Monday, April 15, 2019

Tales From the Semi-Super-Bloom Tour, Part 2: Death Valley National Park

The Desert Five-Spot (Eremalche rotundifolia) has to be one of my favorite desert wildflowers. I don't see it often because it is rarely blooming during my customary visits to Death Valley National Park in February. It's mysterious because it always seems to be hiding its five spots in a globular-shaped bloom that doesn't seem to open out entirely. For these reasons, our visit at Death Valley National Park was extraordinary. We saw some of the Five-Spots in all their revealed glory.
We were on the third day of our Semi-Super-Bloom Tour of California. We were seeking out not the news-making corners of the state that are attracting tens of thousands of people, but the quieter places that haven't been in the news because they didn't quite as much rain as the places like Elsinore and the Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve. There are flowers out there, maybe not as abundant, but beautiful just the same, and there were no crowds.
Death Valley is the driest place in North America, and the hottest place in the world (so far). Wildflowers are a precious gift in such a place, although they are not in any way out of place. Life finds ways to thrive in even the harshest of Earth's environments, and the flowers of Death Valley are no exception. The seeds can lie dormant in the soil for years, and once they germinate they can grow fast and lay down more seeds for the future. In the process the plants become a food source for all kinds of insects and animals, and as such are an important link in the ecosystem.
Knowing where to look for wildflowers is important when the rainfall is more sparse or later than usual (as is the case in 2019). Many of the usual tourist magnets like Zabriskie Point and Badwater were lacking in flower displays but a drive south towards Jubilee Pass and the ruins of Ashford Mill (15 miles or so) provided some scattered color. We saw what I assume were Yellow Cups (above) and Phacelia (below). Gentle corrections are encouraged!
I haven't figured out the name of the flower below yet.
But Desert Gold is hard to miss. When a super-bloom does occur in Death Valley, there are millions of them on the slopes of Jubilee Pass. There were scattered patches of them, especially along the highway, where the runoff from the pavement provides an extra edge in the water supply for the seeds.
Hairy Sand Verbena is a familiar sight from super-blooms past. We found a few of them along the road near Ashford Mill.

These are plants at the cusp of existence. They arose out of some late storms that provided the water needed to germinate, but it is a only few short weeks before temperatures soar and the desiccating winds begin to blow. Life will once again go into hiding to wait out the searing months.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Way it Was Today: Spring is About to Burst Forth in Yosemite Valley

In certain ways, I am the luckiest of people. I live in a place, however humble, that is a mere two-hour drive from Yosemite Valley in Yosemite National Park. I can visit and explore the park almost any time I want to, and I do so as often as I can. This is a privilege that I could never take for granted. It's just to precious to me.
A related form of luckiness is that I am a teacher, a professor of geology. That means that I have also been granted the wonderful privilege of introducing Yosemite to my students, a great many of whom have never visited the park despite their proximity. That's what I got to do today, teaching a field course on the geology of Yosemite National Park. Among the students on the trip, there were half a dozen who had never ever laid eyes on the park. The sparkling clear spring day did not disappoint.

We started our exploration of the valley with the glorious panorama from Tunnel View (top photo). We could see El Capitan, Half Dome, Sentinel Rock, the Cathedral Rocks, and Bridalveil Falls. It is hard to imagine another place in the world with such imposing cliffs and towers in such a small confined valley. We talked about the discovery of the valley by people, both thousands of years ago, and in the last 170 years by the usurpers and colonizers of this incredible landscape.

