Sea caves and wild cliffs at the Crozon peninsula

After the Cote de Granit Rose, Heather and I drove about as far west as you can get in France – to the Crozon Peninsula. We settled in at a sailing club hostel in little fishing port of Camaret-sur-Mer and then hiked out to the cliffs at the Pointe de Pen Hir to enjoy the French tradition of apero (pre-dinner wine and snacks). We held on tightly to our packets of cheese crackers – 70 meters would be a long way to drop them off of these cliffs.




The cream-colored cliffs turned golden as the sun set and I was intensely curious about them. The coast and  sea stacks were made of pale layers that were tilted about 60 degrees from horizontal towards the east and eroded in jagged shapes. Luckily, we ran into a sign for the Regional Nature Reserve with an a few answers. These cliffs are made of the Armorican Sandstone, dated at 475 millions years old. The rock is tough, but not strong enough to resist the waves entirely. The southernmost part of the cliff has been broken up into a series of six sea stacks called the “Tas de Pois”, or “Pile of Peas”.


These tilted layers are a thing of beauty! You can see here how the purer sandstones form ridges (center right) separated by the weaker and more eroded shale layers (center). This photo was taken looking south.

The Armorican Sandstone is at the bottom of a thick stack of tilted sedimentary rocks, and we met more of them as we hiked east along the southern side of the peninsula. The rest of this stratigraphic sequence forms the Veryac’h Cliffs, which have been designated a national geologic heritage site.


A beautiful view, and a sign that was both helpful and disappointing. It had little icons forbidding both rock hammers and sample collection on the beach!

In previous posts about the region, I’ve brought up the two mountain-building events that created metamorphic and igneous rocks in northern France. The Cadomian orogeny 750 to 540 million years ago created the metamorphic and igneous rocks near Mont Saint-Michel, and the Variscan Orogeny 360 to 300 million years ago left its mark in the granites at the Cote de Granit Rose. What I haven’t covered yet on this blog is the time that elapsed between those two continental collisions. The Armorican sandstone and the rocks of the Verac’h Cliffs were deposited in a sedimentary basin that opened up between 500 and 360 millions years ago, as the result of tectonic extension in between those two mountain-building events. Sediments eroded from the nearby Cadomian mountains and were deposited in the extensional basin. The Variscan orogeny then squeezed these horizontal layers into folds – that’s how these layers ended up tilted on their side.

French geologists are immensely proud of this 1000 meter stretch of cliffs because they represent an unbroken 50 million year record! Unbroken is the key word here. It’s rare to find an area were sediment has been laid down continuously, without the sea level changing and eroding away layers to create an unconformity. The Veryac’h cliffs hold an encyclopedia of fossils and information about the environment from the Orovician, Silurian, and Devonian eras.

I didn’t get to explore them on the ground, though. Heather’s tolerance for staring at rocks has some limits. There are some great field guides online if you read French…

If you feel like diving into a full literature review in academic French, Vidal et al. published an exhaustive geologic history of the Crozon Peninsula in 2010. It’s in French again, but has excellent figures. I’ve modified and translated one of them in the figure below (it’s large, sorry, you may need to click on it to see it full-size and read the text):


Crozon peninsula geology translated

It’s a great mess of a geologic map, isn’t it? The rocks were deposited in a stratigraphic sequence that was orderly enough, but in the millions of years since then they’ve been folded, broken, and shuffled around.

Imagine stacking a dozen or so carpets on top of each other. Next, recruit a few friends to shove the carpet stack from each side until it’s a rumpled mess of folds. Once you’ve done that, attack the top of the pile with a chainsaw to level it out but remove the cut-off bits as you do this. Shove the pile around a bit more for good measure and make more passes with the chainsaw, and you’ve got a representation of what happen in this corner of Brittany during the Variscan mountain building event when the ancient continent of Avalonia ran into Gondwana.

deposition folding faulting

Extremely simplified sketch of the metaphor above… figure drawn by author.


The rocks near Morgat on the western side of the Cap de la Chevre where we kayaked are also tilted layers of the Armorican Sandstone, but tilted to the opposite direction. The beds also strike roughly northeast-southwest but dip steeply to the northwest. I didn’t find a direct reference to this in my sources. One likely explanation is that the two outcrops of the Armorican sandstone are two limbs of a syncline ( U-shaped fold) that were broken apart in the chaotic faulting in the region during the Variscan orogeny.

Photos above: looking at the Armorican sandstone in the Cap de la Chevre from the south (left) and from the north (right).

Variations in the hardness in the sequential layers of sandstone are more or less resistant to the waves, which creates the wonderful arches and caves that we explored in our kayaks.

Image result for formation of sea stacks

Illustration of sea cave and sea stack formation, from The British Geographer

Next up on the blog: the creepy catacombs and ancient mines beneath Paris!


Click to access Saga_312_Crozon.pdf

portal for geologic maps of Brittany from the BRGM:,147.html

Vidal, Muriel & Dabard, Marie Pierre & Gourvennec, R. & Hérissé, Alain & Loi, Alfredo & Paris, Florentin & Plusquellec, Y. & Racheboeuf, P.R.. (2011). The Paleozoic formations from the Crozon Peninsula (Brittany, France). Geologie de la France. 3-45.

Smoked in at Crater Lake

My sister is so patient with me and my geologic pilgrimages. She spent two days in 2014 tolerating me taking selfies with every geologic contact I saw in the Grand Canyon. Last summer, the two of us hopped in the car and drove south through the wildfire smoke to another one of my bucket-list stops: Crater Lake.


