Thursday, October 18, 2018

Earth as Inspiration: It's Coyote and Roadrunner! (Except that it's not a Coyote, and the bird wasn't a Roadrunner)


It's Earth Science Week, and the theme this year is Earth as Inspiration. It may seem strange that I would open this blog with a picture of cute furry creature when we should be discussing the Earth, but bear with me. I find the inspiration wherever I can!

I live in the midst of California's Great Valley, but to many people it isn't all that "great". Modesto regularly ends up as 48th or 49th on the lists of the "best places to live" in the U.S. We are in a perpetual depression, with unemployment levels that are around twice the national average, and the median household income lags badly behind the national average. Pretty dismal, many things considered, but not all. There are some real treasures to be found among the dusty fields. And those treasures are related to the earth sciences.

The Great Valley originated as a forearc basin between the vast subduction zone that once existed offshore of California during the age of the dinosaurs (the Mesozoic Era), and the chain of volcanoes that erupted miles above the magma chambers that would one day cool to become the granitic rocks of the Sierra Nevada. For most of its history the valley was a shallow sea, home to huge swimming reptiles during the age of dinosaurs, and gigantic sharks and a variety of whales, dolphins and seals during the Cenozoic Era that followed. It was only a few million years ago that the valley floor rose above sea level to become the grassy savanna that it was prior to the arrival of European settlers and farmers. The valley was populated by a bewildering array of strange mammals like mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, gigantic Short-faced Bears, Saber-tooth Cats, Dire Wolves, horses, and camels. Many of these animals went extinct around 12,000 years ago, but even 300 years ago there were herds of Tule Elk, deer, Pronghorn, Grizzly Bears, Wolves, and Mountain Lions. And there were birds. Millions and millions of migratory birds who made the valley wetlands their winter home.

Eventually 95% of the valley was co-opted by agricultural development, and most of the natural primeval landscape was lost. But fragments remain here and there. There are still prairies around the margins of the valley that were simply grazed and not plowed. There were river floodplains that flooded too often to be developed as farmlands. And some animals adapted to the new state of affairs and have thrived in human landscapes.

That is where my inspiration came from this evening. I was out taking my normal walk for exercise and bird-searching when I came across a wild chicken. Well, not really a wild chicken, but apparently an escapee from the campus chicken coop (we have a big agriculture unit at our school). And it looked nervous. A moment later I saw why: it was being stalked by a Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). I've seen Red Foxes on the campus before; they're an introduced species. But this was the first time I got a clear view of the native Gray Fox (I saw one in the dark a few weeks ago).
The fox was very intent on its quarry and didn't notice me at first. I was able to get a few shots of it before it retreated into the bushes behind the farm machinery. The chicken also headed into the bushes, relieved that the chase was at least temporarily put on hold. But the whole episode reminded me of a great thing happening on our campus.

We are building a small version of our valley's native ecosystem on the vacant space north of our Great Valley Museum. It will be called the Great Valley Outdoor Nature Lab, and it will include several acres of native vegetation, a vernal pool, and some of the rocks characteristic of the margins of our valley. It might not be large enough to serve as a home base for the fox, but it will attract the native birds, and maybe some of the native amphibians and reptiles. The work is well underway, and by January we should have a mostly operational outdoor lab. Local school children, many of whom almost never have a chance to leave the city limits, will have an opportunity to see the natural history museum exhibits, and then step outside to see the native trees and vegetation, and perhaps even some native birds, ground squirrels or lizards, and if they are really lucky, a Gray Fox.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Earth as Inspiration: Memories on the 29th Anniversary of the Loma Prieta Earthquake

