Category Archives: Geology

Time

Time

Time

Time is relative.  It is all a matter of perspective.  It is said that realized beings like Jesus or the Buddha lived entirely in the moment, which connects them with the timelessness of being.  For mortals such as I, it is sometimes difficult to have a perspective greater than the next few hours.  Carol and I do a weekly plan, setting our schedule for that span of time.  For people in the corporate world, time usually means the bottom line for the quarter.  Children see summer vacation as lasting a long time; for us old people, it’s over in a flash. 

I seem to have several time perspectives.  In my spiritual life, I attempt to be in the moment and in the eternal.  In meditation, however, I find myself planning the next day or reviewing childhood events, not in some exalted state.  My everyday life tends to be day by day, checking the weekly plan if I remember to.  Often I can’t remember which evening I am supposed to cook. 

I have developed something of a longer perspective on life as I age.  I am shocked to realize that a lot of people were born in this century, which for me is a relatively short time.  Y2K wasn’t that long ago. I can remember Senator Joe McCarthy and the Army-McCarthy hearings when the country was experiencing  a right wing resurgence a lot like now.  That time ended, as will this one, probably in November.  I was in the Army when Kennedy was shot.  Obama is in year eight of his presidency; we have watched his daughters grow up.  As teenagers, I wonder if they think their dad is hopelessly clueless, even if he is The Man. 

Newspaper Rock, Utah

Newspaper Rock, Utah

My history professors talked about developing a historical perspective, to take a long view about human events.  To some degree I succeeded.  I can connect the pagan deities of Mesopotamia with elements of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.  Four thousand year old Greek myths influence our current thinking.  Because of the American Civil War, I dislike grits, sweet ice tea, deep fried fish,  y’all, and that strange flag.  Most southerners are wonderful people, but I am not one of them.  But, I feel a connection with the people who illustrated their world on the sandstone canyon walls of Western Colorado and Utah. Parents with children born in 2009

2009So, where are we?  From “Do I have to go to the bathroom?”, to what’s to cook tonight, to the doctor’s appointment Thursday.  From there, it’s my lifetime and all that has gone on, even to those kids born in 2009, when my pickup was built (with a faulty airbag).from there it is the span of human history as recorded by symbols such as writing, the digital cloud, or rock paintings.  Then I  go to archeology and the origins of humankind. 

Next is yours and my favorite subject, geology and the universe.  Time changes, from hours to days to weeks, years, lifetimes, and all of human history, all mere blinks in the span of geologic time.  Four billion years ago our planet was a ball of very hot rock.  2.7 billion years ago what is now Denver was part of an island arc similar to Indonesia headed for a collision with Wyoming.  Lots of things crash in Wyoming. 

65 million years ago this place was a sea bottom, with shale accumulating that runs from South Dakota to central Utah.  Denver has gone from a hunk of hot rock to an island, a sea floor, a place being buried in the stuff washing out of the Rockies as the glaciers melted, to a place with a lot of people and their accumulated toxic waste and a lot of used plastic.   

The planet and the universe will go on, with humankind gone, mostly as a result of their own folly.  What does it all mean?  Maybe what is important is the time I took this morning to watch a big hawk fly over the DU campus looking for a little critter to eat.

 

Perspective

Roman Empire

Roman Empire

As I moved along in my history studies I heard a lot about developing a historical perspective.  It means acquiring a long view about historical processes.  For example, how the civilizations on the Italian peninsula evolved from Etruscan influences to Greek colonies to the start of the Roman city state with a political system somewhat modeled on Greek city-states to a republic, evolving with the growth of the empire and the need to defend the borders which tended to generate a more autocratic government which became increasingly corrupt and unable to check the invasions of Germanic tribes which led to collapse and the Dark Ages.  How is that for a synopsis?

Just about every statement I made about Rome has been debated, supported, refuted, and revised for centuries.  It is my perspective, however, and provides a framework, however tenuous, for my thinking about the development of European civilization.  Many of the conflicts in what was once the Roman Empire and it’s fringes have roots over two thousand years old.  I draw on my views of ancient empires in thinking about current developments in our world.

