Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Tormented Lost Souls in Hades? Or Maybe the Denizens of the Largest (?) Sea Cave in the World

You've seen the bumper stickers, no matter where you've been in the country: Trees of Mystery, Wall Drug, South Dakota, and Mystery House of just about anywhere, and of course, Sea Lion Caves. I've never fallen for the allure of said bumper stickers, but Sea Lion Caves just happened to be 11 miles north of where I'm at this week, and there is definitely something geological about the place, so I gave in and checked it out yesterday.

The draw of the place is of course the fact that a great many Stellar's Sea Lions congregate inside the vast opening which is said to be the largest sea cave in the world. I pulled up and looked around. Big signs? Check. Gift Shop? Check. High ticket cost? Check. Yup, all the attributes of these kinds of attractions.

Still, the setting was beautiful. The site is on a high sea cliff on Oregon's Highway 101 eleven miles north of Florence, and just a mile or two from Heceta Head Light House and Devils Elbow State Park, two places I can highly recommend (they are part of a single park now).

From the gift shop, you walk down some steps and head down a paved path to the 200 foot elevator that drops you into the viewing area within the sea cave. There is no view or sense of what lies below, given the steepness of the cliffs.

I looked to see if anyone has photographed the sea caves from the outside, and couldn't find any, so I went to GoogleEarth for help. Here is what you can see from there...the cave has three openings and extends for 1315 feet, making it the third longest sea cave in the world. They also have a claim about being the largest sea cave in the world by volume, though others make claims as well: check this link out, for instance. I can't really judge one way or the other, but noticed that the Riko-Riko cave included a submerged portion of the cave in its measurement.

In any case, the cave at Sea Lion Caves is impressive. The ceiling of the cave is 125 feet up. The little tan-colored dots on the rocks in the first picture are full grown sea lions. I don't have any idea how they climb up onto those rocks.

The noise is other-worldly, and if I were hearing it without the context, I would swear it was the tortured lost souls in Hades crying out for mercy. The vast opening echoes and amplifies the noise of around 200 sea lions.

So, is it worth it? That's a tricky question to answer. The cavern is huge, and is fascinating from a geological perspective. The Stellar's Sea Lions are certainly a charismatic animal species, and it is no doubt a spectacle to see so many of them gathered into one place. But responsible stewardship of the species makes it absolutely important to not bother or interfere with the animals, and that means that there is no exploration of the caves. One gets only the one view from the platform. There are some interesting exhibits to spice up the experience, including a fossilized skeleton of one of the sea lions that is at least hundreds of years old, and a full skeleton of another. There is a stairway that climbs to the third and higher entrance to the cave that provides a fine view north towards Heceta Head Lighthouse.

It's a capitalistic enterprise, so they presumably charge what the market would bear ($14 for adults and less for kids), and if I had a large family I would balk at the price. Still, I would say that it was worth the price to see such a huge cave, despite the limitations. It's the kind of place that I appreciate and am impressed by, but I pretty much need to see it only once.

So, don't be afraid to check it out if you are in the area. If you want to see the sea lions, but don't have the monetary resources to pay the admission fee, stop in the pullout just north of the parking lot and look to the base of the cliff. I've seen a big crew of sea lions down there on every occasion I've been by (below).

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Green Flash, the Green Rim, and Coastal Sunsets

I'm in a beautiful place, no doubt about it. I'm in central Oregon on the Siuslaw River visiting for the holidays, exploring new terrain that I've never really seen before. Luckily, we have the time to linger for a few days instead of rushing home, so it actually feels right to sit on the porch and just enjoy life and my relatives (whom I love spending time with).
And what a porch! I took advantage of clearing skies to watch the sun set tonight. I've got the new camera and I am still learning its capabilities, so I decided to catch the whole drama of the sun disappearing below the distant horizon. I also hoped to catch the legendary "green flash", which I have never seen (despite my hopes in previous posts).
I probably still haven't seen it, but I was reading about these things, and noted that a "green rim" can sometimes be seen as well. If my camera is delivering true colors, I think I captured the green rim at the very least, across the top of the disk of the sun.
 The green flash is a sudden flash of greenish light above the sun at the moment of sunset, and it is said to last only a second or so. As the sun dips into the horizon, the layers of the atmosphere will cause some of the sunlight to be refracted, with red and orange on the lower parts of the disk along with green (and rarely blue) across the top.
If I caught the flash at all, it was probably here, as this was the only green I could see while I was snapping the pictures. I leave it to the judgement of those out there who have seen the green flash before as to what I caught this evening. I welcome your thoughts and observations!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Moment of Volcanic Clarity: Rainier and St. Helens Show Themselves

I'm up in the Pacific Northwest for family things (it's the holidays after all), but I've been on the hunt for Cascades volcanoes during our journeys from one place to another. True to Pacific Northwest form, the weather hasn't cooperated. We drove north through Portland and Seattle a few days ago through scattered rainstorms, and when the time came to drive south again, an inversion layer set in and fog was everywhere. But we had one moment of clarity. As we came over a rise near Napavine, we broke out over the inversion layer, and had a moment to see Mt. Rainier.

