Wednesday, January 6, 2021

A Beautiful Scene for a Horrific Day

There aren't many days like this. That can be both a good thing and a bad thing. My country was rocked by a coup attempt and the Capitol Building was invaded and vandalized for the first time in centuries. It dominated my day and little else was accomplished, other than to stare unbelievingly at the screen where the events unfolded in Washington D.C. and various state capitols. When things settled somewhat, we had to get outside, away from the media. And we discovered it was one of the clearest days of the year.
We headed a few miles east to the single best viewpoint I know of in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada: Turlock Lake State Recreation Area. The lake mainly serves as a fishing and boating site (as well as being a principle irrigation reservoir), but there is some interesting geology, and a wonderful view.

The dam is constructed on the sediments of the Turlock Lake and Mehrten formations, and a number of interesting fossils have been found in the area: mastodons, camels, horses, huge tortoises, and gigantic 9-foot-long tusked (really!) salmon.

East of the main picnic area there is a paved road that climbs to the top of the highest local hill, and on a clear day like this one was, the view extends from the high peaks of Yosemite National Park across the Central Valley to the mountains of the Diablo Range, and the rest of the Coast Ranges. Today was one of the clearest days I've seen in a long time.
Some lenticular clouds were building over the Sierra Crest, making me wish I was I could be up there and a little closer, but that wasn't to be this time. Maybe soon...


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

A Reminder of What Once Was: An Evening at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

What is it like to see ten thousand birds take to the sky all at once? Do you have to live on the African Savanna to find out? Sometimes one has to merely look in one's backyard (so to speak) to rediscover the extraordinary nature of where one lives. For instance, my home is in California's Great Valley (called by some the Central Valley). The valley is sometimes derided as a boring place to live, an endlessly flat expanse of agribusiness farms and poorly planned urban centers, and there is certainly a truth to that idea. A full 95% of the valley has been altered by humans from the original prairies and wetlands.

But the other 5%? Astounding at times.

The valley was once an expanse of open prairies, riparian corridors, and vast shallow lakes. A diverse fauna grazed the flatlands, Tule Elk, deer, antelope, horses, camels, bison, mammoths, mastodons, and giant ground sloths. They were preyed upon by a fearful assemblage of carnivores: Saber-toothed Cats, Jaguars, American Lions, Dire Wolves, Coyotes, Black Bears, Grizzly Bears, and huge Short-faced Bears (nothing else was short about them; they stood 12 feet tall). Much of the megafauna disappeared around 10,000 years ago for reasons that are still debated, but the valley still supported a healthy ecosystem when the European colonizers arrived and started changing things.
The valley supported millions upon millions of migratory birds. The valley for a variety of reasons has some of the mildest winter weather in North America, and arctic species for millennia utilized the wetlands for a winter home. Agricultural development deeply altered the available habitat and the birds suffered for it, but a string of wildlife refuges were established decades ago to help them survive. I'd love to say it was for preserving the natural habitat, but it was often to provide the birds a place where they wouldn't destroy crops, and to provide hunters a dependable target. But still, the refuges are islands of relative safety for the birds, and many species have thrived. 

The Aleutian Cackling Goose was once thought to be a subspecies of the similar Canada Goose, but they are now considered a distinct species. They were decimated by changes in their winter refuge, but also in their breeding grounds in the Aleutian Islands, were introduced foxes had exterminated most of them. By 1936 they were thought to be extinct. In 1962 a few hundred were found on an isolated island, and they received protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Since then their numbers have rebounded, with a population today of nearly 200,000. And a very large percentage of them spend their winters only eight miles west of the biggest shopping center in my town.
We had a package to pick up at that shopping center today, so Mrs. Geotripper and I decided to run out to the viewing platform on Beckwith Road west of town. The platform overlooks the fields of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. I have visited the spot dozens of times in the last six years, but I had never seen so many birds as were there this afternoon. I made a rough estimate of 4,000 Aleutian Cackling Geese, as well as around 12,000 of the white Snow and Ross's Geese. And as we watched, a large percentage of the geese took flight, which I caught in the video at the top of the post. It was an astounding sight.

