Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Hawai'i That Was: Hanalei, Where the Waterfalls Seem to Stream From the Clouds

Paradise is a wonderful place as long as you have something to eat...

The islands of Hawai'i are often described as paradise, but the island ecosystem that existed prior to human colonization offered little to assist in the survival of the human species. The plants and animals were highly evolved in their long isolation, and few of the native species were edible to humans.
But if anything is true of the human species, it is that the group is highly adaptable, and capable of the planning for the future. The Polynesians had colonized the islands of the South Pacific for centuries, and they had a good idea of what was needed to insure survival in a new landscape. They engineered their own future by changing the ecosystems to fit their needs.

It's unknown precisely when humans arrived at Hawai'i (perhaps between 300 AD and 1,000 AD), but it is known that those who arrived were probably well-prepared. They arrived on sea-faring canoes outfitted with plants and animals that they would cultivate and raise in the new land. They brought jungle fowl and pigs, breadfruit, coconut, banana, and sugar cane. And they brought taro, which they called kalo. The starchy root of the taro was a staple in their diet as it has been in many other parts of the world.

Successful farming of taro required large amounts of fresh flowing water, which was a problem on the Hawaiian Islands. There are only a handful of rivers of any size on the islands, and so those few were extensively altered to allow the most extensive production. Which brings us to the northern side of Kaua'i, where the Hanalei River is one of the few rivers with a floodplain large enough for kalo production. The beautiful valley is one of the largest kalo growing areas on the islands
The Princeville Resort on the north shore is sort of the "end" of the road for tourists seeking the most modern of amenities and wide smooth roads. As the highway continues into the Hanalei Valley and on towards the village of Hanalei, the road narrows. A pullout provides a stunning view of the valley and the taro fields.
The mountains of Kaua'i capture prodigious amounts of precipitation from the Northeast Tradewinds. Nearby Mount Wai'ale'ale is often described as the wettest place on Earth, with an average rainfall of around 450 inches each year. The constant rain on the exceedingly steep terrain above the Hanalei River means that waterfalls are visible much of the time (at least in my extensive experience of three visits). The water seems to stream from the clouds that are constantly draped over the mountain slopes.
The single lane bridge over the river is one place to become familiar with Hawaiian politeness (and the sometimes boorish behavior of tourists).
This blog post is part of my continuing series (off and on) about the Hawaiian Islands based on my recent field studies course on the Big Island and Kaua'i. We've been exploring the Hawai'i that once was, compared to the Hawaiian Islands since humans arrived. We're getting close to the end of the story, so I'll be trying to get the job finished in the next couple of weeks.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Bug Art at Beetle Rock

There is always something new to see when you are on the road. We were exploring the geology of Sequoia National Park for a field class this last weekend, and we saw many marvelous and beautiful things, but this was a new one for me.
We were at Beetle Rock, an exfoliation dome in the Giant Forest area of the park. The view was wonderful, but I noticed the oak trees at the edge of the clearing seemed "off". There was a mixture of green and brown in the foliage, and it wasn't fall colors. A closer look revealed feeding trails of some kind of insect, perhaps some sort of Leaf Miner (I would appreciate some help with identification, bug people!).
I don't know if this extensive pattern of feeding is detrimental to the health of the tree. There are a lot of changes happening in the Southern Sierra Nevada as a result of extended drought and climate change, and the number of dead conifer trees was truly depressing. I'm worried that something has also made the oaks susceptible to insect attack.
I've not noticed this sort of thing in the past, but then again, I've been known to not pay close attention to plants when there are rocks to look at. And the rock at Beetle Rock is pretty interesting. I just wasn't expecting actual beetles...

Monday, October 10, 2016

Spectacular Folds in Kings Canyon

It's just a short stop on a three day exploration of the geology of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in the California's Sierra Nevada that we just completed. But what a sight! The Sierra Nevada is known for its vast granitic rock exposures (more than three-quarters of the range), but fascinating stories are told by the other rocks too. There is a spectacular gorge along the Kings River where rocks of the Boyden Cave Roof Pendant are exposed. There are vast cliffs of marble and quartzite, and other slopes expose former mudstones and claystones of a long-vanished sea. The rocks have been buried, baked and twisted into a series of tight "chevron" folds.

