Thursday, February 14, 2019

There's a Giant Atmospheric River Storm Pummeling California...So of course I'm Headed to Death Valley to Experience it...

So we here in California are experiencing one of those very intense atmospheric river storms generated when a highly active jet stream dips far to the south and starts to draw up very moist tropical air from the Pacific Ocean. The storms pound the state like a fire hose, dipping to the north and then to the south, and back again. In once sense, such storms are a godsend because they provide the bulk of our water resources.
On the other hand, the timing is...great. We can't reschedule our president's holiday weekend field studies class, so we are headed out to experience the storm firsthand, out in the elements, facing down our fears and all that other character-building stuff. We are headed to Death Valley National Park. Our best hopes lie with the Sierra Nevada's rain-shadow effect on the nation's driest valley.
It's not the first time this has happened of course. In thirty years of field studies trips we've encountered fierce storms a number of times, and it's always...memorable. Such trips give us the best memories and the best stories to tell our children and grandchildren. And all kidding aside, it's awesome to see intense weather events take place in the desert environment.

So it's probably radio silence for the next few days unless you want to follow our travels on Twitter (@geotripper). If I get a phone signal, I will try to post a few pictures. In the meantime, stay dry!

Monday, February 11, 2019

It Was That Kind of Day: Half Dome from the Central Valley

It doesn't happen often. I usually pass the right intersection once or maybe twice a week, but the most important factor is the air quality. It's almost always poor. Dust and smoke in the summer, fog and clouds in winter. There is a spot on the floor of the Great Valley (some call it merely the Central Valley) where one can see Half Dome and the other peaks around Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada.
Today was one of those days. I was going to take my customary walk on the Tuolumne River, but I could see that the air was extraordinarily clear, so I headed south to the intersection of Keyes Road and S. Hickman Road. I wasn't disappointed. I could be wrong, but I think these are the clearest views I've ever caught with a camera.
The visibility of Half Dome from the valley floor has been kind of a contentious subject. There are plenty of people who think that it isn't possible, and there are some peaks that are mistaken for Half Dome off to the north. I was actually accused of photoshopping the pictures once, which if you know me is laughable (I don't do that kind of thing very well). The trick to seeing it is to know where to look (NNE from the Keyes/Hickman Road intersection), and to realize that while Half Dome is so prominent from the floor of Yosemite Valley, it is not even 9,000 feet above sea level. The peaks behind and around Half Dome are 12,000 to 13,000 feet high. Half Dome is most definitely not on the skyline. It's in the middle foreground.
The other thing to realize is that my pictures are highly zoomed images. The image below approximates what the scene looks like from just north of the intersection. Can you pick out Half Dome in the picture below? And if you know your Sierra Nevada geography, can you name the other peaks that are visible? See how you did below!

Here, courtesy of is a guide to the peaks in the picture above.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

It's a River Again! Winter on the Tuolumne

All the pictures in this post are from the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail in Waterford.

All in all, it's been a good year (so far). One can judge the quality of a year on the basis of many things, and in this instance I'm talking about water. So much of the time, my part of California is at an extreme in one direction or another. Last year it was a drought up until some late storms in March that salvaged the water year. The year previous was one of floods and threatened floods, unlike anything seen in twenty years, but at least it filled the state's reservoirs after an astounding five-year drought. This year finds us in the sweet spot, kind of in-between, but a bit above average.

The rainy season started a bit slowly, just enough to make one worry a little bit about drought. No storms in September. A single small storm in October. But then in late November the pace picked up with just over 3 inches in my rain gauge, and December added more than 2 inches. The same with January, nearly 3 inches, and now February has already produced 2.5 inches with more storms coming this week. Of course my backyard is not the measure of water conditions in the state. The news reports are full of stories on the incredible snowpack that has built up in the Sierra Nevada in the last few weeks, with single storms producing six feet of snow or more.

The critical Sierra Nevada snowpack sits at between 109% and 135% of normal (measuring from north to south), with a statewide average of 123%. If no more snow fell, our season would end at 84% of normal. It's a comfortable place to be.

But no water planner is ever comfortable. With so much snow in the mountains, the reservoir water masters always have to worry about the possibility of a big atmospheric river storm, the kind that combines the extreme low pressure of an Arctic storm with a stream of extremely humid air out of the tropics. Like the one that could happen this week. In a worst case scenario, such a storm could cause rain at high elevations, melting much of the snowpack and raising the specter of flooding downstream.

