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Volcanoes of the Eastern Sierra Nevada:
Geology and Natural History of the Long Valley Caldera
Indiana University Earth & Atmospheric Sciences G188
Collins Living-Learning Center L130
(Approved for N&M science and Honors credit)
Volcanoes of the Eastern Sierra Nevada:
Geology and Natural History of the Long Valley Caldera

Michael Hamburger
Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences

First Summer Session, 2019

Goals:  This course is a two-week long field-oriented short course that will introduce a group of 14 to 18 undergraduate students to the geology and natural history of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountain chain of eastern California. The course will focus on the geological processes and natural history of one of the most geologically and biologically dynamic parts of the continent, as well as the natural hazards and environmental issues facing a unique and environmentally sensitive area of the western U.S. The students will be asked to address the following types of questions:
  • What kinds of observational information can be used to understand the evolution of a mountain belt? How do scientists gather such information in the field? How do laboratory or computer analyses contribute to these studies?
  • How have global and regional processes (i.e., plate tectonics) contributed to the evolutionary history of western North America?
  • How do geologic processes (volcanism, river erosion, glaciation) contribute to evolution of landscape?
  • What is the interaction between abiotic (geologic, climatic) processes and the evolution of ecosystems in the Sierra Nevada?
  • How has human use of the landscape been affected by geological processes?
  • What are the natural hazards associated with an active volcanic belt? How can these hazards be mitigated?
  • What are current environmental issues (land-use, energy policy, environmental remediation) specific to the region and how do they relate to geological processes?
Faculty.  The course will be taught by Michael Hamburger, Professor of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, along with two Associate Instructors from the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences. Hamburger is an expert on earthquakes, volcanoes, and plate boundary processes. He has conducted field investigations in central Asia, the southwest Pacific, and active volcanoes in the Philippines. At IU, he teaches the popular intro course "Earthquakes and Volcanoes". The class includes significant contributions from a number of other specialists from Indiana University, the National Park Service, the University of California, Santa Barbara, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the U.S. Forest Service.

Course Plan.  The three-credit course will include as a prerequisite an intensive seminar session (held in Bloomington during the spring semester as Geol. Sci. G190 (1 cr) and Collins L100 (1 cr)) to introduce students to critical scientific and societal issues, followed by a 15-day field trip to the Sierra Nevada in mid-May. Grading will be based on readings and discussion during the spring semester seminar sessions, followed by guided journal writing during the field excursion and a written research project following the field trip. Preliminary syllabi for the study week and field course are appended below.

The field area.  The Sierra Nevada mountain chain spans much of the length of California and marks a major physiographic boundary between the Central Valley of California and the Basin and Range province of Nevada and Utah. The mountain belt is marked by a chain of recently active volcanoes, including the site of one of the great geological cataclysms on our planet-the eruption of the Bishop Tuff and the collapse of Long Valley caldera. The site is recognized as a 'type area' for studying volcanic phenomena, with world-class exposures of an extraordinary variety of glacial, volcanic, and structural assemblages and landforms. Unique ecosystems (alpine meadows and forests, high deserts, alkaline lakes) and cultural heritage (indigenous peoples history, early mining and exploration history) and complex environmental issues (development issues, water use, environmental contamination) offer a wonderfully rich mixture of possible learning experiences.

Logistics.  All of the important volcanic systems are located on public lands. Information resource centers, logistical support, and accessibility are all excellent. Accommodations and meals have been arranged at the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory (SNARL), located within the Long Valley caldera. Because much of the viewing and quality of the experience is weather dependent, this trip is designed to be modular, taking advantage of the clear weather and geography to see and feel the earth and ecosystems when the weather is best. For instance, the Yosemite excursion could take place at either the beginning or the end of the trip. Below is a tentative schedule for the two-week field course that can be adjusted as field conditions require.

