Monday, April 30, 2012

When Life Got Complicated: the Burgess Shale (Accretionary Wedge #45)

Life as a Geologist is our host for Accretionary Wedge Carnival #45. And what a great topic:
"Geological Pilgrimage – the sacred geological place that you must visit at least once in your lifetime ....a single place, which is “geologically” unique, relatively remote, and requires some difficulty to get to. If you have already done your geological pilgrimage, please share with us your experience..."

I've had a rich life, being able to link my favorite activities, traveling and photography, with my career as a geologist and teacher. It means I have been to a lot of places, so a topic like this leads to a lot of introspection. I'm also looking forward to reading some of the other entries...I like new ideas of where to go!

I thought of a lot of places, but I settled on one particular site because of the emotional impact it had when I reached the goal. It was indeed remote, and was difficult to get to. It was the Burgess Shale fossil quarry in Yoho National Park in British Columbia, Canada. Besides being one of the most important fossil sites in the world, it involved one of the most beautiful hikes I've ever taken. Just look at the scenery from the edge of the quarry:
Fossilization is a chancy process. Everything has to happen just right, and most of the time organisms are immediately scavenged or quickly decay. Even when things happen just right, it is exceedingly rare for anything besides bone or shell to survive. As a result, the fossil record is highly biased towards creatures with shells. When one considers how many soft-bodied creatures exist in the world's ecosystems, and how rarely they are preserved, we realize how poor our picture of the past really is. This is especially true of the "dawn" of complex life in the Cambrian period, just over 500 million years ago. Something 75% of the record is made up of the various species of trilobites, and most of the rest are sponge-like archaeocyathids and brachiopods (simple bivalved creatures which are not as "advanced" as clams). Although we know that plenty of soft-bodied forms existed, they have not been preserved, except in a precious few places.

One of these is the Burgess Shale, in British Columbia. The shale accumulated as masses of mud slid into oxygen-poor water. The organisms living in the environment were killed immediately, as were the scavengers and microbes that would have consumed them. The outcrops were discovered by Charles Walcott in 1909, and over the years tens of thousands of specimens have been collected and analyzed. The rocks were full of diverse and sometimes bizarre species that would have otherwise been lost to all time (see this article for examples).

The Burgess Shale is high on a ridge in the Canadian Rockies, and it is a tough six mile hike to the quarry. As a World Heritage Site, and being within a Canadian National Park, access is highly restricted (and believe me, they know when someone is there illegally!). To see the quarry one must go with a conducted tour through the Burgess Shale Geoscience Foundation.
I made the hike in July of 2005, one of the first hikes that year in this cold alpine environment. The sun played hide and seek with the clouds, and rain occasionally threatened (I have the distinct impression that that situation occurs just about every day up there). Glacier Lilies were everywhere, providing a great deal of color along the trail. There were also several steaming piles of grizzly bear poop, so we stayed pretty close together on the trail...
It was a long uphill hike, but after 5 1/2 miles, we passed a sign that let us know we were drawing close.
I walked a little slower than the others, and I paused at the last few steps. Most of the other hikers were not geologists, and were only beginning to understand the importance of this site to paleontology. I gathered my thoughts and emotions, and stepped into the quarry for the first time.
It was still half-filled with snow and ice, but there were plenty of slabs of rock around. Trilobites were all over, and I almost immediately found a delicate sponge fossil. The others gathered at the far end of the quarry, so I walked over.
The foundation knows that random searching in the quarry will not reveal some of the rare creatures, so they keep some pretty decent samples in the red lockbox on the site. Gazing at the specimens, I realized all over again what a wondrous treasure this site this really is for paleontologists.
Collecting of course is not allowed here, but we were allowed to search among the slabs for fossils that we could "own" for ourselves through the magic of digital imagery. I quickly found a nicely preserved Haplophrentis, a primitive mollusk related to snails and clams.
My favorite find was a complex little Marrella species, which is actually the most commonly found fossil in the Burgess Shale. It was the most delicate fossil I've ever found. And hard to photograph!
I tried photographing the fossil from a couple of angles. The brown spot is a stain of fluids that escaped when the organism died. In case you are wondering, no, the specimen didn't "accidently" fall into my pocket. I put it in the pile next to the big red box, so look for it if you ever get up that way.
The rain started to fall, so we started down the barren slope. It's not a very smart place to be in a lightning storm! During the hike down, I was no longer so anxious about reaching the goal. I strolled along, enjoying some of the best alpine scenery I have ever gazed on.

