “red” rocks. The color was very rich, not just in the surrounding landscapes, but because of the fact that most of the houses where built with the same material. We where then introduced to sandstone at one of the scenic views. Our day ended with a dinner on top of one of the San Francisco Peak volcanoes.

Day 2: SP and Colton Volcanic Craters, and Black Point Lava Flow

Seeing a volcano up close was breath taking, and being allowed to climb to the base of one, and top of the other was awesome. It was this day that I faced some of my fears about climbing over something that didn’t look stable. I made it over the lava flow, which at times was difficult for me, fortunately, I had a good friend (Aaron) that waited patiently and helped me only if I asked. Going through this day made me more confident in actually climbing the second volcano, and later hiking down the Grand Canyon.

Day 3: Meteor Crater/Petrified Forest (within Painted Desert):

Although we did not get the chance to fully explore meteor crater, we did get to walk a part of it. Seeing meteor crater gave us some insight on how to compare the volcanic craters to impact craters.
            The Painted Desert was one of my favorite places (the other being Sunset Crater). The colors of the desert are beautiful and I felt like I could just sit and look at the landscape forever.  Although it is termed a “wasteland” and that’s true (one could never grow any sort of crops here), it still retains my wonder and admiration. All my pictures almost seemed unreal with the vibrant landscape behind it (see right).


Day 4: Grand Canyon!

Tanner had asked me at the end of the day, after some hiking within the Grand Canyon to describe the canyon in three words. My words where: Serenity, historic and GIGANTE! Serenity because you can easily find a spot away from everyone, stand at the edge and just look at the landscape, as the wind blows gently past you; its very peaceful. Historic is for the steps back in time that you take as you walk down into the canyon. GIGANTE (which needs to be said in a deep, loud announcer type voice) is self-explanatory, but I would be cheating if I did not mention the size of it in the description. The walk back up from the Angel Trail was difficult for me as I had a hard time breathing, but I am glad I did it. Having Dr. Shultz come up and explain a little of the geology that we were seeing was also rewarding. Physically seeing some of the geologic layering (rather than in a schematic) is a much more powerful teaching tool that I will always remember. The canyon is enormous and there is no way a picture can show that, but I tried.

Day 5: Sunset Crater

The last place that we visited, but another of my favorites. The reason that this ended up being one of my favorites is because you really get a feel of the destruction of the volcano. There are still trees that have been damaged from the lava flow, yet at the same time there is currently some new wildlife growing through the lava flow. I felt like this gave both a sense of the destruction that a volcano can do, but also how the volcano increases the richness of the land once everything is cooled.

Top 3

Allison Duh

Friends ask me, “So, what were you guys doing in Arizona?” and it is hard to come up with a concise answer that summarizes our five days there. I guess it's better to pinpoint the lessons and ideas I picked up that tied the canyons and craters together in my mind. I have never studied geology, but our trip was a wonderful crash course. It was great learning from trip leaders and fellow interns about things like cross-bedding and basic nomenclature, and I came away with a new appreciation for geomorphology and geology that I hope I can keep working on. Our trip leaders were truly amazing in sharing their knowledge and making sure we had a safe but exciting trip.

After we got home to College Park, a few of us were trying to think of our 3 top favorite sights of the trip and it was pretty tough, but here are mine!

1.      The Grand Canyon
Dr. Ann, Jillian, Hayley, Missy and I formed the Lunar Llamas and hiked the first 1.5 miles of the Bright Angel Trail, which is supposedly a 1,131 foot elevation drop! We had a lot of fun going through the layers of the Grand Canyon and took pictures when the path changed suddenly from a tan color to the deep red (the Mars Level, of course), which we hope will still make sense to us when we open a photobook in a few years and wonder to ourselves why Missy is standing grinning in the middle of a pathway for no apparent reason. Along the trail we spotted: a mule deer, a mountain goat and several fearless Abert squirrels. Going back up was hard work and took lots of water breaks, but when we reached the top we were so full of energy and ran around the trail entrance cheering. Go Lunar Llamas!

1.      Lowell Observatory

            I looked through 3 telescopes and saw Saturn, the M5 cluster and the Moon. The view  of Saturn wasn't as close as I was hoping for, and furthermore, Saturn showed up pure white! But it was still very exciting to see its entire form with its very distinct rings. The M5 cluster is a cluster about 25000 light years away, and we only saw the brightest of the stars through the telescope. The cluster filled the entire viewfinder area and looked like a light blue snowflake made of pinpricks of light – very pretty. The telescope focused on the Moon let you see it right up close and you could pick out the very distinctly outlined craters in its surface. I also enjoyed Lowell Observatory's Children's Exhibit, which is quite fantastic and is definitely not just for kids. I just wish I could have looked at all of them for a little while longer! 