Rainier is a huge mountain. It is 14,410 feet tall (4,392m), and is covered by 156 billion cubic feet of glacial ice. With its location so close to large population centers, it is one of the more dangerous of the Cascades volcanoes, although it hasn't been active in historical time. The last eruption was around 1,000 years ago. But a number of towns are built on mudflow deposits (lahars) from Rainier, highlighting the hazardous nature of the volcano.
We drove back into the fog for a few more miles, and took a chance and headed east from Castle Rock to see if anymore volcanoes would be visible. At Silver Lake about 5 miles in, the clouds cleared and we were blessed with a stunning view of Mt. St. Helens. There is a multi-agency visitor center at the lake, and a nice nature walk that extends out into the lake on a small levee and boardwalk.
Silver Lake is an interesting volcanic feature itself. The 1980 debris avalanche that precipitated the eruption of Mt. St. Helens was not the only mass wasting event that has happened in this area. The landslide in 1980 dammed several side canyons, creating several lakes, most notably Coldwater Lake.

2,500 years ago, a similar event took place, and several lakes were formed near the volcano. When one of the lakes overflowed and failed catastrophically, the ensuing flood carried debris downstream, blocking the drainage now covered by Silver Lake.
The lake must be a sea of green in spring and summer, but here in winter, the plants were frozen and wilted away. There wasn't much in the way of animal life present, but a blue heron was perched in a tree where it could be framed by the peak of Mt. St. Helens.
St. Helens is deceptively serene today. The debris avalanche and violent eruption of 1980 are justly famous, and explosions continued through 1986. The mountain reawakened in 2004, and erupted quietly for four years, building a second volcanic dome in the crater of the mountain. The second eruption was nowhere near as famous as the first for the obvious reason: no one died.

Several good paved highways approach the mountain, and several visitor centers can be found along Highway 504 above Interstate 5 on the west side of the volcano. We had little time for exploration, but we enjoyed the walk along Silver Lake, which is only five miles east of the Interstate.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Birds of My Neighborhood: Geotripper Explores the Home Base

These pictures will be familiar to my Facebook friends who have been subjected to several weeks of wintertime explorations of my neighborhood looking for our local bird species. I've always liked birds, but I've lacked a camera with sufficient zoom to capture them easily, and I am pretty bad at remembering names and species. I've been surprised at how many different species can be seen during short walks around the block and through the nearby cow pasture (although I shouldn't be; we live in prime wintertime bird habitat).

The first, and one of my favorite recent pictures, is a Western Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica) making a meal out of a pecan. The scrub jays are obnoxious and raucous, and at constant war with our cat in the backyard, but they are also a bright splash of color, and are one of my favorites.

The Snowy Egret (Egretta thula) is a fairly common wetlands inhabitant in our area. They are one of the most graceful birds I see on a regular basis, standing very still will getting ready to stab at fish or amphibians in shallow water (like they did when they got the goldfish in my pond...).
I keep a feeder in the backyard, and it attracts three or four varieties of finches, including the House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus), the Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis), and the Lesser Goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria). They like their sunflower and nyjer seeds and they are quite vocal in their complaints when I let the feeders go too low.
I thought the gray bird in the picture below was a mockingbird from a distance, but some of my facebook experts suggest that it is a Western Kingbird (Tyrannus verticalis). I am open to being corrected in this identification.

