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When it rains a lot and the mountains fall down

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous

2006 debris flow deposit in the Eliot Glacier drainage, north flank of Mount Hood (Photo by Anne Jefferson)

The geo-image bonanza of this month’s Accretionary Wedge gives me a good reason to make good on a promise I made a few months ago. I promised to write about what can happen on the flanks of Pacific Northwest volcanoes when a warm, heavy rainfall hits glacial ice at the end of a long melt season. The image above shows the result…warm heavy rainfall + glaciers + steep mountain flanks + exposed unconsolidated sediments are a recipe for debris flows in the Cascades. Let me tell you the story of this one.

It was the first week of November 2006, and a “pineapple express” (warm, wet air from the tropic Pacific) had moved into the Pacific Northwest. This warm front increased temperatures and brought rain to the Cascades…a lot of rain. In the vicinity of Mt. Hood, there was more than 34 cm in 6 days, and that’s at elevations where we have rain gages. Higher on the mountain, there may even have been more rain…and because it was warm, it was *all* rain. Normally, at this time of year, the high mountain areas would only get snow.

While it was raining, my collaborators and I were sitting in our cozy, dry offices in Corvallis, planning a really cool project to look at the impact of climate change on glacial meltwater contributions to the agriculturally-important Hood River valley. Outside, nature was opting to make our on-next field season a bit more tricky. We planned to install stream gages at the toe of the Eliot and Coe glaciers on the north flank of Mt. Hood, as well as farther downstream where water is diverted for irrigation. But instead of nice, neat, stable stream channels, when we went out to scout field sites the following spring, we were greeted by scenes like the one above.

Because sometime on 6 or 7 November, the mountain flank below Eliot Glacier gave way…triggering a massive debris flow that roared down Eliot Creek, bulking up with sediment along the way and completely obliterating any signs of the pre-existing stream channel. By the time the flow reached the area where the irrigation diversion occur, it had traveled 7 km in length and 1000 m in elevation, and it had finally reached the point where the valley opens up and the slope decreases. So the sediment began to drop out. And debris flows can carry some big stuff (like the picture below) and like the bridge that was washed out, carried downstream 100 m and turned sideways.

2006 Eliot Glacier debris flow deposit (photo by Anne Jefferson)

2006 Eliot Glacier debris flow deposit (photo by Anne Jefferson)

In this area, the deposit is at least 300 m wide and at least a few meters deep.

Eliot Creek, April 2007 (photo by Anne Jefferson)

Eliot Creek, April 2007 (photo by Anne Jefferson)

With all the big debris settling out, farther downstream the river was content to just flood…

Youtube video from dankleinsmith of the Hood River flooding at the Farmers Irrigation Headgates

and flood…

West Fork Hood River flood, November 2006 from

West Fork Hood River flood, November 2006 from For the same view during normal flows, take a look at my picture from April 2007:

and create a new delta where Hood River enters the Columbia.

Hood River delta created in November 2006 (photo found at

Hood River delta created in November 2006 (photo found at

And it wasn’t just Mt. Hood’s Eliot Glacier drainage that took a beating in this event. Of the 11 drainages on Mt. Hood, seven experienced debris flows, including a rather spectacular one at White River that closed the main access to a popular ski resort. And every major volcano from Mt. Jefferson to Mt. Rainier experienced debris flows, with repercussions ranging from downstream turbidity affecting the water supply for the city of Salem to the destruction of popular trails, roads, and campgrounds in Mt. Rainier National Park (pdf, but very cool photos).

In the end, our project on climate change and glacial meltwater was funded, we managed to collect some neat data in the Eliot and Coe watersheds in the summer of 2007, and the resulting paper is wending its way through review. The November 2006 debris flows triggered at least two MS thesis projects and some serious public attention to debris flow hazards in the Pacific Northwest. They also gave me some really cool pictures.

Exciting times in the Watershed lab

The last few months have been busy, busy, busy for the members of this research group, and now, with the semester over, our hard work is starting to pay off.

