November 8, 2010

Geology in the Wintry Mix

Posted by Evelyn Mervine

Where is that contact again?, Montana, Fall 2005.

Many people in New England had their first taste of winter today with a wet, slushy snowfall. Here on Cape Cod we haven’t had any snow yet, but we’ve had nasty, cold rain all day. Today’s cold rain is my least-favorite sort of weather for geology fieldwork. I don’t mind snow- except when it accumulates so much that you cannot see the rocks. My second least-favorite weather for geology fieldwork is a hot summer day in the Middle East. But at least the heat is a dry heat and you can guzzle liters of gatorade. I definitely prefer the dry desert heat of Jordan (which is more moderate than Saudi or Oman, but still intense) in August to the just-above-freezing weather that produces cold rain and sometimes slush. Weather forecasters call this sort of precipitation “wintry mix.”

Wintry mix sounds festive, but New Englanders groan at such a forecast. I’ll take real snow over wintry mix any day. Wintry mix just means that the slushy rain is going to freeze into ice once the temperature drops at night. Wintry mix just means that in addition to being cold you are going to be soaking wet. Wintry mix just means that you can’t wear your snug, down-stuffed winter gear, which flattens and thus becomes less-warm in the rain. Instead, you have layer sweaters and fleeces under your rain jacket and wear two pairs of wool socks in your rain boots or hiking boots. Wintry mix means that your “Rite-in-the-Rain” field notebook is going to malfunction… this is the only sort of weather in which I’ve found it difficult to write in those robust, amazing field notebooks. Personally, I advocate changing the name of wintry mix to “wintry sh*t.”

I prefer fieldwork in snowy weather over wintry mix weather because even though the temperature is lower, you feel warmer because you’re not wet. Of course, geology fieldwork in the snow is somewhat problematic, even if you can keep yourself warm. Geologists dislike anything (vegetation, houses, water, alluvium, etc.) covering up the rocks they are trying to examine. Snowfall therefore presents a problem.

Although less-than-ideal, I have done some geology fieldwork in the snow. During my undergraduate field program, we did some mapping in Montana in early September. We had to shovel the snow off the outcrops in order to identify them. The teaching assistants took pity on us and helped us find key contacts, at least.  Most recently, I was on a geology trip in Switzerland & Italy and had to hike through significant snowfall… in early June! We didn’t expect or even particularly dress for heavy snow, but we didn’t let that stop the field trip. Geologists are tough… though a few of us did purchase some expensive (Switzerland is expensive!) hats and gloves.

A long climb, The Alps, Italy, June 2010.

White-out!, The Alps, Switzerland, June 2010.

There is one good thing about doing geology in the snow, though… at least you know when bears (and other snowprint-leaving animals) are around!

Rite-in-the-Rain field notebook (for scale) and bear track, Montana, Fall 2005.

Another good thing about doing geology in the snow/wintry mix is that it feels wonderful to go back to a hot meal and a warm cabin/tent at the end of the day… particularly when your cabin looks like this: 

Beautiful cabin, The Alps, Italy, June 2010.

We didn’t actually stay in this cabin (I think Heidi lives there), but we stayed in a quaint little hotel just down the hill a bit. Beautiful, especially because there was no snow at lower elevations.

Okay, it’s time for me to drive home through the wintry mix. I hope the roads aren’t frozen yet!