Tuesday, July 20, 2021

The Other California: What to See When You've Run Out of Postcard Destinations (Reprise)

(published by Scope Enterprises, Inc)
My earliest blog project was an exploration of the geologically interesting places in California that don't always show up on the postcards (the earliest post is here). I've been working on this project off and on for a dozen years. If you've followed my blog at all, you know I have a type of Geologist Attention Deficit Disorder Syndrome (GADDS), that as soon as I start concentrating on one subject, something interesting pops up somewhere else, and I explore it for a few weeks, and then get distracted again.

Geologists divide California into eleven geomorphic provinces, areas that share unique geologic histories, rock types and topography that are distinct from the surrounding areas. I generally refer to the province when I am describing a particular feature or place. I am categorizing the posts that exist thus far in the same way:
The Other California: The Things it is Not: the first post describing what I am up to with this series: most people know about Yosemite, Sequoia, Death Valley and other famous places, but California has so much more...things and places that don't appear on the postcards
The Other California: Now This is a Postcard!: A brief overview of the geology of the state as it is represented on geologic maps and and introduction to the idea of provinces.
Come to California and You Could Die a Fiery Death! : A short introduction to volcanism in California

Although the original idea came with a post about California's prairie lands, I pretty much first started out by describing the geologic significance of some of our state symbols.

The Other California: Already Off on a Tangent: A review of the familiar symbols, the Golden Poppy, the California Quail, the California Grizzly Bear, and our state mineral, Gold!
The Other California: Geology and our Other State Symbols: A look at the state mineral, the state rock, and the state gemstone, the one hardly anyone has heard of.
The Other California: Geology and our State Symbols Part 1: a discussion of the evolutionary history of our state fish, the Golden Trout
The Other California: Geology and the other State Symbols II: the incredible journey of our two state trees, the Sequoia and Coast Redwood
The Other California: Geology and the other State Symbols III: a look at our state fossil, the saber-tooth cat Smilodon Californicus.
The Other California: Geology and the other State Symbols IV: California has some unique Gold Rush-era towns, but nothing is quite like Bodie, off in the high desert east of the Sierra Nevada.
The Other California: Geology and the other State Symbols V : The strange politics that led to the establishment of the official California Silver-Rush Ghost Town.
Say Hello to California's New State Dinosaur, Augustynolophus morrisi: The first dinosaur discovered in California was found in our county, Stanislaus.

A huge 400 mile long valley filled with thousands of feet of sediments deposited over 160 million years, and one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the world

The Prairie Lands: California has its own version of savannahs, both present and past.
The Prairies of the Past: An exploration of the most important Pleistocene fossil quarry in central California, the Fairmead Landfill
The Prairie Lands and a Transforming Fault: A journey through Carrizo Plains National Monument and the best exposures of the San Andreas fault to be found anywhere
Back on the Prairielands: A springtime return to the prairies, now green and full of life
Mammoths and Sabertooths rise from the Prairies Again!: The Madera Fossil Discovery Center was almost complete and expected to open in June. Here is a preliminary look
Sharktooth Hill: That's about it...thousands and thousands of shark teeth and a great many other species. 

The Sierra Nevada is the largest single mountain range in the United States, more than 400 miles long and averaging 50 miles wide. It also has the highest peak in the lower 48 states. Although composed mostly of granite, it also has large exposures of metamorphic and volcanic rocks that tell a remarkable story of traveling continents and terranes, as well as tales of violent eruptions.

A Gorge Deeper than the Grand Canyon: An exploration of little-known Pine Creek on the east side of the Sierra Nevada, and one of the most important mines in the country
The Other Yosemite at Hetch Hetchy: There was a counterpart to the Yosemite Valley, but we dammed it.
The Other Side of the Sierra, down the West Walker River: The West Walker River flows down the east side of the Sierra, and hosted the longest glaciers to be found on that side of the mountains.
An Enigmatic Gorge, the West Walker River Canyon: A strange entombed forest, and a deep gorge with a violent geologic temper.
The Day of the Fiddlenecks (A Trip Through the Mother Lode): A brief foray for wildflowers on Highway 132 in California's Mother Lode
There's an Endemic in those Red Hills! Life and evolution on one of California's unique environments, the serpentine soils. Exploring the Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern
The California State Mineral Exhibit-This is art, darnit! One of the best ways to see the incredible mineral wealth of California is to explore the state mineral exhibit in Mariposa at the south end of the Mother Lode. Because of the morons in the state legislature, it is about to shutter its doors
It's a Real Grind...Chaw'se State Historical Park: A look at more grinding mortars than you'll ever see anywhere else, the Miwok culture, and some interesting metamorphic rocks
The Other California Goes Underground: Hella Hot Helictites at Black Chasm Cave: Never heard of helictites? That's because they are the first cave features to be destroyed. But we have a world class collection of them in the Sierra foothills
What do you do with a Used Forest?: The Sierra Nevada between Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks is terra incognita for most Sierra travelers. The region has been logged, mined, and grazed...and is still spectacular. We take an excursion on the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway
Why Worry About Yellowstone? We've got our own "supervolcanoes" in California. Some are active. Some have been extinct for tens of millions of years. At the Minarets we can explore one from the inside out

