Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Fire in the Sky: The Perspective That Comes When Time is Running Out

It was nothing more than the evening commute to school to give a final examination in my Earth Science course. It was a bit after 4 PM and the sun was settling into the horizon, and the spectacle of it all caused me to pull to the side of the road. I have a habit of taking my camera with me everywhere, so I was able to snap a few pictures of the seemingly striped orb. It was also a moment of reflection.

It was a beautiful sight, but it was tinged with great sadness. The color is coming from the homes and dreams of a lot of people in Southern California who are battling a devastating wildfire that has consumed nearly 250,000 acres (that's nearly 400 square miles). At least 700 homes have been lost already. The flames, driven by a severe Santa Ana Wind event, produced volcano-like plumes of smoke and ash that flowed out to sea and then up the coast of Central and Northern California. There is a ridge of high pressure out there, parked over an exceedingly warm Pacific Ocean that is diverting the normal late fall and early winter rainstorms far to the north. There has been no precipitation in our area for weeks, and none in the long-range forecast. The fires in SoCal come on the heels of the even more devastating fires that swept through the wine country a few weeks back, destroying thousands of homes, and killing several dozen people. The drought and the attendant wildfire intensity is seemingly back after a brief one year respite.

It's hard to convince skeptics of climate change if they are not living in the path of the worst effects. But the effects are extending to more and more people as the decades slip by. There were warnings of mega-droughts and longer fire seasons in the west and southwest years ago. There were predictions of hurricanes amped up by warmer ocean water. There were the obvious forecasts of sea-level rise that are now having a visible impact in coastal cities like Miami, Florida and Venice, Italy. And the glaciers and icecaps are continuing to melt away as they were decades ago, and at an accelerating pace. Unprecedented record-setting heatwaves are becoming distressingly commonplace. The evidence of global climate change is becoming ever more apparent to people around the world, and to their leaders as well, all of whom are signatories to the Paris Climate Accords. Every country, that is, except one. The United States of America.

Many people, probably most, don't consider science when they stand in the voting booth and make their choices. A distressing number of people end up never standing in the booth for one reason or another, but too often because of voter suppression activity. The rest are thinking about the "issues" like standing for national anthems (or kneeling), or building walls, or any one of dozens of temporary controversies (look up Willie Horton ads some day). Perhaps most think about misogyny, racism, taxes, or the economy. These things are important, of course, because these are issues of life, and quality of life. But few think about science, the environment, and the long term effects of what we are doing with the choices that we make. In the long run, these are some of the most important things that impact our lives. But our political representatives can only think in time frames of two, four, and six years, the length of their terms in office. We need to hold their feet to the fire (figuratively) to make choices that benefit us all long after their terms have ended.

Perhaps the most important game in town right now is education. It is only through education that people can make the right choices that will secure their future and the future of their children and their grandchildren. An educated populace is not going to be hoodwinked and cheated by charlatans and con-men running for public office. And education never stops in high school or college. It is a life-long skill, especially now when the entire breadth and depth of human knowledge can be accessed by the phone in your pocket. Take advantage of it.

The sun doesn't seem to move all that fast when it is high in the sky and hours are left in the day. But when the end of the day is near, and one has the perspective of the horizon, the darkness comes quickly. We are being given that "gift" (or warning, if you wish) of perspective concerning climate change. We've been given the predictions and projections from twenty and thirty years ago, with results that are sometimes off by a bit, but almost invariably worse than expected. I don't know when it is too late; it is different for different groups of people and different biomes and ecosystems. But we have been warned.

