Friday, March 20, 2020

The First Day of an Uncertain Spring: This Too Shall Pass

It's the first day of spring of an uncertain year. On this day the light and dark periods are practically equal. Spring was always seen as a time of renewal when the cold winter is ending and the green shoots of new life are coming from the ground. Of course we know that it is a different situation as the world faces an invisible foe that brings sickness and death, and it's been many decades that we've needed to make sacrifices to fight it.
I walked out to one of the newly filled irrigation canals in our village that is aligned along an east-west axis knowing that the sun would set directly to the west. There were storm clouds, but it looked like there might be a short moment when the sun would be visible. I wasn't disappointed.
Whatever takes place in the coming weeks and months, please be kind to one another. Look out for your neighbor, and remember that whatever you have, someone else has far less. Be generous as you are able, and remember that with all things, this too shall pass.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Plot by Geologists Has Succeeded: You are Ready for the BIG ONE

Note: Please accept that this is tongue-in-cheek semi-parody, and is in no way meant to minimize the viral pandemic that is deeply affecting our society. Please take all appropriate measures to prevent the spread of the virus...
The long years of planning and the endless meetings in secret have finally borne fruit. The geologists have finally prepared American society for the BIG ONE (the BIG earthquake, the BIG volcanic eruption, the BIG hurricane). Straight-forward education didn't work, since no one read the reams of information put out by the hard-working geologists, so we finally had to use the arrival of the Covid-19 virus to make our point: disasters will happen and we have to be ready for them.
It's unfortunate that people had to panic and go running into stores to buy up huge amounts of materials basically unrelated to the virus: the bottled water, the paper towels, the non-perishable foods. But through the power of suggestion, we geologists managed to get people to buy just the kinds of things one would need in the aftermath of a major quake when help and assistance by emergency workers might be days or weeks away.

There is nothing that makes a geologist cringe more than a government official saying something along the lines of “It’s an unforeseen problem. … Came out of nowhere.”. That's almost never true. Every government official has all kinds of emergency planning materials available to them, and presidents have entire government bureaucracies designed to prepare for emergencies and disasters. Unless they disband them, as happened to the White House’s National Security Council Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense in 2018. Many people no longer remember the words of Bobby Jindal in 2009 in a response to a State-of-the-Union address, but geologists will always remember: he was complaining about “$140 million for something called volcano monitoring. Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.".

It has been interesting (and terrifying) to watch the response of people to the pandemic. Millions didn't take it seriously and continued life as normal. Some understood the warnings of the epidemiologists and started making preparations, buying reasonable amounts of cleaning supplies and disinfectants. It has been a slow-motion disaster that unfolded over several months. Volcanic disasters may be similar; eruptions have precursors that can last for months.

But earthquakes will come on suddenly and without warning. And unlike with the pandemic, the infrastructure of society will be severely compromised. It won't be stores with empty will be stores in ruins. The electricity will go off, and with it the faucets and toilets won't have water. The hospitals won't be overwhelmed over a period of days or weeks, they be inundated all at once if they are functioning at all. It's in those kinds of moments that having water, food and emergency first aid supplies can be the difference between a good or bad outcome during a disaster.

There will be some important differences. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are regional, not national disasters. The infrastructure will be destroyed in some places, but will be functioning in others. Because of this, it won't take all that long for emergency workers to begin arriving from outlying areas where the damage isn't so bad.

There is one other really big difference when these geologic disasters strike: we won't be constrained by 'social distancing'. We'll be available to help each other out. Remember the words of Fred Rogers:
For me, as for all children, the world could have come to seem a scary place to live. But I felt secure with my parents, and they let me know that we were safely together whenever I showed concern about accounts of alarming events in the world. There was something else my mother did that I’ve always remembered: “Always look for the helpers,” she’d tell me. “There’s always someone who is trying to help.” I did, and I came to see that the world is full of doctors and nurses, police and firemen, volunteers, neighbors and friends who are ready to jump in to help when things go wrong. 
Strive to be one of the helpers in all that is to come.
For more on earthquake preparedness, especially in the Bay Area, check out:

Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Islands of Interior California: There's a Reason I Don't Hug Ducks

There are islands in the interior of California. They aren't islands in the normal sense of the word, and are actually pretty much exactly the opposite. In the great California Desert, consisting of the Colorado (Sonoran; also the Lower) Desert, the somewhat higher Mojave Desert (the "High" Desert), and the Basin and Range, there are islands of water. And it is water, of course, that makes life possible in these harshest of climates.

Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley National Park is one of these islands. Tucked along the base of Tucki Mountain at the north end of the Panamint Range, Stovepipe Wells is a small resort complex consisting of a hotel/restaurant, bar, store, gas station, and campground. The resort is not actually at the location of the original Stovepipe Wells. That locality was located several miles to the northeast on the other side of the Mesquite Dunes.
Death Valley is the driest place in North America and the hottest place in the world. It is also the lowest region in North America, and this leads to some unexpected discrepant facts. There is actually lots of water in Death Valley. It doesn't come from the rainfall, but instead it comes from the ground. Water underground tends to flow downhill from higher elevations, and Death Valley is the lowest place there is, so springs flow in unexpected places. And even if there are no springs, the water may still be only a short distance beneath the surface.

That was the case for the Old Stovepipe Wells. At the edge of the sand dunes, there was a low spot where a bit of digging and scraping could cause fresh water to flow to the surface. The spot was utilized in ancient times apparently, but it was more developed in the mining days of the late 1800s. It was the only water source on the floor of Death Valley between Furnace Creek and the mining towns of Skidoo and Rhyolite. Dunes sometimes obscured the site, so it was marked with an old stovepipe, hence the name.

The water at Old Stovepipe Wells was of variable quality and could apparently be dangerous at times. According to one account, "...the water is very low in the spring, is of a yellowish appearance and intensely nauseating in taste. Its odor is very disagreeable, and it can be smelled for half a mile away." The man went on to describe getting very sick and nearly dying before reaching his destination fourteen miles away. One of the problems is that the water became stagnant quickly and that it was important to drain away the fetid water so that fresher water could flow into the hole. Although there were efforts to develop the site, it was clear that Old Stovepipe Wells was not going to become a permanent resort.

There is no information that I could uncover regarding natural flora and fauna around the original Stovepipe Wells. There no doubt was life of some kind, but none is recorded. During my stays at Stovepipe, I've wandered the dunes and found plenty of evidence of life in the early morning sun. Tracks of insects, reptiles and mammals cover the rippled sands. But for the most part the life remains hidden during the day, burrowing underground to escape the harsh surface conditions. It's a little trickier for birds, and they are not often seen in the dune environment. Despite decades of observations, birdwatchers have reported a mere fourteen species at Mesquite Dunes.

But the modern resort of Stovepipe Wells a mere two miles from the dunes? The total number is species reported there is 197! How in the world is such diversity possible? It's the water of course, but perhaps not in the way that you might think. Fresh water is now pumped from deep underground, providing plentiful clean water for the resort. They don't waste the water (aside from the swimming pool perhaps) having little in the way of landscaping (just a few tamarisk trees around the property). There are no open water sources for birds. For years I've camped at Stovepipe, and I've seen only Common Ravens and the invasive and ubiquitous House Sparrow that seems to follow humans wherever they go. I was intensely curious where all the other birds must be hiding, and this year it finally occurred to me.
One of the things they never tell novice birders like myself is about the absolute best place to see birds. It's not, as one would imagine, standing at the edge of a beautiful meadow with the forest and dramatic snowy peaks in the distance. And it isn't necessarily along the crashing surf near coastal estuaries. It's sewage treatment lagoons...really. Back home, the sewage treatment ponds at Modesto host 234 species. The nearby National Wildlife Refuge has fewer than 200.

Consider. A resort, even a modest one like Stovepipe, produces thousands of gallons of liquid waste and sewage every day, and by law the water must be treated. One of the best ways is to use settling ponds and bacteria that consume the worst of the waste material. The treated water can then be allowed to soak back into the ground where the sand and silt provide a natural filtering effect. The sewage lagoons have to have open ponds, and these are the "islands" that attract the multitudes of bird species that have been spotted here over the years. One can imagine that some birds memorize the localities and return during migrations, while other are desperately lost and find the settling lagoons entirely by lucky chance. Some species can be seen daily, while many others were one-time "accidents" and haven't been seen in decades.

