Thursday, August 22, 2019

Travels in Cascadia: Walking Under the Ocean Floor at East Sooke Bay, British Columbia

We continued our explorations of British Columbia with a hike at the south end of Vancouver Island at East Sooke. It's an unusual place, out of place with the rocks that make up most of the island. The majority of Vancouver Island is made up of metamorphic rocks of the Wrangellia Terrane. These rocks originated as island arcs and continental fragments in the Pacific Ocean which added to the west coast of North America as the ocean crust sank beneath the continent at the Cascadia Subduction Zone.
Source: Chris Yorath
But the south tip of the island is made up of rocks related to the Olympic Peninsula which lies 20 miles away across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. These rocks are parts of the ocean crust, and are called the Metchosin Igneous Complex, or the Metchosin Ophiolite. They formed in Eocene time, around 50 million years ago as vast amounts of basaltic lavas spilled out on the Pacific Ocean floor
The Olympic Mountains seen from East Sooke across the Strait of Juan de Fuca
Ophiolites are generally considered to be slices of oceanic crust that form at divergent plate boundaries. The oceanic crust is pulled apart by extensional forces, relieving pressure on the underlying asthenosphere where the rocks are close to the melting point. The loss of pressure causes some melting to take place, and the resulting basaltic magma rises through fractures caused when the sea floor is pulled apart. An ophiolite has three distinct parts, with pillow basalts making up the ocean floor (more on pillows in a coming post), sheet dikes (the fractures), and gabbro plutons at the base. Gabbro is a coarse-grained igneous rock with the same composition as basalt (it cools slowly, allowing for crystal growth). A pluton is any kind of rock that has been intruded into the crust.
East Sooke Regional Park lies a few miles west of Victoria along the shoreline of the Salish Sea. For a coastal park it has an unusual 'feel'. Because the Salish Sea consists of a series of straits and inlets, wave energy is considerably diminished, at least at the times that I've been able to visit. The waves barely register and the shoreline seems more like a large lake, much like Lake Tahoe in my own home region. But the water is definitely salty!
My goal for our class this day was to get a close look at the rocks of the gabbro pluton portion of the ophiolite. In other words, we were going to go walking beneath the ocean floor. The class, a combined dyad of geology and anthropology students had other ideas. The anthropologists slightly outnumbered the geologists, so they were intent on finding some reported petroglyphs in the region. We went hiking on the Alyard Farm Trail, which was a loop of about two miles, first along the rocky shore, and ending in a thick conifer forest.
Luckily, the petroglyphs had been carved out of boulders of the gabbro, so we got the best of both worlds, with some glacial grooves as icing on the cake. Can you see the first one in the picture below? Without looking ahead, can you tell what it was meant to be (remember the landscape setting)?
I'm told that this is the representation of a sea lion. One source on the internet (the arbiter of all truth) mentions the following myth about the petroglyph: "Long years ago a great supernatural animal like a sea lion killed many of the Becher Bay Indians while they were canoeing. The tribe nearly became extinct; the remaining members were afraid to go on the water until one day a mythical man caught the sea lion and turned him into the stone representation on Alldridge Point" (Anonymous, Report of BCPM, 1928).

Note the grainy nature of the rock in the picture below. Gabbro is a dark-colored plutonic rock that has the same composition as basalt, but the individual grains are visible because of the slow rate that the magma cooled. The gray minerals are plagioclase feldspar, while the black minerals are mostly a variety of pyroxene, perhaps augite. Small grains of olivine are scattered throughout the rock.
There is a second petroglyph nearby of a salmon (below), but it has seriously faded. Both petroglyphs are attributed to the T'Sou-ke First Nation people, but the age of the rock carvings is not known. They quite likely are thousands of years old, based on the amount of weathering.
I'll probably say something similar to this many more times as we continue our exploration of British Columbia, but here we go: if you ever have the opportunity to visit Victoria and Vancouver Island, set aside some time to explore the East Sooke area. In addition to the beautiful coastal trail, there is also the East Sooke Potholes, a series of deep pools eroded out of the rocks after the last ice age. We didn't have the time to explore further up the coast, but the guides mention a number of fascinating places to investigate.

