Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah
image Jessica Henrie shows off the piece of gypsum she pulled out of a hole drilled for a scientific study at the Bonneville Salt Flats in September. The reporter was eager to lower her arm inside the hole and feel the mineral layers that make up the salt flats. (Francie Aufdemorte/TTB photo)

October 13, 2016
If I didn’t love words, I’d lick rocks for a living

If I hadn’t chosen to pursue journalism in college, I might have become a geologist.

To fill the general education requirement for science, I chose to take astronomy and geology. Astronomy was fascinating, but the mathematical part of stargazing wasn’t my favorite thing.

In contrast, geology was much more hands-on. Instead of calculating the trajectory of an extraterrestrial body light years away, we licked rocks to help us identify them. During the unit on volcanoes, we listened to the last radio call transmitted by geologist David Johnston before he was killed in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

I loved the class. It was a lot of work to learn the terms for all kinds of geologic features, but it sure was fun. However, when the time came for me to declare a major, I knew my passion for writing was stronger than my love of rocks.

Besides, I reasoned as I began taking journalism classes, I could always look for a job as an environmental reporter. That way, I could do what I love most and still be in touch with the earth.

When I joined the Transcript Bulletin last year, I was thrilled to learn my assigned beats included science and environmental issues. Most of what I’ve written on those topics is related to air quality, but last month I had an opportunity to revisit my rock-licking days.

Accompanied by the Transcript’s all-star photojournalist, Francie Aufdemorte, I went to a media day at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Dr. Brenda Bowen from the University of Utah met us and several other reporters near the Bonneville Speedway, where we spent a couple hours talking about the state of the salt.

Bowen, in addition to directing the U’s Global Change and Sustainability Center, is heading a new salt crust thickness study on the flats. She’s also an associate professor of geology and geophysics.

She handled the posse of reporters like a pro, offering a comprehensive summary of past studies at the salt flats and explaining in detail what her study entails. I was fascinated by the samples her team pulled out of the ground. After the drill crew moved on, student researchers Evan Kipnis and Lily Wetterlan moved in to measure the thickness of each mineral layer.

At one point, Bowen invited reporters to stick their arm down a drill hole and feel the mineral layers for themselves. I was the only one to take her up on her offer. It was very cool to roll up my sleeve and feel around inside the hole, which was about 4-5 inches in diameter and 5 feet deep.

Most of the minerals that make up the salt flats are some form of salt, starting with the uppermost halite crust. Kipnis and Wetterlan measured each layer down to sediment left by Lake Bonneville.

“We really just need to go down to the Bonneville Lake sediment, which is basically mud,” Kipnis told me as he extended a measuring tape down into the hole.

Lake Bonneville existed for thousands of years starting about 25,000 years ago. It was huge, measuring about 1,000 feet deep and covering most of northwestern Utah and part of Idaho and Nevada, according to Utah History Encyclopedia.

That lake and others that came before it have left their marks on Utah topography, of which the Bonneville Salt Flats and Great Salt Lake are only two remnants. When I lowered my arm into the drill hole and felt the muddy sides, I was touching thousands of years’ worth of geologic history.

It was an exhilarating experience, the achievement of a college dream. Before I left, I took a bit of gypsum and a piece of halite as souvenirs. As I carried the rocks back to my car, I looked down at the halite. I knew I didn’t need to taste it to know what it was, but as I reflected on the geology class I took six years ago, I couldn’t resist.

In the spirit of geology, I lifted that rock to my mouth and licked it.

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