Thursday, December 1, 2016

Wandering Through a Sand Wilderness

To a child who was raised along the beaches of Southern California, the Oregon coast comes as quite a shock. Beaches to me were places like Huntington or Balboa, where wall-to-wall people struggled to claim a few precious square feet where they could lay out a towel, and get sunburnt from head to toe (yes, the cultural habits of the sixties were terrifying; I'm lucky to not have skin cancer yet). Nature involved gulls trying to steal one's food, and getting stung by the occasional jellyfish.

My perceptions of ocean coasts were changed somewhat when I moved to Central California. The beaches we explore these days, Big Sur and the Marin Headlands, are more cliffs than sand. They are beautiful beyond measure, but they are not like Oregon. Few places are like Oregon.
My explorations of the Oregon Coast these days are centered around Florence at the north end of Oregon Dunes National Recreational Area. It is a truly alien place to a Californian! The strangest part is the sand wilderness. For a fifty-five mile stretch of coast, the shoreline is dominated by sand beaches. Constant onshore winds have blown vast amounts of sand inland, in places as much as three miles. In some localities the dunes buried mature forests. In others, forests have grown over the dunes. With the plentiful rainfall, the groundwater table is high, so many of the low places between dunes are occupied by lakes, ponds, and swamps. A fair number of them are large enough for boating and water sports. Others are more appropriate for hiking, wildlife observation, and contemplation. Our brief visit on Black Friday included a look at small Dune Lake adjacent to the national forest campground at Alder Dune (above).
Our other exploration was the short boardwalk at Holman Vista. The handicapped accessible trail provides access to Sutton Creek where it flows through a network of dunes and swamps, with a view of the distant mountain slopes as well. The dunes adjacent to the beach are anchored in place by European Beachgrass to augment the stabilization of migrating dunes (the original plantings were in the early 1900s when people didn't worry too much about the possible adverse effects). The native grasses have been pushed aside as the European non-native grass takes over. Because of the spread of grasses, 80% of the dune sheet is covered by vegetation. In 1939 it was only 20% (US Forest Service data).
The nature trail also offered what it termed "a view of the beach". That was true in the sense that an apartment might have a beach view if one leans out the window and cranes one's neck to see a bit of water in the distance between other buildings. In the picture above, note the beach view, a bit of white left of center. Look below for the zoomed view. We were in the midst of a series of powerful storms, so the surf was pounding the coast.

As I've pointed out in previous posts, the sand has several origins. The quartz rich sands were eroded from distant sources in the Klamath Mountains and Idaho Batholith and carried to the shoreline environment by one of Oregon's many rivers. Other sand is locally derived, eroded directly from the sea cliffs, or carried onshore from offshore bars. Some of the sediment that may have originated during the ice ages when sea level was lower. Wave action produced the flat platforms on which the dunes accumulated. 
Although I call this a sand wilderness, it is not officially designated as one, but it is managed as a de facto wilderness. Vehicles are not allowed off the paved roads, so access is by trail only, or by beach walking. Access to parts of the beach is restricted during the spring because endangered Snowy Plovers nest in the area.

To this Californian, it is a true shock to look at an eight mile long stretch of beach and not see a single person. It was heavenly!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Fog Returning to the Great Valley...Maybe

The fog here in the Great Valley is legendary. The so-called Tule Fogs can last for weeks, hiding the land in an impenetrable mist. People who would panic at the thought of driving with their eyes closed continue to speed through these fog banks where the visibility is measured in feet rather than tens of feet. One such accident in 2007 involved 90 cars and 18 big-rig trucks, with two people killed.

The Tule fog is a radiation fog, caused when heat from the ground radiates into the atmosphere at night, cooling the ground and causing condensation to take place. The fog persists as long as the temperature doesn't rise, and in the Great Valley, ringed is it is by high mountains, the conditions may persist for weeks at a time. Stable motionless air develops an inversion layer that can be difficult to break up unless a large storm blows in.

I was not prepared for the fogs when I made the valley my home nearly 30 years ago. I hated the gloomy days that seemed to never let up for weeks at a time. I had frightening near-misses on the highways. I even got lost a few times in the pre-GPS days, getting disoriented on backroads that were poor in signage. I was known to drop important projects and drive into the Sierra Nevada foothills for the sole purpose of getting into the sunshine. I hated descending back into the soupy mess.

