Thursday, December 8, 2016

Where are the Heroes Anymore?...RIP John Glenn

Hero: a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities
Photo from NASA
It's hard to find heroes today, although they most certainly exist. 

Some people maintain that people who can catch footballs or swings bats are heroes, but those athletes are well paid in money and accolades. It really just means they catch footballs or swing bats well and provide us some entertainment. They're not heroes, though. Some people call musicians heroes, but they get a lot of money and accolades too. These people are simply famous. They do little to make life better for others (though some of them do donate their money). And people who are famous for being rich? Forget it.

Some of the best of heroes today exist in obscurity and in darkness, working to make life better for the sick and injured in the kind of places where humanity is at its worst. I think of the doctors and nurses who work in war-torn places like Syria and Iraq, or those who struggle against diseases in the worst hell-holes where pathogens like the Ebola virus lurk. I think of the heroes that struggle to educate our children despite desperate teaching conditions and insanely deficient budgets, along with scorn from politicians and administrators. These are the kinds of people we should all aspire to be. 

What seems to be missing in this period of history are national heroes. I'm sure I'm missing something here, perhaps, but there have been times in our history when people did the really big things, the dangerous adventures where the outcome was truly in doubt. There were people who risked everything to walk to the poles, or to climb the highest mountains against impossible odds. Sometimes, like Mallory (on Everest) or Scott (at the south pole), they ultimately failed, and yet still loom large in the history of human exploration. It's true that they might have been seeking after glory, but they bet everything on an uncertain outcome.

And so we come to the events of this week. When I was a child of 4, the first American, Alan Shepard, went into space (the Russian Yuri Gigaran was the first person in space, but somehow we forget that sometimes). I barely understood the significance, but when John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, I did know what was going on, and why it was important. From that time on, I was fascinated with space travel, the Moon, and astronomy in general. I had every reason to think that space travel was something that even I would be able to do in another thirty or forty years (that seemed like forever back then). I followed the Mercury missions, the Gemini missions and the Apollo missions. In 1969, I stood in a pinyon forest in the southern Sierra Nevada listening to the scout camp loudspeakers broadcasting the Moon landing. The country seemed to lose interest in space travel once we beat the Russians, but I never did. I followed the Voyager missions to the outer planets like a child even though I was in my twenties. And today, in my fifties, I've eagerly followed the missions to Mars, Mercury, the Asteroids Vesta and Ceres, and finally, Pluto. It's been a grand adventure, one that can only happen once. I'm glad I was privileged to be a witness.

This week we have to say good-bye to a true American hero and a true explorer. It's true that hundreds of people actually made the adventure possible, but John Glenn was the one who was courageous enough to strap himself into a small capsule on top of a rocket that had only successfully been fired four out of six tries. He gambled everything, and ultimately succeeded. He was a hero for other reasons too, having flown 149 combat missions in World War II and the Korean War. He also served as a senator from Ohio for 24 years.

We need all kinds of heroes, including the quiet unsung heroes who labor among us every day. But we also have a need for national and world heroes, those who expand our world and our Universe through their daring adventures at the edge of impossibility. John Glenn lived a full life, and will be remembered long after our society has forgotten the names of steroidal athletes and drunken media stars.

We Only Have Education to Guide Us: A Pledge

The glaciers of Glacier National Park, which once numbered more than a hundred, will be gone by 2030 or so.

The recent election has seen the loss of many things, which in terms of science and scientific understanding is truly tragic. The nation didn't vote for it, but representatives of ignorance and unrestrained capitalism managed to eke out an electoral college victory, and now a parade of political appointments are making a mockery of our commitment to clean air, clean water, and responsible stewardship of the land. Decisions about the future of our nation are now in the hands of people who are guided not by science, but by the profit motives of corporations. First and foremost is the abject denial by those who are about to take office in the reality of global warming and climate change.
Corals of the Great Barrier Reef are dying off at an appalling rate because of abnormally warm seas.

In so many ways I despair. But there is always hope, and I will not back off my commitment to the teaching of science and logic in my career.  Those now in power fear an educated electorate, because they used fear and ignorance to gain the power they will now yield. This must not continue.
Intense drought, a predicted aspect of global warming, has killed more than 100 million trees in California, including on the floor of iconic Yosemite Valley

I've been looking for the appropriate words to employ at this moment, and I found them in the Anti-authoritarian Academic Code of Conduct of Rachel Barney, a professor of classics and philosophy at the University of Toronto. They appear below, only slightly edited (because I'm not an administrator). These statements have always been a part of my educational and academic philosophy, but it's good to have a reminder of what we stand for. Consider this a pledge between me and my students, and with society at large.

