Thursday, January 14, 2021

Geological Destination - The Bingham Canyon Mine

Identified as the largest open pit mine in the world, the Bingham Canyon Mine, also known as the Kennecott Copper Mine, is a local attraction here in Salt Lake City. The mine sits within the Oquirrh Mountains, on the opposite side from where I live. I had the frequent hopes of grabbing a good photo of the mine taking off from the Salt Lake airport and that time finally arrived when flying down to Las Vegas a couple of years ago. 

View of the Bingham Canyon Mine facing west

In the photo above you can see the mine nestled within the Oquirrh Mountains. The mountains in the background are the Stansbury Mountains with the Tooele Valley (where I live) located in between. 

View of the Oquirrh Mountains facing the western side of the mountains

Above is a view of the Oquirrh Mountains from the western side of the mountains (facing east). The Bingham Canyon Mine is located on the other side of the mountains towards the right (southern) edge of the picture. 

Another shot of the pit a little further along in the flight path.

Per the Utah Geological Survey, the Bingham Canyon Mine:
"...  is one of the largest and most efficient mines in the world. It has produced more copper than any other district in the U.S., accounting for over 16% of total U.S. copper production. In addition to copper, the mine produces gold, molybdenum, and silver. KUC’s combined annual value of these metals peaked in 2011 at $2.9 billion."
Currently the Bingham Copper Mine is the 2nd most active copper producing mine in the US and one of the top gold producers in the US as well. 


The rocks within the Oquirrh Mountains were deposited a long time ago during the Paleozoic (250 to 540 million years ago). Much of these rocks were deposited in marine environments as Utah represented the edge of the North American continent. Eventually the land started to be raised up and dried off and then around 100 million years ago the Farallon Plate started to subduct beneath the North American Plate.

Diagram of the Farallon Plate subduction zone along the western United States. Image courtesy of the NPS

The pressure of the Farallon Plate pushing on the North American Plate did two things. First, it compressed the North American Plate, creating a "wrinkle" in the surface producing mountains along the western part of the US. Second, as the Farallon Plate was subducting, it then started to melt. That melted rock eventually rose up and created a line of volcanoes. Around 30 to 40 million years ago, that line of volcanoes was located within Utah. Magma was slowly injected into the Oquirrh Mountains, predominantly into the 300 to 350 million years old rock formation known as the Oquirrh Group. These rocks, laid down in the Carboniferous (i.e. the Pennsylvanian and the Mississippian), are composed mostly of quartzites and limestone beds. This magma body slowly cooled to form what is known as the Bingham Stock, an igneous body identified as a monzonite porphyry. In addition to the magma body itself, is that the hot magma produces a lot of hydrothermal fluids within proximity of the magma body. These hydrothermal fluids move the heavy metals (such as gold, copper, silver, etc.) from within the magma and redeposit them within the surrounding landscape. 

Model for the magma-hydrothermal mineral deposits. From Groves and Santosh, 2015.

Cross Section of the Bingham Canyon Mine from Kennecott, 1991. Image courtesy of the Society of Economic Geologists

Stratigraphic column of the Bingham Pit Mine from Kennecott, 1991. Image courtesy of the Society of Economic Geologists.

So what you are left with is an isolated region that has a high concentration of metallic ore deposits. Many of the more prolific ore deposits across the globe have formed in a similar way (hydrothermal fluids surrounding a magma body) and therefore understanding how the Bingham Canyon mine formed helps us to understand where other ore deposits originated from.  

Friday, January 08, 2021

Paleo in Pop Culture - Star Wars Paleontology Xcavations

Back in 2018, Uncle Milton came out with a line of "educational" Star Wars toys that blurred the lines between paleontology and Star Wars. These toys called Xcavations Creature Crates were short-lived toys that I only saw once in the aisle of my local Walmart. Searching for any Uncle Milton Star Wars toys now seems to be a game of hide-and-seek, where they must have lost the Star Wars license since I see nothing current up on their own website

I had wanted to wait and do a post once I could find more of the toys, but then time slowly slipped away and several years has now passed without me personally seeing any of these anymore, so we will make a post about them now. For anyone interested in finding these toys, they are available on eBay though, and for not too bad a price (~$10 a piece for new, in crate ones). 

The way that the toys work was that they had one skull, broken into a few pieces, from a variety of Star Wars characters/species located within a crate. The person opening the crate would dump the entire block of sand and skull pieces out onto the table and "excavate" the skull pieces out of the sand from which they skulls were embedded. The sand was essentially Kinetic play sand, that was fairly easy to excavate and didn't make a terrible mess once it was out. My gripe would be that they were too easy to excavate, reducing the level of fun (but that's just my opinion). 

After the pieces had been excavated, reconstructing the skull is fairly straightforward with each skull being made up of only a few pieces (3-4 or so). The fun is then discovering what skull you had unearthed, because each package was blind-boxed, meaning you didn't know what you were getting. The two that I got are below...

Here is a Gamorrean skull, pictured on the top left of the packaging in the first picture.

Here is the Hutt skull that I got. This one is also picture in the display case that all of these boxes came out of. Each skull came with a different colored sand, so I am curious what the range of sand colors were. But the different colored sand gave the impression that these skulls were fossilized within different environments, hence the different sediment properties. 

