Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Marble monuments: Not all they're cracked up to be

The Washington Post ran an article today about the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery. For quite a long time now - since the 1960s, in fact - the marble used to build the Tomb has been cracking. (You can see it fairly well in the photo to the right.) According to the Post,
"The stone, now weathered and chipped, has two horizontal cracks, both of which have grown in width and length over the years, cemetery officials say. One crack is 28.4 feet long; the other is 16.2 feet long."
The marble for the Tomb came from the Yule Marble Quarry in Marble, Colorado. It's the official Colorado State rock, and Wikipedia's article says that
"It is famous for its uniform pure white consistency, lacking, for the most part, the gray streaking commonly found in other marble such as that found in Vermont. The rock is named for George Yule, a mining engineer who discovered and realized the value of the marble deposit. The Yule Marble deposit is among the largest in the world and, at 99.5% pure calcite, it is one of the purest marbles ever quarried."
It's also been used in the Lincoln Memorial, the Colorado State Capitol building and the Equitable Building skyscraper in New York City.

Currently, the discussion is over whether to continue repairing the cracks (which has already been done twice, won't stop the cracks from spreading, and will only return the monument to an "acceptable" appearance), or to replace the tomb entirely with new marble. The Arlington National Cemetery Tomb of the Unknowns Monument Repair or Replacement Project (what a name!) recommends replacing the marble, but the National Trust for Historic Preservation objects to it, mainly because the Cemetery wants to replace it with marble from the same quarry, which is just as likely to crack.

The Post article reports that "an amendment sponsored by Sens. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and James Webb (D-Va.) was attached to this year's defense authorization bill, which was signed Monday by President Bush, according to a spokeswoman for Webb. The amendment blocks replacement, but not repair, of the monument, pending a review of its condition and the feasibility of replacing it."

As a geologist, I have to agree with the NHTP: Even if the marble looks pretty, getting a replacement block from the same place the first one came from is only delaying the inevitable. Unfortunately, marble has a habit of cracking along mineralized veins anyway, so it's not likely that Cemetery officials will be able to come up with a better alternative without changing the type of stone altogether - which won't happen, since the Tomb then wouldn't match the marble in the surrounding amphitheater. But the repair jobs aren't all that pretty either, and since the cracks already go partially through the marble (and will eventually extend completely through it), the Tomb is obviously unsound.

There's also the consideration that because the Tomb is marble, it's more affected by chemical and physical weathering than some other building materials - and there's enough acidity in rain in the DC area that it's starting to look pretty shabby. (A 1990 study reported 2.85 mm lost from the surface of the marble, and concluded that by 2010 it would be so bad that they'd either have to replace it anyway, or encase it somehow.)

So what's to be done? For the time being, the Army, which operates the Cemetery, says repair. An Army spokesman quoted in the article says that it "doesn't look like the Army is going to pursue replacing the stone" and that "The issue has already been resolved." Judging from the Senate maneuvering, this probably isn't the case (as with all Washington decisions, it will likely be argued over but never really resolved), but it seems that the Army has the last say.

It's a sad state of affairs for a very solemn memorial. I can only hope the Army's decision doesn't leave them with an even more delapidated monument - or worse, several pieces of one.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Union's State is: Strong

It's that time again! Yes, the annual ritual of the State of the Union address, which could be viewed as a time-honored tradition (wherein the President has an opportunity to speak frankly with the nation about its present and future), with utter disgust (since it wastes valuable airtime that could be devoted to the new "American Idol"), as an opportunity for a really hardcore drinking game ("freedom" is a suggested word only for those with a high alcohol tolerance), or (in my case), as a solid hour of talking that alternately makes me want to laugh until I choke and wish that shouting angrily at the television actually had an effect.

There were the usual "our nation is strong" platitudes, appeals to patriotism and attempts to guilt us into approving of billions of dollars being spent on a war that Congress never officially declared, but my favorite bit was when he got to talking about climate change. This, the president who refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol because other countries weren't doing ENOUGH to curb emissions. I.E., we shouldn't have to do ANYTHING. Ah, the logic. But wait! In last night's State of the Union speech, President Bush seems to have made a neat little turnaround:
"To build a future of energy security, we must trust in the creative genius of American researchers and entrepreneurs and empower them to pioneer a new generation of clean energy technology. (Applause.) Our security, our prosperity, and our environment all require reducing our dependence on oil. Last year, I asked you to pass legislation to reduce oil consumption over the next decade, and you responded. Together we should take the next steps: Let us fund new technologies that can generate coal power while capturing carbon emissions. (Applause.) Let us increase the use of renewable power and emissions-free nuclear power. (Applause.) Let us continue investing in advanced battery technology and renewable fuels to power the cars and trucks of the future. (Applause.) Let us create a new international clean technology fund, which will help developing nations like India and China make greater use of clean energy sources. And let us complete an international agreement that has the potential to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the growth of greenhouse gases. (Applause.)"
Oh really? The Kyoto accords obviously weren't good enough for us (although they seem to have been for most of the rest of the world), so we're going to create our own "fund" (out of what money, might I ask) and an "international agreement" designed for essentially the same thing. Not to mention that this statement included a nice little out:
"This agreement will be effective only if it includes commitments by every major economy and gives none a free ride. (Applause.) The United States is committed to strengthening our energy security and confronting global climate change. And the best way to meet these goals is for America to continue leading the way toward the development of cleaner and more energy-efficient technology. (Applause.)"
In other words, we'll lead the world in cleaning up the mess we've made of it, but if things don't work the way we like, it's not our fault that we're not doing anything to fix the problem - it's everyone else's for not agreeing with US. Same old same old - nothing serious is going to get done because not everyone wants to do it our way. It's the same problem that came up when California wanted to set more stringent emissions restrictions than the rest of the country and was denied permission to do so (twice).

