Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The Cascades I: Volcanoes Give and Take Away   16 comments

Sunrise on the north side of Mt Hood from the pastoral Hood River Valley, Oregon.

Sunrise on the north side of Mt Hood from the pastoral Hood River Valley, Oregon.

This is the mountain range I’m most familiar with, my home range.  I’ve climbed all of the high Oregon Cascades and many of the bigger Washington ones as well.  So I have personal experience and knowledge of these peaks.  Named for the many waterfalls that tumble over their volcanic cliffs, the Cascades are essentially a northern analogue of the Andes in South America.

The waterfalls for which the Cascades are named occur all through the range, including here at Toketee Falls.

The waterfalls for which the Cascades are named  include Toketee Falls.

GEOGRAPHY

The Cascades are volcanoes that still erupt from time to time, but with the exception of a single mountain are not the most active volcanic chain in the world by any means.  More on the exception below.  The Cascade Range, which stretches for 700 miles (1100 km.) in a north-south direction from Mount Garibaldi in Canada to Mount Lassen in California, is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire (see below).  This whole region of the western Pacific Northwest is often called Cascadia.

The Cascades are dotted with beautiful mountain lakes.

The Cascades are dotted with beautiful mountain lakes.

The dramatic and beautiful mountains that make up the Cascades in most cases exceed 10,000 feet (3000 meters).  The high peaks are generally well-spaced, with many miles of forested lower mountains and hills between each snow-capped peak.  Oregon’s Three Sisters area (which actually includes 5 big volcanoes) is an exception to this wide spacing.  The bunched-up and much more rugged North Cascades in Washington are a whole different range geologically, one that happens to coincide in space (but not time) with the volcanoes of the Cascades.

A wet meadow in Crater Lake National Park blooms with pink monkeyflower, among other flowers.

A wet meadow in Crater Lake National Park blooms with pink monkeyflower, among other flowers.

GEOLOGY

The highest peaks in the Cascades are quite young, most less than 100,000 years old – a moment in the earth’s 4.5 billion-year history.  They are built upon a much older eroded volcanic range, arranged along an axis situated slightly to the west of the present locus of volcanic activity.  These older volcanoes began erupting some 37 million years ago.  It’s lucky for life (including us) that these older, heavily eroded volcanoes are around.  It’s the reason we have those lush forests, those cold streams that nourish the region’s great fish runs, and the habitat for the region’s other wildlife.  And let’s not forget the many waterfalls!

From high on Cooper Spur at Mount Hood, Oregon, the view north includes Mount Adams in Washington.

From high on Cooper Spur at Mount Hood, Oregon, the view north includes Mount Adams in Washington.

The older ancestral Cascades are also responsible for the region’s enormous timber resources plus the very rich soils that drew settlers west along the Oregon Trail.  Volcanoes combine with ample rainfall to make rich soil for farming.  By the way, many often wonder why so many people, worldwide, live near dangerous volcanoes.  It’s simple:  the rich soils around volcanoes, the productive farmland.  There is really not much choice.  We must eat, and so we must live near volcanoes.

While the Western Cascades are responsible for many of the Northwest’s assets, let’s not totally dismiss the younger High Cascades.  Their snowpack, lasting well into summer, gives farmers and ranchers (especially those to the east) water for their crops through typically dry summers.

The older western Cascades are very different in character than the high Cascades.

The older western Cascades are very different in character than the high Cascades.

The Cascades are stratovolcanoes (aka composite cones).  These are the steep-sided, conical volcanoes you drew as a kid in school.  They are made of alternating layers of lava-rock and pyroclastic (ash) deposits.  The volcanic rock is characteristically lighter colored than the basalt which covers the region to the east of the Cascades.  A typical volcanic rock for the Cascades is andesite (named for the Andes), which flows over the ground in a somewhat stickier manner than more fluid basalt (Hawaiian volcanoes erupt basalt).  The Cascades do have their share of basalt too, along with dacite and a few other types of volcanic rock.

An uncommon volcanic rock of the Cascades is obsidian.  It is very rich in silica (SiO2), which is also what quartz is made of.  In liquid lava, dissolved silica acts to make it stickier, more viscous.  Water does the opposite, makes lava less viscous – more fluid.  Obsidian is so rich in silica and erupts so dry that it literally squeezes out of the ground like thick toothpaste, heaping up into mounds and ridges.  Once cooled, obsidian is a beautiful natural glass, normally black, that can be sharp enough to serve as surgical instruments.  Obsidian arrowheads left along old American Indian trails and hunting grounds can still be found throughout the Northwest.

Admiring the view while on a climb in the Cascades.  That is Mount Adams in Washington.

Admiring the view while on a climb in the Cascades. That is Mount Adams in Washington.

THE RING OF FIRE AND PLATE TECTONICS

The Pacific Ring of Fire is that huge circle of volcanoes and earthquake activity that circles the Pacific ocean basin.  Some of the world’s most spectacular eruptions and devastating earthquakes happen along the Ring of Fire.  Truly an enormous geologic feature, it exists because the earth’s tectonic plates rub against and collide with each other (see addendum below if you don’t know about plate tectonics already).  Although they act slowly, the forces are gargantuan.  And something has to occasionally give.

The big snow-capped peaks of the Cascades are classic strato-volcanoes.

The big snow-capped peaks of the Cascades are classic strato-volcanoes.

One example of the power and beauty of the Ring of Fire lies in the remote Aleutian Islands and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.  Here the huge Pacific Plate dives under the North American continental plate (plus a smaller one called the Okhotsk Plate) along a so-called subduction zone.  The plate partially melts as it descends, because of the heat of course – but also because of it is loaded with water (which acts as a flux).  Plumes of magma rising from the descending and melting plate eventually erupt into some of the world’s most active (and thankfully remote) volcanoes.  In the Southern Hemisphere on the opposite side of the Ring of Fire, the oceanic Nazca Plate subducts under the South American plate to form the longest volcanic range in the world, the Andes.

Crater Lake in Oregon fills the collapsed caldera of Mount Mazama, which blew its top about 7000 years ago.

Crater Lake in Oregon fills the collapsed caldera of Mount Mazama, which blew its top about 7000 years ago.

All throughout the Ring of Fire there are earthquakes.  Some of the largest happen as a result of subduction and are called megathrust quakes (how’s that for a name!).  The earthquake that caused the destructive Japanese tsunami of 2011 was of the  megathrust variety.  This enormous earthquake happened where the Pacific Plate subducts beneath Japan’s Honshu Island.  The Pacific Plate moved as much as 20 meters (66 feet) west during the minutes-long quake.  Honshu drew closer to America by about 2.5 meters (8 feet).  The equally destructive Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was also generated by a megathrust quake along a subduction zone.

Other earthquakes happen when two tectonic plates slide past each other.  The San Andreas in California is the most famous example of this so-called transform boundary.  Because these earthquakes happen on land and have fairly shallow epicenters, they can be very destructive.  This is despite the quakes being generally smaller than subduction-zone, megathrust earthquakes.

Climbing in the Cascades.  Mount Adams (right) and Rainier are visible.

Climbing in the Cascades. Mount Adams (right) and Rainier are visible.

ADDENDUM: PLATE TECTONICS

The crust of the earth (plus some extra beneath it) is broken into enormous semi-rigid plates.  Over time, the plates move across the planet’s surface, on average about as fast as your fingernails grow.  That’s an average; during big quakes they can move up to a hundred feet!  But overall it’s a very slow process.  It can take over a million years for a plate to move 50 miles.  They ride atop enormous convection currents in the semi-molten part of the upper mantle.  The mantle is that layer that lies directly beneath the earth’s crust.  The weight of tectonic plates as they descend into the mantle along subduction zones (like the one that lies just off the Pacific Northwest coast) helps to pull the oceanic plates along.

Why do we have tectonics while the other planets don’t seem to?  For one thing the energy that drives the convection currents comes from heat given off by the still cooling interior of the earth.   Mars is too small to have much heat left.  For Earth, much of the core is still molten, and our fast spin sets up complex circulation patterns (which cause our magnetic field).  Combined with heat from the decay of radioactive elements, this gives rise to huge, slowly rising zones of heat.  When they hit the colder, more rigid upper parts of the earth, the crust, the currents spread outward horizontally.

Silver Star Mountain in Washington, after a heavy snowfall.

Silver Star Mountain in Washington, after a heavy snowfall.