And that is why the Tuolumne River came alive this week. For many months, the river has remained at an unnaturally low flow of about 200 cubic feet per second, a minimal amount. There are large reservoirs upstream, especially Hetch Hetchy and Don Pedro, and the operative mode is to save as much water as possible. During the recent storms, inflow to Don Pedro reached as high as 8,000 cubic feet per second, but outflow remained at 200 cfs.

Last week the river was dramatically higher, flowing at 2,000 cubic feet per second. The water masters are clearing out some storage space in Don Pedro in case of a flood emergency. It looks like they intend to go as high as 3,500 cfs in the next few days. Certainly not a flood (it would have to reach 9,000 cubic feet per second for that), but enough to clear the channel of invasive water hyacinth, and enough to make one feel the river is closer to a natural seasonal condition.

It's a nice time of year to walk the Tuolumne.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Is it a Fossil Smuggling Conspiracy?? (Answer: No, it's something fun)

There's this suspicious storage container on our campus. It's been there for months, all through the construction of our much-anticipated Great Valley Outdoor Nature Lab. It's always closed and locked up and I've never seen what's inside. It's makes one wonder what could be stored there...
The other day though, workers were inside moving things around when I walked by. It was time to do some detective work, so I nonchalantly walked up and acted like a supervisor and looked inside. I was SHOCKED! There were fossils! Lots and lots of fossils! There was what seemed to be a Mosasaur, a T-rex skull, some ammonites, and many others. Had I stumbled upon some kind of fossil smuggling operation? Were we being used to hide ill-gotten paleontological discoveries?
Oh, for heaven's sake. It's not that at all. Can you see that pair of cement enclosures above? Those pits will eventually be mock paleontology dig sites where our children visitors can experience the thrill of discovery. The kids will be using shovels and brushes to uncover these treasures of the past while they learn of the natural history of the Great Valley here in California.
We've been waiting for thirty years for our Great Valley Museum to have an outdoor component that will bring alive the fascinating history of the natural ecosystems of our unique valley. Before it became the premier agricultural center for the continent, the Great Valley was an extensive prairie environment with Tule Elk, Wolves, Grizzly Bears and other interesting creatures. In the geologic past, the valley was an ocean environment that hosted sharks and swimming reptiles like Mosasaurs, Ichthyosaurs, and Plesiosaurs. The Outdoor Nature Lab will be a wonderful learning environment for our local children. There are just a few more weeks to go before it is "complete" (the newly planted trees and shrubs will take years to mature, of course).

Monday, January 28, 2019

Exploring our Precious (and Abused) Places: Death Valley - February 14-18, 2019

Now that the much-lamented government shutdown is over (for the time being), some of our attention can turn to our much abused national parks and monuments. It was a crime that they were left exposed to abuse, and it is a shame that some people saw the closure of the government as a ticket to vandalize our precious places.
And they are precious beyond words. Death Valley National Park is the largest park in the lower 48 states, and it preserves upwards of 2 billion years of earth history. The story in the rocks is more complete than any other park in the country, including even the Grand Canyon. The Paleozoic sediments alone are 20,000 feet thick, and the late Proterozoic rocks add 15,000 feet more. There are metamorphic rocks that are among the oldest in the American west, and volcanic rocks that are among the youngest (perhaps only a few hundred years).
The landscape is spectacular as well. The floor of Death Valley is the lowest and driest place in North America, and the hottest place in the world. Elevations range from -286 feet to more than 11,000 feet. There are times when one can stand in the broiling sun at Badwater and look at snowbanks on Telescope Peak. There are faults and badlands, alluvial fans and barren salt flats. There are hundreds of plant and animal species, including four species of fish (seriously).

Does this sound intriguing, a kind of place that you might like to visit? You could be there in a few weeks, and learn the details of the geologic story of this unique and precious place. I'll be teaching a 2-unit course on the geology Death Valley through Modesto Junior College on Feb. 14-18. We'll be camping out and spending our days hiking and exploring this fascinating place. If this all sounds interesting, join us! If you live in the Modesto area, we'll have an informational meeting on Thursday, January 31 at 5:30 PM in Science Community Center Room 326. If you can't make the meeting, all the trip information is available at the class website  at: Information on registration for classes at Modesto Junior College can be found at

Come and join us!

