Saturday, June 15, 2024

Geotripper on How to Plan a Perfect Volcanic Eruption, Hawai'i Style!

So you want to demonstrate a volcanic eruption for your field geology course, and are unsure how to proceed? Let the crew (of one) here at Geotripper help you to plan out the very best eruption experience for your students! There are several important steps and considerations:

1) Pick a volcano

This is a pretty important first step. Some volcanoes can be very dangerous, and we at Geotripper feel that safety is a hugely important consideration. We have chosen the Big Island of Hawai'i for our demonstration, as eruptions there TEND to be on the quiet side, although there are important exceptions.

Kilauea Caldera and Kilauea Iki in the distance

2) Do a site evaluation

Take a hike out to the potential eruption site. This is kind of critical, because we want to choose a site that is isolated and away from buildings and populated areas. Yet we also want the site to be visible once the eruption begins, since this is the whole point of planning such things.

Hiking out to the Ka'u Desert ("Footprints Trail") on May 29, 2024

3) Consult with the local volcanic deities:

Painting of the Hawaiian goddess Pele at the Kilauea Visitor Center with the artist, Arthur Johnson (Source: NPS).

Once again a critical factor. One doesn't conduct eruptions without the permission and cooperation of the deities that inhabit the place. In our current example we are dealing with Pele, also known as Pele-honua-mea ("Pele of the sacred land") and Ka wahine  Ľai honua ("The earth-eating woman"). 

A side note: the gist of this post is tongue-in-cheek, but I take Pele pretty seriously. Check out my interaction with a mysterious woman on the flanks of Kilauea a few years ago. Who was she??

4) Start the Field Trip

Taking twenty students to the Hawaiian Islands for two weeks is no small task, and we here at Geotripper strongly suggest planning the trip many months in advance of the eruption. Remember to consider such logistics as hotels, transportation, airline flights, food, and group interpersonal interactions.

5) Educate your students on the basics of volcanoes and vulcanism

There are many ways to do this. One of my favorites is to pay a visit to the 
Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (currently based in Hilo, Hawai'i after their original home on the brink of the Kilauea caldera was damaged by an eruption in 2018). Our expert host provided an excellent introduction to the methods and technology of volcano monitoring.

6) Subtly prepare the group for the experience of the eruption

This step requires some public relation skills. We don't want to have the experience spoiled by high expectations and the like. We want our group to be both surprised and prepared when the eruption happens. There are a number of ways to do do this. For instance, have them look at seismic records and see if they notice the uptick in earthquakes in recent days. Ask a Hawaii Volcanoes National Park ranger leading questions like "why did you close the Devastated Area Trail yesterday?" You can make jokes, like "Wouldn't it be interesting if an eruption were to happen while we are on the trip?". Don't overdo it, though.

7. Conduct the Eruption

In many ways this is the easiest step, since the Earth does all the work. If you arrange for the eruption overnight, you can plan on an early departure from the hotel to beat the tourists to all the best overlooks. If you have prepared in the way that we have put forth here, your students will be duly impressed even if they can't stick things into the lava flow or even see spewing lava. Seeing the ash and steam rising from the distant rift zone will be more than enough!

Oh, I see a hand in the back...what was your question? How do we actually cause the eruption to happen at the perfect time? Oh, it's kind of complicated. We don't really have time enough to explain...

8. Provide a cooling down period

Go to the national park visitor center and hang around for awhile. Get interviewed by the local news media. Use the restrooms. Then continue on the rest of your trip, wondering how you'll ever top this experience!

So yeah, it pretty much happened this way while we were in Hawai'i recently (except for the actual organizing of any eruption). Our students and my co-leader were in fact interviewed on local Hawaiian news (see the story here: HVO: Eruption at Kilauea’s summit has paused, but activity in region remains dynamic (

The eruption itself was somewhat of a surprise. There had been upticks in the seismicity and uplift in some nearby areas, but the precise spot where the rift opened up was unexpected. It was a very short-lived eruption, lasting only about 12 hours, and the volume of lava was limited. You can see the USGS review of the eruption here:

Source: USGS Hawaii Volcanoes Observatory
All things considered, it was one of the most satisfying moments of my teaching career... 