The Cascadia Subduction Zone is a place of geological violence: The crust underlying the Pacific Ocean is sinking beneath the western edge of the North American Continent, producing earthquakes, mountain-building, and volcanism. Two of California's most familiar volcanoes formed here, and the largest volcano in the state sits astride the boundary with the Modoc Plateau

Exploring California's Biggest Volcano: An introduction to the Medicine Lake Highland, one of California's most active volcanoes.
Geologists Who Live on Glass Mountains Shouldn't....: Looking at volcanic glass, obsidian and pumice, on the Medicine Lake Highland, with a view towards the Modoc Plateau, too.
A Land of Fire and Ice (but mostly ice): California's largest glaciers
Five For the Price of One: California's most prominent volcano is really five volcanoes, with a violent past.
A Monday Mystery: A river that comes out of nowhere, and a gratuitous picture of a deer family
A Mystery Solved, and One of California's Prettiest Little Waterfalls: McArthur Burney Falls is California's second oldest park, and is one unusual waterfall.
Lassen Peak, A Volcanic Afterthought: A well-known volcano that sits on the remains of a much older, much larger volcano, Mt. Tehama
Getting all excited about natural disasters: an eyewitness account of some of the events surrounding the 1914-15 eruption of Lassen Peak.

The Modoc Plateau is a high flat region underlain by thick flows of basalt lavas in the remote northeast corner of the state. It is one of the least-known areas of California, but has some nice geological surprises.

California's Biggest Volcano: here is the first surprise; the biggest volcano is not named Shasta or Lassen!
Waiter, There's A'a in My Pahoehoe!: A comparison of basalt lava flows at Lava Beds National Monument
The Volcano Underground: the formation of lava tubes (via a short excursion in Hawaii) and Lava Beds National Monument
Exploring the Volcano Underground: Walking and crawling through the most extensive lava tube system in the continental United States
Whispers From the Past: Huge explosions from 270,000 years ago, and the largest petroglyph panel in the United States
Cries From the Past: A tale of rebellion, resilience and betrayal; the Modoc Indian War of 1872-73. And why armies should study geology before fighting wars.

In northwest California, a series of mountain ridges reveal stories of continental and oceanic fragments that were crushed into the western edge of North America. The rocks bear a close resemblence to the Sierra Nevada, although they are offset more than sixty miles.

Flotsam and Jetsam: An introduction to the Klamath Mountains as a series of accreted terranes, tracts of crust and old ocean floor that traveled hundreds or thousands of miles.
Havin' fun with Sasquatch: a discussion of the legendary and mythological creature that supposedly dwells in the Klamaths
I've seen these mountains before! The Big Ripoff: Viewed on a geologic map, the Klamath Mountains look like a continuation of the Sierra Nevada, but lie sixty miles farther west.
A Journey to the Center of the Earth (sort of): A review of the some of the rocks from the deep crust and mantle that are found in the terranes of the Klamath Mountains
Taking Stock of Castle Crags: One of the most imposing sights (besides Shasta) to be seen on a journey north on Interstate 5, the Castle Crags are towers and domes of granite, surrounded by more easily eroded metamorphic rocks
The series of mountain ranges that roughly parallel California's coastline are one of most diverse areas of the state from a geologic standpoint. There are thick sequences of sedimentary rocks including the Great Valley Group and elements of the Franciscan Complex, and there are plutonic and metamorphic rocks of the Salinian Block (and parts of the Franciscan). There are even volcanic rocks and potentially active volcanoes.

I Need This Like I Need a Hole in the Head: Scenic Bodega Head at Bodega Bay was the nearly the site of one of the most mind-bogglingly stupid energy developments ever conceived by the minds of engineers
Baymouth Bars - It's Five O'Clock Somewhere? Along the incredibly rugged north coast amid the violent surf there are long, perfectly straight sand bars that seem to defy explanation. They're explained here Humboldt Lagoons State Park
A Mystery Photo For a Saturday: A look at San Francisco from a unique angle, Monte del Diablo
The Thicket of the Devil (the mystery photo revealed): An introduction to a place with an incredible view, Mt. Diablo. How it got its name and why every landowner in Central California should care
Limekiln State Park Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3: Limekiln is a beautiful gem of a state park on the Big Sur Coastline. Unfortunately we have morons in the state legislature and this park is closing. See what is being taken from us (PS: It was eventually saved)

The crust of the earth east of the Sierra Nevada and Peninsular Ranges is being torn apart by horizontal extensional forces that have produced an alien landscape of deep fault valleys (grabens) and high mountain fault blocks (horsts)

The West Walker River and the Antelope Valley: A deep fault valley becomes an important ranching and farming region
Dammed if we do Dam, Dammed if we don't Dam: An unusual reservoir without a dam, Topaz Lake stores Walker River water, but has great fishing too. Why is it there?
Damned if we do Dam, Damned if we don't Dam: A slightly modified name, and a much bigger issue - What are we going to do about Walker Lake? It's dying. It's also in Nevada, but it is a California river.