Emerald Lake, thousands of feet below, really looked more turquoise in color, due to the fine clay particles suspended in the water. Glaciers are still carving these mountains.
After about ten hours and 12 miles on steep trails, I arrived back at the parking lot, tired but happy. It was indeed a place worthy of a geological pilgrimage.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Strangers in a Strange Land: Even the stones have minds of their own...

Death Valley is the very epitome of (easily visited) remoteness and loneliness. There are outposts of civilization at Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, and Scotty's Castle, but the rest of the park is a vast wilderness with only a few roads, paved or otherwise. I've called this blog series "Strangers in a Strange Land" because most humans are strangers here, and it seems like almost everything about this landscape is truly strange. One of those strange landscapes are playa surfaces. I previously talked about the Death Valley salt pan, one aspect of an interior drainage desert, but there are many other "lakes" in the park which never collected much in the way of salt. They have smaller drainage basins, and no river systems fed into them, so the most common mineral on the floor of these playas is fine-grained clay. They will occasionally have water following flash flood events, but most of the time they are dry, and the clay breaks up into millions of small, mostly hexagonal mudcracks.
Pure clay makes for poor soils, and plants do not grow on the playas. So...no plants, few animals or insects, no particularly interesting minerals. Why are these students so fascinated with the surface of the playa? Well, there is one thing on this playa that seems "alive"...it's the rocks. They've been moving around...
It's strange for large pebbles and small boulders to be on the playa in the first place if you think about it. Playas are the tail end of a flash flood sequence. There might be a mudflow careening down a desert drainage, tearing at the cliffs and carrying large rock fragments. But then the flood reaches the alluvial fans on the flanks of the mountains, and with the gentler slopes, the flood slows and the larger fragments drop out. The only sediment that usually reaches the playa surface is a brown slush containing only suspended clay particles. Sometimes there are rock outcrops found within the playa or along the margins, so the rocks can be easily explained. But how are they leaving behind trails?
By now, readers familiar with Death Valley are thinking that we are visiting Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park, but we aren't. Although the Racetrack is justly famous for the number and size of its moving stones, it turns out that moving stones can be found in at least eight other places across the Basin and Range Province in Nevada and California. I haven't been to the Racetrack yet (it is at the end of a 25 mile long gravel road), but I have seen the phenomenon at two other places: along Highway 50 on the Carson Sink in Nevada, and on this playa that we visited in February, Bonnie Claire, just outside of Death Valley National Park.

So, how is it that they move? If you are looking for a definitive answer, I am sorry, I don't actually know. No one truly does, because no one has ever seen it happen. I think we can safely dismiss stories of aliens playing jokes, elves, and pixies, and of strange magnetic forces. The stones lie on exceedingly flat surfaces, so gravity sliding is probably not involved. It seems that only one force exists in the Death Valley region that can account for the movement of these rocks: the wind.
Wind seems a real stretch. Even first-time geology students know that wind normally can only move sand and dust particles. It would take extraordinary conditions for wind to be able to push rocks that weigh many pounds. Yet it happens. Extremely high winds are not unusual in the Death Valley region, especially during and after winter storms. Studies are ongoing as to whether wet saturated clay is slick enough to allow for the movement of stones in such winds.

There may be another important factor. The playas where the rocks move are at higher elevations where freezing temperatures are common. If enough rain has fallen, water may cover the playas and freeze around stones sitting on the playa surface. It is suggested that broken sheets of ice around the stones can act as sails, helping push the rocks along. This idea is supported by rock trails that move in tandem, as if the rocks were physically connected. This explanation works for me, but additional testing of some of the rocks shows that ice cannot completely explain the movement (researchers put stakes around some stones, and they moved out, passing through spaces barely bigger than the stones themselves).