It's Earth Science Week, and "Earth as Inspiration" is the theme for this year. Inspiration can take many forms. Sometimes it is awe-inspiring beauty, something our planet has in great bounty. But the earth can kill, and inspiration can be related to preparation for disasters.
No, this isn't what happens (credit: A. June)
On October 17th at 5:04 PM, my physical geology laboratory had just finished and almost everyone had gone home to watch the World Series. A couple of students were helping me (it was Maureen and Sonny; funny how I remember the names of the first students I had better than the ones I had last semester). We were 100 kilometers from the epicenter, so when the seismic waves started to shake our building, the movement was a strong rolling motion instead of sharp vibrations. We looked at swaying TV monitors, and commented that it was an earthquake. It was a most scholarly discussion, actually. We realized the shaking was not stopping, and we thought we could sense the direction of the quake as well. We started to guess where it might be happening, but when the shaking reached the 40 second mark (the energy was spreading out, it lasted only 10 seconds or so near the epicenter), we realized it was a major event, and that fatalities were probably occurring (and unfortunately we were right). The deodar trees out the window were whipping back and forth as if they were in a high wind. The strangest part for me was the unconscious decision I was making as the shaking progressed. Despite having a quiet scholarly discussion, my body was moving from the front of the podium to the back, where there was a nice solid space to hide under. I would have dived under if the quake had lasted any longer.
Well, this can happen, but most people survive, even in the worst of quakes (credit: A. June)
In hindsight, I should have been a bit more aggressive about taking shelter under the desk. An analysis of our building a year or two later revealed an architectural weakness that suggested the building could collapse if the seismic waves hit it from a particular direction. A seismic retrofit a decade later included some massive shear walls in the lab I taught in.

Meanwhile, at the city library, my children were making me proud. At the time of the quake, there were huge sailing ship models on display, in some cases right on top of the book stacks. The stacks were not reinforced or braced, so there was a real potential for injuries if the quake was strong enough to knock those stacks over. I was told that most people were just standing there watching the bookstacks swaying, but my kids, my well-trained and intelligent kids were the only people in the room to take shelter under the sturdy study tables. Luckily, as I said before, we were on the fringes of the effects of the earthquake and no one was hurt.
The double-decker freeway in Oakland. It was not designed for the amount of shaking that occurred.

The Loma Prieta earthquake, a magnitude 6.9 event at a depth of 11 miles, was a tragedy: 63 people died, and 3,700 were injured. If the World Series game between the A's and the Giants hadn't been about to start, the death toll would have been much higher. Traffic was stunningly light that afternoon. Despite this, the Bay Area was in chaos for days and months passed before life got back to normal. We were on the fringes, so instead of pain and suffering, we had a profound learning experience that was remembered by my students for the next decade and a half. But it has been 29 years now, and many of my students weren't born when the quake happened. Few of them have felt a quake at all. The large quakes like Loma Prieta and Northridge are ancient history, and there is less of that innate knowledge of what they should do when one hits. Few admit to having any kind of emergency kits at home, and they have no plan for what to do when the next big one hits.

Fault studies across California make it clear that more big tremors are coming, almost surely within the next decade or two. We educators must keep these past events alive in the minds of our students so they will be ready for these events when they come.

This is an abridged version of a blogpost from 2009.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Earth as Inspiration: Mt. Shasta for Earth Science Week, October 14-20


Mt. Shasta and Shastina from the north

I usually don't need an inspiration to write about Mt. Shasta, but I realized (two days in) that October 14-20 is national Earth Science week, and the theme of the celebration this year is "Earth as Inspiration". In case you have not yet realized this yet, but I am in fact inspired by the Earth. It started early on in my life with family vacations to some stunning places in California and the American Southwest, continued with scouting experiences nearly every weekend in my teens that included extensive work with topographic maps, and right into my college major and subsequent career as a geology professor. And then I found the form of story-telling called blogging in 2008.
Panther Meadows at the 8,000 foot level on Mt. Shasta

Mt. Shasta is an earthly inspiration. We visited two weeks ago as part of our field course on California's volcanoes. The stops included a drive to the end of the highway at Panther Meadows at 8,000 feet on the side of the 14,179 foot high volcano, and another stop on the north flank where we could see the glaciers and one other astounding feature of the volcano (mentioned below). Shasta is the second tallest volcano (behind Mt. Rainier) but is the most voluminous composite cone (stratovolcano) in the range (I'm parsing words here; there is a larger volcano, but it is of a different kind and will be discussed in a future blog). As a classic composite cone, it is composed of the remains of at least four previous incarnations, capped by the current active vent, Hotlum Cone. The oldest lava and ash dates back to around 600,000 years ago, but the youngest is a mere couple of hundred years. It likely erupted in 1786.