But there’s another reason for plate tectonics.  It is because we are a water planet that all this partly molten rock is around.  Venus is much too dry for plate tectonics to get going.  Without water the pressures deep below would not allow enough melting.  Water essentially lubricates the earth’s tectonic system.  And without plate tectonics complex life would most likely not be possible, yet another way water is crucial to a living earth.

This series will continue.  If you are interested in any of the images, just click on them.  They are copyrighted and not available for download without my permission.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Thanks for reading!

Sunset over the Western Cascades, as viewed from Mount Hood in Oregon.

Sunset over the Western Cascades, as viewed from Mount Hood in Oregon.

Life in the Universe V: The Influence of Carl Sagan   5 comments

The moon sets behind the Tetons as the Milky Way soars over Jackson Lake, Wyoming.

The moon sets behind the Tetons as the Milky Way soars over Jackson Lake, Wyoming.

I have neglected this series for far too long, I’m sorry to say.  Check out the previous posts for some background and for some of my best starscape images.  Part I discusses how science has tackled the biggest questions we ask about the Universe and how life fits into the picture.  Part II continues by touching on the idea of the universe having a consciousness, or even some sort of creator; it also discusses how quantum theory fits into things.  Part III goes into what we know thus far about life’s origins.  And Part IV highlights the incredible progress we’ve made in the exploration of our solar system, with the not always explicit goal of finding life on other planets.

The progress of this series has been generally outward, from our beloved Earth (which remains the only place we know that hosts life) and out to the solar system.  My goal (at least metaphorically) is to go out to the stars, our galaxy, then finally the larger Universe.  Then I’d like to come back to the original two-part question discussed in Part I: how did we come to be and why?  In this post however, I’m going to take a short detour and speak about a scientist who greatly influenced how we have tackled these questions.  He is Carl Sagan, an astronomer from the United States.  Now passed away, he was widely known as a popularizer of astronomy.  He influenced NASA policy along with millions of people who watched his Cosmos TV series.  He had a significant effect on me.

In Little Ruin Canyon the moon illuminates Square Tower, with Hovenweep Castle visible on the rim beyond.

In Little Ruin Canyon the moon illuminates Square Tower, with Hovenweep Castle visible on the rim beyond.

SAGAN 101

Carl Sagan Planetary Society.JPGWhile he was charismatic and very good at getting all sorts of people enthusiastic about space science, he was also a very good scientist.  Among the general public in the U.S., he was mostly known for going on the Johnny Carson Show and expounding on astronomy.  Of course everyone knew that Johnny would eventually get him to say the word “billions”.  In Sagan’s landmark TV series Cosmos and in lectures, he often referred to billions (of stars, years, miles) with a definite, purposeful emphasis on the b.  With his great voice, the b literally boomed.  Comedians of the day had a great time imitating it.

Sagan started out as a planetary scientist, studying under the great Gerard Kuiper at University of Chicago and going on to make important contributions.  For example, he put together observations from the early Venus probes to demonstrate that the reason our sister planet is an incredibly hot, dry place is that it suffers from a runaway greenhouse effect.  He was first to suggest that Jupiter’s moon Europa has an enormous subsurface ocean and that Saturn’s moon Titan is bathed in an organic-rich atmosphere and had liquid organics on its surface.  He was a key figure in several important NASA missions, including the Viking robotic mission to Mars.  He led a small team that designed humanity’s first (and 2nd & 3rd as well) message to the stars.

Carl Sagan and Frank Drake came up with the idea to send messages to the stars on the Pioneer space probes.  Pioneer 10 and 11 were launched in the early 1970s to pass close to Jupiter and Saturn and then head out of the solar system into outer space.  These space-ready plaques, these cosmic messages in a bottle, had very simple messages inscribed on them.  There was a map showing where our solar system was located, along with figures of male and female human beings waving a greeting.  Five years later, the Voyager probes (which are now passing into interstellar space) carried a much more involved package.  It included a gold-plated record of pictures plus sounds from Earth (music, frogs croaking, volcanic action, human greetings in many languages, etc.).  This time capsule was designed by a team led by Sagan.

Also, in 1974, Carl Sagan and Frank Drake sent for the first time in human history a deliberate radio message out to the stars.  Aimed at the enormous globular cluster in the constellation Hercules, it was a coded radio transmission sent from the huge Arecibo dish in Puerto Rico.  It was not approved or sponsored by NASA, and drew great criticism.  Some prominent astronomers complained that it was arrogant and stupid for Sagan to advertise our presence to potentially hostile aliens.  Sagan countered that we have been broadcasting into space for generations, though the messages which continue to be broadcast (radio programs, TV sitcoms, etc.) may not be putting humanity’s best foot forward.

Wandering around Monument Valley during a full moon is a special experience.

Wandering around Monument Valley during a full moon is a special experience.

SAGAN & ET

Carl Sagan believed deeply in both the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence and in the many benefits that contact with them would provide humanity.  Do not misunderstand, however.  He was not a believer in ancient aliens or even that UFOs were evidence that we are being visited in recent times.  He simply believed that life had not only gotten started in many many places throughout the galaxy, but that it had progressed far beyond our level in a significant number of star systems.  He believed that if we made contact with any aliens, it would be near certain that their technology and culture would be far more sophisticated than ours.

This makes perfect sense if you believe that the Drake Equation (which estimates the chances of extraterrestrial intelligence) strongly suggests there are very many instances of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy.  Sagan combined that conclusion with the Fermi Paradox.  In 1950, Enrico Fermi famously asked of his colleagues (including Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb) “where are they?”  If there are so many potentially life-friendly star systems and literally billions of years to play with, why haven’t we seen any evidence of aliens, present or past?  Sagan took these two factors, plus the fact that we are in the infancy of space exploration ourselves, and concluded that any civilizations which do exist have somehow avoided having destroyed themselves, and are thus greatly advanced both technologically and culturally.

The Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a peaceful place at dusk.

The Lamar River Valley in Yellowstone National Park is a peaceful place at dusk.

He had faith that we would eventually make contact with an advanced intelligence.  He also believed that their success in handling increasingly sophisticated, potentially destructive technology meant that they would be peaceful and non-aggressive.  Further, he thought they could teach us how to avoid destroying ourselves through technology, wars or ecological collapse, and that this would be the greatest discovery in the history of humanity.  This is why in the latter part of his career he focused intensively on making contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, and on convincing the general public that this was a worthwhile endeavor.

Some criticized this belief as not only quasi-religious, but as out-of-date and quasi-colonial.  They thought Sagan’s beliefs smacked of the justification for imperial powers of the west conquering primitive peoples in order to provide them with the benefits of the modern world (all the while stealing their resources and infecting them with disease).  In this cosmic case, those backward beings would be us Earthlings, and the “benevolent” conquerors would be extraterrestrials.  Many people who think about this stuff believe that contact with aliens would bring a similar fate:  exotic disease, theft of the Earth’s resources, and similar bad outcomes.  I think this criticism of Sagan is unfair.

A full moon illuminates Ship Rock in New Mexico.

A full moon illuminates Ship Rock in New Mexico.

SAGAN & SETI

The movie Contact is based on Sagan’s book of the same name, where SETI’s Jill Tarter (played by Jodi Foster) makes first contact with aliens.  SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), the effort that Frank Drake, Guiseppe Cocconi and Philip Morrison started is now a very mature organization.  Basically an effort to detect alien transmissions, SETI was kept alive during the 1960s by the Russians.  Carl Sagan, during the Cold War, collaborated with the Russians on SETI.  Now an American organization run by Seth Shostak, with both Frank Drake and Jill Tarter still involved, SETI is carried out by an international cast of scientists.  They conduct highly sophisticated monitoring of our galactic neighborhood.  Still looking primarily for alien radio transmissions, SETI incorporates sophisticated computer-assisted arrays of telescopes and also looks for optical signals (such as messages carried on laser beams).

SAGAN & MARS

Carl Sagan has been criticized for his almost religious zeal and optimism surrounding the existence of life on other planets.  He was very adamant that cameras on the Viking Lander be capable of sweeping the area in case any intelligent creatures show up to check out the intruder.  He endorsed a theory by the Russian Iosof Shklovsky which proposed that Phobos and Deimos (the two small moons of Mars) were artificial satellites created by Martians to escape a deteriorating climate on the planet’s surface.  Regarding the controversial “face” on Mars, Sagan parted ways with mainstream astronomers when he supported further study of it.  But he believed it was probably natural, a fact that was confirmed during subsequent flybys.