It's not just geese that call the Great Valley their home. There are a large number of other strange and exotic birds that can be found here. This evening we saw some other interesting species. There was a flock of 200 or 300 Long-billed Curlews in a field north of the road. They have impossibly long beaks for exploring the mud for worms and bugs.
There was also a flock of around a hundred White-faced Ibises. They look very dark from a distance, but closer observations reveals a colorful iridescence. The white face only shows up in breeding season. They are unique to the Americas, and apparently evolved from the far more widely distributed Glossy Ibises.
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper

I've lived in the Great Valley now for more than thirty years, and I've long extolled the fascinating geological story of the valley, including the extensive fossil record, but I was appallingly ignorant of the fascinating species that still call the valley home today. I had never seen the tens of thousands of geese take flight all at once until around six years ago. I now look forward to the privilege with the approach of every winter season.

Monday, December 21, 2020

The Conjunction Station in the Red HIlls: A Report, and a Santa Claus Sighting

The view with my handheld camera
The weather gods decided to make things difficult for us in regards to the rare celestial event that took place tonight. We finally got rain last week, and when the rain comes to the Great Valley of California, the Tule Fog follows. Earlier this week the fog cleared in the late afternoon allowing me to get a few experimental shots of the approaching conjunction, but the fog has not relented for two straight days. If we were going to see the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction (the closest approach visible in 800 years), we had to do something a little drastic. We headed up into the Sierra Nevada foothills to get above the inversion layer that traps the fog at low elevations.

The telescopic view using the smartphone

I knew of a likely spot in the Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern near Chinese Camp that would have a good view. We got there a bit before sunset and set up our gear. 
Preliminary shot with the telescope and phone
I don't have fancy astronomical gear. I borrowed the old Questar telescope that we keep in the department at the college, and brought my own Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot (but with the 60x zoom; good for my birdwatching). Lacking any attachments, I used my phone to snap shots from the telescope lens.

You've maybe noticed that it is easier to identify an oncoming car in daylight, since the headlights overwhelm the details in darker conditions. It's like that when viewing planets. The first picture above was taken as soon as I could see the planets in the darkening skies. The rings of Saturn are clearly visible (and in fact this was the first time I've ever captured a distinct view of the rings with my camera). Later in the darkness I took the picture below and the planets are too bright to see the rings well. On the other hand, three of Jupiter's moons are visible. There's always a tradeoff!

I guess we shouldn't have been surprised that a bunch of other people had the same idea of coming to this particular spot, but they were doing the right thing and masking up and keeping to their own groups. I had to wonder though if we weren't in the presence of a rather famous person...

 You'll have to be the judge, but the man's telescope is red, and presumably could pass for a giant candy cane. And he doesn't really have to work for another couple of days...

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Coming Crater in Arizona: The Lame Duck Administration Fast-Tracks Destruction of Sacred Lands

Sometimes issues keep coming up. I hadn't heard of updates of the Oak Flat Controversy in a couple of years, but with the waning days of the current lame duck administration, the issue has arisen again as the out-going president attempts of fast-track a controversial land swap to enable the opening of a massive copper mine. I posted the following several times as the debates continued over the years. It was also one of the oddest geological issues I've ever come across. My brother took me to Oak Flat during a visit to the Phoenix area, and it wasn't until later that I found out the insidious actions taking place in Congress to destroy the area (for money, of course). How often do we hear of plans to produce a hole larger than Meteor Crater? This is at the expense of lands sacred to the San Carlos Apache Tribe, the Tonto Apache Tribe, the White Mountain Apache Tribe, the Yavapai-Apache Nation, the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe, the Gila River Indian Community, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the Hopi Tribe, and the Pueblo of Zuni. Please read on to find out what is being attempted in this sacred place.

When I see a representative insisting that a law must be followed ("Rep. Gosar is pressuring the Forest Service to enforce its rules that limit camping at Oak Flat to 14 consecutive days") when he helped subvert law to bring this situation about, I feel sick about our political system. In any case, like the title says, Arizona is going to get another Meteor Crater-sized hole, only bigger, and we know where and why it is going to happen...
This is NOT a killer asteroid entering the Earth's atmosphere. It is a sun dog over Oak Flat Campground near Superior, Arizona. Oak Flat is going to become a gigantic crater.

...because it won't be a meteor that causes it. It won't be an atomic bomb test. And it won't be because of aliens like those stupid ones in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The giant crater will be entirely the work of human beings, and gravity. And it will destroy a place that is sacred to many, and was given protection by a Republican president 60 years ago.
Meteor Crater, Arizona is probably the most famous impact crater on the planet, and is about three-quarters of a mile across, and about 550 feet deep. The coming crater is expected to be about a mile across, and as much as 1,000 feet deep. How in the world is such a thing going to happen?
The town of Superior, Arizona is like many old mining towns of the west. It's depressed, it's poor, and few inhabitants really have a reason to stay. People made a good living out here at one time, mining and smelting copper from huge open pits nearby. But the mines closed decades ago.

