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Sitting atop Dante's Peak, Calif., 5,475 feet above the salt-crusted floor of Death Valley, they ate hash browns at 5:30 a.m. and argued about which nearby mountain would reveal the sun's first rays. One thing they all agreed on: It's good to be in class during IAP.
The 17 people eating breakfast and waiting for sunrise were students and faculty members of 12.102 (Environmental Earth Science Field Course) turned loose in California and Nevada for 10 geology-filled days and cookout-filled nights.
Beginning and ending in Las Vegas, professors Samuel Bowring and Timothy Grove of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences led students through the Mojave Desert to view geological features they couldn't see in New England--volcanoes, landslides, fault scarps, a geothermal power plant, sand-scoured canyons, catastrophic erosion and bubbling hot springs. The group also visited the proposed nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain, and the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead.
Geology students have been taking advantage of this unusual IAP course offered periodically since 1994. A major theme this year was water management. The growing human demand and diminishing water reserves due to a three-year drought in that part of the country are creating a crisis. Lake Mead, whose surface is now 77 feet below the "full" level, had a huge white bathtub ring around it.
Campfire readings of Marc Reisner's book "Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water" were followed by a screening of the PBS special of the same name at the White Mountain Research Station in Bishop, Calif. It tells how Los Angeles took the water rights of California's Owens Valley and funneled the water south to the city via aqueduct. Students drove through the valley and saw the result firsthand--the Owens salt pan, formerly Owens Lake. Other relevant film entertainment included a viewing of "Chinatown," a 1974 movie directed by Roman Polanski based on the Owens Valley water grab.
On desert evenings, the group relaxed by roasting marshmallows on yucca-plant spits while swapping geology jokes as they earned academic credits thousands of miles from campus.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 4, 2004.