Sunday, May 1, 2016
It's something that you hear once in awhile in a crowd of people seeing Yosemite Falls for the first time. You'll hear it from people seeing a geyser explode from the ground in Yellowstone, or gaping at the vast expanse of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. There are other places where you won't hear those words, because you won't be standing in a crowd of people. It might be while standing in a grove of 4,000 year old Bristlecone Pines at Great Basin National Park, or in an isolated slot canyon cut through the Navajo Sandstone in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, or watching California Condors from a windswept ridge in Pinnacles National Park. You won't hear it, but you will think it. Because there is no place like this, our national heritage of parks and monuments in the United States. It was our best idea as a nation, the idea of saving in perpetuity the unique landscapes that are like no other place on Earth.
One can argue the particulars, but the idea of a national park began here, in 1864. The valley was discovered by Europeans in 1851, and the reported wonders of the place caused Abraham Lincoln to cede the valley to the state of California with the proviso that it be protected for all time. In 1876, the first official national park was established at Yellowstone, while Sequoia and Yosemite followed in 1890. The 1906 National Antiquities Act gave the president the authority to establish national monuments without the approval of Congress, and in 1916, a government agency, the National Park Service, was established to administer the growing numbers of parks and monuments. The Park Service is celebrating their centennial this year.
If you have not made a habit of exploring the lands of our national heritage, I hope you will make it a priority in your life. Your life will be richer for it. If circumstances dictate that you can't spend time in these special places, I hope you will read about them, or watch wonderful documentaries (start with Ken Burns' series The National Parks: America's Best Idea). You could even read geology blogs about such places! It's like learning our country's history; you can't stand with our soldiers at Valley Forge or Gettysburg, you can't step onto the Moon along with Neil Armstrong, and you couldn't march with Martin Luther King, but you can learn from all these historical events, and make better decisions for our country's future.
Make no mistake. Our lands our still under assault. There is an ongoing effort to build a tramway to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and a huge new city on the South Rim of the same park. There are plans to mine uranium just a short distance from the park boundary. There are people who believe that our national heritage lands should be turned over to the states for private development such as at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Thankfully the worst of them are in jail right now, but there are many more such people out there. Maybe worst of all, there are politicians in Congress bought and paid for who are trying to make these things happen.
And there are vandals. A story has made the rounds this week of several despicable individuals by the name of Staten and Andersen who left massive carvings in one of the most beautiful arches in Arches National Park. One might as well spray-paint Da Vinci's Mona Lisa, and carve your name on the Last Supper. Once defiled, these precious places can never be the same, and the vandals have stolen something from all of us.
Saturday, April 30, 2016
|The Ferguson Slide today, April 30, 2016|
I thought of an Ian Malcom quote from Jurassic Park (1983) today: "If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh... well, there it is."
We were driving past the Ferguson Slide on the Merced River near Yosemite Valley, a huge slump that let loose in 2006, covering Highway 140, and forcing engineers to "temporarily" put the highway on the other side of the river. Try replacing the word "evolution" with the word "geology", and the word "life" with the word "rock", and see if this is appropriate: If there is one thing the history of geology has taught us it's that rock will not be contained. Rock breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh... well, there it is.
|The Ferguson Slide in November 2016. Source: http://geotripper.blogspot.com/2015/05/work-on-yosemites-ferguson-slide.html|
The engineers have been intending to reopen the section of Highway 140 by constructing an avalanche shed. They began work last year by removing a huge amount of rock, and then covering the remaining slide with containment netting. Unfortunately, El Nino made its influence felt, as rainfall this year was more than average. It didn't result in disastrous flooding, but apparently excess water contributed to the failure of the slide in two separate events in November and December. The new slides destroyed half of the containment netting (yes, I'm a bit late with this news, but I haven't been up there a lot until these last few weeks). Engineers are reassessing their options, and work has stopped for the moment.
Friday, April 29, 2016
So what was it that he got wrong? It was a fairly minor plot point, but in the movie, the two friends Curt and Steve were on the same pathways for their lives. They were planning to leave town to attend a "northeastern" college (let's presume an Ivy League school), but after a series of events over the space of one long night, Steve is convinced to stay in Modesto, attending the "junior" college, while Curt heads off to great success, and was eventually a writer living in Canada. Steve ended up selling insurance in Modesto.