In any case, that's what I thought about while the sun sank below the horizon and the darkness set in.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Every Victory is Fragile, Every Loss is Catastrophic: Bear's Ears National Monument and the Valley of the Gods

Bear's Ears National Monument is a magical place. It is a place of mystery and vast vistas, a place of sacredness to many people. It is one of our country's most precious treasures. When President Obama accepted years of negotiation and work by "stakeholders" in the region and established the monument in 2016, I rejoiced. But I knew that the victory would be fleeting because of the election of rapacious vile people who only understand dollar signs. Bear's Ears National Monument is under an existential threat by Secretary of the Interior Zinke, Trump, and certain local officials. Trump recently exceeded his authority and tried to shrink the monument by 85%, and the matter is now in court. New documents suggest that Zinke used recommendations by Canadian uranium mining companies to redraw the boundaries, which just happened to remove monument protection from potential uranium ore-bearing formations. It is a "land grab" of breath-taking proportions, and not in a good way.
Monument Valley from the edge of Cedar Mesa at Muley Point
We need to know what we are losing, and so I've been doing a couple of posts on the monuments that are threatened by the robber barons who are threatening our most beautiful and sacred places. This is an abridged version of a post from February of 2014:

Pareidolia is a very human tendency to perceive faces and significant forms in unlikely places, like on oddly shaped potatoes and burnt tortillas. It is what allows us to see the "Man in the Moon". It's hardwired into our brains, and I wouldn't be surprised if it arose out of a need to recognize the eyes and faces of creatures that in a past era would have eaten us.

We journeyed to the region in 2013, and we were headed into one of the more isolated corners of the Colorado Plateau. After traveling through Monument Valley, we turned north into Mexican Hat, Utah, and headed up a gravel road into Valley of the Gods. This was new for me; in a quarter of a century, I somehow had never found the time to explore the 17 mile loop through a series of amphitheaters along the eastern margin of Cedar Mesa. It was a magical place, and in 2016 it was included within the boundaries of Bear's Ears National Monument. In 2017 it was removed from protection.

The Sitting Hen at Valley of the Gods, from the back

I find myself speculating about the connections between magic and science when I am in a place like Valley of the Gods. Science has given us a "creation myth" about how these rock pedestals formed.  The cliff-forming unit is the Cedar Mesa Sandstone, which formed in coastal dunes and beaches in Permian time perhaps 270 million years ago. The underlying ledge-forming rock is the Halgaito Shale, which formed in coastal deltas and shallow marine conditions somewhat earlier in the Permian Period. The spires formed from cliff retreat as the softer Halgaito rock undercut the sandstone cliffs (I described the process in an earlier post). Tricks and variations in the erosional process formed the hollows and shadows that give the pedestals their eyes and faces.
The Sitting Hen, or as I like to call it, the Rubber Ducky at Valley of the Gods.
So, who is to say that science has a better explanation for the origin of these features than others who see the shapes and ascribe their origin to gods or aliens or whatever? In ages past there was no technology to truly study the origin of these rocks, and no cultural experience with deltas, or river floodplains, or beaches. The people who observed these towers thousands of years ago were just as intelligent (if not more so) than people today, but they had no experience or written history that could record the appearance of rocks forming today in the environments listed above. So they described the rocks in a way that best explained what they saw within the limits of their technology. They saw people, animals, and monsters, and produced stories and adventures that explained how they could be turned to stone.
The Battleship, right out of Monopoly!

Does science deny the possibility of aliens carving these exquisite sculptures, or that gods turned miscreant humans into stone? Actually, science doesn't. It does in fact state that these other explanations could be true but that the probability is extremely low, based on the absolute paucity of supporting evidence. The scientific explanation is supported by extensive and overwhelming evidence. Scientists would acknowledge that the presently accepted explanation could be supplanted were new evidence were to emerge. Indeed they expect such changes in the fullness of time.

Compare this attitude to that of someone who has decided on an explanation, truly believes it, and chooses to ignore any contrary evidence. There is no growth, no increase in knowledge in such an person. Belief doesn't make it real, but evidence makes an explanation more likely.