The drought in California has caused a drop in the number of foggy days, since wet ground is a major requirement for forming the hated mist. Global warming plays a role, as warmer conditions are less likely to result in foggy conditions. Temperatures in some parts of the Great Valley are up by 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit. According to one report, the number of foggy days in Fresno declined from an average of 37 in 1980 to 22 in 2014. This has been a two-edged sword: besides the reality of the drought itself, the lack of cold wet conditions have caused a drop in agricultural production, as a number of fruit trees like cherries and peaches require the cold dark days to help the trees go dormant in winter.
I'm seeing fog on the early mornings when I make my way to work through the pasturelands outside my village. They've added an aura of mystery to the landscape, and haven't yet interfered with my driving, so I'm seeing beauty right now. We just finished a series of storms, and conditions will be stable and calm for the next 10 days or so. We'll see how I feel if and when the fog sets in.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Monitoring the California Drought, Via the Road

There are two ways to evaluate and monitor a drought. There's the usual method, where people use data on precipitation, snowpack level and streamflow discharge and all that, and it's all well and good. But there's also the Geotripper method of looking at Mt. Shasta in Northern California when I drive by, once at Thanksgiving, and again at Christmas. Folks can have a debate on which method is the most accurate, but it would probably be a stupid argument. I would end up telling people to listen to the science, not to their own local and limited observation (note: this is also an argument to use in the so-called "debate" about global warming).
Still, the Geotripper method has an advantage: one has to hit the road and look at Mt. Shasta, and it is always a beautiful mountain to observe. It is the second highest of the Cascades volcanoes (14,179 feet; 4,321.8 meters), and the most voluminous of the stratovolcanoes (the lesser-known shields like Medicine Lake Highland are larger but shorter). And this year's observation is positive. There is a lot of snow covering the mountain already. Maybe the drought is easing a little bit?
Add caption
Here's how it looked in November 2012. So obviously the Geotripper method works great...
The drought this month. Source: http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/Home/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?CA
The real data actually is a bit encouraging. In 2015, the entire state was in serious trouble. More rain fell in northern California this year, and the area under the most severe drought condition has shrunk. A little bit, anyway. 12% of the state, in the far north, is back to "normal". There is still a huge area classed as "exceptional drought" in central and southern California, and if we don't get some big storms down that way, the fires are going to get worse. The trees will continue to die by the millions. And our economic problems in the agriculture sector will continue to mount.
Drought conditions, February 2015

The news from our state reservoirs is also mixed. Lake Shasta and Don Pedro are presently where they are supposed to be at this time of year, but others are low. New Melones is at 38% of where it should be by this time. Others are in the 60-70% range.
http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cdecapp/resapp/getResGraphsMain.action
It's early in the rain season, so there is hope. There's always hope...

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving, and Safety for Those on the Road (Plus new pictures from Pinnacles National Park)

Here's hoping that you all have a fine Thanksgiving holiday and that your travels are safe and fun. I offer up one of the things that I am truly thankful for: politicians that put aside their many differences and agreed to establish Pinnacles National Park in 2013.

Pinnacles National Park has provided us with our picture of a turkey for this Thanksgiving season (my own little holiday tradition). I doubt this one will be gracing anyone's table, as he was well inside the boundaries of the park. Maybe a coyote's, but this one looked like it wasn't going to take any crap from anyone.

Pinnacles has been one of my most dependable localities for seeing Wild Turkeys (which are not exactly a native species, but they have become naturalized in this region). I've seen dozens at a time there. The turkeys can be seen throughout the Coast Ranges. It's not well-known, but the Wild Turkey was almost hunted to oblivion a century ago. Aggressive efforts at conservation and introduction of captured wild birds to new regions (including California) brought them back.

A few years back, I caught a bit of a conflict, a love triangle if you will, in Morro Bay.

Pinnacles National Park is a beautiful place with fascinating geology. Look for a couple of posts soon from our recent trip there. I took a new trail, the Six Bridges Nature Trail in Lower Bear Gulch. It was a nice creekside walk with more rocky outcrops than I was expecting.

