Author Archives: Trevor in New Zealand

About Trevor in New Zealand

Hello! I am a Marine Corps veteran who is now a third-year geology student at Pomona College. I'm spending the first half of 2017 studying abroad in Christchurch, New Zealand. You can follow my latest adventures by reading the Gilman Global Experience blog! Besides geology, my interests include cars, word games, and martial arts.

Scaling Volcanoes Only Looks Easy

Last time I wrote that “adjusting to field camp has been pretty easy. The Marines prepared me well for this physically demanding and highly structured environment.” Easy might have been the wrong word. Being physically fit and super organized, I might make it look easy, but beneath my calm exterior, my mind is clouded by doubt. The reason I’m so well prepared is because I worry about everything.

I served on active duty for four years. One of the hardest things about readjusting to civilian life has been travelling with others in unfamiliar environments, which is exactly what I’ve been doing for the last four weeks of field camp. I get stressed because I feel the need to plan everything. The Marine Corps taught me that the more control I can have over my surroundings, the safer I will be. When I’m on my own, this is not a problem. I can take all the time I need to properly prepare for whatever the day may bring. When I’m travelling in a 30-person school group with instructors who decide where we go and when we stop, I worry endlessly.

What if my boots don’t dry overnight? What if I forget to refill and pack the water bottle I was using at breakfast? Once we’re out in the field, what if I don’t have time to stop and reapply sunscreen? What if I need to adjust my pack? Will there be a lunch break? When, and for how long?

Whenever I’m away from home, I feel the need to be at 100% readiness so that if an emergency presents itself I will be in the best possible position to respond. Call me paranoid, but that’s the way I think. I’ve been trained to be highly aware of my vulnerabilities. Stopping and addressing them calms me down and gives me a surge of confidence, but it’s hard to find the time to do that at field camp. I have to rush to keep up because my group is always on the move.

 

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Often road cuts reveal fascinating outcrops. This is a cut in half hummock (bump-shaped mound) several kilometers from Mt. Ruapehu. Its jumble of boulders mixed with fine sands and every grain size in between are what we would expect of an avalanche debris deposit that could have formed after a crater collapse.

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Breaking out the whiteboard turns this small cinder cone volcano into an outdoor classroom.

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There’s a lot going on in this little ski cabin. Students eat breakfast in the foreground, wash dishes in the background, and prepare lunches off to the side. Getting around requires a lot of patience, because there are always people in the way.

 

We spent nine days in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, five days on the West Coast, and now here we are on North Island. We’ve spent all week in the Taupo Volcanic Zone studying volcanoes. Highlights have included hiking the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing, speaking with volcanologists at the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences, and getting to put our hands on volcanic deposits left over from processes like lava flows, pyroclastic density currents, and lahars. All the while we’ve been staying at a cozy, but cramped ski lodge on the flank of the Zone’s tallest volcano, Mt. Ruapehu, which last erupted in 1995.

 

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The 19.4 km Tongariro Alpine Crossing is more easily completed from the north end of the trail. From that direction, it requires only 700 meters of elevation gain vs. 1100 meters if attempted from the south. Still, it’s steep in places. Here the trail zig-zags its way past an old lava flow (foreground).

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Once you make it up that first steep bit you cross an ancient lake bed. Mt. Ngauruhoe (AKA Mt. Doom from the Lord of the Rings films) looms ominously overhead.

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Now past the high point on the trail, we look down at our first big descent. Beneath us are a trio of geothermally heated pools that smell of sulfur. Notice the yellow helicopter that just landed on the ground between the pools. The Tongariro Alpine Crossing hosts thousands of hikers every year, many of whom are either unlucky or inexperienced. During the summer (which is now in the southern hemisphere) an average of one hiker is rescued every day.

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This is the last good view we got on our way down the crossing. Lake Rotoaira is in the middle ground and the much larger Lake Taupo is in the background. Lake Taupo fills the caldera of a super-eruption that happened 26,000 years ago. It was a cataclysmic event with global consequences. Five hundred thirty cubic kilometers of magma were erupted. (Imagine something with the footprint of Manhattan, but six miles thick!)

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This close-up gives a better sense of appreciation for just how large Lake Taupo is. The bumps you see in the foreground and middle ground are small rhyolitic domes that have formed since the supereruption 26,000 years ago.

 

Tomorrow we fly back to Christchurch for the final module of this field camp: a mapping exercise on Banks Peninsula. For all my anxiety, I must admit, it doesn’t get much better than hands-on learning in world-class geological settings. Experiencing these rocks and sediments with all five senses (yes, sometimes even taste*) is sure to cement them in my memory better than any textbook figure. Still, I’ll be happy when it’s done. It will be good to set my schedule and move at my own pace.

*Even with a hand lens, it is impossible to see the difference between silt and clay in the field. Try grinding them between your teeth, however, and the difference is night and day. Clay is so fine you won’t feel a thing, but silt is coarse enough that it will feel similar to sand.

 

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The sunsets here are spectacular. Several students admire Mt. Taranaki 150 km to the west.

