Sunday, July 20, 2014

I'm Sorry, This Trench is Full; Those Rocks Will Have to Go Elsewhere

Looking south from Hurricane Ridge into the heart of Olympic National Park
There will be few detailed blogs these next few weeks; I'm on the road leading our Canada/Pacific Northwest field class, and I will be just a bit busy. But I can't help putting up a few photos here and there. In today's pictures we see what happens when subduction zones get out of control, so to speak.

Subduction zones are places where oceanic crust sinks back into the Earth's mantle to be recycled at some future time as magma and lava. The mud and sand that blankets the coast and seafloor often will be scraped off against the edge of the continent to form a highly deformed and sheared deposit called an accretionary wedge. Much of the time, wedge deposits remain underwater or show as low-lying islands, but sometimes the rock gets pushed up into mountain ranges parallel to the coast and subduction zone. California's Coast Ranges resulted in part from such activity, but at Olympic National Park in Washington State, the results are nothing short of spectacular. The mountains have been pushed up into a series of peaks exceeding 7,000 feet in elevation, and with the intense amounts of snowfall, there are a surprising number of active glaciers.
Looking north from Hurricane Ridge across the Juan de Fuca Strait to Vancouver Island
Our trip reconnaissance this week took us to Hurricane Ridge, which has now become a newcomer to my list of the most incredible places I have ever stood. The view is astounding (when conditions are clear). We could look deep in the heart of the park at Mount Olympus, and could see north across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Victoria Island. A marvelous place!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Nation's Birds at the Northwestern Corner of the Lower 48

Just a nice moment from my day. We were scouting out our impending field studies route with a trip to the Makah Nation's lands near Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost point of the lower 48 states. The Makah have a museum housing artifacts from America's version of Pompeii, a village that was overwhelmed by a mudflow about 500 years ago. The fine-grained mud protected and preserved fabrics and wood artifacts, which are usually quickly decayed in this wet environment.

We were driving the beautiful road along the coast when I saw this pair of Bald Eagles on the tidal flats. We have a few eagles back home in California, but I've only seen a couple of them. It was kind of a neat moment.

We meet our students in a couple of days, and we'll be hitting the highway with an exploration of western Canada and the Pacific Northwest. You can no doubt expect pictures soon!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Ah, the Life of the Mariner! Well, Maybe...

Ah, the open sea! The adventures of the water world of planet Earth! The mysteries of the deep! Yes, it's the mariner's life for me. Well maybe, maybe not. It's hard to develop a real opinion on the basis of a single ferry ride across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It sure was pretty, in any case.
The Port Angeles-Victoria ferry crosses the Juan de Fuca Strait that separates the Olympic Peninsula from Vancouver Island on the the Pacific Coast between the United States and Canada. Although the peninsula and the island are both situated in the same geographic location (the western coast of North America) and are only a few miles apart, they have few similarities. The Olympic Peninsula is composed of seafloor sediment and ocean crust that has been shoved to very high elevations by the Cascadia subduction zone. Vancouver Island has a sliver of some of these rocks, but is mostly composed of metamorphic rocks of the Wrangellia Terrane, a collection of Paleozoic and Mesozoic rocks that formed someplace else, maybe thousands of miles away, and which was slammed (geologically speaking) into the west coast by subduction zone and transform fault movements.

We are out doing a bit of reconnaissance for our field studies class that meets next week. We got out to the Sooke region along the south island for a look at the Crescent terrane, and some nice erosional potholes along the Sooke River. Details to follow in later posts!
Oh, and there were lagomorphs too! Cute ones. We passed dozens of them grazing in a freeway median of all places (no, I didn't stop on the freeway for the picture; this one was at East Sooke Regional Park).
The nice thing about traveling this far north is that the sun sets late (this statement does not apply in winter, though!). We had this wonderful view of the Olympic Mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca around 8:30, and still had an hour of light.

I guess I'm still a landlubber though...I love the solid ground and the rocks too much.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Road Goes Ever Ever On: Getting Into the Field Again!


Roads go ever ever on,
Over rock and under tree,
By caves where never sun has shone,
By streams that never find the sea;
Over snow by winter sown,
And through the merry flowers of June,
Over grass and over stone,
And under mountains in the moon.
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were an important part of my youth, in part because Tolkien constructed a vividly real world in which he set his stories. The mountains of Middle-Earth, whether the Misty Mountains, the Lone Mountain, or the jagged cliffs surrounding Mordor, all seemed to evoke real places that I noted as I grew and traveled more and more. The poetry was pretty cool too, and I think of this poem whenever I set out on a new journey. Can anyone see the Misty Mountains north of Moria in a picture like that above (out of Banff?)
I love taking people to new places they have never seen, and helping them to understand the sometimes mysterious forces that produce these awesome landscapes. We don't usually have to battle orcs and goblins, but there ARE mosquitoes, tourons, and the occasional bear.
What I like better is to see new places and to get to know them. That's why this week is a bit special, because it combines the two. I'm taking our students to some familiar places to me, like Mt. Rainier, the Channeled Scablands, Glacier National Park, and Banff. But I'm also going to be discovering some places that are new to me as well: Olympic National Park, Vancouver Island, the Sea to the Sky Highway out of Vancouver and Whistler. I'm leaving this morning on a scouting expedition, and I'm feeling as excited as any of my students.

