The top of Murdoch Mountain, in the Uinta chain in northeastern Utah, is about 11,200 feet, which is modest by the standards of the Uintas: the state’s highest point is Kings Peak at 13,258 feet. Murdoch is popular for hikers because of its accessibility: you can drive, via Mirror Lake Highway, to Bald Mountain Pass, which at 10,700 feet is only about 500 vertical from Murdoch’s top.
That’s where, in July, I met up with Jeff Munroe, a professor of geology at Middlebury, and two students: Sam O’Keefe ’16, from Baltimore, Maryland, and Luna Wasson ’17, from Wilson, Wyoming. Munroe has been hiking, climbing, and conducting research in the Uintas for two decades. And for much of that time he’s been bringing students to learn about this east-west stretch of the Rocky Mountains.
In recent years, Munroe’s research has focused on dust deposition in the Uintas. The long-term goal: to learn how windborne dust affects the geo-ecology of alpine systems. He’s investigating soil formation (also known as pedogenesis); the albedo—or reflectivity—of the snowpack, and the impact on snowmelt; the composition and source of the dust on the mountains. And, with the help of core samples from Uinta lakes, Munroe is studying how dust deposition has changed over time due both to climate change—a drier climate in the Southwest implies more dust in the mountains—and human activity in the lowland basins, including fossil fuel extraction and mining.
On this July day, Munroe and the students are heading to a passive dust collector not far from Murdoch’s summit, one of four that the Middlebury geologist deployed in the Uintas a few years back. From Bald Mountain Pass, we hike through a beautiful alpine meadow, which quickly becomes a tricky, steep talus with rocks ranging from toaster to refrigerator size. They look stable but often shift under your feet. Trekking poles come in handy.
As the terrain flattens near the top of Murdoch, we find ourselves on a felsenmeer—German for sea of stone. This is a relatively flat expanse of rock broken into loose pieces, and it’s typical of the summits throughout the Uintas. The last time glaciers moved through, the peaks were not covered in ice and so for thousands of years they’ve been subject to freezing and thawing, which reduces the top few feet of the rock surface to rubble.
The dust collector is a short walk from a summit cairn, on the shoulder of the mountain, where it’s less likely to be disturbed. Just below the site is a small snowfield. The collectors—built by Tony Desautels, a scientific machinist in Middlebury’s Science Tech Support Services—are about two feet square and made of clear plastic. The plastic has five V-shaped channels with holes near the top that allow excess water to drain out. The channels are closed on both ends and have on one side removable black plastic caps. When deployed in the field, each channel is filled to two-thirds its depth with black, rounded glass—pieces about the size of Peanut M&M’s. Dust collects in the channels and is trapped beneath the glass pieces, where some of it stays until the team comes to collect it each year.
The collection process is almost alarmingly low-tech. First Munroe, O’Keefe, and Wasson remove the glass pieces from each channel and put them in plastic bags. Then they put the water and dust from each channel in a plastic bottle—several bottles for each collector—with a plastic spoon and a turkey baster. Then, one by one, they remove the caps on the channels and rinse each channel with purified water to capture more dust and add it to that channel’s bottle. They use a toothbrush in the final rinse to make sure all the dust gets into the bottle. Then they seal the bottles and secure them in their backpacks for the hike down. They put the collector as close as possible to where it had been, and put the glass pieces back into the channels. At the end of the trip, they will ship these bottles back to Middlebury, where the dust will be removed and analyzed.
With the collection process complete, we head back down to Bald Mountain Pass and then drive deeper into the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest on Mirror Lake Highway before turning off onto increasingly bumpy and rocky U.S. Forest Service “roads” to our campsite/staging area for the next hike. Munroe and the students are in a huge white four-door turbo-diesel pickup Munroe rented for the trip. He calls it the hovercraft for the way it handles the bad roads. My Jeep Patriot rental can’t make it past the washouts on the last quarter mile to the campsite. So I pack my tent and other gear in a huge backpack I borrowed from the Middlebury Mountain Club gear room and make the short trek to the riverbank.
