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."


 

Sunday, August 30, 2020

A Life Full of Zeros: A Perspective on Human and Geologic Time

Some perspective on time. It's one of the more difficult concepts to get across in a geology education simply because the numbers lie at the very edge of comprehension. So here is a brief demonstration:

The first part is my own, but it was very much inspired by the latter part that is borrowed from Historical Geology - the Free Textbook for College-Level Geology Classes. I deeply appreciate the work that has been done to make classes more accessible to low-income students.

Imagine the years of your life as a bunch of zeros. Don't think of your life as a zero, just use them as a way of counting! So, we'll say that the average age of a college student is in the range of 20 to 30 years:

0000000000 0000000000 0000000000

Think of all that you have accomplished in that time! You've had an entire childhood, you've matured to an adult, you've navigated 13 years of elementary, junior high, and senior high school. You've maybe accomplished a few years of college, and you've perhaps held a job for several years. Some of you may be raising your own children.  You've accomplished a lot!

That's me in 1980 working on my Senior Thesis, aged 23 zeros...

So what lies ahead? We cannot know what time we have in life, and for some it will be cut short. We have goals and aspirations, the things we want to experience, the things we want to accomplish. How much time do we have? The average life span these days is around 75-85 years. How does that look in zeros? Here's 80 of them:

0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000

That's quite a few! Seems like plenty of time to plan for graduate school, or starting a career, or starting a family, raising children, and if you are idealistic, enough time to change the world in some positive way. Some of us look at this string of zeros and imagine how many are ahead of us, and some of us look at how many of those zeros we have already checked off, and some are looking at the relative few that are left. All of us no doubt see different things as we count of our potential lifetime. 

But how does our potential lifetime stack up to human history? This is where it gets sort of interesting. World War One ended just over 100 years ago. There are still several thousand people in the world who were alive when that war ended:

0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000

The California Gold Rush began in 1848:

0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 00

The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776:

0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000

The Roman Empire was at its zenith about 2,000 years ago:

0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000

So here's the thing. You can still see your potential lifetime in comparison to much of the human history. Most of human civilization is encompassed by 8,000 or so zeros, and if I put all of them up, you could see your lifetime as a small, but still a visible part of the human adventure.

But now it gets weird. When we think of geologic time and the history of planet Earth, things get crazy really quick. Look at the 2,000 zeros above, and multiply it by six; 12,000 years. If you were to step outside here in California's Central Valley where I live, you would see grazing horses, camels, Columbian mammoths, and gigantic ground sloths. You would encounter predators like Saber-tooth Cats and Short-faced Bears, 50% bigger than grizzlies. They only went extinct 10,000-11,000 years ago. Humans saw and dealt with them.

skeleton of a Short-faced bear
Short-faced Bear at the Fossil Discovery Center, Madera, CA

But geologic time is a whole different ballgame. The ice age that ended just 12,000 years ago began some 2 million years ago.

The dinosaurs went extinct about 66 million years ago.

The dinosaurs arose around 220 million years ago.

Skeleton of a Mosasaur
A Mosasaur, a sea-going reptile from the time of the Dinosaurs

Complex life, i.e. swimming things with eyes, brains and nervous systems appeared about 545 million years ago.

What happens when we try printing up enough zeros to account for these vast numbers, and what happens to the significance of your life as a result? For that, I turn to the Historical Geology Textbook for College-level Geology Classes, referenced at the top of the post:

Have a look at the image below, which illustrates 5,000 individual zeros.

There are 5,000 zeros on this page. 

0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000

How many copies of this image (or sheets of paper) would you need to print to reach a total of a million zeros?  

1,000,000 / 5,000 = 200 sheets of paper

Now, how many copies would you need to print to reach one-billion zeros?

1,000,000,000 / 5,000 = 200,000 sheets of paper

The Earth is 4,566,000,000 years old. How many copies would you need to print to cover the age of the Earth with each year represented by 1 zero?

4,566,000,000 / 5000 = 913,200 sheets of paper

Copy paper is bundled by 500 sheets. This is called a ream of paper. How many reams of paper would you need to replicate the age of the Earth?

913,200 / 500 = 1,826 reams of paper

Typically there are 6 reams of paper per box, that makes 304 boxes of copy paper just to print out the number of zeros in the age of the Earth. 

That is a long time… 

If you are having trouble imagining 304 boxes of paper, when we moved the department a few years ago, we had 200+ boxes stacked in our lab. Here they are...



It's an aside, but it recalls to me a favorite quote that I start many of my classes with: 

“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.” Richard Dawkins

Friday, August 7, 2020

The Way it Was: Yosemite in the Times of a Pandemic

Tunnel View, close to the spot where the valley was first "discovered" by European colonizers

The pandemic rages on, and our lives have been upended in so many ways we could never have foreseen. My heart goes out to all of those whose lives have been devastated, whether by disease, unemployment, or fear. We've been fortunate so far, and we've been careful to stay out of harm's way, staying home for the most part, wearing masks in public, and always the social distancing. 

