Digging deep: Students and professors study Alaskan volcanoes

Madison Weaver, Senior Writer

Many fundamental questions have remained elusive due to the lack of data, probably due to their remote, rugged location. Why are they so much larger than other volcanoes?  When did they start to erupt?”

Professor of Geology Jeff Trop, along with students Ben Bliss ’19 and Brian Moretti ’18, have been working on a science project a bit bigger than traditional paper-mache volcanoes. The researchers are part of a larger team studying the Wrangell Volcanic Belt in Alaska, which contains some of the largest volcanoes in the world.

The massive volcanoes have intrigued scientists for decades, including Trop. Since his time as an undergraduate field assistant in the Alaska Range in Denali National Park, Trop has been studying the geological evolution of southern Alaska.

“Many fundamental questions have remained elusive due to the lack of data, probably due to their remote, rugged location. Why are they so much larger than other volcanoes? When did they start to erupt? Did they erupt continuously or episodically? Are they related to subduction of oceanic crust or strike-slip tectonics along major faults?” Trop said, explaining why he became involved in this research.

While there have not been any recent significant eruptions, volcanoes along the belt currently show signs of activity, including steam and ash plumes.

The researchers study the formation of the volcanoes using sediment collected from rivers, geological mapping, and rock sample collections to learn more about the geology and history of the volcanoes. Through their research, the scientists found that the volcanoes’ particular position at the edge of an oceanic plate may be the driving force behind the continuous activity and large size.

“I recruited collaborators Dr. Jeff Benowitz and Dr. Matt Brueseke to collect geochronologic and geochemical data needed to decipher the origin and evolution of the volcanoes,” Trop said.

Along with the scientists from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Kansas State University, Trop has documented the findings in a paper published online by Terra Nova Journal, and presented these findings at the American Geophysical Union conference.

Bliss has worked with Trop for two summers, including research at the Wrangell Mountains during the summer of 2017. His role consisted of analyzing volcanic lithic age dates that were collected from rivers in the Wrangell Volcanic Field.

While he laments not being able to travel to Alaska for the research, Bliss did have the opportunity to present his research at the Geological Society of America National Conference where he met with professors and professionals from across the United States, Canada, Belgium, and China.

“I’m continuing on to graduate school to pursue research because of the experiences I’ve had here at Bucknell,” Bliss said. “I love the intellectual freedom and creativity that research inspires and requires. When faced with the prospect of a decision on life after Bucknell, my only real consideration was graduate school, where I can continue to take part in exciting research projects.”

Professor of Geology Carl Kirby also became involved in the project after teaching geographic information systems, or GIS, techniques to undergraduates at the University. After the students graduated or moved to different projects, Kirby took on the digital mapping aspects for the project.

“I’ve enjoyed working with the students and working on a project outside of my main area of expertise, which is aqueous environmental geochemistry,” Kirby said.

“Personally, I find working with colleagues and students more productive and enjoyable than carrying out research alone. Many modern scientific problems require collaboration among diverse specialists. And students like Ben and Brian seem to really enjoy acquiring knowledge and skills through research projects,” Trop said.

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