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: 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.

Friday, May 7, 2021

Went Looking for Rocks and Birds, Came Back With Flowers and Butterflies

Oh boy, do I ever have a blind spot for learning. I can't learn flowers or butterflies. I'd blame it on age, but I've managed to learn something like 200 bird names in the last three years, so it's not that. Whatever the cause, I headed into the hills of the Sierra Nevada today looking for rocks and birds, but I came home with a bunch of flower pictures with butterflies that I couldn't confidently identify. So I won't try...I'll depend on your help! The comments section is below.
We were headed to Yosemite Valley to see the waterfalls before they dried up (it has been an excruciatingly dry year). We had already missed what was apparently a spectacular Golden Poppy extravaganza in the Merced River canyon downstream of Yosemite, but there were still plenty of wildflowers to be seen, especially on the shady north-facing slopes. But the unexpected delight of the day was the abundance of butterflies on what flowers there were.
One poor individual flew into our car and had a confusing time trying to get nectar from a pillow.
There was even bits of drama with butterflies vying for the best flowers. The one in the pictures above and below drove off several Checkerspots.
I guess if I get tired of trying to identify every bird I see, I'll turn to flowers and butterflies. The thing is, birds are a year-round project. The flowers are ephemeral, and so are the organisms that feed off of them.
There weren't just butterflies in the wildflower fields. I caught the Ladybug below too, and any number of bees and flies.
It was a spectacular day, and not just from the flowers. Look for some new posts on Yosemite Valley as soon as I get the chance!