Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Heading Out to the Back of Beyond on the Colorado Plateau!

Geotripper may go quiet for a week or two, as I will be on the road with twenty of my best students out on the Colorado Plateau, the incredible region surrounding the Four Corners. I've been dreaming of this trip for a year now, as I had to start making group camping reservations last July! It's getting crowded in some of the places like Grand Canyon and Zion, but I've learned over the years that there are some pretty quiet places out there as well. When I started blogging a decade ago, one of my first ideas was a blog series about the places we visit on our field studies journey. I am reposting the introduction both for my students, but for anyone out there who might be traveling in the region and might want to know a little more about the lands they are passing through.



From July 1, 2008:

Please forgive me for filling the feeds with such a long post, but I wanted to pull together an annotated list of the blog posts of my just completed journey through the geological history of the Colorado Plateau. It turned into a massive project that lasted more than a year, and included seventy different postings and more than a hundred photos. Don't feel compelled to try reading it, but I hope you enjoy it if you do. If it lacks precise continuity and style, remember that I had no idea how it would end when I started it and I had no editor! I've been taking students on the plateau for twenty years, and it has proven to be one of the best places on the planet to learn earth history.

Time Beyond Imagining, the first post back in June of 2008 introducing the concept that would guide the entire series. I had no idea what I was getting into!

Time Beyond Imagining - An Intro to the Colorado Plateau, a first introduction to the sweep of the landscape that I would be covering through the series.

Time Beyond Imagining - The Oldest Rocks on the Colorado Plateau: The oldest rocks are exposed at only a few places, including deep in the Grand Canyon

Time Beyond Imagining - A Brief History of the Colorado Plateau, Part 2: A discussion of the 12,000 feet of sediments hidden deep in the depth of the Grand Canyon dated at around 1 billion years

Time Beyond Imagining - A Brief History of the Colorado Plateau, Part 3: LIFE!: The first appearance of complex life during the Cambrian Period

Time Beyond Imagining - A Brief History of the Colorado Plateau, Part 4: Something is Missing! Journeying up the walls of Grand Canyon through the Ordovician, Silurian and Devonian periods

Time Beyond Imagining - A Brief History of the Colorado Plateau, Part 5: Seeing Red Looking at the Mississippian Redwall Limestone in Grand Canyon

Time Beyond Imagining - A Brief History of the Colorado Plateau, Part 6: Seeing Red (Really!) We rise up through the walls of the Grand Canyon to the Permian rocks of the Supai Group and Hermit Shale

Time Beyond Imagining - A Brief History of the Colorado Plateau, Part 7: Mountains Rise: Permian rocks are exposed throughout the plateau country. We leave the Grand Canyon and explore some of these other places

Time Beyond Imagining - A Brief History of the Colorado Plateau: Old Salt I was beginning to realize that the project would be longer than I thought. We explore the formation and effects of salt precipitation in Late Paleozoic time

Time Beyond Imagining - A Brief History of the Colorado Plateau: Sand! A return to the Grand Canyon and the prominent Coconino Sandstone near the rim

Time Beyond Imagining - A Brief History of the Colorado Plateau: A Final Transgression Looking at the top two layers in the Grand Canyon and related rocks on other parts of the plateau.

Time Beyond Imagining - A Brief History of the Colorado Plateau: On to the Grand Staircase An introduction to the Mesozoic history of the plateau country, which lies outside the Grand Canyon. We start exploring the other wonderful parks out there

The Grand Staircase and the Geologic Time Scale A diagram of the Grand Staircase, the younger rocks of the Colorado Plateau

Time Beyond Imagining - A Brief History of the Colorado Plateau: Into the Triassic An introduction to the widespread Triassic rocks of the Plateau. It would prove to take a number of posts!

Mid-week Mystery Sample: What is it? A short departure to discuss the identity of a Triassic fossil from the plateau. A fairly long discussion followed!


Time Beyond Imagining - A Brief History of the Colorado Plateau: Ash and Wood A study of the paleontology of one of our unusual parks: Petrified Forest in Arizona

Time Beyond Imagining - A Brief History of the Colorado Plateau: This Yellow is NOT Mellow The Chinle also contains mineable uranium deposits; I wade into the controversy

Leetso, the Yellow Monster A continuation of the heritage of uranium on the plateau

Time Beyond Imagining - A Brief History of the Colorado Plateau: The Real Jurassic Parks The Jurassic rocks of the plateau are responsible for much of the spectacular scenery in the region. This was the introduction

The Colorado Plateau Story: the real Jurassic Parks Follows the story of the Kayenta and Wingate formations, and three unique and little known parks: Capitol Reef National Park, and Colorado and Vermillion Cliffs National Monuments.

The Real Jurassic Parks: Navajo! The Navajo Sandstone forms some of the best photography opportunities: this was a discussion of Antelope Canyon, a beautiful slot canyon

Antelope Canyon, A Real Jurassic Park An excuse to show more pictures of Antelope Canyon!