Once I figured this out, I made sure to explore the vicinity of the sewage ponds at sunrise before most of my students were up and preparing for the day. For the record they did not smell terrible as one might think. But they finally provided me with some interesting bird species, including the Red-winged Blackbird (above), dozens of American Coots, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (below), the ever-present Common Ravens, a Say's Phoebe, a Great-tailed Grackle, and a Black-throated Sparrow, a species I never see back home in Modesto.
On the final morning of the trip, I saw the birds that inspired the title of today's post. There were four Cinnamon Teals in the pond. They are among my favorite ducks, given their unique coloration. But despite knowing that the water is not necessarily putrid, I still would not be thrilled with grabbing them close and hugging them. That's just asking for trouble in many ways...

Monday, March 2, 2020

Into the Great Unknown (Redux II): Journeying to my Roots, and to the Roots of Mountains

I was going over some of my old posts about my journey on the Colorado River in 2013 and came across this personal favorite, a post that discussed my own journey into geology back in 1976 during an earlier adventure of discovery in the Grand Canyon, on foot. It also included some of the most beautiful and dramatic rocks I have ever encountered. From August 30, 2013:
The photo above is my favorite self portrait from my journey down the Colorado River, into the Great Unknown. It's true that I appear in only a half dozen of my two thousand pictures from the trip, but this one captures best the sense of wonderment that I felt during the entire 227 mile long boating adventure. It was taken on one of the really special days of the trip, when we reached the ancients roots of a massive mountain range that today is long gone. It was also a day when I explored the roots of my own life adventure as a geologist and teacher.

And a day when I started to pay really close attention to the rapids on the river.

As a passenger on a raft (really, only a fool would allow me access to the oars in any rapid bigger than a riffle), we trust the boatmen. They are the ones who can quickly read and assess a rapid, either by standing up and observing just before entering, or by pulling ashore and scouting from above. They are the ones who make the snap decisions in the midst of chaos, deciding in an instant whether to pull left or right to get by the unexpected hole or pourover or eddy wall. They are the ones who keep their cool when the giant waves threaten to completely envelop the raft and sometimes tip it over (flipping is a highly undesirable outcome in a rapid; there's nothing fun about it at all). We trust them, and when they do their job really well, a passenger can actually become a bit complacent. If we've managed 40 or 50 rapids without problems, well, it can't really be that hard can it? And that's when things can get dicey.

Passengers play an important role in the run of a rapid, so we have to be paying attention as well. It's hard to imagine that pulling the oars makes any difference in the chaos of a rapid, but it does make a big one. Inches sometimes count. And when the raft threatens to flip over, the passengers have to be thinking fast enough to "highside", to fling themselves towards the rising side of the boat during a tip-over, using their weight to hopefully push the boat back towards the horizontal.

Why was I suddenly watching rapids with a renewed interest? We had reached the point on the river where John Wesley Powell was inspired to write one of his most famous passages, the one which also inspired the name of this blog series:

We are now ready to start on our way down the Great Unknown...We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth...We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river yet to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls rise over the river, we know not.

The next morning he adds:

At daybreak we walk down the bank of the river, on a little sandy beach, to take a view of a new feature in the canyon. Heretofore, hard rocks have given us bad river; soft rocks, smooth water; and a series of rocks harder than any we have experienced sets in. The river enters the granite!

We can see but a little way into the granite gorge, but it looks threatening.

He and the mountain men who served as his crew had already been on the the river system for two months, and with their inadequate clumsy boats had run or portaged many dozens of rapids that were terrifying. They were running very low on food (the diet: unleavened flour, dried apples and rancid bacon). And now the nature of the rocks exposed along the river promised rapids far worse than any they had encountered upstream.
Why were the rapids worse?

Indirectly, it was indeed the harder rocks. They were entering a part of the canyon composed of harder rocks than anywhere else along the river. It isn't the rocks themselves that make bad rapids, though. The river does not fall over ledges and waterfalls. Rapids on the Colorado River happen because of debris flows that enter the channel from the small tributary canyons. The debris in essence dams the river and forces the river channel to the side, making the cross-sectional area of the channel much smaller. Since the same amount of water in a river passes a given point in a given amount of time (cubic feet per second is one measure), the river must speed up to pass the barrier. You can see this effect in the picture above in Nevill's Rapid.

