The dangers of rolling boulders

Field work in lonely and spectacular places is a privilege. Though it can be great, boredom sometimes sets in, which is hard for the lone geologist. Today, I guess a cell phone would help, especially in high places where the signal is good. That means of communication and entertainment only emerged in the 1980s and did not reach wild places until well into the 90s. Pre-cellnet boredom could be relieved by what remains a dark secret: lone geologists once rolled large boulders down mountains and valley sides, shouting ‘Below!’ as a warning to others. Their excuse to themselves for this unique thrill (bounding boulders reach speeds of up to 40 m s-1) was vaguely scientific: sooner or later a precarious rock would fall anyway. This week it emerged that Andrin Caviezel of the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland, an Alpine geoscientist, rolls boulders for a living (Caviezel, A. 2022. The gravity of rockfalls. Where I work, Nature, v. 607, p. 838; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-022-02044-9). He finds that ‘…flinging giant objects down a mountain is still super fun’. The serious part of his job attempts to model how rockfalls actually move downslope, as an aid to risk assessment (Caviezel, A. and 23 others 2021. The relevance of rock shape over mass – implications for rockfall hazard assessments. Nature Communications, v. 12, article 5546; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-25794-y)

Caviezel’s team (@teamcaviezel) don’t use actual rocks but garishly painted, symmetrical blocks of reinforced concrete weighing up to 3 tonnes, which are more durable than most outcropping rock and can be re-used. A Super Puma helicopter shifts a block to the top of a slope, from which it is levered over the edge (watch video). The team deploys two types of block, one equant and resembling a giant garnet crystal, the other wheel-shaped with facets. The first represents boulders of rock types with uniform properties throughout, such as granite. The wheel type mimics boulders formed from rocks that are bedded or foliated, which are usually plate-like or spindly.

Vertical aerial photograph of a uniform, south-facing slope in the Swiss Alps used to roll concrete ‘boulders’. The red X marks the release point; the blue symbols show the points of rest of equant ‘boulders, the sizes of which are shown in the inset, the wheel-shaped ones are magenta. Coloured circles with crosses show the mean rest position of each category (the lighter the colour the smaller the set of ‘boulders’). The coloured ellipses indicate the standard deviation for each category. (Credit: Caviezel et al., Fig 2)

Unlike other gravity-driven hazards, such as avalanches and mudflows, the directions that rockfalls may follow by are impossible to predict. Rather than hugging the surface, boulders interact with it, bouncing and being deflected, and they spin rapidly. To follow each experiment’s trajectory a block contains a motion sensor, measuring speed and acceleration, and a gyroscope that shows rotation, wobbling and motion direction, while filming records jump heights – up to 11 m in the experiments. Despite the similarity of the blocks, the same release point for each roll and a uniform mountainside slope, with one cliff line, the final resting places are widely spread. That hazard zone of rockfalls is distinctly wider than that of snow avalanches; observing a boulder once it starts to move gives a potential victim little means of knowing a safe place to shelter.

The most important conclusion from the experiments is that the widest spread of tumbling ‘boulders’ is shown by the wheel-shaped ones. So, slopes made from bedded or foliated sedimentary and metamorphic rocks may pose wider hazards from rockfalls than do those underpinned by uniform rocks. However, plate-like or spindly boulders are more stable at rest than are equant ones. Yet boulders rarely fall as a result of being pushed (except in avalanches). On moderate slopes they are undermined by erosion, and on steep slopes or cliffs winter ice wedges open joints allowing blocks to fall during a thaw.

Fieldwork and geological education

In March 2013 EPN carried an item connected with the abandonment of field training at week-long summer schools by the UK’s Open University. After 40 years of geoscientific summer schools connected with courses at Levels-1, -2 and -3 anonymous performance statistics were available for thousands of students who had studied those OU Earth Science courses that offered summer-school experiences in the field, first as compulsory modules (1971-2001) then as an optional element (2002-2011) and finally with no such provision. The March 2013 item compared statistics for the three kinds of provision. It should be noted that the OU once had possibly the world’s largest throughput of degree-level geoscience students for a single higher educational institution.

After 2001, pass rates feel abruptly and significantly; in the Science Foundation Course the rate fell from an annual average of 69 to 54%, and in level-2 Geology from 65 to 55%. This was accompanied by a significant decrease in enrolment in equally and more popular geoscience courses that had never had a summer school element. The second statistical drop was of the order of 30 to 40%. It seemed that residential schools played a vital role in boosting confidence and reinforcing home studies, as well as transferring practical field skills. After further falls in enrolment since summer schools were removed from the curriculum in 2012, the OU is in the process of completely revising its geoscientific courses and attempting to substitute virtual, on-line field and lab ‘experiences’. Time will tell if it ever manages to reach its former level of success and acceptance

So, discovering that The Geological Society of America had surveyed attendees at its Annual Meetings (Petcovic, H.L. et al. 2014. Geoscientists’ perceptions of the value of undergraduate field education. GSA Today, v. 24 (July 2014), p. 4-10) piqued my interest. Almost 90% of those polled agreed that field studies should be a fundamental requirement of undergraduate programmes; very few agreed that becoming an expert geoscientist is possible without field experience. Field courses develop the skills and knowledge specific to ‘doing’ geoscience; teach integration of fundamental concepts and broaden general understanding of them; inculcate cooperation, time management and independent thinking that have broader applications. Fieldwork also has personal and emotional impacts: reinforcing positive attitudes to the subject; creating a geoscientific esprit de corps; helping students recognise their personal strengths and limitations. Then there is the aspect of enhanced employability, highlighted by all categories of respondents.

Set against these somewhat predictable sentiments among geoscientists are the increasing strains posed by cost, time commitment, and liability, as well as the fact that some potential students do not relish outdoor pursuits. Yet overall the broad opinion was that degree programmes should involve at least one field methods course as a requirement, with other non-compulsory opportunities for more advanced field training