I had three main resources for the geology in and around the city of Victoria and East Sooke:
The Geology of Southern Vancouver Island by Chris Yorath
Roadside Geology of Southern British Columbia by Bill Mathews and Jim Monger
Geology of British Columbia, A Journey Through Time by Sydney Cannings, JoAnne Nelson, and Richard Cannings.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Travels in Cascadia: Victoria B.C., the City of Mutton Rocks


The next stop in our recent travels through Cascadia was the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. We got there by way of a ferry from Port Angeles, Washington, as described in the last post. Victoria is an attractive city, one of the most temperate in Canada, given its location on the Pacific shoreline (the adjacent ocean moderates the seasonal temperature extremes). It is also unique in another respect. The city is partially constructed on bedrock (the solid rock that underlies surface soils and sediments), and the land was under a vast 1,000 meter thick ice sheet only 14,000 years ago.

This geologically unique combination means that Victoria is sort of a city of mutton rocks.

I imagine that sentence needs explanation...

The term roche moutonnée describes an asymmetrical glacially scoured rock outcrop that has a smooth slope on the side facing the flowing ice, and a steep cliff on the side where the glacier pulled away from the outcrop ("stoss and lee structure" is a related term). The scale can range from a few meters to many hundreds. They are common features in regions of bedrock that have been scoured by massive continental ice sheets, such as happened in Victoria. One of the tallest hills within the city, Mt. Tolmie (below), is an excellent example. In the picture one can see the gently sloping forested flank on the left side of the hill, and the steeper plucked side to the right.
Mt. Tolmie, a roche moutonnée in Victoria

The problem with roche moutonnée as a geological term is that we geologists can only barely agree on its meaning. It's derived from French, and the "roche" part isn't a problem. It means "rock". But "moutonnée" is the tricky aspect. It can be translated loosely as "sheep" (think "mutton""), but not exactly (French: "mouton"). Moutonnée (with the extra e's) translates to "frizzy", and is taken as a reference to sheep's wool. The term originated in the 1700s with a naturalist named Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (it would be decades before the term "geologist" was coined) who noted that the rocks looked like a type of wig apparently well-known at the time whose locks were held in place with mutton grease. Except that there seem to be few or no references to wigs that were actually called that (the closest version was a tête de mouton).

So we teachers are left with trying to define the term as meaning "rock sheep" based on the nebulous idea that the rocks look like sheep grazing in meadows. Which they really don't. But it's still easier than trying to describe obscure French wigs from the 1700s and mutton grease.

There are consequences to building on such rocky landscapes. There are plenty of large patches of glacial till that are easy to plane off with a bulldozer for building construction, but when the rock crops out, allowances have to be made. Perhaps it might involve blasting to construct a flat foundation. The rock is pretty tough stuff, gabbro, diorite, and greenstone of the Wrangellia terrane, dating back to the era of dinosaurs.

There are problems in this kind of situation. When the Empress Hotel (see the picture above) was constructed in 1904-1905 it was placed partly on solid rock and partly on mud-rich sediments. Complications quickly ensued. The south part of the building subsided several centimeters within the first year and ultimately sank about a meter. It's a real headache for those who must maintain the building.

Still, Victoria is a truly beautiful city, and the city has a unique personality. The city has miles of coastline, and there are dozens of scenic shoreline parks. We pulled up at Cattle Point to look at smaller roches moutonnée along with glacial scour marks and striations. Strangely enough, there was a piano sitting on the bluff. It was brightly painted, there was a bench, and the piano was in tune! I wondered what was going to happen to it if it rained, but then noticed a waterproof cover. We later found that there are five such pianos in the parks, and we were actually treated to a tune by a passing jogger, followed by a song by one of our students!