The severity of a rapid is determined by the volume and size of the boulders in the debris flows, and canyons cut into harder rocks produce larger boulders. Sprinkling a few giant boulders throughout a rapid turns a riffle into a terrifying roller coaster ride.
So that was the day we were facing. We would be entering the Granite Gorge of the Grand Canyon for the first time, and we would now need to run a gauntlet of the biggest rapids to be found on the entire river. It started with Hance (8 on a scale of 10), Sockdolager (7), and Grapevine (7). The next day would include Horn Creek (9). The day after that, Granite (8), Hermit (8), and the ultimate rapid, Crystal (10). These would be followed the same day by the seven rapids of the gemstones (Agate, Sapphire, Turquoise, Emerald, Ruby and Serpentine, ranging from 5 to 7). And 70 miles downstream (with plenty more rapids in-between) Lava Falls (10) awaited our arrival.
We came around a bend in the river, and I encountered a familiar sight in the midst of the Great Unknown. I had been here before! Not on a river rafting expedition, but on a backpacking trip in 1976. It had been one of the most important events in my young life, because it was the trip that set me on the road to becoming a geologist and teacher.

Geology of the Grand Canyon was actually one of the more difficult courses I had ever taken because not only did we need to master a lot of geology in a short time, but we also had to prepare for a challenging backpack down and then back up a series of officially unmaintained trails in the canyon (the New Hance and Grandview trails). The co-requisite for the class was a 2 unit physical education course in backcountry camping that including an entirely separate shakedown trip in the mountains of Southern California. When I came out of the Grand Canyon six days later I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

Of course, a few things have changed since 1976. Geotripper weighs, um, a lot more than that gawky teenager on the right in the picture below. Picture quality has improved, not so much because of better photographers, but it used to be expensive to take and develop pictures, so we never took very many. Plus we were using the old Kodak Instamatic cameras or something similar.

Still, seeing these pictures a few years ago on Facebook (thanks to J. Elson) brought a shock of memories, and now for the first time in forty years I was once again standing at the rapid that made a geologist out of me.
Only this time my mind was on other things. Back then when we finished, we turned around and started hiking back out of the canyon.
We were about to run a major Grand Canyon rapid in boats that suddenly seemed really small. Just like these river rafters in 1976. I noticed that the two biggest boulders haven't moved, and that the rapid was as chaotic looking as ever.

We had reached the base of the Grand Canyon Supergroup, and could now see the three formations that make up the oldest units: the Shinumo Quartzite, the bright red Hakatai Shale, and the basal Bass Limestone (intruded by basaltic dikes). The rocks are tilted about 15 degrees, giving the illusion that the river gradient is even steeper than it already seems. It can't have been a comforting sight to Powell and his men in 1869.

The Grand Canyon Supergroup sits on a mountain range of Andean proportions. Or more properly stated, the layers were deposited on the low erosional plain left behind when a mountain range of Andean proportions was completely washed away. The black schists and reddish granite intrusions once lay some five miles deep in the crust, and now they have been laid bare by the cutting of the Grand Canyon.

The rocks today are called the Granite Gorge Metamorphic Suite, and they formed in a series of collisions between a group of volcanic islands (called terranes), and the ancient North American continent around 1.7 billion years ago. The metamorphic schist and gness units were intruded by granitic magmas at intervals between 1.7 and 1.4 billion years ago. And now those rocks are exposed in the very deepest part of the Grand Canyon.
We successfully negotiated Hance Rapid (not without getting positively soaked), and looking back upstream, I could see the basalt dike that I had found so utterly fascinating on my first trip into the canyon.
The canyon was dark, but I did not feel as sense of brooding. I was exhilarated, my imagination seeing the peaks and canyons that must have existed here in the distant past, mountain slopes which would have been utterly lifeless and barren. Deep gorges must have been cut by rushing rivers that were never seen by any living thing. Entire Grand Canyons could have been carved here and we will never know of their existence. We now entered a fascinating world of exceedingly rugged vertical canyon walls. The silt and sand polished the hard granite and metamorphic rock.

Sockdolager Rapid (the word is an archaic term for knockout blow in boxing) was a fun ride, nothing like the terror-filled lining and portage in Powell's writings.

It was hard to find a spot to scout, so the boatmen checked out the rapid by standing up as they approached.
Between rapids the river was calm, and the canyon walls rose straight from the water.
The metamorphic suite was composed of the most diverse and beautiful rocks that I had seen anywhere on the trip. The polishing simply added to the beautiful sculpted appearance of the rock.
We arrived at camp in Cremation Canyon by 2:30. We had pulled in early because we would be saying goodbye to three of our fellow travelers who would be hiking out of the canyon from Phantom Ranch, and meeting three others who would take their place for the remainder of our journey.

