Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Time Beyond Imagining - A Final Struggle for Life on the Colorado Plateau

...the massive creature wandered slowly through the dry grasslands. It had been a long hot year, something that had been all too common during the decades the animal had been alive. Foraging was difficult, and the creature was near the point of starving. The large elephant-like animal felt vaguely lonely; it was a herd creature, but it had actually been years since he had seen another of his own kind. He was aware of the pack of predators that had been following him for several days now. They too had the look of hunger, too thin, gaunt, with intense yellow eyes following every movement of the mammoth, but not quite desperate enough to try attacking such a huge beast. They could see it was weak, and they hoped for an opening.

The elephant could smell water. There was stream nearby, maybe a promise of green grass. The trickle of water lay at the base of a dangerously steep slope, but the mammoth was becoming desperate. He carefully stepped over the ledge and started down the rocky slope towards the water. Disaster! Somehow a rock slipped, and the animal lost his footing and tumbled down the slope. There was a crunching sound, and a horrific pain shot through the creature's leg. Something was terribly wrong now, and despite his struggling, he could not stand. The wolves heard the commotion. What was a tragedy for the mammoth was the temporary salvation for the giant wolves. They moved in, and in the moments that followed, the very last individual of the elephant clan on the Colorado Plateau passed into oblivion. Though they ate their fill that day, the wolves were doomed too. In these final centuries and decades of changing climate, they would find fewer and fewer of the large creatures they had evolved to consume, and they too soon passed into oblivion...

The story I've just told is entirely fanciful, with no direct basis in reality. I'm not describing some paleontological excavation, because we don't have one that is known to be the final individual of a species. But the fact is, numerous species became extinct during the last 10,000 years, and there was a final living individual mammoth. There was a final pack of dire wolves, though not at the same precise time. My little story could just as easily have included human beings who stood over the dying mammoth instead of wolves. Anthropologists argue the point.

The last few thousand years of geologic events of the Colorado Plateau are really mostly biological in nature. And to me they represent one of the saddest episodes in the entire two billion history of life in the region. In the last two million years before the present, the canyons and mountains, mesas and buttes of the Plateau looked much as they do today with one major exception. An ice age gripped the world, with a dozen or more cold periods when ice advanced across the northern tier of the North American continent. Though the ice never reached the plateau country, the climate was cooler and wetter, and forests covered what are now sagebrush flats, and sagebrush covered what are now barren desert expanses.

In this environment of rich vegetation growth, a complex ecosystem evolved, with numerous large species of plant foraging mammals, the megafauna of North America. The species that lived on the plateau included mammoths (2nd photo), mastodons (1st photo), camels, giant sloths, bisons, horses, musk ox, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. They were preyed upon by giant American lions (4th photo), saber-tooth cats, dire wolves (3rd photo), and occasionally by short-faced bears. The lions were bigger than their African cousins, the wolves and bears bigger than their living relatives by a factor of 50%. They had evolved to take down large prey.

These species lived across the continent, and the pictures above are actually specimens from southern California. They are examples of some of the incredible discoveries from the La Brea Tar Pits, where animals were trapped by the hundreds in the black goo. The animals thrived across the land for several million years, but around 10,000 years ago nearly all of them went extinct. Their disappearance coincided with two events: the end of the latest ice age, and the arrival of humans on the North American continent. Which brought about their end? Was it a combination of factors? We don't really know yet. There have even been some suggestions by researchers that an asteroid impact affected the North American megafauna.

In any case, I feel a sense of loss that these animals are gone. Part of the adventure of visiting a national park like Yellowstone is to see the bare remnants of this megafauna: the moose, elk, buffalo and grizzly bears. What an adventure it would have been to see mammoths and other giants wandering the mesas and buttes of the Colorado Plateau!

We've nearly reached the end. I have been exploring the geology of the Colorado Plateau for well over a year now, and one final major event in the geological story remains to be explored. Next time!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Magnitude 8.0 quake in Samoa

A magnitude 8.0 quake has struck in the Samoa Islands of the Pacific. Andrew Alden at is on top of this with some details here. The official USGS report is here. I only want to add that my cheap little classroom seismometer is still going off-scale more than an hour after the event. It doesn't mean that the ground is still heaving in Samoa, but instead is showing that the entire earth is reverberating as the waves pass through the entire planet, reflecting and refracting off the interior boundary layers and discontinuities. One might compare it to the gonging of a bell (the "earthquake") and the ringing tones that follow for a few moments.

