Well, I’m Back

Thought I’d best check in and let you all know I made it home. The drive home through sheets of standing water on the freeways was interesting, which meant I never even came close to getting sleepy. When I got in, the cat freaked out and I discovered some rat bastard had stolen an hour from me. Judging from my Twitter stream, many of my friends experienced the same loss. It must be an international ring – or Daylight Savings Time.

I am now lodged in bed with a clingy cat trying to think of ways to get other people to bring me a burger from Teddy’s Bigger Burger. I’d post some photos, but the computer’s in the other room. Don’t wanna walk to get it. Don’t ever wanna walk again. Not until the next geotrip.

While I recover, you can check out @lockwooddewitt on Twitter for photos and snippets. He’ll have you covered. I’ll have something up tonight, but it’ll probably be photos with comments like “Pretty!” or “Shiny!” or similar, as my brain is pretty much flatlining.

But I think you’ll agree when you see the results that body aches, brain death, and turning my cat from a proudly homicidal independent entity into a pathetic mass of insecurity was totally worth it.

Vintage Verdad: The Crash of Continents, the Whisper of Water

Vintage Verdad Week continues with a paen to the professor who rekindled my passion for geology, and taught me that knowing the way the worlds work is essential to an SF author who wants to get it right.

Permian Riviera

I grew up near the seashore.  Of course, the last time we could’ve played in the surf was 92 million years ago, back in the Late Cretaceous, and oceanfront property values in Arizona would’ve been abysmal when most of our land got deposited, considering we weren’t exactly oceanfront.  More like ocean bottom.  I played on rocks that got their start in life 270 million years ago in the Middle Permian, when a shallow sea covered the land in a great diagonal from Nevada to Mexico.  Not that I knew a thing about it.  Didn’t even see the sea until I was fourteen, and didn’t realize until some time after that I’d been in intimate contact with the sea floor very nearly my entire life.

The things I know now.

The Great Big Hole In the Ground

I came of age in a geological wonderland, but I had my eyes on the stars.  I’d meant to be an astronomer, but somewhere along the line I discovered that higher math and I don’t get along.  I enjoyed rocks, but I didn’t really understand them.  Hell, I thought the Navajo sandstone had been laid down in a Jurassic sea for the longest time – it’s only recently that I realized I’d actually spent my teenage years running around on lithified sand dunes.  I knew the Grand Canyon exposed two billion years of history, but couldn’t have told you what that history was.  To us, it was the great big hole in the ground that all our Midwest relations wanted to see the instant they arrived for their visits, and familiarity bred contempt.  I got so sick of the Grand Canyon I didn’t care if I ever saw it again for a good ten-year stretch.  Sedona’s magnificent red rocks elicited yawns.  Yes, they were pretty, but the people who lived near them were to a large degree absolute idiots, and the dirt stained every white bit of clothing red.  I wanted to go back to my lovely forested mountains.

What I’m saying is, I liked geology in an abstract sort of way.  Yes, there were times when I wanted to know more about the scenery, but I’m easily distracted.  I’d settled on wanting to be an SF writer, and everything from then on was subjugated to that.  When I went to college, I planned to study history, English, and creative writing.  I hadn’t realized at that point just how important science would become – writing fantasy, I figured, meant I didn’t need to know much.

Mah Mountains

You can laugh at me.  Feel free.  I laugh at myself all the time.

Colleges in America require lab science credits to graduate.  Hated that, I did.  Didn’t want to waste my precious time on something so useless, but there was no getting round it, so I inspected the catalog for something with minimal math.  Settled on Concepts in Basic Geology with Jim Bennett.  I wish I could tell you that was the lightning bolt on the road to Damascus, but I dropped the class a few weeks in because Western Civ I was kicking my arse, so was work, and I’d gotten bored with the whole scratching-rocks-on-white-porcelain thing.

But that left the Sword of Damocles hanging right above my head.  So the following year, I signed up with Jim Bennett once again for Intro to Physical Geography.  I had no idea what I was in for.  But by that time, I’d begun to realize that in order to build a proper world, one must understand how this world works, and that seemed like just the course for it.

Let me tell you a little something about Jim Bennett.  He’s the kind of man who can make the weather fascinating.  I’d spent my life believing few things are more boring than the weather (grew up in Arizona, remember), but he made it mind-bogglingly complex, and then he simplified it.  I’ll never forget stepping outside one day, seeing a few wispy clouds in the bright blue sky, and knowing we had a cold front coming through.  Time for that half an umbrella he’d whip out as weatherman for the local teevee station whenever there was a 50% chance of rain.  He’d just given me predictive power over the weather, and that, my friends, was only the beginning.

There’s a long, fairly straight road leading from I-17 to Prescott (well, Dewey).  It wends through rolling sagebrush and juniper hills, with a few road cuts slicing gray rock near the interstate that shades into dull tan dirt closer to town.  You will probably never see it on a postcard.  There’s nothing much to recommend it: no mountain vistas, no really profound landmarks, just a lot of dust and knobs of rock covered in dryland vegetation.

One day, Mr. Bennett stuffed us all into two vans and took us down that road.  We stopped just outside of Dewey.  He had something special to show us.

Young WA phyllite similar to AZ’s ancient stuff

We scrambled up a steep road cut filled with dry, crumbly dirt and a vertical streak of dark, crumbly rock.  He put his hand on the streak.  This, he told us, is a continental suture.  And these unassuming rocks were almost two billion years old.

I remember touching those crumbling bits of phyllite with awe approaching reverence.  I’d never knowingly seen a metamorphic rock before, and I hadn’t realized any existed in my humble home state.  Two continents had collided right in my very own state.  I could actually touch two separate continents here in the sleepy Arizona countryside.  This shit was unimaginably old.  It seemed far too fragile to sew two continents together, but it indubitably had, Mr. Bennett assured us.  And how did he know?  Because the rocks told him so.

WA pillow lavas kinda sorta like AZ’s

They had far more to say.  He took us down to one of those dull gray roadcuts, and let us play with pillows.  I’d thought until then that pillow lava was something that only happened in Hawaii.  I’d never paid much attention to the bubbly shapes of the rocks I’d passed countless times.  And here, I could see that these lava flows must have encountered a substantial body of water in this now-dry country, piling up pillows in the process.  They towered over me, these igneous artifacts I’d thought couldn’t exist close to my home.  I patted their roundness and felt I’d made good friends.  I’d never see this road the same way again.

I’ve had an inordinate fondness for pillow lavas to this day.

Montezuma’s Weel – a desert sinkhole

Once we’d had our fill of pillows, Mr. Bennett pointed us at Montezuma’s Well.  It’s a great hole in the desert with water in, and Sinagua ruins, and I’d seen it many times as a child.  But I hadn’t ever known it was a sinkhole in the midst of a karst landscape.  Sinkholes, I’d thought, were things that happened to other people’s states, not my own.  But there it was, incontrovertible evidence that Arizona’s vast swaths of limestone sometimes do get enough water in them to do things like dissolve and collapse.  But that wasn’t the half of what it had to offer.

He led us down an inconsequential side trail, into the scrubby vegetation on the outer slope of the sinkhole.  I’d never gone that way before in all the times I’d been there – seemed there’d be nothing more to see than the usual hilly topography with cacti in that you see absolutely everywhere around Cottonwood, Arizona.  Yes, there was a creek down there, Wet Beaver Creek, called that because it usually had water in the dry season whereas Dry Beaver Creek (natch) didn’t.  But with the Verde River just a few miles away, Wet Beaver Creek wasn’t exactly a vacation destination.