Brock Freyer has accepted a job with Three Parameters Plus, an environmental consulting firm based out of Anchorage, Alaska. He’ll be back in Charlotte in the fall to defend his MS thesis.

Ralph McGee and Cameron Moore successfully defended their MS thesis proposals and are getting started on a busy summer of data collection at their field site in Gaston County.

I got a nice little write-up in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences newsletter about the wonderful opportunities enabled my ADVANCE Bonnie Cone grant.

Boobquake: a slightly silly test of a ridiculous scientific hypothesis

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous

It seems that whenever a natural disaster (or other tragedy) strikes, there is but a short delay before someone with a megaphone and an axe to grind points his finger at an entirely innocent group of people and blames them as the cause of the tectonic activity, meteorological phenomenon, or terrorist act.

What am I talking about? Pat Robertson has said that the Port-au-Prince earthquake was caused by a pact the Haitians had made with the devil. Rush Limbaugh recently suggested that the Eyjafjallajökull eruption was a response to the passage of the US healthcare bill (displaying a somewhat tenuous grasp of geography as well as geology). Or remember when Jerry Falwell blamed feminists, lesbians, and the ACLU for the 9-11 terrorist attacks? It’s a strange and loathsome pathology that pushes aside science in favor of demonizing those with little power.

The latest incarnation of such wackaloonery is the statement by an Iranian cleric that the immodest dress of women is the cause of earthquakes:

“Many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes,” Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was quoted as saying by Iranian media. Sedighi is Tehran’s acting Friday prayer leader. (Chicago Tribune, 19 April 2010)

A few days later, the sentiment was supported by Iran’s top spiritual leader:

“We can avoid earthquakes if the faithful and devoted people pray to God,” Jannati said during the Friday sermon. (LA Times, 23 April 2010)

Jen McCreight, a Purdue University grad student, has had enough of this nonsense and has dreamed up and organized a grassroots effort to test the correlation between immodestly dressed women and seismic activity. Today, 26 April 2010, is the day of the “boobquake,” in which thousands of women around the world will wear the least modest shirt in their closet in attempt to set the seismograph needles trembling. After the day is over, McCreight and others will show statistically that seismically…nothing happened. Because women’s bodies do not cause earthquakes.

If you want to follow the silly science, you can read McCreight’s blog, check the hashtag #boobquake on Twitter, or check in on the Facebook event page (177,829 confirmed attendees at this moment). The mainstream media has also picked up on this event, so you may hear something about it on radio or TV.

If you are concerned that this event is somehow anti-feminist or demeaning to women, here’s what McCreight has to say about it:

I’m asking women to wear their most “immodest” outfit that they already would wear, but to coordinate it all on the same day for the sake of the experiment. Heck, just showing an ankle would be considered immodest by some people. I don’t want to force people out of their comfort zones, because I believe women have the right to choose how they want to dress. Please don’t pressure women to participate if they don’t want to. If men ogle, that’s the fault of the men, not me for dressing how I like. If I want to a show a little cleavage or joke about my boobs, that’s my prerogative.

So today I’m wearing a shirt that I wouldn’t normally wear to work and I’ll probably start my 90% male hydrogeology class with a brief mention of earthquake hazards. Because even though I know that the actions of tens of thousands of women for one day aren’t going to change the minds of Iranian clerics or make a measurable difference in women’s rights or sexist attitudes, I also know that my shirt is not going to cause an earthquake. And, in the words of boobquake organizer McCreight: “I’m a firm believer that when someone says something so stupid and hateful, serious discourse isn’t going to accomplish anything – sometimes light-hearted mockery is worthwhile.”

Is Anne a hydrologist? geomorphologist? hydrophillic geologist? or whathaveyou?

Cross-posted at Highly Allochthonous

The theme for the next edition of the geoblogosphere’s Accretionary Wedge carnival is along the lines of “what are you doing now?” Recently as I was whining to my Highly Allochthonous co-blogger about how busy my teaching was keeping me, and how I wouldn’t have time to write anything for the Wedge, Chris suggested that I exhume some navel-gazing writing I’d done a while ago and simply post that. And in slightly modified form, now I have.

