Saturday, July 20, 2019

50th Anniversary of the Landing of Humans on the Moon, and the Human Adventure


The full Moon of July 16, 2019 
Today marks the 50th year since humans walked on the moon for the first time. The landing was an important part of my own life, and whenever I am reminded, I am taken back to my childhood. In 1969, I was at a scout camp high in the southern Sierra Nevada. I'm not sure whose screw-up it was that our troop was in the middle of nowhere at the moment of one of humanity's greatest achievements, but that was the way it was. I can remember walking through the pinyon forest between the dining hall and our campsite (they were pretty far apart). I was alone at the time, and I heard the camp loudspeakers crackle on (which was unusual; we usually only heard "taps" and other bugle calls, or the emergency alarm). I heard a scratchy voice say "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind", and I realized that humanity had just accomplished something big. Something that had never been done before. It had a profound effect on that scrawny kid in the pinyon forest at Circle B Scout Ranch.

I grew up in the early sixties fascinated by astronomy. But it was also frustrating that things were so distant and so unreachable by we earthbound humans. Our own moon seemed impossibly distant, despite the objective laid forth by JFK that we would reach it before 1970.
The other planets in our own Solar System were small disks in our best telescopes, and the moons that circled them mere points of light. At the time I had a postcard from the Palomar Observatory that had pictures of Jupiter and Saturn similar to those below. I spent hours staring at them with a hand lens and later on a microscope, hoping I could make out more detailed features to no avail. The other stars? They were so distant that even in our best telescopes they looked no different, just spots of light. The more I learned about the stars and galaxies of the cosmos, the more impossible it seemed that we could ever reach them. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins changed that. They are heroes of the best kind, courageous men who risked everything to do something that had never before been done.
Of course, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins didn't build the Apollo Spacecraft, or the gigantic Saturn 5 rocket that sent them into space. They didn't navigate to the moon by themselves. There were thousands of engineers and scientists who did the calculations, designed the modules, and shepherded the spacecraft to the moon, and even more importantly, back home again. The vast majority of scientists and engineers were the product of an educational system that was the best the world had ever seen. And they were driven by a communal sense of purpose. They worked together towards a common goal, and their discoveries and innovations radically changed the world we live in.
Of course our cynicism allows us to point out that once we beat the Russians to the moon, the public pretty much lost interest in the space program. NASA started to fade from the public consciousness, but the system was in place that allowed a series of successful projects that have changed the way we view the cosmos and our place in it. We never sent astronauts to Mars, but we sent rovers. We sent the Voyagers to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. In a wonderful case of over-engineering, the spacecraft outlived their expected missions by decades. Voyager 1 is in its 42nd year of operation...it is still sending data from 16.4 billion miles away (20 light-hours) with an onboard computer that is probably less powerful than one of those Commodore 64 models that I wrote my thesis on in 1985. It recently made a course correction using thrusters that hadn't been fired since 1980. Voyager 2 is also continuing to operate.
Today we see our Solar System in stunning detail, in a way that would have been unbelievable to that child of the sixties. We know the surface of Mars in more detail than we know the surface of our own planet. We've explored the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, discovering strange worlds with vast oceans hidden beneath icy crusts, volcanoes of molten sulfur, and lakes, rivers and oceans made of liquid methane. We've peered through the clouds of Venus, and just a few years ago, we photographed and analyzed the hidden side of Mercury that we missed on the first mission three decades ago. We saw Pluto up close for the first time only a few years ago, and we've orbited the two largest asteroids, Vesta and Ceres.
The Hubble Space Telescope was the other game-changer. It has shown us the rest of the Universe with a clarity that was unimaginable four decades ago. We can see star nurseries and nascent star systems that provide us visual evidence of how our own Solar System formed. The Hubble and other high-tech units have now seen objects that formed a mere half billion years after the origin of the Universe itself 14 billion years ago. And we are only a few years away from the launch of an even more powerful telescope, the Webb Space Telescope.

This is the heritage of a country that undertook an audacious program of exploration under the leadership of JFK, and which succeeded through the exploits of courageous men like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. What do our children dream of today? Is our education system inspiring them to strive for incredible things, or is it teaching them to be unquestioning automatons in a factory or office? Are we teaching them to be curious about the world, or teaching them how to take a multiple-choice assessment test?

