Introduction: Glacier Point at Yosemite National Park (from April 22, 2014)
What is the most incredible place you have ever stood? That thought occurred to me this last weekend when I got up to Glacier and Washburn Points in Yosemite National Park. For those who are less familiar with the park, Glacier and Washburn Points are on the rim of Yosemite Valley, not on the valley floor. As such, they give a bird's-eye view of one of the most incredible pieces of land in the world, and though a million or more people may stop there during their visit to Yosemite, I'll bet the majority of park visitors don't venture up that way. It's something like 20 winding miles outside of tourist central on the valley floor, and perhaps hard to squeeze in when trying to rush through the park in the limited moments afforded by a vacation.
Is the high point on the rim of Yosemite Valley the greatest spot I've ever stood? I'm not sure yet! This is the opening salvo of a new series called the Ten Most Incredible Places, and I'm going to decide number one somewhere along the way before I finish. I'd also like you to consider what your own most incredible places are. I'd love to have you share them, perhaps in your own blog if you have one, or share them in the comments here. I'd be glad to post a few of your wonderful pictures as I consider my list. Be sure to include some reasons why a particular place stands out, whether geological, biological, spiritual, or personal.
Number 10: The Alaka'i Swamp, Kauai, Hawai'i (from April 22, 2014)
My list is not in a precise order. Listing a favorite among these is tantamount to selecting which of my children I love the most. I am saving my most precious for number one, but aside from that, these are all equally incredible. I've not made any rules about these sites; some required long hikes, others I drove to. Some are all about the geology, some are about other things.
So what is this place today? It's cold, it's wet, it's made up mostly of waist-deep mud, and basically the last kind of environment that one would ever thinks exists in the state of Hawaii. Where are the palms and sandy beaches?
They are about 4,000 feet and a world away.
|A friendly 'Elepaio in the Alaka'i Swamp|
The native birds of the Hawaiian Islands provide a laboratory for the study of evolution no less significant than Darwin's Galapagos Islands. But the birds are under siege. Numerous invasive bird species came with the humans, along with wild pigs, mongooses, and malaria-bearing mosquitoes. Few birds seen by tourists are actually natives. The natives survive mostly at elevations above 3,000 feet where the mosquitoes can't thrive. Of the original 71 known species of birds on the Hawaiian Islands, 24 are extinct, and 32 are severely endangered. They've lost out to competition, habitat loss, disease, and predation (by the mongooses, which are as common as squirrels in the urban parks on the islands). Mongooses were never introduced on Kaua'i, so the higher parts of the island are the best places to see the rare natives like the 'Elepaio in the picture above (other birds are much rarer, but this was the only one I saw on my hike).
'Ohi'a trees are endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, and are one of the most adaptable trees on the planet, capable of growing on barren lava flows in near-desert conditions at sea level to cold, almost alpine conditions at 8,200 feet. The trees have beautiful red flowers that look like small red fireworks exploding from the branches.
The skies were fickle, though. Hardly ten minutes passed by and the clouds closed in for good. Some of our party arrived a few moments later and never saw a thing. It was okay though. The overlook was icing on the cake for the strange beauty of a hike through one of the strangest worlds I had ever seen.
from April 24, 2014)
Geotripper Images website where I've posted a lot of my geological pictures for use in educational/academic projects. It is a view of the La Sal Mountains through Frame Arch at the end of the Delicate Arch trail in Arches National Park.
In the years before PowerPoint, I started all of my geology classes with a set of slides (this was an ancient technology that involved "carousel trays", "slide projectors", and "film") to introduce the students to the world as it is revealed by geological processes. The first picture was always this stretch of trail just short of Delicate Arch. I chose it because it symbolized so much about the wonders revealed in the incredible history of our planet.
At one viewpoint an observer can appreciate the variety of depositional environments that led to the formation of the colorful Entrada rocks, the vast amount of time that the rocks lay buried in the crust, the immensity of earth movements that brought the rocks back to the surface, and the intensity of erosional processes that shaped the rocks into what they are today. And one can walk on a surface that may very well have been a trackway for a dinosaur many eons ago.
But (like they say in late-night television ads), there's more! Although many people use Frame Arch to frame Delicate Arch, I chose to emphasize the La Sal Mountains instead (the top photo). The La Sals represent the role of magmas in earth processes. The mountains are composed of intrusive rock that reached close to the Earth's surface about 25 to 28 million years ago. Some may even have erupted out in volcanic eruptions, but the rest of the rock formed into mushroom shaped plutons called laccoliths. The dioritic rock proved more resistant to erosion than the surrounding shale and sandstone, so the peaks rise 6,000 to 7,000 feet above the plateau surface. The highest peaks in the La Sals reach nearly 13,000 feet above sea level.
Once or twice we've been doused with a summer rainstorm, and in one particular year we took shelter under the arch and gloried in the lightning and crashing thunder, and watched as the dry sandstone transformed into a series of waterfalls and white cascades. It was one of the most cherished moments of my life. We assumed that the storm would obscure the sunset, but as quickly as the storm hit, it dispersed and the sunshine broke through to highlight the La Sal Mountains in the far distance.
One more reason that this spot is on my incredible list is because of the ephemeral nature of Delicate Arch itself. It may not last my lifetime. The arch is only a foot and a half thick at one point, and there are valid fears that it could collapse in the natural order of events. Of course, humans may help it along; I've heard of at least one episode in which a man attacked the arch with an axe. Then again, it could last another thousand years. Who knows? In the meantime it is a magic place.
Once before I pass on I would like to see it in the snow.