Often ignored or tolerated by tourists on their way to Las Vegas, the Mojave Desert is one of the most geologically diverse regions of California

The Calico Mountains: An exploration of a unique mountain range, well beyond the confines of the tourist trap ghost town.
Prairies past and Some Great Folds: A closer look at a parking lot in a tourist trap
A Wandering Volcano and a Floral Outburst: The Antelope Valley has a springtime show of wildflowers that is simply audacious, and the underlying rocks include half of a volcano. The other half is nearly 200 miles away...
Caught in the Vise (the Western Mojave Desert): A discussion of complex fault relationships in the western Mojave and another chance to show some wildflower shots.


A diverse series of mountain ranges that run against the grain, trending east-west instead of north-south. These include some of the highest mountains in southern California

The Other California: A Friday Fun Foto: A first glance at San Gorgonio Peak, the highest mountain in southern California, and the southwesternmost glaciated peak in the United States
Scarps to the Left of Me, Sag Ponds to the right, Here I am, Stuck in the Middle with You!: The San Andreas fault cuts across many of California's province. In this post we look at some fault features at the top of the Grapevine in the Transverse Ranges
A Monday Mystery Photo: A quick introduction to the Cajon Pass country where the San Andreas fault splits the San Gabriel Mountains from the San Bernardino Mountains
Cajon Pass and No Strange Sci-Fi Creatures: Cajon Pass, the major freeway access route into the Los Angeles basin, is filled with strange looking sedimentary rocks tilted this way and that. But it's not where Captain Kirk fought the Gorn...
The Mountains of My Youth: The eastern San Gabriel Mountains aren't all that familiar to people from outside the state, but they are spectacular and they were the mountains where I grew up. We explore an extraordinary gorge, San Antonio Canyon
Hemming and Hawing on the Hogback: The San Gabriel Mountains are the steepest mountains in the world. Often the only flat spots are on dangerous stream floodplains and on top of landslides. Several examples from San Antonio Canyon include the Hogback and Cow Canyon Saddle
A Canyon as Deep as the Grand, and a Road For No Reason: The Glendora Ridge Road offers some of the greatest panoramas of any road in southern California, and there doesn't seem to be a reason for it being there. I suspect I know what the reason is
The Forbidden Valley: An introduction to the San Dimas Experimental Forest
A Minor Challenge: A quiz to introduce the unusual geology of the Santa Clarita Valley
Dreams of Avarice and the First Gold Rush: You thought the gold rush started in the Sierra Mother Lode? There was a rush six years earlier, but the Mexican miners kept their secrets better (and there wasn't very much gold, either)
The Oldest Rocks (Well, maybe...): The San Gabriel Mountains have very old rocks, maybe the oldest in the state. But it depends on how you define "oldest". A short introduction to radiometric (isotopic) age dating

A granitic mountain block vaguely similar to the Sierra Nevada, but also very different. The "peninsula" refers to Baja California, which makes up the bulk of the province

The Other California: Another Friday Fun Foto: A brief introduction to San Jacinto Peak, the highest mountain in the Peninsular Ranges, and one of the most prominent mountains in the state, with a 10,000 foot slope in one area.
A Mystery Photo for the Day: A view of a rock that looks like it belongs somewhere in the Sierra Nevada, but that is not where it is...
When is a Peninsular Range Not a Peninsula? Baja California is a peninsula, but the rocks continue into Alta California. This post explores the village of Idylwild next to the highest part of the province at San Jacinto Peak.
The Deepest Pass in North America, and Finally Taking THE Tramway: Well, sure, the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway is on a lot of postcards, but how many of them tell you the geological story?

I clearly have lots of ground to cover, and will update this page as necessary.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

My Thesis Area is Misbehaving: 6.0 Earthquake Near Walker, California


That was exciting. I live in the Central Valley of California. The valley is famously boring for a number of reasons, and one of the good ones is because we rarely feel earthquakes here. But that wasn't the case today. I was at my computer station and the desk started vibrating and I had to look and see if my wife was shaking it. She wasn't and she was not looking happy. 

It took a while for the USGS to untangle the many wave signatures in the seismic network (there was a brief report of a 4.8 quake just 20 miles from us), but as things have settled out, it looks like the quake took place smack dab in the middle of my masters thesis area in the eastern Sierra Nevada at the small town of Walker, California. The most recent estimate of the magnitude is 5.9 (upgraded to 6.0). The quake has the signature of a normal fault, the kind of faulting to be expected in a crustal region that is being stretched apart. 

