Monday, October 14, 2019

Himalayan Kingdoms with Smithsonian Journeys

I have begun a 15-day excursion to Nepal and Bhutan called Himalayan Kingdoms with Smithsonian Journeys. I am currently in Kathmandu, enjoying the sights and wonders of this exotic locality. I'll be posting photos and stories as the trip evolves.

On my flight in from Doha, Qatar, I got some fantastic views of the south face of the Himalaya.

First view of the Himalaya to the north flying from Doha, Qatar i to Kathmandu.

I'm pretty sure this is the Annapurna massif in the center of the photo.

The Himalaya have many "fronts" that go by different names. The "hills" in the foreground are called the Lesser Himalaya with the High Himalaya as the glacier-clad peaks in the distance.

All of the relief here is due to compression of the Earth's crust as the Indian subcontinent is shoved beneath the underbelly of Asia. In the process, the crust is sliding up and over the edge of India and to the south in the direction of the photographer. Erosion sculpts the uplifted blocks as they rise.

The April 25, 2015 Gorkha earthquake called massive ground failures and landslides on the hill slopes. I can only surmise that this is what is seen here.

Entering Kathmandu, Nepalpopulation 5 million people. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

A New Book by Joel Simpson - Earthforms: Intimate Portraits of our Planet

Cover image of Earthforms: Intimate Portraits of Our Planet 
As a geologic blogger, I am occasionally asked to review or comment on books of a geologic nature. This past July, I received a copy of a coffee-table-type book called, "Earthforms: Intimate Portraits of our Planet," written and compiled by Dr. Joel Simpson. Dr. Simpson holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from Brown University and has taught language and photography at the college level. He has a keen interest in the power of geology to garner attention, and has captured many of the micro- and macro-scale aspects of our science through his photography. There are some stunning photographs to be found in this work of recognizable and not-so-common locations.

The book measures 11" X 11" and is 152 pages. It begins with a dedication by the author that pleads for a much more responsible approach to modern development and an examination of profit motives. This is followed by a foreword by Daniel Sheehan called, Still Standing: The North Dakota Access Pipe Line Court Cases and the Future of Freedom. Those who lean on the conservative side of the political spectrum will find this piece difficult to read, for its honest assessment of the future of fossil fuels. But I found it fascinating as it outlined a timeline of events that began in 2015 for the building of an oil pipeline from North Dakota to the Gulf states. The legal system is certainly set up to dismiss the concerns of the indigenous people who live near the proposed pipeline. It is a powerful read. 

One of the innovative inclusions in the book is found on the inside of the front cover. It is the geologic time scale that runs across the width of a 21-inch spread. Colors effectively differentiate the various Eons, Eras, and Periods of the time scale but what sets this apart is that a page number corresponding to a photograph in the book is placed in the time-appropriate location on the time scale. Unfortunately, not all of the photographs are listed this way (I wonder why the exquisite photographs of The Wave at Coyote Buttes were not placed in the Jurassic)? However most of the photographs are listed here and for any geologist who might be interested in this book, this is a wonderful and helpful addition.

I am not generally enamored with close-up photography of geologic features. But I have to admit that this photograph, called Tafoni Subdivided, is striking and there are a variety of photographs similar to this within the book. This photograph was taken at Salt Point State Park located between Bodega Bay and Sea Ranch on the north coast of California. For my tastes, I prefer more of the macro-scale views of landscapes. But I also completely understand that close-ups are artistic and enjoyed by others.

This one is called Receding Glacier, and was taken in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska. The glacier is flowing toward the viewer from the mountains in the background, and spills onto a forested valley floor. The colors and contrast are warm, even though the subject matter may be deemed cold. The Chugach Mountains formed as slivers of crust were attached to the edge of the content by movement along the plate you nary here.

This is called, Mono Dusk, and was taken at Mono Lake in California. The tufa towers formed during a high-stand in Mono Lake and when calcium in solution was precipitated as subaqueous columns. They now stand high and dry near the current (2011) lake level.