If you ever have a chance to visit Victoria, enjoy the city, but be sure to follow the shoreline drive to see the glacial heritage of the landscape (as well as seeing some dramatic coastal scenery). But the other thing you should do is to hike or drive to the summit of the mutton rocks of the city. Mt. Tolmie is a good choice within the city limits, or you can go just north of the city to the much higher summit of Mt. Douglas. It's a short hike from the parking lot to a summit with a 360 degree view of the region. The Olympic Mountains are visible across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the south beyond the city, and the many islands of the Strait of Georgia and Saanich Inlet are visible to the north and east. Glacial polish, striations and grooves are present underfoot.

On the day we were there, I saw some unusual looking clouds far to the southeast. I took a few highly zoomed shots and forget about them until weeks later. I started working with the contrast and exposure of the picture and realized I had captured an image of Mt. Rainier across the Puget Sound. The volcano is more than 130 miles away (below)!

I had three main resources for the geology in and around the city:
The Geology of Southern Vancouver Island by Chris Yorath
Roadside Geology of Southern British Columbia by Bill Mathews and Jim Monger
Geology of British Columbia, A Journey Through Time by Sydney Cannings, JoAnne Nelson, and Richard Cannings.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Geotripping! It Could Be You! Geology of the Eastern Sierra Nevada, September 26-30


The east side of the Sierra Nevada and the adjacent Owen's Valley is one of the most dramatic landscapes on planet Earth. The valley that forms the eastern boundary of the range is two miles deep, twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. The valley contains active faults (responsible for one of California's most powerful earthquakes ever, the 1872 Lone Pine quake), and active volcanoes, ranging from small cinder cones to gigantic calderas that rival those of Yellowstone.
The region is full of fascinating geological features, including Bodie, one of the most well-preserved ghost towns in the American west. There is also the nation's "Dead Sea" which is not really dead at all, preserving the lives of millions of migratory birds. Mono Lake is the epicenter of the LA water wars, an issue that can only become more important as California enters a new and unprecedented climate regime.

Scenery abounds, and tourists and explorers love this region like few others. But how often have people traveled through this region without the awareness of the incredible geology exposed at their feet? Are you one of them? Have you never had the privilege of exploring this incredible landscape? Well, I've got a great opportunity for you...
On September 26-30, the Geology Department at Modesto Junior College will be offering Geology 186, a 2-unit field course on the geology of the eastern Sierra Nevada and the Owen's Valley. We'll leave the college early Thursday afternoon and drive to our expected first night stop at Baker Station, the High Sierra Institute, located in the high country of the Sierra near Sonora Pass. The facility is run by our district for a variety of multidisciplinary classes.
From there we'll cross the Sierra Nevada at Sonora Pass and explore the lands to the east, including Bodie and Mono Lake before arriving at our base camp at Millpond Recreation Area just outside of Bishop in the Owens Valley. We'll spend three days there. We'll check out the Long Valley Caldera, the Volcanic Tableland, Devil's Postpile, Inyo Craters, and Minaret Summit the next day.
The following day we'll head up into the White Mountains across the Owens Valley from the Sierra Nevada, where we'll have a bird's-eye view of some of California's remaining glaciers, and have a look at the oldest trees on the planet. We'll then head south to Lone Pine and Owens Lake.

Our final day we'll head back up through the caldera with a stop at Convict Lake (below) and then make our way home via Tioga Pass and Yosemite National Park.

We'll be camping out, and you'll be your own cook on this trip. We'll travel in school vans. The trip will cost $80 plus the cost of tuition at MJC (about $100 or so). Information can be found at http://hayesg.faculty.mjc.edu/Eastern%20Sierra%20Nevada.html, and the MJC website (to enroll in the class) can be found at https://mjc.edu/. If you live in the Modesto area, we'll have an organizational meeting on Thursday, September 12 at 5:30 PM in the Geology Lab at MJC, Science Community Center 326. If you live outside the area, I can send you the relevant materials.