Sinagua swallet

So imagine my surprise when we left the hot, dusty hills behind and descended into a cool, shady oasis with towering leafy trees and a cheerful little stream running through it.  It was, for Arizona, fabulously green and lush, covered in water-loving plants.  A limestone shoulder bumped ours, a solid and comfortable bulk that helped chase the burning sun away.  This unsuspected place had been created both by the creek and by a tiny swallet, a wee stream of water that had found a crack in the side of the sinkhole and exploited it.  The Sinagua had in turn exploited the swallet, channeling it along an irrigation ditch that still exists after almost a thousand years.  Because of a long-ago sea, this tiny lake and stream existed, a place where we lingered for a good long while before heading for red rock country and the conclusion of our field excursion.

That, my darlings, was the day my young world ended forever, and my old one began.  Continental drift went out the window: no more vague images in my mind of stately continents floating slowly about to fetch up gently against one another before drifting apart again like guests at a soiree.  The rolling hills around Dewey ceased to be the least-interesting part of the drive between old home and new: I never could pass that way again without thinking of continents going bang up against each other, crushing and transforming rock as they collided.  Rocks meant something: they weren’t just pretty baubles, but storytellers with a rich store of history to draw on.  The world changed fundamentally from era to era, and the past dictated the present.  Landscapes weren’t just scenery anymore.  They were portals to other worlds.

That day, and that class, sent me on a quest to understand how the earth works in order to understand how the worlds I was creating must work.  Without that experience, I’m not sure I would have ever stared at a squiggle of coastline I’d just scribbled and wondered how, exactly, it had gotten to be that way, and what it might have been before.  That day sent me (eventually – these things take time to sink in fully) haring off after geology and meteorology and oceanography and biology and any number of other -ologies in an attempt to create an imagined land with a history as rich and sensible as our own.

Some folks like to say that science takes all the beauty and meaning and wonder out of life.  The only thing I can say to them is that they’ve never hopped in a van with their own Mr. Bennett and taken on a wild ride through geologic history.  They haven’t been properly introduced to the landscapes around them.  There is nothing more wonderful, meaningful or beautiful than watching the world form.  They need that one experience that shows them the world as it was, is and one day might be.

Thank you, Mr. Bennett, for handing me the keys to the geologic kingdom.  I’ll never forget the crash of continents, the whisper of water, and the awe of seeing the world again for the very first time.

Vintage Verdad: The Columns Became

Vintage Verdad Week continues with one of my personal favorites. I always love a good meme; when I find a meme and a killer awesome quote that coincide, I love it even more. And columns? Teh awesome!


Inspired by an incipient meme.

Columns were things that happened to other people.

That was the impression I got growing up in Arizona, anyway.  I thought they were rare and exquisite creatures, too exotic for my lowly home state.  I’d see images of things like Devils Tower and Giant’s Causeway in textbooks, and figure that was about it for volcanic columns in the world.  I could see things like block-and-ash flows, aa, pahoehoe, and cinder fields, but as far as crisp columns marching through a lava flow, I had no luck at all.  To this day, I’m not even sure if there’s anywhere in Arizona where you can see such a thing.  They certainly weren’t in evidence in the areas I tromped as a child.

So you can imagine my surprise when I moved up here to the Northwest and discovered columns are pretty much a dime a dozen.  Throw a rockhammer at a lava flow, and it probably won’t land too far away from a nice group of columns.  I’m still excited when I see them, though.

Ye olde introduction to columns has been a process of gradual revelation.  First came basalt.  Basalt was another revelation.  I’d known in a vague sort of way about things like the Deccan and Siberian Traps and our very own Columbia River Basalts, but for some reason, I hadn’t thought much about the appearance of flood basalts.  We had trickle basalts if we had anything, so I was used to basalt flows being small, thin creatures (though, believe me, they don’t seem small and thin when you’re scrambling around the aa at Sunset Crater.  My granddad lost his leg to that lava – true story.  It can be serious stuff indeed).  So early this summer, I stuffed ye olde intrepid companion in the car and went to have a look.

One’s first impression of Washington’s basalt provinces is massive.  Followed closely by, “I didn’t know there were so many columns in the entire world!”

Columns in the Columbia River Basalts, Columbia River, Vantage, WA

And what I saw at Vantage didn’t even begin to prepare me for the overwhelming columnness of the coulees.

Lake Lenore Caves, Grand Coulee, WA

Columns march into the distance on both sides of the coulee, layer upon layer of columns.  Columns, columns everywhere, and nary a Greek temple in sight.  It’s a bit overwhelming to someone who’d only seen such things in pictures before.

And what will really blow your mind is to realize that all of these tough columns of basalt got ripped, torn, gouged, maimed, and transported by Glacial Lake Missoula’s gargantuan floods.  Those caves up there?  They were plucked.  Water just yanked handfuls of columns right out of the walls.

Consider my mind boggled.

And no school textbook had ever told me about the shenanigans columns get up to.

Entablature, bent columns, and hanging waterfall, near Banks Lake in Grand Coulee, WA

All the pictures of columns I’d ever seen were straight, neat polygons that looked like they’d been carved by an overly-ambitious stonemason.  Not the stuff in Grand Coulee’s walls, nosir.  You had your textbook examples, but you also had bends, curves, and bizarre patterns that mystify me still:

Weird and wonderful columns, near Banks Lake, Grand Coulee, WA

And if only I’d had my excellent new camera then, I’d have actual good photos to show ye.  Ah, well.  You should really go see for yourselves anyway – there’s nothing like being surrounded by massive columns of basalt mile after mile to really pump you full of wonder.

So, okay.  I can just about get my head wrapped round this.  Take a big, thick sheet of basalt, let it cool; as it cools, it contracts.  Cracks form due to the contraction where bits are coolest and continue right down.  Geometrically, polygons make sense in this situation, so you end up with sometimes perfect hexagons, sometimes not – columns can be anything from 3-12 sided depending on the needs of the cooling mass.  It helps to imagine mud cracks, actually – as mud dries, you’ve probably noticed it forms particular shapes.  Imagine those shapes going down for many meters, and you’ve got a pretty good mental model of how columns formed.  The entablature’s a region where cooling went a little crazy, but it still makes sense: it’s still just hot stuff cracking as it cools.  Simple!  Except when you get right down to it, it’s not that simple.  If it was, it wouldn’t have taken people a great many years and a lot of scientific headscratching to begin to grasp.

Because, seriously, when you’re first faced with things like this, it’s all too easy to think giants must’ve done it.

The columns form some pretty bizarre shapes.  There’s one between Multnomah and Latourell Falls in the Columbia River Gorge that looks like a ginormous mushroom, in fact:

Mushroom on the scenic route

And Latourell Falls fall over some pretty crazy colonnades:

Latourell Falls carves its columns

So, there we were.  I’d just about gotten my head wrapped around the fact that large basaltic lava flows on land could and often did form columns during the cooling process.  But no one ever told me that other lava flows could form colonnades, and what really blew my mind was the fact you sometimes get them in welded tuff.  We’re talking hot volcanic ash, here.  Nothing like a lava flow.  ZOMG WTF?!

Columns in what is very probably the Stevens Ridge Formation, Mount Rainier, WA

Opportunistic little buggers will take any excuse to form up, won’t they just?

Then, just today, I find out they can be found in places like Shenandoah National Park, where they’re just about the last things I’d expect.  Seems they’re not so rare, after all.

In fact, I ran into some on our latest trek, when Lockwood hauled us up Mary’s Peak (see his photos and writeup of the following).

