Memories of a Golden Summer with the USGS in Colorado

David Applegate, U.S. Geological Survey, 12201 Sunrise Valley Drive MS 905, Reston VA 20192;

I spent the summer of 1989 working for the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colorado, on an NAGT/USGS Summer Field Camp Fellowship, for which I remain profoundly grateful to both NAGT and the USGS. Getting to Golden was made possible by a wonderful field camp experience the previous summer, when I was one of about a dozen rising juniors and seniors learning the ropes under the guidance of Bill Travers from Cornell. The first half of this field camp was in the Hoback Range of Wyoming, where we operated out of the University of Michigan geology department's collection of aluminum-roofed cabins nestled in a remote valley. I reached it by way of a 48-hour bus trip from Seattle to Jackson and then by hitch-hiking the rest of the way. Being of the generation that came to geology through the writings of John McPhee, the highlight of those first few weeks was a day's field trip through Jackson Hole with J. David Love, the USGS geologist who was the subject of McPhee's Rising from the Plains. For the second half of camp, we were thrown into mapping the hanging-wall and footwall of a metamorphic core complex in the Pioneer Mountains of Idaho. Unlike the well-trod exercise in the Hobacks, where generations of field-camp students had mapped the same locations, and the professors were armed with an answer key, Travers did not know the Pioneers any better than we did. That shared learning experience was far more representative of what research would be like and far more rewarding, stumbles and all. After camp was over, I re-boarded a Greyhound bus back to Seattle to spend the month of August trying out my new-found skills in the Olympic Mountains, mapping basalt slices in an accretionary complex for my senior thesis.

That was pretty much the sum total of field experience that I brought with me to Golden to serve as a field assistant for the USGS geologic mappers. The veteran field geologists for whom I was working– Ernie Anderson, Mike Machette, and Alan Nelson – were welcoming but clearly quite frustrated to be office-bound that summer as field work had been cancelled due to tight budgets. While it pained my mentors not to be traipsing around mountains, I was delighted to be spending the summer in Colorado. Having lived my life as an easterner, the glamour of being at the foot of the Front Range was considerable. I shared a little house on a ranch outside of town with two Colorado School of Mines students who worked for the USGS. I would ride my bike to the USGS office on the Mines campus every day, passing the giant Coors factory that still dominates the town and fills the air with the pungent scent of fermenting hops. Weekends were given over to exploring the high country in pursuit of 14,000 foot summits.

One of my main projects that summer was transferring detailed measurements that Ernie had made on airphotos in the field to a topographic map base. This involved spending many hours at a giant mechanical photogrammetric plotter -- a large, gangly contraption that made it possible to see the photos pop out in three dimensions. As one moved over the images, its spider-like arms traced those movements onto the topo maps. I would follow geologic contacts as I took virtual flight over the canyons and ridges of southern Nevada.

I used the same machine for Alan, tracing profiles across the tectonically uplifted beach terraces on Isla Mocha off the coast of Chile (and just south of the rupture zone for the magnitude-8.8 earthquake that struck Chile earlier this year). A full-time technician was required to laboriously set up the machine so that the stereo photo pairs were synchronized with the map. This wonder of precision optics has largely (but not entirely) been replaced by computer graphics in the digital era. The time spent poring over that terrain, however, was well spent, and the skills of careful geologic investigation are quite transferrable to a digital medium.

For his part, Mike sent me to the USGS library in the Denver Federal Center, where I did literature searches and compiled annotated bibliographies for the glacial and tectonic history of the Puget Sound lowlands and other areas. I enjoyed the serendipitous explorations that such a library afforded, following citations where they led down multiple paths (and the occasional intellectual gopher hole). I was a one-man Google search engine, blissfully unaware of my own looming obsolescence.

Throughout these projects, all three mentors were wonderful guides who made the effort to give context to these tasks and involve me in the broader scope of their research. At the end of that Golden summer, I headed to grad school with a much better sense of the work of a professional geologist and with a profound respect for the dedication and acumen of the men and women of the USGS. It took me 15 years to make it back to the USGS, where I coordinate geologic hazards activities. One of the two principal centers that my programs fund is the Geologic Hazards Science Center, the current incarnation of the branch where I worked that summer on the CSM campus. Down the hall from my old cubicle are the scientists who generate the National Seismic Hazard Maps that form the basis for seismic provisions in building codes that lie at the core of mitigating the toll of earthquakes. A floor above is the National Earthquake Information Center, a 24/7 operation monitoring and reporting on global earthquake activity. A floor below, the landslide group operates a debris-flow warning system in southern California, and the geomagnetism group maintains over a dozen observatories throughout the US and its territories, tracking fluctuations in the Earth's magnetic field and perturbations caused by solar storms.

Ernie had retired and Mike's retirement was imminent when I returned to Golden in 2004 shortly after joining the USGS again. Alan Nelson was still there and indeed is still going strong, undertaking paleoseismic studies that are changing our understanding of the earthquake hazard in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere. On that first trip back, I was asked to speak at an all-hands meeting, where I told the story of running into Ernie and Mike a few years earlier at a Geological Society of America meeting, where they greeted me warmly and said that they had just been talking about me. It turned out that the USGS library had contacted them about a book checked out to one of them some years back, and they thought, hey, maybe that Applegate kid had it. Alas, it was not one that I had used, but it was sure great to be remembered!


David Applegate is the senior science advisor for earthquake and geologic hazards at the U.S. Geological Survey.