Zion: A Real Jurassic Park First part of look at one of our "crown jewel" national parks

Zion: A Real Jurassic Park, Part 2 A hike to Angels Landing in Zion National Park

The Real Jurassic Parks: Capitol Reef (Oh, and Sheep Blogging) A return to Capitol Reef and an excuse to show off one of my favorite bighorn sheep pictures

The Real Jurassic Parks: The San Rafael Group An introduction to another group of Jurassic formations, including the all-important Entrada Sandstone. A busy semester had begun and posts were becoming sparser at times. I was realizing the project was going to take some time, and I stopped using the word "brief"!

The Real Jurassic Parks: Goblin Valley and the Entrada Sandstone One of Utah's unique and isolated state parks

The Real Jurassic Parks: Kodachrome Basin (and a great resource!) Another fantastic Utah State Park and a link to an e-book on the geology of Utah's parks and monuments

The Real Jurassic Parks: Arches National Park An intro to Arches National Park, one of my personal favorites

The Real Jurassic Parks: Arches National Park, continued. And an Eminent Threat. After several weeks I got back to work with a continued exploration of Arches, and discussed new threats to parks in the region

The Real Jurassic Parks: Where are the Dinosaurs? A look at wonderful Dinosaur National Monument and a rotten political situation there

The REAL Jurassic Parks were really Cretaceous I thought the Jurassic would provide the most posts in the series, and therefore had no idea how long I would spend in the Cretaceous. This was the introduction

The Cretaceous Parks of the Colorado Plateau: the Cedar Mountain Formation The only dinosaur dig I ever took part in was in an early Cretaceous formation in Montana, but it was related to the Colorado Plateau. This post turned into seven part story on our adventure

The Cretaceous Parks of the Colorado Plateau: the Story of a DinoDig Much of the story was trying to get there in the first place: what is geokarma?

The Cretaceous Parks of the Colorado Plateau: Every Cloud has a Golden Lining We drive through Yellowstone and arrive at the dig site

The Cretaceous Parks of the Colorado Plateau: the story of a Dino-Dig What we were looking for and why it was important. What is a deinonychus?



The Cretaceous Parks of the Colorado Plateau: the Final Discovery We found a dinosaur that invariably is the last entry in a dinosaur dictionary...

The Cretaceous Parks of the Colorado Plateau: The View is Nice but Access is a Problem... Back on the plateau, we are introduced to the remaining Cretaceous rocks and two archaeological parks, Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients National Monuments

The Cretaceous Parks of the Colorado Plateau: Walled Cities and Tragedy More on the Canyons of the Ancients and a walled medieval-aged city...in southern Colorado!


The Cretaceous Parks of the Colorado Plateau: The Mancos Sea An interesting formation that some geologists curse at...

The Cretaceous Parks of the Colorado Plateau: The Green Table An exploration of the famous cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park

The Cretaceous Parks of the Colorado Plateau: the Black Mesa story I wade into the coal mining controversy and get more comments than any other entry in the series

The Cretaceous Parks of the Colorado Plateau: A City in the Wilderness Life had become busy and it was a month before I returned to the plateau with a discussion of Chaco Culture National Historical Park

And The Old World Passed Away... The Geologic History of the Colorado Plateau And another month passed! I tried to find the words to describe the profound events at the end of the Cretaceous Period

Time Beyond Imagining - A not-so-brief History of the Colorado Plateau Another long gap, but I was finally talking about the last 65 million years of Colorado Plateau history with an intro to the crustal deformation that was beginning to effect the region

Time Beyond Imagining - Land of Giant Lakes A discussion of the origin of the rocks at Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks National Monument. I thought I was close to the end, but I was still wrong, after a full year!

Fire Down Below - a Geological History of the Colorado Plateau Another month of blogging on other things and I returned to the Cenozoic history of the region with a discussion of the volcanic activity that started to emerge on the plateau, including Shiprock

Fire Down Below II - a Geological History of the Colorado Plateau The laccolithic mountains of the plateau country

Fire Down Below III - a Geological History of the Colorado Plateau I find I have almost no pictures of Navajo Mountain despite having driven around it dozens of times...

Time Beyond Imagining: A Scrambled Landscape Cenozoic events led to a truly scrambled landscape with a mystery-of-the-day

Time Beyond Imagining: A Scrambled Landscape in Unaweep Canyon More mysterious canyons at Unaweep and Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Time Beyond Imagining: A Scrambled Landscape in Colorado An exploration of Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a canyon that shouldn't be there

Time Beyond Imagining - A Really Scrambled Landscape on the Colorado Plateau The opening discussion of one of the great plateau mysteries: why is there a Grand Canyon?


