Sunday, May 1, 2016

There's No Place Like This: Celebrating 100 Years of America's Best Idea

"There's no place like this".

It's something that you hear once in awhile in a crowd of people seeing Yosemite Falls for the first time. You'll hear it from people seeing a geyser explode from the ground in Yellowstone, or gaping at the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. There are other places where you won't hear those words, because you won't be standing in a crowd of people. It might be while standing in a grove of 4,000 year old Bristlecone Pines at Great Basin National Park, or in an isolated slot canyon cut through the Navajo Sandstone in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, or watching California Condors from a windswept ridge in Pinnacles National Park. You won't hear it, but you will think it. Because there is no place like this, our national heritage of parks and monuments in the United States. It was our best idea as a nation, the idea of saving in perpetuity the unique landscapes that are like no other place on Earth.
I was out there in Yosemite Valley yesterday along with tens of thousands of other people, conducting a field class on the geology of the park. The traffic jams recalled the worst of our cities, and people were everywhere, taking in the best waterfall show in nearly half a decade. The four year drought has taken a toll, but there was enough of a snowpack this year that even the unnamed cascades were booming with water.

One can argue the particulars, but the idea of a national park began here, in 1864. The valley was discovered by Europeans in 1851, and the reported wonders of the place caused Abraham Lincoln to cede the valley to the state of California with the proviso that it be protected for all time. In 1876, the first official national park was established at Yellowstone, while Sequoia and Yosemite followed in 1890. The 1906 National Antiquities Act gave the president the authority to establish national monuments without the approval of Congress, and in 1916, a government agency, the National Park Service, was established to administer the growing numbers of parks and monuments. The Park Service is celebrating their centennial this year.
Seeing traffic jams in this precious place causes me to worry that we might be loving our parks to death, but in the larger picture, we simply need more parks to accommodate those who want to know what is unique and beautiful about our country. And we need those parks to protect what is left of the natural ecosystems of our land, the patchwork of habitats and migratory paths that protect the animals and plants that are also unique to our country. President Obama will have a significant place in our country's history, having presided over the first true attempt at national health care, and for shepherding our economy through the worst recession since the Great Depression, but he will also be remembered for establishing more land as national monuments than any other president (President George W. Bush declared a larger monument, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which is the size of Germany, but it is mostly ocean). The monuments weren't piecemeal random choices. Many of them linked critical ecosystems, such as those in the California desert from the San Bernardino Mountains to Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve. In many ways these monuments will be his greatest legacy, and greatest gift to our nation.
Yosemite was crowded on Saturday, even overcrowded. But even on the worst of such days, there are places of serenity and quiet beauty. I sent the students out to explore for a few hours, and walked the north part of the Valley Loop trail and in one mile-long stretch I saw but two hikers and a small party of birders with a Yosemite Conservancy guide. It was lonely enough that I gave thought to how many mountain lions lived in the valley, and where they hung out! But that short hike is only scratching the surface. Yosemite Valley covers about seven square miles, but Yosemite National Park protects more than 1,000. There is a lot of wilderness to be experienced, more than enough for a lifetime. Most of our national parks offer similar experiences.

If you have not made a habit of exploring the lands of our national heritage, I hope you will make it a priority in your life. Your life will be richer for it. If circumstances dictate that you can't spend time in these special places, I hope you will read about them, or watch wonderful documentaries (start with Ken Burns' series The National Parks: America's Best Idea). You could even read geology blogs about such places! It's like learning our country's history; you can't stand with our soldiers at Valley Forge or Gettysburg, you can't step onto the Moon along with Neil Armstrong, and you couldn't march with Martin Luther King, but you can learn from all these historical events, and make better decisions for our country's future.
There were so many forces arrayed against the idea of our national parks, and there still are. If we had let these people use the land for monetary profit, there would be no old-growth rainforests on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, and there might be no Sequoia trees or Coast Redwoods in California (we cut down more than 90% of the original forests anyway). There might have been tramways to the valley rim at Yosemite, and geothermal development causing Old Faithful to no longer erupt. The Grizzly Bears and Bison would be gone, as would the wolves. The ruins of Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon would have been torn down by pothunters. The petrified wood at Petrified Forest would be gone.

Make no mistake. Our lands our still under assault. There is an ongoing effort to build a tramway to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and a huge new city on the South Rim of the same park. There are plans to mine uranium just a short distance from the park boundary. There are people who believe that our national heritage lands should be turned over to the states for private development such as at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Thankfully the worst of them are in jail right now, but there are many more such people out there. Maybe worst of all, there are politicians in Congress bought and paid for who are trying to make these things happen.

