Unidentified Flying Dinosaur: You Guys Jealous of Seahorses or Something?

Winter generally isn’t my favorite season, but there are a few compensations. When the leaves are off and the plants have died back, you can see the geology better. There’s lots of night-time in which to write, which is awesome for a nocturnal person. The cat gets cuddlier the lower the temperature drops. And there are winter visitors. Like these little guys at Juanita Bay.

Image shows a bird with a brown wing, black back, white chest, black face, and white head that looks oddly like a moonpie with all but a single stripe of chocolate along the edge munched off.


There’s usually at least one group of birds around I’ve not seen before. I’m always on the lookout when we got walkies for something new (to me – one of you has probably already identified the above birdie). Our leisurely ramble around Juanita Bay a few days ago didn’t disappoint – these were very eye-catching specimens, both in appearance and behavior.

Image shows a back view of the same bird, showing off the white stripes on its wings.


There were two of the above variety, and one that I’m relatively certain is a female of the same species, based on the fact the guys were acting like idiots around her.

Image shows two males clustered together, looking toward another bird who is darker with a burnt-orange flare of feathers on her head.


It was getting on close to sunset on a cloudy day, so the light wasn’t the best, and she was too dark to really stand out well. But hopefully this shot gives you a general idea of what she looks like.

Image shows same female bird. The head feathers are much different, looking more like a mohawk than a moonpie, but she's of a similar shape to the others, with similar white stripes on her wings, and a nearly-identical beak.


The dudes were doing their best to impress, swimming around her, showing off. They’d swim a bit, then rear their heads up out of the water and curve their heads and breasts back, looking for all the world like avian seahorses. And they’d make a really odd noise I’m having a hard time describing. Good news is, I don’t have to! I took a video for ya. Just turn up the sound, and when they rear back, listen closely: you’ll hear a kind of hollow creaking noise.

That’s them. They sound like sound effects in this Pharoahe Monch song. (If anybody knows what that sound effect is, please enlighten me. It’s now driving me mad.)

Such birds add enjoyment to a winter excursion. Hopefully, we’ll see many more awesome birdies this winter. If global warming’s good for anything, it should be good for sending new and different birds our way, eh? Although these could be regulars I’ve just never noticed.

The whole trio, with one of the males stretching its neck.


I’ve put the full set up at Flickr for those who haven’t gotten enough yet. Enjoy!

Adventures in Christianist Earth Science Education IV-d: Wherein there is a Climate of Sneer

If you’re one of those whacky people who thinks the opinion of 97% of scientists counts for something, you may want to grab a stick, wrap it in leather or a leather equivalent, and place it between your teeth. One of those mouth guards for people who grind their teeth in their sleep would also work. A stress ball may also help avoid damage caused by clenching hands. If you’re prone to pounding surfaces when frustrated to the point of apoplexy, please acquire a pillow or punching bag before continuing.

Yep. ES4 is about to present itself as the voice of reason by misrepresenting, misconstruing, misunderstanding, and otherwise manipulating all the data they possibly can. Because God. Brace yourself as you’re told how to “formulate a Christian perspective of climate change.”

Image is a demotivational poster showing a polar bear in a zoo, on its hind legs, with its paws over its eyes. Caption says "GOD DID IT. Lalalalalala..."

They move very quickly to assure us climate has changed in the past. They also pose four questions that look reasonable on their face:

In any discussion of climate change and global warming, we need honest answers to four questions:

1. Is the earth warming?
2. If so, are people causing it to warm?
3. If it’s warming because of human activities, is that bad?
4. Will solutions that politicians and scientists suggest actually fix the problems?

Considering their tendency to put rational, well-evidenced answers to those questions down to “radical environmental bias,” I don’t think we’re going to get honest answers to those questions from this source. Of course, they claim this book can’t answer them. We shall see.

They certainly don’t hesitate with the right-wing speculation: See, for instance, this remarkable bit of Pollyanna thinking in their sidebar on melting polar ice:

The effects of changes in polar ice may surprise you. Many people are concerned that melting glaciers may raise sea levels to dangerous heights. But the results of melting glaciers may not be all bad. In the Arctic, the long-sought Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific north of Canada may actually open up. Icebreakers and merchant ships may be able to steam through Arctic ice in the summer. Around Greenland, oceans that are now ice-free for more of the year than they were before are exposing long-hidden sources of oil.

Unmentioned are several sobering facts which may have served to bolt their unbounded optimism to the floor, if they could be persuaded to accept any such thing as a fact:

Image shows a man in overalls leaning against a ramshackle wooden building, looking dejected. The hill beyond is  eroded into gullies; the whole area looks like a desert.

A farmer gazes at his severely eroded fields. Image courtesy USDA.

This is just a short list of the consequences either already happening or likely to happen as the ice melts away. There’s so much more…

So getting giddy over the prospect of Arctic shipping routes, lotsa drill-baby-drill, and an actually-green Greenland is like celebrating the prospect of celebrity if you should lose your legs in an historic thousand-car pileup on the freeway. Sure, junkyards will see a surge in available stock, and funeral directors will enjoy booming business, and you may have exciting opportunities as an inspirational speaker… but it would be better, on the whole, if the entire wreck was prevented to begin with.

All this wrong, and we’ve barely dented this section. Sigh.

Next we are treated to “A History of Climate Change,” in which we get the worldview bullshit slathered on thick and hot. Both old earthers and young earthers know the climate’s changed dramatically in the past, but the explanations obviously differ. One group explains the evidence by noting “global climate depended on the amount of continental surface area exposed above the ocean surface, the amount of heat received by the sun, volcanic activity, and even the kind of life existing on Earth during a given geologic time-frame.” Why, how silly is that, when every good Xtian knows Goddidit:

A young-earth view of history involves global climate change, too. God created a world completely suited for His purposes. It was a world with a climate ideal for life. But our sin brought God’s curses on the earth and all its processes. The earth’s climate drastically changed because of God’s judgement through the global Flood. We believe that the Flood set up the conditions for a global cooling period that produced a single Ice Age.

Since then, they say, outside of a few assorted mini-Ice Ages, the earth has gotten warmer and warmer. And the Bible sez it’ll keep changing! But don’t worry! Because Genesis 8:22! Here endeth climate history!

At this point, I would like to remind you that this utter poppycock is being presented as actual science to Christianist high school students. Kids who are, in fact, being told they can go to college and earn STEM degrees and become real live scientists after studying this nonsense.

This is nothing short of educational neglect and negligence.

And it’s making our survival as a species much more precarious than it would otherwise be. It’s this fucked-up fundamentalist thinking that’s got the United States shirking its duty on combating global warming, and arguably aggravating the problem. We’ve lost time we can never make up because of these people. And they’re the same ones who will ensure our politicians do nothing to help the people suffering the effects of their ignorance, yet scream like banshees if their own comforts aren’t seen to. They’re the ones sinking the boat, then taking every life jacket for themselves – of which there aren’t enough because they didn’t believe in the need for safety measures to begin with.

Gah. I’m too pissed to finish, and besides that, I have a feeling the BS factor is about to increase exponentially. Until next time…

New at Rosetta Stones: A Whole Hornfull of Geological Links!

I’m having one of those weeks where there are twelve billion things to do and less than 168 hours to do them once you factor in time to actually, y’know, sleep. But others in the geoblogosphere have been writing excellent content, so I’ve highlighted a few of them. There will be more! Like a whole post catching up with Evelyn, f’r instance. Who else would you like to see highlighted at Scientific American? Let me know your favorite geologists, whether they’re working on this world or others!

Image shows white rock powder in a silver dish on the rover.

Mars Curiosity with a sample of powdered Martian rock. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS, cropped by moi to show off sample.

Enjoy the first of what will become many-lots of posts featuring links to delicious geologic content written by some of the best bloggers around.

Dana’s Super-Awesome Mount St. Helens Field Trip Guide IV: Hummocks Trail

We’ve left the lovely breezes and rippling blue of Coldwater Lake; a road crossed, a tiny distance traversed, and we are in a rather grimmer place.

If you had been standing here in the North Fork Toutle River Valley on the morning of May 18th, 1980, you would have died. Never mind if you had your car carefully pointed towards a speedy escape. By the time you realized it was time to flee, it would have been far too late. There are people still entombed in the debris avalanche not far from here. This is the place to pause and reflect a moment on the power of geologic processes. Earth demands respect.

We’re about to hike over the results of a sector collapse. When a volcanic edifice becomes over-steepened and weakened, it can come down catastrophically. A major part of the mountain roars and tumbles down at incredible speeds. Clouds of dust and debris boil up as the mass churns and slides down-mountain. Some unfortunate valley is filled with hummocky debris. A volcano is left with an enormous gouge in its face. And this is without a lateral blast: what happened here would have been impressive enough alone. “Maclargehuge” is a word you might use to describe it, but when you get a good look at the thing from ground level, you’ll want something a bit stronger. I think “gigantinormous” will just about cover it, but should any other terms occur to you, please share them here.

Before you start down this trail, get prepared. It’s sunblock time. Slather that stuff on – I’ll not have my readers die of melanoma. Make sure you’ve got more water than you know what to do with. Yes, I know, we’re only going half a mile in, then turning back, but trust me on this. It will suck you dry if the sun’s shining. You are going to get baked without mercy. Shade is nearly non-existent. And what if you get all intrigued by the outstanding geology and decide to keep on till the river, eh? I’ll not have my readers suffer heatstroke and dehydration, either, so take as much water as you can carry.

Right? All right. Let’s go see some geology.

We’re going to take the trailhead on the left, following the loop clockwise. You’ll know you’re on the correct bit if you see an interpretive sign: the first quarter-mile has lots, and they repay a perusal. This is a scientific research area, so please do stay on the trail. There are scientific studies of the area’s recovery going on; this is a fantastic chance for us to see how the landscape evolves and ecosystems recover after a catastrophic eruption, so don’t muck it up. Besides that, this is an area you really don’t want to get lost in.

The early part of the trail moseys through some beautiful, lush meadows and baby forest. The tall grasses are tangled with abundant wildflowers, and skinny young alders partially shade everything. You can see hummocks under thick green mantles: notice their steep, almost conical shapes. Some are more rounded than others, but a lot of them look like debris piles dumped any-old-how – and that’s basically what they are.

Lovely meadow scenes along the Hummocks Trail.

Lovely meadow scenes along the Hummocks Trail.

You’ll soon see bare or sparsely-vegetated hummocks peeking from behind thin screens of trees. Some are too steep and too well-drained to support plant life. This is the kind of thing that makes geologists scream for joy, because we can actually see what’s going on.

Let’s pause a moment and get a handle on what we’re seeing. If you’ll recall from reading up on the subject, the gigantinormous landslide came down in three fairly distinct blocks. Blocks II and III are the ones that made it this far. They actually turned 90° to the west when they hit Johnston and Harry’s Ridges. The landslide decapitated the North Fork Toutle River and left a jumbled, lifeless surface behind. This particular lumpy terrain is a dead giveaway for a huge debris avalanche.

Debris piles too steep and well-drained for even the ubiquitous Pacific Northwest flora to conquer.

Debris piles too steep and well-drained for even the ubiquitous Pacific Northwest flora to conquer.

Those lumps contain quite a bit of Mount St. Helens’ history: watch for it as you walk. There’s some lovely pastel-hued rock, which is hydrothermally-altered dacite from domes erupted during the Pine Creek eruptive period. Black basalt and basaltic andesite were erupted during the Castle Creek period. The bluish-gray and reddish-brown andesites hail from the Kalama eruptive period. Young light-gray dacite comes from the domes formed during the Goat Rocks eruptive period. And you might see some brand-new breadcrust bombs: they surfed in on the debris avalanche. All of these varied rocks keep the hummocks from being a uniform shade of blah. There’s a nice sign along the trail that will show you where on the mountain all those bits came from. You can look from it to the crater and then the hummocks, and marvel that all that stuff from up there ended up way down here. And despite the chaos, geologists can actually figure out which is what and where. (I’d say hats off to ‘em, but don’t doff your cap unless it’s overcast. That sun is fierce. A respectful tap on the brim should do.)

Bits of Mount St. Helens' history. Can you identify their origins?

Bits of Mount St. Helens’ history. Can you identify their origins?

All of this stuff came roaring down the valley at incredible speeds. You don’t usually think of land breaking speed limits, but out in the center of the valley, it could’ve given a sports car a challenge, and possibly outrun the police. Consider: the landslide came roaring along at 150 miles per hour (around 70 meters per second). Porche’s lovely Cayman only beats it by 15 miles per hour – and that’s on a lovely smooth track, not a lumpy-bumpy river valley floor filled with enormous old trees. Also, landslides haven’t got sleek aerodynamic design. Wowza, right?

Speaking of enormous old trees, you’ll see a few buried in the debris here and there, some barely visible and some sticking up any-old-how. Like this giant one, here, which really makes you give your best Keanu-Reeves “woah!” That poor thing was probably treated like a pickup stick that’s got in the way of a bulldozer, which combined with the lateral blast, completely ruined its century.

Moi with enormous trees entombed by the debris avalanche.

Moi with enormous trees entombed by the debris avalanche.

Just beyond it, after you’ve wandered along between more hummocks and been treated to some truly spectacular views of St. Helens, you’ll come to the sign marking the junction with the Boundary Trail. Look left, and you’ll see a fabulous dike exposed in Johnston Ridge. This is a beautiful remnant of Tertiary-age volcanic activity, and an excellent reminder that our own belligerent beauty hasn’t been the only fire mountain on the scene here. The dike is big and sold, which means it formed a bit of a barrier to the debris avalanche here. You know what groins do to coastal sediment. Sort of the same thing happened here, with 16 feet (5 meters) worth of landslide piling on that (“upstream”) side of the dike relative to the other (“downstream”) side. And the way that debris piled on tells us it was moving at a leisurely 22 miles per hour (10 meters per second) out here on the margins of the flow. Which, come to think of it, still isn’t the kind of speed you want earth and rock achieving on its own.

View of Mount St. Helens from intersection of Boundary and Hummocks Trails. The Tertiary dike is on the left.

View of Mount St. Helens from intersection of Boundary and Hummocks Trails. The Tertiary dike is on the left.

This is a nice place to look out over the lumpy terrain and consider relief. No, not relief from the sun, although you’re probably considering that pretty closely by now. We’re talking terrain. So between the hummocked-up bits and the low bits, we’re talking up to 246 feet (75 meters) of topographic relief. And it’s got a distinctive appearance that will allow geologists to tell this was teh result of a mega-huge debris avalanche for centuries to come.

As the flow came down-valley, it was able to spread out laterally. Some of the resulting deposit compacted more than other portions, causing much more lumpiness. Then you’ve got your phreatic explosions leaving monster holes all over the place as water from streams and ice from ex-glaciers eventfully encountered hot rocks. New stream banks failed after the lahars roared through. And as time passed, chunks of ice that had survived everything else eventually melted, leaving kettles behind.

And changes continue, as change does. Erosion began having its say about 10 seconds after everything came to rest and hasn’t stopped since. The hummocks slump and ravel as gravity asserts itself. Rain carves gullies and causes debris flows, which change the face of the deposit. And Mount St. Helens occasionally contributes, although it’s been quite quiet lately. The land gives the sense that it’s a huge hunk of clay plunked down by a potter: the potter’s hands still knead it, prodding it toward the shape it will assume as time ticks on.

Time to head back, now, to the stands of slender trees filled with cavorting birds, and the meadows with their bobbing grasses and flowers. If you’re lucky, like we were, you’ll see a wee froggy scrambling out of the path, back to its peaceful pond. Life is assertive, and returns, enjoying the boundless opportunity to be embraced between catastrophes.

We’re about to come face-to-crater with the instigator of the most recent catastrophe. I know we’ve seen a lot today, but, my darlings: it is the merest prelude to what comes next.

Previous: Dana’s Super-Awesome Mount St. Helens Field Trip Guide III: Coldwater Lake

Next: Dana’s Super-Awesome Mount St. Helens Field Trip Guide V: Johnston Ridge

Originally published at Rosetta Stones.


Burns, Scott (2011): Field Guide to Mt. St. Helens north. Portland State University.

Decker, Barbara and Robert (2002): Road Guide to Mount St. Helens (Updated Edition). Double Decker Press.

Doukas, Michael P. (1990): Road Guide to Volcanic Deposits of Mount St. Helens and Vicinity, Washington. USGS Bulletin 1859.

Pringle, Patrick T. (2002): Roadside Geology of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and Vicinity. Washington DNR Information Circular 88.

Gnaughty or Gneiss Cards Ready for the Holidays!

Tired of mass-produced department store greeting cards? Are you wanting something a little unique for the rock-lovers in your life? Excellent! My first-ever greeting card design is up on Zazzle and ready for purchase. See if it’ll meet your needs. If so, getcha some!

Here’s the cover and interior art (the cards will be sans-watermarks, o’ course):

Image shows a cartoon Santa head, looking pensive. Santa's hat has a rock hammer on the white brim. Thought bubble says, "Gonna find out who's..."

Geologist Santa card cover.

Here’s the interior top:

Image is a photo of a lump of coal and a piece of gneiss. They've been filtered as a watercolor. Caption says, "Gnaughty or gneiss."

Card Interior.

I hope you like it! Visit the snazzy new Dana Hunter’s Gneiss Schist store on Zazzle and play around with the options. I’m afraid it’s the only product there right now, and probably very lonely, but there will be others as soon as I get some designs done. Let me know if you’d like this one on t-shirts and so forth. We can definitely arrange that! Zazzle has a ton of products – just let me know what you’re interested in.

If you’re curious about the rocks: the coal is a bit from Black Mesa in Arizona. The gneiss is a lovely bit of Skagit Gneiss, which is a delightfully sparkly variety of orthogneiss.

Given enough time and luck, B and I will also have actual hand samples ready to go in time for holiday shipping. So if you like the cards, but are looking more for a stocking stuffer or fun little gift, stay tuned. We should have some Gnaughty or Gneiss-themed rocks up on Etsy soon!

We could definitely use your help getting the word out. So please do share this link with the rock-lovers in your life. Thank you!

A Water Ouzel at Lunchtime, With Bonus Hygiene Footage

You confirmed our suspicions, my darlings – Lockwood and I did indeed see a water ouzel at Clear Lake. Bloody odd for a water ouzel – RQ says she can’t find any other footage of them swimming, and from what I’ve read, I do believe it’s rare behavior. I’ve seen them several times in the wild now, and I’ve never until that day seen them paddling around like any ol’ waterbird. Generally, they’ve been flying into waterfalls and walking boldly into swiftly-rushing water. Like Trebuchet says, it’s “quite amazing.”

Trebuchet’s remark actually reminded me I’d got footage of one at McDowell Creek Falls County Park a little over a year ago. Lockwood and I went there on a lovely May afternoon, and while we were kicking around one of the waterfalls, he spotted a water ouzel. We first saw one or two of them on a ledge up by the falls.

Image shows a water ouzel standing on a wet ledge of rock beside a waterfall.

Water Ouzel, Waterfall.

The little bugger flew straight into the waterfall, I swear to you. I think I even caught a shot of it – you can look here and see a dark little smudge to the left of the right-most branch hanging over the falls. It caught my eye because my camera shot that scene twice to get a better exposure, and that smudge wasn’t in the previous shot. The next photo has got the ouzel landing happily atop the waterfall. Alas, my camera thought we were doing branches, so the ouzel’s blurry. (Yes, I should get a DSLR, but I’m not fond of bulky cameras.)

Lockwood wandered down to the creek below the falls, while I messed about with the rocks and flowers a while longer before following. He pointed out another ouzel, or perhaps the same one, now fishing in the swiftly-flowing water downstream.

Water ouzel fishing in the creek. It's in a relatively shallow part. Behind it, whitewater is towering above it.

That is one brave bloody bird.

Alas, I didn’t get any shots of it walking underwater, and my luck wasn’t in whenever it buried itself in the whitewater. Lockwood got a shot that gets the point across, though.

Image shows the water ouzel in whitewater. Its head appears to be buried in the water, and a wave had broken over it in a splash of droplets.

Fearless Avian Menace to In-Stream Edibles, by Lockwood DeWitt.

The water flow was so fast and full that it looks almost fake in the videos I took. But there’s that bird, unconcernedly wandering around munching. Here’s a video I shot of it lunching for your viewing pleasure.

Of course, before that, it took its own sweet time getting cleaned up. Here’s the bonus video showing water ouzel hygiene routine.

And if you just can’t get enough of this ouzel, there’s a whole photo album full of it for ya. If fortune smiles upon us next summer, I may even be able to get you some more intense water ouzel shots. I fully intend to get back to McDowell Creek with Lockwood and B. I hope our water ouzel is there, washed up, and ready to demonstrate the full range of its native awesomeness for the camera.

Dana’s Super-Awesome Mount St. Helens Field Trip Guide III: Coldwater Lake

Right. On with our Mount St. Helens field trip extravaganza. We’ve brunched at Hoffstadt and got a nice overview at Castle Lake Viewpoint. Now we’re on to get intimate with a bouncing baby lake.

Stop 3. Coldwater Lake

This is an ideal place to be on a hot summer day. Easy little trail, lovely cool water, and unlike many places within the blast zone, there’s even some shade! In just over half a mile, you’ll see a wide variety of geology, some brand new and some a little more mature.

As you start down the trail, you’ll notice some rather large lumps. You’re walking on and alongside the portion of the debris avalanche that dammed Coldwater Lake. The tall lumps are hummocks, knobby little hills made up of bits that until recently formed the beautiful symmetrical come of Mount St. Helens. Chunks of volcanic rock, some quite large, peek out from a matrix of ashy, stony rubble. It’s rather like glacial till, all sorts of unsorted bits all jumbled together. You can tell it wasn’t transported by water not only because it’s not arranged neatly with larger bits sorted from the itty bitty bits, but also because water transport would have rounded off the angular edges. These are unapologetically pointy.

Get yourself out on one of the little docks that give you a good view of the lake. Here, the water’s shallow, and quite clear. Have a close look at the lake bottom. It’s telling us more about this lake than you may suspect, and I’ll bet you can puzzle it out. Take a moment to ponder.

Coldwater Lake's very rocky bed.

Coldwater Lake’s very rocky bed.

You’ve noticed that the bottom’s mostly rocks of all shapes and sizes, but virtually no mud. You’ll also have noted that this jumble of rocks isn’t your typical beach rock bed – their edges are pretty jagged, and there’s a big range of sizes. We’re on top of the debris avalanche here, and the lake covers the part of it that thins out toward the middle of the valley. We know there was a lot of fine-grained material in that deposit. So what we’re seeing here is water energetic enough to wash out the fine stuff, but too sedate to tumble the rocks. They’ve been left pretty much in place. This isn’t a body of water prone to roaring floods, strong currents, or storm waves.

But here’s a strange thing: logs. Many large logs, washed up on shore, much like the gigantic ex-trees you find piled on the berm of any storm-wrecked Pacific Northwest seashore. But why, if these waters aren’t able to toss rocks around, would they be able to give entire mature trees the old heave-ho? And without crumbly bluffs for those stately old forest citizens to fall off of, why so many?

Well, of course, wood floats, so it wouldn’t take a lot of mad wave action to nudge logs ashore. Notice the strand line isn’t very far back. As for where those logs came from, you’ve probably already realized they’re the remains of trees mowed down by the debris avalanche and lateral blast. Once it was reasonably safe to return to the area, loggers came in to salvage as many downed trees as they could, using tugboats to transport rafts of logs across the baby lake. The trees you see are some of the logs left behind.

Mount St. Helens from Coldwater Lake. Note the large log on the right, and the dense young trees growing happily on the delta, just in front of the ridge and our violent but beautiful volcano.

Mount St. Helens from Coldwater Lake. Note the large log on the right, and the dense young trees growing happily on the delta, just in front of the ridge and our violent but beautiful volcano.

Speaking of trees, you’ll notice a fine young forest growing practically in the lake between you and Mount St. Helens. This is the South Coldwater Creek delta, a fine bit of fluvial geology that started growing almost the instant enough water backed up to create Coldwater Lake. South Coldwater Creek flows behind that ridge St. Helens is peeking over, and heads into the lake. It’s carrying a goodly amount of stuff eroded out of the volcanic deposits it flows through. When it arrives in the lake, that sediment-laden water slows beyond the point where it can transport its load. Suspended particles drop out, forming the delta those trees have found to be such a happy home.

The delta would be smaller, but in 1985, engineers built a tunnel to provide a safe outlet for Spirit Lake. The water carried by that tunnel is deposited into the headwaters of South Coldwater Creek, increasing its power to erode. Coldwater Lake, only 8 kilometers long and 55 meters deep, will eventually fill in with sediment from the delta and other sources, becoming a marsh, and eventually an ordinary meadow. So enjoy this gem while it lasts.

Head on out to the end of the board walk, which provides you an unobstructed view out over the lake. We’ve lots of delicious geology to see, some of it older than the May 1980 eruption.

Looking toward the far end of Coldwater Lake, you can see quite a bit of hold (and cold) geologic action. Peruse the picture to see how much you can spot!

Looking toward the far end of Coldwater Lake, you can see quite a bit of hold (and cold) geologic action. Peruse the picture to see how much you can spot! Click for a larger version.

From right to left, you’ll see some peaks peeking up over the unnamed ridge between us and South Coldwater Creek. One of the tallest is Coldwater Peak, where geologists have set up an observation post to keep a close eye on its feisty young neighbor. The peak right in front of you is Minnie Peak. It’s not a volcano: it’s formed from the hard grandiorite of the Spirit Lake pluton, which intruded and cooled between 20-23 million years ago. You remember all the babbling I’ve done about batholiths, right? This is the same thing, only smaller, and it’s been uplifted a good distance – Minnie’s 1,711 meters (5,610 feet) high. She’s all carved and sharpened by glaciers.

You can actually see some cold glacial action close by. Have another look at our unnamed ridge. It’s got glacial drift plastered all over it – stuff left by the ice of the Hayden Creek glaciation, which was around 140,000 years ago. It’s kind of exciting to find glacial deposits that old – newer glaciations often wipe out traces of the old. And we know glaciers were here more recently. Take a look toward the narrows there in front of Minnie Peak and see if you can spot the lateral moraine.* Its from the Evans Creek glaciation, which happened only about 11,000 to 22,000 years before our times. You can see a big landslide scar in it – glacial deposits aren’t very well consolidated, alas, and gravity works.

All right. Look to your center-left. You’re seeing the long slope of Coldwater Ridge, and in front of it, the brown lump of an island. That’s a hummock, tall enough to avoid being buried by the rising lake waters. Its face is so steep that even our determined PNW plants can’t get a root-hold. It shows that the debris avalanche made it a fair way up the valley. I’ve taken to calling it Hummock Island, but if you come up with a suitably awesome name, we can switch.

Now for some rather more mature geology. Look at Coldwater Ridge, a little ways to the right of Hummock Island. You see outcrops of lava there, jutting from the flanks.

Layers of old lava speak of a long-vanished shield volcano, and crustal warping.

Layers of old lava speak of a long-vanished shield volcano, and crustal warping.

See how they’re genly tilted eastward? Those belong to the Pole Patch Syncline, a broad downwarp in the crust. To give you an idea of its size, its axis is around 25 kilometers (15 miles) away. The lava flows are basalt and andesite. Geologists think they were part of an Oligocene shield volcano, erupted on its flank sometime between 34-23 million years ago. Mount St. Helens is just the most recent volcano in a long, varied, and exciting area eruptive history.

Coldwater Ridge is covered in stumps, making it look like a ridge that’s decided not to shave for several days. You’ll also see logs lying about here and there. The ridge was being logged before St. Helens exploded, so you’ll notice some stumps are relatively smooth-topped while others are jagged and splintery. A pre-May 18 photo shows its top neatly shaved. The volcano finished what the loggers started, and then some.

You can spot the Coldwater Ridge Visitor’s Center, which will be a fabulous place to stop if you’ve got time on your way back. The vista of Coldwater Lake and Mount St. Helens is breathtaking. Take a moment to remember Gerry Martin, a ham radio operator working for the Washington Department of Emergency Services on the morning of the cataclysmic eruption: he died in the blast.

Take the other limb of the loop trail back to the parking lot. If you’ve come in summer, you’ll be treated to a riot of flowers growing happily on the hummocks. This part of the trail is a botanist’s delight. Don’t worry – geology gets its own back further down, where one of the hummocks is too steep and crumbly for much vegetation. This is a good place to pause and get a feel for the size of these things. No wonder they formed an effective debris dam. It’s pretty stable now: the channel that engineers cut to control lake levels in July of 1981, forming Coldwater Creek in the process, worked a treat. They monitored it for some time, concerned about the possibility of an outburst flood, but discontinued that monitoring in 1998 – the blockage is now so stable that it’s considered safe.

We’ve gotten a feel for the hummocks, see a quite young lake with a spiffy delta, and enjoyed some icy geology along with the hot. Now we’re going to leave the cool lake breezes and shady trail behind. It’s time to go walkies on the largest landslide ever witnessed.


*It’s at the center right, at the end of the ridge; it looks almost like someone dumped it there to build a road bed, dunnit?

Previous: Dana’s Super-Awesome Mount St. Helens Field Trip Guide II: Castle Lake Viewpoint

Next: Dana’s Super-Awesome Mount St. Helens Field Trip Guide IV: Hummocks Trail

Originally published at Rosetta Stones.


Burns, Scott (2011): Field Guide to Mt. St. Helens north. Portland State University.

Decker, Barbara and Robert (2002): Road Guide to Mount St. Helens (Updated Edition). Double Decker Press.

Doukas, Michael P. (1990): Road Guide to Volcanic Deposits of Mount St. Helens and Vicinity, Washington. USGS Bulletin 1859.

Pringle, Patrick T. (2002): Roadside Geology of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and Vicinity. Washington DNR Information Circular 88.

Darwin’s Geologic Sense of Humor

Looking for a sophisticated way to call someone’s grasp of geology rudimentary or primitive? Want to tell them they’re backward without coming right out and saying so? Charles Darwin has you covered:

His Geology also is rather eocene…

You can adapt this phrase to any creationist of any background or gender, as well as use it on people who think they know a lot about geology but actually don’t. If they get what you’re saying, it’s just possible they’ll be able to extract their head from whatever orifice they’ve got it stuffed in and reconsider their understanding.

Something tells me I would have enjoyed spending time with Darwin.

Here is the phrase in context, in a letter to Joseph Hooker:

…I have been very deeply interested by Wollaston’s book (‘The Variation of Species,’ 1856.), though I differ GREATLY from many of his doctrines. Did you ever read anything so rich, considering how very far he goes, as his denunciations against those who go further: “Most mischievous,” “absurd,” “unsound.” Theology is at the bottom of some of this. I told him he was like Calvin burning a heretic. It is a very valuable and clever book in my opinion. He has evidently read very little out of his own line. I urged him to read the New Zealand essay. His Geology also is rather eocene, as I told him. In fact I wrote most frankly; he says he is sure that ultra-honesty is my characteristic: I do not know whether he meant it as a sneer; I hope not. Talking of eocene geology, I got so wrath about the Atlantic continent, more especially from a note from Woodward (who has published a capital book on shells), who does not seem to doubt that every island in the Pacific and Atlantic are the remains of continents, submerged within period of existing species, that I fairly exploded, and wrote to Lyell to protest, and summed up all the continents created of late years by Forbes (the head sinner!) YOURSELF, Wollaston, and Woodward, and a pretty nice little extension of land they make altogether! I am fairly rabid on the question and therefore, if not wrong already, am pretty sure to become so…

I have enjoyed your note much. Adios, C. DARWIN.

P.S. [June] 18th. Lyell has written me a CAPITAL letter on your side, which ought to upset me entirely, but I cannot say it does quite.

Though I must try and cease being rabid and try to feel humble, and allow you all to make continents, as easily as a cook does pancakes.

See? He even closes his letter with Spanish! Someone call the Doctor and get the TARDIS over here so we can go visit this man.

Charles Darwin, circa 1881. Photograph by Messers. Elliot and Fry. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Charles Darwin, circa 1881. Photograph by Messers. Elliot and Fry. Via Wikimedia Commons.

(h/t Glenn Branch)

Unidentified Flying Dinosaur: Odd Behavior

A mysterious birdie goes swimming and diving for foodstuffs in the McKenzie River valley’s Clear Lake, Oregon. This isn’t going to seem like particularly odd behavior for a water bird, but it is if it’s what we think this UFD is. I won’t say much so as not to give anything away. You can judge yourselves from the pictures and video.

Image shows a dark gray water bird swimming with its wings slightly raised. It has a rather short, thin beak, so we know it's not a duck.


It was just a wee silhouette on the shadier side of the lake at first, and we watched it do the typical water birdy things without knowing what it might be, other than it definitely wasn’t a duck.

Image shows the dark silhouette of the water bird. It has jumped up on a log that crosses the lake there, and it walking about amongst the vegetation growing on the old wood.


Now we could see its shape a bit better, but keep in mind, it was pretty far off and we didn’t have the same zoomed-in view this photo has.

The water bird, still in silhouette, has a foot up and is plucking a bit of something from it.


It seems to be plucking a bit of plant from between its toes, there.

The water bird is now walking along the log.


In the above photo, we can now clearly see it hasn’t got webbed feet, but looks to have distinct, narrow little toeses. Rather odd for a paddling bird, innit? Yet when you watch the video, you’ll see it swimming and diving like a pro.

The bird is perched on one end of the log, looking in to the gap where the log has rotted away and water is flowing.


Finally, it’s moved to a sunnier area, and we can see it’s a charcoal gray, not black. Not the most colorful bird ever, but if it’s what Lockwood and I think it is, this is a pretty exciting sighting.

The bird is leaning over the side of the log, getting ready to pluck something from the water.


You can see the feet pretty well in this shot, and it definitely looks like there’s no webbing.

I don’t really have an excuse for including this next photo. I just think it’s cute.

The bird seems to be scratching its chest with its beak.


And here you can see some faint markings on the wings, like little white stripes, possibly, but very subtle.

The water bird is in partial profile and looks like it's gazing toward the camera.


I know what this little delight looks like, and when you watch the video, it’s behavior may have you exclaiming, “Is that a -?!” much like Lockwood did. Truth is, I dunno. So it’s down to you, my darlings. Watch its feeding behavior in the video, check out the photos, and decide if it’s acting just a smidge out of character for what it is, or if we mistook it for something else that’s acting perfectly normal.


New at Rosetta Stones: A Very Sweet Rip-Up Clast and a Happy Stone

Look, I’m regaining my ability to think geology! Woo-hoo! I’ve given ye a very happy stone within a turbidite sequence, plus my wonderful rip-up clast, which I love dearly. I was so excited to find this thing!

Here’s a view of it you won’t see at Rosetta Stones:

Image shows a hunk of light-gray sandstone with an oval of dark gray mudstone within it. The hammer is lying on the guard rail post beside it.

Mah rip-up clast, with rock hammer for scale.