Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Day of Celestial Equality: the Vernal Equinox

The Earth has survived another winter and today we entered into the season of spring. I had a fortuitous moment, driving home on an east-west road (Claribel in Stanislaus County) at the moment the sun met with the horizon. In that moment, everyone on the planet who was looking saw the sun set in a due west direction. The day was just over 12 hours long, roughly equal to the hours of night.

We are currently about 93 million miles away from the sun at this point, but our orbit is currently carrying us a little bit farther away. By July 4, we'll be about 94.5 million miles away, the aphelion. We are the closest to the sun, about 91.4 million miles, on January 3. That day is the perihelion. If that relationship seems counterintuitive, it's because the seasons having nothing to do with our distance from the sun. It is the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth's axis in relation to the sun.
Source: NOAA
The pole of rotation always points to the same place in the cosmos, near the North Star, but at different times of the year, the journey about the sun finds the northern hemisphere tilting towards the sun (summer), or away from the sun (winter). In spring and fall, the northern and southern hemispheres are equally lit by the sun. The seasons are opposite in the southern hemisphere.

The day was distinguished by a second celestial event, a full "supermoon", the first time the two happened in the same day in nearly two decades. It won't happen again until 2030. There's nothing mysterious about a supermoon, it's just a time when the moon's elliptical orbit brings it closer to the Earth so that it appears 14% larger and 30% brighter. It's called the Worm Moon because this is the time of year when worms begin emerging from the ground as the days grow longer. We had a stormy day so our view of the moon was wreathed in clouds tonight.

I hope you will enjoy our coming journey away from the sun!

Monday, March 18, 2019

Harbingers of Spring at the Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern

It used to be a "junk" landscape...the kind of place where locals dumped their garbage and shot up old cars. Off-road vehicles ran roughshod over the relatively barren slopes. It wasn't private property. It was owned by the federal government, specifically the Bureau of Land Management, whose original goal was to give the land away, but in the end no one wanted it. The land, with poor soils nearly useless for agriculture, languished.
But times and attitudes change. There was a reason for the poor nutrient levels in the soils, and why grass, that would have at least allowed for grazing, failed to thrive. The underlying bedrock was composed of ultramafic rocks like serpentine, dunite and peridotite. The rocks are rich in iron and magnesium, with significant amounts of toxic elements like nickel or chrome. Only the hardiest of plants can tolerate these chemical conditions, although there are a few that can thrive in this harsh environment. When the ultramafic rocks are weathered, the iron is released to react with oxygen in the atmosphere to form natural rust minerals like hematite and limonite. The brightly colored soils earned the locality its name, the Red Hills. They form the ridges west of Chinese Camp in the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode between Highways 108 and 132.
By the 1990s public efforts to protect and preserve the unique biology and geology of the region succeeded when the BLM declared 7,100 acres of the region (about 11 square miles) an Area of Critical Environmental Concern. Trash and garbage were removed, trails were laid out, and a parking area constructed. Regulations limited off-road use and target shooting. The region finally received the recognition it needed.
The "park" includes seven very rare species of plants, including two endemics, species found nowhere else in the world (the Red Hills Vervain, and the Red Hills Ragwort). The unique nature of the flora is immediately apparent when approaching the area from the west. The environment of scattered oaks and widespread grasslands gives way abruptly to Buckbrush and Gray Pines. Grass is practically non-existent, unable to thrive on the poor soils. The region has a decidedly barren look.
But then the rains arrive. In the late winter and early spring, the wildflowers burst forth in a display of bright colors. Wildflowers in other parts of the Mother Lode are often hidden by the high-growing grasses. With grass a much diminished species, the wildflowers blaze forth.
We went up into the Red Hills today to see how things have progressed now that we've had a wet year. It's a bit early, but a fair number of flowers were visible on the slopes, including Monkey Flower, Golden Poppy, Brodiaea, and Five-spot. The lichens provided even more color.
The intermittent creek running along the main road through the park sported a healthy flow of water allowing us a chance to see the other unique species in the ACEC: the Red Hills Roach (Lavinia symmetricus), which is a fish, not a bug.
The Red Hills Roach is a subspecies of the California Roach, a member of the minnow family. It's only found in a few drainages within the ACEC and nowhere else in the world. The streams run dry for much of the year, but small seeps and springs maintain permanent pools where a few fish can survive. There were serious concerns about whether the fish would be able to survive the horrific drought of the last decade, but they managed as they have through time.
I got a poor picture of one of the roaches, but a teaching colleague of mine, Ryan Hollister, has posted some underwater shots of the fish on the move.