Final Project.  The final project will consist of a group-developed web site covering a range of topics related to our field study of the Sierra Nevada. Each student's contribution should be equivalent to a 10-15 page research paper, and should cover some topic related to geological, biological, cultural, historical, or political aspects of the study area. The paper must be based on original research sources. Final projects are due at the end of the first summer session, June 17.

Readings.  The readings for the course will come from a variety of source materials, including geological textbooks, field guides, technical articles, and materials from the popular press. Possible sources include:
     Skinner & Porter, The Dynamic Earth (Wiley, 1995)
     Decker & Decker, Volcanoes, 3rd Ed. (Freeman, 1997)
     Hill, Geology of the Sierra Nevada (Univ. California Press, 1975)
     Smith, Natural History of the Eastern Sierra Nevada (Univ. California Press, 2000)
     Moore, Exploring the Highest Sierra (Stanford Univ. Press, 2000)
     Sieh & LeVay, The Earth in Turmoil: Earthquakes, Volcanoes, and their Impact on
        Humankind (Freeman, 1998).
     plus assorted journal articles

Class meetings:
     1.5 hour per week lecture/discussion during the second half of the spring semester
     background readings

Tentative Schedule for Spring Semester Session

Week 1: Plate Tectonics and the Evolution of the Continents
Lecture: Global Geology and the Plate Tectonic Revolution
Readings: Uyeda, Chaps. 1-5; Skinner & Porter, Chap. 16
Lab session: Computer program: TASA-Plate Tectonics
Wax tank experiment: A laboratory analog to plate tectonics
Week 2: Volcanic Processes
Lecture: The origin of magmas
Readings: Decker & Decker, Chapter 5, 6, 12, Skinner & Porter, Chap. 3
Video session/discussion: "Volcano!" (National Geographic Special)
Lab session: magma viscosity and the nature of volcanic eruptions
Week 3: Structural Geology and the Evolution of the Western U.S.
Lecture: Folding, Faulting, and the Structure of Mountain Belts
Readings: Skinner & Porter, Chap 14, 15
Lab: Topographic and Geological Maps
Week 4: Volcanic Rocks & Minerals
Lecture: Crystallization and the Evolution of Magmas
Readings: Decker & Decker, Chapter 5, 6, 12, Skinner & Porter, Chap. 2
Week 5: Evolution of Landforms: Water, Ice, and Wind
Lecture: Rivers, glaciers, and the evolution of the Sierra Nevada
Readings: Skinner & Porter, Chap. 9, 11, 12.
Week 6: Relation between Geologic and Biotic processes
Lecture: Alpine & Desert Ecology
Readings: TBA
Week 7: Cultural and Environmental Issues
Lecture: The History of Water Use in the western U.S.
Readings: Cadillac Desert
Video session: PBS Documentary on Mono Basin

Tentative Schedule for Field Session
Day 1
(May 9)
Arrival. Group flies into Las Vegas, arriving late morning.
Route: T.B.A.

Pick up vans, drive to Death Valley. Introduction to the Basin & Range Province. Overview of Death Valley from Dante's View. Discussion of borax mineralization and mining industry. Proceed to Badwater Salt Pan, Devil's Golf Course, and Furnace Creek. Introduction to desert geomorphology and desert ecosystems.

Night at Furnace Creek Resort, Death Valley

Day 2
(May 10)
Exploration of Death Valley region. Hike to the Stovepipe Wells sand dunes, traverse the Panamint Range, observe and discuss Precambrian through middle Paleozoic strata and structural processes. Proceed up Owens Valley; observe Mt. Whitney and discuss tectonic deformation and structural geologic processes. Hike above Lone Pine and observe earthquake-related structures. Drive to White Mountain research labs by nightfall.

Night at White Mountain Research Station

Day 3
(May 11)
Hike to White Mountain preserve. Observe 5,000 year old bristlecone pines. Discuss dendrochronology, corrections to radiometric age dating, alpine ecology (with Connie Millar, US Forest Service). Hike to fossil collecting locality for Cambrian-aged archeocyathid fossils. Observe folding of Paleozoic strata, discuss geometry of folds and tectonic causes.

