Friday, April 28, 2017

The Alpha and Omega of the Wildflower Season at the Red Hills ACEC

With some careful selective editing one can make it look like the superbloom is continuing in the Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern, but alas the bloom is beginning to fade. We drove up there today and I was standing in this field of Monkeyflowers when a car pulled up, looking for the Red Hills. I was said he was in the middle of it and he seemed mildly disappointed, but his family jumped out for some pictures anyway. The flowers were there, concentrated along Six-bit Creek, but it just wasn't the same show. Was I disappointed? Of course not!
A bit of searching revealed some Paintbrush on the trail above the river.
One thing that changes as the flowers fade is that the rocks become more visible. If you haven't seen some of my posts in the past, the Red Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern (only a bureaucrat could come up with a name like that!) is a landscape of about 7,000 acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills just west of the village of Chinese Camp. It exposes ultramafic rocks (serpentine and peridotite derived from the Earth's mantle) with a chemistry that precludes the development of fertile soils (they lack some critical nutrients, but include a few toxic elements as well). As a result most normal foothill species cannot thrive. Because of the relatively barren look of the place, it was abused for years as a motorcycle riding area and dumping ground. But hard soil conditions force plants to adapt. It turned out that the Red Hills sheltered dozens of serpentine tolerant plants that are rare elsewhere, and some of the plants are endangered, in part because their habitat is so limited.
Volunteers cleaned up the garbage, and the Bureau of Land Management began developing trails and a picnic area along with interpretive signage. For most of the year, the rocks lie exposed to the intense sunlight, but during the rainy season, the area can explode with unique wildflower species. We caught the early part of the season in March (the Alpha), and today we were witnessing the end (the Omega).
I'm an amateur at identifying birds, but I've gotten better at it and can identify most of the common ones in my area. But with wildflowers I'm hopeless. My memory for wildflower names is barely better than Dory in Finding Nemo. The nice thing about that, I guess, is that every year it is like discovering the species for the first time (even if it is the tenth). I thought I'd never seen the White Hyacinth before (below), but I'll bet my old albums of the Red Hills are full of pictures of them.

It isn't just the flowers that can be rare and unique. This arid landscape also hosts an endangered vertebrate species as well, and it's a surprise. It's a fish. That's extraordinary, knowing how hot and dry this place becomes in the summer. Somehow, the Red Hills Roach (Lavinia symmetricus) survives in a few small spring-fed pools in some of the creeks in the preserve. There were some serious concerns about whether they could survive the extended drought, but they did okay. I got some clumsy pictures on our earlier trip (below).
The Red Hills Roach, an endemic fish found only in this part of the Sierra Mother Lode

There isn't much time left before the flowers begin to fade away for another hot summer. All is not lost of course, as the wildflower season will probably last all summer and into the fall, since it is going to take about that long to melt all the snow that has fallen this year. If you want to see flowers in the coming months, just head higher into the mountains! But stop by the Red Hills for a few moments to see rocks that began their journey many tens of miles, maybe hundreds of miles down in the crust and mantle of Planet Earth. They are fascinating.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Why Science Matters: March For Science 2017

A bank robber can make a lot of arguments about why he or she should be allowed to rob a bank. "The money in the bank is just sitting there, it's not aiding the economy by being circulated", or "By taking this money and spending it, I'll be creating jobs", or "But I'll give some of the money to charities". A bank president, and for that matter, the people who have been robbed, would never agree that this justifies stealing the money. So why would anyone acquiesce their right to clean water and air, safe food and drugs, and their very environment to those who would steal those things from them? Sometimes it's because they are kept in the dark about the dangers that they face. Ignorance is a valuable tool for those who would profit off of our birthright to clean air and water, and a livable environment.

Sometimes the dangers in our environment are obvious. Earthquakes, floods, or volcanic eruptions are events whose existence cannot be denied. In other situations the problem is not so obvious. Lead in water causes damage over longer terms. Cigarettes or radiation may take years to produce lung cancer. The loss of ozone or rising world temperatures have taken years to manifest changes in our living environment. Such gradual changes are harder to recognize in our day to day lives even though the changes are very real. Yet these phenomena can kill people every bit as much as an earthquake, just not all at once. The recognition of these dangers are critical to keeping society safe, but there is a serious problem. Someone is making money by keeping society ignorant.