As the highest mountain in Northern California, it supports seven glaciers. Whitney Glacier, with a length of two miles, is the longest in the state (below). The glaciers are responsible for one of Shasta's unique hazards: jokulhlaups! These are floods caused when meltwater is sealed underneath the glacial ice which then breaks out in a catastrophic manner. Although caused by eruptions under the glacial ice in places like Iceland, those that occur on Shasta can happen almost any time. They are generally more of a nuisance, messing up roads and bridges, rather than a killer.

The biggest dangers of a volcano like Shasta are volcanic mudflows (lahars), and hot ash flow eruptions. Lava flows, unless they interact with the ice, are of a lesser concern. Andesite lava has a pasty consistency and is not likely to flow overly far from vents on the mountain. Lahars are of the greater concern, as they are capable of producing massive casualties and structural damage. The towns of Mt. Shasta, Weed, and McCloud are constructed on old lahar deposits. Major events could cause the closure of Interstate 5. Hot Pompeii-style ash eruptions are somewhat less likely, based on the previous history of the volcano.
Whitney Glacier, the largest in California
One of the most outrageous landscapes to be found anywhere on the planet lies to the north of Mt. Shasta. When compiling geologic maps of the region in the 1970s, geologists weren't sure how to interpret the vast region extending north from the mountain reaching 28 miles to the edge of the village of Yreka. It was a hummocky landscape, made of hundreds of small hills and cones of lava fragments with intervening hollows, some containing lakes and ponds. Was it some kind of odd field of cinder cones? It didn't make a lot of sense until the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980.
The St. Helens eruption was initiated when an earthquake caused the entire north flank of the volcano to collapse in a gigantic debris avalanche that traveled for twelve miles down the Toutle River valley. Humans had never witnessed a landslide so large. It uncapped the volcano, leading to the very explosive ash eruption that followed.

To the geologists studying the region around Shasta, it was a revelation. The avalanche at St. Helens formed hundreds of hummocks similar to those found at Shasta. It quickly became clear that the deposit on the north flank of Shasta was the remains of a gigantic debris avalanche. The St. Helens avalanche involved less than a cubic mile of material (0.67 cubic miles), but the now-apparent debris avalanche at Shasta was ten times larger (about 6.5 cubic miles), and it traveled twice as far. It seems to have happened between 360,000 and 300,000 years ago. It's stunning just to image seeing something like this happen.

What aspects of the Earth do you find inspiring?

Friday, October 5, 2018

Seeing Volcanoes from the Inside Out: A Visit to Castle Crags State Park in California

We recently completed a rather awesome trip to study the volcanoes of California, most particularly those that are found in the northern part of the state. Nearly all of our sites were the result of recent volcanic activity like Mt. Shasta, Lassen Peak, and Medicine Lake Highland, but our first visit was unique: we were exploring a volcano from the inside out!

It's not easy to visit the underside of a volcano when you think about it. The magma chamber that feeds the volcano may be four or five miles underground, and the temperatures and pressures are far, far beyond the abilities of human technology to conceivably hope to visit any time soon (there is that Unobtainium that was used in Avatar and The Core, but folks might be surprised to find it doesn't exist). About the only thing we can do is be patient. Really, really patient. First, we need to let the hot magma cool down slowly, a process that may take tens of thousands of years. Then we need to wait for a mountain-building event to cause the crust to be uplifted several miles, and then wait for the forces of erosion to remove all of the overlying rock. That's a bit longer, at least several tens of millions of years. But once it's done, the magma chamber will be sitting there, exposed for all to see. Luckily for us, this exact sequence of events took place in the Klamath Mountains of Northern California, just a few miles away from Mt. Shasta. It's a state park called Castle Crags.