I had the privilege today of offering a lecture on "Space Rocks" at the public library in Hemet, California. The audience turned to be mostly young women 6 to 9 years of age, so I changed gears and made it more of a talk about the adventures of scientific research, and how anyone, including them, could be the vanguard of our next journeys into the unknown.
We are in a time of even greater challenges as humans. We are entering a dark age where the US government is retreating into willful ignorance instead of the leading the world in the face of a planetary crisis. We are now living with the consequences of climate change that were predicted thirty years ago, and we are spiraling into even worse consequences in the near future. There are days when I feel absolute despair at the stupidity and greed of those in charge, and profound sadness at the gullibility of those who blindly accept the deceptions and lies of the present administration. I can't accept that our explorations are ending in a morass of corruption and lies.

In the words of the immortal folksinger Lee Hays (and no doubt others), all things, like a kidney stone, will pass. I believe that adventure still awaits us as a people. As I start a new school year next month, I am as excited as I have ever been to have the opportunity to introduce my students to an incredible Universe. And almost every teacher I know feels the same way.
This is a highly abridged and updated version of a post from August 25, 2012 marking the passing of astronaut Neil Armstrong.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Maybe I Need to Change My Spirit Animal...


The Geotripper Blog has been quiet for a few weeks, due to the fact that we have been conducting a field studies course on the geology and anthropology of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. It's been hectic, but also incredible. Today though, I just had to find a moment to post about my experience from this morning. It has to do with spirit animals.

I don't accept the claptrap that emanates from the psychic/new age community about such things because it is a form of cultural appropriation, but when I encounter indigenous people who have close ties to a landscape that they have occupied for millennia, I pay a lot more attention. It's one thing to be a member of a privileged group whose ancestors were responsible for genocide of entire cultures and then to pretend to take their religion seriously, and quite another to try and understand and respect these cultures that have existed for many centuries.

During this trip, I've been deciding what animal would represent my place in the cosmos, and because I have been seeing a great many Bald Eagles, I "picked" them (understood easily by our students, given the fact that I spend my time looking at the skies above for birds while talking about the rocks below). But this morning we were touring the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler, British Columbia. The Centre celebrates the peoples whose traditional boundaries straddled the passes around Whistler, the Squamish (Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh) and Lil'wat (Lil’wat7ul). It is a wonderful facility and includes an outdoor area showing a pithouse and longhouse, as well as a forest trail identifying culturally important plants and animals. Including the sign in the picture below...

And not more than 150 feet away, there it was...a Black Bear foraging along the trail. It was being a "good" bear, looking for food from the forest rather than from the trash cans and litter of the people in Whistler. Frankly, it was just a bit eerie, but only a bit. The bear was unconcerned with my presence. It was mainly a moment of contact with the natural world that is all too rare in our deeply insulated society.
The Squamish and Lil'wat people hold the bear in high esteem. To them the bear symbolizes family and strength through motherhood and teachings. Mother Bears are fierce defenders of their children and are great protectors. Bear is a well-respected member of the community and is sometimes referred to as the protector of the forests. They look to the Bear to show them how to fish and pick berries in their territory.



The meanings of the other animals and spirits can be found here: https://shop.slcc.ca/legends-symbology/

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

A Mink Mother's Moment This Morning at Lake Washington

We were privileged to watch a mini-drama today while walking along the shore of Lake Washington in Gene Coulon Park. We noticed a small group of Minks (Mustela vison) along a fence and embankment, a mother and two pups. The embankment was too tall for the babies to climb over, so mama grabbed one of them by the head and hefted it over the top and down the other side. We could almost hear mama saying to the other "Stay put, I'll be right back", but does the little one pay any attention? Of course not!

The little one was squeaking in terror at being left alone, and started running along the side and trying to climb over without success. It moved around 15 or 20 feet away, so it wasn't there when mama came back, but it didn't take too long for her to find it and to grab it by the ear and carry it over too, taking just long enough that I got a 10 second long video of the drama.