And there are vandals. A story has made the rounds this week of several despicable individuals by the name of Staten and Andersen who left massive carvings in one of the most beautiful arches in Arches National Park. One might as well spray-paint Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, and carve your name on the Last Supper. Once defiled, these precious places can never be the same, and the vandals have stolen something from all of us.
These places belong to us all. Protect and cherish them. There is no place like them in the world.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Rock Will Not Be Contained: Problems at the Ferguson Slide near Yosemite

The Ferguson Slide today, April 30, 2016

I thought of an Ian Malcom quote from Jurassic Park (1983) today:  "If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh... well, there it is."

We were driving past the Ferguson Slide on the Merced River near Yosemite Valley, a huge slump that let loose in 2006, covering Highway 140, and forcing engineers to "temporarily" put the highway on the other side of the river. Try replacing the word "evolution" with the word "geology", and the word "life" with the word "rock", and see if this is appropriate: If there is one thing the history of geology has taught us it's that rock will not be contained. Rock breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh... well, there it is.
The Ferguson Slide in November 2016. Source:

The engineers have been intending to reopen the section of Highway 140 by constructing an avalanche shed. They began work last year by removing a huge amount of rock, and then covering the remaining slide with containment netting. Unfortunately, El Nino made its influence felt, as rainfall this year was more than average. It didn't result in disastrous flooding, but apparently excess water contributed to the failure of the slide in two separate events in November and December. The new slides destroyed half of the containment netting (yes, I'm a bit late with this news, but I haven't been up there a lot until these last few weeks). Engineers are reassessing their options, and work has stopped for the moment.

Friday, April 29, 2016

George Lucas Had It Wrong. A Day of Fierce Pride at MJC

No, I'm not talking about the prequels to Star Wars! It was something much earlier. People could be forgiven for not knowing this, but Star Wars was not George Lucas's first successful film. He was known for another great movie, American Graffiti, a semi-autobiographical film that recalled his days as a young man in Modesto, California. Yes, Lucas is perhaps our most famous native son. He also attended Modesto Junior College for a time.

So what was it that he got wrong? It was a fairly minor plot point, but in the movie, the two friends Curt and Steve were on the same pathways for their lives. They were planning to leave town to attend a "northeastern" college (let's presume an Ivy League school), but after a series of events over the space of one long night, Steve is convinced to stay in Modesto, attending the "junior" college, while Curt heads off to great success, and was eventually a writer living in Canada. Steve ended up selling insurance in Modesto.

What's wrong with this picture? It was the insinuation that attending a community college was somehow a lesser option for achieving success, that it is in some way a second-rate education. As I sat proudly through our graduation ceremony tonight, I would fiercely argue that getting a degree at a community college is a wonderful achievement, and that I would proudly put my students up against any Ivy League student at the two-year mark in their academic career.
It doesn't take long to realize that a lot of (but certainly not all) the students at a Harvard or Yale are children of privilege, people who have never really had to struggle to get ahead in life. They started in private upscale schools, got in on the fast-track to an Ivy League school with the best preparation possible. It's hardly a surprise that they would excel and succeed.

The students I work with come from many different backgrounds, and most of them are poor and disadvantaged. They come from many cultures. Our elementary and secondary schools are underfunded and sometimes dangerous, and alcoholism and drug use are epidemic in our region. The kids in our schools have the decks stacked against them at every turn. They come to us unprepared and unskilled. We have veterans suffering from PTSD, abused spouses, and laid-off laborers. We have huge numbers of people who are the first in their families to ever attend college. We have resources at our school, but sometimes the challenges facing our students are overwhelming. And yet these students persist, and they fight, and they cry, and fail, and then they come back again. And in the end they master the skills required to pass their classes. When you see a group of these students decked out in blue robes, and receiving an AA or AS degree, you are looking at some of the most successful people in the world.
The professor in front isn't checking her email. She was taking pictures like I was.

If you are an employer, and you see a community college on the resume of a potential employee, you are looking at a person with persistence, stamina, and an incredible work ethic. They've been through impossible challenges and they've succeeded.

