What we are all about

Living on the Edge is the field study of earthquakes, volcanoes, and other hazards where tectonic plates collide. Field studies focus on understanding the science behind natural hazards that lead to catastrophic events and subsequent loss of life. Fieldwork is aimed at recognizing hazards and understanding the processes behind the hazards. The blog chronicles the participants and their experiences in Alaska Summer 2009

Monday, June 29, 2009

Denali Fault - Pipeline June 22-25

Alright, we have an internet connection and about 30 minutes until we have to catch the ferry!  Thankfully the students wrote these blog entries on June 25!


Right now, we are at our fourth and last night at Donnelly Campgrounds, which is about 200 miles from our last site at Matanuska Glacier. This campground is great because we have easy access to the stream (which is freezing cold), drinking water, and a pretty okay outhouse. We arrived on our first day and went to Castner Glacier on our second day. This glacier was very different from Matanuska. There was a lot more sediment and rocks on Castner Glacier and LOTS of mud! Ed, Tyler I. and I went in the mud barefoot, which was the highlight of the trip.  The mud felt great (better than a spa) and had such unique and interesting qualities. It almost acted like a dried layer of pudding when you first touched it, but as you continue to submerge your feet into it, it acted as slow moving quick sand. At Castner Glacier we came across this man from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Although we weren’t expecting to see any people in this area, it was interesting to meet a real person with a job out in the field. Our third day in we went three different places: the pipeline at the Denali Fault, mile marker 207, and Gunnysack Creek. At the pipeline, we went into the side forests, which had denser vegetation than I would have expected. The ground vegetation was covered in this bouncy moss that was lots of fun to jump on. We also saw lots of the same plants from Matanuska Glacier like Alpine Sweet Vetch and Poplar Trees. We also saw this tree that was split in half from the Earthquake in 1912 and 2002. It’s hard to believe that that tree had been so strongly affected by these earthquakes and the pipeline was fine (because of the way it was built). Today, we went to Bear Creek and Donnelly Dome.  The Donnelly Dome was definitely an amazing sight to see. It’s surreal to know that the Black Rapids glacier affected all of the surrounding area and this dome wasn’t. This trip continues to get better with every site we go to. The next couple of days should be fun, but I cant wait to get to the coast!



This second leg of the trip has been pretty cool, weather, water and knowledge wise. Every day has been a different adventure. For starters, the campground we’re staying at was used as a campground for those who were constructing the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline! Coincidently enough our main area of study for these past few days has been observing how the natural hazards of this Alaskan terrain affected the planning of the pipeline’s path. Firstly there are is the threat of earthquakes from the Denali Fault. The pipeline engineers have combated that aspect by putting sections of the pipeline on footers coated with Teflon, which allow it to slide on metal ties mounted in the ground. The other days of the trip were spent looking at the path of the Black Rapids Glacier surge in the 1930’s. This particular surge caused the Delta River to be dammed by glacial deposits, therefore causing the local tributary streams (Donnelly Creek and Bear Creek) to deposit their sediment. Over time, the Delta River carried the glacial deposits away and the local streams were allowed to again erode their respective areas. The pipeline engineers also planned for another glacial surge incident by placing the pipeline in the inflection point (point where erosion and deposition of a stream is the same) of the Bear Creek tributary. This is logically the best place to avoid any type of major fluvial damage. As adamant the designers were in making sure the pipeline avoided natural hazards, we saw in one of informational rest-stop sign that they portrayed the Denali Fault as a sinister (left moving) strike slip fault, when it is indeed a dextral (right moving) strike slip fault. Hey, at least they planned correctly, because in 2002 when there was an earthquake the pipeline remained intact and no oil was spilled.  Tomorrow we’re packing up camp and moving on to Tangle Lakes to do a mapping project. Hopefully the nice weather stays and the bugs remain innocuous. I’m falling in love with this place; it is almost too good to be true.