And then there was this gem (earlier in the speech):
"To keep America competitive into the future, we must trust in the skill of our scientists and engineers and empower them to pursue the breakthroughs of tomorrow. Last year, Congress passed legislation supporting the American Competitiveness Initiative, but never followed through with the funding. This funding is essential to keeping our scientific edge. So I ask Congress to double federal support for critical basic research in the physical sciences and ensure America remains the most dynamic nation on Earth. (Applause.)"
Now, wait. Is this the same president whose administration has repeatedly tried to squelch the climate scientists who were trying to share their knowledge and warn us that we're in deep trouble? I am of course happy about this statement if it means that there's a better chance I'll get my grants funded in the future, but the hypocrisy is absolutely stunning.

Living near DC - and having done that for my entire life - I get really sick of politics in general. But this kind of arrogance (which results in the people in power ignoring what they consider inconvenient and then spinning the resulting disastrous situation to make themselves look good), really makes me mad. But that's politics; also, I didn't actually have to listen to the address.

Then again, if you realize that the speech is essentially grandstanding, nothing ever really results from it and no one's used it to announce anything radical for years, it's a lot of fun to play "What's the catchphrase" and speculate on whether the printed copies of the speech come with party-lines-appropriate "Clap here" and "Standing ovation" cues. (I also had a great deal of fun listening to the reaction my mother, an elementary school teacher, had when the No Child Left Behind Except When It Comes To Actually Learning Something Other Than How To Take Standardized Tests Act was mentioned.)

By the way, the word of the day was "empower."

Monday, January 28, 2008

Your tax dollars at work (at last, for something useful!)

My current job occasionally involves a great deal of searching for public domain images to use in publications, and one of my favorite resources is the USGS Photographic Library. It's the online repository of a portion of the physical USGS photographic collection, which is absolutely massive. In their own words,

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Central Regional Library maintains a collection of over 400,000 photographs taken during geologic studies of the United States and its territories from 1868 to the present.

These images provide a visual history of the discovery, development, and sciences of the United States and its Geological Survey. Some photographs have been used in USGS publications, but most have never been published.

Currently, this website represents less than 10 percent of the Library's images with approximately 30,000 photographs on-line.
Some images are recent - there are collections from the Hawaii Volcano Observatory and the Mount St. Helens eruptions, for instance - but a number of amazing photos come 19th and early 20th century expeditions to the Western US, some of the earliest geologic expeditions in the history of the United States. There are also collections organized by National Park, historical earthquakes, mines and quarries, and photographers. It's a great resource, and even though a lot of the photos are black-and-white images, they're no less useful as teaching aids. Best of all, they're free: since the USGS is a government agency, anyone can use these images in any publication. They come in multiple sizes and resolutions (the largest is more than 1600 dpi, which is more than adequate for a professional publisher's needs).

Here are a few of my favorites:

"Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Accumulated frozen spray about 4 meters thick from Africa Geyser in Norris Geyser Basin, melting mainly from the base upward due to high near-surface heat flow in Porcelain Basin. April 1979. Figure 61, U.S. Geological Survey Professional paper 1456. White, D.E." (wde00057)

"Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. The Cinder Cone near the foot of Toroweap.U.S. Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region (Powell Survey). Stereoscopic view. Hillers, J.K." (hjk00905)

(Yes, that Powell. This is a spiffy image - if you cross your eyes at it, you can see the 3D view.)

"Splintered tree on Coldwater Ridge after May 18 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Geologist for scale. Skamania County, Washington. May 19, 1980. Lipman, P.W." (mlip0049)

"San Francisco, California, Earthquake April 18, 1906. Agassiz statue at Stanford University. April 1906. Mendenhall, W.C." (mwc00715)

"Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. 1969-1971 Mauna Ulu eruption of Kilauea Volcano. Mauna Ulu dome fountain (artesian type), 50 to 75 meters in height. Photo by J.B. Judd, October 11, 1969." (hvo00094)

If you're looking for lecture material, photos for a publication, or you just want to waste time drooling over pretty pictures, this is a great resource.

