Field Camp: An Introduction & Personal Experiences

In geology, fieldwork includes the direct observation, description, and sampling (or additional analyses) of rock outcrops, rock exposures, other geological features, and landscapes in their natural environment. To prepare geoscientists for field work, undergraduate geoscience students are often required to take field camp. Field camp can be an important component of geological studies, offering opportunities for collecting data and fine – tuning observation and mapping skills that students may be introduced to in the lab. While some argue that field camp is a critical part of an undergraduate geology degree, field camp can be quite exclusionary and should not be a requirement for a degree. That being said, there are numerous advantages and challenges of partaking in field camp or conducting field work. Here, we share our perspectives on field camp and our experiences, as well as share some ideas about how you can win money to attend field camp. 

Basics of Attending Field Camp

Field camp provides an opportunity to get hands-on experiences in sample/specimen collection and develop mapping skills. Essentially, it is a practical application of all of the coursework you have taken as a geoscience student .

Some field programs connect with other institutional programs at a shared ‘base camp’. This promotes networking and relationships to be built outside of your field cohort. For example, Jen was based at the Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association and a field camp from Houston was also residing there during the summer. Although work was largely separate, we ate meals together and shared common facilities. Some field camp programs accept external applicants, which promotes meeting new peers and experiencing the field together.  

Field course requirements can vary greatly by program and in some cases, field courses are not a requirement of the program. Some programs require six credit hours in field work which may be held over a six week long field camp. Additionally, some field camps and courses have prerequisites, which could include more specialized courses such as sedimentology, stratigraphy, or structural geology. Another aspect to keep in mind is the cost of field camp. Some field courses are quite expensive and do not provide financial assistance. Some courses require you to get your own transportation to the base camp, which requires additional resources and logistical planning. As field courses are commonly six weeks, attendees must take off work reducing their income and available time. Other costs include any gear you must purchase to safely attend. 

In a lot of cases, universities and colleges may have some source of funding to help their students attend field camp. These funds are, in most cases, provided by alumni donations that help cover a large chunk, but not all, of the students’ field course expenses.

There are also a few scholarships and grants you can apply to to attend field camp. Here a few examples of such awards:

Personal Experiences

Whitney Lapic, attended as an undergraduate with Mount Holyoke College

Field camp was not offered at my undergraduate institution, Mount Holyoke College. My program did offer a class which was based on a trip to Death Valley that was held over spring break every other year, but this was the closest thing we had to a field course. At the time, I did not think that seeking out a field camp would be worthwhile as I was not going into a subdiscipline that was field work intensive. That being said, I still wanted to gain field experience – and I believed that the experience was a requirement for me to get into graduate school. 

My greatest concern for field work was being able to physically keep up with the group and I know that this fear, and the cost of field camp, greatly deterred me from attending. I was however, extremely lucky to have been accepted as an exchange student at the University of Kent in Canterbury, U.K. for a semester and decided to take some time to create my own miniature field excursions while abroad. After plenty of research, I organized a series of trips to the nearby Gault Clay formation in Folkestone, which was a brief and inexpensive bus trip away. Here, I was able to work at my own pace (while trying to beat the tide) and gain experience in collecting, preparing, and identifying fossil specimens from start to finish. While this was by no means a replacement for a field course, it still introduced me to new challenges and allowed me to gain experience on my own time. It certainly helped that I was in a location of my choosing, so it was of significant interest to me. 

Linda Dämmer, attended as an undergraduate with University of Bonn (Germany)

I studied Geosciences at the University of Bonn (Germany). The system there works a bit differently from many US geology programmes: Almost all courses, with just a few exceptions, had a mandatory field work component. These field trips ranged from a few hours used to visit a little stream nearby and practice different methods to estimate the amount of water flowing down the stream per hour, to traveling abroad to spend 10-14 days practising geological mapping or learning about regional geological features. I’ve probably participated in close to 20 field trips during my undergraduate studies, I visited Austria, the Netherlands, Spain and Bulgaria during these excursions as well as many sites in Germany. Except for the far away field trips (Bulgaria and Spain) where we had to pay for our flights, these were generally fairly low cost, since the university covered the majority of the expenses, most of the time the students had to pay about 50€ (approx $60) or less as a contribution. There have been people who were unable to attend the mandatory field trip components of the programme, for a variety of reasons (for example pregnancies or disabilities), and they usually were able to instead do a different activity such as written assignments instead. In addition, for many courses more than one field trip option was offered, because taking an entire class on a field trip at the same time doesn’t work well. So based on interests, schedules and financial situation, everyone could often choose between different field trips, that would all count for the same course. I have learned so much during each field trip. Seeing geological/environmental features ‘in the wild’ has helped me tremendously to deepen my understanding of the processes involved and I’m very grateful for these experiences. But they also – and maybe even more so – helped me understand my physical boundaries and how far I can push myself, they helped me improve my organisational skills and made me a better team player. I think these are probably the real advantages of doing field trips, the actual content can probably also be learned in other ways. But the vast majority of the field trips also turned out to be lots of fun, even when you’re sitting in a tiny tent with two other students while it has been raining for the past 4 days and everything you own is completely wet and muddy, when you’re hiking through the mountains and your mapping partner is about 65% sure they’ve just heard what sounded like a wild boar behind you, or when you’re sweating and getting sunburned while trying to find your way back to the campsite in the spanish desert without any landmarks, there’s always something to laugh about and other people to help you out on when you think something too hard. Like that one time I managed to lose my field notebook at an outcrop and only noticed after a 90 minute hike to the next outcrop. I was already exhausted and really wasn’t looking forward to hiking back and forth again to get my notebook, but thanks to a friend volunteering to go with me, I managed to do it (that’s the day I learned to take a picture of every page of my notebook after every outcrop AND to save the pictures online as soon as possible).

