The most memorable individual I’ve met during fieldwork weighed about half a ton. My team was taking samples of sedimentary rocks one morning on a remote island in Svalbard when he surprised us. The furry white boulder lumbered toward us under the Arctic summer Sun, then stood up and eyed us as we yelled at him and quickly packed our samples to retreat, just like we’d practiced. Later, we watched him sleep near the shore from the deck of our sailboat. His shagginess and curiosity reminded me of a dog—but he was a hungry polar bear.
That day, he stayed hungry, and we stayed safe. And ever since, he’s been fodder as the subject of a field story I’ve told many times. Hang out with Earth scientists for any time at all, and you hear stories like these: misadventures and near misses in the field. The villains of these stories are diverse—annoyed buffalo, helicopters, rushing rivers, flat tires, cacti, and more.
Depending on who’s listening, these stories sound like invitations to high adventure or good reasons to stay home. The tales may be thrilling—and offer glimpses of specific risks and solutions—but when it comes to informing systematic approaches for avoiding risk in the field, they are, literally, anecdotes. What field scientists need for this purpose is data.
Experienced field researchers are applying data-driven approaches to categorize risk. Some of us are sifting through historical records to identify patterns, whereas other colleagues are focused on creating systems to collect better information on future incidents. Together, these efforts build resources for field scientists to use so we can be as prepared as possible before we go into the field—and safe and sound while we’re there.
As a sedimentologist who works and teaches in the field, I wanted to help develop a quantitative understanding of risk during fieldwork across field areas, seasons, and settings. Collecting relevant data is challenging because people rarely report minor incidents and close calls. The best paper trail I found was for the most extreme outcome of risk in the field: death.
I collected reports of deaths during geological fieldwork since 2000 from English language obituaries and news reports to better understand sources of risk in the field. My work with this data set shows, among other findings, that vehicles are the leading cause of accidental deaths during fieldwork, followed by environmental causes like drowning, animal attack, and falls from height, similar to the main causes of deaths during outdoor recreation at U.S. National Parks [Cantine, 2021].
Death is a rare event in the field, so that initial research has provided limited, though helpful, insight into risk. To expand my perspective, I began interviewing field scientists to learn about their experiences. I’ve spoken with people who have worked from the poles to the tropics, using everything from helicopters to scuba equipment to explore our planet. Although these conversations are, yes, anecdotes, collecting them systematically can help illuminate patterns, provide examples of good and bad practices, and identify lessons learned that become clear to participants only after some time to reflect has passed.
Mariusz Potocki, a glaciologist with experience doing fieldwork in extremely remote areas like Antarctica and high-altitude mountains, spoke to me about how swiftly weather conditions can worsen. “I’d say the most dangerous part of fieldwork is the unpredictability of nature and how it might catch you unprepared,” he said. Severe weather lasting days or weeks may leave researchers without sufficient food to weather storms, for instance.
Potocki suggests that expedition leaders should check to be certain that all team members or subgroups within teams have the supplies and skills needed to be self-sufficient when the unexpected happens. Such preparations might simply mean making sure each vehicle on a field trip has at least one passenger who knows how to change a tire or reminding participants to pack medication in carry-on rather than checked luggage. He described how field leaders he admires take responsibility even for basic chores, from melting snow and ice for water to looking after tents. Their care with seemingly small tasks models how the well-being of the group is a shared responsibility.
For work in more extreme or demanding environments, when specialized technical skills are required, it also matters that leaders demonstrate care for safety, making the time and effort to ensure participants are prepared. Tauana Cunha, a postdoctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute who studies marine gastropods, described to me how a visit to work with collaborators started with a group scuba excursion to check her diving skills and comfort in the water before she was approved to work in a smaller group. Such exercises, though time-consuming, build mutual confidence and trust within teams, and they help protect researchers from getting into situations for which they’re not prepared.
Some of my conversations with field scientists have highlighted how even though field teams can be sources of new friends, mentors, and collaborators, they can also be sources of risk, especially in the close-quarter and isolated environments where fieldwork often takes place. One survey found that the majority of sexual harassment and assault experienced by scientists in the field was perpetrated by fellow team members [Clancy et al., 2014]. I spoke with Anne Kelly, now deputy director of The Nature Conservancy in Alaska, who has spent several years managing field stations and promoting change in the culture around gender-based and sexual harassment.
Kelly insists inclusive culture is a safety issue. “When teams don’t trust each other, accident rates go up,” she says. Kelly co-organized the Workshop to Promote Safety in Field Sciences, held in March 2021, which resulted in recommendations for how trip organizers can foster safe working environments in the field, from developing situation-specific codes of conduct to making communication devices and emergency transportation broadly available. The National Science Foundation seems intent on adopting similar goals: Recent draft updates to the agency’s Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide include a new requirement that grant applicants submit a plan for how they will promote a safe and inclusive field research environment.
