An Exciting Trip to Tour Unconventional Oil and Gas Wells

This semester’s Geology of Energy Resources course, which focuses on how fossil fuels form, are extracted, and are used, had the opportunity to visit two unconventional oil and gas wells run by Ascent Resources located in southeastern Ohio this week. While most people in the Appalachian Basin think of the Marcellus Shale when it comes to natural gas, this area of Ohio targets the underlying Upper Ordovician Utica Shale.

The trip started with an early morning drive from Wooster down to Salesville Ohio, to visit an unconventional well that was in the final stages of the drilling process. As the vans neared the location the top of a tall metal structure was visible over the trees and an excited murmuring amongst the students began. As the vans pulled up to the gate the group was surprised to see towering walls surrounding the well pad with the top of the drill rig just visible.

After a warm greeting by our hosts each person was outfitted with their own PPE including the ever-stylish blue fire-resistant coveralls, hard hats, and safety glasses (as seen in the first picture and the photo below) and given a safety briefing. What was originally planned as a one-hour tour of this well quickly turned into an almost two-hour tour as there was so much to see and learn, and all the employees even while working were eager to explain and show the students each component of the well drilling process. Students learned that the walls were to block the sound of the drilling process which continues 24/7 until the well is drilled which takes 1-2 weeks from start to finish. Guides walked the group through each stage of the drilling process allowing the students to touch and see the drill pipe, well casings, drill bits, and more. All the while the rig was pulling up drill pipe piece by piece with a rumbling whirr, dropping it into the guiding rails with a loud clang before it was transported to pallets ready to be moved to the next drill site. The group even got to go up onto the derrick of the drill rig and watch the drill pipe being removed from the well up close, which is a very muddy process. By the end of the tour there were no clean shoes (as shown above), but everyone was in great spirits and were eager to see the next well pad.

A short drive later the group arrived at the second well pad which contained four actively producing well heads. This location was in sharp juxtaposition to the loud, crowded, muddy, and constantly moving drilling site. Here there was a solid layer of coarse gravel and distinct areas with machinery and pipes with large spaces in between for vehicles to pass through and little to no mud, though the smell of off gassing from the compressors carried on the air. The no less enthusiastic tour guides at this location walked the group through the plethora of safety measures present at the well pad to ensure worker health, but also protect the environment. Students followed the process from the well heads where the oil and gas exit the well, through the 3-phase separator which isolates oil, gas, and water, to the pipeline which carries the gas to processing facilities, and finally to compressors and storage tanks for the oil. As the temperature began to drop toward the end of the tour and stomachs began grumbling, the tour wrapped up.

Despite the chilly temperature, the group enjoyed a late picnic lunch at Salt Fork State Park, along the shores of Salt Fork Lake. Even as everyone dug into their lunch the discussion was on everything they had seen and heard throughout the day. Finally, everyone hopped back in the vans to warm up and drive back to campus. The discussions continued during the first part of the drive until students began to doze off from the combination of an early morning, exciting but busy day, and the cold weather with a warm car.

Students will be writing a report about the trip and will also be using the information they gained in a class debate regarding the potential pros and cons of oil and gas wells.

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A delightful little field trip in Ohio with a Polish-American team

Today was astonishingly beautiful in Ohio: bright blue skies and the peak of fall leaf colors. By happy circumstance, I had three Polish paleontologist friends visiting Wooster after the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh last week. Greg Wiles very generously drove us down to Caesar Creek State Park for a few hours of fossil collecting from Ordovician exposures in the emergency spillway of the lake. From the left the team consisted of Greg Wiles, me, Jakub Słowiński, and Michał Zatoń, the latter two from the Department of Palaeontology & Stratigraphy, University of Silesia. Tomek Zatoń took the photograph.

We’ve recorded this locality many times in this blog. I just want to record this trip and show the best fossil find of the day. Above is part of the cephalon of the large trilobite Isotelus maximus. Michał found it in the float on the spillway floor.

Again, wonderful day. Thank you Greg Wiles for your participation and driving. And thanks to my Polish friends for making this field trip possible on a sunny Monday.

