Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Geotripper Missing in Action? Nah, Just on the Road.

If you've noticed a distinct lack of blog updates lately, it's not been for lack of creative ideas. I've actually been in the wild hinterlands of the eastern California desert, specifically Death Valley. We had a marvelous time, but we also experienced a bit of the harshness of the "Broken Land" as Frank DeCourten calls it. There's a bit more cellular and Wi-Fi access in recent years for better or worse, (better for emergency situations), but no time when dealing with a group of students (who were great). Besides, a desert night is meant to be experienced, not ignored in favor of a computer screen. The stars were beyond belief.

In any case, the stories will unfold in the next few blogs. There were some incredible sights, and I look forward to sharing them. Today's picture was a camp visitor on our first night of the trip on the Kern River near Bakersfield.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Historical Geology Laboratory in 1930, with a Few Personal Twists

I admit it. I miss a lot. I've noticed that a lot of colleges and universities are very proud of their history and traditions, but in my experience at three community colleges, the memory of a department is rather short. When I started at Modesto Junior College, I was told stories of my predecessor, who was a legendary character, and not in a good way. Although he served for many years, his retirement was welcomed by many. It took a number of years before I found that some rather significant people taught in the position I occupy now, including Richard Hilton, who wrote Dinosaurs and Other Mesozoic Reptiles of California. Another was Charles Love, the son of Wyoming geologist David Love, whose career was central part of John McPhee's excellent book Rising From the Plains. But those individuals only reach back into the 1970s. I've got no idea who was here in the first fifty years of the existence of our institution.
Likewise, I know very little about the first college I attended, Chaffey College in southern California. It's true that I was just a gawky teenager who had no sense of institutional history when I was there between 1975 and 1977. I got to know my two professors, but they were relatively young at the time, and I had no sense at all of who taught there in earlier years.
So I had a series of interesting revelations tonight. I had known that my step-grandfather had taken a geology class way back in 1930, and it turned out that he held on to some of his notes (present-day students of mine: do YOU do that??). They were passed on to me, and I set them aside and they were "lost" for a time when we had to pack up the entire house for a re-carpeting job (yes, this is obviously a convoluted story). In any case I ran across the notebook again and finally decided to sit down and have a closer look.
The first surprise had nothing to do with the geology. I'm sure I was told this but it just didn't register: my grandfather went to the same community college I did! At the time it was called Chaffey Junior College (today it is simply Chaffey College). That "junior" conferred a sort of inferiority upon the students who needed to attend a cheaper local alternative to expensive universities and private institutions. But if there is anything that I've found to be true, it is that we community colleges produce a great many talented graduates who have competed very well when they've transferred to four-year institutions. Still, over the years, California's community colleges have dropped the "junior" from their name...all but two: Santa Rosa Junior College, and my very own Modesto Junior College. We decided a long time ago that we liked our name. Our students provide us all the reputation for excellence that we need.
As I opened the lab book (which hasn't changed form in nearly 90 years), a slip of paper fell out. It was his report card. What was great interest to me was that the geology instructor had signed his name, R.D. Dysart. I had found the name of a geology instructor from those early years of Chaffey's history. So I got curious and started searching on the internet for any information about the man (and how unfortunate it is that I immediately and correctly assumed that it was a man?). And with that came the second big surprise.
I got my bachelor degree in geology from Pomona College, an achievement for which I am very proud (I'm not saying I excelled; I made it through the program...barely). Pomona has one of the finest geology programs in the state, and I readily recommend it to my transferring students. The department has a rich history that extends back into the early 1920s, when it was (I believe) only the second such program to be established in the state. For the first thirty years, the department was headed by A.O. Woodford, a legendary geologist in California circles. He continued as an emeritus professor for decades, and I actually was privileged to attend a field trip that he conducted when he was in his early nineties. He lived to be over 100 years old.
The name Russell D. Dysart popped up in my search...he was one of the earliest graduates of the geology department at Pomona College, in 1925, only three years after the program began! He apparently taught at Chaffey Junior College for many years, where (it is noted on the Pomona website) that he was famous for the red tie that he wore on all his field trips.
So there you go. My grandfather was a student of one of the first graduates of my alma mater, who taught at the community college that I attended. You never know the connections that will happen in life.
It's a lot of fun to thumb through the history of geology as seen by the student. One can find old textbooks in used book stores (and I have some that date back to the late 1800s), but it is a little different to see how that knowledge filters down to a student who may or may not ever think about geology again (for the record, my grandfather retained a lot of his geologic knowledge and enjoyed picking my brain for years).
There isn't a lot of personal perspective in these notes, and I wouldn't expect all that much, but I was struck by my grandfather's penmanship. It's a good thing my students have computers these days to write with, just sayin'.

