Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Want to Work at a Great Museum? The Great Valley Museum May Have a Place For You

I work in a great facility at Modesto Junior College. The recently opened Science Community Center on our west campus combines the labs and classrooms for the physical and biological sciences, a fully functional observatory, and most importantly for our community outreach, the Great Valley Museum.
The GVM has been open for a number of months now, and hundreds of children are paying visits each week on school field trips. The William Luebke Planetarium has been filling to capacity.  It's been wonderful to see the community support the museum has been getting.
There are big changes coming, too. The preparation lab and storage facility, a separate unit of the museum was recently completed, and the final jewel in the crown, the Outdoor Education Lab, has been approved, and construction will be starting soon.
Does it sound like it might be a great place to work? I think it is, and if you have the right skills, you could be the one working here. There is an opening, possible more than one, for a position as a museum office technician. This is a full time, 12 month position.
If you are interested, information about the position can be found at  https://yosemite.peopleadmin.com/postings/1685. The closing date for applications is September 1, 2015.

Vagabonding on Dangerous Ground: Into the Land of Sand and Exploding Whales

The Cascadia Subduction Zone has raised mountains. The entire length of the convergent boundary, from California to British Columbia is marked by incredibly rugged cliffs and steep, forest-covered topography. There aren't a lot of sandy stretches of coast in southern Oregon, the kind that folks from Florida, south Texas, or the Atlantic seaboard would recognize. But in the central part of the state, there is one section of coast that is extraordinary.
The so-called Coos Bay dune sheet extends for 56 miles (90 kms) from Coos Bay to Florence, and it is a strange and bizarre landscape that contains 85% of Oregon's active dunes. It's mostly protected as Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area. It isn't that there is simply a long expanse of sandy beach; the sand has been blowing and migrating inland, in some places nearly 3 miles, covering forests in some cases, and in other situations, stabilizing and becoming forest. This odd environment makes for unique ecosystem and geological landscape, mixing ocean, swamps, rivers, forests, and lakes.

The sand has several origins. The quartz rich sands have been 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, 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.

I've only just begun to explore this incredible landscape. I'm usually based out of Florence, so that's where these photos are coming from. Wave action is intense and unending. At times the waves are huge, and onshore winds can approach hurricane velocity. The first ridge of sand, the foredune, absorbs much of the impact of the wind and waves.

The dunes here have been altered extensively in the last century. Urbanization, where it's taken place has been secondary. The big changes resulted from the construction of jetties at the mouth of the Siuslaw and other rivers, which back up the sand along the coast as efficiently as a dam. The other has been the introduction of European beachgrass to augment the stabilization of migrating dunes. The native grasses have been pushed aside in many instances as the European non-native 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 rivers and streams that flow into the dune fields, along with a high groundwater table, have created a network of swamps, and more than two dozen ponds and lakes. Some of the larger lakes have been developed as recreational resorts.The complex provides a rich environment for wildlife, both local and migratory.

One very bizarre species in the area is the Darlingtonia californica, the carnivorous Pitcher Plant. I've written about the small park north of Florence previously. The plants can only grow in nitrogen poor environments like bogs or in serpentine soils. They get their nitrogen from the insects they consume.
One of the hazards of human colonization and development of the extensive dune field is the migration of the dunes over time, which could cover railroads and highways. That was one of the prime reason for efforts at dune stabilization in the early 1900s.

Another hazard, one not truly experienced in modern times, is the effect of large tsunamis in the event of a gigantic earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction Zone. Many of the lowland areas are expected to be inundated by tsunami surges that could reach depths of several tens of feet. Evacuation routes are prominently posted in developed areas.
There is one more hazard that Florence is rather famed for, although they probably wish it could be forgotten: exploding whales. If you haven't seen the video, you are in for a "treat". There is an extensive web presence if you want to learn more!

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Vagabonding on Dangerous Ground: "This Dismal Forest Prison" and Other Problems Exploring the Northwest

One of the things that really struck me as we went vagabonding up the Cascadia Subduction Zone last month was how rugged the landscape was. There is a topographic consequence to traveling or living onshore of a convergent boundary. In the long term, the land is pushed upwards into mountains, mountains that in many cases slope directly into the sea. Add to this the orographic effect, which dumps multitudes of rainfall in this northern latitude, and you end up with nearly impassable terrain.

