Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Where are the Ten Most Incredible Places You've Ever Stood? My Number 10: The Alaka'i Swamp on the Island of Kaua'i

It is Earth Day 2014, which seems as good a day as any to start a new series about ten of the most extraordinary places on Planet Earth, as based on my own personal experiences. Everyone has such places in their memories, and I encourage you to add your most profound experiences in the comments or on your own blog if you have one. Mine aren't necessarily the most extraordinary places in the world, seeing as how I haven't and will never see every such place, but that's why I want to hear from you. We only have so much time on our beautiful planet, and I'd like ideas of where to head next!

My list is not in a precise order. Listing a favorite among these is tantamount to selecting which of my children I love the most. I am saving my most precious for number one, but aside from that, these are all equally incredible. I've not made any rules about these sites; some required long hikes, others I drove to. Some are all about the geology, some are about other things.

So what is this place today? It's cold, it's wet, it's made up mostly of waist-deep mud, and basically the last kind of environment that one would ever thinks exists in the state of Hawaii. Where are the palms and sandy beaches?

They are about 4,000 feet and a world away.
On the island of Kaua'i, some of the preconceptions of Hawai'i fall by the wayside. There are numerous examples of iconic coral sand beaches and offshore reefs. But there is also a deep gorge that has been called the Grand Canyon of the Pacific (Waimea Canyon), which almost made my top-ten list. But there is a region on the island that is practically unique to the world: a high altitude swamp and rainforest complex that is one of the wettest places on the planet. It's called the Alaka'i Swamp, and it is part of the Waialeale Plateau, a place where the average yearly rainfall is close to 40 feet. In 1982, 683 inches of rain fell. That's 57 feet!
A friendly 'Elepaio in the Alaka'i Swamp
So much rain falls on the high plateau that plants can't grow into mature forests. Some areas only seem to grow moss.  The mud is so deep that one has to wonder how one can explore this strange environment without getting hopelessly stuck. Luckily the state of Hawai'i has seen fit to construct a boardwalk that on the one hand provides safe passage for hikers, and on the other keeps people out of sensitive areas of the plateau. Because it's not just a strange environment. It's also one of the last stands for the native species of the Hawaiian Islands.

The native birds of the Hawaiian Islands provide a laboratory for the study of evolution no less significant than Darwin's Galapagos Islands. But the birds are under siege. Numerous invasive bird species came with the humans, along with wild pigs, mongooses, and malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Few birds seen by tourists are actually natives. The natives survive mostly at elevations above 3,000 feet where the mosquitoes can't thrive. Of the original 71 known species of birds on the Hawaiian Islands, 24 are extinct, and 32 are severely endangered. They've lost out to competition, habitat loss, disease, and predation (by the mongooses, which are as common as squirrels in the urban parks on the islands). Mongooses were never introduced on Kaua'i, so the higher parts of the island are the best places to see the rare natives like the 'Elepaio in the picture above (other birds are much rarer, but this was the only one I saw on my hike).
In 2009 I had the privilege of hiking the 5 mile trail (one-way) to Kilohana Overlook. It was one of the great adventures of my life. The trail began at the Na Pali Overlook and parking lot. The first mile was on a usually closed paved road to a second overlook. After that it was up and down on some potentially muddy trails, but we lucked out and didn't get rain that day. Eventually we were walking through the deep 'Ohi'a forest.

