Tuesday, July 24, 2012

New EarthCache Developed: Hill City Fold, Black Hills, SD

I've mentioned a couple of times previously that I spent the month of June out in the Black Hills of South Dakota, teaching field camp for Wheaton College at their Science Station.  It was a great experience and hopefully I'll get to give it a go again in the future.  I've also written recently about EarthCaches, a program between the Geological Society of America and  While in the Black Hills, I logged a number of EarthCaches and also recorded information about a couple of places in order to place some new ones.

The first one I've set up is a roadcut on Highway 16/385 near Hill City, SD, within the Black Hills.  The roadcut exposes a fantastic example of a fold.  EarthCaches must have an educational component, and for this one I ask the geocacher to identify whether the fold is a syncline, anticline, inclined, or recumbent, so the geocacher has to learn something about the axial plane of a fold and be able to recognize it in the rocks.  So, forgive me if I don't post a picture of it!  The cache description contains enough information for geocachers to know what these terms mean, so by observing the fold in the field this ought to be easy to answer this question.

I also ask the cacher to measure the horizontal length of the fold as exposed in the roadcut.  One of the easiest ways to measure distance over land is with a GPS, which every cacher ought to have with them in the field.  In order to navigate toward a point of interest, geocachers often enter the coordinates of a location into their GPS to set a waypoint, tell the GPS to "GoTo" the point, and the GPS will then tell them how far away the point is.  This obviously makes it easy to see your distance to the point decreasing as you get closer.  I have cachers use this technology in reverse - establish a waypoint (POI) at one end of the roadcut, tell the GPS to "GoTo" that point, and then they themselves physically walk away from it to the other end of the roadcut.  When they reach the other end of the roadcut, the GPS will tell them how far they've gone.  This exercise hopefully helps cachers to learn to use GPS technology in a way they might not have thought of before.  After all, why would I tell the GPS to "GoTo" a point, but then I myself "GoAway" from it?  It isn't an intuitive use of a GPS but works really well.

The new EarthCache was just approved, so we'll see how long it takes someone to visit the site and log it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

New Animated Landscape Cover Photo for my Google+ Profile

When a lot of people hear the term "animated gif" they shudder.  Unless it has cats in it, then a lot of people squeal with delight.  On Google+, I've seen a few people use animated gifs in some really cool ways, so I decided I'd take a crack at it with the cover photo.  

The cover photo is a very wide shot, 940 by 180 pixels, so landscape panoramas work well.  While I was out west teaching field camp earlier this summer, I got to visit a number of cool geological sites, and I took a number of photos of places like the Black Hills, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, the Beartooth Mountains, & others.  Of course, a regular camera doesn't take pictures with such wide dimensions, so at several locations, I took overlapping shots so I could stitch them together.  I stitched the photos together in Photoshop to create each individual panorama image.  This is fairly easy through the photomerge function.  

The first one is from Badlands National Park, in an overlook area where these colored rocks are located.  The Badlands are notoriously white and shades of gray and lacking in much color, but here a couple of Fe-rich layers stand out nicely as yellow & red layers.   

The second is from Morning Glory Pool in Yellowstone National Park, a short walk from Old Faithful.  The colors here are fantastic; I didn't really capture the deep blue in the center of the pool, unfortunately.  

The next is a shot of the Grand Tetons.  Here I really liked the various shades of blue and green in the sagebrush and other vegetation in the foreground paired with the blues of the mountains and the sky in the distance.

The next is within Grand Teton National Park, along Cascade Canyon Trail, looking up and to the North.  My goal with this one was to capture the height of the peaks in the distance in contrast to the talus pile in the foreground.  Sometimes it can be tricky to keep the trees all upright in an image like this one, but a "cylindrical" stitching usually works to keep the trees upright.  I've found that different stitching options in Photoshop work for different situations, so many times I'll stitch a set of photos together in a couple of different ways and choose the one I prefer.  

The last is from the Beartooth Mountains, a view of an enormous glacier-carved valley.  A number of glacial features, such as cirques & hanging valleys, can be seen in the image.  

