Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Brief Look

Kyle Leaf

SP crater is a cinder cone volcano that exists to challenge climbers.
Getting to the top is a truly difficult task, but from the top the
lava flow is beautifully defined, and very easy to identify. Climbing
is 2 steps up, one step sliding down, but going down is like a
downhill roller-blade trip. The view from the top was amazing, making
SP crater a distinct highlight of the trip.

The Grand Canyon is big. Really, really big. I was expecting a sheer
cliff that one could look down and see a river at the bottom, with the
other side at most a few hundred yards away. But no, its bigger.
Hiking 3 miles down (and back up) the Bright Angel Trail (2,044 feet/
623 meter elevation change) was a very rewarding few hours.

I would like to thank Dr. Rice, Dr. Burkhart, and Dr. Shultz for making the experience amazing. Thanks again to Cynthia for putting the entire LPSA program together. And thanks to Aaron and Nicole for being such great staff assistants all summer. If anyone reading this has never had a NASA internship, apply now! The experience is awesome, I hope to have another like it next summer, and you should too!

Adventure through the Millennia

Tanner Hamann

For something so massive it can be seen from space, the Grand Canyon has a way of sneaking up on you. My first sight was hazy blue visible through a gap in the bushes, which took a moment for me to recognize as rocks. We kept walking and almost in a flash, the Canyon was laid out before us. Looking at all the rocks and cliffs distorted by shear distance, I had trouble believing what I was seeing. It seemed unreal, impossible that I was looking across a gulf miles wide. The blazing sun lit the canyon walls, making it even harder to distinguish the intricacies of the terrain. What I did believe was just as suddenly as the Canyon appeared, the ground ahead of us abruptly ended in a near vertical cliff. To put it mildly, heights are not my thing. My uncertainty was replaced by awe as our guides started rattling off facts about the Canyon and then delved into a lecture on the various layers forming the Canyon walls. So much history encapsulated in layers upon layer of sediment. I never could have appreciated the age and change represented by this place had there not been someone how understood this science, who spoke the language of chemistry and rock.

The Grand Canyon was definitely the largest natural formation we saw and explored, but it was only one place. As part of observing Earth analogues to Martian features, we went to multiple craters and many other sites of geological interest. I especially liked the trek to Colton Crater, since it was the first cinder volcano that I climbed to the top. An ancient explosion made that easier by pretty much reducing the steep north face to a moderate hill. It also blew away the top of the volcano, so there was an impressive crater left behind. The crater was so deep that the few people who ventured to the bottom looked barely larger than specks. Standing at the rim, I did not expect the gusts of wind that rolled over the crater’s edge. One of them actually sent me scrambling after Cynthia’s and my hats, desperately trying to grab them before they could fly away. I was not caught unawares a second time, so my focus fell more on the terrain, the striations in the crater walls, and the remnants of a miniature cinder volcano at the crater floor. Fascinating is too mild a word for this place.

I came to Arizona not sure what to expect besides sun, hours of field work, and this “dry heat” everyone keep touting as a good thing. I found all those things, but I also found an adventure that took me though millennia of history and across a variety of landscapes. I learned a lot, walked a lot, and got a glimpse into perspective of geologists, a.k.a. rock people. I doubt I will get as excited about basalt and limestone as they did, but I can appreciate the intricate story such things contain and the art of reading that story. The trip is an experience I will always remember, one of many since the summer began, and I thank Cynthia Cheung and the Lunar and Planetary Science Academy for making it all possible.

The Geologic Record

Jordan Hildebrandt

Interestingly, the Grand Canyon, for all its press, is not terrifically useful for determining specifics about a particular section in time.  The Redwall Limestone, from the Mississippian period, is about 250 meters of rock representing around 60 million years, or about 4mm of rock record for every 1,000 years.  That's not much to go on, at all.  Now, geologists can still obtain a great deal of information from these short-spanning outcrops, but it's not very good resolution.  There are sections elsewhere in the world that record much more information per unit time - a random strat column from Pakistan reveals a section with a rate of 1m per 1,000 years - 2 orders of magnitude more information about.  It's neat that the canyon samples such a large time frame - spanning billions of years, but that only means that there are heaps upon heaps of data gaps.
Gaps in the geological record are caused by periods of either loss of material or non-deposition - grains are being removed as or more quickly as they are being deposited.  Such holes in the record are known as "unconformities," in that one layer does not conform properly with the adjacent layer - there's not a fluid recording of the flow of time.
To end on a less lighthearted note, here is a joke I made up on one of the car rides:
What do you call a volcano in the Vatican?