Sagan has been likened to that controversial icon of early 20th century Mars exploration, Percival Lowell.  Lowell was the dogmatic scientist who was convinced up to his death that Mars was laced with canals.  Sagan criticized Lowell for his refusal to accept evidence against the canal theory, but it is said secretly admired him for his belief in intelligent Martians.  Lowell was a tireless promoter of the theory for an advanced Martian society and, at least in part, so was Carl Sagan.  I think it’s a stretch, however, to label Sagan as Percival Lowell’s successor.

The full moon as viewed through a translucent veil formed by geothermal steam at Firehole Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

The full moon as viewed through a translucent veil formed by geothermal steam at Firehole Lake in Yellowstone National Park.

SAGAN THE SCIENTIST & AUTHOR

While it’s true that Carl Sagan had a strong belief in alien intelligence, possibly nearby, I regard him as a very good scientist, a straight thinker who could never ignore evidence that contradicted his beliefs.  He famously said “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  Although he though the study of UFOs was a legitimate effort, he debunked the famous alien abduction of d considered the chances of alien visitation to be extremely small.  For years he taught a course at Cornell on critical thinking.  But there’s no getting around the fact that Sagan’s interest in astronomy was stoked at an early age by the science fiction of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Sagan was a well-trained astronomer who had a huge diversity of scientific interest and knowledge.  I have read quite a few of his books, and they are diverse.  Cosmos, The Pale Blue Dot, Cosmic Connection, Comet and Intelligent Life in the Universe are all great astronomy reads.  But he also wrote The Dragons of Eden, which explores the evolution of human intelligence.  Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, about human evolution, is a fascinating book.  He worked for some years with famous biologists and geneticists, including Harold Urey and H.J. Muller.  He also worked with famous physicist George Gamow.  In a book called Demon-Haunted World, he defends science as a way to counter the chaos and misery of totalitarianism and war, along with ignorance.

The starry sky on a clear evening is reflected in the aptly-named Reflection Lakes at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

The starry sky on a clear evening is reflected in the aptly-named Reflection Lakes at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington.

SAGAN & FAITH

Sagan claimed that he was agnostic.  Based on some of his statements (“The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing white beard is ludicrous.”) many considered him an atheist.  But others thought he brought a religious bias into his science.  He believed that “Not only is Science compatible with pirituality, it is a profound source of spirituality.”   I believe he was somebody who welcomed that soaring elation that comes with scientific discovery, and that he regarded this as a deep spiritual experience with the nature of the universe, a sort of God.  I don’t think he was an atheist.  In fact, he once said:

An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed.

In eastern Washington state stands a replica of Stonehenge, here viewed just before complete darkness descends with the stars coming out.

In eastern Washington state stands a replica of Stonehenge, here viewed just before complete darkness descends with the stars coming out.

Sagan was in some ways a child of the 1960s.  He was strictly anti-war, a staunch environmentalist, a believer in a woman’s right to equality and access to birth control (including abortion).   He smoked marijuana, and did little to hide the fact.  He married three very talented, intelligent and strong women throughout his life.  I believe Sagan’s most important legacy is what he did to make astronomy (and science in general) understandable and exciting to the public.  Sagan really believed science was a spiritual quest, but not in the strictly religious sense in which the word spirituality is often used.  Many people think his belief in extraterrestrial intelligence had strong religious elements.  But I think that he simply wasn’t conflicted about his science, and that he really was agnostic.  I believe that many of his critics mistook his spiritual-like enthusiasm (especially evident when he talked to the public about science) for some sort of religiosity.

Carl Sagan died in 1996 from pneumonia (of all things).  It was related to a disease he had called MDS, a condition that destroys a person’s bone marrow.   He was only 62, with plenty more to contribute to science and society.  Among many scientists and science enthusiasts, and nearly all science educators, he is sorely missed.  The movie Contact, an adaptation of his novel, came out in 1998.  If we do make contact with intelligent aliens within what would have been his natural lifetime (to the late 2020s, say), it will be a true shame he did not live to see it.

An old abandoned schoolhouse out on the Oregon prairie is illuminated by a crescent moon.  The Milky Way glows pink in the coming dawn.

An old abandoned schoolhouse out on the Oregon prairie is illuminated by a crescent moon. The Milky Way glows pink in the coming dawn.

The Palouse III – Loess & Farming   1 comment

The classic view of the Palouse from atop Steptoe Butte in eastern Washington.

The classic view of the Palouse from atop Steptoe Butte in eastern Washington.

I just returned from a trip to southeastern Washington.  The Palouse region north of the Snake River and stretching along the Idaho border was my prime destination.  Among landscape photographers, the Palouse is justifiably famous for its unique landscape of rolling, wave-like fields of wheat.  It is a very rich farming region, primarily known for its dryland wheat.  But it’s also one of the world’s premier lentil-growing regions.

As is the case for most of our planet’s resources, where and how we take advantage of the bounty is dictated by geology and geography.  This is especially true of farming.  The Palouse bears a lot of resemblance to other rich farming regions in the world in at least two respects: it is relatively flat and it’s covered in a special kind of silt called loess.  You can pronounce loess anyway you want.  But perhaps Lois is best reserved for some women by that name.  Most people in the know pronounce it somewhere between loose and lus, sort of luhs.  Brits put an r in there right before the s.

Some of the terrain in the Palouse of eastern Washington is left golden-bare even in late spring when most everything is vibrant green.

Some of the terrain in the Palouse of eastern Washington is left golden-bare even in late spring when most everything is vibrant green.

Loess is a windblown silt found in many places throughout the world.  It is made of angular pieces of rocks and minerals somewhat finer than sand.  It forms such rich soils because the minerals in it are diverse.  This is not always the case with fine debris deposited on the earth’s surface, but loess is special.

It is a gift of the Ice Ages.  All over the world, when glaciers retreated (both after the last time 10,000 years ago and during previous retreats), the fine debris scoured from the various rocks that the ice passed over was left bare.  Winds picked up this silt and sand and deposited it downwind, often far downwind.  Natural depressions, the base of mountains, or anywhere that wind speed drops, were natural places for loess to be deposited.

In springtime, wildflowers bloom on Kamiak Butte in the Palouse.

In springtime, wildflowers bloom on Kamiak Butte in the Palouse.

In the case of the Palouse, loess from the Ringold Formation and from glacial deposits exposed to the west and south was blown in and deposited essentially in dunes.  This is a big reason for the wave-like nature of the landscape.  It accumulated during the drier and windier climates between glacial advances, and did so for over a million years.  The loess in the Palouse reaches up to 200 feet thick in places.

Two little extra features of the loess deposits found in the Palouse help to make it such a rich dryland farming region.  For one, the Cascade volcanoes to the west occasionally supplied layers of ash into the mix.  This ash not only adds to the mineralogical diversity (and thus the richness of the resulting soil) but is also very good at holding water.  The Palouse soils are famous for their ability to hold onto the modest amount of water they receive.

The wheatfields of the Palouse in eastern Washington on the north side of Kamiak Butte.

The wheatfields of the Palouse in eastern Washington on the north side of Kamiak Butte.

The second feature is another happy coincidence.  The topmost loess deposits, blown in after the last glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago, also happen to be among the most diverse minerals-wise.  So they support the richest soils.  Mount Mazama in Oregon (now Crater Lake) blew its top 6700 years ago and its ash is prominently represented in these latest Palouse loess deposits.

So farmers have it good in the Palouse, growing their crops on a landscape covered in especially rich soils that hold water well.  There is one little problem though: these latest loess deposits are also the most prone to loss through erosion and poor management.  Just like so many agricultural areas in the world, this one requires careful management practices to conserve the precious soil.

Wind turbines are situated along the crest of a ridge in the Palouse, Washington.

Wind turbines are situated along the crest of a ridge in the Palouse, Washington.

The geologic story does not end here though.  The loess deposited in long wave-like dunes originally extended far to the west of where you find it today.  If you head west from the Palouse you run right out of rich dryland wheat country and into a different terrain altogether.  This is the so-called channeled scablands, spectacular result of the great Missoula Floods of the last Ice Age.  I will cover this great story in a coming post; suffice it to say these floods removed much of the region’s rich loess before human farmers ever got the chance to farm it.