Corporations make their profits selling cigarettes. They make profits by cutting corners in food safety and by avoiding air and water pollution controls. They make profits by maintaining dependence on fossil fuels as a primary energy source. We live in a society based on capitalism, but unrestrained capitalism is ultimately not in our best interest. Corporations cannot be trusted to police themselves, a fact they've proven over and over.
We instituted federal and state governments to protect us and to work for the common good. When corporations killed and injured citizens, the government stepped in to limit the damage by regulating dangerous industries. And it worked. The workplace environment is much safer these days than it was a century ago. Politicians, for better or worse, represent us and design the laws and the government programs that protect our citizens from harm. They hear from lobbyists all the time as they make decisions on legislation and sometimes they hear from constituents. But there is another voice, and I've always taken it for granted that it would be heard: the voice of science.

Why is science needed? Scientific research is the unbiased source of information and data on issues of environmental protection and safety. Corporate scientists may do important research, but the profit motive ultimately influences their findings. It is only through independent inquiry that we can trust the accuracy of research. In so many ways, government-funded scientific research has been a huge success, one that has driven innovation in our economy and made our society one of the richest and safest in human history. The U.S. Geological Survey, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and NASA have done incredible work, and have informed public decision-making for many decades. And...they have led the human adventure. Without government funding for the big endeavors, the exploration of space, the exploration of the interior of the atom, the inner workings of the Earth, we would be unable to continue the quest for knowledge.

So why are scientists marching in the streets? Because unbiased scientific research is under attack. Corporations have finally achieved their aim and have one-party control of Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court. There are intensive efforts underway to destroy the effectiveness of independent government-sponsored research, with draconian cuts to the EPA, CDC, USGS and other science-based government institutions. We have a president and a Congress who deny that global warming and climate change are even happening, despite the ongoing damage occurring in coastal environments and alpine habitats. The spread of tropical diseases is accelerating. Millions of trees across the American west are dying.

I've lived through the birth of the environmental movement in the 60s and 70s, and felt great pride that my country took the lead in designing laws that protected people from toxins and poisons in the air and water. I am dismayed that we must fight these battles all over again, but unfortunately we don't get to choose the times we are living in. So it was that I took to the streets on Saturday.

It was a marvelous thing to see tens of thousands of people in the large urban areas like LA, San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, but I was even more inspired that marches for science took place in small towns all across the country, and across the world (scientific knowledge does not stop at international borders, even if there are walls). I marched in the small California town of Hemet along with perhaps forty or fifty people. There were smaller such marches all across the country. People understand the need for unbiased research, and are ready to fight for it politically.
Ansel Adams said it well: "It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment". And yet that is the place to which we have come, although I find hope that those who still work in the EPA and other government institutions are in agreement with the aims of the March for Science. The protests must continue, and citizens need to hold the feet of their representatives to the fire. Unbiased scientific research must continue for the sake of our health and the environment in which we live.
As I went through the pictures of the march, I noticed the huge high ridge of San Jacinto Peak in the distance above town. Southern California is largely a desert or near-desert, but the high mountain ridges surrounding the arid valleys reach elevations in excess of 10,000 feet. They are islands above the desert, and they are under assault from the ravages of global warming. The continuing drought has caused intense wildfires that have stripped away the cool conifer forests. The environment is changing in ways that we are only just beginning to recognize, and we need the research and data to understand the future and how to prepare for it. It's not of the sake of some endangered butterfly, although that is important too. It's for the sake of all of us humans, who will pass this planet on to our children. We need to care.