I think it’s absolutely worth it, if you’re able to join field trips, I recommend you do it. 

I’d like to briefly discuss a different aspect about this though. All of the things I said are only true if you go with the right people. While I’ve not experienced too many negative situations during field trips myself, I’m aware that some people have not had a great time during field trips. For example, because the majority of geologists on this planet still consist of cis male people, who might not understand that menstruating or having to pee in the field can be a challenge for AFAB people, it might be difficult or embarrassing having to argue in front of the entire class that someone needs a break. Sometimes you also find out the hard way that the nice professor isn’t actually as nice as you thought when you have to spend 24h per day for an entire month with them instead of just attending their lecture for 2h every Tuesday morning. 

I’m still recommending everyone to join as many field trips as possible, but if you can, make sure there’s at least one person you already know and trust among the other participants. Having friends with you will make it a much better experience, in many ways.

Jen Bauer, attended as a graduate student with Ohio University 

I have an undergraduate degree in biological sciences and an earth science minor. The minor program did have a field component but it was only a week long trip to the Ozark area. This was  a nice precursor because I understood what a much longer version would entail. I completed my field camp during my MS program at Ohio University. It was my first summer and was run through Ohio University, so I didn’t have to apply for other programs. I could simply enroll in the course. At this time the course had two parts: (1) a two-week component that was focused near Athens, Ohio and in the nearby West Virginia mountains (this was meant to help us get accustomed with techniques in the field prior to being ‘released’ into the wild; and (2) a four-week component that was largely based at Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association. I completed this field course that summer and really enjoyed the experience at large. My biggest concern was being comfortable in the field and being able to keep up with my field partners. I trained regularly for a month in advance – cardio and weight training, which was certainly a little over the top. I had no trouble keeping up. I did not have the best field clothes due to not having money to purchase anything too expensive. This did not hinder me in the slightest. Since I went as a graduate student, my experience was a little different from those that attend as undergraduate students. I went in fully expecting full nights of rest and I worked hard so that I wouldn’t have to pull all nighters. I cannot function well on lack of sleep, let alone hike and map an area if I am exhausted. I made very conscious choices to be mindful of this. I still got my maps in on time and did very well in the course. My advice for folks heading to field camp would be to be confident in your abilities and know your weaknesses – you can’t be good at everything and it’s ok to lean on your field partner. Also, don’t forget to enjoy the experience. It’s a practical application of all of your knowledge up until that point. I had a lot of fun seeing structures and trying to infer them while drawing the maps. 

Maggie Limbeck, attended as a graduate student with the University of St. Andrews

My undergraduate institution (Allegheny College) did not require field camp for graduation because we were able to incorporate a lot of field trips/field work into our classes. All of my upper level courses either had weekend field trips around the area (Western Pennsylvania, Catskill Mountains in NY, West Virginia) or had multiple lab weeks that were designed around field work. We were also required to take a seminar course that had a week-long field trip to a further destination (my year went to Sapelo Island, GA), where we could really practice our geology skills as a capstone course. 

When I got to grad school, it was considered a deficiency that I had not been to field camp and I needed to go in order to graduate with my Master’s. I ended up going to Scotland for field camp and even though it was an international field camp it was priced similarly to attending one in the United States (read a previous post on Field Camp in Scotland). Because I was going to be doing field work in a chilly, wet climate I did spend a fair amount when purchasing a raincoat, rain pants, and boots to make certain I would stay dry and warm during long days in the rain. These purchases, while expensive, did keep me happy and dry as it rained for weeks while I was there! Going as a graduate student was an interesting experience because many of the other students bonded by staying up late working on their maps and/or going out to party – I on the other hand was working to make sure I could go to bed at a decent hour and be up early enough for breakfast and to make my lunch for the next day. Having an awareness of how you work best and function best is really beneficial because you are setting yourself up to be successful (and there are probably other students wanting to keep a similar schedule as you that you can work with!), but do make sure you do take advantage of some of these later nights, they are really help bond you to the other students and will make working with different groups of people a little easier. One other piece of advice: don’t be scared to speak to the instructor if you aren’t feeling well, are hurt, or need some adjustments made. We had a specific cooking group for those with dietary restrictions or preferences and those who were not feeling well for a day were given different activities to complete. It might be little things (in our case, my group hated the mustard that was being purchased for lunches!) but it’s important to talk to your instructor so you aren’t stuck in a situation that could potentially be dangerous for you!

Sarah Sheffield, attended as an undergraduate with Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute

I went to UNC Chapel Hill, which does require a field camp for their geosciences B.S., but did not offer one themselves. So I went to field camp at the Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute. I had to pay for out of state tuition for two credits (it was a two week program), which was expensive, but I gained a lot from the program. I flew to Montana and met the other participants, many of whom I still talk to a decade (!!!) later.  This field camp was unusual for a geoscience degree, in that there was no mapping or structural component. However, I did learn skills such as: locating potential fossil sites; jacketing vertebrate specimens; and vertebrate fossil identification, among other things. I enjoyed my time and highly recommend it if you have the opportunity! The major downside to field camp was cost: the tuition was difficult to cover, but it wasn’t the only consideration. I did not have access to good field gear, which meant that my time in the field was not as comfortable as it could have been (e.g., my shoes were not really appropriate for strenuous field work; good boots are arguably one of the most important pieces of gear for a field scientist!). See if you can find used, quality gear on sites like eBay, Craigslist, etc.-sometimes you can find gems for really reasonable prices! 