1. I will not aid in the registering, rounding up or internment of students and colleagues on the basis of their religious beliefs.

2. I will not aid in the marginalization, exclusion or deportation of my undocumented students and colleagues.

3. I will, as my capacities allow, discourage and defend against the bullying and harassment of vulnerable students and colleagues targeted for important aspects of their identity (such as race, gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc.).
4. I will not aid government or law enforcement in activities which violate the U.S. Constitution or other U.S. law.
5. I will not aid in government surveillance. I will not inform.
6. As a teacher and researcher, I will not be bought or intimidated. I will present the state of research in my field accurately, whether or not it is what the government wants to hear. I will challenge others when they lie.
7. I will not be shy about my commitment to academic values: truth, objectivity, free inquiry and rational debate. I will challenge others when they engage in behavior contrary to these values.

8. I will stand with my colleagues at other institutions, and defend their rights and freedoms.
9. I will be fair and unbiased in the classroom, in grading and in all my dealings with all my students, including those who disagree with me politically.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Wandering Through a Sand Wilderness

To a child who was raised along the beaches of Southern California, the Oregon coast comes as quite a shock. Beaches to me were places like Huntington or Balboa, where wall-to-wall people struggled to claim a few precious square feet where they could lay out a towel, and get sunburnt from head to toe (yes, the cultural habits of the sixties were terrifying; I'm lucky to not have skin cancer yet). Nature involved gulls trying to steal one's food, and getting stung by the occasional jellyfish.

My perceptions of ocean coasts were changed somewhat when I moved to Central California. The beaches we explore these days, Big Sur and the Marin Headlands, are more cliffs than sand. They are beautiful beyond measure, but they are not like Oregon. Few places are like Oregon.
My explorations of the Oregon Coast these days are centered around Florence at the north end of Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area. It is a truly alien place to a Californian! The strangest part is the sand wilderness. For a fifty-five mile stretch of coast, the shoreline is dominated by sand beaches. Constant onshore winds have blown vast amounts of sand inland, in places as much as three miles. In some localities the dunes buried mature forests. In others, forests have grown over the dunes. With the plentiful rainfall, the groundwater table is high, so many of the low places between dunes are occupied by lakes, ponds, and swamps. A fair number of them are large enough for boating and water sports. Others are more appropriate for hiking, wildlife observation, and contemplation. Our brief visit on Black Friday included a look at small Dune Lake adjacent to the national forest campground at Alder Dune (above).
Our other exploration was the short boardwalk at Holman Vista. The handicapped accessible trail provides access to Sutton Creek where it flows through a network of dunes and swamps, with a view of the distant mountain slopes as well. The dunes adjacent to the beach are anchored in place by European Beachgrass to augment the stabilization of migrating dunes (the original plantings were in the early 1900s when people didn't worry too much about the possible adverse effects). The native grasses have been pushed aside as the European non-native grass takes over. Because of the spread of grasses, 80% of the dune sheet is covered by vegetation. In 1939 it was only 20% (US Forest Service data).
The nature trail also offered what it termed "a view of the beach". That was true in the sense that an apartment might have a beach view if one leans out the window and cranes one's neck to see a bit of water in the distance between other buildings. In the picture above, note the beach view, a bit of white left of center. Look below for the zoomed view. We were in the midst of a series of powerful storms, so the surf was pounding the coast.

As I've pointed out in previous posts, the sand has several origins. The quartz rich sands were eroded from distant sources in the Klamath Mountains and Idaho Batholith and carried to the shoreline environment by one of Oregon's many rivers. Other sand is locally derived, eroded directly from the sea cliffs, or carried onshore from offshore bars. Some of the sediment that may have originated during the ice ages when sea level was lower. Wave action produced the flat platforms on which the dunes accumulated. 
Although I call this a sand wilderness, it is not officially designated as one, but it is managed as a de facto wilderness. Vehicles are not allowed off the paved roads, so access is by trail only, or by beach walking. Access to parts of the beach is restricted during the spring because endangered Snowy Plovers nest in the area.