Short story of the geology at Pinnacles: it's half of a large composite rhyolitic volcano that has been deeply eroded. Where the other half is today is part of the exciting story. The rest is the idea that you can wander around in the middle of volcano in the Central California Coast Ranges. Compare this to the fact that you can walk on a volcano in the California Cascades, or you that you can walk under a volcano in Yosemite Valley.

Because of springs, the water is present in at least parts of Bear Gulch all year long. There is even a native fish in the creek, the Three-spined Stickleback (I looked but couldn't find any). Native ferns fill the valley floor in a few places, shaded by California's ubiquitous riverside tree, the Sycamore.





It's a poor picture, but an exciting sight. As I finished the hike in the Gulch, I spied a large bird in the sky. I was thrilled when I realized it was a California Condor. The bird was nearly extinct in the late 1970s (22 individuals), so in desperation, the remaining wild condors were captured and put into captive breeding program. It's been a success, as there are more than 400 birds today, with more than half living in the wild. Pinnacles was the site of an important milestone this year, as a chick fledged from a nest in the park for the first time in 120 years.

Pinnacles is a treasure. If you ever have a chance to explore central California, be sure to add it to your itinerary! In the meantime, have a safe and happy time wherever you may be. I'll be on the road, so posts may be scarce.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Why did the Road Cross the San Andreas Fault? 14 Years of Geologic Change (an Update)

2002
I've been leading geology field studies trips to lots of places in the American West for 27 years and started to take digital pictures in 2001. I sometimes struggle to find new things to photograph when I visit a place for the 27th time, but in some cases it is not a problem. There are geologic changes that happen on a yearly basis, and with thirteen years of photos, the changes become obvious. This is an update from a post in 2013, and I'll probably continue updating for the foreseeable future.
2004
Highway 25 in the California Coast Ranges connects the town of Hollister with the access road to Pinnacles National Park (formerly Pinnacles National Monument). Along the way the highway crosses the San Andreas fault in a section where the fault creeps an inch or so each year. Most years we've stopped to have a look at the effect the movement has on the pavement. In 2002 and 2004, the damage was obvious.
2008
By 2008 someone had patched the road, and no fault motion was evident.
2009
Little damage was evident in 2009 either. But by 2010 cracks had begun to appear as the fault stressed the pavement.
2010
The fact that the fault creeps in this region is a good thing. It means that stress is not building along the fault surface, but instead is being released gradually. The sections of the fault to the north and south of the creeping section are locked by friction, and are building up the ominous stress that will eventually produce quakes with magnitudes in the range of 7.5 to 8.0. The quakes are coming and we need to be as prepared as possible.
2012
By 2012, the road had been completely repaved, and  yet the shearing was already evident.
2013
It became even more pronounced by 2013 and in 2014. Just by chance, the person working as a scale was the same individual as in 2004.
2014

In 2015 the fractures were moderately larger. They'll need to start thinking of road repairs before long.
2015
And here we are in 2016. Laura once again provides scale, as she did in 2014, and 2004. It's a wonderful thing to have people that recognize the value of geological education and work year to year to volunteer their services in the name of learning (as well as following a career as a teacher). She is a National Association of Geoscience Teachers Outstanding Earth Science Teacher awardee.
2016
These little changes that happen at a rate visible in human lifetimes add up to huge changes when multiplied by thousands or millions of years. The nearby eroded volcano of Pinnacles National Park has been displaced 195 miles (315 kilometers) in the last 20 million years or so by movement along the San Andreas.
Until next year!

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Hawai'i That Was: The Lost Wetlands of the Mana Plain on Kaua'i

The Hawai'i that was...

This blog series has been looking at the natural history and geology of the Hawaiian Islands against the backdrop of the changes brought about by colonization around a thousand years ago, and again around 200 years ago. The first wave of humans were the Polynesians, the second, the Europeans and Americans. The changes brought to the islands have been profound, even catastrophic. Dozens of birds species and other animals are extinct, and the landscape itself is much different than it was a thousand years ago.