Time Almost Not Beyond Imagining: Recent Volcanism on the Colorado Plateau I thought I was almost finished, but found that much happened in the final few million years of the story. This is the story of the San Francisco Peaks Volcanic Field

Time Almost Not Beyond Imagining: Recent Volcanism on the Colorado Plateau Part 2 A look at the volcanoes in the western Grand Canyon and how they formed massive lakes in the Grand Canyon, some 200 miles long!

Time Almost Not Beyond Imagining: Recent Volcanism on the Colorado Plateau Pt. 3 The story of a stupendous rhyolite eruption at the Jemez Caldera in New Mexico

Time Almost Beyond Imagining: Who Do the Magic that Hoodoo? My favorite title for a discussion of a unique park near the Jemez Caldera, Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument

Time Almost Not Beyond Imagining: Recent Volcanism on the Colorado Plateau and Deep Time Although I had reached the last million years of a two billion year history, I felt a need to try and describe the immensity of geologic time, using the ruins of Bandelier National Park and the Jemez Caldera

Time Beyond Imagining - Where did the Ancient Enemy Go? The "disappearance" of the Ancestral Pueblo people is explored at Bandelier National Monument

Time Beyond Imagining: Why Can't We Touch the Venus de Milo? Once again, I thought I was done, but found a series of fascinating (to me) stories about research in the limestone caverns on the plateau. I began with a rant about preserving these wonderful caves that took us to Rome and Paris, of all places

Holy Crap, Batman! The Bat Cave is Full of it! Bat Cave in western Grand Canyon, and bat-sh*t. Lots of it, sort of

Holy Smokes, Batman, that crap is on fire! I was saving my best titles to the last, I guess. A horrific crime against science at Rampart Cave in the Grand Canyon


Time Beyond Imagining - A Final Struggle for Life on the Colorado Plateau I imagine the death of the very last mammoth on the Colorado Plateau

Time Beyond Imagining: The End of the Story, or the Beginning? In the final post of the series, I discuss the arrival of humans on the plateau, and how humans change the land they occupy. I also tip my hat to Ken Burns and his series on "The National Parks: America's Greatest Idea". The parks are the laboratories in which I and my students study the history of the earth.

So there you go: 71 posts that tell a story encompassing 2 billion years as it is exposed on a very special part of the earth's surface: the Colorado Plateau, covering parts of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Congratulations if you ever made it through the whole thing. I never realized I was writing the equivalent of an entire book, but it was a story I truly enjoyed telling, and I also deeply appreciated the feedback that many of you provided.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

It's World Turtle Day! Honu, the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle

It's World Turtle Day! That's nice because last May I paid a visit to the Hawaiian Islands and got these pictures and I've been looking for an excuse to post them somewhere. We saw the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles (Chelonia mydas) while we toured the North Shore near Waimea. There's a fairly quiet stretch of beach where they like to pull up and rest. They spend the rest of their time feeding on sea grass and algae.
The Hawaiians called the turtle Honu, and it is held in high regard by the islanders. They were important animal spirits but also provided food and tools made from their shells. Their harvesting was carefully controlled by the local chiefs and the kapu system. The collision of Hawaiian culture with Europeans was a disaster in many, many ways, but it was especially bad for the turtles. They were harvested almost to extinction. Their survival was in doubt until they came under the protection of state and federal laws. Today they are a highlight of a visit to the islands

America Has Other Volcanoes: Airliner Chronicles Visits Mt. Hood

The tragic and yet fascinating activity on the Big Island of Hawai'i has focused attention on volcanism in the United States, and has served to remind us that Hawai'i isn't the only place in the country that has to face up to the hazards of living in the shadow of dangerous mountains. I traveled to Washington by plane last week and was lucky enough to capture images of several of the volcanoes of the Cascades. We looked at Mt. Rainier first, and then at California's largest yet little-known volcano, Medicine Lake Highland. I really wanted to show some shots of St. Helens but we flew right over it, so I cheated and used some shots from 2006. But I wasn't disappointed by Oregon. The face of Mt. Hood was still illuminated by the rapidly setting sun.
Mt. Hood is the headache for emergency planners in Portland and the small villages south of the Columbia River. It is the highest mountain in Oregon at 11,249 feet (3,429 meters). The upper slopes are extremely rugged and steep and as such present a serious threat of debris avalanches similar in nature to that which destroyed the summit of Mt. St. Helens in 1980. The scar of the most recent avalanche can be seen on the right side of the summit in the picture below. The slide took place about 1,500 years ago. The prominent spike of rock in the alcove is called Crater Rock, and it is the remains of a lava dome that erupted around 1781. An earlier avalanche around 100,000 years ago removed the north flank of the mountain and flowed down Hood River Valley and across the Columbia River.

The thick mantle of snow presents the other serious hazard, that of lahars, or volcanic mudflows. The fluid masses have reached the outskirts of Portland in the past, and some lahars have occurred in recent years even though no eruption took place.

