Thursday, February 16, 2012

Strangers in a Strange Land: Hitting the Road in Death Valley

I was beginning a short web series about the volcanoes of San Francisco, but life briefly intrudes. I haven't been on the open highway for a while, but tomorrow we hit the road, me and a bunch of eager (I think) students. We are headed to the hottest driest place on the continent: Death Valley National Park. Hopefully the dieties will be merciful...

Of course, February is a delightful time to experience the Valley of Death, as temperatures are expected to be in the middle 70s, and night-time lows in the 40s. There were some windstorms earlier this week, but the weather is settling down. We will be camping and net access is...well, what do you expect in the most isolated corner of California? I will post a few updates if possible.

Death Valley National Park preserves one of the most complete geologic histories of any park on the North American continent. The oldest rocks developed possibly in late Archean time, and there is a three mile thick section of Proterozoic sediments, including some of the diamictites that provide possible evidence for the "Snowball Earth" hypothesis. The Paleozoic record includes thousands of feet of sediment representing nearly every period. There are Mesozoic granitic intrusions and sedimentary layers as well. There are Cenozoic sediments and extensive volcanic ash deposits. There are incredibly young volcanic features, including the Ubehebe Craters which made the news in the last few weeks. And the geologic structures! The park is a showplace of well exposed faults and folds, including numerous metamorphic core complexes and the famous turtlebacks. And there are even four species of fish, which evolved from one species in less than 20,000 years. The Devils Hole pupfish is the rarest and most threatened fish species in the country (they all live in a single submerged cavern opening).

And best of all, all of these fascinating features are collected into one of the most strangely scenic deserts to be found anywhere. It's so otherworldly that some areas of the park were used to represent other worlds in the Star Wars movies.

I'm looking forward to the next five days!
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