Walker is the village in the picture above at the south end of the Antelope Valley, which exists because of faulting. The valley has sunk as the mountains on the right side of the photograph rose along the fault indicated by the solid black line. The epicenter of the quake would be just out of the picture on the lower right side (the picture is looking south).

Antelope Valley sits astride the boundary of the Sierra Nevada and Basin and Range provinces, where the solid block of the Sierra is being sliced up into a series of fault-bounded grabens. The picture below shows the upper (southern) end of the valley from Monitor Pass, with the Sweetwater Mountains in the distance. 

The next picture is from the hill behind Walker looking north. The break in slope on the left is where one would look for evidence of recent earthquakes, but slopewash has covered the fault terraces (scarps) in most places except for the streams and alluvial fans that cross the fault trace. That was what I was searching for when I was doing my masters thesis many years ago in this valley. I was very pleased when I found some.

The person who did the original mapping in the 1950's was working primarily on the rock exposures, and wasn't really looking for recently active faults. By the 1980's a number of people were looking a lot harder, trying to determine the seismic hazard for the region. Fresh alluvial fans provide a possibility of dating the occurrence and size of the last earthquake to cause ground rupture in an area.

The picture below is the Mill Creek fan, at the extreme south end of Antelope Valley. Under normal circumstances, an alluvial fan should be a smooth, gently sloping surface. Here at Mill Creek, the surface steps down to the left, forming a terrace. Immediately after the earthquake this terrace may have been essentially vertical (examples of scarps are shown on this post - Slinkard Valley lies immediately west of Antelope, and the post has a nice cut-away showing the arrangement of the fault blocks).

Scarps like these show that the last major earthquake took place in the recent geologic past, very likely less than 10,000 years ago, and maybe as recently as 3,000 years ago . The length of the fault and the size of the scarps are characteristic of quakes in the range of magnitude 6.5-7.0. A magnitude 5.8 event, the Double Springs Flat earthquake, shook the extreme north end of the Antelope Valley fault system in 1994. Today's quake one-upped that event, but do not be surprised if the magnitude is revised upward or downward (NOTE: the quake was revised upward to 6.0). It takes awhile to fully analyze the seismometer records. It is not inconceivable that some small cracks may appear along some of these older scarps.

I'm listening to reports of a rockfall off the cliffs above Meadowcliff Lodge. That would be very close to the epicenter.

I will revise this post as more information comes in. 

Postscript: I finally got to my office at Modesto Junior College to download the seismogram of the quake, and here it is. The shaking was off-scale for nearly two minutes.

The second shows a compressed version of the quake, along with some of the larger aftershocks.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Eclipse of the Blood Flower Supermoon

The Moon passed through the shadow of the Earth very early this morning. There hasn't been an eclipse like this in two years, and it was more remarkable because the Moon was at nearly the closest approach it ever makes, so it appeared a bit larger than normal. How much larger? My camera has a 120x zoom, and a more distant Moon will just fill the screen. The picture below shows how it looked last night before the eclipse began.

I got up at 3:00 AM just so you wouldn't have to! At that point, the shadow was already covering part of the Moon.
I didn't want to stay up all night, so I looked 45 minutes later to check on the progress.
By 4:20 AM, totality was reached and the very dim Moon was glowing red, the result of the red part of the sun's spectrum being refracted through the Earth's atmosphere. 
At this point the Moon was far dimmer and stars were visible nearby. It's the first time I've been able to photograph stars and the Moon in the same picture.
By 4:30, the Moon was beginning to emerge from the shadows, so I took one last shot, and went back to bed. I had a class to teach in the morning!

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

What was the Greatest Adventure You Ever Had? Dreams, Hopes, and Memories in Pandemic Times


The first moment of the greatest adventure of my life
What's the greatest adventure you've ever had? And as you consider your future, what is the greatest adventure you ever hope to have?

I've been thinking about that this week, as we possibly, hopefully, approach the end of the pandemic that has caused so much tragedy and heartbreak. I'm teaching a "summer" class that actually ends four days before the official first day of summer, and in the new world of remote teaching, I've had my students submit an occasional online response to geology-related questions. Sometimes my questions deviate a bit from geology though, and this week I asked them what "adventure" means to them, and to recount the greatest adventure they've ever had. And realizing that some may not have had any identifiable adventures, I ask what adventure they would like to have someday.

Redwall Cavern, deep in the Grand Canyon. It is said that 5,000 people could fit in here.

I get lots of interesting answers, because a community college class roster is filled with people of many diverse ages and background. Sometimes they describe a hike in the local mountains, or a walk along the coast. Others describe some harrowing and dangerous life experiences related to the Peace Corps or military service. Because it is an online discussion, the give and take makes for fascinating reading.