Living near volcanoes doesn't and shouldn't mean living in constant fear, but it is important to be aware of the potential threats where you live, and an understanding of what you will need to do in the event of an eruption. And because of all the crap roiling around on the internet, get your information from the geologists who work for the U.S. Geological Survey or state surveys in your area. Always be aware of the potential of exaggeration in the media, because even if they present good information, it will be cloaked in clickbait-style headlines that they utilize to get attention these days.

Meanwhile, the plane continued southward, and another volcano or two could still be discerned in the fog and mist. My mention of the Airline Chronicles refers to my first blog series that started way back in 2008. Some more information on Mt. Hood is available at  https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2000/fs060-00/.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Mount St. Helens Eruption at 38 years, and Why it Matters Today

I'd love to say I got these photographs of Mt. St. Helens last week when I flew to Seattle, but we flew right over the volcano, so you'll have to settle for the pictures I got on a flyover back in 2006. I did get pictures of Mt. Rainier and Medicine Lake Highland though. In any case, it is the 38th anniversary of the famed eruption of the volcano and as I think of those days, I realize some disturbing things.
When the volcano began rumbling and sending ash into the atmosphere, we had only a few avenues to get information, mainly television news, radio, and newspapers. I think now how limiting these sources were compared to the nearly instantaneous delivery of news over the internet in the present day. We can look up earthquakes just moments after they happen, and webcams allow us to monitor volcanoes around the world in real time. There is both good and bad in this profound change. There were terrible sources of news in those olden days, like the Weekly World News or the National Enquirer, but they pale in comparison to the sewage found on the internet today. Back then, national news outlets and newspapers practiced careful journalism in most instances, but it often seems today that the only reward for excellence and honesty in reporting is decreased ratings and falling revenues. To get attention in a crowded internet environment media outlets have to dress their stories in shiny objects and provide them with the worst possible clickbait titles. In the olden days we often had to wait impatiently for information about natural disasters, but the information that came through the media was more often vetted and checked for accuracy. The journalistic filters today are completely gone, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the trash and the truth.

There are so many conspiracy theories floating around today about natural disasters and potential disasters. The eruption of Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone National Park five times in two months (after four years of quiescence) has caused a blizzard of posts on the internet pondering whether Yellowstone has been disturbed and may blow as a "supervolcano" eruption soon (and we'll all die). The same has happened after a number of recent small earthquakes. But a reading of the reality-based data says that Yellowstone caldera has not had a lava flow or eruption of any kind in 70,000 years, and no knowledgeable geologist sees any evidence of precursors to any new eruptions. A few years back, an earthquake and an internet video of a group of bison running "away" from Yellowstone caused the same kind of internet speculation (it turns out the bison were running towards the caldera).

Of course it is true that the Yellowstone caldera was born in one of the most colossal eruptions ever recorded. Learning the story of the eruption of the Huckleberry Tuff is fascinating. It brings an entirely new appreciation of the incredible scenery to be observed in a place that contains 70% of all the world's geysers. It should be enough. But there are so many individuals out there who would like to make a buck by scaring people needlessly. And there are too many gullible and ignorant people out there who can't pick rational accounts out of the confusing mix of conspiracy theories that exist on the internet.

And then there is the Big Island of Hawai'i. There are some serious things going on during the current phase of the eruption. The activity is endangering lives and destroying homes as Kilauea undergoes some major changes from the "norm" of the eruptions that have been ongoing for the last 35 years. The U.S. Geological Survey and Hawaiian civil defense authorities have been doing a pretty good job of providing up-to-date information about the latest activity, but that hasn't stopped all kinds of stories from popping up on the internet about the "Ring of Fire" which has nothing at all to do with Hawai'i. It is just too easy to pick up stories of eruptions in Alaska and Indonesia and think there is a pattern of increasing volcanism or earthquake activity (OMG, a magnitude 6 quake in the Kermadec Islands and an eruption at Mt. Cleveland in Alaska! It's a pattern and therefore Seattle will fall into the sea very soon!). The problem is one of perspective: if you sign up for earthquake notifications and volcano advisories from the USGS or other geologic research institutions, you would realize that these things happen all the time, and that a cluster of events is not unusual.
It's one thing to make up stories about normal volcanic activity to scare people. One can argue that they are ultimately harmless because the eruptions aren't actually taking place or hurting anyone. But there are real-world consequences of ignoring journalistic standards. Many of those who make their money with false headlines about such things will also traffic in climate change denial. When science becomes a matter of believing whatever one wishes, the very real problem of global warming becomes just another "scare" story, and the alarm bells being sounded by climate scientists become just more noise in an internet full of noise. But the real-world consequences are happening now, and action is needed to counteract the changes or to stop them. But it has become too easy to ignore the problem because it is so incremental and slow-acting. It just can't compete with the shiny baubles and clickbait on the web.
People in Hawai'i right now are largely trusting the geologists who have studied the volcanoes all their lives and are thus making the correct decisions about evacuating their homes. In the same way they trusted the seismologists when a tsunami threatened the islands in 2011 after the massive earthquake in Japan. No lives were lost when the tsunami hit because people had evacuated the low-lying areas. The wave surge was 8 feet deep in places and caused millions of dollars of damage. Many people could have been killed, but they accepted the authority of the scientists who predicted the timing and magnitude of the seismically induced waves.

