Saturday, December 31, 2016

Seismic Records from the Nevada Earthquake Swarm, as Recorded at Modesto Junior College

My Twitter feed and text messages went crazy the other night, early in the morning of December 28. For the first time in a number of years, an earthquake was felt widely in the Modesto area as a series of magnitude 5+ quakes struck an isolated region between Hawthorne, Nevada, and the ghost town of Bodie in eastern California. The first two quakes, both measuring 5.7 on the magnitude scale struck within four minutes of each other. A magnitude 5.5 event followed about an hour later. More than a hundred aftershocks, ranging as high as magnitude 4, have taken place in the last few days.

The quakes caused only minor damage, mainly to older buildings in Bodie, and I have heard no reports of any injuries. But dozens of my students and colleagues felt the quake in areas ranging from Fresno , the Bay Area, and Sacramento. I was far away, in central Oregon, and it took me several days before I could get home and check our seismometer at Modesto Junior College. To my relief, there had been no power outages, and the unit was functioning just fine. It clearly caught the three magnitude 5 events, and one can see the magnitude 4.0 nearly hidden by the waves of the first event.
There is nothing fancy about the seismometer; it's really a teaching tool, and not part of any networks. It does a good job of catching major events worldwide, and most 4+ events in the California/Nevada region. There is a display monitor outside my lab (the unit is inside the storage area on the third floor of the Science Community Center), and visitors can get a reaction on the monitor by jumping up and down outside the window. The computer application allows me to isolate any recorded events and analyze them. The records can be stretched out to help distinguish different wave arrivals.

Above is the arrival of the first two events, still somewhat compressed to fit them on one page. It is clear that they were very close in magnitude. The third event, shown below, has been stretched out a bit to emphasize the individual waves (notice the minutes scale across the bottom to compare the two pictures).

The swarm took place in a complicated region east of the Sierra Nevada where numerous fault lines accommodate the motion of the Sierra Nevada block to the northwest. Strike-slip faults (both left and right lateral) are part of the structural framework. The Sierra Nevada is a solid mass of rock considered by some to be a microplate between the Pacific and North American plates. The area of the swarm is part of the broken up crust that formed in the wake of the northwest movement of the Sierra block. Swarms have occurred in this area in the past, including one in 2011 (the largest event in that one was a magnitude 4.4).
The University of Nevada, Reno has lots of information on the swarm at

Friday, December 30, 2016

Bear's Ears Becomes a Reality! Now the Real Fight Must Begin

An incredible thing just happened, something I've always hoped for, but thought was well nigh impossible. The Bears Ears National Monument has become a reality! President Obama declared the monument under the authority of the Antiquities Act, which allows the president of the United States to protect endangered areas of cultural and natural importance.
The new monument protects 1.35 million acres of the Colorado Plateau in southeastern Utah between the San Juan River and Canyonlands National Park. It includes one of the most significant archaeological regions in the United States, preserving a record of human occupation going back thousands of years. Mesa Verde National Park and Chaco Canyon National Historical Park and others preserve spectacular cliff dwellings and cities, but they are relatively small parks that cannot provide a full record of the human history of the region. Cedar Mesa and other parts of the Bears Ears country have long been recognized as a critical repository of knowledge regarding the comprehensive history of the Ancestral Pueblo people. Their descendants still live in the region to this day, and it is they who have perhaps pushed hardest for the monument designation. The reasons are obvious: the archaeological record and the cultural history of the people is in clear danger of disappearing forever. Their heritage is being plundered.
For years, local people have been destroying archaeological sites hunting for pots and other artifacts to sell on the black market. It's literally part of the local economy. It's incredibly illegal, but the rangers of the Bureau of Land Management are too few to patrol the vast region, and they and their families have been threatened with increasing frequency. It was a situation that needed to be changed, and the designation of the monument offers some hope that these sites could be better protected from desecration.

