Friday, February 29, 2008

Geology of the San Andreas Fault - A Class at Coconino Community College

I just completed teaching a class in the Geology of the San Andreas Fault (GLG 298 at Coconino Community College). Fifteen lucky students and myself traveled for five days to the southern segment of the fault adjacent to Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Joshua Tree National Park. Here are some pictures of the things we saw and learned about.

Palm tree oases are rather abundant in this desert land and their occurrence is related to faulting, whereby water is forced to the surface when encountering a fault trend. These palms are in Borrego Canyon just 1.5 miles from our campsite.

Inside the palm oasis in Borrego Canyon.

We hiked to the top of Borrego Mountain, known locally as the West Butte. Mesozoic age granite greeted us here and was a nice lookout for lunch.

On the way down we discovered something called The Slot and it was narrow beyond belief.

Here are two of my students, George and Bruce, admiring the narrow slot.

After exiting The Slot, we drove into Split Mountain along Fish Creek. This is a shot of the famous anticline along the drive into the mountain. Incredibly, this deformation happened when an earthquake along the San Andreas Fault displaced 300,000,000 cubic yards of earth on Fish Creek Island within the ancestral Gulf of California. This happened about 5 million years ago. The resulting slide (7 miles long) crumpled the deposits that were accumulating on the gulf floor. Wow!

Here is Rex Stephens admiring some tilted but otherwise undeformed layers of the Imperial Formation (ancestral Gulf of California deposits).

After exiting Split Mountain the Elephant Knees came into view. This is also an outcrop of the Imperial Formation and this section is full of fossils. We found many oyster shells and gypsum crystals (selenite) laying around here in the late afternoon light.

Traveling around the southeast side of Anza-Borrego, we came across an old Indian village where morteros had been ground into the hard granite.

Here's Mary Gavan taking notes while visiting the morteros.

At Font's View, one gets a sweeping view of the Borrego Badlands. Many of these deposits were laid down by the advancing delta of the Colorado River.

Driving towards Joshua Tree, we traversed the southern shore of the Salton Sea and visited the Salton Buttes. These are six small volcanic plugs that are quite young. Here a flow of pure obsidian is preserved on the shore of the inland sea.

Just a few miles away are the mud volcanoes - which are constantly erupting mud.

Everyone enjoyed seeing these amazing structures. Water from the Salton Sea seeps into hot rocks below where it becomes heated and rises to form these volcanoes.

A gaseous and hot mud pool. It spattered everyones shoes.

Next we drove to Painted Canyon near Mecca and in the Mecca Hills. These sediments belong to the Palm Springs Formation and were derived from alluvial fans than entered the Salton Trough about 2 million years ago. The San Andreas Fault has lifted these sediments to their present height.

We entered Ladder Canyon by a series of well placed ladders in a slot canyon.

I never expected to find so many wonderful slot canyons in California! But desert runoff will create these features.

In Ladder Canyon in the Mecca Hills.

Sunrise in Joshua Tree National Park

We got up before dawn on our last day and watched the sun rise on Mt. San Jacinto and the San Andreas Fault below it.

We finished up the trip taking a short hike within the White Tank monzogranite, at 85 million years old, it has weathered into fantastic shapes. Waht a trip!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Climate Change Discussion

Here is a thoughtful response to my posting of February 11:

Mr. Ranney,

You echo many of my thoughts and concerns about how global climate change will affect the fundamental mission and purpose for the National Park Service. There's some truth to the notion that events and human-caused changes are increasingly making the goals of the NPS Organic Act moot, especially the no-impairment standard. The problem for NPS is that, as a federal agency, we can't determine our own legislative mandates. We take such direction from the Congress (legislation) and the President (Executive Orders). We're not independent operators, like a corporation, that can switch its basic purpose whenever it wants due to market conditions, new ownership, or other business conditions. Holding us publically accountable for our actions is the way it should be.