'Ohi'a trees are endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, and are one of the most adaptable trees on the planet, capable of growing on barren lava flows in near-desert conditions at sea level to cold, almost alpine conditions at 8,200 feet. The trees have beautiful red flowers that look like small red fireworks exploding from the branches.
The flowers are called "Lehua", and they figure prominently in Hawaiian mythology. The tree was a handsome young man, 'Ohi'a, who spurned the attentions of Pele, the volcano goddess. He was in love with Lehua instead. In a fit of anger, Pele turned the young man into a tree, but later repented and adorned the trees with his beautiful lover, the Lehua.
When we climbed onto the high plateau, it got...weird. Just low brush and ferns, with mud everywhere. We were fortunate the rain wasn't pouring on us by this point.
In the distance on this extraordinarily clear and sunny day, we could see the slopes leading to the high point of the island at Mt. Waialeale. Part of me wanted to leave the trail and explore the strange wilderness off to the south, but I knew I would be up to my knees or worse after the first few steps. We kept to the trail!
Mud was now everywhere, enough to creep us out a little. This is an environment almost entirely alien to humans. We were now getting close to the end of the trail at the Kilohana Overlook. It's not a good idea to have the view from the Kilohana as an ultimate goal for hiking the trail. Most of the time, the overlook is bathed in clouds. I hiked to the edge and looked into the abyss below.
It was clear! We could see deep into the canyon of Waihina River gorge. I don't think I've ever seen more inaccessible slopes. Impenetrable slopes choked with rainforest vegetation, and not even a hint of a trail. Leaning over the edge, it was hard to tell where the soil ended and the vegetation began.
Down in the distance was the gorgeous bay of Hanalei, 4,000 feet below us. We were at the top of the Wainiha Pali (cliff) in one of the prettiest places I had ever seen.

The skies were fickle, though. Hardly ten minutes passed by and the clouds closed in for good. Some of our party arrived a few moments later and never saw a thing. It was okay though. The overlook was icing on the cake for the strange beauty of a hike through one of the strangest worlds I had ever seen.

Where are the Ten Most Incredible Places You've Ever Stood? A New Blog Series...

What is the most incredible place you have ever stood? That thought occurred to me this last weekend when I got up to Glacier and Washburn Points in Yosemite National Park. For those who are less familiar with the park, Glacier and Washburn Points are on the rim of Yosemite Valley, not on the valley floor. As such, they give a bird's-eye view of one of the most incredible pieces of land in the world, and though a million or more people may stop there during their visit to Yosemite, I'll bet the majority of park visitors don't venture up that way. It's something like 20 winding miles outside of tourist central on the valley floor, and perhaps hard to squeeze in when trying to rush through the park in the limited moments afforded by a vacation.

Is the high point on the rim of Yosemite Valley the greatest spot I've ever stood? I'm not sure yet! This is the opening salvo of a new series called the Ten Most Incredible Places, and I'm going to decide number one somewhere along the way before I finish. I'd also like you to consider what your own most incredible places are. I'd love to have you share them, perhaps in your own blog if you have one, or share them in the comments here. I'd be glad to post a few of your wonderful pictures as I consider my list. Be sure to include some reasons why a particular place stands out, whether geological, biological, spiritual, or personal.

I'm looking forward to seeing some incredible places!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Dogwoods are Blooming in Yosemite Valley! And North Dome, the Stuff of Legend

The Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nuttalli) is a diminutive tree that forms some of the understory of Yosemite Valley's conifer forests. It seems practically invisible to park visitors (like me, anyway) most of the year except for two times: fall, when the tree becomes one of the most vivid contributors to the autumn colors of the valley, and spring, when the Dogwood flowers bloom. The flowers aren't all that showy actually. They are the small yellow sphere in the middle of the structure. But they are surrounded by large white bracts that look like flower petals. Bracts are actually highly modified leaves. Just the same, they add a bright splash of white to the forest understory in the spring. I was in Yosemite Valley just a week ago and I would swear there were no Dogwood blooms at the time, but there were many of them yesterday.
Of course this is mostly a geology blog, so I couldn't help but notice that I was using North Dome as a backdrop to the blooming trees. North Dome is one of the less heralded sights in Yosemite Valley, a place with so many gigantic cliffs and waterfalls, that otherwise spectacular features get lost in the shuffle. It sits to the east of Yosemite Falls and across Tenaya Canyon from the much more famous Half Dome. It is a marvelous example of an exfoliation dome, which developed as the rock was exposed by erosion. The granitic rock, which formed miles deep in the crust, expanded as it reached the surface and the rock slabbed off, removing the corners and edges and forming the spherical outline (although from above it is a more linear ridge).

