Looking at sediment core samples drawn from a dry lake in the Mojave Desert, Matthew Kirby and his students study the effects of climate change over thousands of years.
"I tell my students that 15,000 years ago, you would have needed a boat to get from here to Las Vegas," says the associate professor of geological sciences. "Many of the lakes we study are dry, but they have lessons for us today. We look at the history of the region, analyze changes that have occurred and, based on what's relevant, make predictions for the future."
For many years, Cal State Fullerton professors have taken their students to the California State University's Desert Studies Center in Zzyzx to research climate change, astronomy, archaeology and paleontology, and other fields of study. The center is one of the world's few desert research facilities.
"People often misjudge the desert environment," says David Bowman, professor of geological sciences and interim dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. Much of the desert, he explains, is sensitive. "You have the fragile desert pavement, lake beds, habitat … We study the desert to see how human activity impacts this environment."
"We receive visitors from around the world," says William Presch, director of the Desert Studies Center. "Of course, we get lots of students but we also host artists, archaeologists, climatologists, geologists, biologists and many others. To us, the desert is a living laboratory — an outside classroom."
- 1. Ed Knell, associate professor of anthropology, studies flakes of rock from ancient Native American quarries to reconstruct past living environments. 2. Students coming to Zzyzx will study how desert plants are adapted to the harsh environment. 3. A chuckwalla emerges from his felsite rock hiding spot.
- 1. Richard Saldana '14 (B.A. anthropology) records location information on quarry sites. 2. Biology major Chizoba Chugbo takes field notes on lizard habitats. 3. The rising sun bathes Lake Tuendae in light.
- Christopher Tracy, assistant professor of biological science, shares with his research group thermal readings of a desert holly plant.
- Ancient Native American petroglyphs dot the landscape, remnants of a civilization that inhabited the area thousands of years earlier.
- The sun rises over the Cowhole Mountains. Students and researchers often wake before dawn to study flora and fauna during the cooler hours, when certain organisms are more active.
- Students are silhouetted against the desert landscape as they look for the perfect site to conduct their research.
- Students explore the hills around Zzyzx with black lights, collecting data on the local scorpions that glow in the light.
- Students return to the main Zzyzx facility after a day of research.
- Stars stream over the Zzyzx palm farms in this long exposure. Zzyzx’s dark skies make it a prime spot for astronomical research.
- A full moon sets over Lake Tuendae, home to the endangered Mohave tui chub.
Learning From Life
Like Kirby, Edward Knell and his students also study the dry lake beds, but with a different mission. The associate professor of anthropology looks for evidence of early ancestors' ways of life. Based on stone fragments and other artifacts, Knell can reconstruct how people, as early as 13,000 years ago, made and used stone tools and how and where they settled around pluvial Lake Mojave. The Desert Studies Center is near the southern end of this ancient lake, which would fill with water when precipitation was much higher than today. He also can document early migration patterns.
"Where there is water, there are people," Knell explains. "Not only do people drink the water, but animals came to the lakes to drink and, in turn, became a food source for humans. As lakes dried out, the human inhabitants moved on. We often study what they left behind for clues to how they lived, what they ate and where they traveled."