Out on the west side of Kaua'i is one of the more interesting places that hardly anyone ever sees. This is in part because a large part of the coastal plain is the property of the U.S. military, a missile testing range. Much of the rest is owned by agricultural interests, and the property is closely watched because genetic testing and crop breeding is taking place, rather than simple crop production. A bumpy dirt road winds along between the properties, leading to a state park at Polihale Beach and Barking Dunes.
This is the Mana Plain, which historically was the second largest wetland complex in all the islands, covering an area of about 1,700 acres (nearly three square miles). As a rule flatlands are a rarity on the islands, so Mana really stands out. It developed when the sea was at a slightly higher level, and waves washed across the surface, eating away the base of the cliffs to the east (see the map below and the picture above). Such landscape features could be called a wave-cut bench or a coastal plain. Most of the Mana Plain lies at an elevation of less than 10 feet (3 meters).

The longest continuous sand beach in the Hawaiian Islands extends for 12-13 miles along the Mana Plains. Onshore winds picked up fragments of coral and blew them inland, forming scattered dunes across the plain. Groundwater would well up here and there, producing a number of ponds and wetlands. The region was once one of the most important bird habitats on the islands. That was then. That was the Hawai'i that was.
The Mana Plain in 1907. Source: http://islandbreath.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-golden-plain.html
The Polynesian colonizers, the original Hawaiians, made use of the Mana Plain. It was a rich environment for fishing and bird hunting. The Hawaiians also built fish ponds and levees for the production of taro and sweet potatoes. Despite the various engineering projects, the Mana Plain retained much of its original character. The region was sacred to the native Hawaiians, as the cliff at the north end of the plain, Haelele, was a leina-a-ka-uhane (path-for-leaping-by-the-spirit). This was the place where departing spirits of the ancestors leapt into the sea to enter the realm of the dead beyond the setting sun.

In the 1800s, the swamps and ponds began to be drained and sugar cane and other crops were planted in the newly available fields. By the 1920s, nearly all the wetlands had been drained. The military established their missile tracking facility. Little was left of the original environment, and the rare and endangered shorebirds of Hawai'i had lost a major percentage of their original habitat.
Then, a small thing happened. Sand was a valuable commodity, and several gravel pits were dug on a 35 acre plot in the midst of the plain. Groundwater flowed into the quarry, and some of the endangered shorebirds took up residence. Recognizing an opportunity, officials of the state of Hawai'i established a modest refuge, the Kawaiele Waterbird Sanctuary. Seven more acres were later added, and work is commencing on an even larger plot of 105 acres. It's nowhere near enough, but it's a start.
I didn't know any of these things as we explored the west end of the island on the very last day of our visit. We saw the sign along the highway and pulled off to have a look. The sun was already low in the sky, but we caught sight of several native birds. There was a Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax hoactli). The bird, known on the islands as 'Auku'u, is virtually identical to its cousins on the American mainland.
There were also several dozen Ae'o, Thousands of years ago, a few Black-necked Stilts from the American mainland were blown off course, and somehow survived a 2,000 mile journey to the Hawaiian Islands. In the isolation they found there, they evolved ever so slightly from their mainland cousins, and are now considered a subspecies (Himantopus mexicanus knudseni). With their favored habitat being in short supply on the islands, their numbers are not large, only about 2,000 individuals. They are considered highly endangered.

It's said that if the spirits of the deceased did not have family members in the sea to receive them, they would wander this landscape, attaching themselves to rocks and other features. I don't like the thought of being lost in eternity. I'd like to know that they found happiness somewhere in this place, perhaps among the birds of the refuge...

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Hawai'i That Was: What the Worst Disaster You Can Think of? The Terror of Na Pali...


Wait, what? Terror? Na Pali? That place isn't terrifying, unless you have a fear of heights. It's one of the most beautiful places on one of the most beautiful islands in the world. What could be scary about it?
Well...there's history, and geology. What's the worst disaster you can imagine happening in the place where you live? Are big earthquakes possible? Volcanic eruptions? What about hurricanes or tornadoes? On our adventure today, we visit the site of one of the greatest natural disasters possible.