The second part of our trip has been incredible. We are staying at Donnelly Creek Camp Grounds that has a beautiful braided stream system running through its backyard. This stream has the Central Alaskan Mountain Range as its background, its quite spectacular. This stream is teeming with arctic grayling that we have fished for every night. It has been an incredible and cold experience learning to fly fish barefoot in an Alaskan stream. Besides the grayling the other wildlife has been spectacular in this area. We have seen bald eagles, moose, caribou, red foxes, arctic hares, as well as our friendly camp squirrel that we have affectionately called Baxter. I never thought I would be able to see such incredible animals outside of the Discovery Channel.  The other thing I though I would never see outside of my television is the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. Being able to see and touch the pipe really put in perspective the level of planning and engineering it took to create an 800 mile pipe over some of the most treacherous land on Earth. The pipeline crosses the Denali fault, permafrost soils, glacial zones, alluvial fans, mountains, rivers, and various other hazards that could destroy the pipe and cause massive environmental disasters. The fact that the pipe has not had any misshapes is a testament to the planning of the engineers who created it. We studied these processes that could potentially destroy the pipe. To solve the earthquake problem created by the Denali Fault the pipe is set up on Teflon shoes that side on metal beams to bend and not break in a large earthquake event. The pipe planners thoughtfully avoided thermokarst terrain that could destabilize the ground if the ice underneath melted. The engineers also build the pipe above permafrost because the heat from the oil could melt the ice in the soil and destabilize the land. We also learned about Alluvial fans that can erode and deposit sediment that could through the pipe off. Understanding the different factors was really eye opening to understanding planning massive projects. Tomorrow we head out to tangle lake were we will begin our mapping projects, Garver also said the fishing is much better so I am really excited.


Tyler Willey

You don’t know pain until you stand barefoot and knee deep in the subfreezing waters of the Delta River, listening to Professor Garver laugh comfortably in his chest high waders as he watches the fish completely ignore your bait. Now, our 4th and final night at Donnelly Creek State Campground we are about to go fishing once again and no matter how many times I tell myself I’m not touching that freezing water, I know I will eventually find myself wading out trying and failing to catch a fish.  Besides watching Garver catch all the fish the last few days, we have spent our time here studying alluvial fans and other hydrological and glacial processes.  We studied Castner glacier where we saw ice caves being formed by water rushing under them, and also learned how by stomping on the clay like sediment you could form sinking sand by causing the water to rise to the surface.   We also took many hikes up small streams such as Bear Creek and Gunnysack Creek and studied the alluvial fans, and how the erosion and deposition levels have been changed over the years.    The pipeline has continued to amaze and entertain us over the last couple days, as we still constantly shout in the vans when we see it, and climb on it every chance we get.  We went along the Denali fault and were able to see rust marks from where the pipe had slid along its Teflon coated footers in the massive 7.9 magnitude earthquake of 2002. Since then the pipeline had been shifted back to its original place on the footers preparing again for another possible earthquake at any time.   Well, tomorrow we head off to tangle lakes, where rumor has it there is good fishing.  As we continue on in our travels we continue to see new wildlife such as bald eagles, caribou, rabbits, squirrels, and moose, and hopefully we will soon spot our first bear.  Well, the freezing water of the Delta River is calling my name, and I can hear Garver and the fish already taunting me so hopefully tonight will be my lucky night.

Catch y’all later.