You can check out the current shaking as it is recorded in California right here. Click on any of the stations to see the wave activity.

Monday, September 28, 2009

America's Greatest Idea: the National Parks

I'm enjoying the Ken Burns documentary on "The National Parks: America's Greatest Idea" this week. It has been the joy of my life and career introducing these precious places to several thousand of my students over the last twenty years. If you wish, you can take my photographic tour of the national parks of the American West here. It should be accessible even without a facebook account.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

No Child Left Inside! Our National Parks

Long complex ramble today with four seemingly unrelated random thoughts. But they are...
  • Devilstower, over at, has a great post today about Little Giants , wondering what would happen if the estimated 5,000 to 7,000 tigers in the United States were all released at once.

  • I had a great meeting with 60 fifth-graders in my lab this week, introducing them to the world of the geologist.

  • I led a field studies class last week to the Cascades, studying the role of volcanism in three different national parks and monuments: Lassen Volcanic, Crater Lake and Lava Beds.

  • Ken Burns and PBS are offering a six part documentary on "America's Best Idea", the story of the National Parks of America.
America's national parks are indeed one of the greatest ideas ever conceived by a society. The choice of overrunning a landscape and stripping it of resources to the point of ruination is a story that has been repeated over and over in human history. The idea that we might actually preserve a portion of our land in some condition approaching the primeval, for the benefit of all of its citizens, was an extraordinary leap that advanced civilization. If nothing else, the parks give us a focus point to understand how much we truly have changed our lands, and how far removed from our heritage we truly are. I am eagerly awaiting the Ken Burns documentary; the bits and pieces I've seen already are encouraging. Be sure to check it out.

My journey over the last week drove home the point of just how geological our national parks are. While acknowledging the historical nature of many parks in the system, such as Civil War battlefields and the like, most people think of places like Yosemite, Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon when they think of national parks. Although many people think of the national park experience as seeing wildlife, the bears, the moose, the buffalo, the deer and chipmunks, it is the rock that makes a place like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite Valley, it is the volcanism that has built the Hawaii Volcanoes, Haleakala, Rainier, Crater Lake, and Yellowstone, it is the movement of ice that sculpted the Grand Tetons, Glacier or the North Cascades. To truly understand a national park is to have an education, a true hands-on education, in geology. And yet: as Lee Alison of Arizona Geology points out, there are only 20 geologists employed in the Geologic Resources in the national park system, compared to 800 biologists.

The power of the national parks to move us is rooted in the common experience that many Americans have had while visiting our national parks, sometimes as adults, but especially as children. How many of us have that memory of playing in a river, camping out in the dark listening for the snuffling of bears, hiking a steep trail, or even conquering our first mountain? I remember as a young child climbing to the top of some small hill in Sequoia National Park on the Heather Lake trail, and giving it a name; I also remember the terror of being lost in a campground, having tried to find my own way to the bathroom in the dark as a five-year old. Terror at the time, and yet one of my most cherished memories, along with my first face to face meeting with a bear at Seqouia.

My visit with the fifth-graders this week was a startling reminder of something I already knew. Too many, way too many kids are not getting even a chance to experience their heritage as Americans. I live less than a two hour drive from one of the crown jewels of the national park system, Yosemite National Park, and almost none of these kids have been there! There are many reasons, of course, perfectly logical reasons. Even a twenty dollar entrance fee is too much for many struggling families, not to mention the cost of gasoline (we have 17% unemployment in our county right now). There is less and less of a cultural appreciation for simple forms of recreation: electronic games are very alluring to the short-term attention span of so many of our kids. And our kids, fed on a steady diet of junk food, and lacking any kind of exercise in their schools, just aren't healthy enough to appreciate hiking a trail or running away from a bear or snake.

And yet: these kids were excited just to see images of their national heritage. And I swear their eyes lit up when they came to the realization that these experiences were out there, and they could take part in them if they chose to. They could see an erupting volcano if they chose to. They could find a dinosaur bone in the ground. They want to see and experience these places, if we found a way to get them there.

It is we as a society who are robbing the youth of our country of their heritage. Every time we cut the budgets of our schools to the bare minimum of math and English classes, we take away the most valuable part of education. English is probably important, but what use is it if these kids have nothing to write about? An education is all about experience, not just knowledge.