And that's why the Mt. St. Helens eruption of 1980 matters today. Science and scientific expertise matters. Climate change is an even more profound danger to society than any earthquake or volcanic eruption. We need people to give climate scientists the same kind of respect they give geologists when volcanoes are rumbling and smoking. They are the ones to listen to, not the hucksters on the internet who are out to make a buck, or trying to protect those industries that make their profits off of producing greenhouse gases. We seem to talk little these days about integrity and striving for excellence, but scientific researchers are among those who still have those traits. There are always exceptions, but I would trust a scientist over a politician any day of the week (unless it is clear that the politician knows how to listen to a scientist).

There is a sign seen at some of the March For Science protests that have been happening for the last year and a half around the country: "At the start of every disaster movie there's a scientist being ignored". Unfortunately, it is too true in real life as well.

If you are searching for good updates on Hawai'i volcanic activity, check out the USGS Twitter account at https://twitter.com/USGSVolcanoes or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/USGSVolcanoes/

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Airliner Chronicles: Do You Know California's Biggest Volcano? You May Be Surprised at the Answer

The summit complex of Medicine Lake Highland, with Glass Mountain at the top, the Medicine flow center-left, and Medicine Lake at center-right.
It's a real problem for a geologist to be flying through cloud cover. One loses track of time and location so when an opening in the clouds occurs, one cannot know for sure where one is. I can pick out the essential geologic details a lot of the time, but without temporal or spatial context, I can't recognize even some of the most familiar places that I've visited many times. That's what happened last Thursday when I was flying to SeaTac. I lost sight of the ground only a few minutes out of Sacramento, and when the ground reappeared again, I was totally fooled by the scenes in these pictures. I thought I might be over Newberry Crater in Oregon, but I couldn't place Paulina Lake with the steep ridge that should have been to the right in the picture above. So I figured it must be some place in the Three Sisters area that I wasn't familiar with. But then I got home and looked at the pictures on the computer instead of the camera. I was wrong.
The Medicine Flow dates to about 2,000 years ago. It is composed of thick dacite lava flows. Frozen Medicine Lake is to the right.


It turns out I was flying right over the top of California's biggest volcano. Mt. Shasta is California's most prominent volcano, rising to 14,162 feet above sea level. It's the largest stratovolcano in the entire Cascades chain, with more bulk than even Mt. Rainier, which we looked at in our previous post.

[At this point there is a bit of uncomfortable shuffling in the back of the room as a few of the geologists look at each other and start mumbling something unintelligible.

"Ahem, is there something you would like to add to the discussion?" I say.

"But we've seen Mt. Shasta, and it looks nothing like that".

"And you would be right" I say, "but give me a chance to finish". They relent.]

But this isn't Mt. Shasta. It may be the tallest volcano in California, and it may be the biggest stratovolcano in the Cascades, but we are forty miles northeast of Shasta, looking at an entirely different kind of volcano. It's a shield volcano called Medicine Lake Highland. Although it is not even 8,000 feet high, it is much wider, with a total volume of around 130 cubic miles, compared to about 108 cubic miles for Mt. Shasta.

The view from the ground shows a gently sloping edifice covered by a variety of cinder cones and plug domes. Medicine Lake Highland (MLH)is shield-shaped like the giant volcanoes that make up the Hawaiian Islands, and is composed in large part of basalt, the fairly non-viscous lava that can flow for long distances before congealing. But MLH is different in some important ways. Some of the magma chambers beneath the volcano originate in the crust rather than the mantle (dacite or rhyolite), and the silica-rich lavas that erupt at the surface are sticky and barely flow at all.
MLH is an active volcano. There have been at least 17 eruptions in the last 11,000 years, and the Glass Mountain flow (below) erupted only about 850 years ago. There are areas of geothermal activity that have been proposed for energy development, but these have been rebuffed so far (thank goodness).
Glass Mountain at the top of Medicine Lake Highland. The flow dates to 850-900 years before present.

The top of the shield complex is a caldera (a sunken crater-like depression caused by the inward collapse of the top of the volcano). It is about the size of the Crater Lake Caldera, but is not nearly as rugged, as it is many thousands of years older and has been partially filled with subsequent lava flows. Medicine Lake sits within the caldera, but is not volcanic in origin. During the ice ages, glaciers scoured the summit area of MLH and left behind some impermeable clay deposits that prevent water from sinking into the ground (there are very few streams or rivers on the volcano, as it is highly porous; massive springs are found around the base of the volcano.).

