August 14, 2014
Thursday, 8/14/14, Houston, 8:55 am
And then there was one.
Joyce, Dave, and I were the last in the field, taking in the last opportunities for observations that will help us synthesize the whole system. Some puzzles we’ll resolve this year, others we will only pose to people who will follow. The three of us caught the midnight flight to Houston, then Dave left for California and Joyce for Austin. I’m waiting for my flight to O’hare, then a cab across Chicago to Hyde Park, to put my rocks at the university, and on to my apartment above the bookstore.
In wonderful news, the first manuscript on the sponge fossils in Nevada, with preliminary results from Peru, is now approved for publication in a fine sedimentology and paleontology journal called Palaios. This is my first paper on geology to be published from my dissertation, following a couple of papers on ammonite ecology. In fact, the 2012 trip I took to Peru for the first time began with an email notifying me of rejection of an earlier version of the same paper. So, years go by, we move the science forward, and eventually my writing achieves the level of rigor well enough and the reviewers consider our presented evidence seriously enough to get this work published. It’s a slow process, but it is gratifying to see my first paper coming out as we push this work forward into more complex and exciting directions.
In increments we’ve had more sleep and fewer logistical challenges these last two days, but we’ve also been navigating the transitions of returning. Returning from the field to the city, from South America to North America, from Spanish to English. Tuesday we were in the truck for hours as our driver boldly dodged us down the mountain, then we spent an equal number of hours crawling through outskirting Lima traffic. I’ve had the same experience driving down the 395 from Nevada, over the eastern Sierras, and once I reach Burbank it can be an equal number of hours crawling through the metropolitan traffic of southern California. Moving from the rural and sporadically bustling streets in the Andes into the interface of tourist Lima is an adjustment too. At lunch Tuesday a tableful of suited broad shouldered business men hollered, “Shots! Pisco shots!” into the afternoon. At breakfast yesterday a family of four from the states seemed to really enjoy a spirited bicker over the distribution of i-phone games on their devices. Here on US soil, a quartet of harried office working ladies debated the merits of their tropical cruises in country accents. I told the customs official I’d been in Lima and Junin province. He raised an eyebrow. “Mining country. Doing geology.” He stamped my pass and waved me along.
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For the first time, the fossils and rocks I’m carrying in my backpacks received no hassle from the security inspectors. I took advice from Joyce and packed the ammonites as officially as possible in a hard-sided medical kit box, and put these separately on the xray ramp. Everything I’m carrying is simple rocks with no monetary value, but the fossils can be fragile and I hate watching them handled roughly. I wrapped each in tissue and a cotton sack tied tight, then nestled them into the case, tucked into one of my field packs. So far, so good. We just have one more flight and a long cab ride to the University of Chicago and they’ll have a safe home.
Now we go our separate ways, each with samples, specimens, rocks, fossils, needing analysis in a to-be-decided hierarchy with consultation ongoing. All this discovery, questioning and momentum is threatened to loose steam as we move in our separate trajectories. I’ve got to catalogue and draft and analyze what I can from Chicago, and pass all helpful info along to LA so that Joyce can navigate prioritization of all the chemical analyses with so many different professors. The trip was crucial to showing each involved party how these projects take shape, how the materials are found in the field, how to consider the potential geochemical investigations.
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My own focus will be shifting to integrating what I’ve collected these last weeks into my ongoing research at Chicago, and preparing for a series of international science meetings this fall. One more flight, then I’m back to the brick cityscape and thunderstorms and my dog. The work will continue, but it will look different after this trip, different for all of us. When I get to Los Angeles in a couple of months, I wonder what we will have discovered from the gradual digestion of our observations and collected experiences. At the least, we’ve found richer collaborative working relationships, and those can be more rare than ore with 200 g of silver per ton.
August 9, 2014
Today we worked a stack of rocks that can be a bit dangerous.
All day the skies looked stormy, but it only hailed and snowed, which I prefer to rain. We were lucky to again work with Julio, head geologist in the region, and an expert on estimating the dangers of the weather, choosing the best paths between steep rock outcrops, and an expert eye for fine details in the rocks themselves.
It was a fast and precarious work day. I wish I had more notes, samples, observations, photos, and time. But now I need to sleep. We hope for decent weather tomorrow. I prefer snow to rain. We’ll be at high elevation again, so hopefully it will be cold but clear.
A week working at elevation:
Sunday: high Andes, ~ 15000 ft
Monday: cloud forest, ~8000 ft
Tuesday: below the altiplano, ~10000 ft
Wednesday: on a peak of the Andes, ~16000 ft
Thursday and Friday: on a different Andean peak, ~16000 ft
The altitude and roads took a toll on the group, but spirits were high. We visited sites I worked last year, taking additional samples for geochemistry and adding observations of depositional environment and fossil life. What animals lived here during the early Jurassic Period? What was their habitat like? Here’s what we saw:
Sunday through Friday the whole field team took on one wild challenge after another. This morning two geochemistry professors departed for Lima, leaving the paleontologists to make the final observations, measurements, photos, and rock samples in three extra days.