Some might say that science removes the excitement and mystery of a good creation story. I would respectfully disagree. I would say that an understanding of geologic processes leads to more mystery and wonder. Consider the rocks; once one realizes that these rocks were part of a coastal complex, the question arises: where was the ocean and why was it in this place? Today the oceans are a thousand miles away. These rocks were eroded from a mountain range somewhere. Could we find where that mountain range was? Why did those mountains rise? What forces were acting on the crust to cause them to develop? What kinds of creatures lived on these floodplains and deltas? Where did they come from? What happened to them? As it turns out, the world was only a few million years from the worst extinction event ever to take place on planet Earth. Some 95% of all species on the planet vanished 252 million years ago. All these questions invite further study and further growth. Each effort to answer these questions adds to the body of human knowledge. It is a creation story that grows and changes with the addition of new data.

On the other hand, it's fun to play games with these fascinating forms of nature. What do you think they are?

I know this: they are beautiful to gaze upon, even if beauty is a subjective judgement. Did the humans who first saw these desert monuments see them as beautiful? Or were they simply part of a rugged harsh landscape that may or may not be hiding a resource that could extend human life in this tough land?
I definitely see a huge mechanical hand rising out of the ground.

We passed the base of Lady in a Bathtub (picture below) and drove back down to Mexican Hat for one last stop in civilization. We were headed onto Cedar Mesa, another special place that was protected under the monument status of Bear's Ears, and which illegally lost protection under the new directives from the administration.
The Lady in the Bathtub.

The loop road through Valley of the Gods is accessed from US 163 out of Mexican Hat, Utah, while the west entrance is on US 261 near the base of the Moki Dugway. There are no facilities along the loop, which is managed and maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. There is a small campsite at nearby Goosenecks of the San Juan State Park, but no water is available. If you go, bring a camera or sketchpad. Even if you never go, fight for the protection of these lands by contacting your representatives in Congress, and support the organizations who are suing the administration over its illegal actions.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Every Victory is Fragile, Every Loss is Catastrophic: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

There are times when I hate perspective. I really do. I came of age in the 1970s during that turbulent time when we as a society realized that we were poisoning ourselves to death, that our air was putrid, that our water was contaminated, and that our lands were not infinite. The Wilderness Act of 1964 was not yet a decade old, and new wilderness areas were being established.. A great battle was fought over the wilderness lands of Alaska, and at least in small ways, one came into the 1980s thinking there was some hope for the future.
The victories were in many ways illusory. Corporations that contributed to pollution of our air and water made changes, yes, and our air and water got cleaner. So much so that in many cases we came to take it for granted (don't ask Flint, Michigan about this). Wilderness areas were established, national monuments were declared, and one could look to a future where these lands would be permanently protected.
The problem with complacency is that often the opposition is not being equally complacent. The very moment a victory was achieved, when another little corner of the country was "saved", those who lost their potential to profit off of national resources began plotting ways to undermine the victories. They knew how to play the long game, so they paid their political bribes and bided their time.
So as I look back on the changes in the last forty years, I start to realize how much we have lost. The rise of population has caused cities to spread into formerly wild lands with horrifying efficiency. Species have been lost and threatened due to loss of habitat world-wide. Old-growth forests continue to be cut down (yes, we need wood, but it can be grown in a sustainable way). And a new threat manifested itself in the thermometers around the planet. Climate change and global warming threaten to overwhelm our ecosystems. So much of the planet's resources are strained to the breaking point. But I hold on to those few places that haven't been paved over, logged, or strip-mined. I find this little bit of hope in the wild places that are left.
And that is what is so depressing about the events in the past couple of weeks. In 1996, President Clinton used his prerogative under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to put a stop to a proposed coal strip-mine on the Kaiparowits Plateau in southern Utah. He established a national monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante, to protect the plateau as well as the spectacular drainage of the Escalante River, and the unique geologic feature called the Grand Staircase. It was controversial, yes, but it was also farsighted. As geologists and biologists began to assess the resources of the park, they discovered unique treasures. Paleontologists began discovering new dinosaur species as well as a host of other fossilized animals and plants. The uniqueness of this incredible landscape gained wider recognition, and tourists and adventurers tired of the crowds in the small confined parts of Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks came to love the wide-open spaces of Grand Staircase-Escalante. The local towns and villages, initially disappointed at the apparent loss of jobs, began to see an uptick in their economies, and employment increased in the tourist trade.
But then catastrophic things happened, culminating in the election of the most environmentally ignorant man ever to hold public office in America. The coal companies, the uranium miners, and the oil drillers had been waiting for the chance to take over the public lands that they wanted for themselves, and they greased the palms of enough politicians to make sure that Donald Trump was convinced to try and rescind the establishment of the monument. There was a sham of an evaluation period that included public comments running 98 to 2 in favor of maintaining the boundaries of the monument. 98%! In a politically divided time, how many issues have the literally unanimous support of our citizens? But it wasn't enough. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said flat out that he would ignore the desires of the American people because the comments were part of a "well-organized campaign". Would it have helped if it wasn't organized?
The vultures in the Trump administration are insisting that they will split the monument into three much smaller units, and delete nearly half of the monument from any protection at all. By some incredible coincidence, the unprotected lands happen to be on the site of that prohibited coal mine, as well as uranium prospects, and potential oil drilling sites. Keep in mind that these sites were ignored and unutilized for a century before Clinton made his proclamation official. But on an even more fundamental level, what justification exists to give over precious public lands, under legal protection for twenty years, over to the profit for a handful of people? Here's a hint: there is none. These lands belong to all of us, and 98% of us say "no".

