Joining forces for rock science

This exercise is a part of Educator Guide: Climbers Help Scientists Vibe With Utah’s Rocks / View Guide

Directions for teachers: Ask students to read the online Science News article “How climbers help scientists vibe with Utah’s famous red rock formations” and answer the following questions. A version of the article, “Climbers help scientists vibe with Utah’s rocks,” appears in the April 23, 2022 issue of Science News.

1. Who is Kathryn Vollinger? Who is she collaborating with?

Kathryn Vollinger is an experienced rock climber who climbs in Utah’s Moab Desert region. She is not a scientist but is collaborating with geophysicist Riley Finnegan of the University of Utah and her colleagues.

2. What scientific equipment does Vollinger carry when she climbs? What data does she collect and when?

Vollinger carries a seismometer. Once she reaches the top of a rock formation, she collects data on how much the rock formations vibrate.

3. Why is that data important to scientists? What role does Vollinger play in the research and why do scientists need her help?

Data on how much the rock formations vibrate is useful for understanding their stability and could offer clues to past seismic activity. Vollinger plays an important role in the data collection process. Scientists need skilled climbers who can get the seismometers to the top of the formations to take the measurements.

4. Who else is the data important to? Why?

Insights into the rock formations are important to Native American groups, because many of the rock formations hold cultural or religious significance for those groups.

5. What is a fundamental frequency? What are the units of measurement?

Fundamental frequency is the lowest natural frequency, or the background frequency. It is a measure of how many times the rock formations sway back and forth per second. Frequency is measured in hertz, or times per second.

6. What did the data Vollinger collected reveal about the fundamental frequencies of the rock formations?

The data showed that the fundamental frequencies range from 0.8 to 15 hertz.

7. How are scientists using computer models to study the rock formations?

Scientists are using computer models, or computer simulations, to try to understand the physics of the rock formations and their behavior. Inputting height, density, cross-sectional area and other material properties can reveal the fundamental frequencies.

8. Aside from help from rock climbers, how might data on the vibrations of rock formations be collected in the future?

Scientists imagine using robots to put seismometers in place and using drones to collect the data.