Columns in road cut on Mary’s Peak, OR

Here we were in the middle of a bunch of Eocene seafloor basalts, and suddenly, columns.  Pillows, I expected.  Breccia, natch.  But columns?  In seafloor basalts?  For some reason, I’d come to think of columns as exclusively landlubbers.

Yet, here they were, born at the bottom of the sea, just like Spongebob Squarepants.  Amazing.

Another view of the roadcut

What’s astounding about this group is that some are seen side-on, in the more traditional orientation, and right next to them you’ve got what for all the world looks like a top view:

Columns on end

I’d love to tell you how that happened, but my mad geology skillz aren’t quite up to that task.

You even get some bonza spheroidal weathering up there that looks for all the world like pillows:

Not pillows, but erosion.

Now I know not to be deceived.

Regularity in nature fascinates us.  When good Mother Earth comes up with things that look like they were carefully chiseled by human hands (or giants’ hands, for that matter), we sit up and take especial notice.  There may come a day when I don’t squee with delight when confronted with yet more columns, but perhaps not.  Knowing those little bastards, they’ll have some new surprise in store just when I think I’ve seen all there is to see.  What Louis Kahn wrote of architecture can just as easily be applied to geology:

“Consider the momentous event in architecture when the wall parted and the column became.”

Vintage Verdad: Shocking Truth About Aftershocks

Vintage Verdad Week continues with this November 2009 post. I used to do a series called Sunday Sensational Science, which went by the wayside when I started blogging science more often than politics and religious stupidity. I like this old post. It’s got Ed Yong in it. And, living in a subduction zone, earthquakes are nearly as in-your-face as volcanoes.

This post has been lightly edited, but mostly left in its original glory (or lack thereof).

Foreshock – Main Shock – Aftershock Sequence. Image courtesy USGS

We’ve discussed earthquakes before, and everybody’s probably pretty aware of the fact that when you have an earthquake, you’re probably going to have an aftershock.  Or two.  Or two dozen.  Most of us think those aftershocks will last, at most, a few days.

New studies suggest that some aftershocks will go on – are you ready for this? – for a few centuries:

Many researchers assume that small-scale seismic activity reveals where stress is building up in the Earth’s crust — stress that can cause larger quakes in the future, says Mian Liu, a geophysicist at the University of Missouri in Columbia. However, Liu and Seth Stein of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., report in the Nov. 5 Nature, many moderate-sized temblors that occur far from the edges of tectonic plates could be merely the aftershocks of larger quakes that occurred along the same faults decades or even centuries ago.

Trees tilted by New Madrid earthquake, Chickasaw bluffs east side of Reelfoot Lake. Image Courtesy USGS

Stein and Liu analyzed earthquake data gathered worldwide. For major quakes that occurred where the sides of a fault moved past each other at average rates of more than 10 millimeters per year — as the two sides of many tectonic boundaries do — aftershocks died off after a decade or so. But for faults where the sides scraped past each other at just a few millimeters per year, aftershocks lasted about 100 years, the researchers reported. The longest series of aftershocks, some which have lasted several centuries, were triggered by quakes that occurred in continental interiors along slow-moving faults.

Bet you folks in the Midwest didn’t think New Madrid was sending you old news, did you?  But it certainly seems so.

Let’s step back a moment and take a look at the mechanics here:

Large earthquakes are often followed by aftershocks, the result of changes in the surrounding crust brought about by the initial shock. Aftershocks are most common immediately after the main quake. As time passes and the fault recovers, they become increasingly rare. This pattern of decay in seismic activity is described by Omori’s Law but Stein and Liu found that the pace of the decay is a matter of location.
At the boundaries between tectonic plates, any changes wreaked by a big quake are completely overwhelmed by the movements of the plates themselves. At around a centimetre per year, they are regular geological Ferraris. They  soon “reload” the fault, dampen the aftershocks, and return the status quo within 10 years. In the middle of continents, faults move at less than a millimetre every year. In this slow lane, things can take a century or more to return to normal after a big quake, and aftershocks stick around for that duration.

It’s a tale of two faults!  Let’s have a look at New Madrid, shall we?  Go ahead.  Search for photos of “New Madrid Fault.”  I’ll wait.

Lots of maps, not many photos, right?  That’s because not a lot’s going on there.  Here’s the best I could do:

A geologist examines fault lines from the Upper Rainbow trench, an excavation located near the New Madrid Seismic Zone. Image courtesy MO Dept. of Natural Resources.

Ed Yong says,

Again, New Madrid proves the principle – a cluster of large earthquakes hit the area in the past thousand years, but the crust shows no sign of recent deformation according to two decades of GPS measurements. It seems that recent activity really is the legacy of centuries-old quakes, a threat that has since shut down.

In other words, not a lot going on that would show at the surface.  It’s a slow, sleepy fault, despite the excitement it caused over the winter of 1811-1812.  Compare that to the San Andreas, which is bleeding obvious:

An aerial view of the San Andreas fault in the Carrizo Plain, Central California. Image courtesy USGS.

Compared to New Madrid, the San Andreas fault is a speed demon, and it shows.  There are other differences, of course – one’s a transform fault where two plates are scooting past each other, the other’s more of a rift type thing where North America started developing a split personality and then changed its mind(s?) – but the main thing is speed.  Cecil Turtle compared to Speedy Gonzales, shall we say.  According to the study, San Andreas locks and loads within a decade or so, leaving the aftershocks in the dust and nervous Californians waiting for the Big One.  New Madrid’s still squirming around trying to get comfortable after a fairly dramatic disruption.  And every time it twitches noticeably, folks in the Midwest experience a nervous attack of their own.

The river did, after all, run backwards the last time this thing went crack.  Bound to worry folks a bit.  But according to Stein and Liu, there’s nothing much to worry about – at least, not where New Madrid’s concerned.  You’re just in for hundreds of years of aftershocks, since the fault moves more than 100 times slower than the San Andreas.  This is good news.

And the data are beautiful:

“A number of us had suspected this,” Liu said, “because many of the earthquakes we see today in the Midwest have patterns that look like aftershocks. They happen on the faults we think caused the big earthquakes in 1811 and 1812, and they’ve been getting smaller with time.”
To test this idea, Stein and Liu used results from lab experiments on how faults in rocks work to predict that aftershocks would extend much longer on slower moving faults. They then looked at data from faults around the world and found the expected pattern. For example, aftershocks continue today from the magnitude 7.2 Hebgen Lake earthquake that shook Montana, Idaho and Wyoming 50 years ago.
“This makes sense because the Hebgen Lake fault moves faster than the New Madrid faults but slower than the San Andreas,” Stein noted. “The observations and theory came together the way we like but don’t always get.”

Hebgen Lake, Montana, Earthquake August 1959. Close-up of fractured Highway 287: man inspecting damage. Image courtesy USGS.

This might be of some comfort to residents near the epicenter of the Hebgen Lake Quake.  Then again, it might not.  It’s rather hard to feel comforted by the fact that the fault moves slower than the San Andreas, and therefore shall have aftershocks longer, when the last big quake took down a mountainside, ripped open roads, created a new lake, and left fault scarps all over the damned place, right?

