Monday, November 28, 2011

Wonders of Geology - A New and Stunning iPad Download from Michael Collier

A Michael Collier photograph of the Teton Mountains

When most people think of the science of geology, they likely do not conjure up thoughts that excite the senses or exude images of great beauty. How odd because to geologists themselves, their chosen field is nothing if not exciting and beautiful! I know of geologists who routinely gasp with pleasure, losing their breath when they come over a rise and see what is laid out before them on the landscape. If you have ever wanted to enter a realm of earthly magic, do so through the eyes of an earth scientist who will show you the everyday things in whole new light. Geology holds wonder for everyone, if only we could access its jargon and complexities.

Say no more - for this coming Friday on December 2, Mikaya Press unveils a brand new download created by geologist, photographer, and small aircraft pilot Michael Collier. It is called "Wonders of Geology" - An Aerial View of America's Mountains and is sure to be one of the most modern and easy ways to access the arcane but ultimately rewarding world of our planet's geology. I had a chance to preview the download earlier this month and can share some of what I learned from the experience.

First, an acknowledgment that I know Michael Collier very well. He was my next-door neighbor for 20 years and being both "lovers-of-all-things-earth", we have a lot in common. But our connection does not warrant me to write a review of this new learning tool. What does is Collier's unique tri-part combination of being a geologist, a photographer and a pilot that make "Wonders of Geology" a truly breathtaking tour of North America's mountains. There is perhaps no better way to see and learn about mountains unless you become a geologist, a photographer and a pilot, all in the same life.

In "Wonders of Geology", we learn how mountain chains were created by uplift and see how they have been sculpted by erosion and carved by glaciers. The download would be well worth the $12.95 asking price even if it only included Michael's 240 photographs. But the program is also well-illustrated with numerous diagrams, maps, and figures developed by Tasa Graphics in Taos, New Mexico. These are used to blend what you see in the photographs and hear in Michael's own voice-overs, teaming together to make the learning pleasurable and easy. There are various "chapters" that can be easily navigated to from a prompt on the bottom of the screen.

There are few downsides. At this time it is only available to owners of Apple's iPad platform. (Having been an Apple geek myself since day 1, this does not present a problem for me and I can heartily endorse any Apple product for the sheer sense of beauty each of their inventions contains). Geologists themselves will know most of the subject matter in the program and it is not meant to be anything more than an introduction to the "wonders of geology". But even if you are a professional already, you could easily utilize this when teaching family or friends about your world view. It is an excellent way to grasp difficult concepts in a meaningful and fruitful way.

Here is a sampling of some of Collier's magnificent photographs in "Wonders of Geology". The captions here are mine but each photograph is part of a lovely narrative presented in "Wonders of Geology".

The Sheep Mountain anticline in Wyoming. This fantastic warp in the earth's strata was formed between 70 and 60 million years ago during the Laramide Orogeny. When these strata were buckled upwards, they were still many miles below the earth's surface but more recent erosion (and stunning early morning light) accentuate these mulit-colored strata. Such are the views that Michael Collier will share with you as he flies his small Cessna airplane over these features.

Mt. Stanford in the Sierra Nevada of California. John Muir called the Sierra the "Range of Light" and Collier definitely has captured the essence of this moniker.

Closer to home in Flagstaff, Arizona and a view of the southern slopes of Mt. Elden, a dacite dome volcano that erupted in the San Francisco Volcanic Field about 500,000 years ago. The three obvious lobes formed when very viscous lava (dacite) was extruded on the top of the volcano. As the lava piled up, gravity grabbed a hold of it causing it to cascade very slowly downslope. This aerial view of the lava lobes is the best I have ever seen and allows for quick comprehension of the earth processes that created them.

Death Valley plays a prominent role in "Wonders of Geology". Here is a view of Split Mountain, a volcanic cinder cone that erupted along a fault line. After the cone had formed, the fault moved again and split the volcano. See the diagram below with accompanying graphics to explain this concept.

Spilt Mountain, Death Valley, California.

