1. Education

How to Travel Like a Geologist

Lay people can visit the field

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How to Travel Like a Geologist

I served on NOAA Discoverer in 1979

Andrew Alden photo
group field trip

Field trips tied to a professional meeting are a great time.

Geology Guide photo
geo-tour leader

I address a Hayward fault tour group in Oakland.

Courtesy Fleur Helsingor

Geology is everywhere—even where you already are. But to learn more deeply about it, you don't have to actually become a field geologist to get the true hard-core experience. There are at least five other ways you can visit the land under a geologist's guidance. Four are for the few, but the fifth way—geo-safaris—is an easier way for the many.

1. Field Camp

Geology students have field camps, run by their colleges. For those you have to be enrolled in the degree program. If you're getting a degree, make sure you experience these expeditions, because these are where faculty members do the real work of imparting their science to students. The websites of college geoscience departments often have photo galleries from field camps. They're hard work and very rewarding. Even if you never put your degree to use, you'll gain from this experience.

2. Research Expeditions

Sometimes you can join working geoscientists on a research expedition. For example, when I was with the U.S. Geological Survey I had the good fortune to ride along on several research cruises along the southern coast of Alaska. Many in the USGS bureaucracy had this same opportunity, even some people without geology degrees. Some of my own memories and photos are in the Alaska geology list.

3. Science Journalism

Another avenue is to be a really good science journalist. Those are the folks who get invited to places like Antarctica or the Ocean Drilling Program to write books or stories for glossy magazines. These are not jaunts or junkets: everyone, writer and scientist, works hard. But money and programs are available for those in the right position. For a recent example, visit writer Marc Airhart's journal from the cenotes of Zacatón, Mexico, on geology.com.

4. Professional Field Trips

For professional geoscientists, the most fun are the special field trips that are organized around major scientific meetings. These happen in the days before and after a meeting, and all are led by professionals for their peers. Some are serious tours of things like research sites on the Hayward fault, while others are lighter fare like the geologic tour of Napa Valley wineries I took one year. If you can join the right group, like the Geological Society of America, you're in. Local geological societies can be a good alternative—for instance, see my photos from California's Sutter Buttes, taken on just such a field trip.

5. Geo-Safaris and Tours

For those first four options, you basically have to have a job in the business or be lucky enough to be near the action. But safaris and tours in the world's great countrysides, led by eager geologists, are for the rest of us. A geo-safari, even a short day trip, will fill you with sights and knowledge, and all you need to do in return is pay some money.

I've built a list of these geo-safaris, and it has a wide range. You can ride a small bus to the mines and villages of Mexico collecting minerals—or do the same in China; you can dig up real dinosaur fossils in Wyoming; you can see the San Andreas fault close up in the California desert. You can get dirty with real spelunkers in Indiana, trek upon the volcanoes of New Zealand, or tour the classic sites of Europe described by the first generation of modern geologists. Some are a nice side-trip if you're in the region whereas others are pilgrimages, to be prepared for like the life-changing experiences they truly are.

Many, many safari sites promise that you'll "experience the geologic wealth of the region," but unless they feature a professional geologist in the group I tend to leave them off the list. That doesn't mean you'll learn nothing on those safaris, only that there's no guarantee you'll really get a geologist's insight into what you see.

The Payoff

And geological insight is a rich reward that you'll take home with you. Because as your eye opens, so does your mind. You'll gain a better appreciation of your own locality's geologic features and resources. You'll have more things to show off to visitors (in my case, I can give you a geo-tour of Oakland). And through heightened awareness of the geologic setting you live in—its limitations, its possibilities and possibly its geoheritage—you'll inevitably become a better citizen.Finally, the more you know, the more things you can do on your own.

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