We then drove to the parking area on the valley floor where we could look at El Capitan in one direction, and Cathedral Rocks and Bridalveil Falls in the other. We were able to talk about hanging valleys in the presence of one of the greatest examples in the world. We also talked about how Yosemite Falls the 5th or 7th highest in the world, and yet is not even the tallest waterfall in Yosemite Valley.
Ribbon Falls at Yosemite Valley
Yosemite Falls is certainly a spectacular sight, but to purists of such things, it is actually three waterfalls, an upper fall with a height of 1,425 feet, a middle cascades section with a drop of more than 700 feet, and a lower drop of 320 feet. There is another waterfall in Yosemite that is 200 feet higher than upper Yosemite Falls. It's called Ribbon Fall and it falls over the cliff to the west of El Capitan. It is not as well-known as Yosemite Falls because it is usually dry by the early summer when most tourists come to visit.
Just the same, Yosemite Falls is a true treasure, leaping from a sheer cliff and impacting on the rocks below. It's the 'accidental' waterfall of Yosemite Valley. Yosemite Creek once flowed down the steep channel to the left of the present-day falls, but the course of the creek was reconfigured by the movement of glaciers across the mouth of the older creek, forcing the river to find a new path over the brink of the cliff.
The vantage point offered a peek-a-boo of Half Dome. This iconic monolith towers nearly 5,000 over the valley floor. It is the product of several processes acting in concert. The first is unloading, the release of pressure by being brought to the surface of the earth. The rock expands just a bit, but then fractures. Vertical fractures are called joints, and jointing is the explanation for the steep face of the dome.
The second form of fracturing is called exfoliation, a process by which the rocks split into slabs that are parallel to the surface of the rock. This has the effect of removing corners and edges, leading to the shaping of the dome..

That is the gist of our day, but more than anything else, I wanted to share the images of the day with all those who can't easily get there. It was a stunning day in the falley.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The First Wild Arrival at the New Great Valley Outdoor Nature Lab

The Great Valley Museum's Outdoor Nature Lab is reaching the final stages of completion! The area includes a native vegetation of the Great Valley, characteristic rocks of the valley and Sierra Nevada foothills, a mock paleontology dig, vernal pool, and a greenhouse. The rocks have been in place for several months, and now the vegetation is in, and some of the trees have grown leaves. And that means our outdoor lab is starting to attract wildlife. I saw my first official species today when an American Robin landed in one of the newly planted trees.
The lab does of course still looks somewhat barren, given that the grasses and shrubs have yet to start spreading, and the trees are still very small. In a couple of years, the lab will be an incredibly attractive place to learn about the fascinating natural history of our valley.
For we "older" faculty, this has been a long wait. The idea for an outdoor lab had its beginnings three decades ago, and we had some "near-misses" when funding was thought to be in place, but plans continued to fall through. But then Measure E was passed by our community, and the outdoor lab barely survived the budget process, being the last, or nearly last project to be approved by the powers-that-be. And now it is almost done!
The lab will continue to be improved as the plants mature, and as interpretive signs are developed and installed. We will even have an "almost" true scale dinosaur by the mock paleontology dig site. Our county was the site of the first ever dinosaur discovery in California. It's about time that our residents became aware of this awesome fact!

And being a microcosm of our valley environment, I'm hoping to see lots more creatures making the outdoor nature lab their home!

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Tales from the Semi-Super-Bloom Tour, Part 1: The Mojave Desert and El Paso Mountains

A lot of excitement has been generated this year with the plentiful precipitation in the California Desert and the resulting "Super-Bloom". Mrs. Geotripper and I didn't want to totally miss out on the sights, but we didn't want to be in the midst of crowds that we knew would be present in the places in the news like Anza Borrego or Lake Elsinore. So we zeroed in on the part of the California desert that hasn't been in the news: the Owens Valley and Death Valley National Park.
We knew from the start that we might not see a great many flowers because most of the storms had tracked more to the south, but there had still been considerable precipitation, just a bit later than other parts of the desert. So with proper expectations in place, we set out on the road a week ago. The nice thing about low expectations is that you have a good chance to be pleasantly surprised, and we were. It wasn't the 'super-bloom', but it was colorful enough, so we dubbed our journey the "Semi-Super-Bloom Tour".
 The first place that made us pull over was a non-descript road junction on Highway 14 near Jawbone Canyon and the El Paso Mountains in the Mojave Desert. There were lots of small flowers on the desert floor, including Goldfields, Phacelia, Mallows and small Lilies (I welcome and expect corrections on flower identification).
The desert floor where we were traveling has been largely given over to utilitarian uses. In the immediate vicinity there are airports, military bases, and solar arrays, as well as the towns of California City and Mojave. There isn't much wilderness in this part of the desert.
The landscape is geologically interesting, as we were paralleling the Garlock fault, which divides the Mojave Desert from the Sierra Nevada and the Basin and Range Province. The fault is active, with forty miles of left-lateral offset, but it hasn't produced any historical earthquakes of consequence. The potential certainly exists.