This is called Alhambra Rock at Dusk, and located near Mexican Hat Utah at sunset. Alhambra Rock is a dike that was emplaced around 22 million years ago in the Navajo Volcanic Field. A more well-known feature of this field is Shiprock located in New Mexico and featured in a photograph of this book on pages 40-41.

"Earthforms: Intimate Portraits of our Planet," can be purchased on Amazon. The hard copy sells for $39.95 plus shipping. The eBook sells there for $9.99. You can also purchase directly from the authors website at for $35 plus shipping. More sample images from the book can be viewed on this website and even more are located on the authors Instagram page - joelsimpsonphoto.

Congratulations to Dr. Joel Simpson on the release of his new book. There are many excellent photographs from around the world - internationally from Madagascar, Sardinia, Mongolia, Jordan, Canada, Ireland, and Wales; and nationally from Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Although the geologic descriptions are limited, the photography is outstanding. And the intent of the book is to call attention to the harm incurred by our seemingly insatiable appetite for more of everything. Truly, the current system of consumption that is rampant in society today is unsustainable. I support any and all efforts to bring attention to this crisis in our civilization. While I do not advocate for the immediate cessation of the use of fossil fuels, I do believe that there are innumerable other ways to fuel our society and that if we do not heed this opportunity, all will be lost.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Down the Colorado River in Grand Canyon with NAU Geology Alumni

For the second time in three years, the Northern Arizona University Geology Department sponsored an alumni river trip in the Grand Canyon. I was honored to be asked to be one of the instructors on this trip. Anyone who has obtained a geology degree from NAU knows how special the program is and these trips serve as a way to keep alumni connected to the program long after they have graduated. On this trip, we had people ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s, as well as alumni who graduated in the 1970s to the 2010s.

The morning of August 9 saw us gather for a one day field trip (ahead of the river trip) to the Lees Ferry area. Here Cathy Noll, John Noll, George Billingsley, Paul Umhoefer and Norman Kent gather in the parking lot at the Geology Building.

Short introductions were made as we enjoyed breakfast and George Billingsley gave us an overview of the canyons geologic setting. Billingsley is well-known in the region as he mapped the entire Grand Canyon region during a 40+ year career with the USGS in Flagstaff. He did this by compiling nine 30 minute X60 minute geologic maps. This equals about 1568 square miles per map, meaning that Billingsley mapped 14,112 square miles in northwest Arizona! Billingsley was the second person to obtain a Masters Degree in geology from NAU in the early 1970s. Dr. Paul Umhoefer looks on from the corner.

We were able to visit Desert View on our field trip and see the Colorado River that we would soon have the pleasure of traversing. Below the rim (photo center) the river trends toward the photographer after leaving the confluence with the Little Colorado River. The large black massif seen to the left of the river (yes, it is large as it just appears small within the Grand Canyon) is composed of the Cardenas Lava and while on the river trip we made a 4.5-mile hike around that block of rock (photos below). Note the monsoon storm in the distance. This would prove to be the only day of rain for the entire nine-day trip.

On the way, we also detoured to the road that climbs the Echo Cliffs...Echo Cliffs...Echo Cliffs. They are visible on the far left. Later on our river trip, we caught up with an oar trip in which I knew most of the boatmen and when I asked them if they had any rain, they said, "Only in the lower part of Marble Canyon." A quick calculation of what day that was, revealed that the storm pictured here in the distance is the very storm they were drenched in. Our trip was dry, dry, dry and very hot!

One of the benefits of staying close to the put-in is that you can arrive at Lees Ferry in time for a hike. We visited Lees Lookout where we could look to the southwest and see the huge delta of the Paria River (photo center) pushing the Colorado River up against the far left wall. Next to the river the red Moenkopi Formation (Triassic) appears and is capped by the tan Shinarump Conglomerate Member of the Chinle Formation.

