Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Travels in Cascadia: Wanna See a REAL Debate? Talk to an Oregonian about Waterfalls

I was watching the candidate's debate tonight, and there were some interesting exchanges, and the whole future of American democracy hangs in the balance and all, but then I found what a real debate looks like when I googled "Multnomah Falls".

I saw the falls that grace the gorge of the Columbia River for the first time since my childhood last month. We were headed to Seattle to meet our students for our field studies course on the geology of British Columbia and we had stopped in Portland on our way north. I still had an hour or two before sunset so I headed east into the Columbia River Gorge to see the waterfalls that I hadn't seen in something like 50 years or more.
The debate? How do the falls rank against other falls in the United States in terms of height? Sources suggest they are the second highest in the nation, which is off by at least 155 waterfalls. Then there is the qualifier that they are the second highest "year-round" falls in the nation (i.e. they don't dry up for part of the year). But fans insist that Fairy Falls don't run all year. But then there is a different argument, kind of a splitter and lumper sort of thing. How tall is a water FALL? Does one count the single greatest free-fall? Or do you count all the breaks and cascades? Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite is a whole three feet shorter than Multnomah Falls. But it has a single 617 foot drop. The upper fall at Multnomah is a mere 541 feet. The debate rages on. But most of the participants agree it is the highest waterfall in Oregon, and it is a very pretty waterfall. It is the single most visited natural feature in the state, with two million visitors a year.
Two million visitors...given the small size of the park, I'm glad I was there late in the evening and didn't have to contend with thousands of people. The whole scene was quite peaceful and quiet while I was there. But there were signs of geological violence though. Huge rockfall fences lined the trail to the bridge, and scarred trunks showed how close the Eagle Creek Fire came to burning out the park in 2017. In 1995 a 400-ton boulder fell from halfway up the cliff into the pool at the base of the fall, much to the consternation of the 20-person wedding party taking portraits on the bridge. There were minor injuries from splashing water and debris.
Waterfalls are pretty much by definition dangerous places, since the prevailing attitude of Mother Nature is that steep slopes are very much hated and must be removed by one erosional process or another. Which brings up the question of why the slope is there in the first place. A great many waterfalls happen because glaciers have cut steep-sided valleys and tributary streams must fall over the brink. Such features are called hanging valleys. But the Columbia River Gorge was not carved by a glacier. The basalt flows and interlayered sediments were carved by the raging waters of the ice age Spokane Floods and the downcutting of the Columbia River.
Waterfalls ended up being a major part of the geologic story of our journey through British Columbia and northern Washington. Most of them were flowing, but one of the great stories of all of geology was told by a waterfall that wasn't. Those stories are coming up! It's kind of a race to see what's coming first: the rest of the story, or the beginning of the new school semester. We'll see who wins out.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Travels in Cascadia: Burial Mounds of the Kings of the Rohirrim? The Mima Mounds of Washington

NOTE: If this post seems familiar, it should be. I posted it just a month ago. I'm re-posting (with minor changes) to place it in the proper order of the current blog series. 

One of the vivid images in my mind of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy was the resting place of the Kings of Rohan. They were buried in mounds, and the mounds were covered by the white flowers called SimbelmynĂ«. I couldn't help think of the Kings of the Rohirrim when we arrived at the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve near Tumwater, Washington.
When European settlers reached the region, some of them thought that these unusual features were indeed Native American burial mounds. But when no further evidence could be found supporting the idea, they looked for other explanations. And didn't find many...
The things we don't know about our planet are, well, not known. But geologists are the first to say that the unknowns are legion. Many aspects of Earth are still a mystery. Lots of the mysteries lie hidden deep in the crust and mantle, or on the deepest parts of the ocean basins. But some mysteries are still right there in front of us, and mima mounds are one of them.

