Friday, September 23, 2016

The Lake at the End of the World: Tule Lake in Northern California

Tule Lake is situated at the end of the world. It's not that it's so big that the world seems to end beyond its margins, but something more like how it is the place that worlds ended. The lake is located in Northern California near the Oregon Border south of Klamath Falls. It fills a fault graben, a basin that formed when the crust stretched and cracked, with large valleys that sank hundreds or thousands of feet. The Tulelake graben sank enough to disrupt the flow of regional streams, and became a huge, but shallow lake. In this semiarid climate water is precious, especially to birds on the migratory flyway from the arctic to the tropics. It's one of the places where plentiful food allowed millions of birds to rest and fatten themselves to continue their journeys.

But it nearly ended for the birds. Settlers in the late 1800s found that streams could be diverted, and that levees and dikes could be constructed, so that vast portions of the lake dried up and disappeared. The nutrient rich sediments of the lakebed became pastures and rich soils for growing alfalfa or potatoes. In 1928, though, a wildlife refuge was established that preserves the remaining lake area for the birds and other animals. The present lake, as big as it seems in the photo above, is but 10% the area it once was.

The lake was the end of the world for a people as well. The Modoc people lived along the shores of the lake for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, but were forcibly removed in the 1870s. Many elements of their culture were lost as their community was shattered. I wrote more extensively on this sad history in a previous post. The story is compelling...check it out!

This is a dispatch from the road, some short descriptions of our ongoing field class on the geology of California's volcanoes.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

About to Hit the Road Again! There are Volcanoes in my Future

And it's been way too long locked away in an office and laboratory and lecture hall. I'll be hitting the open road with my students on an exploration of California's Cascade volcanoes for the next five days. We'll be seeing Mt. Shasta, Lassen Peak, Medicine Lake Highland, and Lava Beds National Monument. All in all, it's a fascinating corner of the Golden State. I may actually have some web access along the way, so I'll try to send some dispatches.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Hawai'i That Was: An Idyllic Paradise on the North Shore of Kaua'i. Sort of.

Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
If you have been there and think that Hanalei Bay is the most beautiful place on the planet, don't worry, I'm not going to diss it. It is indeed one of the most beautiful places I can imagine. It's been the setting for numerous films that needed an idyllic paradise for a backdrop, most notably South Pacific, the Wackiest Ship in the Army (with Jack Lemmon), Uncommon Valor (Gene Hackman, Patrick Swayze), and The Descendants (George Clooney). And who can forget She Gods of Shark Reef?
I've stood on the shoreline, looking towards Nāmolokama Mountain, and there were dozens of waterfalls in view, falling hundreds of feet. The slopes were choked with tropical vegetation, providing a contrast to the rich tan colored sand and the blue water. It's close to the ideal of paradise.
The secret is rainfall, of course. The average precipitation along the shoreline ranges from 80-120 inches a year, and the steep mountain cliffs above wring far more water out of the clouds. The mountaintop just to the south, Mt. Waialeale, has at least a claim to being the wettest place on planet Earth, with a yearly average of more than 400 inches per year!
There's a flip side to being paradise, though. One notices while driving through the small villages along the shoreline that many houses are built on stilts, sitting high off the ground. It's a hint that paradise comes with certain dangers.  The shoreline is exposed to tsunamis, and in some events, most notably in 1946, the surging waves reached a depth of 19 feet, causing severe damage. Even high winter surf (especially in the age of global warming and sea level rise) can endanger some structures as well as the coastal highway.
River flooding is another problem. The rains can come in torrents, and Hanalei River overflows its banks regularly. The pier at Hanalei Bay (above) is a favorite destination of mine (as well as many others!), and one might wonder why there's a roof over the end of the structure. There could be many reasons, but I suspect that since lots of people like to spend time there fishing and picnicking, it's nice to have a place to stay out of the rain, because the weather can change in an instant.

