Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A Resolution Recommendation: See the World. See as Much of the World as You Can

Grapevine Mountains in Death Valley National Park
When I first began to think about what I wanted to do with my life sometime in my teens, I knew I wanted a job that would take me outdoors for much of the time. When I was in high school, "earth science" or "geology" didn't exist as a course choice. So far as I knew, the "outdoor" major was to be a wildlife biologist, and I started heading that way. But in my first semester at community college, all the classes were full, so I took some course called "earth materials". The next semester I took "earth history", and a field course to the Grand Canyon. And by then I was hooked. I wanted to teach geology (many thanks to my first teachers, Marlin Dickey and Rod Parcel).
Death Valley National Park
My journey to a degree in geology was not an easy one. I did okay in my community college courses, achieving a pretty good GPA, enough to get me into a quality program at Pomona College, where I found the limitations of lazy study skills. I spent three years getting my act together, and another two working for the department before I started the graduate program at the University of Nevada, Reno. Once again I was challenged to the limits of my abilities, especially with a young family to support. But I made it through, holding a crying baby at two in the morning while typing my thesis on a Commodore 64 computer with a daisy wheel printer.
The Trona Pinnacles in the California Desert at Searles Lake
Somehow, I made the cut for a position as a laboratory teaching assistant, and later adjunct faculty at Santa Barbara City College. I worked there for four wonderful years before I was fortunate enough to be chosen as an instructor of geology at Modesto Junior College, where I've been teaching for 31 years and counting.
The 2019 "Super-bloom" in the Mojave Desert of California
Geology provided my one of the greatest gifts of my life. A doctor explores the human body. A computer programmer explores the circuitry of processors. A chemical engineer explores atoms and compounds. But a geologist explores the earth. And I can't imagine a greater privilege. The greater privilege though has been that I have spent a third of a century introducing students to a world outside the confines of their home cities. There is nothing quite like seeing the response of a student seeing the Grand Canyon or Yosemite Valley for the first time in their life.
Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley National Park
Our world, despite our horrible abuses, is a wonderous place, still full of beauty and adventures. Seeing it is a marvelous journey, but having some understanding of how it came to be gives the adventure deeper meaning. Even the plainest of landscapes, say the Central Valley (to us the Great Valley) has a fascinating story, one filled with oceans full of mosasaurs and plesiosaurs, gigantic sharks, and savannas full of mammoths, giant sloths and sabertooth cats.
A Five-spot in Death Valley National Park
Not everyone can travel and explore the planet, for lots and lots of reasons. When digital cameras became widespread, and this thing called the blogosphere appeared some time back in the cyber-early Pleistocene, I finally realized I had another tool with which to share the world. In 2008 I started this blog, with the idea of posting lots of pictures of the beautiful places of the planet. It became a way of introducing the wonders of the planet with people far beyond the confines of my college. I never dreamed I would still be doing it twelve years (and more than 2,100 posts) later. I have always appreciated those who have read and responded over the years.
Yosemite Falls, the 5th or 7th highest waterfall in the world.
In any case, this post is sort of a year-end gift of images from the journeys this year of myself, Mrs. Geotripper, and my wonderful students. If you live in California, a lot of these places are within a day's drive. I took students to Death Valley National Park in February, and Mrs. Geotripper and I made another trip there in March to seek out flowers.
"Mirror" Lake, a seasonal pond on Tenaya Creek in Yosemite Valley. Mt. Washburn in the distance.
Yosemite is close enough to Modesto for a day trip, and I managed to get there on four different occasions this year, mainly in the fall and in the spring. It's a different place with every visit, with new discoveries to be made every time.
The Gateway in Yosemite Valley, with El Capitan on the left and the Cathedral Rocks on the right.
We had the occasion of my grandmother's 100th birthday as a reason to spend a few days camping in the Coast Redwoods of Northern California
Humboldt Redwoods State Park in Northern California
Our summer field studies class gave us the chance to explore the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Use the search engine at the top left to check out "Travels in Cascadia" for the detailed stories of the places in the pictures that follow.
Mt. Shasta, the largest (but only second highest) stratovolcano in the lower 48 states.

Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost point of the lower 48 states, near Neah Bay, Washington

The Olympic Mountains from Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park

Lupines in Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, Washington

The upper end of Howe Sound, the southernmost glacial fjord on the west coast of North America, British Columbia from near the summit of Stawamus Chief near Squamish

Black Bear in Whistler, British Columbia in Canada

Rainy Lake near North Cascades National Park in Washington

North Cascades National Park in Washington
In September, we carried on an exploration of the eastern Sierra Nevada, traveling over Sonora Pass. We base-camped in Bishop for three days while we explored the High Sierra near Mammoth and June Lake, Mono Lake, and the White Mountains.
Sunrise out of Bishop, California, east of the Sierra Nevada
The White Mountains are an immense range reaching more than 14,000 feet, and containing one of the most unusual forests on the planet: the Bristlecone Pines. The trees live where almost nothing else can thrive, and they live for incredible lengths of time, as much as 5,000 years. From the Bristlecone Forest, one can take in more than a hundred miles of the Sierra Nevada crest, from Mt. Whitney to the Mammoth Lakes area.
The Sierra Nevada crest as seen from the White Mountains
The eastern Sierra Nevada is also a land of volcanism. We explored Devils Postpile, the Long Valley Caldera, the Bishop Tuff, and other features of recent volcanic activity.
Devils Postpile in the central Sierra Nevada
The Sierra Nevada is also one of the finest places in the world to study the effects of the Pleistocene glaciations. The June Lake Loop is an awesome valley that also serves as a gateway to the higher alpine parts of the Sierra.
Silver Lake on the June Lake Loop of the Eastern Sierra Nevada
Mono Lake is an enclosed basin filled by a saline inland sea. It is one of the most important stops on the migratory bird flyway, and the story of its preservation from the schemes of the LA Department of Water and Power is a rare (but still ongoing) environmental victory.
Mono Lake, near Lee Vining, California, east of the Sierra Nevada
Our journey home took us over Tioga Pass and through the high country of Yosemite National Park including Tuolumne Meadows and Tenaya Lake.
Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park
Our journeys weren't always on the surface. An October field studies class took us underground at Black Chasm Caves in the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode. There are more than a thousand limestone and marble caverns in California!
Black Chasm Cavern near Jackson, California in the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode
Our last journey of the year took us north to visit family in Oregon and Washington. The weather was not optimal, but I had a brief view of Mt. Rainier from the shores of Lake Washington one morning. The mountain looms over the Pacific Northwest in more than one way. The volcano is close enough to threaten urban areas on the Puget Sound.
Mt. Rainier from Lake Washington, near Seattle.
But in the end, don't forget about the most important place of all: home. There is a bit of nature hanging on anywhere you might live, even in the midst of the biggest cities on Earth. Find that place you can get to without too much trouble and expense, and get to know it well, maybe know it better than anyone else. Learn the birds, the mammals, the bugs, the reptiles. Get to know the rocks and plants. Watch them change over the course of the year. Your life will be richer for it.
The Tuolumne River in Waterford California, my home place
I wish for you the most wonderful of new years and new beginnings, even with the challenges that face us all. Thanks for reading!
The Tuolumne River in Waterford, California.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Damning Del Puerto Canyon, a Geological and Natural Treasure in our County

I awoke this morning mildly astonished to see my own words making up the headline of a Modesto Bee article about a proposed dam in Del Puerto Canyon, a deep gorge cutting into the heart of the Diablo Range in the western part of Stanislaus County. Del Puerto is one of the most unique landscapes of California's Coast Ranges, and as I noted, a geological and natural treasure. I was hugely dismayed to find that a proposal exists to build a large reservoir in the lower canyon, and my email to a colleague ended up being quoted in the Modesto Bee article linked above (hence my surprise at being quoted; I wasn't directly interviewed). The article accurately describes my concerns about the project. There are large landslides in the lower canyon that canyon that would almost surely be reactivated (or accelerated; they show evidence of recent motion) if the base is inundated by lake water. There are definite seismic concerns, as a probable active fault lies just east of the dam site. But my biggest concern is the effect the dam will have on the natural environment of the canyon.

The environmental impact report was published recently (read it here.). Comments on the Environmental Impact Report can be made at a public meeting from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Jan. 15 at the Hammon Senior Center, 1033 W. Las Palmas Ave., in Patterson. Written comments will be accepted until Jan. 27 at Del Puerto Water District, 17840 Ward Ave., Patterson 95363. If you appreciate the intrinsic value of our precious local canyon, I hope you will comment and make your voice heard.

I've written often about Del Puerto Canyon over the years (see many of the articles here), and to give you a feel for the unique nature of the canyon, I'm adapting an article from last May.
The strange and alien landscape in upper Del Puerto Canyon.
California has some really strange landscapes. A state that has beaches, mountains, volcanoes, forests, and deserts is going to offer many perspectives of the complex geological influences on the state. But for alien and otherworldly, few places in the state can compare to the journey you take when you follow Del Puerto Canyon from its mouth in the Great Valley to the headwaters in the Diablo Range. It's a journey into the middle of the world.
"Del Puerto" refers to "The Gate", the constriction of hard sandstone at the mouth of the canyon. This will be the site of the proposed dam. It will be more than 200 feet high.
I guess I should be a bit more specific. We journey to rocks that had once been part of the Earth's mantle, the 1,800 mile thick layer that lies just beneath the thin crust (3-50 miles thick). We can't reach the core of the planet, because no one can (despite sci-fi movies that say otherwise). Since mantle rock is very hot and is subject to convection, it is at least conceivable that the rocks we are exploring have once been close to the Earth's core.
This is an active landslide that will be partially inundated by the proposed reservoir. I am concerned about the effect of adding water to the slip plane. California's first discovery of dinosaur bones was at the top of this slope.
So how does one explore the Earth's mantle? Well, first one has to get through the crust, and the thinnest crust is that which makes up the ocean floors. It's nominally composed of basalt, but the details are more complex.