My M.S. institution did not originally count this field camp as a field credit, due to the lack of mapping and structural geology components. However, the department chose to waive the requirement in the end in order to not have a graduate student in their undergraduate field camp. My Ph.D. institution simply required that I do field work during my Ph.D., which I did in Sardinia, Italy during my second year there. I only mention this because my field camp at BBPI may not count at other institutions as a traditional field camp credit, so you’ll want to check with your institution.  

As a paleontologist, I find that I did not need a full field camp to become a successful geologist. My research takes place in both the field and in museums, with more of an emphasis on museums. As I write this, I have been unable to do field work for a few years due to a severe ankle injury, so I am grateful that the geosciences field is becoming more broad, so that more folks who may not be able to do field work for many reasons can do so! 

Kristina Barclay attended as an undergraduate with the University of Alberta

I took my undergraduate degree in Paleontology at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada). I was required to take 3 field classes (1st and 2nd year geology, 4th year paleontology), and another one of my classes included a field trip (4th year paleobotany). I also took an invertebrate zoology class at Bodega Marine Lab (UC Davis) as a grad student, but as I was already working/living at the lab, I didn’t have to spend any extra money (other than tuition), but other students had to pay for lodging/meals. The 1st and 2nd year geology field camps I took at the U of A were 2 – 3 weeks tours across Alberta and B.C., mostly consisting of mapping exercises in the Rocky Mountains. Our paleo field schools were within the city, so we could go home every day, which was nice after a day of digging in the snow/mud in April! For the 1st and 2nd year field schools, we stayed in hotels or cabins. At the time, a lot of the costs were funded by oil and gas companies, so there weren’t too many extra expenses incurred by the students (other than tuition). That said, field gear is expensive, and as a 1st year, buying expensive waterproof notebooks, rock hammers, hand lenses, sturdy hiking boots, and field clothes was a little hard on the budget! Although, many years later, I still own and use a lot of those things, so some were very useful investments if you’re going to continue to do field work.

One thing I’d say is that it’s not worth buying the really expensive field clothes or rain gear because one tumble on rocks or rogue branch, and they get shredded. Field gear doesn’t need to be pretty or brand-named – I buy $10 rain pants because I know I’ll destroy them anyway (and I’ve had one of those pairs last me 10 years). The other challenge was that I paired with two men for the trip (we were marked as groups and stayed in the same cabins). They were good friends of mine and I was fortunate enough to trust them, but as a smaller woman, keeping up with them and finding a private spot to “go” outside was a little bit of a challenge! Thankfully, there were usually spots with trees, but I’ve done a lot of fieldwork with men where there was no cover, so trust is key. I tend not to drink coffee when I’m in the field and just stick to water to minimize unnecessary trips to the bathroom. You don’t want to short-change yourself on water in the field, though, so just make sure you are open and honest with your group about your bathroom needs (menstruating folx, especially). Field camps can be tiring, cold, and a pile of work, but they are absolutely awesome experiences and a chance to visit some amazing, remote places. They also gave me the confidence and experience to be able to conduct and lead independent field work in grad school, which might not be necessary for everyone, but is an important part of my research. Make sure to take lots of pictures and notes (good note taking is so important) and enjoy the experience!

Sinjini Sinha, Paleontology Ph.D. Candidate

Sinjini ready to dissect an extant bony fish to study the anatomy of the fish at University of Alberta, Canada.

Hello! I am Sinjini, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to starting my doctoral studies, I pursued my bachelors and masters in Geology at the University of Delhi in India. Following that, I moved to the University of Southampton, UK to pursue a Master of Research in Vertebrate Paleontology and then joined the University of Alberta, Canada to study a M.Sc. in Systematics and Evolution. My previous research focused on the systematics and paleoecology of Late Cretaceous sharks from central India and southern England as well as on the diversity of Paleocene bony fishes from Canada.

What is your favorite part about being a paleontologist and how did you get interested in paleontology in general?
My favorite part of being a paleontologist is that it gives me the opportunity to dig up fossils in exotic locations- be it in the sandstones of Central India, in Western Canada or the chalk deposits of Southern England. I also enjoy sharing my scientific knowledge with non-scientists through Skype a Scientist sessions, in person outreach events, or simply by random conversations.

I always found it fascinating to know that fossils are remains of organisms that were alive several million years ago. During my undergraduate days at the University of Delhi in India, I used to enjoy my paleontology classes more than any other geology course and hence pursuing my dissertation in paleontology was an obvious choice for me. It was during my dissertation days, I realized how paleontology addresses critical questions about earth-life interactions in deep-time and that earth’s paleontological history archived in the deep-time rock record provides a major research opportunity to investigate the future of our planet. As my research progressed, I became sure that I want to pursue an academic career in paleontology and doing a Ph.D. is the next steppingstone towards fulfilling my career objectives.

What do you do? 
I study a moderate mass extinction event during the Early Jurassic (about 183 million years ago). During this period, there was a volcanic province eruption, which injected large volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As a result, there were significant perturbations in environmental conditions around the globe such as global warming, low oxygen levels, and acidification in some parts of the ocean. It is thought that these changes led to multiple (or multi-phased) biotic crises, but they may have also enhanced exceptional fossil preservation. Fossil deposits that contain both hard skeletal parts (such as bones) as well as soft tissues (e.g., ink sacs of coleoids) of organisms are considered as exceptional fossil deposits (or Konservat-Lagerstätten deposits). Though rare, such deposits provide uniquely comprehensive records of past life. These deposits contain a direct record of soft tissues of organisms not typically preserved in regular deposits Thus, the goal of my research is to address how these changing environmental conditions in the Early Jurassic affected the exceptional preservation, extinction, and recovery of organisms.

Sinjini measuring a Late Cretaceous shark tooth from the Chalk deposits of England.