And this study points to the fact that the small isn’t always a foreshadow of the big:

The new results will help investigators in both understanding earthquakes in continents and trying to assess earthquake hazards there. “Until now,” Liu observed, “we’ve mostly tried to tell where large earthquakes will happen by looking at where small ones do.” That’s why many scientists were surprised by the disastrous May 2008 magnitude 7.9 earthquake in Sichuan, China — a place where there hadn’t been many earthquakes in the past few hundred years.
“Predicting big quakes based on small quakes is like the ‘Whack-a-mole’ game — you wait for the mole to come up where it went down,” Stein said. “But we now know the big earthquakes can pop up somewhere else. Instead of just focusing on where small earthquakes happen, we need to use methods like GPS satellites and computer modeling to look for places where the earth is storing up energy for a large future earthquake. We don’t see that in the Midwest today, but we want to keep looking.”

Sounds like a very good idea to me.  Anything we can do to increase the chances of successful earthquake prediction could help save a lot of lives.  And it allows us to rest easier when we find out that those little temblors are just past earthquakes saying “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

Hebgen Lake, Montana, Earthquake August 1959. Red Canyon fault scrap near Red Canyon Creek. A 19-foot displacement was measured. August 1959. Image courtesy USGS.

My MacLargeHuge Geo Post Now Up on the Scientific American Guest Blog!

Yep. That’s me, (dis)gracing the electronic pages of Scientific American with a guest post: “ “Mélange et Trois”. The super-sekrit project is sekrit no more.

I’m sorry I was so coy about it, but it was one of those things where you don’t want to make the announcement until it’s actually happened just in case. It wasn’t quite superstition, more like, “I can’t believe this is happening until I see it go live. Then I’ll know I wasn’t just dreaming the whole thing, or experiencing a reading comprehension epic fail.”

Mais non, there it is.

I can’t tell you how thrilled I am. I’m deeply grateful to Bora for giving me this opportunity, and representing my beloved geology on Scientific America’s site is fantastic beyond words. But I’d never have gotten here if it wasn’t for my geos. Those folks in the geoblogosphere who claimed me as one of their own made this happen. Bora, who is blogfather to so many and gave me early encouragement by picking up the Carnival of the Elitist Bastards on its maiden and subsequent voyages, made this happen. The folks on FreethoughtBlogs who brought me on made this happen. You, my dear readers, made this happen. Because without all of you – the geobloggers, blogfather Bora, my fellow FreethoughtBloggers, and the people who actually read this blog – things like doing up maclargehuge guest posts for Scientific American just aren’t possible.

¡Muchas gracias!

Vintage Verdad: Life on the Rocks

Vintage Verdad week continues with a retrospective explaining how I ended up obsessed by geology.


This whole post started because Lockwood asked me a question on Facebook:

Where was your profile photo taken? Those are some rocks I would classify as Om Nom Nom.

That was pretty much my response when I first saw ‘em.  That’s the South Bluff at Discovery Park.

 Moi at Discovery Park.  All photos taken by my intrepid companion Cujo359, unless otherwise noted.

I still remember standing before it the first time.  It looks like nothing but compacted sand from a distance, but up close, you find it’s actually sandstone.  I stood there tracing its bedding planes with my hands.  It surprised me with its cool, slightly damp, almost smooth but a touch gritty feel.  I’m used to rocks in the sun being hot.  The waves that carved our stones stopped breaking millions of years ago, in most cases.  Here, water’s still busy sculpting.  Dear old South Bluff is probably just a brief blip on the radar, a mayfly in geological terms.  The waves will wear it away in time.  Most people think of stone as somehow permanent, just like I used to.  But the vast majority of it is ephemeral, destined to be worn away to sand and soil again, perhaps buried and melted.  Some of it will end up stuffed into a subduction zone, some will end up metamorphosed and barely recognizable.  But that first moment, coming upon this, is for me eternal.

Folks sometimes ask how I ended up in Seattle.  It’s because of geology.  I came up here on a research mission for my magnum opus in 2000, and when I first saw the snow-capped Olympics embracing our plane as it landed, I knew I was home.  Only took seven years before I came home for good.

Seattle denizens look at me like I’m insane when I tell them I left sunny Arizona for the near-perpetual rain of the Northwest.  They’ll probably never understand the pull of this place, unless they’re Lord of the Rings fans, and remember what Bilbo said:

I want to see mountains again, mountains, Gandalf!  And then settle down somewhere quiet where I can finish my book.

That’s why I’m here.  But the yearning for mountains began long, long ago in a state very far away.

I grew up with the San Francisco Peaks and Mount Elden framed in my back window.  This isn’t exactly the view – none of those long-ago photos are digitized yet – but this will give you an idea:

San Francisco Peaks with snow. Image Credit: U.S. Forest Service, Coconino National Forest.

That glacier-carved stratovolcano dominated my childhood.  So much so that when my grandmother stood with me admiring the view on one of her visits from Indiana, I turned to her and asked, “Grandma, how can you live in a place without mountains?”  She laughed, and she and my mother tried to explain that people who’d lived in flat country all their lives got used to it, but I didn’t understand.  No more than I understood why people called the Ozarks mountains.  We crossed them once, driving to Indiana, and I remember seeing a sign saying something like, “Ozark Mountains, elevation 600 ft.”  I burst out laughing.  Where I come from, anything under 2000 feet is a hill.  Well, parts of them qualify, but not the bits we were crossing.

My childhood was rocky, and I mean that in the best possible way.  Everywhere I went, there were rocks: old rocks, young rocks, dark rocks, light rocks.  In my literal back yard, you could find limestone from ancient seas, basalt from young volcanoes, and pumice blown out by the Peaks, among a great many other varieties.  The rock collection we plucked from our yard and the national forest backing it won me first prize at the Coconino County Fair one year.  To be brutally honest, the competition must not have been fierce, and no one was more shocked than I was to see that blue ribbon pinned to the collection, but it was nice.

Within easy driving distance of my house, sometime within walking distance, geologic wonders abounded.  We used to catch tadpoles in Wildcat Canyon, a large gully cut in Kaibab limestone, just a short hike through the pinon forest.  None of us kids realized we were chasing amphibians while 250 million year-old seabeds loomed over us.

Just a short drive away, we could see something that was obviously awesome: an actual impact crater, 50,000 years old but looking as if it got gouged out just last year:

Moi at Meteor Crater

Someday, really truly, I’m going to do a post all about it.  I have the research done and everything.

This is where I found my first-ever fossil all by my lonesome:

Mah first fossil: A Wormcast!

Look, it was impressive to me, all right?  But if you want really impressive, here’s just one piece of the meteor that struck the high desert plain and left this gargantuan hole:

Moi with meteor

That is one enormous chunk of iron-nickel, that is.  And it’s only one of many enormous chunks scattered about – there’s another equally as large at Lowell Observatory, and doubtless plenty of others in various places.  I’m not sure where they all ended up.  It’s appropriate they’re scattered now, as they were strewn all over the place when it struck.

You can’t help but be impressed with astronomy after viewing this.  Appreciation for its geological significance came a great many years after I first visited.  For a while, though, I was under the spell of our neighbor, an astronomer at Lowell, and I was all about being an astronomer.  Wasn’t long, though, before the rocks started drawing me back.

It is very, very hard not to be impressed by the majesty of geology when you have this practically in your back yard:

Moi with the Grand Canyon

Now, mind you, we ferried various out-of-town relatives to the Canyon that it got to be a chore.  “Aw, do we have to go see that great big hole in the ground again?”  But that was before I started getting interested in its geology.  Look down into the Canyon, and you’re peering into nearly 2 billion years of history.

Moi giving my intrepid companion a heart attack by appearing to sit at the edge of a two-billion year drop.