According the writings of Galen Clark, North Dome is tied in with Half Dome in the mythology of the Native Americans who inhabited the valley. It is called To-tau-kon-nu'-la, referring to the cranes that could be seen around the base. Half Dome, across the canyon is Tis-sa'-ack. According to one version of the story, the great chief Choo'-too-se-ka', whose name was later changed to To-tau-kon-nu'-la after he built is home on the dome, fell in love with the woman Tis-sa'-ack who had come out of the south to help teach the people to weave beautiful baskets. She did not return his love, saying she needed to return to her people, and she left in the night. The chief set out to search for her and never returned, leaving the people behind to suffer droughts, floods, rockslides, earthquakes and other calamities. One of the earthquakes caused Half Dome to split and half of it fell into the valley. Eventually the Great Spirit had mercy on the remaining people and returned the land to a bountiful state. An image of Choo'-too-se-ka/To-tau-kon-nu'-la appeared on North Dome, and Tis-sa'-ack is visible on Half Dome.

There is a second story about quarreling spouses that I don't like as much...

Of course those old myths don't reflect reality...like rockfalls, floods, and earthquakes. They never actually happen in Yosemite, right? Oh...
Half Dome and the Ahwiyah Point rock fall of 2009 (center)

Vernal Fall in Yosemite and a Sense of Scale (or, How to Feel Very Small)

It's a sense of scale that helps us keep perspective. I was at Washburn Point in Yosemite National Park today, and I took a few shots with the zoom of the same spot across the way.

We have a bunch of people apparently enjoying themselves on a flat slab of rock next to a fair sized river. But why the fence? Why aren't they letting people cool their feet in the river on this reasonably warm day?
Maybe it is the fact that they are standing at the top of a 318 foot (97 meter) waterfall. And a hell of a dangerous one. It is far too easy to miscalculate just how powerful a flowing river can be. Water only a foot deep can easily knock you off your feet, and the rock can be exceedingly smooth from glacial erosion and slick with algae. Too many people on the wrong side of the fence have lost their lives.
As we pull back even more, we can see the full extent of the waterfall, and the insignificance of the people gathered around the brink. They are now barely visible. This is Vernal Fall on the Merced River just upstream of Yosemite Valley. It formed because the glaciers that once flowed through the valley plucked away at highly jointed rocks forming what is called a glacial stairstep. It is just one of many spectacular waterfalls in Yosemite that leave one feeling awestruck.
And yet, Yosemite is such an incredible landscape of gigantic granite domes and deep glacially carved gorges that even a 318 foot waterfall can almost be lost in the richness of scenery. As I noted before, I was on Washburn Point, about two miles away as the crow flies (or more probably the raven, given their abundance here) from Vernal Fall. In the picture below, Vernal is the smaller of the two gigantic waterfalls. The upper one is Nevada Falls, which drops 594 feet (181 meters). 

To the left of Nevada Falls is Liberty Cap, a glacially smoothed granitic dome. To the left of Liberty, the dark rounded form of Half Dome is seen from an unfamiliar angle. From this angle it is clear that if anything, it should be called Three-Quarters Dome, or even Four-Fifths Dome. 

Half Dome was never covered by glacial ice, and was formed instead by exfoliation, the tendency of rocky monoliths to break off slabs of rock as the pressure is released as the rock is exposed at the surface. The slabs mostly remove corners and edges, giving the rock a rounded profile. The steep face of Half Dome was a prominent joint, a vertical crack that also forms from pressure release. The "missing" half was undercut by the glacier below in Tenaya Canyon and quarried away down the valley.

Feeling small yet?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Out of the Valley of Death and into an Upside Down Mountain

The Grapevine Mountains form the eastern margin of the Death Valley north of Stovepipe Wells, reaching elevations of nearly 9,000 feet in places. It's an imposing range, stark, barren, and rugged. All of the mountains of Death Valley are rugged pretty much by default, but erosion has not pierced deeply into many of them. They're too young geologically to have been affected much by mudflows and flashfloods in this arid environment.

There are exceptions to everything though, and there is a canyon that practically cleaves the Grapevine Mountains in two. It's called Titus Canyon, and it is spectacular. It certainly is not a secret, and one of the great adventures of visiting Death Valley is to drive the 26 mile long gravel road through the Grapevine Mountains. Literally through the mountain, not over it. The pass at the upper end is on the east side of the mountains, not at the crest.