What are your data and how do you obtain them?
Soft tissues of organisms get preserved under rare circumstances in which rapid soft tissue mineralization proceeds faster than soft tissue degradation along with other local (e.g., depositional environment, or climate), regional, or global (e.g., weathering, or bioturbation) phenomenon affecting their preservation. Sometimes, a combination of preservational pathways can lead to exceptional preservation. Thus, the mineralogy of a fossil specimen is the result of the preservational process it has undergone, especially since the preservation of soft tissues typically requires rapid growth of minerals in the original place. I use a Scanning Electron Microscope to get better images of the structures of the fossils and then use Energy Dispersive X-Ray Spectroscopy (EDS) to obtain the mineralogy of the fossils from the elements detected in the EDS.

For the extinctions and recovery aspect of the project, I will be studying the occurrences and abundances of the different groups of fossils across the extinction boundaries. This will help me investigate which organisms survived the extinctions and which organisms went extinct. The fossils will be collected through field work.

How does your research goals contribute to the understanding of evolution and paleontology in general?
Results from my project will provide information about preservational pathways of exceptional fossilization. Exceptional fossil deposits capture information about organism morphology, ecology, diversity, evolutionary relationships, and paleo community structure, hence more information about them is necessary for filling gaps in the paleontological record. In addition, it will provide data about the patterns of biotic change in tropical marine communities and how these communities recovered from significant global events like those we are facing now. Broadly, extinctions not rated as the biggest could shed light on the survival strategies of organisms, addressing concerns about the conservation of extant marine communities in our changing environment today.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
If you are passionate about paleontology, just go for it. I often hear from non-paleontology graduate students that they had to drop their idea of pursuing paleontology as a career because they thought there are no jobs available.

Sinjini is currently a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. To learn more about her and her research, check out her website and social media platforms below:

Paris Agreement 101

On February 19, 2021 the United States officially rejoined the Paris Agreement. This is an important shift in US climate policy so let’s go over what it means and what the Paris Agreement is! 

What is the Paris Agreement?

It is an international agreement to address climate change under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The stated goal is to keep the rise in global mean surface temperature to below 2℃ and ideally below 1.5℃. The agreement was adopted in 2015 at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC and agreed to by 196 countries.

What is the history of the Paris Agreement?

The formal history within the UN began in 1992 with the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UNFCCC has established the vague goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference’ (DAI) with the climate. Over the years there were many efforts that took place under the UNFCCC to achieve this, such as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol which called for binding emissions reductions for certain countries over a short time period. One of the main issues with trying to avoid DAI is that what defines danger has different meanings for different people in different places. This meant that finding a goal that diplomatic representatives from all involved countries could agree on was rather challenging. A long and meandering path led to the decision to adopt the 2℃ (and hopefully 1.5℃) temperature target, and eventually to the Paris Agreement.

The US involvement in the process that led to the Paris Agreement is very complex. As the world’s largest historic greenhouse gas emitter the US had a lot of power during negotiations. Any international action aimed at addressing climate change must have the involvement of large emitters in order to be successful, however large emitters became that way through reliance on fossil fuels— and relatedly slavery and colonialism— and thus have an interest in seeing the use of them as an energy source continue, despite the urgent need for production to decrease. US negotiators worked to ensure that rather than avoiding binding emissions reductions the agreement instead had self defined commitments, and also that it avoided requiring things like liability for loss and damage resulting from climate disasters.

How does it work?

The Paris Agreement does not require binding emissions reductions meaning that counties are not actually required to reduce emissions by a certain amount at a certain time, nor are they required to tie their plans to address climate change to their historic emissions. Rather countries are only bound to participate in the process outlined in the agreement. That process consists of several steps. First, countries each come up with their own individual plans, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for how they want to address climate change. These plans can be a combination of mitigation, adaptation, finance, and technology transfer. Then every 5 years they reassess and hopefully ramp up their action plans. Ideally each iteration brings them closer to net zero emissions by mid century (the term net here gives a ton of wiggle room for things like market mechanisms that may or may not actually lead to emissions reductions).

How is it working out?

To be honest, rather poorly so far. It has been five years since the Paris Agreement was ratified and during that time emissions, greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, and temperatures have continued to rise. While there was a slight decline in emissions in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Le Quéré et al 2020), that decline was not a result of countries taking action on climate change, but rather of the emergency lockdowns. The pledges countries have so far submitted would put us on track for around 3°C of warming by the end of the century. The annual COP meetings are where negotiations for Paris Agreement implementation happen, however the COP meeting that was supposed to take place at the end of 2020 was cancelled (youth held their own in its place). Countries were still required to submit updated NDCs by the end of 2020 and then negotiations will continue at COP26 in November.

What does the Paris Agreement say about climate justice?

To be honest with you, dear reader, this part irritates me. There is only one mention of climate justice in the Paris Agreement and it reads: “noting the importance for some of the concept of “climate justice”, when taking action to address climate change”. Climate justice is a term used to encapsulate the many ways that a changing climate is related to sociopolitical inequality across many scales- this can include the ways climate impacts disproportionately impact marginalized populations, the ways historic emitters have had an outsized contribution to creating the problem, and much more. In my opinion, and I am sure many of you would agree, justice is one of the most fundamental, if not the most fundamental, issue at play in the climate crisis. But it is only mentioned in passing here and as only being important “to some”. Many scholars have addressed shortcomings with the Agreement with respect to climate justice (I wrote a chapter of my own dissertation that will add to this body of knowledge), however despite its shortcomings and lack of robust consideration of justice the Agreement is currently the best hope we have for a coordinated international response. And we desperately need that. So this is where the general public can play a large role- we can advocate for policies in our countries and communities that will center justice as a way of bringing this concept to the forefront of the conversation.

What happens after the US rejoins?