To overlay them and animate them, I must give credit to Scott Horwath, who has a fantastic cover photo; I modeled mine after his.  Back when Google+ had "Scrapbook photos" (5 small images instead of one large one), he wrote up a great tutorial on how to created animated scrapbook photos, including a video he posted on youtube, and a .tiff template file that you can download.  I originally put something together for the scrapbook photos, but those are now gone and it was time for an update.  The template file Scott has created has guidelines showing what the image will look like in Google+.  The panoramas that I took and stitched together were much, much larger than the size of the Google+ cover photo, so shrunk them down and imported each one into a layer.  Then it was a matter of tweaking the size and position of each one to fit in the template.  The simplest animation would be to simply flip through the pics, but that's a bit boring.  To get this thing into awesome mode requires just a bit more in my view, so I went with a simple fade between shots.  This is fairly easy to do in Photoshop.  The animation consists of each photo being displayed for 3 seconds, followed by 0.1 second steps where the photo becomes more & more transparent (10% each step) until it is completely gone.  As the photo becomes more and more transparent, the image below comes into view.  The animation ends with the original photo showing up under the last one, and then the animation loops & repeats the sequence over again.  If you haven't seen the final product, check it out on my Google+ Profile.

Beyond just showing some pretty pictures, animated photos could be used could be used to highlight one's areas of expertise, or show off places from a recent trip as mine does.  But to make this a bit more scientific, an animated photo could also be used to demonstrate a process, such as the rock cycle, or the development of a structure or feature.  To understand materials that form over millennia, geologists look at similar features that are in various stages of formation, and try to connect the dots between them to understand the underlying process.  Also, I didn't include anything this time around of considerably smaller scale.  I'm thinking the next one I create might include some thin sections images.  

What say you, geos?  What other kinds of photos would work well here?  How could this type of thing be used to do something cool?  

Friday, July 20, 2012

More on "fracking"

Building on my post from yesterday, today Forbes posted an article where a prominent natural gas industry leader has spoken out for more regulation over the industry.  This article high-lights one of the points I was making yesterday - "fracking" and "irresponsible fracking" are not the same thing.  It is the latter that we need to eliminate.  The article gives some good background on the development of modern hydraulic fracturing of shale to release natural gas, which is informative.  It follows the work of George Mitchell, who established some of the modern techniques that are leading to a boom in natural gas across the U.S.  He's quoted in the article as saying "The administration is trying to tighten up controls.  I think it's a good idea.  They should have very strict controls.  The Department of Energy should do it."  He goes on to say "Because if they don't do it right, there could be trouble.  There are good techniques to make it safe that should be followed properly."  In other words, it is not "fracking" itself that is a problem, but rather irresponsible fracking.  I completely agree.

Some of the comments suggest that this big-money corporate guy is just saying this to stomp out some competition, and that increased regulations will hurt the smaller drilling companies.  I don't see any reason why small drilling companies should be able to cause pollution problems just so they can compete with the larger firms.  We need to have laws in our lands that clearly make it a crime to cause pollution, and we need to have agencies that are equipped with the tools they need to adequately enforce the law.  That's where proper regulations come in.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

natural gas, energy, "fracking", & climate change

Two webblurbs last week caught my eye.  In the first one from Boulder Weekly entitled "Fracking out of a recession", the author makes the case that the natural gas boom has the chance of bringing a number of U.S. states out of recession.  "Fracking" is a term that's stirred up a lot of controversy over the past year, but I think much of that is overblown.  Hydraulic fracturing of rocks deep underground through pressurized wells is a process that's been used for a number of decades to release more oil & gas from rocks than is otherwise possible.  Hydraulic fracturing also occurs naturally when fluid pressure in small cracks in rocks increases high enough to overcome the stresses holding rocks together.  To be sure there are some ways that this process could cause environmental problems.  The fluids used in the process are no longer as benign as they used to be, and care must be made that they aren't dumped or spilled at the surface & cause contamination.  That is a problem that can be solved by having 1) political will to make good laws against polluting, i.e., requiring corporations to take care of their messes; and 2) having an oversight agency that has the resources necessary to enforce the law.  There is also the concern that the fluids used in hydraulic fracturing could contaminate ground water sources.  I don't want to go into this in detail, but I think this is not likely to be a major issue in most places.  It certainly could be in some areas, but overall the layers of rock that are intended to be fractured to release resources are not usually close-by to fresh-water aquifers.  But again, that's an issue that could be solved by appropriate laws and appropriate enforcement of those laws.  In short, I'm definitely not "against fracking".  I'm against irresponsible fracking.  I generally agree with the main points of the BW article, but the article I'm referring to makes too little of the need for responsibility and proper oversight in this business.  I think the tone & attitude toward the environmental problems is too dismissive.  Pollution problems need to be taken seriously, but all too often in our society the positions are polarizing: fracking is the solution to our economic problems, or fracking is the worst attack on the environment.  The truth is somewhere in between, & always more nuanced.