And of course, it’s a great place to get your rocks on, especially if you like limestone:

Moi with limestone

But appreciation for deep time had to wait many years.  First, I’d live a life dominated by sandstone.  We moved to Sedona when I was 12, and for the next two years, you’d usually find me scrambling about on the red rocks, climbing Sugarloaf, staining my white socks red in the deep red sandy soils.  In the summer, we’d head for Oak Creek Canyon for the blackberry picking; in winter, for the icefalls.  It was fantastically beautiful, a red-splashed green oasis in dry country:

Moi with Misha at Slide Rock State Park

I had no idea of the eons of desert and sea that went in to the making of those rock formations, of course.  All I knew was that it was pretty, but I missed my mountains.  I pined for them.  And then came the happy day that my parents announced we were moving – to Page.

More desert.  No mountain.  Argh.  I spent my high school years scrambling over ancient lithified sand dunes, running along slick rock ledges a few inches wide with a sheer drop of hundreds of feet one misstep away.  But that old sandstone never let me down.  We called it slick rock because of what happened when it rained.  In the dry season (which was most of the time), the sandstone gripped my soles tight, and never let me fall.

Wind and water carved ancient dunes into fantastical shapes.  I washed windows for Michael Fatali’s gallery, and got to spend a lot of time studying the slot canyons carved from flash floods that he captured in their astounding natural light:

He risked his life for those images.  Flash floods didn’t often announce themselves on the plateau, and you didn’t have much chance of escaping when one thundered down those sheer-sided slots.  People died.  An entire group of French tourists were drowned one year.  That pretty much cured me of any desire to go playing around in the slot canyons myself, but I did end up taking a gentleman from New Zealand around to see the sights after having been volunteered for tour guide duty by our local coffee-shop owner.  It might seem crazy to head for the middle of nowhere with a perfect stranger, but he wanted to see the Horseshoe, and I figured it was a long enough dive into the Colorado River if I needed to take care of any unwanted advances.  The desert was friend, enemy, and convenient weapon.  Fortunately for all, he turned out to be a perfect angel, and we spent a delightful day trekking all over the canyon country.

I hated Page, but I still deeply love its surroundings.  The silence there is indescribable.  It’s as if all those millions of years bear down, hushing noisy civilization and allowing you to sink deep into deep time.

Speaking of sinking deep, one of the prime destinations for Arizona folk was Montezuma’s Well, an enormous sinkhole close to Cottonwood.

 Moi at Montezuma’s Well.  This is the typical view my poor intrepid companion gets.  And yes, that is a Peacemakers tattoo.

I’d visited it as a kid, but didn’t really get to know it until I took a physical geography class from the incomparable Jim Bennett.  For our field trip, he hauled us all out there, and showed me a spot I’d never before seen, where the waters of the well escape in a narrow creek.  It’s quite possibly the most serene place in all of Arizona that’s accessible by car.  Water in the desert is a precious and awe-inspiring thing.

For my physical geology picture project, I dragged my poor friend Janhavi all over the Flagstaff area.  And you might not think sinkholes when you think Flagstaff, but it happens just to the north, where the old sea left lots of limestone, and great caves got carved into it later.  There’s a great place at Wupatki that might one day end up being a sinkhole, but right now, the underground caverns have few outlets, and the blowhole at Wupatki is just an outstanding demonstration of air pressure.  I re-created the demo photo with my intrepid companion when we were there:

 Moi having my hair done by the blowhole.

Those were the years.  I’d moved to Prescott to attend college.  I could admire the Mingus Mountains (yes, technically, it’s Mingus Mountain, but the locals call the whole range by that name). There was an ancient shield volcano and an even more eroded volcanic neck (where quite a bit of necking got done), and then the Granite Dells, where we spent more than one afternoon happily scrambling about the granite boulders.

Moi and Granite Dells

No better place to get intimate with how granite weathers, really.

But in the end, I had to go back home, back to my old stratovolcano and the young cindercones that surround it like courtiers.

Moi reliving my childhood at Red Mountain.

Most of the cones are healthy and intact, but Red Mountain got half of itself rafted away on a lava flow, leaving a spectacular view into its interior.

I spent many happy years with my mountains, often taking the long drive up the San Francisco Peaks to the ski resort, wandering around Sunset Crater National Monument, exploring the places I’d grown up.  But Flagstaff is poverty with a view, and the wonderful company I worked for was headed on a downhill slide, and it was time to leave.  I’d already settled on Seattle, but couldn’t afford it alone.  I ended up in Phoenix instead, surrounded by concrete, the rocks too damned hot in the summer to go play in, the mountains too low and the Valley too wide.  Miserable years, until the very end, when all my friends moved down just as I was preparing to leave.  So it goes.  But by then, I had a friend who wanted Seattle as much as I did, and nothing was going to hold me back from those mountains.

There was only one drawback: active volcanoes.  I grew up with volcanoes, but they were all dormant, y’see.  I have a wee bit o’ a volcano phobia.  I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to get up close and personal with an actual live, actively-erupting volcano, but we made the trek to Mount St. Helens, and I discovered that awe is a fine antidote to fear.  I stood on the banks of the Toutle River, which had channeled a devastating lahar on May 18th, 1980.

Moi at the Toutle River, courtesy of me former roomie

I ran my hands through its gritty sand, volcanic ash mixed with eroded rock, and marveled at its texture.  The volcanic soils in Flagstaff are elderly – the youngest is over 900 years old.  This was younger than I was.  And then we drove on up to the mountain itself, and I stood staring down into its steaming throat, without fear:

Moi and the volcano, also courtesy me former roommate

A poem by Walter Savage Landor rather captures the moment:

Death stands above me, whispering low
I know not what into my ear:
Of all his strange language all I know
Is, there is not a word of fear.

You still couldn’t pay me enough to camp there, though.

Once I’d set foot on the flanks of one active volcano, I couldn’t resist doing another:

Moi and Mount Rainier, ye final photo taken by ye former roommate

Hiked a snowfield in late August and saw my first glacier that year, which, I can tell you, is a pretty damned astounding sight for someone who grew up in Arizona, even northern Arizona.

The geology bug bit me in dead earnest not much later.  It had taken a few serious nibbles in Arizona, but Washington State has really turned me into an avid geology buff.  I think it’s because it’s so young and raw here.  Oh, granted, Arizona looks more raw, but its geology is all pretty much in the past.  Until you know more about how those landforms formed, you don’t feel its immensity, its immediacy.  It’s all just lovely scenery.  Out here, though, you can’t help but to notice geology’s astounding power.  And it’s not just the volcanoes, but floods so powerful they stripped the land to bare bedrock.

Moi at Dry Falls, trying to get my crappy old PhotoSmart camera to take it all in whilst ye intrepid companion laughs his arse off .

The fact that I now have to go searching for rocks rather than just looking down and seeing hey, there they are probably has a bit to do with it, too.  One ends up taking even the most spectacular scenery for granted when its too familiar.  I had to leave home before I could love it again.  I had to discover yesterday’s dramatic geology before I could fall into deep time.  Now, when I go back to Arizona, I can appreciate those two billion years of history.  I wriggle my shoes deep into dry dirt, lay my hands on my old friends sandstone and limestone, and feel myself sinking into a past whose history is written in chapters of strata.

I’ve lived my life on the rocks, and I haven’t regretted it a bit.

Vintage Verdad: Oregon Geology Parte the First: Astoria or Bust

I’m off in Oregon with Lockwood, pounding rocks. While I’m collecting more geological goodness for your viewing pleasure, I figured I’d post some vintage Verdad for the new folk and for the regulars who haven’t seen these old posts for some time. It’s a good thing, too – in the process of selection, I discovered a hefty chunk of ye olde archives didn’t transfer over here, and among those left behind is this, the post that set me feet firmly on the rocky path they walk today.