So, what do I do? The major theme of my research is analyzing how geologic, topographic, and land use variability controls hydrologic response, climate sensitivity, and geomorphic evolution of watersheds, by partitioning water between surface and ground water. The goal of my research is to improve reach- to landscape-scale prediction of hydrologic and geomorphic response to human activities and climate change. My work includes contributions from field studies, stable isotope analyses, time series analyses, geographic information systems, and hydrological modeling. My process-based research projects allow me to investigate complex interactions between hydrology, geomorphology, geology, and biology that occur on real landscapes, to test conceptual models about catchment functioning, and to show whether predictive models are getting the right answers for the right reasons. My current and past research has allowed me to investigate landscapes as diverse as the Cascades Range volcanic arc, the Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont of the southeastern United States, the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and the Upper Mississippi River watershed.

My on-going and developing research program focuses on three areas:

  1. Watershed influences on hydrologic response to climate variability and change;
  2. Controls on and effects of partitioning flowpaths between surface water and groundwater; and
  3. Influence of hydrologic regimes on landscape evolution and fluvial geomorphology

If you really want the long version of my research interests, venture onward. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Watershed influences on hydrologic response to climate variability and change

On-going climate change is predicted to have dramatic effects on the spatial distribution and timing of water resource availability. I use historical datasets, hydrologic modeling, and GIS analysis to examine how watershed characteristics can mediate hydrologic sensitivity to climate variability and change. Currently, I focus on climate sensitivity in watersheds with seasonal and transient snow and on down-scaling hydrologic impacts of climate change to smaller watersheds.

Watersheds with seasonal and transient snow: A long-held mantra is that watersheds with extensive groundwater are buffered from climate change effects, but in a pair of papers set in the Oregon Cascades, my collaborators and I showed the opposite to be true. Minimum streamflows in watersheds with abundant groundwater are more sensitive to loss of winter snowpack than in watersheds with little groundwater (Jefferson et al., 2008, Tague et al., 2008). Glaciers are another water reservoir often thought to buffer climate change impacts, and in a paper in review, we show that projected glacier loss from Mt. Hood will have significant impacts on water resources in the agricultural region downstream.

I have also been examining hydroclimate trends relative to hypsometry (elevation distribution) of watersheds in the maritime Pacific Northwest. Almost all work investigating hydrologic effects of climate change in the mountainous western United States focuses on areas with seasonal snowpacks, but in the maritime Northwest, most watersheds receive a mixture of winter rain and snow. My research investigates how much high-elevation watershed area is necessary for historical climate warming to be statistically detectable in streamflow records. Preliminary results were presented at the American Geophysical Union meeting in 2008, and I’m working on a paper with more complete results. Extending this work into the modeling domain, I am currently advising a graduate student using SnowModel to investigate the sensitivity of snowmelt production to projected warming in the Oregon Cascades, Colorado’s Fraser Experimental Forest, and Alaska’s North Slope, in collaboration with Glen Liston (Colorado State University).

Down-scaling climate impacts to watersheds and headwater streams: Most studies of hydrologic impacts of climate change have focused on regional scale projections or large watersheds. Relatively little work has been done to understand how hydrologic and geomorphic impacts will be felt in mesoscale catchments or headwater stream systems, yet most of the channel network (and aquatic habitat) exists in these small streams. In August 2009, I submitted a proposal to a Department of Energy early career program to investigate the effect of climate change on hydrology of the eastern seaboard of the US. This work proposed to contrast North Carolina’s South Fork Catawba River and New Hampshire’s Pemigewassett River and their headwater tributaries through a combination of modeling and field observations of the sensitivity of headwater stream networks to hydroclimatic variability. While the project was not funded, I am using the reviews to strengthen the proposal, and I plan to submit a revised proposal to NSF’s CAREER program in July. I have a graduate student already working on calibrating the RHESSys hydroecological model for the South Fork of the Catawba River.

