L’expédition en Europe

Freshmen are allowed to take classes that are offered specifically to them, called “Freshman Seminars.” They provide an introduction to new areas of study and allow students to become more accustomed to the rigor of college classes. I decided to take FRS 124 for this semester. It is a geosciences class that teaches students the basic components of scientific analysis. But this particular class is special because it has a trip to France and Spain during spring break.

This freshman seminar is not easy. It is a science class. We spent the first six weeks learning to code in Matlab and acquiring geological knowledge. While it seemed as though spring break would never come, we eventually arrived at it after the onslaught of midterm exams.

Day 1— At 2:00 pm on Friday, March17, we lined up on Ivy Lane near Lewis Library to take a bus to Newark International Airport (EWR). We took Delta Airlines to Amsterdam, Netherlands on an evening flight. I sat next to a classmate who is also on the debate team. We asserted Princeton’s dominance by achieving the highest score on the in-flight trivia game. Our flight landed in Amsterdam at Schiphol Airport (AMS). Next, we took a flight to Bordeaux-Merignac Airport (BOD). Our professors rented three vans, and they drove us to our hostel, called “Domaine de la Dune,” in Archachon. Shortly thereafter, we went to the Dune du Pilat to do an initial reconnaissance of it. Despite the jet lag, we dragged ourselves up its steep slopes. The view from the top was spectacular! You could look out over the forest to the east or towards the Bay of Biscay to the west. After our long travels, we went to sleep quickly.

Airplane Dinner: chicken, salad, brownies

French Dinner: lamb, couscous, fresh bread, cheese, chocolate éclairs

La Dune du Pilat

Located on the shores of the Archachon Bay, the great Dune du Pilat rises 351 feet above the surrounding pine forest. The dune is 3 kilometers long and 500 meters wide. During the summer, the tallest dune in Europe attracts many tourists, though there were plenty present when we visited. Each year, it travels 7-8 meters per year eastward, swallowing up trees, roads, and even entire houses in the process. In fact, there is a little village that is within 100 meters of its eastern edge at the present time.

Geologically speaking, Dune du Pilat is a fascinating topographical feature. It boasts textbook examples of aeolian and depositional processes. Still, the questions that remain are: “What is a big sand dune doing in France?” and, “What does it tell us about climate?” While some information is available on the Internet, there is not a complete geologic history of it. Additionally, sand dunes change shapes and orientations in response to climatic shifts. The Dune could provide information on the last ice age if it is still adjusting to a new climate. This is why we came to this location.

Day 2— Upon arrival at the Dune, we split up into our project groups. I was assigned to be an assistant to the sedimentology group. Its goal was to understand how the Dune is currently evolving. One third of the other students were on a team that hauled ground penetrating radar (GPR) equipment on a sled up and down the Dune. The other third threw my iPhone, in a waterproof container, into the ocean. They used the phone’s accelerometer to study incoming waves.

The sedimentology team split into two subgroups. Two students wandered around the Dune in search of blowouts — places where the sides of miniature dunes are sheered off thereby revealing the stratified internal layers of sand. They would find information on the Dune’s past shape and composition. I was in the wind subgroup. We walked along transects that crossed the Dune perpendicularly to document how the wind interacted with the sand. I was charged with the task of setting up portable weather stations to record meteorological data for ten minute intervals.

We did this the entire day. For lunch, we walked over to a fishing point to watch the people walk by. As we returned to our worksite, one of the team members lost a wind vane. We spent an hour looking for it before giving up and returning to our work. At the next transect location, a man approached us, so I began to explain our project to him in French. His wife walked up, said that she had found our wind vane, and returned it to us. To finish the day, we walked down the steep lee side — the side away from the wind — of the dune. The sand was loose which made it difficult to walk down.

Following dinner, we spent three hours downloading and analyzing our data.

Breakfast: cereal flakes, bread, chocolate hazelnut spread

Bagged Lunch: chicken salad, apple juice, baby bell cheese

Dinner: beets, bread, fish, cheese, strawberries

Day 3— In essence, we repeated our tasks from Day 2. This time, I paired up with one classmate, and we covered two transects in a day. It is very tiring to walk up the dune.

Unlike previous days, the sun peeked through the clouds to bask us in warm, glorious light. Then the wind picked up, and it became cloudy again. Another man approached me to ask what we were doing. Again, I explained our project to him in French.