One of America's most interesting national monuments is found on the north flank of MLH. Lava Beds National Monument preserves more than 75 miles of underground lava tubes, one of the highest concentrations of such caves in North America (and maybe in the world). The park also preserves the memory of the last stand of the Modoc people in their struggle against the U.S. military in the 1870s. They held out for months in the barren lava flows but were finally betrayed and captured. The Modoc people survive, but much of their cultural history was lost when they were banished to Oklahoma.

The clouds soon closed in again and I saw nothing more until we were over Washington.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Dear Washington State: All is Forgiven...The Airliner Chronicles Returns

The Pacific Northwest has this problem. It has two particular things in great abundance: trees and clouds. It also has volcanoes, but much of the time the first two obscure the latter. At Christmas I drove to the Seattle area and spent three days, and never laid eyes on Mt. Rainier, the gigantic stratovolcano that looms over the Puget Sound region. In the last week I had occasion to fly to the Seattle area, and being the month of May, I figured I had a pretty good chance of seeing some of the Cascade volcanoes. It started out pretty well as we left Sacramento, since I could see Lassen Peak off in the distance and then it disappeared. The clouds obscured the views all the way to Washington with the sole exception of a brief look at Mt. Adams, and the view below of Mt. Rainier.
Yeah, somewhere in there is the summit of Mt. Rainier.


That was okay. I had four days of walking and driving around Kent and Renton, and figured there would be a view once in awhile of the massive volcano. Nothing doing. There were tantalizing glimpses while driving around, but there were always trees in the way. Washington was disappointing me.
The flight home was scheduled to take off at 7:50PM so I figured there were too many things that would happen to either delay the flight until after sunset, or the clouds would be there again. But we boarded the plane on time and while taxiing down the runway I got the best ground-based picture of the mountain on the entire trip. It wasn't much, but it was something. 
And then we took off. It was hazy, and we took off towards the north and did a long turn towards the south, long enough to make me wonder if we were going to pass Rainier on the wrong side. But as the plane banked there was suddenly a very big mountain in the window, and Washington with all her trees and clouds were immediately forgiven. The mountain was stunning in the evening light.
Mt. Rainier from the runway at SeaTac.

At 14,411 feet, Mt. Rainier is the tallest volcano in Cascades Range, and is exceeded in volume only by Mt. Shasta in Northern California. It was once even higher, but glaciers have removed 1,000 feet of rock or more from the summit.  Because it is by far the tallest mountain in the Pacific Northwest it is completely covered by the largest mass of glacial ice in the lower 48 states, about a cubic mile (I read somewhere that it contains half of the all the glacial ice in the lower 48, but I can't find the source and would welcome any corrections from those who know such things). Aside from the "normal" threats that volcanoes might present to a given region (lava flows, ash flows, and that sort of thing), the snow makes the mountain far more dangerous. It's not hard to imagine why: any small eruption would melt a vast amount of ice, forming volcanic mudflows called lahars that are capable of flowing for many tens of miles, and threatening many of the cities along the southern part of the Puget Sound. The entire city of Tacoma is built on a mudflow that thundered down the mountain 5,000 years ago. The last major eruption occurred around a thousand years ago, although minor activity may have occurred several times in the 1800s. 

We flew south as the sun was sinking below the horizon and several other volcanoes appeared out of the gloom. Those pictures will come later. By way of explanation, the term "Airliner Chronicles" refers to the very first blog series I ever put together way back in 2008. One of my earliest posts in the series was also an evening shot of Rainier. By some strange convergence, that post received its first and only comment just two days ago!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Just For the Fun of It: A Beaver on the Shores of Lake Washington

I got one of those childhood wishes at long last tonight. I've never seen a beaver up close. That might seem odd, given the time I spend on rivers all over the American West. But I've never had a chance to watch and photograph one.
I saw evidence of beavers along the Tuolumne River several months ago, but I have yet to see one of them. I'd love to say that I saw this one along my river, but I'm currently a long way from home. I saw this beaver along the shores of Lake Washington near Seattle.


The North American Beaver was once common across the American West until a mania for beavers pelt hats in Europe fueled a massacre that nearly drove them extinct. They are reclaiming much of their lost territory in recent years, including along the shores of Lake Washington, to the misery in some cases of owners of carefully landscaped villas along the lake shore.

If today's beavers are sometimes a nuisance, imagine what they were like during the Pleistocene. A species, Castoroides, once ranged across North America that was as much as seven feet long. They went extinct around 11,000 years ago.