I knew it was the deepest lake in the USA, but nothing really prepared me for the size of the view when we arrived at the rim of the caldera! The ferry to Wizard Island looked absurdly tiny as it cruised past, 800 ft below our feet. The lake itself covers 20 square miles – it’s large enough to swallow the entire town I’m living in.

crater lake scale2

Heather sat on a bench and befriended the ground squirrels while I spent some quality time in the geology museum carved into the side of the caldera to get my bearings.

Crater Lake was a very different landmark 7,700 years ago: it was a 12,000 foot volcano that we retroactively refer to as Mt. Mazama. Around 7,700 years ago it catastrophically blew its top, spewing 12 cubic miles of magma into the atmosphere. That’s enough ash to cover the entire state of Oregon in a layer 8 inches deep if it had settled perfectly.

crate rlake eruption volume

Once the explosive eruption had come to a close, the rim of Crater Lake stood only 8,200 feet at its highest.

The upside of that massive evisceration of the volcano, besides scenic views, is that it gives us an opportunity to see the old plumbing of Mt. Mazama up close and personal!

devil's backbone plumbing

crater lake llao rock

When we hiked up to Garfield peak, we traversed jumbled cross-sections of Mt. Mazama’s ancient eruptions.


In some places there are very obvious sloping structures where lava flowed down Mt. Mazama’s flanks (below), while other parts of the slopes are messes of lighter-colored welded ash and pumice (above).


We had fun taking perspective shots with the Phantom Ship landmark, which is the scant remnant of a fissure that was filled with lava and cooled into a more resistant fin.

Crater Lake is one of the best-appreciated geologic sites in the nation; it’s a centerpiece of scores of books and papers. Nothing I could write in this blog would come close to doing justice to all that, so I’ll keep it short! Here are some of the more noteworthy online resources I found to learn more about the park’s geology:

Ian Madin wrote a great blog post on cycling around Crater Lake at Cycle Oregon, and it includes GIS reconstructions of Mt. Mazama as well as detailed descriptions of the eruption.

The USGS created a beautiful and informative poster using the LIDAR data (super-detailed laser-measured elevation) for the park, with extensive landscape notes. Click on the link in the previous sentence to get the full-sized poster.

usgs crater lake lidar

As soon as we finished the hike up Garfield Peak the wind’s direction changed. During the day the wind blew fresh air from the west, but in the evening the wind shifted to usher in the wildfire smoke from the huge fires in northern California and southern Oregon. Wide vistas were replaced with a blanket of smoke so think that I couldn’t see my car from across the parking lot. Everything besides the road might as well not have existed as we drove cautiously northwest out of the park to head back to Corvallis.


Heather, Jo the Adventure Civic, and what would be Diamond Peak if it wasn’t shrouded in smoke.

The smoke mostly cleared by the time we reached Diamond Lake. Heather and I really wished we could blow off her flight back to the east coast to spend a few days camping here! It’s always hard dropping her off at the airport. Separating was made a bit easier when a few weeks later we got news that the whole family would be going to a reunion in Europe the next summer.  The two of us started plotting new adventures in France and Ireland!



Goodbye, OSU! It’s been great!


My thesis advisor, Dr. Michael E. Campana, and I both braved the heat and walked at graduation. He was there to hood his PhD student Dr. Maria Gibson, who did fascinating work on aquifer storage and recovery in the Yakima Basin.

I made it! On June 5th I defended my thesis, Evaluation of Compartmentalized Aquifers in the Walla Walla Subbasin of Oregon Using Isotopic and Geochemical Tracers, and on June 15 I walked across the stage in Oregon State’s 150th graduation ceremony to get my M.S. in Geography.  The past year has been a whirlwind of fieldwork, coursework, teaching, writing my thesis, and jumping through all the administrative hoops to get a diploma. While much of my free time this summer will be spoken for as I try to find a groundwater resource management job here in the PNW, I’ll also be finally writing for the blog again! Keep an eye out for:

  1. Crater Lake adventures…. from last summer. Better late than never, right?
  2. More skiing thoughts – why are Mt. Hoodoo, Haystack Butte, and Mt. Washington so close together but such different shapes?
  3. Looking to the future – This year’s Twin Trek will be in France! Heather and I are going to travel around her old haunts in Britanny and Normandy, and she has promised me adventures involving pink granite cliffs and chocolate croissants.


I added glitter to my mortarboard so my folks could find me among the 4,200 graduates. It worked pretty well!


Forget rising tides, what about a rising coast? Uplift at Cape Arago

So in my last post I showed off some pretty pictures from Shore Acres State Park… that raise questions.

What’s with the rock blobs?


Why are the cliffs tilted?


And further south, why are all the sea stacks about the same height, and the same height as the mainland?


Unfortunately those blobs are not about to hatch some rock-type Pokemon. They have something much less exotic at their center – small irregularities like pebbles or shell fragments. As groundwater slowly flowed though the sandstone it preferentially deposited minerals on larger particles, creating a snowball effect around imperfections in the otherwise relatively homogeneous rock. This extra “cement” makes those areas harder and more resistant to erosion than the surrounding rock.

The tilting rocks are a reminder of the pressure that the coastline has been under over the millennia – it’s the western edge of north-south trending downward fold, or syncline, that includes all of Cape Arago.

miller 2014 cape arago adjusted

Pressure from the colliding Juan de Fuca and North American plates farther offshore has made the coast buckle and rise over the millennia. Over time the waves wear a flat platform in the rocks, only to have that platform eventually raised out of their reach. There are five different such platforms visible in the Cape Arago area which have been uplifted at a rate of about 3 feet per thousand years.

