Archive for the ‘geology’ Tag

Mountain Monday: Outback Oregon   4 comments

Winter begins by dusting the Pueblo Mountains of southeastern Oregon.

Winter begins by dusting the Pueblo Mountains of southeastern Oregon.

I posted Friday on photography around stormy weather but neglected to include snow.  Good images are really difficult to get when it’s snowing heavily.  So let’s follow up and correct that error.  This is an image where the snow had just fallen on the mountains but never really reached me.  It was early morning and I was hoping for the mountains to show themselves.  It was chilly so I though maybe there would be snow, but I was surprised there was so much.

I was in what is called Oregon’s “outback” (apologies to Australia).  Southeastern Oregon is very thinly populated and is wide-open high desert.  Geologically, the mountains are fault-block type.  This simply means that they were formed by high-angle faults which throw one side down (becoming the valley or basin) and one side up (forming a long relatively narrow range).  It’s also known as basin and range terrain and continues south through most of Nevada and east to the Wasatch Mountains of Utah.

The reason I didn’t get snowed on is because of the “rain shadow effect”.  This is when rain or snow is essentially blocked by a mountain range.  The clouds are lifted by the mountain slopes, cooling the air and causing precipitation.  When the air descends the lee side of the range, it warms and dries, leaving little or none of the wet stuff for the valley beyond.  In areas where the weather pretty much comes from one direction, there can be very dramatic differences in vegetation between the windward and lee sides of any range that runs nearly perpendicular to the direction of prevailing winds.

Enjoy your week and Happy Labor Day to my fellow Americans!

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Single-image Sunday: Panorama   8 comments

Tucki Mountain looms as a storm moves in to Death Valley.

Tucki Mountain looms as a storm moves in to Death Valley.

I so rarely post panoramas that I noticed something: I’ve started to do fewer of them.  That’s a shame, and so in Death Valley recently I made sure to do a few.  This is one.  It isn’t too wide and skinny.  I have one of this scene which is, and it looks like a thin strip on the computer screen – not good.  Panoramas don’t tend to lack impact when viewed on a screen, but when printed out (especially large) they are spectacular.  Of course it isn’t cheap to print and frame a pano, but if you put it in the right spot, where it can be examined from fairly close-up, it’s worth it.

This image is similar to a more standard crop I posted for Friday Foto.  This was a fantastic storm that swept in toward sunset just as I had emerged out onto the top of the alluvial fan after hiking a canyon.  It was very windy, difficult to keep the camera steady enough for sharp shots.  In those cases it’s hard to use a tripod unless you weight it down.  Often it’s best, if you have enough light, to just hand-hold your shots with the lens’ image stabilization activated.

It’s springtime in the desert and other areas of southern California.  Beautiful flowers are blooming everywhere.  These moody stormy images aren’t exactly what people want to see right now.  But I love these conditions anytime I get to photograph them.  And that goes double when I’m in a spectacular location.

Looking down the valley as the storm moved toward me, blowing sand out ahead of it, was invigorating to say the least!  And being in an elevated position at the top of an alluvial fan allowed me to capture the distant hulk of Tucki Peak.  After this it got dark rapidly and I got to get wet as I walked down the fan into the teeth of the storm.  See below for some geologic details for Death Valley and Tucki Mountain.  Enjoy and thanks for looking!

ADDENDUM: GEOLOGY

Tucki Mtn. & Telescope Pk. are Death Valley’s two iconic mountains.  I’ve climbed them both but it’s been quite a long time since Tucki (it can be much tougher than the much loftier Telescope).  Tucki sticks outward into the valley in a position where it’s hard to miss.  Two or three million years ago the whole Panamint Range, including Tucki, began to slide northwestward off the top of the Black Mountains on the other side of the valley along what’s called a detachment, or low-angle normal fault.  In addition Tucki has been pushed up to form a “metamorphic core complex”, where erosion has exposed metamorphic rocks formed far beneath the surface.

Tucki has also been pushed north relative to the mountains across the valley along strike-slip faults related to the San Andreas Fault and plate boundary to the west.  Death Valley itself is a graben (German for grave) that opened under extensional stresses as a result of this shearing motion.  The bottom literally dropped out and now the valley floor lies below sea level.

Two for Tuesday: Forming Sand Dunes   14 comments

Recently I spent a few days at a dune field I’ve been wanting to photograph for quite some time.  With a great name (Ibex Dunes) and a fairly remote location in the far southern part of Death Valley National Park, California, they are a natural magnet for someone like me.  A bonus: nearby Saratoga Springs gives rise to a large wetland, attracting birdlife and hosting a number of endemic species, including pupfish.

I was there long enough to see a windstorm move through, out ahead of a big rain and snow storm that hit southern California this past week.  It was one of many this winter that are related to El Nino.  That gave me the idea to do a Two-for-Tuesday post.

Sand dunes are a bit like glaciers.  They move and evolve over time.  Glaciers are under the influence of gravity combined with year-on-year snow in their higher reaches.  The driver of a dune field is the wind combined with a steady supply of sand.

For the Ibex dunes, there is a large valley with fine sand and salty sediments west of a range of craggy peaks.  The prevailing winds are from the west, so they pick up that sand and essentially throw it up against the mountains.  Anywhere wind is forced by topography to change direction it slows down, potentially dropping it’s load of sand.

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Wind moves sand over the Ibex Dunes in Death Valley National Park.

The great thing about wind and sand dunes, at least for fans of texture and shape in nature, is that not only does the wind bring in new sand, but re-sculpting takes place as well.  Footprints are erased, ripples and ridges are sharpened, curves are smoothed.

In open terrain dunes move along, driven by the wind.  For the Ibex Dunes, eastward movement is arrested by the mountains.  But you can see how dunes have migrated up onto the alluvial fans and to the north (where with a decrease in sand supply, they are smaller and partly stabilized by vegetation).

If you get the chance to visit sand dunes in wind, don’t miss it.  The sand in your hair is a minor inconvenience compared to the opportunity to see dune formation in action.  Thanks for looking and happy shooting!

The Ibex Dunes lap up against a range of desert mountains.

The Ibex Dunes lap up against a range of desert mountains.

Visiting Zion National Park: Part I   20 comments

Zion Canyon from Bridge Mountain.

Zion Canyon from Bridge Mountain.

I’m going to change pace and do a short travel series: an in-depth look at Zion National Park.  I’ve not done one of these for a long time.  As usual I’ll start with Zion’s natural history, including geology in this post.  Then I’ll go on to human history and life on display at Zion.  I’ll finish with travel logistics and recommendations for various visit lengths, focusing of course on photography.

If you haven’t yet visited Zion, this series will be an in-depth introduction with tips, but without presuming to tell you exactly where and how to photograph the park.  If you’ve been to Zion before, you will learn some interesting stuff about the park and probably find out about one or two out-of-the-way photo spots.