Geology also requires developing perspective; probably more than history because of the vast expanse of time.  We think of two thousand years as a long time historically, but it is less than a blink in geologic time.  The earth is over four billion years old.  What we can think of as written geologic history, the  evolution of life forms leaving a fossil record, is 600 million years old.  The

2013 Colorado Flooding

2013 Colorado Flooding

2013 Colorado floods, viewed as a rare catastrophe, is only one of many thousands of similar events that carved canyons, moved rivers, filled basins that continue to subside, and provided habitats for ever-changing life forms.  Bring back the mastodon and the Sabre-Toothed Tiger!

Geologists think that Colorado was formed by island arcs similar to those archipelagos south of Asia colliding with the Eurasian continent.  Here, island arcs from the south docked on the Wyoming Craton, some of the oldest rocks in North America.  This happened a very long time ago, before life emerged.  If you want to see this transition I recommend the

Wyoming Stromatolite

Wyoming Stromatolite

Snowy Range road in Wyoming.  You can find stromatolites, fossilized algae.  These fossils predate the Paleozoic, and are older than anything in Colorado.  Yes, geologists use the word docked, if you can imagine India docking on Eurasia. The transition between the Wyoming Craton and the younger stuff is called the Cheyenne Belt.

Now here is some serious history.  Since Colorado became one land mass, mountain ranges have come and gone, oceans have advanced and retreated, new life has evolved and gone extinct, and the whole deal has skidded around on the earth.  All the skidding has moved at about the rate your toenails grow.  That is not very fast, but after a few million years it begins to add up.

Trail Ruts at Guernsey WY

Trail Ruts at Guernsey WY

One of the problems of moving in next to Wyoming is that Yellowstone is there.  200 miles north of Denver is Guernsey, Wyoming, home of some interesting human history.  Guernsey is on the Platte River and the Oregon-California Trail.  Hundreds of thousands of people traveled the trail seeking new opportunity.  The trail stays close to the river in most places, but at one point the banks narrow and the trail climbs up about 20 feet through what looks like soft sandstone.  The Rock is so soft the wagon wheels formed axle deep ruts.

Yellowstone Volcanic Caldera

Yellowstone Volcanic Caldera

The rock is not sandstone.  It is volcanic tuff, deposited by ash clouds from the last time the Yellowstone Supervolcano blew, about 640,000 years ago.  On the highway it is about 380 miles.  Four feet of hot ash from 380 miles away.  It must have gotten pretty nasty here in Denver.  That volcano is going to erupt again.  We don’t know when, but the magma continues to bulge and recede in the area around Yellowstone Lake, which formed in the caldera.  Now that is historical perspective.  I live in a place that is going to be cooked and buried some day.

For those of you in coastal lowlands, along the West Coast, near St. Louis, Salt Lake, or anywhere between Tibet and Australia, there will probably be cataclysms occurring sooner than Yellowstone erupting, but nobody knows for sure.

The Colorado Plateau Part Two

 

Colorado Plateau Country

Colorado Plateau Country

There is a lot of beautiful country on the Colorado Plateau, but there is the other side.  The term many use is the stinking desert.  My home town has an annual rainfall of about eight inches.  Before the Utes were run out and ditches were dug, the Grand Valley was a sparse desert.  The irrigation projects made much of the valley green, but north of the Highline Canal is the desert.  It is a fairly barren desert, not like the Sonoran Desert with its green saguaro cactus.

Mancos Shale Soil

Mancos Shale Soil

The soil, if you can call it that, is fairly infertile, high in salts, and high in toxic selenium.  It’s called the Mancos Shale.  The Mancos Shale, called the Pierre Shale east of the Rockies, runs from South Dakota to central Utah.  It is an ancient sea floor, Cretaceous in age, of the inland sea covering much of North America.  Shale is mud rock, laid down as the sea advanced and retreated over millions of years.

The lower part of the Bookcliffs and the valley floors are Mancos Shale.  In its natural state it is a scrub grassland, supporting small populations of deer, antelope, prairie dogs, sage grouse, cottontails, and some Bison.  When the Northern European Americans arrived, they saw grazing land.  The sheep and cattle came.  The ranchers did well for a few years, but their expectations were unrealistic for such a dry area.  Soon, most of the good grass was gone, replaced by cheat grass and sagebrush.