I’ve got a few photos to share that will tell the story.
August 4, 2014
8/4/14 Back in Tarma, Junin, Peru 10:15 pm
No time to write; need a shower and sleep and meeting the team at 7:30 to depart for the field in the morning.
Today was a great success. We woke up in the cloud forest, and after hours of logistics and safety gear assignment we got to go inside the mine. All 6 of us, plus 3 mining geologists, sampling the rocks. So many people is usually a circus, let alone in a dark and noisy tunnel 2000m underground. People took charge and lead, people followed and helped, and we got all the sampling done in record time. We had problems with maps and language and miscommunications, we realized oversights and corrected them. At the end of the day we’d done so much we decided to return to the Andean village so we can wake up in the morning nearer our next field site. So adios selva, it was back up the mountain. Across the bridges and roaring rivers, the landslides and ferns and fruits for sale. Up through the narrow gorges where the trees disappear and grasses cover the slopes, up past the wisps of cloud into the high plains. Tomorrow, another day. Whenever I have more time for sleep I’ll add photos to these last two posts. Really remarkable scenery, and even better science.
8/3/14 “the jungle”, near San Ramon, Junin, Peru 9:30 pm
We have this running gag about whether it’s the jungle.
“La Selva!” I say.
“No,” corrects Josh, the terrestrial geochemist. “It’s the High Andean Cloud Forest.”
He’s been collaborating for years on field research of the Andean runoff that feeds the Amazon river system. This involves trips up mountains and down rivers and through rainforests of different degrees, apparently.
“But they call it la selva, not el bosque!” I argue.
“Still,” he says, with a characteristic shake of the head. It’s less of an “agree to disagree” shake and more of an “agree that you’re wrong” shake.
“We’ll see on Sunday!” I say.
Today we rode across the high plains back to the highlands for work along the Montaro River. I split us into two groups. We hiked and observed rocks and debated sampling strategies for hours in our separate groups, then met at the crest of the ridge for lunch and to compare plans. It’s a spectacular view. The rocks record marine sediment and animal fossils from the Triassic into the Jurassic in a tantalizingly complete array. These layers are then tipped upward, almost vertically, by the earth moving tectonic processes that built the Andes mountains. Add some folding, some buckling, some crunching, some faulting, and then cut a valley across the whole scene with a powerful river.
From the crest of our ridge, which took an hour determined hiking to reach, it looked like the ridge far away, miles across the other side of the river, was a better place to measure the rocks. But we know this is probably an optical illusion. Instead, we have a pile of nasty jumbled blocks. The faults move the rocks around, destroying some chunks, tipping others, twisting them out of orientation. I spent 6 days measuring this sequence last year, and Silvia spent weeks when she did her dissertation here in the 1990s. Armed with that experience, we were ambitious to sample at high resolution and in the best rocks for geochemical analysis.
I think overall it went well. Everyone pulled through physically despite tough setbacks – car sickness, altitude problems, knee problems – and gave the day a full effort. At the end the chemists were pleased with the sampling we achieved. I think for them there is a big arc, because they ask how and why we sample, why we don’t do it differently. Today they got to meet the challenges of taking rocks from a mountain, and negotiate those challenges as part of a team. I think that process will help them be more optimistic about the value of these rocks than if I’d just brought the same samples to them a year ago. One team worked down into the Triassic rocks, and another up into the Jurassic rocks, then we met to show and explain what we saw. I saw parts of the section that I haven’t hiked to in the past, so it is increasingly interesting for me as well.
Sadly, just as we got really on a roll, we had to leave. It takes hours to drive from the highlands down to la selva, and we have a date tomorrow at 7am at a zinc mine to sample some Jurassic rocks of very different character. The meeting will determine our opportunities and resources during our brief visit, so we’re all curious, eager, and trying to temper our expectations.
The drive was spectacular. Past the highlands of sheep and burrows and mototaxies, across the altiplano of terraced agriculture and commerce centers, and then down, down, down, down the steepest road that coils and curves and sails over rivers, hurtling toward the amazon.
“La Selva!” Silvia said, rolling down the window and taking off her coat. The air is thick and wet and warm, a far cry from the chill dry wind that made us shiver on the mountain.
“But Josh insists it’s el bosque!” I said, eager to win this argument. Ferns and wild cocks and melon vendors lined the roads.
“ Well we call it la ceja de la selva,” Silvia said, indicating her eyebrow. “The ridge at the edge of the jungle.”
Over a dinner of chicken semolina soup and pesto noodles at the mining cafeteria, I brought this up to Josh. “Ok,” he conceded to Silvia, “la ceja de la selva.” So technically it’s still the Andean cloud forest, but I will still call it the selva.
We have a warm welcome of a spare house here on the mining living campus, and I look forward to misty fern filled mountain trails tomorrow, and maybe time to look at bats in the evening. Now, a shower and an early bedtime.