Friday, January 25, 2008

NOVA Climate Change Symposium

In lieu of posting pretty photos this Friday, I'm putting in a plug for an exciting event going on in Northern Virginia (and across the country, actually). It's a Climate Change Symposium being held on the campuses of Northern Virginia Community College from January 31st to February 1st, and you should definitely participate. Our own Callan Bently of NOVA Geoblog will be hosting the Annandale portion of the events. Here's an excerpt from the main event webpage:

"How worried should we be? How sound is the science? What changes is the planet already “committed to”? How much has Earth's climate changed in the past? What can we expect? What can we do?

"As you may have heard in this week’s news, 2007 was the second warmest year on record, and the eight warmest years on record have all occurred since 1998. Global warming is one of the great challenges that humanity will face in the coming centuries. For three days, events on NOVA campuses will explore human-caused climate change and what it means for our society. These events are part of the larger national day of learning about Climate Change called "Focus The Nation." Experts from our faculty and from area universities, government, media, and NGOs will be on hand to answer your questions about climate change.

"Start off by joining the Annandale campus' RPK Society for a live webcast of "The 2% Solution" on Wednesday night. On Thursday, the Alexandria, Loudoun, Manassas, Medical Education, and Woodbridge campuses will be hosting individual events. Return to Annandale on Friday afternoon for the big event: a series of short talks by experts on different aspects of climate change, followed by a roundtable discussion emphasizing audience questions.

"Join us to explore the largest challenge of the coming years."
I highly recommend attending if you're in the DC metro area; or, if you're not, to find one of the other nationwide events going on as part of the "Focus the Nation National Teach-In". (In light of a Republican Senate staffer's apparently uninformed opposition of the recent AGU climate change statement, this is definitely an important set of events to help promote!)

I hope everyone will get out there and attend one of the events closest to you. I'll be at NOVA Annandale on February 1st!

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Definitely a very good feeling

I'm in!

Well, at least to one place. The acceptance email (ha!) from the University of Washington came today. Time to visit Seattle!

Now I can stop worrying (quite irrationally, I know) that I'm somehow not going to get accepted anywhere. It's a good feeling.

Masters VS PhD

Last night's meeting of the Geological Society of Washington was quite fun - how often do a bunch of geologists get to hold meetings in a really swanky Washington landmark like the Cosmos Club, after all? (All right, they made us go in the back door so we wouldn't bother the real members, but it still felt exclusive.)

I also had the pleasure of meeting Callan Bentley of NOVA Geoblog, who was nice enough to give me some background on how the meetings work, and who has some very enthusiastic honors students (yay! more geologists). He's done a great writeup of the talk Derek Schutt (of the National Science Foundation) gave about the Yellowstone Hotspot. I was quite excited to see someone take a definite stance on the issue of whether Yellowstone is actually a "traditional" mantle-plume-driven hotspot; my experience with researching that issue for a class presentation several years ago (mostly using papers from GSA's Plates, Plumes and Paradigms, which had just been published) was that no one could really agree on what they wanted to call Yellowstone (or were leaning toward a lithospheric source, which Schutt's research disagrees with). My presentation involved a 'grant proposal' to do more seismic tomography surveys, which is exactly what Schutt and his colleagues ended up doing with Rayleigh waves - so I guess we were on the right track!

Excitement about the talks aside, one question that came up during a pre-meeting dinner was why I had decided to pursue a masters degree instead of going directly into a Ph.D. I actually had to think about that one for a moment. It was an issue that had come up during my grad school application process, since a few of the available scholarships for graduate research were geared specifically to Ph.D. students.

I suppose the main reason that I decided to apply as an MS student would be experience (or my lack thereof). While I did end up doing an honors thesis and presenting my work in the 'grown-up' poster session at GSA, I didn't think that necessarily meant I was ready to jump straight into a Ph.D. in volcanology - and especially not in hazards work. I simply haven't done enough work in volcanology to feel like I would be putting in my best effort as a scientist if I were to apply to a Ph.D. program. Sure, I've studied some ash flow tuffs and took a volcano monitoring course for a month last summer, but the fact remains that those were mainly undergraduate efforts, and my program didn't have any classes specifically in volcanology. Other students I've met so far have taken courses like that, and I felt a bit undertrained compared to them.

That said, I also want to spend as much time as I can doing pure research before I have to worry about finding a more permanent job. I suppose it's a bit self-indulgent, since I eventually want to do hazards mitigation work and it would certainly be better for the people I'd work with if I got out there sooner. But I don't want to miss out on the chance to do something fun for a couple of years before I have to face the difficulties of completing a doctorate. I'm also a bit of a traditionalist; maybe I could do just fine in a doctoral program, but why skip steps at this point?

