14 February 2013

Love (of fieldwork) hurts! Accretionary Wedge #55)

Posted by Jessica Ball

Maitri’s hosting this month’s Accretionary Wedge, and she’s asking us to share our battle scars (or “geo-injuries”). For some reason, this struck me as an excellent topic to talk about on Valentine’s day, so instead of showing you photos of heart-shaped lava fountains or volcanic bombs, I’m getting into the real bloody side of field work.

I’m reasonably careful when it comes to field work, because you have to be when you work on volcanoes, but I’m just as likely to fall prey to a twisted ankle or scrape myself up on an outcrop as the next person. Many of my geology-related scars have faded by now, so there’s not much of me to show, but I remember where I got all the interesting ones. So instead of seeing bits of my currently fish-belly-pale skin (we don’t get much sun in the winter in Buffalo), I’ll show you some photos from those trips instead, and point out in a less revealing way where I took away souvenirs.

Anatomy of an only-slightly-banged-up-geologist

1. Permanently embedded a’a lava from the Zuni-Bandera Volcanic Field, NM

My very first lava flow! I spent a lot of time on this trip wearing shorts, which turned out to be a bad idea when I climbed my first volcano...

This was one injury that I actually don’t mind having a souvenir from. I’m pretty sure it was from the first lava flow I ever visited in the field, which was the McCartys Flow in the Zuni-Bandera Volcanic Field in New Mexico (a 3000-year-old basalt lava flow erupted from a shield volcano). Having never walked on a lava flow, I didn’t realize that it would probably be a good idea to wear gloves, and I managed to get some crunched-up-a’a bits stuck in my palm. One of them never really worked its way out, so I have a little black speck still in there. I’m actually kind of fond of this one – it means I’m always carrying a bit of a volcano with me. And I still have it, so I can actually show it off:

My own personal bit of volcano...

2. Taking a shortcut through the foliage on SP Crater, Arizona

This is post-antiseptic and the bleeding scratches are hidden in the shadows, but suffice to say that I have resigned myself to never being a pantyhose model.

This one I’ve written about for another Accretionary Wedge. Suffice to say that SP Crater is covered with thistles and spiky, thorny little bushes as well as scoria, and it’s a terrible idea to climb it in shorts. The scars are mostly gone now, but the chagrin remains. (Although I have to admit that I didn’t feel much of the trauma until someone pointed out that I was bleeding quite a bit once I got to the top.) I’d say that I was trying to establish myself as a tough field geologist, but mostly what I was thinking was that I was going to get to the top of that scoria cone and no stupid bush was going to stop me.

3. Toasted by active lava flows in Hawaii

Take the darned picture already!

This one was from a 2006 field trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. I honestly don’t know why I rolled up my sleeves before taking this photo – I had them down for the bit where I hooked a blob of lava out of a flow just a few minutes earlier – but it wasn’t such a hot idea. (Or why I rolled them up but left the gloves on. I can only plead adrenaline overload, since I was so excited to see¬†an active flow.) Anyway, I ended up with a whole swathe of little bitty blisters on both arms, and had little pale dots left over for a couple of years afterward. Lava flows are hot!

It could have been a lot worse – one woman on the trip didn’t have gloves on during the hike back, tripped and embedded quite a bit of volcanic glass in her palms. We had to give her a lot of scotch when we got back to the campground before our medically-trained military vet could pick it out for her.

4. Lost a fight with a juniper tree on the Fish Lake Plateau, Utah

It's faster to go straight down, as long as you don't impale yourself on a tree!

I tend to take a ‘shortest distance between two points’ approach when I’m doing field mapping, because I’m slow and I don’t like to make people wait for me. Occasionally, that means going through brush or scrub if the clear path is much longer. This means that I tend to ‘disagree’ with whatever foliage happens to be in my way. In this case, on a traverse on the Fish Lake Plateau in Utah in 2007, I ran right into a shoulder-height pointy broken-off branch of a juniper tree (tough little bastards, those) and punched a smallish hole in my shoulder. The tree lost the branch, but as it’s still standing I have to give it the win.

5. Sat too close to the Guatemalan sawgrass

The grass in question in the foreground. I'm not sure what the guys were doing in this one...

Once we got used to hearing the sound of a volcano erupting every hour or so (it sounds just like a jet going overhead), and the occasional earthquake, and the threat of being hunted by jaguars, the campsite at my field area at the Santiaguito lava dome complex was really very pleasant. Except for the grass. I don’t know exactly what kind of grass it was (some sort of Cladium?), but I started thinking of it as sawgrass after I stood up and caught one of the blades along my bare arm, where it definitely lived up to the ‘blade’ part. Nasty little scratch, that, but given that I was working on an active lava dome complex at the time, not a major problem. (Given that the other potential hazards were eruptions, ash, hot fumaroles, and potentially jaguars, I think I made off pretty well!)

The rest of my geo-injuries have faded from memory and skin, although I tend to re-establish specific ones every time I go to the field (like the blisters on my heels or the stab wounds from swinging my forearm into the point of a holstered rock hammer!) I consider myself pretty lucky, actually, given that I do work on active volcanoes – I’ve never been caught in an eruption and haven’t needed to go to the hospital for anything. Here’s hoping I can keep up the trend!