Much of my motive in asking such questions is to help them realize that geology, in a way unlike many other disciplines, is an adventure in and of itself. The experience of finding a gemstone in the rough, uncovering a dinosaur bone, feeling an earthquake, encountering a flash flood, or witnessing a volcanic eruption are unforgettable adventures, even if there are negative consequences and dangers. That, after all, is part of what makes an experience into a true adventure.

Standing waves at Hermit Creek Rapids

Some people are content to live lives without 'adventure'. They are happy enough to find a career that satisfies, and prefer to spend their free time at home reading and gardening and the like. Who needs the stress and high blood pressure after all? I understand that perfectly well, but it sure didn't feel very good to have that life imposed on us by a global pandemic. It's the season when I would normally be preparing to take my students on some real adventures, across the southwestern states and the Colorado Plateau, or up north to the Cascades, Glacier and Yellowstone. Some years we explore Hawaii or Canada, or Australia. Instead, I am giving zoom presentations and grading online submissions, and dreaming of being outside.

I got a message from a friend that unleashed a flood of memories of the greatest adventure I ever had. It was innocuous enough: she asked if I had a recording of a community lecture I gave a few years ago about rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I didn't actually remember if a recording existed, but I found it online and had a look. In a short moment I was transported back to the time eight years ago when my brother and his family invited me to join them on the 17-day adventure. I was 56 years old at the time, and was at one of those middle-age moments when one begins to wonder if the big adventures are coming to an end. It turned out that the answer was a firm 'no'. 

Scouting Lava Falls, the worst or second-worst rapid on the river depending on the flow. Yes, I capsized and rode it all in the water. Check my blog series below for the You-Tube of the moment.

I wrote an extensive blog series about the trip called "Into the Great Unknown" that will give you a sense of what it is like to explore one of the largest remaining wilderness lands left on our continent, and what it is like to face your own mortality and fears (there were indeed a few terrifying moments in an otherwise glorious time). But if you want a short and quick visual exploration, you can see my community lecture at this link: https://share.yosemite.edu/go=1EVB. I recall it was the most fun I've had giving a public lecture.

And just for the fun of it, here is the video of the final musical moments of our 17-day journey. We had to delay our landing at Diamond Creek because other rafters were getting on the river and space was limited.

So, as the pandemic begins to fade (if people don't get stupid when we are so close), what adventures will you seek? What are the places you want to see? What do you want to experience? What's on your bucket list, and what are doing to make it happen? And what was the greatest adventure you ever had? There is lots of room in the comments section to share your memories or dreams for the future.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

California's Rarest Ecosystems: The Serpentine Soils of the Red Hills (Part Two of a Two-part Miniseries)


Imagine a world turned upside down and inside out. A place where the underworld realm is exposed to view, where all is out of equilibrium. It sounds like the introduction to a dystopian horror movie, but in this case, it is a description of one of the truly rare and unique ecosystems in California: the serpentine soils. 

This is the long-delayed second part of my two-part miniseries on rare ecosystems. Part one on the prairies and vernal pools was published back in April.

The Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern is a rather clumsy name for one of the most unique places in all of California. It comes by the name righteously, as can be seen in the Google Earth image above. The soils have a distinct red-brown color, even though the serpentine-rich rocks they come from are generally green or black in color. And these are truly alien rocks. They are not part of the surface realm; they are the materials of the earth's depths, far below the crust that we live on. The earth's mantle lies at depths of 15 to 40 miles beneath the surface and is composed of iron and magnesium-rich minerals like olivine and pyroxene. These minerals may be stable deep within the earth's interior, but if they are exposed at the earth they are out of chemical equilibrium and subject to rapid reactions with oxygen, water, carbon dioxide, and acids in soils. The iron quite literally rusts during oxidation.

The thing about soils rich in iron and magnesium is that they are poor in macronutrients like potassium and calcite, and include some toxins like selenium or nickel. The vast majority of plants cannot tolerate these chemical conditions. But there are a few.
At the west end of Red Hills the oak woodland gives way to a gray pine-ceanothus scrubland

The change is stark. Driving up Red Hills Road from the west, one passes through typical foothills oak woodlands, with a thick covering of grass. And then just like that the grass disappears along with the oaks. One enters an area dominated by Buckbrush with the occasional Foothills Pine (Gray Pine). In many areas, barely any vegetation covers the rocks at all.

The region was long seen as having no particular value. The ultramafic (mantle-derived rocks) were related to the gold-bearing lodes, but rarely had any valuable ores in and of themselves. Despite the Homestead Act in the late 1800s that sought to give citizens free land in the west, there were no takers in the Red Hills. No useful crops could be grown on the soils, which was a requirement for owning the property. For many decades the Red Hills were used as a de facto garbage dump and shooting range.

By the late 1980s the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency in charge of the Red Hills area, belatedly recognized the unique nature of the ecosystem here, and declared it an "area of critical environmental concern". Clean-ups were organized, and minimal tourists facilities (trails, parking areas, vault toilets, and a nature trail) were constructed. Today the park (why not just call it a park, after all?) is a local favorite for wildflower enthusiasts, birdwatchers, and hikers, especially in the spring.
So what is the geologic story of this strange and wonderful landscape?