A group of mergansers rides the Palouse River downstream near the town of the same name in Washington state.

A group of mergansers rides the Palouse River downstream near the town of the same name in Washington state.

People have been farming here since the late 1800s.  In the 1880s there was a land-boom after dryland wheat farming was proved valid in the previously settled Walla Walla area to the south.  In fact, the last decades of the 19th century saw far more people living here than lived in the Puget Sound region to the west.  Now of course it’s the opposite.  The Palouse is sparsely populated while the Puget Sound has Seattle, Microsoft and traffic nightmares.  There are signs of new growth here, as some people tire of the rat race and move here, expanding the suburbs of large towns like Pullman, Washington and Moscow, Idaho into prime agricultural lands.

The empty Palouse of eastern Washington at sunrise is all wheatfields and sky.

The empty Palouse of eastern Washington at sunrise is all wheatfields and sky.

But for now the Palouse remains a quiet, peaceful place where open spaces are the rule.  Stand atop Steptoe or Kamiak Butte and look out on the endless waves, bright green in early summer and golden brown in autumn.  You’ll only see scattered farmhouses, a few barns, a few two-lane roads with little traffic.  It’s a gorgeous setting, especially at sunset when the shadows are long, bringing out the unique textures and look of the place.  I will surely be coming back.

Thanks for reading.  Stay tuned for more on eastern Washington in the next post.  Hope you enjoy the images.  Please be aware they are copyrighted and not available to download for free without my permission.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  If interested in one of the images, just click it to get purchase options.  Thanks for reading!

A solitary clump of blooming lupine decorates a piece of bunchgrass prairie in the Palouse, Washington.

A solitary clump of blooming lupine decorates a piece of bunchgrass prairie in the Palouse, Washington.

Awash in Waterfalls   9 comments

A little-known waterfall in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge requires much effort to reach, being set in a pristine and beautiful alcove not accessible by trail.

A little-known waterfall in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge requires much effort to reach, being set in a pristine and beautiful alcove not accessible by trail.

The waterfalls of the Pacific Northwest are both abundant and beautiful.  When I travel to other places in the world, and hear of a waterfall to check out, I always try to dial back my expectations so I’m not disappointed.  We are so spoiled around here.  Of course when we’re talking Angel or Victoria Falls, or even those in Yosemite closer to home, that’s different.  Those waterfalls are world-renowned for good reason.

Victoria Falls, which sits on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border, is one of the world's great cascades.

Victoria Falls, which sits on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border, is one of the world’s great cascades.

Waterfalls of the Gorge – Formation & Geology

The Columbia River Gorge, which slices through the Cascade Range of the Pacific Northwest along the border between Oregon and Washington, has an abundance of waterfalls.  In fact the Cascades were named for all these cascades along the length of the volcanic chain.  Most of the waterfalls in the Gorge are located on the Oregon side of the Columbia River.  This is because the south side of the river faces north, and so is kept cooler and much wetter than the drier, south-facing Washington side.

Most Oregon waterfalls drop over basalt cliffs, such as Toketee on the North Umpqua River.  This is not surprising, since basalt is a very hard rock, prone to forming cliffs resistant to erosion.

Most Oregon waterfalls drop over volcanic basalt, such as Toketee on the North Umpqua River. This is not surprising, since basalt is a very hard rock, prone to forming cliffs resistant to erosion.

Why are there so many waterfalls here?  Well to start with the climate is wet.  The Columbia’s active and ancient down-cutting, combined with the fact that rocks on either side are very hard volcanic basalt, means that the smaller tributary valleys are left perched above the level of the Columbia.  The Missoula Floods, which were the biggest in world history as far as we know, raced through here more than 10,000 years ago.  These deluges scoured and further deepened the Gorge, helping to sculpt the steep sides down which the waterfalls tumble.

This geological setting has given us easy access to the waterfalls, a fact best illustrated by Multnomah Falls, which can be seen from Interstate 84.  Multnomah is Oregon’s highest cascade at 620 feet (189 meters) total, in two tiers.  Multnomah Creek is busy eroding the basalt of course, but its progress is much slower than the Columbia’s (which is also much older).  And so the cliff that the waterfall drops over stands very near to the creek’s mouth.  Realize that waterfalls erode their cliffs such that over time they move backward, upstream.

Multnomah Falls is Oregon's highest waterfall and one of its most popular tourist attractions.  Here it is in full flood.  The bridge crosses just above the lower cascade and a trail continues to the top of the tall upper cascade.

Multnomah Falls is Oregon’s highest waterfall and one of its most popular tourist attractions. Here it is in full flood. The bridge crosses just above the lower cascade and a trail continues to the top of the tall upper cascade.

There are some larger streams in the Columbia Gorge, such as Eagle Creek, that do not tumble over a tall cliff near their confluence with the Columbia River.  These streams are eroding softer formations, often following fractures or faults that make their jobs even easier.  They are larger streams because of this easier erosion, not the other way around.  Softer rock formations equals larger drainage basins and thus more water captured by the stream.

These side-gorges are not lacking waterfalls however, far from it.  One simply needs to hike up them to get to the cascades.  Your hike will have the added benefit of leaving behind the traffic noiset from he busy interstate.  You will generally be hiking through a narrow and lush gorge.  Eagle Creek, in fact, is one of the most stunning hikes of this type to be found in the world.

A small but beautiful waterfall called Faery Falls in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

A small but beautiful waterfall called Faery Falls in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.

Off-the-Beaten-Track Waterfalls

Now on to this past weekend’s waterfall adventures.  I was on a mission not to visit and photograph those waterfalls with easy access, nor even those along one of the many trails in the Gorge.  My goal was to find at least one new waterfall, at least new for me.  Since I’ve hiked all through this area, that meant going off-trail.  With the recent wet weather, and also the new spring growth, I was in for some wet and messy travel through thick, slippery and potentially nasty brush and down logs.

The first hike was up McCord Creek to see if I could find some small cascades above beautiful Elowah Falls.  The going was pretty rough, and I decided to turn around in order to have the opportunity to visit both Upper McCord Creek Falls and Elowah Falls.  The two are actually so close together you can consider them to be two tiers of a single waterfall.  I could not get a unique angle on Upper McCord Creek Falls, so I”m not posting a picture of this one.  For Elowah, which is accessible by a trail, I wanted to get a good angle from near mid-point of the stream below the tall (220 feet) cascade.  It was raining and the flow was very high.  I got blasted with water from the falls when I passed it on the trail.  Then I clambored out onto a log to reach a mid-stream rock.  I set up there, but had a lot of trouble keeping my lens dry.  The resulting haze gives the picture a bit of a dreamy look, I think.  I will return to this spot when it’s not raining.

Elowah Falls in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge drops into a lush alcove filled with mossy boulders.

Elowah Falls in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge drops into a lush alcove filled with mossy boulders.

The second hike was up Moffett Creek, which enters just east of McCord.  Moffett Creek is a fun one to hike up, primarily because there is no trail.  This is best done in late summer when flows are low enough to wade up the creek where necessary.  This time of year is a different story.  I tried hiking up the creek to reach nearby Wahe Falls (also known as Moffett Crk. Falls).  But it quickly became obvious that the stream (which requires constant crossing) was flowing with too much power to negotiate the route safely.  I turned around and hiked up onto the side of the valley, following the Munra Point Trail.  I soon left the trail and started traversing up the side of the valley, aiming for where I thought the falls were.  It was steep, slippery and very tough going.

A forest of cedars surrounds the waterfall on Moffett Creek in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge.

A forest of cedars surrounds Wahe Falls on Moffett Creek in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge.

I was about to give up when I glimpsed the falls through the trees.  That gave me hope and I gutted out the last steep, thick section.  It’s an 80-foot single drop waterfall, seen by very few people (especially during spring flood).  There is a beautiful cedar tree near its base.  As per usual, it started raining steadily as I set up.  But I managed to get a couple good shots before calling it good.  It was near dark by the time I got out of there, soaking wet and muddy, but with a nice feeling of accomplishment.  There are more cascades further up Moffett Creek.  But that requires climbing gear, a partner or two, and lower water flows.  This is very rugged country.

Hope you enjoyed this illustrated primer on waterfalls.  I will post more waterfall photos on an irregular basis.  Just click on the pictures if you’re interested in prints or download rights.  You will need to click “add image to cart” and then make your choices.  Don’t worry, they won’t be added to your cart until you decide what you want.  The images are copyrighted and illegal to download for free, sorry.  Thanks for your interest, and thanks for reading!