The first view of Castle Crags is dramatic. Driving north on Interstate 5, one is treated to miles of forested hills, but at Castella the hills give way to sheer cliffs and spires of granitic rock. The granitic rock exposed in the Crags is the visible evidence of a magma chamber that once fed volcanoes in the along the western margin of North America in the age of dinosaurs 165 million years ago.

The sharp spires and rounded domes of the Crags are the result of having a great weight removed. Having formed at depths of four miles or more, the rocks expanded as erosion removed the heavy overlying rocks. But rocks can't expand like marshmallows; they fracture, much like the crust of baking loaves of bread. Vertical cracks are joints. Closely spaced joints promote the formation of the spires and towers of granitic rock. Fractures parallel to the surface are called exfoliation sheets. Exfoliation tends to remove to remove corners and edges, resulting in the formation of domes (Half Dome in Yosemite is a half-good example).

The Castle Crags were also glaciated, but with top elevations of less than 7,000 feet, the glaciers were small, and had less to do with the overall shape of the mountains than jointing and exfoliation. A few small lakes and moraines are found on the north side of the peaks.

We didn't have the time to hike among the trails that reach the base of the crags, but we stopped along Castle Creek to see what's been carried down the mountain by the glaciers and rivers that tear away at the granite. We could also see the more ancient metamorphic rocks that had been intruded by the granitic rock.


Seen from above (the picture below was taken on a lucky day flying home from Canada a few years back), the Castle Crags can be seen as isolated mass of granitic rock. In our geology textbooks, we find that a batholith is a single intrusion exposed over an area of 100 square kilometers (about 40 square miles). The term can also refer to a vast agglomeration of many dozens of adjacent plutons, as is the case in the Sierra Nevada. There are several of these composite batholiths in the western United States, including the Sierra Nevada, the Idaho, and the Southern California batholiths. The Castle Crags and other small isolated plutons are referred to as stocks. The surrounding rocks are the more easily eroded metamorphic rocks of the Eastern Klamath Terrane (the Trinity Complex).


We finished our subterranean exploration of the ancient volcano and headed back to the Earth's surface to find a more modern version of a volcano: Mt. Shasta. More on that incredible mountain in the next post.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

The Many Sides of California's Incredible Composite Cone Mt. Shasta

Hotlum Cone and Shastina, the two youngest cones of Shasta are seen here from the north on Highway 97

California has a lot of incredible volcanoes, but looming above them all is Mt. Shasta, the huge composite cone that rises above the mountains of Northern California. At 14,179 feet, it towers over all but a few of the highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada, but none of them are close by. It is more than a mile higher than any other nearby peaks. I and my students have been traveling around it the last two days, and we've seen it from every side.

From the south it was largely hidden by the smoke from the recent wildfires, but we drove up the Everritt Memorial Highway to the 8,000 foot level at Panther Meadows. The barren valley once hosted a ski resort until folks realized the lack of trees in the area was because of the constant avalanches. The ski area was moved, but the road remains, and serves as a high trailhead for summit attempts.
The Sargent's Ridge and Misery Hill cones of Mt. Shasta. These cones are older and more deeply eroded.

A careful study of the ridges and valleys reveals that there have been more than one "Shasta". At least five volcanoes have developed over the Shasta magma chamber, but most of them have been removed by erosion, explosion and avalanche. Only the highest cone, Hotlum, and the satellite summit of Shastina seem untouched by serious erosion. They are both less than 10,000 years old, and Hotlum has continued to erupt at intervals of several hundred years.
From the northeast, Shasta is highly symmetrical. That large snowfields remain in the fall season is evidence of the presence of glaciers. Shasta has at least five of the them, and Whitney Glacier is the longest glacier in all of California, at two miles.