For the past couple of nights we have been staying at Donnelly Creek Campground and it’s been a blast. Every night half of the group goes fishing and the other half of us stay at the camp. We sitting around the fire and stuffing our faces with s’mores. Garver is still the only one to catch a fish… or seven. That’s not to say that the others aren’t putting in the effort; Tyler and Alex manage to end up shoeless and up to their waste in the icy water every night. We’re all still attempting to adjust to the lack of darkness and bright yellow tents that look like giant suns as we fall asleep. Although we don’t have a glacier in our backyard like the last campsite, a couple peaks from the Central Alaskan Range isn’t a bad view either.  We’ve been spending our days hiking in our very fashionable raingear. All of us are jealous of Isy’s bright blue jumpsuit. One of the highlights for me occurred when we were observing the process of extracting water from mud at Castner Glacier. We noticed that by handling and working the mud, we were de-watering it. Although this was all very interesting, the best part was when Garver was demonstrating it, got stuck in the mud with his legs spread, and fell face first into the mud. This was one of those awkward times where you question whether you’re allowed to laugh or not. There have been quite a few of us taking tumbles as we travel across rivers and bushwhack through thick brush. We’ve also been learning a lot about TAPS. It’s amazing to see how thoroughly the architects constructed the pipeline to deal with obstacles and events such as rivers, floods, moose, and earthquakes. One of the most interesting things we saw, when looking at the pipeline, was a tree that was split in half both by the 1912 and 2002 earth quakes on the Denali Fault. The tree recently died but it had been living for a while after both events, which is very rare. It was cool to see where the fault affected the surface. The affects were subtler than I thought they would be. Once and a while we could see a couple trees that were slanted or dead but most of the earthquake affects were buried by new growth of vegetation. I’ve been learning so much from everyone on this trip and am looking forward to the next few weeks we spend together. We’re all counting on Tyler/Izzy to keep us entertained and for him to keep Ed laughing so hard that he cries.



How’s it going out there!  I am writing from the Delta River state recreation site in Alaska.  A lot has happened since the last time I blogged.  First of all we are all a lot smellier than the last time we wrote.  Izzy and I tried to remedy this by taking a bath in the river two days ago, and I can tell you it was easily some of the coldest water I have ever been in, I couldn’t breath, but at least I smell better (yeah right).  For the last few days we have had some real rainy weather up here.  We have spent the majority of our time on the river studying river processes and various alluvial fan processes.  We also took a trip to the Castner Glacier, which is a glacier that is covered entirely in deposition.  It didn’t look quite as impressive as the Matanuska glacier but it was still a lot of fun.  We got a chance to hike down to the bottom of the glacier and climb into a “cave” that was forming at the base because of the running water which ran underneath the entire glacier.  We also spent a lot of time on the pipeline talking about the engineering which went into it.  We also spoke about how the Alyeska company prepared the pipeline for seismic activity which is abundant in Alaska.  We also had a chance to see how wildlife interacted with the pipeline.  As we were hiking yesterday we ran into a mother moose and her calf attempting to cross the pipeline, and saw how it was very difficult for them to do it.  It was a reminder of how machinery and nature do not seem to mix, and was a little bit sobering.  The trip so far has been a blast.  The group dynamic is incredible.  I haven’t laughed this hard, and this much in a very long time.  There are so many things that keep happening and so many new experiences that I have had a chance to enjoy with a really great group of people.  Honestly I keep forgetting that this is a class at all.  Yesterday we got a chance to stand on an active srike slip fault (The Denali Fault).  That is incredible.  We were standing on a fault which caused a 7.9 scale earthquake only 7 years ago.  It was mind blowing in a sense.  We noticed trees which either had survived the events on the fault, or had lost their lives do to the seismic activity.  One tree was split in half because it had the unfortunate fate of growing directly on the fault line itself.  Our campsite has become like home, we have been here for almost 4 nights now, and I am going to be honest it has felt like a home away from home.  I am sure I will feel the same way about the next campsite too though.  So far adapting to the lack of darkness has been difficult but we have become experts at falling asleep in complete sunlight.  It hasn’t taken very long for the group to figure out that I eat a ton of food, and it has become a talking point around the campfire especially at meal times.  We collectively surpassed Cockburn and Garver’s rationing of food and we had to go into town today to get more food haha.  For now I am going to absorb the view here, and look over the Central Alaska Range, which is the backyard of our campsite, before we move on to Tangle Lakes tomorrow morning.  I hope everything is going well wherever you might be.  You’ll hear from me again soon! 