Despite the fact that these animals are found in every state except Arizona, I've never seen one before today.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Burial Mounds of the Kings of the Rohirrim? Got a Better Idea? The Mima Mounds of Washington

One of the vivid images in my mind of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy was the resting place of the Kings of Rohan. They were buried in mounds, and the mounds were covered by the white flowers called SimbelmynĂ«. I couldn't help think of the Kings of the Rohirrim when I arrived at the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve near Tumwater, Washington yesterday.
When European settlers reached the region, some of them thought that these unusual features were indeed Native American burial mounds. But when no further evidence could be found supporting the idea, they looked for other explanations. And didn't find many...
The things we don't know about our planet are, well, not known. But geologists are the first to say that the unknowns are legion. Many aspects of Earth are still a mystery. Lots of the mysteries lie hidden deep in the crust and mantle, or on the deepest parts of the ocean basins. But some mysteries are still right there in front of us, and mima mounds are one of them.

Mounded topography forms in a number of places across the central and western United States in a number of different geological environments. Although they share some similarities, it is possible that they originate from several different processes. Ideas range from the mundane to the exotic (and unlikely). Most of them occur when a fairly thin layer of soil covers a harder layer or substrate underneath. They tend to be just a few feet high, and occur in concentrations of 8-10 per acre.
The mima mounds of Washington formed at the edge of the massive ice sheet that covered most of Canada and parts of Washington as recently as 12,000 years, and so some hypotheses involve glacial meltwater, or subsurface glacial activity. Some suggest erosion of sediment from around concentrations of vegetation. More esoteric explanations involve disturbances from the vibration patterns of major earthquakes.

Occam's Razor states that among competing hypotheses, the ones that make the fewest assumptions are more likely to be correct (sometimes inaccurately described as the simplest answer is always the best). One of the more reasonable explanations for the mounds may be simply rodent activity. When pocket gophers dug into the shallow soils and encountered harder sediments, they tended to build up the mounds, and the process continued through thousands of generations. Maybe. And maybe it's aliens...
I managed to catch a photo of the mima mounds on approach to SeaTac a few years ago.
In any case, it's a fascinating place to visit. Several trails wind their way through the mounds, and there is an interpretive kiosk with a viewing platform. It is a beautiful prairie setting, with the tweeting of birds, the buzzing of insects...and an air of mystery.
I've been to the mounds in Washington twice, and the first time was in the dead of winter when no flowers were present. This time it was summer and it was a thrill to see the fields of flowers, bringing to mind the tombs of kings and the Simbelmynë.
If you want to visit the site, here are the directions from the park website:

From southbound or northbound Interstate 5, take Exit 95 and turn west on Highway 121 (Maytown Road SW) toward Littlerock. In Littlerock, continue west (forward past the school, past the intersection with Littlerock Road that curves south, and past the mini mart/gas station on the right) onto 128th Avenue. Travel about 0.8 mile where 128th Avenue ends at a 'T.' on top of the hill. Turn right onto Waddell Creek Road and travel about 1 mile. The entrance to Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve will be on the left. A Washington State Discover Pass is required for parking at this site.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Our Newest Department Acquisition Has Arrived! Paleontologist Barbie!

21st Century Paleontologist Barbie
Be honest. If I suddenly shouted "paleontologist", what picture would occur in your mind before you give it any thought? How would this person look? What would this person be wearing? What gender or ethnicity would you see in your mind? What stereotypes lurk in your mind?