“One major challenge is that bad behavior in the field doesn’t always meet the threshold of illegality,” Kelly said. Finding meaningful ways to react and respond to such behavior is an important challenge for field programs, Kelly advises.
Having these conversations has made me reflect on the safety measures I take in the field, as a researcher and as an educator. In planning field trips, for example, I now explicitly account for, and teach students about, driver fatigue as an important logistical constraint. And I have a greater appreciation for the important role that team leaders play in managing the safety of their groups in the field. Through these conversations, I’ve also met people taking on the challenges of chronicling and improving field safety in other ways.
Gathering the Data
An important approach to categorizing and managing field risk is encouraging and standardizing future reporting of incidents by researchers and students. Kurtis Burmeister, an assistant professor at Sacramento State University, has taught field safety leadership courses at universities and colleges for years. He also directs the Wasatch-Uinta Field Camp and is leading a group developing the Safe Field Experience Reporting (SaFER) System, a mobile app that will allow field trip participants to log safety-related incidents anonymously. Burmeister told me the realization of the need for something like the SaFER System grew out of a sense of what was missing from field safety conversations—detailed data about safety incidents, large and small, during geological fieldwork—as well as of the limitations of collecting incident reports on paper.
Not only will the proposed SaFER System track physical and psychological traumas, it will also provide an important record of incident-free time spent in the field. That means SaFER will be able to quantify how incident rates vary by participants, activities, and settings. Such measures are difficult to calculate with currently available information, pointed out Kevin Bohacs, a member of the SaFER team who led the field safety task force at ExxonMobil Upstream Geoscience from 2003 to 2018. But they are “critical to understanding the relative risk of fieldwork [compared with] other activities students frequently participate in, like collegiate sports or jogging.”
The SaFER team has identified a pilot group of Earth science field schools that have agreed to implement the SaFER app once it’s built. The data this group generates will constitute the first cross-institutional data set of safety-related incidents during geoscience education. Burmeister, Bohacs, and their colleagues anticipate that the results will help identify best practices for safety during camps and other instruction in the field.
Another ongoing effort to document field safety, this one stretching somewhat farther back in time, has been undertaken by Darren Tanke, a senior technician at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology who collects and prepares fossil specimens for scientific research and public display.
“At 61, it really bothers me to see my younger colleagues at other museums make the same dangerous mistakes I made in my twenties,” said Tanke. For over a year, he has been creating a vast, centuries-spanning archive of deaths and near misses across field, lab, and even office work in archaeology, paleontology, and geology. His aim with the project is to commemorate those who’ve died in pursuit of scientific understanding as well as provide information to make these disciplines safer for future researchers. Tanke reached out to me about his archive after reading my recent paper, seeing an overlap in our areas of interest.
His database draws on a variety of sources, including old newspaper clippings and posts on Internet message boards. Piecing together accidents and near misses from these incomplete and sometimes confusing accounts isn’t straightforward, and distilling all the information to pull out useful patterns and lessons will take time, Tanke noted. Already, though, the archive includes more than 2,000 reports, beginning with incidents in the 1800s. Together, Tanke and I plan to publish these findings, which document how some risks that geoscientists face are intergenerational, like snake bites and heat exhaustion, whereas others aren’t, allowing us to understand how fieldwork has changed—or stayed the same—through time. For now, Tanke is focused on expanding the database, and he invites potential contributors to reach out to him with any stories that should be included (see Acknowledgments).
Changing for the Better
Fieldwork provides critical observations of the changing Earth as well as foundational training and opportunities for collaborations with other scientists. This work can leave participants permanently changed, personally and professionally. By taking field safety seriously, the research community helps ensure that these transformations are positive.
Data-driven approaches to understanding safety in the field—documenting the broad scope of past occurrences as well as cataloging future incidents—will take us far in this effort, helping craft sensible guidelines to reduce risk and expanding our perspective beyond the limits of solitary anecdotes, no matter how thrilling they are. With these insights in hand, we can teach and research in the field, confident in both the science we’re doing and the way it’s being done.
Thanks to all the field scientists who shared their time and experiences with me, including, but not limited to, Chris Atchison, Kevin Bohacs, Kurt Burmeister, Tauana Cunha, Anne Kelly, Chiza Mwinde, Mariusz Potocki, Darren Tanke, and Jesse Walters. Anyone interested in contacting Tanke about potential contributions to his archive can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cantine, M. D. (2021), Dying to know: Death during geological fieldwork, Sediment. Rec., 19, 5–14, https://doi.org/10.2110/sedred.2021.3.2.
Clancy, K. B. H., et al. (2014), Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE): Trainees report harassment and assault, PLoS One, 9, e102172, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0102172.
Marjorie Cantine (email@example.com), Frankfurt Isotope and Element Research Center, Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main, Germany