The peak shined bright and clear in the morning light, but by this evening, it was shrouded in clouds and lightning was flashing in the skies above. The mountain, a so-called composite cone is a mountain of many moods.

I'm pretty sure I don't want to see the mountain angry...



Friday, September 21, 2018

Recalling California's Second Worst Disaster Ever: The Victims May Finally Get a Voice

A number of people have brought to my attention this article in the Press Enterprise about efforts to construct a memorial to the victims of the St. Francis Dam disaster. Such a memorial is long overdue. I tell this story at the beginning of every one of my classes, and in thirty years, not one student had ever heard of it. I'm reposting my January 2012 blog on this disaster below. Thanks to Representative Steve Knight and Senator Kamala Harris for sponsoring the bill that establishes the memorial, and Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel, the local community organizer who is leading the efforts to raise funds for the memorial. If you wish to donate, contact the St. Francis Dam National Memorial Foundation, c/o Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel, 24820 Fourl Road, Newhall, CA.
Hindsight is harsh.

Sometimes choices and judgements are made to save time, to save money. Sometimes choices are made in unfortunate ignorance, in a time when no one could have foreseen or recognized the right choices to be made. Sometimes there is no one there to provide perspective, to provide alternatives. And then people die. Lots of people.

Ask folks what they think was the worst disaster in California history and many will get it right. Upwards of 3,000 people died in the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, and the event has shaped the psyche and attitude of many people in the state more than a century afterward. And it was brought about by a natural event.

The second worst disaster in the history of the state is far less known. Some might guess another earthquake, like the Long Beach quake of 1933 (115 dead) or the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 (63 dead). Historians might point to the Port Chicago munitions explosion of 1944 (320 dead). Few people are aware that it was the collapse of a dam, and that the collapse was the result of many poor choices. Hindsight is a harsh judge, but many of the mistakes were "before their time" so to speak. The fact that it happened maybe has prevented worse disasters in the intervening years.

Time (and a great deal of government effort) has erased much of the record of our state's second worst disaster. As far as I could see there is not a single plaque or monument, either concerning the horrific event, or commemorating those who were lost. There is a small cemetery where some of the victims were buried.

Looking at the slide area on the left side of the picture above, it is hard to believe that a 200 foot high dam was anchored there, in the incompetent mica schist. It is hard to believe that the failed slopes in the picture obscure an even deeper and bigger megaslide.
It is hard to look at the flat ridge on the right side of the picture above and realize that no one ever thought to check the effect of soaking the seemingly solid conglomerate in water. It is glued together primarily with gypsum, a mineral that dissolves in water. The rock falls apart when saturated.

Maybe the most stunning realization is that the schist and the conglomerate are separated by a fault zone. An inactive fault by all appearances, but a fault nonetheless. They built the dam on a mega-landslide, and on a fault zone.
It is difficult to envision that on the night of March 12, 1928, the recently completed dam failed so catastrophically that the floodplain in the photos above and below was inundated with 140 feet of water flowing at a rate of 1.7 million cubic feet per second (California's biggest river, the Sacramento, averages 30,000 cfs, and the record flood on the river was 650,000 cfs).

What happened?

As Ron and Randy correctly surmised, Friday's mystery photo was about the destruction of the St. Francis Dam in 1928. I consider it one of the most important geological events ever to happen in the state, not because a great many people died, but because they died as a result of a disregard or lack of knowledge concerning human construction projects and the geological foundations on which they are built. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are inevitable geologic events, but the events of 1928 were completely avoidable.