Monday, April 24, 2017

We'll Pretend I Saw the Superbloom the Same Way I Hiked the Pacific Crest Trail Today

I showed up late and at the wrong address for the party. There have been so many reports of the "superbloom" of wildflowers around Southern California this winter and spring that I was anxious to do some traveling and see the sights. I finally had an excellent excuse to head down south this last weekend (giving a community lecture in Hemet), and we started watching for flowers while we drove Highways 99, 58, and 395 as well as Interstate 215 through the Mojave Desert and Cajon Pass. There were scattered patches of flowers here and there, but not in any sense a superbloom.

There is a real dichotomy between northern and southern California right now. We are still getting storms and precipitation in the north, but the storm door closed in the south a month or more ago. We left home in a cool green landscape, but somewhere south of Fresno, the grass turned brown. It got hotter, and on Saturday in and around Hemet, the mercury hit the century mark (at least according to my car's thermometer). We didn't have enough time to check out Anza Borrego or the Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve because of time constraints (and it was probably too late anyway).

Selective editing is a wonderful thing at times, however. On the way back home yesterday, we opted to follow Cameron Road through the wind farms near Tehachapi Pass instead of staying on the freeway. We came across patches of flowers in several protected coves, and hence these carefully aimed photos that suggest a wildflower wonderland!

The flowers thrive on these barren slopes in part because a lot of larger plants cannot. It's arid, as the hills here lie in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada, and the winds are nearly constant and fierce (hence the wind farm, one of the largest in California). The winds are generated by the pressure differential between the Great Valley near Bakersfield and the Mojave Desert near the town of Mojave. Tehachapi Pass is the lowest point between the two, so the winds funnel through the opening. It was certainly windy on Sunday.

We stopped at the intersection of Cameron Road and Tehachapi-Willow Springs Road. This is the spot where the Pacific Crest Trail crosses the road in the midst of hundreds of wind turbines. There are some nicely designed interpretive signs near the intersection, and if you look carefully you'll see that Mrs. Geotripper took one of the photos that they used!

And about that bit about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail today. It's like selective editing in pictures: I didn't say I hiked the whole PCT. But I did hike on about fifty yards of it at the Cameron Road crossing, so I technically didn't lie. It is perhaps not the single most scenic part of the trail, but it has some charm, especially at the right time of year. Solitude is sometimes a nicer virtue than scenery.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Kelvin-Helmoltz Clouds Over the Sierra Nevada?

I defer to those who know more about such things, so are these Kelvin-Helmoltz clouds I saw today over the Sierra Nevada east of Madera? We were driving home on Highway 99 in the Great Valley when we saw these clouds forming on the eastern horizon in the Sierra between Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks. Kelvin-Helmoltz clouds form when there are winds blowing in separate directions at different levels in the atmosphere.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Work as a Biology Instructor at Modesto Junior College!

It's true it's not geology, but this is really a natural history blog, and I want to make you aware that Modesto Junior College is currently seeking an instructor of biology (tenure-track). If you are seeking employment as a biologist, Modesto Junior College is a marvelous place to teach. Our Science Community Center is a very well-equipped facility, and the staff here is a great bunch of people to work with. The Great Valley Museum fills the ground floor and will soon start construction of the Outdoor Education Center. The region is an excellent base camp for excursions to the coast (Big Sur and Marin Headlands), the Sacramento Delta, the wildlife refuges of the Great Valley, and the Sierra Nevada. It's hard to imagine so many habitats in such a small area.

If you are interested and qualified, check out the job announcement at

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Pygmy Mammoths? An Oxymoron Maybe, But Here's the Story, and a Great Opportunity for Exploration of the Channel Islands

For me, one of the most intriguing stories of California geology was the adventure of the mammoths of the Channel Islands. The islands lie offshore of Ventura and Santa Barbara in southern California, and are mostly protected as Channel Islands National Park. The largest island, Santa Cruz, is mostly maintained by the Nature Conservancy.

Several species of mammoths ranged across America during the ice ages and the intervening warm periods, and as their name suggests, they grew to immense size (the Columbian Mammoth was 11 feet high at the shoulder). At some point some tens of thousands of years ago, some Columbian Mammoths swam to the islands. This idea sounds mildly ridiculous, but it turns out that elephants in general are excellent swimmers with a natural snorkel, and can easily swim for many miles. And, with the drop of sea level during the ice ages, the islands were larger and the shorelines closer to the mainland (most of the islands were once a single landmass called Santa Rosae).