I couldn't be more proud of my students on this great day.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Damn Fool California Farmers Bringing on a New Dust Bowl

The video is very short, but in eight seconds it shows the stupidity of bad agricultural practices in Central California, practices that have led to disaster in the past, and maybe into our immediate future as well.
Muddy runoff from an almond orchard east of Modesto. That's soil going away, never to return
I want to make it clear that I'm not condemning all farmers. The traditional small farmers were known for caring for the lands. In flat lands where winds can carry away topsoil, these people planted trees to serve as windbreaks, trees that wouldn't be mature until long after they had passed on. They were careful to prevent soil erosion by plowing with the topography, to prevent destructive runoff. They let fields lie fallow in some years to let soil recover. They were looking out for their descendants, but it was also an act of self-preservation. If they lost the land, they could literally starve.
Unfortunately, it's been a long time since "small" farmers provided the economic backbone of our country. Most farming today is performed by giant agribusinesses that are more concerned with the bottom line and short-term profits. There isn't much in the way of forward thinking in a corporate boardroom.

So why is it that I'm ranting on this subject today? We had a freak storm roll through the area this afternoon. In about twenty minutes we accumulated 0.5 inches of rain, and the sky was alive with thunder and lightning. We even had a funnel cloud over our village east of Modesto (video here). The skies cleared and the storm drifted east. I decided to make a slight detour on my way to work, so I headed east on Lake Road towards Turlock Reservoir and came across a shocking scene (for our region anyway): a hail-covered landscape.
A few moments later I encountered an even bigger problem, a flooded roadway. The water was very muddy, and I could immediately see the reason. The soil was washing off the adjacent slopes. It shouldn't be happening this way. The natural landscape in this area should be a short-grass prairie, and the water should have been absorbed into the soil, and the grassroots should have been holding the soil in place. Of course a heavy rain can flood a road, but it shouldn't be bury the road in sediment.
The problem is the high commodity prices for almonds due to intense demand for nuts in Asia. California produces most of the world's almonds, and for the last few years, tens of thousands of acres of grasslands have been ripped up and replaced by tree saplings. The orchards are already controversial because the trees require vast amounts of water, and there is no irrigation infrastructure to provide it in sufficient amounts. The orchards are being watered by newly drilled wells, and the water they are using is largely irreplaceable, as the water use far exceeds natural recharge. The wells are tapping into aquifers that provide water for Modesto and other cities in the Great Valley.
But another serious problem caught my attention this afternoon. The grass is gone, and herbicides are clearly being used to keep the soil barren in the rows between the trees. And the trees are in perfectly straight rows, no matter the shape of the topography.

In other words, these "farmers" (really investment groups) are breaking one of the most important lessons of the Dust Bowl era. To farm in a sustainable manner, one needs to work with the land, not against it. One of the main causes of soil loss in the Dust Bowl days was erosion of furrows that sloped towards the gullies and valleys because of an insistence on plowing in perfectly symmetrical rows no matter the underlying topography.
The soils of the eastern Great Valley and in the Sierra Foothills are much older and less fertile than those on the floor of the valley. They've not been replenished by river floods since the end of the last ice age some 13,000 years ago. As a result, there are fewer nutrients, and thick accumulations of clay prevent groundwater infiltration unless grass or other vegetation slows the water down. So today, with the grass cover stripped away, we are seeing increased soil erosion that seems to intensify with every storm.

The problem was made most clear as I was driving south on Hawkins Road (below). On the right side of the road, you can see the recently planted orchard, and the muddy water that is washing off the slope. In the foreground, the water on the road is clear. That's because the slope to my right was covered with prairie grass, not orchard.
This is what we get when farming gets taken over by corporate interests. One would think that in this modern era we would take steps to prevent soil loss. Soil is life itself, and is irreplaceable in human lifetimes. talks. It yells. It shouts. And the land therefore suffers.

Monday, April 25, 2016

What's Your Favorite Stereotype of a Desert? The 2% Answer? The Dunes at Death Valley