In the early twentieth century, Los Angeles was at a crossroads. The city was growing fast, and the water needs of the metropolis far exceeded locally available supplies (according to city officials anyway). The story of how the city stole (legally stole, but stolen nonetheless) the water from underneath the people of the Owens Valley is a legend of California history. The fact that much of the water went to irrigation in the San Fernando Valley instead of the city just added to the scandal. Having completed the Owens Valley Aqueduct, one of the largest public waterworks ever conceived, the city needed someplace to store the water locally, especially in preparation for drought conditions. William Mulholland, the superintendent of the predecessor to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, oversaw the design and construction of a series of reservoirs around the Los Angeles Basin. Nine were constructed, and St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon above the Santa Clarita Valley was the largest, with a storage capacity of 38,000 acre feet. The dam itself was about 200 feet high, and just over 600 feet across. It was a concrete gravity-arch dam, one that depended on the nature of the rock in the abutments to maintain stability.

Construction was begun in 1924 and complete in 1926. During the construction Mulholland directed that the dam be made 20 feet higher than in the original plans, but he made no alterations at the base to compensate for the additional weight of the water. The filling of the dam took another two years, and was complete on March 7, 1928. On the morning of March 12, the dam keeper noted a leak of muddy water and alerted Mulholland. Small leaks of clear water from dams are usually expected; muddy leaks from a dam are very bad.  Mulholland declared that the mud was from some recent road construction and that the dam was safe. 12 hours later, the dam keeper was dead, the first victim of the collapse of the St. Francis Dam. In the hours that followed at least 600 more lives were lost.


To his credit, Mulholland took the blame for the disaster. Although he was never convicted of any crime in the matter, his career was over. He died seven years later.
Accounts at the time suggested that failure occurred as water channeled through the conglomerate along the fault contact. A reassessment of the failure by J. David Rogers finds multiple causes for the disaster, with the reactivation of the ancient landslide being the most important factor, along with hydraulic lifting of the dam which was caused by water pressing against the topmost part of the dam (which had been made higher without compensating at the base). Rogers lists many other deficiencies, including the weakness of the rocks in the dam abutments (I refer interested readers to this very fascinating pdf by Rogers that provides a blow-by-blow analysis of failure of the dam and a great deal of background information on the disaster).

Incredibly, despite the total evisceration of the dam, the central part remained standing, a 200 foot high monument to the destruction. After a sightseer fell off the top (his "friends" had tossed a rattlesnake at him), the city quarried holes in the base, filled them with five tons of dynamite, and blew up the remaining tower. Other blocks were also destroyed, as if they were trying to erase all memory of the event. One of the blocks was the "outcrop" I used in the Friday mystery photo.
The U.S. Geological Survey has a (much appreciated) photo archive from which I have gathered these photographs of the aftermath. In the photograph below, the fault line dividing the Vasquez Conglomerate from the Pelona Schist can be clearly seen (the lighter Pelona in the foreground, the dark Vasquez on upper ridge). The fault is inactive, and no earthquakes are implicated in the failure, but had the dam not failed, rising water pressure along the fault could conceivably have eventually caused renewed quake activity. The phenomenon has been noted elsewhere.
Blocks of concrete weighing thousands of tons were carried in the floodwaters nearly a half mile downstream. The magnitude of the disaster is hard to comprehend. Normal rivers have trouble moving boulders only a foot across. Besides the sheer magnitude of the flow, debris from the landslide buoyed up the blocks.
The block below was a half mile downstream. It measured approximately 63 feet long, 30 feet high, and 54 feet wide.
It is hard to find much that is positive in this disaster, but changes were made in the aftermath. The input of qualified engineering geologists became a requirement in dam-building, and much more attention was paid to the geological setting of reservoir sites. Boulder Dam on the Colorado River, one of the largest dams in existence is not in Boulder Canyon. Following the St. Francis disaster, the site of the dam was changed to Black Canyon when it was decided that the rocks that would anchor the dam were more stable there.

It would not be at all correct to say that we learned every possible lesson in dam construction. The 1963 tragedy at Vaiont Reservoir in Italy and the 1975 collapse of the Teton Reservoir, Idaho are vivid examples of unlearned lessons.