Kaua'i is a modest island by Hawai'i standards, covering only 553 square miles, fourth in size after Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island. Unlike the other islands, it was principally a single basaltic shield instead of four or five like the Big Island and Maui (it's a little more complicated than that, but I will deal with that story later in another post). It's also the oldest of the major islands, at about 5-6 million years. The coastal areas of the island are of mostly gentle topography, but on the northwestern side of the island, that gentleness ends. Dramatic cliffs 3,000 feet high drop precipitously into the Pacific Ocean. Welcome to the Na Pali. Why are these incredible cliffs here? And what does that have to do with disaster?
Try to imagine a much younger Kaua'i maybe 4-5 million years ago. The shield volcano rises to an elevation of perhaps 8,000 feet above sea level, and the slopes of the mountain are covered with dense rainforest. Myriad species of birds fly among the trees, along with thousands of species of insects and gastropods. All of them are unknown to humankind, because the kind of humans that would pay attention to such things would not be present in the world for a long time. All that was here was about to be lost.

The islands may feel permanent and unchanging in some ways. The lava flows that emerged from the shield were solid and hard and one might feel that they would not be easily eroded or altered by time. That's a delusion, of course. The volcanic rocks were originally deposited on the sediments of the seafloor, and many of the original lava flows were composed of relatively unconsolidated rock, small cinders and ash layers that are not nearly so solid as the lava flows above. The sheer weight of the overlying lava flows exerted such tremendous stress on the unconsolidated rocks that they destabilized and commenced slowly giving way in a lateral sense. The flanks of the island were weakening.
It's not at all entirely clear how the end came about. There may have been earth movements for centuries, maybe even violent earthquakes that produced scarps high on the flanks of the volcano. Such cliffs can be seen today on the southeastern margin of the Big Island near the Kilauea caldera. The quakes may even have produced small tsunamis that swept across the lower shores of the island. But these events would not have affected the animal of the rainforest all that much.

Maybe there weren't any warning signs. I find that to be less convincing, but maybe the end came suddenly, with no precursors. It didn't matter then, but we'd sure like to know today what transpired, because it would be nice to have some warning when an unimaginable tragedy is about to strike.
In any case, the final stroke must have come quickly. Who knows what kinds of sounds were heard as a significant percentage (a fifth? a quarter?) of the entire island suddenly broke away and sank into the sea? The collapse was so rapid that the debris flowed for sixty miles (100 km) along the sea floor. The rapidly sinking land broke up into large chunks and disappeared beneath the turbulent waves. Some of the fragments were miles across. The homes and habitats for hundreds of species disappeared in an instant, never to be seen again.
The loss of a significant part of the island beneath the waves was only part of the story. Displacements of ocean water on this scale produce tsunamis of unimaginable size. We aren't talking about the 30'-40' high waves of events like the tragedies of Indonesia in 2004 or Japan in 2011. We are trying to imagine a wave that exceeds a height of 1,000 feet. Or considerably more. There are chunks of coral on the island of Lanai that presently sit 1,300 feet above sea level. And Lanai is and always has been slowly sinking. Those blocks of coral were tossed there by mega-tsunamis that were produced by similar catastrophes on other nearby islands.

So first, a huge portion of the island sinks into the ocean, and then the water rises in response and sweeps across vast swaths of Kaua'i and the other Hawaiian islands. The level of destruction is incomprehensible. How many species went extinct that day? No one can ever say. Where a coastal plain once existed, there were only cliffs. Immense cliffs. In time, vegetation returned, and erosional processes sculpted the escarpment into the beautiful fluted cliffs we see today along the Na Pali coastline.

One immediately has to wonder whether it could happen again. The answer is, of course, sure. But these events thankfully don't happen often, maybe once every 300,000-400,000 years. And for now, knowing they have happened in the past, we'll perhaps recognize some of the warning signs that such a slide is again imminent. For the time being, we can instead appreciate the beauty that emerges from catastrophe.
The cliffs of the Na Pali are a bit difficult to see. You can drive to Kalalau or Pu'u o Kila lookouts above Koke'e Park and look down from the cliff tops to the sea (see the top picture in this post). These are two of the most astounding views I've ever seen in my life. You can walk the 11-mile long Kalalau Trail that winds along the base of the cliffs (an adventure I've longed to try). Or you float in the sea offshore for an astounding view. Some people take kayaks (another dream), and others take cruises. I had that opportunity in 2006, and that's when I took most of these pictures.
This post is part of a long-running blog series on the geology and history of the Hawaiian Islands, based in part on our summer field studies journey of last June.