The lowest visible terrace in the area, called the Whiskey Run Terrace (Q1 in the diagram above), rose from the sea about 80,00 years ago. Although its top might have been elevated above the waves they continued to erode its sides, eventually breaking much of it down into individual sea stacks. Similar terraces and the same wave action occur all along the Oregon coast, creating families of sea stacks with matching elevations.

The uplift isn’t a completely steady process – when the North American plate jolts forward and releases the tension with the subjecting Juan de Fuca plate the coast can plummet a few feet in elevation. However based on the syncline and pattern of older terraces at higher elevations, it seems like upward motion has won the long game.

Image result for oregon coast elevation cascadia quake

Image from Leonard et al. 2004, showing subsidence after quake

I missed an amazing photo op at Sunset Cove near Shore Acres State Park. Apparently at low tide you can see the stumps of trees that were submerged during the Cascadia mega-quake in 1700. I’ll just have to visit again to meet them in person…. not a hardship at all!


Miller, Marli B. Roadside Geology of Oregon. 2nd ed., Mountain Press Publishing Company, 2014.

Lucinda J. Leonard, Roy D. Hyndman, Stephane Mazzotti; Coseismic subsidence in the 1700 great Cascadia earthquake: Coastal estimates versus elastic dislocation models. GSA Bulletin ; 116 (5-6): 655–670. doi:


Grad School Gets Real: Thesis Field Work Part 1

You never know where a conversation will take you. This one started with a conversation about the best puffy jackets at a conference, and ended with me perched on a tailgate wrestling with pipe fittings in an apple orchard.

Placemark 26

So even I, an avowed introvert, have to give small talk some credit. This summer I’m working with the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) evaluating the chemistry of groundwater in the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Basin! It’s a win-win scenario: they get a low-cost field technician, and I get to use the data we’re collecting to support my thesis looking at the spatial distribution of the water chemistry. I’m really excited to learn more about how the state manages these resources, and am grateful for access through them to the ability to sample from both public and private wells during their routine visits.

To learn more about what this research entails, check out the link below, and then come back to this page to read more about the field work that will make it possible.

 (down for maintenance, sorry) Click here to go to the “story map” website I created to introduce my research

In short: agriculture in the Walla Walla Sub-Basin of Oregon (WWSB) depends heavily on groundwater from the deep layers of basalt. Those groundwater levels are declining and the OWRD is trying to figure out how the aquifers work and what would be the fairest way limit use to more sustainable levels. My research focuses on a spatial approach to this problem: how does groundwater interact with the faults in the basalt, based on chemical, geologic, and hydrometric data? Should the faults be taken into account when allocating water rights?

This project is spearheaded by Jen Woody, a hydrogeologist at the OWRD, and she and I are also collaborating with the US Geological Survey to build on their studies in the region and laboratory capabilities. In return for the ability to put our results in their databases, the USGS is giving the OWRD team technical support, the use of their sample bottles, prep lab access, and assorted sampling gear. With training complete and the gear piled into the back of a pickup truck, Jen and I spent the past week based out of Milton-Freewater. It’s also known as “Muddy Frog-Water” (don’t ask me why…) and grew along with its wheat fields and apple orchards on the banks of the Walla Walla River.



I love this statue welcoming travelers into central Milton-Freewater. It’s the winner of the yearly “chainsaw frog sculpting” contest!

A day of sampling started a 7:30, when Jen went into the Safeway to get a couple bags of ice for the coolers and I set up shop on the tailgate calibrating the pH, conductivity, and temperature meter in brightly colored solutions. We then hit the road and headed out to the first well of the day.

We had picked out wells to sample ahead of time based on geology, GPS well locations, and well log characteristics, but those plans had to be flexible. Things that look so simple in ArcGIS are always more complicated in reality. Access to wells depended on who Jen had been able to get in touch with, whether the farmers were pumping that day, and whether there were sample ports on the well. Wells in the basalt aquifer here are deep – most are between 600 and 1000 feet – and the huge turbine pumps that access that water can cost up to $10,000 per month to run. They’re not something that we could turn on casually to get samples!

Placemark 44 (1)

One of the many wells to sample

After we beat back the tumbleweeds, found an outlet on the well, and ‘MacGyver’ed some combination of hardware to linked that outlet with our sampling pressure fitting, it was time for science. At each well we took measurements for pH, conductivity, and temperature, and filled bottles with water to analyze for alkalinity, ions, oxygen and hydrogen isotopes, tritium, and carbon 14. Those bottles then got safely stowed in coolers until we drove them to the USGS lab on Friday. If you skipped the story map link, the images below outline what we’re sampling and why.

parameters 2

parameters 1

Our record was five wells and a surface water sample in one day. We had a break before a 5pm appointment at a well that day, so we just had to drive out of the blazing hot valley and up the canyon to a cool and shady park to take another isotope sample from the river… life is tough.

South Fork Walla Walla river

Finding the secondary well outlet sounds easy in theory… and then we ran into these mazes of pipes.

In addition to collecting samples it was also great getting to talk with the farmers who were giving us access to their wells. We even got a tour of an antique saddle restoration studio from one of them.

It rained on Thursday, which brought the temperature down nicely but meant that pumps weren’t running. No irrigation meant no sampling, so Jen and I took a geology break up in the hills above Walla Walla to admire outcrops of the basalt that also form the aquifers deep below the valley.