But mostly this is about background knowledge.  I strongly believe the more you know about a place the better your experience and photos will be.  Though my posts are always heavily illustrated, I hope you’ll try to forget the pictures when you go out yourself.  Do your own thing and get pictures that represent your own unique take on the park.

East Temple from just east of the tunnels.

East Temple from just east of the tunnels.

REGIONAL SETTING

Zion National Park lies in southwestern Utah, in an area called Dixie.  That term is normally associated with the southern states (Alabama, Georgia, etc.).  Utah’s Dixie is certainly where the climate is warmest in the Beehive State.  But it’s much drier than the humid South.  Zion is at the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau, that huge regional uplift of sedimentary rocks that covers parts of four states and defines much of the dramatic scenery of America’s desert southwest.

THE GRAND STAIRCASE

Zion is also on the western edge of a geologic feature called Grand Staircase.  This is a large series of cliff-forming sedimentary layers that steps downward from north to south.  Some of the area’s highest and youngest rocks are to the north near Bryce Canyon while some of the lowest and oldest rocks are exposed to the south in Grand Canyon.

But the rim of that last southern step (it’s a doozie!) tops out at 8800 feet in elevation on the north rim of the Grand Canyon.  That’s very similar to the top of Bryce (the northern step) at 9100 feet.  So the Grand Staircase not so much steps downward in elevation but in geology.

BREAKS & CANYONS

Zion Canyon, centerpiece of the park, plus Cedar Breaks to the north, are located where the land “breaks” downward off the high eastern plateaus of south-central Utah to meet the lower deserts of SW Utah and southern Nevada.  These breaks are also known as the Hurricane Cliffs, which continue south into NW Arizona.

The towns in this part of Utah, largest of which is St. George, are situated near the foot of this dramatic sandstone escarpment, at a relatively low elevation compared with much smaller burgs up in the plateau country to the east.  The Virgin River and its tributaries have cut generally SW-facing canyons down through the escarpment.  The most dramatic of these is Zion Canyon.

The Hurricane Cliffs 'break' down off the Colorado Plateau here at Kolob Canyons, part of Zion National Park, Utah.

The Hurricane Cliffs ‘break’ down off the Colorado Plateau here at Kolob Canyons, part of Zion National Park, Utah.

The lower terrain near St. George, Utah is exemplified by Snow Canyon State Park, but the land continues to drop to the south and west.

The lower terrain near St. George, Utah is exemplified here at Snow Canyon State Park, but the land continues to drop to the south and west.

GEOLOGIC HISTORY

THE GREAT JURASSIC DESERT

The most prominent formation at Zion is Navajo Sandstone.  It forms most of the named dome-like features at Zion, such as the Patriarchs, the Sentinel, and White Throne.  The Navajo, which is generally a whitish sandstone, preserves record of an ancient desert.  This desert, which existed in the Jurassic age (dinosaur times), was dominated by enormous sand dune fields (ergs) similar to today’s Sahara Desert.

You can tell the rocks are ancient sand dunes because of cross-bedding.  Take a good look at the sandstone walls at Zion and notice the lines angled at about 35 degrees to the main rock layers, which are nearly horizontal.  A great place to see cross-bedding is at Checkerboard Mesa near the park’s east entrance, but you’ll see it everywhere in East Zion east of the tunnels.  The rocks behind the sheep below show cross-bedding.

Desert bighorn sheep at East Zion.

Desert bighorn sheep at East Zion.

The desert sands of the Navajo formed when plate tectonics, beginning a couple hundred million years ago, dragged this area north from equatorial to much drier latitudes in the vicinity of the Tropic of Cancer (30 degrees north).  This is the latitude, both north and south of the equator (Tropic of Capricorn), where the world’s major deserts are still found.

Also contributing to desertification in the Jurassic were the mountains building to the west of Zion in Nevada and California.  These ranges, which were the result of tectonic collision at the western edge of North America, are now gone, eroded away.  But in the Jurassic they formed an effective rain-shadow, blocking rains coming off the Pacific and helping to dry things even further.

A side-canyon in East Zion has a stream carrying sand eroded from the Navajo Sandstone, itself built from dune sands eroded from a long-gone ancient mountain range.

A side-canyon in East Zion has a stream carrying sand eroded from the Navajo Sandstone, itself built from dune sands eroded from a long-gone ancient mountain range.

PRE-DESERT TIMES

There is more than Navajo Sandstone at Zion, however.  The Virgin River has cut so deeply into the rocks that, despite the great thickness of the Navajo, other formations are visible beneath it.  These record shallow seas, meandering streams and floodplain environments.  For example, the Kayenta and Moenave Formations below the Navajo are reddish stream deposits formed in climates that changed from subtropical (for the older Moenave) to semi-arid (for the overlying Kayenta).

These older formations form the rubbly slopes and red cliff bands low on Zion’s canyon walls.  They’re also prominent above the town of Springdale, and up on Kolob Terrace Road.  Solid red cliffs of Kayenta, formed at the edge of that great encroaching desert, lie directly beneath the hard white sandstones of the Navajo.

If you gain a high vantage point you may notice the red “hats” or caps on top of the Navajo Formation’s highest white domes.  These belong to the Temple Cap and Carmel Formations, at 160 million years the youngest rocks at Zion.  Their reddish color is clue to wetter conditions returning in the late Jurassic.  A warm sea even invaded again, this signaled by limestones of the Carmel Formation.

The Navajo Sandstone is in places stained with iron oxide, where fractures have allowed fluids to penetrate the rock and move iron from other formations.

The Navajo Sandstone is in places stained with iron oxide, where fractures have allowed fluids to penetrate the rock and move iron from other formations.

UPLIFT & EROSION

Time didn’t stop after deposition of the Navajo and other Jurassic rocks at Zion.  Sedimentation continued into the Cretaceous and beyond; yet, save for an important exception (see below), younger rocks of the Zion region have been stripped away by erosion and transported down the Colorado River into the Pacific Ocean.

Erosion is a big deal at Zion.  The Colorado Plateau continues to be shoved upward by tectonic pressures (a 5.8 magnitude earthquake shook Zion in 1995).  Over time, this uplift has increased river gradients dramatically, resulting in very active erosion by streams and rivers as well as landslides.  Wind has helped sculpt the landscape.

Basaltic lava flows form a stark contrast with iron-stained Navajo Sandstones.

Basaltic lava flows form a stark contrast with iron-stained and dune cross-bedded Navajo Sandstones.