There's a story from the history annals of the geology department where I teach. In 1996, Mattel came out with a Paleontologist Barbie. Someone brought one by the lab one day, and a fascinating discussion followed. The women were just a bit brutal and offered a long list of "improvements" that would add to the authenticity of the doll. These included bruises, scrapes, and bandages for the legs, and suggestions of either deeply tangled and ratted hair from the desert wind, or hair cut very short. There should be the geologist's tan, the one caused by knee socks and short pants. The blouse most certainly did not garner kind reviews. I sort of wish that I had picked one up for the lab back then. Boxed versions of the doll are bringing in offers of $80-90 these days from resellers.
Paleontologist Barbie, 1996
One outcome of the discussions was the design of our very first Geology Club t-shirt. It was more egalitarian with both genders being described in fine detail. Somehow I managed to save one of them after all these years, which you can see below...
So we fast-forward to the present day...much about the world is changed, but Barbie lives on. I had not been following the line of Barbie dolls for at least two decades, and I was surprised to find that there is an entire line of careers for Barbie dolls and that ethnicities beyond blonde white woman are part of the line-up. It's a welcome change, but because of a Facebook discussion, I was looking for images of the ancient Barbie Doll online...and found that Paleontologist Barbie has been resurrected!
I wasn't going to make a mistake again and ordered one right away ($12.95 plus tax). It arrived this week, and I welcome your observations and suggestions about how future Paleontologist Barbie in 2050 can be improved.

My first impression about 2019 Barbie is that she is rolling her eyes in exasperation (see the first photo). This no doubt is because some supervisor is mansplaining something to her on a subject in which she is an expert. The utility vest over a blue shirt is a good change, much more efficient than a dinosaur blouse. I'm not so sure about the hardhat. I guess some fossil excavations take place in quarries, but most of my personal experiences have been in desert or prairie in the hot sun where a broad-rimmed hat makes a lot more sense. The original 1996 Barbie had a hat and a canteen.
The fossil sample was a revelation. I wasn't sure at first what to make of the fossil assemblage. As best I could tell, it's an ammonite fossil (a marine creature), along with a fern (terrestrial), and the tracks of...something. It makes no sense...except for this fact: recent news of the discovery of a dinosaur extinction/tsunami assemblage in North Dakota that included ammonite fragments along with terrestrial vegetation fossils and fragments of terrestrial animals! This specimen is amazingly prescient!

The boots seem serviceable enough, but there ought to be some thick socks. Blisters are a real problem out there in the field. I couldn't find any images of the footwear of 1996 Paleontologist Barbie.
I'm old enough and far-enough removed from the days of having a young daughter in the house that I still think of Barbie as a helpless princess, so I'm glad to find that the toy line has displayed some sensitivity to the career opportunities available for young girls of all ethnicities to dream about. I am actually going to  put the doll in the lab along with Gumby and Pokey, and a host of toy dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. I do in fact have children visiting in the lab on occasion, and I would like for them to be able to see themselves as geologists and paleontologists.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Every Place Has a Story: Prichard, Oregon's Smallest State Park

I've been visiting Florence, Oregon for a number of years, and it is a beautiful place. The Siuslaw River reaches the sea near the town and at the northern edge of the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Sea Lion Caves lie hidden in the coastal cliffs just north of town. But Florence holds one other distinction: it has Oregon's smallest state park. It's called Prichard State Wayside, and it totals an entire 0.5 acres. To be sure, Prichard is not the smallest park in Oregon. That distinction belongs to a city park in Portland called Mills End Park. It's located at in intersection in the city, and has a total area of 452 square inches.

A visit to Prichard State Park is not exactly a life-changing event. The half acre includes a grassy swale, a couple of trees, a small parking area, and no facilities at all. There's a single sign identifying the site. There's no interpretive signage, and little information on the internet about the history or genesis of the park. I'm guessing it was some land that was donated to the state, and the officials that be couldn't really decide what to do with it.

Looking at the park, I was reminded of something that I tell my students on the opening day of every class: geology is where you find it, and every place you find has a geological story. At first glance I was hard put to imagine an interesting geological story for this place. But a moment's reflection proved the opposite.

Let's take a look at the setting of the park. It is a grassy slope that is situated along the Siuslaw River, which from this angle looks like a huge body of water. But it isn't technically a river. It's a tidal estuary, and the wide body of water flows either downstream towards the sea or upstream in response to the daily tides. In a few hours the entire mudflat in these pictures will be covered with water. The area of tidal influence extends 26 miles inland, which is nearly 20% of the entire length of the river. Upstream of the tidal influence, the river is modest, with an average flow of about 2,000 cubic feet per second. That's less than a third of the more familiar Rogue River.



