a. If not, you probably aren’t concentrating in Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. Each summer, undergraduates concentrating in EPS have the opportunity to participate in an expense-paid field trip to a destination full of opportunities to learn geoscience and bond with classmates. In August 2016, 19 EPS undergraduates flew from Cambridge to the Big Island of Hawaii with the intention of getting up close and personal with volcanoes, climatic gradients, coastal features, and getting excited for the fall term.
a. In a word, it’s AMAZING! For a moment you can hold the newest piece of rock on the planet. Trying to scoop up some lava with a rock hammer is harder than it looks; its viscosity (resistance to flow) means it is surprisingly thick. It takes some effort to dig at it, and the heat emanating from even isolated lava flows makes it difficult to stand close to the lava for more than a few seconds at a time. Flowing basaltic lava has a temperature of about 1200°C, but it cools quickly when it’s exposed to ambient air. So quickly, in fact, that instead of forming a hard rock that you would Read more about Have you ever wondered what it’s like to scoop up molten lava?
a. So, maybe you haven’t thought about it. But after you see how quickly lava cools when exposed to air, you may wonder how some of the lava flows on Hawaii managed to travel for tens of miles before cooling. Most long flows self-insulate by forming lava tubes that allow the lava to remain hot and flow further.
a. 360 Photos: 22, 23; 360 Videos: 24—Mauna Loa hike, elevation 7000 ft. (8/18/16) This location gives you a sense of shape and scale of Manua Loa, the largest (though not tallest) subaerial volcano on Earth. Lava flows from Mauna Loa extend all the way to the coastline towards the southwest. The steam from the lava lake at Halema’uma’u (Kilauea) is barely visible to the south. As a shield volcano, Mauna Loa has broad, gentle slopes. The short and scrubby vegetation indicate both the harsh growing conditions at high elevations and the relatively young age of the lava flows Read more about Have you ever hiked on the world’s largest volcano?
a. EPS students were able to do just that in Hawaii. Granted, the surface of the lava lake cooled several decades ago, but it’s amazing to imagine what Kilauea Iki looked like while the nearby Pu’u Pua’i vent of Kilauea was actively spewing lava for 36 days in 1959. The EPS students that followed the Kilauea Iki trail descended through a lush forest onto the floor of the lava lake, conducted a vegetation survey on the new lava, peered into holes drilled down into the cooling lava, and climbed over piles of rock near the vent.
a. During a week-long trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, EPS concentrators were able to study different types of sand (and enjoy the waves as well). Students visited black sand beaches like Punalu’u, Waipi'o Valley, and Polulu; and the white sand beaches of Spencer Beach and Mau’umae Beach. Hawaii also hosts a green sand beach composed of olivine crystals derived from basaltic lava rocks.
a. If you haven’t, you should! The ‘smoke’ you see billowing out of a volcano is actually a mix of mostly water vapor, carbon dioxide, and sulfur gases (and ash, during an eruption and depending on the volcano). In Hawaii, EPS concentrators got up close and personal with some of the steam and sulfur gases emanating from Kilauea at Ha’akulamanu, also known as Sulphur Banks.
a. The ground isn’t only warm where you can see the lava at the surface. Kilometers from any visible lava, EPS students could feel its warmth beneath the surface at the Puhimau Thermal Area.
b. 360 Video: 44; 360 Photo: 45—Puhimau Thermal Area This area barren of large vegetation was first noted in 1938 and is slowly getting larger. Soil temperatures in the area are around 80°C (180°F), while surrounding areas have soil temperatures around 19°C (67°F). The hot temperatures kill most vegetation and prevent most species from growing. The high temperatures are most Read more about Have you ever felt the heat from magma beneath your feet?
a. EPS concentrators deal in more than just lava; they can choose to study oceanic or atmospheric processes (like the water cycle) and how they impact the natural world. In Hawaii, EPS students observed the relationship between the solid earth (the Big Island) and the water cycle. When you look at a satellite image of the Big Island, you’ll notice distinct areas of green and brown. The northern tip of the island is Kohala Mountain, the oldest volcano on the island, which last erupted about 60,000 years ago. The eastern side receives very high precipitation (up to 450 cm/year) due to the Read more about Have you ever wondered how stream water samples can tell you about erosion and climate?
a. Earth and Planetary Science is a broad discipline, and frequently connects with the biological sciences. The interaction of the solid Earth (i.e. rocks) and the fluid Earth (i.e. water and the atmosphere) factor heavily in how things grow. EPS students made this exciting connection while hiking through the forested highlands on the Big Island of Hawaii.
a. Chenoweth Moffatt will be happy to answer all of your questions regarding the Earth and Planetary Sciences department at Harvard University and the wide range of opportunities available to EPS students before and after graduation!