A cardinal cinder.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Megascopic Processes and Lessons of Continuity

Jillian E. Votava

DAY ONE: Drive from Phoenix to Flagstaff
First impression of AZ: It’s deathly hot and dry. As we drive out of the airport and head north along the highway though, we see a pleasant sight: Carnegiea gigantean>> Saguaro cacti, the giant trademarks of the desert. The drive from 1,200 ft asl to 6,900 ft asl is most noticeable through air temperature. 110°F turns steadily into 79°F as we gain 6,000+ feet in elevation. Along the highway, a remarkable shift occurs: one moment you are passing an endless sea of Saguaro, then tufts of yucca amid prickly-pear, followed by shrubs and small trees. The final leg of the drive from Sedona to Flagstaff holds the largest surprise: Pinus ponderosa>> massive pine trees dominate and tower over the road. We’ve just driven over a text-book example of a basin-and-range region that has the added “spice” of regional uplift (known as the Colorado Plateau). Ending the day with a sunset dinner at Humphrey’s Peak included the additional surprise of Aspen and Pine tree-climbing.
Sound of the day: wind through the tree leaves.

DAY TWO: Volcanic Craters
First impression of SP Crater: simple cones, “fluffy” lava flows. Classic cone-shaped volcanic hills dot the flat landscape northeast of Flagstaff and the large lava flow snakes for four miles north of this steep, rocky hill.
Sound of the day: wind across bare rocks, “clink-clink” footsteps across the 70,000 year-old basalts.
 First impression of Colton crater: rounded and eroded. Colton is a large cinder-cone volcano that was explosive and fast-lived. It is known as a hydro-volcanic crater: a rising body of magma met ground water, creating an extremely volatile mix. The “cone” part of the volcano is gone, it blew off! 500 feet deep and one mile in circumference is a large volume of solid rock to expel and one can only image what such an event would have looked like.
Fun word of the day: Palagonitic Tuff (pah-lag-on-it-ik).

DAY THREE: Crater comparisons and petrified trees
First impression of Meteor crater: “striking”, pun only slightly intended. You look across this flat landscape east of Flagstaff, seeing only a couple mesas on the horizon, and then WHAM, huge hole in the ground. Thinking about a meteor the size of a 50m by 50m building makes you panic slightly, feel small and vulnerable. This feature is a tangible analog to our rocky neighbors in the sky. Both Mars and (more so) the Moon are covered with impact craters. The “clinkery” rocks of yesterday’s crater cones are gone. Here the rims are made of loosely consolidated fragments of the strata seen in beautiful profile that make up the crater walls. All three rock formations are of sedimentary-type; they formed from consolidation of pre-existing materials and/or by precipitation in an aqueous environment.
The main point: Meteor(ites) can strike ANYWHERE; volcanic-, sedimentary-, or loose- rocks in a pile, even in the ocean! Volcanic craters occur in volcanoes, the rim is made of volcanic rocks.
Day 3 ended with a visit to a landscape known as “bad-lands”. This is when fluvial processes create a deeply incised and heavily sculpted landscape of loosely-lithified sediments within an arid environment. The water is long gone but the gullies and channels are preserved in place. The colorful pink, orange, and purple layers as well as the mud-cracked appearance of the ground tell you the area is full of clay. “Clay” is a broad category of many minerals but all have variable amounts of water (H+ and OH-) in their mineral structure. This is the Painted Desert, located within the Petrified Forest National Park. Here, large, Cretaceous tree-logs have avoided the usual route of decay and re-cycle by a sudden burial that removed them from oxygen and thus allowed their overall structure to remain intact. At some point, silica-rich waters entered the system and replaced all the carbon with an amorphous form of quartz. The original cellulose framework remained however, and today these logs have made their way back to the surface in an impressive documentation of past life. Seeing these ancient tree remains is quite an experience. A unique set of conditions tens of millions of years ago had to be met in order for us tourists to see them now. 