On our trip, we occasionally felt a tiny bit of impatience when the road narrowed and went from four lanes to two. It slowed us on our journey through northern California and southern Oregon. It meant that the coastal route cost us a good thirty or forty minutes over what the trip would have been had we traveled on Interstate 5 farther inland. Thirty or forty minutes! A whole five hours or so to cover the 200 miles from Crescent City to Florence! But it took only a few moments of consideration to realize what an easy time of it that we have getting from one place to another in this landscape, this incredibly rugged and even dangerous landscape.
Samuel Boardman State Park on the south Oregon Coast

One of the books we picked up on the journey was called "Two Peoples, One Place " by Raphael and House. It is a history of Humboldt County, and it is a bit unusual in that includes a great deal of information about people other than the Europeans who settled the region in relatively recent times. I haven't read all of it yet, but I was struck by one section, an account of the overland journey that resulted in the discovery of Humboldt Bay in 1850.

It was a miserable journey, by all accounts. The party of eight men took ten days of food supplies for an expedition that lasted around two months. The Gregg Party made their way from the Trinity River to the coast around Patrick's Point, then south through the Humboldt Bay and then up the Eel River. The party split up, with some of them attempting a more coastal route to San Francisco, but ending up in the Sacramento Valley. Gregg himself, their leader, died under somewhat disputed circumstances. The others followed the Eel River, during which they had a tough encounter with eight (8!) grizzly bears. They limped their way south to Sonoma.

The surviving accounts suggest that Gregg was not well-liked by his crew. He was constantly slowing the expedition by taking scientific readings (you know how those scientists are!). Sadly his notes and records were lost (or discarded unceremoniously after his death). How is this for a description of an argument that took place among the crew?
His cup of wrath was now filled to the brim; but he remained silent until the opposite shore was gained, when he opened upon us a perfect battery of the most withering and violent abuse. Several times during the ebullition of the old man's passion he indulged in such insulting language and comparisons, that some of the party, at best not any too amiable in their disposition, came very nearly inflicting upon him summary punishment by consigning him, instruments and all, to this beautiful river.
This is, by the way, how the Mad River got its name...

Though they were impressed by the size of the Redwood Trees, they referred to them as a "dismal forest prison". They described the near impossibility of moving their livestock and supplies through the forest floor, as it was covered with multitudes of fallen trees. They were lucky to make two miles a day. In the end they survived mostly by the generosity of the local Native American people who lived in the region. They gave the Eel River its name because of the lampreys they traded for to eat (sounds delicious).
Arch Rock in Samuel Boardman State Park
Those who undertook an exploration of the coast by boat hardly fared better. From the first Spanish ship in 1542 to the late 1700s, visits to the region were rare, literally decades apart. Cape Mendocino seemed an invisible barrier to travels farther north, at least by the Spaniards. With no safe harbors north of San Diego (San Francisco Bay was not yet known to the Europeans), aside from the relatively exposed coast at Monterey, ships had to spend months at sea. By the time the ships made it to Mendocino, their crews were stricken with scurvy, and they were forced to turn back.
Samuel Boardman State Park
A hard and rugged land, whether by land or by sea. The wrinkled crust, the heritage of the subduction zone offshore, has always been hard to traverse, at least until the advent of modern highways, built at great cost and with huge amounts of engineering. Year to year maintenance costs are staggering.

But in the present day, it is possible drive the entire coast from Eureka to central Oregon in a long afternoon. And in the absence of the dangers of scurvy, grizzly bears, or starvation, the traveler can sit back and appreciate the incredible beauty of the region. One feels compelled to slow down and enjoy the scenery. Oregon has established a string of state parks along the rugged southern coast of the state, and each one of them is worth a stop.
Pistol River State Park in southern Oregon

Cape Blanco State Park is only about seven miles short of the being the westernmost point of the lower 48 states. Cape Alava in Washington is the far west point.
Roads in southern Oregon prior to the 1930s were nightmares. Rarely paved, they were muddy avenues, and river crossings were difficult. It wasn't until the construction of a series of bridges that access became convenient. The bridges, many designed by Conde McCullough, are works of art.
The bridge over the Siuslaw River at Florence Oregon is one of the most beautiful. Tell me this doesn't look just a little like a cathedral...
The question of our time is how an earthquake might set transportation in the Pacific Northwest back. A 2009 scenario involving a magnitude 8.3 earthquake estimates that two bridges would collapse outright, and that 23 would suffer severe damage. 155 bridges would ride out the quake with slight to moderate damage. The technology exists to retrofit many of the vulnerable bridges; it just takes the political will. I worry about that some, given the lousy job we are doing maintaining bridges and other infrastructure from normal wear and tear. To many people, the idea of giant earthquakes is a bit too abstract.
When we reached Coos Bay and Florence, the nature of the coastline changed radically. In the next post, we'll be talking about sand. Lots and lots of sand.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Arizona is Going to Get Another Meteor Crater, Only Bigger. And We Know Where and Why.