It may be hard for some people to understand how profoundly disturbing the attack on a people's heritage can be. Years ago, when I was on a raft trip on the San Juan River, the oarsman, a local resident, described how he had a mummified child hidden in his garage, not to mention a number of pots and arrowheads. A mummified child! Perhaps one can imagine finding graveyards across the United States plundered on a regular basis, by people seeking jewelry or gold teeth. Imagine finding that a the body of a deceased son or daughter was on display in someone's personal "museum". Those are the kinds of stakes involved here.
It's a strange thing. The vast majority of the people of Utah (and the rest of the country) have indicated support for the Bears Ears. The vast majority of the Native Americans in the region support the protection of the region. They've worked for years to plan the boundaries and administration of the park. Those opposed? The Republican Congressional delegation. The governor of Utah, and the state legislature. Why? They want the land given to the state of Utah to be sold off, for mining, for logging, or simply to be sold off for state funding purposes. They've called it a "land grab", but these are lands that belonged first to the Native Americans of the region, and later, to the American people through the federal government under the Bureau of Land Management. It does not belong to the state of Utah, and they have no true claim to it. This land needs to be managed for the good of all the people of the country, not the privileged few. The monument designation is the best approach, but it would be a greater idea for congress to declare the region a national park.
The news of the establishment of the new monument is thrilling to a great many people, but Barack Obama is president only for a few more weeks, and the power of the presidency is going to pass on to a man who is neither knowledgeable or appreciative of the value of this land to the many stakeholders in the monument. Trump only understands money and profit, and there is little doubt that his administration will try to remove the protections afforded by the monument designation. Therefore, we have a fight ahead of us. I hope that you will follow news about the monument and help protect it. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance is a good place to start. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition is another good resource.
I haven't said much about my personal motivation for supporting this new monument. For years, I have been taking students into this region to learn geology and anthropology. I've spent many happy hours exploring the canyons and mesas, and regard the region to be the center of my spiritual universe. One could spend a lifetime here.
The Valley of the Gods (above) is a small version of Monument Valley (only a few miles north of the actual Monument Valley). The road that winds through the region is a marvelous excursion, but it is just one of many explorations possible in the region. There are also vast areas of wilderness, including the famed Grand Gulch, site of some of the most spectacular rock art in the entire southwest (not to mention the hundreds of cliff dwellings).
Cedar Mesa makes up much of the southern half of the monument. Views from the edge provide an incredible panorama of some of the greatest scenery in the United States. For years we have camped at the southern edge of the mesa, with views of Monument Valley, Navajo Mountain, the Goosenecks of the San Juan River, and the Rocky Mountains. These features are case studies for the understanding of erosional processes in arid regions. The rocks themselves preserve fossils and structures dating from the late Paleozoic era to the Mesozoic era, a time of advancing and receding seas. The fossil record includes all kinds of marine animals, and terrestrial creatures, including the dinosaurs and their ancestors.
President Obama will leave behind an legacy as one of the greatest environmentalists in our country's history. He has established nearly 30 monuments covering millions of acres, a heritage that protects long neglected landscapes that represent the best of our country. I'm hopeful that the politicians of Utah will finally come to realize the treasure that they possess (there is, after all, plenty of money that can be made from the proper promotion of parks and monuments). One can only dig up the coal or uranium once before the resource is lost forever, and the land is wasted more or less for all time. This new national monument is a gift that will last through coming time, while simultaneously preserving the heritage of a people from times past. And under all of it lies the abyss of geologic time, as preserved in the rocks themselves. It is a precious land.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Just a Beautiful Sunset, and Maybe a BIt of a Green Flash...

The gloom and the rain cleared out for our last night in Oregon, and we were treated to a gorgeous sunset. We had a clear horizon to the west, so as usual I tried to catch (maybe) a bit of the green flash.
The green flash is a somewhat rarely seen spectral phenomenon that occurs the moment the sun disappears below the horizon. Light from the sun is being refracted through the atmosphere, and at sunset the last of the spectral colors to appear is green (and sometimes blue). The effect only lasts for a second or two, so I'm never quite sure what I've seen. I just trust the camera to catch the effect, to varying success
My previous try was more convincing, but I see a bit of green in the picture below. You're welcome to tell me what you think!

Two Magnitude 5.7 Earthquakes Strike Western Nevada, Felt over a Wide Region

Things are shaking back home, and of course I'm hundreds of miles away. Two moderate earthquakes, both magnitude 5.7, struck in the Basin and Range province east of the Sierra Nevada, north of the ghost town of Bodie, CA, and southwest of Hawthorne NV. I'll not be surprised if the magnitudes are updated upwards, as the quakes were widely felt in the Central Valley of California, well over a hundred miles away. I hope that there won't be much damage, although Hawthorne is close enough that minor structural effects are possible. A lot of people have been shaken awake tonight.
The quakes occurred in a region called the Walker Lane, a region that mimics the San Andreas fault, in that many earthquakes display right lateral motion in an northwest direction (left lateral motion on NE-trending faults is also a possibility). The focus (depth of origin) was about 19-20 kilometers. As I write this, there has been a magnitude 3.6 and 3.5 aftershocks.

