Death Valley Days

March 10th, 2013

BadwaterGroup031013DEATH VALLEY, CALIFORNIA–All geologists love Death Valley. No other place on Earth has such extraordinarily diverse geology combined with a modern infrastructure and a century of scientific study. The Wooster Geologists had a spectacular time in and around the valley today. Here we are above with the traditional group shot at Badwater. The weather could not have been better.

Zabriskie031013We left the Desert Studies Center at Zzyzx just after breakfast and drove through Baker and Shoshone to the southern end of Death Valley, seeing many wonderful sites. After lunch at the new National Park Service Furnace Creek Visitor Center, we then drove east and up out of the valley to Zabriskie Point. The above view has been published countless times by geologists and nature enthusiasts, but it has not lost its graphic power. We are looking here to the west at deeply eroded lake sediments of the Furnace Creek Formation. Towards the back of the light-colored material you can just make out the black streak of a basaltic intrusion.

ZabriskieOtherSide031013I think the other side of Zabriskie Point — the side looking out over Death Valley — is even more impressive. We see again the Furnace Creek Formation lake sediments, this time with alluvial deposits on top (visible on the right). These materials accumulated in an ancient lake and were lifted up and tilted by the tremendous faulting that formed Death Valley. The pinnacle is called Manly Beacon.

ZabriskieStudents031013

We took advantage of the sunlight and high spirits to take a picture of our Desert Geology 2013 students.

DanteView031013

We continued east and then south to Dante’s View, where we looked down into Death Valley from the dizzy heights. In this image we see Telescope Peak towering at 11,049 feet of elevation, while much of the valley floor below is lower than sealevel.

DanteViewFan031013Looking straight down from Dante’s View to Badwater (on the far right), we can see a complete alluvial fan from the narrow channel in the mountain slope to the spreading apron of debris over the salt pan on the valley floor. Badwater Road skirts the periphery of the fan.

After Dante’s View, we continued east and returned to Zzyzx via Death Valley Junction, Shoshone and Baker. Again, I can think of nowhere else one can see so much geological diversity in a single day, from the steamy floor of Death Valley to the heights above where we could walk through patches of snow.

Wooster Geologists return to the Mojave Desert

March 9th, 2013

DSC030913

ZZYZX, CALIFORNIA–It is officially now a Wooster Geology tradition: every other year we take a Spring Break field trip with students, faculty and staff. So far all of our trips have been to the Mojave Desert, for reasons that will be apparent in the following posts. This expedition is the highlight of our Desert Geology course this spring.  This year we have the largest group yet: eleven students, three faculty (Meagen Pollock, Shelley Judge and me — Greg Wiles could not join us because of his leave activities) and two staff (Administrative Coordinator Patrice Reeder and Geological Technician Nick Wiesenberg). We are delighted to also have with us Yoav Avni, a desert geomorphologist with the Geological Survey of Israel (and my good colleague and friend). Four vans of enthusiastic geologists!

We left Wooster very early this morning (5:30 a.m.) to catch a non-stop flight to Las Vegas from Cleveland. After picking up our vehicles at the Las Vegas airport, we drove to the Desert Studies Center (DSC) in delightfully named Zzyzx, California. We’ve stayed here many times before. The station is shown above from the mountain just to its west. Astute observers who visited this little paradise before may notice on the far right side a new solar array to supply electricity to the facility. It is all off the grid and self-contained. It feels in some ways like being on a ship at sea. On the far side of the station you can see the expanse of Soda Lake and some of the mountain ranges in the Mojave National Preserve.

NickKyle030913This year we arrived a bit earlier than usual, so we got a chance to explore the neighborhood around the DSC. Here you can see Nick Wiesenberg and Kyle Burden checking out some nearby outcrops of deformed carbonates (probably the upper part of the Bird Springs Formation, which is Permian in age). This was a chance to break in our boots and stretch our legs before settling into our quarters. The weather is overcast right now, but will dramatically improve tomorrow for the rest of the week.

The weather promises to be excellent for the week we are in the Mojave. All is well as the adventure begins!

 

Negev and Mojave Desert ecological analogues

March 14th, 2012

MITZPE RAMON, ISRAEL–One reason why I like working in the Negev is that it was already familiar when I first visited in 2003. I grew up in the Mojave Desert of southern California, which is very similar to the Negev in many ways. The ecological analogues between the two deserts are astounding, from “jackrabbits” to “sagebrush”. The ground beetle above is a type we see in abundance here in Israel. Anyone from the Mojave Desert would immediately recognize it from the color and behavior as what we called a “stink bug” as kids. They move frenetically over the hot ground with their heads down and abdomens high. Below is an example of a Mojave equivalent: a Desert Spider Beetle (Cysteodemus armatus). It is ordinarily black but is covered with yellow pollen in the spring. We saw this beetle on our departmental Mojave Field Trip a year ago.