Although the fault motion is primarily lateral, some warping and deformation has lifted a mountain range on the north side of the fault, the El Paso Mountains. The mountains are composed largely of older Paleozoic metamorphic rocks. The rocks had been quite deep in the crust, but were brought to the surface and eroded, and by around 12-15 million years ago had been eroded to a fairly flat surface. This surface was eventually covered by terrestrial sediments deposited in alluvial fans, grassy plains and ephemeral lakes that would remind a person of the African savannah. The comparison is apt, because the sediments contain fossils of a diverse fauna that included ancient camels, horses, antelope, elephants, and a number of predators including to the forerunners to our modern cats and canines.
The valley floor where we stopped certainly had flowers, but we could see that a real super-bloom was underway on the slopes of the El Paso Mountains off to the north. The usually dull gray slopes were covered in places with a veritable rainbow of flowers that must have including a great many poppies and lupines.

Our highway turned north, crossed the Garlock fault, and entered Red Rock Canyon State Park, which preserves the Neogene sediments containing the fossils mentioned above. Millions of people have seen Red Rock Canyon, but not necessarily in person. The brightly colored cliffs have been used as the backdrop for hundreds of Hollywood movies (they were the cliffs of 'Snakewater', Montana in the opening scenes of the original Jurassic Park).

We found that many of the Joshua Trees were blooming. The trees are a defining characteristic of the Mojave Desert and are found primarily in east California and portions of Arizona and Nevada. The trees are a potential victim of global warming. Their seeds once were spread in the scat of giant ground sloths during the last ice age, but the sloths are gone, and with the increasing heat, the trees (actually lilies) are unable to propagate up slopes where they can thrive. Ironically, the trees may disappear entirely in the national park that is named after them.
We left Red Rock Canyon and headed north on Highway 395 towards our turnoff to Death Valley at Owens Lake. Along the way we could see that the "foothills" of the Sierra Nevada were also bathed in color. We were headed to Fossil Falls and Red Hill, hoping to see what had changed in the six weeks since we were last there. That will be the subject of our next post...

Monday, April 1, 2019

Death Valley is Actually a Tropical Rainforest...except for the Caterpillars

They SAY Death Valley is the hottest place in the world. They SAY it is the driest place in North America. But I found out the truth on my trip there this weekend. Death Valley is a tropical rainforest, and it would look like one were it not for the billions upon billions of caterpillars that eat up all the vegetation before it can turn the "desert" green.
I mean, think about it. Have you ever actually BEEN to Death Valley when it was actually 128 degrees? If you haven't experienced Death Valley in those kinds of temperatures, then how do you know they happen? The powers-that-be work hard to scare you from visiting during the monsoon season by telling stories of dead tourists and melting tires and that sort of thing while convincing us to visit in February or March, when it's "cooler". But, during the "inferno" of summer, the rains fall plentifully, and plants cover the whole landscape, and the salt pan is a beautiful inland sea with date palms gracing the beautiful sandy beaches. The National Park staff looks forward to these beautiful days of tropical bliss when tourists are nowhere to be seen.
But then the caterpillars come...and they eat everything green to the root just in time for the return of the tourists when the desert has "cooled off" (but actually has been stripped bare by the voracious creatures). I know this to be true because I SAW THEM. I saw the beastly creatures that are eating all the plants of Death Valley!
So, don't just accept the words of the "experts". They've been part of a vast conspiracy to have the paradise of Death Valley to themselves during the "hot" summer. Death Valley is a verdant oasis, or it would be if it weren't for those darn caterpillars.

PS: I'm late to all the great April Fools stuff today, but the caterpillars I saw this weekend in Death Valley are quite real and quite voracious. They will eventually metamorphose into a massive flying creature called the Sphinx Moth. And they do consume a lot of greenery! More information on these interesting creatures can be found here:

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Day of Celestial Equality: the Vernal Equinox

The Earth has survived another winter and today we entered into the season of spring. I had a fortuitous moment, driving home on an east-west road (Claribel in Stanislaus County) at the moment the sun met with the horizon. In that moment, everyone on the planet who was looking saw the sun set in a due west direction. The day was just over 12 hours long, roughly equal to the hours of night.