What's wrong with this picture? It was the insinuation that attending a community college was somehow a lesser option for achieving success, that it is in some way a second-rate education. As I sat proudly through our graduation ceremony tonight, I would fiercely argue that getting a degree at a community college is a wonderful achievement, and that I would proudly put my students up against any Ivy League student at the two-year mark in their academic career.
The students I work with come from many different backgrounds, and most of them are poor and disadvantaged. They come from many cultures. Our elementary and secondary schools are underfunded and sometimes dangerous, and alcoholism and drug use are epidemic in our region. The kids in our schools have the decks stacked against them at every turn. They come to us unprepared and unskilled. We have veterans suffering from PTSD, abused spouses, and laid-off laborers. We have huge numbers of people who are the first in their families to ever attend college. We have resources at our school, but sometimes the challenges facing our students are overwhelming. And yet these students persist, and they fight, and they cry, and fail, and then they come back again. And in the end they master the skills required to pass their classes. When you see a group of these students decked out in blue robes, and receiving an AA or AS degree, you are looking at some of the most successful people in the world.
|The professor in front isn't checking her email. She was taking pictures like I was.|
If you are an employer, and you see a community college on the resume of a potential employee, you are looking at a person with persistence, stamina, and an incredible work ethic. They've been through impossible challenges and they've succeeded.
I couldn't be more proud of my students on this great day.
Thursday, April 28, 2016
The video is very short, but in eight seconds it shows the stupidity of bad agricultural practices in Central California, practices that have led to disaster in the past, and maybe into our immediate future as well.
|Muddy runoff from an almond orchard east of Modesto. That's soil going away, never to return|
So why is it that I'm ranting on this subject today? We had a freak storm roll through the area this afternoon. In about twenty minutes we accumulated 0.5 inches of rain, and the sky was alive with thunder and lightning. We even had a funnel cloud over our village east of Modesto (video here). The skies cleared and the storm drifted east. I decided to make a slight detour on my way to work, so I headed east on Lake Road towards Turlock Reservoir and came across a shocking scene (for our region anyway): a hail-covered landscape.
In other words, these "farmers" (really investment groups) are breaking one of the most important lessons of the Dust Bowl era. To farm in a sustainable manner, one needs to work with the land, not against it. One of the main causes of soil loss in the Dust Bowl days was erosion of furrows that sloped towards the gullies and valleys because of an insistence on plowing in perfectly symmetrical rows no matter the underlying topography.
The problem was made most clear as I was driving south on Hawkins Road (below). On the right side of the road, you can see the recently planted orchard, and the muddy water that is washing off the slope. In the foreground, the water on the road is clear. That's because the slope to my right was covered with prairie grass, not orchard.
Monday, April 25, 2016
Thursday, April 21, 2016
Death Valley and the Basin and Range Province are largely the result of extensional forces dating from the last 15-20 million years. The crust was stretched and broken up into horsts and grabens, and earthquakes today still mostly reflect the heritage of the intense stretching of the earth's crust. It wasn't always that way. For something like 200 million years, the region was under the influence of compressional forces, courtesy of the massive subduction zone that once existed off the California coast (it still exists to the north as the Cascadia Subduction Zone). As the ocean crust sank beneath the edge of the North American continent, the rocks that had originally formed the passive continental margin were pushed skyward and intensely folded. In places the folds literally turned the rocks upside down.
Because the Death Valley graben has been sinking through time, the valley is deeper and more narrow towards the edge of the range, since the river gradient is steeper and erosion faster. The narrows of Titus Canyon are memorable, being barely wide enough to accommodate the vans. Most of the students got out and walked the last mile (in the dark), because the canyon is so scenic in the lower reaches.
Monday, April 18, 2016
|I think they got a bulk deal on signs. The cliff is maybe 20 feet high.|
I don't know the reasons for the increased flows, and now, a day later, they've already slowed the discharge to less than 1,000 cfs. The reservoir is currently 64% full, about 88% of what would be normal for this time of year.
PS: I'm told by the folks at the Tuolumne River Trust that it was a pulse flow to clear out hyacinth, and to assist salmon fingerlings to make the journey downstream.