Until next time,
August 3, 2014
6:55 am Tarma, Junin, Peru Sunday 8/3/14
Waking up to dogs barking and scrabbling in this center of tourism and commerce within the Andean high plains. About 10,000 feet. Today we head back up to the area around La Oroya, a couple thousand feet shy of the Andean crest in this region, for field work. Yesterday we left Lima, came over the crest, stopped to view some field sites and reiterate the game plan for today, then made it down here. The Andean crest here is about 4,900 meters… just over 16,000 feet. Overall the team is doing ok with this, but I’ve got a lingering headache despite abstaining from alcohol for the past week and drinking plenty of water and taking altitude pills. Hopefully it will abate.
On Friday we participated in the inaugural science symposium of the new Geology department at the Catholic University in Lima, the top research school in the nation. Our collaborator Silvia is chair of Mining Engineering there, and has been working to start the Geology department for years. At the symposium we each delivered a research talk loosely related to our immediate research here. I gained a lot watching the talks. It was a powerful reminder that these professors have full labs of graduate students and postdocs, other international field expedition calendars, and decades of ongoing research in completely different aspects of earth science. Modern ocean chemistry by ship exploration, Andean and Amazon river sediment transport investigated by river boat and rainforest outpost, pre-Cambrian life forms on Earth and preparation for their potential analogous – biotic or Abiotic – sedimentary counterparts on Mars. The fact that we got these guys out of the states, to spend a few weeks as a captive audience thinking about nothing but the Triassic/Jurassic boundary is really outstanding. And Silvia has two departments to run, but she’s coming into the field with us for ten days!
Getting the new team members on the rocks yesterday – finally able to see the source of these samples I kept bringing to their labs – was really important moment. Today we need to sample more than I did last year, but in a way that aligns perfectly to my previous work. This means I need to recapitulate a week’s worth of rock hopping, shape matching, sediment observations, clue finding, and meter measuring with 5 people looking over my shoulder. I’m nervous about this and hoping to get half of them to do some investigatory measurements on rocks around the other side of the mountain with Silvia to let of the pressure so I can think and work efficiently. This headache isn’t helping.
Meanwhile there are the landscapes as we drive an hour between destinations. Sheep and farmsteads, urban pockets of brick and mortar multi-story houses and shops, mototaxies and burrows and old sedans and giant busses and mining trucks all sharing the same roadways.
Time to pack up. After today’s work we plan to drive down the mountain a bit into the high jungle to work in a zinc mine with shales, but everything depends on permission of the miners there. I expect no internet for the next two days, at which point I hope to post more news and stories.
Wish us luck!
July 9, 2013
What a whirlwind! Six hours but a world away, I’m back in Lima. The floor of my office at the university is covered in bags of samples, mostly of potential fossil sponges, also of rocks and fossils of ammonites and other molluscs. I have a LOT of work to do.
I didn’t post in the last week mostly due to the roads limiting my hotel time to under an hour of waking life, but also because I don’t like writing in English so much when I’m trying to think and learn in spanish. Anyway, many stories and photos to follow in the next fourty hours as I head back to LA and catch some time here in my office and on the plane to reflect and review.
July 4, 2013
July 2, 2013
It’s past my bedtime so I have to keep it brief. At last I have internet!
After leaving the jungle we went to a mine at the top of the world. It was freezing cold, something like -10 C at night. Hours of medical checks, confusion about our housing, and a geologist very skeptical about our chances of promising rocks soured my mood. I figured if we found nothing in the morning, just as well: we’d continue to the three sites I know well from last year.
In fact at about 16000 feet we saw some of the finest fossil sponges I’ve ever seen. They really tie the room together. Everything I’ve seen in Nevada and everything here in Peru makes way more sense in light of this outcrop, in the center of a stark mining district, at an almost impossible elevation.
Now we’ve switched sites again. I thought I was adjusting to the elevation but was wrong. The headaches got so bad I was literally useless on the outcrop my last day, after working four days at 16000 feet and sleeping at about 14000. Now we’re sleeping in a new town, at about 10,000 feet, and I feel way better.
Each day we need to commute to the field sites, which takes about two hours and more guts than I’ve ever seen in a driver. Saens (pronounced, “Science”!!!) has more measured daring per kg than anyone I’ve met. All three roads between the altiplano and western cordillera are under construction at once, limiting travel of people and goods to nighttime races. Today a jam of eighteenwheelers in the narrow cliffside alleyways between adobe villages was resolved by a half dozen brave guys who, after directing all the vehicles into a tetris of functionality, vanished back into their trucks and vans and disappeared into the night. The week before our arrival there was a terrible accident where 30 people died in a bus that went over a cliff. But compared to anywhere else I’ve seen such traffic I’m in awe of how well people handle these impossible situations. I’ve yet to see so much as a single dead dog. And there are a LOT of dogs.
More images and hopefully video from the adventures and fossils to follow, but I really only get to the hotel in time to go to sleep and get back up to leave at 6 sharp so we don’t get stranded. It’s a wild time. It’s cold, but the rocks are amazing.
word of the day: arcoiris, rainbow. Not sure how to spell it. Also morecielago, bat. Not sure how to spell that either. Now that it’s just me and local scientists and Science himself, I need to pick up my spanish.