I was surprised by a fierce downpour a couple of years back when I was on the pier, and I took some snapshots of the storm. As I looked at the photos later on, I noticed something strange.
Those spots in the picture were not bits of spray on my lens. They were huge rain drops, caught in suspension by the fast shutter speed. I sort of knew it already, but the picture shows that raindrops are roughly spherical, and not the tear-drop shaped blob that illustrations usually make them out to be.
I am always telling my students that there is no place in the world where one is safe from geological hazards. It's not meant to scare anyone, but instead is meant to encourage people to seek an understanding of the potential threats that they might face if they want to put down roots somewhere. Paradise means different things to different people, but Hanalei Bay comes close in my opinion. Just pay attention to those tsunami sirens when they go off...

Monday, September 12, 2016

The Hawai'i That Was: History and Beauty at Ke'e Beach and the Na Pali Coast.

It's taken me awhile to get back to my Hawai'i series, but I'm intent on finishing the project. The main reason to finish is that apart from actual flowing lava (on the Big Island), Kaua'i is my favorite place to visit in the Hawaiian Islands. As my regular readers know, I'm all about geology, but especially if it is in incredibly beautiful places. And Kaua'i is a beautiful place. I'm willing to call it the most beautiful island on the planet, but that would be a bit presumptuous, as I have been on but a dozen islands in my life. It has to be on some top ten lists, though.

Kaua'i is a bit unique when compared to the other Hawaiian Islands. Unlike the Big Island, or Maui Nui, the multiple islands that were once a single landmass (Molokai, Lanai, Maui and Kahoʻolawe). Kaua'i stands alone as essentially a single volcano (although it could be thought of as a volcano on top of a volcano; more on that later). It's the oldest of the main Hawaiian Islands, at around five million years. The shape of the island has been altered by gigantic landslides, but maintains a circular aspect. Roads do not encircle the island for some very good reasons (to be discussed later on). Only a handful of roads approach the interior of the island, also for good reasons.

Kaua'i was also the last of the islands to be brought into the unified kingdom under Kamehameha. He twice tried to invade, but his war canoes were stopped by a storm on one occasion, and illness (probably European in origin) stopped the other. The king of the island finally joined Kamehameha without bloodshed in 1810. The island has a different vibe than the others.

We'll start our tour at the end of the road, and work our way around the island in a clockwise direction. We visited some of these places during our recent field course, but others we visited in previous years. The pictures in today's post, Ke'e Beach, date from a visit in 2006.
Ke'e Beach is at the end of state route 560 on the north end of the island. It is clear in the first picture why the road could continue no farther. The vertical Na Pali cliffs present impossible engineering problems, and really, why spoil every beautiful coastline with a road? A trail winds in and among the cliffs, and is apparently a world-class journey on foot. There is a protected cove and coral reef that allows beach recreation which is very popular (we intended to stop there in June, but parking was impossible the day we visited).

The day I was there a decade ago, I knew far less about the island than I do now, so I wandered off the beach looking for the Na Pali Trail, and got slightly lost in the jungle. I stumbled onto a grassy flat rimmed with carefully placed stones. I did not find out until later that I had found the remains of the heiaus of Kaulu Paoa and Kaulu-o-Laka. They are the ruins of a hula school that was in use for upwards of 1,000 years.
Hula, of course, is not a dance just to be enjoyed at tourist luaus. Hula and the chants that go with the ancient form of the dance are the cultural expression of the Hawaiian people, and are deeply religious rituals as well. I was on sacred ground, and at the time didn't realize it. I could see the spot was ancient, and did nothing that I would have been ashamed of later (moving or picking up rocks, for instance). Still, I've realized there is an important imperative for learning all you can about a culture that is new to you prior to your arrival. Tourists can truly be a disrespectful group of people, and I didn't like (in retrospect) being one of the ignorant ones.
There is a rich history in the Hawaiian Islands. To visit this enchanting place and to only shop and sit on the beach is a lost opportunity. To truly appreciate the islands is to learn what remains of the natural history of the islands, and the stories of its people.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Second Week of Class, Wherein I Get Distracted by a Picture of the Earth

Earthrise from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

I can't help it. I get to the end of another lecture, one I've done dozens of times over the years, and it dawns on me what an extraordinary time we live in. We were talking today about the origin of our planet, and the evidence that has accumulated regarding the formation of planets in general. I presented a PowerPoint that ended with the picture above. I dismissed the class, but left the picture on the screen as I gathered up my things. This picture amazes me, in much the same way as the earth rise picture from the Apollo Mission in 1968. From the perspective of teaching for more than thirty years, I stand in awe at the wonders revealed by our exploration of the cosmos.