True to the season, here are two doves, but they aren't turtle doves. I was told (and agree) that these are Eurasian Collared Doves (Streptopelia decaocto). It is an relatively recent invasive species that I have constantly mistaken for Mourning Doves.
On a brief foray along the Tuolumne River near La Grange we found an American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) watching for a meal from a telephone pole.
For ten years I've been trying to catch a photo of a Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli), a species unique to California (it is a cousin to the Black-billed Magpie found in much of the rest of the country). They have been very shy when I come around with a camera, but one hung around for a moment before flying away the other day. They've been decimated by the West Nile Virus.
I am familiar with the story of how European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) arrived in America to become a pest (it was a Shakespeare lover of all people), but I had never noticed them around my neighborhood until I started walking a few weeks ago.
The Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) is a widespread species found all over the Americas, but it holds kind of a special place in our valley. We chose it to be part of our banners and symbols for the new Science Community Center at Modesto Junior College. As if to play the part, a Killdeer set up a nest on the vacant lot north of our building that will eventually become our Outdoor Nature Laboratory. I often hear them when I walk around the campus.
 There must have been a dozen of them running about the cow pasture a few blocks from my house.
The biggest surprise in my recent walks was the drumming of a woodpecker. I've never noticed any near my house, but walking under a telephone I heard one pecking away.
A bit of research suggested that it might be a Nuttall's Woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii). It's the second kind I've seen in the region so far (the other is the Acorn Woodpecker, farther up in the mountains).
The small bird wandering in the grassland appears to me to be an American Pipit (Anthus rubescens), but I await your confirmation. They hide well, so I've never noticed them before.
The other of many pleasant surprises has been the spotting of some Western Bluebirds (Sialia mexicana) in the trees around the cow pasture. I don't think they've visited our bird feeders.
The pictures I took the other day show a brightly colored male (above), and a slightly more drab female (below). I'd like to see more of them!

I've enjoyed paying more attention to our local bird life, and look forward to adding more of them during my travels. Once again, have a wonderful Christmas and restful holiday!

A Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to All!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all! To celebrate, I offer up once again a very big Christmas tree, the General Grant Tree in Kings Canyon National Park. The tree is so large (268 feet high, 40 feet across at the base) that it took three pictures for me to capture it. The Giant Sequoia trees have an ancient lineage that extends back to the era of the dinosaurs. They once grew across the northern hemisphere, but climate change and ice ages conspired to eliminate them from their former range except for a few dozen groves in the western Sierra Nevada. They can live for several thousand years, and few things can kill them, their main enemies being crown fires (ground fires don't hurt them generally) and the lumberman's saw.

The General Grant tree was declared by Calvin Coolidge in 1926 to be the nation's Christmas Tree. At an early ceremony, park superintendent Colonel John White said ""We are gathered here around a tree that is worthy of representing the spirit of America on Christmas Day. That spirit is best expressed in the plain things of life, the love of the family circle, the simple life of the out-of-doors. The tree is a pillar that is a testimony that things of the spirit transcend those of the flesh."

I hope that you all have a wonderful and safe holiday.

Oh, if you think Christmas trees should be decorated, I don't have one of the Grant Tree all dressed up for the holiday, but here is a nicely flocked Sequoia tree from a different trip...

Monday, December 23, 2013

Four Terrifying Pictures from Northern California

Here are a couple of scenes from our road trip this Christmas. Does the tagline seem a bit incendiary? It should be. Sure, there are three pictures of active volcanoes, but that isn't what makes them scary. We are looking at Mt. Shasta, the 14,000 foot high volcano that looms over northern California (above), and Shastina, the parasitic cone on Shasta's flank (below). What's terrifying? It's late December, and there is only a light dusting of snow. This mountain should be coated in snow from the high peaks to the low flanks. The road I was on should have been closed by snow drifts.
California is in the midst of a three year drought that shows no signs of abating. By some accounts, the last twelve months have been the driest in the state's history since at least 1895. They are having to fight fires in December in places like Big Sur, a region that should get feet of rain each year. Two years ago, I was able to drive over Tioga Pass, 9,950 feet high, after New Year's Day.
Castle Crags State Park in the Klamath Mountains. These should be covered in snow too.
A worrisome pattern is developing. Three bad years in a row, and in the desert southwest, thirteen years of drought. Some climate scientists are suggesting that we may have to adapt to a megadrought, an event that has happened here twice in the last thousand years. These droughts lasted decades, and caused huge changes in places like Mono Lake and Lake Tahoe. Entire rivers dried up. I hope that won't be the case, but are we prepared in any way to deal with it if that is the case?
A snow-free Mt. Lassen from near Redding

I hope it isn't what's going on. I hope that a whopper of a storm will move in, and that we will get a breather from the dry conditions. But we need to be ready if it doesn't. Some hard choices may have to be made.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Accretionary Wedge #63 AND Berry Go Round, Two Blog Carnivals and One Post on Serpentine

I don't usually post two blogs in one day, but the latest Accretionary Wedge deadline is approaching, and I'll be on the road again, doing Christmassy things with my family, so I might not have a chance later on. Our host of the double carnival is month is Hollis at In the Company of Plants and Rocks. The topic for both carnivals is as follows: Plants and Rocks (or Rocks and Plants). 