But the copper wasn't all gone. With prices up, there is renewed interest, and Resolution Copper has outlined a huge ore body, one of the largest in the world. But there's a problem.
It's 7,000 feet beneath the surface.

The normal approach, open-pit mining, won't work. It's far too deep. Normal tunnel mining won't cut it either, because although the ore body is huge, it is low-grade, averaging around 1.5% copper, instead of the 5% or so that is required for profitable tunnel mining. So the company proposes to go after the ore using a process called panel caving (a type of block caving). They propose to start underneath the ore body, design a system of collection tunnels, and then fracture the rock above, allowing it to fall into the collection areas where the ore will be removed.
The process will allow the mining of vast amounts of ore, but what they will be doing will amount to removing an entire mountain from beneath the surface. Holes of such size cannot be maintained as open space underground, so the mine will collapse in a supposedly controlled manner. At the end of the mine's usable "life", the crater is expected to be about a mile wide and as much as 1,000 feet deep. Bigger than Meteor Crater.
There are huge social and political issues. Many people are fully supportive because money, but it's never entirely clear who will truly benefit, and who will actually get the jobs, and which political entities will get the tax revenue to support the regional infrastructure. And there is no guarantee that the mining company itself will maintain economic viability for the next sixty years. Such things are hard to predict, and the American West is littered with abandoned and depressed towns that were promised much and ultimately received little.
And then there is the matter of honor and history. Soldiers chose to die here, defending their homeland and families. When all was lost, more than four dozen of them chose to jump off the cliffs rather than be taken by the enemy. It was around 1870, and the deaths occurred only 1,500 feet from the edge of the proposed crater.

If the soldiers were U.S. military, I suspect there would be a cacophony of voices raised in righteous anger about the desecration of hallowed ground, and historical heritage and all that. But no, the warriors were Apache. The copper mining company insists that they respect the Native American heritage, and they make all kinds of public relations noise, but a great many local tribes and nations are deeply opposed to the operation.
I'm okay with weighing the pros and cons of a project like this, assuming that all parties are heard, and their concerns dealt with. But there has to be a willingness to say no, that some places should not be destroyed for the sake of profits over all other factors. I'm disturbed when those with the money are the only ones heard in the discussion and that there is an assumption that it will go forward no matter what. But ultimately politics requires a fair and open vote in Congress. And that's where the problem lies. The project will require a land swap that gives up federal land for "ecologically sensitive" lands elsewhere. And Congress has turned it down a number of times.
So in a bit of bipartisan corruption, the land swap was placed in a piece of legislation, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that had to be passed in 2014. It was a betrayal of trust on the part of people like Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake (speaking of corruption, Rep.Rick Renzi is in prison over crimes related to the land swap; and Senator Flake was once a lobbyist for Rio Tinto, one of the mine's corporate partners). This is the kind of political shenanigans that tells me that these plans need to be tabled for awhile. This isn't the way things should be done in our society.
How badly do we need this copper, really? And at what true cost? There may be issues to be worked out, but rushing this because of a lame-duck presidential action is not the way to solve things.

For a current perspective of the issues involved, and for info on the Save Oak Flat Act in the U.S. House of Representative please read this article just published in azcentral by Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva  on the issue, and an earlier article about Congressional activity in March. 

Sunday, November 15, 2020

The Islands of Interior California (and Nevada): The Endemics of Ash Meadows

Many months ago I was working on a mini-series of blogs about the Islands of Interior California when I was rudely interrupted by a COVID pandemic, and almost all blog writing ceased while I struggled with the transition to teaching online. The next installment was to be about one of the strangest places in the biological sense in all of North America: Ash Meadows. To get this series moving again, I have adapted some previous posts from 2017.
Welcome to one of the most remarkable places in the United States. It's a large island in the middle of the hottest and driest desert in the country. I freely admit that the unprepossessing photograph above is one of the least likely real estate ads ever, but it reveals the landscape of one of the most biologically unique spots in the continental United States, and this picture could have been a real estate ad in the early 1980s.
Crystal Spring at Ash Meadows
Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge is not in Death Valley proper, but instead lies about 30 miles east of Death Valley National Park. It is administered not by the National Park Service, but by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But it does enclose an outlier of Death Valley National Park, and it preserves critical habitat and nearly 30 endemic animal and plant species that were nearly extirpated in the 1970s and 1980s. The fact that it exists at all is entirely due to geology.