I turned in early once again...tomorrow we faced the biggest rapids so far on the trip.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Into the Great Unknownn (Redux): A Journey Down the Colorado River Through the Grand Canyon

As some of you remember, I took a rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 2013 with my brother's family. I later did an extended blog series on the journey, and I've compiled the posts in their original order, so you can follow whole story in one place.

I've been reliving the journey in my mind these last couple of weeks because I just finished an outstanding book called "The Emerald Mile" by Kevin Fedarko. It describes an epic river journey during the singular flood event on the Colorado River that nearly destroyed Glen Canyon Dam. Instead of just being about the race down the river, it is a fascinating history of the exploration of the Colorado and the "taming" of the river by the giant (yet vulnerable) dams that were placed in its path. And it is a nail-biter of a narrative about the efforts of engineers to contain a failing dam in the face of an unprecedented flood (there are echoes of the more recent near-disaster at Oroville Dam here in California a few years ago).
The story resonated with me for so many reasons, not the least of which is that I was imperiled by the insane raging waters of Crystal Rapid, though not at the crazy flows of 1983. I found myself reliving so many aspects of my journey down the river.

The Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is both a tourist "bucket list" thing that has become very popular (and therefore potentially dangerous for those who underestimate the river), but it also is a journey of the spirit and body through one of the great wilderness areas left on Earth.

Here are the posts...

Rafting the Colorado River: This is the original post in the series, explaining how I got there, and what I was feeling about a journey that I waited forty years to complete.

Everything you wanted to know about rafting on the Grand Canyon but were afraid to ask: A description of what's involved in a 16 day journey on a river with no stores, bathrooms or trashcans.

Cloudburst (x2)! And Off We Go: Two intense thunderstorms give us a muddy sendoff down the river. Page and other towns got pounded that week by flooding.

Passing through the Permian Period: Our first day on the river takes us through the upper layers of the Grand Canyon, the Permian-aged Kaibab, Toroweap, Coconino and Hermit formations.

Whodunnit? A Mountain Range Goes Missing: The Hermit Formation and Supai Group provide evidence of the existence of a long-eroded mountain in southwest Colorado. And I row a raft for the first time!

Visions of Paradise and a Bug's Horror: We enter Marble Canyon, dominated by the beautiful cliffs and caverns of the Redwall Limestone. A beetle has a tough day.

Exploring 300 million year old and 50 year old caves (and some fossil hunting): We explore Nautiloid Canyon and an exhumed Paleozoic cavern. We also see evidence of a bone-headed plan to dam Marble Canyon. It would have been an unspeakable crime...

Looking for the Rivers within the Rivers of Marble Canyon: The Devonian Period is represented only by the Temple Butte Formation and the exposures are discontinuous because they were originally only the fill within eroded stream valleys. Plus a cool side trip to a small waterfall.

We interrupt this scenery for a very recent flash flood and a biological disaster: The cloudbursts we experienced a few days earlier caused some flooding in the side canyons. And a look at the tamarisk tree, an invasive species.

Catching an Iconic Scene in the Grand Canyon, and a Bi-Colored River: The small Ancestral Puebloan granaries above Nankoweap Canyon are one of the more famous sights on the river, but oh, what a climb! And floodwaters in the Little Colorado change the color of the main river.

Living in a Thomas Moran Painting, and Through a Canyon Storm: A passing storm gives the canyon a dreamy impressionistic look. I get my favorite picture, and I don't get overly wet; there were too many gigantic boulders to cower under.

In the depths of the Grand Canyon there are three more Grand Canyons...Checking out the Supergroup: There is around 12,000 feet of ancient sediments and volcanic intrusions tucked in the deepest parts of the canyon, and they are only accessible by river or long hot hikes. We give them a look.

Journeying to my Roots, and to the Roots of Mountains: We reach some of the monster rapids, including Hance. It was here in 1976 that I was becoming a geology major on my very first field studies class. Who is that gawky thin kid?

Exploring the Heart of a Long-Gone Mountain Range (and words from home): In the bottom of the Grand Canyon there are the roots of a huge mountain range that formed before complex life even existed on our planet. And I hear words from home for the first time in week.