The story of any part of the Earth starts with the rocks that underlie the site. A quick look at the geological map of the park region shows that the "bedrock" is composed of "Qal", translated as 'Quaternary alluvium". Alluvium is our term for any of the loose sediment that covers the more solid rock underneath. "Quaternary" is the last little gasp of geologic time, encompassing the last 2 million years. The unit might include the mud of the estuary, river and or gravel, or dune sand. The Qal at Prichard is most likely slightly consolidated dune sands, which is a material that underlies most of the coastal areas in the vicinity of Florence. Sand carried along the coast by wave transport is blown inland by persistent onshore winds, forming the dunes for which Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area is justly famous.
The picture above shows the coastline just north of Florence. The region has undergone a significant change in the last hundred years or so. Migrating dunes can certainly be a problem in developed areas, so a European species of beach grass was introduced in the 1920s in an effort to stabilize the dunes. The grass worked too well, and sand has been trapped in the area adjacent to the shoreline, building into an ever higher ridge of grass-covered sand. The area inland has been starved of sand, so it has blown farther inland, leaving a low area called the deflation plain, a region now covered by small ponds and scrubby forests.

Sand is a famously unstable foundation for buildings (it's even in the Bible), but dunes that have been stable for centuries or millennia will sometimes be consolidated by calcium carbonate or other minerals in the groundwater. That is a much firmer surface to work with, and thus the development of the Florence area has been possible.

Going back in geological time often leads to strange changes in the appearance of the landscape. For instance, during the ice ages of the last 2 million years this little park would have looked far, far different than it does today. It's not because there was any ice; the glaciers that were present in Oregon were many miles away up in the Cascades. The big different was sea level. With so much ice locked up in the vast continental glaciers that covered almost all of Canada and northern Europe, sea level dropped to around 300-400 feet lower than today. Prichard State Park a few tens of thousands of years ago would have been perched on a terrace above a Siuslaw River ensconced in a deep river gorge hundreds of feet below. The outlet of the river would have been miles to the west of where it is today. 


One last aspect of the geology of any region is how it affects those who live there. Hazards present at Prichard would clearly include flooding and fires (especially in a time of global climate change). As noted earlier, the average flow of the Siuslaw River is about 2,000 cubic feet per second. The record flood on the river was around 45,000 cfs, and in that circumstance, the water would rise to inundate the little park.

The other very serious threat is that of tsunamis. These destructive surges of water could be developed by a massive earthquake on the Cascadia Subduction Zone that runs parallel to the coast. A quake has now been documented as having reached magnitude 9 in 1700. Such an earthquake is thirty times more powerful than the magnitude 8 quake that devastated San Francisco in 1906, and around a thousand times more powerful than the 1988 Loma Prieta earthquake (just short of magnitude 7). Tsunamis can also be generated thousands of miles away in places like Japan or Alaska. Whether local or distant, Prichard State Park would be a dangerous spot if a tsunami ever hit. There would be no "breaking wave" as is shown in many photoshopped images. The water instead arrives as a surge moving rapidly upstream at high speed. In moments, the park would be inundated to a depth of several tens of feet. The water would eventually recede, but then a second, third, and maybe fourth wave will follow.
Geology is everywhere, and everywhere has a geologic story, even Oregon's smallest state park. Check it out, if you can find it!

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

The Great Valley Museum Outdoor Nature Lab Stands De-fence-less!