1.      Colton Crater

            I hiked down into the bowl of the crater with Rachel, Adarsh, Zach and Sebastian. It was incredible standing from the bottom of the crater looking up and around at the steep walls. You could see outcroppings of rock jutting down into the crater from up around the rim, which we were told is how the cinder volcano builds itself up. It is very humbling and wonderful to realize how tiny you are in comparison to a relatively tiny crater on a tiny planet!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Grand Canyon

Lily Mannoia

My favorite part of our trip to Arizona was the last day when we went to the Grand Canyon. I honestly hadn't heard much about the other places that we went to on Monday and Tuesday, so it was a surprise when I got to see them because I had no idea what they looked like. Even though they were all really interesting and pretty in their own way, I was most excited to see the Grand Canyon because everyone I know who had been there before told me it was really beautiful. The night before, I met two people at Lowell Observatory that were also on a geology field trip and had just gotten back from the Grand Canyon. They told me all about how much fun they had there so I was even more excited to see it the next day. When I saw it for the first time, my initial reaction was that it looked just like it did in pictures. It was much more beautiful in real life than it was in the documentary we watched at the LPSA house. As we explored around it, I couldn't believe how huge it was and was kind of sad that we weren't going to get to see all of it.
Trying to take pictures of the Grand Canyon was also hard, especially when you're using a phone camera. I was so happy that I got to experience it and also learn about the geology behind it. If it wasn't for this trip, I don't know if I would have ever been lucky enough to go to Arizona to visit these places.

Learning Geology

Missy Gaddy

Wow!  What a fantastic trip to Arizona.  All of us here at LPSA had a blast and saw some amazing things.  I really liked learning the geology of the sites we visited.  Knowing more about the land made me appreciate those breathtaking landscapes even more.  It was great having all of the scientists on the trip with us; their passion for geology was contagious, and their extensive knowledge of the area inspired me to learn more.  At each of the stops along the trip, they would take out maps and show us things about the topography and how the landscapes were formed.  I didn’t think I liked geology, but I have learned that is a really neat field.  Here is a photo of Dr. Shultz talking to us at SP Crater.

 My favorite day of the trip was the Grand Canyon.  Dr. Burkhart and Dr. Schultz talked to us about the stratigraphy of the canyon – they told us about each of the layers in the canyon walls and what time periods they were formed in.  Dr. Rice also told us about the Mars Rover, Curiosity, which is scheduled to land on Mars in August.  Curiosity is going to land inside Gale Crater, and it will study the stratigraphy of Mars in order to learn more about its geologic history.  Next, we broke out into groups and went on a hike down into the canyon.  My group was named the Flying Lunar Llamas (we’re pictured below).  It was so cool walking down and passing through the layers of the canyon we just learned about.  We had a wonderful time.  If you ever get the chance to go to the Grand Canyon with a geologist, take it!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Arizona Adventure