Reading the rather wide-open topic immediately brought to mind a subject dear to my heart, the state rock of California and a group of beautiful minerals: serpentine. There was a bit of political controversy a few years back about serpentine and its past use as a source for asbestos, and I did quite a few blogs on the subject. But even earlier I had written a blog post for my Other California series that explored the little known but geologically interesting areas of California, the ones that rarely showed up on tourist postcards. These are the kinds of places you seek out when you've seen the Golden Gate Bridge and Yosemite Valley. I am rejuvenating a post from the series, one I wrote about the Red Hills in the Sierra Foothills near Jamestown and Knights Ferry. It first appeared on March 27, 2010, and is mostly reproduced here with minor changes. It was titled "There's an Endemic in those Hills!" Oh, that's right, it's epidemics we're supposed to worry about. An endemic refers to plant species found in specific limited locations. There are a number of these in the Red Hills "Area of Critical Environmental Concern", a rather high-falutin' name for an area that less than two decades ago was barely more than an open garbage dump scarred by numerous off-road vehicle trails. The rare and endemic species are there for a very geologic reason, the subject of this post.

The Other California is my continuing blog series on those places in California that people don't generally find on the postcards at all our tourist traps. I've been following a regional theme, traveling through the northernmost provinces, but the Other California has a temporal pattern as well, and late March is the perfect time to talk about the Red Hills, located in the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode near the Gold Rush town of Chinese Camp (I talked about the area around La Grange a few days ago for the same reason).

Much of lowland California is currently covered with a green carpet of grass (mostly of exotic and invasive origin) along with the occasional oak tree, but as you can see in the pictures above, there are a few places where the grass and oak trees are missing, and a profusion of flowers and scattered pines thrive instead. Why are the oaks and grass missing?

The Mother Lode is famous as the source of the ores during the Gold Rush in 1848-53, and many people know of the association of quartz veins with the gold. What is perhaps less known is that the Mother Lode consists mostly of metamorphic rocks like slate, greenstone, and marble, not the granite that is found in the higher parts of the Sierra Nevada. These metamorphic rocks are the twisted and baked remains of sea floor muds and silts, lime from tropical reefs and shelves, and volcanic rock from the oceanic crust. These collections of crustal rocks (called "exotic terranes") were transported across the Pacific Ocean and slammed (in the geologic sense; they moved at maybe 2 inches a year) into the western edge of the North American continent, mostly in the late Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras (the Mesozoic, from around 251 to 65 million years ago, is best known as the "age of the dinosaurs"). The different terranes are separated from one another by major fault systems.

At times the crustal terranes also include rocks from beneath the crust. This rock hails from the underworld of the earth's mantle, and includes dunite and peridotite, composed primarily of the mineral olivine (known to most people as the gemstone peridot). The rock readily alters to serpentine, California's state rock. These rocks are also collectively called ultramafic rocks, for their high content of magnesium and iron (fe, the 'fi' part). They also contain small, but significant amounts of nickel and chrome.

When ultramafic rocks are brought to the surface, they are far out of chemical equilibrium with the ambient conditions, which means they are easily attacked by oxygen, water and organic acids. Clay is a common product of this process, as well as red or yellow iron oxides (from which the Red Hills take their name). The surface layer resulting from this weathering process is of course soil. We tend to think of soil as a rich surface layer that supports plant life, but some soils lack the necessary nutrients for most kinds of plant growth. This is definitely the case for soils developed on ultramafic rocks, which lack nitrates, phosphorus, and potassium. To make things worse, chrome and nickel are actually toxins. Hence, only specialized species can thrive on these rocks.

The shrubby Ceanothus, or Buckbrush (above) and Gray Pine (below) are two plants that are more or less indifferent to the odd soil conditions. They grow elsewhere, but compete very well in ultramafic soils. A large number of flower species are also indifferent to the soils, but the only grasses found in the region are native species. The European and Asian grass species that have overwhelmed most of the prairies in the Central Valley, Coast Ranges and Sierra foothills cannot grow on the serpentine soils.