So the moving stones are still a bit of a mystery. One of these times, someone is going to brave a horrific windstorm and will be standing there with a camera when the stones are moving about. At that time we will be able to see the elves themselves pushing the rocks along!
Ron Schott has allowed me to post some of his photographs taken at Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park. The first is a gigapan 360 degree view of the playa (click on the image below to see how gigapans work; it's pretty amazing). More gigapans of Racetrack and other parts of Death Valley can be found here: http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans?gallery_id=7940&order=most_popular&page=2&per_page=10
More of his shots can be found on his Flicker page at http://www.flickr.com/photos/rschott/tags/racetrackvalley/

A final note: if you visit Racetrack or any of the other moving stone sites, please leave the stones alone. They are mysterious, but not mystical. They are normal run-of-the-mill rocks with no unusual properties other than being on a playa, and the position of each stone is recorded with GPS. Stealing the rocks (and that is what you would be doing) will screw up years of research. You will also take from the enjoyment from other visitors.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Strangers in a Strange Land: Even the volcanoes are a bit weird

Death Valley is a Strange Land, and we were strangers within it. Even the volcanoes are kind of odd, at least if you think volcanoes are big cones that put out lava flows and clouds of seething ash. The presence of the volcanoes is not strange in itself; it is a natural consequence of crustal extension. As normal and detachment faults broke up the crust, decompression allowed partial melting of the underlying mantle, producing basaltic magmas. Sometimes the magma rose into the crust, and melted the granitic rock into rhyolite lava that produced explosive caldera eruptions, including the one we observed in this earlier post. There was also some cinder cone activity at the south end of Death Valley, including a cone that was offset by a right lateral fault. But it is the northern end of Death Valley that has one of the stranger "volcanoes" that you might want to investigate if you ever visit.
Ubehebe Crater is a half-mile wide hole in the ground, around 600-700 feet deep. It's a bit unlike your stereotypical volcano, in that there are no lava flows or ash deposits. It is a big hole, but the walls of the crater are composed of orange and yellow lake sediment, and a nicely exposed fault (above). There are just little fragments of basaltic rock spread over several square miles, and a dozen or so craters. Ubehebe is the biggest, and Little Hebe (below) is one of the youngest, at least in appearance.
The other oddity is the bizarre layering along the margins of the craters (below). They are composed of bits and fragments and sedimentary rock and basalt that have been blown out of the crater onto the surrounding terrain. But no lava flows in or around the craters at all. So what was exploding?
Basalt is not as explosive as other types of lava, and other cinder cones in the region along the margins of the valley formed normal cinder cones and lava flows, which can be seen in the picture below. The Ubehebe Craters are more in the middle of the valley, but in a spot where a fault was present which allowed magma to rise through water-saturated lake sediment. The water was heated far past the normal boiling point because of the higher pressure at depth. Eventually the temperature rose so high that the water flashed to steam, and the ensuing explosions formed the craters and layering along the rim. Such volcanic features are called maars.
The National Park Service has recently completed a renovation of the parking area, and has posted new interpretative signs, including the aerial view of the site (below). It allows us to see the overlapping nature of the craters, showing their relative ages. The Ubehebe Craters have always been known to be young features, less than 10,000 years, but some recent research indicates they could be as little 800-2,100 years old. Media reports kind of played up the "recent" angle a bit much, suggesting they could erupt any moment (sillies, those things won't happen until December when the Mayan Calendar ends). I guess that is what the media needs to do to sell things, but at least people learn that there are things in Death Valley other than reptiles and sand.
Walking down into Ubehebe is a really breath-taking experience (I mean that literally, especially when one is trying to climb back out). I was struck by the youthful appearance of the slopes. One has to allow for the arid climate, but I have seen quarries and failed housing developments that look more gullied, and more recent.