Hindsight is harsh. But it can be a teacher, too.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Here's a Pretty Puzzle...What are These Trees Doing Here? An Evening at Calaveras Big Trees


When the trees were discovered by people of European descent in the 1850s, few believed the stories of their immense size. There were of legends and tall tales emerging from the explorations of the American West, but trees that towered 300 feet high with diameters of 35 feet just seemed beyond the pale. Eventually promoters stripped the bark off one of the really big ones, took the pieces to an exhibition back east and reconstructed the tree. Many still considered it a hoax anyway.
The poor tree that was stripped still stands today, a dead snag in the Sequoia Grove at Calaveras Big Trees State Park in the northern Sierra Nevada along Highway 4. I didn't get images of that tree, but there were plenty of other living ones to enjoy. We were there the other day on a lark. We had a couple of hours to see the sinking sun and lengthening shadows in the forest before a late dinner in Angels Camp.
The Sequoia Trees (Sequoiadendron gigantea) are an enigma. They exist today only in a series of 65 individual groves scattered across mainly the southern Sierra Nevada. They are relatives of the Coast Redwoods, and the Dawn Redwood of China, a tree that existed in a single grove which was only scientifically described in the 1940s. Yet the trees have existed since the age of the dinosaurs and were once distributed widely across the northern hemisphere. Their Sierra home is their last refuge. About half the original Sequoia trees were cut down prior to receiving protection, but because the wood was brittle and tended to shatter, they only found use as grape stakes and the like. Nearly all the remaining trees are protected, either in Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, or Giant Sequoia National Monument.
Aside from human attack, they are not easily killed. Their bark is thick and lacks easily burnable sap so most wildfires don't hurt them (high burning "crown" fires are an important exception). The bark is thick, keeping them safe from insect attack. The trees are thought capable of living more than 3,000 years. Their greatest liability is a shallow root system that lacks a large taproot, so they can topple on uneven slopes or during intense windstorms.
The cool mystery about these trees is the one of their biogeography. How did they get to where they are today, and how did they survive when most of their closest relatives did not? Calaveras Big Trees is an even greater mystery, along with a small grove in Placer County consisting of a mere six mature trees. Looking at the map below, one can see their isolation from the others of their species, more than fifty miles of deep gorges and canyons.

At least one part of the explanation is clear. They migrated over the Sierra Nevada crest. Every time I say that I envision the gigantic trees walking like some of Tolkien's Ents, but it is better to see them as propagating along pathways where seeds could thrive and grow. This would be impossible with the present day Sierra, given the crest topping out at elevations over 10,000 feet. But the Sierra Nevada is a young mountain range, and it's probably only been a few million years since the range rose and tilted to the west (opinions on this scenario, it should be noted, vary). The trees that once thrived across Nevada had an uninterrupted slope towards the west. As the mountains continued to rise, they cut off the precipitation into Nevada's Basin and Range Province, turning the region into the semi-arid and desert environment that it is today.
Perhaps the main factor in the decline of the Sequoia trees across the hemisphere was the Pleistocene Ice Ages. A dozen times or more the ice advanced and receded across the northern parts of the continents and in the high mountains. The habitat for the trees was simply erased across much of the former range and the trees couldn't propagate quickly enough to escape the ice. In the Sierra Nevada, however, the unique geography, the westward tilted block of rock, probably saved the trees. When conditions grew colder, the seeds could propagate in soils lower on the westward slopes, and when the ice receded, they could propagate uphill.
Still, one has to wonder what the Calaveras grove is doing here, fifty miles north of their relatives in Yosemite National Park (who are in turn fifty miles north of the bulk of the Sequoia groves). And those six mature trees in Placer County? How have they survived? For the record, there were historically eight trees, but two fell in 1862. It's a pleasant mystery to contemplate as one wanders through the two beautiful groves at Calaveras.