We set up camp by the fast-rushing East Fork of the Blacks Fork River, a Green River tributary. We have a tailgate dinner, with Munroe and the students enjoying the peanut butter/noodle/vegetable creation he cooked over a gas camp stove. Munroe and his wife, Diane, the coordinator for community-based environmental studies at the College’s Franklin Environmental Center, are vegans, and many students talk about the wonderful meals they’ve had at the Munroe household.
When it’s still light, we settle into our tents for the night, because we plan to rise at 4 a.m. to set out on the long hike to a dust collector just south of Bald Mountain. (Another Bald Mountain, it turns out: not the one visible from the aforementioned Bald Mountain Pass.) The early start is to ensure we’re back below tree line before the late afternoon thunderstorms.
In 2001 Jeff Munroe joined the Middlebury faculty as an assistant professor of geology. He graduated from Bowdoin College and earned his MS and PhD from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His work in the Uintas began as a collaboration with the Forest Service in 1996, when he was a graduate student, and was the basis for his doctoral dissertation. He’s also done research on climate change in northeastern Nevada, glacier retreat in Glacier National Park, and the evolution of lake environments and mountain soils in northern New England. Now a full professor, he teaches courses on geomorphology, environmental geology, paleolimnology, and arctic and alpine environments.
Munroe’s general area of research is the Quaternary period, which ranges from the present to about 2.6 million years ago—a tiny sliver of time given that our planet is 4.5 billion years old. “Geology is reading a book with most of the pages torn out,” he says. “The evidence, the story, the information is constantly being deleted by erosion and other processes, so the further back you go, more and more is missing. Working on the Quaternary—relatively recent stuff—the stories you can tell, the data that you can accumulate: it’s just richer, because less of the record has been lost. Not that it’s easier, because plenty of the record has still been lost, but you can ask tougher questions, because you’re dealing with a more complete record.”
Like his colleagues in Middlebury’s geology department, Munroe spends a lot of time in the field and much of that time with students. “That’s something I did as an undergrad at Bowdoin,” he says. “I went to Alaska for five or six weeks with my advisor, and that put the hook in me pretty good about doing field-based geology. And I just always had it in my mind that in a perfect world I’d get into a situation where I could provide those types of opportunities for undergraduates. And beginning my very first year here, I’ve been able to do that. It helps build great relationships with students, as you might imagine. The conversations you have when you’re together all the time, when you’re dealing with the uncertainties and unpredictability of fieldwork: you really become a team pretty quickly. And I love to be able to provide that for students. I think that type of immersive learning in the field has no parallel. You can’t fake it. You can try with a three- or four-hour lab during a regular semester. But, boy, when you’re out there testing hypotheses every day, coming up with new ones every night, you see science in real time.”
At 4:30 the next morning, we’re fording the Blacks Fork, which runs cold and fast over round, slippery rocks, and is just over knee deep. Munroe had described this hike to me as 15 miles, but it turns out to be 17, including 3,000 feet of elevation gain that tops out at 12,500 feet. Wearing headlamps to illuminate our path, we start up a series of switchbacks that cross a steep rocky slope through thick woods still soaked from overnight rains. On the second switchback, we hear a rumble of thunder, which Munroe says is not a good sign. Thunder in the morning often means a long, stormy day in the mountains. But we decide to press on until we get to the tree line and can see more of the sky.
By the time we reach the top of the switchbacks, the woods are waking up, filling with birdsong. The trail levels and smooths out for half a mile or so through a beautiful softwood glade. Then things get steep again as we hike through a huge pile of rocks, which has a stream running below it. The trail zigzags through the rocks—we found our way by looking for cairns at the turns—and then the terrain opens up again, displaying fewer trees and some marshy sections.
But before long we’re back in a steep and rocky section, now above the tree line, and stop for breakfast on the shoulder of Bald Mountain at around 11,000 feet. It’s overcast, with a chilly breeze. Having discovered early on that my idea of a comfortable pace doesn’t match those of the others—Munroe is tall, trim, and extremely fit; O’Keefe is a national collegiate champion in cyclocross; Wasson is a member of the Panther Nordic ski team—I arrive a bit late. From our breakfast perch, the terrain looks friendlier. I ask Munroe if we’re halfway, and he says that’s probably about right. He adds that you can see our destination, pointing south toward a peak in the middle distance. Since you can see for at least 20 miles in almost every direction, this is not terribly comforting. But breakfast—Alpineaire’s granola and blueberries; just add cold water—could not have tasted better.