You can watch a preview of the program at this url: I found this program worthwhile and if you already own an iPad and are a geologist you have to have this to share with your friends and family over the holidays. If you are a photographer you will love Collier's works of art. And if you are a pilot, you'll find this useful as well to know what you are looking at from above.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Geology of the Spur Cross Ranch

On Saturday, November 12, I led a group of 27 avocational archaeologists from the Desert Foothills Chapter of the Arizona Archaeological Society on a geology field trip to the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area. The park is one of the gems in the Maricopa County Regional Park System and was established in 2001 to encompass 2,154 splendid acres of the northern Sonoran Desert. Many "arch" sites are located within the preserve and the members of the club wanted to learn more about the geological resources here. I had previously given two geology lectures to the group, in my role as an Arizona Road Scholar. This program is a part of the Arizona Humanities Council, whose mission is "to build a just and civil society by creating opportunities to explore our shared human experiences through discussion, learning and reflection". The AHC is one of the best programs I know of in the state of Arizona.

The history of the preservation effort of the Spur Cross Ranch is an interesting one but much too convoluted to go into detail here. In short, developers bought an old cattle ranch in the 1990's with the intent of creating a mini-city on the north fringes of Phoenix. This was during the boom-boom days of the Arizona housing frenzy and it looked like a done deal. Not so fast, said the citizens of Cave Creek, a sleepy little hamlet that started life as a mining camp in the 1870's. They voted for a sales tax that paid for the land sparing it from development. With 80% of the town voting in the election, 77% of them voted in favor of the 0.5%, 20-year sales tax. The cost of the bond will be paid off by next June (eight years early) and a story can be read here that details the history of the acquisition fight. For a more jaded view of the preservation effort, you can read it here.

After I gave a brief overview of the geology at the trailhead, we hiked up Cottonwood Wash. The geology begins with its location in the north part of the Phoenix basin, specifically at the junction of Arizona's Transition Zone and the Basin and Range. Many mine shafts are located here and recall the glory days of prospecting when Arizona was seemingly as far away as Mongolia. Miners were lucky in some instances in finding gold and silver in the area. These elements would have held no value to ancestral peoples.

My gracious hostess, Paddi Mazoli, at the entrance to the Nutcracker Mine in the Spur Cross area. Two groups of rocks are found here - an older sequence of Precambrian meta-sediments and meta-volcanics, and much younger basalt lava flows and sediments that are Cenozoic in age. Paleozoic and Mesozoic sedimentary rocks were likely here at one time but have been removed by erosion.

**2019 Update** - Thomas McGuire, who is writing a book about the Spur Cross Ranch geology, sent me a recent photo of the Nutcracker Mine entrance. A few years ago, a rockfall closed off the entrance. I attach his photo of the mine entrance before (2009 photo) and after ("a few years ago).

In the washes of the area, most of the durable rock types can be found. These make for a colorful mélange that are striking in their appearance. By far though, the most striking outcrops involve the lava flows of the Hickey Formation that cap Skull Mesa (shown here) and New River Mesa to the west. These flows were emplaced about 14.8 million years ago when the valley floor was not as dissected.

Skull Mesa located northeast of the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area is capped by Hickey basalt that has been dated at 14.8 Ma. The whitish outcrops beneath the mesa top belong to the Chalk Canyon Formation, a lacustrine and fluvial deposit that had yielded Arizona's oldest mammal fossil, an oreodont.

Artists reconstruction of an oredont, an example of which was found in the Chalk Canyon Formation near Cave Creek, Arizona, when this area held an ancient lake some 22 Ma

The Hickey basalt lava flows once continued much farther to the south after they were erupted, but more recent faulting disrupted the flow ends. This is evident everywhere in the northern parts of the Phoenix basin. Here from near the center of Cave Creek Town, you can see the same flows that were once attached to Skull Mesa. They have been faulted such that the former tops of the lava flows are now slopes on the right side (north end) of the hills. As the Phoenix basin was extended, the flows slipped downward and became tilted. Geology in action!