The attempt by Zinke and Trump to steal our lands, both here at Grand Staircase-Escalante and at Bear's Ears, as well as the other monuments scattered across the country, will be judged in a court of law. One of the lawsuits can be reviewed here. Congress needs to know that we want these lands protected, too. There is an effort to make these changes in the legislature, and that effort needs to fail.

I hope that you will have a chance to see and explore these lands before they are despoiled by economic parasites and vultures. Even more importantly, I hope that you will join the efforts to protect these lands. A good place to start is with any of the parties to the lawsuit listed above. They are included in the article found here. The clothing manufacturer Patagonia deserves credit as well. They have taken a very public stand in favor of the monuments (information here).

In the meantime, please enjoy these images of some of my explorations of the monument.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Our Children Will Say "Why Didn't You Tell Us?", and We'll Say We Tried: The Government Isn't Just Denying Climate Change.

I'm reposting my blog from January 27 of this year. It is a story that needs to be told again. At the time I wrote it shortly after the inauguration, it could have been described as alarmist...that I wasn't giving the new president a chance. But the reality is that after 10 months, we are being endangered by the actions of this administration. Word comes today from National Public Radio that scientists applying for grants from the National Science Foundation are removing the words "global warming" or "climate change" from their proposals. They are censoring themselves. This is beyond concerning.

The budgets at NASA, NOAA, the National Weather Service, and the National Park Service have been deeply slashed to literally blind us to the effects of climate change. Those who work for these agencies doing climate change research have been marginalized if not outright fired. The appointees to the EPA, the Department of Energy and other agencies are climate change deniers. And yet the effects of climate change continued unabated during the past year. We have seen the amped up hurricanes that devastated Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. We saw the worst fires in California history destroy thousands of homes. We have sweltered through unprecedented heat waves.We see entire forests dying from the attacks of bugs that are normally killed in cold winter conditions. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia is dying in front of our eyes. The Arctic ice is at record low levels and declining. Sea level continues to rise. And we are in the process of withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords, the only country in the world that is doing so.

I am not a major voice in the political debate. My blog reaches hundreds of people, although on a good day it will reach thousands. But we have to stand up to this denial, and I hope that those of you who have followed my blog over the years will make your voice heard. We still have tools, we can still protest, we can still contact those who "represent" us in Congress. In many cases, we still have the right to vote (although that right is seriously threatened as well).