Some things are very different as one scrolls through hypotheses about the origin and history of the Earth, but other things remain the same. We may have an incredible theory, plate tectonics, through which we can understand much of the history of the planet, a theory that had not been accepted, nor even conceived in the 1930s (look up what happened to Alfred Wegener for instance). And yet the rocks and fossils are the same. We've discovered many more species, but the drawings my grandfather made look very much like those that my own students will be drawing in just a few weeks. Complex over-arching theories are great, but they have to explain the rocks and fossils or they will come crashing down. Students will always need to know the basic information in order to understand the theories that account for them.
I learned something else about professor Russell D. Dysart, something that isn't true of me...he was a man of few words when it came to assigning grades...

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Homing in on the Grand Places, or the Grandness of the Home Places? The Tuolumne River

It was just one of those moments...

I was taking my near daily walk along the river trail that lies a mile from my house. It winds for two miles along the Tuolumne River where it emerges from the Sierra Nevada foothills and flows into the Great Valley. I'll grant that for a river like the Tuolumne, it's not the grandest bit of scenery. This is a river that begins in the spectacular high country of Yosemite National Park, flows through a little known canyon that is as deep as Arizona's Grand Canyon (actually called the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne), and then through a network of gorges famous for white-water rafting. Downstream, the river feeds into a floodplain that is part of America's greatest savanna environments, the winter home of hundreds of thousands of migratory birds like Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, Cackling Geese, and many, many others.

My stretch of river? It's historically been kind of a dumping ground. It was first turned upside down in the search for gold in the 1800s an early 1900s. Much of the riparian habitat was torn out while miners processed millions of cubic yards of sediment. An old dredge still sits abandoned a few miles upstream. In the aftermath, quarry operations removed gravel, altering the streambed and leaving a series of ponds. Invasive plants like hyacinth invaded the river, and noxious invasive weeds invaded the hillsides above. Reservoirs were constructed upstream, siphoning off water and sending it to hundreds of thousands of acres of irrigated farmland downstream. In some ways, the river is a shadow of its former self.

And yet...

The trail follows a bench above the main riverbed, and there are a number of spots where one can clamber down and sit by the river. I have my favorite spot about a mile up the trail, and I was sitting there enjoying the sunset and watching a Kingfisher diving into the water for a meal. It occurred to me, sitting there for maybe the 100th time or so (the trail was opened about two years ago), that this was home. I mean, sure, home is usually a place with walls and a roof and all that, but our homes are also a place beyond the backyard. We may have co-opted almost all the natural places, but there are bits and pieces still present, a place where we can comprehend the nature of the land that we live on. The Tuolumne Parkway Trail is that place for me, a spot that I can explore again and again, always with the possibility of seeing something surprising, something new and unexpected.
The other day it was the surprise of discovering that beavers have been living and working not thirty yards from where I sit and watch the river. How in the world could I miss that for two years? It's possible that they recently arrived, given that the entire floodplain was actually flooded for more than six months last year during the record precipitation year. They may be just now reestablishing themselves in the newly changed environment. A bit of research later on resulted in the discovery that this very stretch of river was one of the last stands of the native California Golden Beaver. Some were captured here to establish populations elsewhere in the state (this was in the 1940s).
My explorations of the river coincided with the discovery that our county has one of the most diverse bird populations anywhere. More than three hundred species have been recorded here. Many, of course, were rare sightings of vagrants from elsewhere, but birders in the area regularly record more than two hundred species in a year's time. So...I always have my camera with me when I wander the trail. I'm new at this sort of thing, but still I have seen more than eighty species on the river and the adjacent bluffs and pastures.
Pied-billed Grebes on the Tuolumne River
I'm still seeing new ones. Since January 1st, I've seen Pied-billed Grebes (above), a Merlin (below), and a flock of Common Goldeneyes (below the Merlin) for the first time on this stretch of river. I only saw the Merlin once, but the Grebes and the Goldeneyes turn out to have favorite spots to hang out on the river. Now that I know where to look, I can almost always see them, and note whether the flocks have grown larger or not.
Merlin on the Tuolumne River

It's that way with the more common birds too. Many of the birds spend their time near the same trees or shrubs. The Scrub Jays and Yellow-billed Magpies prefer particular trees on the bluffs or near the river. When the swallows arrive in spring, they have their preferred cliffs (and bridges) for their nests. There are several oak trees where I can expect to find colorful songbirds like Hooded Orioles, Bullock's Orioles, Western Tanagers, and Audubon's Warblers in the right season. The Phainopeplas have their favorite trees, as do the egrets, cranes and herons.
Common Goldeneyes on the river

