Geology students enjoy unique field study opportunities

Field geology course, Skylar Wolfe

Master's student Skylar Wolfe, left, instructs students on how to use survey equipment for their geology research. | Photo by Brent Dundore-Arias

June 21, 2024

By Mark Muckenfuss

Anyone else might not have given the small landslide a second thought. In fact, many who have walked up the streambed in El Toro Canyon on the western edge of the Fort Ord National Monument have probably passed right by the spot without noticing the significant amount of debris that has slipped down the face of the wall above them.

But for the students in Cal State Monterey Bay’s River Hydrology and Monitoring course, this was a significant displacement worthy of study. It was one of several sites throughout the region they visited during the spring semester, taking advantage of the unique concentration of different topographies in Monterey County. 

“We are situated in a region that has so many microclimates that we can go to many different environments and watershed systems,” said Assistant Professor James Guilinger, explaining the advantage CSUMB students have when studying watershed science. “We have everything we want within an hour’s drive.” 

It’s a great opportunity for students interested in geology, environmental science and related fields, he said. They not only get the chance to study real-world examples, but they can contribute to current research by gathering data.

“We are providing quality data for actionable science,” he said, adding that other universities also do this, “but probably not as much as we do, especially as course-based research experiences. Right now, we’re developing an inventory for the Santa Lucia Conservancy, in nearby Carmel Valley, to understand the scale of erosion across that landscape. They want to know what is the scale of the problem and what can be done about it.”

The El Toro Canyon slide is not within that study area. But according to Skylar Wolfe, a research and teaching assistant who received her master’s degree in environmental science in May, the Bureau of Land Management had asked her and Guilinger, and their students, to update measurements on the area. 

“Last year they surveyed this slide, which is impacting a trail at the top,” Wolfe said, pointing out a spot where a section of fencing had been undermined and fenceposts were tilted or dangling in the air. The class’s task was to re-establish the survey markers from the year before and add an additional one. “We are interested in the distance versus elevation relationship,” she said, “and what’s changed.” 

The BLM, which manages Fort Ord National Monument, is currently considering options to protect or reroute the trail. Those options are informed, in part, by data provided by CSUMB.

Knowing how such slides behave can help predict the impact on waterways and natural resources. Mass movements such as this slide and debris flows, another common geological process in the region, can affect water quality for wildlife, as well as humans, and they can impact roads, homes, natural landscapes and, as in this case, hiking trails.  

The students carried laser-based survey equipment to the site and were tying into a precision GPS system housed on the CSUMB campus. Getting hands-on experience with such tools is beneficial to those considering a career in watershed, environmental management or survey work.

“We get so much hands-on experience, it’s really helpful in the job market,” said Sarah Jane Burke, who received her bachelor’s degree in environmental science in May. “I’ve worked with a private consulting firm back in my hometown of Santa Rosa. Almost everything we do there, I was into here.”

Burke was setting up one of the measuring units on a tripod with Lexi Yokomizo, a fourth-year environmental sciences major. Other students readied other monitors, strung measuring tape between segments of the slide and fixed points, and clambered across the face of the loose earth while attempting not to disturb it any more than necessary.

Yokomizo said understanding and predicting the movement of such slides is important.

“We’re looking at sediment transport,” she said. “That can affect the animals in this impact area and eventually people. Mitigation is a huge aspect. If we’re able to mitigate it, we can help people.”

She’s not suggesting that landslides can or should be stopped.

“They happen naturally,” she said. “We don’t want to stop them completely. But if it’s going to kill people, we can get them out of the way.”

Not only does CSUMB offer unusually good opportunities for watershed study but it also has the advantage of being a state that is on the forefront of watershed management, said Yokomizo. 

“[California] sets the precedent for the rest of the world,” she said. “Anything we learn we’re able to apply to other areas. It’s really interesting to see the interdisciplinary aspects. Because of my background in global studies, I can see how it applies to people all over the planet. The conversations we’re having in class are conversations that are happening on a global level.”

But one needn’t go far to realize the importance of watershed issues and ground stability. In recent years, the Big Sur region of Highway 1 has been impacted multiple times by slides resulting from runoff. Guilinger has been tapped as an expert by local media to discuss that problem.

“That’s a perfect example of the real-world impact of what we’re learning here,” Burke said. “There are so many opportunities to research. We have a very unique area here.”