The Mother Lode is famous as the source of the ores during the Gold Rush in 1848-53, and many people know of the association of quartz veins with the gold. What is less known is that the Mother Lode consists mostly of metamorphic rocks like slate, greenstone, and marble, not the granite that is found in the higher parts of the Sierra Nevada. These metamorphic rocks are the twisted and baked remains of sea floor muds and silts, lime from tropical reefs and shelves, and volcanic rock from the oceanic crust. These collections of crustal rocks (called "exotic terranes") were transported across the Pacific Ocean and slammed (in the geologic sense; they moved at maybe 2 inches a year) into the western edge of the North American continent, mostly in the late Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras (the Mesozoic era, from around 251 to 65 million years ago, is best known as the "age of the dinosaurs"). The different terranes are separated from one another by major fault systems.
California Goldfields (Lasthenia californica)
The rocks of the Red Hills were part of the huge fault systems and included slices of the earth's mantle, consisting of the dunite and peridotite mentioned above. The original mantle rocks were mostly metamorphosed into serpentine on their upward journey along the fault systems.
Blue Dicks (Brodiaea) and Poppies
Serpentine (or more properly serpentinite) was declared the California State Rock in the 1960s, in part for its association with asbestos, which is a fibrous crystal form of serpentine. Asbestos was a "wonder mineral" from at least Roman times, as it was fireproof, and could be woven into a fabric. As fire insulation it no doubt saved many lives, but there was a cost. Those who were constantly exposed to asbestos were far more likely to contract a deadly disease called mesothelioma. It is now a cottage industry for people in the business of removing asbestos from older buildings.

There was a political brouhaha in 2010 when some groups tried to change the state rock to something else, but geologists objected on the grounds that it was an appropriate symbol of the state due to the research value of having mantle rocks at the surface, and the value as an ore for other important metals such as chromite (used in armor and stainless steel), and mercury (used original to separate gold from its host ore). The proposed bill was never voted on.

The Red Hills are semiarid with only a few creeks that dry up quickly as the summer progresses. But a few small springs and pools persist through the year and in those pools is an endemic fish, the Red Hills Roach, a distinct subspecies of the California Roach. It is found nowhere else in the world. We saw some of them a few weeks ago during our visit, but the video below is from an earlier, wetter year.

The rest of the photos are some of the flowers we saw this year, some old friends, and one or two new discoveries.

Five Spot (Nemophila maculata)

Monkeyflower (Erythranthe sp.)

Bitter root (Lewisia rediviva)

The last flower was one we've not noticed before. It seems to be a Fort Millers Clarkia, but I am open to correction!
Fort Miller Clarkia (?) (Clarkia williamsonii)
There are just a few flowers left in the Red Hills as of last Friday, but to see the spectacular show you'll need to wait until next spring. But...the rocks are always there!

The Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern is in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Chinese Camp off of Highway 120. If you want to learn more, or pay a visit, information about the Red Hills can be found on this BLM website, and the trail and road map can be found here.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

41st Anniversary of the Eruption of Mt. St. Helens: It Still Matters and So Does Science

It is the 41st anniversary of the eruption of the St. Helens volcano and as I think of those days, I realize that even though a majority of the population wasn't even alive at the time, the volcano still matters. Not because of the potential for future eruptions (although that remains a distinct possibility), but because of the way we process and deal with the natural hazards that we all face, no matter where we live. This is kind of a recurring post that I've modified over the years.

When the volcano began rumbling and sending ash into the atmosphere, we had only a few avenues to get information, mainly television news, radio, and newspapers. I think now how limiting these sources were compared to the nearly instantaneous delivery of news over the internet in the present day. We can look up earthquakes just moments after they happen, and webcams allow us to monitor volcanoes around the world in real time. There is both good and bad in this profound change. There were terrible sources of news in those olden days, like the Weekly World News or the National Enquirer, but they pale in comparison to the sewage found on the internet today. Back then, national news outlets and newspapers practiced careful journalism in most instances, but it often seems today that the only reward for excellence and honesty in reporting is decreased ratings and falling revenues. To get attention in a crowded internet environment media outlets have to dress their stories as shiny objects and provide them with the worst possible clickbait titles. In the olden days we often had to wait impatiently for information about natural disasters, but the information that came through the media was more likely to be vetted and checked for accuracy. The journalistic filters today are completely gone in many media sources, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the trash and the truth.

There are so many conspiracy theories floating around today about natural disasters and potential disasters. The eruptions of Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone National Park numerous times after years of quiescence caused a blizzard of posts on the internet pondering whether Yellowstone has been disturbed and may blow as a "supervolcano" eruption soon (and we'll all die). The same has happened after a number of recent small earthquakes. But a reading of the reality-based data says that Yellowstone caldera has not had a lava flow or eruption of any kind in 70,000 years, and no knowledgeable geologist sees any evidence of precursors to any new eruptions. A few years back, an earthquake and an internet video of a group of bison running "away" from Yellowstone caused the same kind of internet speculation (it turns out the bison were running towards the caldera).