Mounded topography forms in a number of places across the central and western United States in a number of different geological environments. Although they share some similarities, it is possible that they originate from several different processes. Ideas range from the mundane to the exotic (and unlikely). Most of them occur when a fairly thin layer of soil covers a harder layer or substrate underneath. They tend to be just a few feet high, and occur in concentrations of 8-10 per acre.
The mima mounds of Washington formed at the edge of the massive ice sheet that covered most of Canada and parts of Washington as recently as 12,000 years, and so some hypotheses involve glacial meltwater, or subsurface glacial activity. Some suggest erosion of sediment from around concentrations of vegetation. More esoteric explanations involve disturbances from the vibration patterns of major earthquakes.

Occam's Razor states that among competing hypotheses, the ones that make the fewest assumptions are more likely to be correct (sometimes inaccurately described as the simplest answer is always the best). One of the more reasonable explanations for the mounds may be simply rodent activity. When pocket gophers dug into the shallow soils and encountered harder sediments, they tended to build up the mounds, and the process continued through thousands of generations. Maybe. And maybe it's aliens...
I managed to catch a photo of the mima mounds on approach to SeaTac a few years ago.
In any case, it's a fascinating place to visit. Several trails wind their way through the mounds, and there is an interpretive kiosk with a viewing platform. It is a beautiful prairie setting, with the tweeting of birds, the buzzing of insects...and an air of mystery.
I've been to the mounds in Washington twice, and the first time was in the dead of winter when no flowers were present. This time it was summer and it was a thrill to see the fields of flowers, bringing to mind the tombs of kings and the Simbelmynë.
If you want to visit the site, here are the directions from the park website:

From southbound or northbound Interstate 5, take Exit 95 and turn west on Highway 121 (Maytown Road SW) toward Littlerock. In Littlerock, continue west (forward past the school, past the intersection with Littlerock Road that curves south, and past the mini mart/gas station on the right) onto 128th Avenue. Travel about 0.8 mile where 128th Avenue ends at a 'T.' on top of the hill. Turn right onto Waddell Creek Road and travel about 1 mile. The entrance to Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve will be on the left. A Washington State Discover Pass is required for parking at this site.

Postscript: Dustin commented when I posted the original last month, and these ideas have some merit...

Great features! My guess is that the mounds developed when glacial outflow preferentially eroded the fissures created by patterned-ground permafrost in a periglacial environment. This photo shows mounds forming from patterned ground in Alaska. 

In the case of the Mima mounds, if patterned ground was originally present with hard and frozen polygon centers, and margins/edges that were soft and thawed, then water flowing over the patterned ground would preferentially erode the fissures, while being less destructive to the polygon cores. Sustained flows would likely erode all evidence of patterned ground, but the Mima mounds were likely formed from ephemeral flow events associated with glacial melt near the ice sheet margins. This type of environment is suggested by the kettle lakes visible in the upper right of your airphoto, and the mounds being distributed amongst relict braided river patterns.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Travels in Cascadia: Gigantic Floods and Tallapus Meet at Willamette Falls

It's not fair, but I don't spend much time in Portland, Oregon. It's not that I don't like Portland, I just don't know it because the logistics of my normal travels rarely allow me to stop there. We are always three or four hours away from our destination and worried about getting through town without getting stopped in one of Portland's legendary traffic jams. But on our way to meet our students in Seattle for our field studies trip to British Columbia we decided to stay in Portland, ostensibly to get nice pictures of Mount Hood. We were moving along Interstate 205 and the traffic wasn't too bad, and saw a wayside viewpoint and pulled off. It was there that I discovered for the first time the work of Tallapus (Coyote) to help the Clackamas people procure a secure food supply of salmon and lamprey: Hyas Tyee Tumwater, otherwise known as Willamette Falls. It's the second largest waterfall in the United States after Niagara. It's 1,500 feet wide, drops around 40 feet, and has a flow that averages about 30,000 cubic feet per second.