Last spring, Munroe taught one of the geology department’s most popular entry-level courses: Environmental Geology. He makes sure even those beginning students get their time in the field.
One afternoon, I tagged along as Munroe and his class piled into vans and made the short drive over to the Middlebury River where it enters East Middlebury. We parked just past the new Route 125 bridge that spans the East Middlebury Gorge, and Munroe and the students pulled on waders and descended the steep slope to the river.
They were measuring the water’s volume and the speed of its flow. Before leaving campus, Munroe had instructed one student to grab four oranges from the dining halls—“The entire success of the lab depends on those oranges,” he said—for reasons that weren’t, at first, clear to me.
Once in the water, the students created a cross-section of the river, running a long tape measure across and using yardsticks to measure depth every foot along the tape. Then they stretched two tapes across the stream 20 feet apart and floated oranges between them, measuring the time it took the fruit to travel the distance at different points.
Having collected the data on water volume and flow, Munroe and the class climbed back up to the bridge, crossed to the river’s north side, and walked half a mile upstream. Munroe discussed how the gorge was formed, noting the volume and speed of water required to carve the gorge out of the quartzite bedrock.
He pointed out round dimples on the surfaces of some large rocks in the river: these were percussion marks and smaller rocks hitting the larger ones caused them. Typically they’re found on the upstream side. If they’re on the downstream side it means the river flow has moved or flipped over the rock. He asked his students to find the largest rock that appeared to have been flipped, and they discovered an enormous one—big enough for several students to stand on. Estimating the weight and the flow required to flip it, Munroe said, suggested it would have taken a once-in-10,000-years flood.
Munroe is clearly in his element in the field, whether in the rivers and streams of Vermont or the extremes of the West, and his smile was almost ever-present through the afternoon. On the way back to the vans, he talked about how great it is to have places like the gorge so close to campus. “It’s a wonderful place to teach geology,” he said. “You can just go outside.”
Back in Utah, the next bit of the hike goes slightly downhill through a beautiful, wide alpine tundra covered with grass and wildflowers. But before long we’re on a gradual climb interrupted every so often by steep slopes with lots of exposed rock. I keep thinking every pitch has to be the last one. And eventually, when I nearly crawl over what actually is the final rise, there’s Munroe sitting next to his dust collector, taking my picture.
At this climb’s halfway point, I had told Munroe I’d seen lots of good spots along the way for his dust collector—the implication being that such a long hike might not be necessary. But he tells me there’s “a method to [his] madness.” In the summer, sheep are brought up to these alpine meadows to graze. He’d learned how high the sheep usually get and placed his collector well above that point.
So eight-plus miles later, Munroe, O’Keefe, and Wasson repeat yesterday’s process. As they work, Munroe gives impromptu lectures on some of the terrain features we’d encountered. Frost boils are bare patches of ground: here they’re mostly brick-colored dirt produced when frost pushes soil up from below. They’re bare because the soil’s movement doesn’t allow vegetation to take hold. Sorted polygons and stripes—known as patterned ground—are areas of soil and vegetation bordered by larger stones. During repeated freezing and thawing, finer soils flow and settle underneath larger stones, pushing the stones aside and creating geometric figures on flatter terrain and stripes on steeper sections.
Once dust collection is complete, I take a picture of the three researchers with the spectacular Red Castle in the background. The red-tinged rocks and spires, which look like an enormous cathedral, have become the traditional backdrop for a celebratory photo after reaching, at 12,500 feet, this highest collector. Then we start back down. Seeing black clouds to the west over other jagged Uinta peaks, we depart with some urgency. No one wants to be caught out in this open country, far above the tree line, in a thunderstorm.
In the spring of 2013, Munroe was promoted to full professor. He also became the first winner of Middlebury’s Gladstone Award for Excellence in Teaching, which includes a stipend to support collaborative work with students.
