Sweating in the Name of Science: A Geological Journey

Are the Adirondacks rising? It sure feels like it to this reporter, bushwhacking up Mt. Kempshall

STEVE ROEKER and I unroll our sleeping bags a few feet from a small receiver that silently records signals from navigation satellites high overhead.

It's 9 p.m. The geologist from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, N.Y., and I lie down on the rock that has prompted this trip. Formed from magma in the Earth's mantle that rose, cooled, and solidified, it is more than a billion years old, among the oldest rock on the planet. Thirty million years ago, our stone mattress lay 40 to 60 kilometers (25 to 37 miles) underground. In the interim, the rock rose to form one of dozens of summits in the Adirondack Mountains. Tonight it's 2,685 feet above sea level - and, perhaps, rising.

That's why we and our third team member, Marcy Howe, are here atop Mt. Goodnow: to use the global positioning satellite (GPS) network to help determine whether New York's highest mountains are rising.

The evidence for active uplift is ambiguous but intriguing. By one set of surveys, for example, something is pushing the mountains up at a rate of 3 to 4 millimeters a year - comparable to the European Alps and unusual for a mountain range thousands of miles from the nearest active boundary between plates in the Earth's crust.

The issue goes beyond scientific curiosity. Mountain-building strains the Earth's crust, which leads to earthquakes. Our efforts also could lead to more accurate assessments of earthquake hazards in the region, already no stranger to moderate tremors.

In 1983, a quake measuring 5.3 on the Richter scale rocked the Northeast from Quebec in the north to Pennsylvania in the south, and east through New Jersey and New England. The quake was centered beneath Goodnow Pond, at the base of the mountain we're climbing.

We are one of seven teams of volunteers assigned to take the mountains' measures. Steve and John Bearan of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Geophysical Observatory in New York City have designed this experiment. The satellites will help answer the questions: Are the mountains growing and by how much?

An array of four seismometers placed around the Adirondack region will be used to analyze the structure under the mountains and help answer the question why.

June 14, 1995

Troy, N.Y.

Steve strides into the classroom at RPI. He's late, delayed by a balky photocopier.

"Thank you all for showing up," he says. "Most of the people here are volunteers, though some of you have been coerced," he adds with a chuckle, nodding toward a few graduate students.

The volunteers are largely students, faculty, and their friends. Marcy, for example, is transferring to RPI from Adirondack Community College in Queensbury, N.Y. She will enter RPI in the fall as a junior majoring in geology and work toward a teaching certificate. She says she wants to teach science and math in the Adirondacks.

Over two successive weekends, the teams will cover 35 peaks. During the first "burst," each team is to cover three peaks in three days. The second burst involves four peaks in four days, with some repeats. Trying to measure altitudes directly would require more manpower and time than we have. Steve and John instead opt for a triangulation survey. Essentially, we'll map the precise location of survey markers on the peaks and connecting them with imaginary lines to form triangles among the summits. John explains that GPS technology will yield very accurate distances between points. "If you know the distances of the legs of the triangles you can also find out what the angles are and compare those with triangulation from previous surveys," he says.

"If there has been any squashing or expansion in one direction relative to another ... some angles will be quite a bit smaller."

Two triangulation surveys will be used for comparisons: a classic series taken in the late 1800s by surveyor Verplanck Colvin; and one taken by the US Coastal and Geological Survey in 1942.

Our prime targets on the summits are Colvin's survey markers. We're to set up GPS antennas directly over the center of them. If we can't locate these bench marks or they are in a spot that will make satellite reception difficult, we're to look for the 1942 bench marks or their reference markers nearby.

Later, we get a parking-lot primer on how to set up and run the GPS equipment. Steve and John emphasize precision, record-keeping, and triple-checking each others' work - a reminder that while most of us are amateurs, we're undertaking a scientific experiment that has been five years in the planning. "By the end of this, everybody will be field GPS surveyors," Steve quips. "You can put it on your resumes; the job opportunities are great."

