Thursday, May 23, 2024

A Stop at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

When I lived in Colorado I ventured north from Colorado during a 5-day weekend with a scheme of visiting some of the places my father and grandmother told me about from a past family venture they had with my grandfather. One side adventure I wanted to make was a stop at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument ( in the Nebraska panhandle. 

My scheme of visiting the Monument got sidetracked. At a county road intersection well south of the Monument I saw someone pop up out of the grass by the side of the road waving a bit frantically. I stopped. The person I saw had fallen aslseep waiting for the rare car that passed by. He needed a ride to a town past the Monument. Given the lack of vehicles, I opted to pass by my planned turn off and took him into town. We went into the cafe where he bought me a burger and beer on the family tab and called home for a final lift. It was a well worthwhile 'good deed' that was a nice part of the trip. However, I did miss the trip to Agate.  

A fair bit of time has passed since that venture, but I always hoped to get another chance to see the Agate Fossil Beds Monument. Recently I had another chance. 

Heading west across the high plains of western Nebraska 

I did have some good luck in that the blizzard that had blown through the area a couple days before had not blocked my route. And the cattle were courteous and politely curious. 

The Monument landscape is high plains dissected by a river valley and associated small tributary streams that expose the Miocene age soft sediments protected by a cap of silcrete and limestone lake deposits. 

Silcrete and limestone cap above the Miocene sediments.

The fossils were found in fairly soft Miocene sediments. The fame of the site was the discovery of a bone yard of fossil bones in the late 1800s. That pile of bones has been interpreted to have been a watering hole with the idea of many animals dying at the watering hole during a bad drought. Subsequent fossil bone finds in the Monument have added to our understanding of life on the plains 22 million years ago. 

I took a hike through a small area of the Monument. No big bones exposed, but there are plenty of fossils. 

Miocene soil horizon just below the cap rock

Worm burrow casts and root casts in the soil 

Careful study of these soil horizons and small fossils tell a great deal about the setting. There is one burrow cast preserved on the trail that took a few years to figure out. 

Paleocastor burrow protected from erosion by a plexiglass box
Paleocastor was a dry land beaver

A collection of some of assembled skeletons from the fossils are on display at the visitor center. I am not a paleontologist. When I taught the paleo lab class I was a half a day ahead of the students at best. I have a deep appreciation of the field and the workers extracting information out of the fossils and the soils and rock the fossils are found in and passing that deep history to casual visitors to museums and in this case a National Monument.

There is another aspect of Agate Fossil Beds that was a delight and links back to my father and grandmothers stories from their travels. They visited the Red Cloud Agency on the Pine Ridge Reservation. That visit left a lasting impression that was passed down to me through their stories. Red Cloud was a friend of James Cook, the rancher that ranched in what is now the Monument.The friendship and exchanges between Cook and Red Cloud resulted in a family collection that the Cooks later gave to the park and are on display at the visitor center. 

Red Cloud's people had left a lasting impression on my family. Seeing the display and picture of Red Cloud and the display of Lakota culture solidified that family impression and the connection to Pine Ridge and the complex and at times tragic history of the area.     

Photograph of Red Cloud's bedroom

Sunday, April 28, 2024

Notes on the Permian Basin

I recently had some ventures in the Permian Basin. The Permian Basin looms large in geology lore and American/global policy. The basin extends from southeast New Mexico trough a wide swath of western Texas. The sediments that were deposited in the basin span much of the Cambrian and were capped by a massive carbonate reef building period during the Permian, The long geologic history recorded in the basin rocks and the massive reef building is a subject in many geology text books in a large part because the Permian Basin has garnered a lot of geologic attention - it is the largest oil producing basin in the United States. Hence, the basin subsurface geology has been well explored and there are very good exposures of the basin rocks along the steep slopes of the Guadalupe Mountains on the western edge of the basin where uplift along a steep set of faults provides good cross sectional views of the Capitan Reef.

View of the El Capitan, the Permian Basin and west Texas from Guadalupe Peak  

The trail up to the summit of Guadalupe Peak is about a 2,750-foot rocky trail with lots of big steps. It draws an eclectic crowd as it is the highest point in Texas and the hike is hard enough that anyone completing it should feel good about their accomplishment. 