Swinging around to the right from Lees Lookout, we see the Vermilion Cliffs rising above the Lees Ferry parking lot. It is curious to note that even though this will be a Grand Canyon river trip, none of those rocks can be seen yet - they remain in the subsurface here. Above the parking lot in the photo center note the terrace where the water tower and campground are located. This is a terrace remnant from a former time when the river had not incised to its present depth.

Note: This post is not a comprehensive look at all that we saw on this trip - I have only shown a few of the many gems that we experienced. For the record, we hiked at Jackass Canyon (Coconino Sandstone reptile trackway) North Canyon, Twenty-four-and-a-Half Mile (fossils), Redwall Cavern (where we were treated to a concert by the Skylight City String Quartet), Saddle Canyon, Carbon Creek Loop, Seventy-five Mile Canyon (soft sediment deformation), Shinumo Creek, Elves Chasm, Blacktail Canyon (The Great Unconformity), Deer Creek, Havasu Creek and Pumpkin Springs.

This is a boulder on the beach at Carbon Creek. But it is not just any kind of boulder.

It is a fossil of a primitive algae that grew on the sea floor some 750 million years ago. The photo is arranged such that the fossil is in its growth position. These are cauliflower-shaped masses of algae are called stromatolites. Here you can note the concave-up growth structure with darker fine-grained sediment infilling the interstices.

This is a view of another boulder showing what the stromatolite would look like if you were snorkeling on top of it.

This is a photo of yet another boulder with a side view into the interior of the algae colony. In this example the fine-grained sediment is eroded out to reveal the individual columns of algae growth. The species is called Boxonia.

From this beach, we began a 4.5 mile loop hike.

On the way up Carbon Creek Canyon, we could see the coarse nature of the Tapeats Sandstone. It's like a cemented grit with lots of potassium feldspar (pink grains). These of course are eroded from the underlying Zoroaster Granite. However, the Zoroaster is not present here in this part of the canyon? This means that the grains were likely washed here from farther east, where the terrestrial uplands would have been located are this time.

After climbing around an obstacle in the streamed (a pour off), we attained a great view back down the canyon and noticed something odd in the strata - a thrust fault. What is a thrust fault doing here?

This is the same photograph but I have outlined the thrust fault (yellow line) in the photo. The two red lines depict a contact offset by the fault. Thrust faults are not common in the Grand Canyon but this one formed as a result of compression along the Butte fault, located about 1/2 mile behind the photographer. As that master fault squeezed the crust the upper block here was pushed to the east.

This is the view on the opposite wall. It appears that the shortening of the crust was accommodated by slippage along shale beds in the Dox Sandstone.

Here is the same photo but with yellow lines depicting where strata have been broken. All of this breakage occurred while this area was still buried under at least 4,000 feet of rock, likely more. It occurred during the Laramide orogeny between about 70 and 40 Ma.

Further along the trail, we enjoyed the cool shade of the upper slot canyon. We were now in a gorge of flat-lying Tapeats Sandstone.

But not for long! As we emerge from the slot canyon, the beds are sharply folded...

...and project upwards into the sky. This is the area of the Butte fault and the East Kaibab monocline.

The beds are near vertical with about 2500 feet of vertical uplift to the west of here.

The fault has raised the Chuar Group of rocks into a position where they can be eroded. Since these are composed of soft shale and mudstone, Carbon Creek has no problem eroding them into a huge wide valley, with great views of Grand Canyon's North Rim in the distance. What a difference a fault makes! We were previously hiking within hard, difficult-to-erode sandstone that formed the slot canyon and in a matter of a few meters we were in much softer rocks that revealed an open valley.

As we followed the fault for about one mile to the south, we encountered micro-structures such as this small offset with slickensides, that revealed the sense of motion - vertical.

Upturned and eroded beds of the Chuar Group revealed ancient mud cracks and perhaps large ripple marks on the bedding planes.