What? You've never heard of it? Neither had I. I would have thought that the second largest waterfall in the country would have attracted a bit more attention among travelers, but there are reasons that it is not all that familiar. Some of the reasons go right to the heart of cultural conflicts between European colonizers and the original inhabitants of the region.

The Willamette River is a major tributary to the Columbia, providing around 10-15% of its total flow. Major rivers don't tend to have waterfalls unless unique geological conditions exist. And the story of the Willamette is pretty wild. The river is one of the few north-flowing rivers in the country, following a geologic trough related to the actions of the Cascadia Subduction Zone. In other words, the valley of the Willamette River was not carved by the Willamette River. The valley is weird in some other ways...there are fine silt layers covering much of the valley floor, but scattered here and there are hundreds of gigantic boulders weighing as much as 170 tons. Boulders that came not from the adjacent Coast or Cascades Ranges, but from Montana and Idaho! How can these things be explained?
The silt would normally be easy enough to explain. Geologists would assume that such sediments represent floodplain deposits of the Willamette, but they're not. The bedrock floor of the valley beneath the silt is actually composed of layers of basalt lava that erupted all over Washington and Oregon around 16 million years ago. The origin of the silt and the giant boulders are related one of the most incredible geologic events ever to effect Washington and Oregon. Considering the presence of giant volcanoes, gigantic rivers, and major subduction zones and earthquakes, that's saying a lot.

Between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago, the Pleistocene Ice Ages were beginning to wane, but an edge of the gigantic ice sheet that covered most of Canada flowed into Idaho and Montana and blocked of a major river drainage. A massive lake, now called Lake Missoula, formed behind the ice dam. The volume of the lake grew to 500 or 600 cubic miles of water, but then the ice dam destabilized and collapsed, sending a massive flood amounting to about ten times the combined flows of all the rivers on Earth racing across the plains of eastern Washington. The raging waters careened through the Columbia River Gorge at depths of hundreds of feet and the flows backed up into the Willamette River Valley. The muddy waters settled out, forming the silt layers covering the valley floor. The boulders arrived encased in icebergs in the turbulent currents. As the ice melted the boulders dropped out. The ice dam re-formed dozens of times and floods occurred at intervals of 50 or 60 years for around 2,000 years.

As the floodwaters receded the lava flows were exposed and then eroded by the waters draining from the Willamette. The ledges of lava became Willamette Falls.
So why isn't the second largest waterfall in the United States not a major national tourist attraction, like Niagara Falls? The basic reason is that although waterfalls are scenic and all, they are also a resource, and if humans of all cultures have anything in common, it is that if a resource is available, it will be utilized. For the Clackamas Chinook people and others in the region, the resource was food. The falls were a chokepoint on the Willamette, a barrier to the movement of salmon and lampreys upstream. Both fish could get past the falls, the salmon by jumping from one particular ledge/pool to another, and the lampreys by using their sucker mouths to climb the wet rocks. But the animals would be concentrated at the falls where they could be easily captured. The falls were considered a gift from Tallapus, and a number of villages were present in the area. The Clackamas had a surplus of salmon that they were able to trade with other tribes in the region.
Source: By M.O. Stevens - Own work, CC BY 3.0,
To American and European colonizers, the falls meant something different: power. The Native Americans had been decimated by European diseases like smallpox even before first contact, so were able to offer little resistance to the sweeping changes the colonizers brought to the waterfall. A flour mill came first in 1844, followed by paper mills beginning in 1866. A system of locks to allow upstream ship traffic was constructed in 1873. Hydroelectric generating stations arrived in 1888 and 1895. The developments destroyed the salmon runs, so a rudimentary fish ladder was blown out of the basalt in 1882. A more modern fish ladder was constructed in 1971. The flour mill was removed to make room for the paper mills, which operated until 2011. The ship locks were shut down in 2015. Only one of the power stations remains. In other words, the Willamette Falls today look like a nearly abandoned factory slum, which it technically is.