Check out the miniature wineglass canyon below, with an alluvial cone forming the base, and the valley in the shadow above forming the cup. Sort of a Death Valley mountain range in miniature.
Ubehebe Craters are a fascinating place to visit, but are pretty isolated unless you are headed to Scotty's Castle. On the other hand, the Craters are on the road to one of Death Valley's strangest sights of all, which we discuss in the next post, even though I've never been there. But I have pictures of what makes it strange!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Strangers in a Strange Land: Salt and the end of all things

In February and March I made a series of trips to the Mojave Desert and Death Valley, and since then I have been conducting a blog journey through the basic principles of geology as exposed in this extraordinary desert environment (Strangers in a Strange Land). In the last post we were looking up at the Black Mountains and the strange Turtleback faults, but today we are looking down, down as far as we can look on the North American continent. We have reached Badwater and the salt pan of Death Valley.

The end of all things? Strange topic I suppose, but I have been watching Frozen Planet on the Discovery Channel over the last few weeks, and it has had an emotional impact. Not so much the cute animals and the little dramas of survival against their predators and so on. That gets to be manipulative after a while and loses impact with me. It was more watching the Emperor Penguins, and their struggle to survive as the last year-round non-flying vertebrate life form on the continent of Antarctica (Oh, except for this...).

Antarctica was once a lush forested continent. It once teemed with life, with dinosaurs that wandered through the trees and swamps, along with birds, amphibians, and later on, marsupial mammals. Antarctica was in fact the bridge by which ancient marsupials reached Australia for the first time, where they thrived.

But life in Antarctica was doomed. As long as the continent was still connected to the other southern continents, warm ocean currents kept the landmass temperate enough to hold back the formation of glaciers. But sometime in the early Cenozoic era, around 50 million years or so, the last connections to the other continents were severed. Antarctica was isolated, not just by water, but by cold ocean currents that surrounded the continent. The glaciers grew larger and larger, turning into ice sheets thousands of feet thick. As more and more land disappeared, animal and plant species disappeared, unable to adapt to the new frigid conditions.The thread of life frayed to the point of snapping.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kaiserpinguine_mit_Jungen.jpg
Except for those penguins. Somehow, they have continued to survive, adapting their reproductive habits to the seasonal patterns, standing their ground through the harsh winters, standing for months on end with an egg, and later a chick between their legs. The parents don't eat for months at a time, trading parental duties while their mates chase fish many miles away. They stand, literally, at the edge of survival in the harshest land imaginable on this planet.

What do these musings have to do with Death Valley? The "end of all things" can be interpreted any number of ways, and here, the extremes run the opposite direction. Death Valley is the product of the disruption of the Earth's crust, a disruption so complete that no river drainages in the province will ever reach the sea. Death Valley is the sump, the low place to which all waters flow, on the surface and underground. It is the end of rivers. And Death Valley is, like Antarctica, a place where animal and plant life face insurmountable challenges. Out on the salt flats life ends.

Death Valley was a pleasant environment once upon a time. During the Ice Ages, which dominated much of the last two million years (equaling about half the time that the Death Valley graben has existed), the valley collected glacial meltwater, and thus was a freshwater lake. The surrounding mountains were still semi-arid, but forests of juniper and other trees extended to the shores of the lakes, along with extensive grasslands. A diverse ecosystem thrived; mammoths, mastodons, horses, camels, antelope grazed here, and were hunted by carnivores like sabertooth cats, American lions, and wolves. At some point in time, a connection was made with the Colorado River drainage or some other river system now lost to us. So there were fish in the lakes.
No one could mistake Mono Lake for a verdant paradise, but forests come almost to the shoreline.
But things changed. Around 11,000 or 12,000 years ago the latest stage of the ice ages, the Tioga, ended. The rivers shrank to a trickle and gave out. The vast lake in Death Valley, over 100 miles long, and 600 feet deep, evaporated bit by bit, and with each dry season the salt content climbed. Finally, the last of the water left, and a vast salt flat was created. The desert baked in the summer sun.