The Biden administration will need to submit a new NDC with a renewed pledge. The pledge that was submitted under the Obama administration was considered ‘insufficient’. Then the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris Agreement (moving us into ‘critically insufficient’ territory) and worked to undermine climate action at every opportunity with numerous environmental policy rollbackss, deregulations, and anti-sciencee rhetoric. So Biden will need to submit something truly ambitious, and much stronger than what was done under the Obama administration. It will be important that they not only make an ambitious plan but that they show immediate progress towards justice centered emissions reductions. Their NDC will likely be based around Biden’s climate plan, which does look ambitious, and what they submit to the UNFCCC will need to be compatible with giving us the best possible chance of staying below 1.5℃ of warming in order to show that they are fully committed to justice and climate action. 

Rejoining the Paris Agreement is a necessary step for the US to get back on track with the international effort to address climate change. However we will need to watch closely over the next few months to see what the submitted NDC looks like and what concrete steps are being taken immediately to put those plans into action. 

For now, let’s celebrate this win and do all we can to ensure that this is successful!

Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R.B., Jones, M.W. et al. Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 647–653 (2020).

Will NASA’s Dragonfly Mission Encounter Dust Devils on Titan?

Dust Devils on Titan

Brian Jackson, Ralph D. Lorenz, Jason W. Barnes, and Michelle Szurgot

Summarized by Lisette Melendez

What data were used? In 2019, NASA announced a brand-new mission: Dragonfly. The objective? To visit Titan, the largest moon of Saturn and the only place in our universe (besides Earth) where distinct evidence of surface liquid has been discovered. Titan’s environment is very similar to that of very early Earth, with a nitrogen-rich atmosphere and volcanic activity. By studying Titan’s chemistry, scientists can discover more about the origin of life itself. It’s a very exciting mission, but it’s important for scientists to prepare for all the different obstacles the rotorcraft will encounter on Titan’s surface, including hazardous weather phenomena like dust devils.

An illustration of NASA’s Dragonfly rotorcraft-lander approaching the dunes on Saturn’s exotic moon: Titan. Credits: NASA/JHU-APL

We’ve learned more about weather patterns on Titan through NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn from 2004 to 2017. This study focuses on how dust storms are identified on other celestial bodies and what implications they hold for the Dragonfly mission. Cassini identified three regional dust storms within the equator near the “Shangri-La” dune fields that were chosen as Dragonfly’s landing spot. The study of these dust storms in Titan’s unique environment (with clouds and rain of methane!) can help us learn more about how they operate and life dust in the first place. This study also draws from observations by the Huygens probe for information on Titan’s temperatures and atmosphere.

Methods: In order to determine the weather conditions necessary for a dust storm on Titan, scientists need data on various atmospheric circumstances, such as temperature, elevation, and pressure. By analyzing the images and observations collected by Cassini and Huygens and combining these findings with data collected by observing dust devils here on Earth, scientists were able to model the surface conditions that were suitable for dust devil formation as well as the size of these storms. The study focused on dust devils on the equator because that’s where we have the most data available about Titan’s weather conditions.

An illustration of the Cassini-Huygens space-research mission, which was a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Italian Space Agency (ISA) to study Saturn and its many moons. Credit: NASA/JPL

Results: Many of the atmosphere conditions identified on Titan are favorable for the formation of dust devils. On Earth, dust devils are generally hindered by the presence of liquid because the increased particle cohesion (i.e., how sticky the particles are to one another) prevents wind from being able to lift the dust particles. Observations show that the equator of Titan is very arid and dry, with methane downpours only occurring in areas once every 10 Earth years. By looking at surface humidity levels measured by Huygens, it shows that the surface is too dry for even cloud formation. The abundance of dunes and dust storms provides further evidence that Titan has the ideal environment for dust devils.

An image of a dust devil in Kansas. Credit: The Thunderbolts Project

However, there are some surface conditions on Titan that may reduce the occurrence of dust devils, including the possibility of insufficient wind speeds. Additional work is required to model typical speeds on Titan’s surface.

Why is this study important? This study is important because it helps predict the occurrence of dust devils on Titan when Dragonfly is scheduled to arrive in 2034. This study outlines what remains unknown about the formation of dust devils and how Dragonfly presents the opportunity to study wind-related phenomena in a novel environment.

The big picture: After analyzing the environment on the surface of Titan based on the data currently available, it is concluded that the dust devils will most likely not pose a threat to the Dragonfly rovercraft (since they are too slow in the given conditions). Nevertheless, the mission can provide crucial insight to the creation of dust devils and how frequently they occur on other celestial bodies. Dragonfly provides us the opportunity to learn so much more about extraterrestrial worlds, and we’re all very excited for its departure!

Citation: Jackson, B., Lorenz, R. D., Barnes, J.W., & Szurgot, M. (2020). Dust devils on Titan. Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, 125, e2019JE006238.

Virtual Paleontology Outreach

Adriane here–

The past year has been extremely hard for all of us, and has really stifled our abilities to do the things we love most. For me, one activity that I love doing but haven’t been able to do is outreach with K–12 students and the public. However, that all changed last week when I received an email from a second-grade teacher at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in Manhattan, New York.

An example of some brachiopod and trilobite fossils that I showed the students. All of these fossils were also found in New York!

These second-graders were learning about fossils and paleontology, and the teacher was reaching out to ask if I would speak to the students. I was thrilled, and quickly agreed. The teacher and I chatted over the phone before the Zoom talk with the students to be certain we were on the same page about what the students had learned and some topics that would be interesting and fun to touch on. From this chat, I made a quick PowerPoint with some images of topics that we wanted to touch on for the students.