Most of these abuses are not visible from the overlook at Interstate 205. One wishes that with most of the ugly factories abandoned that the river and falls might be returned to a state resembling the primeval river. There are plans to "develop" the site with river walks and interpretive signs, but of course in the current culture of capitalism, also businesses and tourist attractions. It its own way tourism is a resource like any other, a commodity to be exploited.

In the end, I hope the stories will remain. The story of how Tallapus scooped out part of the river to slow down the migration of the salmon and lampreys so the people could catch some of them. And the story of how awesome, almost incomprehensive forces were unleashed by nature to form the falls through lava flows, glaciers, and gigantic floods.
Source: Army Corps of Engineers

Friday, July 26, 2019

Travels in Cascadia: The Southern Sentinel, Mt. Shasta

Long ago in the mists of time, the god Skell, the spirit of the Above-World descended from the heavens and alit on the summit of Mt. Shasta. Eventually Skell waged a fierce battle with the god of the Below-World, Llao, who resided in Mazama, a high mountain to the north. There was much fire and ash, and the skies grew dark. In the end Skell prevailed and the body of Llao was cast back into the underworld, taking a good portion of Mazama with him. The tears of his followers filled the gaping hole, becoming what is today known as Crater Lake.

The collapse of Mt. Mazama was an actual event around 7,000 years ago and it was witnessed and remembered by the inhabitants of the region who told the story above. Large volcanoes loom large in the consciousness of people, as they possess great power and have the potential for great destruction. Mt. Shasta is no exception, and even today a multitude of people tell stories of Lemurians, Atlanteans, and aliens who all seem to have an abode in the mountain somewhere.

Geologists are story-tellers too, although they tend not to invoke gods as a reason for the mountain's activity. They instead look for the natural laws of the Universe to understand how volcanoes work (in a sense those natural laws are the gods of the sciences). It may be that hundreds of years from now, our stories will be seen as quaint myths, but like all societies and cultures, we understand things through the prisms of our technology, mutual experiences, and observations.
I've always found it fascinating the way humans interpret their world, and I've devoted my life to teaching the scientific view. But I come from a family and a society that has not been grounded in the landscape that it inhabits. It is a society of immigrants from all over the world who invaded a "new land" that had in fact been inhabited for thousands and thousands of years before being conquered. Understanding these cultures enriches our understanding of the land, and so I find myself being enthralled by the sciences of anthropology and archaeology. Ultimately I joined forces with the professors of anthropology at Modesto Junior College to put together a series of field courses that teach both the geology and the anthropology of the landscape. We've been to Italy and Switzerland, Hawaii, and all over the Southwestern United States. Most recently though, we explored British Columbia and the northern parts of Washington state. This new series I'm writing will explain my impressions of the trip that we took with 15 students, my fellow professor of anthropology, and Mrs. Geotripper. The term "Cascadia" refers to the Cascadia subduction zone, the huge gash in the Earth's crust that dominates the geology of the region.

Our students didn't actually see Mount Shasta, unless they saw it out the plane window. They all met us at SeaTac airport, but we had reasons to drive from California to Washington. Mt. Shasta is the foremost landmark in Northern California. It is at the southern end of the Cascadia subduction zone, and is considered potentially active (Lassen Peak is even further south, but we only had a brief view of it). It is a classed as a stratovolcano (or composite cone) and is composed mostly of andesite, a gray-colored intermediate silica volcanic rock. It has had eruptions roughly every 600 years over the last 10,000 years, with the most recent event probably in 1786. At 14,179 feet, it is the second highest Cascade volcano, but in volume it is the largest. There are five major glaciers around the summit, including Whitney Glacier, which at two miles is the longest glacier in California.

The volcano is actually a composite of four different cones of different ages: Sargent's Ridge, Misery Hill, Shastina, and Hotlum Cone. There was an even earlier version of Shasta dating to 600,000 years ago, but around 300,000 years ago the summit collapsed to form a gargantuan debris slide that traveled 28 miles north of the volcano, almost to Yreka. The lumpy hummocky surface visible around the Interstate 5 rest area near Weed is part of the ancient mass wasting event.