We Run the Big Rapids, Sometimes in Rafts: We run three of the biggest rapids on the Colorado River. I experience something I haven't felt in a long time: terror. We flipped on the biggest rapid and I took a long cold swim through the 10-foot waves and the Rock Garden.

The Aftermath of Chaos...Finding Beauty in the Oldest Rocks of Grand Canyon: The Granite Gorge was a terror-filled place for John Wesley Powell and his men in 1869, but for me on a day after the rapids disaster it was a beautiful place.

The Hidden Places and Putting a Hand Across 1.2 Billion Years: Every side canyon in the Grand Canyon holds a treasure. We visited two, the Elve's Chasm and Blacktail Canyon, and we laid our hands across 1.2 billion years at the Great Unconformity. We also met with a herd of bighorn sheep.

Crossing the Great Unconformity Again...But Which One? There are really two major unconformities in the depths of the canyon (and more than a dozen more minor ones). We got a glimpse of the angular unconformity, and explored the billion year old sills, intrusions of basaltic rock that lined the canyon for a few miles.

A Gigantic Failure Produces One of the Most Beautiful Sights in the Grand Canyon: Slope failure and landslides had as much to do with the formation of the Grand Canyon as the Colorado River. At Deer Creek, a landslide produced one of the most beautiful canyons and waterfalls in the entire canyon.

Mad Cats and Amoebas? Trying to Keep Names Straight in the Grand Canyon: Not many people saw this post for some reason, but Matkatamiba Canyon is one of the prettier side canyons on the river, and one of the favorites of the veterans of previous river trips.

"Disaster" in National Canyon, and the Volcanoes of Grand Canyon: An unbelievable flood last year, and an unbelievable amount of basalt lava in Grand Canyon. And just like that we are facing Lava Falls, the single worst rapid on the river, in turbulence if not length.

Zero Hour at Lava Falls: A story of courage, redemption and the triumph of the human spirit? No. I tried to ride Lava Falls in a raft, but had to swim instead. Involuntarily. See the video version!

Vulcan the fire god says "You call that little piece of concrete a dam?: Lava dams in the Grand Canyon may have stood 2,000 feet high, and may have backed up dams for three hundred miles or more upstream.

Heat...and All Things Beautiful: It was post-Lava Falls, and one of the hottest days we had on the river. And the beauty surrounded us, in the water, in the cliffs, and in the animals.

The Last Day...An Elegy for a Journey, and for a River: I didn't want to leave. The last two miles on the river were the most precious of all, drifting slowly in the current. And then it was over. We derigged and made our ways to our homes, and the Colorado just rolled on.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Islands of Interior California: The Pygmy Mammoths and the Doomed Sky Islands

An 80,000-year-old pygmy mammoth tusk discovered on Santa Rosa Island. (Image credit: Daniel Muhs, USGS.)

The waves crash against the cliff, tearing at the rock on Santa Rosa Island off of Southern California. The face of the cliff is in constant retreat, changing yearly, and sometimes daily as more of the rock disappears into the surf. In one brief moment, a visitor notices a strange object exposed in the cliff. Is it a tree trunk? No, that white stuff is's a tusk! There were elephants on the island! How in the world did that happen?

The presence of fossils of elephantine species on the island has been known since the late 1800s, and a survey in the late 1990s discovered at least 150 sites with remains of the creatures, now called the Pygmy Mammoth (Mammuthus exilis). There is little doubt that these creatures were descended from the mainland's Columbian Mammoth, but as their name suggests, they were small. A full-sized Columbian Mammoth stood 14 feet high, but the Pygmy Mammoth was only half as high at most, and perhaps a quarter the weight. A nearly complete skeleton discovered and excavated in 1994, and the adult was only 5.5 feet tall (below).
Pygmy mammoth skeleton found on Santa Rosa Island in 1994. It was 5.5 feet tall (Image: © Bill Faulkner, NPS)
It seems impossible that mammoths could have made it out to the islands, and under current conditions it probably would be. The nearest island is more than 20 miles away from the mainland. But things were much different 150,000 years ago. A phase of the ice ages was ongoing, and when a vast ice sheet covered Canada and 30% of the United States, sea level was around 300-400 feet lower than today. The four main Channel Islands (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa) would have been a single large island, which has been given the name Santarosae. The open water gap between the island and the mainland was only about 4.5 miles.