The Sierra Nevada and Owens Valley is an incredible place to explore. I hope you'll be joining us!

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Travels in Cascadia: Traversing the Salish Sea, and Leaving the USA

Morning in Port Angeles, looking across the Salish Sea

It was the third day of our journey through Cascadia, and after our exploration of the Olympic Peninsula, it was now time to leave the United States. We were in Port Angeles, Washington at the north end of the peninsula, and our route to Canada was by way of ferry across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The landscape was undergoing a dramatic change. First of all we weren't in mountains anymore, we were crossing a sea. That seems an obvious point, but one has to wonder why the mountains abruptly end in a sea, and why similar mountains don't occur across the water. Second, we had reached the southern reach of the vast ice sheets that covered Canada and part of the United States during the Ice Ages that ended only around 12,000 years ago.

These two things, the end of the mountains and the end of the glaciers are related. The Strait we were crossing, along with the Strait of Georgia and the Puget Sound, are collectively known as the Salish Sea. The term was coined in the late 1980s as a way of recognizing the interconnectedness of these bodies of water as a single environmental entity. The name originated with the indigenous people who first colonized the landscape around the sea.
The Salish Sea (from http://blogs.agu.org/fromaglaciersperspective/2015/06/08/salmon-challenges-from-glaciers-to-the-salish-sea/)
The Salish Sea covers about 17,000 square kilometers (6,600 square miles), and has 7,470 kilometers (2,900 miles) of coastline, along with 419 islands. It is a unique ecosystem, a sea in the Pacific Northwest that is somewhat protected from the worst storm violence and wave action out of the Alaska region. Something like 8 million people call the shoreline home, in a megalopolis that extends from West Vancouver to Olympia. Along with people, there are 37 species of sea mammals, 172 species of birds, 247 species of fish, and over 3000 species of invertebrates.

The western margin of the Salish Sea is formed by the Olympic Peninsula and the mountains of Vancouver Island. The Strait of Juan de Fuca slices between the two landmasses. It was the strait that we were traversing on our way to the city of Victoria. 

The Olympic Peninsula is made up mostly of ocean floor sediments and basaltic rock pushed up as material was stuffed into the trench. Vancouver Island has a different origin. It is a piece of continental crust that traveled across the Pacific (at the feverish rate of a few inches per year) only to collide with the western edge of North America. Such far-traveled landmasses are called exotic terranes.

Source: http://www.deq.idaho.gov/regional-offices-issues/coeur-dalene/rathdrum-prairie-aquifer/geologic-history/
The Salish basin was shaped in large part by the ice sheets that covered essentially all of Canada and a good portion of the northern United States. As recently as 12,000 years ago, a mass of ice a mile (1.6 km) thick pushed south through the basin as far as Tacoma. A lobe of ice also extended west through what would become the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The ferry ride took about 90 minutes to cover the 20 miles of open water between Washington and Vancouver Island. It's a beautiful ride, made all the more interesting as one realizes this entire body of water was once covered by ice. As one gets further out to sea, the higher snow-capped peaks of the Olympic Mountains come into view.

It may be that the water can get pretty choppy, especially during winter storms, but on my four trips across the strait, conditions were very calm. I almost felt like I was on a lake instead of a sea. We were still on dangerous "ground", though. The Strait of Juan de Fuca is not immune to the effects of huge earthquakes, whether in the immediate vicinity (along the Cascadia Subduction Zone), or from those at great distances (such as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan). The problem, of course, will be tsunamis.

Sometimes confined bodies of water can weaken the effect of tsunamis by dispersing the energy of the waves, but in some circumstances they can magnify the energy instead. There is some evidence of ancient tsunamis along the shorelines of some of the interior islands of the Salish Sea. The effects will probably muted compared to the damage along the Pacific Coast, but more developments are located there as well. On a positive note, the cities in the region are recognizing the threat and are talking action to minimize the damage (see an example here).
It was a beautiful cruise. Soon, we pulled into the harbor at Victoria and got ready to disembark. We were in Canada!