YOUNG LAVA FLOWS

If you drive up to Lava Point on the Kolob Terrace Road, you will notice dark lava flows, which flowed out of vents that opened up as this area began to stretch (rift), starting about 2 million years ago.  This young age places the lava flows (which being basalt were quite fluid) in the Ice Ages, which were fairly wet times at Zion.  Think about the terrain at that time, which was dramatic canyon country as it is today.

This combination of climate, active basaltic volcanism and topography tells you something must have happened (and it did!):  lava-dammed lakes.  If you hike the Subway, a lake formed in that canyon when lava dammed the Left Fork; it extended all the way up to the Subway itself.  If you’re observant you’ll notice fine lake muds and silts laid down by this lake.  You pass right by them when you’re hiking back out of the canyon.

By the way, let’s put some numbers on this story.  Most of what you see at Zion is between about 200 and 160 million years old, placing it squarely in the Mesozoic Era, age of dinosaurs.  Less noticeable rocks beneath these are as old as 250 million years, while the young lavas are between 1.5 and 200,000 years old.

Dusk falls on the Kolob Terrace, with a large dome of Navajo Sandstone catching the glow above red Kayenta sandstones. Footprints of sauropods (huge plant-eating dinos) have been found in the red formation.

Dusk falls on Kolob Terrace, with a large dome of Navajo Sandstone catching the glow above steep red and mauve slopes of the Kayenta.  Beneath that in the foreground are brick-red rubbly cliffs of the Springdale Member of the Moenave Formation. Footprints of sauropods (huge plant-eating dinos) have been found here.

TROPICAL SEAS AT ZION?

The older pre-dinosaur strata is worth mentioning because it is prominent at nearby attractions, such as Grand Canyon to the south of Zion.  Most prominent of the area’s oldest rock formations is the Kaibab.  It dates back to Permian times about 260 million years ago.  In these ancient times, an embayment of the ocean we call Panthalassa lapped at the edge of the world’s only landmass, the supercontinent Pangaea.  At that time this region, later to become Utah and Arizona, was near the equator.

The Kaibab is mostly limestone, formed in warm, shallow seas.  It’s visible in places low along the Virgin River within the park and also dramatically in the Hurricane Cliffs near the town of Hurricane and north along the east side of I-15.  It’s interesting to realize that the Kaibab, which hides low in Zion’s deep canyons, forms the high rim of Grand Canyon to the south.  This tells you something about the layout of the Grand Staircase.

Thought I'd throw in a shot from the Grand Canyon, because the Kaibab Limestone is exposed so well here at Toroweap on the North Rim.

Thought I’d throw in a shot from the Grand Canyon, because the Kaibab Limestone is exposed so well here at Toroweap on the North Rim.

THE SENTINEL SLIDE

More recently during the Ice Ages, the climate at Zion was wetter than today’s.  The Virgin and other rivers carried more water, thus flash-flooding was more frequent and violent.  Four thousand years ago a huge landslide blocked the Virgin River and formed a 350 foot-deep lake in Zion Canyon.  This enormous slump block came off The Sentinel, so it’s called the Sentinel Slide.

The lake extended from Canyon Junction all the way to Angel’s Landing.  Sediments settled out on the canyon floor, partly filling its natural V-shape.  The river could not be stopped for long of course, and the natural dam was eventually breached.  The resulting flood drained the lake and formed the V-shaped inner canyon between Court of the Patriarchs and Canyon Junction.

So now you know why Zion Canyon is flat-bottomed; it’s the old lake-bed.  You can see the remains of the Sentinel Slide above you on the left as you drive up-canyon.  For a closer view hike or go on a horse-back ride on the Sand Bench Trail, which climbs up on top of the slump block itself.  By the way, the Sentinel Slide still acts up from time to time.  In 1995, part of the old slide slipped, briefly blocking the river.  The road was flooded for a time until the Virgin, never to be denied for long, re-established its channel.

Stay tuned for more from Zion National Park!

Looking down-canyon at sunset from atop Sand Bench, which is the huge slump block of the Sentinel Slide.

Looking down-canyon at sunset from atop Sand Bench, which is the huge slump block of the Sentinel Slide.  I’m on top of one of the huge blocks moved by the slide.

 

Mountain Monday: Telescope Peak & Death Valley   12 comments

Telescope Peak and the Panamint Range from southern Death Valley's Saratoga Springs.

Telescope Peak and the Panamint Range from southern Death Valley’s Saratoga Springs.

Occasionally I like to highlight a mountain I like for Mountain Monday.  Today it’s Telescope Peak, in Death Valley National Park, California.  This has long been one of my favorite national parks.  I started visiting when it was still a national monument.  My first visit was a college seminar and field trip.  My second time was freelancing with friends, and we climbed Telescope Peak.

The top is just over 11,000 feet high, and since it was early spring, we waded through hip-deep snow drifts to get there.  After the all-day climb, we drove back down into the valley, took our sleeping bags, and tumbled out into the sand dunes to sleep under the stars.  What a contrast!  An icy morning at 8000 feet, a snowy climb, then sleeping out in balmy weather at sea level.

Snow-capped Telescope Peak has been lifted by the range-front fault over 11,000 feet above the floor of Death Valley.

Snowy Telescope Peak has been lifted by faulting along the range-front over 11,000 feet above the hot desert floor of Death Valley.

GEOLOGIC INTERLUDE

Telescope is the highest point in the park and crowns the Panamint Range.  The Panamints are an upraised block of the earth’s crust, lifted along the west side of a fault zone that at the same time dropped Death Valley down.  And down a lot!  The floor of the valley is a few hundred feet below sea level.

But the valley is filled with thousands of feet of sediments that were eroded from the Panamints and other ranges as they rose.  The top of the the bedrock that was dropped down by the fault lies some 11,000 feet beneath the valley floor.  This enormous wedge of valley fill is made of gravels, sands and clays.  But overall it’s quite salty.  There are thick sections of salts of various kinds, including good old NaCl, table salt.

These salt flats at Badwater in Death Valley are just the top of thousands of feet of salt and sediments filling the valley.

Geologists call these types of deposits evaporites because they are formed when large bodies of water evaporate away in a drying climate.  In Death Valley’s case it was a large lake called Lake Manly.  From about 2 million to 10,000 years ago, mega ice sheets lay to the north.  Because of this, the climate was quite wet in the now ultra-dry Death Valley region.  Early hunter-gatherers, recently migrated in from Siberia, were able to spread south because of this climate, which supported a diversity of life much greater than today’s desert does.

But when the ice sheets retreated during inter-glacial periods, the climate grew more arid, and Lake Manly shrank.  Because of how fault-block mountains border almost all sides of Death Valley, often there was little or no chance for the lake to drain in the normal way, via rivers.

The old Death Valley Borax Works, with a heavy-duty wagon.  This wheel is six feet high.

The six-foot high wheel of a heavy duty borax wagon.

