Finding global history in Alpine rock formations

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Photos by Emily Trost ’13

After the onslaught of midterms, most Princeton students headed home or into hibernation for the weeklong break that began after classes ended Oct. 28. While my classmates recovered, I stood in a Swiss quarry clumsily balancing a hardhat on my head, gazing up at massive walls of chalky yellow and white rock.

With me stood nine students from my paleontology course, a recent alumnus, a geosciences lecturer, a geosciences professor, a Swiss professor of geology, and his graduate student. Our Swiss guide asked us to examine the massive rock for clues about what sort of environment we would have been standing in over 130 million years ago. Putting our noses close to these chalky surfaces, we could see that these rocks told a surprising story. If we had been here 130 million years ago, we would have been walking on the seafloor.

We were looking at the remnants of ancient carbonate platforms, the products of today’s coral reefs that serve as indicators of changing ocean and global climate conditions over time. Our studies of mass extinctions in Professor Gerta Keller’s 300-level course, “Evolution and Catastrophes,” required an understanding of the many global processes that contribute to these severe environmental changes. But to really understand those processes, Keller makes it a necessity that her class travel each year. “The classroom is one thing,” she said. “It’s theoretical. You are shown pictures, given concepts, and explained things — but it’s not real.” Standing on an ancient seafloor in Switzerland, however, is.

A group photo taken near La Chambotte, a section of the subalpine chains.

A group photo taken near La Chambotte, a section of the subalpine chains. (Courtesy Alfonso Pardo)

Usually Keller takes her classes to study the geology of North African countries, but the demonstrations and protests of the Arab Spring forced her to go elsewhere this year. Collaborator and friend Thierry Adatte, a professor at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, offered to take our class instead on an educational journey from Geneva down to the Mediterranean Sea in Cassis, France. Inviting along  Annie and Hubert Arnaud, experts on the region’s geology, to help him teach, Adatte aimed to expose us to ancient changes in the environment on both small and large scales.

We spent the week traveling by van through the fall foliage of the French countryside, stopping where parts of an ancient ocean’s history could be seen on land. We trekked through several outdoor classrooms in the regions around the French and Swiss Alps — from the quarries to tunnels carved through limestone mountains and on to the grassy hills of southern France and a pebbly Mediterranean beach.

For graduate student Paula Mateo, studying geology in the field this way is a process of learning through an accumulation of experience. “Still today, I remember everything about the field trip,” she said. “[Going into the field] is the easiest way to learn and remember.”

Tracing these carbonate platforms for a week across southern Europe not only helped course concepts sink in, but it also brought to our attention things we wouldn’t have noticed before seeing them on the trip. “I realized how much I’ve passed up in past field trips,” geosciences major Nathan Mathabane ’13 said.

Andrew Budnick ’13, who has traveled with geosciences classes every semester since arriving at Princeton in 2009, said that there’s a unique thrill that comes along with these trips. “It’s so much easier to understand something,” he explained, “when you have to figure it out in the field for yourself.”


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Emily Trost ’13 is a geosciences major from Huntingdon Valley, Pa.

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