Controls on flowpath partitioning between surface water and groundwater and the effects on stream hydrology, geomorphology and water quality

Many watershed models used in research and management applications make simplifying assumptions that partition water based on soil type and homogeneous porous bedrock. These assumptions are not reflective of reality in many parts of the world, including the fractured rocks of North Carolina’s Piedmont and Blue Ridge provinces. I am interested in understanding how water is partitioned between groundwater and surface water in heterogeneous environments, and what effect this partitioning has on stream hydrology, geomorphology, and water quality. My interest in the controls on flowpath partitioning began during my work in the Oregon Cascades Range, where I showed that lava flow geometry controlled groundwater flowpaths and the expression of springs (Jefferson et al., 2006). Currently, I am using fractured rock environments and urbanizing areas as places to explore the effects of heterogeneous permeability.

Fractured rock: The Piedmont and Blue Ridge provinces of the eastern United States are underlain by crystalline rocks, where groundwater is largely limited to discrete fractures. Groundwater-surface water interactions on fractured bedrock are largely unexplored, particularly at the scale of small headwater streams. I am interested in how groundwater upwelling from bedrock fractures and hyporheic flow influence the hydrology and water quality of headwater streams. A small grant facilitated data collection in three headwater streams which is forming the thesis for one of my graduate students, has precipitated a collaborative project with hydrogeologists from the North Carolina Division of Water Quality, and will serve as preliminary data for a proposal to NSF Hydrologic Sciences in June 2010.

Urban watersheds: Urbanization alters the partitioning of flowpaths between surface water and groundwater, by creating impervious surfaces that block recharge and installing leaky water and sewer lines that import water from beyond watershed boundaries. Also, the nature of the drainage network is transformed by the addition of stormwater sewers and detention basins. In September 2009, my collaborators and I submitted a proposal to NSF Environmental Engineering to look at how stormwater best management practices (BMPs) mitigate the effects of urbanization on headwater stream ecosystem services. While we weren’t funded, we were strongly encouraged to resubmit and did so in March 2010. We are also submitting a proposal to the National Center for Earth Surface Dynamics (NCED) visitor program to use the Outdoor Stream Lab at the University of Minnesota to investigate the interplay between stormwater releases and in-stream structures.

Influence of hydrologic regimes on landscape evolution and fluvial geomorphology

The movement of water on and through the landscape results in weathering, erosion, transport, and deposition of sediment. In turn, that sediment constrains the future routing of water. I am interested in how the hydrologic regime of a watershed affects the evolution of topography and fluvial geomorphology. My work in this area has examined million-year scales of landscape evolution in high permeability terrains, century-scale evolution of regulated rivers, and the form and function of headwater channels.

Evolution of high permeability terrains: The youngest portions of Oregon’s High Cascades have almost no surface water, because all water infiltrates into high permeability lava flows. Yet on older parts of the landscape, streams are abundant and have effectively eroded through the volcanic topography. In a paper in Earth Surface Processes and Landforms (Jefferson et al., 2010), I showed that this landscape evolution was accompanied and facilitated by a hydrologic evolution from geomorphically-ineffective stable, groundwater-fed hydrographs to flashy, runoff-dominated hydrographs. This coevolutionary sequence suggests that permeability may be an important control on the geomorphic character of a watershed.

Human and hydrologic influences on large river channels: Almost all large rivers in the developed world are profoundly affected by dams, which can alter the hydrologic regime by suppressing floods, supplementing low flows, and raising water levels in reservoirs. On the Upper Mississippi River, in the 70 years since dam construction, some parts of the river have lost islands, and with them habitat diversity, while in other areas new islands are emerging. In 2008-2009, I had a small grant that facilitated the examination of some islands with a unique, unpublished long-term topography dataset and its correlation with hydrologic patterns and human activities. This project became the thesis research of one of my graduate students, who will be defending his M.S. in May 2010.