Not a waterfall, but I needed a sunset shot to end this.  Crown Point and the Columbia River Gorge

Not a waterfall, but I needed a sunset shot to end this post! Crown Point and the Columbia River Gorge.

Life in the Universe III   13 comments

Isn't it natural to believe that our Creator is from on high?

Isn’t it natural to believe that our Creator is from on high?

At one time I thought God created everything, but I can’t remember ever truly believing it was during 6 very busy days.  I do remember giving serious consideration to whether or not Purgatory would be an interesting place to stop before going to Heaven, even if there was a small chance I could be sent instead to Hell by mistake.  Then soon after I seriously began studying science, I put my inner religious beliefs into a little box and went on, unencumbered, to feed my curiosity.  I didn’t throw my beliefs away.  I believe that as you go through life, you should try not to throw things away unless you really need to.  We already lose too much as we grow older.

Buddhists create a spiritual atmosphere with these: Laos.

Buddhists create a spiritual atmosphere with these: Laos.

I learned that it’s likely life emerged from non-life by a trick of chemistry, and that was that.  I had bigger fish to fry – how the Earth and other planets formed.  I knew scientists didn’t really know exactly how life began, but I figured they would find out soon enough.  It wasn’t for me an important question for a long time.

(An aside: I sometimes wonder whether I would have become obsessed with life’s origins, had I went further in the direction I explored my senior year in college.  I was good at chemistry in college, and I took a class called Thermodynamic Geochemistry, which sounds a lot tougher than it actually was – but it would have gotten very tough if I had pursued it.)

Probably the world's oldest religion.

Probably the world’s oldest religion: Judaism.

Meanwhile, for the scientists who work on it, the origin of life has been an unusually thorny problem.  There have been many side-tracks along the way, from primordial soup to deep sea vents to extra-terrestrial origins (panspermia).

Earth was a barren place before life, and water only appeared in mirages (if anyone were there to see them).

Earth was a barren place before life, and water only appeared in mirages (if anyone were there to see them).

One of the first environments thought to be the cradle for life: shallows of the sea.

One of the first environments thought to be the cradle of life: shallows of the sea.

 

The State of Our Knowledge of Life’s Origin

We don’t really know what kind of environment hosted the first life.  It could have been in a thermal area, or in ice, or even in solid rock.  It could have been on Mars.  But wherever it was, water very likely was the dominant substance surrounding the primitive beings.

The clear pools at Semuc Champey in the Guatemalan highlands invite a cooling swim.

The clear pools at Semuc Champey in the Guatemalan highlands invite a cooling swim.

Perhaps a non-living compound underwent some chemical transformation into RNA.  RNA can do the work of forming proteins (as it’s doing right now inside you) but it can also reproduce, like DNA.   Then it’s just a matter of finding itself in the right place at the right time (pre-cells), to be put to work in an entirely novel way in something we would now call alive.

Clay is thought to be a likely place for pre-living chemistry to have taken place.

Clay is thought to be a likely place for pre-living chemistry to have taken place.

Or perhaps non-living structures similar to our body’s cells first started to form in high-energy environments (like deep sea vents) and they began to process energy (it’s thermodynamically favorable).  Then they began to reproduce (via RNA).  Most scientists believe that RNA is an important key.

Life was born because chemical compounds were formed at great odds.  Here salt crystals form naturally when pools evaporate in the desert.

Life was born because chemical compounds formed at great odds. Salt crystals form naturally when pools evaporate in the desert.

Perhaps you know of Craig Venter.  He’s the guy who led the team who first decoded the human genome.  He’s at work now on trying to create a living organism with no biological parents (actually a computer takes the parents’ place).  Many believe that creating life ourselves is necessary before we can understand how it arose.  As Richard Feynman once said, “What I cannot create, I do not understand”.

Active volcanoes (this one in Indonesia) could have easily provided a spark for the origin of life.

Active volcanoes (this one in Indonesia) could have easily provided a spark for the origin of life.

You can see there is some uncertainty here, and every good chemist knows these transformations are not at all easy.  But it happened.  Stuff happens after all, and given a lot of time and the right environment, perhaps life has been emerging  everywhere, throughout the history of the universe.  So what if we can’t explain the moment of life’s creation.  Does it matter?

Did life come from another planet to seed Earth's lifeless oceans?

Did life come from another planet to seed Earth’s lifeless oceans?

I tend to think that life in this solar system evolved on Earth first, but I wouldn’t bee too surprised if it started on Mars first and was transported to Earth riding on a meteor.  I also believe that this question: how did life start, is an important one.  I think it will take us a big step forward in figuring out how life emerged in the universe.  How we got here is one thing, but it will take much more insight to discover why we are here.

This story will continue, so stay tuned…

However it started, our Earth is incredibly, fully alive.

However it started, our Earth is incredibly, fully alive.

Life and the Universe II   8 comments

Mount Hood is illuminated by a half-moon with the summer stars above.

Mount Hood is illuminated by a half-moon with the summer stars above.

How did all of this come to be?  I mean everything around us.  Have you looked out into a deep inky-starry sky lately?  Have you tried, actually tried, to comprehend the distances involved, the multitude of galaxies and star systems?  Two things have become obvious:  (1) a multitude of planets exist, many likely to host life; and (2) the universe, in the way it works, is fine-tuned to be friendly towards the emergence of life.   This leads many to the idea that life might not be just an accident.  In thinking about the universe’s ultimate origins, life just might be the one small feature of the universe that is too important to ignore.

Constellations in a Meadow.

Constellations in a Meadow.

To date, physicists have been in charge of figuring out the origin and make-up of the universe.  If you knew any physicists in college, or even since then (highly unlikely), you know how ridiculous that notion is.  Unless the universe is nearly devoid of life, an assumption that is becoming more and more unlikely as time goes on, then we need more than just quantum physicists to answer the ultimate questions.

To begin with, think of it this way.  Our universe is just under 14 billion years old.  That is the quite precisely dated age of the Big Bang.  There is a small chance that this age is in error, but I wouldn’t hold out much hope that the error is 14 billion minus 6000 years!  The universe (and Earth) are ancient, incredibly ancient.  A lot has taken place already.  But there is much much more to come.  All evidence points to this thing going on for a long time to come.  Where are we headed?  That is a question just as important as the origin question, and its answer could help shed light on why we are here.

Pondering one of Earth's possible cradles for life, at Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring.

Pondering one of Earth’s possible cradles for life, at Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring.

It’s obvious now that our universe began with a great explosion of space-time itself (the Big Bang) and has been expanding ever since.  The rate of the expansion has apparently not been constant.  It has been speeding up of late, or that is the current best explanation for astronomical observations of stellar explosions in deep space.

I’m taking as a given that we MUST eventually discover how all of this came to be, where it is going, how it will end, and (most importantly) why.  At least we must continue to try.  Those who put their faith in God, in the Bible, the Koran or Book of Mormon, even these people will be enriched if and when we discover the true nature of things.  They might not admit it publicly, but they will be enriched along with the rest of us.

The crescent moon rises in the early morning of Friday the 13th, 2012.

The crescent moon rises in the early morning of Friday the 13th, 2012.

There is nothing in astronomy thus far that contradicts the idea of a creator.  We are having some trouble describing the situation at the precise moment of the Big Bang (we can only describe events AFTER the Big Bang).  But even if we do, hints of higher levels of reality, a Multiverse (see below) means it all could have been set in motion by a creator long before “our” big bang.  Now be honest.  When you read the word “creator”, you had in mind an image.  I’m guessing it was an image derived from childhood religious teachings.  But notice I didn’t capitalize the word.  That’s because a creator, which let’s be honest is not at all required for this universe to have come into being, could indeed be someone entirely different than our traditional image of God.

Little worlds in water droplets at Portland's Rose Garden on a rainy day.

Little worlds in water droplets at Portland’s Rose Garden on a rainy day.

If you know something about quantum theory, you might have heard of virtual particles.  These are actually physical phenomena that pop into being from nothing, and then pop right back out of existence.  In fact, some scientists believe that the universe is speeding up its expansion because of the energy coming from this “restlessness” in the vacuum of space.  If you are willing to skip a lot of quantum physics and general cosmology in between, you can move to the extreme case of a universe popping into being from nothing.  In other words, you may be part of a universe that came into existence from nothing, with no help from anything but the inherent instability of truly empty space.  No creator, or Creator, is required.