John Gemperline

Our trip out to Arizona kicked off early in the morning with a great trumpeting fanfare (courtesy of Kyle).  After landing in Phoenix, we hopped over to Arizona State University for a tour of the Mars Spaceflight Facility by the group leaders that we just rendezvoused with.  Being back at ASU brought up a lot of nostalgia from my experience with the Mars Student Imaging project during middle school.  I also enjoyed touring one of the schools I am interested in attending for graduate studies.  The rest of the day consisted mostly of driving up to Flagstaff, with two brief stops to admire Sedona and some well-preserved cross bedding on the side of the highway.  The day concluded with a marvelous dinner on the San Francisco Peaks, which are the remains of an old stratovolcano that now overlooks Flagstaff.
On the second day we visited the Flagstaff Volcanic field, starting with SP Crater.  Seeing a cinder cone volcano in person was like stepping into a text book from one of my geology classes.  I really enjoyed being able to hike along the old lava flows that oozed out of the base of the volcano as well.  Though it was a short distance, going up the cinder cone itself was one of the most strenuous hikes I have undertaken.  The view from the top was superb, and observing all the lava bombs while sliding around on the slopes was an unforgettable experience.  The second volcano we visited, Colton Crater, offered a great opportunity to see welded tuff, olivine, quartz, plagioclase phenocrysts, and other interesting volcanic features. 
Day three was our trip to Meteor Crater, Petrified Forest National Park, and the Painted Desert.  One of the projects I am working on at Goddard involves measuring and analyzing Martian craters.  Being able to visit a well preserved crater on Earth helped me to better understand their morphology in the context of what I’m working on.  As my mentor, Dr. Jim Rice has said, “You can look at these features all you want on a computer screen, but there’s no comparison to going out in the field and being able to study them first hand.”  The Painted Desert also provided an excellent example of badlands terrain similar to what we might find on Mars, with canyons, ravines, and gullies eroded in arid environments.  The final event for the day was a trip to the Lowell Observatory, where we were able to look at an open star cluster and Saturn through the telescope.
The fourth day was spent solely at the Grand Canyon, but really a week, even a month, wouldn’t be enough time to explore everything there.  It was my third time visiting and it was no less majestic or enjoyable.  This was my first time visiting with any significant understanding of the geologic setting around me.  Looking at the canyon walls during our hike down the Bright Angel Trail was like flipping through the pages of a text book.  We found more cross bedding on a grand scale, and beheld transgressive and regressive sequences recording the advance and retreat of oceans during the Paleozoic.  Dr. Jim Rice, put it this way, “Every step you take down the trail is equivalent to twenty or thirty thousand years in Earth history.”  My only regret is that we were only able to hike three miles down the Canyon.  Even then we were nowhere near the rim of the inner gorge.

I’ve always loved traveling out west, and this trip was no different.  There are so many interesting things to see purely from a geologic perspective and so many opportunities to learn from the landscapes and rocks around you.  From a planetary science perspective, Arizona is a fantastic place to study and compare to the other terrestrial worlds in our solar system.

An Adventure!

Amber Keske

Day 1:
Day 1 was primarily a travel day. An uneventful plane trip was followed by a short visit to the ASU Mars Space Flight Facility, where we were given a tour. We then drove up to Sedona, an area whose geological features have been deposited shaped by the Colorado River over millions of years. On the drive up to Flagstaff, large-scale eolian features were evident in the Coconino Sandstone. That night we had dinner in the San Francisco Peaks where we watched the sunset.

Day 2:
The majority of this day was spent at the Flagstaff Volcanic field, where we spent the morning hiking up a cinder cone to SP crater, where Sebastian honored its namesake. We spent lunch and the afternoon at Colton crater, a cinder cone within a maar within a cinder cone. The steam explosion that formed the maar brought up some interesting basement rocks, which were fun to collect. An unhappy looking sky motivated us to leave somewhat early, however. We drove out to visit the black point lava flow, then went home after a brief visit to some well-preserved ripple marks.

Day 3:
An early start and a long drive brought us to Meteor Crater, where we toured the visitor’s center and walked briefly along a small portion of the rim. We then drove to the Petrified Forest, a region where well-preserved fossilized wood (made of silica) is oddly abundant. We drove through the beautiful Painted Desert, and then headed back to Flagstaff. That night, we went up to the Lowell Observatory, where we looked at Saturn and M5 through their telescopes there. The stargazing was, of course, incredible.

Day 4:
Day 4 was Grand Canyon day! After spending some quality time at an overlook, we split up and went our merry way in the Grand Canyon. A bunch of us went on the Bright Angel Trail, which continues to the bottom of the canyon, providing a spectacular view of the canyon along the way. Going 2 miles before heading back, we progressed through the Kaibab limestone, Toroweap formation, Coconino sandstone (with excellent cross-bedding), and Hermit Shale. We ate dinner at another outlook and watched the sunset.

Day 5:
This was mostly a travel day, except for a brief visit to Sunset Crater. Unfortunately, we didn’t actually get to see the crater itself, but we did see some interesting volcanic features, including a spatter cone.

Climbing a Crater

Matt Wyatt 

We began our adventure early Monday morning at the hotel with breakfast before we hit the road. As we drove down the northern Arizona roads, I began to realize the enormous scale of all the geological features around us. We were all captivated by the scenery and asked Dr. Burkhart question after question. Before long we were turning off the main road onto a rough dirt road into the middle of the barren dusty landscape. The dust began to billow as our convoy of vehicles rolled over the land. After what seemed forever, we reached our destination, S P Crater.  