Here's my video of the eruption from the site of the old Jagger Museum and Hawaiian Volcano Observatory:

Here's the direct access: 

Saturday, May 11, 2024

A Stunning Night: The Aurora Borealis from Central California

It has been a stunning night. I never believed the auroras would make it into Central California, and most of the predictions suggested it wouldn't. But then reports started pouring in; sightings in South Carolina, northwest Florida, Houston, and then Death Valley. I had to give it a chance. Mrs. Geotripper and I hopped in the car and headed out to the California Prairie south of Knights Ferry.
As we pulled up at the small stock pond on Willms Road, it didn't look like much was going on. I convinced myself that there was a bit of a red glow in the sky, and I started taking pictures with my phone (my regular camera turned out to be useless for once). On the screen it wasn't obvious, but there was indeed some color. 
I would have been satisfied with that, as I have seen the aurora only twice before. The first time was from within the Grand Canyon on my very first geology field studies trip in 1975. It was just a glow in the sky then, and we thought it was light pollution from Las Vegas or St. George, but it turned from red to green. We were awestruck, but there was no structure to be seen. The other time was in the late 1990s when we were in Montana on a mostly rainy night, but for a short moment a filament appeared through the clouds. And that was that.
Having so little experience with the phenomena, I simply didn't know what to expect, but we were becoming aware that the lights were changing as we watched. Spires came and went, and the glow moved to different parts of the sky. The colors were changing as well.
We watched until midnight when the cold breeze and lack of facilities forced us to start the drive home, but as we went around each bend, we couldn't resist stopping a moment to see what changed.
The changes were many. More and more green was showing near the horizon, and blue or purple appeared off to the west.

Needless to say maybe, but it was an astounding thing to see. I should note that while I have not modified the pictures (especially the saturation), the phone camera did see more vivid color than I did. I was using the night shot setting, so it was collecting light for two or three seconds, so the pictures are more colorful. But even so, it was easy to understand why the ancients thought these lights emanated from the gods.
We have our own mythology about these strange lights in the sky. They are the magnetic force shields protecting us from deadly emanations from the sun. Without our magnetic field, life on Earth might never have appeared, and we continue to thrive as long as the field continues.
After studying the Earth and the cosmos for more than forty years, I still can be impressed by the incredible processes that operate on and around our planet. What a privilege to live in and understand our world.

The storm is expected to continue through the weekend. I encourage you to find a dark place and check it out, but if that isn't possible, I hope this gives you an idea of what it was like!

Saturday, May 4, 2024

George Lucas Had It Wrong. A Day of Fierce Pride at Modesto Junior College Yesterday

I had conflicting responsibilities and to my regret had to miss my school's graduation ceremony yesterday. I know that many of my students had the honor of walking that stage, and I can only say: I am proud for all of you. So, about that title...this is something I wrote a few years ago about the special and talented people I serve as a teacher.

No, I'm not talking about the prequels to Star Wars! It was something much earlier. People could be forgiven for not knowing this, but Star Wars was not George Lucas's first successful film. He was known for another great movie, American Graffiti, a semi-autobiographical film that recalled his days as a young man in Modesto, California. Yes, Lucas is perhaps our most famous native son. He also attended Modesto Junior College for a time.

So what was it that he got wrong? It was a fairly minor plot point, but in the movie, the two friends Curt and Steve were on the same pathways for their lives. They were planning to leave town to attend a "northeastern" college (let's presume an Ivy League school), but after a series of events over the space of one long night, Steve is convinced to stay in Modesto, attending the "junior" college, while Curt heads off to great success, and was eventually a writer living in Canada. Steve ended up selling insurance in Modesto.

What's wrong with this picture? It was the insinuation that attending a community college was somehow a lesser option for achieving success, that it is in some way a second-rate education. As I sat proudly through our graduation ceremony tonight, I would fiercely argue that getting a degree at a community college is a wonderful achievement, and that I would proudly put my students up against any Ivy League student at the two-year mark in their academic career.