And what about the Devilstower blog entry on little giants? In the last twelve thousand years, our continent has lost a huge part of our ecosystem: the megafauna. The North American continent once played host to mammoths, mastodons, giant elk, bison, camels, horses, sloths, and many other huge creatures. Most of them are gone, although, as Devilstower points out, some survived much longer by evolving into smaller forms (dwarf mammoths survived on the Channel Islands off California thousands of years longer than their bigger mainland relatives). What's left? The bison and elk and grizzly bears of places like Yellowstone National Park. For now, these creatures are managed as if they were in a zoo rather than part of an ecosystem, but there is a growing recognition that if we are going to choose to have these grand animals in our care, we have to see our land not as a few isolated protected havens like Yellowstone, but as a continuous habitat extending beyond park boundaries where these large animals and humans can coexist. It is a contentious topic to be sure: look at the controversy over the de-listing of the wolf from the Endangered Species Act.

One more note on the topic: this month's Accretionary Wedge, hosted by Tuff Cookie at Magma Cum Laude, is based on the following question: What kind of Earth Science outreach have you participated in? Have you hosted a geology day at your department, given a field trip, gone to your child's/niece's/nephew's/cousin's school to do a demonstration, or sponsored an event for Earth Science Week? To this I would add: You don't sponsor outreach? What do you plan on doing to change that?

Our pictures today? The west rim of the Crater Lake caldera, showing Llao Rock, and a black bear in Sequoia National Park. Something that every child should have a chance to see.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Joy of a Good Zoom Lens...

My previous post concerned three volcanoes visible in a single shot, taken by my wife on our recent field studies journey to the southern Cascades. Lockwood asked in the comments about the location of the shot, so I have indicated the placement above. Most of you will immediately recognize the iconic view of Crater Lake and Wizard Island taken from the rim of the caldera near the resort complex on the southwest flank of the lake. The picture in question was a 24x zoom (half optical, half digital). It was amazing to me how much the shot took a familiar scene into unfamiliar territory.

Mystery Photo for a Slow Saturday

Note: the answer to the previous mystery photo has been postscripted to the original post here.

Today's mystery photo is stunning to me, primarily because I didn't think of taking it myself. It shows the death of not one, not two, but three volcanoes.


We teachers aren't supposed to fall into the trap of anthropomorphising geologic and other scientific phenomena (i.e. atoms aren't "trying" to reach a lowest energy state in order to be "happy", and volcanoes don't "die"). Let me rephrase the statement:

This photo shows three different volcanic edifices which reached the terminal stage of their development in three different ways.

So, the question of the day: How did these three volcanoes come to be extinct (is that term appropriate? It seems so life-related)? Some context: the picture (by Susan Hayes) was taken during our recent exploration of the southern Cascades in Oregon and northern California.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Very Tough Ride to a Post-Oil Economy

Check out this opinion piece on our impending energy choices in, or the original article at The websites are political, but the data and the discussion seem pretty on target from a geological point of view. It is sobering stuff; our energy choices over the next 30 years are pretty challenging, and the changeover to a post-oil economy is not going to be easy. The recession/depression we are experiencing is putting a damper on oil use; when the economy improves, oil prices will rise too. A lot. It sure would be nice if politicians could see further than their next election, and if they could make some hard choices instead of the politically expedient ones. We are being poorly served as it stands now.

How Come Only Presidents Get Carved on Mt. Rushmore?

And why do only four of them get chosen? We do seem to have our icons in the public sector, and being carved in stone seems to be the highest honor we can bestow upon our presidents, generals, and other assorted heroes. Not so much our pop culture folks, they like it better on beaten wood pulp or computer monitors. That doesn't last as long, though.

For a geologist, though, being immortalized for your accomplishments, it has to be stone, doesn't it? We are building a new Community Science Center at Modesto Junior College that will house our local natural history museum, an observatory, a planetarium, and the various natural and physical science departments, including the geology program. Part of the landscaping will include several rings of stone benches which will have the names of famous scientists inscribed upon them. One ring of benches will have room for 6 to 8 names of the founders and movers of the geological sciences.