Petroglyphs abound in the area as do these boulders of Hickey basalt

Note this basalt boulder which has been rolled in a flood once or twice in Cave Creek! The white calcium ring that was once sitting horizontally in a pool of water has been moved such that it is now vertical on the rock. A new calcium ring has begun to form at the base in its present position.

It is a lovely area and a big thanks to the members of the Desert Foothills Chapter of AAS. They were most welcoming and a great group to hike with. Also, a big thank you to the citizens of Cave Creek who temporarily taxed themselves so that these 2,154 acres would be preserved in perpetuity for all Arizonans. Your forward thinking is very much appreciated by this Flagstaff boy.

Rainbow over Cave Creek, November 12, 2011

Monday, November 21, 2011

More Photo's From The Toroweap Geology Trip

Alice sent along some more photo's from our Toroweap field trip this morning. Thank you Alice!

In this shot we can clearly see the offset on the Toroweap Fault which runs across the photo behind the shadowed cliff on the left. It is the Esplanade Platform on the upthrown side of the fault, while the bench in the center distance is the same feature faulted lower to the west. About 500 feet of offset has been measured on the fault here. Note the cinder cone on the lip of the downthrown block. Magma likely utilized the fault line as a conduit to the surface. Note also the dip towards the photographer on the downthrown block, which rotated as it was lowered.

Here is an example of weathering on the Esplanade surface. The Esplanade Sandstone began life on the shores of a Permian sea, located not too far west of this locality. Sand was deposited on this coastal plain in low-lying dune fields. Subsequent burial put it into silent preservation for hundreds of millions of years and groundwater left a calcium cement between the quartz grains. Upon exposure, rainwater reacted with and dissolved the calcium cement such that hollows like these were formed. Although Alice took this photo to highlight the beautiful heart shape of the depression, she also had an eye for the process that creates these features.

This is Vulcan's Throne after we descended its top and hiked to another cone north of it. The view is to the south and behind the Throne is a 3,000 drop down to the Colorado River. Note the white playa lake deposits that accumulated at the intersection of the cone (erupted about 71,000 years ago) and the scarp of the Toroweap Fault (with movement mostly before the cone was emplaced - there is a small saddle on the east side of the cone that likely represents post-eruption movement on the fault).

Toroweap is an awesome place!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Geology Field Trip to Grand Canyon - Toroweap Overlook and Vulcan's Throne

Over Halloween this year, I embarked on a five-day field trip with many of my former geology students from Yavapai College in Prescott. I've been semi-retired from formal teaching for a few years now but the magic of geology just doesn't seem to wane for these die-hards. I love it! They choose a location and off we go. This posting is written by me but with illustrations from Bruce, Carol, and Mary Lea. I asked the class for photo's to show off what we saw and learned here. You can also view some of my photo's and narrative here from a trip I took in April.

The trip began with an overnight stop at Lees Ferry on the Colorado River. We meant to hike down Cathedral Wash but a recent storm had filled mudholes along that creek making it impassible. So, off to the hoodoos and here I am pointing out the amount of "deflation" on the landscape since this Shinarump boulder rolled down from the cliff above. The boulder is a conglomerate rock from this member of the Chinle Formation. The pedestal below is carved into the underlying Moenkopi Fm. This deflation is probably on the order of a few tens of thousands of years in length (just an educated guess). These features are found everywhere along the base of the Vermilion Cliffs and you can see two other large boulders in the background awaiting more defaltion so that they can have their pictures taken.

We finally arrived at the edge of the canyon and this is one of the viewpoints looking east. Many images from this place have been featured in mainstream advertising in recent years.

Contemplating the Grand Canyon. What a marvelous place.

At the main overlook we got a great view across the Colorado River into Prospect Valley. The lighting here does not easily show it, but this was once a deep side canyon that became filled with lava. The shadowed, inverted V canyon is what has been re-excavated since the lava filled the old canyon. On the left side of the photo but not as obvious is the Toroweap fault. It lies at the base of the scarp across the river to the left hand side of the photo. The vast majority of the Esplanade surface in the center of the photo is down dropped about 500 feet here.

