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Geologic Column
Working — and writing — in the rain
Lisa A. Rossbacher

Geologists have always dealt with less-than-ideal conditions for doing fieldwork. Rain, snow, cold, heat, humidity, aridity — most people have a favorite story about “the worst conditions ever.” Field days, and even entire field seasons, have been wiped out by the weather.

Increasingly, technology is making it possible for geologists to work in conditions that were once prohibitively inclement or extreme. For a field geologist, however, being in the field area — whatever the environmental conditions — is only the first step. The critical element is collecting accurate, useful, readable notes about the evidence that is found there, and that’s what weather can prevent.

People in a wide range of professions who work in the field have traditionally had a problem with taking notes in damp or wet conditions. The problem occurs in rain, drizzle, humidity, fog or wherever there is a risk of getting splashed, sweated over, dropped, dunked or spilled upon. The paper gets soggy. The ink smears. The pages disintegrate.

One solution that addresses this problem is all-weather writing paper, of which the best known is marketed by the J.L. Darling Company as “Rite in the Rain.” Jerry Darling was a printer who originally invented the process of applying an oil-based coating to regular paper in the 1920s for the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest. The formula includes paraffin and titanium dioxide, but only six people know the complete secret formula. These waterproof papers have expanded from notebooks for the specialized needs of the logging industry to a line of materials that are used around the world.

The company has adapted their products to a wide range of outdoor activities. Specialized notebooks are available for field geologists, ornithologists, landscapers, contractors, commercial fishers, competitive skiers, law-enforcement personnel, divers, search-and-rescue specialists and the military. The paper has traveled to Rapa Nui and Afghanistan, to the top of Mount Everest and to the bottom of limestone caves.

Waterproof paper has gone to some other interesting places as well. The musher’s diary for the Iditarod must be waterproof; the health of every dog is documented at each checkpoint, in some very cold and wet conditions. In the wake of hurricanes, Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel and insurance adjusters use waterproof paper. And such paper was part of the production of a number of films, including The Blair Witch Project and Free Willy. Around the world, waterproof paper is used for “geocaching,” which is documenting the locations of hidden deposits of small trinkets and large bragging rights. Field biologists have used waterproof notebooks to record information about seals, dolphins and gorillas.

Few products have been as thoroughly field-tested as waterproof paper, and serious users have found some problems. Notebook covers have been known to disintegrate, although the paper remained intact. Pencil writing can smear, especially if the lead is relatively soft (less than 2H; see “Pick Up Your Pencils Please,” Geotimes, November 2004). Ink can spread, although this is usually the result of dilution by beaded water rather than any flaw in the waterproofing. Water can soak into the paper, underneath the waterproofing, from the edges. However, these are relatively minor issues, compared with total disintegration of a set of field notes.

In the recent past, geologists collected their field notes during the day and then spent the evenings transcribing them into computers. Laptops were far too fragile and too susceptible to damp, dust and dropping to be a field tool. With the advent of “ruggedized” computers, however, laptops and notebook computers are now part of doing fieldwork, and some geologists skip the handwritten part of the process by entering data directly into a computer, under once-prohibitive conditions. Total stations with data recorders are another example of a technology that skips the paper record completely.

Notebook computers are usually enclosed in an aluminum or magnesium casing, rather than molded plastic. The keyboard and ports are sealed to protect against liquids and dirt, and the key internal elements are mounted to absorb shock. Ideally, the laptop will meet “Military Standard 810E,” which means, among other criteria, surviving a 3-foot drop onto a concrete surface.

Ruggedized notebook computers have been described as the “John Waynes of portable computing.” They take whatever you can dish out. However, they are also generally heavy (9 to 12 pounds), and they can easily cost $4,000 to $6,000 or more. But when the conditions dictate, they can be exactly the right technology for the job.

Other field equipment is increasingly designed for harsh treatment. Trimble, for example, produces a “ruggedized” GPS total station that claims higher precision in extreme conditions, “built to survive a pole drop of up to 6 ft and can be submerged in 3 ft of water.” The equipment may cope with field conditions better than the geologists can.

Notetaking and data collection are essential parts of geological fieldwork. Generations of students have been taught, “If you don’t write it down, you won’t remember it.” If your notes have dissolved, disintegrated or been lost, the outcome is exactly the same. Technology is available to protect data from splashing, dunking, drenching and dropping. Now, if someone would only invent field books and laptops that could always be located...


Rossbacher, a geologist, is president of the Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga.

Link:

Pick Up Your Pencils Please,” Geotimes, November 2004

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