This post is part of a series on our field study of the geology and anthropology of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.

Monday, August 12, 2019

The 35 Year Wait is Over! The Ribbon-cutting for the Great Valley Museum Outdoor Nature Lab is Wednesday!

Ever since the origin of the Great Valley Museum decades ago, there has been a desire on the part of the faculty of Modesto Junior College and Great Valley Museum staff to have an outdoor education area that would complement the nature exhibits inside the museum. For decades the museum operated out of a former house across the street from the MJC East Campus, and other than a few plants alongside the building, there was no outdoor component to a museum visit. Big changes came with the passage of Measure E in our county that led to the construction of the Science Community Center with a vastly expanded Great Valley Museum that included a planetarium, Science on a Sphere, and other innovative exhibits. However, the Outdoor Nature Lab was one of the last of the Measure E projects to receive funding, and for several years the very existence of the lab was in question.

But that finally changed and two years ago we finally broke ground for the construction of the outdoor lab, after a wait of at least 35 years. There are a few finishing touches still to be added (interpretive signs, and believe it or not, a big dinosaur), but it is officially opening to the public this week. It's fair to say that it opened up to nature months ago...a pair of Killdeers raised a family during the early summer, and other animals are taking up residence. But the official opening is this week for we humans.
Please join us! The ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place on Wednesday, August 14, at 9:00AM. The GVM Outdoor Nature Lab is on the north side of the Science Community Center on MJC's West Campus. It's been a long journey and we can't wait to share it with you!

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Travels in Cascadia: Threading the Needle on Hurricane Ridge

Leading a field studies trip is a stress-filled enterprise. There are the big things to worry about: auto accidents, injuries, conflicts with law enforcement, lost reservations, and those sorts of things. But those thankfully don't happen much. But weather does happen, and field studies trips tend to be tightly scripted affairs with not much room for weather-related complications. Yet they happen, especially on trips in the Pacific Northwest. We've had trips where we had just the one chance to see Mt. St. Helens, and it was completely fogged in. There was the one chance to see the Sea to Sky Highway in British Columbia, and it was raining the entire way. We've missed a lot.

This year was going to be different. We worked some flexibility into the schedule, spending two nights each at most of our localities, giving us the chance to postpone a particular plan for a day to allow the weather to clear up. But on our second day out, I was worried. Ever since the longest ten-day forecast, a storm was brewing out in the Pacific Ocean, one that was arriving in waves over several days. We had given ourselves two days on the Olympic Peninsula, and rain was falling on Hurricane Ridge the first day, so we elected to go to Neah Bay and Cape Flattery instead. But that left us just one more chance to have a clear view at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. The sunrise (above) was not promising. According to the forecast, we would have a brief window of maybe three or four hours before the storm closed in, but we drove through light showers on the road up to the ridge.
My concern grew as we continued up the road, rising from sea level to over 5,000 feet. The far ridges would appear for a moment and then become obscured, and I didn't know until we reached the top ridge if we would actually see anything...

… but we did! And no matter how many times I've been on Hurricane Ridge, nothing quite prepares me for the view from the end of the paved road. It is simply astonishing. As we emerged from the vehicles I felt the stress falling away, like dropping a particularly heavy load from my shoulders. We gathered the group and said a few words about the geology. We would save the longer presentations for later in the day down the hill. With an impending storm, I didn't want our students to miss any of the dramatic scenery. And it is dramatic.

The Olympic Mountains rise from sea level to nearly 8,000 feet and are extremely rugged. They capture prodigious amounts of rain and snow on the western flanks, so much so that temperate rainforests coat the western slopes. It was a nightmare for geologists who were trying to unravel the geologic history.