Another big problem for NPS is that in years past we operated under the basic principle of the early 1960s Leopold Report that called for NPS to manage its landscapes as 'vignettes of primitive Amerca.' While that philosophy is widely recognzed as out of date and impractical, it hasn't been replaced by any kind of coherent management philosophy that is as broadly recognized and understood. Ask 10 different NPS resource managers today what our guiding resource principle is, and I bet you get a wide range of answers. This makes it a little harder to rally internal consensus for a single agency approach to a problem like climate change.

The climate change question is forcing land management agencies to do some pretty basic analysis of just what are realistic resource objectives in the face of this global phenomenon.

And it's not just the NPS Organic Act. Look at one of our most powerful environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act. Under the terms of that law, species should be considered candidates for listing when certain conditions are met regarding population size, trends, habitat, and future viability. Joshua trees, as a species, might merit consideration for listing under ESA as either threatened or endangered before much time passes. Should they be listed under ESA? How would you apply the tools of ESA when the primary threat is climate change? ESA might help with easing some of the habitat destruction of Joshua trees due to widespread development although it would not alter the jeopardy to Joshua trees due to climate change itself. If you decided as a matter of public policy that you were committed to saving Joshua trees due to their ecological significance
in the Mojave, how far are you prepared to go to make that happen? Would you look at genetic manipulation to breed a heartier Joshua tree that can better withstand warm climates and drought? What are the implications of such an effort for the other species that are linked to Joshua trees if you do this? What are the implications for these creatures of you don't take
such drastic action?

I'm worried that some in the science community have already moved on to how do we adapt to climate change without fully considering the social and public policy consequences of such decisions. Who makes the decision as to what we save and what we let go? Are there universally applied criteria for making such decisions? If so, what are they? From where does science derive its ethical foundations in making such decisions?

I very much agree that NPS interpreters have to use the climate change issue as the ultimate teachable moment and try to improve people's science and environmental literacy so that they can make more informed choices. Paternalistic rhetoric about doom and gloom scenarios, while not helpful overall, does at least take advantage of the idea that nothing concentrates the mind so well as impending catastrophe. One of the biggest problems for environmental interpreters today is that public awareness of the issue and calls for action are outpacing the science and policy arena. While the jury is largely in on the question of human caused climate change on a global level, much less is known about local and regional effects of
climate change and how we should respond to them.

Anyway, I appreciate your thoughtful comments.


Climater Change Discussion

And here is my response to Joe:

Dear Joe:

Thank you for writing to me. I know how overworked many federal employees are these days.

You make some very good points. I am heartened that my words did not put you off. I think about these things a lot in the course of my lecturing and I enjoy the philosophical twists that they present to us as interpreters. The important thing is that as our society becomes increasingly disconnected to the planet we live on, that we remain active in our attempts to keep people tuned in. The National Parks I feel can be a catalyst for changes in our awareness but it requires new methods of connecting with people. As per my previous note on the topicl, an "us vs. them" discourse is a sure way to have half the population (or more) tune out to any message delivered in such a way.

One of your more interesting points was that you feared scientists have already moved on in their thinking to living with climate change, rather than taking steps on how to reverse it.. I think you are right as I survey my feelings. The points you made will help me to consider the other aspects of this argument. I think we both sense that the Park Service is in for rather rough ride as they attempt to wrestle their mandate to preserve in the face of possible overwhelming change. Still, I think challenges present opportunities too. As an interpreter, I wish you well in your endeavors to make the parks relevant to a wider segment of our population. Our society needs you more than ever!

Thank you again for responding thoughtfully to me.

Sincerely, Wayne

Monday, February 11, 2008

Geology Class at Joshua Tree National Park

Beginning on February 23, I'll teach a class at Coconino Community College called "Geology of the San Andreas Fault". We plan on visiting Anza-Borrego State Park and Joshua Tree National Park. Look here soon for the pictures!!