The

The Sentinels of Yosemite Valley: Giving Them a Bit of Respect

Let's consider for a moment that this is anyplace else in the world. You look up and see a waterfall that is 1,920 feet high, falling in six major steps. In what place in the world would this not be a notable feature with a state or national park designation? In what place would there not be thousands of people visiting every day, snapping pictures and oohing and aahing?
There are no parking lots and viewpoint for this waterfall. As a rule people barely notice that it exists. If that seems astounding, then take this as evidence of the extraordinary nature of Yosemite Valley. 2,000 foot high waterfalls disappear into the scenery. The name of this particular one is Sentinel Falls.
I admit that part of the reason Sentinel Falls is not as celebrated as some is that it is seasonal, flowing principally in the spring season. It's usually dry by the beginning of summer when most tourists visit the valley. But when it is flowing, it is spectacular.
Sentinel Rock suffers the same kind of locational insignificance. In any other part of the world, a 3,000 foot high sheer cliff would elicit awe and wonder. In Yosemite Valley there are so many dramatic cliffs that Sentinel gets lost because people are trying to get a glimpse of Yosemite Falls on the north rim of the valley. Sentinel Rock and the adjacent Sentinel Falls are on the south side of Yosemite Valley, almost directly across from Yosemite Falls. Yosemite is the waterfall that catches their attention.
That's not to suggest that Yosemite Falls doesn't deserve the adulation it receives. The waterfall is 2,425 feet tall, somewhere around the fifth to seventh highest in the world. It always has more water than Sentinel does, and in many ways it is more dramatic. But when I was taking pictures of Sentinel last week in the rainstorm, I was the only person standing in my little corner of the floor of Yosemite Valley. I didn't have to share my moment with throngs of tourists all staring at the same feature and snapping the same pictures from the same angle. It was just me and a quiet moment in an often crowded and hectic place.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

At the Frontier: River Otters and the Tuolumne River




Here in California we've abused our rivers, especially in the Sierra Nevada, and in particular, the Tuolumne River, the one in my backyard. The Gold Rush of 1848 was catastrophic. Miners dug up river vegetation and processed literally all the river gravels for the elusive metal. Gold dredges did incalculable damage to stretches of the rivers in the Great Valley by ripping out the riparian vegetation and destroying the soils along the river floodplain. Underground mines brought minerals to the surface that oxidized to form acids and other toxins. Mercury used in the gold recovery process leaked into river waters. In the twentieth century we built massive dams that altered the water quality and flow levels.  There are recovery efforts happening, but it will be many more years before the river can be truly healthy for salmon and all the other life forms that historically lived along the river. There are many other challenges, like the invasive hyacinth, a water plant that clogs river channels, pollution, and low flows related to extensive droughts in California (the water is warmer than it should be).

On of the bellwethers of the health of a river system is the presence or absence of apex predators and other native species. The predators cannot thrive if their prey species are not present, whether from pollution, drought or other cause. That's always on my mind when I walk the shores of the Tuolumne River where it flows into the Central Valley. This stretch of river is controlled by a system of reservoirs and irrigation canals, and flows are tightly controlled most of the time. I'm always looking for signs that the native species are present and hopefully thriving. In the last few years I've run across foxes, raccoons, beavers (gnawed trees, anyway), hawks and ospreys and much to my delight on four occasions now, Northern River Otters (Lontra Canadensis). 
Source: http://www.sibr.com/mammals/M163.html
The current range of the otter ends in our region. It's their frontier. According to the River Otter Ecology Project, there have been sightings on the Tuolumne River, and just one or two in the Merced River one drainage to the south (some otters were spotted in Yosemite Valley for the first time in decades last year). 
The frontier once extended farther to the south. There's another river that has suffered even more degradation. It's the upper San Joaquin. It flows out of the Sierra Nevada high country between Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks. So much of the river has been diverted for irrigation that the river hasn't flowed on many stretches for more than half a century. There's no habitat for wildlife when there is no river. A series of lawsuits and agency agreements resulted in the formation of the San Joaquin River Restoration Project that recently saw water flow again in the river. Maybe there is hope that the river will host otters again as well.
My adventure with the otter this morning started when I was looking for birds along the river's edge. I happened to look down and saw a strange looking round head looking at me through the grass, It wasn't even a second, but I thought it might be an otter. I walked downriver a short distance and started watching. After about 10 minutes, the otter swam by me, maybe 25 feet away. I snapped two pictures, and then remembered the video. I hit the "play" button, and started contentedly watching the otter swim upstream at a languid pace. Then I hit the "play" button again and actually started recording (but not realizing it). In the end I got a one second video of otter, and a minute and a half of random swinging camera.
The top picture is the otter from this morning, the closest I've ever been to one. The second is a shot from much further away of an otter I saw three weeks ago. Since I didn't get the greatest video ever seen of an otter this morning, you'll have to settle for the video from three weeks ago. 

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Ice Crystals at Work in the Upper Atmosphere

There were some ice crystals in the upper atmosphere around here over the last two days, so several sky phenomena caught my attention while I was out and about. This morning, light rays from the sun reflecting off of the platy crystals produced a 22° ice halo (above), and a sun dog (below).
Last night I noticed an odd glow in the sky as the sun was nearly setting. It was a sun pillar, which is also a consequence of sunlight reflecting off of horizontal ice crystals.

