Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Colorado Rocks! Attending a research meeting on sedimentary systems

By Lucy Clarke (@DrLucyClarke)
Continuing the blog series looking at what we have been getting up to this summer...

Last week I was lucky enough to be in the US for a research conference and I'm sharing my experiences of this with you in this blog post. This was a specialist meeting, with about 50 people attending, focusing on the “Autogenic Dynamics of Sedimentary Systems” – so basically the importance of internal processes (i.e autogenic processes) in driving change in natural systems and how this is recorded in the 'rock record'.

You may be asking yourself... why is it important to understand what's recorded in the rock record? Well, geologists use this information to reconstruct long term environmental change. Layers of material are laid down through time and over lengthy time periods these form the rocks that we see all around us (i.e. a sedimentary system). By examining the grain size, composition and structures in these rocks it can tell us information about the type of processes that formed them and what the climate was like at the time using a technique called stratigraphy. So it's important to know not only how things like climate and tectonics can influence the sediment build up and preservation as it turns to rock, but also what effect other internal processes can have on this so that a correct interpretation can be made.

Stratigraphic profile from Colorado National Monument showing a fluvial section with thick layers of floodplain with thinner, coarser bands of channel material in between
The aim of the meeting was to bring together an interdisciplinary group of researchers from ecology, geochemistry, geography, geology, and palaeontology to look at the research advances that have been made in different sedimentary systems to evaluate what, if any, ‘autogenic’ signals can be determined. Presentations covered a range of topics and included field, numerical modelling and experimental approaches that were being used to try and tackle this problem.

I presented the research that I introduced in my blog on 28 August 2013: What drives change on alluvial fans? I talked about how my experiments showed that internal processes within these landforms caused observable changes in the flow patterns. 

The sessions were really interesting and thought provoking. It was designed to be a discussion rather than just a one-way presentation of information from the speakers, consequently we had lots of time for asking questions supplemented by break out groups to follow up on ideas and think about the 'bigger picture'. I found this particularly useful as it helped me to generate new ideas as to how to develop my own research, as well as starting to think about the wider implications of my research. Additionally having the opportunity to talk to people from other related, but slightly different disciplines, has certainly broadened my perspectives.

Looking over the Colorado River to the city of Grand Junction (to the left) and the Grand Junction Main Street (to the right)
The meeting was held in the city of Grand Junction - situated in central Colorado, the town sits on the Colorado River with lots of wineries and agricultural land surrounding it. Grand Junction is a small traditional mid-West town with a population of about 60,000 that boasts a university and a quaint main street that has a night market every Thursday evening during the summer. Temperatures were around 30°C every day and despite a couple of thunderstorms at the start of my trip the weather was great. Close to the town is the Colorado National Monument, this is a national park about 85 km2 in size, containing stunning mesas and canyons. As part of the conference we were treated to a field day to experience the park's impressive geologic formations and see if we could explore, and apply, some of the conference themes in a field setting.

Colorado National Monument: looking over the national park (left) and geologists looking at a rock section showing preserved sand dunes (right)
I thoroughly enjoyed my week in Colorado. I got to explore a new area but most of all I made new connections for my research with the potential for new collaborations in the future. I learned about lots of current research from different, but related, areas that I hadn’t previously been aware of, which has rejuvenated my own research in this area - so all round it was a successful trip!

Enjoying the sunshine on the field day in Colorado National Monument

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