I walk along my river almost every day to maintain sanity and health, but except for a single short excursion up north for my grandmother's funeral, we've not been out of our county since March. But this week I went online and scored an E-ticket (you have to be an older person to understand that reference): a reservation for entry into Yosemite National Park.
The park has been trying to deal with two opposing directives: opening the park as much as possible, and maintaining some degree of safety in trying to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. They settled on limiting the number of visitors by instituting a reservation system (info at reservation.gov). The goal is to have the park at about 50% of usual visitation. 80% of the reservations are available a month in advance, while the other 20% come available two days before the visitor's arrival. That's the ticket I was able to get.
We headed up as early in the day as we could, intensely curious to see what things would be like. And out of the 100+ journeys we've made to the park in the last 30 years, it was unusual to say the least. There was a long wait at the entrance station like usual, but reason was different. There were fewer people, yes, but it took longer to confirm everyone's identity (the reservations aren't transferable). Once inside the park, the transformation was remarkable. There was very little traffic on the road, and there were spots available in every parking lot that we could see. The lot at Tunnel View (the top picture in this post) was only half full. And no buses were idling.
We headed up Glacier Point Road and had a long lunch at Summit Meadow, and we had it almost entirely to ourselves (admittedly not one of the 'destination spots' for visitors, but still...). We stopped at the nearly empty parking lot at Washburn Point, and then headed to Glacier Point, which was also only half full. It seemed a different world than from our 'normal' Yosemite experience. The picture below of Glacier Point was not cropped to remove people; that's how many were actually there.
After so many months of sheltering in place, it felt so good to get out of the valley and see the high country of the Sierra Nevada. We've missed it so much.
We drove back down to the floor of Yosemite Valley and found the valley to be equally devoid of crowds. There were a few gatherings near the taco trucks that are serving as food purveyors while parts of Curry Village are renovated. But again, most of the lots were uncrowded. The afternoon shadows were lengthening as we passed Sentinel Bridge and Lower Yosemite Falls (the merest trickle in this dry year), and we made our way down to Valley View.
When Yosemite Falls is dry, Yosemite Point takes on an entirely different perspective. It's the prominent cliff that is still lit by the sun on the right in the picture below. Yosemite National Park is like that...there are those most famous cliffs like El Capitan and Half Dome that dominate people's experiences, but there are dozens of lesser-known rock cliffs and spires that in any other place would be national parks and monuments in their own right.
The Cathedral Rocks are one of those cliffs. They are the incredible cliffs in the picture below. They are behind you when you stare up the vertical face of El Capitan. I don't recall ever seeing them on the t-shirts and coffee mugs in the curio shops (although I don't spend a lot of time in the shops when I'm in the valley).
We made our last stop at Valley View where we could enjoy the evening light on El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, and the other (better-known) side of the Cathedral Rocks. The Merced River was a beautiful reflective pool at this time of low water.
We noticed an American Dipper foraging in the water. It's one of the few songbirds that regularly swims. Also called the Water Ouzel, it was one of John Muir's favorite Sierra birds. I've only seen them a few times.
We saw a Black Bear at Crane Flats. There has been a lot written about the resurgence of wildlife in the absence of the usual crowds of humanity at Yosemite. It was simply napping away at the edge of the meadow and no one was bothering it. On the whole, Yosemite National Park was a delightful place to visit that day, a far cry from what we experienced during our Labor Day visit a year ago when we experienced bumper-to-bumper traffic jams, no parking, and no chance to see the sights. It wasn't fun for anyone that day.

We need to reconsider the role of our national parks in our national life. They are precious places, and we are loving them to death. Yosemite certainly isn't alone in this regard. Arches and Zion national parks in Utah in particular have become so crowded that few are able to experience and enjoy them in any meaningful way. I hate to say we need to keep a reservation system like this in place, but at the same time we also need to make more places available to our population. 

One of the most egregious acts by the present administration was the destruction of two of our most significant national monuments, Bear's Ears, and Grand Staircase-Escalante. These parks are within an easy day's drive from Zion, and offer equally spectacular natural experiences. But they were eviscerated by the administration, Grand Staircase by 50%, and Bear's Ears by 90%. We need these parks, and more. It's something to consider as we enter into a bitter election season. Which party is better equipped to safeguard our national treasures?

And that's the way it was in Yosemite. Words can barely describe the beauty and serenity of the day.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

You CAN see it! Comet Neowise Now Visible After Sunset

First, the disclaimer: The comet Neowise does NOT look like the glorious and incredibly beautiful pictures that have been posted on social media. Those pictures aren't fakes at all, but they ARE time exposures that bring out the details of the tail.

My long-term readers (thank you!) may have noticed that I've never had a post about comets. There's a reason for that. I haven't seen, much less photographed, a comet since the last century. There were two great comets in 1996 and 1997, Hayakutake and Hale-Bopp, and they were spectacular. I also saw Halley's Comet back in 1986, most memorably as we sat on the desert floor in Death Valley next to a broken-down bus waiting for rescue. But since then? Nada.
That changed last night, when I was able to spot Comet Neowise from my Tuolumne River Parkway trailhead around 9:30 PM. I had been too lazy to try and spy it in the early morning hours as many others have done in the last week or two, but it now is in the evening sky as well. It only took a few minutes scanning the sky with my binoculars to find it. My pictures are fuzzy and indistinct, but the comet is definitely in each one, just left of center. I had no tripod, and my camera seems not to have a time exposure setting anyway.

I'm not kidding. You need binoculars. If you are lucky enough to have a super-dark area with no air pollution, you might see what looks like a fuzzy star in the location noted below. But in binoculars, the tail was clearly visible. Give it a shot! It will be visible for a few more days, but it will fade soon. It is always a thrill to see something new and different in the sky!
Source: EarthSky.org