DAY FOUR: A natural wonder of the world
First impression: Brain-freeze…immensity, incomprehensible dimensions… You ask, “Is that real?”  Your brain does not believe your eyes, “How CAN it be that big?”15 miles across and one mile deep… “How did it form?” There is a river over there, partially hidden from view, although it’s hard to imagine the scale of time and amount of water needed to carry away such an enormous amount of material. The origin of the Grand Canyon is still debated and includes postulates of rapid uplift with fluvial incision or even the idea of a giant, catastrophic sudden release of water from an upstream ancient lake.
This calm day was spent hiking down to mile 1.5 with head up, mouth gaping, and eyes glued to the dramatic canyon walls. Below, the trail continues across a lower bench of orange strata and then dips down out of sight to the canyon floor. The most difficult part of this hike is NOT the inclined ascent but instead, not seeing around the next corner. After all, “curiosity” is what drives the field of SCIENCE.

DAY FIVE: Trip’s end at the “Day’s End”: Sunset Crater
First impression: diverse, dramatic landscape. The final trip is a pleasant visit to Sunset Crater National Monument. The short trail walks over small, pebble-sized black gravel known as “cinders”. The larger (>10cm) cinders produce a pleasing “tink” sound when stepped on. The “tinkery” noise reveals the glassy nature of these young, volcanic rocks.
Word of the day: Hornito, or spatter-cone: these are the smaller vents from which lava flowed out across the land only 900 years ago! How did the people living here feel at the time of the eruption? The creation of earth inevitably includes destruction as well. Today, life has returned in full strength to this now fertile and nutrient-rich volcanic dust. 

Final Remarks: Post-mission debrief
Geology is largely an observational science and this field excursion demanded most of these skills and all of my attention. The planetary analog focus of the trip pushed my observations to the next level: to compare and hypothesize about similar features millions of miles away on other bodies in the solar-system. I feel privileged to have participated in such an event and appreciative of all the planning that occurred to make it happen. Thanks to Dr. Cynthia Cheung, Aaron Silver, and Nicole Thom for organizing the trip. Thanks to our leaders: Dr. Patrick Burkhart, Dr. Jim Rice, Dr. Charles Shultz, Dr. Shawn Wright, and Andy Ryan.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Looking At Mars through Arizona

