Monday, December 21, 2015

Geology of the National Parks in Pictures - Hagerman Fossil Beds

My next post about the Geology of the National Parks Through Pictures is part of a series of parks that the the family hit while we were visiting the southern Idaho.

You can find more Geology of the National Parks Through Pictures as well as my Geological State Symbols Across America series at my website


As we continued our tour through southern Idaho, I really wanted to visit Hagerman, not the least because I am a paleontologist. Well, let me just get this out of the way first off, I saw no fossil localities, unlike at Dinosaur NM or Fossil Butte NM. This is more of a preserve to protect the fossils but they don't have the infrastructure (yet?) to allow the public access to see the actual dig sites. Hopefully that will come along sometime in the future. But as a paleontological National Park, this is the weakest one I have been to.

Me and my Gummy Bear doing our sign thing.

 When we were planning on going to the park, I read everywhere that we had to go to the Visitor's Center first. Well this is the first thing that we noticed upon walking up to the door.

So as most any paleontologist is wont to do, we started digging to see what we could find.

Inside they also had a nice display full of fossils and other geological specimens for the kids to play with and analyze.

And they also had some of the more common mammal fossils.

Along with fossils found within the park too, like this lovely horse, Equus simplicidens, the State Fossil. Also known as the Hagerman horse, the national monument protects the two bone beds where over 200 specimens of the horse has been found. 

Within the park and the visitor's center we also were able to see some of the elephantine specimens.

After leaving the Visitor's Center there is one road with a couple of view spot's along it. This one describes the changing landscape from the Pliocene, when the fossils are from, to today. The majority of the park is composed of the Pliocene to Pleistocene age Glenns Ferry Formation, which is dated from 1.8 to 3.5 million years old. The formation is comprised of lava flows, basaltic pyroclastic material, and volcanic ash interbedded with sedimentary lake and river sediments (mostly mud, silt, and sand), which is what the Hagerman horse fossils are found in. It is thought that the horses perhaps died of thirst at a periodic stream, and then were eventually accumulated by seasonal floods. Other theories portend that the horses died while crossing a flooded river. 

There are also remnants of the Oregon Trail, as seen here with the trail ruts.

And here you can see them really well on the left side of the photo where the road bends. 

The Snake River Plain, where Hagerman is located, is known for its volcanic landscape. As the North American Plate traveled westward, the plate was dragged across the Yellowstone Hot Spot. The hot spot melted a swath through the Idaho countryside that left a significant mark on the landscape. The remnants of the old shield volcanoes and lava flows are pervasive throughout the region, as is described in this display.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Geology Through Literature - Faust

The next up on my Geology Through Literature thread is Faust by J. W. Von Goethe. 
Having some talks with David from The History of Geology, I realize I may have missed some geological aspects of the story. That being said, here are the ones I have come across: 

Part Two: Act I
"MEPHISTOPHELES:      Wherever you go in this world there's always a shortage of something. It might be this, it might be that. Here it's money we're short of. Now you can't just pick up money from the floor. But there's nothing sunk so deep we con't get hold of it, if we use our wits. There's gold, coined and uncoined, under old walls or in the belly of the hills. And if you ask me who is to unearth it: An intelligent man using the brains that nature gave him."
Some good ole hard work and intelligence has helped many a geologist to find precious metals and other goodies that the earth has buried deep within it.

