Active Tectonics Field Trip

George Davis, University of Arizona


By far most field trips in structural geology and regional tectonics do NOT take place in large urban centers with a trip focus on mitigation of hazards. What is described here is an example of the instructional and learning opportunities associated with active tectonic examination of large population centers.


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Active tectonics course for seniors and graduate students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Expect that the students will need a comprehensive background in core courses in geology and geophysics. Students who benefit most are ones experienced and/or skilled in integrating across fields and drawing on varieties of data sets crossing structural geology, regional tectonics, earthquake seismology, paleoseismology, geodesy.

How the activity is situated in the course

Culminating project, fed by more than a half-semester of grinding on the literature pertinent to the region/city being visited.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Active tectonics, kinematic analysis, hazards analysis, earthquake geology

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Tectonic synthesis. Integration across geology, geodesy, earthquake seismology.

Other skills goals for this activity

Though not a skill goal, the experience opens the eyes of students who are looking for career applications outside of academia, oil/gas, and the minerals industries.

Description and Teaching Materials

Structural geology field trip activities, in my general experience, tend to be out in the middle of nowhere. Thus it was quite a change when Susan Beck and I decided to lead an active tectonics course field trip to Los Angeles. Our class consisted of ~20 seniors and graduate students, as well as a visiting professor of political science. The goal was to gain a first-hand grasp of the many dimensions of active tectonics research and applications. Our list of activities, below, gives a sense for the range of experiences. An important dimension of this activity was preparing, through reading and presentation of germane literature. The strength of the trip importantly related to observing connections among fields, offices, professions, careers: university faculty, insurance company management, high department, emergency services at county level, consulting geologists, USGS geologists, etc.

Day 1: Overview of the tectonics of the Los Angeles Basin, followed by tour of paleoseismology sites and discussion of research results at those sites. Our guide was Jim Dolan, USC.

Day 2: Visit to the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC), with presentations by Jill Andrews (on knowledge transfer), Kurt Abdouch (earthquake education goals), and then a focus on the Master Model approach to seismotectonic analysis in the LA Basin.

Day 3: Site-specific visits to examine landslide mitigation, and role of consultants in evaluating seismic hazards in developments. Our host was Bruce Clark, Leighton and Associates.

Day 4: Plate tectonic animations of Pacific/North American plate motions. Tanya Atwater. Folding, faulting, liquifaction, and paleoseismology, Santa Barbara. Ed Keller and Larry Gurollo.

Day 5: Ventura anticline and related active tectonic phenomena. Our guide was Art Sylvester.

Day 6: Wrigthwood paleoseismology site, and Pallett Creek site, San Andreas fault. Tom Fumal, USGS.

Day 7: San Bernardino County Emergency Services Center. Denise Benson, Wes Reeder, Valerie Pilmer.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Success depends upon the instructor investing time/energy well in advance in directly contacting colleagues who are willing, if not eager, to serve as guides/hosts for the various components of the trip. This recruitment works best when the goals and dimensions of the proposed trip are clear and comprehensive, and innovative.


Ideal if students present their own researched knowledge on the trip itself, commonly in the presence of local experts. Keeping a portfolio of activities and observations becomes a tangible output. The portfolio begins with the reading and note-taking preparation.

References and Resources