Cunicoli di Claudio and the Vanishing Lake


Field Notes: The Hats of Yellowstone


A spate of reports on irresponsible meddling and mishaps in Yellowstone National Park this spring set the stage for my visit there last month. It’s easy to laugh when tourists face the consequences of their determination to get the perfect bison, bear or moose selfie. Less entertaining  was the group who, having spotted a lone bison calf, decided that it looked cold and put it into the back of their SUV. The calf later had to be euthanized when its herd refused to accept it back. All this had me braced to witness misbehavior in the park, with humans proving a danger to themselves and the wild park inhabitants. Just prior to my visit, though, two more incidents  highlighted the dangers of the park itself: in the hydrothermal areas, where geysers and hotsprings bubble up through the ground, a man and his son slipped and were burned, and in a separate incident, another man fell into a thermal pool and died.

My trip took place after the end of a department field trip to Wyoming, and as we got ready to split from the group to head to Yellowstone, everyone, from professors to grocery store cashiers to hotel clerks, repeated the headlines back to us and warned us to be careful, to not leave the trails. At the park, signs everywhere warned the same things: Do not leave the boardwalk. Bear selfies? Not ever. Do not approach within 100 yards of bears or wolves, 25 yards for other animals. Less than a week after a fatal accident, you might think these cautions would be in the front of everyone’s minds, but we still saw people stepping off the boardwalks onto steaming ground, posing for the perfect snapshot. Continue reading “Field Notes: The Hats of Yellowstone”

Field Notes: Ethiopia 2.0


Rough-backed mountains with strange straight-sided peaks and pinnacles of rock recede into the misty distance, and the umbilical thread of what will be the world’s longest river spills out of a round-bellied lake. Nestled invisibly within the landscape are castles, monasteries with secret treasures, and Christian churches cut from ancient stone, though the most prominent Highland scenes usually involve sheep and cows ranging over the rocky slopes. These are the Ethiopian Highlands, not the Scottish, however, and in November blue skies and balmy temperatures reign. Continue reading “Field Notes: Ethiopia 2.0”


Forgetting you tucked your pants in your socks to avoid ticks and walking into CVS like that.

Visiting Lowes 4 days running, making a total of 5 trips for a week long service run.

Playing a game called “Sunburn, Dirt, or Bruise?” at the end of the day.

Pickup truck rides! My favorite people are the ones with big fields with seismometers at the bottom who give me rides in their trucks/golf carts/Arctic Cats. My least favorite people are the ones with big fields with seismometers at the bottom who don’t give me rides. On the other hand, my step count on my phone is quite high this week.

Stopping on the highway for 10 minutes because a Very Large Farm Vehicle (combine? crop sprayer? It was two stories tall and took up two lanes) had parked in the center of the road and seemed unwilling to move.

A church sign that said “Your name may be on a bottle of Coke, but is it in the Book of Life?”

A laundromat sign that said “Suds Yer Duds”

Too many “Jesus/Christ is Lord/The Answer” signs to count, but in spatial terms probably not as many as the Elmira/Southern Tier area has in terms of religious imagery per mile. If I am ever here in winter, I will have to compare numbers of monumental glowing Christmas emblems blazoned on the countryside. Oklahoma may be at a disadvantage as there are no proper hills for a two-story Christmas wreath to hang on like we have. Maybe they can decorate one of the Very Large Farm Vehicles or a wind turbine.

Sharing the roads and fields with rabbits, deer, pheasants, and hordes of large yellow grasshoppers which leap from the grass ahead of you like a wave before a ship as you walk through a field – A+, would nature-gaze again. Sharing the field with an early morning skunk heading your direction – Do not want.


TOO HOT. (hot damn)
(hot damn)

Field Notes: Oklahoma

Oklahoma might not seem like a first choice for a spring break getaway, but sun, warmth, and the outdoors make for a good spring break, even if you have to spend it working. If you’re a seismologist in upstate NY you have to follow where the earthquakes go. I’m thinking of saving up for a tricked out pickup and painting “Earthquake Chasers” on the side, like the tornado hunters we kept running into at gas stations, somewhat unnervingly.