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Freshwater sponge and diatom team presents at the annual Geological Society of America meeting in Pittsburgh

This summer Garrett Robertson and Minnie Pozefsky performed superb research on the sponges and diatoms in a core from Brown’s Lake near Shreve, Ohio. Their project is summarized here. Today Garrett presented their work, along with others on the NSF-funded team, at the Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Garrett is pictured above with the poster. (Thanks, Greg Wiles, for the image!)

Minnie Pozeksky, shown above, specialized in the diatoms, mastering their taxonomy, paleoecology, and statistical distribution. She is now a first-year student at Williams College. Garrett is finishing his Senior Independent Study at Wooster on the sponges this year.

In this photomicrograph, one of Garrett’s sponge spicules is above, and one of Minnie’s diatoms is below.

Garrett and Minnie were a fun, creative and very productive team to work with. Their work will continue as we add to it over the next summer.

Wooster was very well represented at this GSA meeting by faculty, students and alumni. We have a proud tradition of mentored research at Wooster. At meetings like this, where our current students converse with our alumni, we see the compounding value of this research over the years.


Robertson, G.R.*, Pozefsky, M.E.*, Wilson, M.A., Wiles, G.C., Wiesenberg, N., Lowell, T.V., Diefendorf, A.F. and Corcoran, M. 2023. Preliminary analysis and paleoenvironmental assessment of the sponges and diatoms preserved in a Late Holocene to Recent sediment core from Brown’s Lake, Wayne County, Ohio. Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs, vol. 55, no. 6, doi: 10.1130/abs/2023AM-392825.


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The distinguished paleontologist Dr. Julia Clarke visits Wooster’s Earth Sciences department.

The distinguished paleontologist Dr. Julia Clarke visited our Paleoecology lab in Wooster yesterday. She was there as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar. She was wonderful with her several fascinating talks and many interactions with our students. Everybody is happy in this picture for a reason. A very high point for Wooster paleontology and the other Earth sciences. Thank you Emily Armour for this image!

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Work continues on our Ordovician paleoecology project

The Fall 2023 Paleoecology class is continuing to work on its Upper Ordovician fossil collections from our field trip at the beginning of the semester. Part of the class is shown above sorting their specimens and identifying them as precisely as possible. The other class members are in the basement with the rock saw and grinders. It’s a real-world experience including preservation and taphonomy issues with the vagaries of some taxonomies. The students took ownership of the joys and dilemmas of paleontology from that first field day.

Here are two trays in progress. Students are now using scraps of paper to record their observations and identifications. Later we will use more formal labels.

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A Wooster Geologist visits Fallingwater, southwestern Pennsylvania

While on our short Fall Break vacation in Pennsylvania, my wife, daughter and I visited the iconic Fallingwater. It must be one of the best known family houses short of Windsor Castle. Fallingwater is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is on the US National Register of Historic Places. It was built 1936-1939 following the modernist designs of the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It is situated within the beautiful Laurel Highlands near Fort Ligonier in the previous post. The weather was perfect.

I certainly can’t say much about the architecture and engineering (which are equally impressive), but I can note that the stones used in the house were quarried just down stream and are carefully used to reflect the stratigraphy of this little valley.

The local rock is a sandstone from the Pottsville Group (Upper Carboniferous), which is nearly level in this part of its exposure.

We didn’t go inside, but I got this one view through a window of the furnishings and open architecture. Mid-Century Modern, I heard this style called. A little too open for me, but then you’d never find me living in a house so completely surrounded by trees with a river flowing through it!

The “plunge pool” under the house catches the “falling water” from Bear Run. It produces a dramatic rumble through the house. The geologist in me, though, is a bit disappointed with the engineered outcrop — lots of vertical and horizontal surfaces. I suppose the flow must be carefully managed, though, because there’s a house built on top of it!

Fallingwater is worth the visit, even if it is just a walk around it in the woods.

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Wooster Geologist at Fort Ligonier, Pennsylvania: Choosing your ground geologically

This afternoon, the first day of Fall Break at The College of Wooster, my family began a weekend excursion to southern Pennsylvania — our first vacation since the pandemic. We first visited one of my favorite reconstructed frontier outposts: Fort Ligonier. I was here eleven years ago and wrote a blog post about it. It was again so interesting that I’m updating that older post here.