When I started teaching, the origin of Earth and Solar System was reasonably well-understood, but direct visual evidence was somewhat lacking. Quantitative measurements and laboratory simulations shed a great deal of light on the process of planetary formation, but visual evidence provides an emotional charge to understanding. Emotion is not a prerequisite to learning, but it can inspire the desire to learn.

When I started teaching all those years ago, I had slides, images that were shone by a piece of technology called a "slide projector". They mostly described the origin of the Solar System with a series of paintings, depicting what we thought the process would have looked like. I didn't scan them all, but one of them looked like this:
Credit: William K. Hartmann, Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona

As the years passed, our ability to look farther into the Universe improved, and striking images appeared in the media. One by one, the paintings disappeared from my presentations, to be replaced by actual scenes of planetary formation taking place outside our own Solar System. The first was a fuzzy image of dust clouds around Beta Pictoris, a star about 65 light years away from Earth. It was the first time such clouds were imaged.

Then, in the early 1990s the Hubble Space Telescope transformed our view of the Universe. Spectacular images arrived, including those of the Orion Nebula, showing numerous planetary disks in the stellar nursery. More paintings disappeared from my class presentations.
Hubble image of planetary disks (proplyds)

Most recently, in 2014, it was the stunning image of a newly forming star with gaps in the dust cloud, showing where new planets were clearing space in the planetary disk. We aren't quite to the point of seeing the individual planets or their features, so the last painting in my presentation will probably remain, but who knows? The new James Webb space telescope is set to launch in 2018. It will represent 30 years of technological improvements over the Hubble Telescope, and it will be bigger. Who knows what wonders we will see next?
ALMA image of the young star HL Tau and its protoplanetary disk.  Credit: ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ); C. Brogan, B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

But we always come back in my lectures to the home planet, our Earth. It's our home and will be for the conceivable future. Images of the pale blue dot in space illustrate both our isolation, but also our hope. Knowing it's all we have, one can hope that our students and our society will chose to care for, rather than exploit our fragile planet. The most distant picture of our planet was photographed by the Voyager Spacecraft in 1990 after it left the Solar System for an unknown future in interstellar space. The Earth was a single pixel at that distance.
If you've never heard or read Carl Sagan's comments about the Pale Blue Dot, here they are. I certainly could never have said it better:
We succeeded in taking that picture, and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
[...] To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Star Trek at Fifty Years, and the First Week of a New Semester

Source: Copyright Paramount Pictures
I spent part of my evening watching some Smithsonian Channel shows regarding the 50th anniversary of the initial voyage of the Starship Enterprise on Star Trek (TOS; that's "The Original Series" for those of you who aren't Trekkies). The show was a part of my youth; I am one of those lucky people who saw at least some of the episodes during their original airings on network television. It was in black and white (in my home, anyway), but I found it fascinating. This minor television hit from the 1960s had such an optimistic view of the future of humankind, as well as being filled with really neat devices and technology.

I talk about Star Trek during the first week of every class I teach. I ask my students about their attitude towards "science", and two words invariable come up: boring and hard. As we continue a discussion about how science works we talk about how science is a body of knowledge, a codified organization of facts and principles that we agree are "real" despite the cultural background of anyone studying science. In other words, we can believe whatever we wish. We can even decide, for instance, to deny the existence of gravity. But no matter how hard one believes that gravity isn't real, one will still drop like a rock if one steps off a cliff. So we start to collectively begin to understand how science works. But still, there are challenges in learning and mastering science. It can indeed be hard (and maybe boring, but I can't imagine how...). On the other hand, what a privilege to be living in the times that we do, with the knowledge that we have access to!
This was the Solar System of my youth

That's where Star Trek comes in. Episode after episode imagined "strange new worlds", and most of them included bizarre planets far removed from our own. To me, back in those primitive years before the Hubble Space Telescope and the Voyager satellites, the science of astronomy was an exercise in frustration. I would head to the library week after week, checking out every astronomy book in the stacks, hungering to understand our own Solar System. And we knew so little! Venus was shrouded in clouds. Mars had visible features, but they were unidentifiable from earthbound telescopes. Jupiter and Saturn had spectacular clouds, but their moons were simple points of light. Nothing could be discerned on their surfaces. Neptune and Uranus were small disks, and diminutive Pluto was a dot of light. I wanted to know more!
Mars, up close. The various orbiters we've sent have mapped the surface of Mars with more detail than much of the Earth, since oceans obscure much of our own planet.