The exposure is well-known to geologists who explore the region, but even though I've visited the site numerous times, I was struck by not just the folds themselves, but their setting deep in the gorge. Cliffs soar thousands of feet above, and I'm not sure why I haven't included them in the photographs I've taken in the past. It leaves me wondering how this canyon could have been left out of Kings Canyon National Park, whose boundary lies just a few miles upstream. Just downstream, Kings Canyon reaches its greatest depth below Spanish Peak, some 8,012 feet. This is just 19 feet or so short of being the deepest canyon in North America by most reports (some claim Kings Canyon is the deepest).
Here are the folds from the conventional angle from across the highway.
These rocks are part of the Kings Terrane, a section of the earth's crust that was swept into the subduction zone that once existed offshore of Central California in the earliest days of the dinosaurs (Triassic-Jurassic time). They are a great spot to demonstrate the power of tectonic activity in the shaping of the Earth. If you want to find them yourself, drive a half mile or so upstream of Boyden Cave on Highway 180 towards Cedar Grove in Kings Canyon National Park.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The California That Was: A Day in the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge

I've spent a good part of the last few months blogging about the "Hawai'i That Was", in which I have been exploring the bits and pieces of the original islands that existed before European/American incursion. I will even finish the series before long, but in the meantime I've been keeping up with the new semester (already a third of the way over), and the fall field trips. I had a break last Saturday and Mrs. Geotripper and I headed south to see if any of the migratory birds had arrived at our local refuges.
Tule Elk at the San Luis NWR
The first refuge, the Bear Creek unit of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge was sort of a bust, as no water had been allocated to the pools there, but the Tule Elk autotour a little farther south afforded some neat photo opportunities. A huge Tule Elk buck rose out of the grassland, and I was suddenly reminded that there is a "California That Was" as well. I live in a huge prairie, the Great Valley of California, and even though most of it (95%) has been consumed by agricultural and urban development, there are still some pieces left here and there where one can be reminded of what a treasure this valley truly is (or was).
Can you see why I took this picture?
The prairie grasslands extended for four hundred miles from present day Bakersfield to Redding, and the valley averages forty or fifty miles across. Although it receives rainfall equivalent to a desert in the southern portion, rivers draining the Sierra Nevada provided plentiful water, so much so that a large part of the south valley was covered by shallow lakes (Buena Vista and Tulare). Those lakes disappeared during the last two centuries as streams were diverted for agricultural development.
The valley supported a rich ecosystem that included numerous grazing species such as the Tule Elk, deer, and pronghorn antelope, and predators that included wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, and Grizzly Bears. Many of them are gone, but we were privileged to see the Tule Elk herd and a well camouflaged deer that made its way to the Salt Slough for a drink.
Salt Slough in the San Luis NWR
More than anything else, the "California That Was" was bird country. Millions upon millions of migratory geese, cranes, and ducks called the valley home during the winter months when the northlands were covered with ice and snow. The lakes, rivers, and wetlands provided food and shelter for the tired migrants. Although far less land is available to them today, hundreds of thousands of birds still spend the winter here, and that's what we were looking for on Saturday. We heard that some Sandhill Cranes had already arrived and we wanted to have a look.
Egrets and Sandhill Cranes at the Merced NWR
Hundreds of them had indeed arrived, but we were surprised by the number of egrets present in the refuge. It's strange how such birds can be clumsy looking and graceful at the same time.
Great Egret at the Merced NWR
The California prairie is perhaps the most altered landscape on planet Earth. It's nice to know that there are dedicated groups of people working to maintain some small corners of the valley for the birds and other wildlife. It's a real privilege to have a chance to see what was once here.
Sandhill Crane at the Merced NWR

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Lake at the End of the World: Tule Lake in Northern California

Tule Lake is situated at the end of the world. It's not that it's so big that the world seems to end beyond its margins, but something more like how it is the place that worlds ended. The lake is located in Northern California near the Oregon Border south of Klamath Falls. It fills a fault graben, a basin that formed when the crust stretched and cracked, with large valleys that sank hundreds or thousands of feet. The Tulelake graben sank enough to disrupt the flow of regional streams, and became a huge, but shallow lake. In this semiarid climate water is precious, especially to birds on the migratory flyway from the arctic to the tropics. It's one of the places where plentiful food allowed millions of birds to rest and fatten themselves to continue their journeys.