The day of the chat with the students, I gathered a bunch of tools that geologists and paleontologists use in the field and in the lab. These tools included rock hammers, chisels, picks, a Brunton compass (a special compass that geoscientists use in the field), and of course the tools I most commonly use for my research, paintbrushes and a microscope. I also gathered some of my flashier, attention-grabbing fossils to show the students, such as an ammonite cast, a modern coral, an ancient coral for comparison to the modern, and my Mammoth tooth. I also gathered some smaller fossils, like brachiopods, trilobites, and shark teeth, to showcase some other commonly found fossils in New York and along the eastern coast.

When I logged into the Zoom chat, the teachers and I chatted while the students filtered in. While waiting, the teacher played the song ‘I Am A Paleontologist‘ (seriously, if you haven’t heard this song yet, check it out!). Once we began the short introduction, there were over 100 students and teachers on the Zoom call! This was incredibly cool, to be able to reach so many students at once.

I began by just introducing myself and telling the students about different types of fossils that paleontologists work on, and showcasing some of the fossils I had with me. I then showed them 3D models of the plankton fossils I work with, and explained how we get these tiny fossils. I quickly went over scientific ocean drilling, showing the students pictures of the drillship JOIDES Resolution, and explaining simply how drilling at sea works. I also discussed what type of research I did and where, and what I had learned from this research.

Mary Anning’s Ichthyosaur fossil, which is now displayed at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Image from

For the second half of the presentation, we opened the Zoom room to the students for questions. All of the questions were very good and thoughtful, and fun to answer! The students asked such questions like ‘What is your favorite fossil?’, ‘How many fossils do I have?’ (a hard one to answer, considering I have hundreds of jars of sediment samples that each contain thousands of fossil!), and ‘Tell me about one of your friends you sailed with’ (in which I talked about my friends I sailed with on the JOIDES Resolution in 2017). Someone also asked about marine dinosaurs, so I mentioned Ichthyosaurs, which were marine reptiles. I also alluded that the first skeleton of this ancient animal was found by a woman in the 1800’s, who lived in Europe. It turns out that the students knew exactly who I was talking about: Mary Anning!

All in all, this chat with so many bright young students over Zoom was so uplifting and refreshing. The experience really highlighted that even in a pandemic, we can successfully conduct outreach, with a major plus being able to talk to so many students at one time!


The projected timing of abrupt ecological disruption from climate change

The projected timing of abrupt ecological disruption from climate change

Christopher H. Trisos, Cory Merow & Alex L. Pigot

Summarized by Shaina Sadai

What data were used? The data used is a combination of climate model output and ecological data for 30,652 marine and terrestrial species. For each species they determine the climate conditions and spatial extents that a species is known to have existed in throughout history. The climate model output that was used were temperature and precipitation data from 22 different models and 3 emissions scenarios (RCP2.6, 4.5, 8.5).

Methods: The authors created species assemblages contained in 100km^2 grid cells. Using these they generated ‘horizon profiles’ which give the percentage species within each assemblage that would experience climate conditions exceeding those of their historic limits at a given time. They cross referenced when each species would be living for more than 5 years straight in an area where the temperature exceeded the maximum temperature they have been known to exist at through their history in order to quantify when a species crossed their ecological limit. By repeating this method across the planet they were able to construct horizon profiles at many locations, including sensitive ecosystems such as the Amazon Basin and Gobi Desert.

Results: One of the most striking results is how abrupt impacts to biodiversity could be. The profiles show that an average of over 70% of species in a given assemblage were exposed to conditions exceeding their limits within a single decade, regardless of climate model of emissions scenario. This was in part due to the species within a region evolving for similar temperature ranges. The abruptness of when ecological limits were breached was even higher for marine ecosystems than terrestrial ones. Tropical species are particularly vulnerable to having a higher percentage of species exposed to dangerous temperatures by the end of the century because they already exist in places where they are close to their temperature limits. Polar species were also highly vulnerable due to the rapid rate of changes occurring in these regions.

Under higher emissions scenarios (RCP8.5) temperature thresholds are exceeded sooner with some occurring even before 2030. The most vulnerable regions were the Amazon, Indian subcontinent, and Indo-Pacific regions where by 2100 over 90% of species in any assemblage were exposed to temperatures over their limits. In contrast the low emissions scenario (RCP2.6) delays the point at which vulnerable species are at risk by 60 years. If warming by the end of the century is kept below 2C only 2% of species assemblages will be exposed to abrupt exposure events.

Why is this study important? This study was able to use a combination of data on species’ ecological limits and climate model data to give a robust picture of when and where species assemblages may cross safe limits. It shows the potential for abrupt loss, particularly of biodiverse ecosystems, and can help inform policy efforts and future research needed to assess risk.  If emissions are decreased and the rate of temperature increase is slower it gives species more time to adapt.

The big picture: We must prepare for significant impacts to ecosystems and biodiversity under a changing climate, and take steps to prevent serious ecological harm. Yet again we see that early mitigation is crucial to mitigate harm.

Trisos, C.H., Merow, C. & Pigot, A.L. The projected timing of abrupt ecological disruption from climate change. Nature 580, 496–501 (2020).

Meghan Cook, Geoscience Education Researcher

As far back as I can remember, I have yearned to be an educator. I have fond memories of running a classroom in my parents’ back yard and giving my friends smiley-face stickers on their “assignments”. At that time (I was only 5 or 6!), I was unsure of the discipline direction or at what educational level I would like to teach, but I knew I had a visceral draw to understand the natural world. I also knew when I got older I wanted to have a family, yet not until I had my first child during the beginning stages of my doctoral program did I realize how challenging earning an education while building a family would be. 