So, the question of the day is: what should those 6-8 names be? I have my tentative list already, but I would like to see what you all think, to see if I am overlooking someone. There aren't any hard and fast rules, but keep in mind that geology is a science without national boundaries!

The picture today is of James Hutton, widely recognized as one of the founders of the science of geology, pounding away at a cliff that includes caricatures of his most prominent detractors. An early 1800's political cartoon!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Mystery Photo of the...Day, Week, Month?

I haven't posted any mystery photos for a long time, but here is an intriguing pattern I caught yesterday. I know how y'all hate a lack of context, so here it is: I was at Bumpass Hell in Lassen Volcanic National Park.

So, what is going on here, and what materials are involved?

I have posted a video of this on Facebook, and I think you can access it here without having to sign up with Facebook:

POSTSCRIPT (9/26): This is a boiling mud pot. The magma providing the heat is at a depth of three miles or so, and groundwater seeping into the crust is heated to beyond boiling, and a vast steam reservoir has developed beneath Bumpass Hell. The steam condenses to hot water near the surface, but is charged with hydrosulferic acid, which does a serious number on the andesite lavas underlying the area. The rock is turned to clay, which forms the gray stuff in the mudpool. The black swirls are actually finely divided iron sulfide, the mineral pyrite. That's right, fool's gold! If you have had a basic class in geology, you may remember that pyrite is black in powder form (the streak). The patterns are hypnotic to watch.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Blogging in the Field

Light blogging, as I am in the field with students this week, in the California and Oregon Cascades. Very nice trip thus far with stops in Crater Lake National Park (above), Lava Beds National Monument, Mt. Shasta, Castle Crags State Park, and tomorrow, Lassen Volcanic National Park. No eruptions, but lots of nice pyroclastic debris from past events.

Times have certainly changed though, as I am sitting on a folding chair overlooking McArthur Burney Falls in the middle of nowhere, and I have an internet connection! In the old days of field studies, to communicate with the home folks, I used to write these things called "letters" and "postcards", and people were paid to personally take these handwritten notes and to deliver them to the door of the recipient...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Professor Incognito is back!

Professor Incognito is back, courtesy of by Zeo. I have no idea where she gets these ideas or who this Professor Incognito might be. I understand from an insider that the student SLAK is a composite person, Student Lacking A Klue, and that the test score (actually, scores) is genuine. I have a lot of good students in my classes this year, driven into academia by the recession, and hoping to better their lives and working hard for it. As such, I find it hard to understand people who are lucky enough to get into a class with a giant wait list, and then completely blow off the first assignments. It's true they often disappear from the class within a few weeks, but other times you get this...

By the way, happy Collect Rocks Day! Go out and add something to the rockpile!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Just Plain Fun: San Francisco to Washington D.C. in 4 Minutes 35 Seconds

Nothing exactly geological here, but great fun to watch. The pictures were taken at 10 second intervals. I appreciated the stretch that took them across Interstate 80 over the Sierra Nevada, and Highway 50 across Nevada, "America's Loneliest Highway". I've spent a lot of time on that highway and was able to recognize a lot of landmarks even at the rapid speed. The You-Tube description and details can be found at

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Of Rat Pee and Uranium and Scavengers...The Underground Story of the Ice Ages on the Colorado Plateau

Two essentially unrelated events were happening underground in Grand Canyon National Park in 1976. A precious paleontological resource was burning away in the newly established western part of the park, and in the eastern part of the park, a gawky teenager emerged from a cave with an intense desire to become a geologist.

Caverns are one of the most scenic and most valuable research resources in the Grand Canyon and other parts of the plateau, and one of the least known. Only two caves, Grand Canyon Caverns near Peach Springs, and Timpanogos Cave National Monument offer guided tours. Only one cave within the Grand Canyon, the Cave of the Domes (pictured above), is authorized for entry by inner canyon hikers. It is the one I explored in 1976 as that gawky soon-to-be geology major. The cave is exposed on the brink of a huge cliff on the side of Horseshoe Mesa (look at the drop-off to the right of the people in the top picture). Access was provided many years ago by miners who blasted a trail to the cave entrance, which is great for those who want to see a cavern in the canyon (wasn't there a song like that?), but also made it easier for vandals to reach the cave as well. The outer, easily accessible parts were pretty beat up last time I visited in the late 1990's.

What information can be offered up by the exploration of these caverns?