Ed “Fancy” Milde

P.S.  Everyone calls me fancy now…don’t ask me

P.P.S.  13 Moose, 1 Caribou, 2 Bald Eagle, and 0 Bears…for now


Tyler Izykowski

Greetings from the Great Land! We’re on our 4th and final night at the Donnelly Creek State Recreation Site campground and concluding a very exciting and informative leg of our journey. Since the last post, we’ve learned about the history and engineering of the Alyeska Pipeline, explored the rock-covered Castner Glacier and examined the Delta River and its tributaries. We’ve learned a great deal about stream processes and the glacial record of this area. Today we retraced the history of Bear Creek by analyzing a cross section of the stream bank that has been exposed by erosion. By drawing and analyzing the soil profile we were able to reconstruct the likely history of this Delta River tributary. After visiting Delta Junction for some groceries and supplies, we drove around the Donnelly Dome looking at the pipeline and added a considerable amount of tallies to our ongoing count of wildlife. We saw five moose, arctic hares, a family of foxes, a young bald eagle and a caribou, all within about two hours, bringing our total to thirteen moose, two bald eagles, three foxes, one caribou, and countless other small woodland critters. No bears yet unfortunately, but I’m optimistic we’ll see some soon. We leave tomorrow for Tangle Lakes where we’ve been assured the fishing is better and the nights are colder and wetter. So until next time, thanks for all the comments and take care. Send cheese.


Marisa Kwoczka

Hello again everybody. Since we last chatted, our group has been pretty busy. We had a long drive after leaving Matanuska to Donnelly Camp Site Reservation. So far we have studied the Alaska Pipeline and how it was constructed to survive up to an 8.0 magnitude earthquake and many local creeks and glaciers. As we were walking around the pipeline, we spotted a moose and her calf and had to be extra cautious. We looked at trees nearby the pipeline to see the after affects of the Denali Fault earthquake in 2002, which was at a 7.9 magnitude. Surprisingly not a drop of oil leaked out. A lot of the trees were slanted or had some of the tops broken off. Another day near the Donnelly Camp Reservation we visited the Castner Glacier. Castner Glacier was mostly covered in dirt and rocks and looked a lot different from Matanuska glacier because most of the ice was hidden. It was very slippery at some parts due to the mud around some of the rocks. Garver ended up slipping into the mud as he was showing how the mud was sort of like quicksand the longer you stepped in it. There were also cool ice caves where we took pictures in. During two other days at Donnelly Creek, we studied local streams like Bear Creek and Gunny Sack Creek to learn about Alluvian fans. Alluvian fans are created when large rocks and sediment are brought down throughout the stream and then are spread out when they are deposited lower in the stream. At Gunny Sack Creek I was walking along the rocks and slipped and fell into the creek, which was really funny at the time except for being soaked for the rest of the hike. Today we drove around Donnelly Dome, which is a land mass that should have been moved by a glacier but was not, and spotted a lot of hares, a family of foxes, and shockingly, a caribou. Throughout our drive we spotted a few moose. So far we have seen thirteen moose. Every night we have been at Donnelly Camp Site Reservation we have had the opportunity to fish. The fish in this area are grayling and I was able to catch one the other night, which was exciting! Since it never really becomes dark here during the summer, we are able to fish until late at night. The other night at fishing area there was a very large bald eagle as well. This is all for now, talk to you in a few days!


