EPS Students and Faculty Take On Hawaii

Over 30 Harvard students and faculty members within the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department traveled to Hawaii’s Big Island on a weeklong field trip this summer, giving them the opportunity to hike and explore one of the United States’ most active volcanic regions.

Led by Assistant Professor of EPS Francis A. Macdonald and Professor of Geophysics Richard J. O’Connell, the trip was intended to expose students to the wide range of geological phenomena that characterize the Island of Hawaii. From visiting an active volcano to relaxing and snorkeling off one of the island’s most beautiful beaches, students were able to directly observe the millennia-old processes that led to the Earth’s formation.

“We try to show those early concentrators that you can get in a place that you love and yet still try to understand it,” Macdonald said. He added that it is this attitude toward hands on learning that separates the department from many of Harvard’s other concentrations.

The island’s geological processes make it an ideal location for observational study of the earth’s ongoing physical transformations, said Dylan Trotzuk ’12.

“We would go from the top of the volcanoes which used to be covered in glaciers ... then you could go down through shrubbery all the way to deserts and rainforests and beaches all within a two or three hour drive,” Trotzuk said.

Some of the most beautiful spots on the Island, including the famous black and green sand beaches, are the product of the island’s high level of volcanic activity.

For Felix Waechter ’12, an EPS concentrator, the Hawaii trip marks his second field trip with the department.

“We really do awesome trips quite frequently,” said Waechter, who hopes to go on his third trip next semester while doing thesis research in Death Valley, Calif.

Beyond observing the natural features of the island, students were also able to visit the Mauna Loa Observatory, which collects some of the world’s best atmospheric data for monitoring the effect of greenhouse gases, Waechter said.

All of these activities were part of the trip’s central purpose, which was exposing students to a more direct and experimental method of observing the Earth.

“I think of the earth as this series of old experiments. As a geologist you’re trying to interpret the results of the [earth’s] changes that is the nature of field geology and on this trip they [students] were getting into that experimental method,” Macdonald said.

—Staff writer Candance B. Samuel can be reached at