There have been two American Kestrels that have about four perches that they will abandon, one after another, as I walk forward on the trail (I can't walk the trail without irritating them; I keep hoping they'll finally just recognize me and stop fleeing). It's that way with dozens of individual birds that I see over and over.
American Kestrel above the river, giving me that irritated look...
They're rarer, but I have seen more and more of the larger mammals as well. Early on I photographed a Gray Fox where the stairway sits today, and the picture was eventually added to the interpretive signs for the trail. I've seen River Otters three or four times, and Raccoons (one was sleeping in a tree next to the trail just this week).

As I sat there this evening I thought of how lucky I've been in my life, the privileges I've been granted in exploring some of the most spectacular places on planet Earth. I treasure my handful of overseas adventures in Australia, Italy, Scotland, England, France and Switzerland, my journeys to the Hawaiian Islands, and especially the adventures I've had with my students across the western states of the U.S. (and Canada, too). I was lucky to see so many spectacular sights, but I also know that I will see many of those places only once, and for only a brief time (the schedules must be adhered to).

On the other hand, I have been granted a continuing privilege of getting to know a single place well, learning the rhythms and seasonal changes, being there long enough to take advantage of capturing a fox or otters on video (like the one below). It may not be the most spectacular of scenic places, but it is a small piece of the natural world that still exists just beyond my front door. It's the kind of precious gift that just about anyone can experience. Practically everyone lives relatively close to a river or stream, lake or forest, even in places where such things are not expected. There are some great places to see the natural world in the Los Angeles Basin, for instance. They're worth seeking out. It is a great adventure to learn something new, and to have the potential for making discoveries every time one ventures out beyond their doorstep. It's a cheap thrill, so to speak, since one really doesn't need money to visit many of these places.

I encourage you to seek out those small wild places close to home. They have their very own kind of grandeur, even if the tour guides and brochures would never send you to there. It's the grandness of the home places. What is your place?

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The California That Once Was: The San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

Great Blue Heron at the entrance to the San Luis NWR
I live in an extraordinary place, a place that does not always receive the respect that it deserves. In much the same way that travelers refer to the Midwest as "fly-over states", my home is the "drive-through valley".  The Great Valley (called by some the Central Valley) is a 400 mile long and 50 mile wide province that must be traversed by Southern Californians who want to reach the Pacific Northwest, or coastal Californians who want to reach Yosemite National Park or the Sierra Nevada ski resorts.
San Luis National Wildlife Refuge from above. It lies on the floodplain of the San Joaquin River.

Many people find the journey an arduous exercise in white-line fever, an endless flat region covered by millions of acres of orchards and fields of crops, or cattle stockyards, or used car lots on the edges of poor-looking towns. I'm willing to grant that it is often not a pretty sight. There is a reason that our cities often wind up last on the lists of "best places to live". Our skies are often the most polluted in the United States.

In the thirty years that I've lived here, I've come to discover a different Great Valley. It's the five percent of the valley that still retains the character of the land that existed before it was co-opted by agricultural development. It's a recurrent theme of my blogging adventures because each of these adventures expands my world just a little bit.
Today's journey was the auto-tour through the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge. The refuges range the length of the valley, providing winter sanctuary for migrating birds, but also providing a last stand for many native species of the valley from the smallest of bugs to the rodents and larger grazing animals to the largest remaining predators, the eagles, the hawks, the coyotes and foxes, and sometimes even mountain lions. The gigantic herds of Tule Elk and Bison have been gone for more than a century, although the elk are protected as a species in some of the refuges, including 60 of them at San Luis. Without the millions of grazing animals, the refuge managers allow limited grazing of the prairie by sheep and cattle to maintain the integrity of the grasslands. I imagined the scene above as a wolf patrolling the margins of a giant herd grazing elk, looking for a weak or sick individual to take down. The reality was the opposite, of course. The dog was watching over the sheep.