Posting will be off and on, as we will occasionally be in some isolated regions, but I'll certainly try to put up some pictures from the road. Take care, all!
Does this resemble Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, at least to those with a pre-Peter Jackson image in their minds?

Monday, July 14, 2014

"Supervolcano" Causes Road to Melt! Hmm, About That...

"Parts of Yellowstone National Park closed after Massive Supervolcano beneath it melts road!" screams the headline in a typical treatment of a modest story out of one of our nation's premier national parks. Let's take the fact that there was a modest sized earthquake a few months ago, and add a video of bison running away from (actually trotting towards) Yellowstone, and you have the makings of a huge non-story. The world is going to end because the "supervolcano" is going to explode and kill us all!

Is the story wrong? In a tortuous sort of way, the story is "accurate". Yes, a road was closed "between" Old Faithful and Madison Junction, insinuating that a major throughway is blocked. It's actually a small side road. The melting of the asphalt was "caused by the massive supervolcano". Technically this is true. All of the geothermal features at Yellowstone are caused by the magma chamber of the "supervolcano",  which heats the groundwater, turning it to steam, which rises through the crust to melt asphalt. But asphalt can melt on really hot days in the desert too.

I don't know...I would think that the people who live and work on top of the gigantic "supervolcano" (more accurately termed a rhyolite caldera) would be a little more worried about their well-being if the volcano were about to blow. Instead, here is the original news release from the park: "Firehole Lake Drive Temporarily Closed" . You can just feel the barely restrained panic in the air... 

Geyser erupts on top of massive supervolcano!! Note the extreme panic in the crowd!
Yellowstone is a fascinating place  with a violent geologic history. But the last eruption was 70,000 years ago. Someday, most likely long after we are all dead and gone, it will erupt again. For the time being, nothing much is happening except for boiling and steaming water. Go see it. And try to ignore the screaming headlines, and enjoy the fact that we have such a fascinating place to see and visit.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

It's a SUPERMOON, But Then Again, the Moon is Always Pretty Cool

The Moon has an elliptical orbit, which means that it is sometimes closer and sometimes farther away from the earth. Today the moon is full and making one of its closer approaches (perigee Moon), at 222,611 miles. At other times it can be as far away as 250,000 miles (an apogee moon), which makes for a difference of about 14% in its apparent size as seen from Earth. It's also about 30% brighter.

Such events are not rare, and in fact there will be five of them in 2014, including each of the summer months. There is nothing mystical about it, but it's okay if some internet excitement causes some people to get up from their computers and actually look at our closest neighbor in space. Like I did...

My shot was taken with a Panasonic Lumix with a 60x optical zoom (stretched out to 120x digital).  It's a handheld shot, but I was leaning on my car. I did notice that the disc of the Moon almost filled the field of view, which usually doesn't happen.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Out of the Desert and Back to the Green Hills of Home

Today wraps up the story of a week-long journey through the deserts of the southwest. I've been telling the story as if in real time, so it sounds like I'm just now arriving home, but actually we finished the trip just over a month ago. It's a time warp of sorts. I'm about to leave on another trip, this time to British Columbia and Alberta.

Coming home. You can live in a boring place, a place that is the worst in the country even, but coming home is coming home. There is the familiar kitchen, the television, the well-worn couch. The weeds. The office. To me, home is something bigger. It's the landscape that surrounds my home region. Basically those places within a day's drive that I've seen over and over. My home starts at the summit of Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park. It's a three hour drive from my house, but a trip doesn't really begin until we've gone over the summit, and on the return trip we feel home the moment we get there.
Compared to the dry lands we had just explored, the mountains have a richness of moisture. It's not nearly what it should be, for we are still in the grip of a horrendous drought, but some late spring snow was still lingering in the high places. We felt such a relief at the sound of babbling creeks.
Tuolumne Meadows is the accessible part of the Sierra Nevada crest in Yosemite National Park. The meadows lie at 8,000 feet, and the surrounding mountains reach elevations of just over 13,000 feet. This region was the source of glaciers that scoured the deep U-shaped valleys of Yosemite and Hetch Hetchy. At one time there was an ice cap at Tuolumne that was more than 2,000 feet thick that spilled out in several directions, including Tenaya Creek which holds beautiful Tenaya Lake (top picture).
John Muir talked about the Sierra Nevada high country as the "gentle wilderness", and that's been my experience most of the time. I've seen violent storms across the Basin and Range and Colorado Plateau, and some have been terrifying because we were camped out there and had nowhere to hide or take shelter. If a storm blows in while I'm exploring Yosemite, well, we just jump in the car and go home. We can come back the next day.
We had already driven three hundred miles this day, so the sun was getting close to the horizon. Photographers say that evening and morning are the best times for good shots, given the nice contrasting shadows instead of the washed out colors from a noonday sun.
There was a storm over the Basin and Range that we had just skirted. We got a few drops, almost enough to turn on the wipers. From a distance it looked menacing. But all was calm for us in the meadow.
We made a last stop at Olmsted Point for a look at the sunset on Half Dome. We then headed down the hill, and returned to our home. It was nice to be back, but of course a few days of sloth and we wanted to get on the road again. We are restless souls sometimes!