As we made our way back to the river in Lava Chuar Creek, we were back into the Dox Sandstone where we observed salt crystal casts (squares). The Dox is interpreted as a coastal floodplain deposit and the nearby seawater likely was the source of the salt casts, about 1110 million years old.

The modern stream has left these cobbles on top of the Dox Sandstone. Thus, this is an unconformity nearly as large as where the Great Unconformity. Note the preferred orientation of the cobbles that reveals which way the water was moving - from left to right in this view. This is called imbrication and can used in ancient deposits to infer stream flow direction.

Brent Voorhies photo
Each morning myself and the two NAU professors would talk about the days' upcoming geology delights. I always lay out the geologic map of the Grand Canyon as well as other visuals. These are important parts of the program as we begin another days exploration.

A typical evening camp scene. This location is called Schist Camp and it was our fourth night. We were deep within the Upper Granite Gorge near river mile 98.

Relaxing next to the river on a hot night is a joy, especially with  cold beverage.

We did experience a couple of days of intense smoke from wildfires on the North Rim. The photo doesn't really capture the mood it set.

At the Great Unconformity in Blacktail Canyon, I explained the history that is missing from  such a contact. The schist below is about 1,750 million years old and the sandstone above it is "only" 500 million years old. The gap in the rock record equals 1,250 million years.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Our Solar System - To Scale

This short 7 minute video will move you.

Thursday, August 08, 2019

A Massive Outburst Flood and Debris Flow at Mt. Rainier - August 5, 2019

View of the scour zone. Scott Beason via Flickr and The Landslide Blog
This just came across my desk this morning from the Landslide Blog. An outburst flood from the Tahoma Glacier in Mt. Rainier National Park occurred the evening of August 5, 2019 and sent a debris flow down Tahoma Creek. See lots more photos here.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Friday, July 26, 2019

Northern Arizona Argillite

Many years ago, I visited the ancestral mine of the Northern Arizona argillite.

Monday, July 22, 2019

UPDATE: The July 2019 Ridgecrest Earthquakes - Odd Indeed But Not Surprising

July 22 UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times has published striking images of the fault ruptures across the Ridgecrest area in stunning before and after photos. Check out the images here.

July 8 Posting

I grew up in southern California and earthquakes have been a part of my life since I felt my very first one in the 1960s. My family still lives there and as a geologist I always remind them to be mindful of the tectonic "gold mine" they sit on top of. I guess geologists may be the only ones (besides home repair stores) that think of earthquakes in not strictly negative terms.

I happened to be in southern California at my cousin's wedding when the June 1992 Landers earthquake hit and when it rattled the windows and sloshed the pool water outside our hotel room, the person laying next to me asked what was happening and then what we should do. The only thing I could think of (naturally) was "earthquake" and "just lay here and enjoy it."

So when I heard about the July 4th earthquake that ruptured the ground near Ridgecrest California, I couldn't wait to see the first images (below).

Photo showing how the pavement cracked during the rupture event, produced during the July 4 M 6.4 quake. Look closely at the painted lines. (Photo courtesy of Emily Guerin/LAList)

This is a view looking straight down on one of the ruptures. Note that no matter which side of the crack you stand on, when you look to the other side across the crack, the line shifts to the left. This is called left-lateral displacement. (Photo courtesy of Emily Guerin/LAList)

Additional ruptures from the July 4th earthquake near Ridgecrest.

When I saw these photos, they caused me to ponder this event more closely knowing that the famous San Andreas system of faults has right-lateral displacement. This breakage didn't seem to follow that pattern. However, there is another fault that abuts the San Andreas in a perpendicular fashion and I immediately thought of it as a possible fault for this earthquake - the Garlock Fault.  (Photo courtesy of Emily Guerin/LAList).

Map used from the California Seismic Safety Commission showing the Garlock Fault system and its relationship to the San Andreas system.

