Thursday, December 26, 2013

A Mammoth Mountain Christmas

There aren’t many places in California where one can find snow on Christmas. California Christmases are, for obvious reasons, typically spent trying to avoid bragging to relatives about the weather.

However, there’s one place in California legendary for its snowfall: Mammoth Mountain.

Mammoth is one of the most popular ski areas in the country. People flock to its slopes during the winter; many without pondering the unique geology that creates the snowcapped peak lost in the clouds in this photo.

Mammoth sits in a very unusual place within the Sierra Nevada mountain range. There’s a gaping hole in the middle of the Sierras known as the “Long Valley Caldera”. You can see it reflected in the flatland in the foreground of this image.

The entire flatland in the foreground of this photo is a giant volcano. It erupted over 700,000 years ago, spitting out almost as much lava as the Yellowstone eruptions. When the eruption was finished, the ground collapsed downwards into the now-empty magma chamber, forming the caldera and leaving a giant gaping hole in the center of the mountain range.

The Sierra Nevada range runs parallel to the Pacific Ocean coastline. When moisture from the Pacific tries to enter the continent, it runs into this huge mountain range and typically is dumped as snow. That is, except for one place where moisture is able to penetrate deep into the mountains…because there’s a giant, gaping hole in the center of the range.

Moisture from the Pacific is able to penetrate into the mountains near Long Valley because the highest part of the range at that point was totally blown away. But, there is one mountain sitting in the way, sitting in the path of all that moisture – Mammoth Mountain.

Why is this one mountain sitting in that path, right next to the gaping hole? Well, it’s a volcano too.

Mammoth Mountain is made up of a couple million years worth of lava flows and eruptions, piled on top of one another to build the mountain. It sits just outside of Long Valley caldera, stuck at the perfect place to create massive snowpacks. It exists because of the caldera and it receives its snow because of the caldera.

It’s still active too. In the late 1980’s, there was a series of earthquakes recorded beneath Mammoth due to movement of magma within the crust, and a large number of trees in one area near Mammoth were killed due to venting volcanic gases.

That seems appropriate for a California Christmas. A snowcapped ski course on the slopes of a volcano, sitting along the edge of a giant volcano that blew a massive hole in a mountain range.

Image credit: (Creative Commons license)


Africa's most active stratovolcano culminates at 3,470 metres over lake Kivu and the city of Goma on the Albertine branch of the great East African rift, where a new ocean may be in its early birth throes. Located in the Virunga volcanic field and national park (see in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is one of 8 active smokers in the field. The mountain sits at the intersection of several major faults, which allow the magma to rise from the mantle below. The extensional tectonics of the rift part the plate allowing the magma through.

The summit has a 2 kilometre wide caldera, that has had periods (including the present) of containing a long lived seething lava lake. Since the mountain's product is very fluid alkaline basalt, the convection patterns and overturns in the lake make for an ever shifting pattern of cooling black rocky crust and molten red lava. The lake existed continuously between 1894 and 1977, when it emptied in less than an hour as the crater walls fractured, engulfing several villages downstream. The lava is so fluid due to its low silica content that it can race down the steep conical sides of the mountain at up to 100kph. The flanks are littered with cinder cones. It was famously explored and studied by Belgian/French vulcanologist Haroun Tazieff in the early 70's (see

It presents a serious hazard to Goma, and the 2002 eruption lava flows carved through parts of the city, including the airport runway, whose population was swollen with refugees from the endemic war that has raged in the Kivus since the 1990's. This led to serious disruption, as aid could not arrive by air until the runway was cleared. Lava flows also reached lake Kivu, prompting fears that it might cause its higly stratified waters to overturn, potentially releasing the CO2 in the saturated deeper layer and axphyxiating people and livestock, as happened at Lake Nyos (Cameroon) in 1982 (see

It has erupted at least 34 times since 1882, sometimes continuously for years. The dense population in the area and the exceptional lava flow risk led to it being nominated a Decade volcano, and extensively studied and mapped from a hazards perspective. Ongoing conflict has made the required amount of study difficult.

Image credit: Matin Rietze

Since the dam broke…

On the morning of December 22, 2008, a rumbling began along the Emory River in East Tennessee. Moments later, walls of water and ash washed around the streets, bridges, and houses of the surrounding community. A disaster few had considered possible was underway.

This image shows the end result of the Kingston coal ash spill. The smokestacks in the distance are coal-fired power plant. When coal is burnt for electricity, there is always something left over, material known as fly ash. These leftover products of coal burning contain a variety of contaminants including heavy metals and chemicals that can irritate respiratory systems.

