RUGS Field Trip to Galveston Island and the Upper Texas Gulf Coast
By Sarah Preston, Christina Stoner (& Juli Morgan)
On April 25, after almost a year with no field trips, RUGS had the opportunity to take a day-long local field trip to the Upper Texas Gulf Coast. The trip was was planned by the EEPS seniors, with EEPS Professors Julia Morgan and Melodie French serving as drivers and faculty sponsors, and guided by Rice Professor Emeritus John Anderson, an expert on coastal processes with particular knowledge of the Upper Texas Gulf Coast. Seven undergraduates participated. We traveled from Houston to Freeport to Galveston, stopping along the way to learn about coastal geology and geomorphology, as well as the history of sea level changes through time and the resulting depositional history along the coast. Over the course of the day, we gained a new appreciation for the scale on which geologic processes occur, the interactions between humans and the ocean, and the interconnected nature of the climate and ocean systems.
We met up in the geology/biology parking lot at 7:45 AM and left Rice soon after, driving south for about an hour before stopping at two different Buc’ee’s locations for snacks and gas, and finally meeting with Dr. Anderson near Freeport, a port and petrochemical town situated only about 5 feet above sea level. Our first stop was on Levee Road, which provides excellent views of Oyster Creek, which meanders through an abandoned channel of the Brazos River occupied in the Late Holocene, on its way to the coast. Here Dr. Anderson provided us with an overview of the geologic history of southeast Texas, pointing out the man-made Brazos River cut-off which redirected the modern-day river channel to protect Port Freeport.
We then began our drive northeast along the coast. We stopped briefly at the Oyster Creek Delta, taking a closer look at the remains of the Holocene Brazos River channel, where we discussed the submerged depositional record of the migrating river. We then drove to Follet’s Island, a low-lying barrier island, stopping on the beach.
Although the sand at Follet’s Island was very compacted from years of people driving on the beach (a surprise to the non-Texans in the group), we were able to find shells and a small sandstone outcrop that preserved some depositional features.
We then stopped at a small neighborhood at eastern end of Follett’s Island to examine the effects of beach erosion, which has left several houses well below the tide line, directly exposed to coastal waves.
We stopped for lunch at a county park, with an overview of the San Luis Pass Tidal Delta, a popular fishing site for both people and wildlife, before crossing the bridge over the San Luis Pass and proceeding northeast onto Galveston Island. Our last group stop was along the eastern edge of Jamaica Beach, where most houses are on stilts to accommodate storm surges. With an expansive view of West Bay and Galveston Island State Park, we discussed efforts to improve the health of local ecosystems. Our field trip concluded at Dr. Anderson’s Galveston Island home, with welcome shade, snacks, and restroom opportunities. Dr. Anderson related their experiences during various tropical storms and hurricanes that passed through the area, noting that their Galveston house had stood up to Hurricane Harvey significantly better than their house in Houston.
After bidding him farewell, we drove along the Galveston Seawall to the Galveston – Port Bolivar Ferry, which we rode both ways to take in the enormous ships plying the waters on their way to the Houston Ship Channel. Upon our return to Galveston, we made the hours’ drive back to Rice.
Throughout the trip, Dr. Anderson shared fun facts, anecdotes, and local history, showing us places where houses used to be before the ocean overtook them, cracking jokes about former study areas, and telling us about the interactions between scientists and the Texas state government.
The trip was a welcome–and very much appreciated–respite after almost a full semester of classes, with educational stops, beautiful sights, and even some interesting animal sightings. (My perfect record of seeing dolphins on RUGS field trips held!) At the end of the day, we returned to Rice with a broader appreciation for the environmental toll of unchecked human activity, the connections between people and the oceans, and the importance of coastal geology.