One of the ongoing mysteries of the Grand Canyon is the precise timing of the final carving of the canyon. The caves form while below the regional water table: the slightly acidic groundwater eats away at the limestone, forming the underground cavities. The familiar speleothems (stalactites, stalagmites and the like) don't form until the water table drops below the level of the cavern (many of these features from from dripping water). The main cause of a massive drop in the groundwater table was the carving of the canyon itself. So...the age of the oldest dripstone speleothems in a cave provides a date for when the carving of the canyon had reached near the level of the cave. Dating is provided by small amounts of uranium trapped in the calcium carbonate formations or isotopes of other radioactive elements. Examples of preliminary results can be found here and here.

Packrat middens, mentioned in the previous post, are another rich (and pungent) source of information about the past. They gather all manner of objects from their environment, and urinate on the pile. The viscous liquid binds the materials and protects them from decay in the dry cave environment. The rats may use the same location for thousands of years, so carbon dating and analysis of pollen and plant fragments allows researchers to reconstruct the biota over a significant period of time. And research shows that since the last ice age ended about 12,000 years ago, the changes were significant.

The Grand Canyon today is dominated by pinyon pine, with ponderosa at the highest elevation. Research conducted with middens has demonstrated that the pinyon and ponderosa are recent arrivals (pinyon, 11,000 years ago, and ponderosa around 7,000-8,000 years), and that during the ice ages, another conifer dominated, the limber pine. Limber pines occur in the west today, but nowhere near the Grand Canyon. These changes of flora indicate not just dryer and warmer conditions, but a change in the pattern of precipitation over the course of the seasons. The summer 'monsoons' have not always been the norm for the region.

Finally, as we saw in the previous post, at times the caves have served as a shelter for animals, or a final repository for their bones after scavengers like condors carried them in. A full listing of some of these wonderful creatures will be the subject of the next post. One other creature sheltered in these caves, but unlike the other animals, left relatively few bones behind. It did however make things, and some of their creations, made of willow twigs, survived in the dry cave environment (their creations of rock could be preserved almost anywhere). About 12,000 years ago, the first humans seem to have entered the Grand Canyon and the Colorado Plateau to take up residence.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Holy Smokes, Batman, that crap is on fire!

Those boulders littering the floor of the cave? They ain't boulders...

I've heard of the expression being up to your neck in sh$t, but this is ridiculous...

A sampling of the bone material from Rampart Cave

Sloth hair and skin from Rampart Cave.

Despite the frivolous nature of the blog title, there are few words to describe the rage I feel towards cave vandals. And it is one thing to break off things of beauty, like stalactites and other cave decorations, in the sense that centuries and millenia from now they could conceivably grow back long after we are gone. But sometimes, that which is destroyed represents knowledge that becomes lost forever, never to be recovered, not even with the passage of time.
Such is the tragedy at Rampart Cave.

Rampart Cave, like Bat Cave, lies near the western end of the Grand Canyon. The cave was unlike many others in the region, because it was accessible to large animals who took shelter inside. For something like 40,000 years, that's what a particularly strange animal did. And it pooped. A lot.

Nothrotheriops shastensis, the Shasta Ground Sloth (picture in the previous post) would never be mistaken for its diminutive Brazilian cousin, nor for that matter, Sid, the abrasive little sloth in the animated movie "Ice Age". It was 8 or 9 feet long, and weighed a quarter ton (some of its relatives were even bigger, reaching two tons). It lived on these lower slopes of the Grand Canyon, consuming a wide variety of different plants and shrubs. Carbon dating of the deposits of the cave show it was occupied from at least 50,000 years ago up until around 11,000 years ago when all of the sloths of North America went extinct. Studying animal droppings may seem, well, a bit dirty, but think what can be learned from the practice: pollen, seeds, and plant fragments from an animal that seemed to eat just about anything provides a picture of changing environments in the late stages of the last ice age.

Equally valuable and equally disgusting are packrat middens, which were also found in the cave. Packrats are kleptomaniacal rodents who carry all manner of things into their nests, and they pee on them. The urine is highly viscous and the midden becomes a solid mass from the work of thousands of generations of animals.

Other animals either found their way into the cave, or their carcasses were dragged there by predators or scavengers. 14 total mammal species and 5 bird species have been recorded in the cave deposits, including the California Condor, which has just been reintroduced to the region.