The basic problem with applying quantum theory to the universe as a whole is, as it has been for closing on a hundred years now, the difficulty physicists have in applying quantum theory to the world we live in.  The word quantum refers to things so tiny that they’re really little packets of energy rather than things with length and breadth.  Electrons and protons are two examples of quanta.  These are things we will probably never photograph directly (atoms, made up of protons and electrons, have been photographed).

The Milky Way soars over Crater Lake, Oregon.

The Milky Way soars over Crater Lake, Oregon.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that we haven’t had much luck so far taking a theory that describes the world of electrons and protons and applying it to things that are infinitely more huge like a person, let alone something as vast as a universe.  Things like rivers and rocks, elephants and planets, stars and nebulae are, in essence, emergent properties of some underlying reality.  We seem to be stumbling around, using the language of mathematics to look for this underlying reality, and coming up with plenty of possibilities.  All the while physicists have not been able to connect any of the myriad possibilities to what has actually emerged from that reality.

Many attempts have been made to meld the submicroscopic world of energy (the universe right after the Big Bang) with the more familiar and much cooler universe of today.  We have a well-tested theory of beyond-tiny particles, but we need a theory of stars, planets and bacteria. ( Ha!  You thought I was going to say people, but bacteria vastly outnumber us and probably inhabit way more planets than do large animals like us.)

A rare solar corona appears.

A rare solar corona appears.

Einstein, Bohr, Wheeler, Feynman, etc., etc., all very smart scientists, have put forth  ideas that would extend classical quantum mechanics.  But nobody has succeeded in coming up with a well-tested quantum theory of the macroscopic world (a.k.a. quantum theory of gravity).  There are theories in science, and then there are Theories.  Sometimes, when it is pure mathematics behind the idea, they call it a theorem.  Nobody would call relativity, or evolution by natural selection, a theorem, believe me.  This ongoing effort is often called the Quest for the Holy Grail of Physics.

So I’ll leave it there for now.  I won’t say much more about quantum theory per se, though everything from here on out traces back to it.  Instead I’ll jump right on to the idea of multiple universes, or the Multiverse, and how life and the origin of life might fit in.  It would be good for anyone interested in science to get up to speed (layperson’s speed that is) on quantum theory.  I don’t pretend to understand a lick of the mathematics behind it, so don’t ask me too many questions.  But the ideas of entanglement and decoherence, of multiple histories, and even wave function collapse, are all good targets for a bit of googling and (better) actual book-reading.  More to come.

A small stupa in Nepal's Himalayan mountains allows Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike a moment of rest and reflection on the trekking trail.

A small stupa in Nepal’s Himalayan mountains allows Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike a moment of rest and reflection on the trekking trail.

Life and the Universe I   8 comments

Sulfur Springs, a remote thermal area in Yellowstone National Park, reflects the pale light of evening.

Sulfur Springs, a remote thermal area in Yellowstone National Park, reflects the pale light of evening.

How is that for a title?  Perhaps a bit too broad for a blog post, ya think?  I know, I’ll spread it out over 2 or 3 posts, that should do it.

Actually I have been thinking about this subject in a different way off and on for a few years now.  It can be boiled down to this: does the universe show a consciousness?

Several cosmologists out there have written books where this idea is implied if not outright stated.  And these are scientists, so please don’t think I’m off my rocker!   Paul Davies is one scientist who has influenced my thinking.  He wrote a book in 2007 called Cosmic Jackpot where he discusses some of the theories behind modern cosmology, including the idea of the Multiverse.  He doesn’t stop, however, with yet another layman’s explanation of relativity or string theory.  He goes further and tackles quasi-religious “why” questions, such as:

  • Why is the universe so dang perfect for the emergence of life, when it could have been so easily hostile to life?
  • Why are we here, and why are we conscious?
  • Does the Universe itself have a consciousness?  If so, why?
The white mineral terraces at Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park glow under a partial moon and the summer stars.

The white mineral terraces at Mammoth in Yellowstone National Park glow under a partial moon and the summer stars.

Davies isn’t the only cosmologist who is exploring these questions, but most scientists don’t go so far into speculation about the purpose for and meaning of life in this universe. My ideas as summarized in this post aren’t exact copies of Davies’, and they don’t use these cosmological ideas to springboard into fantasy land.  I’m not saying the ideas could not be the basis of a very good, and very bizarre, science fiction novel.  But in a way I am a good little scientist who doesn’t stray too far from what can be tested and established by observation and other lines of evidence.

I think the fact that our universe is so finely tuned to the emergence of life begs to be explained.  I also think that life is too often regarded as a sort of passive feature in the universe.  You have gas clouds, dust, rocks, and other stuff…and oh yeah, you also have life.  I really think it’s possible that it is much more than that.  It is now obvious that life has influenced everything on Earth from climate to the oceans, even minerals (whose incredible diversity on this planet is very likely because of life).

The complex and beautiful symmetry in nature is suggestive of design, but obeys natural laws.

The complex and beautiful symmetry in nature is suggestive of design, but obeys natural laws.

Just one example: a little over two billion years ago the atmosphere was infused with oxygen by micro-organisms who bloomed fantastically in the ancient oceans.  Mostly the changes that life has wrought on Earth have served to make the planet much more hospitable to…you guessed it, life!  In the example above, the oxygen in the atmosphere allowed the evolution of energy-hungry complex life.   Oxygen supplies enormous energy within your body’s cells, much more than any other element could.  There are many other examples; ask any good paleontologist and they’ll tell you.  Is all of this mere coincidence?

Venus passes in front of the Sun, an event that won't be repeated for over 100 years.

Venus passes in front of the Sun, an event that won’t be repeated for over 100 years.

Now Earth is the only model we have thus far to explore the tight inter-relationships between non-living matter, energy and life.  But looking out into the galaxy, we are finding more and more planets that are looking more and more like they might also harbor life.  When you consider the numbers involved, life might actually be quite common in the galaxy, and by extension the entire universe.  If we can find some of the same types of connections between life and the history of the cosmos that we have found on Earth, then we might be looking at something very profound indeed.

You might have heard that in astronomy, time starts with the Big Bang.  Nothing existed before this but a singularity, which takes up no space.  So what happened before the Big Bang?  That question is nonsensical, or unanswerable, or blah blah blah.   This is utter nonsense of course.  We might not be able to answer these questions about our origins right now, but they are certainly legitimate (and very important) scientific questions.  Next lecture you go to where the Big Bang is discussed, make sure and raise your hand to ask the question, what came before?  If the speaker is good, while probably not being able to answer definitively, she will never brush this question off with a lame excuse.

Storm clouds gather.

Storm clouds gather.

If we live in just one of many, perhaps an infinite number, of universes, in other words a Multiverse, then it is impossible to ignore the startling consequences.  And it goes beyond the admittedly bizarre fact that there could be another person virtually identical to you in a parallel universe.  If we are part of a Multiverse and begin to understand how it works, we could discover some mind-blowing things.  We might actually find out in the not-too-distant future how we got here, how all of this got going in the first place, and crucially, WHY.  Why are we here?

The atmosphere is a dynamic place, where interactions between air and energy often create the impression that it's alive.

The atmosphere is a dynamic place, where interactions between air and energy often create the impression that it’s alive.

Never let anybody tell you this isn’t a legitimate scientific question, that it’s outside the purview of science.  But I’ll excuse you for being selective regarding whom you get into a discussion of these matters with.  After all, religion tackles the same sorts of questions, and things can get emotional and personal real quick!  Science and religion mix much like water and oil do, and sometimes they mix more like pure sodium and water!

Next up: let’s dive into some real arm-waving speculation on these questions.  I welcome any and all comments and contributions, no matter how wacky you might think they are.

The moon sets behind the Tetons as the Milky Way soars over Jackson Lake, Wyoming.

The moon sets behind the Tetons as the Milky Way soars over Jackson Lake, Wyoming.

Lost Coast, California   5 comments

Eel River Sunrise

Northern California’s Lost Coast is located in northern Mendocino and southern Humboldt counties, north of San Francisco.  Steep mountains plunge down to a rocky shore.  Lonely beaches with waterfalls and good abalone hunting face out on great surfing breaks.  Just inland, wildlife abounds in the forest and small communities are separated by majestic redwood groves.

The rising sun sets the sky afire in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California.