Of course it is true that the Yellowstone caldera was born in one of the most colossal eruptions ever recorded. Learning the story of the eruption of the Huckleberry Tuff is fascinating. It brings an entirely new appreciation of the incredible scenery to be observed in a place that contains 70% of all the world's geysers. It should be enough. But there are so many individuals out there who would like to make a buck by scaring people needlessly. And there are too many gullible and ignorant people out there who can't pick rational accounts out of the confusing mix of conspiracy theories that exist on the internet.

And then there is the Big Island of Hawai'i. There were some serious and tragic things going on in 2018 when the longest eruption in recorded history reached a climax. The activity endangered lives and destroyed homes as Kilauea underwent major changes from the "norm" of the eruptions that had been ongoing for the last 35 years. One of the truly awesome sights I have ever seen was the collapse of a portion of the Kilauea Caldera into a gigantic pit that reached a depth of 1,800 feet. It stabilized for a year or so, even forming a lake (of water) at the bottom, but then a few months ago the eruptions started again, filling the pit with 700 feet of roiling molten basalt. 

The U.S. Geological Survey and Hawaiian civil defense authorities did a pretty good job of providing up-to-date information about the latest activity, but that didn't stop all kinds of stories from popping up on the internet about the "Ring of Fire" which has nothing at all to do with Hawai'i. It was just too easy to pick up stories of eruptions in Alaska and Indonesia and think there was a pattern of increasing volcanism or earthquake activity (OMG, a magnitude 6 quake in the Kermadec Islands and an eruption at Mt. Cleveland in Alaska! It's a pattern and therefore Seattle will fall into the sea very soon!). The problem is one of perspective: if you had signed up for earthquake notifications and volcano advisories from the USGS or other geologic research institutions, you would have realized that these things happen all the time, and that a cluster of events is not unusual.

It's one thing to make up stories about normal volcanic activity to scare people. One can argue that they are ultimately harmless because the eruptions aren't actually taking place or hurting anyone. But there are real-world consequences of ignoring journalistic standards. Many of those who make their money with false headlines about such things will also traffic in climate change denial. When science becomes a matter of believing whatever one wishes, the very real problem of global warming becomes just another "scare" story, and the alarm bells being sounded by climate scientists become just more noise in an internet full of noise. But the predicted real-world consequences are happening now, and action is needed to counteract the changes or to stop them. But it has become too easy to ignore the problem because it is so incremental and slow-acting. It just can't compete with the shiny baubles and clickbait on the web.
People in Hawai'i mostly trusted the geologists who studied the volcanoes all their lives and thus made the correct decisions about evacuating homes and businesses. In the same way they trusted the seismologists when a tsunami threatened the islands in 2011 after the massive earthquake in Japan. No lives were lost when the tsunami hit because people had evacuated the low-lying areas. The wave surge was 8 feet deep in places and caused millions of dollars of damage. Many people could have been killed, but they accepted the authority of the scientists who predicted the timing and magnitude of the seismically induced waves.

There has been one characteristic about the natural disasters that I've described above. They were local events that profoundly changed lives, but in large and yet limited regions. When earthquakes and volcanic eruptions strike, survivors can turn to other regional state and national governments for support, since those entities were not so badly affected. Now we face a different set of natural disasters: those that affect the entire planet. Pandemics and climate change affect all of us. Witness the spread of the COVID-19 virus last year to literally every corner and every country of the planet in a matter of weeks.

Scientific experts have long predicted the emergence of dangerous new strains of viruses, and previous administrations used the best scientific minds to prepare for their inevitable arrival. But those administrations were replaced by one that denigrated scientific expertise and fired the experts who could have crafted an appropriate national response to the COVID-19 virus. And last year we saw the result: nearly 600,000 deaths in the U.S. with more to come, lack of critical medical supplies in the critical early months, and no coordinated federal response, even once vaccines became available. Even worse was a propaganda campaign that convinced people that the disease was not as bad as it clearly was, and worse still, that the vaccines were some kind of insidious plot. Other countries listened to their scientists and saved countless lives. I thank the heavens that the country ultimately elected an administration that is being guided for the most part by science in their decision-making processes.

And that's why the Mt. St. Helens eruption of 1980 matters today. Scientific expertise matters. The pandemic (and others to come) will be a continuing problem in our interconnected world. Climate change is proving to be an even more profound danger to society than any virus, earthquake or volcanic eruption. We need people to give climate scientists the same kind of respect they give geologists when volcanoes are rumbling and smoking. They are the ones to listen to, not the hucksters on the internet who are out to make a buck, or trying to protect those industries that make their profits off of producing greenhouse gases. We seem to talk little these days about integrity and striving for excellence, but scientific researchers are among those who still have those traits. There are always exceptions, but I would trust a scientist over a politician every time (unless it is clear that the politician knows how to listen to a scientist).