Evaporation was (and is) the main way that water left the valley.  Salts that were dissolved in the water grew more concentrated as the lake grew smaller.  A brine was the result, and as the lake grew and shrank many times, often down to nothing, the salts were precipitated out.  They built up layers and layers of evaporite deposits.  The famous 20 mule-team wagon trains transported tons of borax from the borates (a type of salt) mined from the valley (image above).

A close-up of Death Valley’s evaporites (salt deposits).

BADWATER SALT FLATS

The current desert climate of Death Valley is one in which standing water from paltry winter rains evaporates rapidly, leaving behind fresh salt.  The salt can take very interesting forms (image above).  The mix of fine muds and salt, combined with repeated wet/dry cycles, can form fantastic polygonal patterns, as the bottom image shows.  Salt is also eroded away occasionally by the Amargosa River when infrequent storms allow it to flow south out of the valley.

The water in the image at the top of the post is really not part of this equation.  It’s fresh not salty, and comes from the amazingly strong Saratoga Springs in southern Death Valley.  I camped nearby one time and captured this view early the next morning.  Saratoga is well off the beaten track and most visitors to the park miss it.  There’s a very cool dune field nearby.

The salt flats in Death Valley form interesting polygonal patterns.

The salt flats in Death Valley form interesting polygonal patterns.  Telescope Peak is just left off the photo.

The Tragedy in Nepal   19 comments

Soulful bells echo through the mountains at dawn, calling the monks to prayer at Tangboche Monastery.

I want so much to be able to return to the mountain kingdom of Nepal and help them in their hour of need.  To see all those wonderful people again would be so great.  That may seem a strange thing to say.  But I know for a fact that even in the midst of tragedy they remain an optimistic and warm people.  Right now I’m missing them and praying for their safety.  I wanted to post some pictures of Nepal that I’ve never shared, and also go into some background on how and why this happened.

THE GEOLOGIC STORY

You may have heard that Mt. Everest is getting taller, and we just saw dramatic and horrific evidence of that fact.  India collided with south Asia some 55 million years ago, and the mighty Himalayas began then.  But that slow motion and awesome event continues today, as huge slabs of the earth’s crust continue to be shoved beneath the Tibetan Plateau.  The zone where they come together, along the 2400 km. (1500 mile) long Himalayan mountain front is complex.  But north-directed subduction, or underthrusting, is the dominant process.

Mount Everest

Mount Everest

Ama Dablam in black and white.

Ama Dablam in black and white.

The earth’s most recent and currently most dramatic tectonic collision has resulted in shortening of northern India and southern Nepal, bringing Delhi and Lhasa closer together.  This in turn causes the crust to greatly thicken (mostly in the downward direction).  In other words, most of the long mountain range lies beneath sea level.  Like a giant iceberg, active mountain ranges have roots that are hundreds of times more voluminous than their visible parts.  The north-south shortening doesn’t just create crustal thickening; it also causes the region to widen in an east-west direction via a series of large strike-slip faults (like the San Andreas).

Namche Bazaar, Nepal

Namche Bazaar, Nepal

Having climbed Everest 8 times in his career, this Sherpa I met taking a walk above his home village had a great way about him.

Having climbed Everest 8 times in his career, this Sherpa I met taking a walk above his home village had a great way about him.

Deep beneath the Himalaya, collision takes the form of a slow, hot, plastic deformation.  There are no sudden jerking motions.  But in shallower regions, where the rocks are cooler and brittle, this is impossible.  Instead, the stress builds up until it’s finally released with a sudden rapid slide along a plane of weakness (or fault).

It is at those times that we on the surface of this planet are reminded that ours is a dynamic planet.  These events, which can vary from a gentle rocking that lasts only seconds and which you only notice if you are in a quiet place to violent minutes-long shaking that can bring down buildings and even whole mountainsides, are called earthquakes.

A woman in the Himalaya of Nepal is proud of her vegetable garden, and her grandson.

A woman in the Himalaya of Nepal is proud of her vegetable garden, and her grandson.

3 man at airport

Waiting for weather to clear at Lukla, this gentleman’s beard was too cool I had to talk to him.

 

The earthquake of April 25th was centered about 80 km. (50 miles) NW of Kathmandu,  It was magnitude 7.8 on the Richter scale.  It was located about 15 km. (9+ miles) deep.  That is fairly shallow for a quake of this size.  Combined with the dense population and low quality of construction in most of the region, this made for a major disaster.  Considering what is going on here, the coming together of two of Earth’s greatest tectonic plates, historic earthquakes are relatively few.  The last one to affect the same area was in 1988 and killed 1500.  The 1934 Bihar earthquake killed some 10,600 and severely damaged Kathmandu.

Two young Sherpa friends haul equipment on the trail to Namche Bazaar in Nepal.

Two young Sherpa friends haul equipment on the trail to Namche Bazaar in Nepal.

I don't like thinking about the orphans.

I don’t like thinking about the orphans.  Just too sad!

 

Most of the people here, with the resources to live from day to day and not much more, have been deeply affected by this disaster.  The current count is over 4000 and still rising.  Many people live far from roads, so the final tally could take weeks or even months.  Undoubtedly many of the deaths will turn out to be caused by major landslides.  In any mountainous region, a big quake leads to landslides of epic size.  Snow avalanches also occurred in the alpine regions, including one caught on video that roared down the south side of Everest and hit base camp.

The spectacular Khumbu Himal.

The spectacular Khumbu Himal.

They are sacred but with the wonder they inspire comes a dangerous dynamism.

They are sacred but with the wonder they inspire comes a dangerous dynamism.

So much misery can be brought by earthquakes.  They strike without warning of course, and this makes them truly terrifying.  I have been in a few small ones, and get a visceral thrill out of it.  I get the same feeling witnessing a volcanic eruption.  That’s partly because I’m a geologist and know about the connection between a living breathing planet and life.  But I’m sure my reaction would be one of pure terror if and when I’m caught in a truly big event.  Once, in 1999, I flew out of Istanbul less than 24 hours before a major quake hit that city, killing 17,000.

Getting to spend time in a Sherpa kitchen, drinking tea, is a special thing.

Getting to spend time in a Sherpa kitchen, drinking tea, is a special thing.

A friend who suffered a broken leg in the quake but otherwise is okay.

I played around with this little Sherpa girl as her mother sewed in a small sun-warmed courtyard.  She is a teenager now.

I played around with this little Sherpa girl as her mother sewed in a small sun-warmed courtyard. She is a teenager now.

A Gurkha I met whitewater rafting, he emigrated to Hong Kong, and hosted me there.  Nepalis are so nice!

A Gurkha I met whitewater rafting, he emigrated to Hong Kong, and hosted me there. Nepalis are so nice!