I don't see them often, but Mule Deer do inhabit the grasslands. We saw nearly a dozen of them today. I've mostly given up on trying to take decent pictures, but I really liked this one.
Red-tailed Hawk at the San Luis NWR

The stars of the refuge are the myriads of bird species that call them home. Some of them only stay for a few days or a few months as part of a long migration, while others stay year-round. Each refuge includes a wide range of habitats, including freshwater marshes, riparian areas (river channels), prairie grasslands, and alkali salt flats. The auto-tours at the refuge sample most of these environments, and several hiking trails are available as well.
In the first five miles of the tour we didn't see a great many migrant species, so I thought the Cinnamon Teal (above) and the Great Blue Heron (opening photo) that greeted us at the entrance to the refuge were going to be the avian stars of the day. But then we made the turn towards the Souza Marsh at the southeastern edge of the refuge. And everything changed in a moment. We had found the migrants.
There were hundreds of Snow Geese, Greater White-fronted Geese, Northern Shovelers, Cinnamon Teals, Northern Pintails, Mallards, American Coots, Pied-billed Grebes, and to our great delight, several dozen Tundra Swans (I count five of the species in this picture alone). The swans aren't rare, but Mrs. Geotripper and I have only found them once before on our travels. They dwarf the other birds in the marsh.
Last year was a good year for rain, and water was plentiful after five years of drought. Most of the marshlands were flooded, providing better than normal habitat for the birds. Unfortunately, the new year is proving much drier, with a near record low snowpack in the mountains upstream, and dry conditions in the long-range forecasts. Uncertainty lies ahead.
The prairies and river environments have always existed in a cycle of drought and flood. The biggest variable in the present day and in the future is the effect of global warming on the environment here. The predictions are for more drought, although some climate models suggest more rain in some years. Unfortunately that means less snow, and more variable river flows, heavier in the spring, and far less in the summer and fall. It's hard to predict the coming changes in the ecosystem that will follow. That ecosystem of course includes the species Homo sapiens, who despite their arrogance about "ruling over nature" and all that, are just as vulnerable to climate change as the rest of the species who live here. Their one advantage is the ability to recognize the situation they are in, to provide reasonably accurate predictions about the future, and the ability to affect the outcome.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Standing in the Cold Fog So You Don't Have To: The Superduper Blue Blood Moon Lunar Eclipse of 2018

That's the chance you take living in our Great Valley in Central California. The Tule Fogs are a way of life, and this is their time of year. If you want to be guaranteed an atmospheric/astronomical show it just can't be. But still I had to try. I took some pictures of the "Supermoon" yesterday evening in the hopes that I would see the eclipse in the early hours of the morning. Either the fog would be there or it wouldn't.
I got semi-lucky. There most certainly was fog, but it was mostly thick on the ground and the moon was still visible above. These shots may not be quite as sharp as they would be on a clear night, but they work.
There are three oddities happening at once, although two of them can be said to be kind of arbitrary...
First, there's the Blue Moon. That's one of the arbitrary ones. The lunar cycle is 29.53 days, but some of our months have 30 or 31 days, so there can be two full moons in a month. This is the second full moon of January, hence the "blue moon". The term originally had to do with 13 lunar cycles in a full year, with one season having an extra full moon.
Then there is the "supermoon". This is sort of arbitrary, being not an astronomical term, but more a modern astrological term. It refers to the full moon happening when the moon is closest to earth, therefore producing a slightly larger disk (14% greater than a "micromoon") with the additional light (30% more) that reflects from the Moon's surface. Astronomers would prefer to call this the perigee syzygy.
It is the lunar eclipse that is the best part of the evening's festivities. The Moon is passing through the Earth's shadow, causing it to darken considerably and seem to glow red as a result of light refracting through the Earth's atmosphere (the "Blood Moon"). I haven't seen an article that mentions this, but I imagine if we were on the Moon right now there would be a red ring around the edges of the Earth's sphere.
There hasn't been a combination of a "supermoon", a Blue Moon, and a lunar eclipse since 1866, so I guess it is special that way, but I find any lunar eclipse to be special. There is speculation that the slightly closer approach of the Moon has an influence on the occurrence of great earthquakes and the like, but the difference in the gravitational attraction is negligible, and statistical analysis doesn't bear this out.  I guess we'll see what happens around the world today, but remember that dozens of earthquakes happen every single day, so a magnitude 5 or 6 quake somewhere is not that remarkable.
In any case, I lucked out with the fog and was able to capture the beginning of the lunar eclipse, but there won't be any shots of its end because the fog has thickened. Thus I am up at 5:00 AM blogging, which is most certainly not my usual habit! I guess there is a certain symmetry that I just finished with a month long reminiscence of ten years of geoblogging with an article on the solar eclipse of last August, and I start the eleventh year of blogging with a lunar eclipse. In any case, enjoy, and if you are up and skies are clear, go take a look!