As it turns out, this July 4 event happened just to the north of the Garlock Fault, on a previously unknown fault (but the offset was in the same sense as the Garlock - left lateral). It's likely that the break on this event was related to the larger Garlock Fault system.

Then on July 5, another large quake, this time registering 7.1 occurred on a fault perpendicular to the fault that slipped on previous days quake. And this rupture curiously showed right-lateral displacement (see photos below).

Note here that no matter which side of the fault you are standing, when you look across to the other side the displacement is to the right. (Photo by Beth Hadden)

Aerial view of the same area (Photo by Brian Olsen).

A really good article on LiveScience about the displacements and the faults can be found here.

I often get hopeful when news organizations announce an upcoming story about these earthquake events. But invariably, these stories turn into human interest pieces that really have nothing to do with geology, the crust or how brittle substances behave under stress. I guess most people wouldn't care about that. But then, maybe they should label their stories, "How People Are Affected and Are Reacting to the Recent California Earthquakes."

The asthenosphere, a portion of the upper mantle that is hot and pliable - all while remaining a solid - churns slowly beneath the brittle lithosphere that we all live on. As the asthenosphere slowly creeps, the brittle lithosphere must respond to the tugging motion from below. Occasionally, the brittle lithosphere cracks under stress and a rupture and earthquake occur.

I often use an example that many people can visualize - imaging holding a Snickers candy bar with both hands and moving your hands in the opposite direction. Then look at the chocolate covering the candy bar and watch how subparallel cracks grow as the bar is progressively deformed. The picture above is a great example of this as well!

The "Big One" is coming for southern California. But engineers and geologist have been preparing for it and there may be no better place to experience a big jolt, except for other First World, quake-prone areas like Japan, China and Chile. Quakes rarely kill or injure people but falling objects do. My initial response to my bedmate in the 1992 Landers quake may have been cute in some sense, but it was potentially quite dangerous had we been nearer to the epicenter. When you feel it start to shake, look around and head away from anything that can fall on you. And then, sit back and feel the rumble of a force much greater than us mere humans.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Thrust Faults, Landslides, and Glaciers - Geologic Gems of Jasper and Banff National Parks, Alberta Canada

We finally started toward the Canadian Rockies from Whitefish Montana. Note that geologically, the rocks in Glacier National Park, USA are considered part of the Canadian Rockies. The map above shows this. Taken from Handbook of the Canadian Rockies, by Ben Gadd.

At the international boundary near Eureka, Montana there are many glacial drumlins. This is the "toe" or downstream end of an elongate drumlin - the head was located across the boundary in Canada.

This is the Rocky Mountain Trench, a geologic feature that can be seen from space that trends from Flathead Lake in Montana to the northern Canadian Rockies. It is a long, linear valley about 1,000 miles long and from 2 to 10 miles wide. Although overprinted with glacial scouring, its origin is still debated although it must be fault related. We drove through the trench from Whitefish to Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia.

This is Columbia Lake within the Rocky Mountain Trench near the small village of Canal Flats, BC. This lake is the headwaters of the mighty Columbia River. The Kootenay River is located just 1.2 miles south of this lake and Canal Flats lies between the two.

The drainage pattern here is extremely interesting! The entire Columbia drainage is highlighted in light blue and the Kootenay is in red. Columbia Lake in dark blue and Canal Flats is orange square.  Be sure to read this link to learn more about this juxtaposition of the two rivers.

After crossing the Kootenay River drainage and across the Continental Divide into Alberta, we entered the heart of the Rockies. This is Castle Mountain near Lake Louise. The upper cliffs are composed of Cambrian-age limestone and shale that are age equivalent of the Burgess Shale farther west (behind the photographer). The Castle Mountain Thrust fault has put these rocks on top of younger late Paleozoic to Mesozoic sediments. The thrust fault can be seen conveniently at about tree-line in the photo.