The rising sun sets the sky afire in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, California.

The Lost Coast includes the King Range, a rugged, steeply uplifted piece of geology with many valleys oriented parallel to the coast – a very unique situation.  California’s  western-most headland, Cape Mendocino, occupies much of the Lost Coast.  These two geographic facts give the place its isolated character.  And as usual, the geology of the region is the underlying factor driving everything.

The Lost Coast of northern California is the scene of a peaceful winter's sunset.

The Lost Coast of northern California is the scene of a peaceful winter’s sunset.

Geology

The famous San Andreas Fault, which parallels the coastline all the way north from San Francisco, leaves the coast here and merges with the offshore Cape Mendocino Fault (which runs perpendicular to the coast and out to sea).  This is where three of the Earth’s tectonic plates come together.  The North American Plate, the Pacific Plate, and the small Gorda Plate join in what geologists call a triple junction.

The plate tectonic setting for the Lost Coast of California is dominated by the triple junction just offshore from Cape Mendocino.

The plate tectonic setting for the Lost Coast of California is dominated by the triple junction just offshore from Cape Mendocino.

The slip-sliding characterized by the San Andreas to the south gives way to a subduction zone to the north.  The Gorda Plate is slipping beneath the North American Plate.  This means that a line of volcanoes lies inland.  The Cascades begin at Mount Lassen and extend north past the Canadian border.  But much closer to the coast, an enormous torquing action occurs, which is why the uplift is extreme here.  The rocks are heavily buckled and folded, forming the rugged King Range.

The part of the northern California Coast between Fort Bragg and Eureka is called the Lost Coast.

The part of the northern California Coast between Fort Bragg and Eureka is called the Lost Coast.

The coast’s spectacular scenery owes its existence to this triple junction.  Rapid uplift of a coastline is marked by frequent earthquakes and landslides, and this area is no exception.  Offshore sea stacks, for e.g., are often the result of enormous landslides in the past.  And of course landslides are often precipitated by earthquakes.  All the while erosion is taking place,  from constant wave action.  And the uplift of the coastal margin gives the waves a constant source of new rocks to erode all the time.

Ice Plant, a non-native, blooms in winter-time on the Lost Coast of California.

Ice Plant, a non-native, blooms in winter-time on the Lost Coast of California.

I stopped in the little town of Garberville, just off Hwy. 101.  It is a typical northern California town, filled with real characters.  Not all of these people, believe it or not, are old burnt-out hippies.  For the first time during this trip, I didn’t feel out of place in my VW camper.  Now if I only had a dreadlocks wig as big as one of those giant octopuses that live in the nearby ocean, I would have fit in perfectly.  Actually the town is peaceful, with a magnificent stand of redwoods nearby in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

A cave on a northern California beach looks out on a sunny Pacific day.

A cave on a northern California beach looks out on a sunny Pacific day.

Then I headed over the extremely curvy and hilly two-lane that leads from Garberville out to the coast at Shelter Cove.  What a road!  The last hill descending off the King Range to the coast is extremely steep, granny gear both ways.  The little settlement of Shelter Cove is spread out, and seems to be populated by people who enjoy their isolation.  I wouldn’t necessarily call them anti-social loners, but there is a reason why they live  here.  Almost 1000 people live here, but I am sure many of the spectacularly-located houses are 2nd homes.

A beach house on the coast of California.

A beach house on the coast of California.

I experienced a nice sunset, getting there early enough to explore the rocky shore below the little park.  This park is easy to find if you turn left at the first T-junction after the big downhill.  The grassy park, set up on a terrace above the sea, is centered around the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse (see below).  It’s a simple walk down to the rocky shore from this park, and you can continue south past the boat ramp around Shelter Cove itself.  The rock is black, and forms dramatic silhouettes with the numerous tide pools.  Be careful though, and consider rubber boots if you’re planning on exploring and/or photographing.  It’s slippery and there are sneaker waves.  It’s wise to remember the venerable warning to never turn your back on the ocean.

The rocky coastline at Shelter Cove on California's Pacific Coast is a tide-poolers heaven.

The rocky coastline at Shelter Cove on California’s Pacific Coast is a tide-poolers heaven.

Cape Mendocino Lighthouse

This stubby structure, which dates from 1868, did not need to be tall since it was originally placed atop a 422-foot (129 meters) cliff on Cape Mendocino.  It was shipped to the site and hauled up the steep mountainside.  The first ship sent to start construction at the site ran aground, and all supplies were lost (everyone survived though).  Over the years, the light saved many lives, and in more ways than the obvious.  For one thing it was a great lookout.  On one occasion a keeper spotted a ship that was on fire.  He brought help just in time to save all aboard.

The Cape Mendocino Lighthouse, now restored and located in nearby Shelter Cove, glows just after sunset.

The Cape Mendocino Lighthouse, now restored and located in nearby Shelter Cove, glows just after sunset.

But the frequent earthquakes and landslides were a constant hazard, and the lighthouse was eventually abandoned in the early 1960s.  The lighthouse was later saved when a local group had it moved and restored.  For the last 12 years it has shone at Shelter Cove not far south of the Cape.  But its business end seems a bit empty without its original Fresnel lens (which was replaced years ago while it was in service).

Coiled and mounded kelp is a common sight along northern California beaches

Coiled and mounded kelp is a common sight along northern California beaches

I also enjoyed some time in the redwoods at Humboldt Redwoods State Park.  There is a 2-lane road (appropriately called “Avenue of the Giants”) that parallels Hwy. 101, allowing you to stop and walk through the big trees, or enjoy the beautiful Eel River (which winds its way through here on its way to the sea).

An amazing variety of stones are present on this northern California beach.

An amazing variety of stones are present on this northern California beach.

It’s a beautiful and remote stretch of coast, one I can highly recommend visiting.  The coast both to the south (as far as Point Reyes) and to the north (the Oregon border and beyond) is also beautiful.  I didn’t get the opportunity this time to explore the Lost Coast fully.  There are hiking and mountain biking options, plus several fire roads that take off from the Shelter Cove Road.  I encourage you to go further than I did in exploring this rugged part of the California Coast.  I know I’ll do so when I return.

The Pacific Ocean and the day's last light stretch west from the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse in Shelter Cove, California.

The Pacific Ocean and the day’s last light stretch west from the Cape Mendocino Lighthouse in Shelter Cove, California.

Death Valley VI: A Cute Fish   2 comments

Blowing sand at Mesquite Flats dune field in Death Valley National Park, Califormia forms textured shadows.

Blowing sand at Mesquite Flats dune field in Death Valley National Park, Califormia forms textured shadows.

This is the last of three posts on the geology and ecology of Death Valley National Park in California.  I hope you’ve enjoyed them.  Remember for my images, click on them to be taken to the website, where purchase for download or prints (framed or unframed) is very simple.  These photos will be up in their full-sized glory soon, but if you are interested now, please contact me.  These versions are too small to do anything with, so please enjoy them without attempting to download from the blog.  Thanks.

One of Death Valley's many interesting plants, this one grows in the inter-dune areas of Mesquite Flats.

One of Death Valley’s many interesting plants, this one grows in the inter-dune areas of Mesquite Flats.

ICE AGES

Death Valley was influenced by the Pleistocene Ice Ages that started a couple million years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago.  No, glaciers did not descend into the valley; it never got that cold. But the large ice sheets to the north led to a much wetter climate throughout most of the ice-free parts of the continent.  So as you might imagine, large basins like Death Valley filled with large lakes.  At one time there were lakes hundreds of miles long.  The one that occupied Death Valley is called Lake Manly, at one time 80 miles long.  Where did the water go?  Underground of course.  You see the top of this great aquifer at Badwater, and in wet years (2004) a shallow lake reappears atop the normally dry salt flats.

A roadrunner pauses near the side of, yes, the road.

A roadrunner pauses near the side of (you guessed it) the road.

 The Great Salt Lake in Utah is the largest remnant of the paradise for water birds that the West was during the Ice Age.  This world of wetlands supported a healthy early Native American population.  As the lakes shrank and dried up some 10,000 years ago, the native groups migrated north and east, the evaporite minerals accumulated in great quantities, and desert pup fish evolved.

The sun rises and sheds a hard light on the salt flats of Death Valley, leaving the Panamint Range in shadow.

The sun rises and sheds a hard light on the salt flats of Death Valley, leaving the Panamint Range in shadow.

