Continuing Education

Written in Stone: Geology Adventuring in the Puget Sound Region

Geology Adventuring in the Puget Sound Region instructor Tom Braziunas traces his love of rock and Imagefossils to classic adventure tales like Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Edgar Rice Burroughs' The Land that Time for Forgot. Fantasy eventually gave way to fact when his parents gave him more scientifically accurate publications from the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History for his 13th birthday. Anyone familiar with the painstakingly detailed dinosaur paintings of Charles Knight found in those texts can appreciate how they might ignite a young person’s imagination for a lifetime.

Braziunas’s background in geology and paleontology is as layered as any stratum. “As an undergraduate in geophysical studies at the University of Chicago, I enjoyed many field trips to the rich fossil localities of Illinois and Indiana,” he says. “Then, as a paleontology graduate student getting my Masters at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, I studied little ancient sea creatures called brachiopods which were prolific before dinosaur times but not so much during and afterwards (as a result of a mysterious pre-dinosaur global extinction). Next, I enjoyed many years of graduate geology work in the radiocarbon lab of the University of Washington (sometimes called the college’s “underground dating service”!) while completing my doctorate on changes in the global carbon cycle over the past 10,000 years and the impact on natural climate variability.  In short, my background in geology and paleontology has included some jumping around in time and space until I landed at North Seattle College!”

For all his love of first-hand exploration, Braziunas says teaching has always been much more interesting to him than research. “Through my teaching of geology, oceanography, paleontology and geography classes, I have been able to return to my love of dinosaurs, rocks, fossils and our local Imagelandscapes by sharing their stories with enthusiastic students who have their own experiences and discoveries with our natural world to share as well,” he says. “It is the chance to convey, investigate and listen to students share back the many connections linking our natural world to their own lives that inspires me to teach.”

Braziunas says students can look forward to getting the “Cliff Notes” (pun intended) of geology in about 150 minutes with the help of a detailed classroom geology primer. From there, the class goes mobile with a field trip to Discovery Park. “You can read some of the amazing history of our past ice ages in the cliffs of Discovery Park,” he says. “You can appreciate recent geological activity when you see how many trees have bent upwards on top of a landscape that continues to creep downwards.  And you often can observe erosional geology happening before your eyes as rain water seeps out of lake bed layers high in the cliffs bringing with it streams of gooey gray mud and sometimes sending bowling-ball-sized chunks of Lawton Clay tumbling down to the beach we are standing on.”

As Discovery Park is an ever-evolving locale, visitors are frequently treated to surprising transformations. “The cliffs themselves display fresh faces when we arrive at the beach,” says Braziunas. “So much cliff collapse occurred during this last long period of rain in Seattle that we found new exposures of sediments to examine.  The layering was more distinctive in spots than it had ever been and, like newly opened pages in a book, helped to lay out the story of Seattle’s recent icy past.  The pebbles and cobbles at our feet are always new discoveries because they come from the cliffs or are brought in by the waves from where they originated many hundreds or thousands of miles away.  We identify some and marvel at the mystery of others.”

Geologically speaking, ours is a very dramatic region and for Braziunas, some of the most spectacular events have happened in his past 36 years as a Seattle resident. “Having arrived in late 1981, just over a year and a half after the powerful and tragic eruption of Mt. St. Helens, I saw firsthand on many Imagegeology field trips the monochrome moonscape left in its aftermath,” he says. “The 2001 Nisqually Earthquake (Magnitude 6.8) was my first experience being at the mercy of a terrifying geological force.  Watching the dust clouds rise over the North Seattle College campus after the shaking stopped made quite an impression as to the vulnerability of the features of our landscape to what happens deep beneath us!”

Braziunas notes that as the density of our regional population expands to cover more of the Puget Sound scenery, we should be mindful of how complacent we can become during the lulls in the geologic drama. “We can expect to be tested by a return of the actions of the natural world. As the historian Will Durant has said: ‘Civilization exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice!’  Braziunas points out this a major theme of the Geology Adventuring class.  

As for the class itself, Braziunas anticipates a great deal of enjoyment with a minimum of tectonic upheaval. “Some of the fun of the class is how the group uniquely contributes to the learning with their personal questions and answers and ideas,” he says. “This is a course for beginners but it can easily take pathways in directions specific to the varied curiosities and concerns of attendees. I hope that this class will add to everyone’s appreciation of our natural world and that we will be better prepared for the challenges, decisions and delights that it brings to life here in the Puget Sound.”

Learn more about Geology Adventuring in the Puget Sound Region.

Photo credit #1: Justin Husted
Photo credit #2: Rachel Hunter-Merrill
Photo credit #3: Rachel Hunter-Merrill