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NMSU professor ventures to Alaska to collect geological samples for research

You might not think snow-covered Alaska and the desert Southwest have much in common. But New Mexico State University professor Brian Hampton says Alaska?s tectonic processes share similarities to those in the Southwest and make it a an ideal natural laboratory to explore.

Brian Hampton, NMSU assistant professor of geological sciences, treks through Alaska collecting samples for his research. (Courtesy photo)

Brian Hampton's students enjoy a sunset in the western Alaskan range in one of the researchers' field localities, the Revelation Mountains. (Courtesy photo)

During his trips to Alaska to conduct research, Brian Hampton cautions his students to "expect the unexpected." On several occasions, the team has spotted bears out in the field. (Courtesy photo)

?In addition to Alaska being the Last Frontier, it is also a geologic frontier and is one of the most tectonically active areas on Earth,? said Hampton, geological sciences assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at NMSU. ?We?re really interested in studying sedimentary rocks and the stratigraphic record to inform us about the timing and mechanisms that drive mountain-building processes today and in the geologic past.?

Hampton?s research focuses on the relationship between tectonics, erosion, climate, and sedimentation, and he and his research group at NMSU are working on a project that will help the geologic community better understand the tectonic history of Alaska and western North America. Hampton and his group of NMSU graduate students typically spend part of the summer months in the remote backcountry of Alaska conducting geologic mapping and studying the sedimentary deposits associated with the erosion of ancient mountain belts. Hampton explained that there is a strong need for geologic studies in remote parts of Alaska given that very little of the state has been mapped or studied in much detail.

?We?re looking at rocks that are anywhere between 300 to 400 million years old,? he said. ?We describe the rocks? organization, how they stack, their architecture and can get individual ages on the sediment that is deposited. These types of data sets can tell us a lot about the erosional history of how this area evolved.?

The goal of the project is to characterize the rocks in order to better understand where the terrain originated.

Graduate student Kraig Koroleski accompanied Hampton on his field work during the summers of 2011 and 2012.

?I had always wanted to see the great frontier of Alaska, with all of the lush and flourishing wildlife hidden away in the mountains,? he said. ?I was inspired by the weight of the research we were conducting. As field geologists, we hike up to the rocks, measure, photograph all the details, inspect them with hand lenses, and collect them to bring back to the lab. With this research I hope to contribute to the geological understanding of a highly complicated part of Alaska.?

In addition to the research themes of this project, there is also an educational outreach component. When not conducting fieldwork in Alaska, Hampton spends his time working with local K-12 teachers to find better ways of introducing geologic concepts into the classroom.

?The ultimate goal is to find an effective way of introducing very basic geologic themes to students who are in the early stages of their education,? Hampton said. ?Geoscientists will play a key role in the future in the discovery and responsible management of natural resources that are required by society. It is important that the geologic research community is involved with helping to engage and train the next generation of geologists, and that starts at the K-12 level.?

Hampton has also given general Alaska geology talks for various community groups including museums and libraries.

?Everyone is always excited to see pictures and mountain scenery from Alaska and we often get a lot of questions about what its like to live and work in the backcountry,? he added.

Even in summer, Alaskan living in a remote area accessible only by helicopter can be challenging with daylight lasting until 11 p.m. There is little to no infrastructure ? no roads, signs or hiking trails. Hampton cautions students in his research group to expect the unexpected and roll with the punches.

?You really need to do your background research on the field area and be prepared for a wide range of landscapes and weather conditions,? he said. ?Mountain weather can change very quickly so you have to be prepared for any types of conditions. In most cases, we?re really out in the middle of nowhere in very exposed mountain ranges so you have to be physically and mentally prepared and ready to work and live in the backcountry.?

In addition to the physical and mental demands of working in the Alaska are the challenges and rewards of sharing the backcountry with the local wildlife. It?s not uncommon for the group to come across grizzly and black bears, caribou and moose.

?One of our biggest concerns is bear safety,? Hampton said. ?All members of our research team are trained in best-use practices for making our camp as safe as possible. This starts with making sure all food is stored in bear-proof containers away from camp. We also make sure to make plenty of noise while we are hiking and mapping. By doing our part to mitigate bears getting into our food cache and give them plenty of warning that we are in the area, we can greatly reduce the likelihood of a negative bear incident.?

On his most recent expedition this past summer, Hampton and his team discovered a new formation; a non-marine sedimentary deposit that had been previously incorrectly mapped. The formation is also considerably younger than it was originally thought to be.

The samples taken are currently being analyzed. In early 2015, Hampton and his team of NMSU researchers will head to the University of Arizona to analyze data about the samples.

For part of this project, Hampton has collaborated with geologists at the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage, Alaska, as well as with researchers at the Arizona LaserChron Center at the University of Arizona. Hampton's current Alaska research has been funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and U.S. Geological Survey. Some of the findings from this project were published last month in the geology journal Lithosphere.