When I post images of the Negev wildflowers we’ve seen there will again be familiar to Americans — some almost identical to Mojave equivalents. These analogues show how similar selective pressures can produce very similar effects in unrelated groups.

The Mojave Desert Field Trip and Wikipedia (again)

March 22nd, 2011

Fiamme in the Resting Spring Tuff near Shoshone, California.

WOOSTER, OHIO–As with last year’s Mojave Desert field trip, this spring we also generated public domain images for Wikipedia. It is such a privilege and pleasure to take trips like this that we at least want to share some images with this free online encyclopedia. Here are some linked Wikipedia articles which have been improved with images from this month’s expedition:

Telescope Peak
Devil’s Golf Course
Blister Beetle
Phoradendron
Desert iguana
Ventifact
Granite Mountains
Fiamme
Lenticular clouds

These and many more free public domain images can also be found on Mark Wilson’s Wikimedia page.

A few of the Mojave wildflowers

March 19th, 2011

Several people have asked what kind of wildflowers we saw this spring on our departmental field trip in the Mojave Desert. They were gorgeous and diverse — more than last year in variety and abundance, but far below the carpets of flowers we wandered through during the very wet 2005.  Here are four of the most common blooms. Feel free to identify them in the comments!

An outpost of Wooster in the Mojave celebrates today’s basketball victory!

March 18th, 2011

Congratulations from Zzyzx to the College of Wooster Men's Basketball team!

(Guest post from Lindsey Bowman.) After an afternoon of rewarding trilobite collecting, nothing was more welcome than the news this afternoon from Salem, Virginia. Our basketball team advanced to the NCAA Division III finals after defeating Williams College by two points. We listened live from Meagen Pollock’s cell phone to Woo91 updates, it was a dramatically close game. Best of luck in the final match tomorrow!

The last stop of the field trip: Date shakes!

March 18th, 2011

ZZYZX, CALIFORNIA–Apparently visiting China Ranch and having the famous date shakes is a tradition on at least a few other geology field trips. We were introduced to it by Matt James at Sonoma State, and today we met students and faculty from Columbia and the University of San Diego also spending the week in the Mojave. The high point of our encounter was when the student bodies sang to each other intricate and harmonious geology songs they had created! The date shakes were also a treat (especially with chocolate added) and a suitable way to end the 2011 Wooster Geology Mojave Desert field trip.

Thank you to the Desert Studies Center staff at Zzyzx for their excellent hosting and advice (and superb food from Chef Eric). We were also very fortunate to have on our trip this year our administrative coordinator Patrice Reeder who solved many problems, gave us several new ideas, and had enthusiastic questions that kept our game up. Our students were, of course, delightful and the reason why we enjoy these trips so well. Tomorrow we pack up and leave for the Las Vegas airport and home to Ohio.

Trilobites! Now it’s a field trip.

March 18th, 2011

Just kidding about the trilobite requirement for a true field trip, but we must acknowledge a certain charm that comes only from these spiny little beasts. Thanks to my buddy Matthew James, we were directed to an especially fossiliferous set of outcrops of the Carrara Formation in the Nopah Range. The trilobites we collected there are Early Cambrian, roughly 540 million years old. Nick Fedorchuk found the whole specimen photographed above. Everyone collected cephala (“heads”) and the occasional brachiopod and hyolith. It was a very good afternoon for paleontologists!

Wooster students at work in what we now call "Trilobite Valley".

Travis Louvain finding good specimens.

The trilobites here are strained by tectonism, so they look "stretched" in one direction. Shelley Judge collected a set to use in her structural geology labs.

A favorite stop: the Resting Spring tuff exposure

March 18th, 2011

ZZYZX, CALIFORNIA–We’ve visited this roadside outcrop on California Highway 178 in the Resting Spring Range on each of our field trips to the Mojave Desert. Meagen Pollock may explain more about this fascinating outcrop later in the blog, but for now I can report that it is a “devitrified pumice tuff, welded tuff, and vesicular vitrophyre” dated by K-Ar methods at 9.5 million years old (Hillhouse, 1987). It is an excellent place for students to put their developing petrologic, stratigraphic and structural skills to the test.

Sarah Appleton on the tuff at Resting Spring Pass showing the zones of sintering.

A little vignette of desert ecology

March 18th, 2011


ZZYZX, CALIFORNIA–While exploring the Amboy Crater lava fields on Wednesday, we noticed these small and very active “yellow” beetles. With a little research we discovered they are Desert Spider Beetles (Cysteodemus armatus) that feed on the nectar from a variety of flowers. As you might have guessed by now, the yellow color on the heads and abdomens of the beetles is actually from the pollen of a particular yellow flower blooming in abundance the day of our visit. These beetles turn out to be important pollinators for several flower species.

Some of the many flowers near Amboy Crater. I need my flower expert Mother's help to identify them!

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