Shasta is visible from more than a hundred miles away, but as we continued north, the mountain receded from view. We got to Portland, Oregon, just in time to catch a few sights before the sun set. That story will be in the next post!

Saturday, July 20, 2019

50th Anniversary of the Landing of Humans on the Moon, and the Human Adventure

The full Moon of July 16, 2019 
Today marks the 50th year since humans walked on the moon for the first time. The landing was an important part of my own life, and whenever I am reminded, I am taken back to my childhood. In 1969, I was at a scout camp high in the southern Sierra Nevada. I'm not sure whose screw-up it was that our troop was in the middle of nowhere at the moment of one of humanity's greatest achievements, but that was the way it was. I can remember walking through the pinyon forest between the dining hall and our campsite (they were pretty far apart). I was alone at the time, and I heard the camp loudspeakers crackle on (which was unusual; we usually only heard "taps" and other bugle calls, or the emergency alarm). I heard a scratchy voice say "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind", and I realized that humanity had just accomplished something big. Something that had never been done before. It had a profound effect on that scrawny kid in the pinyon forest at Circle B Scout Ranch.

I grew up in the early sixties fascinated by astronomy. But it was also frustrating that things were so distant and so unreachable by we earthbound humans. Our own moon seemed impossibly distant, despite the objective laid forth by JFK that we would reach it before 1970.
The other planets in our own Solar System were small disks in our best telescopes, and the moons that circled them mere points of light. At the time I had a postcard from the Palomar Observatory that had pictures of Jupiter and Saturn similar to those below. I spent hours staring at them with a hand lens and later on a microscope, hoping I could make out more detailed features to no avail. The other stars? They were so distant that even in our best telescopes they looked no different, just spots of light. The more I learned about the stars and galaxies of the cosmos, the more impossible it seemed that we could ever reach them. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins changed that. They are heroes of the best kind, courageous men who risked everything to do something that had never before been done.
Of course, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins didn't build the Apollo Spacecraft, or the gigantic Saturn 5 rocket that sent them into space. They didn't navigate to the moon by themselves. There were thousands of engineers and scientists who did the calculations, designed the modules, and shepherded the spacecraft to the moon, and even more importantly, back home again. The vast majority of scientists and engineers were the product of an educational system that was the best the world had ever seen. And they were driven by a communal sense of purpose. They worked together towards a common goal, and their discoveries and innovations radically changed the world we live in.
Of course our cynicism allows us to point out that once we beat the Russians to the moon, the public pretty much lost interest in the space program. NASA started to fade from the public consciousness, but the system was in place that allowed a series of successful projects that have changed the way we view the cosmos and our place in it. We never sent astronauts to Mars, but we sent rovers. We sent the Voyagers to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. In a wonderful case of over-engineering, the spacecraft outlived their expected missions by decades. Voyager 1 is in its 42nd year of is still sending data from 16.4 billion miles away (20 light-hours) with an onboard computer that is probably less powerful than one of those Commodore 64 models that I wrote my thesis on in 1985. It recently made a course correction using thrusters that hadn't been fired since 1980. Voyager 2 is also continuing to operate.
Today we see our Solar System in stunning detail, in a way that would have been unbelievable to that child of the sixties. We know the surface of Mars in more detail than we know the surface of our own planet. We've explored the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, discovering strange worlds with vast oceans hidden beneath icy crusts, volcanoes of molten sulfur, and lakes, rivers and oceans made of liquid methane. We've peered through the clouds of Venus, and just a few years ago, we photographed and analyzed the hidden side of Mercury that we missed on the first mission three decades ago. We saw Pluto up close for the first time only a few years ago, and we've orbited the two largest asteroids, Vesta and Ceres.
The Hubble Space Telescope was the other game-changer. It has shown us the rest of the Universe with a clarity that was unimaginable four decades ago. We can see star nurseries and nascent star systems that provide us visual evidence of how our own Solar System formed. The Hubble and other high-tech units have now seen objects that formed a mere half billion years after the origin of the Universe itself 14 billion years ago. And we are only a few years away from the launch of an even more powerful telescope, the Webb Space Telescope.