Excavations took place in the 1930's and 1940's, and the entrance was gated to protect the resources. Around 1975, persons unknown broke through the gate, and started a fire in the cave. It defied efforts at control, and burned for months. Something like 70% of the precious resource (how strange to think of dung that way) was lost forever to science.

I am appalled that there are people this moronic and stupid. Of course they haven't gone away, either. I am hearing that the disastrous Station Fire that is burning up my childhood hiking destinations in Angeles National Forest was the result of arson, too.

Today's pictures are from the National Park Service archives.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Holy Crap, Batman! The Bat Cave is Full of it!

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

"A Tale of Two Caverns" was my alternate working title for today's blog entry, but my lower levels of sophomoric humor prevailed. This is a tale of two caves, both of which are found in the lower reaches of the Grand Canyon, and this is a continuation of a geological exploration of the Colorado Plateau that has been going on for well over a year now. The fact is, there really is a Bat Cave in Grand Canyon, and another called Rampart Cave. And they were both full of crap, as it were.

As noted in the most recent post of the series, there are hundreds of limestone caverns in the Grand Canyon region, very few of which are well-known, or even accessible. Most of them occur in a particularly difficult position, in alcoves at the top of a 400-500 foot high cliff in the Redwall Limestone. Others, including the Bat Cave, occur in the older Muav Limestone.

Bat Cave was discovered in the 1930's by a river rafter. When large amounts of bat guano were found inside, efforts began to find a way to mine the nitrogen-rich fertilizer. The cave was high on a cliff, and efforts to float a barge or to fly the product out were unsuccessful. In 1957, when a geologist estimated that the cave contained 100,000 tons of guano (worth about $10 million, in 1957 dollars), a mining corporation got serious, and invested more than $3 million constructing a tramway that crossed 7,500 feet of canyon, and climbed 2,500 feet to the south rim. The one ore cart could carry 2,500 lbs of guano and six people. It was an incredible engineering feat, although it was beset by problems. The cable failed soon after completion, and had to be completely re-hung. Worst of all, the estimates of the quantity of guano turned out to be wildly optimistic: literally 100 times more optimistic (can you imagine being the one who had to deliver this news to the boss?). Only 1,000 tons was ever produced. The venture closed down within a few months.

The cable remained hanging across the canyon. In 1960, an Air Force jet was flying far below what regulations allowed, and clipped the cable. The plane somehow remained airborne, but the cable snapped and fell to the canyon floor. The corporation was able to sue for damages, despite being shut down, and they recouped some of their losses.

The area around Bat Cave was added to Grand Canyon National Park in 1975, and for a time the NPS considered tearing down the metal frameworks of the mine, but the idea was abandoned. The cave is once again inhabited by hundreds or thousands of bats (see the Billingsley link below for a fascinating account of a 1995 exploration of the cave).

The details of the story of Bat Cave are quite fascinating. An account by one of the steelworkers who helped construct the cable system can be found in this American Heritage article. Many details of the Bat Cave mining venture and pictures of the mine developments can be found in a chapter of Billingsley et al., 1997, Quest for the Pillar of Gold: The Mines and Miners of the Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon Association, ISBN 0938216562. This book is available online; the Bat Cave article may be found in and (thanks to Wikipedia for the links).

Well, it's late, and I haven't been able to get to the story of Rampart Cave, and the photo of the strange-looking creature above, so I guess it now must be called a "Tale of One Cavern". I'll just promise to get to it in the next post!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Mass Extinctions and the Business Climate

What do the statement by Jesus about a camel passing through the eye of a needle, mass extinctions throughout geologic history, and the failure of giant banks in the current economic crisis have to do with one another? Check out Devilstower for an interesting discussion of Camel Puree. Extinctions of megafaunas have been a constant theme of earth history.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

International Vulture Awareness Day: A Salute to Some Ice Age Survivors

Several geoblogosphere associates have already chipped into today's big event, an appreciation of vultures. We do need to appreciate the scavengers and cleaners of our world (kind of like appreciating Dirty Jobs), but my appreciation goes a little deeper, more like admiration. My favorite member of the vulture family is a real survivor, despite our worst abuses, and great changes in their world: the California Condor.

California Condors are one of the few direct links we have to a world that disappeared 11,000 years ago. At that time, California and the American West played host to a diverse and fascinating megafauna that included mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, giant elk, bison, horses, camels, short-faced bears (bigger than grizzlies), and a frightening array of predators, including dire wolves, American lions, and saber-tooth cats. All gone now, lost to an extinction event that is still not understood: it could have been predation by humans, climate change, even an unfortunately-aimed asteroid impact. The condor, one of the largest of birds, was the clean-up crew when the giant predators of the giant grazers were done eating. When the megafauna disappeared, the condors went into a decline, and the largest species of condors went extinct. Their near-extinction was not necessarily the fault of humans; there may have been only 300 or so when the Spaniards first explored California. Still, we in the modern era didn't help matters. We shot them, or poisoned them with lead buckshot to the point that there were only about two dozen left in the 1970's.

Wildlife biologists stepped in at that point and captured the last remaining wild birds, and began a program of captive breeding. It has been a reasonable success, with 322 birds alive today. 172 of them have been released into the wild, with populations in Grand Canyon (top picture), the Zion Park region, the Coast Ranges of California (second photo), and part of northern Mexico.

Take a moment to thank the scavengers of our world!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Science: An exercise in amorality

My first classes, once the introductions are over, are an exercise in trying to convince a bunch of business accounting and English majors the necessity of taking a science elective in order to graduate from our institution of higher learning. Part of the discussion, a very important part, is trying to build an understanding that science has a method of gaining knowledge in the most objective manner possible (redefining theory for people steeped in the pop culture meaning of the word is the hardest part).

The next part is tougher in some ways: why a humanities or tech major needs to understand the way science works, whether in geology, biology, physics or any other discipline. I start out by pointing out that many scientists are in the business of "solving problems". When the scientist is a medical doctor, or an environmental scientist, this is straightforward: they want to cure diseases or limit the effects of pollution. But then I ask what problems a military scientist solves. It only takes a moment before someone will say "to kill people". Someone will usually add "before they kill us". This is my opening to ask "Is military science moral? Is science in general moral?"

What follows sometimes gets interesting. My classroom environment is usually easy-going and even informal, and suddenly we are talking about some deadly serious stuff. Being "moral" generally refers to conforming to what is right and good. To be described as "immoral" is to have morals that run counter to the society one lives in. And then the lesson in the Latin language: put an 'a' in front of the word, and make the meaning the opposite: "amoral", being without morals altogether.

Science is amoral. I ask if this is a good or a bad thing, and after a moment, we realize that such a value judgement is irrelevant. It is simply a statement of fact. Science is a seeking of facts and processes that govern the natural universe. Any aspect of morality, any judgement as to the ethics of a particular scientific experiment are the responsibility not just of the scientist, or some ethics board staffed by scientists and administrators, but of every participating member of the society. And that is why it is necessary to educate non-science majors in the workings of science. By way of voting, participating in government (i.e. school boards), protesting, writing politicians, they will be able to act, not from ignorance (we have plenty of that), but from a position of knowledge.

To drive the point home, I ask the following: Is it a valid scientific experiment to figure out how much torture a prisoner can suffer before dying? The answer: of course it is! A group of prisoners is selected, their level of health and well-being is recorded, they are tortured in a variety of ways with increasing intensity, and the timing and manner of their death is recorded. From this, the experimenters know how far they can go with torture without losing the prisoner. Of course, the class knows that this is highly unethical, to say the very least, but it drives the point home: science is amoral, and we as a society are the ones who decide the ethics of a given experiment. In other words, it is the extreme example that makes the point best.

I had that discussion in class yesterday.

Today, in the New York Times, I read the following, from Eugene Robinson (via Daily Kos)

For the Bush administration, torture was a delicate business. The aim was to injure but not incapacitate -- to inflict precisely enough pain and terror to break a subject's will, but no more. To calibrate the proper degree of abuse, the torturer needed an accurate sense of how much agony the subject's mind and body can tolerate.

In the administration's program of "enhanced interrogation," this expertise was provided by doctors and psychologists -- professionals who are supposed to heal and comfort. A new report by Physicians for Human Rights assembles the evidence and reaches a sickening but inescapable conclusion: "Health professionals played central roles in developing,implementing and providing justification for torture."