Ryan Jackson

            The southwest is a beautiful place, not due to the plant life which can be quite menacing but instead it has a stark beauty because of the exposed geologic features which abound through the region. This lack of annoying and obscuring vegetation makes it an ideal place to study geology, and in addition the southwestern U.S. bares the evidence of numerous large scale geologic events. This has caused a variety of features from volcanic fields to ridgebacks, and as a result of sheer luck and the arid environment (which doesn’t weather features as quickly as would be seen on the East Coast) the area also plays host to two of the world’s most impressive geologic features—the Grand Canyon and Meteor Crater. These two features, in addition to the volcanic fields, make northern Arizona an ideal place to study Martian analogs.
            So first off, Martian analogs (or planetary analogs) are geologic features on Earth that can be used to gain a better understanding of a feature elsewhere in the Solar System that it corresponds closely to. This works because of the idea of Uniformitarianism which is at the very heart of geology, and can be basically summed up as “the present is the key to the past” and the laws of nature are consistent throughout the Universe. This means that we can look at the processes we see now (like a volcano erupting) and extrapolate this back to a similar lava flow which is hundreds of millions of years old; in addition, because we understand the laws of physics to be uniform throughout space we can extrapolate this event to another planet (allowing for changes in composition, gravity, and other considerations) and understand lava flows there as well.
            This was the basic idea for the field trip, the basaltic Lava Flows of the San Francisco Peaks correlate to basaltic flows all over the terrestrial bodies of the solar system, but in particular the process is representative of hot spot volcanism which also created Olympus Mons, the Solar System’s tallest volcano. Meteor Crater is quite obviously representative of other impact craters which are ubiquitous across the Solar System, but it is rare on Earth as it is so well preserved; and the sedimentary layers exposed within the Grand Canyon could be analogous to the stratigraphy it is hoped the Mars Science Laboratory will find on Mount Sharp in Gale Crater.
            After a day of traveling, our first day was spent in the San Francisco Volcanic Field which is comprised of cinder cones and basaltic lava flows. Cinder cones are small volcanoes made quickly in eruptions which shoot out ash (cinders) which fall back down into a pile, kind of like if you took a handful of sand and poured it out in a stream back onto the ground, the small mound it would form as it piled up is very similar to the formation of the cinder cones. The basalt here has a Hawaiian name “Aa” (pronounced ah-ah) which is named for the sound made when a bare-footed person steps on it—I’m not joking. It is characterized by the blocky texture and is differentiated from pahoehoe which has a ropy texture. This area is important as the volcanism was the result of a hot spot, which aren’t greatly understood, but basically can be summarized by a large plume of magma coming up from the Earth’s mantle and spilling out onto the surface and because Mars doesn’t have plate tectonics, like the Earth does, this is pretty much the only volcanism present there.
            Hotspots are also responsible for some island chains like Hawaii where they form shield volcanoes (the largest type of volcano but they are broad and very gently sloping) which are analogous to Olympus Mons and other giant Martian volcanoes. Hotspots are more or less stationary; however, on Earth the tectonic plates above them move so the volcanism moves with the plate. On Mars, that doesn’t happen so the hot spot continually pumps out lava making the volcano grow larger and larger until the volcanism dies away.
            I have been in large lava flows before, but the scene around our first stop at S.P. Crater (bit of a misnomer as it is a textbook cinder cone) still awed me. The flows stretched out all around us; basalt is my favorite rock and this was a good as Disney Land for me; needless to say my pack was weighed down by samples by the end of the day. The next stop was the apply named Colton Crater, the geology here was very important as this was a volcanic crater which can be at times be very hard to distinguish from impact craters. Colton Crater was once a cinder cone like S.P. but at some point the magma underneath it had come into contact with ground water and turned into a maar. I always imagine maars as giant steam bombs because they kind of are; this giant explosion blew off the top of Colton and left a giant crater there. The coolest part though was the tiny cinder cone within the crater.
            The next day we went to Meteor Crater, the best preserved impact crater on the Earth, to compare the features here to what we saw at Colton. But besides the conspicuously missing slopes we saw at Colton the two sites pretty much looked the same. While we wouldn’t get the chance to observe enough of the crater to see this ourselves, we soon learned that impact craters can be identified by the inverted stratigraphy around the crater. Stratigraphy refers to the different horizontal layers of rock and common sense should tell you the oldest is at the bottom and the layers become progressively younger towards the surface; however, the layers which have been penetrated by the impact are tossed out and flip over past the rim, so that suddenly there are older rocks on top of younger. This set up is a dead giveaway for impact cratering and once it was discovered at Meteor Crater, inverted stratigraphy was used to identify numerous other such impacts all over the world. This concept is highly important for planetary science because on places, like Mars, which has had volcanoes in the past it cannot just be assumed that every crater is from impacts because then it would be easy to miss an important part of the picture. In addition, if maars would be found, it could tell geologists about the ground water present on the planet.
            The last large sight we saw was the Grand Canyon, which was an amazingly beautiful sight, it actually took my breath away when I first saw it. When geologists are feeling poetically they will often compare the rock layers to pages within a book, and talk about “reading” them, if that is the case, then the rock layers would have to be War and Peace. A massive amount of Earth History has been laid bare by the Colorado River, and it is beyond words to describe the phenomenal sight. We hiked down a trail into the Grand Canyon, but as we were limited on time my group only made it about 2.5 miles down the trail akin to just opening the book and skimming the first few pages, but it was still amazing.
            The Grand Canyon’s stratigraphic layers do serve as an analog for Mount Sharp on Mars, in a rough way. The stratigraphic layers in the Grand Canyon were deposited in a variety of different environments, while the depositional environment for Mount Sharp was probably mostly uniform throughout its history. However, the Grand Canyon does provide great practice for reading stratigraphic layers, which will be extremely valuable when the Mars Science Laboratory lands in Gale Crater and begins exploring Mount Sharp. The amazing idea about Mount Sharp is that it is larger than the crater it is in, which means it is impossible for it to have formed during the impact, and must have been built up over time by other process. And like geologists can read Earth history from the stratigraphic layers within the Grand Canyon (or a road cut or just wherever they are exposed) Martian history should be exposed by studying the rock layers exposed within Gale Crater.
            The trip was absolutely amazing, and the opportunity to learn about planetary analogs from numerous scientists who study them was basically a dream come true. The geology we saw are some of the most amazing sites I have ever seen, and being able to connect them to geology across the solar system reminds me why I decided to pursue planetary geology.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Arizona Ramblings

Hayley Williamson

I am not a geologist. I will start by throwing that out there.  So only with many, many morning lectures, I have managed to absorb the order of rock layers (Hermit, Coconino, Toroweap, Kaibab, Moen-Kopi, Basalt! See, I got this). Despite that, Arizona was truly eye-opening for an East Coaster like myself.  I have rarely been somewhere quite so dry (which caused the oh-so-memorable episode of pink eye) and brown. I thought the lack of green would detract from the beauty, but the starkness of the desert made it all the more beautiful. The sites we went to were places of awing grandeur, from volcanic craters to the Grand Canyon. I can honestly say that every place we went to filled me with a sense of wonder… and made me feel very, very small.