It doesn't take long to realize that a lot of (but certainly not all) the students at a Harvard or Yale are children of privilege, people who have never really had to struggle to get ahead in life. They started in private upscale schools, got in on the fast-track to an Ivy League school with the best preparation possible. It's hardly a surprise that they would excel and succeed.

The students I work with come from many different backgrounds, and most of them are poor and disadvantaged. They come from many cultures. Our elementary and secondary schools are underfunded and sometimes dangerous, and alcoholism and drug use are epidemic in our region. The kids in our schools have the decks stacked against them at every turn. They come to us unprepared and unskilled. We have veterans suffering from PTSD, abused spouses, and laid-off laborers. We have huge numbers of people who are the first in their families to ever attend college. We have resources at our school, but sometimes the challenges facing our students are overwhelming. And yet these students persist, and they fight, and they cry, and fail, and then they come back again. And in the end they master the skills required to pass their classes. When you see a group of these students decked out in blue robes, and receiving an AA or AS degree, you are looking at some of the most successful people in the world.

If you are an employer, and you see a community college on the resume of a potential employee, you are looking at a person with persistence, stamina, and an incredible work ethic. They've been through impossible challenges and they've succeeded.

I couldn't be more proud of my students on this great day.

Monday, March 11, 2024

The End of the Tuolumne River! (It's not as bad as it sounds...)

The slough at the headquarters area of Dos Rios State Park
Back in the 1980s, Douglas Adams published his hilarious "trilogy" of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Universe. The second book, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, was not about a restaurant at the edge of the Universe, but rather it was a place where you dined and watched the actual destruction of the Universe (you had to use a time machine to get there). 

Today's blog is about the end of the Tuolumne River. But it isn't as bad as it sounds: it's about the spot where the Tuolumne River ends by flowing into the San Joaquin River. The confluence was on privately-owned ranch lands for many years, but a profound change is coming that will touch lives across our county and Central California. It is becoming California's newest State Park!

The confluence of the Tuolumne and San Joaquin Rivers
Dos Rios State Park is the product of years of cooperation between the owners of the Dos Rios Ranch, River Partners, and the Tuolumne River Trust. In the last decade or so, the partners worked to return the former croplands to a landscape that functions like the original primeval environment that existed before the invasion of industrial agriculture. In other words, a riot of canopy trees like oak and cottonwood with a tangled undergrowth of willows, elderberries and numerous other native plants. This floodplain woodland acts as a giant sponge, absorbing and slowing down floodwaters and helping to recharge the groundwater underneath.
The lower Tuolumne River near the confluence. The state park is on the right-side shore
The riparian environment provides a marvelous habitat for the wildlife that once thrived throughout the Great Valley of California (only about 5% of that original habitat remains). Dos Rios State Park will be a fantastic place to search for hundreds of bird species (more than 200 are known from just across the river at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge), and all manner of animal and plant species. The highly endangered Riparian Brush Rabbit is only found in an extremely small area within the San Joaquin Delta and the wildlife refuge across the river. I was told they intended to transplant a small group from the refuge to the park, but that the rabbits confounded the plan by crossing the river somehow and establishing a population all by themselves!

There are a number of ancient remnant environments tucked away in corners of the park. The most striking was a growth of valley oaks growing on a slightly elevated hill adjacent to the San Joaquin near the south end of the new park. There was a cacophony of bird songs in the canopy above, including Yellow-rumped Warblers, Oak Titmouse, White-crowned Sparrows, Tree Swallows, and Bush-tits.
The oak forest is a two mile walk from what will be the park headquarters area, and there are ideas of developing the site into an environmental walk-in campsite where local children can experience wilderness only a few miles outside their cities.
Much of the park will be a trailless, roadless morass of trees and brush on the floodplain. This is the area meant to serve for flooding relief, where it might remain underwater for weeks at a time. Volunteers have spent a decade planting native vegetation, and many of the trees are already tens of feet tall. They were irrigated for three years, but they will be able to survive on their own in the years to follow, watered by the higher groundwater table and occasional floods.
A "bunny hill" on the right side, a floodplain to the left.
Several elevated areas across the park provide refuge for mammals during flooding events. I believe they called them "bunny hills". I've seen these in action during floods across the river at the wildlife refuge, where everywhere I turned, rabbits were waiting for the floodwaters to subside.
The tangled thicket of native vegetation: the valley floodplain as it once was.

