Meet our Faculty: George Gehrels

The Whitecap at anchor

We have assembled quite an armada of boats for conducting our research! The main boat we have used is a 26 foot cabin cruiser that's named.... you guessed it.....  the "Wildcat." This boat was purchased with funds from the National Science Foundation in 1987 and has been used nearly every summer since. 

We have studied geology as far north as Skagway (Alaska) and as far south as Bella Bella (British Columbia), covering ~over 1500 miles of coastline. I doubt many other 26 foot boats have covered this much of the coast, well, except for the old-time gold panners who would row hand-made wooden boats all the way from California to Alaska....
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Can you tell us about the research you've been doing from the boats?The "Wildcat" skims through the water
The main focus of the research is to determine how North America has grown westward—200 million years ago, the west coast of North America extended northward from southern California through central Nevada, western Idaho, and western Alberta!  Most of the rocks in California and Nevada and all of the rocks in Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska were located somewhere else. So during the past 200 million years North America has grown westward by the accretion of rocks that formed elsewhere within the Pacific Ocean.  We are trying to reconstruct this history of accretion, and thereby understand the general processes by which continents have grown over geologic time. 

Where are you doing the research?
One of the best places to study these processes is along the coast of British Columbia and Alaska because glaciers have carved fjords that cut across many of the critical rock units, and the constant currents, tides, and waves produces excellent shoreline exposures.  But there are few roads in this part of the world, so nearly all of our field work is conducted from boats. This creates logistical challenges, but also provides opportunities to learn about the oceans and work with boats.
Can you tell us about your newest b2 researchers in small Zodiac boat on wateroat, the Whitecap?
In 2010 we received funds from the National Science Foundation to conduct research on rocks that are exposed only on outer coastal islands, which required a larger vessel than the Wildcat. Don Wilson (captain of another boat used in the research, the Phoebe) recommended that we look for a 32' ft Wegley trawler, and, amazingly, a 1996 32' Wegley trawler turned up for sale in Seattle just a few months later. Don and I convened in Seattle, examined all aspects of the boat, made an offer of ~2/3 of the asking price, and it was accepted. And then began the difficult part, which was to process all of the paperwork required by the UofA to purchase a boat in Seattle! But of course Heather Alvarez and Sylivia Quintero in the Geos business office were able to navigate the maze, and we soon ended up taking ownership of the Whitecap!
With the Whitecap, we are able to accommodate four researchers for extended periods, which makes the field work both safe and efficient. Camping in this part of the world, where rainfall is commonly an inch per day and there is a high density of black and brown bears, is definitely not fun!

Any good Whitecap stories?
Before starting field work last summer, we realized that there were several essential aspects of the Whitecap that needed work. First, we realized that anybody on board over 6' tall would soon need chiropractic care, as the ceilings were 5'10" throughout the boat. But I knew that graduate student Martin Pepper had a lot of experience working with wood and fiberglass, so he came up for a week and managed to lower the floor in most of the boat by 3 inches. Great for me, 6'1", not so great for Martin, 6'4"! 
The next job was to solve issues with the toilet -- it would flush just fine, but nothing ever came out of the outlet. After a few experiments, we realized that this was a dangerous situation! So we called Don (Wilson) for help, and he spent a few days as a plumber, a few days as an electrician to solve battery issues, and a few days as a diesel mechanic to solve overheating issues. 

After all this, the Whitecap was ready for field work! We drove the boat to Port McNeil, BC, loaded up with supplies, and with collaborator Bill McClelland (Professor at the University of Iowa) headed off for several weeks of mapping and sampling. Later in the summer, MS student Clare Tochilin joined the group.

How has field work been going on the Whitecap so far?
Our main activities were to make maps of the main rock units and collect representative samples for age determination and geochemical analysis. The Whitecap worked great, even in 20' swells near Cape Caution and 60 mph winds near Terror Point in Calamity Bay (appropriately named, we discovered, by British Explorers in the 1700's), and we accomplished a lot of great research.