Dwell on that for a moment, especially if you believe that the Bush administration's decision to submit terrorism suspects to medieval interrogation practices was somehow justifiable -- or even if you believe that torture was wrong, but that now we should "look forward" and pretend it never happened. This is how torture warps a society and distorts its values.
I am horrified at what we have become as a nation. Why aren't these people on trial?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Time Beyond Imagining: Why Can't We Touch the Venus de Milo?

Don't even think about it, Buster...
A tragedy compounded by a rock hammer...

A masterpiece...

The painting in the Louvre that sits at the upper right hand of the top photograph has the distinction of being quite possibly the most ignored classical painting in the world. Why? It has the misfortune of being behind everyone who shows up at the Louvre hoping to see the Venus de Milo. I don't even know what it is called.

As a geologist, I have always had a great appreciation for sculpture, the act of bringing out beauty from rocks that are already beautiful. Of course, it calls to mind the old joke about sculpture being the act of visualizing want you want to create, and then removing any rock from the block that doesn't look like your creation.

Michelangelo's Pieta (1499) is considered one of his finest works, and has a place of honor in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. When I had the privilege of visiting Rome a few years ago, I was relatively ignorant of what all was there, so I was unready for the emotional impact that Michelangelo's masterpiece would generate. The pain and loss represented by Christ's broken body in the arms of his mother brought tears to my eyes. It is one of the most precious works of art I've ever seen.

If you haven't heard of Lazlo Toth, don't feel any sense of loss. He was a mentally unhinged geologist who, in 1972, attacked the Pieta with a rock hammer, breaking off Mary's arm at the elbow. Just thinking of it now fills me with rage, that someone could be so craven as to attack and mar such a thing of beauty. Which brings me to the point of today's blog. You were probably wondering why an entry in a series on the geology of the Colorado Plateau has suddenly swerved off into Paris and Rome.

It has to do with precious works of art, a series of perfect sculptures and creations in limestone that will never be seen by 99.9% of all the visitors to the Grand Canyon and wider plateau country. Hidden from sight, and almost impossible to access, they are the caverns that are present in limestone layers exposed in the Grand Canyon and other parts of the canyon country. There are more than a thousand of them in Grand Canyon National Park, and hundreds more throughout the region. Only a third of them have even been recorded, and of them, only a handful have been mapped and inventoried. More are discovered every year.

Caverns and the decorations that fill them (speleothems) are some of the most beautiful works of nature. To spend time in a wild cave is to experience a sense of exploration and adventure that is seldom felt in any other setting. Unfortunately, the very act of exploring a wild cave is to damage it. No matter how lightly you step, you are breaking and scraping delicate crystalline surfaces, and in narrow passages, no matter how careful you are, it is practically impossible to avoid breaking off fragile formations. Clothing carries molds. Fingers have acids and oils. Shoes carry mud. We alter and damage the beauty of caves even in the act of loving them.

But there is a special place in Dante's Inferno for those who go into caves intent on destroying the beauty and value of this strange and wonderful underground environment. A cave vandal is as low as a Lazlo Toth. A destroyer of beautiful things. And it is unfortunate that there are too many such people in the world. My friends in the National Speleological Association would probably concur with this observation: once a cave is easily accessible and well-known, if it is not protected, it is absolutely doomed. It will be destroyed beyond redemption in months. And so it is that almost no one will ever see some of the greatest treasures on the Colorado Plateau. They have to be locked away and kept secret to preserve them.

In the Grand Canyon and surrounding regions, only a handful of caves are open to visitation. Grand Canyon Caverns near Peach Springs, and Timpanogos Cave National Monument up near Salt Lake City (on the extreme margin of the plateau country near the High Uintas Mountains of Utah). Several others can be explored farther afield, such as at Great Basin National Park in Nevada, and Kartchner Caverns State Park in southern Arizona. Kartchner is especially notable as a tourist destination, because it was discovered recently, and developments inside were made to be as unobtrusive as possible. The sights you see in the cave have literally never been touched by human hands. It is a revelation (you can read about my experience in the cave in one of my first blog posts).

Caves are much, much more than just a pretty place to explore. They are a valuable repository of information for understanding the last few million years of Colorado Plateau history. We will explore this in a coming post...

The bottom photo is of a newly discovered cavern in Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument that is unusual in that it contains numerous pools of water (most plateau caves are dry). The photographers are Jon Jasper of the Bureau of Land Management, and Kyle Voyles of the National Park Service.