Taking on the mountain
Mother nature’s recipe for making a mountain could be broken down into a few simple steps:
1) Take two pieces of earth
2) Press slowly together
3) Add heat
4) Let rise for about 250 million years
Lisa Tranel devotes her research to studying that slow rise, and what it does to the surface of a mountain. An assistant professor of geology, Tranel will return to the Guadalupe Mountains in Texas to study the connection between mountain uplift and erosion.
With landmarks bearing names such as Dog Canyon, McKittrick Ridge, Nickel Creek and Tejas Trail, the area sounds like the location for a 1930s Western movie rather than a geological exploration. Yet the region holds millions of years of formations that continue to evolve. “There has not been a recorded surface earthquake since the early 1930s,” said Tranel of the Guadalupe Mountains, “but there’s a lot going on underneath.”
Tranel and her team are looking to find evidence that underground activity is impacting the surface. “We’ll be exploring areas of upwelling – or where magma is rising under the surface – and seeing if that contributes to erosion on the surface itself,” said Tranel, who has been traveling to the mountain range for years. “Studies have been done in the past with seismic imaging of the mantle. So we have a good idea of what is going on beneath the ground, but we want to understand how deep mantle convection affects the top level and if erosion is occurring faster in those spots.”
The work is part of a $50,000, two-year grant Tranel received from the American Chemical Society’s Petroleum Research Fund. Part of her work will explore erosion rates in the basins and if deep-mantle convection makes an impact on the erosion and sediment accumulation.
Tranel’s grant encourages research with undergraduate students. She plans to take two students with her on each of the two trips to West Texas. Work in the field is invaluable, said alumna Laura Hoffman, who accompanied Tranel on a trip to the Guadalupe Mountains in 2012. “Without conducting field work I wouldn’t have been able to develop my research skills.”
On this trip, Tranel’s team will camp at the Guadalupe National Park and collect samples and document surface features across a two-mile section of the mountains.
“We’ll be hiking each day to the sites, so we need to stay near the collection locations. Camping in Dog Canyon will give us quick access, but keep us away from the basin that might flood if there are heavy rains,” said Tranel.
Keeping students safe is key to any fieldwork, especially with undergraduates who may not have much experience working on site. “It is a rugged landscape, so we have to be careful. We will head there in fall or over Spring Break, when the weather isn’t as hot and dry.”
The same undergraduate students will be studying the area through the University’s Geographic Information System (GIS). “Before they even set foot on the mountain, they will be creating computer models to study elevation data,” said Tranel.
Overall, Tranel hopes the research will offer insights for future geologists. “We all build on each other’s knowledge to answer the questions about the Earth’s processes,” she said.
Perhaps during her travels, Tranel will uncover a new flavor in Mother Nature’s recipe.