We are currently about 93 million miles away from the sun at this point, but our orbit is currently carrying us a little bit farther away. By July 4, we'll be about 94.5 million miles away, the aphelion. We are the closest to the sun, about 91.4 million miles, on January 3. That day is the perihelion. If that relationship seems counterintuitive, it's because the seasons having nothing to do with our distance from the sun. It is the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth's axis in relation to the sun.
Source: NOAA
The pole of rotation always points to the same place in the cosmos, near the North Star, but at different times of the year, the journey about the sun finds the northern hemisphere tilting towards the sun (summer), or away from the sun (winter). In spring and fall, the northern and southern hemispheres are equally lit by the sun. The seasons are opposite in the southern hemisphere.

The day was distinguished by a second celestial event, a full "supermoon", the first time the two happened in the same day in nearly two decades. It won't happen again until 2030. There's nothing mysterious about a supermoon, it's just a time when the moon's elliptical orbit brings it closer to the Earth so that it appears 14% larger and 30% brighter. It's called the Worm Moon because this is the time of year when worms begin emerging from the ground as the days grow longer. We had a stormy day so our view of the moon was wreathed in clouds tonight.

I hope you will enjoy our coming journey away from the sun!

Monday, March 18, 2019

Harbingers of Spring at the Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern

It used to be a "junk" landscape...the kind of place where locals dumped their garbage and shot up old cars. Off-road vehicles ran roughshod over the relatively barren slopes. It wasn't private property. It was owned by the federal government, specifically the Bureau of Land Management, whose original goal was to give the land away, but in the end no one wanted it. The land, with poor soils nearly useless for agriculture, languished.
But times and attitudes change. There was a reason for the poor nutrient levels in the soils, and why grass, that would have at least allowed for grazing, failed to thrive. The underlying bedrock was composed of ultramafic rocks like serpentine, dunite and peridotite. The rocks are rich in iron and magnesium, with significant amounts of toxic elements like nickel or chrome. Only the hardiest of plants can tolerate these chemical conditions, although there are a few that can thrive in this harsh environment. When the ultramafic rocks are weathered, the iron is released to react with oxygen in the atmosphere to form natural rust minerals like hematite and limonite. The brightly colored soils earned the locality its name, the Red Hills. They form the ridges west of Chinese Camp in the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode between Highways 108 and 132.
By the 1990s public efforts to protect and preserve the unique biology and geology of the region succeeded when the BLM declared 7,100 acres of the region (about 11 square miles) an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. Trash and garbage were removed, trails were laid out, and a parking area constructed. Regulations limited off-road use and target shooting. The region finally received the recognition it needed.
The "park" includes seven very rare species of plants, including two endemics, species found nowhere else in the world (the Red Hills Vervain, and the Red Hills Ragwort). The unique nature of the flora is immediately apparent when approaching the area from the west. The environment of scattered oaks and widespread grasslands gives way abruptly to Buckbrush and Gray Pines. Grass is practically non-existent, unable to thrive on the poor soils. The region has a decidedly barren look.
But then the rains arrive. In the late winter and early spring, the wildflowers burst forth in a display of bright colors. Wildflowers in other parts of the Mother Lode are often hidden by the high-growing grasses. With grass a much diminished species, the wildflowers blaze forth.
We went up into the Red Hills today to see how things have progressed now that we've had a wet year. It's a bit early, but a fair number of flowers were visible on the slopes, including Monkey Flower, Golden Poppy, Brodiaea, and Five-spot. The lichens provided even more color.
The intermittent creek running along the main road through the park sported a healthy flow of water allowing us a chance to see the other unique species in the ACEC: the Red Hills Roach (Lavinia symmetricus), which is a fish, not a bug.
The Red Hills Roach is a subspecies of the California Roach, a member of the minnow family. It's only found in a few drainages within the ACEC and nowhere else in the world. The streams run dry for much of the year, but small seeps and springs maintain permanent pools where a few fish can survive. There were serious concerns about whether the fish would be able to survive the horrific drought of the last decade, but they managed as they have through time.
I got a poor picture of one of the roaches, but a teaching colleague of mine, Ryan Hollister, has posted some underwater shots of the fish on the move.

The Red Hills are wet from months of above-average rainfall, and the plants are growing fast, and will be blooming in profusion in the next few weeks. If you can spare a moment, head into the hills and give the ACEC a chance to impress. It is a truly unique environment found nowhere else in the world.