Part Two: Act II - Earthquakes
SIRENS:      The water came foaming back, but not in its old bed. The ground quaked, the flood piled up, the shore cracked and smoked. Let's away from here, all of us. This miracle's no good to anyone.    Away to the sea-festival, all you guests, where the glinting, trembling waves lightly lap the shore, and the moon shines double and wets us with its sacred dew. Life there is unconfined, and here - this fearful earthquake. The place is dreadful. No prudent man would stay. 
SEISMOS: (making noises under the earth)
     Another good shove. Another good heave with my shoulders. Then I'll be out and they'll all have to scatter. 
SPHINXES:      What a horrid vibration. What fearful tension in the air. Such a swaying and tottering and rocking this way and that. It's intolerable, it's monstrous. But we won't move, though hell itself breaks loose.      The ground's lifting like a vaulted roof, marvelous. It's the same old man, the same old greybeard, who made the island of Delos, pushed it up out of the sea to oblige a woman in travail.   Now straining and squeezing away untiringly with all his might, his arms tensed and his back bent like the giant Atlas, he's lifting the grass, the soil, the sand, and everything in the peaceful river-bed, and cutting a gap right across the quiet valley. He's like a colossal caryatid, still buried below the waist and holding up a huge mass of rock. But this is where he stops, because we're here. 
SEISMOS:      I managed this all by myself. You'll have to admit it. And if I hadn't done so much shoving and shaking, how would it have been with this lovely world? You'd never have had your mountains towering aloft against the blue sky in its purity and splendour if I hadn't thrust them up for your pleasure, showing off in front of our great ancestors, Chaos and Old Night, and in company with the titans tossing Pelion and Ossa about like playthings. We carried on this way in youthful exuberance till we got tired of it and wickedly clapped the two mountains on top of Parnassus as a double night-cap...Apollo sojourns happily there with his muses. And who was it but me that planted the throne on high for Jupiter and his thunderbolts? Now once more I've force my way with an immense effort out of the bowels of the earth and call for happy settlers to begin a new life here."
In the first part of the section, I believe they are referring to an earthquake triggering a tsunami. "The water came foaming back, but not in its old bed." Tsunamis are frequent with earthquakes, especially earthquakes with their epicenter's under the ocean. Depending on the type of earthquake, what sometimes occurs is that during the initial ground movement, the ocean floor drops down, then quickly bounces back up. This sudden water displacement is one method in which a tsunami can be set in motion (

The next part refers to the earthquake lifting land out of the sea, such as had happened with the island of Delos. Land being shifted upwards due to fault displacement is nowhere near an unheard of thing. As you can see in Chile, the coastline was uplifted during the 8.8 earthquake a few years ago, creating a new coastline. Since many earthquakes affect land not associated with a coastline it was difficult to determine relative changes in elevation, especially beneath the ocean. However, with modern GPS and other analytical methods, it is much easier and quicker to determine precise earthquake displacements not associated with a constant, like sea level, such as the rise in the ocean floor after the 2011 Japanese Earthquake.

Location of Delos, Greece
Has this happened in Greece though, specifically the island of Delos? Greece is far from a tectonically inactive area. They have been known to have earthquakes all through recorded history, however Delos sits in an area or relative stability compared with surrounding areas. In actuality, over the past few thousand years Delos has fluctuated up and down, with an overall subsiding trend. This fluctuation is likely what made it seem like Delos has remained stable through time (Pavlopoulos et al., 2011). So, even though it is stated that Delos was pushed out of the sea, it is more likely that Delos has always been out of the sea (during recorded history) and is currently slowly making it's way back.

Figure 5 from Pavlopoulos et al. (2011) showing that the area surrounding Delos is relatively stable, with Delos in particular subsiding over time. 

Part Two: Act II - Rocks
"ANAXAGORAS to Thales:
     Will that rigid mind of yours never relent? What more is needed to convince you?
     Water yields to any wind, but it keeps away from the sharp rock.
     This rock was made by explosion, by fire.
     Life began in the wet.
HOMUNCULUS between the two:
     Let me go with you. I also want to begin.
     Tell me, Thales, did you ever, in one night, make a mountain out of mud?
     Nature, the flow of nature, never depended on hours and days. She lets every form grow under her control. Even on a big scale there's no violence.
     But there was violence here. Cruel, plutonic fire, the tremendous bursting of aeolian vapous, broke through the old flat crust, so that at once a mountain had to arise.
     What does it help? What does it lead to? The mountain's there. So far, so good. This sort of argument's a waste of time. It only leads people by the nose, if they let it.
     The mountain's already alive with myrmidons, occupying the cracks. Ants and pygmies and other little busy-bodies."
The first part brings up the point "Life began in the wet". It is pretty well assumed that life did indeed first evolve in the water, due to the need for a transportation medium between adjacent components. Current research indicates that these components needed for life could have been brought in by the comet bombardment that saturated Earth in the early days (

The second part that I would like to address was the violence of the plutonic fire as it broke through the flat crust. What is being described here is the violence often associated with volcanic eruptions, especially explosive ones. The mountain building being described I take as the accumulation of lava on the surface to produce land, where there once was none.

