Geology students learn just how much Iceland rocks


CU-Boulder and University of Iceland geology students in a joint field class embark on a day’s field class this summer. They are overlooking Breiðdalsvík in southeast Iceland. Photo by G. Lang Farmer

By Clint Talbott

University of Colorado Boulder geology students spent two weeks this summer studying Iceland, a place of fire and ice, in an innovative field course that helped them hone their critical-thinking skills and broaden their social horizons.

The program results from a partnership between the CU-Boulder and the University of Iceland, which have long worked together at the Ph.D. level but have not previously collaborated on undergraduate education.

The program also depends on support from alumni and keeps a lid on its costs: the four professors teaching the students from Colorado and Iceland volunteer their time.

G. Lang Farmer, professor and chair of CU-Boulder’s Department of Geological Sciences, says field courses are capstone educational experiences for geology majors.

Geology in the field helps students think critically and rely on empirical evidence as they strive to describe what they see.

At CU, each undergraduate major has to take three different field “modules,” which are limited to 15 people apiece. With about 260 majors, the Department of Geological Sciences was “running out of ways to offer field modules to all those majors.”

At the same time, CU-Boulder had developed a dual Ph.D. program with the University of Iceland. That partnership was forged by Gifford Miller, professor, former Geological Sciences chair and associate director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

Miller has long worked with Áslaug Geirsdóttir, professor at the University of Iceland’s Faculty of Earth Sciences, who earned her Ph.D. at CU-Boulder.

About three years ago, Farmer suggested to Geirsdóttir that their universities’ partnership include undergraduates, via a joint field module with students from both universities.

They agreed to allow students from each university to do field work in Colorado and Iceland in alternating years. “The problem is that doing anything in Iceland is really expensive, so it would be hard for students to make that fee for going there,” Farmer said.

Alumni Craig and Judy Canon donated to the Bill Braddock-in-the-Field fund, and their gift was earmarked for the Iceland field module. The field module is offered as a summer course through the Office of International Education.

CU-Boulder offered this opportunity to a maximum of eight students, and the same number from Iceland participated.

The students worked and cooked and lived together for 11 days in the field. It was kind of a social experiment in addition to learning the serious field skills”

“The students worked and cooked and lived together for 11 days in the field. It was kind of a social experiment in addition to learning the serious field skills,” Farmer said.

Students learned the volcanology of Iceland, which is one of the world’s most active volcanic regions. “We got to integrate that with Quaternary geology, so we looked at climate change, evidence for paleo-tsunami deposits. Tsunamis have been in the news, and they were able to recognize these deposits in the field.”

Students went in the field with instructions to make observations. Afterward, they returned to their lodging, cooked dinner and had two-hour sessions during which they presented their results.

Accommodations were utilitarian; the group spent some time in an elementary school in a small farm town. And the food was atypical. Colorado students were served puffin, the colorful high-latitude bird, and sheep head.

The Colorado students had more experience giving public presentations than the Icelandic students, so the Icelanders learned some public speaking “and our kids didn’t know much about volcanology initially, but learned quickly because it’s a volcanic island.”

At the core, however, the field module was rigorous study, Farmer said. “In geological sciences, one of the things you have to do, and it’s true in any discipline, is you have to separate your interpretation from the observations.”

The point was to allow students to make empirical observations without a prejudice as to what the student might be seeing. “They first made the observations that could stand up no matter what interpretation you finally make, and then they would go back and discuss it with their group.”

All groups would make presentations on similar observations every day. At the end, they would make a joint hypothesis about what they were actually seeing. “And they saw everything in creation. They saw what are called whalebacks, which are glacial erosion features in the landscape, where you see these big, broad, rock humps with furrows down their backs, which are glacial striae.”

When an ice sheet is atop an ice cap, the ice moves across the landscape and carves up these big mounds, “and then the ice melts and you’re stuck with these weird shapes.”

The U.S. students had never seen these formations before. “But they got to think about what they might be and how they formed.”

Similarly, what was familiar to the Colorado students was not necessarily so to those from Iceland. “In Colorado, we’ve got a lot of granite. Everybody knows about granite. The word in Iceland is that there is no granite; it’s only basalt, which is a black rock.”

However, the students visited areas in Iceland where granites do in fact exist.

“I had one student tell me this can’t be granite because there is no granite in Iceland.”

“I said, ‘Well, make the observation. What do you think this is? It’s white.’ It’s not a basalt.”

Students also learned to make observations on a large scale.

Dike in Iceland

Students examine rocks near Austurhorn in southeast during another day’s field exercise. Photo by G. Lang Farmer

Much of southern Iceland has been cut with what are called dikes, which are igneous rocks that have cross-cut the preexisting crust. These rocks have to make space for themselves, so when they break through the rocks, they spread the crust apart.

The students’ task was determining how much spreading apart of the crust had taken place by walking along a beach, measuring the widths of these dikes, “learning to recognize these dikes, measuring how many there were and how wide they were, and then figuring out how much the crust must have been stretched.”

Students were graded on their evening presentations. They handed in their field notes. They also produced an overview paper explaining what they learned about “the interplay between fire and ice, because that’s what this was, volcanology and glacial geology.”

Iceland is sitting on the mid-ocean Atlantic ridge, and it’s spreading apart. “You can see the mid-ocean ridge on the surface. It’s the only place in the world where you can see that. On either side of Iceland, part of it’s the North American plate, and part of it’s the Eurasian plate, and they’re moving apart.”

That means the rocks farthest away from the rift are the oldest, but “as you move closer to where the rift is, you get younger and younger rocks.”

The oldest rocks look like a normal set of volcanic rocks that appear to have been deposited on the surface. Moving farther in, students saw “incredibly weird mountains.”

These mountains, known to many as “tuyas,” are found in very few places around the world because they don’t last long, in geologic terms. They consist mostly of unconsolidated volcanic “tephra” (fragmented volcanic rock) and a capping, hard, basaltic lava flow and are the product of volcanic eruptions under ice. When the ice melts, only the tuya remains.

“None of our kids had any idea that even such a thing would happen, let alone know what they were, but they learned to recognize it and learned to recognize that there was something darn weird going on there.”

Farmer added, “They learned what kind of observations to make and to recognize what kind of questions to ask.”

The skills learned in this field training are useful for future job prospects. Geology alums tend to find careers in environmental business, oil and gas, or education.

Geological sciences graduates acquire skills that can be applicable in many fields, Farmer noted. One graduate later earned a law degree. “He said that kind of critical thinking, where you make observations and then you interpret them afterward but only after you’ve made those observations, those critical-thinking skills were essential for him in his law career.”

“And it’s what set him apart from people he went to law school with is having that science background.”

Clint Talbott is director of communications and external relations  for the College of Arts and Sciences.

Aug. 5, 2014

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