Out standing in my field

If you’re hearing earthquakes and Oklahoma in the same sentence and getting confused, welcome to the strange new future where OK was the most earthquake-prone state in 2014, more than California. Since 2009 the number of quakes has gone from 1 or 2 felt events a year to 1 or 2 a day; in an animation from the USGS, you can see earthquakes blossom across the entire central portion of the state: Continue reading “Field Notes: Oklahoma”

Field Notes: Adventures in the Temple of the Moon


In the middle of a sand-filled plaza surrounded by decaying walls, a coarse jumble of black boulders spills out of the ground like it was just disgorged by the volcanic peak above. A crowd gathers at the edges, peering at the strangely garbed figures processing with agonizing slowness across the sacrificial platform. An ominous sound fills the air.




Other than sweat and possibly tears or blood, there are no sacrifices today, just scientists in robotic get ups working to figure out what lies beneath the surface at Huaca de la Luna, the Temple of the Moon. You’ll have to forgive the title that sounds like a lost Tintin book; this is where I spent two weeks of my summer this year, listening to the near constant “beep” of ground penetrating radar pulses, hauling equipment, and in between, exploring one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the Americas.

Continue reading “Field Notes: Adventures in the Temple of the Moon”

Rules for Fieldwork, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace the Benefits of Mud Baths.

Everybody’s got to have to have rules to live by, right? Here are a few things that seem to have recurring usefulness for this sort of thing.

1. Never pass up the opportunity to eat, sleep, or use a toilet.

2. Batteries: fear them, and their potential ability to blow you and/or your car up should you forget to tape the terminals.

3. Just because it’s not your mess doesn’t mean you don’t have to clean it up.

Seismic stations should not be full of slime water.

4. Never take anti-malaria meds on an empty stomach, particularly before 6 hour car rides. And if you do, hope there are barf bags available.

5. Why pack multiple pairs of pants that will just get dirty when you can wear the same pair for 2 weeks straight?

Embrace the mud.
Embrace the mud. Do not allow it to embrace you, though. The embrace will last uncomfortably long, like that of a weepy maiden aunt.

6. If you don’t wear a wide brimmed hat and sunscreen of the appropriate SPF, Indiana Jones appears and beats you with his whip.


7. Field notebooks – it’s only science if you write it down! No joke here, the slow march of dirt and destruction across formerly pristine notebooks is one of my favorite things.

8. No matter what you read in outdated textbooks, don’t actually lick or eat your field samples.

Not even if John McPhee tells you to. (Annals of the Former World)
Not even if John McPhee tells you to. (Annals of the Former World)

9. Never go anywhere without your knife.

9a. Or duct tape.

9b. Or your own personal roll of toilet paper.


10. In case of dinosaur attack, remember to remain motionless at all costs.

Courtesy of: the Evil Twin

11. And in case the Ark of the Covenant actually does turn out to be in Ethiopia, unleash on the nearest neoNazis or bigots of your choice!


Field Notes: Ethiopia

Before I fall too far down the rabbit hole that will be my attempts to make up for missing two weeks of the semester for field work, here are some thoughts on my trip to Ethiopia. Yes, it was awesome; no, I do not have ebola; yes, the food was great.

After an unexpected 16 hour layover in Washington DC, my labmate and I arrived in Addis Ababa on the evening of the 16th, ready for the nearest bed. The first morning I was in Addis, we overslept and had to roll out the door to make our meeting with our colleagues from the University of Addis Ababa, and were then thrown into a busy day of packing and shopping. The second day, though, I had the chance to take in a foggy morning panorama of the city from the hotel balcony; joggers passed below to the sound of the morning call to prayer from a nearby mosque. We left that second day for the countryside, skipping breakfast so that we could avoid the morning rush hour – a debatably successful tactic, seeing how the highway at that hour wasn’t full of cars but of boys playing soccer in the lanes. We stopped outside the city for breakfast and coffee at a restaurant with a decommissioned EthiopianAir plane parked next to it; the seating inside consisted of the airplane seats. A cute idea, but less welcome after two days of flying.