Please read what follows to understand why we must stand up to this administration:

Is Trumpism/Pencism the New Lysenkoism? The Need to Defend Science From "Alternative Facts"
Drought-killed trees in Yosemite Valley, California

Imagine what it must have been like living under communist rule in the Soviet Union during Joseph Stalin's regime. I can't even begin to imagine the unspeakable horrors that led to the deaths of tens of millions of people for a variety of reasons, but events this week have brought to mind a particular episode that is unfamiliar to the public at large, but which had a profound effect on Soviet agriculture. It was no doubt among the reasons for the failure of the totalitarian rule over the Soviet Union. Why? Because they were never really able to feed their own people, especially wheat. The Soviets had plenty of arable land. Why did this happen? There were always profound inefficiencies in the Soviet economy, but the heart of the problem was a single man: Trofim Denisovich Lysenko.
Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, 1898-1976. Source:
How could one man do so much damage? It had to do with how science was done in the Soviet Union under communist rule. Scientific research, at least in agriculture, was done from the top down. The government decided what was true, and directed that research must confirm what the government knew was true. If that didn't happen, scientists and researchers faced arrest, re-education, and possible death. And in the Soviet Union, from the 1920s until 1965, Lysenko was in charge of agriculture.

Simply stated, Lysenko didn't accept the theory of evolution by natural selection. He denied Mendelian genetics or even the presence of genes in plants and animals. He instead believed an earlier hypothesis called Lamarkism as well as his own bizarre ideas about inheritance. In essence, he believed that organisms could pass down their experiences to their offspring. A simple model to illustrate this would be an experiment in which dogs had their tails surgically removed, generation after generation. After enough time had passed, puppies would start being born without tails. These were called acquired characteristics. In essence, he insisted that the best strains of cold-weather wheat could be achieved by repeatedly subjecting the seeds of warmer climate strains with cold temperatures. They would then acquire the ability to grow in colder climates.

And so, under his direction, farmers were ordered to grow inferior wheat strains for decades, and the results were no surprise. Production suffered, and over the years the Soviets had to import wheat from other countries, including the United States. The study of DNA, genetics, and natural selection continued unabated in other parts of the world, and agricultural yields ballooned as a result. Yet despite these failures, Lysenko continued as the Director of Genetics for the Academy of Sciences for decades. And he had true power. Under his reign, more than 3,000 geneticists who didn't toe the Lysenko line were arrested, and many of them were executed.
Athabasca Glacier in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. The glacier has been receding for decades

So why are we talking about Lysenko tonight? I can barely keep up with the daily outrages of the new Trump/Pence administration, but one of the most chilling news stories during the transition period and inaugural week has been the attack on science and scientific research. Global warming and climate change have been declared to be false, and Trump officials have taken steps to end government research into this most pressing environmental issue. They have demanded the names of climate researchers at the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Park Service and other departments, suggesting a coming purge (update: this has happened). They announced a gag order on dissemination of the results of research by government experts, even outside of government channels. They have attempted to restrict information flow via the social media. There have been hints of draconian budget cuts in scientific research.

The cause, of course, is not a belief in some other cause of warming. Many of Trump's followers deny that warming is even happening. Because Trump, Pence, and the others in the administration do not believe in global warming, they have decided that it must not be investigated. They are trying to use their position of power to alter the direction of scientific research to conform to their own preconceived beliefs. That runs absolutely counter to the trajectory and goal of scientific exploration, and very much counter to the role of science in America throughout its history. Scientific research and discovery has been a driver that has allowed the American economy to thrive. For a country to promote scientific research that is directed from above towards categorically wrong conclusions is courting disaster, and the implications are worldwide in scope.

I am encouraged at the response of the scientific community. There has been a concerted effort to protect and preserve the research that has been conducted in the past, and researchers are beginning to realize that they will have to become politically active, despite a tendency to avoid it in the past. Resistance has been growing in the social media. To be clear, this is not a Democratic-Republican issue, or a liberal-conservative issue. It is a battle between factual truths and willful ignorance. It is also an economic issue, as the opposition is richly funded by corporations who stand to profit handsomely by denying the existence of global warming. Unfortunately, we will all lose in the end.