It begins to rain. It's a good reminder to check the weather forecast. Fortunately for the first foray, the forecast says that rain is unlikely.

June 16

Newcomb, N.Y.

We start up the well-maintained trail to Goodnow's summit at 3 p.m. This is the easiest of the three hikes. I arrive on the summit 10 minutes behind the others, after a 1-hour, 24-minute climb. Marcy aligns the tripod over a 1942 reference marker Steve discovers near a stand of trees. The main '42 bench mark and nearby remains of a Colvin marker are too close to a 60-foot steel fire tower for GPS reception.

The summit's stone ledge is nearly surrounded by thick stands of trees, but from the fire tower the view is stunning. After setup, we take it in. The region is awash in late-spring green. To the north stands the "high peaks" region, dominated by Mt. Marcy's 5,344-foot peak. Smaller summits fill our views in other directions.

Of the 15 hours we remain atop Goodnow, we spend about an hour in focused effort to get the GPS gear running and to map the site. We will spend another 20 minutes dismantling the equipment the next morning. Welcome to the "hurry up and wait" life of science.

By 7 p.m., it's dinner time at the Freeze-Dried Cafe. I dine on honey-lime chicken. Not bad, but a bit too spicy for the amount of water left in the canteens. Steve looks at his meal bag. "Spaghetti Italiano ... must be its genus and species," he quips. Marcy draws a chicken paprika dinner out of her pack, cooks it, and after a few bites pronounces it inedible. She tosses it out. We hold a moment of silence for any creatures that find her leftovers.

At 9 p.m. we unroll our sleeping bags. It's rare for me to be able to sleep under the stars. But I forget how close we are to the summer solstice. Sunset's afterglow doesn't fade until about 10 p.m. By then I am too drowsy for the stellar light show and I fall asleep.

June 17


Long Lake

The sun, birds, and bugs rise early. So do we. Then the great debate. Do we eat breakfast on the summit or hike down and breakfast at Long Lake? Marcy breaks the morning fog of indecision by vividly describing the feast that awaits us at the Long Lake Diner. We dismantle the equipment, pack, and start down the mountain at 7:25. In just over an hour we're dining on buttermilk and blueberry hotcakes and sausage.

We'll need them. Mt. Kempshall awaits. After breakfast, Steve spreads a map on the car hood. We have a choice: Take a 3-1/2-mile hike along Long Lake before beginning an ascent up a trail of uncertain quality that guidebooks say is closed, or get a ride to and from the mountain's base, courtesy of a friend of Marcy's, and bushwhack our way up the opposite side. Bushwhacking wins.

We shoulder our packs and start up the mountain about noon. Ten minutes into our climb, Marcy, out ahead, hurries toward us shouting: "Bear!" She grips a .25-caliber pistol. It affords little protection other than noise. But noise is often all you need. And Marcy's shouting sufficed: The bear hightailed it in the other direction.

We press ahead, coming as close as any of Steve's teams to recreating the feel of Colvin's efforts in the 1860s and '70s. Kempshall was one of his key summits.

When Colvin came to survey, his loggers would clear a summit of trees. Teams would install markers, build signal towers above them, move to the next mountain, and repeat the process. From a key mountain, usually the highest in the area he was surveying, he would take his main triangulation measurements. Colvin's surveys and his activism to preserve the region were instrumental in the state's 1885 decision to keep the region "forever wild." At 5.7 million acres, Adirondack State Park is the largest state park in the country - a politically fragile mix of private and state-held land about the size of Connecticut and most of Massachusetts.

Climbing through birch, aspen, and maples, we breast-stroke through stands of maple wannabes. Their chest-high foliage obscures our feet. Undergrowth snags our boots. Periodically, we pass depressions in the foliage where deer or bear have slept recently. The scat is still fresh.