But it nearly ended for the birds. Settlers in the late 1800s found that streams could be diverted, and that levees and dikes could be constructed, so that vast portions of the lake dried up and disappeared. The nutrient rich sediments of the lakebed became pastures and rich soils for growing alfalfa or potatoes. In 1928, though, a wildlife refuge was established that preserves the remaining lake area for the birds and other animals. The present lake, as big as it seems in the photo above, is but 10% the area it once was.

The lake was the end of the world for a people as well. The Modoc people lived along the shores of the lake for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, but were forcibly removed in the 1870s. Many elements of their culture were lost as their community was shattered. I wrote more extensively on this sad history in a previous post. The story is compelling...check it out!

This is a dispatch from the road, some short descriptions of our ongoing field class on the geology of California's volcanoes.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

About to Hit the Road Again! There are Volcanoes in my Future

And it's been way too long locked away in an office and laboratory and lecture hall. I'll be hitting the open road with my students on an exploration of California's Cascade volcanoes for the next five days. We'll be seeing Mt. Shasta, Lassen Peak, Medicine Lake Highland, and Lava Beds National Monument. All in all, it's a fascinating corner of the Golden State. I may actually have some web access along the way, so I'll try to send some dispatches.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Hawai'i That Was: An Idyllic Paradise on the North Shore of Kaua'i. Sort of.

Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
If you have been there and think that Hanalei Bay is the most beautiful place on the planet, don't worry, I'm not going to diss it. It is indeed one of the most beautiful places I can imagine. It's been the setting for numerous films that needed an idyllic paradise for a backdrop, most notably South Pacific, the Wackiest Ship in the Army (with Jack Lemmon), Uncommon Valor (Gene Hackman, Patrick Swayze), and The Descendants (George Clooney). And who can forget She Gods of Shark Reef?
I've stood on the shoreline, looking towards Nāmolokama Mountain, and there were dozens of waterfalls in view, falling hundreds of feet. The slopes were choked with tropical vegetation, providing a contrast to the rich tan colored sand and the blue water. It's close to the ideal of paradise.
The secret is rainfall, of course. The average precipitation along the shoreline ranges from 80-120 inches a year, and the steep mountain cliffs above wring far more water out of the clouds. The mountaintop just to the south, Mt. Waialeale, has at least a claim to being the wettest place on planet Earth, with a yearly average of more than 400 inches per year!
There's a flip side to being paradise, though. One notices while driving through the small villages along the shoreline that many houses are built on stilts, sitting high off the ground. It's a hint that paradise comes with certain dangers.  The shoreline is exposed to tsunamis, and in some events, most notably in 1946, the surging waves reached a depth of 19 feet, causing severe damage. Even high winter surf (especially in the age of global warming and sea level rise) can endanger some structures as well as the coastal highway.
River flooding is another problem. The rains can come in torrents, and Hanalei River overflows its banks regularly. The pier at Hanalei Bay (above) is a favorite destination of mine (as well as many others!), and one might wonder why there's a roof over the end of the structure. There could be many reasons, but I suspect that since lots of people like to spend time there fishing and picnicking, it's nice to have a place to stay out of the rain, because the weather can change in an instant.

I was surprised by a fierce downpour a couple of years back when I was on the pier, and I took some snapshots of the storm. As I looked at the photos later on, I noticed something strange.
Those spots in the picture were not bits of spray on my lens. They were huge rain drops, caught in suspension by the fast shutter speed. I sort of knew it already, but the picture shows that raindrops are roughly spherical, and not the tear-drop shaped blob that illustrations usually make them out to be.
I am always telling my students that there is no place in the world where one is safe from geological hazards. It's not meant to scare anyone, but instead is meant to encourage people to seek an understanding of the potential threats that they might face if they want to put down roots somewhere. Paradise means different things to different people, but Hanalei Bay comes close in my opinion. Just pay attention to those tsunami sirens when they go off...