You know, this almost didn’t happen.  Tonight, the cat decided she loved the notebook all my notes resided in, and removing my cat from the object of her affections can be fatal.  I mean, does this really look like a feline inclined to relinquish the goods?

Fortunately for all involved, I was able to lure her away by opening the door to the porch.  Now that summer’s here, she’s almost as addicted to the outdoors as I am.  And so, at long last, I can present to you the first installment of our multi-part series on Oregon Geology.  Come join me after the jump for the geologic journey to Astoria.

I’m going to have to wrap this in warnings and caveats.  I’m not even a talented amateur geologist.  There’s probably plenty I’ll get wrong, although I tried to be careful and only work with bits that I had good information on.  And I’ll tell you when I’m not sure about what I’m seeing.

Such as now.  You don’t want to know how many days I spent trying to identify this bit o’ basalt just across the Columbia River from Longview, WA:

As near as I can tell from geological maps and various books on Northwest geology written for the interested amateur, that is a bit of old seafloor, quite possibly part of the Gray’s River Volcanics.  Despite the fact I was a doofus and did not zoom in to the full extent capable with my snazzy new camera, you can kinda sorta see what look suspiciously like possible pillows there, if you embiggen.  I was strangely unwilling to risk a car speeding around the blind curve and squishing me, so I didn’t cross the highway for a closer look, a fact I’ve been cursing myself for ever since.

So, despite a photo that’s perhaps more appropriate to cryptogeology and my own appalling ignorance on the subject, what makes me think we’re looking at actual ocean floor?  A few things.  First, you’ll notice the weathering and color on this bit o’ basalt.  Think back to the paltry post I did on eastern Washington.  The Columbia River Basalts still have a raw, fresh quality to them, even after upwards of 15 million years and several gargantuan floods.  You’ll see when we get to the Columbia River Gorge that even those parts of the Miocene flood basalts that spilled out into the wet west coast look pretty new.  This one, on the other hand, appears affably middle-aged.  The fact that the geological map of Oregon says this area’s covered in Eocene basalts clinches the case, although we’re proving by a preponderance of the evidence rather than beyond all reasonable doubt.

So what’s a bit of seafloor doing up here high and (quite often) dry?  So glad you asked, because it’s an interesting story.

Drive the I-5 corridor from the Columbia River to Olympia, and you’ll notice a great many hills.  These are the Willapa Hills, and between 55 to around 30 to 10 million years ago, depending on the spot, the whole area was underwater.  The west coast we know and love didn’t exist yet.  Instead, there was a rift spewing out new seabed in the ocean between the Pacific and North American plates, and a subduction zone somewhere to the East.  Thanks to the subduction zone volcanoes thrown up by that plate tectonic action, the Western Cascades, we don’t know precisely where – their eruptions covered the area of contact under younger volcanics in most places.  But as you head west, you can see ye olde seafloor, complete with its basalts and sedimentary cover.

Now, you normally don’t see seafloor on a continent – it’s heavy stuff, and sinks down beneath the lighter continental rocks at subduction zones.  But in some cases, the subducting seafloor drags lighter sedimentary rock down with it.  This is important, because there were two subduction zones in this area in them days.  The little North Cascade subcontinent was busily docking with North America, while the Pacific Plate continued its journey west, and as things jammed up together, a second subduction zone came into being in very nearly its present location.  Lighter sedimentary rocks riding the seafloor down into that trench “floated” the slab of seafloor that would become the Willapa Hills nearly two miles up, high and dry.  If you ever want to demonstrate this in your bathtub, fill up with water, stick in a few handy rocks, and shove a bath pillow under them.

So there you go – seabed on dry land.  A few tens of millions of years’ worth of stream erosion, and you have hills.  Neat, eh?

Here’s a photo that’s sort of like a geological family-reunion snapshot:

Starting from the river, we have a Holocene alluvial terrace built up by the Columbia River; then the Pliocene non-marine rocks (conglomerate and wacke) laid down around the Ice Ages; then our old friends the Eocene volcanic rocks, which include not only the seabed, but some that erupted on land; Eocene-Oligocene volcanic rocks erupted by the subduction zone volcanoes (think lots and lots of andesite); and finally Pleistocene to Recent volcanic rocks (and when they say recent, they mean like 30 years if they’re a day – I trust you all recognize our old friend Mt. St. Helens).  And yes, I know most of that stuff is in Washington and we’re supposed to be talking about Oregon, but I was standing in Oregon when I took the picture, so it counts, damn it.

Just think about this for a moment: when you study that picture, you’re looking at a history that covers over 50 million years.  You are looking at island arcs that became part of the continent, old ocean floor, ancient eruptions, and a river and a volcano that are busy making more geology.  That’s a pretty hefty hunk o’ history there.

Now, let’s look a bit west:

You will notice, just left of center, a shoulder of a hill with a flat top.  That, my darlings, is our old friend the Columbia River Basalt.  Several of those flows were opportunistic bastards who decided they wanted a seaside vacation, so they zipped right on down the Columbia River Valley several times, pushing the poor river ever further northward, and covering big strips of southwestern Washington and northwestern Oregon in burning hot basalt.  It got so deep and intense it overflowed the valley in several places.  Subsequent erosion, disapproving of such antics, scrubbed much of it away, but there’s plenty of patches left.

No doubt part of that erosion took place during the Ice Ages, when Glacial Lake Missoula floated its ice dam and sent flood after flood roaring across eastern Washington, down the Columbia River, and out to the Pacific, which was about forty miles further away than it is now, with so much water locked up in ice caps.  We’re talking floods that traveled from Montana here, people, and they still had enough water left by the time they got here that Longview was drowned in at least 300 feet of water.  And that river valley you’re looking at today was, at that time, a canyon that ran from Longview all the way out to the Pacific.  The Columbia River has since then filled things in with sediment, creating a much more laid-back landscape, but just imagine: the area filled from canyon-bottom to hilltop with angry brown floodwater.  Okay, so the canyon was only about forty feet deep round here, but still.

If you head down the Columbia River from here, you can see the over-steepened valley walls and faceted spurs left as the flood waters ripped at rock as it raced to the sea.  And, since this area’s built not just on basalt but Holocene alluvial deposits, Pliocene debris, and Eocene marine sediments, it also suffers landslides.  Between fire, water and slope failure, it just can’t catch a break.

Let’s follow the floods on down.  Near Clatskanie, Oregon, they hit a narrow bit of the Columbia River which slowed them somewhat, but they were still deep and strong, probably around 275 feet.  After those narrows, the valley widened where the bedrock changed from basalt to marine sandstone and mudstone.  The floods flowed merrily down to Astoria and then forty miles out to sea, where we’ll meet with them again.

Today, Astoria’s a seaside town with a history.  The town’s sited on the low hills erosion has carved from seafloor mudstones from the Miocene, laid down about 20 million years ago, underlain here and there by the basalts that erupted offshore.  You’ll notice a cheerful reddish-orange hue to the mudstones where they’ve had a chance to weather, but they’re really brown.  If you want to hunt fossils in Oregon, you’ve got a chance at a few here, though you’ll need a microscope for the majority.  On your way in to town, you might notice sandstones that likely were deposited in an old valley of the Columbia River back in the Pliocene, when the climate was drier than today.  And you’ll certainly run in to some Columbia River Basalts.