At this plant, ash was being dumped into a retaining pond and used to build a dam. 5 years ago today, that dam gave way, and 5.4 million cubic yards of material dumped into the Emory river.

Today, the cleanup of the area is well underway, but the disaster has created a number of longstanding environmental and legal problems.

The Tennessee Valley Authority which operates the plant has spent over a billion dollars on cleanup. They paid to remove the houses of the people who lived in the affected areas, spent tens of millions of dollars building new parks and bridges for the cities that lost land, and dredged a majority of the ash out of the river.

About 10% of the ash volume is going to remain in the Emory River. Rivers are really good at dispersing sediment, so once the dam collapsed recovering every bit was never going to be possible. Some of that sediment has washed downstream while some has been trapped in isolated areas of the river. A variety of monitoring efforts are underway from the TVA and local universities to track these contaminants as they migrate towards the Gulf of Mexico.

The plant itself continues operating and construction of new holding facilities is underway.

This disaster created a variety of national and legal issues that have still not been resolved. Prior to this spill, the Environmental Protection Agency generally ignored coal fly ash and power plants dealt with it on their own. This disaster showed that setup was simply inadequate and the director of the EPA promised to issue rules by the end of 2009 for ash storage, but the EPA has yet to issue those rules. Ash like this is stored in hundreds of facilities nationwide, and at those facilities, groundwater contamination and smaller spills are commonplace.

There are also lawsuits directly relating to the Kingston ash. That ash was taken by train for disposal at a landfill in Alabama, and the local community (with a mostly African American population) has filed a civil rights lawsuit asking why the material was too dangerous to store in Tennessee but safe enough to store in their communities.

The Kingston fossil plant ash spill left a substantial mark on the surrounding ecosystems, and the ramifications continue to be felt to this day.

Image credit: Knoxville News Sentinel

Tohoku earthquake set off mega-landslide

This photo is one of the seemingly infinite number of shots showing damage after the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Japan in March, 2011.

It was recognized shortly afterwards that the wave was very unusual. It was a “double” tsunami; two large, distinct waves were recorded by satellites and buoys throughout the Pacific, separated in time by several minutes. The presence of two waves greatly increased both the height of the waters onshore and the damage.

Consequently, scientists have spent the last few years trying to understand why there were 2 waves, in order to better prepare for future earthquakes. New research from the British Geological Survey presented at last week’s meeting of the American Geophysical Union seems to have the answer.

The earthquake set off a landslide below the waters. Not just any landslide…an enormous one…almost beyond imagination in its scale.

Using sonar images, the scientists identified a piece of the ocean floor 40 kilometers wide, 20 kilometers long and 2 kilometers thick which slid downhill during the earthquake. That estimate means that 500 cubic kilometers of rock moved in this avalanche.

It’s actually hard to find anything to compare this volume to. The largest recorded slide on land was at the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, and that was about 3 cubic kilometers. An earthquake off of Newfoundland set off a slide with a volume of 200 cubic kilometers in 1929; that slide set of a tsunami that killed several dozen people.

500 cubic kilometers is roughly the amount of material erupted from the Long Valley caldera eruption 760,000 years ago. This slide was comparable in volume to a supervolcano that knocked a hole in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

The scientists also used seismic data recorded during the earthquake to confirm the presence of this slide. Avalanches give a peculiar seismic signature and, within the data available on this earthquake, they located that fingerprint.

It’s impossible to say how much worse the devastation in Japan was because of this slide; there is no way to separate its damage from the other wave. However, over the last century, there are multiple examples of tsunami waves generated from submarine landslides, with the one in Japan likely being largest.

These mega landslides aren’t common, but they occur often enough that they are a major threat to civilization. They can occur in places thought safe from tsunami, making them a particular threat. These submarine landslides are in need of better scientific characterization soon, before another one contributes to or causes a mega-disaster in a populated area.

Image credit:,_Japan._%281%29.jpg

Press reports:
AGU Abstract: Tappin et al., 2013.


A team of Australian geologists has reported in a recent paper that kimberlite has been found in samples from Mt Meredith, within the northern Prince Charles Mountains in East Antarctica. Kimberlite is an igneous rock named after the town of Kimberley in South Africa, where in 1871 the discovery of a 83.5-carat (16.70 g) diamond resulted in a diamond rush.

Kimberlite deposits are vertical pipes intruded into the crust from deep in the mantle, sometimes carrying diamond bearing xenoliths (foreign rocks). 98% of pipes do not contain diamonds. Diamonds form from pure carbon subjected to extreme heat and pressure, about 150km deep within the Earth's crust.