One of the best parts about Uncle Milton toys was that they tried to make everything they did not only fun, but also educational. With these skulls they came with a paleontology pamphlet that not only described paleontology but also included comparisons of the Star Wars skulls to those found on Earth.

From the pamphlet above:
Paleontology is the study of life from the past. These scientists, or paleontologists, search for and study fossils here on earth. By simply examining the fossils, they can discover clues that teach them about different creatures, plants and other living things from the past and how they lived on earth.

There are numerous types of fossils that a paleontologist might discover all over the world. Most can be grouped into two main categories - traces fossils and body fossils. Trace fossils are tracks, trails and other marking that have been preserved in rocks, shells and other things that show evidence of past life. Body fossils are the actual remains of past living things such as skeletal bones.  

On the back of the pamphlet you can see that they compare the Star Wars skulls as a combination of real life skulls. Such as the Gamorrean skull being a combination of a Gorilla and a Wild Boar skull.

Close up of the Gamorrean skull

A replica of a gorilla skull from Skulls Unlimited

A replica of a wild boar skull from Skulls Unlimited

Since the skulls are essentially sculpted, they don't have the level of detail that I would expect from one that is based on a real life animal. They are also a bit thicker than I would expect, I assume for durability. But they do have some pretty cool features. One of my favorites is the brain case area of the skull. In vertebrate animals, the brain is not typically (if ever) preserved in fossils. However, the skull that protects the brain, is left with impressions of the brain where they came into contact. They recreated these skull impressions within the fossils as well, of which you can open up the skull casing to see the brain cavity.

Brain case of the Hutt skull

Brain case of the Gamorrean skull

Are these skulls works of art? No, definitely not. The level of detail, while admirable, is still rather low. However, they do provide a gateway drug for kids to start asking questions. "What is that impression within the skull? Is it really a brain impression? Is that found in real life skulls?" I'm tempted to pick up a few more of these just to see what I can find. 

I love it. As a friend said to me "It seems like they made these just for you."

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Dinos in Pop Culture - Indoor Mini Golf Displays

 Welcome to another rendition of Dinos in Pop Culture, where I look at different instances were dinosaurs have been presented within our everyday lives. A couple of years ago, my daughter and I went to play mini golf at the indoor sports and games place, All Star Bowling & Entertainment in Salt Lake City. While playing we were surprised by the random dinosaurs that happened to be mixed with the other random decoration.

I would assume that this is meant to be a miniature T. rex

Again this is a rather unidentifiable dinosaur, although with the three fingers, I would assume Allosaurus. Although the size of the skeleton would lend to the same "miniature" aspect as the T. rex is above.

And for the last one we have the rather famous recreation of the famous Megalodon shark (Otodus megalodon) jaw, although significantly smaller than the actual shark jaw in real life. 

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Geology in Pop Culture - Radiator Springs Racers

One part of Disney's California Adventure that really screams "Geological Wonder" is the Radiator Springs Racers ride towards the back of the park in what is known as "Cars Land". The backdrop of the ride is an awesome looking faux rock built panorama, evoking a southern Utah feel to it. They even provide a National Park Service type brochure explaining all of the features.

The region is even known as "Ornament Valley", an obvious play of the real life Monument Valley, a Navajo Tribal Park that straddles the border between Utah and Arizona. 

Here is a photo of Monument Valley. This also happens to be the "Forest Gump Hill", where we, of course, stopped for photo ops. 

The "National Park Brochure" for Ornament Valley is pictured above and below. (I tried to do a panorama shot on it but it is really hard to do that on an iPhone for a static picture so I also took an overall picture.) They have fantastic references to actual geologic features like "Pipe's Peak", "Mount Ever Rust", "Lincoln Continental Divide", and "Mount Hood".

As you can tell, several of the name are reminiscent of other features across the country (i.e. Mount Hood, referencing the volcano Mount Hood in Oregon, and Pipe's Peak referencing Pike's Peak another mountain in Colorado). The actual "geological" formations that they are showing are also reminiscent of features in Utah. The Lost Wheel Arch on the right of the brochure, and under which the path goes in the photo above, bears a striking resemblance to the Window Arch at Arches National Park.

The Window Arches as Arches National Park

The balancing rock just to the left of the arch, called Willy's Butte, also bears a strong resemblance to Balanced Rock, also at Arches National Park. 
Balanced Rock at Arches National Park.

Even the background landscape for the entire ride looks so much like the sandstone at Arches that I would say this was just an Arches homage. The sandstone in Arches is known as the Entrada Sandstone, a Jurassic age (~150 million years old) sandstone, formed from a coastal dune environment. The features that are present in Arches are due to the low amount of precipitation that the area receives each year. This sandstone is cemented with calcite, a mineral the dissolves in rain water fairly easily. So when rain water absorbed into the porous sandstone, a little bit of the cement is dissolved and eventually the sand is washed away. Some layers erode easier than others, which is what produces these phenomenal geological features in the landscape. 

And for my last photo, I had to take a photo here while I was actively running the inaugural Star Wars Half Marathon in Disneyland, way back in 2015.