Field Camp 2017

For geology students who haven’t yet experienced it, the mystique of field camp is real. Time leading up to summer field camp is anxiety filled. You’re told various horror stories from students who have recently completed it… “It’s brutal.” “I never knew what I was doing.” “Don’t give up, you’ll make it.” “The instructors are dicks.” And so on. As instructors, we always say that field camp is, “the best time you’ll ever hate.” You have to amass supplies from some draconian list given to you by the professors. You have to give up summer employment. You need to say goodbye to your family and friends and the creature comforts of home.

To be sure, field camp is a rite of passage for geology students.

The majority of study leading up to it is comprised of lectures and labs and, hopefully, scattered field exercises here and there in Physical Geology, Sedimentology and Stratigraphy, and Structural Geology. Whatever the course name is (Field Camp, Geological Field Study, Field Geology, etc.), everyone knows what it is: six semester hours of intensive fieldwork. Usually following the junior year, field camp is a culmination and integration of all classroom study that had come before. The Earth is our laboratory and the only way to really “become a geologist” is to get out in the field and suffer the oftentimes hell that is field camp.

Six semester hours is a rip-off, right? Fieldwork time while it’s light and nightly work time usually is 40 to 60 hours per week for six weeks. Huh, that’s pretty stout, considering that a 3-credit course is 45 contact hours for an entire semester.

While the fear of the unknown is palpable going into it (what? six weeks of immersive geology, commonly in uncomfortable conditions), the reward on the other side of it is typically incomparable. You survived geology boot camp! You’re in the club! You’re truly a geologist!

I had my own trepidation going into this field session. Not so much because of new geology (I revel in seeing new geology!), but mostly because of the weather that we would have to work with. Who does fieldwork in Saudi Arabia in July? Surely only idiots.

My years of field camp with CSM consisted of leading a week (this is how we do it Fifth Week!!) in the Molas Lake area of the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. Weather there, in mid- to late June, camping at 10,500’ (3200 m), ran the gamut from single-digit temperatures (Fahrenheit, minus 5°C) at night, to low- mid-70s (20s C) during the day, and oftentimes encountering rain, sleet, snow, graupel, hail, lightning, intense sunshine, and radiative cooling at night. The prospect of fieldwork in the Kingdom in July meant searing sunshine, temperatures in the 40s to low 50s C (115°ish F) every day, and only cooling off to the upper 30s at night. No matter, we’re f*cking geologists and this is what we do…

June in the San Juan Mountains. This is how we did it fifth week!!

Unfortunately, for me, I had already made my summer “repatriation” plans to be back in the US, so I wasn’t able to spend the whole time in the field with my students and colleagues. However, the two weeks I was able to spend with them was simply wonderful.

The field site is in northwest Saudi Arabia, tucked up against the Gulf of Aqaba, and in sight of the Sinai peninsula and Egypt. We flew domestically on Saudia Airlines from Dammam to Tabuk. Our Land Cruisers had been delivered to Tabuk earlier in the week, so Khalid and I grabbed a taxi, picked up the vehicles, loaded up the students, did some grocery shopping, and headed to Maqna. The Gulf of Aqaba is a left-lateral shear zone that’s still active (didn’t get to experience an earthquake, dang), and separating the Sinai from the Arabian shield. 700 to 800 meter high mountains plunge into the Gulf, where depths range up to 1500 meters, with little to no continental shelf. Where the wadis empty coarse siliciclastics into the Gulf, there’s essentially no shelf at all – inter-wadi areas have thriving reefs and carbonate sedimentation. There’s no better place to see sediment reciprocity in action.

Wide shot

Northern end of the Red Sea, Sinai, Nile delta, and location of Tabuk in NW Saudi Arabia.

Field area

Gulf of Aqaba to Tabuk.

Field area close

Approximate field study area. We stayed in Maqna, and Al Badh was the closest larger town.