The goal of our sampling is to evaluate how the faults in the region affect groundwater flow, so it was great seeing examples up here in the hills. Faults were visible as breaks in the horizontal structure of the cooled lava flows, but their size varied widely. Some faults looked simply like the rock had been cut and one side moved, while others took the form of 50 meter wide zone of pulverized rock! This was definitely food for thought when considering the faults on the map. I’ll have to do more research to see whether the ones I’m studying are of the 5 inch or 50 yard variety.


This is a fault outcrop to the left of the road, believe it or not…



An incredibly scenic lunch break beside the Hight Fault Zone in the Blue Mountains

At the end of the day we retreated to the air conditioning and giant plates of food at La Ramada, which along with the Dairy Queen and El Sombrero represented the sum total of dining options of Milton-Freewater. The Hank FM country station was kind enough to info us that the local cider brewery, Blue Mountain Cider, had a tap room open on Thursdays. It was a treat to finally taste the apples we had been working among all week, especially in liquid form after a hot day.

We got a total of 12 wells sampled last week. Jen and I are heading back out later this month to try to knock out the next 9 samples and to see if there are any additional wells where we can just take samples for oxygen and hydrogen isotopes. Additionally, we’re doing the OWRD’s quarterly check of water level recording equipment in wells around the area. Stay tuned for Part 2!



Applying to graduate school with Courtney and Beaker


If personal narratives aren’t your cup of tea I totally understand if you want to skip this post and wait til I post something involving rocks (Road trip part 4 is coming soon, I promise!). I’m writing this post for those who stand where I stood in May 2013, struggling to define their academic goals and career path.

Tl:dr version: You aren’t alone if you don’t have any idea of what you want to do for grad school or careers straight out of undergrad. Take the scenic route, try out jobs, and ask a lot of questions!  And just like in any scientific endeavor if you fail, take a good hard look at your methods, gather a team, and try again.

If I hear someone say “You can do anything!” one more time, I will probably have an allergic reaction that causes me to sprint out the door and down the street while making small panicked noises like Beaker in the Muppets.beaker_meep__meep__meep__animated_badge_by_blue_staple_studios-d94gpzx

(possibly my spirit animal)

‘Tis the season for graduate school applications, so I thought I’d share how I ended up at Oregon State! It meant taking some relatively risky moves instead of the safer option of staying in one place, as if my true calling would one day show up on my doorstep if I was patient enough. This was nerve-wracking but rewarding and involved doing things like decamping to California for a seasonal job, or prying myself out of my introvert shell to cold-email dozens of people. Early in the process of thinking about graduate school, when I heard a well-meaning “you can do anything you want!” some part of my brain translated it it to “you should do everything, if you aren’t then you’re failing, and what if you miss an opportunity of a lifetime while you’re doing something else?”

Because of that fear of commitment, graduate school application was initially an intimidating process for me in my senior year of university. Grad schools require a different mindset than undergraduate programs to apply because the academic and personal fit between the applicant and advisor is so crucial. There’s no Princeton Review guidebook to give a tidy 1-100 ranking of schools. I didn’t even know how to formulate the questions to get help choosing a program then. I would have needed my advisor to dive inside my head and read my mind, which is still firmly in the realm of sci-fi. Talking to grad students at Vanderbilt, they made it seem so effortless to make up their minds about what subject they wanted to devote 2-6 years to. It flowed out of an undergraduate research project, or a natural interest, or something that “just made sense”.

It didn’t help that, by the fall of my senior year, the interdisciplinary major that I had designed to study climate change was revealing to me exactly how complicated that issue was and how it could weave itself through any narrative I looked at. Did I want to study paleoclimates, or atmospheric sciences, or environmental justice, or energy sustainability, or…..? Indecision froze me like a deer in the headlights.


Beaker trying to disappear

Several different possible paths occurred to me that spring of my senior year. I could go into private or public research, which would eventually require a higher degree and those mystifying applications to graduate school. I could look into becoming a park ranger, guide, or outdoor educator, based on both my academic and non-academic passions. I could go into the nebulous field of “consulting”, based on a conversation at an environmental careers dinner. So, I figured that it would be best to try them out.

To start off with I got a fantastic GeoCorps internship at Mammoth Caves National Parks, where I learned that being a park ranger involves unlimited outdoor time frolicking through natural science (and facilities maintenance), but also finding a new posting every six months and a best-case scenario of being promoted to a stable management job where I would be banished to an office.

Who needs free weights when I have a hammer drill and a 6-mile hike to the cave entrance?

With a bit of legwork I got a position as an intern at an environmental consulting firm where I learned the nuts and bolts of regulations and customer service, and how complicated it is to balance clients’ business interests and the environment.

C with tanks.jpg

After the terms of that internship came to a close I headed out to California to work for Naturalists at Large, where I learned that no matter how much I can geek out over geology, rock climbing, and birds, keeping classes of middle school students amused is not my forte, and neither is finding a new outdoor recreation gig every single season.

This process of elimination left grad school, probably earth science as a career, and my nature cravings as a side hobby.

While in California I had applied to Indiana University’s summer field school (and only that one field camp, because I still felt like relying on dumb luck), because I figured that if I were to go the grad school route I would need it. In a ringing endorsement for dumb luck I got in, and it changed my life. No, seriously. I was doing science! I didn’t have to worry about whether I was cut out to be an earth scientist, because I was doing the earth scientist things, and doing them well! Hiking around the Tobacco Root Mountains of Montana wasn’t half bad either.