Another concern of mine has to do with teaching. I'm not sure yet if I want to teach at any level of education. I've certainly considered the possibility, and I know that I'll be TAing classes as part of my graduate work, but beyond that I'm undecided. My big concern with the possibility is that I haven't had any formal training in how to teach - and even after I complete my graduate work, I probably still won't have had much! (This is actually a very puzzling aspect of college and graduate level science - the people who end up teaching are not actually required to have gone through the same sort of training that K12 teachers do. And then they're expected to have all the same skills as someone with an education degree. Who thought up this system?) At any rate, I want to have as much experience as possible in teaching, even if it's just TAing labs, before I even flirt with the possibility of becoming a professor - and that means taking the extra time to complete a masters.

Another part of the question that surprised me was the idea that masters students don't get funded. Hm. Interesting. Everyone I've spoken to about grad programs so far has told me otherwise; their students are either funded through grants or paid as TAs. Now, I've heard that students are encouraged and expected to apply to grant and scholarship programs in addition to this (or in some cases to replace it), but I don't think I've come across any program that will accept students without offering them funding. (I do know of a special case of one student who was accepted to a program where the professor ended up not having work for him to do for a year, but he TAed the whole time.)

I suppose this is another good forum for comments. What was your experience with choosing your grad school path? Were there specific circumstances that affected your choice? Do you regret going one way or the other?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Mmm, pie

The Accretionary Wedge #5, Geological Misconceptions and Pie, is up, and my post about the mantle and Pie Town made it in! (Along with a few other mentions about how people dislike the "molten mantle" misconception, as well as some other great posts about diamonds, desserts and 3D geology.)

Compared to some of the other posts out there, my offering is much less technical, but since I'm pretty new at this I can hopefully work my way up to their quality of discourse.

Then again, I'm pretty sure no one else mentioned having visited Pie Town NM on a geology trip, so I've at least got something unique going for me!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Cactus? Or not a cactus? Dangerous plants of Big Bend

While in Big Bend, and especially when going off-trail to do mapping exercises, it's extremely useful to keep an eye out for the desert flora. Because, as Edward Abbey liked to say, "everything in the desert either bites, stabs, sticks, stings or stinks." (We listened to a nice ranger talk on cacti in which this quote came up, along with "Cactus? Or not a Cactus?") Desert fieldwork becomes, therefore, an exercise not so much in geology, but in trying not to get attacked by something pointy in the process of trying to find the geology in the midst of shin-shredding plant life.

Perhaps the most extreme example of this is the Agave havardiana, or Century plant. These things are all over the park, as well as (for some reason) being very popular items for decorative planters in local towns. They're pretty large and hard to miss, and they might lull you into thinking that they're easy to avoid.

That may be the case sometimes, but make one wrong move and stumble into one and you'll find out why we were mistakenly calling them "horse cripplers" for much of the trip:

Those leaves are not only stiff as a board, they're tipped with spines hard and sharp enough to go completely through a field notebook. (We tested it.) No one had serious injuries off of those, but there were some close calls. On the upside, these plants are sometimes used to make mescal and tequila, of which you might need copious quantities if you have a run-in with one of the spines.

The next offender in the plant lineup is Agave lechuguilla (on the left in this photo), which were named the collective bane of the course's existence. Also called "Spanish Saber", these nasty little knee-high bundles of misery supposedly grow only in the Chihuahuan Desert, and mainly on limestone, which (suprise!) Big Bend has a lot of.

The fun thing about these is that no matter where you are in relation to the sun, slope, water, rock type, or any other kind of environmental factor, there is always at least one of these things pointing directly at you. If you run into a patch of them, you're toast no matter what direction you're coming from. (This did happen, and we spent half an hour pulling the poor girl out of the plant and patching up the twenty or so holes it put into her legs through her pants.)

Next to that offender is one of the only plants out there that doesn't want to kill you:
Euphorbia antisyphilitica, otherwise known as Candellia or Wax plant. These have no spines and aren't even toxic; they're coated with a wax that can be used in place of carnuba wax, and people used to (and still do) harvest them for this purpose. You can pretty much sit on these things and not have to worry, which is a relief when you can't find any other patch of ground that isn't occupied by a lechuguilla plant.

Those are some of the things that aren't cacti. There's actually quite a wide variety of cacti in the park, although no barrel or saguaro like most western movies like to show (those are Arizona natives). When we visited, it rained a lot, so everything started flowering, and it put on quite a show:

This wasn't flowering, but it was one of my favorites from the ranger talk about how to spot cacti - it's so tiny! (No idea what the proper name for it is, though.)