Please give if you can to the legitimate aid organizations helping in Nepal.  And in any case, please keep those beautiful souls in your thoughts and prayers.  I’ve never seen a harder working people.  I’m sure they will recover, but big aftershocks continue as I’m writing this.

Friends of mine are camped outside in pouring rain, afraid to return to their homes.  So right now I’m hoping and praying the aftershocks are many and small, not fewer and large.  Namaste to all Nepalis and all those who have connections to the country.

I'm holding up the rafting party, but I wanted these kids to say Namaste without laughing, haha!

I’m holding up the rafting party, but I wanted these kids to say Namaste without laughing, haha!

Stupa at Boudhanath

Alpenglow over the Khumbu

 

 

 

Mtn. Monday: Mount Mazama & Crater Lake   9 comments

Crater Lake, Oregon

Crater Lake, Oregon

My first day back in Oregon after almost a year gone, and I am psyched!  I went up to Crater Lake and hiked out into the snow for a sunset that never quite materialized.  But it was magnificent as always, staring down and out at one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.

For those who don’t know, this is a caldera: a giant hole in a volcano.  Calderas usually fill with lakes, at least until they are breached by erosion and drained.  This particular caldera was formed when Mount Mazama exploded in a furious eruption about 6700 years ago.  It’s estimated that the mountain was a bit bigger than Mount Shasta, making it one of the (former) giants of the Cascade Range.

The large magma chamber underneath the mountain emptied rapidly and gravity took over.  The entire peak area collapsed down, creating a caldera.  Some of the last volcanic activity at Mazama, some 800 years ago, formed Wizard Island at one end of the lake.  You can visit the island on boat tours.  I highly recommend you do this if it’s summertime and the tours are running.  You can hike to the 763-foot summit and then return to the cold blue lake waters for a very refreshing swim!

The meadows at Crater Lake aren’t as abundant as at some other Cascade Mountains, but they are nonetheless beautiful.

By the way, hiking to the top of Wizard Island gives you the all-time best lesson in the difference between a crater and a caldera.  Wizard is a cinder cone, a pile of loose pumice and other debris ejected into the air as hot frothy lava and ash.  At it’s summit is a crater, the hole left when that debris blasted out of the summit vent.  So instead of collapse into a large void beneath the mountain, craters are created by explosion outward.  Craters are normally quite a bit smaller than calderas.

This isn't Crater Lake, it's the lake filling Rinjani Caldera, a still-active but otherwise similar volcano on the island of Lombok, Indonesia.

This isn’t Crater Lake, it’s the lake filling Rinjani Caldera, a still-active but otherwise similar volcano on the island of Lombok, Indonesia.

Mazama’s position and height make it a magnet for snow storms, so it wasn’t long before the steaming caldera filled with some of the world’s cleanest water.  Springs in the porous volcanic debris also helped fill the lake, where evaporation and input from these two sources are now in equilibrium.  Visibility down into the lake is awesome, 100 feet plus.  In recent times that clarity has fluctuated, and scientists monitor things closely.

The forests surrounding Mount Mazama attract snowclouds in this image from the other morning.

The forests surrounding Mount Mazama attract snowclouds in this image from the other morning.

My first morning back into my home state after a long time away, and this is what it looked like:  Upper Rogue River area

My first morning back into my home state after a long time away, and this is what it looked like: Upper Rogue River area

Often overlooked when people come to Crater Lake are the beautiful forests surrounding the mountain.  On the wetter west side rises the Rogue River, which the writer Zane Gray made famous when he lived and fished its lower reaches.  Wandering around the rugged and heavily forested upper Rogue you’ll find big evergreens and crystal clear streams, punctuated by the occasional waterfall.

Enjoy Crater Lake, Oregon’s only National Park!

Crater Lake in August.

Crater Lake in August.

Ouachitas & Ozarks Part II   8 comments

The Ozarks are a land of limestone and blue-green rivers.

This post continues a mini-series on the Ouachitas and Ozarks that I started last Friday.  Check out Part I before reading this one.

HOW THE OZARKS CAME TO BE

So let’s continue with the geology of the Ozarks.  If you’ve been to other places in the world with a lot of limestone caves, and if you’re observant, you’ll recognize a distinct type of terrain in the Ozarks: karst topography.  Karst is made up of steep but not very high mountains.  Most all karst lies in lower latitudes, so it tends to be forested.  Caves, sinkholes and underground rivers are very common in this kind of terrain.  You may at first glance find it hard to recognize karst in the Ozarks.  But because of their great age, the karst here is more subtle than that of, for example, the Malay Peninsula or southwestern China.

This classic karst terrain in southern Thailand is obvious because it is young.

This classic karst terrain in southern Thailand is obvious because it is young.

Still, karst topography anywhere is not easily missed.  In the middle Paleozoic Era, some 350 to 450 million years ago, the Ozarks were what geologists call a carbonate platform, a sandy seafloor interrupted occasionally by shallow reefs.  But “carbonate platform” is too dry a term for me.  It was in fact a warm, tropical sea, filled with marine life and dotted with islands.  To put it even more simply, it was one of the many pre-human paradises that have existed on Earth.

Like today, the marine life was dominated by tiny planktonic (free floating) organisms.  But there was also a very abundant sessile community (seafloor-dwellers like clams, etc.).  Finally there were free swimmers like early fish and many squid-like creatures.  Early sharks, which came in a variety of weird forms, patrolled the waters.

Most of the life in that ancient sea made their shells out of calcium carbonate, pulling CO2 out of the seawater and in the process helping to keep the world from warming up too much.  When these little critters died they drifted down and accumulated on the sea floor.  The limy sediment piled up, later to form limestone rock thousands of feet thick.  The world’s largest lead-zinc mines occur in the Ozarks in what’s called the Viburnum Trend.  Abundant lead and zinc occurs characteristically in thick stacks of limestone.

Limestone, originally laid down in a warm sea, lines the Buffalo National River, AR.

Limestone, originally laid down in a warm sea, lines the Buffalo National River, AR.

While the Ouachita Orogeny buckled and broke the land to the south, thrusting up high mountains, here in the Ozarks it simply lifted the carbonate platform straight up into a shallow dome-like plateau.  (It also lifted up the entire southern part of the Great Plains.)  When the limestone was lifted, it began to be subjected to the effects of a groundwater.

The water table is always changing with time.  In wetter climates the limestone bedrock lay submerged in mildly acidic groundwater, which slowly enlarges fractures, dissolving out cavities.  In drier times the rock was above water table.  This is when familiar features like stalactites and stalagmites would form. The evolution of caverns only halts when erosion of the land above reaches them and they dry out.  But without these often well-hidden openings, the Ozarks wouldn’t be one of the best places to go caving in North America.