The area between Delta and Grand Junction is a prime example.  My father, born in 1903, lived in Grand Junction after 1918.  He told me that at that time, there were extensive stands of tall bunch grasses.  They are gone.  That desert is one of the most barren stretches I am aware of.  It is hilly, so irrigation water went to flatter areas.  It is close to towns, so lots of ranchers grazed their stock on the land.

Much of the Mancos shale country is BLM land today.  In the old days, the Land Office and the Grazing Service leased land to ranchers.  There were allocations on the number of head allowed on each segment, but there was little enforcement.  The grass mostly disappeared.  Thus, the stinking desert.

I-70 from Palisade to the west of Green River, Utah is on the Mancos.  Highway Six from where I-70 veers south almost all the way to Price is on the Mancos.  Travelers on those highways have the bare Bookcliffs and the bare desert floor to look at for over 200 miles.  Their impression was what tended to keep the canyon country to the south relatively isolated.  Locals had all that magnificent country mostly to themselves.

Art in Salt Creek Canyon

Art in Salt Creek Canyon

The a uranium and oil and gas booms of the 1950s built a large network of roads and opened the canyon country up for tourism.  Those flat deserts remain empty, along with the mostly shale country of the Bookcliffs and the Tavaputs Plateau to the North.

When I went to Arches in the 1950s, we drove down two tracks winding through the sand.  This year during the height of the season, cars were lined up literally for miles.  Canyonlands National Park is also crowded, people lined up.  I remember going there and often seeing no one.

From Green River to Hanksville is mostly flat, dry desert, with 70 miles from the highway turnoff to the Maze District Ranger Station in Canyonlands.  The greater part of Navajo country in southern Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona is fairly flat desert.  Monument Valley is flat desert that happens to have some rocks sticking up.  Have you ever driven from Albuquerque to Flagstaff on I-40?  Flat desert.

Henry Mountains

Henry Mountains

The Colorado Plateau does have some other features.  Mountains, tall, green, and wet, supplying water to the desert.  Three ranges of mountains, the La Sals near Moab, the Abajos, known to locals as the Blues, and the Henry Mountains, near to nowhere.  The La Sals are the tallest, over 12,000 feet.  The Abajos and the Henrys stretch to 11,000 feet.  They stand in contrast to the red rock country surrounding them, and provide a welcome relief.  People go there in summer to cool off and enjoy the wildlife.

Geologically, the mountains are Laccoliths, formed by a neck of molten magma rising to a weaker junction between two layers of sandstone.  At that junction the magma moves laterally, forming a mushroom shaped dome of igneous rock in the domain of sandstone.  The overlying strata usually erode away, leaving the igneous core.  The Henrys are the type location for Laccoliths, being the subjects of the earliest study, and displaying the domed shape.

Salt Creek Canyon

Salt Creek Canyon

The three ranges are important to ranching, providing water, hay farming, and a summer range, with the stock wintering on the desert.  Salt Creek, draining north from the Blues, has a canyon with year-round water, arches, and Ancestral Puebloan ruins and rock art. The canyon also provides access to a park in the midst of the Needles District of Canyonlands.  I like that park because it was never grazed.  It provides a look at the land before cattle came, trampling or eating everything, mangling stream banks, and bringing alien species like cheat grass.  No I won’t tell you where it is.  Go look for yourself.

 

The Colorado Plateau Part One

Colorado Plateau Scenery

Colorado Plateau Scenery

I am a child of the Colorado Plateau.  I was born and grew up in Fruita, Colorado, and still think of Fruita as home, although I have lived along the Front Range of Colorado most of my life.  The Grand Valley of the Colorado River is near the Grand Hogback, the eastern extent of the plateau in that area.  The Grand Valley is green due to irrigation, but the annual precipitation averages around eight inches a La year, fairly typical of the Plateau.

I am sure that the center of the universe (well, my universe) is somewhere within 100 miles from the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers.  It is fitting, therefore that the Plateau is somewhat unique geologically.  All those striking layers of varicolored rock formed into spectacular scenery by the work of the Colorado River and its tributaries are relatively undisturbed compared to the Plateau’s neighbors, the Rocky Mountains,  the Basin and Range, the Wasatch and Uintah mountains and the  Mogollan Rim in Arizona.   Pretty neat neighbors, eh?