Stream temperature experiment/pool party at the Firehole River in Yellowstone National Park

In hindsight, field camp bumped me up to about 40% ready to apply to graduate school from 10%.

The next 20% was acquired over months of job applications, paper-reading, blog-writing, talking informally with professors and professionals, tutoring middle- and high- school students in earth science and English literature, volunteering with a USGS data analysis project, and getting hired full-time at the environmental consulting firm where I had interned. I went to visit professors at University of Pennsylvania, University of Delaware, and Johns Hopkins while living on my sister’s couch for a few weeks, which gave me practice talking with professors, a sense of how graduate programs were structured, and desensitized my anxious self to interviews. Volunteering as a data analyst with the USGS gave me an additional recommendation-letter-writer as well as experience with data analysis! Through all that, I narrowed down my impossibly wide interest to water issues stemming from climate change, leaning towards quantity instead of quality.

The last 40% was gained in four months of targeted cold-emailing of potential advisors, phone calls with those professors, obsessive research in my field, and a 2015 Geological Society of America conference where I walked up to random people and piped up “Hi, my name is Courtney, I’m currently working in environmental consulting, what do you do?” followed by a few minutes of listening, followed by “where should I go to graduate school to study how climate change and human use patterns affect water resources?”. You’d be surprise how well that works. It’s shockingly easy. If you had told me in my senior year of college that I would do that 15-20 times in a day I would have backed away quietly with a polite and petrified grin plastered across my face. Geologists being a friendly bunch, sometimes people told me “ask that guy over there, I’ve got no clue”, and most were happy to give me a lead or two.

I explored civil engineering, hydrology, geology, and geography masters programs. Because of my interdisciplinary interest, I ended up focusing on large state schools that had the breadth of faculty and funding to have created a dedicated working group for water resources. I had enjoyed creating my own major in college, but wanted the stability of an existing program to give my Masters degree more weight and to not have to explain it in detail to everyone I meet. Geography programs really stood out here – Vanderbilt didn’t have a department in this field, but I realized that it was pretty much perfect for me!

Based on all of these conversations at GSA and elsewhere, I figured out what angle I wanted to take on “water issues stemming from climate change, leaning towards quantity instead of quality” – geographical methods, instead of strictly hydrological or ecological.

Then I made a spreadsheet based on that info, and set about fleshing it out.

grad school spreadsheet screenshot.png

It has 34 rows, one for each potential advisor I contacted at twelve schools.

This might give the impression that I’m a naturally organized person who loves cold-calling, which isn’t the case. It’s challenging for me and sometimes prompts me to curl up in a blanket at 5:30 in the evening with soothing instrumental folk music. However, it’s the hurdle to get to science that I love and opportunities that I need, so I made myself the tools to get over it. I set a goal of four professors or current grad students contacted per week, and met it most weeks. I found out that no matter how many intelligent questions I think of before I call a professor, they will all fly out of my head once I’m on the phone unless they’re written on a sheet of paper in front of me, preferably in several eye-catching colors of pen. I have a wonderful sister who will reassure me that I’m a worthwhile person when I text her at midnight after hours of tying my thoughts in knots about an awkward conversation. Spreadsheets help me fish thoughts and information out of my brain, put them in words, and manipulate them in a useful way.

For example, University of Arizona took about 10 hours of research, 3 calls to current grad students, 3 calls to faculty, and a spreadsheet of its own to sort out the tangle of water research options and who teaches where.

u of a spreadsheet screenshot.png

Based on all that information, I narrowed my choices down to geography programs at five universities. That done, I had to make it easy enough for myself to keep track of the five applications that I would actually complete them and not forget anything. This meant another spreadsheet… and a whole lot of refreshing my email inbox.

apps spreadsheet screenshot.png

And after all this work, I got into exactly 0 schools in the spring of 2016. For reasons related to over-committed professors, funding cuts, and the fact the I applied to the most competitive programs in my field, I wasn’t judged to be a suitable enough fit to accept and fund. April was a pretty ghastly month for my mental state as I frantically tried to piece together another timeline for my life that didn’t involved driving off into the sunset towards a graduate program in August 2016.


Beaker’s file being tossed…

I allowed myself about two solid weeks of denial, self-pity, and comfort food, and then I reached out to some lovely friends who shut down the pity-party. We made a list of next steps:

  • Reach out to the schools to request a post-mortem of my application
  • Take the ASBOG exam to work towards professional development and freshen up my geology skills
  • Continue with my current job
  • Take a statistics course
  • Write appealingly nerdy things on my blog
  • Get a gym membership and start climbing again with my newfound free time
  • Restart the grad school search in August 2016, and try to focus it more on research
  • The silver lining: I now had an extra year to make myself that much of a better candidate.

In the fall of 2016 I reapplied to Oregon State and applied to San Diego State, University of Waterloo, and Southern Illinois University using the same tools and all that knowledge I had gleaned from potential professors/advisors in 2015. I had described a broader focus on my 2015 applications, but had focused my interested down to the geography of groundwater management during the 2016 applications. This 2016 specialization allowed me to better pinpoint potential advisors and make the case for how I could fit into their programs, and also probably made me look like a more committed candidate on my applications. I figured that if I had gotten into 0/5 schools in 2016, I might get into 1 out of 4 schools in 2017.

What did I do differently?