Some animals migrated elsewhere, and but most went extinct. Bighorn sheep and coyotes are the largest animals still found anywhere in the region, but you won't find them here on the salt pan. It is one of the most sterile environments on the planet (the biologists will have to let me know if bacteria can thrive in a pure salt environment like this). And what of the fish?
Nope, no fish here anymore...

As pointed out before, Death Valley was the sump where all the regional water collected. It still is. The surface water is wildly inconsistent, but springs tap into underground reservoirs, and they flow on a year-round basis, and have been doing so since the last of the freshwater lakes dried up. A precious few species of fish took refuge in these springs and survive to the present day. In Death Valley the survivors are the pupfish (Cyprinodon). Like their penguin counterparts in the southern hemisphere, they survive in some of the harshest climates in the world. Some of the Death Valley species persist in water that reaches 100 degrees, and salinity that is three times that of seawater.

They're also hard to photograph...
The most endangered species is the Devils Hole Pupfish. The entire population occupies a single cavern opening in Ash Meadows just east of Death Valley. The population has hardly ever exceeded 300 individuals, but it sometimes dips to only two or three dozen. As if the 92 degree water and the precarious food supply (a ledge of algae covered rock) isn't enough, they sometimes have to put up with the bizarre effects of distant earthquakes (check out this video). But through it all the pupfish have found a way to adapt survive.
That's the entire population of Devils Hole Pupfish down there....
Death Valley is the hottest and one of the driest places on the planet. And the climate is warming. What changes are in store? It is hard to know. But I have a feeling that the rare years when the Amargosa River flows all the way to the valley floor will become all the rarer.
It will not be so often that we can see a six-inch deep lake on the floor of Death Valley, and imagine how it once was...

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Only a Little Planet...


I'm kind of hesitant about writing about Earth Day, 2012. There are many things I could talk about concerning our occupancy on planet Earth and what we a doing to ourselves and the ecosystem to which we belong. But I feel a certain sense of hopelessness, like I am trapped in a bus hurtling towards an abyss, and I am not in the driver's seat. In fact I am sitting way in the back, and no one seated up front is aware of what is happening. They're not paying attention, and wouldn't believe their peril if they were. The drivers of the bus have different priorities. I don't know if it is ignorance, or recklessness, but they are driving ever faster and faster, sure in themselves that they can make the turn before going over the edge.

The original Earth Day in 1970 caught businesses and politicians off-guard. Before they knew what was happening, Congress much to their own surprise had passed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and formed the Environmental Protection Agency. They passed the Endangered Species Act. And it made a difference. Our air and water are cleaner, despite vast numbers of more people and cars on the road. Dams and power plants and other mass developments have to consider their affect on the environment before they can proceed. It made a difference, and the enemies of this progress have been counter-attacking with a vengeance. 

Today, we face some of the greatest challenges ever faced by our species: the deeply intertwined problems of energy use and global climate change. Unfortunately, instead of facing the crisis head on, we instead have to listen to politicians deny the very existence of a problem. Despite the clear record of sea level rise, loss of glaciers worldwide, and direct measurements of worldwide temperatures, the politicians listen to their corporate lobbyists who pay for their re-election campaigns and then impugn the motives of climate scientists and environmental groups. The Supreme Court is complicit in this, with their recent Citizens United ruling that allows unlimited donations by corporations to political candidates. Our politicians represent their corporate sponsors, not their constituents.

We don't have many tools to fight back with. There is education, but political support for education is also disappearing. For all their words about competing in a global economy, politicians are letting our universities, colleges and high schools wither on the vine.

We still have the right to vote, but politicians are attempting to restrict that right to those who will vote they way the politicians want. Not enough people vote these days anyway, and many who do are "low-information" voters who are ignorant of the issues, and are easily swayed by sophisticated and well funded media campaigns.

