9/03/2019 Peter Durantine

Students Map, Study Live Volcano in California

It’s mid-summer. Mount Shasta’s snow-covered peaks in sunny northern California rise before the Franklin & Marshall student-faculty research team. They work around this active volcano to map igneous flows and study molten materials just beneath the earth.

“This project deals with a lot of chemical analyses and interpretation of how magmatic bodies are interacting under the surface. I find that absolutely exhilarating,” said Sam Patzkowsky, a senior geoscience major with an eye on graduate school. 

Patzkowksy and senior geoscience major Halle Putera conducted geological fieldwork in the Cascade Mountains of California and Oregon with Stanley Mertzman, the Earl D. Stage and Mary E. Stage Professor of Geosciences. 

  • At the Golden Dome lava tube, senior geoscience majors Sam Patzkowksy and  Halle Putera prepare to descend below the earth. At the Golden Dome lava tube, senior geoscience majors Sam Patzkowksy and Halle Putera prepare to descend below the earth. Image Credit: Stanley Mertzman
  • A skylight the students passed through was formed by a small, natural collapse in the ceiling of the lava tube. A skylight the students passed through was formed by a small, natural collapse in the ceiling of the lava tube. Image Credit: Stanley Mertzman
  • The students at Black Crater, "the largest of a number of spatter cones that stretch for nearly a mile in a linear arrangement called a fissure eruption," Mertzman says. "It was a source of pahoehoe lava flows and small lava tubes whose opening range in size from medicine balls to washing machines." The students at Black Crater, "the largest of a number of spatter cones that stretch for nearly a mile in a linear arrangement called a fissure eruption," Mertzman says. "It was a source of pahoehoe lava flows and small lava tubes whose opening range in size from medicine balls to washing machines." Image Credit: Stanley Mertzman
  • A road leading into Mount Shasta. A road leading into Mount Shasta. Image Credit: Stanley Mertzman
  • Patzkowksy and Putera, back at the cabin in Weed, California, examine their rock findings from the day's exploration. Patzkowksy and Putera, back at the cabin in Weed, California, examine their rock findings from the day's exploration. Image Credit: Stanley Mertzman
  • In back, from left to right, are Mount Shasta, F&M seniors Sam Patzkowsky and Halle Putera, and Geoscience Professor Stanley Mertzman. They were joined by Emily Wilson, F&M geoscience lab technician. In back, from left to right, are Mount Shasta, F&M seniors Sam Patzkowsky and Halle Putera, and Geoscience Professor Stanley Mertzman. They were joined by Emily Wilson, F&M geoscience lab technician. Image Credit: Stanley Mertzman

“Mount Shasta last erupted 300 years ago, and, as people found out, many volcanos have a rhythm,” Mertzman said. “Humans might live 75, 85 years; volcanos have that same kind of rhythm—they may have 100, 200, 300 years between eruptions. But some will go as long as 5,000, 7,000 years between eruptions. It’s up to scientists to tease out when the next eruption is likely to occur.” 

To this end, scientists study the composition of past lava flows and silica found in volcanic rocks, Mertzman said. “The degree of danger, the degree of explosivity to that volcano is directly proportional to that silica content. As the silica content goes up, the viscosity of the magma goes up, which means that it becomes thicker, pastier, more difficult for the effervescent gases to get through the material – and kaboom! – much more explosive.”

Research by the two Hackman scholars included determining what volcanic rocks, such as basalts and andesites, were located in which areas, and then bringing samples back to F&M’s lab, slicing the rocks into thin sections, and examining them on microscope slides.

“I'm hoping that the laboratory work is just as interesting as being in the field,” Putera said. “I think it certainly will be based off the variety of basalts and andesites we dug out of the area.” 

The students enjoyed their research independence, which convinced both to pursue at least graduate degrees in geology. 

“Sam and I worked in our own designated area without Professor Mertzman there to help us. It gave us a sense of independence while also forcing us to think clearly and critically because we didn't have our back-up rock expert there to give us all the answers,” Putera said. “It felt like we were on a real job.”

Patzkowsky agreed and said, “Time spent in the field helped me narrow down what my plans are for the future.  I realized that I really enjoy field work and that when searching for grad schools, I will be looking for projects that have field work.”

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