Headwater channel form and function: Although headwater streams constitute 50-70% of stream length, the geomorphic processes that control their form and function are poorly understood. Most recent research on geomorphology of headwater streams has focused on streams in very steep landscapes, where debris flows and other mass wasting processes can have significant effects on channel geometry. In the Carolina Piedmont, gentle relief allows me to investigate the formation and function headwater channel networks, isolated from mass wasting processes. One of my graduate students has collected an extensive sediment size distribution dataset which shows that, at watershed areas <3 km2, downstream coarsening of sediment is more prevalent than the downstream fining widely observed in larger channels. Another graduate student is collecting data on channel head locations and flow recurrence and sediment transport in ephemeral channels in order to sort out the relative influences of topography, geology, and legacy land use effects on the uppermost reaches of headwater streams. Both of these projects have already resulted in presentations at GSA meetings.

Whew. So that’s what I do, between teaching some field-intensive courses and raising a preschooler. But, what am I? Hydrologist? Geomorphologist? Hydrophillic geologist? Or something else entirely?

Research assistantship available on stream restoration, nitrogen dynamics, urban streams

An opportunity to do graduate work at UNC Charlotte with excellent and enthusiastic aquatic biogeochemist Sara McMillan:

We are seeking qualified applicants for a graduate assistantship at the MS or Ph.D. level, starting in the summer or fall of 2010 (summer preferred) in Dr. Sara McMillan’s laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Our work broadly addresses the interactions between ecology and biogeochemistry in aquatic ecosystems. This position is funded through a collaborative project with Dr. McMillan and Dr. Greg Jennings at North Carolina State University investigating the impacts of stream restoration on nitrogen dynamics in urban streams. Field and laboratory experiments will focus on reach-scale nutrient retention, microbial biogeochemistry (i.e. denitrification and nitrification) and microbial diversity. Opportunities exist to develop research aims that align with the project for the individual research. Preferred qualifications include a strong background in biology and hydrology, experience with field and laboratory research, and good teamwork and communication skills. The position is funded for 1 year at $18,000 with possibilities for future funding.

If interested contact: Dr. Sara McMillan ( for more information.

CUAHSI's Spring 2010 Hydrology Cyberseminars

The excellent series of hydrological cyber-seminars continues this spring, as listed below. UNC Charlotte folks: please note that the March 12th seminar focuses on the isotope analyzer that we have in my lab. If after a few days of spring break, you find yourself yearning for some science, tune in to the seminar.

We are pleased to announce a great line-up of six cyberseminar presentations for the Spring seminar. Instructions on how to attend these online webinars will be distributed via the listservs approximately one week prior to each event. As usual, if you are unable to attend a live seminar, a recording will be made available for later viewing. Included here is a link to a downloadable 8”x11” PDF poster that we encourage you to display prominently on your campuses.

Spring 2010 Schedule
February 26, 2010; 3:00pm ET
• Jared Abraham, USGS (Denver) & James Cannia, USGS (Lincoln)
Title: Using airborne geophysical surveys to improve groundwater resource management models

March 12, 2010; 3:00pm ET
• Manish Gupta, Oregon State University
Title: High-frequency field-deployable isotope analyzer for hydrological applications

March 19, 2010; 3:00pm ET
• Brian Waldron & Beatrice Magnani, University of Memphis
Title: Applications of geophysical prospecting in hydrology

April 2, 2010; 3:00pm ET
• Jeanne VanBriesen, Carnegie Mellon University
Title: The River Alert Information Network (RAIN): A wet-weather sensor network for water quality in Pittsburgh

April 16, 2010; 3:00pm ET
• Bridget Scanlon, Laurent Longuevergne & Clark Wilson, University of Texas at Austin
Title: Advances in Ground-based Gravity for Hydrologic Studies

April 30, 2010; 3:00pm ET
• Jim Heffernan, Florida International University & Matt Cohen, University of Florida
Title: Inferring biogeochemical processes from high-frequency nitrate measurements in flowing waters

Cyberseminars web page:

Women geoscientists and blogs: what we found

Just in time for my ScienceOnline 2010 session, Kim Hannula has done a wonderful job writing up the results of our study on how women geoscientists use blogs. She’s got lots of pretty histograms for those interested in the details, but here are the take home messages from our study:

  • Women geoscientists participate in larger blogging communities
  • Blogs can be useful for sharing experiences and finding role models
  • Women-in-science blogging helps academics
  • But what about people whose experiences aren’t reflected? (Minorities, people with disabilities, non-trad paths?)

