Spring Break in Death Valley

UAS students braved the desert to learn geology field techniques


Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong 

Eleven University of Alaska Southeast students battled 50 mph winds and sand in their sleeping bags to study geology at Death Valley National Park in California over spring break. Students camped out for five nights at Death Valley and explored different parts of the national park every day to learn what it’s like to do fieldwork. 

Assistant Professor of Geology Sonia Nagorski has been teaching and doing research at UAS for 14 years. This was the first year the class was offered and Nagorski deemed it a success. 

“I think that the students learned a lot and got a sense of what it’s like to do geology field work, be in the desert and understand the complexities of unraveling Earth’s structure and history. It was also really fun,” Nagorski said. 

Students learned about geologic mapping, measuring rock formations, the processes that make different kind of landforms and faults, and the geologic history of Death Valley. 

Inspiring Landscape

When Nagorski was an undergraduate student, she took a class that went to Death Valley. She said it was inspiring for her as a student to see the landscape and understand its geologic formation. She called it a turning point. 

“When deciding to become a geology major was when I took that trip, so for years I’ve been wanting to do the same for my students,” Nagorski said. “So 25 years later I went back as the leader of the trip.”

UAS senior Madison Bargas is a marine biology major with a minor in environmental science. She said she took the class because she had never been to Death Valley and it looked like fun. 

“It was super cool, it was really nice to get out of biology and do a class with other students that I may have only had one class with before, and learn something totally new,” Bargas said. “I learned a ton about geology. I’ve taken a geology course before and you learn how tectonic plates move and how it forms landforms, but I feel like actually being out in the field and seeing what it created all those millions of years ago was really helpful in putting it all together.” 


In the middle of the week the group experienced 40 to 50 mph winds, which covered their camp in sand. That required shaking sand out of tents, sleeping bags and backpacks. 

Muriel Walatka is a senior studying geography and environmental resources. She said she had a blast on the trip and learned a lot. She described the sand as challenging.

 “Cooking dinner was a challenge because we didn’t want to eat sand, so we had to find shelter to eat dinner. Sleeping was a challenge also because the sand went through our tent fly and when we woke up, we were just caked in sand! It was like an exfoliator for my face!” Walatka said. 

Endangered Fish

The class toured a limestone cave called Devils Hole Pupfish, which is the only home to the rarest and most endangered fish species in the world. Only 35 of the fish are left. This gave the students an opportunity to mix in some biology and talk about how the fish got there. 

“It was cool to get a mix of biology and geology together,” Bargas said. 

“I definitely would recommend this trip for anyone remotely interested in any kind of science because it’s a really good introduction to fieldwork, what’s expected of you in the field, and how to work as a team,” Walatka said. 

GEOL 393 Field Geology- Death Valley is a special topics class, but Nagorski hopes to get it into the catalog so it can be offered every other year over spring break. 

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