I will post the record of the quake as recorded from MJC if the seismometer stayed on during the Christmas break (power outages and that sort of thing can screw things up). I'll update the numbers here in the morning, if they change. Technical details are available at,  and at

First update:Quite a few aftershocks as of 1:30 AM, magnitudes 5.6, 4.0,3.9, 3.8, 3.6, and 3.0.
Second update: As of 10 AM, around 150 aftershocks, including a 4.1 and five mag. 3 events.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Lenticular Clouds on Mt. Rainier Today

Travel days aren't the best for carefully planned photography. The framing and staging that go into wonderful shots go out the window, because the pictures are being taken literally out the window of a moving car. We needed to cover nearly 400 miles from Seattle to the central Oregon coast today, with the minimum possible number of stops.

Somehow, Mrs. Geotripper was able to snap a wonderful shot of lenticular clouds forming on and around Mt. Rainier as we raced down Highway 167 somewhere around Kent. She was able to avoid having my nose in the picture! There was a storm system moving in, and humid air was being forced up and over the 14,409 foot high volcano. The rising air condensed into the unusual looking lens-shaped clouds. Rainier is well known for the effect, but we aren't up that way very often, so it was quite the thing for us to see.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from the Gang at Geotripper

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all from the gang at Geotripper (that would be me and Mrs. Geotripper, and two cats)! As is our tradition, we offer up once again a very big Christmas tree, the General Grant Tree in Kings Canyon National Park. The tree is so large (268 feet high, 40 feet across at the base) that it took three pictures for me to capture it.

The tree was declared by Calvin Coolidge in 1926 to be the nation's Christmas Tree. At an early ceremony, park superintendent Colonel John White said ""We are gathered here around a tree that is worthy of representing the spirit of America on Christmas Day. That spirit is best expressed in the plain things of life, the love of the family circle, the simple life of the out-of-doors. The tree is a pillar that is a testimony that things of the spirit transcend those of the flesh."
I don't have a shot of the General Grant all dressed in snow, so here is another Sequoia after a surprise storm during an April trip some years ago.
Upper Yosemite Falls with a rainbow
The Sierra Nevada, as exemplified by Kings Canyon and Yosemite Valley, is the kind of place we think of when we dream of a white Christmas. We try to get up there whenever we can at this time of year.
The Cathedral Rocks
Christmas season is a time of gifts, and year by year I think more of the gifts that come from somewhere besides a store. One of the most precious gifts in my life is that I am able to live near places like these, and that I have the health and ability to visit them often. In places like Kings Canyon and Yosemite, we have a precious gift of nature. There are places near you that are gifts as well. It might be another national park, or it could be a state park. It could simply be a river, or a spot of forest surrounded by a city. My wish for you is that you can discover and explore a new place in the coming year. And if it is threatened, I wish that you will have the resources to help protect it. I have a feeling that we will need to fight for many of our precious wild places in the coming years.
El Capitan
I want to thank all of my readers, new and old, for your attention and kind comments over the last eight years that I've been blogging (that's 1,842 posts now, not that anyone is counting). I've always enjoyed hearing from you, and appreciate getting to know new friends from all over the world. I wish a wondrous season to you all!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Oh, To Be Working Here Again! It Could Be You: Santa Barbara City College

This might seem a bit of a long narrative describing a job opening in the earth sciences, but this one has a special resonance with me. To the extent that I have had any success as a teacher of geology, I owe much to the Earth and Planetary Sciences department at Santa Barbara City College in southern California. My first job out of graduate school back in 1984 was that of a laboratory teaching assistant at SBCC. Despite the term "assistant", it was a full-time teaching gig, with the responsibility for six or seven labs every semester as well as working with their numerous field studies courses. As time went on, I was given a number of courses to teach. The experience has served me well for the past 28 years.

There was a culture of excellence at SBCC that continues to this day. Students emerge from the program with skills equivalent to 3rd and even 4th year baccalaureate scholars, including excellent field mapping and research skills. As far as I'm concerned, it's one of the flagship programs among community colleges in the American west.