One of the most valuable aspects of the park is that it will allow visitors to experience the valley habitat as it once was, and how many parts can once again be. On our tour, we mentioned the wonderful resource of the Great Valley Museum at Modesto Junior College where I teach. Visiting the museum, children can view dioramas of the natural environments of the valley and even see a few live animals. But what if...they could learn about these environments, and then drive a short distance and actually experience them? That's the incredible value of the Dos Rios State Park.
Double-crested Cormorant in the slough
When our tour ended, I spent a few moments wandering the only developed part of the park. There is a picnic area that has been constructed adjacent to the farm buildings serving as the park headquarters for the moment. There is a slough below the picnic structures with a short walkway providing panoramic views. It didn't take long to find some interesting birds, like the Double-crested Cormorant drying its wings on a stump.
I only occasionally see Downy Woodpeckers along the Tuolumne upstream, but it was the first one I sighted today. I also saw Northern Flickers and Nuttall's Woodpeckers.
A Great Egret was watching for fish on the far side of the slough. 
Turtles were basking on logs down in the slough below.
Dos Rios State Park will open this coming summer with the picnic area and slough area open for visitation. A master plan will be developed over the next few years, with proposals for a campground, trails, and all manner of interpretive programs. Even better, the park will function as an environmental buffer, providing habitat and flood protection. The park is starting with about 2,100 acres, but other adjacent tracts are being "de-developed" to resemble their original habitat. 
It was a real privilege having the opportunity to see this park and renewed floodplain in the making. I'm looking forward to seeing what lies ahead for this beautiful new park in coming years. It is a marvelous resource for our community.
Source: River Partners and the Tuolumne River Trust

Thursday, March 7, 2024

What's the Most Awesome Thing You've Ever Seen? Musing on Solar Eclipses, Part 1

Totality of the solar eclipse of 1991 from San Jose del Cabo. The corona, an aura of plasma and gases, is only visible during totality. Photo by Dr. William Luebke.

There is a major celestial event coming up next month, a total solar eclipse that is going to sweep across a wide swath of North America. I'm here to say that if you can, make the effort to see it. Why? It's a truly unique experience that has mystified (and terrified) humans during our entire existence. Seeing a partial eclipse is interesting. A glimpse of a total eclipse is truly awesome. I can't make it this time, but I have seen two of them in my life, and I want to relate if I can just what a stunning experience it can be. So here is the account of my first experience in 1991. This is from a post I wrote in 2017:

What's the most incredible thing you experienced? 
There are lots of answers to such a question, and many different contexts and meanings. I had an abrupt reminder tonight of one of the most incredible things I ever took part in. We're putting in new carpeting (no, that's not the incredible experience), so I've spent the week organizing 26 years of accumulated papers and books to clear the floors throughout the house. It's as much trouble as moving, only there's no truck to stuff everything in. I was close to finishing when I got into a cabinet that had been blocked by other boxes for literally years. There was an old photo album. I opened it and was immediately transported back to 1991 when I experienced a total eclipse of the sun at the tip of Baja California in Mexico.
The "diamond ring" effect just before totality as the last of the sun's disk disappears behind the moon. Solar prominences are jets of gas shooting from the sun's surface. Photo by Dr. William Luebke
The 1991 eclipse was going to be visible from mainland Mexico, the tip of Baja California, and Hawaii. I was in my third year of teaching at Modesto Junior College, the new guy (needless to say, I'm not the new guy in the department anymore; I'm actually the senior member). Our astronomy professor, William Luebke, had made plans to fly to Hawaii for the event, but I found out that a relative (the mother-in-law of my sister-in-law) kept a condominium in San Jose del Cabo that she was willing to let us use. We jumped at the chance. All we had to do was get there. There were five of us and flights were expensive, so we decided to borrow a school van and make the 900 mile drive to the tip of the peninsula.