Munroe used the funding to take three students to Utah at various times over the summer. Emily Attwood ’14, Paul Quackenbush ’14, and Sam O’Keefe ’16 gathered dust from the collectors, collected dust from snowfields, took core samples from lake sediments, and collected soil samples. The students then based their school-year work on these experiences: Attwood wrote a geology thesis; both Quackenbush, a geography major, and O’Keefe worked on 500-level independent projects. After doing lab analysis on the materials they’d brought back from the mountains, the students helped Munroe with a paper concerning this project. They also submitted abstracts of their work to a conference in Castellaneta Marina, Italy. The conference’s name is DUST 2014: An International Conference on Atmospheric Dust. Attwood’s abstract concerned dust in snow; O’Keefe’s was on dust in lake cores; and Quackenbush’s was dust and soil development. All were accepted, so in June 2014, Munroe and the students attended the conference, with Munroe presenting a paper on Uinta dust deposition coauthored by the three students. Each student also did a poster presentation.
Attwood remarks on the novelty of presenting in front of atmospheric scientists at an international conference—“we were definitely the youngest people there”—but says the collaborative experience was par for the course. “In the geology department, as in some other departments, the professors encourage field experience,” she says. “You get to know your professors on a different level, hiking with them for hours during the day, cooking meals with them, swapping stories. And you learn in such a different way than you would in a classroom. You can just ask them all the questions you want. You’re right there in the field and something pops up, and you say: ‘What does that mean? Why would that be there?’” Attwood, a former Nordic ski racer at Middlebury, now teaches skiing and winter ecology at a Montana ski center.
Quackenbush now works for an environmental consulting firm outside Boston and says that “being involved in the lab work, getting to review the paper with Jeff and make suggestions on that, and seeing how that whole process plays out is an experience that very few [undergraduates] get to have. But I think Jeff strives in his classes and his labs to give students a chance to understand how academic research really works.”
While we were in Utah, Munroe learned he had been awarded a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to help support further work on dust in the Uintas. The grant will support the placement of more dust collectors—bringing the total to eight—from one end of the Uintas to the other. Munroe also anticipates having dust gathered from the collectors twice a year rather than just once.
According to the NSF, Munroe’s work with student collaborators was an important factor in approving his grant. Reviewers addressed his past work with undergraduates, along with Middlebury’s commitment to providing students with research opportunities. “The robust participation of undergraduates is clearly an important element in the success of this project,” read the foundation’s award letter.
The new grant started last summer, and Munroe immediately made plans to return to the Uintas with Middlebury student Ryan McElroy ’16. Munroe asked Tony Desautels if he could build five more collectors—four to put in new collection spots, and one to replace a broken collector discovered last summer. Desautels had the collectors ready when Munroe and McElroy headed out at the end of September.
In a week, they placed the new collectors, replaced the broken one, and revisited three of the remaining collectors, along with taking lots of soil samples. The grant also envisions using lake sediment cores collected during past Uintas visits to do a study on a geologic time scale of dust deposition.
It’s heady stuff, and I mention to Munroe how advanced this all seems. He nods. “I never use a book in any of my classes anymore,” he says, “because by the time a book is published, it’s out of date. For the price the students are going to pay (for a book), I’d much rather they read journal articles. I know it’s a big step up. These were not written for undergraduates usually. But, boy, they can make headway by figuring out something that’s presented in a journal article from this week or from last year.”
“That’s how science is done. It’s not a static series of assembled, time-tested material. It’s very, very dynamic.”
Tim Etchells ’74 spent more that a year dropping in on Jeff Munroe, observing the geologist in his natural environment as a teacher. In addition to chasing him across the beautiful Uinta landscape, Etchells sat in on classes and put on waders to join students in the Middlebury River lab. He also hitched a ride with Munroe and his wife, Diane—who frequently accompanies her husband on trips to the Uintas—when they took 30 Middlebury alumni to the top of Killington Peak in Vermont as part of a sold-out session on “The Mountains of Northern New England” at Alumni College in 2014.