I've tended to avoid politics in this blog, but that has to change now. Until the Trump/Pence administration acknowledges the critical role of independent scientific research, they must be challenged at every turn. The stakes are simply too high for Americans and the rest of the world. It doesn't matter what Trump and Pence believe. They may believe warming hasn't happened, but sea level will continue to rise anyway. Coral reefs will continue to die off. Glaciers will continue to melt. Storms will become more intense, as will droughts. The world will get hotter, and each year will decrease our chances to deal effectively with the issue. For Pence and Trump to be willfully ignorant about science is appalling. To ignore the advice and counsel of experts in the many fields of science is absolute folly.

I fear we have entered into a new age of Lysenkoism. Yes, that is a term. And it would be a tragedy.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

It Seems That Half the Volcano is Missing: Travels at Pinnacles National Park

Sixty or seventy years ago, the San Andreas fault didn't exist. Well, it existed, but not in the way it exists for those of us in California today.  It had been named only in 1895 after a valley and reservoir on the San Francisco Peninsula by Professor Andrew Lawson, and it was only after the disaster of 1906 that it was recognized to be a feature that extended for hundreds of miles into southern California. Although the earthquake produced clearly defined lateral motion amounting to as much as 20 feet along a fracture running for 200 miles, it was still considered to be a fault with primarily vertical motion. The reason? Some meteorologist named Alfred Wegener was stirring up controversy in the geological world by claiming that continents drifted across the face of the planet. Geologists knew this was impossible, and therefore the idea of large-scale horizontal motion along fault zones was highly unlikely.
Looking north towards the High Peaks of Pinnacles
Still, geologists kept finding stubborn little problems with the assumption of vertical motion. Levi Noble suggested in 1927 that the fault in southern California had shifted some Cenozoic sediments around 26 miles. The idea was controversial. Robert Wallace produced even more debate, suggesting in his Ph.D. thesis that a portion of the fault in the Mojave Desert had been shifted 75 miles sideways.
View from the High Peaks Trail at Pinnacles National Park
The real shocker came just a few years later in 1953 when Thomas Dibblee Jr. and Mason Hill published an explosive paper in the Geological Society of America Bulletin. Thomas Dibblee Jr. was recognized for his amazing ability to map large swaths of central and southern California (see the map below). Mason Hill had developed a reputation as a finder of oil using geological methods (strangely, prior to the 1920s oil companies had little interest in employing geologists; that changed quickly). They worked together for a number of years for the company that became ARCO, mapping out structures in the rocks near the San Andreas fault in Central California. In time they began to recognize that there were similarities between rocks on opposite sides of the fault, but offset by dozens, even hundreds of miles. Their paper documented the amount of offset (up to 320 miles!), and preceded other discoveries at the time that suggested that "continental drift" (actually plate tectonics theory) was in fact how the planet was working.
Parts of California mapped by Thomas Dibblee Jr. (from the Thomas Dibblee Foundation)
Although their main conclusions were eventually accepted, their idea was hobbled by the lack of a "piercing point", a geological feature that crossed the San Andreas fault with a sharp boundary that would allow precise measurement of the total offset along the fault. Although their correlations were sound, there was some uncertainty about just how much the fault had moved.
Climbing the High Peaks Trail
Although it was right there on the state geologic map, few people seemed to notice that there was a little dot of volcanic rocks on one side of the San Andreas fault, and another 195 miles north along the fault on the other side of the fault. The rocks were broadly of the same age and general composition, but no one had carefully mapped them, and even more importantly, compared them. It fell to Vince Matthews III in 1976 to do the work. He found striking similarities between the two rocks sequences, the Pinnacles Volcanics, and the Neenach Volcanics (below). A good piercing point had been found! The San Andreas fault had slipped sideways a total distance of 195 miles in 23.5 million years.
From Vince Matthews III documenting the correlation of the Pinnacles and Neenach Volcanics. Source: USGS Professional Paper 1515
And that brings us to the subject of this post, Pinnacles National Park. Established recently, in 2013, it had actually been declared a national monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Of course no one in 1908 knew that the spectacular spires and peaks were only half of a volcano, or that the volcano had been shifted 195 miles from its original location in Southern California. But it was known that the mountains were far different than the "usual" low ridges and valleys of the Coast Ranges. They stood out. (NOTE: I'm sorry for the black font that follows. I don't know how it got there and I don't know how to remove it...)
Into the Bear Gulch Caves (bring a flashlight if you go)
Pinnacles National Park is a fascinating place to visit for many reasons. It was once a stratovolcano (composite cone) composed of andesite, dacite, and rhyolite standing perhaps 8,000 feet above sea level. It had at least five eruptive centers, which would have given it a less symmetrical profile than peaks such as Fujiyama or Mt. Hood. Perhaps a good analog that can be visited today would be the lumpy edifice of Mammoth Mountain, that of the famous ski area in the eastern Sierra Nevada.
At the top of the Bear Gulch Caves, just below the reservoir
The volcanic rocks are fairly resistant to erosion, but are riddled with joints and fractures that allow water (and sometimes ice) to get in and weather the minerals to clay. Mass wasting does much of the rest, causing gigantic boulders to slide, tumble and fall into the adjacent valleys. In some cases the boulders were so thick that they covered the bottom of the canyon, forming some fascinating talus caves. We explored the Bear Gulch Caves during our recent field studies to the park. The CCC built a trail and stairway through the cave, leading to an experience akin to the Fellowship of the Ring exploring the Mines of Moria. There is even a modest underground waterfall. At the end of the caves, one more stairwell climbs the rock wall to the modest Bear Gulch Reservoir, also built by the CCC. 
There are miles of other trails in the park, including the High Peaks Trail that must not be missed as long as your phobia of heights is held in check. It is a marvelous 5 mile loop that provides awesome views. Other trails explore the sycamore woodlands along the streams. There are several visitor centers and a campground. If you pay close attention, you will see California Condors soaring in the skies above.
In case you are wondering, the Neenach Volcanics are not nearly as dramatic as Pinnacles. They are exposed at the edge of the Mojave Desert relatively close to the Antelope Valley Poppy Preserve. I stopped there a few years back and got a couple of pictures and some rock samples. It's kind of neat to pull out the tray of Neenach Volcanics samples during our field trip and do a visual comparison with the Pinnacles rocks. We end up bringing the sundered volcano back together in a small way...