Think of the word "desert". What''s the first picture that pops into your mind? Is it Saguaro Cacti, like an old western? Is it cliffs and spires like other old westerns? Is it a painted desert, like an old Disney movie or a Roadrunner cartoon? Or is it an endless sea of sand? At different times, I've had all those stereotypes established in my head. The California desert is the one I visit most often, and ironically, not one of those stereotypes apply in our state. Except for something less than 5% of the land surface, where sand dunes cover the landscape.
One need only to look at Death Valley itself. From a perch at the head of the Mosaic Canyon fan (above), one can see forty miles or more to the north and little in the way of dunes is visible. It's the same for the southern part of the valley, where salt is the dominant surface material. Or alluvial fans. Or the clay deposits of dry lakes. Dunes occur only where Tucki Mountain sticks out into the valley, interrupting the flow of wind currents that scream down the valley floor from the north.
The Mesquite Flat Dunes, or Death Valley Dunes, are perhaps the most famous dune field in the American West (although supporters of the dunes at White Sands in New Mexico or Great Sand Dunes in Colorado might argue the point). If you have seen CP30 and R2D2 wandering across dunes in the original "Star Wars", you've seen the dunes of Death Valley. It doesn't hurt that they are probably the most easily accessible dunes in the California desert.
And what a backdrop! The Grapevine Mountains rise thousands of feet above the sinuous ridges of sand. The dunes are not all that tall, only a hundred feet or so, but the field is several miles across, and are easy to explore.
There is a certain sensuousness about the dunes, a smoothness that belies the harsh ruggedness of other desert landscapes. It's the only place I can think of where I could imagine walking without shoes (as long as the day isn't too hot!), and the only place I could imagine laying down without carefully inspecting the ground first (there are lots of sharp and poisonous things on other parts of desert floor). It's also one of the few places I feel comfortable hiking at night without a flashlight. It's a marvelous experience to walk up and down the dune slopes, feeling the change in the temperature and humidity. In moonlight, it can be downright magical. 
The dune sands are composed of small grains of quartz and feldspar. The grains start as mudflows and flashfloods coming off the mountains that tower over the valley floor. Winds carry away the finer dust particles, and leave behind the larger pebbles and boulders. During windstorms, the sand bounces along the desert floor, a process called saltation. The grains rarely bounce more than three feet off the desert floor, a fact that I can attest to, based on the experience of standing in a violent windstorm wearing shorts. The sand was stinging my legs, but not my arms or face.
It is understandable that people might think that most desert erosion is caused by wind, but water still does most of the work. Wind can't carve deep canyons or remove mountains. But wind can be distinctive force in moving sediments around on the desert floor, and forming one of the most beautiful landscapes possible.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Traversing Dark Canyons Where the Mountains are Upside-down: Titus Canyon Road, Death Valley

This is lonely country. There are no outposts of civilization, no phone service, and a single thin gravel road winds through the complex of canyon narrows. This is the kind of country where canyons and peaks get named for the people who disappeared there, rather than for their discoveries.  It's been 110 years since prospector Morris Titus went missing while searching for supplies for his party. The canyon now bears his name.
The serpentine road that passes through the Grapevine Mountains by way of Titus Canyon was constructed to provide access to the town of Leadfield, but the mining venture never amounted to anything, and the town was abandoned in less than a year. The road was kept open when Death Valley was declared a national monument by President Herbert Hoover, and today it is one of the most popular backcountry roads in the park. But that doesn't make it any less spooky, especially when it is late in the day and the sun is setting low on the horizon.
In places, the canyon has cut 3,000 feet into the heart of the mountain range, and the preponderance of limestone cliffs gives the gorge a ruggedness reminiscent of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The rocks are of similar age, dating from the Paleozoic Era. But Titus Canyon has an attribute that is missing in the Grand Canyon: the rocks here are upside down.
Let's get an explanation...

Death Valley and the Basin and Range Province are largely the result of extensional forces dating from the last 15-20 million years. The crust was stretched and broken up into horsts and grabens, and earthquakes today still mostly reflect the heritage of the intense stretching of the earth's crust. It wasn't always that way. For something like 200 million years, the region was  under the influence of compressional forces, courtesy of the massive subduction zone that once existed off the California coast (it still exists to the north as the Cascadia Subduction Zone). As the ocean crust sank beneath the edge of the North American continent, the rocks that had originally formed the passive continental margin were pushed skyward and intensely folded. In places the folds literally turned the rocks upside down.
That's the case in the western part of the Grapevine Mountains, which are crossed by the road through Titus Canyon. The rocks slope into the ground towards the east, but because they are inverted, driving west takes the traveler through younger and younger rocks. You can even see the fold itself, a recumbent anticline, in a few spots (see the picture below). The rocks in the foreground are upside down, while those on the far summit above are right-side up (although all of the rocks are tilted steeply).

Because the Death Valley graben has been sinking through time, the valley is deeper and more narrow towards the edge of the range, since the river gradient is steeper and erosion faster. The narrows of Titus Canyon are memorable, being barely wide enough to accommodate the vans. Most of the students got out and walked the last mile (in the dark), because the canyon is so scenic in the lower reaches.