Students on the edge of Grand Canyon looking into Lava Falls. Note the cross-bedding in the Esplanade Sandstone here.

One of the days, we hiked from camp over the sandstone ridge to Vulcan's Throne. There are few things as wonderful as walking on slickrock in the southwest.

Ken is checking to see if we have arrived at the top of this 500-foot tall cinder cone and his calculations verified that we ran out of volcano and were at the end of the hike. Actually, he is looking in the trail register located in a cairn on top of the feature.

What are the chances that a cinder cone would have erupted at the edge of the Esplanade over the Colorado River? This has got to be one of the most spectacular settings for a volcano - on the lip of a 3,000 foot gorge.

Pointing out the trace of the Toroweap fault across the Colorado River.

A group shot from the top of Vulcan's Throne. Note the wide, Toroweap Valley in the left background. This was also once the site of a big side canyon in Grand Canyon but was filled with numerous lava flows from the Uinkaret Volcanic Field. Recent offset on the Toroweap fault interrupted a small drainage on the north side of Vulcan's Throne and caused a playa lake to form just beyond and below the group. There is so much to see and learn here.
Back at camp, it was time for the Halloween celebration and here you see my very first pumpkin carved.

A basalt boulder with many native petroglyphs etched into it.

One last shot before leaving the Toroweap area. From left to right - Sharon, Clint, Ken, Louise, Mary Lea, Brenda, Carol, Bruce, Chris, Wayne, Barbara, Russ, Alice, George, and Dennis. Great folks - one and all.

Sunset from Toroweap Overlook.

Brenda wrote poem about our trip here:

Toroweap Time Shared by Brenda

"River's high,"
Sinyala sighs,
while Lava Falls'
 sirens call
"Come close."
From his cinder throne
Vulcan moans
"Where's the fire?"
Two-toothed Jack with Buddha smile
knows where embers glow and
shine magic 

on this hallowed night
Chris too:

Although too old to do some treks,
You are never too ancient to attempt
that first Pumpkin.  With skill, you
carved out eyebrows that resembled the
narrow curves of the Colorado.  Again
with competence, you lead our group of
aging Geonuts on another journey.
Adroitly you presented information for all to
digest, no matter how clogged are our skulls.
We observed hot air rising out of the canyon,
with birds capturing the drafts, and occasional
explosions of campfire discussion addressing
inflamed bodily emissions.
A new volcanic hill was scaled and all
groupies are content with another rewarding outing.
Thanks for being there,

and Dennis:

The Professor and the Pumpkin    
 by Dennis Peterson

Our leader, professor Wayne Ranney
can rhapsodize for days on carving
the Grand Canyon,
from Apatites to Xenoliths
but has never carved into a pumpkin.
How can that be?

Well, last Halloween history was made.
George and Carol, the pumpkin providers
for our Toroweap geology trip
during the Halloween celebration
presented the spheroidal object
to Professor Ranney.
Even though it wasn't stratified
or volcanic in origin, he went
at it like the mighty Colorado.

With pen first drawing the face
giving place for the knife to follow
not unlike those early miners
who dug out the Grand Canyon
those many many years ago;

a place to insert their shovels.  The orb now looking like a topo map  and with directions coming from all sides  the first slice was made, erosion by knife.  The face began to take shape, first the eyes, then nose  and lastly the mouth.   Oh schist! a slip of the knife,  a tooth has been mass wasted.  Emergency call to Dr Weld  our groups' staff Dentist.  But how to reattach it?  Forward comes Ken, Dr Welds  able assistant with a toothpick  for the attachment;  now the Grand Toroweap Pumpkin  has its smile restored.  With candle inserted and lit  casting an eerie smile over us  not unlike professor Ranney's  when he stumps the class  with questions like  "who here has ever seen or lit a fart?"  Questions like that, deep thinking  and reflective cause his students  into long and meaningful discussions.  Meanwhile the Grand Toroweap Pumpkin  all lit up and smiling, wondering  what all this talk is about  and what it has to do with geology.  Even though the Grand Toroweap Pumpkin  has an internal flame glowing  and could work very nicely  as a flame thrower,  it's of no use for the topic now discussed  for no thought was given  to hollowing out a fumarole.   With only a carved head and nothing below  the Grand Toroweap Pumpkin can only laugh with us.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Making Phoenix A Green City

