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When it comes to Lechuguilla, the question is where to start.

I discovered Lechuguilla Cave through my undergraduate Geology departments Brown Bag Seminar series, a noon-time treat every third or so Thursday, in which a member of the faculty, and invited speaker, or undergraduate pursuing research with jump up in front of a projector and talk about whatever they wished. It’s a good time for all, but all but the one I gave and the joint presentation of Lechuguilla Cave were the only ones that really stuck.

Our undergraduate department contained a rather important figure in caves and karst research. I won’t go into name dropping, but let’s just say he wrote the book on the subject. By my second semester there, he was retired, but retained an office, led caving adventures through the Helderberg strata in New York, and lectured in Intro Hydrology and Geophysics classes.

I also had two student mentours, my trainers for eventually taking over Geology Club duties and leading my own escapades into novice NYS caves. Sometime unknown during my time at the school, the three of them, plus many other prominent cavers journies on to Lechuguilla Cave in New Mexico. We were not to know then where and when they were going – as their adventure was quite secret, enough to not disclose the location of ‘Lech – as the cave in generally invite-only and extremely dangerous.

They came back with extraordinary images – seemingly endless surreal pools, dogtooth aragonite, and some of the most amazing cave formations one could ever imagine. Mexico’s Giant Crystal Cave has nothing on Lechuguilla.

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But what makes it so spectacular? For one, it’s the sixth longest cave in the world, as well as the deepest in the continental United States.

That’s kind of a big deal.

Lechuguilla plunges to a total of 1604 feet and is approximately 134 miles “long”, yet this is not what makes Lechuguilla such a Mecca for karst geologist – it’s the formations.

 

For instance: the Chandelier Ballroom

Sometimes, you can just let the picture do the talking.

Or, the Pearlsian Gulf:

 

Unreal, eh?

There’s not so much to say on Lechuguilla, as it is just so unknown still – even after the breakout in May 1986.

 

Why we Blog

Downtown Cordova

I’ve made a life thus far, however modest, of writing. Writing has always been a fallback, an outlet, a necessity. As a society we’re falling farther and farther away from the outdoors. From ‘get your hands dirty’ science. Modern life is the struggle for quantification. Modeling. Predicting. The soul of science is slipping away.

And this, this is why we blog. We have a a strong community in the earth science blogosphere. I don’t have to name names. There are the heavy-hitters, hundreds of page hits a days, plentiful posts. There are the casual scribes, like myself. However intermittent, we pound out a cathartic post which may take days to write, though it took only seconds – a brief glimpse of ecological niche being filled, the grittiness of late-fall grapple, or watching a single drop of water transferring from stalactite – to stalagmite.

As bloggers, we are free from academic restrictions. There’s no minimum or limit to what we can do. No one to impress, but ourselves. In the sterile world of science, a few select professionals and graduate students, grappling for that little extra hint for a thesis – may be the only ones to fully read a research article in a legitimate journal. Yet in a day, a proper blog entry, with no submission fee, no peer review, no fame & fortune – can provide more hits in a week than a journal article gets in twenty years. Is that why we blog? Maybe. In our blogs, we write what we want. We reminisce of field seasons passed, pine over unpublished data, show our real favorite pictures, the ones with golden retriever field assistants for scale, the chevron folds illuminated by the perfect springtime sunset.

Blogging allows us to shun the shackles of academic publications, environmental analysis reports. For structural geologists to take pictures of that perfect trilobite in a jointed limestone. For paleontologists to marvel at the beauty of a mammatus cloud.

Here, in our comfortable little -osphere, fragmented thoughts provide some of the greatest entries. On a day where you want to put up a new post, but the words just aren’t there – post a picture of a waterfall hardly anyone has ever seen. Show alternatives to the centimeter/imperial unit black and white scale – a pretzel (be sure to clarify if it is normal, mini, or jumbo), your dog/field assistant, significant other, iPhone, whatever. Move away from the straight-on, full light structural feature of an outcrop.

We’re not just scientists. We’re outdoorsmans. Photographers. Amateur bird watchers. In every good geologist’s soul lies a little bit of Edward Abbey’s ghost. We love science, and we hate science. Our anonymity, user-specified,  can provide us protection in times of the ongoing political assault on our fields of study. We can defend ourselves, possibly offend others, yet we’ll never be blackballed. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. It’s simple.

Our everyday lives in science are not simple. This is our outlet, our freedom of speech. This is why we blog.