Early morning in Addis Ababa

Continue reading “Field Notes: Ethiopia”

Half a World Away from the Olduvai Gorge


These days, you can judge how well my day has gone by the number of times I’ve listened to “This Year” by the Mountain Goats – I’m going to make it through this year if it kills me.  I haven’t even started applying to schools yet; it’s all been fellowships so far. As my next round of deadlines approaches, for the NSF Graduate Fellowship application, I’ve also been thinking near constantly about my trip this summer to Tanzania and Olduvai Gorge, with the “Soudoire Valley Song” as an appropriate soundtrack (see title). For the research proposal section of my application, I am designing a seismic survey of Olduvai Gorge and the surrounding basin. The proposal is mostly theoretical, a way for reviewers to see that you know how to properly approach and address a research problem, but the more work I do on this, the more I really want to make it a reality.

For a little background, Olduvai Gorge is a World Heritage Site in northern Tanzania that has yielded some of the most important paleoanthropological finds related to human origins in the 20th and 21st centuries.  Some of the first researchers to take a close look at the gorge were Mary and Louis Leakey, who made such discoveries as a 2.6-1.7 million year old stone axe culture and the 1959 find of the Zinjanthropus boisei hominid skull.  During his work at Olduvai, Louis Leakey started the career of the incomparable Jane Goodall, wanting someone to study chimpanzee behavior so that it could be used as a basis for conjecture about early hominid behavior. There was little time for sightseeing this summer, but if I’d had the time for a flight followed by a 3 hour water taxi ride, I’d have visited the Gombe Stream National Park, site of Dr. Goodall’s chimp observations and research center. Leakey also started Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas on on their work with gorillas and orangutans for the same reason. Geologically, the Gorge is also a very important locale; located on the flank of the East African Rift where the continent is pulling apart, it contains layers of volcanic lavas and ash flows from the Ngorongoro Volcanic Highlands, which includes the world’s largest intact volcanic caldera, Ngorongoro Crater, and the active Oldoinyo Lengai volcano. Nearby at the site of Laetoli, there are actually fossil footprints of bipedal hominids preserved in the ash. Faulting and tectonic activity in the basin relates to the formation and expansion of the East African Rift.

You can see why I’d be excited about being there, and about the possibility of going back. Talking with a researcher who works on excavations in the gorge, it seems like there could be a lot of use for the type of project I want to do; a seismic survey would create a profile of rock layers up to 1 km deep in the subsurface, and it would provide a lot of information about the structure of the gorge and possibly determine new directions for excavation to take. As I’ve been doing the background research for my proposal, I keep realizing how little is actually known about the area, despite the better part of a century’s worth of field work. There has been little to no geophysical work in the area, except for the CRAFTI seismic array from this year, and none concentrating on the archaeology sites. Outlining this proposal has also made me do a lot of thinking about what I want out of graduate school and a research career; while I’m interested in the use of geophysics in archaeology, there is not a lot of work done by researchers in the US in that specific field. In the case of Olduvai, however, the intersection of geology and archaeology that the gorge provides, with its implications for continental rifting processes, rift related volcanics, and human origins, is a fascinating problem to delve into (and, hopefully, get funded by the NSF which technically doesn’t fund straight archaeology projects), and whether I get this fellowship or not I hope I can be back in the field there before too long. That’s the one good thing about having to write strict-3-page-limit-tell-us-everything-about-your-life-and-hopes-and-dreams-and-also-career-plans essays; I’m getting a much better grip on what’s important enough to go in them, and I think Olduvai Gorge is one of those things.

Zinj skull
Site of Zinj discovery by Mary Leakey

100_2695Now back to writing essays.