A river you can boat on runs deep into this limestone cavern in the karst of southern Laos.

TRAVEL BASICS

As in much of the U.S., renting a car is the only realistic way to see much.  A regular two-wheel-drive sedan will do fine in this part of the country.  Flying in you can try to get a relatively cheap flight to Fayetteville or Little Rock, Arkansas.  Oklahoma City (4-5 hours by car) or Dallas (7 hours to the Ozarks, 4 to the Ouachitas) are also options.

Often when you’re looking at exploring a region, you can save money by flying relatively cheaply to a town that relies on tourism.  There’s a good chance you’ll be able to score a cheap rental car too, then you can skip town and drive to your preferred (less touristy) destination.  It works well as long as your tourist-town gateway isn’t too far from where you’re going.  Las Vegas, only a few hours away from Zion National Park, is a good example.

A stream running through a cave in the Ozarks drops into a pretty little pool.

A stream running through a cave in the Ozarks drops into a pretty little pool.

For the Ozarks, try looking into the town of Branson, Missouri.  Lying smack dab in the Missouri Ozarks, Branson has gambling and country music and you either love it or hate it.  You might be able to get good flight and rental car deals to and from Branson.  A flight to Dallas will still probably be cheaper, but remember to factor in gas and time when making a decision.  For the Ouachitas, try Hot Springs, Arkansas.  It isn’t as hot a tourist destination, but there’s a National Park.

Once you arrive and have transport, there are numerous potential base-towns that offer anything you may need, plus a great diversity of lodging.  A couple larger ones are Hot Springs, Arkansas (home town of former president Bill Clinton) and Fayetteville, AR (home of the Razorbacks – college football is big in this area).  Small towns are quite numerous, and fairly cheap motel rooms can be had in most of them.

Camping is possible in the Ouachita National Forest.  Simple and basic as always, National Forest campsites here are often located beside lakes stocked with fish.  Good state parks can also be found.  Magazine Mountain State Park in Arkansas hosts an excellent state park with great hiking trails, camping and a beautiful lodge with outstanding views.

Campsite: Oachitas, AR

MAGAZINE MOUNTAIN

I went to Magazine Mountain because it was the highest peak in the Ouachitas.  While you can hike a short trail to the summit, trees prevent much of a view.  What you will see up there is an amazingly large map of Arkansas made of stone!  Better views are found along the ridge-lines leading from the summit.  A few miles south of the turnoff to the lodge, along Hwy. 309, a small scenic overlook beckons you to stop.  From here you can walk the trail a hundred yards or more for even better natural stone viewing platforms.

A large picnic area off the east side of the road just uphill from the overlook makes a good place to eat lunch, and is also a good spot from which to go hiking.  The lodge at Mt. Magazine is on a side road that takes off west of Hwy. 309.  At this intersection there’s a small but nice visitor center.  Stop and learn something of the local plant and animal life, get maps and hiking tips, and fill up a water bottle.  The lodge is pretty luxurious.  I don’t know the prices and they’re not listed on the web, but Google them and call or email.  There are cabins, rooms and suites, all with splendid views.  A restaurant that serves good basic meals is onsite as well.

Magazine Mountain is the highest peak in the Oachitas at just over 2800 feet, and this is a view from near the summit.

Magazine Mountain is the highest peak in the Oachitas at just over 2800 feet, and this is a view from near the summit.

The Benefield Loop, Bear Hollow and North Rim trails have the best views at Mt. Magazine.  Don’t forget the camera; you’ll have many photo opportunities at both large and small scales.  The sandstone here is harder and more resistant to erosion than surrounding shale, so it stands up, forming stunning overlooks (see above).  It’s tempting to put a friend/subject/victim out on one of these and photograph them looking heroic.

The rock outcrops also host very interesting lichen and moss, and in summertime beautiful wildflowers spring from its crevices.  You may find your macro lens getting a good workout at Mt. Magazine.  Keep an eye out for deer on the roads of course, and watch for snakes too, especially as it warms up in spring.  There are venomous (but not deadly) copperheads here.

Ancient sandstone in the Ouachita Mountains is typically encrusted with moss and lichen.

Ancient sandstone in the Ouachita Mountains is typically encrusted with moss and lichen.

I best leave it there.  The next installment will highlight some of the region’s cultural history and describe a few nice spots to visit and photograph in the Ouachitas and Ozarks.

Ouachitas & Ozarks, Part I   12 comments

Instead of Friday Foto Talk this week, I’m pausing to do something I haven’t done in quite some time.  If you haven’t been reading this blog for long, you probably think I only do posts on photography.  But my real love is exploring and learning about new places.  In particular I love the land and how people have been relating to it and to each other over the ages.  I tend to go for off-beat places lying “in-between” the well known destinations.

I don’t totally ignore the more touristy places.  After all, nearly all of them used to be charming little spots, and that charm often lies just beneath the surface.  But I don’t take trips without making time for detours.  As an example, this blog actually started out when I did a 4-month trip to Africa.  If you have time, you might check out some of the posts from that journey.

Arriving at night, I camped on top of this ridge and woke to a chilly but beautiful autumn morning in the Oachita Mountains of Arkansas

AN IMPROMPTU TRIP

This post is about a place I wouldn’t have thought of visiting if not for the fact I was working nearby and had some time off to explore.  The southern U.S. is a culturally distinct area of the country.  It’s the most conservative part of the U.S., and religious fundamentalism has a home there.  But the region is also renowned for its polite respect and hospitality.

A liberal may not agree with much of what the people believe here, but they also might be treated much better than in friendlier ideological confines like California or Massachusetts.  Unfortunately, in recent decades, that culture has been diluted by the ongoing homogenization of the world.  In that respect it’s no different than many other places.

Interesting purple berries, western Oachitas.

INTRODUCTION

The Oachitas and Ozarks of Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma and southern Missouri are an interesting area of low mountains and forests, small towns and farms.  Outstanding quartz crystals are found among pine forest in the Oachitas.  In the Ozarks streams flow from numerous caves.  Between the Appalachians and Rocky Mountains, this is some of the only high country you’ll find in the U.S.

The word Oachita (pronounced wosh-i-TAW) comes from the Choctaw tribe’s word for the region.  It means place of large buffaloes.  Sadly, bison no longer roam free here.  The word Ozarks is derived from the French term aux arcs, referring to either the top bend of the Arkansas River or to the large number of natural bridges and arches in the area.

A good time to visit the Oachitas and Ozarks is in autumn, when the leaves of the oak and hickory turn golden and red.  That happens in mid-October through early November most years.  There is probably a little more fall color going on in the Ozarks than in the pine-rich Oachitas.  Summers are hot and humid, but there are plenty of lakes to cool off in.  Winters are fairly mild but cold, snowy periods are not uncommon.  Early to mid-October is a perfect time to visit.  Springtime (March to April) is also great.