In places, the canyon reaches depths of 3,000 feet or more, and the steep canyon walls offer unparalleled exposures of the faults and folds that from the structure of the mountain range. As can be seen in the diagrams below, the structure is complex.

The "upside-down mountain"? The rocks of the Bonanza King Formation that are exposed in the lower canyon have been so completely folded that they are inverted. Even though the layers look only gently tilted, they are in fact upside down.
Source: California Geological Survey and National Park Service

The road through Titus Canyon is sometimes okay for normal sedans, but conditions can change, and there are rough spots. We didn't have the time to do the entire one-way journey (from east to west), but it is permissible to drive from Death Valley to the entrance of the canyon and walk into the narrows where the canyon is deepest and darkest.

We did just that on our February visit to the Valley of Death and started hiking up canyon. In places the canyon is only 20 feet wide with vertical walls. Evidence of severe floods was evident everywhere in the form of smooth polished surfaces and pockets of debris tens of feet up on the canyon walls.

The Bonanza King Formation is mostly composed of limestone or dolomite, a carbonate rock that was deposited in warm shallow water in Cambrian time just over 500 million years ago. This was not long after complex life forms first appeared on the planet, and the fossils found within the formation reflect the strangeness of the time. Most of the hard-shelled creatures were a type of arthropod called a trilobite. They resembled a cross between the Horseshoe Crabs found in today's seas, and the roly-polies that can be found in your backyard.
There are few fossils found in the Bonanza King exposures at Titus Canyon. This is a trilobite carapace from the Carrara formation at Emigrant Pass, east of Death Valley National Park.
The trilobites were extremely diverse, filling many environmental niches in the early Paleozoic seas, and they lasted for several hundred million years as a group, but by the end of the Paleozoic era they were extinct, losing out in competition with other arthropods like crabs or lobsters. Some good samples can be found in mountain ranges east of Death Valley National Park.

A mile or so up the canyon one encounters a creepy old guy standing next to the rock a fascinating exposure of broken up limestone called a megabreccia. It looks like evidence of severe geological mayhem, but was probably the result of slowly evolving deformation and cracking of the rock over millions of years of incremental folding. As cracks in the rock slowly widened, they were filled in with calcium carbonate carried in the groundwater.

In the photo above one can see the efficient manner in which flash flooding has kept the outcrop clean and visible. There is a tight turn in the canyon just downstream along with an alcove produced by mudflows impacting the canyon wall and making a sharp right turn.
We started back down the canyon taking in the incredible sight of the Cottonwood Mountains through the narrow slot canyon. It's a fascinating place to explore. As we emerged from the canyon onto the top of the alluvial fan for Titus Canyon, we had a wide-ranging view of northern Death Valley, with the Panamint and Cottonwood Mountains in the distance with the Death Valley dunes on the valley floor.

We got back in the vans and headed towards the Black Mountains. We were about to encounter Dante's View...

Thursday, April 17, 2014

One of the World's Most Precious Places, Under the Volcano

Yosemite Valley, hands down, is one of the most extraordinary places on our amazing planet. I have been going to Yosemite National Park three or four times a year for the last quarter century, and I never get tired of spending time there. The thousand square miles of national park that surround Yosemite Valley are incredible, but the valley itself is hypnotic. I would hope that everyone could visit the park at least once, but it becomes something special when you can see it throughout the seasons, in all the different moods of the place.
The mood in the park on Saturday was expectant. The snowmelt has been filling the rivers a little (the drought continues unabated), and the first hints of green are showing up in the meadows and oak woodlands on the valley floor. Snow still lingers in the high country. The Dogwoods are just hinting at the possibility of a bloom. Changes will be coming fast in the next few weeks (and the long dry spell of summer will begin soon; much sooner than we have hoped).
The valley is a showcase for learning about glacial features and glacial erosion, although several aspects of valley scenery are not anything like typical. But if the subject is hanging valleys, Yosemite has no peer.