In Del Puerto Canyon, the ocean floor is covered by...a bit of sediment. About 25,000 feet of it! The sediments poured off the mountainous edge of the continent during the later part of the dinosaur era, the Cretaceous Period. There was a huge subduction zone that formed as oceanic crust plunged into the mantle beneath the edge of the North American continent. This so-called Cascadia Subduction Zone caused volcanoes to form where the Sierra Nevada is today, but the area offshore of the volcanic arc, the forearc basin, collected sediments. As the sediments accumulated, they pressed the crust downward and even more sediment piled on top. Eventually the layers reached a thickness of five miles.

The basin collected fossils as well. There were the usual shells of clams, snails and ammonites, a variety of shark teeth, and three groups of seagoing reptiles, the plesiosaurs (think Loch Ness), ichthyosaurs (think reptilian version of a dolphin), and 35-foot-long mosasaurs (think "swim for your life!"). Even dinosaur fossils have been found. The first dinosaur ever found in California, a Saurolophus, was discovered in the lower reaches of Del Puerto Canyon in 1935.

Eventually, one will reach the base of the oldest sediments, and encounter the ocean crust itself. Faulting obscures some of the relationships, and so in the picture below we see some of the oldest sediment on the right (somewhat brownish shale) and basaltic/andesitic volcanic rock on the left (greenish gray), separated by a fault. The volcanic rocks are harder, and the canyon takes on a more rugged aspect as we climb higher into the mountains.
The Coast Ranges of California are one of the youngest mountain systems in the world, having been uplifted mostly in the last 3 million years or so. The streams in this dry environment have not been able to downcut as fast as the mountains are rising, so they flow much of the way over bedrock. There are few floodplains in these mountains.
The water flows almost year-round and thus the canyon is a critical habitat for all kinds of wildlife. Dozens of mammals and reptile species are known, and nearly 200 bird species have been observed here.
Oceanic crust is basaltic in composition, but there are differences at depth. On the ocean floor, basalt flows form "pillows", globular masses of the volcanic rock. Beneath the pillow basalts, basaltic dikes fed the eruptions. Dikes occur when volcanic rock fills cracks and fissures in the surrounding rock. Since the surrounding rock is also dike material, the entire layer, a mile or two thick, is made of vertical sheet dikes. Feeding these dikes were magma chambers composed of...basalt! But some of the basalt was left at the base of the oceanic crust where it then cooled slowly to form a sparkling crystalline rock called gabbro. The entire suite of rocks is called an ophiolite sequence. The Coast Range Ophiolite sequence in Del Puerto Canyon is considered to be the second best exposed in the state, behind the Point Sal Ophiolite in southern California.

There is a spot in one of the most rugged parts of the canyon to investigate the gabbro where it was pierced by a vein of quartz (below). People have looked for gold here, but I doubt they found any.

Just a few more miles up the canyon we penetrate the uppermost part of the mantle. The rock originally consisted of ultramafic minerals like olivine and pyroxene, but here the rock has been metamorphosed into serpentine, California's state rock. The rock was sheared and faulted on its way to the surface, leaving shiny green and black polished surfaces (below).
And then we are there. In the uppermost part of the canyon, we reach the netherworld of mantle rock that was far less altered, so it retained some of its original appearance. In places we can see olivine and pyroxene crystals, as well as grains of chromite. These ultramafic rocks contain few nutrients needed by plant life, so only a few species can tolerate living on these slopes. Gray pines are among them, grasses generally are not. There are a number of wildflower species endemic to California that can be found here.
Looking at these shattered broken rocks from very deep in the Earth, one imagines hell freezing over. The forges of the demons and devils lie frozen in place, to be slowly removed by earthly weathering. They try to invade the surface realm, but they are defeated by the forces of the heavens, the water and ice falling from the sky.
It may have been a metaphorical battlefield, but in the end there is great beauty in the rarity of the flowers, plants and animals that thrive, or at least tolerate the conditions in the upper canyon.

Del Puerto Canyon is traversed (slowly) by Highway 130, originating in Patterson on the floor of the Great Valley. It can also be reached by way of Mines Road out of Livermore, a winding road out of the San Jose area over Mt. Hamilton and the Lick Observatory complex. It is not a fast way to go!