Lake Louise from the 7th floor of the Fairmont Lake Louise Hotel.

Famous Lake Louise... had a zillion people on it even in the light rain. And...

...doesn't really compare to the view of Peyto Lake seen from above along the Icefields Parkway.

The blue color is due to the suspended glacial flour (ground up sediment). The lake was named after Bill Peyto who was an early trail guide in the Rockies.

The Athabasca Glacier spills off of the Snow Dome plateau. It is famous for its Snowcoach trips onto the ice. The glacier is also famous for its phenomenal retreat since the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, the glaciers edge was located where the highway is today and the retreat since then is about 1.5 miles.

A view of Snow Dome, which serves as a Triple Divide, forming the headwaters for the Athabasca River (Arctic Ocean), the Blueberry River and Columbia River (Pacific Ocean) and the Saskatchewan River (Atlantic Ocean and Hudson's Bay).

Maligne Canyon cuts through the Devonian Palliser Formation.

The canyon is dramatic in its rapid fall through the slot canyon.

Slow time exposure of the falls in Maligne Canyon.

Maligne Lake near the town of Jasper.

Spirit Island on Maligne Lake.

On the way down the lake we were told of a large, prehistoric (but post-glacial) landslide on the east side of the lake. You can see the scar from this slide through the trees.

House-size boulders not only lined the east shore of the lake but were seen on the western shore as well (behind the photographer). For a birds-eye view of the slide, see this graphic.

A black bear (Ursus americanus) came into view as we drove down the valley. It is estimated that there are over 400,000 individual black bears in Canada.

He then crossed the road looking bit sheepish. Black bears are most closely related to the grizzly bear and polar bears and diverged from a common ancestor about 5 million years ago.

The town of Jasper and the Athabasca River as seen from the Jasper Sky Tram. The blue lakes likely occupy oxbows along the river.

A geologists paradise - upturned strata! This is along the Icefield Parkway.

Our trip included a stroll out on the glass covered Skywalk above the Suwampta River.

The woman. on the left is afraid of heights but made it a point to overcome this fear.

A view out onto the horseshoe.

As it is with the glass Skywalk at Hualapai, Grand Canyon, folks are initially all gaga about the glass structure. But ultimately the gimmick gives way to what can be observed from the "teaser." Here, we can see that the Suwampta River is slicing its way through about 200 feet of loose chaotic debris. Note the very large, angular boulders on top of the debris. Hmm?

Further downstream,  I noticed these little waterfalls spilling over a cliff into the river. The falls are issuing directly from the ground where the debris is in direct contact with in-place, bedded limestone. The lightbulb went off - the water must be traveling through the subsurface in very porous rock and is ultimately forced to the surface where it encounters the solid limestone bed.

The larger view reveals the story! A very large series of landslides let loose from the mountains on the skyline, damming the Suwampta River. The former course of the river lies beneath the lower forested terrace. Once a reservoir formed upstream from the landslide, water spilled from its lowest rim and began to excavate the canyon. Evidence for multiple slides comes from the coloring seen in the loose material within the gorge - note the gold-colored band in the middle, covered by exclusively gray material on top Looking to the saddle in the upper right, we can see oxidized beds as the source of the middle slide and gray limestone to its left as the source of the upper debris.

The Saskatchewan River flows lazily from Howes Pass to the Alberta prairies (right to left in this view). Not strictly a drainage divide sat this location, Howes Pass was named by David Thompson in 1807 as a way toward the Columbia River.

Bow Lake along the Icefields Parkway.

The town of Banff from the Banff Gondola. Cascade Mountain rises 9,836 feet above the town to the north.

A thrust fault likely underlies this valley west of Cascade Mountain.

Highly contorted bedding near Banff.

Wide-angle view with Cascade Mountain (left), Lake Minnewanka (background), and Tunnel Mountain between the two and the Bow River.

What a wonderful trip with a wonderful group of people. Thank you Canada!