So here I am, a blogger with a few hundred readers, and a teacher with a few hundred students each year. Did I say hopeless? Yeah, that's the way I feel sometimes. But I also know that education is a powerful tool, and I have to believe that politicians can only deny what is happening right before their eyes for so long (and then when the predicted catastrophes occur, they will say "no one could have foreseen this"). And change will come.

I wish the change wouldn't be wrenching. I wish it could be planned and carried out in a way that upholds human dignity and doesn't result in suffering, starvation and permanent economic depression. We will have to leave petroleum and fossil fuels behind, and embrace renewable energy if our standard of living is to continue as it is now, if there is to be an economic future for the children being born today, and if there is to be a healthy ecosystem on our planet. There is still time to plan, if the politicians would learn from someone besides their corporate sponsors.

Get involved and make a change! We did it in 1970, we can do it again.

Friday, April 20, 2012

All of these are not like the other, but, then again they are.

I asked the other day what three very different places could possibly have in common with each other: the Sierra Nevada, California's Great Valley (others call it the Central Valley), and the Coast Ranges. You could have missed it, as I filled the first part of the post with lots of wildflowers.
These landscapes are about as different as could possibly be...the Sierra Nevada is a vast 400 mile long mountain range, tilted to the west, that is composed primarily of granitic rock. Granite and related plutonic rocks form from the slow cooling of magma deep in the earth's crust. When the magma chambers were active, there would have been volcanoes and calderas above (I wrote a blog series on Yosemite entitled Under the Volcano in my early days of blogging).
What place could be more different than the Sierra? How about the Great Valley? It is also around 400 miles long, but it is about as flat a place as can be found anywhere in the country. Barely above sea level, it has been a collecting basin for sediments washed from the Sierra for many millions of years.
And then there is the Coast Range province...if there was ever a region with multiple-personality disorder, this is the place. In some parts, the sediments of the adjacent Great Valley have been turned upwards into tilted layers described as a homocline. Beneath the sediments we find basalt and gabbro characteristic of oceanic crust. In some places we find mantle peridotite, as shown in the last post. In others we find granitic and metamorphic rocks that look suspiciously like the rocks of the Sierra Nevada. Those parts lay on the west side of the San Andreas fault, which slices right through the Coast Ranges.

The biggest mess is the Franciscan Complex. It can be composed of greywacke sandstone (a sandstone with lots of clay and small rock fragments mixed in, generally, uh, gray in color), dark shale, red and green chert, some basalt, and even bits of limestone or marble. And the rock is a chaotic mix where the normal rules of stratigraphy have been tossed out the window. Geochemical studies show that some of these rocks have been many miles down in the crust, and have since been exhumed. Some of this chaotic mix, termed a melange, can be seen in the picture below, from along the coast north of Muir Beach.
How are they related? If you go to a place like Sumatra, or Japan, or Chile, you will find not only big earthquakes taking place, but also volcanic eruptions on land and deep trenches on the floor of the ocean. These phenomena exist because the oceanic crust is sinking beneath the edge of the continent or island chain along a subduction zone. As the subducting oceanic plate sinks deeper into the earth's hot mantle, fluids are released into the overlying rock, lowering the rocks's melting point. Parts of the mantle and crust melt, forming magma that rises through the crust, erupting from volcanoes, or cooling slowly to form granite and related plutonic rocks. The resulting chain of volcanoes and plutons is called a magmatic arc.

On the ocean floor, sediments are scraped off the descending oceanic crust and mixed with sediments washing into the trench from the land. The resulting jumble is called an accretionary wedge. Between the accretionary wedge and the magmatic arc, a shallow ocean basin often forms, collecting thousands of feet of sediments like sand, silt and clay. This linear sea is called a forearc basin.
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SubZone.jpg
You may see where this is going, since we seem to have explained the origin of granitic rock that graces much of the Sierra Nevada. But the picture isn't complete: there are few active volcanoes in the Sierra Nevada, the Great Valley is not an ocean basin, and the Coast Ranges don't look anything like a trench/accretionary wedge deposit. And that is why Central California is such an interesting place for geologists.