There are a number of endemic species that grow on these soils, and at least one is found nowhere else in the world (California verbena, Verbena californica). Other rare endemics include Rawhide Hill onion (Allium tuolumnense), Layne's butterweed (Senecio layneae), Congdon's lomatium (Lomatium congdonii) and the Red Hills soaproot (Chlorogalum grandiflorum). A fairly common serpentine endemic is the Milkwort Jewelflower (Streptanthus polygaloides). Alas, I arrived very late in the afternoon and had no time to search them out (and to be truthful, I am better at identifying rocks and minerals).

Though closely associated with the rocks of the Mother Lode, the serpentine and dunite were remarkably free of gold, and so the Red Hills were mostly ignored by the miners. Farmers couldn't grow much in the soils, and grazing conditions were not favorable, so the when the federal government came into possession of these lands in 1848, they couldn't even give them away! So this swath of land, about 7,000 acres worth, was administered, somewhat indifferently, by the Bureau of Land Management. The landscape suffered the abuses of modern civilization, with trash heaps, motorcycle trails, and unrestrained target shooting. The recognition that the area was a unique geologic and biologic treasure led to the restriction of shooting and off-road vehicle use in 1991. Private groups assisted in cleaning up the trash heaps and a trail network was established, so today the Red Hills are a delightful place to visit, especially in the spring when the wildflowers are at their stunning best. And I could be wrong, but I don't think I've seen any postcards with pictures of the area.

If you want to learn more, or pay a visit, information about the Red Hills can be found on this BLM website , and the nature trail brochure PDF can be found here.

Desert Skies, Hoodoos, and Really Big Rhyolite Explosions: An Innocent Abroad in Phoenix

Some places I don't know very well in the geological sense, and this makes no sense, because I've been in Phoenix a lot over the years. Oh, I glance at the guidebooks, but invariably my brother will get up and say "let's go explore (fill in a feature in any direction from Phoenix)", and it will be some corner of the landscape I've never seen or read about. And so it was that we headed southeast last week towards the towns of Superior and Miami. The legendary Superstition Mountains rose to the north, and we ended up driving through the heart of the Pinal Mountains.
The Superstitions are the home of the Lost Dutchman Mine, which was not exactly lost, and no Dutchman was associated with it, but people look for it anyway. I have a strong feeling that it was found a long time ago, and was mined under a different name with no one the wiser. There wasn't a lot of mineralization up high in the mountains, but a fair amount around the margins, and those areas were exploited a long time ago.

Copper was another story. Vast deposits have been found throughout the area, and Superior, Miami and Globe grew with the mines. I liked the street sign in downtown Superior (below). Magma was the name of one of the mines in the area. Still, it would be nice to see more geologically themed street names in my local town...
We drove east of Superior into the Pinal Mountains and soon encountered some very rugged territory. Although I was ignorant of the fine details, I quickly recognized that we were in the vicinity of some heavy-duty Neogene rhyolite calderas (that's "supervolcanoes" for the Discovery Channel writers). There were at least five calderas in the region. Each one was capable of producing massive explosive eruptions of hot ash in volumes exceeding 100 cubic miles. The pink rocks forming the cliffs around us are called rhyolite tuff which formed when the hot ash hit the ground and re-melted, but quickly cooled and solidified into rock.
I never get tired of photographing the saguaro cacti that are endemic to this region of Arizona. They seem to have unique personalities, if plants can have personalities.
The pinnacles of rock formed as the ash cooled and contracted. The ash flow had to shrink and so formed myriads of fractures, often at angles of about 120 degrees. The fractures provided avenues for water to get in and weather out the rock, often by freezing and expanding.
The towering pinnacles are sometimes called hoodoos. The slopes are exceedingly rugged, and the highway required a tunnel to get through the narrowest part of the gorge.
We took a deserted back road to try and get a view down into the Pinto Valley Mine, one of the region's gigantic open-pit copper mines. We only got a partial view of the upper terraces. Operations have restarted in the last year or two, with copper and molybdenum as the main products.
And then there were the skies over our heads. The clouds were diverse, with a beautiful band of mare's tails off to the west. It looked like sunset would be interesting...
It's winter, so ice crystals make up the clouds. When the sun hits the crystals just right, a prism effect produces brightly colored sun dogs. I've seen lots of sun dogs over the years, but I've never noticed the ray that runs beyond the sun dog away from sun itself (to the right in the photo below).
The sun was getting low in the west, so we headed back down the highway to the vast valley containing Phoenix and its many suburbs. The canyon nicely framed the setting sun.
As we rolled down the slope towards Florence Junction, the haze in the valley gave the low hills in the distance a mystical appearance.

What a beautiful day it was.