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Discovery Discovery January 2001
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Chilean Volcano Becomes MSU Geology Project


by Annette Trinity-Stevens

Tibbets & Feeley Wes Tibbetts (left) found it pays to do well in geology class.

Tibbetts was the top student in Todd Feeley's "igneous petrology" class last spring, so Feeley (right) asked him to join a research team to Chile. Not only did the MSU student hike 20,380 feet to the top of a volcano, but he helped collect half a ton of rocks and learned what it's like to be a professional geologist.

He also came back with stories about constant wind and eerie bystanders in a Chilean ghost town. He has memories of what was once the world's highest mine, immense salt flats and pink flamingoes flying over blue lagoons.

"This is why I went into geology in the first place," Tibbetts said after returning to Bozeman to complete his senior year in earth sciences. "What we did was exactly it. It was a very, very good opportunity."

Feeley, Tibbetts and two other scientists traveled to the high Andes of northern Chile in November. They were there to study the volcano, Aucanquilcha.

The researchers stayed on the volcano three weeks and camped at 13,000 feet, 16,000 feet and at Amincha, which is at 14,000 feet. Amincha, population 7, practically turned into a ghost town after the sulfur mine on the volcano closed in 1993. The mine was 17,500 feet high.

"We didn't have oxygen, and it was a problem," Feeley admitted. "... As you ascend, not only are you going up in elevation, which makes it more difficult, but you are increasing the weight of your pack. Then you have to swing a sledgehammer at a rock."

Feeley, Tibbetts and their teammates from Oregon State University and the geological survey of Chile collected five to 10 pounds of rock at a time. After gathering 1,100 pounds, they shipped half the rocks to MSU and half to Oregon State.

They want to study the rocks to figure out how the lava changed as it came up through the continental crust, Feeley said. They also want to see how the crust changed as the lava flowed through it.

"I feel really lucky to have been able to do it," Tibbetts said. "It was really neat."

His trip was funded by the Dean of the College of Letters and Science at MSU, the National Science Foundation and MSU's Undergraduate Scholars Program.

Annette Trinity-Stevens is the MSU Research Editor.

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