Geology team researches Scandinavian mountain mystery

Professor of Geology Emily Walsh and five geology majors used high-tech instruments at the University of Iowa to study the formation of the Scandinavian Caledonides mountain belt for the Cornell Summer Research Institute (CSRI). 

Their research could help answer a lot of questions.

“It really helps us figure out big tectonic questions, mostly,” Walsh said. “How do mountain belts form? What are all of the processes that happen when continents collide? But it also helps us think about what is at depth in the earth.”

To figure out the answers to these big questions, they studied the mountains at a microscopic level. Walsh collected rocks from Sweden last summer for this research project.

“We are analyzing thin sections of these rocks for minerals,” said Zoe Kane-Preissing ’20.

Kane-Preissing, Jillian Shew ’20, and Morgan Casarez ’20 used a scanning electron microscope to identify unknown minerals, which helped the team prepare to date the rocks.

“It’s kind of neat because there are these two pieces of ultrahigh-pressure terrain that are supposed to all be in the same rock unit, but the one in the north is about 500 million years [old], the one in the south is 460 million years, and the one in Norway is 400 million years,” Walsh said. “This one unit of rocks just kept being subducted and brought back up over time, or something like that. So we are trying to figure that out.”

To solve this mystery, they examined the rocks that connect the ultrahigh-pressure zones.

“Specifically, we are looking for zircons and rutiles because those help with geochronometry, which is just dating these materials,” Kane-Preissing said. “That will help us to figure out the dates of when things happened when the mountains formed.”

Garrett Wicker ’20 and Daniel Klever ’20 explored another aspect of the minerals in the rocks–using an electron microprobe.

“We are looking for different mineral reactions that show us how high the pressure was that these rocks were under and how hot it was,” Wicker said.

Those mineral reactions explain the different events the rocks experienced, so they get glimpses of the timing of the rock’s trajectory through the earth.

All five students will use their data to understand the formation of the Scandinavian mountains and explore how this information could explain the geology of other mountains around the world.

“I really like coming here (the University of Iowa) and getting to use the electron microscope and the electron microprobe or using the optical microscopes back at school, which is what we get to do with classes–but getting to apply it to research,” Klever said.

It’s an experience they know will impact their future graduate school applications and careers.

“On most applications, they are looking for experience and without this, I don’t have the experience,” Casarez said.

“I’m a computer science and geology major, so I’m looking towards going into–or using these machines, a lot, for future jobs,” Shew added.

This is just one of many projects going on for CSRI, for others check out our website at