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Singular Moment...Okay, Three of Them: A Total Eclipse, Ten Years of Geotripping, and the 2,000th Post

At last, the exploration through ten years of geoblogging is complete! I've been going through the archives looking for my favorite posts and we've reached the end of 2017. I was trying to decide what post from 2017 could serve as the final one from this short mini-series, and I decided it needed to be about a singular event, one that I was not likely to experience again. But in this post, there are three. There's only one time one gets to have a tenth anniversary of anything. And there's only one time that a person reaches a numerical milestone, and this post is one of them. It's the 2,000th post on Geotripper! And the third, out of the archives, was my adventure to see the total solar eclipse that took place last August. I'll be in my eighties by the time it happens in the continental U.S. again, so I expect it was my last.

Whether we would even see the eclipse at all was a dicey proposition. We were on the coast of Oregon, and although mornings had been clear all week, the morning of the eclipse was foggy. We had a great spot on a beautiful section of coastline at Seal Rock State Park. In the end, the fog never lifted, but we had a view anyway, and one of my pictures was different enough to be featured on EarthSky.com (link at the end of the blog).

As for the whole 2000th blog and ten years thing, mostly I'm surprised that it went on this long. I had no way of knowing at the beginning that I would find enough to talk about, but frankly the Earth is a place of unending fascination, and there is always going to be something incredible going on somewhere, and there will always be a new place to see, a new adventure to experience. I don't know what lies ahead, but my intentions are to make the world knowable to as many people as possible.

There are many reasons for this, and chief among them is the age-old human desire to tell stories. But even more important in my mind is the need to defend the Earth. I could never have foreseen that we would be cursed with such a greedy and ignorant administration as the one that exists now in Washington. They deny the reality of climate change, and they have shown an eagerness to sell off and open to mining and drilling the most precious of our public lands. They are trying to dismantle the system of controls and regulations that protect our air, soil and water. This course of action is morally wrong and physically unsustainable. 

Ignorance and greed can and will destroy the fabric and stability of society. I will continue to blog about our planet because I think we need more storytellers, and we need more scientists. I hope we can continue this journey together for a long time!

The post below appeared on August 21, 2017...
Yeah, I was really taking a chance, choosing to stay on the Oregon Coast for the 2017 eclipse. The reason? The fog. And there was a lot of it. To make the long story short, it never really lifted, but we could still see most of the sights through the clouds. I didn't get to see much of the corona, but there were lots of Solar prominences to compensate. It was an awesome experience in the end, but my nails are bitten down to the nubs!
We started out from Florence at 4:40 AM, not wanting to miss a parking spot. There was not a lot of traffic, and we were absolutely thrilled to see parking spaces at Seal Rock State Park. The fog was a concern, though, and the sun was still not at all visible at 8:30.
The crew at Seal Rock was stubborn though. There was some discussion of trying a different spot, but most everyone stayed, hoping for a break in the clouds. It never happened, but the clouds thinned enough that the Sun shown through. I suspect that made things a bit more dangerous, because the clouds made the eclipse glasses almost useless, and UV light could still damage people's eyes. I trusted my cameras to filter things for me (I was shooting with two Panasonic Lumix DMZ FZ70 with a 60x zoom; one on a tripod, the other handheld). I started snapping photos.
At the beginning, the Sun was the show with a couple of sunspots visible, one almost dead-center, and the other near the lower left quadrant.

More of the Sun's surface was covered, and it was becoming difficult to focus on the crescent sun in the rapidly dimming light.
Despite the warnings, I realized I could get pictures at this point without the filter, so the next couple of pictures are the true color of the Sun: white.
The discontinuities on the right edge of the crescent below are mountains on the Moon splitting up the sunlight.
The crowd at Seal Rock had been chattering away throughout most of the buildup to totality, but there was a sudden hush of shock and awe as the Sun suddenly disappeared, and it was as dark as night.
The Solar prominences glowed pink around the margins of the disk. As noted before, the corona was not visible through the fog.
There was an audible gasp in the crowd as the first streaks of light appeared on the other side of the Moon. The prominences quickly disappeared in the bright shinning light.
And then totality was over as the sky began to lighten up after 1 minute and 25 seconds of darkness. We didn't get to see the stars and planets, but I was not going to complain. What we saw was simply awe-inspiring. I understand that not everybody can drop everything and go across an entire country to see a shadow for less than two minutes, but if you ever have an opportunity, don't pass it up! It's a common experience of humanity to see the Sun blotted out by the Moon, and witnessing one in person can help one understand the myths and legends that grew around eclipses. I literally felt like shouting for the dragon to let the Sun back out of its mouth.

Update: Very pleased that EarthSky posted one of my pictures! http://earthsky.org/todays-image/photos-aug-21-2017-total-solar-eclipse