During the Pleistocene ice ages during the last two million years, the climate in this dry desert was often cooler and wetter. Rain and snow fell on the high mountain ranges to the north and east and soaked into the ground. Over the millennia the groundwater flowed slowly to the southwest, along river valleys and even through fissures right through mountain ranges. Bedrock ridges and gouge-filled fault lines forced the "fossil water" to the surface as a series of 30 or so seeps and springs. The amount of water flowing here is tremendous; some of the springs have flows measured in thousands of gallons per minute. For example, Crystal Springs in the pictures above and below has a flow of 2,800 gallons per minute. The presence of so much water in the desert makes Ash Meadows an island, but in this case it is an island of water in a landscape of dryness. It is one of the few oases left in the American desert, and has the highest concentration of endemic species in a small area anywhere on the continent.
Water in the desert attracts (and isolates) many kinds of plants and animals (including more than 215 species of birds). Many are survivors, relics of wetter times who could not otherwise live in the desert. That would include the four native species of fish (a fifth is already extinct), and ten species of water snail (an eleventh is also extinct).
The proposed Calvada Lakes development from the 1980s

Water in the desert can be home to invasive species which can do great damage to the fragile ecosystem. Mosquito Fish, which are an important species in other settings, can upset the life balance in the pools and springs. So can abandoned aquarium fish. But the worst invasive species of all, Homo sapiens, nearly destroyed the entire complex.

It happened first when farmers began to manipulate the springs into irrigation systems. They piped the water flows and started pumping groundwater so intensely that the water table started to drop, threatening the species that lived in the ponds. Lawsuits ensued and one eventually reached the Supreme Court. In 1976, the court ruled that pumping had to be limited to the extent that water tables would not drop. The farming corporation sold the properties to a land developer, which led to an even greater threat to Ash Meadows.

The real estate development is in retrospect nearly unbelievable: more than 30,000 homes, along with shopping centers, casinos, theatres, and industrial parks. An instant city in the midst of barren desert. Even today, I can't imagine 50,000 people or more simply deciding to move out to the middle of nowhere. "But Las Vegas!" is an obvious response, but other desert town developments have faltered and disappeared when people realized how truly miserable the summer temperatures could be (and that's not to mention the winter winds and dust storms). Calvada Lakes would have been a disaster on so many levels.
Luckily, Congress stepped in and established the Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in 1984, and most of the developer's lands were purchased by the Nature Conservancy in 1986. The lands were then re-sold to the federal government, and the refuge became a reality. Today, there is a marvelous new visitor center and three handicapped accessible boardwalks that explore some of the most interesting springs.
Devil's Hole Pupfish
The rain was still falling when we arrived at the refuge during our recent Bombogenesis trip to the Death Valley region. It had indeed been falling all night, so I should have known what was going to befall us when we tried to drive the gravel-clay road to Devil's Hole to see the most restricted vertebrate habitat on the planet. The vans very nearly got stuck in the slick mud, and we only made it out by getting out and pushing the van back onto semi-solid ground. We didn't make it, in other words. But we have in the past, and I'm providing a few pictures of the event.

The entire race of the Devil's Hole Pupfish lives in the shallow cavern opening on the side of a limestone hill. The water is constantly warm, almost 90 degrees, is oxygen poor, and the food supply for the fish is extremely limited. But somehow the fish have survived, and have diverged from their relatives who live in pools just a few miles away. They are thought to have been isolated for a minimum of 20,000 years, but some studies suggest as much as 60,000 years (an outlier study takes a different position, suggesting only a few centuries of isolation).

Access to the cave opening is for obvious reasons highly restricted. There is a caged platform from which the pool can be viewed from about 80 feet away. It's clearly hard to see the individual fish, but my camera has a great zoom lens. I'm not sure why they were there (to catch eggs?), but the white tiles in the pool allowed me to catch some video of the rarest fish in the world (below).

The cavern opening where the entire population of Devil's Hole Pupfish lives

Friday, October 2, 2020

Have You Seen This Movie Before? The Disaster of 2020

Scene 1:

A monkey dies an ugly death in a rainforest...

A woman swimming hears a crunching sound and disappears beneath the waves...

A menacing shadow crosses over the lunar surface...

People are enjoying themselves in a quiet park. Then thousands of birds (fly away/attack the crowd)...

A moderate earthquake causes some traffic snarls... 

Giant ice shelf breaks apart and floats away...

Scene 2: 

A scientist, or small scientific team, becomes curious about phenomenon in previous scene. They begin to study and become concerned...