This is NOT a killer asteroid entering the Earth's atmosphere. It is a sun dog over Oak Flat Campground near Superior, Arizona. Oak Flat is going to become a gigantic crater.
Because it won't be a meteor that causes it. It won't be an atomic bomb test. And it won't be because of aliens like those stupid ones in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The giant crater will be entirely the work of human beings, and gravity. And it will destroy a place that is sacred to many, and was given protection by a Republican president 60 years ago.
Meteor Crater, Arizona is probably the most famous impact crater on the planet, and is about three-quarters of a mile across, and about 550 feet deep. The coming crater is expected to be about a mile across, and as much as 1,000 feet deep. How in the world is such a thing going to happen?
The town of Superior, Arizona is like many old mining towns of the west. It's depressed, it's poor, and few inhabitants really have a reason to stay. People made a good living out here at one time, mining and smelting copper from huge open pits nearby. But the mines closed decades ago.

But the copper wasn't all gone. With prices up, there is renewed interest, and Resolution Mining Company has outlined a huge ore body, one of the largest in the world. But there's a problem.
It's 7,000 feet beneath the surface.

The normal approach, open-pit mining, won't work. It's far too deep. Normal tunnel mining won't cut it either, because although the ore body is huge, it is low-grade, averaging around 1.5% copper, instead of the 5% or so that is required for profitable tunnel mining. So the company proposes to go after the ore using a process called panel caving (a type of block caving). They propose to start underneath the ore body, design a system of collection tunnels, and then fracture the rock above, allowing it to fall into the collection areas where the ore will be removed.
The process will allow the mining of vast amounts of ore, but what they will be doing will amount to removing an entire mountain from beneath the surface. Holes of such size cannot be maintained as open space underground, so the mine will collapse in a supposedly controlled manner. At the end of the mine's usable "life", the crater is expected to be about a mile wide and as much as 1,000 feet deep. Bigger than Meteor Crater.
There are huge social and political issues. Many people are fully supportive because money, but it's never entirely clear who will truly benefit, and who will actually get the jobs, and which political entities will get the tax revenue to support the regional infrastructure. And there is no guarantee that the mining company itself will maintain economic viability for the next sixty years. Such things are hard to predict, and the American West is littered with abandoned and depressed towns that were promised much and ultimately received little.
And then there is the matter of honor and history. Soldiers chose to die here, defending their homeland and families. When all was lost, more than four dozen of them chose to jump off the cliffs rather than be taken by the enemy. It was around 1870, and the deaths occurred only 1,500 feet from the edge of the proposed crater.

If the soldiers were U.S. military, I suspect there would be a cacophony of voices raised in righteous anger about the desecration of hallowed ground, and historical heritage and all that. But no, the warriors were Apache. The copper mining company insists that they respect the Native American heritage, and they make all kinds of public relations noise, but a great many local tribes and nations are deeply opposed to the operation.
I'm okay with weighing the pros and cons of a project like this, assuming that all parties are heard, and their concerns dealt with. But there has to be a willingness to say no, that some places should not be destroyed for the sake of profits over all other factors. I'm disturbed when those with the money are the only ones heard in the discussion and that there is an assumption that it will go forward no matter what. But ultimately politics requires a fair and open vote in Congress. And that's where the problem lies. The project will require a land swap that gives up federal land for "ecologically sensitive" lands elsewhere. And Congress has turned it down a number of times.
So in a bit of bipartisan corruption, the land swap was placed in a piece of legislation, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that had to be passed in 2014. It was a betrayal of trust on the part of people like Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake (speaking of corruption, Rep.Rick Renzi is in prison over crimes related to the land swap; and Senator Flake was once a lobbyist for Rio Tinto, one of the mine's corporate partners). This is the kind of political shenanigans that tells me that these plans need to be tabled for awhile. This isn't the way things should be done in our society.
How badly do we need this copper, really? And at what true cost?