Fort Ligonier was built by the British in 1758 during the French and Indian War (or Seven Years’ War) along the Loyalhanna River in what is now Westmoreland County of southwestern Pennsylvania. It is a spectacular site today with a fully reconstructed fortification and an excellent museum. It gives us a chance to see how a military engineer used the local geology to build a successful fort in a difficult terrain.

One of several internal fortified gates.

Headquarters buildings.


One of the many brass cannons guarding the fort perimeter.


The purpose of Fort Ligonier was to serve as the forward base for the capture of the French Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio River. This was the most strategic site on the western frontier. The French and their Indian allies desperately wanted to preempt this attack by destroying the advancing British columns in the woods before they could assemble. The British and American colonists needed a robust road through the wilderness approaching Fort Duquesne, along with defensible strongholds. Fort Ligonier was the most critical of these positions, then, for both sides.
You would expect a fort to be built on the highest ground, yet Fort Ligonier is in a valley surrounded by commanding heights. The British knew, though, that the French and Indians did not have significant artillery in this theater. They could give up the heights so that they could use the Loyalhanna River as a defensible barrier against the inevitable infantry attacks. The site of Fort Ligonier also has small ravines on its other sides, forming a kind of moat. Most importantly, sandstone cliffs on the river side provide an unbreachable wall and an overview of the most likely approaches to the fort by the enemy. The British placed their largest cannon at the top of this cliff, surrounding them with an elaborate wooden stockade and sharpened obstacles.

A storage room in the fort for various foodstuffs.

The exposed rock of the Fort Ligonier cliffs is the Casselman Formation, a Late Carboniferous (about 300 million years old) mixture of shale, siltstone, sandstone and occasional coal beds. The particular unit here is a fine micaceous sandstone with cross-bedding. It was formed in an ancient river system. The cross-bedding and abundance of mica is a clue to this environment: the cross-bedding shows high-energy seasonal flooding; the mica flakes (the white grains seen below) show ebbs in water energy to near zero.
The French and Indians attacked Fort Ligonier on October 12, 1758, and very nearly took it. The British artillery sited on the sandstone cliffs was the deciding factor, though, and the besiegers retreated. Fort Ligonier swelled in population as British troops assembled for the attack on Fort Duquesne. In fact, in November 1758 it was the second largest city in Pennsylvania! (Among the British forces was the young George Washington.) The French saw the score and retreated from Fort Duquesne. The British captured this most strategic location and renamed the site “Pittsburgh”. Building and defending Fort Ligonier was key to this victory. By March 1766 the fort had served its purpose and was decommissioned.


Fowler, W.M., Jr. 2005. Empires at War: The French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America, 1754–1763. Walker & Company, 360 pages.

Sipe, H.C. 1971. Fort Ligonier and Its Times. Ayer Company Publishers, 699 pages.

Stotz, C.M. 2005. Outposts of the War for Empire: The French and English in Western Pennsylvania: Their Armies, Their Forts, Their People, 1749-1764. University of Pittsburgh Press, 260 pages.

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A lovely day to visit the Ordovician seas of Indiana

This year’s Paleoecology class field trip was to a familiar place: a roadcut outside Richmond, Indiana, exposing the Whitewater Formation in the gorgeous Upper Ordovician System. We call it the catchy name “C/W-148” (N 39.78722°, W 84.90166°). It was a beautiful sunny August day. Warm and plenty humid, with innumerable sweat bees to keep us company as we collected bags of fossils.

Here’s the happy class as we begin the three-hour bus ride to the outcrop. They are all well adapted to school bus travel with their pillows and phones.

Once at the outcrop we spread out and began filling bags with fossils. We hadn’t yet finished even our first week in the course before the trip, so the students had little idea what they were collecting other than what we could examine in a preceding lab. In a way this sort of naive collecting produces more diverse assemblages to study back home in Wooster.

Success! Everyone made it home safely, and everyone had a full bag of fossil delights.

Once we had the fossils in the lab we could begin the simplest preparation — washing them. Here our TA Hudson Davis shows how it’s done.

A washed collection from one student. It is great fun looking at 15 such trays at the start to see what treasures we have. Students will be preparing, identifying and interpreting these fossils for the rest of the semester, culminating in a lab report.

Here’s the class again, this time in our air-conditioned classroom. It’s going to be a great semester of paleoecology at The College of Wooster!

[Added on August 29, 2023. All specimens washed! Quite the collection.]

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Alaska Collaboration, Ongoing and Future Projects

In addition to the summer work described by Lilly Hinkley and Tyrell Cooper, the Wooster Tree Ring Lab is collaborating projects with (1) The Tree Ring Lab of the Johannes Gutenberg-University in Mainz, Germany. This work is part of a project called Monostar (Modelling Non-Stationary Tree growth Responses to global warming) and (2) The University of Alaska – Fairbanks funded by the National Science Foundation, which involves developing long tree-ring records from along the Gulf of Alaska. This post describes some of the sampling aspects of these projects this past summer.

First MONOSTAR sampling: We started in Juneau – here (below, left to right) is Nick Wiesenberg (Wooster), Philipp Romer (Mainz), and Davide Frigo (University of Padova, Italy).

The first tree-ring site was above the Mendenhall Glacier at the East Glacier Site. MONOSTAR sampling is being done across the Northern Hemisphere to determine the whys, hows, wheres and whens of changing tree growth with changing climate. The trees in the background are mountain hemlock with a few Sitka spruce. This is close to a yellow cedar site that we sampled some years ago.

Philipp and Davide with Mendenhall Glacier in the background. 

The next stop was Glacier Bay where we flew to Gustavus. The Tlingit Meeting House in Glacier Bay. The totems here in Bartlett Cove look to the east towards Excursion Ridge where the team sampled an Alaska Yellow Cedar and a Shore Pine tree-ring site.  

Walking up Excursion Ridge – the first obstacle was a river crossing a bit deeper that our boots, Nick manufactured a bridge for the group.

Philippe shows off a large diameter tree core from an Alaska Yellow Cedar core. After the work with MONOSTAR, we left Bartlett Cove and caught a ride with the Foglark Research Vessel with captain Justin Smith who brought us to the East Arm of Glacier Bay (Muir Inlet).

The Foglark sits offshore after dropping us off with our kayak in Muir Inlet. The mission was to sample wood in fans along the margin of the fiord in the wake of the retreating ice. The priority was to sample wood in the 2000 year old range. 

Most of the area we explored over a 9-day period was covered in ice very recently. The map above shows location at the head of Muir Inlet south to McBride Glacier. 

In the summer 2023 Muir Glacier (right) is now split into Muir and Morse Glacier (left), which are both terminating on land now, rather than in the ocean (tidewater glaciers).

Landing at the head of Muir Inlet we examined the outwash of the considerable rivers flowing, but no wood was found.

Nick shown scouring the many tributary side valleys that are recently deglaciated – many that were sampled successfully for wood in years past have been scoured of wood, likely due to large rainstorms and mass movements.

The next stop was McBride Glacier. Recent (last 5 years) ice retreat has opened up new landscapes and the potential of buried wood. We know from previous sampling that the wood should be in the 8,000 year old range. 

The view into McBride is spectacular. 

2020 GoogleEarth image above shows the tidewater McBride Glacier and the 2023 ice margin. 

August 2023 ice margin on this GoogleEarth image. The tributary valleys just south of the ice margin have been exposed over the past two years.

To the left and the right of the 2023 ice margin, the two valleys recently exposed by the retreating ice. The valleys align along a fault zone.

Nick is standing on a major sand bar/ delta in the middle of the fiord suggesting the glacier may be grounded now, or is there ice below the sand? It is hard to determine. It may be with the large sediment wedge the glacier will slow its retreat or even advance a bit.

From the mid-fiord sand bar looking downfjord – the two deltas to the left and right are contributing large volumes of sediment to the fan we are standing on.

Nick samples the 8000 year old wood encased in ice-marginal sediments.

An 8000 year old Sitka spruce stump in place – it is reminiscent of a totem.

The North Pacific pours in and out of McBride Inlet twice a day – the navigation is tricky. We look forward to further work on McBride.