We’re hoping to convert our work into something in dead-tree format to reach an audience beyond those already engaged in online communities, so you may hear some more about this topic in the future.

Inspiration in ancient rocks and simple physics

If you ask my mom how I got started in geology, she’d tell you that it began with her taking 3-year-old me to see landslides coming off steep hillslopes during the spring thaw. That makes a nice story, but its not the real reason I got sucked into geology. Truth be told, I picked geology because it was the field of science my parents knew nothing about.

In my hometown public school system, the smart kids were herded towards doing in-depth middle school science fair projects. There was a wonderful teacher who helped us find projects and mentors, and taught us the art of visual displays and public teaching. As the child of two scientists, I was a natural fit for the program. There was only one problem: I didn’t want to do anything with which my parents could help. That was my mild form of early teenage rebellion. With my parents’ expertise in biology, chemistry and computer science, I felt I only had one choice: physics. But physics had too much math for my taste. (Little did I know just how mathy geology can be.)

Then a family friend suggested a geology project, I took it and ran with it, and the rest is history. My family friend was a resident of the Bayfield Peninsula, which juts up into Lake Superior from northern Wisconsin. Our friend was a sailor and nature enthusiast, and he pointed out that all of the rock cliffs along the lakeshore had right-angle fractures. He wanted to know why.

Figure 1. Shoreline at Big Bay State Park, Madeline Island, Wisconsin.

Figure 1. Shoreline at Big Bay State Park, Madeline Island, Wisconsin. Photo by Anne Jefferson, July 2007.

That question was the inspiration for my first real science fair project was “Fracture characteristics and geologic history of the Chequamegon Sandstone (Bayfield Group, Late Precambrian).” I collected dozens of stones from the rocky beaches of Madeline Island, where the Chequamegon Sandstone is exposed. I measured the angles between all sides of the stones, and tried to correlate them with grain size, induration and other characteristics. I made my first and last thin sections and I sieved samples using the same sort of Ro-Tap machine I now teach students to use. I also learned about things like properties of non-crystalline materials, the North American Mid-continental rift sytem, paleocurrents, and Pleistocene glaciations.

Figure 2. More shoreline made of Chequamegon Sandstone in Big Bay State Park, Madeline Island, Wisconsin. Glacial scour marks are visible on some of the rock surfaces.

Figure 2. More shoreline made of Chequamegon Sandstone in Big Bay State Park, Madeline Island, Wisconsin. Glacial scour marks are visible on some of the rock surfaces. Photo by Anne Jefferson, July 2007.

I don’t think my conclusions were particularly startling to people who knew anything about rocks. The rocks generally broke along their bed planes, and then at 90 degrees from their bedding, with more than 50% of the rocks exhibiting fractures between 80 and 100 degrees from bedding. Secondary modes were 60 and 120 degrees from bedding. More tightly indurated rocks had a higher propensity to have obtuse fracture angles.

Figure 3. The young scientist at work.

Figure 3. The young scientist at work. Photo by Carol Jefferson, August 1991.

That first project led to a second project, a year later: “Strength, porosity and fractures in the Chequamegon, Mount Simon, and Eau Claire Formations,” in which I contrasted the materials properties of two building stones and an aquifer. Then the Mississippi River floods of 1993 pretty permanently steered my interest from ancient rocks and materials properties towards the more dynamic modern landscape. I’ve never again worked on rocks within an order of magnitude as old as my first rocks, and these days I’m more apt to think about the water flowing over and through rocks than the rocks themselves. But sometimes I’m in the field, and my eyes will be drawn to an outcrop, boulder, or piece of float. And I still find myself silently inspired by the amount of geologic history that rock has experienced to end up in the stream bed, hillslope or lakeshore obeying simple laws of physics.

Figure 4. Perpendicular joints in the Chequamegon Sandstone at Big Bay State Park, Madeline Island, Wisconsin.

Figure 4. The adult scientist still inspired by those perpendicular joints in the Chequamegon Sandstone at Big Bay State Park, Madeline Island, Wisconsin. Photo by James Jefferson Jarvis, July 2007.

