Walking between two tectonic plates — with volcanoes and glaciers in the distance — 12 West Virginia University students were excited to be at one of the few places on Earth where fire and ice collide. The students were traveling in Iceland as part of a hybrid geology and environmental geoscience study abroad course led by Assistant Professor of Geology Graham Andrews and Associate Professor of Geology and Geography Steven Kite.

“Walking between two tectonic plates is something that you can do only a few places on earth,” said Ryan Culp, a senior geology major who plans to attend graduate school to study planetary geology in the future. “Iceland is a great analog for the different types of volcanism that may occur on other planets. The fight between fire and ice is very applicable to other bodies in the solar system. To see these processes firsthand was amazing and gives me an extra piece of knowledge that I didn’t have before.”

Learning From the Elements

Prior to this Icelandic journey, field trips in the Department of Geography and Geology were mostly available for graduate students and occurred within the U.S., which Andrews felt limited students’ opportunities for field experiences.

“Geology and environmental geoscience in particular really rely on people going outside and going to see things,” Andrews said. “Graduate students are already sold on geology, and the undergraduates in many places get a short shrift when it comes to study abroad and many other opportunities. They are expected to find their own way.”

With student support from the Geology Field Experience Fund created by alumni Dan (MS Geology ’89) and Pam (MS Geology ’88) Billman, Andrews and Kite traveled with nine geology majors, two environmental geoscience majors and one geology graduate student to Iceland, one of the few places where boundaries between tectonic plates and the associated volcanic landscape are also host to extensive glaciers.

“Iceland is a special place in many ways because it is the best place in the world to see the interaction between volcanoes and glaciers,” Kite said. “Glaciers in Iceland are different than in other places because of the importance of the heat that comes from the volcanic activity there, so the glaciers are much more active.”

During the spring 2018 semester, students completed a special topics course to prepare to study abroad. They met weekly to discuss Icelandic culture and what to expect to learn while there. Andrews and Kite offered introductions to topics they would discuss in Iceland to ensure each student had the background information needed.

“The two reasons to go to Iceland are the glaciers and the volcanoes,” Andrews said. “Especially for environmental geoscience majors, they were able to understand the glacial side. Some of the students who were more familiar with volcanoes in their geology classes had less experience with that. We basically give a quick introduction to travel abroad, the geology of Iceland and then a little bit into the theory about the different topics. We kept trying to link the discussion back to examples that we would see there.”

The students visited Iceland for one week, traveling throughout the country learning about the various landscapes. They also gave a presentation based on readings they completed before the trip and what they saw firsthand.

“Hands-on field experience is good for students because they get to see rocks in outcrop,” said alumna Holly Pettus (BS Geology ’18). “We look at hand samples in the lab, but they are usually the best-case scenario of a rock. Going to an outcrop and putting your hands on a rock that is weathered and messy is the best way to learn how to identify rocks. It is an invaluable experience we can only gain through field trips.”

Into the Frozen Inferno

One early and chilly morning, the group walked along a beach at the southern part of Iceland, as the rain fell and wind blew through their hair.

For Pettus, who had never traveled across the Atlantic Ocean before, this moment was her favorite.

“The rocks exposed in the sea cliffs were breathtaking,” Pettus said. “They were essentially the remnants of the inside of a submarine volcano. Being able to see something so massive preserved in the rock record was spectacular and gratifying.”


Geology students at the ocean

Pettus, who is currently working as a research technician in Andrews’ lab, has a passion for volcanoes and plans to attend graduate school.

“My primary interest in geology is volcanology, and Iceland is the perfect place to see a variety of volcanic deposits and volcanoes,” she said. “Being in the field in Iceland helped prepare me for graduate school by being exposed to a variety of volcanic deposits. As a geologist at WVU, I see lots of sedimentary rocks on field trips, but we don’t have an opportunity to see volcanic rocks on our regular field trips.”

“I believe traveling and studying abroad widens your horizons and allows you to grow as a person … The experience you gain when traveling in unknown places will better prepare you for new experiences that may come your way. This trip prepared me for the field that I will be doing in graduate school and in my career.” — Autum Downey

For geology student Autum Downey, a glacier hike was the highlight of the experience. The group hiked on top of a glacier, being careful to not slip into holes with water streaming down the top of the glacier to the bottom.

“I believe traveling and studying abroad widens your horizons and allows you to grow as a person,” Downey said. “The experience you gain when traveling in unknown places will better prepare you for new experiences that may come your way. This trip prepared me for the field that I will be doing in graduate school and in my career.”

Living Among the Elements

The students stayed in hostels where they learned to adapt to a new culture and how to cook.

“We cooked family style, so I made a menu for each day and then assigned the students and myself into cooking groups,” Andrews said. “Three were on prep, three were on cooking and three were on cleanup, and we just cycled through that each meal. For a lot of the students, that was novel.”

Many careers in geology require frequent travel. For Kite, the greatest outcome of this trip was preparing students to be comfortable with and able to adapt to new cultures.

“A lot of the people going into the field are outdoor-oriented,” Kite said. “They have a saying in Iceland that there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing. Virtually everyone was well prepared. I think they were mentally prepared and very well physically prepared.”

Journeying Home

Following their Icelandic adventure, many of the students attended a summer geology field camp where they applied topics they learned in Iceland.

“As a geologist, getting outside and doing field work, regardless of the field conditions, is something you must learn to deal with,” Downey said. “This trip, although we went home to a warm hostel at the end of the day, taught me how to prepare for field work in cold and wet conditions.”

Andrews hopes the course will eventually become permanent and faculty can take many more undergraduate students to other places around the world.

The department is preparing for another trip to Iceland in spring 2020. If you would like to support their efforts, please visit give.wvu.edu/ecas-geologyandgeography.

“Travel broadens the mind,” Andrews said. “That’s the subliminal bit that is in every study abroad course.”