This was - I think - one of the edible ones. (We tried it and didn't die, so I guess that makes it edible.) Sort of tasted like kiwi. It's possible to eat cactus - in fact, it's a good source of water - but it's so hard to get past the spines that it's edging toward diminishing returns.

Apparently, potted cacti are also native to the Big Bend region. (We had no idea what this was doing sitting on a rhyolitic dike. Some things you find in the desert are just plain weird.)

(For anyone who's interested, the writing reads "PAMS, Dr. J. R. Sollidan: This is where he belongs." We came up with a theory about the pot containing the ashes of a very dedicated geologist who never wanted to leave the park, but we hope that wasn't actually the case, since the cactus was dead and accompanied by a really tacky smiling sun decoration. Any guesses out there as to who this might be?)

The "You Can Die" Possibilities are Endless - A Trip Through Big Bend National Park

So I am obviously unable to handle the "Friday Field Foto" thing, but I thought it would be fun to do a series of posts on field trips I've taken. We're off to Texas this week, with some photos from a field course I TA'd in and around Big Bend National Park last May. This is by no means going to be a comprehensive description of the geology, but more like a few highlights of the trip.

Naturally, I'm going to start with my favorite volcanic feature. Willow Mountain,
on the east side of State Highway 118 three miles north-northeast of Study Butte in southwestern Brewster County and on the way to Terlingua Ghost Town, is a rhyolitic laccolith formed about 40 million years ago in the "aftermath" of the Laramide Orogeny.

We didn't get a chance to see it up close (which I really wanted to do, but I was afraid someone was going to come out with shotguns and run us off if we trespassed on their land, not to mention we were running late to get back and cook dinner). The best part about Willow Mountain is the spectacular columnar jointing, which you can see better here:

This is actually not a very well-known example of columnar jointing in the US, from what I can tell; other places (like Devils Postpile in California, Devils Tower in Wyoming, and Sheepeaters Cliffs in Yellowstone) seem to get more recognition. I highly recommend visiting this one, though, if only because it's in an area that's absolutely teeming with volcanic features.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Residence time of lab samples

Here's an situation I've been dealing with for a while. During the research I did for my undergraduate thesis in the summer of 2006, I collected a number of samples to use for Ar-Ar dating, with the intention that I would actually accompany them to a lab and learn the processes involved in mineral separation, irradiation, analysis, etc. Fast forward to January and February of 2007, where I (after much communicating with the scientist in charge of this particular lab) was finally able to arrange to spend a few weeks working in the lab.

I was lucky enough to live near the lab, although it was several hours' drive away from my campus. The first week I worked there was during my winter break, which was fine; almost a month off between semesters is enough to make anyone eager to get out of the house. The second week, however, was during classes, and I had to make special arrangements with several professors outside of the geology department to miss classes so I could go home and work at the lab. On completing the mineral separations and having prepared the samples for irradiation, I was assured by the scientist I was working with that I would have data from the samples in time to include it in my senior honors thesis. (This was early February, and my thesis was due late in April.)

Fast forward again to April. After having heard little from the lab (and with my advisor having had as little luck as I did in getting in touch with the person I'd worked with), I finally succeeded in getting through on the phone - and was told that not only had my samples not been run, they had never been sent off for irradiation. There was some explanation about the cost of reactor time and wanting to include as many samples in the shipment as possible, but it wasn't clear why I had been told that I would have data in time for my thesis when it wasn't really going to happen. I was very upset, but after a while I calmed down and came to agree with my advisor on the point that it would be one less thing to write up in an already long thesis, not to mention that we were going to write a more comprehensive paper later. (The dating was originally a major part of my thesis proposal, but as I ended up branching out into structural and geochemical aspects later on, it wasn't totally devestating not to have it.)

And now the current state of affairs: Advisor and I are in the process of writing a paper on multiple volcanic deposits in the area where I did my field work, and are of course eager to include Ar dates in it, seeing as I didn't get to them in my thesis, and we're trying to correlate the deposits with other regional volcanics. And what's the status of our samples?

Still not run (although they have been irradiated). This time the excuse is a somewhat legitimate one (the equipment has been broken and the head of the lab was unaware of it, having been on vacation for a month), but it's still extremely frustrating - not to mention that I have to wonder why the samples were sitting around all summer and fall of last year. So, I now have irradiated samples but no data, thus stalling another paper. My advisor had also planned on me taking the time to learn how to reduce the data, but it's going to become more and more difficult to find the time for that, since I'm working full time and will have to start visiting prospective graduate schools soon.

My question for everyone else is, is this a normal thing? I understand that a non-academic lab might not run on the same schedule as an undergraduate trying to write a thesis, but it's now been almost a year to the day since I started working on those samples, and I find it hard to believe that this kind of turn-around time is acceptable in a research situation. I invested a considerable amount of time and effort into this and even missed classes so I could complete the sample preparations and leave enough time to have them analyzed for my thesis.