Night at White Mountain Research Station

Day 4
(May 12)
Overview of Long Valley region. Overview of Long Valley region. Begin with examination of distal airfall deposits near Bishop, followed by traverse up Owens River Valley for examination of exposure of Bishop Tuff. Continue north to Lookout Mountain for a panoramic view of Long Valley caldera. Drive to SNARL laboratories, where we will stay for the remainder of the trip.

Day 5
(May 13)
Morning meeting with SNARL director, Dan Dawson. Drive to Glass Creek and Obsidian domes to explore rhyolitic lava domes and associated structures. Explore effects of volcanic eruptions on vegetation (with Connie Millar, US Forest Service). Afternoon hike into Inyo Crater Lakes phreatic explosion craters; discussion of explosive volcanism, geological dating of recent eruptions.

Day 6
(May 14)
Introduction to seismic and volcanic hazards at Long Valley. Visit to Long Valley Observatory to learn about seismic and volcanic monitoring at Long Valley. Gondola ride & panoramic view from Mammoth Mountain. Discussion of regional geology and glacial and fluvial erosion of Sierra Nevada. Hike to south summit for view of tree kills in Horseshoe Lake area; discussion of possible relation to magmatic activity in caldera. Evening session at US Geological Survey's laser observatory; explore geophysical monitoring of volcanic activity at Long Valley.

Day 7
(May 15)
Hike up McGee Creek to observe glacial and structural features south of Long Valley. Observe Quaternary glacial moraines cut by Hilton Creek normal fault. Discuss geological dating by cross-cutting relations. Afternoon: participate in geophysical experiment at Long Valley.

Day 8
(May 16)
Exploration of rhyolitic domes and explosion structures at Panum Crater. Discussion of volcanic rock types and history of recent volcanic eruptions. Proceed to Black Point for view of basaltic cinder cone; hike up to summit for view of submarine eruptive strata and post-volcanic fissures. Overview of Mono Basin.

Day 9
(May 17)
Recreation day.
Options: skiing at Mammoth Mountain; cross-country skiing near Tioga Pass; canoeing at Mono Lake, kayaking at Mono Lake.

Day 10
(May 18)
Study of hydrothermal systems in Long Valley. Introduction to stream chemistry and hydrology. Geochemical sampling and discussion of groundwater chemistry and physics. Discussion of water quality and environmental impact. Afternoon visit to kaolin mine and gold ore deposit to discuss hydrothermal mineral alteration and relation to economic mineral exploration. Hike to Hot Creek, sample geothermal waters!

Day 11
(May 19)
Drive across Tioga Pass to Yosemite Valley. Discussion of geological and glacial features. Evolution of the Sierra Nevada Batholith. Discussion of Alpine Ecology.

Day 12
(May 20)
Study of Mono Lake. Tour of the South Tufa Area by Mono Lake Tufa State Reserve ranger, Dave Marquart. Discussion of Lake Chemistry, limnology. Discussion of water policy with representatives from Mono Lake Committee and Los Angeles Division of Water and Power.

Day 13
(May 21)
Tour of geothermal energy plant in morning. Tour of geothermal energy plant in morning. Drive to Bodie Hills. Explore geological setting and history of mining in Sierra Nevada. Explore abandoned mining village of Bodie (with State Park Service ranger). Return to Mammoth in afternoon.

Day 14
(May 22)
Exploration of Eastern margin of Sierra Nevada. Drive up Lundy Canyon, hike up canyon. Observation of glacial and structural features. Afternoon barbeque. Clean up and packing for return trip to Bloomington.

Day 15
(May 23)
Final clean up. Drive to Las Vegas, depart by air.
Route: T.B.A.

Note: Much of the class is conducted on federal lands, including land maintained by the US Forest Service. Indiana University operates under permit on the Inyo National Forest. A statement on USFS Non-discrimination policy is appended here.
"Mount Whitney Massif" Courtesy of Sam Roberts Photography