The Red Hills are wet from months of above-average rainfall, and the plants are growing fast, and will be blooming in profusion in the next few weeks. If you can spare a moment, head into the hills and give the ACEC a chance to impress. It is a truly unique environment found nowhere else in the world.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Join the Geotrippers! British Columbia, the Channeled Scablands, the Olympic Peninsula and the North Cascades, June 26-July 10, 2019

(This was posted in January, but is re-posted in preparation for a second organizational meeting on March 19)

What are you going to do this summer? Are there places in the world that you've thought of visiting but never made a plan? Maybe we can be of assistance in fulfilling your dreams! The geology and anthropology departments at Modesto Junior College will be conducting a field course dyad that will explore Washington and British Columbia on June 26-July 10, 2019. Anyone with an interest in geology or anthropology is encouraged to join us (if you want to skip the reading and get to the details, scroll down to the bottom of this post).

Our journey will begin in the Seattle area where we'll get our rental vans (yes, you'll need to find your way to Seattle). We'll then head out to the Olympic Peninsula where we'll explore Olympic National Park (including the iconic view from Hurricane Ridge, above). There will be an opportunity to explore some of the rainforest. Cape Flattery and the Makah Nation will be the anthropology focus on one day.

We'll then take the ferry across the Strait of Georgia to the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island. "Island" barely describes a landmass three hundred miles long. It has been inhabited by humans for thousands of years, and we'll be looking for petroglyphs and other archaeological evidence as we explore the south shore and then work our way north through Duncan to Nanaimo.

From Nanaimo, we'll take a ferry back to the North America mainland at Howe Sound. We will spend several days in the Vancouver area, exploring both the coastal mountains and Fraser River delta, and also the extensive museums in the city.

We'll travel the Sea to the Sky Highway, a spectacular route that leads from Vancouver to Whistler and Pemberton, site of the 2010 Winter Olympics. We'll have a chance to observe active glaciers and potentially active volcanoes, including Mt. Garibaldi and the Black Tusk.
You'll have a chance to figure out how this landscape happened...(below).
 We'll return to the United States by way of the Okanogan Valley and we'll then explore one of the strangest landscapes on Earth, the Grand Coulees and Channeled Scablands. The discovery of evidence for the incredible Spokane Floods of the ice ages is one of the great stories of geology.
We'll wrap up the trip by passing over the Cascade Range at North Cascades National Park with a stop along the potentially active Mt. Baker volcano.

This trip is just the latest of MJC’s unique collaboration of field studies in geology and anthropology, taught by anthropology professor Susan Kerr and geology professor Garry Hayes.

When and How? The group will come together in Renton, Washington (near SeaTac Airport and Seattle) on June 26 and will return to SeaTac mid-day on July 10. We will travel in rental vans, and stay in hotels.

Costs: The trip will cost $1,600, which includes transportation, admission fees, accommodations, and teaching materials. Students will be responsible for getting to and from Seattle, and for meals (many of the hotels offer free breakfasts, and some rooms will have microwaves). There will be the tuition costs for six units of semester credit, and the fees for getting or renewing a passport.

Accommodations: We are staying in a variety of motels and hotels. We are assuming double occupancy for married couples, and double to triple occupancy for singles. We will try to accommodate requests for single rooms for a surcharge, but cannot guarantee it. (The earlier your request, the better the chance for getting extra rooms).

Academics: The field courses are worth three semester units each (total of six). Participants will be expected to keep field notes and to complete worksheets and quizzes during the trip.

There will be an informational meeting on Tuesday, March 19 at 5:00 PM in CAT Building 201 on the East Campus of MJC. Contact the professors if you cannot attend (hayesg - at - or kerrs - at If you attended the first organization meeting in January, you don't need to attend the coming meeting.

For up-to-date announcements, check out the trip Facebook page at and the MJC Geology information page at

Saturday, March 9, 2019

A Sense of "Wonder" and the Dreams of Avarice: The Keane Wonder Mine in Death Valley

This is a lonely place. Lonely and harsh. The names we give such places reflect our fundamental fear of such landscapes: Death Valley, Funeral Mountains, Furnace Creek, Badwater. The fact that we made this place a national park and brought in creature comforts and paved roads and golf courses only barely hides the fact that this is a land in which few people can survive without the veneer of technology. To have a breakdown with inadequate supplies and no working phone service is a situation that can quickly spiral into tragedy.