For an excellent summary of the issues involved, please read this excellent article by Ray Sterns for Phoenix News-Times: http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/a-copper-mine-near-superior-is-set-to-destroy-a-unique-sacred-recreation-area-for-fleeting-benefits-7287269

Friday, July 31, 2015

Vagabonding on Dangerous Ground: Northern California's Tsunami Central

Crescent City Harbor from the south
In the far northwestern corner of California beyond Eureka and Arcata, the coast is lonely and wild, but there is one outpost of civilization, the small village of Crescent City. There are around 7,000 people, a small harbor with a fishing fleet, and a beautiful lighthouse, constructed in 1856 for pretty good reasons. The region around the harbor is peppered with dozens of jagged rocks called sea stacks (see the photo below). The town is a crossroads of sorts, with highways connecting with Grants Pass and Brookings in Oregon, and Redding and Eureka in California.

It's also been described as a tsunami magnet.

Since 1933, tidal gauges in the harbor have detected at least 32 tsunami surges, five of which caused damage, and two that have caused deaths. The 1964 magnitude 9.2 Alaska earthquake caused catastrophic damage in the town, killing eleven people. And ominously, sediments in and near the town record evidence of damage from the 1700 Cascadia earthquake. It is the possible repeat of that event that has the Pacific Northwest in an uproar at the moment.

No other place in California has such a record.
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
The most recent tsunami was caused by the 2011 Tōhoku quake in Japan, a magnitude 9 event. The wave surged into the harbor, reaching a height of 8 feet (2.4 meters). Five people (I assume they were tsunami tsight-tseeing) were swept out to sea, and one of them drowned. 35 boats were destroyed. Tens of millions of dollars have since been spent to better prepare the harbor for future events.
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
It may seem strange that one particular spot should be the focal point of tsunami damage in the state. The intensity of a tsunami depends on many factors, including the distance and size of the earthquake, the depth and shape of the seafloor, and the arrangement of human developments in the coastal area. Tsunamis have been recorded in other parts of California, but offshore islands in southern California protect the shorelines to an extent. Monterey and Santa Cruz have configurations that seem to have provided some insulation from the worst of the waves. But Crescent City collects tsunami energy. The good news is that the city seems to take the threat seriously, a fact reported to me by a cherished relative who lived in the danger zone there for many years (she lives further from the coast these days, and I've noted there is a closet of emergency supplies in the hallway outside her room in the assisted-living facility). They've learned from the past, and seem to have prepared for the future.
Battery Point Lighthouse in Crescent City
What is it like to be in the midst of a huge tsunami? In 1964 quake, four waves struck Crescent City. The first three were not as damaging, so some people returned to the downtown area only to be overwhelmed by the larger fourth wave. It topped out at around 20 feet (6-7 meters). Eleven or twelve people were dead, 100 were injured, nearly 300 buildings destroyed or damaged, along with 1,000 cars. It's hard to imagine being in the middle of such an event, but the Battery Point Lighthouse keepers witnessed the event from an uncomfortable location. The waves surrounded their rocky point. Their story is recounted in the book The Raging Sea by Dennis Powers (2005):
The water withdrew as if someone had pulled the plug. It receded a distance of three-quarters of a mile from the shore. We were looking down, as though from a high mountain, into a black abyss. It was a mystical labyrinth of caves, canyons, basins, and pits, undreamed of in the wildest of fantasies.

The basin was sucked dry…In the distance, a black wall of water was rapidly building up, evidenced by a flash of white as the edge of the boiling and seething seawater reflected the moonlight.

Then the mammoth wall of water came barreling towards us. It was a terrifying mass, stretching up from the ocean floor and looking much higher than the island. Roxey shouted, “Let’s head for the tower!” - but it was too late. “Look out!” he yelled, and we both ducked as the water struck, split and swirled over both sides of the island. It struck with such force and speed that we felt we were being carried along with the ocean. It took several minutes before we realized that the island hadn’t moved.