Scene 3:

Scientists try to get attention of government official, often waving sheaves of paper. They have a solution...

Government official says "we'll look into it", sends scientists away...

Government official deals with sheaves of paper, either by putting in a file cabinet, or in a trash can...

Scene 4:

Examples of the phenomena described in scene 1 happen again, only more intense: larger earthquake, bigger meteorite strike, more people disappear, more bird attacks, giant hailstorm, tornadoes in odd places, etc...

Scene 5:

Scientists grow ever more concerned, visit government official with their solution and more sheaves of paper, who waves them off saying "we have all the top people working on it"...

Scene 6:

All hell breaks loose. Depending on phenomenon (and the director), (dozens/ hundreds/ thousands/ millions) of people die from a multitude of special effects. Government official is among the victims...

Scene 7:

Remaining government officials say "How could we have foreseen this phenomena? What can we do?"

Scientist, or group of scientists, devises a desperate solution that "might just work". Often includes nuclear bombs...

Scene 8:

Scientific solution works, and plucky bands of survivors survive. Remaining government officials say "We'll never ignore the scientists ever again."...

The Sequel:

The government ignores the scientists again...

So the thing is, I go to movies to be entertained, knowing that such things will never be part of my reality. Until this year...

As catastrophic unprecedented fires burn all around me here in California, we receive news that a major government official, actually the top government official and many of those around him have been felled by a disease that the scientists have been warning about since January. And the solution they were pressing was as simple as wearing a mask, and keeping six feet away from others. And yet so many people and officials ignored the scientists that now 200,000 people are dead in the United States, and a million are dead across the planet.

I'd like to hear a director yell "cut" about now, but that's not going to happen. We wait to see how this nightmare movie unfolds.

Vote like your life depends on it.

Monday, September 21, 2020

The Equinox of the Fall

I haven't been blogging much lately. It's probably not hard to guess why: I've been working harder than at any time aside from those crazy first semesters back in 1988 and 1989. From the sudden transition in less than a week back in the spring semester, intense training throughout the summer, and the onset of a new fall semester completely online pretty much explains the lack of leisure time for writing. But I was out yesterday evening on one of the myriad east-west roads that cross our valley, and I realized it was only one more day before the equinox. I stopped and photographed the setting of the sun.

We were in a similar situation six months ago, and I posted The First Day of an Uncertain Spring: This Too Shall Pass. I wrote at the time "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."

What a different and unpredictable time this turned out to be. Last March around 35,000 Americans had contracted the disease, and around 500 people had died. The death toll today is more than 200,000 Americans, and nearly a million around the world. 31 million have caught the disease, and around 23 million have recovered, but for many there will be health challenges for the the rest of their lives. The saddest part of this tragedy is that we could have prevented many tens of thousands of these deaths had there been a quick and orderly national response to the pandemic. This did not happen, and instead there were good responses in some states, and criminally negligent responses in others. As one state would seem to gain control, others lost control. We reached a peak and started to decline, but then it started to rise again. It's plateaued in the last few weeks, but there is no continued decline.

Who knew that an entire subset of the population would actively fight the restrictions needed to defeat the virus and prevent the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans? I understand the impatience and frustration of wearing a mask in public places and maintaining distance and not gathering in crowds. But to subvert these easy guidelines and to even deny that the disease exists? I cannot even begin to comprehend this mindset, the one that would sacrifice not only strangers, but one's own family members and friends.

In this national tragedy, I've lost two treasured people, my grandmother and my sister-in-law (not to covid, not that it matters). I had to watch one funeral over a phone, and the memorial service on zoom. It is hard beyond words to have to say good-bye in this way. I loved them both so much. This is the real tragedy. We can't come together and hold each other in the way that humans need to in times of great loss. We need to fight this thing with a united front and put it away for good. We need to do it together.
The sun set in a pall of smoke from the hundreds of fires blazing in California right now. We've lost so much, not just from a pandemic, but from changes in our climate that were predicted three decades ago, and are manifesting themselves on an accelerated time scale. Six months ago I wrote "this too shall pass", but some things will not pass without being inalterably changed. The changes are permanent and we have to prepare.

The sense of loss in my family this week has been sharp and painful, but it was compounded by the loss of some of my treasured places to the fires that have destroyed so much already.

So I mark the passage of another equinox. This moment of the year has had a magic quality for humans for thousands of years, for better or worse. Spring has been the time of birth and hope, and the fall is the time of death and consuming darkness. I can only repeat my words from six months ago: 

"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."