Those places have been folded, faulted, stretched lifted, collapsed, and otherwise deformed.  The Plateau, on the other hand has remained relatively stable through much of geologic time.  It is this big slab, poked, lifted, twisted, drowned, buried, and eroded several times but still mostly intact.  There were just enough deformation and intrusion to make things interesting.

The reasons for this stability are still somewhat controversial, bit have to do with the Pacific Plate coming our way and north at about the rate your fingernails grow, and the North American Plate headed west at about the same speed.  At different times they have behaved in different ways that, coupled with the somewhat thicker crust under the Plateau, have resulted in this unique region.  I don’t have the space or understanding to explain all those processes, but we can see the result.

An interesting fact is that the entire plateau seems to be rotating clockwise as the Pacific Plate grinds along northward.  That movement is also what is pulling the Basin and Range province apart.  Don’t look for any big changes next week.  This process is really slow.  While all this plate movement is going on, our friends the Green and Colorado rivers just keep digging.  On rare occasions you can see the digging, when there are exceptionally big thunderstorms during the summer monsoon.  A lot of stuff goes into the rivers then.  Today, Lake Powell is catching it, and will become one huge mud flat until the dam eventually fails.

Looking at all these processes requires a different sense of time than how we live from day to day.  In geologic terms, sixty million years (60ma) is relatively brief.  We think of our world as stable (unless you live in the Bay Area) but in truth, everything is on the move, it is just a bit slow.

Upheaval Dome

Upheaval Dome

The Colorado River will eventually bring the entire plateau down to sea level.  Look at Grand Canyon or any of the tributary canyons to see how it works.  My favorite is the San Juan.  Some fine canyons and not as cluttered up with people.  Another place to see the processes of change is Upheaval Dome in Canyonlands National park.  A great big rock came along and smashed down, forming a huge crater and shaking everything up for a long way around.  You can see rocks turned to waves from that hit all the way to Dewey Bridge.

That big crater tried to form a lake, but it is dry there.  The water did make its way to the river, cutting as it went, and now the crater has an outlet.  The crater will get bigger as the cliffs erode back until it is just a depression, then, gone.

There is a plug of gypsum in the crater.  When all that rock was blown out by the impact, the pressure on the stuff under the crater was lowered.  Some of that stuff down there is salt, known as the Paradox Formation, which can flow.  The salt goes into the river, but gypsum isn’t quite as soluble and there it is.  The salt is from an ancient sea that alternated between filling and drying up as sea level rose and fell.  That left a lot of salt which was then buried under a lot of rock.

The Dolores River Leaving the Paradox Valley

The Dolores River Leaving the Paradox Valley

That salt moving around and being dissolved is responsible for much of the scenery in the Moab and surrounding areas.  As it dissolves, some of the overlying rock drops down, creating some fairly large valleys.  Paradox Valley, Sinbad Valley, Lisbon Valley (uranium, oil, and gas), Spanish Valley (Moab), Castle Valley, Fisher Valley, are all big grabens.  They are big blocks that dropped down as the salt leached away. Paradox Valley and Spanish Valley have rivers coming out of a canyon on one side, and going across the valley into a canyon on the other side.  Moab has the Colorado, Paradox has the Dolores.  That makes for some fine scenery.

Paradox Salt Disrupting Things

Paradox Salt Disrupting Things

The fins and arches in Arches and Canyonlands come from the same process on a smaller scale.  All that magnificent scenery is a result of that ancient sea floor full of salt being buried by a colorful succession of rocks that the rivers and the wind could work on.

An exception to the salt influencing the process resulting in fins and arches is Rattlesnake Canyon in Colorado near Fruita.  The river is solely responsible for the work.  The arches are just as cool, and not all full of people.

Next time, some of the other interesting things about the Colorado Plateau, one of the most interesting places on the planet.

