Creative Inquiry

Geologic Mapping in the Clemson Experimental Forest: The Clemson Experimental Forest Rocks

By Thomas Larrew

What is 17,500 acres and has two million trees? Perhaps you’re thinking that these outrageous stats belong to a national park, but they actually describe our very own Clemson Experimental Forest (CEF). The CEF is an often under-appreciated aspect of Clemson University; however, it truly distinguishes Clemson. The CEF is one of the largest college-associated woodlands, second only to Oregon State.

Clemson Experimental Forest breakdown of resources.

The Clemson Experimental Forest offers miles of trails for the avid hiker, mountain biker or casual nature lover, but did you know that it also harbors ample opportunities for research and development? From studying how trees sequester carbon to animal interactions, the CEF is a true living laboratory for research. Consequently, understanding the forest itself plays a big part in interpreting many of these experiments. Enter Scott Brame and his student investigators. This Creative Inquiry team is mapping out the CEF with an emphasis on geology and digitizing their results.

The team got to the roots of the forest by looking at its geology. After taking representative samples from all around the northern forest, the mineralogical properties of the rocks were determined using an X-ray diffractometer. This method revealed that the CEF is mainly composed of biotite gneiss and amphibolite. Additional research showed that the amphibolites are derived from island arc basalts. The presence of island arc basalts supports the well-established theory that prehistoric America, Laurentia, collided with Africa to form the Piedmont region of South Carolina three hundred million years ago. Since this exciting outcome, the project has been expanded in numerous ways using novel methods.

Learning what rocks make up the forest provides important historical information about our forest and this region, but it has a more practical application, too. The type of rock determines many characteristics of its surroundings — from soil composition to water quality — which in turn affect almost all life in the CEF. So if you’re interested in this project and hear the forest calling you, have a talk with Scott Brame (

Aha! Moment:

There are only four feet between your feet and prehistoric America in the Clemson Experimental Forest. Students found geological evidence of the collision of America with Africa, something that happened hundreds of millions of years ago.