Rice University
Rice Magazine| The Magazine of Rice University | No. 3 | 2009
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Rocky Road

There are a lot of interesting rocks along the road from Marrakech to Casablanca, and a coterie of Rice students and their professors had a good look at a lot of them during the summer break.

Rocky RoadLed by Earth science professors André Droxler and Gerald Dickens, a group of undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and professors about 25 strong traveled more than 2,000 miles during a two-week journey through Morocco, one of the planet’s most unique geological regions. There they were able to study geological formations from the northwest Sahara desert to the Atlas and Rif mountains. These last, located along the Mediterranean coast, contain rock that formed in the Earth’s upper mantle only to be pushed to the surface by tectonic activity.

“The field trip gave students the opportunity to see a wide range of geology as well as rocks that cover a great time span,” Droxler said. “The beauty of Morocco is that we observed rocks from Precambrian times, about 700 million years old, up to half a million years old. The age, diversity and types of outcropping rocks were all really astonishing.”

Rocky Road TeamThe lack of vegetation in much of the country made it particularly easy to peer back through the ages as the group traveled though the mountains of Morocco in a bus and two four-wheel-drive SUVs. “You get to observe the completely uncovered outcrops, and the overall landscapes are absolutely stunning,” Droxler said. “Morocco gives you this great palette of not only different types of rocks, but also different formations and structures.”

The deep structures of the Atlas and Rif mountains are at the heart of an international project that involves Alan Levander, the Carey Croneis Professor of Earth Science. The project is investigating the ranges, which are part of the line of demarcation where the Africa and Eurasia plates meet, to determine what happens when continents collide.

The students could sense a disconnect between Berbers and Arabs, and understanding the social organization and observing the different living conditions in Morocco became part of a wider learning experience for them.

Droxler said Albert Bally, Rice’s Harry Carothers Wiess Professor Emeritus of Geology, was an immense help in preparing students by teaching a spring seminar on Moroccan geology, which he became familiar with when he worked for Shell and did research with graduate students while at Rice. Droxler got further help from his own former teacher, Professor Emeritus Jean-Paul Schaer from the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, who’d spent a lot of time in Morocco. “He knew somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody, and so on,” Droxler said. Three of Droxler’s colleagues doing field research in Morocco — Francois Negro, Romain Bousquet and Lahssen Baidder of Switzerland, Germany and Morocco, respectively — led the Rice students through their journey of discovery.

Most of the people helping the students along the way were Berbers. “Morocco is mostly inhabited by Berbers,” Droxler said. “Arabs moved to Morocco a long time ago but never really established themselves in the mountains, where the Berbers have lived forever.” The students could sense a disconnect between Berbers and Arabs, and understanding the social organization and observing the different living conditions in Morocco became part of a wider learning experience for them.


“The beauty of Morocco is that we observed rocks from Precambrian times, about 700 million years old, up to half a million years old. The age, diversity and types of outcropping rocks were all really astonishing.”                         —André Droxler

“One reason the Department of Earth Science organizes these long field trips every other year,” Droxler said, “is to give students the chance to learn to make their way in the world, no matter where they go, not only as Earth scientists but also as Earth citizens.”