The Bookcliffs and the River

 

Bookcliffs

Bookcliffs

The Book Cliffs are the neglected stepchildren of Western Colorado and Eastern Utah. That is somewhat ironic, because they stretch from Palisade and Mt. Garfield about 200 miles to Price, Utah. Rising about 1000 feet from the valley floor, they are the longest escarpment in the world. Above the Book Cliffs is a bench With the Roan Cliffs forming another escarpment  Behind the cliffs is the Roan Plateau, rising to about 8000 feet in elevation. With the wide change in elevation and precipitation from eight inches annually to around thirty, there is wide diversity in plant and animal life. There are energy resources as well. Natural gas, tar sands, oil, coal, and that huge deposit of oil shale.   The region is known as the Tavaputs Plateau.

The plateau is home to the Desolation Canyon Wilderness and due to the wide range in elevation and precipitation, a diverse range of plant and animal life. There are three reasons why the area is not very popular with visitors.

First, look south. Colorado National Monument, Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Grand Canyon National Parks. There are the three mountain ranges and all that wondrous red rock carved into some of the best scenery on earth.

Next, accessibility. Douglas Pass is the only paved road in the vast area. The many dirt roads are accessible only as long as they are dry. Traditionally, the only people there were stockmen and the Utes on their reservation. In recent times there has been much energy-related activity that comes and goes.

The third reason? Shale. It is not only shale, there are layers of sandstone, even limestone. It’s all gray or shades of tan. Driving on the drab Mancos shale landscape of I-70, looking north you see drab cliffs. More of the same gray rock, just standing up. Roads built on that shale changes into some of the most slippery substances known after a rain or snow.. People are just not inspired to go there.

Growing up in Fruita, Colorado, I spent quite a bit of time in areas on either side of the Douglas Pass road, which was gravel and dust at the time. We had rancher friends, and deer season was a big social scene. It is wild, mostly empty country, home to lots of cattle, some sheep, a few ranchers, and a lot of wildlife. It is also famous for some of the most treacherous mud in the world. There are some sandstone lenses (we called them rims), but it is mostly shale, a former lake bottom that now sits thousands of feet above the Grand Valley, where the people live.

Colorado National Monument.  Bookcliffs on the horizon

Colorado National Monument. Bookcliffs on the horizon

I used to look at the Colorado National Monument with its red rocks to the south. To the north were the relatively drab Bookcliffs with the whitish Roan Plateau above them. Why the difference? The Monument is famous, with lots of information about the Uncompaghre Uplift lifting the Uncompahgre Plateau thousands of feet compared to the Grand Valley. As the plateau, erosion took the more recent rocks off, leaving the more resistant sandstone.

I thought some sort of uplift must have formed the Bookcliffs. Well, partly. When the entire Colorado Plateau was uplifted at the same time as the Rockies, The Colorado River just dug away, carrying the eroded rock to the sea. It is still digging, and is eroding those Bookcliffs to the north. Under the Bookcliffs are the rocks of the Monument. Someday the land will be fairly flat between Grand Junction and Craig. We won’t be around, however. These things take time.

So, the Colorado Plateau was uplifted and after that the Uncompahgre Plateau went up some more and wore down. The rocks exposed at the Monument are, a few miles north, well below the rocks of the Bookcliffs who are headed north as the river gnaws away. The Colorado River rules, it is just a bit slow.

Backpacking in the San Juans

Getting Off at Needleton

Getting Off at Needleton

My backpacking days are over.  I’m old, I have a titanium knee, and I hurt in lots of places.  The inspiration for this piece is Reese Whitherspoon’s Wild.  The movie is about a woman who decided to pull her life together by backpacking the Pacific Crest Trail.  She did it and found herself on the way.  I didn’t find myself backpacking, but had some experiences that are still with me.  I even had some parallel experiences, the main one being: don’t go on a long backpack with boots that don’t fit unless you enjoy pain.

On a long trip through the San Juans, my boots were too small.  We took the narrow gauge train from Durango to Needleton, just a stop on the line halfway to Silverton.  We got quite a few looks from the flatland tourists as we got off for a trail into a canyon a long way from anywhere.  From the trailhead it was several uphill miles to Chicago Basin in the heart of the Needle Mountains, where we planned to spend some time.