For a brief summary of my perspective on the trip…  Even from the first day, I was awed. Like some others have said, we drove through what Dr. B called “the most beautiful stretch of highway in the country.” And boy, was it. Huge bluffs of sandstone towered over our caravan, making me want to stare out the window with my mouth open. Which I promptly did. It made the attitude of the Sedona residents seem quite silly. I’m still not sure how anyone could live under those massive rocks and think crystals and fairies are affecting their lives.  However, the beautiful scenery was far more interesting and certainly the highlight of the first day. Well, that and the sunset on the slope of Humphreys Peak.  I enjoyed that dinner immensely.
Day two was volcano day, and a close favorite for me. I don’t know if I’ve ever done that much hiking in one day, and I didn’t even do as much as others! While I didn’t make it to the interestingly named SP Crater, I enjoyed Colton Crater immensely. That was definitely my second favorite natural site, after the Grand Canyon. It was so massive! And to think, that and Meteor Crater are tiny compared to the planetary objects we are studying. Day three was Meteor(ite) Crater and the Painted Desert, neither of which we got to spend a lot of time at, but that didn’t matter. We still had a great time, and were able to finish the day off with a night trip to the incredible Lowell Observatory, a huge highlight for me. I can’t believe I saw where Pluto was discovered! While my school has a small observatory, it is nothing at all like Lowell.  I have to say thank you to Cynthia for organizing that, because it was spectacular. 

Day four was, of course, the Grand Canyon. Like Allison said, I went down with the spectacular Flying Lunar Llamas. I’ll be honest, that day started out pretty miserable because I woke up sick. But the awesome beauty of Nature quickly made up for that. Dr. Jim Rice told us to record our first reactions to the Grand Canyon, and I wrote mine down in my field journal. Briefly, my very first reaction was “It’s… huge.” But as I took in the size of it, I started to feel like I shouldn’t be there, like this was a place where I was an intruder, because it was too big, too… grand. This was a place where humans should have no power because we are simply too tiny, flies on its walls. That sounds silly, I know, but it induced a sense of reverence in me. Pictures don’t accurately capture that feeling, no matter how many shots I took. I could go on and on, but this post is already pretty long so I should wrap it up. While I enjoyed the last day as well, this was truly the highlight for me. Hiking down inside the maw of the canyon, I felt as though the Grand Canyon was some cohesive thing that I was getting to know. And I will never forget that.

Treasured Moments

April Frake

 “Give me the splendid silent sun, with his beams full-dazzling…Give me nights perfectly quiet, as on high plateaus west of the Mississippi, and I looking up at the stars…”
~Walt Whitman "Give me the Splendid, Silent Sun"

This is Arizona for me: a collection of sweet moments bound together with a common thread of love and admiration for the masterpieces of our dynamic planet. While the lessons I learned, facts I recall, and visuals I sketched in my field guide all paint a picture of the educational value of the trip—there were moments, the sweetest and my most treasured moments, where all the science behind the landscapes was pushed aside and I simply existed, marveling, at the landscape.

And how do I articulate those moments properly? How do I do them justice- The feeling of total peace felt sitting atop the Grand Canyon listening to the whispers of the Earth,  the awe-inspiring radiance of a sunset viewing over a distant mountain ridge, the sensation of the sun on my skin, or the overwhelming desire to dance in celebration of the beauty of creation?  

For me, science is a calling: A calling to explore; to be passionately curious. And in this curiosity, this yearning to better understand the physics and geography of my surroundings, I am always brought back to the same place: a place of wonder. It is this wonder that propels me, pushes me, drives me to continue discovering, - to continue questioning and amassing knowledge of the physical world in order that my experiences in and as a part of nature are broadened.

So this is Arizona for me: a playground of wonder and a beckoning to continue seeking, journeying, and exploring.