 

A farm in the fog, Ozarks, Arkansas.

OACHITAS GEOLOGY

I always start with this when talking about a place.  Blame it on the fact that I did it for nearly 20 years.  Or maybe I read a lot of James Michener when I was young.  The Oachita Mountains are the remnants of a once-mighty mountain range.  We can’t be sure exactly how high they were, but think of the modern Rocky Mountains of Colorado and you have the idea.

The reason these mountains are so mellow (some would even call them hills) is the combined effects of water, gravity and time.  By the way, I don’t call them hills because I know about their long, grand reign.  You wouldn’t call an old man who had seen and done great things a boy, now would you?

Like many (but not all) mountain chains, the Oachitas formed from the collision of two tectonic plates.  About 300 million years ago, well before any dinosaur walked the earth, the South American continent, coming from the south, collided with North America.  An ocean was destroyed in the process.  Much later it was resurrected as the modern Atlantic, with the Gulf of Mexico butting up against the southern U.S.

The Oachita “orogeny” (mountain building event) created what is called a fold-thrust belt.  Folds in layers of sedimentary rock are just like when you push a rug against a wall.  Thrust faults are like pushing one rug over top another.  Yep, tectonics is like your living room!  The Alps are the classic example of a fold-thrust belt mountain range.  But they are much younger than the Oachitas and Appalachians.  The latter are characterized by long ridges separated by broad valleys.  The ridges stand up because erosion has cut into the folds and exposed harder rocks like sandstone.

Diagram of a fold and thrust mountain belt.

These folded mountains in the northern Rockies of Canada may be what the Ouachitas once looked like.  This is not my shot but I’ve been told it’s probably an old Geological Survey of Canada image (which makes sense).

The sandstone, shale and limestone that make up the Oachitas were formed many millions of years before they were crunched by the Oachita Orogeny.  The area was covered by thousands of feet of seawater, and the nearby coast was flat and quiet, much like the modern-day east coast of South America.  Sediments were deposited in the quiet waters of a Paleozoic sea, precursor to the modern Atlantic.  As that ocean was destroyed in the collision, the seafloor rocks and sediments were caught in a giant vise.  They buckled under the stress of collision, eventually rising to form a fold-thrust mountain belt.  Because the pressure was directed north-south, the mountains run east-west.  They’re the only mountains in America that run in this direction.

The southern Appalachian Mountains, as seen from space, are shown curving toward the east-west orientation of the Oachitas to the west. Click to go to the source site for this image.

The southern Appalachian Mountains, as seen from space, are shown curving toward the east-west orientation of the Oachitas to the west. Click to go to the source site for this image.

On a curved surface like that of our planet, mountains don’t run in straight lines forever.  The Oachitas are part of a very, very long arc of ancient mountains, extending thousands of miles from Maine to Texas.  The Appalachians, which are themselves quite long, extend to the west.  They are interrupted by the Mississippi embayment, but pick up in central Arkansas as the Oachitas.  Even further to the west, the range is submerged beneath younger rocks, popping up as the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma and the Marathon Mountains of west Texas.

The Oachitas are known for their beautiful quartz crystals and also for novaculite.  Novaculite is a very fine grained, hard flinty rock that resembles flint or chert.  It’s easily knapped or flaked, and as such made this area a magnet for newly arrived humans some 12,000 years ago.  These hunter-gatherers were looking for good raw material from which to make spear-points.

As a bonus, the Oachitas also provided deer, bison and other animals to hunt with those spear points.  Both the crystalline and the micro-crystalline quartz (novaculite is micro-crystalline) were created when fluids from deeper in the crust rose and filled the pervasive fractures formed during mountain building.

Novaculite from the Oachita Mtns., Arkansas

Novaculite from the Oachita Mtns., Arkansas

OZARKS GEOLOGY

The Ozarks lie north of the Oachitas.  In ancient times (and I do mean ancient), the North American continent was smaller, with a coastline to the north of the Ozarks.

**Sorry, I just have to go on a tangent:  Although there have been a few periods in Earth’s history when all the continents joined together into super-continents, most of the time it’s been like today, continents separated by oceans.  But in the distant past continents were smaller and oceans bigger.  It’s one reason we have so much darn limestone around (that rock forms in shallow seas).  Pangea, which you may have heard of, was the last of the super-continents, and it came together after the Oachitas formed.  In fact, the tectonic collision that led to the rise of the Appalachian-Oachita mountains was a big event leading to the coming together of Pangea.

We’ll have another super-continent again sometime in the future, but the bigger picture is this: continents started out quite small and have grown steadily larger over billions of years.  This means big things for carbon, the basis of life and (combined with oxygen) the ultimate controller of climate.  It means more carbon will be soaked up by weathering and stored away in limestone and other rocks.  Of course this has always happened and we’ve done just fine.  Carbon has been dragged with it’s enclosing rocks down into the mantle by subduction, and then recycled back into the atmosphere in volcanic eruptions.  It’s what has kept earth from freezing over.

But with bigger continents comes more weathering.  With relatively shorter coastline and less ocean comes fewer volcanoes.  The net effect will probably mean less efficient long-term carbon cycling, and declining ability for the planet to resist ice ages.  It will mean less carbon for life and less carbon dioxide for the greenhouse effect.  This trend won’t become noticeable for quite some time.  But after the current episode of global warming plays itself out, we will return to a long-term cooling and drying trend, one that has been in place for about 30 million years.  We probably won’t freeze over, because the sun has been gradually getting hotter ever since the solar system’s formation.

While this trend will have big effects on climate, evolution tends to triumph over those kinds of changes.  But having less carbon around has crucial implications for life.  We’re living, most probably, in the latter stages of life’s heyday.  Though life began some 3.5 to 4 billion years ago, it only really got going about a half billion years ago.  It saw its peak sometime between 150 and 35 million years ago, and has been slowly declining ever since.

You may have heard that the sun will expand in about 5 billion years, destroying the earth and us in the process.  That will happen.  But unfortunately, all complex life (including us if we don’t evolve into a space-faring and/or partly synthetic species) will likely have disappeared long before that.  In fact, we might have only about a billion more years of habitability here.  Tiny one-celled organisms may be the only thing to witness the expansion of the sun to its red giant stage.  Nothing lasts forever, and that goes for both good times and bad.  I think there’s a lesson to be learned here.  Enjoy life!  And guard the precious ability of our Earth to shelter it.

I’ve gone over on length with this one, so I’ll leave it there and continue next time with more on the Ozarks, plus some interesting cultural history.  I’ll have tips for travel and photography in this interesting area as well.  Have a great weekend!

