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Posts Tagged ‘Geology Bucket List’

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.

 

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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.

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