The advances came so slowly (at least to this young growing child). The first satellite missions to Mars in the 1960s revealed surface features (and a lack of alien civilizations). And in the late 1970s, the two Voyager spacecraft began the grand tour of the outer gaseous planets. It was an excruciating wait as the small satellites passed first Jupiter, then Saturn, followed by Uranus and Neptune (years passed between each visit). Then, knowing the satellites had arrived, there was the excruciating wait for the pictures to be downloaded and processed. It was worth the wait. The pictures and data were astounding, revealing worlds never imagined by humans, even on Star Trek! Volcanic moons, ice moons, cratered moons, moons with atmospheres, rivers, lakes and seas. It was a menagerie of strange new worlds, and they were in our own back yard.

Jupiter from the Galileo mission
The Voyager missions were one of humankind's greatest adventures, and they continue as the satellites actually leave the Solar System and enter interstellar space. They continue to send data, even after 39 years. And other incredible missions followed, the Galileo to Jupiter, Cassini to Saturn, the New Horizons to Pluto. And most recently, the arrival of Juno at Jupiter. We are only now seeing the first pictures.The quality of the photographs and scientific data are astounding.
From the Juno mission THIS WEEK! Our first ever view of the north pole of Jupiter.

And what about all that cool Star Trek technology? Who could have believed that some of the craziest bits of technology from the original show would be commonplace less than fifty years later. Communicators and tricorders became the flip-phones and smart phones and tablets of today. Essentially the entire library of human knowledge can be carried in anyone's pocket (and what do we do with it? Send each other pictures of kitties...priorities!).

And this is what keeps me going every day as I approach my thirty-fifth year in the front of a classroom. The adventure in space continues, as it does in all areas of science, including my own in geology. Just in the last year we saw Pluto up close for the first time, as well as the largest of the asteroids, Ceres. More planets and planetoids remain to be discovered. The launch of the Webb Space Telescope in a few years promises to extend our vision to the edge of the known Universe. It is an incredible time to be alive! I feel privileged to have seen a vision of adventure in outer space through the many permutations of Star Trek, as well as seeing a vision of humankind at its potential best. But I'm glad I'm still around to see the real human adventure of science exploration continuing.. And that's what I hope my students will come to understand as well.
From Paramount Pictures
Thanks Gene Roddenberry, and all the cast members, living and gone, who've been part of the Star Trek universe. Happy 50th anniversary!

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Watching Foxes Along the Tuolumne River

Yes, Geotripper has been missing in action for a week or so. It's the end of summer and the start of a new semester in the academic trenches, so blogging took a back seat to other things. I should soon be back to writing and finishing the Hawai'i series, and the fall field trips will kick in pretty soon. In the meantime, I've been keeping up with the evening walks along the Tuolumne River Parkway Trail, and tonight was a bit special. For weeks, I've been seeing the evidence of the Red Foxes (Vulpes vulpes) along the trail, and glimpsed them a few times (I posted a few shots last month). It's generally been in the deep shadows of the evening, so it's been difficult to get nicely focused pictures. I'm always watching for them, and actually saw one far ahead on the trail tonight, but it saw me first and disappeared into the willows.

Walking back down the trail, I saw another fox before it saw me. I froze and finally had the presence of mind to try and catch some video instead of still photos, so enjoy watching a fox doing fox things in the twilight. It finally wandered on down to the river, and I headed back up the trail and home for dinner.

These last few days have provided some relief from the smoke palls that have hung over the valley. Some of the horrific wildfires are still burning, but there has been a subtle change in the wind direction, so we've had some beautiful clear evenings. The Tuolumne River is a special place in the twilight.