An editorial appeared in the New York Times recently that takes a hard look at my home states' struggle to move into the 21st century. I reprint the article here for your perusal. Please note that I will return to my more photogenic blogs later this week with some beautiful pictures taken on my various trips in the fall. And thank you for your support!

The Dark Side of the ‘Green’ City
November 6, 2011

The struggle to slow global warming will be won or lost in cities, which emit 80 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. So “greening” the city is all the rage now. But if policy makers end up focusing only on those who can afford the low-carbon technologies associated with the new environmental conscientiousness, the movement for sustainability may end up exacerbating climate change rather than ameliorating it.

While cities like Portland, Seattle and San Francisco are lauded for sustainability, the challenges faced by Phoenix, a poster child of Sunbelt sprawl, are more typical and more revealing. In 2009, Mayor Phil Gordon announced plans to make Phoenix the “greenest city” in the United States. Eyebrows were raised, and rightly so. According to the state’s leading climatologist, central Arizona is in the “bull’s eye” of climate change, warming up and drying out faster than any other region in the Northern Hemisphere. The Southwest has been on a drought watch 12 years and counting, despite outsized runoff last winter to the upper Colorado River, a major water supply for the subdivisions of the Valley of the Sun.

Across that valley lies 1,000 square miles of low-density tract housing, where few signs of greening are evident. That’s no surprise, given the economic free fall of a region that had been wholly dependent on the homebuilding industry. Property values in parts of metro Phoenix have dropped by 80 percent, and some neighborhoods are close to being declared “beyond recovery.”

In the Arizona Legislature, talk of global warming is verboten and Republican lawmakers can be heard arguing for the positive qualities of greenhouse gases. Most politicians are still praying for another housing boom on the urban fringe; they have no Plan B, least of all a low-carbon one. Mr. Gordon, a Democrat who took office in 2004, has risen to the challenge. But the vast inequalities of the metro area could blunt the impact of his sustainability plans.

Those looking for ecotopia can find pockets of it in the prosperous upland enclaves of Scottsdale, Paradise Valley and North Phoenix. Hybrid vehicles, LEED-certified custom homes with solar roofs and xeriscaped yards, which do not require irrigation, are popular here, and voter support for the preservation of open space runs high. By contrast, South Phoenix is home to 40 percent of the city’s hazardous industrial emissions and America’s dirtiest ZIP code, while the inner-ring Phoenix suburbs, as a legacy of cold-war era industries, suffer from some of the worst groundwater contamination in the nation.

Whereas uptown populations are increasingly sequestered in green showpiece zones, residents in low-lying areas who cannot afford the low-carbon lifestyle are struggling to breathe fresh air or are even trapped in cancer clusters. You can find this pattern in many American cities. The problem is that the carbon savings to be gotten out of this upscale demographic — which represents one in five American adults and is known as Lohas, an acronym for “lifestyles of health and sustainability” — can’t outweigh the commercial neglect of the other 80 percent. If we are to moderate climate change, the green wave has to lift all vessels.

Solar chargers and energy-efficient appliances are fine, but unless technological fixes take into account the needs of low-income residents, they will end up as lifestyle add-ons for the affluent. Phoenix’s fledgling light-rail system should be expanded to serve more diverse neighborhoods, and green jobs should be created in the central city, not the sprawling suburbs. Arizona has some of the best solar exposure in the world, but it allows monopolistic utilities to impose a regressive surcharge on all customers to subsidize roof-panel installation by the well-heeled ones. Instead of green modifications to master-planned communities at the urban fringe, there should be concerted “infill” investment in central city areas now dotted with vacant lots.