As we climbed up the Dune, we noticed several black layers that ran along its length. They were organic in nature. We thought that they were remnants of past soils. Our professor told us that pottery had been found in one layer that dated back over 2,000 years.

Breakfast: cereal flakes, bread, yogurt, orange juice

Bagged Lunch: tuna sandwich, apple sauce, chips, bread, creamy cheese, cookies

Dinner: cabbage, bread, crayfish, muscles, chicken, rice, cheese, apple pie

After surveying the Dune, we had a working hypothesis. We believe that Dune du Pilat was originally a set of small barchan dunes that coalesced, grew, and retreated eastward as a transverse dune in response to the warming climate.

Day 4— We hit the road for Zumaia, Spain. It rained for most of the day, so I went to sleep. Southwestern France looked a lot like Sussex County, Delaware from the car. Pine trees, farm, sandy land, pine trees, farm, pine trees…you get the idea. We stopped at an Intermarché Super in Bayonne, France for two hours to get food. We arrived at our hostel in Zumaia after another 30 minutes of driving. I was surprised at the nonexistence of security along the French-Spanish border.

Zumaia looked like the most beautiful place in the world in spite of the spitting rain. Our agritourism hostel, “Santa Klara,” was seated atop a magnificent hill. The grass around us was the most vibrant green that I had ever seen. To the north, we could see the foothills of the Pyrenees sharply drop off into the ocean.

We walked on a narrow muddy path down the hill to a rocky cove. Everyone analyzed the rock layers around it, and our professors explained the area’s geologic history. One of them showed us a few additional features before returning to the hostel for the evening. Our professors cooked dinner and cleaned the dishes. We ate only vegan food during our sojourn in Spain.

French Breakfast: cereal flakes, bread, yogurt, hazelnut spread, orange juice

Bagged Lunch: chicken sandwich, chips, bread, cheese

Dinner: chickpeas, rice, roasted nuts, falafel, vegetarian cupcakes

Zumaia, Spain

The geological allure of this place becomes apparent as soon as you set foot on the beach. There are cliffs that sheer off into the ocean. But, unlike most cliffs, they were not solid rock faces. Instead, they were composed of many vertical layers. They started to form 100 million years ago during the orogenic event that built the Pyrenees. Rocks eroded in the mountains and then were transported as sediments by rivers to Zumaia where they were deposited. As the sediment piled up, it formed horizontal layers of sedimentary rock. Scientists believe that these layers can reveal information about the Earth’s past climate based on trends in the Milankovitch Cycles.

The predominant rock in the cliffs is limestone. This rock can be found in three lithologies at Zumaia: limestone, marl, and turbidite. Limestone is formed when a chemical called carbonate is deposited in the sediments along with planktonic shells. Marl occurs in the same manner but more dust is mixed in, and there are fewer shells. Turbidites are created when sediment piles up on a continental shelf and then cascades down a cliff, like an avalanche, after an earthquake or other catastrophic event. Basically, they form in an instant, whereas marl and limestone require several thousand years. Scientists think that marl is indicative of cold periods while limestone represents warm periods.

Most scientists have studied the southwestern portion of the beach because it contains the K-Pg Boundary — the exact location in the geologic record where the dinosaurs went extinct. Analyzing this area yields information about the extinction event. Zumaia is famous, geologically speaking, because it was the second place in the world where this boundary was identified. Some have studied the southern region because it has the Thanetian Boundary. Most have ignored our area of study on the beach because it contains many turbidites. They believe that the presence of these layers — that form instantaneously — are either not important or hinder climate data. But my team disagreed.

Day 5— We arose early to walk down through the town to the beach. It was deserted. We split into three teams. One group walked the GPR along the beach. Another continued to throw iPhones into the ocean. The stratigraphy group, my project, divided to study the cliffs at two locations. We recorded the width, lithology, grain size, and magnetic susceptibility of each layer. Centimeter by centimeter, we advanced down the beach. Cyclostratigraphy is tedious. It rained quite frequently in the afternoon, so we quit. Our professor took us to a different part of the cliffs that had not been documented before. This area will be worthy of further study in the future.

On a separate note, we learned that Game of Thrones had been filming in Zumaia.