To this Californian, it is a true shock to look at an eight mile long stretch of beach and not see a single person. It was heavenly!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Fog Returning to the Great Valley...Maybe

The fog here in the Great Valley is legendary. The so-called Tule Fogs can last for weeks, hiding the land in an impenetrable mist. People who would panic at the thought of driving with their eyes closed continue to speed through these fog banks where the visibility is measured in feet rather than tens of feet. One such accident in 2007 involved 90 cars and 18 big-rig trucks, with two people killed.

The Tule fog is a radiation fog, caused when heat from the ground radiates into the atmosphere at night, cooling the ground and causing condensation to take place. The fog persists as long as the temperature doesn't rise, and in the Great Valley, ringed is it is by high mountains, the conditions may persist for weeks at a time. Stable motionless air develops an inversion layer that can be difficult to break up unless a large storm blows in.

I was not prepared for the fogs when I made the valley my home nearly 30 years ago. I hated the gloomy days that seemed to never let up for weeks at a time. I had frightening near-misses on the highways. I even got lost a few times in the pre-GPS days, getting disoriented on backroads that were poor in signage. I was known to drop important projects and drive into the Sierra Nevada foothills for the sole purpose of getting into the sunshine. I hated descending back into the soupy mess.

The drought in California has caused a drop in the number of foggy days, since wet ground is a major requirement for forming the hated mist. Global warming plays a role, as warmer conditions are less likely to result in foggy conditions. Temperatures in some parts of the Great Valley are up by 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit. According to one report, the number of foggy days in Fresno declined from an average of 37 in 1980 to 22 in 2014. This has been a two-edged sword: besides the reality of the drought itself, the lack of cold wet conditions have caused a drop in agricultural production, as a number of fruit trees like cherries and peaches require the cold dark days to help the trees go dormant in winter.
I'm seeing fog on the early mornings when I make my way to work through the pasturelands outside my village. They've added an aura of mystery to the landscape, and haven't yet interfered with my driving, so I'm seeing beauty right now. We just finished a series of storms, and conditions will be stable and calm for the next 10 days or so. We'll see how I feel if and when the fog sets in.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Monitoring the California Drought, Via the Road

There are two ways to evaluate and monitor a drought. There's the usual method, where people use data on precipitation, snowpack level and streamflow discharge and all that, and it's all well and good. But there's also the Geotripper method of looking at Mt. Shasta in Northern California when I drive by, once at Thanksgiving, and again at Christmas. Folks can have a debate on which method is the most accurate, but it would probably be a stupid argument. I would end up telling people to listen to the science, not to their own local and limited observation (note: this is also an argument to use in the so-called "debate" about global warming).
Still, the Geotripper method has an advantage: one has to hit the road and look at Mt. Shasta, and it is always a beautiful mountain to observe. It is the second highest of the Cascades volcanoes (14,179 feet; 4,321.8 meters), and the most voluminous of the stratovolcanoes (the lesser-known shields like Medicine Lake Highland are larger but shorter). And this year's observation is positive. There is a lot of snow covering the mountain already. Maybe the drought is easing a little bit?
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Here's how it looked in November 2012. So obviously the Geotripper method works great...
The drought this month. Source:
The real data actually is a bit encouraging. In 2015, the entire state was in serious trouble. More rain fell in northern California this year, and the area under the most severe drought condition has shrunk. A little bit, anyway. 12% of the state, in the far north, is back to "normal". There is still a huge area classed as "exceptional drought" in central and southern California, and if we don't get some big storms down that way, the fires are going to get worse. The trees will continue to die by the millions. And our economic problems in the agriculture sector will continue to mount.
Drought conditions, February 2015

The news from our state reservoirs is also mixed. Lake Shasta and Don Pedro are presently where they are supposed to be at this time of year, but others are low. New Melones is at 38% of where it should be by this time. Others are in the 60-70% range.
It's early in the rain season, so there is hope. There's always hope...

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving, and Safety for Those on the Road (Plus new pictures from Pinnacles National Park)

Here's hoping that you all have a fine Thanksgiving holiday and that your travels are safe and fun. I offer up one of the things that I am truly thankful for: politicians that put aside their many differences and agreed to establish Pinnacles National Park in 2013.