On a related note, there is a rather interesting story about the cinder cone volcano, Parícutin, that arose in a farmer's corn field in Mexico. Over the course of the first 4 months since it's initial eruption, the volcano went from nothing to 200 meters tall. This continued and is currently 424 meters high (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History).

So, it is possible for a mountain to rise from nothing over a very short span of time. The number of earthquakes associated with the rise of Parícutin also increased exponentially immediately before the beginnings of the volcano. Perhaps Seismos had something to do with this one.

Pavlopoulos, K., Kapsimalis, V., Theodorakopoulou, K., and Panagiotopoulos, I. P. 2011. Vertical 
       displacement trends in the Aegean coastal zone (NE Mediterranean) during the Holocene 
       assessed by geo-archaeological data. The Holocene. v. 22 no. 6. pp. 717-728.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Geology of the National Parks in Pictures - Minidoka NHS

My next post about the Geology of the National Parks Through Pictures is part of a series of parks that the the family hit while we were visiting the southern Idaho.

You can find more Geology of the National Parks Through Pictures as well as my Geological State Symbols Across America series at my website


The Minidoka National Historic Site was the place of one of the former Japanese "internment camps" that was erected during World War II. Although, not a geological park there are some geological elements to the park.

 My lovely daughter presenting our NP sign.

Some background information on the Relocation Center.

 One of the few remaining original structures. The building materials for these structures was almost exclusively the local vesicular basalt (basalt with a lot of holes in it). The basalt was formed in the Snake River Plane when the Yellowstone Hotspot (volcano) was located within Idaho. The hot spot hasn't actually moved, but the North American plate has moved westward across the hot spot, creating this volcanic valley through Idaho, now known as the Snake River Plain.  

A close up view of one of the vesicular basalt blocks.

 View of the Internment Camp fence with the nearby Clover Creek running alongside it. Clover Creek is a tributary of the Snake River. The residents of the internment camp created a pool out of the water from the creek since the creek itself was too fast to allow for safe swimming.

Panoramic shot of  the park and the region along one of the park trails. Mostly flat within the Snake River plain. Footprints of the former buildings are visible along the way.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Geology through Literature - Don Quixote

The next up on my Geology Through Literature thread is Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. 

The story is basically a man who has gone "mad", or more likely has dementia, who wants to rebuild the knights of old in Spain during a time period when they are considered by most to be merely legends. To do this he battles giants (windmills), evil villains (other people passing by), and massive armies of people (sheep). 

Although Don Quixote is a rather long book (over 1,000 pages) there is not much in the way of geological content. There are however, two scientifically related parts I would like to point out.

Part II, Book V, Chapter I
"Besides in Sicily thigh-bones and shoulder-bones have been found of so immense a size, that from thence of necessity we must conclude by the certain rules of geometry, that the men to whom they belong'd were giants, as big as huge steeples." 
This is actually a real life occurrence! For thousands of years people had been unearthing extinct dwarf elephant bones on Sicily, Italy. The people who had unearthed these remains had thought they were the remnants of giants, and not just any giants, it was where the origin of the cyclops began.   The skull of a dwarf elephant looks a lot like a human skull with one giant hole in it where the "eye socket" was. Because of reverence for the dead, these remains were often reburied, however now they were laid to rest in a more human like pose. When future people uncovered these now reburied remains, there was really no reason for them not to think that these were the remnants of ancient giants. 
Dwarf elephant skull from Sicily (c) AMNH
Part II, Book V, Chapter XVIII
"With that addressing himself to Don Quixote, Sir, said he, you seem to me to have frequented the schools; pray what science has been your particular study? That of Knight-Errantry, answer'd Don Quixote, which is as good as that of Poetry, and somewhat better too. I don't know what sort of a science that is, said Don Lorenzo, nor indeed did I ever hear of it before. 'Tis a science answer'd Don Quixote, that includes in itself all the other sciences in the world, or at least the greatest part of them: Whoever professes it, ought to be learned in the laws, and understand distributive and commutative Justice, in order to right all mankind. He ought to be a Divine, to give reason of his faith, and vindicate his religion by dint of argument. He ought to be skill'd in Physick, especially in the Botanick part of it, that he may know the nature of simples, and have recourse to those herbs that can cure wounds; for a Knight-Errant must not expect to find surgeons in the woods and desarts. He must be an Astronomer, to understand the motions of the celestial orbs, and find out by the stars the hour of the night, and the longitude and latitude of the climate on which fortune throws him; and he ought to be well instructed in all the other parts of the mathematicks, that science being of constant use to a professor of arms, on many accounts too numerous to be related. I need not tell you, that all the divine and moral virtues must center in his mind."
Although, this passage is not strictly geologically related, I found it interesting in that he seems want to list all the major "sciences" of his day (early 1600's). This is a satirical story though and only so much should be read into what sciences the author deemed important.