  • Reached out to professors earlier in the fall
  • Had a more defined research interest
  • Asked more specifically if they had research they could fund me for, or if not who in their department did
  • Posted on the Earth Science Women’s Network Facebook page asking for recommendations of schools with ambitious and possibly underrated groundwater faculty that weren’t on my radar
  • Stayed in closer contact with my letter-of-recommendation writers

In the spring of 2017 I won the grad school applicant lottery – I got into all! Four! Schools! All the important people in my life had to deal with text messages IN ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME HOLY MOLY.


Beaker playing “Ode to Joy”!

I hope that the takeaway of all this is that if you’re applying to graduate school, you need to talk to people. As many people as possible. This was my biggest obstacle when I first started applying – I didn’t want to bother anybody. Additionally, I was ashamed to ask for help even when I knew how to articulate my questions, as I thought it would make people think I wasn’t good enough to begin with. Eventually I learned that few people are bothered as long as I did research beforehand to avoid asking them to regurgitate the contents of the personal website for my benefit, which nobody has any inclination to do.

I found that academics, students, and professionals alike generally like talking about what they do and helping people out if they’ve got the time. An applicant can take respectful advantage of that to learn what’s out there. The worst anybody can say to you is “no”, and it’s almost never personal. It boils down to seeing if the professor is doing what you want to study and has funding, and then convincing them that they really do need your unique talents and brainpower.

And don’t worry if those talents change from conversation to conversation, especially if you have an insanely broad initial focus like I did. I settled on a messy process of deciding on a certain way of selling my skill set to a potential advisor so they would at least talk to me, using what I learned from that conversation to improve my focus, and then pitching that improved focus again or to another professor. Sometimes I talk about different research ideas with different potential advisers, just to see which one I enjoyed talking about the most. I had barely managed to pull together a coherent idea of a academic goal as I careened into the December 2015/January 2016 deadlines, and came up with the new and improved version 2.0 by December 2016.

If I have to pick a metaphor for finding my calling after college, it’s less like a package delivered to my doorstep and more like a Pony Express run to deliver a shapeshifting package to an address I can only find at the end of a scavenger hunt. But I made it, and you can too.

Happy trails!

If you want to pick my brain, to commiserate, a copy of my spreadsheets to use as a template, or advice for cold-emailing, let me know in the comments.

I’m going to be a Beaver!

I promise that I haven’t forgotten about the blog. This summer has been crazy for multiple reasons, but most importantly because I’m preparing to move to Corvallis, Oregon in the end of August.

I’m starting a master’s program in geography to study groundwater resource management at Oregon State University!

Image result for oregon state university

The downside of the move is that my budget for out-of-town summer camping trips to see new rocks has been displaced by a budget for a Uhaul rental, Ikea furniture, and other elements of a 2,362 mile move.

The upside about this is that I get to take a 5-day cross-country road trip with my father, through some of the most amazing landscapes in the USA! Which should give me enough blog material for a long string of posts. My mother and sister, who both have experience driving cross-country with me to and from California, have already informed him that it’s best for our health and safety if he drives through the geologically interesting bits. Kansas, however, will be all mine…


Happy Birthday, GRACE!

NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites had their 15th birthday this week! The mission was only meant to last 5 years, but dynamic duo of earth-monitoring satellites has kept on observing gravitational anomalies from orbit since they were launched on March 16, 2002. NASA put out this graphic to celebrate:

GRACE satellite

So why do we care about gravity enough to collaborate with German’s space agency (GPZ) to spend 127 million dollars to launch a payload into space to measure it more precisely?

  1. If this gravity tugs Grace 1 and Grace 2 out of the perfect elliptical orbit, it can do so with the very sensitive GPS satellites. This gravity data allows us to re-calibrate GPS data to take minute variations in satellite orbit into account.
  2. We can measure inch by inch the slow upwelling of the mantle as the continents rebound after the last ice age.
  3. Satellites calibrate elevation data by assuming that the height of the ocean surface is essentially spherical, but gravitational anomalies (subduction trenches, mid-ocean ridges) can locally affect sea level. Previous satellite missions such as JASON and TOPEX/POSEIDON very precisely measured the distance from orbit to the sea surface but prior to GRACE, trying to figure out ocean current patterns was like trying to guess the the thickness of hair on someones’ head when the person had a bizarre bouffant hairstyle and we had only vague ideas of what the head underneath was shaped like.
  4. My favorite reason – we can track changes in ice caps and water resources such as melting or accumulating ice, floods, and groundwater recharge or withdrawal!

The two GRACE satellites (GRACE-1 and GRACE-2) are roughly the size of two large couches, and are in constant contact via a laser beam which continuously measures the distance between them. If one of the two flies over an area with a large gravitational anomaly it slows down, which either increases or decreases the distance between the two depending on whether the lead or following satellite is slowing down. This distance data is then compared with GPS information of the two satellites that is collected at the same time to create a “geoid” – a vertically exaggerated model of the imaginary topographical surface of the earth where areas with higher gravitational pulls have a high elevation, and the opposite for areas with lower gravitational pulls.


Earth's gravity field as seen by GRACE

Simulation of the geoid, courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory

The image above come from, which also does a much  better job of describing GRACE and the geoid than I can. When this data is combined with data from other satellites and ground-based systems, it has the illustrious scientific name of the “Potsdam Gravity Potato“, based on the city in Germany where a research team specializes in this melting pot of remote-sensing data.

The 2011 Gravity Potato – but does it taste good with butter and parmesan cheese?