Friday, May 4, 2018

The Day of the Diminutive Dogwoods in Yosemite Valley

Yosemite National Park is a place of big things. Big rock walls, big mountains, big trees, and big valleys. But for a few weeks out of the year, a little tree makes a big splash. A splash of white in the spring when the snows have disappeared, and a splash of red, pink and yellow in autumn as the trees lose their leaves.
The Pacific Dogwood (Cornus nuttalli) is a small tree that forms some of the understory of Yosemite Valley's conifer forests. It seems practically invisible to park visitors (like me, anyway) most of the time. The flowers aren't all that showy. They are the small yellow sphere in the middle of the structure. But they are surrounded by large white bracts that look like flower petals. Bracts are actually highly modified leaves. I was in Yosemite Valley a few weeks ago and I would swear there were no Dogwood blooms at the time, but there were plenty of them Tuesday.

The range of the dogwood trees is mostly in the Pacific Northwest and the coastal islands of British Columbia. The Sierra Nevada is more or less the southern end of the range of the species, aside from a few isolated pockets in Southern California.

I don't find them together all that often, but sometimes the blooming period of the Western Redbud (Cornus nuttallii) can overlap with the Dogwood, and if I look long enough, I can find the shrubs adjacent to each other. This year it was really tough, as the two shrubs were outside the door of the buffet restaurant in Curry (Half Dome) Village.  It was a colorful combination.

Back to the rocks soon!

Eruption Begins in the Big Island's Puna District

Erupting vent of Pu'u O'o and the East Rift in 2009
The people of Hawai'i have a lot on their hands at the moment. A few months ago, someone pushed the wrong button, and the inhabitants thought for 45 minutes that they would be incinerated by North Korean bombs. Just two weeks ago, the island of Kaua'i was hit by an epic record-setting storm that dropped feet of rain and caused widespread flood damage that they are only beginning to clean up. And then tonight comes news that a new eruption is taking place on the Big Island.
Developments in the Puna District on the East Rift Zone of Kilauea (2009)

The words "volcanic eruption on the Big Island" aren't normally an extraordinary story. Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983, and lava flows have been emanating from Pu'u O'o in the East Rift Zone. Since 2008 the summit caldera of Kilauea has been erupting as well. The summit flow actually made news last week when the lava pit filled and overflowed into the floor of the caldera. But today's news is a bit more ominous.

Most of the activity in recent years has been in isolated parts of Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, and along the coast where the lava has been flowing into the sea without causing major damage (but to be clear, hundreds of homes in the Kalapana District were destroyed in the early phases of the Kilauea eruption). But the Puna District lies miles east of Pu'u O'o vent, and lava flows there are relatively uncommon. There were extensive flows in 1790, 1840, 1955 and 1960. A flow in 2014 briefly threatened homes in Pahoa (see the map below). In the years since these eruptions, a thick rainforest has grown over the lava flows, hiding the evidence of their destruction. And people moved in. Housing developments proliferated on and near the older lava flows.

This week, the summit cone of Pu'o O'o collapsed and sent an unusual pink cloud of ash rising over the Puna District. Lava drained from the molten lake at the cone and began intruding underground in  the cracks and fissures of the East Rift Zone. Dozens of earthquakes heralded the movement of the magma, and cracks appeared here and there on roads in the region. And word comes tonight that a rift zone eruption has begun very close to the Leilani Estates. Evacuations have begun, and we now must wait to see how events unfold. I'm hoping that damage will be minimal.
Pu'u O'o on May 3, 2018, courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

I've enjoyed my visits to the Puna District. One of the most fascinating sights are the tree molds from the 1790 lava flow at Lava Trees State Park. When the lava encroached into the rainforest, it tended to freeze solid around the tree trunks, and then the lava flow subsided somewhat as it continued down the slope. The trees burned of course, but the lava maintained the shape of the trunks as empty molds.

The native Hawaiian people saw these monuments as frozen beings. Do you see the face in the mold below?
On a field trip in 2004 we spent several of our Hawaii hours in...a power plant! It's significant because it is a geothermal plant that uses the hot water emanating from magma chambers deep in the crust beneath the 1790 lava flow to provide 20% of the electrical needs of the Big Island. It is now threatened by the current activity.
The Hawaiian Islands owe their very existence to the hot magmas emanating from the Earth's mantle, but living on the Big Island entails risks related to the constant volcanic activity. Pele's whims can never be taken for granted. Active lava flows are a spectacular draw for tourists (including me whenever possible), but they can threaten those who live there.
Lava flows on the flanks of Pu'u O'o in 2009
It's been a tough couple of months for the people of Hawai'i. My heart goes out to them.

Updates from the United States Geological Survey and the Hawai'i Volcanoes Observatory can be found at: https://volcanoes.usgs.gov/volcanoes/kilauea/status.html. Emergency updates from the County of Hawai'i can be found at http://www.hawaiicounty.gov/active-alerts/.
Ocean entry of lava flows from Pu'u O'o in 2009