There is a sign seen at some of the March For Science protests that have been happening around the country: "At the start of every disaster movie there's a scientist being ignored". Unfortunately, it is too true in real life as well.

This has been an abridged and updated version of my St. Helen eruption anniversary reflection.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Yosemite Valley This Week: A Moment of Spring Richness and an Uncertain Future


I admit it. I fear what lies ahead. That's not the usual opening statement in a photo-essay of Yosemite Valley at its best moments. But that's the problem. I was there last week, when the heaviest snowmelt should have been weeks in the future. And the valley was at its best, a lovely escape from the summer-like heat of the Great Valley downstream.
But the peak runoff is not weeks in the future. It is probably already past. This year's snowpack was an unmitigated disaster. The few storms that did come dropped a bit of snow, enough in some years to get by, but very warm and dry conditions during April dropped the snowpack to around 5-10% of normal, or what passes for normal in these uncertain times. The snowpack would usually keep the famous waterfalls busy until mid-June or even July, but many of them may be dry within a few short weeks. And then the fires will come. I don't know what lies ahead for this most beautiful of valleys, but a disastrous fire has to be considered as a possibility.
The natural condition of the floor of Yosemite Valley has always been controlled by wildfire. Lightning strikes have caused fires for thousands of years, leaving the valley floor as a patchwork of open meadows with a few mature oaks and ponderosa capable of surviving the occasional grass fires. When humans first discovered the valley thousands of years ago, they continued the practice of burning the valley floor every few years. They had their motives of course; the acorns of the fire-resistant Black Oaks provided much of their diet, and the hunting of game was easier when the prey was in an open meadow rather than a deep forest.
When the valley was "saved" by turning it first into a state park in 1864 and later into a national park in 1890, fire suppression became the governing philosophy. The park's original 745 acres of meadows were invaded by young saplings and the 65 acres of meadows today represents only 7% or so of their original extent. It didn't help that drainage outlet of one of the wetland areas was dynamited to keep down the mosquito population.
Much of the valley floor has become a thicket of young and unhealthy conifer trees, a fire hazard of the highest order. The park service has come around to accept the need for fires in the management of the valley, but their success has been spotty and controversial. Prescribed fires have been done in some areas of the park, but more than one has gotten out of control and damaged structures. And prescribed fires are done when soil and fuel conditions are on the wet side. That is not the case at Yosemite this year.

An alternate practice was begun around a decade ago, and it too has been controversial. Instead of burning, the park service has been allowing tree-cutting to be done in some areas to remove the unhealthy trees. The buzz of chainsaws does not seem compatible with the general notion of "preserving" natural lands, but it may be a necessary evil. It led to an unexpected change for me as we visited the park last week.

Everyone always seems to be in a hurry as they scurry through the park looking for parking spots. The traffic was a problem because the free park shuttles weren't running due to the pandemic. So to see the many features of the valley, one had to park and hike quite some distance, or else drive from parking lot to parking lot looking for a good view. I was letting traffic pass by pulling into roadsides that normally don't offer much in the ways of views. But this time was different.
A lot of trees had been cleared from a pullout that I knew had never had much of a view before. No one else was there, but as I got out I could see something was different. The rocks above were, well, unexpected. I've struggled at times to get an interesting angle on the Cathedral Spires (above), but they were easily visible. And as I turned, I realized the Three Brothers were also in the open (below). 
And as I turned yet again, I had a full-on view of El Capitan that showed the full expanse of the cliff from the "Nose" to Horsetail Falls. The sawn-down trees in the foreground were perhaps a sad mess (that will be cured in time by natural forces of decay), but the view of the cliffs was dramatic and quite unexpected. We sat in the pull-out and enjoyed a quiet lunch.
The Pacific Dogwoods were in full bloom. The trees are a somewhat nondescript part of the understory for much of the year, but during the spring the flowers are dramatic (and for the biologists among you, I know that the big white petals are actually modified leaves or bracts, and that the true flowers are in the "button" in the middle). 
Our journey through the valley was our first in nearly a year. It included a stop at one of the most congested spots, but as is always true, there was a reason for its popularity. The Tunnel View is close to the spot where European colonizers first viewed the valley in 1851. The party, a militia trying to chase down a group of Ahwahnechee people, was largely unimpressed with the valley. But their medic, Lafayette Bunnell, was deeply moved by the sight, and later interviewed Chief Tenaya and others to learn what he could of the valley. He is credited with the names of many of the features, including the name of the valley itself. Yosemite seems to have been a derivative of the Miwok name for Grizzly Bear. Their actual name for the valley was "Ah-wah-nee".
So a hot and dry summer season looms. I hope for the best.