Ah, it’s that time of year again.

Lake effect season.

Another not of the fragility of meteorologic models – they should be used only as a guide, not as 100% truth. See that red marker on the map? It’s pretty much a whiteout right now, while the model reads rain.

 

When all else fails, look out the window.

Ever wonder why precipitation models of the Weather Channel, AccuWeather, so one look a little…odd?

Often, they are just models, especially on days like this – the temperature is around 36F but dropping quickly. Low lying areas (such as those below the Niagara Escarpment) show rain in the model, whereas the uplands of the Allegheny “mountains” show snowfall.

PS. It is neither snowing nor raining in Buffalo right now.

A few months ago, while Google+ was still ripe and my return to blogging was on the cusp, myself and fellow geology blogger Chris over at Geology Melange often discussed our Geology Bucket List. You know the bucket list – the quitessential list made as you age, detailing the places you want to go and things you want to do.

As young geologists, anthropologists and geographers, Chris and I would shoot ideas off of each other (this went on throughout our overlapping at Oneonta State for 2-3 years) as to our own Geologic bucket list. And while his aspirations swirled around flat rocks and dinosaurs, others dreamed of crystallized rock soups or lucritive natural gas plays – I myself was always into evidence of the not-so ancient.

As and undergraduate and now a graduate student, my research has been dominated by the Quaternary, namely the Pleistocene and Holocene. I love it. Even the mysteries of the transition. It was cold. Windy. Dry. Mammals were big and mean. Geology was in season.

I decided that my first Geology Bucket List post should, nay – must be Quaternary.

Behold, the Matterhorn:

What a beauty.

Being carved slowly over the millennia by freeze-thaw fracturing and cirque-esque glaciation, the Matterhorn is as close to a type locality of a glacial horn as possible. Throughout geologic time the slopes become steeper, creating a visual effect of the mountain becoming even taller (although, the peak only towers a meager 14,690 feet (4,478m)).

Being of Swiss decent (with over 50% of those in the world with my surname still living in Switzerland, there is also a bit of homage to the homeland for me here. Right now, Switzerland and the Matterhorn are number one on my Geology Bucket List. Its a good thing I am in the field of Quaternary geology and chronology, as Switzerland is a hotbed for the discipline.

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The Geology

Though I am in a research group devoted to refining geochronology, most of what I see on a day-to-day basis is just that. However, what sparked my love affair of the Quaternary was landforms – mostly the subglacial ones I find myself nested within in New York (drumlin fields, eskers, etc.) which are great if you’re in a devastating flat part of the world like I am right now.

When dealing with alpine conditions, however, you can be subjected to an equally incredible (and much less confusing) group of landforms. The Matterhorn itself is one of these distinct forms – a horn. Which, you have to believe, is quite obvious just based on the name of the mountain.

A horn is a high, sharp, steep-sided pyramidal peak, sculpted by cirques working headward from several sides [1]. Horns tend to be rather common in many cirque-glaciated parts of the world, including the Swiss and Italian Alps, Alaska’s Brook’s Range, Japan and New Zealand. Coincidentally, many other peaks of similar, but not-quite-as-impressive stature have also shared a name with the peak who’s first conquest brought an end to the Golden Age of Alpinism.

Oh, right, rocks. The Matterhorn is composed of gneiss, a klippe of bits-and-pieces of the Alpulian Plate,  a very small continental plate which broke up as a result of the Alpine Orogeny. First described by Horace-Bénédict de Saussure in the 18th century, some fundementals of geology were just coming to the surface:

What power must have been required to shatter and to sweep away the missing parts of this pyramid; for we do not see it surrounded by heaps of fragments; one only sees other peaks – themselves rooted to the ground – whose sides, equally rent, indicate an immense mass of débris, of which we do not see any trace in the neighbourhood. Doubtless this is that débris which, in the form of pebbles, boulders, and sand, fills our valleys and our plains.

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This is the first post in a series of Geology Bucket Lists. Stay tuned for more geologic wondours.

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[1] Sharp, Robert. P.; 1988. Living Ice: understanding glaciers and glaciation. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-33009-2.