The mountains exist because of subduction. For most of 200 million years a convergent boundary has been active in the region, as the crust of the Pacific Ocean basin has been sinking against the edge of the North American Continent. In some places, like California, the subduction zone has been replaced by a transform boundary (the San Andreas fault). But in Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and part of British Columbia, the subduction zone is still active, still producing earthquakes, and still raising mountains. It's called the Cascadia Subduction Zone (from hence comes the name of this series).
Source: Geological Society of America

In a "normal" subduction zone, there are four parts: the trench, an accretionary wedge, a forearc basin, and a magmatic arc. The trench is the deepest part of the ocean floor where the oceanic crust sinks back into the mantle. The accretionary wedge is a collection of seafloor sediments and crust that has been scraped off the subducting plate and added to the edge of the continent. The forearc basin is a shallow sea that may develop inland of the accretionary wedge (California's Great Valley originated in this fashion). The magmatic arc is a system of volcanoes and intrusive plutons resulting from the melting of rocks in the lower crust and upper mantle above the descending slab (water released from the slab lowers the melting point of the rock, leading to the formation of the molten rock).


Looking at the thickly forested slopes below Hurricane Ridge, I cannot envy the geologists who originally mapped the Olympic Mountains. Simply finding an exposure of rock must have been challenging at times. What these geologists did was to take the rare rock exposures and extrapolate them into a semi-coherent map that reveals the structure of the Olympic Mountains. They did the equivalent of taking a few pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, putting them in the right location relative to the others, and then drawing in the remainder of the puzzle from scratch. I've been way too spoiled by the naked rock exposures of places like Death Valley and the Mojave Desert!

The geologic map reveals the basic structure of the Olympics. A "horseshoe" of basalt and sedimentary rocks (the Peripheral Rocks, or Crescent Formation) partially surrounds the "Core Rocks", an assemblage of lightly metamorphosed sandstone and shale layers. The Core Rocks are characteristic of the types of deposits that form from underwater landslides ("turbidity currents") within the trench and accretionary wedge of a subduction zone. The fact that these rocks are now thousands of feet above sea level is the interesting conundrum. Accretionary wedges are generally below sea level, or exist as small islands. They can be pushed higher. For instance, the rocks of the Cascadia accretionary wedge are exposed in the Coast Ranges of  Washington, Oregon and California, but nowhere are the exposures as spectacular as the Olympic Mountains.


Convergent boundaries can be exceedingly complex places. Bits and pieces of continents and island arcs may randomly arrive at the subduction zone, mucking up the subduction process the way too many sheets of paper at once can muck up a paper-shredder. In the case of the Olympics, there was a mass of land north (Vancouver Island) and an accreted terrane to the south (the North Cascades), and a bend in the subduction zone itself. In essence, too much material was being stuffed into the subduction zone, so the excess material went the only way it could, which was up. The mountains have been rising for around 15 million years. They would be higher, but the incredible amount of precipitation tears the mountains down at a roughly equivalent rate.

Pillow basalt from the subducted oceanic crust is exposed along the Hurricane Ridge Road and along trails near the viewpoint. When we went down the road later on, we found that a small rockfall had dumped some of the pillows onto our highway. So, as it turned out, we managed to miss having rocks fall on our vans, i.e., one of the hazards I mentioned at the start of the post!

We could easily observe the glaciers that scour the upper reaches of the mountains. Glaciers technically shouldn't exist here. Although we were at a high enough latitude, the nearby Pacific Ocean moderates the climate, keeping things warmer than they would otherwise be (the Olympics are at the same latitude as Great Falls, Montana, or St. Paul, Minnesota). But temperature isn't the only factor in glacier development. The sheer amount of snowfall in combination with temperatures that are just cold enough allows glaciers to exist at these unusually low elevations.
We had a good introduction to the basic features of alpine glaciation as we gazed across the valley to Mt. Olympus. There were horns, aretes, and cirques as well. Glaciers were going to be a big part of the story of British Columbia, and Hurricane Ridge provided a spectacular setting for the first discussion of how they worked.
It was nearly noon and the storm clouds were building. We were rained on as we descended back down to the lowlands. It was time to prepare for the ferry ride across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Vancouver Island.