Big glaciers carve deeper valleys than little glaciers. When the massive Merced River glacier joined the Tenaya Creek glacier (with its spillover of additional ice from the Tuolumne Meadows icecap), the combined force of the two ice rivers produced the deep trough of the main valley, 3,000 feet deep (even deeper if the sediments filling the valley floor are removed). The tributary glaciers in Yosemite and Bridalveil Creeks were much smaller and couldn't cut nearly as deep. Their valley floors were left hanging high above the main valley, and today high waterfalls spill over the edges. Bridalveil Fall (in the pictures above and below) is 620 feet high, nearly four times the height of Niagara Falls, but it's one of the smaller waterfalls in Yosemite Valley.
Yosemite Falls is usually described as the highest waterfall in Yosemite Valley, but that depends on which geographer one is arguing with. It has three sections, an upper fall with a drop of 1,425 feet, a cascading central section, and a final sheer drop of 300 feet. It may the fifth or the seventh highest water in the world, but if one is talking about essentially unbroken drops, it's not even the tallest waterfall in Yosemite Valley. That honor goes to Ribbon Fall, shown in the photo below. It drops 1,612 feet, nearly 200 feet more than the upper section of Yosemite Falls. I imagine some first-time visitors mistake it for Yosemite Falls as it is seen first during the drive into the valley. Most people never see it at all though, because it dries up by late spring in most years.
I started up the valley trail from Bridalveil Falls, and ended up with a new view I have not seen before. The trail winds along the base of the Cathedral Rocks, with a sheer precipice of thousands of feet. Being at the base of such high cliffs is awe-inspiring.
Half Dome gets all the attention, but North Dome is beautiful in its symmetry as well. It stands across from Half Dome on the other side of Tenaya Canyon. And it's a whole dome!
And then there is Yosemite Falls. It never fails to amaze me with its stunning drop of nearly half a mile, and it becomes even more amazing when one realizes that it is misplaced in a manner of speaking. Can you see the cleft in the shadows to the left of the waterfall? The cleft provides a route for the trail that climbs up to the top of the waterfall and nearby Yosemite Point.

The dark cleft used to be the path of Yosemite Creek! The falls used to be an inconsequential side canyon but the glacier coming south from the high country pushed up a moraine, a pile of glacial debris, and blocked the normal channel of the canyon. The stream's new pathway took it over the brink of the cliff.
I mentioned the term "under the volcano" in the title because when you stand in the bottom of Yosemite Valley, you are within the frozen magma chambers of a series of volcanoes that once existed here, just five miles or so above. There are eight or nine individual intrusions that make up the valley walls and different susceptibility to erosion has caused the formation of a series of reentrants and coves along with the bold battlements of cliffs like the Cathedral Rocks or El Capitan. Many glacial valleys have long monotonous walls that aren't nearly as appealing a place as Yosemite.

Yosemite is indeed one of the world's most precious places, and I am forever appreciative of living nearby, and being able to share it with you. Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Meanwhile, in the Skies Tonight...

Lunar eclipses are always interesting, and they can be shared by most of a planet, unlike solar eclipses that follow a narrow strip of land across the globe. I was a little frustrated tonight because high cloudiness affected the view of the unfolding eclipse, but I did what I could.
I was reminded of one of the greatest teaching moments I've ever had, among them having an earthquake take place while teaching about earthquakes. During one of those moments, I was watching the students intently taking a test on quakes when the room shook. Barely anyone even looked up and I told them to look at the swaying monitors on the ceiling and then told them they all failed for not getting under their desks. The ultimate surprise quiz.

But the truly best night was an earth science class a decade or so ago. I was introducing the course and commenting on the shape of the Earth and the students answered in various versions of round, circular, or spherical. I argued that we were on the back of the turtle. They laughed, but I then asked any of them to prove it wasn't.

Dead silence....

Someone said we have pictures from space. I responded that we had pictures of the Death Star and the Enterprise too.

More silence...

So I was able to take the whole class outdoors and point at the ongoing lunar eclipse and ask them what shape the Earth was casting across the surface of the Moon. None of them said turtle. They were impressed (for once!).
In any case, here are my somewhat clouded shots of tonight's eclipse. Other skywatchers
in areas with clear skies will no doubt have finer shots, but what can I say? It was certainly more fun than the taxes I was working on...

It's way too late to catch the other side, so here is totality, and I'm calling it a night...