Don't Buy Them Too Small

Don’t Buy Them Too Small

About halfway, we came across some guys helping their friend with a badly sprained ankle to get to the railhead.  He was in serious pain, unable to put any weight on his ankle.  His friends were looking pretty strained.  That first trail is where I began learning about my boots.  It was the seventies when you had to have those massive European climbing boots for a walk in City Park.    I think I spent something like $200.00 for them.  I was determined they would fit OK once they were broken in.  Hint: those things could be so worn out the soles are falling off, but they won’t be broken in.  There was only one thing to do, keep walking.

Chicago Basin

Chicago Basin

Chicago Basin was miraculous.  It is a large glacial basin ringed by mountains, three of them fourteeners.  Windom Peak, Sunlight Mountain, and Mt. Aeolus.  The area is full of thirteeners, not as famous, but challenging.  It is steep country.  Most of the San Juans are volcanic, but the Needles are the cores of ancient mountains, much older than the relatively recent volcanos.

In the 1970’s, the United States Geological Survey was changing from 15 minute topographical maps to 7 1/2 minute maps.  The map for the Needle Mountains was somewhat behind in the revisions.  It was published in 1900.  No color, no modern changes to man-made features, but still useful for navigation. 7 1/2 minutes is roughly 7 miles.  It is possible to walk through the area covered in one day.  The Needle map was 15 minutes with a note to add eight feet to each elevation.  No GPS in those days, just triangulating from one peak to another.

The Needle Mountains are one of the most remote mountain ranges in Colorado.  A big glacier once sat in that basin at the foot of those mountains and ground away for a long time.  There are lots of places in the Rocky Mountains with great views, and Chicago Basin is right up there.  The other good thing is that it is hard to get to.  Keeps the riffraff out.  We had the basin to ourselves, even during the backpacking boom.

Columbine Pass

Columbine Pass

As a bonus, the weather was good.  When it was time to leave, we thought a good breakfast was in order.  Pancakes and coffee.  Lots of both.  We struck camp and headed over Columbine Pass.  The trail switchbacks up that glaciated wall to a summit over twelve thousand feet high.  Hint number two: don’t climb a steep trail at high altitude with a stomach full of pancakes.  They didn’t feel like pancakes, they felt like lead in there.  I guess suffering is one of the aspects of backpacking.

The descent led us to Vallecito Creek, and a long hike to Vallecito Reservoir, where my father gave us a ride to the car in Durango.  Now, it is day hikes or four wheeling.  The knees are the first to go.

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.

 

 

 

Nuking Western Colorado

Gas-rigcolorado

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Project Plowshare, a U.S. government program was created to develop peaceful uses for nuclear detonations. The program led to three trials in rural Western Colorado designed to release natural gas from tight geologic formations that contained large amounts of natural gas.  The gas was there, but was difficult to recover because it would not readily flow to wells.  Nuclear fracking, in other words.

The idea was to fracture large amounts of rock releasing the gas for use. Fracking was in use in that era, but the area fractured around a well hole was fairly small, limiting the amount of gas freed.  This would remain the case until horizontal well drilling was developed, resulting in a boom in natural gas production.

The use of atomic explosions somewhat larger than the one that destroyed Hiroshima would fracture a large amount of rock, liberating huge amounts of gas.  There were three experiments.  All three were somewhat successful, yielding gas in recoverable amounts.  Big surprise, the gas was radioactive and remains so.  A study indicated that the level of radioactivity released in a California home, when blended with gas from other sources, would be well below the dose we receive from background radiation. People would have none of it.  No one wanted radioactive natural gas coming into their home at any level.

Western Colorado, source of much of the uranium used in nuclear bombs, had three detonations in a doomed experiment.  The most casual of examinations of the proposal to liberate gas from tight strata would raise the radioactivity question.  It took millions of dollars to prove the obvious: radioactive natural gas.

Some shots were done at the Nevada test site to explore using bombs to excavate.  Huge amounts of radionuclides were released, affecting generations of downwinders, especially in St. George, Utah.  Our nuclear tragedy started in New Mexico with the first Trinity detonation that led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It continues today, with all the radioactive spots around the planet and the people sickened and killed by fallout.

Most historians assert that President Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki ultimately saved lives.  What they did do was trigger the nuclear arms race with its terrible consequences.  Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have shown that nuclear power is risky as well.