I know that there is a need for water in the Central Valley. But no matter how many dams get built, there will never be enough to meet the expressed needs and desire of agribusiness. But I feel that we need to keep some of the wild places, and Del Puerto is one of those especially unique places to learn about our planet. I hope you will make your voice heard about this project.

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Week's Next Surprise: River Otters on the Tuolumne

It's not like I haven't seen them before. I see River Otters once every few months on the Tuolumne River adjacent to the trail I follow on most free mornings. But until this week, I've never caught any getting out of the river. They've always been swimming. But this morning a pair of otters were searching and playing along the river just downstream of the trailhead. I sat and watched them swim for awhile and then they climbed up on the branches of the river thickets.

I tried a couple of videos, but only one came out well. It's a little bit shaky because I was at total zoom, around 60x, but they came out pretty clear. It's been a week of little nature surprises, with foxes and rare birds and the like. Otters always give me a reason to smile a bit in the midst of lots of challenges.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Day I Found I Could See Half Dome and El Capitan From Near My House And Why it Was So Hard To Do So

Can you pick out Half Dome in the picture above? It's not easy...
Anyone who follows my other blog (Geotripper's California Birds) knows that I walk the Tuolumne Parkway Trail just about every time I have a free morning, watching for birds and getting exercise. Unfortunately, given the air quality of the Great Valley where I live, I cannot see the source of the Tuolumne River, even though the mountain crest is only 40 miles or so away. But once in awhile a storm blows through, and I am reminded again that I live next to one of the world's great mountain ranges. That happened this week as our first major storms of the season passed through, dropping more than three inches of rain locally, and several feet of snow on the very dry mountains above. The Tuolumne Parkway Trail climbs to the top of the bluff above the river to pass around the water treatment plant, and provides a nice view of the Sierra Nevada crest. I was impressed enough to snap some pictures. 

Later on, while looking at the pictures, I saw what looked like a familiar ridge-top. I consulted with Cal Topo, and by golly, I was right. I had captured a picture of Half Dome, and El Capitan right in front of it! It's not an obvious view, and you would need binoculars or a telescope to see it (or the zoom on my camera), but it's there. I had never noticed it before from this vantage point because both rocks get swallowed up in the rocky ridges behind (the peaks behind Half Dome are half a mile higher in elevation). The snow from two days earlier helped to highlight the summits of both Half Dome and El Capitan. The view of Half Dome from the valley floor is more obvious from other angles, even though the concept that it can be seen at all has been contentious at times...

Can you see it in the picture above? It's a challenge. Give it a shot and then consult the CalTopo wireframe below to see the identity of the peaks in the picture...

Zooming in and centering the two rocks makes them just a small bit more obvious, but it is still hard to see, given that we are only seeing the topmost parts of both Half Dome and El Capitan

Zooming in even more, the summit of Half Dome is even more obvious.

I've annotated the photo to help out a little...
They are from much closer and from a different angle, but the webcams in Yosemite Valley provide an idea on the snow pattern on Half Dome on the day I saw it from the Central Valley.

If you have a small bit of a wild place somewhere near where you live, visit as often as you can. You never know when a new discovery or surprise will be waiting. This week alone, I saw a beautiful Gray Fox in the wild corner of my campus, and a wildly out of place bird a few feet from where I took the pictures of Half Dome.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Why I Always Have a Camera: Our Campus Gray Fox

There is a reason I have a camera every time I go walking. I might not see something interesting every time I head outside, but when something interesting appears, I want to have a camera handy. Today I almost broke my own rule. I'm usually looking for bird species, and the day was dismal and gray, poor conditions for getting any kind of decent pictures. But on a whim I changed my usual route, and went north to check out the second sheep compound.
I first saw it hidden partly behind a fence, and all I could see were some ears and a gray-colored body that reminded me of a Great Horned Owl. But when it didn't retreat, I could see that it was a Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus). I was thrilled! The Gray Fox is native to our region, and the more commonly seen Red Foxes are not. These may be the best pictures I've ever captured of the fox.
The Gray Fox is found all over North America, and has been part of the ecosystem for at least the last 3-4 million years. There are a large number of regional subspecies, and a closely related species, the Island Fox, found on the Channel Islands off the coast of the state. The development of agriculture in the Great Valley of Central California destroyed 95% of the original habitat for the foxes and the many other native species. Gray Foxes are adaptable, though, and have often done well in the vicinity of human habitations. There is a richness of rodents in the vicinity of our agricultural developments on campus that provide the foxes with a secure food supply. I've seen them on numerous occasions, but they rare stick around long enough for pictures. Today was a lucky day...