Air conditioning, paved roads, and full-service restaurants allow individuals to put aside fears for survival and replace them with a sort of higher level of perception, that of beauty and wonder. On those days when the wind is not blowing, this is a strikingly quiet land. Quiet enough sometimes that you can hear your own heart beating. And it is beautiful in its own stark way. Without the veneer of photosynthesizing greenery, the color of the rocks and sky blaze forth.
But what about a hundred years ago? In a time when there were no cars, paved roads, and very few amenities of any kind? What drove people to seek out this vast desert. The concept of a "national park" and of any kind of joy being found in nature was an utterly new idea, and it was understood by very few. But there was of course the great motive that unfortunately drives humans more than just about any other: the dreams of avarice. People knew that this unexplored land might contain untold riches in gold or silver or copper. So they came looking.
Gold was discovered here in the Funeral Mountains in the early 1900s. Jack Keene and Domingo Etcharren found a ledge of gold-bearing ore, and sold the rights to a number of investors, and mining commenced in 1906. The ores were more than 1,000 feet up the slope of the mountain, so the miners constructed a mile-long aerial tramway to bring the ores to the mill at the base of the mountain. The tramway became somewhat of an attraction of its own as miners and visitors would get a hair-raising ride up to the mine instead of walking the steep road. The rich ores declined with depth, and the mine closed in 1913, but in the end it was one of the few profitable mines within the confines of present-day Death Valley National Park. The owners made around a million dollars in 1910 dollars (taking inflation into account, this translates to $20 million or so).

We were able to visit the Keane Wonder Mine this year for the first time in more than a decade. The National Park Service closed the site down for a long time because of safety concerns. It reopened last year after many of the tunnels were gated or blocked. The host ore was a metamorphosed Proterozoic sedimentary rock that was once part of the Pahrump Group. The rocks include some beautiful schist samples, including some with chiastolite crystals. This was kind of a neat teaching moment because we would see the same rocks in an unmetamorphosed state the following day at the south end of the Black Mountains.
There are moments though, when you realize what beauty can be found in wildness. I in fact have a great many of those moments in my life. My moment that afternoon came when we were headed down the hill to leave, but I stopped and turned back for a moment...and saw the Moon rising over the Funeral Mountains.

There was great beauty in the sweeping vistas and in the rocks themselves, but I realize that this is not really a place for humans. In a few months the temperatures here will soar into the 120s and there is no water. It's a small version of hell on Earth. It's a place to visit and enjoy for the moment, but ultimately we humans will end up seeking the green hills and valleys of our homes.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Other Snowstorm in California Right Now, and a Water Problem of a Different Kind

The Sierra Nevada and Cascades are buried under record amounts of snow right now, but that's not the only "snow" falling in the state just now. More than a million acres of the state are covered in a blizzard of flower petals from blooming almond trees. The vast blanket of snow is a measure of the health of the water supply in California, but in a way, so is the blizzard of almond blossoms.

Almonds have become one of the leading cash crops in the state of California, which produces around 80% of the world supply. When world prices for almonds jumped a few years ago, agribusiness responded by putting in hundreds of thousands of acres of almond orchards, sometimes replacing other kinds of crops, and sometimes breaking new ground in less productive soils around the margins of the Great Valley. 25 years ago 400,000 acres were planted in almonds. Today it's 1.3 million acres, about 2,000 square miles. The problem is that almonds require a lot of water, around three to four feet per year. The new orchards in my county, several tens of thousands of acres, are getting their water from underground aquifers. The water they are tapping into will not be easy to replace.
I'm not sure we've adequately considered the conflicts of water use and almond expansion. People were paying a lot of attention during California's crippling drought of a few years ago, but those voices have quieted after a few wet years. The thing is, the trees in an orchard must have a fixed amount of water. One can't let a field lie fallow if water is in short supply like one can do with annual crops. The vast increase in almond orchards is adding to the "structural drought" in California, a situation in which even years of "normal" precipitation don't provide enough water to meet the minimum needs. Increasing temperatures related to global climate change will exacerbate the problem as we roll into the future. But as always, money talks.

Unfortunately, I don't see a good end to the haphazard and poorly planned expansion of almond orchards into the prairies of the Sierra Nevada foothills. The blooming trees that look so beautiful today may be abandoned snags before too long. The water is an intractable problem that will not be solved by the building of new dams. There aren't many good places left to put them, and there has to be enough precipitation to fill the dams and that's not assured in our changing climate.

But those trees are really beautiful right now!

POSTSCRIPT: I went up into the foothills today to do some birding and got some pictures of the almond groves covering many hillsides. It's shocking to me that the trees are planted in straight rows that have furrows leading downslope. It's an open invitation for very serious soil erosion, a lesson I thought we learned in the Dustbowl years.