My first literary effort was a story I wrote while a student at Mesa College in Grand Junction, Colorado in 1966.  Project Rulison was in the works, and my story depicted an even greater failure.  The blast sent radioactive oil into a previously unknown aquifer that opened into the irrigation canals that provide water to Grand Valley farms.  Radioactive oil in Palisade, Grand Junction, Fruita, and the rest of the valley, rendering it uninhabitable.  Pure fiction, but a fun story.

FrackingSite_1415936638313_9585695_ver1_0_640_480Come up to today, and fracking is still controversial. I think the legacy of Project Rulison is stalking the oil and gas industry to this day.  Somehow the industry did not get it that bad practices will catch up with them, despite the API’s slick commercials.

Freezing on Deadman’s Hill

Deadman's Hill Lookout Tower

Deadman’s Hill Lookout Tower

I did a ramble to Deadman’s Hill and some other places. I did survive, but it was not easy.

Deadman’s Hill is west of Redfeather Lakes on a road that ends on the Laramie River road.  This is one of the more remote mountain areas east of the Continental Divide in Colorado.  Redfeather is a resort community northwest of Fort Collins and north of Rustic, in Poudre Canyon.  There are lakes, a store and post office, a restaurant, and many cabins.  There is a year-round population of about 250 people.  It is a bit funky, and nothing like the ski resorts with their upscale condos.

I went to Colorado State in Ft. Collins, lived there for several years, and never got to the area.  I have had Deadman’s Hill on my list, and tried to go over the road last spring.  Alas, the road is closed from December to June.  I was too early, but not too early to see a bear feeding in a meadow just before the closed gate.

I went back last week, the road was open and well graded.  It climbs through a Lodgepole Pine forest to a spur leading up to a fire lookout tower that has a view of most everything from Rocky Mountain National Park to Wyoming and from the plains to the Rawah Wilderness in the Medicine Bow mountains.

From the lookout tower I went down the hill a ways to a long meadow looking right at the Rawahs.  A little creek ran through the meadow and a pair of bull moose would drift out of the timber, feed for a while, and move back into the trees.

Meadow With the Rawah Mountains

Meadow With the Rawah Mountains

I got the tent up just in time for the first rainstorm, and had another storm a couple of hours later.  A pleasant and lovely late afternoon, with the solitude I always seek in the back country.

If it is not raining steadily, I set up my cot outside, with the sleeping bag inside a canvas bedroll along with a wool blanket.  I slept for a short while, got up to pee, got cold and stayed that way for the rest of the night.  I reached outside the bedroll and felt a layer of ice.  It seemed like my feet were as cold as those snowfields on the flanks of the Rawahs, and the rest of me had just come out of the water draining the snowfields.

I tried a few things that helped my body a little, but my feet got colder every time I left the sleeping bag.  Oh, and the sleeping bag zipper jammed.  No sleep, much misery.  At about 4:30 AM I climbed into my pickup and ran the heater to warm up.  Everything in the cab of that truck is lumpy or pokes you if you are trying to sleep.

At 5:30 I threw everything into the bed of the truck and went down the hill to the Laramie River road.  From there I went north to Woods Landing Wyoming, hoping to find coffee and food.  Closed.  On to Mountain Home, Wyoming, nothing there.  I went west to the road from North Park Colorado into Wyoming and south to Walden.

I found coffee, heat, food, and a semblance of civilization.  There were four old guys, retired ranchers from the look of them, sunning themselves on the patio in the 45 degree morning.  I saw some bicycles parked nearby and asked them if the bikes were theirs.  One shook his head, taking me literally at first.  None of them had been on a bicycle in at least 60 years.  You don’t ride bicycles if your headgear is a cowboy hat and your shirts have snaps, not buttons.

The bicycles belonged to some city folk having breakfast and fixing a flat tire.  They were in their 60’s.  Hardy people there, in Jackson County.

From Walden I went back north along the North Platte River into Wyoming.  The Platte and Laramie River valleys are what I think of as mountain ranch country.  Irrigated hayfields and pastures flanked by sagebrush hills rising into the timber.  Everyone waves at you.