With that background in mind, check out this job opening in the department. It's an incredible place to teach. We had a beach processes lab at the base of the hill, a fault scarp running through part of the campus, and some marvelous field exposures in the hills above campus. The facilities on campus are excellent. They run multi-day field studies courses in Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra Nevada, and summer courses across the western United States. They also have an extended field methods class that is conducted in the Mt. Pinos area and the Cuyama Badlands.
Although I haven't worked there in years, I know the department has continued their tradition of excellence. Information at The application deadline is February 6, 2017.

What is Lagtime, and Why Should You Care? Checking out Dry Creek

Dry Creek at 9AM this morning, just a few cubic feet per second
I wonder how many Dry Creeks there are in the country? I know of two of them within a thirty mile radius of my home, including this one just two miles to the north. The name itself imposes a sort of insignificance to the waterway. The Dry Creek of my town could not be mistaken for an important river. Instead of having headwaters in the high country of glaciers and granite like the nearby Tuolumne and Merced Rivers, it begins in the Sierra Nevada foothills in dry gullies west of Highway 49. It has no natural source of flow other than rainfall. It does run for much of the year due to of irrigation overflow from agricultural fields upstream. But it could never be mistaken for a major waterway.

Except during intense storms...

Dry Creek is one of the few waterways in the Sierra Nevada with no reservoirs or flood control measures. When big storms roll through, the water can rise quickly and overflow its banks. We had such a storm last night. Rain throughout California from Eureka to San Diego. I saw that some coastal areas received 7" or more. Less rain fell in the arid Central Valley, with about 0.70" in Modesto and 1.21" in the rain gauge in my backyard. But several inches fell upstream in the Dry Creek drainage, and I expected to see some high water today. I headed out this morning for a look and...nothing. I was briefly surprised, but then I remembered that I teach about this stuff. It's a perfect example of flood lagtime. Should you care? Yes, if you live anywhere near a river.
Dry Creek at 2,000 cubic feet per second this afternoon.
Rain doesn't fall into rivers, at least not much of it. If falls all over the landscape. In gently sloping landscapes like the Sierra Nevada foothills, it takes time for water to gather into rills and small channels so there is a delay in the rise of the river downstream. That's what lagtime is, the difference between the height of the storm and the height of the runoff measured at some point downstream. I checked on the NOAA website for the latest predictions and could see that the river was slated to begin rapidly rising in the late afternoon, peaking about 8PM at 4,000 cubic feet per second. Sure enough, when I left Modesto about 2:00PM, the river hadn't changed, but by the time I crossed it again 10 miles to the east, the channel was full and beginning to spill over into some of the surrounding fields. It was running at about 2,000 cubic feet per second.
Dry Creek at 4,000 cubic feet per second, as expected after nightfall tonight (March, 2011)
So, how can hydrographers predict floods with such accuracy? They have been monitoring all the major streams in the country for upwards of a century, so there is a huge database to draw from. They watch the pattern of the storm as it progresses, and compare it to those of the past. They can then forecast the onset of flooding, the height of the water, and the cessation of the flood for areas downstream. The greater the lagtime, the more time people downstream have to prepare for the deluge.

Accurate scientific data is fundamental to the health of our society. There is not a single place in our country (and indeed the world) that is free of geological hazards. Hydrologists analyze the storm data and report to government officials who then take action to protect the populace from flooding. Seismologists analyze fault activity in hopes of minimizing the damage from major earthquakes. Volcanologists monitor the dangers of active volcanoes. Climate scientists track the effects of global warming.

In a healthy society, the politicians and government officials accept the findings of those who know the dangers best, and act accordingly. I hope that the new administration will come to understand this. If they were to deny the existence of earthquakes or volcanoes (however strange that might seem; Bobby Jindal once famously complained about "volcano monitoring"), disaster would happen. And likewise, if those in government deny global warming, then it would be like a politician predicting that the rivers won't rise, despite the massive storm upstream.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

On NPR's Science Friday Tomorrow: Fellow Teacher of Earth Science (and former student) Ryan Hollister!