In the meantime, I received the following message from a friend, Robb Hannawacker, who is a ranger at Joshua Tree:

"I'm getting used to Joshua Tree National Park since I've been a ranger here for about 10 months. But it was hard to adjust since it is a park with some issues. These issues are largely associated with living near major urban areas, with their crime, air pollution, and light pollution. But the world-wide event of climate change puts a new spin on things.

As a National Park, it is our responsibility to preserve and protect these places of national heritage for perpetuity. Unfortunately, the Mission statement from the 1916 Organic Act does not include... "In the event of human caused climate change..."

However, as an interpreter (guide or educator), I'm duty bound to send a message of concern, but also one of hope. If humans and our air pollution are responsible for changing Earth's climate, then we must do are part to prevent it from getting worse!

The following url is a "Climate Connections" feature from National Public Radio and National Geographic.

I would love to hear from you. Let me know what you think or if you have questions, since I've been making efforts to know as much as possible about Climate and Global Warming."

I did respond to Robb and this is how I see it:

Regarding the fate of the Joshua Trees, that would certainly be a shame. It's almost as if the location of the Park is at the end of a shotgun with the LA Basin pointing downwind right at its heart. Thank goodness it is preserved as open space - think of all the trailers that would "grace" that landscape were it not for its earlier protection. We are so fortunate that those folks during the depression decided to preserve this as an NPS area!!

As a geologist, I tend to have a longer term view of these things, which often provides me with an unparalleled opportunity to educate the public in how natural systems operate. I agree that human activities are most likely driving this current warming period and that this warming is what's affecting the plants reduction in distribution. However, humans did not drive the warming period that occurred 10,000 years ago when range of the Joshua Trees was also severely reduced. I'm just wondering, in a philosophical sense, how should we speak about that severe reduction of the plant's range? Is that OK because it occurred "naturally"??? Or was that a tragedy too??? Most everyone might agree that the causes for these two warming periods were different, but the results are exactly the same, stressed Joshua Trees.

What I might suggest to you is that the current situation is a perfect opportunity to teach the general public about the value of knowing natures rhythms and the value of science. As an interpreter myself, I do not only speak of the tragedy of the moment (human induced global warming) - I also talk about those "natural" events that happened in the past that also restricted the plants distribution ("naturally" induced global warming). Looked at in this way, the long term observations from geology can inform everyone on what the possibilities are for the future. The public can become informed by studies like those of Ken Cole. Instead of an emotional plea for people to become concerned, there is a scientific plea to become informed, which presumably makes for informed decisions.

So much of the current debate pits "one side against the other". I feel we should stop this "us vs. them" mentality and let science be the arbiter of what path to take. I give climate change lectures in the course of my work and my goal is not so much to enlist believers in one particular point of view, but to inform everyone on what has happened in the past, what the consequences were, and why we should be involved.

In a way, I feel that the NPS is trying to put nature in a box labeled "1492", this being the year Christopher Columbus came to North America. In 1916, there wasn't the awareness yet that things change naturally. I'm just curious, if the present warming were to be found to be occurring from totally natural causes, what would the response of the Park Service be?? I'll bet it would also try to stop the change, even though this is the path nature wants to take.

I offer these comments only as a way to enliven and better approach the topic. I remain a strong supporter of the NPS and its mission. We should be discussing the very real impact we are having as a species on our planet, including the death of the Joshua Trees. However, I find that many of the original assumptions included in the 1916 Organic Act, are increasingly "dated" or even untenable as we learn more about the ebb and flow of nature on this marvelous planet. Perhaps the NPS interpretive staff would better serve the debate by letting go of its paternalistic tone of "the sky is falling" and adopt a more scientific tone that informs and teaches the public about what has happened in the past, what the consequences to life were, and how our Earth behaves through time. Believe me, informed people are more than capable of making the right decisions about these things.

Wayne, February 11, 2008