At higher elevations, we climb through evergreens. Trees grow as little as 2-1/2 feet apart. Dead limbs intertwine like the fingers of locked turnstiles. Moss and decaying logs cover the forest floor - a fecund mixture for flora, a slippery one for feet. Marcy and Steve arrive at the summit about 20 minutes ahead of me. It takes me 4-1/2 hours to hike one mile in distance and 1,500 feet in elevation. After this ordeal and gallons of perspiration, one gains a deep understanding of why geology is called a physical science. And for why the Adirondacks stayed wild for so long.

Even before Europeans landed on the continent, the Algonquins and Iroquois found the mountains a good place to hunt, but not to live. Once the Europeans landed and moved West, they found the same thing and largely skirted the interior.

After the Civil War, more people ventured into the region, drawn by the writings of authors like the Connecticut-born minister William Henry Harrison Murray, who became the pastor of Boston's Park Street Congregational Church in 1868. In 1858, William James Stillman, an artist and journalist who lived in Cambridge, Mass., and who summered in the Adirondacks, invited what was to become known as the Philosophers' Club to share his wonder. Ralph Waldo Emerson accepted. So did Harvard University geologist Louis Agassiz. He would have marveled at the techniques we're using today.

After setting up the GPS gear, we start a campfire and eat dinner. Kempshall's peak affords no view. Its fire tower has been torn down. The summit clearing, perhaps 60 feet across and half again as long, is surrounded by thick stands of spruce, hemlock, and pine. Nice windbreak, though. Steve relaxes against a rock near the fire and describes his collaboration with John Bearan and the genesis of the Adirondack project. They have worked together several years on a plate-tectonics project in the Philippines. It was time to try something close to home.

"The US Geological Survey put out a call for proposals," he says. "One of the subjects they were interested in studying was earthquake hazards in the eastern US. If the Adirondacks are still rising, there is a potential for strain being stored up. So we put a little proposal together."

Steve speculates that if the mountains are rising, one possible explanation would be the existence of a hot spot - a conduit of molten material welling up from within the earth's mantle and "poking through the plate like a sewing-machine needle." The Hawaiian Islands are being formed by a hot spot; another underlies the Snake River Plain in Idaho. "You find them all over the world," Steve says. We turn in about 9 p.m.

June 18

Our hike back down the mountain sometimes seems like a controlled crash. The extra 50 pounds beyond body weight adds to the momentum and to the exertion needed to keep momentum in check. I lose footing twice, sending me to my knees with a jolt. After a 2-hour and 15-minute descent, we emerge at our starting point just before 10 a.m. We move ourselves and our gear to a nearby pond to wait for our ride.

By 1:40 p.m. we've had lunch, repacked our equipment, and head up Mt. Vanderwhacker. About 100 yards up the trail, a leg joint begins to bind. We huddle. The trail has its civil parts; elsewhere, it gets steep. We agree that it would be wiser for me to skip this one. I agree to meet them at the trail head the next morning. I find a room for the night at a mom-and-pop motel in Long Lake. It's Father's Day. I treat myself to a steak at the Long Lake Diner. I gloat just a bit; my teammates are sitting at 3,386 feet supping on another round of freeze-dried food. As the sun sets, clouds begin to move in from the west. I hope the weather holds for them.

June 19

I meet them at the trail head at 8:15 a.m. They bear tales of the worst night for bugs of the three. They climbed a fire tower hoping to evade insects, but the black flies and mosquitoes followed them.

We load the cars for the last time. Steve gives us all a warm handshake and grin. "Well done, team," he says. He drives off to check on his network of seismometers. Marcy and I head south toward Queensbury. Marcy wonders aloud if she is ready for the second burst. She had signed up for four of the highest peaks in the Adirondacks, including Mt. Marcy. (The prospect, however, looked brighter after some decent meals and a few good nights' rest.)

Steve would miss the second burst. That weekend he would head for 2-1/2 weeks in the Tien Shan Mountains along the border between Kirghizia and China to do the same kind of survey work again - at 10,000 feet.

It will take up to two months to process the GPS data we've gathered and another month or two to compare them with the previous surveys.

Steve and John hope to have results ready for publication by year's end.

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