The next stop down Muir Inlet was in the shadow of the Nunatak – the wood here is in the critical 2000 year old range (run over by ice 2000 years ago). A Nunatak is a hill/mountain surrounded by ice (from Inuit nunataq).

Nick shows the haul of wood sampled from drainages around the Nunatak. 

The final sampling in Muir Inlet was done as we paddled south down Muir Inlet. Here we camped with a spectacular view of Mt. Wright. From previous work we have amazing Mt. Hemlock data from this impressive mountain

Along the way, Nick stops at a log that we know is about 4000 years old. It may not look like a log but it is a Mt. Hemlock tree with well over 350 rings. We know this as we sampled it last year 2022.

Nick extracts the section.

A panorama of McBride Fiord (right) and Muir Inlet (left) during a flooding tide. We thank The College of Wooster, the National Park Service, the National Science Foundation, and all the students and collaborators who have contributed to this work. 


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Coring Trees and Flying over Seas, Hoonah, Alaska 2023

Guest Bloggers: Lilly Hinkley and Tyrell Cooper

Tyrell, Lilly, Nick and Dr. Wiles of Wooster’s Tree Ring Lab (WTRL) were in Juneau and Hoonah, Alaska working in collaboration with the Alaskan Youth Stewards (AYS) in order to extend our tree ring chronologies. Once we collect the tree cores, the WTRL group will head back to The College of Wooster to prep and measure the cores and do a climatic analysis on them to try and connect the data with some of the Tlingit oral histories we learned about during our time. 

Nick, Tyrell and Lilly at the Mendenhall Glacier ice margin.

Day 1

Tyrell and Lilly safely landed in Juneau. We fueled up and then went on a short walk around Mendenhall Glacier Lake where we saw a triple sun dog – a sign of good luck as we embarked on our journey in Alaska.

We met up with a fellow dendrochronologist, Markus Stoffel (left), along with his family who are from Switzerland. We also met up with another colleague, Ben Gaglioti (second from left) who works as a researcher at University of Alaska Fairbanks. Ben joined us while we were in Hoonah as well.


Lilly and Tyrell in front of Nugget Falls. Which pours from a surrounding glacier into Mendenhall Lake.

Day 2

On day 2, The Wooster Tree Ring Lab (WTRL) crew started off the day with a hike on the West Glacier Loop trail.

Took a quick peanut butter and jelly lunch break with a great view of the glacier.

After a long journey we made it to the glacier’s terminus, and walked down into an ice cave beneath a moulin.

Day 3 


On day 3, we headed out on Alaska Seaplanes from Juneau to Hoonah.

Aerial view from the flight to Hoonah.

Once getting into Hoonah, we took a drive around town with our friend Jeff, who gave us a brief history of Hoonah. We then took a quick hike at the Suntaheen trailhead to stretch our legs.

Later that night, Nick, Lilly and Tyrell went out to pick some wild blueberries and salmonberries.


Day 4


On day 4, w met up with the Alaskan Youth Stewards (AYS) crew and then began our arduous hike up Ear Mountain to look for some slow growth Mountain Hemlock trees to core.

Photo of the “ears” of Ear Mountain.

Lilly coring a Mountain Hemlock.


Day 5


On day 5, we began the day by coring Yellow Cedar.

The AYS group had gone out on a boat earlier to catch Bull Kelp, Halibut and Dungeness crab. We met up with them at the harbor where they showed us how to filet halibut.

Photo of Bull Kelp.

We later helped them prep the Bull Kelp for pickling.

To end the day, we went to the beach to pick some beach asparagus.


Day 6


On day 6, we met with the AYS crew in the morning to show them the process of mounting, sanding and counting the tree cores.

After a quick lunch break, we learned how to pickle the Bull Kelp using a brine mixture and put them into jars.


Day 7

On day 7, after flying back to Juneau from Hoonah, Dr. Wiles, Lilly, and Tyrell visited the State Museum. We learned more about Alaska’s native population. Photo includes Woolly Mammoth tusks.

Exhibit of seal intestine raincoats that Alaskan natives would wear.

Exhibit of a large cross-section of old-growth Western Hemlock. This tree was commonly logged.


Day 8

Last photo in front of the Mendenhall Glacier before heading back to Wooster.

To learn more about the AYS group click here

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