The magic of the GRACE data comes in its 15 years of data. In that time period certain features on the geoid are almost stationary (The Himalayan mountain range, the depression around Hudson Bay where the Laurentide ice sheet depressed the earth’s surface). However, water is heavy and constantly moving, and these satellites give us a quantitative idea of exactly how much mass is shifting (i.e. being melted or withdrawn) without having to deploy squads of intrepid graduate students to take GPS elevation readings all across Greenland.

The University of Colorado –  Boulder created an online platform to explore the GRACE data – click HERE.

GRACE CU Boulder portal

GRACE’s ability to monitor change also gives us an unprecedented look at the invisible water we rely on – groundwater! While we still don’t have a way to take an MRI of the earth a determine the volume of water in an aquifer, GRACE can at least note when an area becomes relatively heavier (aquifer is recharged by rain or snowmelt) or lighter (aquifer is pumped, and the water flows away through rivers to the ocean). Calculating the rate of this change allows us to discover which aquifer systems are declining at rates that could endanger future use.

UC Irvine groundwater storage trends from NASA's GRACE (2003-2013) for Earth's 37 largest aquifers.

Image from the 2015 study by Richey et al. 2015, courtesy of NASA Jet Propulsion Lab

The world map above shows 37 of the most critical aquifer systems humans depend on, and whether their amounts of water in storage have increased or decreased between 2003 and 2015. (For more information click HERE) Decreases are shown in varying shades of red and orange (as in California’s central valley, or northern India), and increases are shown in shades of blue (High Plains aquifer, Murray-Darling Basin). Before GRACE, the only way to approximate this information would be to check hundreds of wells around an aquifer every single month! Compared to the resources needed to drill thousands of wells and employ scores of technicians, $127 million to launch some satellites seems like a steal.

The above map shows a more general view of terrestrial mass change from GRACE data between 2003 and 2009, and was quoted in this article by Dr. Mohammad Shamsudduha, (Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London, UK) about groundwater drawdown in northern India, for example.

The dilemma of being a scientist is that the “OMG isn’t it fantastic that we can get all this data to learn about the earth!!” feeling is countered by the “Well darn this data gives us terrible news” feeling. The upside is that the GRACE mission, for the first time, gives us accurate month-by-month information on the state of our ice caps and aquifers. If nothing else this gives scientists a powerful tool to understand natural seasonal variations and tease out man-made changes. If we can’t measure a phenomenon, we can’t accurately improve our reaction to it. I hope that through this data scientists can show policy-makers how we’ve caught ourselves red-handed draining the earth’s accessible water stockpiles, and incite action to preserve what is left.

I was geeking out about these satellites to my sister, who immediately had the same mental image – I just had open up MS Paint to draw GRACE-1 and Grace-2 wearing fluffy, sparkling quinceneara dresses in honor of their 15th birthday. See below for the delightfully ridiculous result.

Satellites in quinceneara dresses

P.S. For more of the nuts-and-bolts mathematical and engineering behind how these satellites work, you can check out this informative circa-2003 internet flashback.

P.P.S. for even more information, check out these links!

CU Boulder geoid team –

Discovering Geographical Information Systems: Quantum GIS

I had gotten frustrated with creating site maps in AutoCad 12 LT, and yesterday’s field work was postponed because of rain. Additionally, Quantum GIS software is free. This turned out to be a great combination.

Not to bash AutoCAD 12 LT (for non-technical readers – AutoCAD LT is the “Lite” version of a common engineering drafting software program)- it’s been great for creating site maps for industrial clients who can send me their base plans already in AutoCAD format. I add some new layers for their hazardous waste locations and protocols, drop it into my company’s standard frame, and voila. However, I was going back to my company’s decade-old protocol for mapping monitoring wells in AutoCAD and found it cumbersome. In order to make an accurate map I had to take a screenshot of Google Earth, save it, attach it as an external reference file, adjust the raster DPI so it didn’t look like an 8-bit video game, and then set the layer properties so it wouldn’t accidentally be moved while I added feature points. With that done, I had to go back to Google Earth and transfer a scale – and good luck if I had zoomed the map to fit the site boundaries while in AutoCAD. Once the well locations and site outlines were traced, I would delete the base map. I figured that there had to be a simpler way to do this.

I got the decisive nudge towards exploring Quantum GIS from a geologist friend whose specialty is managing complicated Oracle/ESRI ArcGIS systems.   We were having our usual nerdy kind of conversation over dinner on Friday (planetary plausibility of Star Trek, using radar to map the subsurface of Mars, oil pipelines, etc) when I brought up my mapping conundrum. I had been using the free version of Google Earth Pro but it lacked some of the features I wanted, and he suggested QGIS as the next step up.

Quantum GIS (QGIS) can be downloaded here.

I will freely admit that even though I had done some basic cartography in ArcGIS a few years back, I had little idea what to do next. QGIS has a graphical interface comparable to AutoCAD LT, actually – helpful enough but not completely intuitive. Luckily, there’s an instruction video for pretty much everything on YouTube.


Klas Karlsson created a clear, concise, and useful walk-through of a basic project – you can find it here.

Next I wanted to find a general overview of what the software could do – which“A Gentle Introduction to GIS” by T. Sutton, O. Dassau, and M. Sutton of the Department of Land Affairs of South Africa does nicely. This free text serves as an introduction to geographical information systems in general, but focuses on QGIS. It does a good job of making the software less intimidating, answered my questions about the cartography projections I had to choose between,  and gave me a basic view of the analytical capabilities I can learn in the future.

