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Education & Outreach

Geologic Etiquette in a Mechanized Era
Peter A. Scholle

Geologists love rocks. That is pretty much a given for people making a career choice in the geosciences. But geologists also are hard on rocks. We are trained, Neanderthal-style, to bash rocks in the field with hammers and other hard objects, to pulverize them in the preparation room, and to dissolve or vaporize them in the laboratory. As an old song title goes, sometimes you have to hurt the ones you love in order to gain a greater good. But a greater good also involves some considerate choices in what we destroy for science. Intact outcrops — rock formations exposed at the surface (for example in road cuts) — have lasting benefits for the education of future generations of geoscientists or as classic localities that can aid in teaching geology to the general public.

Removal of rock samples has defaced one of the most easily accessible outcrops of the Yates Formation back-reef dolomite (white) and sandstone (yellow) in Dark Canyon, N.M. Photo by Peter Scholle.

Hammers and chisels have been the traditional tools of our field-based trade. Although they can do substantial damage in terms of removing material, they leave behind fractured surfaces that mimic what was there before. Thus, they generally preserve substantially unimpaired the visual benefits of an outcrop, allowing geologists to sample with clear conscience virtually any locality for which they have access and permission. The development, over the past decade or two, of modern geologic weapons of mass destruction — powered rock drills and saws, and even explosives — has changed that equation substantially.

Individual relatively small drill holes, craters left where rock saws have done their work, and cavern-sized openings where larger power saws or explosives have been employed do not leave natural-looking scars. Evidence of their use will remain as unsightly markers literally for hundreds of thousands of years or longer. Spray-painted markings of sample numbers or stratigraphic designations, while less enduring, still form unsightly graffiti that will visually impact subsequent visitors for many years to come, to the discredit of the entire geoscience community.

Outcrops victimized by mechanized equipment abound in the famous Permian reef complex in the Guadalupe Mountains of New Mexico and western Texas. Although not an especially lofty or scenic mountain range, the Guadalupe Mountains nevertheless expose one of the finest examples of an ancient reef and associated deposits found anywhere in the world. Rising from insignificant hills near Carlsbad to cliffs of 1,000 meters and more at the south end of the mountains, this area allows someone to walk from an ancient basin floor upslope to the exposed ancient reef that forms the skyline rim of the range. From there, a person can walk or drive westward through a variety of ancient shelf deposits of limestone, dolomite, sandstone and gypsum.

The range is home to two national parks (Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad Caverns) that have helped to preserve these unique rocks. Although most of the vandalized sites are outside the parks, they nevertheless are classic geological sites, described in dozens of field trip guidebooks and visited annually by hundreds to thousands of academic and industrial geologists as part of field courses.

One locality is just a few tens of feet from the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and involves an outcrop that had been cleaned and gently etched with hydrochloric acid by many geologists over the years for better viewing of its spectacular biological and sedimentary structures. The other sites are from fossil reefs and related deposits that are wonderful resources for understanding the fauna and environmental setting of the petroleum-producing rocks of this region — a region that bears striking similarities to modern limestone-forming areas such as the Bahamas.

These other sites have had many of their best fossils and sedimentary structures removed with rock saws and are now gouged with unsightly pits that range in size from tens of centimeters to meters in surface diameter and depth. Similar damage can be found at other Guadalupe Mountains localities and at many other superb outcrops throughout the United States (including ones along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon region that will continue to offend the sensibilities of rafters in that area for millennia to come).

Although I know some of the geologists responsible for the destruction at these sites, I do not know all of them. I have little doubt, however, that their work was worthwhile, or at least potentially worthwhile. The point is not to stop such sampling where it has a valid purpose. But at the risk of becoming known as the Emily Post of geology, let me suggest that there should be some sense of etiquette, and some consideration for the rest of the geoscience community and the public, both now and in the future.

The same or similar samples could have been obtained, albeit with a bit more effort, at some nearby, far less-visited and less-photogenic outcrop. I understand that the sampling equipment, the water required to cool such machinery and the obtained samples are heavy. But permanently defaced oft-visited outcrops are also a “heavy” price to pay for convenience. Some of this destruction was done by graduate students as part of thesis projects. Their graduate advisors bear a substantial share of the responsibility; a discussion of suitable sampling methodologies and localities should have been part of their advising process.

There are many rock outcrops in this country, but only a limited number that are frequently used for teaching. We should all be working to protect those classic outcrops, and we should be training students to do the same. Let’s not become known as the utterly self-centered “me generation” of geologists, and let’s get our act together before laser and nuclear field equipment is developed.

Scholle is the state geologist of New Mexico and the director of the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources.

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