Elephants actually are excellent swimmers, what with having a natural snorkel and all. Present-day elephants have been documented as have swam more than 20 miles. So it is not hard to imagine mammoths on the mainland, perhaps suffering food shortages because of drought or wildfires, catching the scent of fresh vegetation on the islands and swimming out to investigate. A population was established, but then things began to change. The ice age was ending and the globe was warming up. The ice melted and sea rose to near today's level. The single large island was inundated, forming the four islands of today, and the total area was reduced by 76%. For the mammoths, this was a crisis. The islands were no longer big enough to support the mammoth population.
Outline of Santarosae and the present-day Channel Islands (Image credit: U. S. Geological Survey)
The outcome might come as a surprise because the cliché about evolution is sometimes misstated as "survival of the strongest". It is actually the survival of the best adapted. Although the biggest mammoths may have been able to consume much of the decreasing food supply, their dietary needs were also much higher. The evolutionary lottery favors those individuals who have the best adaptations for the specific environment, and it was the runts of the litter who could survive on less food. Over time the size of the adults decreased until they constituted a new species, the Mammuthus exilis. They survived on the islands for tens of thousands of years (from at least 80,000 years before present).

In the end, the Pygmy Mammoths also succumbed to extinction sometime around 12,000 years ago. Their disappearance coincided with the extinction of numerous other large mammals in North America, the "megafauna". Many reasons have been offered as hypotheses, but the cause (or causes) remain elusive. It needs to be noted that humans arrived on the islands around 11,000 years ago, and the small mammoths would have had few defenses against armed human beings.

As we can see, islands are places of refuge, but they can also be a prison of no escape. Which brings us to the doomed sky islands of the Mojave Desert.
The New York Mountains in the Mojave National Preserve (image credit: Garry Hayes)
People may envision a number of stereotypes of what constitutes a desert. Many people see vast seas of sand dunes, while others may see mesas and spires inspired by childhood memories of Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons. Others might see a landscape of huge saguaro cacti. These kinds of deserts exist of course, but except for several dune fields here and there, they don't exist in California. The deserts of eastern California (along with parts of Arizona and Utah, and all of Nevada) are within the Basin and Range Province, a region of the Earth's crust that has been stretched and broken into hundreds of high mountain ranges and deep faulted basins.
The Clark Mountains as seen from Kokoweef (image credit Garry Hayes)

Because the relief (the difference between the highest and lowest points) can range up to two miles, these mountain ranges encompass numerous life zones or ecosystems, from the hottest barren salt flat to alpine peaks. These mountains constitute rich biologic islands that are analogous to the Channel Islands off the coast of California. And like the Channel Islands, some of the inhabitants are ultimately doomed.

Because the mountain peaks are so isolated, one might not expect much diversity, but these environments are not static nor were they always isolated. They were influenced by the ice ages, even though the ice fields never reached the arid region. The climate was cooler and wetter so trees more characteristic of the Rocky Mountains or the Sierra Nevada were able to migrate into the region, including the Rocky Mountain White Fir. But as the ice age waned, the rising temperatures and growing aridity caused the trees to retreat higher and higher into the mountains. If the mountains weren't high enough, the trees were extinguished. In the present day, only three islands remain that possess the Rocky Mountain White Fir: the New York Mountains, Clark Mountain, and Kingston Peak.
Scene from the Kingston Peak area (Image credit: Bureau of Land Management)
None of these relict forests are easy to get to, and I have never had the privilege. And unfortunately I may never have the chance because these trees are ultimately doomed. They are at the very edge of survival, clinging to the cooler north-facing slopes in a micro-climate that is just wet enough to allow the trees to cling to life. As the world continues to warm up, the dry desert will continue creep up the mountain slopes, ultimately "flooding" the last trees in hot dry air.
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We will never fully comprehend the full effects the changes on our planet brought about by global warming and climate change. In the mountains of the Mojave Desert, the "islands" are not occupied just by fir trees. There are dozens of species that shelter within these small forests and they will disappear too. It's a small corner of the world rarely visited by humans, but climate change is global, and there are literally millions of micro-environments like these that will disappear without ever being studied or appreciated. It's a crying shame and all the more tragic considering we've lost three decades of time that we could have acted on behalf of our planet.
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