I know a lot of people would still oppose an increase in extraction of natural gas because of the problem of climate change.  I would argue that the increase in the use of natural gas as a fuel source for electricity is a much better option for the environment than coal.  Coal produces a lot more CO2 per unit energy released, and it also released all sorts of heavy metal toxins like mercury.  Natural gas is, in my opinion, a great transition fuel to move away from coal and toward fuels that are more environmentally friendly.  I would love it for us as a society to move more toward renewable fuels, and I think we will, but that process of societal change is going to take a long time.  Moving away from coal and toward natural gas will be better for the environment.

I'm something of a pragmatist when it comes to these issues, and I also enjoyed a recent post at the DotEarth blog about how a ski resort has entered into an agreement with a coal mine of all things in order to reduce carbon output.  This is another example of a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Call for Posts: Accretionary Wedge 48: Geoscience & Technology #AW48

This month, July 2012, I'm hosting The Accretionary Wedge, and the topic that I've chosen is "Geoscience & Technology".  There is no question that technology has played an enormous role in the furthering of geoscience, and I'd like to assemble a series of posts from the geoblogosphere that describes the relationship.  So, fellow geobloggers, how do you perceive technology impacting the work you do?

What to blog about?
I can think of a number of different directions that this topic can go.  For example, if you're a geophysicist, you might discuss how some of the equipment you use works.  If you're a geochemist, maybe you would like to explain how your fancy new ICP-MS measures those super cool isotope ratios.  Maybe you'd like to post about GIS, GPS, Google Earth, or mobile technology.  An epic post on how GPS receivers use billion dollar satellites to determine spatial location would be a welcome addition.  Someone could use this opportunity to give some press to their favorite istuffs or Android apps.  Perhaps you could highlight how a technological development in the past lead to new data that were not previously possible.  Maybe someone will go uber-meta and post about the technology of social media and it's importance to the future of geoscience (any takers?).  Whatever it is, feel free to discuss how you see technology making an impact on geoscience.  Let's put together a great collection of posts!

How this works (mainly for new folks!):  
The Accretionary Wedge is a geology blog carnival; in other words, about once a month a topic is sent out (like this post) and geobloggers write up their contribution to the topic at hand on their blogs.  Anyone in geoscience is welcome to participate.  Especially if you've never contributed before to geoscience blogging, don't be afraid to dip in a toe and test out the waters.  You're welcome to join and add your voice to this conversation.  The deadline for this event is the end of the month, July 31, 2012.  Before that deadline, write up your post & publish it on your blog - start up a blog if necessary! :-).  I recommend including references & links to The Accretionary Wedge blog and this Call for Posts.  Not sure how your post will fit in?  It's called the "Accretionary Wedge" for a reason!  All rock types are allowed in this rock garden.  Sometime in August, I'll read through all of the posts (that I know about!), write up a summary, and post it here on my blog.  In other words, I need to know about your post, so please leave a link to your post in the comments below.  You can also tag me in a post on Google+ or mention me in a tweet (@EarthlikePlanet) if you post a link to your contribution on those social networks (but the more that post links here, the easier it will be on me to corral them all).  Let's go with hashtag #AW48.  As to the deadline: if I haven't posted the summary blog post yet, then you might consider the deadline as more of a "guideline".  Questions?  

Monday, July 9, 2012

A slight cringe at a Yellowstone National Park sign

I've been back from my month long trip to South Dakota & surrounding areas for a couple of weeks now.  There's lots of great geology to talk about, so a lot more will come as I get around to it.  But for now, just a post about a sign at Yellowstone that reads:
"Deep within the Earth, heated water dissolves and then transports silica, the same mineral found in sand and glass, to the surface.  During geyser eruptions, silica is deposited around narrow 'vents' or openings.  Over time this mineral, called geyserite or sinter, forms mounds of varying sizes and shapes."
The sign that's wrong about minerals.
EEeeeeeessssshh!!  If you zoom in on that photo above, you might be able to make out the text under the central picture of Castle geyser.  As to the science on the sign, the basic idea that hydrothermal fluids dissolve & reprecipitate silica is fine, and this sign probably communicates correct information to the reader for the most part.  However, it perpetuates a misconception in the understanding of what a mineral is.  "Silica", "geyserite", and "sinter" are NOT minerals.  At least, not in the geologic sense, and since this sign is communicated geoscience information, it ought to use geologic terms correctly.  