Ben Carlson

Hello again from the far North. Alaska continues to astound both scientifically and aesthetically, an incredible juxtaposition of rolling plateaus next to 13,000 ft snow covered peaks all overlain by the engineering marvel that is the Alyeska Pipeline. We have spent the last few days camping at the Donnelly Creek campground along the banks of the braided Delta River analyzing the alluvial fans, the sediment deposition associated with the many mountain and glacial streams emerging from the hills, and what all this deposition can tell us about the climate at the time of deposition. Our first full day at Donnelly Creek, we hiked up the soil-covered Castner Glacier which over the last two short years has completely collapsed making the hike much more difficult and slightly treacherous. We eventually reached the outlet stream and were able to climb under the glacier into a small ice cave. We also encountered an amazing mud (who ever thought those two words would go in the same sentence!) that was essentially quicksand. We spent probably an hour playing in the mud, trying not to get stuck until, finally, Garver fell prey to the soupy concoction, falling flat on his stomach despite attempts to save him! We have also spent approximately a day exploring the trans-Alaska pipeline, learning about the engineering behind its construction that allows it to sustain up to an 8.5 magnitude earthquake. We walked into the woods adjoining the pipeline as well to see a tree that had literally split in half as it sat on top of one of the surface fractures that occurred during the 2002 Denali fault earthquake, a magnitude 7.9. This tree provided an amazing visual of how violent these events can be not only to human institutions but nature as well. After returning from our daily excursions, many students from our crew have been making their way down the Delta River in search of what has become the elusive Arctic Grayling, a fish that seems to love John Garver but remains out of reach of the Tylers, Marisa and Alex. As I write this, they are heading out for another night on the river so wish them luck! Finally, as these days in Alaska soldier on (the fact that I am thousands of miles from home still hasn’t sunk in) ones perspective on everything is seriously altered. Standing at the mouth of Gunnysack Creek as it flows into the Delta River with a broad floodplain in front of and behind you and the Central Alaska Range peaks leering on your side, you realize that everything in Alaska is on an entirely different scale than back home. Forms of measurement used at home are useless and you feel entirely insignificant, in a good way, in the shadow of such enormously powerful forces as tectonic movement. I can already tell I will walk away from this trip with an entirely new appreciation of geologic activity (how convenient J), and we are less than a week in! If the last few days are any indication, the rest of this trip will be absolutely fantastic and I can’t wait for each new day. Thanks for all your comments and you’ll hear from us again soon.




So here are a few things to fill you in since our last blog!  After leaving Matanuska we ventured north to the Donnelly Creek Campground, and tonight is our last night here. During these past few days we have looked at many different geological phenomena. One that is particularly interesting to me are earthquakes. I will admit I am a little sad we were unable to feel the one that occurred a few days ago. Dealing with earthquakes, it think the engineering of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System and how it is designed to withstand earthquakes is very fascinating, especially because the Denali fault’s recurrence interval is about 100 years. It is pretty amazing that engineers were able to create an 800-mile long structure that goes through many large mountain ranges and over many active faults. It is also very impressive how engineers were able to map out every single foot of the path of the pipeline, and how they knew what to avoid, like the Black Rapids Glacier for example. The Black Rapids Glacier went through a glacial surge during the 1930s and grew about three miles, which dammed the Delta River. While designing the pipeline engineers made sure to steer clear. We have visited (and climbed on) the pipeline many times; during these visits we looked at the different methods of design seen through out the pipeline. Yesterday when we are at the pipeline we also saw many scratch marks, which showed the movement of the pipeline during the March 2002 earthquake, which had a magnitude of 7.9. Another natural processes we have been looking at are alluvial fans, which act as debris shoots for rivers. Also yesterday, we traveled to Gunnysack Creek where we discussed the inflection point between the erosion and deposition of the river, which had use thinking about the river’s geological history. Today we went to Bear Creek where we looked at the sedimentary layout of a section of the stream bank. For each section we analyzed the sizes of the sediments and the roots. Also today we went up to the town of Delta Junction to get some more food because we surpassed Garver and Cockburn’s expectations of our eating abilities. On the way there we were able to see Donnelly Dome, which was also pretty cool. Donnelly Dome is a fleigberg, meaning that it survived a glaciations, it is a mountain that was overridden by ice and not destroyed by it.  The mountain was a sight to because it is considered something that “is not supposed to be here”. After driving around the Donnelly Dome for a bit we headed back to camp and are now enjoying our last hours here. Talk to you in a few days!!


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