In a recent review of the mechanics of cirque glacier dynamics, erosion, etc., I came across an interesting photograph in the Process Geomorphology textbook (John Ritter, et al., 3rd edition). The black and white, undated or referenced photograph contained only caption to describe its purpose. In a few words, the authors describe one large and one much smaller rockslide onto the body of the Schwan Glacier of Alaska’s Chugach Range. From the photograph you can observe the very steep terrain of the Chugach Mountains, carved over thousands of year to produce numerous cirques and arete ridges. You’ll notice in the upper right  hand corner (which translates to west in the photo) that there is a significantly large, and fresh, landslide deposit covering almost all of the glacier. ANother, smaller slide is located in the bottom center of the photograph (Northwest-facing).

South-looking view of Schwan Glacier and rockslides.

[Scan from page 372, Ritter, et al., 1995 Ed.]

Based on the photograph quality, I figured that the photo was taken some time ago – as the first edition was published in 1995. Extrapolating this, I am led to believe the photograph was taken somewhere between 1960 and 1980.

Now, as we all know, glaciers move around a lot. Luckily though, only in one direction. Thinking back towards a Quaternary Geology seminar almost one year ago – I remember a discussion relating to rockslides and landslides on top of glaciers and how they may or may not effect mass wasting balances, advance/retreat, surges, etc. The seminar group discussed this for a while, but ultimately no real conclusion was reached. Segueing this back into my recent page-flipping, I wondered: what evidence may exist of the Schwan Glacier’s reaction be being buried by to separate, but closely related rockslides? Of course, the quick-and-dirty method of analysis rests at the end of my fingertips and on almost every geologist’s desktop – GoogleEarth.

GoogleEarth is the lifeblood of visual geomorphology. The entire world is covered in ongoing surface processes and GoogleEarth provides an incredibly easy what to check out anything that’s going on anywhere on the earth’s surface. Within seconds of typing “Schwan Glacier, Alaska”, I was there.

[As always, click on the images for a larger view.]

A look south towards Schwan Glacier (marked with the crosshairs) shows two converging ice streams melding into one larger, debris covered stream. The farther down the glacier (closer to the “camera”) you travel, the debris looks more and more separated into medial moraine ridges rather than unorganized piles. This is normal. However, looking upstream (up glacier) there seems to be an awkward, dark bulge in the middle of the ice stream:

A disturbance in the ice stream?

A little closer look of the slide debris.

I’ve annotated this closer look to highlight what has happened here over a few decades. The light orange polygon is the landslide scarp – the area exposed after the slide moved downhill. In a lighter blue, I have what I have interpreted as the deformed slide deposit that is shown in the first image of this post. This shows a truly excellent view at ice-stream convergence dynamics. When two water streams join in a temperature climate, we’ll sometimes see a cloudy, brownish stream (high sediment load) mix in with a clearer, blue stream (one with less sediment load). Since it is still topical, I will use an example of mixing from the Connecticut River and Long Island Sound just after Hurricane Irene:

The contexts are slightly different – but the idea is basically the same. Notice how eventually the turbid water mixes with the clearer ocean water over the course of a few days. Now in contrast, the “load” entering the Schwan Glacier (which is a river in itself, just of ice) does not mix in.

We can also see in the annotated (and unedited, for that matter) image that as the debris was transported downglacier, the second incoming ice stream from the east (left of the image) is actually deforming the sediment deposited on the Schwan. Very, very cool stuff.

Now this was a very simple, quick exercise  in glacier dynamics and playing around in GoogleEarth, but even more information can be extrapolated from this method. In particular is ice velocity and landslide-triggered stagnation. If one were to know the timing of the slide on the Schwan Glacier, along with the time taken between that and the most recent imagery date – a simple length measurement (from the original landslide position to the new extent) divided by the elapsed time can give up the ice velocity. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to find a date of the landslide photograph, and historical imagery via GoogleEarth was not available.

Whether or not ice stagnates upon burial by landslide events is also of debate within the field. One idea is that the lowered albedo due to rock debris on the glacier causes more heat absorption, rather than reflection – possibly causing melting. In contrast, it is also believed by some that the veil of debris caused by the landslide actually insulates the icefield, stabilizing it, and causing the velocity to decrease.

The Schwan Glacier images do not support the second statement – as it is incredibly obvious, based on the deformation of the debris field, that the glacier continued to waste downstream. To go as far as to say that the slide actually sped up glacier flow would be irresponsible. For one, it would be taken completely out of context (as we’re only looking at a few images, here) and two, so much more research and data collection would be needed to confirm or deny this. Also – the instantaneous point just after the landslide is when the albedo would be the lowest – once snow comes again, the debris field would soon be covered with a new blanket of highly reflective snow. But still – a fun debate.

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