Number 8: Burgess Shale, British Columbia, Canada (from April 24, 2014)
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 determining a list like this leads to a lot of introspection. I've been enjoying reading some of the other entries...I like new ideas of where to go!
I settled on this one particular site because of the emotional impact it had when I reached the goal. It was indeed remote and 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:
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.
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!
|Marrella splendens Source: http://burgess-shale.rom.on.ca/en/fossil-gallery/view-species.php?id=80&m=3&|
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.
Number 7: Gubbio Italy, and the Dinosaur Killer (from April 28, 2014)
Number seven on my list of most incredible places is Gubbio, in the Umbrian Province of Italy, between Rome and Florence. What's not to like about Gubbio? It has castles, monasteries, medieval fortresses, Roman arenas, plus active faults and beautiful mountains (the Apennines). Plus one of the most significant geologic outcrops in the world (more on that a moment).
I suppose that some people would have preferred to see the church, but we had noticed that it wouldn't be much of a diversion off our route to see Gubbio instead. It lies east of the main highway high in the Apennines Mountains, the nearly thousand kilometer range that runs down the boot length of the Italian peninsula. The mountains have risen in response to compressive forces related to a convergent boundary in the Mediterranean Sea. In the vicinity of Gubbio, late Mesozoic and early Cenozoic limestone layers have been lifted high into a mountain ridge. In more recent time, faulting formed the valley containing Gubbio. The downdropped crust is called a graben. The eroded fault scarp above the town is called a triangular facet (much of the town is built on the fault surface; see the top picture). That the faults are still active has been shown in dramatic manner, as several deadly earthquakes have shaken the region in recent decades (one of them severely damaged the Basilica of St. Francis in 1997; the L'Aquila quake in 2009 killed 300 people and resulted in some geologists going to prison).
changed hands often during the Medieval period, being on the main transportation routes of the time, but today it is sort of a backwater town, retaining a great deal of its Medieval heritage, including defensive walls, castles, monasteries and churches. But as interesting as these things were, we were there for something else.
The canyon leading down into the town of Gubbio is called the Bottacioni Gorge, and it cuts deeply into the Cretaceous and Paleogene limestone deposits of the Apennines Mountains. In the late 1970s, the father and son team of Luis and Walter Alvarez were here trying to gain some insight on the rate of extinctions at the end of the Cretaceous period, the mass extinction event that did in the dinosaurs about around two-thirds of the species of life on Earth at the time. They decided to test the marine sediments for concentrations of iridium, an element rare on Earth, but relatively more abundant in meteorites. The values were small, a few parts per trillion, and it was hoped that they might provide data on the rate of sedimentation across the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary (or the Cretaceous-Tertiary K/T boundary).
And here we were, ready to lay our hands on the epic moment recorded in the rock when the way was cleared for mammals to take over terrestrial ecosystems on planet Earth. Except there were a few minor problems. For one, we didn't exactly know precisely where it was. And we didn't know if the spot would be marked or if there would be room to park a bus. And though it seems a minor issue, there were 35 people on the trip, and we didn't know where we were going to eat lunch (as all field trip veterans know, the two most important issues are "where and when do we eat?" and "where is the next bathroom?"). I had figured out that the spot was about 2 kilometers upstream from Gubbio, and that there was some kind of old medieval water canal close by.
Those of you who've seen the Austin Powers chase scene where he has a bit of trouble turning a golf cart around will appreciate what our bus driver did on that mountain road with a narrow pullout and a steep canyon wall. This wasn't a Y-turn. This was a Spiro-graph turn, for those of you who remember that toy. Back and forth for what felt like an hour, but was probably more like five minutes. But it finally happened and we headed back down the canyon.
And the food? By all accounts, the pasta and mushroom dish was the finest lunch we had on our entire journey. It was delicious! If you ever have the chance to visit the Gubbio locality, plan on eating at the Ristorante Bottacioni.
Number Six: Pu'u O'o, Big Island of Hawai'i (From May 2, 2014)
my top ten list of the most incredible places I've ever stood. A few days ago I talked about my wonderful adventure in the swamps of the Alaka'i Plateau on Kaua'i, but today we'll hear about the Big Island, and the rather incredible volcano there that has been erupting continuously now for thirty-one years, since 1983. The ongoing eruption of Kilauea and its satellite vent Pu'u O'o is the longest known period of activity in the history of the volcanoes of Hawai'i.
It was June of 2002 when I reached the Hawaiian Islands for the first time in my life. I had spent the first fifteen years of my academic career learning to teach and ignoring any kind of writing or research, but I finally decided to submit an abstract and give a presentation at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on the Big Island. I anxiously watched the lava flow reports for months ahead of time, but little was happening with the volcano. It was essentially a time of simmering around the summit region of Pu'u O'o, and any chance of seeing active lava flows would require miles of hiking over practically impenetrable forest and rock exposures.
Then, in an incredible moment of good timing, the May 12th Mother's Day Flow began, and a huge river of lava began to make its way down the south flank of Kilauea. In a matter of weeks it was approaching the final pali (gigantic fault scarp/cliff) before reaching the coastal plain. On the day my flight landed in Hawai'i, the U.S. Geological Survey posted the picture you can see below (in case you have trouble with the perspective, the cliff in the photo is several hundred feet high. I was beside myself with anticipation. The lava was only a mile away from the end of the highway!
|Source: U.S. Geological Survey|
I was in for a crushing disappointment, though. The advancing lava flow had started the biggest forest fire in Hawaii's history. The road providing access to the lava flow was closed for firefighting operations. I was devastated to say the least. Here I was, on the island for the first time in my life, the lava was easily accessible, and I wasn't going to get to see it...
Look for the other five incredible places in the next post!