Let’s meet some fine examples of Astoria-area geology:

You’re standing on Coxcomb Hill, where a hot, probing finger of the Grande Ronde member of the Columbia River Basalt flows prodded its way into squishy coastal sediments.  Those sediments lithified, but were too soft to survive, and erosion took them out, leaving the basalt behind.  Across the river, the hill you see to the right is Scarboro Hill.  Its core is old volcanic rock that got stripped from the Juan de Fuca Plate as it subducted beneath the lighter North American continent.  The collision warped those rocks up like a card pinched between two fingers.  It probably tells the Grande Ronde Basalt that it doesn’t know how easy kids have got it these days.

Now, sight northwest across the arched bit of the bridge to that long, low strip of hills.  That’s Cape Disappointment.  It’s the eroded remains of a Columbia River Basalt flow, most likely another bit of Grande Ronde Basalt.  It’s now a pretty rocky cape with ten tons of fog and a reputation for killing ships – there’s a sandbar out there that likes to shift around, and has racked up an impressive 250 ships sunk.  Don’t play Battleship against the Graveyard of the Pacific, my friends.

Now, sweep your gaze south from Cape Disappointment to an even lower strip of land.  If you enlarge the picture, you’ll notice white froth around its tip, Pacific Ocean breakers.  That is the Clatsop Sand Spit, and we’ll be getting to know it well in a moment.

For now, though, we’re going to remain on Coxcomb Hill, where the Astoria Column rises up like a very tall, pointy column, and take in the view.  Here’s Scarboro Hill again, along with its buddy Bear River Ridge:

Bear River Ridge is what remains of a 2,700 foot thick sill of Grande Ronde Basalt that barged in on some unsuspecting sedimentary rocks and decided to stay.  If you’re starting to get the feeling that you cannot escape the Grande Ronde Basalts out here, you are not mistaken.

In fact, why don’t we turn from north to south and have a look at Saddle Mountain:

To me, it looks like a mutant three-humped camel, but if other people saw saddles, fine.  Whatever moves your mountain.  Not that it’s moving it far in this case – Saddle Mountain’s a Coast Range interloper, a young upstart among the staid old hills of Eocene volcanics, its dark-brown basalts rising up in knobs that form the highest peaks in these here parts.  In fact, most of the highest hills visible from here are part of that same flow, which buried an ancient river delta and caused general mayhem nearly sixteen million years ago.  The lower ridges in the foreground, Eels Ridge and Lone Ridge, are relative young whippersnappers, 15.3 million year-old flows of the Frenchman Springs member of the Columbia River Basalts, which made their way down an old Columbia River channel, evicted the river, intruded the local sedimentary rocks, and refused to leave.  Without them, Astoria might be part of Washington State, since the Columbia River’s used as the border.

After all that fire, it’ll be nice to see some water:

To the left, you’ll see the Youngs River flowing into (shocker) Youngs Bay, and the river on the right is the Lewis and Clark River.  Between them, they’ve built up what looks to be a nice delta.  Someday, if they’re very good, those muddy sediments will become sandstones and mudstones, and will tell future geologists the story of the two rivers that used to flow here.  The low hills surrounding them are 40-30 million year-old sedimentary rocks, which I trust shall provide a good example to the new generation.

And what’s that off in the far distance? Is it, could it be, visible all the way from here….

Why, yes, yes it is Tillamook Head!  Whoever would’ve expected to see more Grande Ronde basalt out here, right?  We’ll have much more to say about it in our next installment of Oregon geology, but for now, imagine you’re an observer standing on – um, well, shit, that’s not safe - you’re a little birdie flying up above this landscape nearly sixteen million years ago, watching firey fingers of basalt nose their way into the sea, sending up clouds of steam and causing all sorts of mayhem.  Anyone who says geology is boring needs to consider what the rocks are telling us.  What they’re telling us just now is that this was a rather eventful place back in the Miocene.  It makes Mt. St. Helens’ little upset look like a firecracker compared to the Space Shuttle taking off.

Let’s get off the hill that would’ve been a very uncomfortable place to stand several million years ago and head down to the mouth of the Columbia River, where we can see some points of interest, thanks to my intrepid companion’s mad skillz at shooting from the car:

From right to left: we see Scarboro Hill’s nose; the Long Beach Peninsula containing Cape Disappointment; Point Clatsop; and Clatsop Sand Spit, as we cross Youngs Bay.  I told you we’d have quite a lot to say about Clatsop, and now that we can see a bit more of it, so we shall.  First, however, note the color of the water.  That, my darlings, is the sediment that will keep the beaches going for some time to come, and it will factor in when we begin to discuss what the Columbia River’s up to out here.

Clatsop extends all the way from Tillamook Head to here, not an inconsiderable distance.  It’s a huge spit of sand, sediment dumped by the Columbia and its companions and sculpted by winds and waves.  The Columbia River’s done all that in just the 8,500 years since the seas rose to their present stand.  Its growth has been somewhat slowed by all the dams on the Columbia River, but it’s going to be with us for some time to come, together with its companion Long Beach in Washington.  The two are part of the same system, sand trending south in summer, north in winter.  Since the winter southwesterly winds prevail, the sand moves generally north.

Clatsop used to be home to great tracts of migrating dunes before some tidy-minded people decided to put a stop to their shenanigans in the 1930s and planted grass and shrubs all over them.  Eventually, if things proceed as such things usually do, Clatsop’s shifting sands will become sandstone, preserving the layers of the dunes for the ages.  Old beach ridges running parallel to the coast will lithify as well.  Those ridges, marking old shorelines left (comparatively) high and dry as more sand got plastered to the beach seaward, are so straight you might think they were old railway embankments.  They tell a story of what the sandspit used to be, and are likely created as breaker bars that, like a sort of Pinocchio, aspired to being a real beach, and eventually collected enough sand to do just that.

Now, you may have noticed with some bays that the sand spits end up very nearly taking over.  In fact, they often do, and the area behind them fills up with sediment and becomes real estate.  If you look up and down the coasts of Washington and Oregon, you’ll find many bays in the process of getting cut off from the sea, with sand bars nearly sealing them shut.  All they’ve got left is an inlet, where the river just manages to cut through the bar. But not here, despite how the angle of this photo makes it look.  The Columbia River’s a strong river, though, and the vigor of its flow has prevented sand bars from getting a proper toehold.  It has not, however, managed to avoid the fate of most Northwestern rivers, which is to be nudged into a little northward bend at their mouths by migrating sand.  Look at a map of the coast, and you’ll see it clearly.

We’ll end this missive on Oregon geology with the continuation of the Missoula Flood saga.  When we left the Floods, they were busy pouring down the Columbia River through the narrows at Clatskanie.  By the time they hit Astoria, they were very nearly down to sea level, but they still had a ways to go.  Under the sea, they flowed through the Cascadia channel, through the Blanco Fracture Zone, and headed 250 miles further south until they dropped into the Escanaba Trough, a rift valley.  Wait, you say – the Floods flowed underwater?  Indeed they did, due to the sediment they carried.  That load of debris, fine as it was, made them heavy enough to flow as turbidity currents.  There’s only one word for the turbidite beds they left: megaturbidites.  Even so far away from their point of origin, even after traveling submarine for hundreds of miles, they still left deposits up to 39 feet deep.  And we’re talking sediments carried almost 500 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River.

Look back at that previous picture, at that faint brown tint to the water, and consider that the color is caused by suspended sediment from a river that’s carrying even less sediment than normal.  Now consider what the water must have looked like when the Missoula Floods poured through carrying enough sediment to bury a house, flood after flood, five hundred miles away.