The drive was quite the adventure, and if I can locate the slides and scan them, I will perhaps tell the story. But we made it, and settled in for a few days to prepare (and get sunburnt while snorkeling). We selected what appeared to be an abandoned condominium plot and set up shop.
Who IS that young man?
The hillside was perfect, commanding a twenty mile long view of the coast. Soon others gathered, including an entire busload of Japanese astronomy enthusiasts who said they had rented the entire plot for themselves. After a few minutes of delicate negotiations, they allowed us to stay.

The length of totality was going to exceed four minutes, one of the longest eclipses of the century. We had three or four telescopes with us, so Dr. Luebke could concentrate on photographing the entire event, while I and Mrs. Geotripper could work with a telescope of our own that we shared with the many people on the hillside. During totality, thirty or forty people were able to take a quick look.
The eclipse was unlike anything I had ever seen in my life. In the hours before totality (which happened around noon), the air grew stiflingly hot, over a 100 degrees. The skies were almost free of clouds, and the sunshine was blindingly bright. The moon started to move across the disk of the sun, and we had quite a bit of time to watch the passage. Before totality, the sky remained bright. But then the last flash of the "diamond ring" effect took place and the sky suddenly darkened.
Not just darker. Dark. Stars and planets suddenly became visible, and the temperature dropped 15-20 degrees. Looking at the sun without needing glasses, I had little trouble appreciating the meaning that the ancients applied to eclipses. It was otherworldly; I almost found myself chanting for the dragon to release the sun from its prison.
Yes, the picture below was taken with a flash. It was that dark. Then it began to end. Bailey's Beads, the first dots of sunshine, broke through canyons and mountain passes on the surface of the moon, and the sky turned bright again. In a few more minutes, it was over. We packed up and headed home the next day (a whole other adventure).

At the time, we knew that the next solar eclipse that would be accessible to us would not be until August of 2017. It seemed such a long time into the distant future. I had no idea the many changes that would take place in my life, but suddenly it is upon us, on August 21. The path of totality is shown on the map below. If you have any chance at all, make your way and have a look. It is one of the most astounding sights you will ever see.
By the way, it turned out that Hawaii would not have been a good idea. Thousands of people flew there to see the eclipse, but low clouds obscured the skies and the only people who saw it were at the observatories beyond the end of the closed road on Mauna Kea. We were incredibly lucky to have had perfect weather in Baja.

It turns out that I had a second great opportunity to see a total eclipse in 2017. Read about soon in Part 2

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Echoes of a Watery Paradise in a Forsaken Hellscape - The Brief Return of Death Valley's Lake Manly

Imagine a lake that's six miles across flanked by dramatic mountain peaks reaching heights greater than 10,000 feet. We're in California, so it's got to be Lake Tahoe, right? But it's not. It is the lowest and driest place in North America, and the hottest place in the world. It's Death Valley. And big lakes are not a normal part of the scenery here. Badwater Basin is normally a dry salt flat. What has happened here?
In a word, it's rain. An extraordinary amount of rain has fallen in and around Death Valley this year, around 300% of what is normal. That sounds more dramatic than saying that 4.8 inches has occurred so far. A "normal" year to this point would see about 1.5 inches. And the rain did not fall in Death Valley alone. Death Valley is the lowest basin in a very large drainage system, and the surrounding landscape received even more. It was primarily the result of two events: the remnants of Hurricane Hilary in late August 2023 provided the floodwaters that resulted in the first iteration of the lake. In the hot months that followed, much of the accumulated water evaporated, but then the first week of February brought an atmospheric river storm to California that rejuvenated the shrinking lake. We were lucky to arrive a week later.

This kind of thing doesn't happen often. Some water was present on the valley floor in 2010, and earlier in 2005. But both of those years, floods had damaged the road to Dante's View so I haven't had a birds-eye view of the lake in at least three decades. It was fantastic.

