the salt pan in Death Valley

Plate tectonics in action

Southern California is one of the few places on Earth where scientists can explore an active plate boundary exposed on land. This is the dynamic boundary zone between the vast Pacific and North American tectonic plates, a site of major earthquakes, volcanism and active deformation of the Earth’s Surface.  Students from all our Earth Science programmes are given the opportunity to traverses this dramatic region from Los Angeles, via the Mojave Desert and Death Valley, to Las Vegas on our optional third-year fieldtrip. This also allows us to examine the complex relationships between climate change and tectonics, and how recent studies of the area are forcing scientists to rethink our understanding of plate tectonics. There is no better place on Earth to see these relationships in action.
Investigating Neogene volcanic rocks, Crescent Bay, Laguna Beach
Investigating Neogene volcanic rocks, Crescent Bay, Laguna Beach

Earthquake hazards and resources on the beach

This fieldwork takes the form a tectonic road trip where the relationship between tectonics and the geomorphology, geology, hazards, resources and climate can be studied at first hand.  We start on the beautiful coast of southern California around Los Angeles where we explore the evidence for this region having been wrenched off continental North America to become part of the Pacific Plate in the recent geological past. We also examine the nature of earthquake and landslide hazards in this densely populated region, and how tectonics and climate influence resources such as groundwater, oil and gas, and nuclear energy.
The next stage of the trip takes us to the San Andreas fault zone, where most of the relative Plate motion between the two plates is focussed. We discover how a bend in this fault system North of Los Angeles has created a zone of compression, resulting in young high mountains forming and a distinct set of earthquake hazards.

Continental Rifts, Dramatic Deserts and Supervolcanoes

The third stage of the trip looks at the leading edge of the North American plate in the dramatic scenery of the high desert of the Owen’s Valley. This is part of the East California Shear Zone – a 200km wide zone where the Earth surface is being torn apart. This has generated dramatic basin and range geomorphology, but also zones of recently active and highly explosive volcanicity. This includes the Long Valley Caldera, a ‘supervolcano’ which erupted around 760,000 years ago in one of the largest eruptions in recent geological history, during which 600km3 of material was erupted in a two-day period. This area is one of the most monitored active volcanoes on Earth, and the site of geothermal activity and energy generation. While in the Owen’s Valley, we also learn how to help understand future earthquake events and look at the role of climate change and man-made environmental impacts.
The field trip then crosses the East California Shear zone to reach Death Valley for the penultimate stage of the trip. Death Valley is a major continental rift basin, where the crust is being locally stretched east-west. This has created enormous faults which have displaced the Earth surface to form high mountains and a deep valley, which is currently 86m below sea-level (the lowest point in the western hemisphere). The tectonically generated topography of the region has also dramatically modified the climate, making Death Valley one of the hottest places on Earth (though not when we visit in April). When in Death Valley, students learn how continental rifts evolve and how tectonic movements control desert processes, environments and landforms (canyons, sand dunes, alluvial fans, salt pans).
The trip ends in Las Vegas, Nevada, which sits on the boundary between the stable Colorado Plateau and the East California Shear Zone and enables us to see geology formed by earlier Plate tectonic events in the geological history of North America. 
The Bishop Tuff
– pyroclastic flow deposits from the explosive eruption of the Long Valley
The Bishop Tuff – pyroclastic flow deposits from the explosive eruption of the Long Valley Caldera

What students learn and experience

During this field trip, students learn and develop a series of field skills and techniques which are used by geoscientists to determine the history of geological events, and how these can be used to understand the evolution of a region, and how this can be applied to predict the timing and nature of future hazardous events, and how to locate and manage critical resources. The trip also provides students with a chance to experience the grand range of landscape and sample the varied culture of this region, from the glamorous beaches of Orange County to small high desert towns, high volcanic mountains, Death Valley National Park, native American culture, and Las Vegas.
of Death Valley, a continental rift basin
Overview of Death Valley, a continental rift basin
faults and sedimentary rocks, Dana Point, Southern California
Analysing faults and sedimentary rocks, Dana Point, Southern California
Our Earth Science courses are designed around a core which provides students with the skills and expertise that are critical to tackle today’s challenges of global environmental change. Ranging from locating and extracting the raw materials needed for a green energy transition to understanding climate history through time, the Earth Sciences play an active role and provide crucial perspectives on our planet's future.

Discover our range of courses: 

Geology students on field trip to Dartmoor with Professor Gregory Price