Instead of a sunset, here’s one captured at night along the Buffalo River, AR.  The full moonlight was filtered by heavy fog, creating a mood that was a little spooky.

John Day Fossil Beds & Climate Change   4 comments

An old dairy farm along Bridge Creek in eastern Oregon near the town of Mitchell, it appears to have once been a going concern.

An old dairy farm near the town of Mitchell, Oregon appears to have once been a going concern.

As mentioned in my last post on the Painted Hills, this area of Oregon is about so much more than some colorful formations.  A little preview at the end of that post last Friday was a short description of the old dairy farm near Mitchell (see above).  And it’s from there that we’ll continue our road trip through John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon.

Travel east from Mitchell on Hwy. 26 toward the monument headquarters at Sheep Rock.  You will first come to Picture Gorge, a spectacular cut through stacks of basaltic lavas.  The Picture Gorge Basalt is a southern outlier of the great Columbia River Basalt flows to the north.  The gorge is named for ancient Native American rock art found on the walls.

Since I can't find any very good images of Oregon rock art, here is a pictograph from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

Since I can’t find any very good images of Oregon rock art, here is a pictograph from Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

To see and photograph some pictographs, drive to the east end of the gorge and park alongside the John Day River.  Look up to the walls across the road.  From here, if the river is low enough, you can get a much closer look at great rock art alongside the river.  Just drop below the road and walk a hundred yards or so upriver, looking for short, smooth walls to your right.  A rare pictograph of a salamander can be found.

Midway through Picture Gorge you’ll turn north on Hwy, 19 and drive a short distance to the Sheep Rock Unit.  There is a great museum that explains the areas rich fossil heritage.  This is an important region of the world for paleontologists.  Along with Wyoming’s Green River area, it is where well preserved fossils of ancient mammals, plants and other creatures can be found.  These remains, preserved within colorful sedimentary rocks shed off  ancient volcanoes that were eroded away long ago, document the explosion of mammalian diversity in the Eocene (56-34 million years ago).

The typical bloom you find near water in eastern Oregon is monkeyflower.

The typical bloom you find near water in eastern Oregon is monkeyflower.

Mammals started off very small, literally in the shadow of dinosaurs.  Once the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, mammals slowly evolved and diversified until an inevitable point.  Just as happened with dinosaurs near the peak of their diversity, mammals began to evolve into huge forms.  This is well documented in the John Day.  In fact, the region has abundant mammal fossils all the way up through the Miocene (23-5 million years ago).

One of the largest mammals of all time was the huge rhino-like brontothere.  Enormous ground sloths roamed here as well.  Other mammals of the John Day:  early horses the size of dogs, camels, a large variety of canids, cats (including early saber-toothed varieties), rodents, even early primates.  And it’s not just mammals:  huge fossil turtle shells are found.

A very important part of the John Day fossil beds is the amazing variety of plant fossils.  This allows the environments in which these animals once lived to be worked out in detail.  A period of global warming is documented here, followed by a long slow cooling and drying trend that has continued to the present day.  Nowadays of course humans are busy driving the climate in the opposite direction, toward a climate last experienced by those now-extinct mammals of ancient North America.

The old homestead  Cant Ranch, with Sheep Rock in the background.  Click on image if interested in it.

The old homestead Cant Ranch, with Sheep Rock in the background. Click on image if interested in it.

An Aside:  Climate Change – The Debate?

I recall having a group of high school science students at the museum at Sheep Rock.  I was showing them the fossils and how they told us the ancient climate was lush and subtropical.  On the wall was a chart that showed the estimated CO2 levels in the atmosphere during that period, and how they coincided with the types of plant and animal fossils.  A man and his wife were listening off to the side.

Later I heard him telling his wife, “see, what did I tell you?  Global warming happened in the past and was natural.  We don’t have anything to do with it, even if it was actually happening.”  Or words to that effect.  I wanted to correct his misinterpretation of the meaning of the evidence but realized it was not a good idea for several reasons.  For one thing, a person who uses faulty logic certainly missed something early in their upbringing/education.  When they got older they internalized this way of thinking, so that any faulty interpretations they make are perceived to be merely “common sense”.  Very difficult to explain anything to such a person.

Though it’s true that a warm, tropical climate is very conducive to a diversity of life, it is the change to those conditions that poses the risk.  And that’s especially true for very rapid changes like the one we’re entering now.  A transition to an ice-free world is upon us, and we can only pray that it will only be accompanied by a drowning of our coastal cities and dramatic changes to agriculture and water supplies.  The worse-case scenarios are much more dire.

Scientists are much too conservative to talk about these darker scenarios with the press.  But trust me, they aren’t pretty.  Picture enormous clouds of poison hydrogen sulfide gas spewing out of stagnant oceans, killing everything that breathes unless it is hidden underground.  There is evidence that this happened during past mass extinctions.

Old homestead in central Oregon.

Old homestead in central Oregon.

Leaving aside all these sunny thoughts, it’s amazing to think this semi-arid region of grassland looked like present-day Panama in the early Eocene (about 50 million years ago).  It had active volcanoes and the coastline was closer.  With no Cascade Mountains, there was no rain-shadow effect.  The warm Pacific Ocean sent abundant moisture over a lush river-laced landscape dotted with volcanoes.  Many of the animals (e.g. camel, rhino & elephant) that during present times are found only in Asia or Africa roamed (in early form) the jungly American wetlands of the west.

Animals like horses and camels evolved here in North America, then migrated across the Bering Land Bridge to Asia and eventually Africa.  They went extinct here.  Many other now-extinct animals, like brontotheres, oredonts (large & pig-like), creodonts (looked like a cross between a hyena and cat but more heavily built) and nimravids (a sleek & agile saber-toothed pre-cat) all lived, died and eventually went extinct here.

A mural depicting life in Eocene Oregon.

A museum mural depicting life in Eocene Oregon.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time out here teaching science.  After a time, I got to where I could experience that ‘other’ Oregon.  Believe it or not, for paleontologists or anyone who sees enough fossils, absorbs enough knowledge, and then quiets themselves while out in the places where the fossils are found, it is possible to time-travel with your mind.  You can bring up vivid images of that other world in the silence that surrounds you during semi-meditative states.  You actually start to feel the humidity and hear the buzzing of tropical insects.  Very cool.

So check out that museum!  Right across the road lies the historic Cant Ranch and picturesque Sheep Rock.  This is a great place for photos, with the old barns, the John Day River and Sheep Rock begging to be part of your compositions.  The rangers run tours of the historic ranch, giving you a picture of the old homesteading days when the west was first being settled by whites and their livestock.

The last part of this series covers the northern part of our loop, including the Clarno Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.  Thanks for reading!

Sunset, John Day River Valley, central Oregon.

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