Diamonds were not found in the three samples taken from Mt Meredith, though the mineral’s signature is ‘texturally, mineralogically and geochemically typical of Group I kimberlites from more classical localities’ ( The study focused on the region’s geology and not on potential mining sites.

This new study suggests kimberlite was uplifted about 120 million years ago, before Gondwana segmented into present-day Africa, the Arabian peninsula, South America, the Indian sub-continent, Australia, Antarctica and New Zealand. Kimberlite deposits would have originally been within the centre of Gondwana, until the continents began to drift.

Any excitement about mining rights for the potential diamonds must be curtailed, as the 1961 treaty protecting Antarctica was updated with an environmental protocol in 1991. Article 7 of this protocol prohibits any activity relating to mineral resources. This pact comes up for review in 2048 and has been ratified by 35 nations.

Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (1991):

Post on diamond prospecting in the Arctic:

Photo: Dougie Gray,

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Lung cancer rates soar in Beijing

Over the past couple weeks, we’ve repeatedly noted the severe smog outbreak that struck much of China as a consequence of stagnant airmasses and coal-fired power generating stations heating up for the winter (,

Of course, this year isn’t the first time China has dealt with a major smog outbreak. They’ve been dealing with major air quality issues for well over a decade; a consequence of their modernization and fossil fuel usage. This photo was taken in 2004; the grey air has only gotten worse since then.

Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued an important report on the subject, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of people die every year as a direct consequence of air pollution. Specifically in 2010, they estimated that there were 223,000 deaths due to lung cancer as a consequence of air pollution worldwide.

Normally, air pollution isn’t one of those problems we worry about every day; even in polluted areas we just tolerate it or ignore it, but those WHO numbers are staggering.

New data from China fits very well with those WHO estimates. In the past 10 years, incidents of lung cancer in Beijing have increased by 60%, from 39.56 to 63.09 per 100,000 people. The Chinese government suggests, correctly, that increasing smoking rates impact this number, but it seems extremely likely that air pollution is a major factor in this increase as well. Many of those additional cancer cases are being driven by their deteriorating air quality.

Although China’s air is an extreme case, these numbers are a stark reminder of how air pollution impacts lives throughout the world.

Image credit:Jesse Varner (Creative Commons license)

Press reports:

Glacially Erratic

A Glacial Erratic is a bit of stone, generally LARGE, that shouldn’t be there. They are rocks picked up by glaciers and transported, sometimes for hundreds of kilometers, away from their place of provenance to some other geologic neighborhood. Once there, they tend to stick out like sore petrologic thumbs – in many cases, they’re too big to lug away (remember, a one cubic meter of rock weighs about three tons). The largest erratic in the United States (found at Lake Stevens, Washington) is 10.36m tall and 23.77m in length.

In some localities, the solution of “What to Do with Them” has been to incorporate them into a local public square or garden designed around them, such as the erratic stone in this photo from Geneva. In fact, Ryan Thompson, an artist combining the geologic within his creations, has documented many erratics into an exhibit of stereo-paired photos that seem, well, to “wriggle” uncomfortably within their present setting (see them dance at: In a way, this is exactly what erratics look like to passing geologists – rocks that are not at all comfortable in the geologic setting where a glacier has dumped them.

Here in Greece, our glacial erratics are blamed as being off-target stones thrown by the titans from the top of Mount Ossa at their enemies, the Olympian gods. Since the type of rock in the erratic can be traced back to its point of origin, and since so many glacial erratics in Greece do seem to trace back to the Ossa-Olympos formations, then the myth must be true, right?

Either that or those erratics are doing some amazing dancing on their own when under the influence of glaciers…

Photo courtesy of Ryan Thompson (Glacial Erratic Monuments: Geneva, 2010)

A lonely road in Death Valley

It’s getting late in the night on Friday where I am…and for some reason that seems like a good time to show emptiness.

This photo shows one of the lonely roads through Death Valley National Park. There are mountains in the distance and a few other cars on the road, brought there by the fact that this is a national park now…but this is truly a great image of a wasteland.

Very little life. A few dead bushes mark the side of the road; the seeds for those bushes may well have come in on some of the passing cars and sprouted during one of the very rare rainstorms. There aren’t even very many large rocks; despite the nearby mountains, the presence of salt in the area breaks down the large rocks rapidly into dust and the limited rain means there are very few floods that can bring large rocks far out into the valley.

A barren, empty landscape for the night.

Image credit: Tim Furche (noncommercial use)

Deserted by Nature: Alvord Desert, Oregon

At the bottom of every lake and sea lies a cracked and dried surface, waiting for exposure. Such holds true with the Alvord Desert and its lake that once existed but has since dried up and created a dried and abandoned exterior. Tens of thousands of years ago, a lake with a depth of nearly 61 metres (≈200 ft) rested above this now cracked and crumbled surface, before drying up and exposing the Earth’s outer shell.