Hill, M.L., and Dibblee, T.W., Jr., 1953, San Andreas, Garlock, and Big Pine faults, California: Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 64, p. 443–458.

Matthews, V., III, 1976, Correlation of Pinnacles and Neenach volcanic formations and their bearing on San Andreas fault problem: Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, v. 60, no. 12, p. 2128-2141.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

An Iconic Bit of the Calaveras Fault in Hollister is Gone (But it will be back)

Corner of Locust and Central Avenues in 2016
I go on field studies trips year after year, and my camera is always around my neck, to the amusement of my students. They sometimes wonder why I would take pictures of things I already have dozens of pictures already. I sometimes wonder the same thing when I am trying to track down a specific shot from my archives of tens of thousands of pictures. But for a teaching geologist, there is a very good reason:

Things change.

Sometimes it is sudden, like a flood in Yosemite or on the Tuolumne River that actually alters the look of a landscape. It's nice to be able to catalog before-and-after views of a place. But in others, it is because of the incremental geologic changes. That's especially true with a couple of faults in Central California, the San Andreas and the Calaveras.
Corner of Locust and Central Avenues in 2013
Yesterday I updated the spot on Highway 25 near Pinnacles National Park where the San Andreas fault crosses the road (and I deeply appreciate the widespread response, especially on Twitter). The spot visibly changes every year. For decades, geologists have also been tracking the creeping of the Calaveras Fault in downtown Hollister. Generations of geology class field trips have walked several city blocks, tracking the fault as it offsets streets, sidewalks, curbs...and houses! I hope that all who do so remember to stay on sidewalks and not become nuisances to the residents. They have enough to contend with when you think about it.
The corner of Locust and Central Avenues in 2001