Silica is a chemical compound, with the formula SiO2.  All minerals are chemical compounds, but chemical compounds are not necessarily minerals.  For one thing, minerals have to be solid.  So if silica is dissolved in water, it's not a solid, it's now a component of a liquid.  Using the term "mineral" in this fashion is a bit like the way the term is often used in nutrition, where various elements like calcium & iron are often referred to as "minerals".  They are sometimes referred to as "mineral nutrients" or "dietary minerals", but neither of these terms are very satisfying either.  I'm not sure why the term mineral ever got used in this fashion, since none of the "minerals" referred to in nutrition are minerals, they are simply elements.  But again, this sign is attempting to communicate geoscience, and in geoscience if something is dissolved in a liquid, it is most definitely not a mineral.  

Now suppose our silica is in a solid form, does that make it a mineral?  Not necessarily.  Several minerals are made of silica (quartz & its many polymorphs), but silica itself is not a mineral, it is a chemical compound.  The reason silica is not a mineral is because minerals are defined not only by their chemical composition but also by their atomic structure.  Quartz & all those other silica polymorphs each have a distinct atomic structure.  Silica can also form solid materials that are not minerals, such as opal.  Opal is a solid that does not have a crystalline atomic structure.  Glass is another solid material that also does not have a crystalline atomic structure.  A crystalline atomic structure means that the atoms are all lined up and bonded together in an orderly fashion that repeats itself in three dimensions thousands and millions and billions of times, depending on the size of the grain.  Non-crystalline solids are solids where the atoms are a bit more jumbled up & irregular.  So minerals are defined by their chemical composition AND their atomic structure.  Silica is a more general term that only means chemical composition, but doesn't specify the atomic structure.  

Geyserite is also not a mineral.  "Geyserite" is something of a generic term referring to the solid silica that is deposited around geysers.  So this is at least solid, but it still isn't a mineral.  Most of geyserite is the material known as opal, and as I already explained above, opal is not a mineral because it does not have a crystalline structure at the atomic level.  

Sinter is another term that really refers to the porous nature of the geyserite, so this is a term that's really about the physical attribute of the aggregation of the various grains of opal.  So really, this is a rock term.  

So what is a mineral?  That I'll save for another post.  

But why write this post?  Who cares?  I teach a course in minerals to undergraduate geology majors.  One of the most important concepts of the course is "what is a mineral?" and what is not.  Definitions, especially in science, are extremely important.  A geologist's understanding of the term "mineral" can't be gray & fuzzy; it needs to be precise & accurate.  Many geology majors grow up with an interest in natural phenomena & are likely to see signs like this one at Yellowstone, and they get these confused definitions in their heads.  In education, misconceptions (things we think we know but are actually wrong) are really, really hard to get out & get corrected.  

On the first day of my mineralogy class, I ask my students to simply list the name of every mineral they can think of.  When they took their introductory geology course, they learned about 20 or so minerals, so this exercise is intended to require them to recall that information.  But the answers given often include things that are not minerals.  Answers like "quartz, feldspar, granite, calcium" sometimes show up.  The first two are fine minerals, but #3 is a rock and #4 is an element and neither of them are minerals.  This shows that the students don't have a clear & precise grasp of what a mineral even is or is not.  In my experience, this is pretty typical for students at this stage of learning; hopefully at the end of the course they've got the concept mastered!  

But beyond the students in a mineralogy course, confusion about science abounds in our society.  A basic knowledge of the differences between minerals, elements, & chemical compounds is junior high level science.  So I cringe when these differences are misrepresented on a sign in a national park that's intended to communicate scientific information to the public.  The problem basically boils down to this: there's a precise, careful definition of the term that's used by those who know, and there's the loose, flimsy definition of the term that's used more in the general public.  A sign communicating geoscience to the public I think ought to be a bit better.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


I've long been a fan of one of the lesser known types of geocaching, the EarthCache.  Unlike their more well known counterparts, there is no container of tupperware hiding in the woods.  Instead, the cacher must visit a location for its geological significance and answer a few questions in order to log the cache as a find.  I've logged a bunch of them and set up three of them myself at some of my favorite geological spots.  I guess they bring together two things I'm passionate about:  Earth science and education. 
Last week I returned home from being gone for a month, where I was teaching geology field camp for Wheaton College at their science station in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  While out there, I was able to find several EarthCaches.  So far I've only logged a few of them, and I've got about a dozen or so more to go.  It can take a bit of effort to finish them all up, which is why a couple of other geocachers I know have said they hardly ever log them.  But I find them much more rewarding than the regular geocache. 
I found two locations while out there that will make for excellent EarthCaches.  I don't want to give too much of them away before I submit them, but one is an unconformity in the Black Hills and the other is a fault in the Bighorns.  More to come maybe after I get them submitted.