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Super Blood Wolf Moon Eclipse from under a Rainstorm

By all rights none of these pictures should exist. It was one of the astronomical events of the year,"Super-duper Blood Red Wolf Full Moon and Eclipse Extravaganza", or something like that. But unfortunately we had an 80% chance of rain for most of the evening in our area so I didn't expect to see any of it.
And yet...I couldn't help going outside every few minutes on the off chance that a break in the storm might occur. About the time of totality I could see clearing off to the west, and the opening was moving east at an excruciatingly slow pace. But I finally saw a patch of light through the clouds, and then there it was.
So tonight's post documents only a small portion of the celestial event, but I felt privileged to see just this much. After about 15-20 minutes the next wave of clouds moved over and blocked out the moon once again.
If there is any consolation, I got a somewhat interesting video of the clouds moving across the moon, accompanied by narration from Zoey the cat, who couldn't understand why I wasn't picking her up. The jerkiness in the middle of the video resulted from the kitty claws digging into my leg as she hopped up into my lap.


Friday, January 18, 2019

Join the Geotrippers! British Columbia, the Channeled Scablands, the Olympic Peninsula and the North Cascades, June 26-July 10, 2019

What are you going to do this summer? Are there places in the world that you've thought of visiting but never made a plan? Maybe we can be of assistance in fulfilling your dreams! The geology and anthropology departments at Modesto Junior College will be conducting a field course dyad that will explore Washington and British Columbia on June 26-July 10, 2019. Anyone with an interest in geology or anthropology is encouraged to join us (if you want to skip the reading and get to the details, scroll down to the bottom of this post).

Our journey will begin in the Seattle area where we'll get our rental vans (yes, you'll need to find your way to Seattle). We'll then head out to the Olympic Peninsula where we'll explore Olympic National Park (including the iconic view from Hurricane Ridge, above). There will be an opportunity to explore some of the rainforest. Cape Flattery and the Makah Nation will be the anthropology focus on one day.

We'll then take the ferry across the Strait of Georgia to the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island. "Island" barely describes a landmass three hundred miles long. It has been inhabited by humans for thousands of years, and we'll be looking for petroglyphs and other archaeological evidence as we explore the south shore and then work our way north through Duncan to Nanaimo.

From Nanaimo, we'll take a ferry back to the North America mainland at Howe Sound. We will spend several days in the Vancouver area, exploring both the coastal mountains and Fraser River delta, and also the extensive museums in the city.

We'll travel the Sea to the Sky Highway, a spectacular route that leads from Vancouver to Whistler and Pemberton, site of the 2010 Winter Olympics. We'll have a chance to observe active glaciers and potentially active volcanoes, including Mt. Garibaldi and the Black Tusk.
You'll have a chance to figure out how this landscape happened...(below).
 We'll return to the United States by way of the Okanogan Valley and we'll then explore one of the strangest landscapes on Earth, the Grand Coulees and Channeled Scablands. The discovery of evidence for the incredible Spokane Floods of the ice ages is one of the great stories of geology.
We'll wrap up the trip by passing over the Cascade Range at North Cascades National Park with a stop along the potentially active Mt. Baker volcano.

This trip is just the latest of MJC’s unique collaboration of field studies in geology and anthropology, taught by anthropology professor Susan Kerr and geology professor Garry Hayes.

When and How? The group will come together in Renton, Washington (near SeaTac Airport and Seattle) on June 26 and will return to SeaTac mid-day on July 10. We will travel in rental vans, and stay in hotels.

Costs: The trip will cost $1,600, which includes transportation, admission fees, accommodations, and teaching materials. Students will be responsible for getting to and from Seattle, and for meals (many of the hotels offer free breakfasts, and some rooms will have microwaves). There will be the tuition costs for six units of semester credit, and the fees for getting or renewing a passport.

Accommodations: We are staying in a variety of motels and hotels. We are assuming double occupancy for married couples, and double to triple occupancy for singles. We will try to accommodate requests for single rooms for a surcharge, but cannot guarantee it. (The earlier your request, the better the chance for getting extra rooms).

Academics: The field courses are worth three semester units each (total of six). Participants will be expected to keep field notes and to complete worksheets and quizzes during the trip.

There will be an informational meeting on Wednesday January 23rd at 7:00 PM in Science Community Center 326 on the West Campus of MJC. Contact the professors if you cannot attend (hayesg - at - or kerrs - at 

For up-to-date announcements, check out the trip Facebook page at and the MJC Geology information page at