I was a bit time constrained starting at around 2 in the afternoon so I really did not have a lot of time to inspect the geology in detail, but did pause on occasion to inspect fossils and noted how much I have forgotten about them and the Permian Capitan Reef. 

The oil and gas production in the basin is going through boom period with directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing reinvigorating old fields and opening up new fields. The attractive prices for oil is playing a significant role and investment must be assuming that the price for oil will be worth the expansion in production capacity. 

The evidence of the boom is readily apparent out in the high dry plains above the basin sediments.

Drill tower in northwest Texas

I was struck by the response to housing needs in the fields. Perhaps the same logistics regarding housing could be applied elsewhere.

Portable apartment housing for workers in the oil fields

Canopies for shade for workers with campers

Portable hotel

I did not stay at any of the above but did stay at a smaller portable motel. Comfortable bed, a good shower, desk, refrigerator and microwave made for all I needed.

There is subject of some policy debate. The rapid expansion of oil production also produces a lot of methane. While oil is profitable, the natural gas prices are low and therefore flaring, burning off the gas, has increased.

The natural gas production is exceeding the pipeline capacity and some oil producers are opting to flare the gas instead of delaying oil production. This same scenario took place in the ramping up of the Bakken oil 15 years ago. The financial incentives of resource extraction do not always align with limiting wasting resources.    

There has been an effort to track the methane emissions (PermianMAPFinalReport.pdf). If you do dig into the details it is interesting to see the range of limiting methane emissions by various companies is broad. Most of the big oil companies do better than the smaller operations, but there is an exception. It is a complex issue

The National Park Service does have a nice overview of the Permian Basin geology:

Sunday, March 17, 2024

A few Irish music favorites

A few of my Irish music favorites:

On Raglan Road - A poem by Patrick Kavavagh that he apparently felt should be sung to the music of 'Dawning of the Day' an old Irish song. Luke Kelly's version was maybe the earliest.  

Mary Fahl wrote another version of Dawning of the Day in remembrance of the 911 fire teams that died that day. 

Zombie by the Cranberries is a wonderful take on the Troubles.

Sinead O'Conner with the Chieftains is my favorite rendition of of Foggy Dew. She brings the emotion and the mixed feelings about the Easter Rising,   

Lisa Hannigan with her band at a booth in a pub is a delight 


Saturday, February 24, 2024

Sunny Day Above Wallula Gap


DEM showing ice age flood lake that formed above Wallula Gap and above the Columbia River Gorge

I got a chance to get up on the edge of Wallula Gap. Alas access is very limited due to private property. The expansion of big ag ownership with irrigation has resulted access limitations. 

Dry land winter wheat near the west edge of the gap. 
Note that the field was not plowed prior to planting.
This planting method is used in some areas of the eastern Washington dry land wheat belt and has become much more common in the Horse Heaven Hills.

Looking north 

View across the gap looking east. The Oregon-Washington Border heads east from the gap approximately at the middle of the picture.

I have put up a fair number posts on Wallula Gap:   

Monday, January 29, 2024

Lodge Pole Transplants

I have observed that large swaths of Shaw Island and Lopez Island are covered with stands of lodge pole pine. The lodge pole appear to do well in silty glacial till soils. The glacial till is very dense and hard and has very low rates of permeability. The upper soil above the unweathered till is only about 1 to 2 feet thick. Hence, the upper soil layer becomes saturated in the winter. Lopez and Shaw Islands are within the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains so the total rainfall results in the till becoming essentially desiccated in the summer. Another climate factor is the San Juan Islands area subject to periodic very cold temperatures associated with the Arctic outflow of air from the Fraser River to the northeast. The combination of wet winter ground, dry ground in the summer and high very cold wind is a good match for lodge pole.  

During a recent venture I came across lodge pole pines growing within a logging road on the steep upper northeast slope of Mount Constitution on Orcas Island. The logging road was beginning to get colonized by brush and trees. 