I began my Ph.D. program in Geology in 2011 as well as a part-time adjunct professor position. I progressed with my studies until early 2014 when I became pregnant with our first child. I took a two-year respite from my Ph.D. program, allowing me to refocus my drive for the degree, and to find a job that could help support my growing family. When my official leave of absence came to an end in 2016, I was reinvigorated, raising two children (I had another child during the 2-year respite), and more confident in my role as a geoscience educator. I have since had another child who is now 7 months old. I hope to be an example for future women scientists that you can have both worlds: a family and an education. I unfortunately did not have many role models of women professors with children and I can only hope that my situation and choices can prove that choosing to have children and be a highly educated woman is a valid life goal.  

My research focuses on the affective (i.e., emotional) response of undergraduate geoscience students to traditional, real-world and non-traditional, virtual reality (VR) field trips. I primarily use qualitative means, such as interviews, to collect data. I ask students about their perceptions and feelings to better understand what aspects of a field trip positively or negatively impact their affective domain. The overall goals of my research are threefold: (1) to add to the extant literature pertaining to geoscience education best practices; (2) to understand the ways in which geoscience educators can grow and nurture the undergraduate geoscience community via traditional and non-traditional field trips, and; (3) to understand “what works” in the recruitment and retention of students into the geosciences by understanding the motivations and decisions of undergraduate geoscience students surrounding field trip experiences. My research has direct applications for making geoscience accessible for disabled students and applications in increasing the ability for geoscience participation, as well as in applying new knowledge to introductory major and non-major geoscience undergraduate courses to better recruit and retain students into the geosciences.

How Eurypterids of the Finger Lakes, New York Lived and Died

Paleoecology and Taphonomy of Some Eurypterid-bearing Horizons in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State

Stephen M. Mayer

This news article was summarized by Alexander Favaro. Alexander Favaro is a first-generation student attending the University of South Florida, pursuing a B.S. in Geology. He hopes to follow his passion of being a paleobiologist. His interests have been broadly focused on paleoecology and understanding evolutionary trends. 

What data were used? The study used well-preserved fossils from the upper Silurian Fiddlers Green Formation in New York, the Lower Devonian Olney Member in Finger Lakes New York, Split Rock Quarry near Syracuse New York, and the Samuel J. Ciurca Eurypterid Collection at Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. These data were used to make interpretations of eurypterid lifestyles and processes of fossilization. 

Methods: Sedimentological variables and the body and trace fossils found within a rock unit were used to interpret the depositional environment (what type of environment the rocks were formed in) of a formation. Field collection was done at the Phelps Member and Cayuga Junction (which are located in the Fiddlers Green Formation), as well as Split Rock Quarry in Syracuse, New York. The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History was used to supplement eurypterid data through their collection. The position in which each eurypterid was found, as well as their size, was used to describe their age, ecology, and how they likely died.

Figure 1. Eurypterus remipes, which shows the U-shaped body posture. The metasoma (last 7-12 segments of the eurypterid) and telson (spine like protrusion at the end of the abdomen on the right of this image) were twisted 1260 in relation to the prosoma (head section) and mesosoma (first 1-6 segments of the eurypterid). This specimen was found in the Phelps Member, New York.

Results: Many eurypterid exuviae (shed exoskeleton) were found, while eurypterid bodies were less abundant. The most common eurypterid fossils found in Phelps were Eurypterus remipes. Cayuga Junction also possessed Eurypterus remipes but were far less common. At Split Rock Quarry, Erieopterus microphthalmus were found in localized calcareous (chalky limestone) bands. 

 The study found that between 61 carapaces, the average size of eurypterids in the Phelps Member fell between 15-25mm. The variations in size indicated that immature species and adults were living amongst each other. 

Since eurypterids were chelicerate arthropods (like arachnids, sea spiders, and horseshoe crabs), scientists have suggested that eurypterids would undergo a group spawning and then molt (shed their exoskeleton) together (similarly to a horseshoe crab). This would explain the high number of shed exuviae and variable size ranges found in the formations.

Fossil evidence indicated that eurypterid corpses were highly affected by currents, which would cause a variety of contortions in a carcass. The observed eurypterid corpse conditions were categorized as: a non-contorted corpse, an angular contortion up to 900, a U-shaped flexure of the body and tail (as seen in Figure 1), and a contortion where the body and tail flipped above or below the head (though this was rare). Aside from flexure of the body, some contortions were caused by sediment that anchored a section of the eurypterid while the un-covered portions moved freely due to current movement. Eurypterus remipes and Erieopterus microphthalmus both displayed similar contortions and so they were able to determine that the contortion patterns weren’t exclusive to one genus of eurypterid. 

Why is this study important? The study gave insight into the life and death of a once thriving taxon that has close relatives still alive today in the form of arachnids, sea spiders, and horseshoe crabs. Fossil evidence at Phelps suggested that eurypterids may have mass-molted, similarly to horseshoe crabs. The paleoecological evidence found gave a key insight into a behavior which has also been observed in modern, related organisms.

The big picture: The analysis performed on both trace fossils and carcasses gave both paleoecological and taphonomic (how an organism is fossilized after death) insight. Combined, taphonomy and paleoecology provides a more refined idea of how ancient organisms lived, died, and how their bodies would have been fossilized. 

Citation: Mayer, S. M. Paleoecology and Taphonomy of Some Eurypterid-Bearing Horizons in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State.

Organic carbon stored in Florida lakes

Organic carbon sequestration in sediments of subtropical Florida lakes

Matthew N. Waters, William F. Kenney, Mark Brenner, Benjamin C. Webster

Summarized by Mckenna Dyjak

What data were used? A broad range of Florida lakes were chosen based on size, nutrient concentrations (nitrogen and phosphorus), trophic state (amount of biologic activity that takes place), and location. The lakes were surveyed using soft sediment samples to identify the best drilling sites for sediment cores. After drilling, the cores were dated and the organic carbon (OC) content and burial rates were calculated. Organic carbon can be stored in sediments and buried, which temporarily removes it from the atmosphere.