If you are a fan of NPR's Science Friday, that's great. If you aren't yet, tomorrow is a good day to start! Fellow earth science teacher and former Modesto Junior College geology student Ryan Hollister will be on to discuss his contribution to the Science Friday Educator Collaborative, a virtual field trip to the Columns of the Giants in the Sierra Nevada just north of Yosemite National Park. It's a marvelous teaching exercise! If you are in the Modesto area, it can be heard on KUOP 91.3 from between 11:00AM and 1:00PM (Ryan's part will be a little after 12:30)

Ryan and his wife Laura, who also teaches earth science at a rival high school in Turlock, have both made a mark in the teaching of geology. Both of them have been selected as the National Association of Geoscience Teachers Outstanding Earth Science Teachers for the Far Western Section (California, Nevada and Hawaii). They have been conducting trips through Wildlink for a number of years, taking students into the Sierra Nevada wilderness. They have also worked with our students at Modesto Junior College for nearly two decades, helping conduct field studies classes all over the American west. It has been a privilege to work with them!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A California "Snow" Storm: A Winter Miracle in the Great Valley

People don't usually hear a great many good reasons to visit Modesto and environs. Forbes and others often put our Great Valley towns on the "worst places to live", but I think they really miss something when they do this sort of "expose". We grow most of the nation's food supply for one thing, so folks could be a little more appreciative of what we do. But it's really something else that few people are aware of, even those of us who live here. It's the magic of the season, the fact that we are a winter wonderland. The "snow" has nothing to do with precipitation, though, it has to do with millions of refugees from the snowbound northlands. They are Snow Geese. And Ross's Geese. And White-fronted and Aleutian Cackling geese. And thousands of Sandhill Cranes as well. In winter, the Great Valley becomes an American version of Africa's Serengeti Plain.
Snow Goose at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge

Hundreds of years ago, before the European invasion, the valley was home to tens of millions of migratory birds, but with settlement and development, 95% of their original grassland and river flood plain home disappeared. The birds could have been wiped out entirely, but a few visionary people worked to preserve a bit of the original valley habitat in an effort to save as many birds as possible. The result was a string of federal, state and non-profit run wildlife refuges that form a pathway down the 400 mile length of the valley. The birds will take refuge from October to March, when they begin making their way back north for breeding in the Arctic.
Aleutian Cackllng Goose (Branta hutchinsii) at the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge. Several decades ago, there were only 600 of them left. Today there are around 200,000 because of conservation efforts in both Alaska and at the San Joaquin refuge (their primary winter home)
A great many people right here in the Modesto area are unaware of the Christmastime miracle that takes place each year. It's not hard to see incredible things just a short drive out of town. Only eight miles west of the biggest shopping mall in the region, on Beckwith Road, the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge offers a viewing platform where one can see tens of thousands of migratory geese all at once. The best times are early in the morning and in the afternoon close to sundown. I took the video below at about 4:15 this afternoon during a short break from final exams at the college. Even with the YouTube compression, you can see tens of thousands of geese taking wing. You can hear the cacophony, but there is nothing like seeing and hearing it in person. The ground literally vibrates as the birds take to the air.

The spectacle is amazing, If you live here and you've never seen it, check it out right now! If you are from the Bay Area and are rushing to the Sierras for a ski day, take a short detour. It's worth your time. And if you are a birder, we are a winter paradise. More than 300 bird species have been documented in our area, and many of them can be seen during the winter season when the pickings are poor in other places (a lot of those disappearing birds come here!).

Friday, December 9, 2016

Magnitude 6.5 Earthquake off Northern California (as recorded at MJC)

A large earthquake has shaken the ocean floor off the coast of Northern California. It took place about 100 miles west of Cape Mendocino (below) and the town of Ferndale.  The 6.5 magnitude event took place on the oceanward extension of the San Andreas fault roughly halfway between the Gorda Ridge and the south end of the Cascadia Subduction Zone. The first motion diagram for the event is consistent with a right lateral strike-slip fault. The lateral motion of the shaking minimized the chances of producing a tsunami, and none was reported. The quake was felt over a large part of the North Coast, but I expect there was little damage. A hundred miles is a good distance to be away from an epicenter.
Cape Mendocino, the closest land feature to the 6.5 magnitude quake on Thursday.
We got a good record of the event on our instructional seismometer at Modesto Junior College. I would have posted earlier, but found that although the event was recorded, the monitor had fizzled out and had to be replaced so I could see what I was doing to preserve the seismograph of the event.
Earthquakes are not unusual in this area, and indeed there have been some destructive events over the years, including a 7.2 magnitude event in 1992 that caused some serious damage. It is a complex region, with a divergent plate boundary offshore of a subduction zone, and the transform boundary of the San Andreas fault.

All in all, the best kind of earthquake: big and noisy, but far enough away that no one gets hurt. For more details, check out the details at the USGS:

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Where are the Heroes Anymore?...RIP John Glenn

Hero: a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities
Photo from NASA
It's hard to find heroes today, although they most certainly exist. 

Some people maintain that people who can catch footballs or swings bats are heroes, but those athletes are well paid in money and accolades. It really just means they catch footballs or swing bats well and provide us some entertainment. They're not heroes, though. Some people call musicians heroes, but they get a lot of money and accolades too. These people are simply famous. They do little to make life better for others (though some of them do donate their money). And people who are famous for being rich? Forget it.

Some of the best of heroes today exist in obscurity and in darkness, working to make life better for the sick and injured in the kind of places where humanity is at its worst. I think of the doctors and nurses who work in war-torn places like Syria and Iraq, or those who struggle against diseases in the worst hell-holes where pathogens like the Ebola virus lurk. I think of the heroes that struggle to educate our children despite desperate teaching conditions and insanely deficient budgets, along with scorn from politicians and administrators. These are the kinds of people we should all aspire to be. 

What seems to be missing in this period of history are national heroes. I'm sure I'm missing something here, perhaps, but there have been times in our history when people did the really big things, the dangerous adventures where the outcome was truly in doubt. There were people who risked everything to walk to the poles, or to climb the highest mountains against impossible odds. Sometimes, like Mallory (on Everest) or Scott (at the south pole), they ultimately failed, and yet still loom large in the history of human exploration. It's true that they might have been seeking after glory, but they bet everything on an uncertain outcome.

And so we come to the events of this week. When I was a child of 4, the first American, Alan Shepard, went into space (the Russian Yuri Gigaran was the first person in space, but somehow we forget that sometimes). I barely understood the significance, but when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, I did know what was going on, and why it was important. From that time on, I was fascinated with space travel, the Moon, and astronomy in general. I had every reason to think that space travel was something that even I would be able to do in another thirty or forty years (that seemed like forever back then). I followed the Mercury missions, the Gemini missions and the Apollo missions. In 1969, I stood in a pinyon forest in the southern Sierra Nevada listening to the scout camp loudspeakers broadcasting the Moon landing. The country seemed to lose interest in space travel once we beat the Russians, but I never did. I followed the Voyager missions to the outer planets like a child even though I was in my twenties. And today, in my fifties, I've eagerly followed the missions to Mars, Mercury, the Asteroids Vesta and Ceres, and finally, Pluto. It's been a grand adventure, one that can only happen once. I'm glad I was privileged to be a witness.

This week we have to say good-bye to a true American hero and a true explorer. It's true that hundreds of people actually made the adventure possible, but John Glenn was the one who was courageous enough to strap himself into a small capsule on top of a rocket that had only successfully been fired four out of six tries. He gambled everything, and ultimately succeeded. He was a hero for other reasons too, having flown 149 combat missions in World War II and the Korean War. He also served as a senator from Ohio for 24 years.

We need all kinds of heroes, including the quiet unsung heroes who labor among us every day. But we also have a need for national and world heroes, those who expand our world and our Universe through their daring adventures at the edge of impossibility. John Glenn lived a full life, and will be remembered long after our society has forgotten the names of steroidal athletes and drunken media stars.

We Only Have Education to Guide Us: A Pledge

The glaciers of Glacier National Park, which once numbered more than a hundred, will be gone by 2030 or so.

The recent election has seen the loss of many things, which in terms of science and scientific understanding is truly tragic. The nation didn't vote for it, but representatives of ignorance and unrestrained capitalism managed to eke out an electoral college victory, and now a parade of political appointments are making a mockery of our commitment to clean air, clean water, and responsible stewardship of the land. Decisions about the future of our nation are now in the hands of people who are guided not by science, but by the profit motives of corporations. First and foremost is the abject denial by those who are about to take office in the reality of global warming and climate change.
Corals of the Great Barrier Reef are dying off at an appalling rate because of abnormally warm seas.

In so many ways I despair. But there is always hope, and I will not back off my commitment to the teaching of science and logic in my career.  Those now in power fear an educated electorate, because they used fear and ignorance to gain the power they will now yield. This must not continue.
Intense drought, a predicted aspect of global warming, has killed more than 100 million trees in California, including on the floor of iconic Yosemite Valley

I've been looking for the appropriate words to employ at this moment, and I found them in the Anti-authoritarian Academic Code of Conduct of Rachel Barney, a professor of classics and philosophy at the University of Toronto. They appear below, only slightly edited (because I'm not an administrator). These statements have always been a part of my educational and academic philosophy, but it's good to have a reminder of what we stand for. Consider this a pledge between me and my students, and with society at large.

1. I will not aid in the registering, rounding up or internment of students and colleagues on the basis of their religious beliefs.

2. I will not aid in the marginalization, exclusion or deportation of my undocumented students and colleagues.

3. I will, as my capacities allow, discourage and defend against the bullying and harassment of vulnerable students and colleagues targeted for important aspects of their identity (such as race, gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc.).
4. I will not aid government or law enforcement in activities which violate the U.S. Constitution or other U.S. law.
5. I will not aid in government surveillance. I will not inform.
6. As a teacher and researcher, I will not be bought or intimidated. I will present the state of research in my field accurately, whether or not it is what the government wants to hear. I will challenge others when they lie.
7. I will not be shy about my commitment to academic values: truth, objectivity, free inquiry and rational debate. I will challenge others when they engage in behavior contrary to these values.

8. I will stand with my colleagues at other institutions, and defend their rights and freedoms.
9. I will be fair and unbiased in the classroom, in grading and in all my dealings with all my students, including those who disagree with me politically.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Wandering Through a Sand Wilderness

To a child who was raised along the beaches of Southern California, the Oregon coast comes as quite a shock. Beaches to me were places like Huntington or Balboa, where wall-to-wall people struggled to claim a few precious square feet where they could lay out a towel, and get sunburnt from head to toe (yes, the cultural habits of the sixties were terrifying; I'm lucky to not have skin cancer yet). Nature involved gulls trying to steal one's food, and getting stung by the occasional jellyfish.

My perceptions of ocean coasts were changed somewhat when I moved to Central California. The beaches we explore these days, Big Sur and the Marin Headlands, are more cliffs than sand. They are beautiful beyond measure, but they are not like Oregon. Few places are like Oregon.
My explorations of the Oregon Coast these days are centered around Florence at the north end of Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area. It is a truly alien place to a Californian! The strangest part is the sand wilderness. For a fifty-five mile stretch of coast, the shoreline is dominated by sand beaches. Constant onshore winds have blown vast amounts of sand inland, in places as much as three miles. In some localities the dunes buried mature forests. In others, forests have grown over the dunes. With the plentiful rainfall, the groundwater table is high, so many of the low places between dunes are occupied by lakes, ponds, and swamps. A fair number of them are large enough for boating and water sports. Others are more appropriate for hiking, wildlife observation, and contemplation. Our brief visit on Black Friday included a look at small Dune Lake adjacent to the national forest campground at Alder Dune (above).
Our other exploration was the short boardwalk at Holman Vista. The handicapped accessible trail provides access to Sutton Creek where it flows through a network of dunes and swamps, with a view of the distant mountain slopes as well. The dunes adjacent to the beach are anchored in place by European Beachgrass to augment the stabilization of migrating dunes (the original plantings were in the early 1900s when people didn't worry too much about the possible adverse effects). The native grasses have been pushed aside as the European non-native grass takes over. Because of the spread of grasses, 80% of the dune sheet is covered by vegetation. In 1939 it was only 20% (US Forest Service data).
The nature trail also offered what it termed "a view of the beach". That was true in the sense that an apartment might have a beach view if one leans out the window and cranes one's neck to see a bit of water in the distance between other buildings. In the picture above, note the beach view, a bit of white left of center. Look below for the zoomed view. We were in the midst of a series of powerful storms, so the surf was pounding the coast.

As I've pointed out in previous posts, the sand has several origins. The quartz rich sands were eroded from distant sources in the Klamath Mountains and Idaho Batholith and carried to the shoreline environment by one of Oregon's many rivers. Other sand is locally derived, eroded directly from the sea cliffs, or carried onshore from offshore bars. Some of the sediment that may have originated during the ice ages when sea level was lower. Wave action produced the flat platforms on which the dunes accumulated. 
Although I call this a sand wilderness, it is not officially designated as one, but it is managed as a de facto wilderness. Vehicles are not allowed off the paved roads, so access is by trail only, or by beach walking. Access to parts of the beach is restricted during the spring because endangered Snowy Plovers nest in the area.

To this Californian, it is a true shock to look at an eight mile long stretch of beach and not see a single person. It was heavenly!