Upon our arrival we began to gather around to hear the story of the volcanic cinder cone crater and land surrounding it. As I listened to the geological history of this place, I couldn’t help but feel like I was traveling back in time watching it all unfold in front of me. After hearing the history the only thing left to do was to read the history book for ourselves. We were given an hour and a half to climb to the top of the 850 foot crater and back. We didn’t want to waste any time so we filled our water bottles and began ascending up the crater. I started off at a very fast pace, but as I increased in altitude the crater began to get the best of me. After a while it seemed that every two steps forward meant one step back. This climb quickly became a mental endurance test. Through encouragement from one another and numerous breaks, the rim of the volcano became visible. With the rim in sight, we pushed ourselves to the top to see the spectacular view. The vast amount of geological history that was visible from the rim was absolutely breath taking, and it brought to life to enormous scale of the entire area.
The view from the top of S P Creator looking out over the lava flow. Taken by me, Matthew Wyatt

A Geologic Overview

Rachel  Kronyak

Just as Curiosity is slated to investigate the surface of Mars at Gale Crater, so too have we explored the San Francisco Volcanic Field as a Martian geologic analog.  This extension of young volcanoes straddles the boundary of the Colorado Plateau in northern Arizona and includes a variety of cinder cones, strato volcanoes, and shield volcanoes. Covering 1,800 square miles of land and around 6 million years of geologic time, the volcanic field is also home to a variety of organisms, as its biomes are quite diverse.  The source of the volcanic activity is believed to come from the complete subduction of the ancient Farallon plate underneath North America. As mantle material extrudes to the surface, the volcanoes we now observe are born.

Our first stop at this geologic wonderland was SP Crater. This 820-ft cinder cone has one of the most distinct lava flows in the area. Its last eruption, around 71,000 years ago, resulted in a basaltic andesite flow that can be observed for 4 miles around the cone. Olivine phenocrysts are easily observable in hand sample, as are secondary minerals such as opal. Hiking up the crater took about 60 minutes, pretty much on all fours, and was quite exhausting due to the cinders and 33° angle of repose. Volcanic bombs and flow structures were observed at the rim of the crater. The hike- rather, the RUN- down the cinder cone was an entirely different story, seeing as it only took 6 minutes (yes, I timed us). Excuse my non-scientific words, but it was incredible, hilarious, and unforgettable. A certain rock hammer was lost in the madness, but if given the chance, I wouldn’t do anything different.

Next up was Colton Crater, around 500 ft deep and a mile wide. This one falls into the category of maar- a crater that started off as a cinder cone but has since been reduced to a flattened rim due to an explosive eruption as magma came into contact with the water table. A younger, 10-m high infant cinder cone is present on the floor of the maar. The composition of Colton differs greatly from that of SP- no cinders are present except those on the cinder cone at the crater’s floor. Large outcrops and a dike intrusion can be observed inside the walls of the crater, and many of the rocks are pelagic tuff, granite, and some basement and ultramafic material. This hike was much more manageable and laid-back - no grueling climbing or running down was required.

Our final stop of the San Francisco Volcanic field was Sunset Crater. Its last eruption was in the year 1064, making it the region’s youngest cinder cone. Due to its status as a national monument, we were confined to walking around a paved path through its lava field. Much of the area displayed a reddish-yellow tint as a result of the oxidation of gases following volcanic activity. The aa lava is mainly composed to blocky, fine-grained basalt with phenocrysts of olivine and white, glassy feldspars. We also observed several instances of zenolith in the basalt- regions where magma erupted through wallrock and trapped chunks of Coconino sandstone in it. One such sandstone clast was measured to be around 150mm in diameter. Another interesting aspect of Sunset Crater is the lichen that observed to be thriving on the green/black basalt, but not the red basalt. Why? It is believed that the green basalt is younger and provides a fresher surface on which the lichen can grow. While it proved to be a much more relaxing hike than previous sites, climbing on the jagged basalt was probably not the smartest idea- my cut up shins did not thank me.

While we visited many other incredible places such as Meteor Crater, the Grand Canyon and Painted Desert, the San Francisco Volcanic Field was by far my favorite aspect of our geologic adventure.

Mission Success!

After our brief update hiatus, we are finally able to document our Great Crater Adventure.  We were stuck with a bad internet connection in Flagstaff, and hit by the power outtage when we returned to Maryland, but now we are back on line and ready to share our experiences!
By all counts it was a successful trip - we learned a ton while having a great time.  We did everything from climbing a cinder cone volcano to looking through the telescopes at Lowell Observatory.  There are so many highlights from the trip, that they can't be contained to just one post.  That's why all of the interns have come up with their own stories to include.  I hope you enjoy this highlight reel!