The rocks we were walking through date back to more than 500 million years ago, to Cambrian time. They are part of the Bonanza King formation, a limestone unit that was deposited in a warm shallow sea along the edge of North America. The animals that lived here included trilobites, a diverse group of arthropods related to Horseshoe Crabs and believe it or not, pill-bugs (roly-poly to some of you). Some trilobites could roll up in the manner of pill-bugs. There were also coral-like archaeocyathids, an ancient animal that was one of the first groups to go extinct. Think of them as a failed experiment in early life (although they were widespread and very common for a time). Brachiopods were another group found as fossils in these rocks. They are bivalved animals like the clams, but their anatomy is more primitive than a clam, if that is possible. They achieved great diversity during the Paleozoic period, but only a few species persist in today's seas (the living species are sometimes called Lampshells). There were a great many other species living in the ancient seas, but few of them had hard shells, and were thus very rarely preserved as fossils.

It can sometimes be difficult to imagine the forces that are required to turn mountains upside-down, and it's even more impressive to realize that the deformation actually took place thousands of feet, even miles deep in the crust. There was once an earlier mountain range in this place that rose to great height as a result of the compression. The mountains eventually eroded to a fairly gentle plain, only to be disrupted by extensional forces in the last 20 million years, resulting the mountains that we see today only a few million years ago. Canyons like the lower end of Titus have formed only the last few hundred thousand years.
We walked the last few yards of Titus Canyon, and emerged at the top of the massive alluvial fan built by debris washing out of the narrows. After being in dark canyons for hours, the expansive views were a shock. Way out in the distance to the left was Tucki Mountain, and at the base was the only outpost of civilization for many miles, at Stovepipe Wells. Poor Morris Titus made it out of the canyon, but it was July, and he had no water. He was doomed. Sometimes we can forget how much technology can shield us from the harsh world. We unconcernedly jumped into the vans, hoping there would still be enough hot water in the showers, and that they still be serving dinner in the restaurant.
Titus Canyon is one of the premier adventures at Death Valley National Park. High clearance cars and SUVs are recommended, and it's always a good idea to travel with others. It may be a delightful exploration of a few hours, but things can go wrong, so it's good to be with friends (my favorite t-shirt in recent years came from Death Valley; it said "Bring a compass! It's always awkward when you have to eat your friends.")!

Monday, April 18, 2016

The River Lives Again...Flows Increased on the Lower Tuolumne

I took a stroll on the Tuolumne River Parkway trail for the first time in several weeks, and something was strange. I heard the river. One needs to understand just how strange that really is. For the last four years, we've been in a grips of a horrific drought (and still are for that matter). The general pattern is that the watermasters at Don Pedro Reservoir upstream have tried to hang onto as much water as possible, since so little was available. As a consequence, downstream flows have been highly restricted, no matter the season.
I think they got a bulk deal on signs. The cliff is maybe 20 feet high.
For most of the time I've been exploring the trails by the Tuolumne River, flows have been on the order of 200-300 cubic feet per second, enough to keep the river flowing, but little more. Such low flows have promoted the growth of invasive River Hyacinth, and warm water has made life very difficult for the few salmon that can make it this far upstream. Predation of the salmon fingerlings has been more prevalent, as the small fish have fewer places to hide at low flows.
So it was a surprise to hear the river. It wasn't quite a roar, but the currents of the river were strong, and the water was flooding into channels that have been dry for years. As soon as I got home, I checked the USGS riverflow website and saw that for weeks, the flow has indeed been at 200 cubic feet per second, about 100 cfs less than average for this time of year. But two days ago, the river discharge was ramped up to nearly 3,000 cubic feet per second.

I don't know the reasons for the increased flows, and now, a day later, they've already slowed the discharge to less than 1,000 cfs. The reservoir is currently 64% full, about 88% of what would be normal for this time of year.
Of course it was a Sunday afternoon and the temperatures were unseasonably warm at 85 degrees. Lots of people were hanging out by the river, and some were swimming in the 50 degree water. I've done that in the Colorado River, and 50 degrees is not comfortable. It was truly worrisome to see children playing in the extremely cold river with strong currents just inches from where they were splashing (and of course no life vests). It's not hard to see why drownings happen in Sierra rivers every year.
 It was nice to see the river come alive again, for whatever short time (and reason) it was happening.

PS: I'm told by the folks at the Tuolumne River Trust that it was a pulse flow to clear out hyacinth, and to assist salmon fingerlings to make the journey downstream.