When the tsunami assaulted the shore, it was like a violent explosion. A thunderous roar mingled with all the confusion. Everywhere we looked buildings, cars, lumber, and boats shifted around like crazy. The whole beachfront moved, changing before our very eyes. By this time, the fire had spread to the Texaco bulk tanks. They started exploding one after another, lighting up the sky. It was spectacular!
Tsunami damage in Crescent City from the 1964 Alaska Earthquake
If there is a repeat of the magnitude 9 Cascadia earthquake of 1700, Crescent City will certainly be affected. How do we know? Hidden in some of the coastal flats are sand deposits from the 1700 event. In places the water rushed a mile inland. There is potential for greater damage because of the closer proximity of the epicenter, but that is mitigated by the expectation that the coastline could rise several feet during the quake, unlike areas farther north. They are are expected to sink before the arrival of the wave.
We visited our relative in Crescent City before continuing our Vagabonding on Dangerous Ground journey north on Highway 101. We were about to enter Oregon, and a beautiful stretch of coastline (as if it hadn't already been beautiful).

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Vagabonding on Dangerous Ground: A Geologist Walks Onto a Bar in Cascadia...

A very strange-looking sandbar at Big Lagoon in Humboldt Lagoons State Park on California's north coast.
A geologist walks INTO a bar. She may get hammered, vulcanized, laminated, stoned, cemented, bombed, or petrified. And all her drinks will be on the rocks...

But when that geologist walks ONTO a bar, she just gets sand on her feet.

Yeah, yeah, I know, shut up and stick with the science...

We're traveling north on a journey through the Cascadia Subduction Zone, exploring this unique region with an eye to the geology, and the beauty, of the region. We've explored the Redwood forests of the Eel River, and the Lost Coast where the Cascadia zone begins. Today we are looking at a unique state park along the coast north of Eureka, California, and south of Crescent City. It's called the Humboldt Lagoons State Park, and the three lagoons found there are bounded by stunning examples of baymouth bars.
Big Lagoon at Humboldt Lagoons State Park (source: Google Earth)
One of the reasons that the already infamous Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake might not be as bad as it could be is that so few people actually live on the coast of Washington, Oregon, or Northern California. Why is this? If one looks at a map, one notes the paucity of flat lands along the coast. There are sometimes some coastal terraces and a number of small natural harbors, but for most of the distance between Vancouver Island and Cape Mendocino, the mountains rise from the sea. There's no place to build. That's not to minimize the tragedy. There will be horrible results, but the largest cities like Seattle and Portland are inland, behind the coastal ranges, and they will be spared the worst of the tsunami damage, if not the shaking. There are certainly a number of towns along the coast, but there are also long stretches with few people. One of the lightly populated stretches of coast is between Eureka and Crescent City.
Big Lagoon at Humboldt Lagoons State Park
Along Cascadia's mountainous coast, wave action is violent and constant, and cliffs are quickly worn back, forming a relatively straight coastline. But there are also a number of drowned river valleys and coves, many caused by the rise of sea level after the last ice age. There are four small examples of these valleys at Humboldt Lagoons (one of which was filled in to allow some farming). But the coastline is very straight. Why?

Intense rainfall sends sediments down the many rivers and streams, and vast amounts are added to the coastal waters. When waves encounter the coast at an angle, the swash and backwash of the water causes sediment to be transported along the coast, a process called longshore drift. There is a tremendous amount of sediment in this coastal system.
Humboldt Lagoon also include a county park at the south end of Big Lagoon. It's a nice place to see coastal erosion!
When waves hit rocky coasts, they expend their energy wearing away at the rocks. When those same waves reach a cove of open water, the wave energy is dissipated as the waves spread out. When sand is being transported around the headland and into a cove, the declining energy causes the sand to settle into a curving sandbar, called a hooked spit. The spit may grow large enough to close off the mouth of the bay, becoming a baymouth bar.

In most bays along the Cascadia coast, rivers are large enough to keep the bays open, but at Humboldt Lagoons only small streams are present. Water can simply seep through the sandbar rather than flowing out. The bays are breached only during the wettest, most intense storms. The baymouth bars are miles long, and incredibly straight (see the Google Earth image above). They don't look natural, and yet they are.
Smaller Stone Lagoon is just north of Big Lagoon.
The lagoons are a fascinating spot along the north coast, and they get a bit less attention than Redwoods National Park and the state parks. They are an important link in the ecosystem of the region, and are marvelous spots for birdwatching and looking for other animals. If you ever travel that way, the state park (and associated county park) is well worth a visit.

The next stop on our vagabonding tour of the Cascadia Subduction Zone is Crescent City at the far north end of California. We'll have some things to learn about tsunamis in California.