Core Curriculum
Geologist studies Earth's innermost layers

By Lynn Bolt Rosendale '85

Mountain view with Ryan Bierma

Most days, especially in the summer, Ryan Bierma pinches himself as a reminder that he isn’t dreaming. “Every week I’m in a place that is somebody else’s dream vacation,” he said. “The areas I’m in are spectacular.”

Since his graduation in 2003, Bierma has spent time studying earthquakes in Italy and along the California coast and volcanoes in Alaska.

“Every day I’m shaking my head thinking, ‘I’m working on an active volcano, and somebody is paying me to do this,’” he said. “I have the dream job every young, outdoorsy-type geology major wants. I fly around and look at rocks and study volcanoes. It’s what I always wanted, but I never anticipated that it would fall together so neatly.”

Snowy view with Ryan Bierma

Though his career has followed a linear path since college, Bierma’s college experience was less direct. He didn’t become a self-described “geology nerd” until well into his Calvin education—he discovered the department after his junior year.

Simple living---Alaskan style

Ryan's simple living houseWhile some might find Ryan Bierma’s living arrangement in Alaska extreme, he prefers to describe it as simple.

Living in the highest residence in the city of Anchorage—it’s actually above the tree line—Bierma has a view of the city, the ocean, three active volcanoes and Denali, the tallest mountain on the continent. He also regularly sees moose and an occasional bear or eagles.

The small, red cabin provides a main room with kitchen, a loft for sleeping and a front mudroom for clothes and gear. He has no running water. “When it snows I drag my water in on a sled or sometimes snowshoe for it,” he said.
The undersized house is cabled to the side of the mountain to keep it from blowing away in the winter winds, which can reach more than 100 miles per hour. Snowdrifts can pile up to 12 feet high.

“Anchorage is not truly Alaska,” he explained. “It’s too easy. I feel like the cabin is one step closer to actually living in Alaska. It’s an adventure, it’s rugged, it’s beautiful.”

More resources

Online Guide to Earth Science Lesson Plans

“I waffled around between biology, psychology and other majors,” he said. Then after a semester studying in Calvin’s Hungary program, he came back to a mixed-up registration. None of the classes he needed were open. “I went to the geology department to see if they could fit me into a class. After that I couldn’t get enough of it. I had never been so passionate about anything before. I loved it.”

Geology professor Deanna van Dijk remembers Bierma from that introductory geology course: “He was the one student who still stands out to me as such an obvious geology major. It might have taken him a little longer to come to that conclusion, but once he did he really caught fire.”

Bierma switched majors, studied erosion with van Dijk on the Michigan sand dunes and ended up in graduate school at University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

“I probably would never be able to tell them how much I appreciated them,” Bierma said of the geology faculty. “They’re amazing professors who are really passionate about what they’re doing. I never thought I would be so excited about looking at rock samples and minerals.”

Following his graduation from Calvin, an opportunity to research earthquakes in Italy presented itself to Bierma as a graduate student. Because of that experience, he was offered his first job.

Working for UNAVCO (a consortium of research institutions whose mission is to support and promote Earth science by advancing high-precision techniques for the measurement and understanding of deformation in the Earth’s crust) in California, Bierma used GPS (global positioning system) to monitor earthquakes, particularly along the San Andreas Fault.

“That,” Bierma said, “was dream job number one.”

His experience at UNAVCO led him to his current position: “dream job number Ryan Biermatwo,” he said, a geologist for the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO).

Bierma started at the AVO earlier this year, just a few weeks before Mount Redoubt started erupting. “It was incredibly exciting,” he said. “Just three weeks after I got here, Mount Redoubt starts to do its thing, and I’m monitoring it.”

Though Mount Redoubt has received most of the public’s attention lately, there are more than 40 Alaskan volcanoes that have been active within the last 100 years, mainly along the Aleutian Arc, a chain of more than 300 small volcanic islands extending 1,200 miles southwest of Alaska in the Pacific Ocean. Typically there are one or two full eruptions every year, and it’s Bierma and his AVO colleagues’ job to monitor them.

The AVO monitors volcanoes for potentially hazardous situations, particularly for passenger and freight aircraft as jet engines sometimes fail after ingesting volcanic ash. Anchorage’s airport is the third busiest cargo airport in the world; most of the planes travel over or downwind of the Aleutian Islands.

Mountain with Ryan BiermaBierma spent much of the summer doing fieldwork, installing and servicing instruments that provide data during the winter months, when the sites are difficult to reach. A highlight for Bierma was traveling to Kasatochi, a very small volcanic island that erupted in 2008.

“It’s like a moonscape,” he said, “with everything under 30 feet of ash. It’s an environmental blank slate, and geologists and biologists and other scientists are interested in studying what happens here. To go to these places that nobody else gets to come to—or maybe no one wants to come to—I consider that a privilege.”

Ryan BiermaPutting his science education into action has provided Bierma with an opportunity to reflect on it, he said. “One of the things that I left Calvin with that is so vastly important to me is the understanding that it is possible to balance your faith and your science,” he said. “I don’t have an internal struggle over it. The Earth appears to be ancient, and the fact that God has nurtured it and fostered it through time is a testament to God’s power and love for His creation.” 

Lynn Rosendale is the managing editor of Spark.