One curb has been iconic; it's been an illustration in any number of textbooks and PowerPoint presentations. The corner of Locust and Central Avenues is offset by the Calaveras Fault adjacent to the crosswalk, so it can be observed easily without bothering residents. It's one of the most vivid examples of right lateral offset imaginable, and if one knows the age of the sidewalk, the changes can be used to calculate the yearly rate of movement on the fault. The break is not a perfect measure because the deformation is spread out for several yards on both sides of the break (note how the sidewalk is curved in the pictures above).

So you can imagine my surprise on Saturday to find that the iconic curb disappeared sometime last year. It was for a good reason, as the city put in a wheelchair ramp, but it was still a shock. I was disappointed for a moment for my students until I realized that for the first time in 15 years, we have a brand new baseline of fault movement. Because as surely as the curb was offset before, it will continue into the future. We'll be watching for the first of the tensional cracks in the concrete, eventually to be followed by total rupture and offset curbs.
Corner of Locust and Central in 2017
Geology never stops.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Why did the Road Cross the San Andreas Fault? 15 Years of Geologic Change (an Update)

I've been leading geology field studies trips to lots of places in the American West for 29 years and started to take digital pictures in 2001. I sometimes struggle to find new things to photograph when I visit a place for the 29th time, but in some cases it is not a problem. There are geologic changes that happen on a yearly basis, and with fifteen years of photos, the changes become obvious. This is a continuing update from a post in 2013, and I'll probably continue updating for the foreseeable future.
Highway 25 in the California Coast Ranges connects the town of Hollister with the access road to Pinnacles National Park (formerly Pinnacles National Monument). Along the way the highway crosses the San Andreas fault in a section where the fault creeps an inch or so each year (36°35'54.27"N, 121°11'40.19"W). Most years we've stopped to have a look at the effect the movement has on the pavement. In 2002 and 2004, the damage was obvious.
By 2008 someone had patched the road, and no fault motion was evident.
Little damage was evident in 2009 either. But by 2010 cracks had begun to appear as the fault stressed the pavement.
The fact that the fault creeps in this region is a good thing. It means that stress is not building along the fault surface, but instead is being released gradually. The sections of the fault to the north and south of the creeping section are locked by friction, and are building up the ominous stress that will eventually produce quakes with magnitudes in the range of 7.5 to 8.0. The quakes are coming and we need to be as prepared as possible.
By 2012, the road had been completely repaved, and  yet the shearing was already evident.
It became even more pronounced by 2013 and in 2014. Just by chance, the person working as a scale was the same individual as in 2004.

In 2015 the fractures were moderately larger. They'll need to start thinking of road repairs before long.
In 2016 Laura once again provided scale, as she did in 2014, and 2004.
Here in 2017, long-time trip volunteer Mary provides scale. The cracks in the road are just a bit larger, but they didn't look appreciably different than the previous year except for a twist (pun intended)...
The paint on the road was obviously offset, a lot more than last year. Even more interesting is the despite the offset, the paint was deformed (twisted), not split.
The offset paint strip reminds me of illustrations of elastic rebound theory, the idea that stress builds up on a fault line over time. In that model, the land on either side of the fault is distorted over time until the frictional resistance is overcome and the rock snaps back to its original shape. That won't be happening with the paint, but if they don't repair the road (as they often do; see above), it will probably show a clear break by next year.

The other "twist" is that a magnitude 4.6 earthquake took place last week less than two miles from the road crossing. It probably did little to change things on the road exposure, but serves as a reminder of the need to not be complacent about the existence of this fault in our state.

These little changes that happen at a rate visible in human lifetimes add up to huge changes when multiplied by thousands or millions of years. The nearby eroded volcano of Pinnacles National Park has been displaced 195 miles (315 kilometers) in the last 20 million years or so by movement along the San Andreas.
Until next year!