I somehow feel I've been gypped, but I don't know what other peoples' experiences have been with this kind of situation.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Hot, gooey fillings

My least favorite geological misconception would have to be one that I come across a lot as an aspiring volcanologist: The Earth's mantle is a molten sea of liquid, and the crust "floats" on it.

Now, I suppose this is a perfectly good way to provide a simple explanation to young children who are too young to understand the rheology of rock in the mantle, or the fact that it can flow and not be a liquid. (I certainly believed it when I was little. Mind you, this was pre-elementary school and all I had to go on was "The Magic School Bus Inside The Earth.")

But things are not so simple! (Insert totally fake tone of wonder and awe here.) While it would be a whole lot easier to call the crust solid and the mantle molten and leave it at that, it isn't accurate. Better to divide the Earth up by the way things actually are (and behave) - using the lithosphere and asthenosphere (or aesthenosphere, which I prefer but my spell-checker doesn't) and their associated subdivisions. The asthenosphere being, of course, the fun part, where rock actually deforms plastically - in short, flows - and where only a few percent of the material is actually molten.

Gasp! You mean what my kindergarten teacher taught me (and what a lot of people I come across seem to believe) is a lie? I was being deliberately decieved? All those layered models of the earth that are so diligently trotted out and explained in three (or occasionally, if we separate the core into an inner and outer core, four) layers are totally wrong?

Well, yes and no. I wasn't being taught the correct structure of the Earth (at least right off). But when I think about how difficult it is to explain the concept of rock (or a solid) that flows to your average elementary-age child, I suppose I can't get too upset. And since few people seem to get much instruction in Earth science beyond their elementary or middle school years, it's easy to see why they cling to the "simple" explanation of the Earth's structure.
Unfortunately, unless they take an upper-level course in Earth science in high school or college, there's not much opportunity to correct this. TV shows, especially on the Discovery and Science channels and the like, seem to be taking a good stab at it, but again, it's a limited audience - and those shows are totally overwhelmed by all the other stuff that's on the air nowadays.

Anyway, maybe it's easier to just say that the mantle is molten rock and leave it at that, but I would appreciate it if the science teachers of the world (those that don't already do this, that is) would take a stab at explaining that while the mantle is actually solid, the heat and pressure involved at that depth make it behave like a liquid. Much as I like having the opportunity to impart a little geologic knowledge to the people I meet, this particular misconception isn't particularly difficult to head off before it becomes permanently implanted in someone's understanding of the planet they live on.

Of course, this means the teachers had better be prepared with some material to help answer the inevitable "Why?" and "What do you mean, a solid can flow?" questions, but there's nothing wrong with a healthy spirit of inquiry and they might even start some bright young minds on the path to a career in the geosciences.

As for pie and the Earth Sciences...well, I have the perfect example.

As you might have read in an earlier post, my first real experience with geology was on a 3 1/2 week-long field course to the Colorado Plateau. We started out in the Guadalupe Mountains of Texas and made our way up through New Mexico. On our way into Arizona, about 80 miles West of Socorro, NM on Highway 60, we came across a wonderful place:

Pie Town, New Mexico!

Yes, by golly, there's actually a Pie Town. And yes, they sell pie - at The Daily Pie Cafe. And they tell you what kind of pie they have that day guessed it, a "Pie Chart".

I had Spiced Apple, and it was delicious. An experience not to be missed.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Disturbing developments

Well, I've just seen something in the news that reinforces my opinion of how far some of our government representatives have moved on from sanity (or at least from representing the interests of some of their constituents). I'm sure this is a rather polarized issue, but I'll risk dissenting commentary, because I think it needs to be brought to peoples' attention. (Gun owners: I personally do not own a gun and do not want to, but I am not saying that I don't think you should, either. This isn't about that; it's my opinion on why we don't need to have weapons accessible in National Parks.)

"Senators Push for Guns in National Parks" showed up in my morning paper, and I didn't even have to go beyond the first sentence before I was sufficiently steamed to start drafting letters to my senators. Apparently, the gun lobby is making a big push to get their in-pocket senators to change National Park Service rules to allow gun owners to carry loaded, accessible firearms onto National Park lands.

The senators write that current policies "infringe on the rights of law-abiding gun owners who wish to transport and carry firearms on or across these lands." Oh really? I just checked the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 36, Parts 1 to 199, and came across Title 36, Chapter 1, Part 2, part of which states:

(3) Traps, nets and unloaded weapons may be possessed within a temporary lodging or mechanical mode of conveyance when such implements are rendered temporarily inoperable or are packed, cased or stored in a manner that will prevent their ready use.
I don't see anything in that sentence that says people aren't allowed to have weapons in a National Park - only that they aren't allowed to have loaded, readily accessible weapons.