The seedlings on the road were primarily western hemlock and lodge pole pine. There were a few Douglas fir seedlings, but they were heavily browsed by deer as was the ocean spray brush. There were couple of Sitka spruce seedlings as well. The dominant tree in most of this forest outside the clear cut is Douglas fir, but western hemlock thrives on this wet shady northeast facing slope and there are numerous clusters of Sitka Spruce in the near vicinity and scattered through this forest area likely due to the cooler temperatures and relatively high rainfall on the upper slopes of Mount Constitution. The lodge pole in this cool wet area appears to be a pioneer tree taking advantage of the wet hard ground of the old road bed. Large area of the upper part of Mount Constitution has stands of lodge pole possible due to the the same combination of wet winter and dry summer conditions but also the upper summit area gets very high wind from all directions and perhaps that and a periodic in the past lightning stikes provided the openings that lodge poles thrive in. 

My home ground on Samish Island on the northern edge of the Skagit River delta is underlain by concrete like glacial till and goes from wet soggy ground to desiccated every year. It is also subject to very high winds. In particular the south and east winds knock trees down regularly in the winter on out portion of the island. Elsewhere on the island it is the north or west wind.   

Given that the seedlings on the road were doomed I took a few lodge pole seedlings and one Sitka spruce seedling home. 

Lodge pole seedling in its new home.

Assessing the forest is not my area of expertise, but I have accumulated a few observations and try to keep learning. I did find some igneous rocks that I tentatively interpret to be part of the Turtleback Complex.  

Igneous rock of the Turtleback Complex


Thursday, January 25, 2024

A Few Notes on Israel Russell

Over the past several months I have encountered Israel Russell on several occasions. Russell did some of the earliest work on trying to figure out some of the remarkable features of Washington State (Russell (1893)Russell (1897) and Russell (1900). He made a significant effort in his writing style to appeal to non geologist readers as well as the technical detail needed for his USGS reports. Russell is referenced several times in a book I recently read, The Great Columbia Plain A Historical Geography 1805-1910 by Donald Meinig. I crossed paths with Russel again when doing some research for work I was doing in the Yakima Canyon. 

1892 View of Yakima Canyon from Russell (1893)
The view is to the north with Rattlesnake Ridge on the distant right side (there is a trail up that ridge).
The railroad grade is on the west, left, side of the river. 
The picture predates the road that was later built on the east side.

I think the picture in the Russell (1893) report was taken from the basalt outcrop below the top edge of the canyon to the left of the tall pine.  
Russel (1893) also described the Toppenish Landslide (toppenish-ridge-landslide-near-mabton) as well as the Great Terrace along the Columbia River near Chelan. 

Skye Cooley provides an overview of Russell's 1893 paper on central Washington (i-s-russell-s-reconnaissance-of-central-washington-1893). Note that Skye Cooley also has some great stuff on calcrete in eastern Washington and a really detailed post on clastic dikes in eastern Washington that I find to be consistent with my own observations. Nick Zentner Ice Age Floods Episode D discusses Russell with Skye Cooley. 

And just a week ago In the Company of Plants and Rocks discussed another venture of Russell at Mono Craters (visiting-mono-craters-with-israel-russell). Russell also studied the Malaspina Glacier in Alaska - work that greatly informed his observations along the former ice margins in central Washington including glacial water stream channels south of Lake Chelan in Knapp Coulee. I use images of the Malaspina Glacier as a analog for the past glacial ice in northwest Washington.    

Bretz (1910) described large glacial lakes that formed in the Puget Sound area when glacial ice advanced into the western Washington lowlands from British Columbia stated that "It seems fitting that to this lake of Puget Sound, with outlet southward through Black Lake channel and with levels controlled by that channel, a name should be given in tribute to the work of a geologist to whom our knowledge of the physiography of western North America must always be deeply indebted. In memory of Israel Cook Russell may this water body be known as Lake Russell."

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Very Large Tree Spear

While doing some field work on a very wet day near the outer west coast I noted what appeared to be another tree spear (tree-top-spear). I do not know if these tree tops or limbs embedded in the ground have an 'official' term, but I apply the term tree spear for them.  

Tree spear is just the right of the two tall trees. 

I made a side trip to confirm what I thought I was seeing.



This spear appears to have been the limb of a cottonwood. It was very firmly embedded in the wet ground and did not budge even slightly when I pushed hard against it. The soil here is silt flood deposits.