Pinnacles National Park has provided us with our picture of a turkey for this Thanksgiving season (my own little holiday tradition). I doubt this one will be gracing anyone's table, as he was well inside the boundaries of the park. Maybe a coyote's, but this one looked like it wasn't going to take any crap from anyone.

Pinnacles has been one of my most dependable localities for seeing Wild Turkeys (which are not exactly a native species, but they have become naturalized in this region). I've seen dozens at a time there. The turkeys can be seen throughout the Coast Ranges. It's not well-known, but the Wild Turkey was almost hunted to oblivion a century ago. Aggressive efforts at conservation and introduction of captured wild birds to new regions (including California) brought them back.

A few years back, I caught a bit of a conflict, a love triangle if you will, in Morro Bay.

Pinnacles National Park is a beautiful place with fascinating geology. Look for a couple of posts soon from our recent trip there. I took a new trail, the Six Bridges Nature Trail in Lower Bear Gulch. It was a nice creekside walk with more rocky outcrops than I was expecting.

Short story of the geology at Pinnacles: it's half of a large composite rhyolitic volcano that has been deeply eroded. Where the other half is today is part of the exciting story. The rest is the idea that you can wander around in the middle of volcano in the Central California Coast Ranges. Compare this to the fact that you can walk on a volcano in the California Cascades, or you that you can walk under a volcano in Yosemite Valley.

Because of springs, the water is present in at least parts of Bear Gulch all year long. There is even a native fish in the creek, the Three-spined Stickleback (I looked but couldn't find any). Native ferns fill the valley floor in a few places, shaded by California's ubiquitous riverside tree, the Sycamore.

It's a poor picture, but an exciting sight. As I finished the hike in the Gulch, I spied a large bird in the sky. I was thrilled when I realized it was a California Condor. The bird was nearly extinct in the late 1970s (22 individuals), so in desperation, the remaining wild condors were captured and put into captive breeding program. It's been a success, as there are more than 400 birds today, with more than half living in the wild. Pinnacles was the site of an important milestone this year, as a chick fledged from a nest in the park for the first time in 120 years.

Pinnacles is a treasure. If you ever have a chance to explore central California, be sure to add it to your itinerary! In the meantime, have a safe and happy time wherever you may be. I'll be on the road, so posts may be scarce.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Why did the Road Cross the San Andreas Fault? 14 Years of Geologic Change (an Update)

I've been leading geology field studies trips to lots of places in the American West for 27 years and started to take digital pictures in 2001. I sometimes struggle to find new things to photograph when I visit a place for the 27th time, but in some cases it is not a problem. There are geologic changes that happen on a yearly basis, and with thirteen years of photos, the changes become obvious. This is an update from a post in 2013, and I'll probably continue updating for the foreseeable future.
Highway 25 in the California Coast Ranges connects the town of Hollister with the access road to Pinnacles National Park (formerly Pinnacles National Monument). Along the way the highway crosses the San Andreas fault in a section where the fault creeps an inch or so each year. Most years we've stopped to have a look at the effect the movement has on the pavement. In 2002 and 2004, the damage was obvious.
By 2008 someone had patched the road, and no fault motion was evident.
Little damage was evident in 2009 either. But by 2010 cracks had begun to appear as the fault stressed the pavement.
The fact that the fault creeps in this region is a good thing. It means that stress is not building along the fault surface, but instead is being released gradually. The sections of the fault to the north and south of the creeping section are locked by friction, and are building up the ominous stress that will eventually produce quakes with magnitudes in the range of 7.5 to 8.0. The quakes are coming and we need to be as prepared as possible.
By 2012, the road had been completely repaved, and  yet the shearing was already evident.
It became even more pronounced by 2013 and in 2014. Just by chance, the person working as a scale was the same individual as in 2004.

In 2015 the fractures were moderately larger. They'll need to start thinking of road repairs before long.
And here we are in 2016. Laura once again provides scale, as she did in 2014, and 2004. It's a wonderful thing to have people that recognize the value of geological education and work year to year to volunteer their services in the name of learning (as well as following a career as a teacher). She is a National Association of Geoscience Teachers Outstanding Earth Science Teacher awardee.
These little changes that happen at a rate visible in human lifetimes add up to huge changes when multiplied by thousands or millions of years. The nearby eroded volcano of Pinnacles National Park has been displaced 195 miles (315 kilometers) in the last 20 million years or so by movement along the San Andreas.
Until next year!