CRAFTI: Seismic Research in the Great Rift Valley

One day last spring, my mother asked about my plans for the coming summer, with the suggestion that, after spending last summer on the road as part of a siting team for Earthscope, a nice sedentary internship was just the thing. Imagine her surprise at learning what I had in mind instead: an invitation from my adviser Cindy Ebinger to take a two week trip to Tanzania, where I would be participating in the CRAFTI project (Continental Rifting in Africa: Fluid/Tectonic Interaction), a seismic data acquisition project with collaborators from the US, France, and Tanzania. A couple months later, I was on the first leg of my trip out, flying from Newark to Amsterdam, watching The Hobbit, and feeling increasingly torn between identifying more with Bilbo (I’m going on an adventure!) and Samwise in the first Lord of the Rings movie, taking the first step that puts him the farthest from home he’s ever been. I have done a fair amount of travelling as an undergraduate, but only to Europe and within the US, so it was with a good deal of excitement and not a little trepidation that I looked forward to landing at Kilimanjaro International Airport. The first two days of the trip were spent in the city of Arusha, taking care of the practicalities of heading into the field, not to mention adjusting to the new locale; while jetlag did not linger, nausea from taking antimalarial pills on an empty stomach did. While the drive west towards the survey area was ripe with new, incredible views and animal sitings, it was the first real day of work in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area that really brought home that I was on a whole new continent. Scattering baboons as we entered the park gates in the morning, we caught glimpses of the 100 square mile Ngorongoro Crater below in the mist as we drove around its rim. Our jeep bumped through patches of savannah and skirted the smaller yet still impressive crater Empakai, providing first sightings of the creatures that would become familiar parts of the landscape over the next 2 weeks, like zebra, ostriches, buffalo, and the slowly drifting herds of cows, goats, and sheep followed by their young Maasai herders. Finally, descending the slopes of Empakai, we came into the shadow of Ol Doinyo Lengai, the Mountain of God, and arrived at the seismic station housed there in a Maasai boma (village).

100_2663Ol Doinyo Lengai

Inside the boma, the guard pulled aside the thorn fence protecting the equipment, and we started to work. The project involves a network of 34 seismic stations that was deployed in January 2013, with a profile spanning the East African Rift and other stations spaced around the Ngorongoro Volcanic Highlands and surrounding area. The EAR is an active continental rift zone where the tectonic plates of Africa are pulling apart, to eventually form a new ocean basin; the goal of the CRAFTI project is to investigate how this process of continental rifting works, particularly whether it is driven more by faulting or by intrusion of magmatic dikes. Where we worked in northern Tanzania provides the perfect study region for a first hand view of the rifting process, with different rift segments at different stages of the rifting cycle.

Our specific job this summer was to visit each station, check that the equipment was working as it should, collect the data that had been recorded in the first 6 months, and pay the local guards who had been hired to watch out for the gear. The set up at each site included a buried seismic sensor, a solar panel and GPS unit, and a bucket with the battery, power box, and data acquisition system; ideally, at each site all that had to be done was open the bucket, plug an iPod Touch into the DAS, run through a check list of parameters, and swap out the data disks. Of course, with fieldwork, nothing is ideal, and while I’ve been in the field in other places, this project came with its own unique trials. From the very first station, it was clear there was a significant problem – the GPS units used for accurate timing at the stations had nearly all failed at some point during the six months since installation. The challenge provided by our team’s struggles with the malfunctioning equipment provided a deeper look at the realities of pursuing a science that does just take place in a lab, and I think I came away with a great example of how to adjust to technical difficulties in the field in the future. The team pulled together and did everything we could to work around the broken equipment and to try to figure out a solution, with heroic efforts from Professor Ebinger and our collaborators back in the States to get a fix from the manufacturers.


Kids at a Maasai boma

A key component of the project was a good relationship with the local people; the array would not be possible without the Maasai tribesmen and the village schools that agreed to host our stations. Visiting the primary and secondary schools with stations, we brought workbooks and school supplies, and when there were students at the site, we would talk to them about what we were doing and show them the equipment. For the most part, this fell to those of the team who spoke Swahili, which sadly did not include me; in contrast, all Tanzanian students are required to learn Swahili in school and are taught English in secondary school, so with their tribal language many of the younger people we met were bilingual or trilingual, like one teen at our first boma who was pushed forward by her proud father to rather shyly practice her English skills with us. The opportunity to meet and work together with the local people on this project however briefly was part of what made the trip special, not just by helping the project to function but by allowing an exchange of ideas and experiences.


This summer’s work in Tanzania was an incredible experience for me. I could wax rhapsodic about the landscapes, the animals – placid giraffes, colobus monkeys with beautiful fur and one cheeky baboon that stole my lunch – or the two vacation days we spent driving through Ngorongoro Crater and Olduvai Gorge, but I’ll let my pictures speak for themselves. As an undergraduate, this was by far the most edifying and gratifying adventure I’ve been on, and I can only hope I’ll be back in years to come.






Ngorongoro Crater


Olduvai Gorge