We are watching global-scale changes in climate, sea levels and ecologies. We need a geological perspective to understand these changes.

Jeff Trop

Whether studying sea scorpions from 400 million-year-old tropical waters or the formation of remote mountain ranges 50 million years ago, Professor Jeffrey Trop, geology, is focused on puzzling out the lessons of the past to help us to understand the earth and anticipate the future.

To do this, Trop spends weeks at a time in the field with his undergraduate research students. In the midst of dealing with problems ranging from incessant rain to malfunctioning equipment to curious brown bears, Trop's team has been studying the geological processes that formed some of the lesser-studied ranges of Alaska and how the environment and ecosystems changed in response.

For example, the Talkeetna Mountains in south-central Alaska formed about 50 million years ago when a thick bit of ocean crust slid, or subducted, under the continental margin. Normal ocean crust is relatively thin; when it subducts under a continent, it gets pushed deep enough to melt and form volcanoes. In this case, the thicker crust didn't go so easily. Instead, it pushed up, creating the Talkeetna Mountains. As the tectonics changed the landscape, the environment and ecosystems had to shift as well.

Trop says having students work by his side in the field helps them understand the material in a way that's simply not possible in the classroom. He sees an additional benefit, as well. "Taking students to pristine wilderness environments is becoming more important to me," Trop says. "Being totally disconnected from the internet and cell service and the wired world, they learn a lot about themselves – what they can do, how they can overcome challenges."

Closer to home, students in Trop's classes also get as much field experience as he can manage. One class trip led to the discovery of what may be the best site in North America for studying sea scorpion evolution. About 400 million years ago, what is now Pennsylvania was located near the equator and covered by shallow tropical waters. Living in the tidal flats were eurypterids, or prehistoric sea scorpions, which were among the first animals to emerge onto land.

Eurypterid fossils are relatively common in the Northeast – they are New York's state fossil – but Trop had not found any close to Bucknell until a few years ago. Then a student in his paleontology course found the first one at an inactive quarry that's rich with the relics. Trop and his students have been collecting specimens and making geological observations ever since.

"Earth is fundamentally changing right now," Trop says. "We are watching global-scale changes in climate, sea levels and ecologies. We need a geological perspective to understand these changes." 

Posted September 26, 2013