Breakfast: cereal, yogurt, sponge cake, Nutella

Lunch: peanut butter and Nutella sandwich, cheese, Belgian chocolate

Dinner: rice, curry vegetables, cookies

Day 6— We continued our work from yesterday. After several hours, we had a complete series of the beds that stretched from the fort on the beach to 75 meters northward. Our professor went to a similar beach at Sopelana to take measurements of the beds in its cliffs. One of my team’s members determined that the magnetic susceptibility readings were useless because they varied too widely within the same layer of rock.

I talked to a man in Spanish about our project. He was also a university student and recognized Princeton. To me, it was interesting to hear his concerns about finding a job after graduation given the high unemployment rates in Spain. It looks like we all face similar challenges.

As my partner and I walked back to the hostel in the late afternoon, one of the professors picked us up. He could not stand the lack of meat, so we stopped by a supermarket to get some. Then, with the waves team, we dined on baguettes, Italian sausages, paté, Iberico ham, and Serrano ham. It was phenomenal.

After doing a cursory analysis of the data, we had a working hypothesis. Previous scientists have ignored the presence of turbidites and assume that marl and limestone occur in alternating couplets. They impose Milankovitch Cycles on their data to show that the beds represent climate data. But my team has a different idea. We believe that marl is the upper layer of a Bouma sequence that has turbidites as its base. In other words, marl and limestone do not form in “couplets” and therefore do not represent paleoclimate data.

Day 7— We left Zumaia to go to the Pyrenees. It was a long drive. The class ate lunch on a beautiful grassy pasteur next to a river and beside a mountain. We stopped at the Grottes de Bétharram near Asson, France. This was an enormous cave! I The ceilings were over 18 meters tall in some locations. There were many karst features for us to study.

As we drove closer to the Pyreness, I could see their snowcapped peaks. The weather worsened; however, we eventually reached our hotel, “La Brêche de Roland,” in Gedre, France. It was very cozy. We could see the snow piling in before going to bed.

Breakfast: cereal, yogurt, sponge cake, Nutella

Lunch: peanut butter and Nutella sandwich, cheese, Belgian chocolates

Dinner: pork soup, lamb stew, strawberry sherbet

The Pyrenees

Day 8— To our astonishment, it had snowed 18 inches overnight. Still, this did not deter us from our scheduled hike. After a brief snowball fight, we went to Gavarnie, France. There, our professors rented snowshoes for us. We hiked along a trail to the Cirque de Gavarnie. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the cirque because it was shrouded in mist. But the snow on the mountainsides augmented our scenery. For lunch, we sat in a large open snowfield and watched the roaring avalanches tumble down around us. We were a safe distance away from them. The grandeur of this valley left me awestruck.

We returned to the vans and drove to a hotel in Bordeaux. I was stuffed into a small Ibis Budget room with two other people. It was tight. The class went to dinner at a French restaurant. Later, we walked around the city until we stopped at a café to get ice cream.

Breakfast: croissant, baguettes, breads, butter

Lunch: baguettes, sausage, Belgian chocolates (my professor was a real connoisseur of fine foods)

Dinner: crusted egg, bread, vanilla ice cream

Day 9— Our professors forgot the boarding time of our flight when we went to bed, so they had to wake us up earlier than we had expected. I only received two hours of sleep. Everyone looked like zombies. The flights to Amsterdam and Newark were smooth with no delays. I was delighted to see the plethora of American flags that greeted me at the customs desks in the Newark airport.

I learned two important lessons from this excursion.

First, field trips are difficult. I was basically in class 24/7. Although it was a more relaxed atmosphere, I felt like I was constantly working, reading, or studying. But there were still many fun moments.

Second, Europe is a continent with boundless beauty. From a purely natural standpoint, it looks quite different from U.S. I also realized just how much untamed wilderness remained in North America. Virtually every location on this trip was within one hour of civilization. This is not true for many mountainous regions in America, such as the Appalachians or Rockies. I hope to return to Europe one day to explore more.

Photo Gallery

Typical Schedule

6:45 am— Wake up, eat breakfast

8:45 am— Begin fieldwork

1:00 pm— Lunch break

6:30 pm— Leave field location

8:30 pm— Eat dinner

9:30 pm-12:00 am— Analyze data

12:00 am— Go to sleep


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