This is the heritage of a country that undertook an audacious program of exploration under the leadership of JFK, and which succeeded through the exploits of courageous men like Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. What do our children dream of today? Is our education system inspiring them to strive for incredible things, or is it teaching them to be unquestioning automatons in a factory or office? Are we teaching them to be curious about the world, or teaching them how to take a multiple-choice assessment test?

I had the privilege today of offering a lecture on "Space Rocks" at the public library in Hemet, California. The audience turned to be mostly young women 6 to 9 years of age, so I changed gears and made it more of a talk about the adventures of scientific research, and how anyone, including them, could be the vanguard of our next journeys into the unknown.
We are in a time of even greater challenges as humans. We are entering a dark age where the US government is retreating into willful ignorance instead of the leading the world in the face of a planetary crisis. We are now living with the consequences of climate change that were predicted thirty years ago, and we are spiraling into even worse consequences in the near future. There are days when I feel absolute despair at the stupidity and greed of those in charge, and profound sadness at the gullibility of those who blindly accept the deceptions and lies of the present administration. I can't accept that our explorations are ending in a morass of corruption and lies.

In the words of the immortal folksinger Lee Hays (and no doubt others), all things, like a kidney stone, will pass. I believe that adventure still awaits us as a people. As I start a new school year next month, I am as excited as I have ever been to have the opportunity to introduce my students to an incredible Universe. And almost every teacher I know feels the same way.
This is a highly abridged and updated version of a post from August 25, 2012 marking the passing of astronaut Neil Armstrong.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Maybe I Need to Change My Spirit Animal...

The Geotripper Blog has been quiet for a few weeks, due to the fact that we have been conducting a field studies course on the geology and anthropology of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. It's been hectic, but also incredible. Today though, I just had to find a moment to post about my experience from this morning. It has to do with spirit animals.

I don't accept the claptrap that emanates from the psychic/new age community about such things because it is a form of cultural appropriation, but when I encounter indigenous people who have close ties to a landscape that they have occupied for millennia, I pay a lot more attention. It's one thing to be a member of a privileged group whose ancestors were responsible for genocide of entire cultures and then to pretend to take their religion seriously, and quite another to try and understand and respect these cultures that have existed for many centuries.

During this trip, I've been deciding what animal would represent my place in the cosmos, and because I have been seeing a great many Bald Eagles, I "picked" them (understood easily by our students, given the fact that I spend my time looking at the skies above for birds while talking about the rocks below). But this morning we were touring the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler, British Columbia. The Centre celebrates the peoples whose traditional boundaries straddled the passes around Whistler, the Squamish (Sk̲wx̲wú7mesh) and Lil'wat (Lil’wat7ul). It is a wonderful facility and includes an outdoor area showing a pithouse and longhouse, as well as a forest trail identifying culturally important plants and animals. Including the sign in the picture below...

And not more than 150 feet away, there it was...a Black Bear foraging along the trail. It was being a "good" bear, looking for food from the forest rather than from the trash cans and litter of the people in Whistler. Frankly, it was just a bit eerie, but only a bit. The bear was unconcerned with my presence. It was mainly a moment of contact with the natural world that is all too rare in our deeply insulated society.
The Squamish and Lil'wat people hold the bear in high esteem. To them the bear symbolizes family and strength through motherhood and teachings. Mother Bears are fierce defenders of their children and are great protectors. Bear is a well-respected member of the community and is sometimes referred to as the protector of the forests. They look to the Bear to show them how to fish and pick berries in their territory.

The meanings of the other animals and spirits can be found here: