Monthly Archives: May 2015

Our Little Planet

Mt. St. Helens showing a Lahar, a mud and ash flow that ran 50 miles downstream during the eruption.

Mt. St. Helens showing a Lahar, a mud and ash flow that ran 50 miles downstream during the eruption.

Stephen Hawking says we need to have to develop means to get off the planet when the Big One, whatever it is, is about to strike.  That is not terribly realistic, relocating several billion people to a place light-years away.  In other words, life on earth is toast.  Someday.In the meantime, life goes on.  It is spooky how we are fouling the planet.  We humans may create the need to get off this little ball without the means to do so.  In other words, life on earth is toast.  Sometime, maybe sooner.So, let’s deal with what we have while we can.  There are things we can do, but the means to act are part of a political process.  As long as politics is motivated by greed at the level it is currently, we are likely toast.  Maybe sooner.

The cliff that collapsed into a massive mudslide is seen covered with felled trees in Oso, Washington March 31, 2014. Recovery teams struggling through thick mud up to their armpits and heavy downpours at the site of the devastating landslide in Washington state are facing yet another challenge - an unseen and potentially dangerous stew of toxic contaminants. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT) - RTR3JE4A

The cliff that collapsed into a massive mudslide is seen covered with felled trees in Oso, Washington March 31, 2014. Recovery teams struggling through thick mud up to their armpits and heavy downpours at the site of the devastating landslide in Washington state are facing yet another challenge – an unseen and potentially dangerous stew of toxic contaminants. REUTERS/Rick Wilking (UNITED STATES – Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT) – RTR3JE4A

As individuals, we must do what we can, and get along with our lives.  We can help, and maybe stave off the inevitable to some degree.  We can respond to natural events.  Floods, earthquakes, tornados, landslides, hurricanes, those things we can react to and help.  We must do more than sit in the Lazy-Boy looking at the screen eating Doritos.  We can give money away, stir things up in meetings, vote, and give some time.

Well, we can do things until Yellowstone blows.  It is surprising how resilient humans are.  Ice ages, cataclysms, droughts, they may kill some and move others around, but the species has struggled on through it all.  We haven’t been around very long, however, and haven’t had to deal with any Really Big Ones in the blink of time we have been around.

The Yellowstone Caldera

The Yellowstone Caldera

The Park Service says the Yellowstone super-volcano is pretty safe, that most eruptions are limited lava flows.  But, someday, it will be like the last big one that created a caldera almost as large as the park.  The Snake River Plain in Idaho with all those lava flows is the track of the Yellowstone hot spot as the North American Plate traveled west.  The plate moves at about the rate your fingernails grow.  As it moves, it erupts.  It just takes a while.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, drought, all interest me, but I am most interested in geologic cataclysm.  One of my favorite potential geologic disasters is climate-related.  Years ago I read an article proposing that sea level rise could lead to the Gulf Stream moving over the continental shelf and invading the Arctic Ocean.  Europe would cool off with the loss of that warm water and the Arctic Ocean would thaw.  With all that open water in the north, evaporation would increase, snowfall would increase in the Arctic, precipitating a new ice age.

I haven’t seen much on that hypothesis lately.  Researchers seem to be concentrating on the rapid melting going on without Gulf Stream migrations, although the Gulf Stream does seem to be weakening.  There are just so many variables to consider.

Ash From a Yellowstone Eruption

Ash From a Yellowstone Eruption

With respect to the Yellowstone super volcano exploding and killing most life in North America, there is only one variable: when.  A couple of years ago I was on a ramble in Wyoming.  Fort Laramie was my destination, but on the way I looked for the Oregon-California trail wagon ruts along the Platte outside Guernsey.  The ruts are dramatic, going up from the river bottom to some higher ground.  They are axle-deep in some tan colored rock that looks like sandstone at first glance.  It is volcanic tuff from the last time Yellowstone blew.  The layer is four or five feet deep about 200 miles from Yellowstone.  That is a lot of stuff blown into the atmosphere.  All that material along with the CO2 and SO2 would kill most everything for many hundreds of miles.

The most recent volcanic eruption in Colorado was about 4500 years ago at Dotsero.  The entire San Juan mountain range is volcanic.  Huerfano Butte near Walsenberg is a volcanic neck.  There are eroded lava flows on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park.  There are lots of hot springs in Colorado.  Where is all that heat coming from?  Will the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool erupt?  Will Steamboat Springs’ boiler explode?

Landslides.  There is even one not far from Fruita on I-70.  Debeque canyon on the Colorado River is famous landslide country.  That landslide that killed three men outside Collbran last year is the same geologically.  Green Mountain in Lakewood has a landslide that destroyed several houses.  The Vail/Eagle River valley is good landslide country.  All it takes is a lot of moisture in spring. The canyons incising the front range are landslide prone.  All that rock will eventually find its way to Louisiana as mud.

The upside of all that landslide country is that it gives geologists and earthmoving contractors work.

There is a radioactive isotope of radon gas that is common in some of our Colorado rocks that houses are built on.  Basements become carcinogenic.  There is an anthropomorphic cause of radioactive basements as well.  In Grand Junction, uranium mill tailings were used as backfill around basements is some subdivisions.  More work for geologists, and a Superfund site.

Debris is strewn over an area affected by an earthquake and tsunami in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, March 14, 2011. REUTERS/Aly Song (JAPAN - Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT)

Debris is strewn over an area affected by an earthquake and tsunami in Miyako, Iwate Prefecture, March 14, 2011. REUTERS/Aly Song (JAPAN – Tags: DISASTER ENVIRONMENT)

Earthquakes.  Again two causes, natural and human-caused.  All those earthquakes in Texas and Oklahoma caused by injecting fracking water back underground have a Colorado history.  Rocky Mountain Arsenal outside Denver was used to manufacture poison gas for military use and later poison gas for agriculture.  They pumped a lot of the toxic wastewater down wells and set off earthquakes.  They stopped that.  The oil companies are not stopping.  Yet.

Colorado is earthquake country.  Making mountains, shoving rock around to make room for more rock shakes things up.  The Flatirons outside Boulder used to be flat.  North and South Table mountains are capped with basalt from lava flows.  These processes are still going on in lots of places.

The Rio Grande Rift is a Rift Valley stretching from Southern New Mexico to north of Leadville.  The earth is pulling apart.  Look at the San Luis valley, that is a lot of pulling.  It is still going on, but slowly in human terms.  There will be earthquakes.  The biggest quake-causing fault near Denver is the Golden Fault, formed when the Rockies were uplifted.  That uplift has happened about three times.  The mountains come up, get eroded down, come up again, get eroded again.  Will it happen again?  There seems to be some weakness in the crust around here.

What the Meteor Looked Like Impacting off Yucutan

What the Meteor Looked Like Impacting off Yucutan

There are asteroids out there that have orbits that coincide with the earth’s orbit.  It has happened before, could again.  I saw Charlie Rose interviewing Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and he mentioned the possibility.  We have the technology to deal with the the threat, but it will take a lot of money and cooperation.  Will it happen before we need it?  Will it be too late when the danger is imminent?  Ask a Republican.  I hope you sleep well tonight.




In the Path of Destruction


Mt. St. Helens Before Eruption

Mt. St. Helens Before Eruption

I started a post last week about volcanos, then I got sick, so here it is now.  I was inspired to write this because I follow the United States Geological Survey (USGS)and  the American Geological Society on Facebook.  The 18th of May was the 25th anniversary of the Mount St. Helens eruption.  Both organizations ran daily posts about the most violent volcanic eruption in the continental United States in recorded history.

The USGS quoted extensively from In the Path of Destruction, a book about the events around the eruption.  That eruption in1980 was the most violent volcanic eruption the United States has experienced in recorded history.

Start of Eruption.  Landslide

Start of Eruption. Landslide

Close to some big cities but relatively isolated, only about 56 people were killed.    The low death toll was also a result of the Forest Service, the local county sheriffs, and Weyerhauser Timber restricting access to the area around the mountain, a popular recreational area.

In the Path of Destruction has two sections, narratives of events before and during the eruption, and many eyewitness reports collected by author Richard Waitt, a USGS geologist present at Mt. St. Helens starting in March 1980, when the volcano started coming alive and throughout the eruption and aftermath.  Three weeks after the eruption he was in a bar talking to a man who had lived through the eruption and realized the stories of witnesses could add to scientific knowledge of the event.

This book is one you lose sleep over.  Do you remember May 18, 1980?  Those people do, their memories are as vivid now as my memory of the day Kennedy was shot.  Waitt interviewed a wide range of people from USGS geologists, pilots in the air nearby when it blew, campers, loggers, and local residents who survived.    Their stories are why the book kept me awake.  The author’s narratives are well researched and written.  He puts the science, events, and the human story into a book that will hold even those who are not geology geeks.

The Big Boom

The Big Boom

In fact as a geology geek, I found myself wanting more science.  That is probably good for most readers.  A big part of the story is the unusual behavior of the volcano before it blew.  There were hundreds of earthquakes in the two months before the big eruption, accompanied by venting, minor ash falls, and the formation of a small crater.  The strangest phenomenon was the formation of a huge bulge on the north side of the mountain.

The bulge grew about five feet every day, accompanies by swarms of small earthquakes  some of the USGS people thought were from magma intruding into the bulge.  The bulge grew, with vertical cracks forming on its face.  Some thought a major eruption was imminent, others thought it would be a relatively minor event.  Politics kept moving the roadblocks back and forth, with logging being allowed outside the immediate danger zone.  It’s tough enforcing a roadblock with logging trucks coming out of the closed area.

In 1980, eruptions could not be forecast.  In 2015, earthquakes can’t be forecast.  People wanted in the closed area to go to their cabins, to hike, camp, and fish.  We think of volcanic eruptions going up from a crater at the summit.  On May 18th, a magnitude five earthquake caused the bulge to slide.  That caused the mountain above the bulge to slide.

View of Mt. St. Helens from Mt. Margaret, July 27 1980 Devastation

View of Mt. St. Helens from Mt. Margaret, July 27 1980

The accounts of the survivors and witnesses of the eruption are what make the book so gripping.  For me events thirty five years ago came alive.  I won’t go into any of the stories.  Read for yourself.  The photographs and maps provide a useful context and show the eruption as it happened.  I continue to be astounded that one plate smashing into another at the rate your fingernails grow can produce events like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes like the one in Nepal.  There is lots of really hot stuff down there in our Earth, and if the crust gets weakened, here it comes.


A few weeks ago I was headed east from Gunnison up the Tomichi Creek valley.  The rocks looked sort of like sandstone, so common here in Colorado, but they just didn’t look right.  It dawned on me.  Volcanic tuff, just like the ash that blew out of Mt. St. Helens.  It happened here and in geologic terms, not that long ago.  Maybe 65 million years ago, give or take.



My Music

Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly

I was growing up when Rock and Roll was born.  Prior to rock and roll, popular music pretty much defined banality.  Then, the blues and the beat.  Early rock and Roll was not always great either.  There was a lot of bad stuff out there.  The radio stations had to fill their space, and Buddy Holly, Elvis, and the Everly Brothers would not stretch far enough.  The music was born out of the blues, and there were black musicians who kept the tradition alive with some innovative infusions.  A lot of the trash came from Phil Spector, with his wall of sound.

Like most things In our culture, the real stuff got co-opted by white men in suits.  The real stuff stayed alive, but you didn’t hear it on top 40 radio very often.  There were some musicians far away who did listen to the real stuff, and they infused it with their own culture.  The British Invasion began, and music changed again.  A tremendous burst of creativity came forth, almost world wide.  Today, it’s called classic rock.  The suits, however, got to sell their schlock alongside the good stuff.

There was a parallel trend during all this change.  The folkies were alive and well, with the real stuff, Judy Collins (From Denver), Joan Baez, and others. We also got the Kingston Trio-like commercial music.  The king of the folkies was a Jewish boy from Hibbing, Minnesota.  Not blessed with a great singing voice, he developed a huge following because his lyrics managed to define the mood of a restless generation.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan

Then, he went electric.  Bob Dylan and his legion of followers and contemporaries created music that inspired and motivated many of my generation.  There also was this war lots of people did not like.  The music led and we followed it into the streets.  It wasn’t just the music that created the cultural shift of the 60’s; the civil rights movement probably started it all.

There were some parallel trends in music during all this.  People still listened to big band standards, the Burt Bacharach’s were out there, commercial bubblegum polluted the airwaves, and Jazz stayed alive through it all.  The 50s and 60s were probably the golden age of jazz, taking its roots in the blues to entirely new places.  I left rock and roll for a while around 1959-1961 for jazz.  I guess I needed the blues.  Today’s jazz seems like Muzak with chords.

Classical music.  There was not much of a classical music scene when I was a kid in Fruita.  My introduction came from the Brumbaughs.  They had a piano, and used it.  Tedd, the older son, was my age, and two blocks away.  The Brumbaughs took me to a violin concert at Mesa College in Grand Junction.  Tossy Spivakoski was the violinist. (How can I remember his name?  It must have been around 1956.).  He was a well-known concert violinist, but I think he thought he was casting pearls before swine in the middle of nowhere. .  He hated any coughing or other noise while he was playing, and scowled at the culprits.  I liked the concert.

J. S. Bach

J. S. Bach

After my mother died, I listened to a lot of classical blues.  Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony is the probably the best musical lament of all time.  Classical, especially Baroque, is now my favorite genre.  Baroque seems to appeal to people with ADD. I can’t connect with the new stuff, pop is as insipid as always, and country is pop with a steel guitar.  The scene is so fragmented I can’t track it.

I am sure there is good music, I just don’t know where.  One place of genuine creativity that channels 60s protest music is Hip-Hop.  I don’t connect with the sound too much, I guess I am too old and white, but if you want to know what is going on in Baltimore, listen to hip-hop.

Yo Yo Ma

Yo Yo Ma

I can’t listen to classic rock, I have heard every song several hundred times.  Pop and country suck, so it is classical for me.  Recently Carol and I went to a Yo-Yo Ma concert at DU.  He is the most famous cellist in the world, and most of his program was Bach.  I was transported.  I have some old R&R in my truck, Bonnie Raitt, Dylan, the Cranberries, but it is mostly classical, mostly Baroque.  I am content with listening to music that has been around for centuries.  I am still a bit of a folkie, so that music is OK as long as there is no John Denver.

Rock and Roll in the Sticks

1958 Chevy

1958 Chevy

Western Colorado in the late 1950s and 1960s was a cultural backwater of the first magnitude.  I-70 did not exist, making travel to Denver at least two hours longer than now.  In Grand Junction, there was one television station and two radio stations.  The Junction had the Daily Sentinel newspaper, and Fruita had the Fruita Times, a weekly with stories about the bridge club.

Things were on the move in the land.  Rock and Roll had appeared, but not in our neck of the desert.  The only contact we had was the Ed Sullivan Show, which introduced Elvis to the world.   The local radio stations weren’t interested.  They were making money playing Patti Page, the Andrews Sisters, and Doris Day.  The raciest they got was letting Johnny Ray cry.

At first, we found Lucky Lager Dance Time on KNBC in San Francisco, but you needed a good radio, and there better not be any lightning between the Junction and California.  Then, salvation!  KOMA!  As soon as the sun was down, KOMA boomed in from Oklahoma City.  Rock and Roll ruled the sticks.  And the sticks were extensive.  KOMA dominated Oklahoma, New Mexico, Rural Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, and neighboring boondocks.

That radio station was our lifeline to the rock and roll youth culture developing in the country.  This was not the Beatles and the Stones.  It was Buddy Holly, Elvis, the Everly Brothers, all those Phil Spector bands, and some R&B, like Chuck Berry and Little Richard.   KOMA was top 40, no obscure bands, just the big stuff.  Yes, there was country and western, and Grand Junction even got a station later, but country was mostly confined to the pool halls and beer joints around 1960.

There was the KOMA band circuit.  There were several rock and roll bands that traveled the region, playing in small town Grange Halls, Legion Halls; anywhere the band could rent a hall.  Sterling, Roswell, Scott’s Bluff, Colby, Torrington, Hot Springs, Alliance, Garden City, Trinidad, all those little towns starved for anything from the outside world.  The only band on the circuit I remember was Spider and the Crabs.  They advertised their gigs on KOMA and kids came to the dances from all over.  KOMA made money from the ads, and bad rock and roll ruled the boondocks.

Several of us would buy a case of Coors bottles, go to Grand Junction, listen to KOMA, cruise all evening drinking beer, and throw the empty bottles at highway signs on the way back to Fruita.

Was that youth misspent?  No, not at all.  I am writing about it now, aren’t I?  Rock and Roll survived, and all was well until the mid-1960s. Here’s to KOMA in Oklahoma!  The station is still in business, still playing rock and roll.