Which is how it should be. There is absolutely no reason that the average citizen, visiting a National Park, should need access to a firearm. They are not there to hunt animals because National Parks and Preserves are some of the only places left where animals can live without the threat of being shot (other than in allowed hunting seasons and special situations). There is no need for weapons for defense - the National Park Police 2006 Annual Report listed, among other things, 3 homicides and 138 aggrivated assaults for the entire park system in 2006, from a pool of 272 million visitors. A few hundred crimes that might have prevented with a gun out of 272 million visits? What an absolute hotbed of criminal activity.

I don't buy into the whole "I need a gun for self-defense" argument at the best of times, but I especially don't want people carrying them around me when I'm in a National Park. All right, if you're in a bear-infested area and you need a gun to fend them off, fine. The Park System grants permits and exceptions for that. But if you're not allowed to hunt or target shoot in the park, and the crime rate is lower than a whole lot of other places in the country, why the hell do you need to have access to a weapon? And I don't buy that crap about people needing the laws changed so they can drive through parks with their weapons on the way to hunting areas. They don't need to change the laws. Keep the gun unloaded and locked up in your cabin or your car, or don't drive through the park.

I am seriously disappointed in the whole mentality that's driving this issue, particularly that it's our national heritage to be armed to the teeth wherever we go. Maybe that was necessary two hundred years ago, when law enforcement was scarce or nonexistent, people needed to hunt for food and there actually were enough dangerous animals around to merit carrying a gun, but that certainly isn't the case today. Having spent a great deal of time learning about geology in National Parks, I can definitely say that the thought of allowing people to have access to their firearms in Parks is appalling. I certainly won't feel safer knowing that while I'm out mapping an outcrop, someone might decide to start firing a weapon near me (or at me, since it's apparently pretty easy to get mistaken for a deer, if the amount of neon orange hunting gear for sale is any indicator). National Parks are the only place in this country where I know that weapons are not permitted unless they're essentially useless. I'm perfectly happy that the Park Police have weapons to use if they need them, but the thought of my fellow average citizen having access to a weapon in a park - where, most likely, there would never be enough Park Police to enforce gun safety - scares me.

I'm going to be writing those letters this afternoon, and I hope I can inspire some other people out there to do the same.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Why yes, I do have goals

G. K. Gilbert, in his account of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906:
It is the natural and legitimate ambition of a properly constituted geologist to see a glacier, witness an eruption and feel an earthquake. The glacier is always ready, awaiting his visit; the eruption has a course to run, and alacrity is always needed to catch its more important phases; but the earthquake, unheralded and brief, may elude him through his entire lifetime."
I recently came across this quote in A Crack in the Edge of the World by Simon Winchester. What I found amusing (and cheering, in a way), is that in more than a hundred years, the field of geology hasn't changed so much that I can't look at this quote and say, "Aha! That's exactly how I feel!" Granted, the part about the glacier isn't quite true anymore, and the "his" and "him" reflect an age of the science when there were no women involved, but as for the rest of it - well, those are my sentiments exactly!

The part about the earthquake is especially relevant to me because I actually should have had the opportunity to feel several. One was the December 9, 2003 M4.5 that occurred in the Central Virginia Seismic Zone about 40 miles West of Richmond. I was a freshman at the time, and out caroling around campus with some friends. Unfortunately, being outside on the ground, this meant that I was unable to feel the quake, since the only people who noticed it in my area were on the upper floors of buildings (which apparently magnified the effects a bit). I was, needless to say, extremely unhappy to have missed feeling the most significant EQ in Virginia in decades. (There's a good writeup of that quake here.) The second time around was this past summer; I'd just come home from a month-long stay on the Big Island of Hawaii, only to find out that, ten days later, there was a M5.4 less than 10km RIGHT UNDER KILAUEA. That time, I was really pissed. I spent most of that month sitting on top of the volcano and nothing. But as soon as I left?

So you might say that I've been unlucky catching earthquakes. I have been lucky enough to visit Kilauea when the eruption was still feeding flows at the ocean entry, and it was then that I had my first real experience with hot lava (which got me permanently hooked on volcanology right then and there). The second Kilauea trip was somewhat less successful in locating the hot stuff; Pu'u O'o had recently begun the "Harry Potter" fissure eruption (July 21, 2007; they like to name the events after holidays or, if nothing else is available, book releases) and, despite a truly grueling hike out to the cone, we were only able to see the fissure source and not the active flows. (It was still hot out there, though, and we came pretty close to the flows before turning back because of safety concerns. Funny how a little thing like having to walk on partially-molten lava can ruin your hike.) I would really love to see a fountaining event, and my career goal is to work on stratovolcanoes, which means seeing a Pinatubo or St. Helens-style explosive eruption would basically make me incoherent with joy.

