Field methods in geology

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Field methods in geology

Geology is, at heart, a field science. Even though much work is done in the laboratory and at the computer, geological samples and information must initially be obtained from the context in which they occur in nature. This natural setting would typically be a field locale chosen by the investigating geologist, or by his employers.

The main field instruments used by geologists include the Brunton compass (and/or Silva compass), tape measures, and plane table and alidade. The Brunton compass is a compact device that permits compass bearings to be made upon linear features (including strike lines) and lines connecting any two points. The Brunton may also function as a protractor (when placed upon a map) and as a device for measuring structural dip and vertical angles (using its internal clinometer). The Silva compass is somewhat similar, except that it does not have a bubble level or adjustable clinometer, so a task like measuring a vertical angle is not possible, and strike and dip measurements may not be as accurately made as with a Brunton. This Silva does not come in a rugged case, as does the Brunton, but its design as a flat, blade shape allows it to be used for map work more easily than a Brunton. The geologist's tape measure is usually the reel-in variety, which is marked in meters and feet. A typical tape length is 100 ft (30.5 m). The plane table and alidade are surveying devices used to measure distance and relative elevation. The plane table sits atop a tripod and a geological or topographic map under construction would be taped to its top. The alidade is a telescopic device that can be moved over the map surface as sightings are made. This device allows measure of horizontal distance and elevation. Horizontal distance and elevation of a point on the earth's surface is obtained by viewing through the alidade sight, a rod with a printed scale upon it (called a stadia ). Data recorded during this observation are used for recording distance and elevation of the surveyed point upon a map.

The field instruments above would accompany most fully equipped field geologists on an expedition of mapping and sample collection. The geologist would typically also carry along a field notebook, hand lens, hammer, acid bottle, knife, shovels or trowels, sample bags, pens and pencils, aerial photographs and satellite imagery, maps and literature, camping equipment, and a camera. In the modern era, these materials could also be supplemented by a global positioning satellite system (GPS ) receiver (for determining location and retracing routes), laptop computers, digital cameras, and portable geophysical equipment (including a gravimeter, altimeter, magnetic susceptibility meter, etc.). Occasionally, a geologist will bring along power tools for cutting or drilling rock or plaster, and burlap for wrapping delicate samples such as fossil bones.

Field methods in geology may be broken down into four main groups: (1) obtaining and marking samples and describing and measuring where they came from in an outcrop; (2) measuring and recording orientation (i.e., altitude) of strata or other planar features; (3) measuring dimensions (height and width); and (4) constructing geologic and topographic maps.

Obtaining and marking samples and describing and measuring where they originate in an outcrop requires observational skills and patience to record all information that might be obtained at one outcrop. Typically, the thickness of strata at an outcrop is recorded in a notebook where the layers are drawn to scale and described as to rock type, grain size, fossil content, color, sedimentary structures, and other attributes. Thickness of strata is measured using a tape measure or a Jacob's staff, which is a long stick made for sighting intervals of equal stratigraphic thickness (usually 5 ft, or 1.5 m). In the field notebook, detail is given about sampling locations and where photographs of the rocks are made. Samples are marked with an arrow indicating 'up' direction and labeled with a number which relates to the notebook number for the outcrop plus a number relating to feet or meters above the base of the stratigraphic section at that location. The same process is followed at each locale. Later, this information is compiled into a measured and described section for each outcrop, which may be used for correlation between outcrops. In terrains where igneous and metamorphic rocks occur, it is usually not so important for sample information to be recorded about the up direction and elevation above the base of outcrop.

Measuring and recording orientation (i.e., attitude) of strata or other planar features is another important field activity that relates to understanding geological structures and to the making of geological maps. Strike, dip direction, and dip magnitude of rock layers and other planar geological features (e.g., foliation) are obtained in as many places as possible within a study area in order to understand completely all the geological structures (i.e., folds and fault patterns) of an area. Analysis of geological structures can help geologists interpret the conditions of deformation of rocks in an area. Generally, the geologist tries to obtain as many orientation or attitude measurements as possible in the field area being studied.

Measuring dimensions (height and width) of an area or of features in an area, is an important aspect of many geological studies. This may be done as an estimate by using the moveable clinometer in a Brunton compass and employing trigonometric relationships to compute the height or width. For example, if one uses a tape measure (or number of foot paces, if the average foot pace of the observer is known) to measure distance to a cliff wall, and then uses the clinometer in his Brunton to measure angle between his eye level and the top of the cliff, a computation of cliff height can be made. In this instance, the cliff height is equal to the person's eye height plus the product of the horizontal distance to the cliff times the tangent of the sighted angle. Geologists sometimes make simple maps, called "pace and compass maps," using the Brunton compass to take bearings and his measured pace length as a distance measure.

Constructing geologic and topographic maps is another field activity that occupies geologists. Geological maps are made by using a base map or set of aerial photographs to record the observed rock type (preferably a measured and described section, as noted above) and rock attitude at numerous locales in the study area. It is the task of the geologist to ultimately fashion a geologic map that is the simplest interpretation of all the surficial data about rock type and rock attitude in the area. Topographic maps are made by plane table and alidade, as noted above, and these may form the base map for geological mapping studies because surficial elevation is important in interpreting physical relationships between rock formations.

Other types of geological field work include reconnaissance studies of areas where detailed mapping is yet to be done, geological sample analysis conducted on-site at drilling operations, geophysical studies (where the objective is to collect data such as gravity strength, magnetic characteristics, etc.), surface- and groundwater studies (where the emphasis is upon water distribution, quality, and its relationship to geologic features), economic geology studies (where mines and excavations are studied and areas explored for the value of potential new mining), engineering geology field work (where studies assess the impact of human disturbance upon rock and soil stability), and many others.

See also Cartography; Topography and topographic maps