It’s hard to emote the joy and enrichment that I experienced during my time in the field. The geology was ridiculously good and fascinating. It helps when there’s no vegetation in the way – not like mapping in the glacial-till-covered forested wilds of Vermont, or the Enchanted Forest at Molas. Not at all. I call it “slap you in the face geology” because, seriously, if you don’t get this, you’re in the wrong profession/line of study.

Working for KFUPM dictates that things will be different from other universities. We’re well funded and we were fortunately able to buy field equipment for the students, stay in comfortable, if Spartan, apartments, and have a cook for all our meals. Abu Mohammed was integral to our field experience. We typically had breakfast well before the sun was up, to beat the heat, so Mohammed was up even earlier, laying out the breakfast staples and (usually) cooking something to get our day started.

We got in the vehicles at 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning, so we could get to our field sites as the sun was coming up. Because of the heat, we were typically off the outcrop by 10:30 AM or so, more than ready to head back to the apartments for some cowering downtime in air conditioning, and to get cleaned up and ready for absolutely the best meal of the day. We headed back to the field around 3:30 in the afternoon, well after the peak heat, and would work until sundown. Without elaborating, the heat just sucks the life out of you – we worked the field, drank lots of water, slept hard when we could, and recharged with Abu Mohammed’s meals.

We worked with everything from Neoproterozoic intrusives, to Recent carbonate reef sediments, but mostly we were in the Early Miocene sedimentary cover. That won’t mean much to many, but just know we had awesome geology to work with. Without boring you more, I’ll just upload a bunch of pictures, with a little commentary in the captions.

Arrival in Tabuk with a traditional lunch – before and after!


After several field stops along the way from Tabuk to Maqna, this sunset vista over the Gulf of Aqaba greeted our arrival to our accommodations.


First recon day to the field area, with evaporites to the upper left. The Precambrian is in the far right background, in fault contact with continental redbeds and turbidites in the nearer background.


A typical gourmet field lunch from Abu Mohammed. This sustained us daily in the field grind, and lunch was our biggest meal in the day. Like every lunch, this one started with soup – all other soup makers should bow in the presence of Mohammed. Each day’s soup was better than the last. Also here are roasted chickens, basmati rice, salsa, okra ratatouille, and fresh fruit for dessert.


You want structure? Yeah, we have structure. This recumbent fold in Miocene carbonates was generated from shearing along the Gulf of Aqaba.

This Land Cruiser is “John’s car.” I’ve put about 95% of the kms on this beast since April, and this was my field vehicle for the duration. The right photo shows “John’s dent.” I hope it’s not coming out of my paycheck. This christening happened during a wadi crossing along the mountain front in the left photo.


Ever wonder what the inside of a pediment looks like? Coarse clastics with obvious channel features were exposed by a wadi cut through a large pediment dipping from the mountains to the east toward the Gulf.

Views in and around Haql, a town on the Jordanian border.


World-class healthy reefs in the northern Gulf of Aqaba at Haql. This was off our back doorstep from our accommodations in town!

Proof I was there.


The dreaded camel spider. This was in my freaking bathroom. Khalid stepped on it and all the black stuff came spewing out. My boot toe for scale.

If you thought Saudi Arabia was all sand dunes, you’ve been mistaken. I’ve been pleasantly blown away by the geology of the Kingdom.


A WWII Catalina seaplane that apparently missed the sea…

Our curious animal friends.


Our accommodations in Maqna – early morning, gearing up for a warm day in the field.


Al Badh had some Petra-like ruins.


Patagonia Arabia…


Our last night together before I left the field was spend at a resort in Sharma. The crew arranged this lovely cake for me. Thenks!! But seriously, I loved my time in the field with my colleagues and students and hope that you’ve enjoyed this sample of my photos.

One thought on “Field Camp 2017

  1. Nice reef, such an interesting mix of heavy clastic input and healthy reefs. What allows that? Lack of fines? Steep slopes siphoning off the classics? Great post, happy to see you having such unique experience! Cheers!


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