If you think about it, you might realize how difficult it is to directly sample the rocks in an active subduction zone complex. The volcanoes are there to see, of course, but it is difficult to drill into the active magma chambers. And the forearc basin and accretionary wedge are generally beneath the waves, meaning that research drilling would face even greater challenges. But there is no longer a subduction zone in Central California. It has been replaced by the lateral motion of the San Andreas fault (a transform boundary). The various parts of the subduction zone complex have subsequently been uplifted and eroded, revealing the deepest parts of a converging plate boundary.

The volcanoes of the Sierra Nevada magmatic arc were mostly eroded away millions of years ago (some eroded fragments cover parts of the northern Sierra Nevada). The sediments of the forearc basin are still largely in place, forming the basement of the Great Valley, but on the western edge, the sediments have been turned upwards, as seen in the hastily sketched diagram below (I forgot my chalkboard on the field trip last week, so I used this sketch in the field). We can literally drive into the earths crust for 20,000-30,000 feet all the way to the underlying ocean crust, which we call the Coast Range Ophiolite. We simply need to drive or walk up into the canyons of the Coast Ranges. In some places we find mantle rock, in the form of peridotite or serpentine. Likewise, we have numerous exposures of the accretionary wedge deposits that can be sampled with a hammer instead of a drill rig on a ship.

And that's what all the strange landscapes of Central California have in common. They are all parts of fossil subduction zone, one that existed off the California coast for nearly 200 million years before it was replaced by the San Andreas fault. I'm glad I have the privilege of teaching here.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Trip to the Grandest Geological Locale on Earth

For once I am not discussing a trip I have taken...I am talking about a trip that you can take.
I spend a lot of time on my blog trying to convey the sense of wonder that comes from exploring the wild places of the Earth. I have to say, though, that nothing comes close to the actual experience of being there, seeing the rock, hearing the wind and feeling the heat, watching the night-time skies, and walking within the ruins of villages of people who lived on this land thousands of years ago (and meeting their descendants in the region today).
The Colorado Plateau, encompassing parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah, is one of the grandest geological showplaces on the planet, and at the same time it is an archaeological treasure. Our geology department is combining forces with our anthropology department to offer a unique course on the archaeology and geology of the Colorado Plateau and other spectacular sites in the American West. The course (Geology 174 or Anthropology 174, your choice) will take place on June 13-29, beginning and ending at Modesto Junior College in Central California. The cost will be about $160 for registration (for California residents; out-of-state tuition is higher), and $650 for food, transportation, and camping and entrance fees. The only additional costs would be for laundry, showers, and souvenirs. Although these two courses are directed towards geology and anthropology majors, our travelers will also include teachers, life-long learning participants, and anyone who is fascinated in the geology of this stunning region.

What will you see?

Six states: California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah.

Eleven national parks: Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, Mesa Verde, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Pecos, Chaco Culture, Great Basin, and Yosemite.

Eleven national monuments and preserves: Mojave, Wupatki, Sunset Crater, Walnut Canyon, El Morro, El Malpais, Kashua-Katuwe, Bandelier, Jemez Caldera, Aztec, and Hovenweep

and many more state and tribal parks including the pueblos of New Mexico (Zuni, Acoma, Taos, and others!

Sound interesting?

If you are in the Modesto region, we will have an organizational meeting on Monday, April 23, at 7:00 at MJC in Science 132 (East Campus). Previous experience in geology, earth science or archaeology is recommended, but not required. You will need to be healthy enough to camp and deal with rugged terrain, although long hikes are not required (opportunities for hikes will be common, however). If you are not able to attend the meeting, please contact me, or our anthropology professor, Susan Kerr, and we will get in touch with the information that you will need.

The trip itinerary and basic information is on the web at http://virtual.mjc.edu/kerrs/Anthro_174/Anthropology_174.htm (Susan Kerr's page) and at http://virtual.yosemite.cc.ca.us/ghayes/coloplat.htm (Garry Hayes' page).