What makes a good field pack?

[Cross posted at Highly Allochthonous]

Adding to the meme begun by Short Geologist (requirements for a field hotel) and followed on by Maria (requirements for a field vehicle), I’ll present my requirements for a field pack. The topic has been on my mind a bit recently because I’m launching a new project this summer and will be spending a non-trivial portion of the summer swatting mosquitoes, avoiding snakes, and collecting data.

When I go in the field, I generally go for a 6-10 hour day, departing from home, field station, or campsite and field vehicle. For me, field work has consisted of two basic types of tasks: (1) collecting samples in the field and lugging it home; and (2) downloading data from field instrumentation, with limited sample collection. As someone interested in how water interacts with the geology and the landscape, I’ve lugged rock samples for chemical analysis, hauled kilograms of salt for dilution discharge measurements, and collected thousands of water samples from springs and streams. I’ve also spent a lot of time with a backpack loaded with a lap-top and hip waders, for days when I need to download data from temperature probes and water height recorders. Occasionally I’ll have field days where I have to lug a bunch of awkwardly shaped stuff into the field in order to set up instrumentation, but I really haven’t found any graceful or systematic way of doing that. A rough estimate would be that I spent about one out of four years of my PhD in the field, so I’ve spent a fair bit of time contemplating what works and what doesn’t for field packs. Pictured below is the trusty field pack that seen me through since my undergraduate days.
My current field pack, back in the lab after a day at Redlair scouting streams.

My two main field tasks would be optimally served by two different packs, so I’ll present their requirements separately below. But there are some key things that all field packs should have.

  1. A zipper compartment, preferably with clip for my wallet, keys, and cell phone.
  2. A compartment near the top of the pack for my lunch. I detest squished sandwiches.
  3. Outside pockets sized appropriately to securely hold my water bottles in easily accessible places
  4. An easily accessible pocket for a field notebook and writing implement. Maps could go here too. A GPS could go here, but is no substitute for the proper maps.
  5. Comfortably padded hip and shoulder straps that allow me to carry weight on my hips.
  6. Various straps and clips for attaching random bits of gear (e.g., rock hammer) to the outside of your pack. These straps and clips should be usefully configured for carrying things and should not just be decorative.
  7. A place to store the absolutely necessary first aid kit. Don’t leave home without it.

Sample lugging packs should have:

  1. A big open compartment suitable for dropping things in and not worrying about them until I get back to the vehicle, field station, or lab.
  2. Sufficient back padding to protect my back from any oddly protruding samples. Anyone who’s hiked miles with a piece of basalt stuck into their mid-back will know just how crucial this is.
  3. Another compartment (in addition to the list above) to hold rain gear or other protective apparel (e.g., glasses . This compartment should be accessible even when the pack is full of samples, because when the cloudburst starts, you don’t want to spend precious minutes extracting your rain gear from below your samples.

Data download packs should have:

  1. A padded computer sleeve that holds the computer close to my back and protects the computer on all four sides.
  2. Numerous compartments to hold various download cords and dongles, flagging, tools, and bits and pieces of repair items for instrumentation.
  3. A compartment for holding a limited number of samples. This compartment should be smaller than the one described in the sample lugging pack, and could also double as a place to store any portable equipment that I will use in the field. When I collect small water samples, I store them in a small padded lunch box that I slide in and out of my pack. I might also be storing a Marsh-McBirney flow meter here.

My field pack, above, is definitely of the sample lugging variety, but lately I find that most of my work is of the data-download sort. I’m hiking short distances and then collecting small water samples, making field notes, and downloading temperature probes and other loggers. My big field pack isn’t well suited for this sort of work, so I’m the market for a second field pack. I’m hopeful that REI (or the local outfitter of choice) will be able to supply me with a pack that meets my requirements. I’m also curious to know what things other people look for in field packs. Is the ideal field pack the same for a hydrogeologist as a volcanologist or paleo-seismologist? I’m not a vest-wearer. For those who wear field vests, how does that change what you look for in a pack?