 PUP FISH

Can fish be cute?  Sure they can!  The cute little pup fish that make Death Valley their home are small remnants of once-huge schools that swam the huge lakes of Ice Age times.  If you know about the great Rift Valley lakes of Africa (Tanganyika, Malawi, etc.), you might know of the beautiful little aquarium fish that make those lakes their homes.  The same was true in North America during the wetter times of the Ice Age.  When the lakes dried up and separated into smaller, shallower and saltier bodies of water, those fish were forced to adapt to progressively warmer and saltier water.

 This is exactly the sort of crisis that drives accelerated rates of evolution.  It’s a changing environment that separates breeding populations into smaller and smaller parts that most easily leads to very specialized life forms, adapted to a specific environment.  In the case of the pup fish, this story has reached an extreme point in modern times at Devil’s Hole, a separate section of the National Park located not far east in Nevada.  Here live one of the world’s rarest species, the Devil’s Hole pup fish.  These small fish hide in the deep crevices of an extensive spring system.  The water, a remnant itself of a much bigger body, is incredibly salty.

Pup fish are super-specialized creatures, a testament to how difficult it is for nature to kill off one of its own.  They can withstand high salt concentrations and very warm water.  They are most likely doomed, however, as the climate of the American West continues to become warmer and more arid.   But they will continue their fight so long as we don’t do something stupid like pump nearby groundwater dry.

Snow-capped Panamint Range from southern Death Valley's Saratoga Springs.

Snow-capped Panamint Range from southern Death Valley’s Saratoga Springs.

The sand dunes at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California, appear wave-like in the right light.

The sand dunes at Mesquite Flats in Death Valley, California, appear wave-like in the right light.

I hope this little tour of one of my favorite playgrounds has made you want to visit, has given you a good knowledge background, and spurred you to do some additional research.  There is plenty of good information on the Web, and not all of it on Wikipedia!  I also hope this has given you an appreciation for how the geology of a region influences almost everything else about it.  It’s even true where you live!

I apologize for not writing quite so much on desert ecology.  Hmm…maybe I should do just one more post!

The pristine sand dunes in a less-visited part of Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park glow with a purplish hue at dusk.

The pristine sand dunes in a less-visited part of Mesquite Flat in Death Valley glow with a purplish hue at dusk.

Death Valley V: Geologic History   Leave a comment

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range, as viewed from Death Valley.

The morning sun hits the Panamint Range, as viewed from Death Valley.

This is the second of three posts on the natural history background for a visit to Death Valley National Park in California.  I hope it sparks some interest in these subjects, because if you visit this desert park, you will be hard-pressed to ignore its stunning geology and arid ecology.

GEOLOGIC HISTORY

The rocks exposed in Death Valley go back nearly two billion years.  As you walk through canyons like Titus or Marble, you will see layer upon layer of a dark gray sedimentary rock (often weathering red to orange).  A great thing to do on a hot day in a canyon is to go into the shade of these walls and lean your whole body against the cool gray rock.  This is limestone, and it tells of a time when this area was covered in a warm subtropical sea.

The famous Artist's Palette in Death Valley as viewed from atop the ridge that is most often photographed.

The famous Artist’s Palette in Death Valley as viewed from atop the ridge that is most often photographed.

Back in Paleozoic time (250-600 million years ago), there was a quiet coastline not far east of here one very similar to the modern Atlantic coast of North America.  Marine algae and other small creatures pulled CO2 and calcium out of the seawater to form their shells. These lime muds accumulated layer upon layer, eventually to become limestone.  Sand, silt and mud covered the shallow marine shelf at times, leading to sandstone, siltstone and shale.

Later, during the time of dinosaurs (the Mesozoic), the whole region was the focus of mountain building, thus emerging from the sea.  And mountain building means plate tectonics.  At that time, the ancestral Pacific Plate (called the Farallon Plate by geologists) pushed underneath the western edge of North America – a subduction zone.

Recently formed salt crystals decorate the floor of Death Valley in California.

Recently formed salt crystals decorate the floor of Death Valley in California.

The incredible pressures generated along this subduction zone made the limestone and other rocks pay dearly for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  These sedimentary rocks were originally deposited in horizontal layers, and as you can easily see in the naked mountains of Death Valley, they have been folded, faulted, and otherwise tortured.  Masses of granitic magma, melted crustal rocks from below, pushed up into the sedimentary rocks.  This granite is best exposed to the south, in Joshua Tree and other parts of southern California.

A view of Death Valley from above Artist's Palette shows the playa with its salt pan.  A large alluvial fan is at upper left with dark inselbergs emerging in places.

A view of Death Valley from above Artist’s Palette shows the playa with its salt pan. A large alluvial fan is at upper left with dark inselbergs emerging in places.

The spectacular results of this ultra slow-motion collision can be seen on any canyon hike in Death Valley.  In addition, many of the rocks have been changed – metamorphosed – into a wholly different kind of rock.  The uplifted area was slowly worn down by erosion over a long, long time, eventually forming a low plain.  In other words, there were no rocks formed, in this case from the Jurassic to the Eocene, a period of 130 million years!  The missing time interval shows up as an ancient erosional surface in the rocks, what is called an unconformity.

 Unconformities are important horizons in any rock sequence, and this one shows itself in various places across Death Valley.  You can see a textbook example of an angular unconformity (the most obvious kind) in Darwin Canyon.  This canyon is about 19 miles from Panamint Springs (where you’ll ask for directions and road conditions).  It shows as a line in the rocks (surface in 3 dimensions) where layers below are at a completely different angle than those above.  In the same area is some fantastic folding.

Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California, offers great opportunity to photograph landscapes in black and white.

Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park, California, offers great opportunity to photograph landscapes in black and white.

THE BIG RIP

Long after the dinosaurs had disappeared, starting several million years ago, this area began to be torn apart by rifting at the edge of North America.  It’s a process that continues today.  By this time the subduction zone off the west coast had shrunk northward, where it still grinds away off the coast of Oregon and Washington.  It was replaced by the San Andreas Fault, which still marks the boundary between the North American and Pacific tectonic plates.

The lateral sliding movement of the enormous Pacific Plate moving north past the western margin of North America is essentially torquing the entire western part of North America.  It’s caused a clockwise rotation and the crust has broken into large fault block mountain ranges bounded by normal faults.  This rifting (as rifting typically does) opened pathways for lava to rise and erupt.  Throughout Death Valley you will see areas of volcanic rocks – mostly tuff (rock made from volcanic ash) and basalt (dark lava rock).  Ubehebe Crater in the north past Scotty’s Castle is just one example.

The skies above Death Valley are the playground of Navy pilots from nearby China Lake.

One of the only times you’ll look up from the stunning landscape of Death Valley is when a deep boom makes you notice the Navy jet pilots from nearby China Lake, who make the skies their playground.

 The fault-block mountains caused by rifting are Death Valley’s most obvious geological structure.  But in this far southern part of the Basin and Range, you are looking at a deeper level of rifting.  So there are not only the steep normal faults, but also low-angle “detachment” faults.  Think about the steep normal faults that border the mountain fronts curving and taking on more shallow angles as you mentally travel down their surfaces, and you have a great idea of a detachment.

Incidentally, remember the granite formed during the Mesozoic?  Go south, to Joshua Tree and other places in Southern California, and you’ll see the masses of granite all around.  This means you are seeing much deeper levels of the rifting of North America than you see in the northern Basin and Range.  Keep going and you’ll come to the Gulf of California, where the Sea of Cortez has already invaded the rift.  It’s as if a giant zipper was slowly opening, south to north along the western edge of the continent.

A black and white rendition of the simple beauty of Death Valley's sand dunes.

A black and white rendition of the simple beauty of Death Valley’s sand dunes.

 Back to detachment faults: they can cause whole mountain ranges to literally slide down a sort of shallow ramp, ending up miles from where they started.  Tucki Peak may have slid in this manner.  They really are the most efficient way to rip apart a continent!  You can see these large, low-angled surfaces where they help to form the geographic features called turtle-backs.  One such site is about 16 miles south of Badwater, where if you stop at Mormon Point and look north into the Black Mountains, you’ll notice one of these ramp-like detachment faults.

One more post coming to finish up with Death Valley, this one on the Ice Ages and the pup fish.

The golden light of a late afternoon warms the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park.

The golden light of a late afternoon warms the dunes at Mesquite Flat in Death Valley National Park.

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