So, to compare map outcomes (…drumroll…):

Estimated water table surface map made with AutoCAD 12 LT:


Versus a map of the same site made with QGIS (client data blurred out):


This landfill in West Tennessee hasn’t had any contamination in the years my employer has been sampling here – good for the planet and keeping my job simple!

For now I drafted the water surface elevation contours and flow direction by hand and then digitized them, as my company has done in the past. However, I know that somewhere in the jungle of optional plugins there’s a way to make QGIS create groundwater contours based on my data points. That’s going to take more than an afternoon’s study to master though, and I look forward to getting to that point!

UPDATE 6/1/2017: the “contour” plugin is really easy to use. Luckily my hand-drafted curves weren’t too terribly off from the calculated curves. The figure below shows the calculated curves in brown.

QGIS contour comparison redacted

Advantages to AutoCAD LT:

  • Ability to draw splines/curved lines, easily rotate shapes and text
  • Faster rendering time between zoom frames
  • Option for typed commands instead of click-and-select
  • Format is widely used across engineering and environmental consulting fields

Advantages to Quantum GIS:

  • Base maps are so easy to insert, delete, and switch out!
  • Ease of entering attribute data, and ability to make any variable of that attribute data a visible tag on a feature location
  • Can enter well locations based on the coordinates measured in the field
  • Easy to measure distances
  • Instant scale
  • Instant and easily modified legend
  • Spatial analysis, once I figure out how to use it
  • FREE

After this intro I’m hooked on the possibilities of QGIS. I’m seriously tempted to digitize my hand-sketched field camp maps and start using it for my Phase I Environmental Site Assessment maps…

I definitely have enough left to learn to fill many a rainy day to come.

How do you use GIS in your work and research? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

I defeated the ASBOG FG!

All three times that I went to the Geological Society of America conferences, I picked up something from the Association of State Boards of Geology (ASBOG) booth. I won a rather nice tape measure from them in 2015. All three times, the booth staff admonished me with “you should take the Fundamentals  of Geology exam before you forget everything you learned in university!”.

And then I found myself thinking in the summer of 2016 – what am I waiting for? I took all the necessary coursework and more that I need to be licensed, I’m working under two licensed professional geologists, why not take the exam and get on the path to making all that work official?

I ordered the RegReview study guide, said farewell to my three-times-a-week climbing gym habit so I would actually make time to study, and got to work.

I really should have taken it right out of college, but wasn’t as rusty as I had feared. Even though I felt like throwing my study guide across the room after the fourth page of ore mineral formulas, studying for the exam actually reminded me why I want to be a geoscientist. One night I was messing around with formulas for mapping groundwater draw-down and projection of cross-sections onto a map view and didn’t realize that it had gotten to be 1 AM. (I had to get up to be at a job site at 6 AM. Oops.) I got to spend quality time with fields like seismology and structural geology that don’t show up often in my day-to-day work.

Not to mention that my sister drew me this gem of a Lord of the Rings/Geology crossover: Meet the ASBOG Balrog.


So that’s how I found myself at 7 AM at the Department of Commerce building on September 30 armed with a calculator, protractor, and 1 liter thermos of steaming hot caffeine. Walking through the door, I could immediately identify my fellow geologists waiting for the exam – plaid shirts, practical shoes, Patagonia vests, and looks of acute anxiety were all giveaways among steady stream of state employees heading to the elevator.

We all walked out of the exam room four hours later, exhausted and convinced that we had failed. Thankfully, today I found out that I actually passed! With acceptable marks in all categories, even the ones I was freaked out about! (I’m talking about you, engineering geology)

When I was studying for the exam, I scoured google and reddit for advice from people who had taken the exam, and couldn’t find much. Much of the advice pertained to the second exam, (the PG), like this excellent blog post over at Accidental Remediation. In the hopes of helping someone like me taking the FG, here are some of the things I found most helpful:

  1. There is no way on earth that you can cram for this exam. I did one chapter per week in the RegReview book, and that was almost pushing it. I should have started studying earlier – the ASBOG website isn’t joking when is says six months in advance.
  2. Take a close look at the application to take the exam. I got taken by surprise by the fact that after I had submitted my exam to my states professional licensing board, and I had to submitted a completely different application and fee to the national ASBOG organization.
    1. step one: State of Tennessee Geologist Licensing Forms (or your state’s equivalent). For Tennessee, this meant filling out two forms: the Geologist FG Exam Application, and the Geologist Course Reporting Form.
    2. step two: after the application is accepting by the state board, that agency will send you a candidate request form that you will need to send, with a check attached, to ASBOG.
  3. The actual exam questions were slightly easier than the ones in the RegReview book, and didn’t need quite as much math. However, they were still by no means easy. Looking back at my university quiz and test questions, the ASBOG questions were comparable to the more difficult 25% of them. They were very similar in difficulty to the questions in the official ASBOG candidate handbook.
  4. Memorize the picky mineral characteristics/formulas and mining terms. They were on the exam, believe it or not.
  5. Don’t underestimate the power of handwritten notes…
  6. …or flashcards, either. If you use the RegReview cards, add in a few additional handmade ones for ore deposit types, water quality standards, dating methods, Bowen’s reaction series, and engineering characteristics of earth materials (elastic properties, etc).
  7. And then working the practice problems a second time.
  8. I don’t recommend bothering to study in the two days immediately before the test. I know I was too keyed-up for any more information to stick, anyways.  Eat well, try to get some sleep, and do thing that clear your head. In my case it was lunch with an old friend and wearing myself out on the rock wall.

Have you taken the exam? What impacts have being licensed (or not) had on your career? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments.