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Geography and geology class studies diverse landscape history of Ozarks

A group of WKU geography and geology students participated in a fieldtrip winding through the Ozarks, including the Salem Plateau and the St. Francois Mountain area of southeastern Missouri, as part of a Spring 2012 course in Geomorphology taught by Dr. Jason Polk.

During a geomorphology course in Missouri, a WKU group explored Elephant Rocks State Park. From left are Gil Oullette, Kyle Hogancamp, Nancy Toney, Evan Crowe, Ben Miller, Jenna Nall and Micah Ruth.

The trip was co-led by recent WKU graduate and Hoffman Institute staff member Benjamin Miller, a Missouri native who completed his thesis on complex springs systems in the area, along with WKU graduate student Nicholas Lawhon, who is completing a thesis related to chemical dissolution of karst (caves and springs) landscapes in Kentucky.

The purpose of the trip was to engage students in fieldwork related to fluvial, glacial, climatic and karst geomorphological processes and landforms, along with weathering and tectonic processes. The trip provided them with hands-on experience in studying and understanding these complex landscapes in a region that provides a natural classroom with diverse examples of geomorphology from 1.4 billion years of Earth’s history.

“Textbooks, pictures and lectures provide information, but nothing can compare to actually going out and seeing the features you are studying,” said undergraduate geology student Jenna Nall of Elizabethtown.

Geography karst geoscience major Micah Ruth of Bowling Green said the “very informative trip to south-central Missouri provided a collection of geomorphological history that tied together the course concepts from class well.”

In addition to Nall and Ruth, four other students participated in the course — undergraduates Evan Crowe of Scottsville, Kyle Hogancamp of Paducah and Nancy Toney of Munfordville, and graduate student Gilman Ouellette of Hawley, Pa.

Ben Miller explained a stromatolite layer at Big Spring to students Gil Oullette, Evan Crowe and Kyle Hogancamp.

The group visited several distinct regions to gain a comparative understanding of various geomorphological processes and landforms. One major theme was visiting the karst region of the Salem Plateau, which formed in sedimentary rocks, to examine fluvial (river) and karst processes.

The stops included Missouri’s largest spring and several smaller springs, the large losing stream of Logan Creek, and a visit to Onondaga Cave State Park to tour the spectacular evolution of an iconic Missouri cave system. Another stop for a different type of geomorphology included a long hike through the Pickle Springs Natural Area to see arches and canyons that formed in sedimentary sandstone bedrock.

The group’s other theme included the igneous geomorphology caused by volcanic and tectonic activity, which included several “shut-ins,” or constricted areas, that occur in streams when the harder igneous rock erodes away more slowly than surrounding rocks. The students also visited Taum Sauk Mountain, the highest point in Missouri, to learn about igneous glades and observe lichens, frost wedging, and other erosive processes.

A favorite stop was Elephant Rocks State Park to observe a large granitic exfoliation dome where elephant-size rocks remain after millions of years of erosion and weathering has rounded them out as they erode along weaknesses in the rock caused by “unloading” when pressure is released through tectonic uplift.

“I am very pleased that our students gain experience in the field by visiting one of the most unique and diverse geomorphological areas near WKU with all that the Ozarks offer, and it was greatly enhanced by having a local expert like Ben Miller helping to lead the trip” Dr. Polk said.

Students took notes about Blue Spring, whose name is derived from the calcium and magnesium rich waters emerging from the ground.

“I am very pleased with how engaged the students were and wish the trip could have been longer. For a subject like geomorphology, getting out of the classroom and into the field is necessary to truly appreciate and understand the concepts, and at each stop we also discussed the human aspects of geomorphology in shaping our environment, which produces critical thinking about applied geomorphology in the real world.”

Dr. David Keeling, head of the Department of Geography and Geology, noted that “field trips are one of the hallmarks of our discipline, and we make every effort each semester to get our students out into the local, regional, and international landscapes.  There’s no better way to learn than to smell, taste, see, feel and hear the physical and cultural environment under study.”

Contact: Jason Polk, (270) 745-5015.

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