Monday, August 31, 2015

CBS Sunday Morning - Geology in the movies

Here is a recent story from CBS Sunday morning talking about the new film San Andreas. The Sunday Morning team interview USGS seismologist Lucy Jones about what is and what isn't real. Very similar to my Geological Movie Reviews I had worked on.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Geology of the National Parks Through Pictures - Zion National Park

My next post about the Geology of the National Parks Through Pictures is a fairly local park and a revisited park. 

You can find more Geology of the National Parks Through Pictures as well as my Geological State Symbols Across America series at my website


Obligatory entrance sign

 View down the Lower Fork Virgin River from the bridge that leads to the Emerald Pools Trail. Most of the visible cliff rocks within the canyon are the Navajo Formation. The Navajo Formation is a rock unit that used to be a vast desert that crossed the middle of North America.

 Nice view up the cliff along the Emerald Pools Trail.

 The tired hiker on the trail.

 Under one of the many waterfalls along the trail.

The Navajo Formation is actually prehistoric dunes. As the wind blows in a desert, the sand gets blown into piles called dunes. Eventually the sand gets blown over the top of the dunes. As more and more sand gets blown over the top, eventually the dune actually moves. The layers seen above, called cross-beds, are produced by this movement of the sand over the top and down the side of the dune. The side the sand slides down is called the slipface.

 View out of the Emerald Pools Trail into the main valley. When sandstone gets lithified (turned into rock) it produces a really hard rock that is difficult to erode. So when a river does erode a sandstone, the rocks not directly next to the river can form steep cliff faces, as seen within the Zion Canyon.

 Another view into the main valley.

 View of the Three Kings

Towards the eastern edge of the park is some of the best cross-bedding in the park. 

Some more cross bedding.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Geology of the National Parks in Pictures - Fossil Butte

You can find more Geology of the National Parks Through Pictures as well as my Geological State Symbols Across America series at my website


We visited Fossil Butte about 2 years ago, so I'm happy to finally get these pictures posted. 

 The obligatory entrance sign.

Since the park is a fossil based park, and most fossils you can't see in their "natural habitat", the best places to see the local fossils are in the visitor centers of these parks. Here we have a fossil wall of some of the spectacular fish fossils found. 

Many of the fossil plants found in the park. 

 A crocodilian skeleton.

 Some local turtle fossils.

 Vertebrate fossils like lizards, bats, and a tiny early horse.

 Panoramic view of the park from one of the highest points along the main drive.

 First view of the Historic Quarry as we hiked up to it.

Up close view of the Historic Quarry as you come up on it from the main trail. The Historic Quarry is located within the Green River Formation of the Eocene. The Green River Formation is a prehistoric lake deposit from a lake known as Fossil Lake. In these deposits each layer of sediment within the rocks represents sediment that was slowly deposited over time, likely with one layer representing one year of deposition, with winter time freezing over the lake and halting deposition.

Me in front of the quarry. 

 View of the further side of the Historic Quarry where the trail switchbacks up to the upper layers.

 View of some of the main fossil bearing units in the upper portion of the Historic Quarry. You can see the individual laminae pretty well from here.

 Panoramic view of the valley standing at the Historic Quarry

 A highlight of where to find some fossils among the many laminae of the prehistoric lake bed.

Entering the old fossil hunter's home.