Floods of water, floods of basalt, subduction zones, mid-ocean ridges, and pile after pile of sediment, all piled up and jammed together, made this area what it is today.  Even though most of that geology is covered by too much biology to be easily visible, it’s still astounding to look at, and incredible to contemplate.  And we shall be doing far more of just that soon, because we are headed down the Oregon Coast, where raw, nekkid geology’s on glorious display.

Let’s take one last look from the top of the Column, and be on our way:

Ye olde indispensable volumes of reference as the author was trying to make sense of it all:

Fires, Faults and Floods – one of the best roadside guides to the Columbia River Basin evah.

In Search of Ancient Oregon – simply the most beautiful book written about Oregon’s natural history.

Northwest Exposures – tying the whole shebang together in one easy-to-follow narrative.

Cataclysms on the Columbia – the book that truly helped me comprehend the incomprehensible.
The Restless Northwest – short, sweet, and yet comprehensive guide to Northwest geological shenanigans.

Roadside Geology of Oregon and Roadside Geology of Washington – indispensable references and inspirations.
Glacial Lake Missoula and its Humongous Floods – not only an informative guide to the discovery and history of the Floods, but an apt title, too!

Musical Monday, With Musings on Geological Research

I am fried. I know it looks like I was writing blog posts all last week, but actually, I’d written those in a frantic two-day session over the previous weekend. I’ve spent the week reading paper after paper in preparation for the biggest post of my blogging career. I don’t want to say anything until it happens, but watch this space for the news.

I’ve now finished reading. Notes are arranged, photos mostly chosen. I wish I could say I was eminently knowledgeable about my chosen subject, but it’s the bloody North Cascades. Confusing as hell when you scratch around beneath the surface. Still, I feel I’ve figured out enough to write semi-intelligibly, perhaps even semi-intelligently, about them. And I’ve rediscovered my adoration for the reading of scientific papers. You might be surprised when I tell you this, but one of my favorites was Brown et al, “Revised ages of blueschist metamorphism and the youngest pre-thrusting rocks in the San Juan Islands, Washington.” It’s beautifully written, and it’s fascinating – you’d think a paper about dating rocks would be boring, but it’s far from it. More like a geological detective story. And I will blog it one day.

Still. After reading what feels like four billion papers, and organizing notes, and staring at photos until my eyes bled, and staring at poor-resolution geologic maps of the area in question until my eyes hemorrhaged, and fighting PDFs and Evernote (who both thought playing silly buggers when I tried to copy and paste snippets would be ever so funny), then organizing a wild jumble of notes into something approaching order, I am ready for a damned interlude before I write. So in the pre-dawn Sunday hours, as my stunned thoughts realize with growing horror that I’m out of blog posts for the week, I take refuge in music, and invite you to join me here.

The Emma Shapplin channel has been my constant companion through all of this research. I can’t listen to metal while I read, so it’s a good thing there’s fabulous modern-day operatic yum to fill the silence, innit?

I just hope y’all like Secret Garden, because this version of “Gates of Dawn” has some absolutely stupefying, stunning, delightful geology in it, and if you watch long enough, you’re sure to recognize something you love. I saw Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, and the horseshoe bend in the Colorado River, for instance, of which I have very fond memories* and made me squee just then.

Also some quite lovely geology in this one, if only glimpses. I love Sleepthief, and “Tenuous” has quickly become one of my favorite songs.

For this one, the visuals aren’t quite so interesting to the geology lover. But Tarja is an immensely talented singer, and “Oasis” is gorgeous. Just sit back, close your eyes, and let your imagination fit landscapes to the lyrics.

Seeing as how it’s Emma Shapplin radio I’ve been listening to, and I bloody adore Emma Shapplin, I’d best include her. Once again, no geology, but this video for “Spente le Stelle” is artistically awesome. Besides, she looks quite a bit like my main character, so I’m fond.

Right. It’s back to the hard work after that lovely little musical interlude. Seeing as how I’m due in Oregon for some geologizing with Lockwood, this week is mostly going to be Vintage Verdad week, in which I post some old (and at times improved) favorites. Then there’s that super-sekrit special post coming up, which won’t even be here at ETEV, but I’ll direct you to it when it’s up. And there’s always a chance for some Oregon outtakes, free wi-fi at public establishments willing.

Have a wonderful week, my darlings!


*All right, so the story with the Horseshoe Bend: I’d gotten volunteered by one of the owners of the coffee shop I frequented in Page to show a dude from New Zealand around the area. Mind you, he’d never met this guy before. And he wanted to go out into the middle of nowhere. I seriously doubted the wisdom, but figured, hey. We’re going to Horseshoe Bend first. If he gets hinky, I can just trip him right over the cliff, which is hundreds of feet straight down. No problemo. Well, the dude from New Zealand turned out to be a perfect delight, a man getting ready to finish his PhD, and we had a roaring good time going round to all sorts of isolated beauty spots while he told me about life in New Zealand. Sometimes, it’s worth taking risks. And dearest John, with the kitten named Jesus and the roommate who named him that just to get rid of a proselytizer: if by chance you should be reading this, please remember my fajitas fondly and drop me a note, won’t you? I have yet more thousand-foot cliffs to not tip you over.


Moar Weapons-Grade Cute

My fellow FtBers have gotten involved. Wars, even tongue-in-cheek-not-really-hostile hostilities have a way of doing that. WWIII may not be fought with guns, but with pictures of fuzzy animals. No one will be spared.

At Zingularity, you can read The Truth About Cats and Dogs. That’s the neat thing about conflicts, sometimes: science happens. In this case, you can explore the evolution of cats and dogs, and get a disheartening view of what another 40,000 generations of artificial selection may do to felids. Shudder. I think it’s already happening – Tonkinese are, after all, known as cat-dogs for their doggish personalities. I can speak from experience: they are like having a canine in a feline body. My former roommate’s Tonk actually played fetch. Not the cat version, where the cat chases the object thrown and then makes you come get it, but the dog version, wherein the item is brought to you for further throwing. It was a sad sight. I expect cats to be more imperious.

Anyway. Natalie Reed is trying to divert us with lemurs, and hoping this cat-vs-dog atheist rift doesn’t cause a full-on schism. It shouldn’t. We have one important thing in common: we like animals. Except for those of us who don’t, but they’re not on this faux-battlefield, so who cares?

However, as chief of staff for a felid, I have to say that I believe there is no contest. When it comes to domesticated pets, cats are cutest. Also, the most evil. Evil and cute – how can anyone resist that combo?

Without further diversions, then, I shall unleash more weapons-grade cute from the arsenal.

Sleeping Kitten. I don't care what your argument is: it's invalid.

The following is a perfect illustration of the harmony between man and beast. Cat demands food, human gives food, or human loses face. Literally. Buddhist monks are wise enough to share the rice bowl when a tiger requests they do so. And it’s bloody adorable.

Thankfully vegetarian lunch

And if you’re very nice to kitteh, kitteh may just save your life, as this link from kdan59 proves. Suck it, Lassie!

Tejanarusa and Suzanne both sent me a link to the most devastating collection of images on the internet. I spent the next hour after reading melted in a puddle. You have been warned. The following image comes from there:

Sleepy Kitten Train

If that doesn’t leave you melted in a puddle on the floor, then you must be a dog lover, and there is no hope for you.

But cats do have some use for dogs, as this image from the same source proves.

Doggie Bed

They make decent beds.

All that, and I have not yet begun to deplete the arsenal. Mwah-ha-ha!