Glaciers...I've had even less luck with. I've seen plenty of glacier deposits, including some really spectacular moraines and cirques on the Fish Lake Plateau in Utah and striations on the slopes of Mauna Kea, but I have yet to see real glacial ice. Unfortunately, at the rate things are going climate-wise, if I don't go see some in the next ten years, there might not be much left. Certainly any dream of visiting the glaciers of Kilimanjaro is pretty much kaput at this point, and with the way the Alaska ones are retreating nowadays, I'd better book one of those Princess cruises pretty quick.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Where on (Google) Earth #86

Excitement! After solving my first WoGE (#85, a river in southern Turkey), I've been accorded the honor of hosting the next installment.

Ladies and gentlemen (and others - because I know at least a few geologists who definitely don't fit those categories), for your viewing pleasure:

The view is oblique to the North at about 4 km altitude; because it may turn out to be pretty easy for some people, I'll invoke the Schott Rule. For anyone (like me!) who's new to the game, identify the location of the feature (place name and/or lat and long), and take a swing at what's happening geology-wise. Have fun! (Posted at 7:50 PM Eastern time.)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Friday Field Foto!......Well, almost.

Yes, it's Saturday. I'm going by the reasoning that it's Friday somewhere in the world, because I think this is a cool tradition and I want to join in.

Here it is:

This one hails from the wilds of the High Plateaus of Utah, which hold a special place in my heart (and probably feet, knees, thighs and calves as well, considering how much time I spent tramping around out there). Long story short, this shows the fantastic weathering patterns and some of the flow banding in one of the more extensive ash flow tuff deposits out there. Most of them had origins in the Marysvale Volcanic Field in one of multiple calderas; this particular highly-welded deposit was formed from the caldera-collapse eruption of one of the largest calderas. (Yes, I am being deliberately vague; some of this will eventually end up in publication and I don't want to spoil the fun! Doubtless someone will guess what I'm talking about, but I'm going to continue using the carefully edited version of the commentary.)

Anyway, one of the cooler features of this unit, in addition to the flow banding, is the fiamme. (The similarly-oriented light gray streaks in the photo below.)

Traditionally, fiamme are formed from fragments of pumice that are compacted into little glassy "flames" by the heat and pressure of overlying material in an ash flow. These are a little different: it turns out that they're not pumice at all, but appear in outcrop to be a very fine-grained version of the darker gray matrix. The actual mineralogy/geochemistry is a bit more complicated, and hints at an interesting history of magma mixing in the melt that formed the unit, but again, not published yet!

I suppose I ought to include this: All photos and research copyright (C) Tuff Cookie. No filching, please!

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year!

Resolutions for geologists is the theme of the day. My personal resolutions usually tend toward the usual - get in better shape, finish working on some project I've been letting languish on my desk, acquire a totally gorgeous boyfriend who can appreciate the wonders of a really great outcrop of columnar basalt... (Okay, that one I made up, although it would certainly be nice.)

But this time I thought I'd take a stab at some resolutions one might see on a geologist's list (or at least some potential ones of mine, based on amusing and not-so-amusing life experiences). So, here goes:

  • I will not succumb to apoplexy when approached and "corrected" by Flat Earthers, Creationists, IDers, Young Earth proponents, and followers of L. Ron Hubbard.

  • I will not insist that we drive really slow or make u-turns (illegal or otherwise) whenever I see a really cool roadcut.

  • I will only make the suggestion "Why don't you lick it?" in the appropriate setting and in the presence of other geologists.

  • I will recognize that having a grain size identification card in my wallet does, in fact, make me a geek.

  • I will attempt to avoid a steady stream of snarky geologist commentary when watching The Core, Dante's Peak, Volcano, The Day After Tomorrow, Armageddon, Jurassic Park, or Deep Impact. (The second two Jurassic Park movies and anything made or aired by the SCIFI channel is fair game.)

  • I will remove the rocks from my handbags or, failing that, stop trying to claim that they are "crime prevention devices".

  • I will not become angry when airport security thinks that the muddy boots / rock hammer / crack hammer / fossil chipper / twenty pounds of andesite / mapping clipboards / heavy-duty gloves / tent stakes / souvenir benchmark / GPS receiver / power tools are signs that I am dangerous / a graduate of a terrorist training camp / attempting to smuggle radioactive material between states / going to gouge a hole in the plane. (All of these have given me problems at one time or another. No, most of them weren't in my carry-on luggage. Frankly, I'm surprised the TSA hasn't blacklisted me yet.)

  • I will not drag my friends into the rock shop directly adjacent to the exit of the large cave we have been visiting for several hours.

  • I will remember that not everyone appreciates the joys of initiating a mass wasting event upon discovering large rocks at the top of a cliff.

  • I will get into graduate school, become part of a wonderful volcanology program, travel the world, write an award-winning popular science book and spend the rest of my life chasing down violent eruptions and spreading the good word about volcanic hazards. (Oops...a serious one!)

Best wishes in the new year!