In a desert metropolis, the choice between hoarding and sharing has consequences for all residents. Their predecessors — the Hohokam people, irrigation farmers who subsisted for over a thousand years around a vast canal network in the Phoenix Basin — faced a similar test, and ultimately failed. The remnants of Hohokam canals and pit houses are a potent reminder of ecological collapse; no other American city sits atop such an eloquent allegory.

Andrew Ross is a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University and author of “Bird on Fire: Lessons From the World’s Least Sustainable City.”

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Beginning of the End

Here in the American Southwest, water is king and the scarcity of this commodity is written into the DNA of every living creature. Pack rats process so much water out of their urine that their pee comes out thick as molasses. This enables them to get by on next to no water at all and they obtain most of it from what they eat. They are the ultimate southwestern creatures who laugh at the monthly periods of no rain that we oftentimes experience here.

The pack rats' viscous pee has an unintended consequence - it cements together all of the material inside their nest. This is composed of pieces of dried out cactus, pine needles, juniper berries, Rolex watches, etc. Pack rats only travel about 100 meters away from the nest to obtain all of this material. So even if we couldn't see beyond the nest, if we were a crippled pack rat so to speak, we would know what is growing within 100 meters just by examining the material found within the nest. (Where's that damn Rolex tree?).

It's so dry here that the vegetation held in these cemented nests can last tens of thousands of years in an protected cave. This is how geologists are able to reconstruct what the Ice Age Southwest looked like 15,000, 20,000, even 50,000 years ago. No person was present here to write about or otherwise record what was growing at that time. But the pack rats were recording it for us (by collecting whatever was growing within 100 meters of that ancient nest). What a beautiful science!

Along comes a creature with a big brain and voila! - water storage. Water storage has been the real growth engine for cities in the southwest and without it, Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas would still be towns of about 75,000 people. Water storage is the Miracle-Gro for Southwestern cities.

But water storage on sediment rich rivers like the Colorado has long term consequences. These consequences were not even considered (if at all recognized) when we decided to tame the Colorado River for water storage in the 1920's. Think about it - the idea to build dams on the Colorado River was hatched before we knew that the Milky Way was not the only galaxy in the universe, and long before we knew that the continents drifted over the surface of the earth.

My point is that the cumulative human knowledge that we possessed when we decided to tame the Colorado was miniscule compared to what we see and know now. Our knowledge of the natural world has increased many times over and our large brains might allow us to reevaluate the decision to dam this river (if political interests weren't so strong). Don't get me wrong - the short term benefits of these dams is still viable and has actually allowed southwestern cities to laugh at the current 12 year drought. Lawns are still green in Arizona and cement driveways are still being washed in southern California.

But what will happen to the Colorado River as all of its sediment continues to pile up behind the dams? Perhaps only a geologist could even begin to frame such a question (although environmentalists were the first to question the rationality of these dams but for other reasons). Only a geologist could think that the 700-year maximum life expectancy of Glen Canyon Dam (with other estimates as low as 250 years) will be here before we know it. Perhaps only a geologist can envision the mess that will be created on a regional scale as these dams fill with sediment. When the sediment absolutely fills the storage body, what will the river water do? What will those cities do for water?

When I bring this topic up with most people, they become noticeably indifferent - it's just too far off in the future for most people. (Our brains also retain a lot of wiring from the Pleistocene that "keep us in the moment"). But the era of tearing down dams has begun already. If you want to see a vision of the future for our southwestern dams (admittedly hundreds of years in the future but reality nonetheless) watch this video of the Condit Dam in Washington state being breached and drained of its sediment.

The future is here now. And what you watch here in this excellent video will happen on the Colorado River one day. This is the ultimate fate of Glen Canyon Dam, Hoover Dam, and every dam ever built on any river. This is the beginning of the end.

You can watch the video here.