Snowy Range

Snowy Range

I then went east over the Medicine Bow Mountains, capped by the Snowy Range.  This is one of my favorite drives.  The mountains are snowy white, jagged, and have lovely lakes at their base.  The white rock is 4 billion year old quartzite, older than anything in Colorado.  Just off the highway on the way to a campground are some stromatolites, or petrified algae, some of the oldest evidence of life on earth.Deadmans Hill 2014 012

I had lunch in Laramie and decided to return to Redfeather and get a cabin for some sleep.  There were no cabins available, so I went to Poudre Canyon, where a cabin was too expensive.  By that time I was so tired I just went home.  A tired, cold trip in some fine country.

Geology on The Highway of Legends

Spanish Peaks and a Dike

Spanish Peaks and a Dike

I went on a tour of Southern Colorado’s Highway of Legends with a group from Colorado’s Cherokee Trail chapter of the Oregon California Trail Association. Berl Meyer, our chapter president, summers in Cotopaxi, on the Arkansas River.  He rambles around Colorado looking at the geology and the mountains.  He is from Kentucky, so has a need to get away from relentless green.

Berl organized the trip, having us meet in La Veta.  For me the trip had two segments.   Colorado geology is one of my interests, and the Highway of Legends country has some world famous geology.

The Spanish Peaks south of La Veta, are relatively recent (geologically) igneous intrusions that rise to over 12,000 feet in elevation.  Located fairly far east for the Rockies, they served as important landmarks for early explorers and travelers.  When the intrusions barged in, they bulged and fractured the existing rock layers, and a series of vertical dikes radiate from the mountains.

Cucharas Pass is between the Spanish Peaks and the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  At 9,995 feet, it is another lovely Colorado mountain pass.  There are lots of dikes, and on the south side of the pass is Stonewall, at first look another dike, but this feature is a vertical wall of Dakota sandstone, pushed on edge by the Spanish Peaks uplift.

???????????????????????We had a startling encounter at Stonewall.  We had stopped for a break and to look the stone wall over when we had a visit from a Greek god.  Most people don’t know, but the gods are still with us.  They travel the world keeping track of events and people.  This particular Greek god is one of the lesser ones, namely Hermes’ great uncle.  The photo shows him as he was leaving.

The road then enters the coal country west of Trinidad.  There is lots of history in that area, and a world famous geological feature.  On the road to Trinidad Lake just outside Trinidad is  an exposure of the K-P (formerly K-T) boundary that marks the end of the Mesozoic era and the beginning of the Cenozoic, or modern era.  It is called the K-P because it is the boundary between the Cretaceous period and the Paleogene period.  Below the boundary, dinosaurs.  Above the boundary, no dinosaurs.K-T Boundary

The boundary is a narrow band of whitish clay that fell when an asteroid struck off Yucatan and threw a tremendous cloud of material into the atmosphere, blocking the sun and cooling the entire planet.  75% of life on earth perished, including the dinosaurs.  In a road cut on the way to the lake you can put your hand on the boundary.

There are exposures in many places around the world, including North Table Mountain in Golden, but this one is the most accessible.  I have wanted to go there for a long time.

We went to the San Luis Valley, over La Veta Pass from La Veta.  The valley is our own rift valley, formed as the movement of the Pacific tectonic plate drags some of the North American plate north.  The motion pulls things apart, and a big block subsided, forming the rift valley.  The Arkansas River north of Poncha Pass and the Rio Grande River mark the rift. (Real geologists, including Berl, don’t get the vapors at this explanation.)

Great Sand Dunes

Great Sand Dunes

On the east side of the San Luis Valley is The Great Sand Dunes National Park, another world famous geological feature.  The sand for the dunes comes from the San Juan Mountains to the west.  Normally, the sand would just keep going, blown over the Sangres to the plains farther east.  In this case, a creek picks up the sand blown off the dunes and carries it back to the other side, replenishing them every spring.  The result is a mammoth dune field, good for viewing, climbing, and tumbling down.  The creek is good for play as long as it lasts into the summer.

Good geology, good scenery, and a good time.  The geology is not a legend, however.  It is the real thing, and students from geology departments all over the country visit and study in Colorado.

 

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