Something special happened yesterday at Modesto Junior College and the Great Valley Museum. The Outdoor Nature Lab, which has been completely fenced off for most of the last year became "de-fenced". The construction process has not been finished, but the basic structures, the rocks, the plants, pathways, greenhouse, and irrigation/lighting are in place, and visitors are now able to wander through the newest addition to the Great Valley Museum.
The picture above is how the site looked in January shortly after the fencing went up. The field had been barren for three or four years after the construction of the Science Community Center. Some in the administration had wanted to plant the field with grass while we waited for the funding of the Outdoor Nature Lab to be approved, but the faculty and staff of the Center resisted. We were aware that it would make it easier for the funding to "disappear" if there was a nice grassy area. We chose to have a barren lot. The funding was precarious, as the lab was one of the final projects to be funded by our Measure E bond from a decade ago, and a cost over-run in other areas could have eliminated the project entirely.
The parade of constantly changing administration officials who had occupied their offices for only a few years sometimes had trouble understanding how important the Outdoor Nature Lab was to the museum and faculty at Modesto Junior College. It has been a dream for more than three decades that we would have a microcosm of the Great Valley natural environment adjacent to our facilities, with the native plants and characteristic rock types (as well as a greenhouse and demonstration gardens). Many of our students and visitors have barely ever traveled outside the city limits and are unaware of the incredible world that still exists in the corners and edges of our valley.
We were thrilled yesterday to find that along with the disappearance of the fencing that some of the natural environment was already arriving to occupy our small natural landscape. Killdeers were wandering over the site, and we suspect there might even be a nest nearby. The Killdeer is the mascot of the museum and center, appearing on our logos. It seemed a good omen, like a blessing.
Spring is still going on at the outdoor lab as well. There were delays with the planting so the worksite missed any kind of natural wildflower blooms back in March and April, but we have a great many newly-planted trees, and they will have to be irrigated until they can mature and put down an adequate root system. Natural wildflowers were also planted, and they are blooming right now.

Pathways wander throughout the lab, providing a serene place to walk or wait between classes, especially as the trees grow and mature. Interpretive signs will be installed soon that explain the identity of the plants and rocks, and the relationships that make up the Great Valley biome.

Part of my role in the design of the lab was the selection of rocks that we chose to represent the lower foothills of the Sierra Nevada. I was able to select somewhere around 30 tons of boulders that now crop out in the eastern part of the lab.
At the north end where visiting students will disembark from their school buses, we've placed boulders of the Table Mountain lava flow. It is a relatively rare rock called latite, but being black, and originally highly fluid, it can be thought of as a form of basalt. The lavas emerged from vents located today high in the Sierra Nevada near Sonora Pass (the Dardanelles) and flowed west for nearly 60 miles to the Knight's Ferry area. As the mountains later rose and tilted west, erosion removed the rocks from around the lava flow, but the lava flow resisted the forces of erosion and ended up as a ridge that retained the sinuous path of the ancestral Stanislaus River.

The boulders are covered by a veritable ecosystem of lichens and mosses. When I picked them out last October, they were drab and dried out. When the rains came the surface of the rock came alive with color. It's a marvelous place to see the weathering of rock and formation of soil happening right in front of your eyes. The lichens produce acids that slowly break down the rock into clay and nutrients.
At the south end where students will be walking into the museum, we've placed "tombstone rocks". These are some of the oldest rocks found in our region, metamorphic slate and phyllite that started out as mud and silt on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Plate motions carried these sediments into the subduction zone that once extended from Canada to Mexico. The sediments were scraped off the ocean crust and added to the edge of the continent. In the process, the mud and silt were subjected to intense heat and pressure, and they were tilted to a vertical position. Differential erosion removed the softer layers, leaving the harder slabs to stand out like a ill-kempt cemetery plot.



Other rocks on the "upper" trail include marble boulders, the host rocks for the Mother Lode's spectacular caverns. We also have a huge chunk of quartz, the host ore for the gold that was responsible for the most transformative events in the human history of California, the Gold Rush of 1848.
In a few months we expect to see a scaled-down model of a Saurolophus, the first dinosaur ever to be found in California, erected in the barren area on the lower left corner in the picture below. It was discovered by a teenager named Al Bennison in the 1930s right here in Stanislaus County, up in Del Puerto Canyon. Few of our children are ever taught about the rich paleontology of our valley and the many kinds of fascinating creatures that used to live here in the valley, including Mosasaurs, Plesiosaurs, Hadrosaurs, and in much younger rocks, Sabertooth Cats, Mammoths, Short-faced Bears, Giant Sloths, and Dire Wolves. To help their imaginations, we are installing a mock paleontology dig at the western end of the nature lab.
It's an exciting time for our faculty, staff, and volunteers. It's not complete, but for the first time we are able to wander about this wonderful little microcosm of the Great Valley. For some of us it has been a three-decade wait, but it's been worth the effort. A lot of people have worked very hard to make this unique educational experience a reality.