Methods: The sediment cores were taken using a piston corer commonly used to retrieve soft sediments. Each core was dated using ²¹⁰Pb which is a common radioactive isotope found in lake environments and can be used to date sediments up to 100 years. Radioactive isotopes can be used to date rocks and sediments based on their natural decay rate (half-life). The organic carbon content of the cores was measured using a Carlo-Erba NA-1500 Elemental Analyzer which is an instrument that can determine the total carbon present in a sediment sample. To calculate the organic carbon deposition rates, the accumulation of sediment rates were multiplied by the proportion of OC found in the sediment. A recent increase of eutrophication (high amount of nutrients present in lakes) needed to be taken into account when calculating the OC deposition rate, so the sediments were divided into pre-1950 and post-1950 deposits to depict the change in industrial activity and agriculture. 

Results: The OC burial rate was highest in the shallower lakes and decreased as the depths increased (can be seen in Figure 1). This is different from the rates for temperate (mild temperatures) bodies of water, where OC burial rates decreased as the lakes got bigger. They found a 51% increase in OC burial rates in the post-1950 deposits which corresponds to the increase in eutrophication in the lakes.

Figure 1. Graph showing the correlation between depth and organic carbon (OC) burial rate. The OC burial rate increases as the depth decreases in meters.

Why is this study important? Cultural eutrophication is caused by an increase of nutrients in waterways such as phosphorus and nitrogen (commonly found in lawn fertilizers) which cause harmful algal blooms; these algal blooms remove oxygen from the water and can mess up the entire ecosystem. The lack of oxygen and harmful algal blooms can lead to habitat loss and loss of biodiversity. This study highlights the effects and severity of cultural eutrophication in Florida’s subtropical lakes.

The bigger picture: Managing carbon and removing it from the atmosphere (i.e., carbon sequestration) is an important aspect of climate mitigation. The carbon can be removed from the atmosphere and stored in places known as carbon sinks (natural environments that can absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere). This study shows that subtropical Florida lakes are effective carbon sinks for organic carbon that deserve to be protected from nutrient runoff that causes eutrophication.

Citation: Walters, M. N., Kenney, W. F., Brenner, M., and Webster, B. C. (2019). Organic carbon sequestration in sediments of subtropical Florida lakes. PLoS OnE 14(12), e0226273. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0226273

Whitney Lapic, Paleoecologist

Fig 1. This was from August 2019. I was on a research vessel off the coast of Florida, helping the EAT team collect specimens.

Some background information for you all– I am a second year Master’s student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I would consider myself an aspiring paleoecologist and paleobiologist. And my interests lie in paleoecology, specifically predator – prey interactions, as well as science communication.

We know that predation plays a role in influencing modern ecosystems and so my research explores the impact that predation had on shaping ecosystems through geologic time. I am specifically looking at echinoids and how sea urchins and sand dollars evolved after new groups of predators emerged during the Mesozoic Marine Revolution (MMR). This time in Earth’s history is known for rapid diversification and emergence of new groups of marine life – many of which can be found in our oceans today. With all of these new or bigger and better predators in the oceans, prey, such as sea urchins, need to develop ways that they can deter predators from successfully attacking and preying on them.

The project that I am working on is part of the Echinoid Associated Traces Project (EAT) which addresses a wide range of paleoecological questions using biotic interactions and echinoids. My project investigates whether or not trends that can be seen in mollusks and their predators during the MMR can be seen in other groups of organisms. Recent studies suggest that the MMR was not this singular, homogenous event that it has previously thought to have been and so, we are looking at the timing of these potential escalatory trends in echinoids relative to other groups of organisms in which these trends have been so thoroughly demonstrated.

Fig 2. This is Encope, a live sand dollar that was collected off the coast of Florida.
Fig 3. In fall of 2019, I travelled to Moscow, Russia for the European Conference on Echinoderms. I attended a field trip and had the opportunity to look for sea urchin fossils.

When you think of sea urchins, you might think of long, sharp spines covering the entire organism, but that isn’t always the case. To determine if sea urchins developed traits to deter predators, we first need to find out what helps them avoid becoming prey. Over the past year, I have been identifying characteristics that we propose serve some form of antipredatory function. These morphologies include long and wide spines as well as spines that have unique shapes or sharp thorns covering them. These morphologies can actively deter predators by inflicting damage or they can promote the settlement of encrusting organisms that may provide camouflage. With the help of our undergraduate interns, I have been collecting data on these antipredatory morphologies across groups of echinoids.

Collecting data from so many specimens is no easy feat during a global pandemic. Thankfully, recent years have given rise to online databases and collections such as IDigBio. While it is no replacement for traveling to a museum to search for specimens, using images downloaded from IDigBio, our interns and I can still view hundreds of specimens from museums around the world. Through these virtual collections, we can digitally measure and categorize specimens and their antipredatory morphologies.

As an undergraduate student, I was unaware of some of these resources that were available to me, and so I feel as if they are perhaps unknown to undergraduate students who may be unable to work hands on with museum specimens for any number of reasons. With the current pandemic, the need for digital collections and databases is that much clearer. I am incredibly lucky that I am still able to continue my research and that my project may provide internship opportunities for the undergraduates involved, and much of that is due to the digitalization of museum collections.

Fig 4. Goniocidaris tenuispina (USNM E0001335), a sea urchin with highly ornate and long spines. This specific specimen is one of hundreds observed from collections that have been digitalized and made available through IDigBio. This image is from the Smithsonian and is from the NMNH Extant Specimen Records. There is a Creative Commons license (CC0) associated with it, so it is not subject to copyright.