The mammoths found a large island with rich food sources, and a lack of predators. They thrived, but then conditions changed. The ice ages ended and sea level rose, shrinking the large island into four smaller islands. Food sources were limited and life became more difficult for the mammoths, especially the largest ones who needed far more food. In a twist on the usual story, it was the runts of the litter who thrived, because they could live with less. They had better survivability, and that began to show in their genetic code. The adults of new generations were smaller than their ancestors, and eventually there were fully grown mammoths that stood only 5 feet high and were only a tenth the weight of their mainland cousins. On some islands of the Pacific Rim, dwarf mammoths survived until just 3,650 years ago, but unfortunately humans arrived on the Channel Islands and may have hunted them to extinction 10,000-12,000 years ago.

This is just one of many fascinating stories of the Channel Islands, stories of geology, biology, and anthropology. I'm writing this blog to bring attention to an innovative class being offered by my institution, Modesto Junior College, Anthropological and Biological Field Studies of the Channel Islands (Anthro 155 and Biol 155, a total of two units). It is being taught by two of my colleagues, Teri Curtis (Biology) and Susan Kerr (Anthropology). The trip includes several pre-trip meetings, and a field trip to Santa Cruz Island from May 30 to June 4th. The cost (not including tuition) will be $510, which includes lodging (one night camping), transportation (including vans and an island ferry), and food. It will be a fascinating experience!

If you'd liked to learn more about this wonderful opportunity, there will be informational meetings on the following days:

4/25/17: 5-6pm, Center for Advanced Technologies (CAT) Room 201 MJC east campus.
5/5/17: 6-7pm, Great Valley Musuem Discovery Room MJC west campus

For more information, contact Teri Curtis at curtist(at), or Susan Kerr at kerrs(at)

General information about the Channel islands:

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Way it Was Today: There's Nowhere on Earth Like the Ahwahnee

Yes it is true that I am privileged. I live just ninety beautiful miles from this place, Yosemite Valley in the middle of Yosemite National Park in the Sierra Nevada of California. Everyone should be this lucky. It is a treasure beyond the dreams of avarice because its value doesn't lie in money. The value of this place is spiritual. The government of the United States dimly realizes this, and that is why it became our first national park in technical terms, although officially it was the third. Abraham Lincoln ceded the valley to the state of California in 1864 to be preserved forever. Yellowstone became the first actual national park in 1872, and Yosemite became a park in 1890, just a few weeks after Sequoia National Park a few miles to the south.
The valley's true name (in the sense that those who discover it get to name it) is Ahwahnee, the name given by the ancestors of the original inhabitants, the Ahwahneechee. They had been living in and near the valley for at least 3,000 years, and possibly many more. The name Yosemite was given by the European colonizers who arrived only a century and a half ago. It was a corruption of the Native American name for "Grizzly Bear" or "Killer".
Yosemite Valley is often described as a monument to glacial erosion, but it is so much more. In a very real sense, exploring Yosemite is the equivalent of seeing Yellowstone, Mt. Rainier, or Crater Lake from 5 or 6 miles below. We gaze on the granitic rocks and realize they are the magma chambers for volcanoes and calderas that once existed miles above. The volcanism ceased, the land was uplifted, and deeply eroded. Rivers caused deep gorges to form, and in the final moments of geological time glaciers scoured the canyons, reshaping them into the towering cliffs and waterfalls that we see today.
We were there on a geology field studies trip on Sunday, the day after a fairly intense storm. It was beautiful beyond measure. There were members in the class who had never seen the place before despite living close by, and they were in awe. I estimate that I've visited the park close to 100 times in the last 28 years, but I was no less in awe than were my students. This is one of those places that is worth the effort to see before you pass on. It's a treasure beyond imagining.

If you've been reading my blog for any amount of time, you know I've written comprehensively about this place, and then some. I offer up my blog series, Under the Volcano, and Into the Abyss, a study of the geology of the valley and surrounding regions.