Professor finds out why Yosemite rocks

By Kat Elliott

Pacific professor’s work part of PBS film Wednesday

Roger Putnam’s research of granitic rocks and the evolution of granitic landscapes took him up and down the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, where he spent six weeks climbing the rock formation, collecting rock samples and taking field notes.

Now the research of the adjunct faculty in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences will be part of a PBS film “Yosemite” scheduled for 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 29.

“Filmmaker Joe Pontecorvo followed me and pro climber Jeff Shapiro, while we ascended El Cap during one of my scientific missions,” Putnam said. “It is a small, but very cool portion of the film.”

Putnam’s goal in collecting the data was to help create the very first high-resolution geologic map of El Capitan. In addition to climbing the rock formation and collecting observations and photos, Putnam also “crowd sourced” other climbers who were using routes that he didn’t have time to complete. He then worked with the park’s geologist, who had created a super high resolution image taken from the ground.

Putnam’s combination of these two sets of observations “provides ground-breaking insights into our understanding of how continental crust forms,” said Laura Rademacher, associate professor and chair of the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences.

“We are looking at both how granitic rocks, which comprise most of the continental crust, form at the roots of large volcanoes,” Putnam
said of the research. “We are also using the perfect exposures of granitic rocks in Yosemite to explore how those granitic rocks subsequently weather into the iconic landscapes.”

The National Park Service hopes that Putnam’s research will contribute to a better understanding of rockfalls, and help keep climbers and
visitors safer from hazards. More than a dozen people have been killed over the past few years by rockfalls in the park. His research is already being used by scientists in Switzerland to better understand rockfalls.

Putnam has been working at Pacific for the past two years as an adjunct professor and he recently gave a research seminar on his work in Yosemite.

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