When I and my students travel to Death Valley they get a packing list, but I tend not to put 'kayak' or 'raft' on that list. But we knew the lake would be there, so our long-term friend and trip volunteer Ryan actually packed one, so we had the spectacle of the Hollister family rafting Death Valley. 

The lake has been in the news, so we weren't surprised to see a multitude of tourists gathered in the parking lot at Badwater. I didn't think they'd all opt to go walking in the slimy muddy salty water, but you can see that they did. I was much happier to have stopped along the lake a mile to the south where there was no one but ourselves.

It was along that quiet shoreline that I was able to hear the echoes of a distant past when Death Valley was a watery paradise rather than the hellscape it is today (albeit a very beautiful and dramatic hellscape). That is what is revealed by the geological evidence scattered along the normally parched lake margins. 

At the south end of Death Valley there is an old basalt cinder cone with a strange name: Shoreline Butte. In the picture above, the shoreline terraces are highlighted by the "Superbloom" of 2016 (with all the rain this year, there is at least a possibility of another superbloom in a few weeks). Each of those horizontal terraces was carved by wave action. This and other clues scattered around the margins of the basin are evidence of a lake that existed here for thousands of years. It was as much as 600 feet deep, and more than 100 miles long. 

Where did all that water come from?

Along Beatty Cutoff Road, there is a beach berm covered by rounded flattened pebbles. This was along the northern shoreline of Lake Manly when it was 450 feet deep.
Evidence suggests that Lake Manly existed during a period from 186,000–120,000 years before present, dried up, and then returned again between about 35,000 to 10,000 years ago. It can't be a coincidence that these dates are identical to the dates established for the Tahoe and Tioga stage glaciations that took place in the Sierra Nevada. No glacier ever reached Death Valley, but the Sierra glaciers contributed vast amounts of meltwater to the dry basins east of the mountains. These waters filled present-day Mono Lake to overflowing. It spilled over and flowed in the Owens River to Owens Lake, which actually persisted into the modern era when LA water diversions caused it to dry up in the 1920s.

Pluvial lakes of Eastern California. Source: Philip Stoffer of the U.S. Geological Survey

Ice-age Owens Lake reached a depth of 300 feet and spilled over into China Lake, then Searles Lake, Panamint Lake, and finally Lake Manly in Death Valley. These ice-age bodies of water are called pluvial lakes. The cooler wetter conditions allowed two other river systems to contribute water, the Amargosa River out of Nevada, and the Mojave River out of the San Bernardino Mountains in Southern California. There may have even been a temporary connection with the Colorado River, which resulted in one of the most surprising aspects of Death Valley biology: fish!

Salt Creek Pupfish from the middle of Death Valley

Yes, there are fish in Death Valley! In fact, there are several species. They survive in widely scattered springs and short stretches of perennial streams that exist in the desert. The pupfish (cyprinodon) are of particular interest because they probably once were a single widespread species, but when isolated in springs that were either hot or cold, or salty or fresh, they were forced to evolve or perish. Today there are four species in the confines of the park and several others in outlying areas, especially the Owens Valley and Ash Meadows in Nevada. I've found their story to be intriguing and I've written about them a number of times. These diminutive fish survive in the saltiest and hottest water of any known fish species.

Mammoth bones on display at the Shoshone Museum, east of Death Valley

Imagining this vast ice-age lake meant led to another vision of past worlds. In the early 1980s, some students on a geology field trip were hanging out near their camp in the Shoshone area when they discovered bones sticking out of a gully wall. These bones proved to be specimens of Columbian Mammoths and other ice age mammal species (the specimens are currently on display in the Shoshone Museum east of the park). The Death Valley region was a much cooler and more verdant environment during the ice ages, and the shoreline of Lake Manly was populated by grazing animals including the aforementioned mammoths, camels, horses, bison, and the carnivores that would have preyed upon them, including the large cats and perhaps relatives to today's wolves and coyotes.

Looking at the shore of Lake Manly at Badwater from a vertical mile above from Dante's View
To see a lake that only comes into existence every decade or so is a spectacle (in the best sense). But to understand the deeper implications suggested by these lakes that speak of past worlds is the magic of geology. See it if you can. It won't last much longer!