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Before and after images of Waikato River as Arataitai Dam releases millions of gallons of water to generate hydroelectric energy.

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A geothermal power plant near Lake Taupo that dates back to 1958 and is still in operation. New Zealand gets about 80% of its energy from renewable sources.

 

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Where I Am and How I Got Here

Hello! My name is Trevor. I am a Marine veteran and a third-year geology student at Pomona College. This semester I’m studying abroad in New Zealand. I’m halfway done with the first part of my program, which is a five-week field camp all over the North and South Islands. 

 

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That’s me atop a hill that was located near the center of our mapping area and offered astounding views in all directions. I’m holding the map board and field notebook I used to record my findings.

 

I must admit, I’m a little surprised to be here. When I started at Pomona two years ago, I had no plans to study abroad. I was lucky to travel a lot growing up, and I’d recently returned from a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan. I thought I’d be content to hang around campus all four years, but my curiosity got the better of me. Some friendly encouragement from my girlfriend (who also studied abroad while at Pomona) was the final push I needed to take a step out of my comfort zone. Here I am.

 

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A farm truck and a sheep dog driving through the countryside. It doesn’t get much more New Zealand than that. Sheep outnumber people 20:1 in New Zealand. 

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Kura Tāwhiti Conservation Area: Known to non-Maori speakers as Castle Hill, these limestone cliffs featured prominently in the Chronicles of Narnia movies. That’s my group gathered in the background.

I had three main concerns about leaving home, all of which still hold true to varying degrees. 1) After field camp finishes, I will have to do my own cooking for the rest of the semester. I hate cooking. 2) Cars are my greatest passion in life, but my program does not allow me to own a motor vehicle while in New Zealand. 3) I sunburn easier than anyone I know. New Zealand’s depleted ozone layer means I will have to be even more careful than usual.

I haven’t yet had to cook for myself, and I’ve only been away from my car for a few weeks, so the only concern I’ll address now is the sun. Yes, it’s bad, but it is manageable. As long as I reapply sunscreen every 90 minutes I know I won’t burn. I’ve only burned once so far, and that was on an overcast day in the field when I tried to make due with only three sunscreen applications instead of the usual five.

Otherwise, adjusting to field camp has been pretty easy. The Marines prepared me well for this physically demanding and highly structured environment.

 

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Rivers cut through rock leaving behind excellent exposures for us to study. The only downside is soggy socks.

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Crossing White Horse Creek during a rainstorm.

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The sea foam at 14-Mile beach was knee-deep and jiggled in the wind like Jell-O.

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Torrential rain damaged much more than just this trail. The flooding and debris flows it caused closed major roads, delaying our trip to the West Coast. Professor Sam described it as the storm of the decade. According to weather reports, more than a foot of rain fell in a 24-hour period, and the wind was gusting at almost 100 mph!

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My group descends a hillside at Castle Hill Basin after a long day in the field. The area we mapped measured two square miles and extended all the way to the foothills of the tallest mountains in the background.

 

I’m here with 22 geology students from American liberal arts colleges. We won’t mix with the local New Zealanders until classes begin at the University of Canterbury next month. For now, it’s just us and a rotating cast of professors and teaching assistants. I like that everyone has a friendly attitude.

 

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A few of us pause for a photo op during a steep ascent of a limestone ridge. Tectonics have uplifted the limestone beds so much that in some places they are vertical, or even overturned. The beds continue onto the terrace behind us. You can see the vertical bedding exposed in the small hill to the left of the larger one. Also note the landslide scraps on the right of the photograph. This is a very active landscape!

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Professor Sam (left) and student Monte (right) try to distinguish between the bedding and cleavage planes of this sandstone at 14-Mile Beach. Bedding planes show how the sediment was originally deposited. Cleavage planes are where it later fractured. Ordinarily, they’re easy to tell apart, but these beds have been steeply uplifted. By measuring the orientations of bedding and cleavage at several locations across the beach, we were able to piece together the size and shape of a fold that was thousands of feet wide.

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Students play on a suspension bridge. Look how it flexes!

 

Each day we spend six to eight hours outside in the field making observations and taking measurements. Sometimes this means miles of hiking over hills and across rivers. Each night we spend a couple more hours in the classroom combining and interpreting our data. It’s a lot of work, though we do occasionally get days off to relax indoors or go off exploring on our own.

The university’s field stations serve as our base of operations. They have everything we could want: bunkrooms, classrooms, kitchens, bathrooms with hot showers, and half-decent internet. So far, we’ve spent nine days at Cass Field Station in the Southern Alps and five days at Westport Field Station on the West Coast. In a couple days, we’ll fly to the North Island to study volcanoes. Below are some more photos of the sites we’ve visited so far. 

 

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Scotts Beach, Kahurangi National Park. I climbed to the top of the tallest rock on the left. 

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Moria Gate limestone cave, Oparara Basin, Kahurangi National Park

           

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The famous “Pancake Rocks” of Paparoa National Park.

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On the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, we hiked toward Cape Foulwind (the rocks in the distance) where we surprised a seal sleeping in the plants. It was so well hidden we didn’t notice it until we were almost on top of it!

 

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