After picking up a couple of college degrees in geological sciences, and working for 30 years as a professional geologist, I have concluded that geologic time has been one fascinating festival of fun. To illustrate, if we squeeze the 4.6 billion years of geologic time into the span of just one year, Mammoth Lakes, California would be the site of one loud and raucous New Year’s Eve party.
On December 31st, as the guests arrive around 10:30 pm (760,000 years ago), the party gets started with a monstrous bang from the eruption of the Long Valley Caldera, one of the earth’s largest known volcanoes. Ash from the explosion forms the vast Bishop Tuff, and rains down like celebratory confetti as far away as Kansas and Nebraska.
Beginning about ten minutes until midnight (111,000 to 57,000 years ago), a deafening cacophony of noisemakers ring in the creation of Mammoth Mountain, with dozens of booming volcanic explosions. Around the same time, at the nearby Devil’s Postpile National Monument, hexagonally-shaped basalt lava columns line up like thousands of slender champagne flutes.
In the last minute of our year of geologic time (5,000 to 700 years ago), with all the guests wearing their conical party hats, the Mono-Inyo Craters erupt in a chain of pointed volcanic cones. First to ignite are the Red Cones with fiery bright red cinders blasting out of the earth like flaring packs of Chinese firecrackers.
With just five seconds left until the New Year (during the late summer of 1350), a massive cupola of volcanic glass known as the Obsidian Dome emerges like a giant mirrored orb high above Times Square. During the final countdown, as bubbles effervesce out of the uncorked bottles of champagne, carbon dioxide from recent magmatic activity in 1989 and 2006 poisons hundreds of trees at Horseshoe Lake and simmers the area’s network of natural hot springs.
When the clock strikes twelve, Esther and I kiss for luck just as a 3.5 magnitude earthquake rocks Mammoth Lakes. While we sip our champagne and watch a spectacular pyrotechnic display, we anticipate more fearsome volcanic fireworks in the years to come, and resolve to live each day, as if our world is one fascinating festival of fun.
Feature photo: Glacially polished top surface of the hexagonal basalt columns at Devil’s Postpile National Monument