Now, the Alvord Desert is the largest playa in Oregon, measuring 10km - 17km (≈6 mi-10 mi) and receiving only 12.7cm-17.8cm (≈5in-7in) of annual rainfall. The surrounding Cascade and Coast mountain ranges are responsible for this number since they geographically place the Alvord Desert in a rain shadow and prevent extensive amounts of precipitation.

Despite the overarching dryness of the Alvord Desert, geothermal springs can be found near the neighboring Steens Mountain and feed a few lingering streams that vanish into ground cracks. Steens Mountain is part of an ancient lava flow that has carved its way into the landscape and exists well beneath the visible Alvord Desert surface.

When one finds themselves standing atop a nearby mountain ridge, or at the center of the flattest part of the desert, it is hard to ignore the desert winds. It is hard to ignore the massive nothingness that exists in a place where water and life were once abundant and visibly everywhere. Dried up and nearly silent as space, the Alvord Desert is now alluring in a different way; a more subtle way that tells the story of a historic past and an abandoned beginning.

Photo Credit: Tyson Fisher



If you think this is going to be a tame article on the geology of rocks that make up tombstones, scroll back through The Earth Story to some safe post on super volcanoes or catastrophic earthquakes or being wiped out by asteroids before it is tooooooo late… 

In this post, I am going to deal with the nitty-gritty spooky feature of graveyards: they are places where your body is meant to rot! The geologic environment of a graveyard affects just how this happens and, in poorly selected gravesites, doesn’t happen at all.

Squeamish yet?

First, we have to assume you’re going to die. I am, you are, we all are. No zombies allowed here: this is REAL science. What will happen to your body when you die? Since everyone on Earth is now expert on how bodies decompose due to the prevalence of CSI on global television, let me merely remind you that the rate a body rots within the ground is a function of factors such as temperature, humidity, aerobic conditions, water availability, acidity, chemical composition (of both you and the grave), and bacteria population. For a pretty fair description of the processes in action, try this:

There is even a mathematical-sounding formula called Casper’s Law (I don’t know if this is named after the friendly ghost) that states “a body left in the open air decomposes twice as fast as if it were immersed in water and eight times faster than if it were buried underground.” There are optimal conditions and combinations of conditions present for each of these factors promoting decomposition: there is an optimal temperature range for decomposition, an optimal humidity, optimal worm population. And if there isn't?

You've seen the documentaries – the desiccated bodies left from the Incan sacrifices, Otzi the frozen Neolithic Man of the Alps, catacombs in Italy, Celts left in bogs way too long… The effect of a cemetery gone wrong most often results in the production of a mummy. Too dry? Mummy. Too cold? Mummy. Bodies kept in anaerobic conditions? Mummy. Grave under groundwater, particularly one with acidic waters and tannin? Mummy.

Imagine you’re a geologist sent to inspect a potential cemetery plot (imagine that it’s Halloween to make things even better!) (Actually, I’ve done this, though thankfully not on Halloween.) There’s a great place on that hillside, really scenic, just below the rising moon – but it’s situated on an active landslide. And yes, several graveyards in local Greek villages have slipped down the valley, distributing relatives in multiple states of disrepair all over the place. No good!

But what about this quiet valley, with the willow tree and mossy path, a surreal fog on the ground, how lovely! but… unfortunately, the water table here is too high, and the water tends to stagnate. You won’t rot here, you’ll mummify, uck!

Oh here’s a great place! Water percolating through loose sands, just perfect conditions except… where does that water go to? See down the hillside? That’s the village spring. Unless you want to drink fluids liberated during decomposition, it’s to be avoided.

Let’s look at the soil. Yes, a cemetery should have soil, good soil, not just coarse rocks. If you want a good population of bacteria to do the main job in decomposition for you, you need dirt. It’s a shame that vineyard took up all the best dirt.

Pick up that rock, go ahead. Take a look. What’s that beneath it – a root? Ahhh. Perfect location! Worms already present, dirt healthy, drainage good, not too hot, not too cold, why has that root crawled off the rock, why is it crawling onto my boot, why is it…

Make sure your potential cemetery is not haunted before it becomes one.

Photo: Icelandic Cemetery courtesy of Johan Stellar
The Hearse Song performed PERFECTLY by Harley Poe.

A worthy video to watch during the witching hours: National Geographic Ancient Graves Voices of the Dead
And several other scientific references on graveyard geology:
How Bodies Rot in Graves:
And… Mummies!

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