Festival of Geologic Fun

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.

Bishop Tuff Small_tonemapped

Rare Rosette Columnar Bishop Tuff at the Owens Gorge

Dilbert Eolian Buttes Small_tonemapped

Bishop Tuff sculpted by the wind at the Aeolian Buttes (Is that Dilbert?)

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.

Mammoth Mountain Small_tonemapped

Mammoth Mountain (from Deer Mountain)

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Columnar Basalt of the Devil’s Postpile National Monument

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.

Red Cones Small_tonemapped

Red Cones of the Mono-Inyo Crater chain (Mammoth Mtn. in background)

Inyo Crater Small_tonemapped

Emerald green lake inside Inyo Crater

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.

Obsidian Dome Joe Small_tonemapped

A Geologist at Obsidian Dome

Horseshoe Lake Dead Trees 2 Small_tonemapped

Horseshoe Lake trees killed in 1989 by carbon dioxide from rising magma

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.

Hot Springs Joe and Girls Small_tonemapped

Joe, Claire and Cassie soaking in Shepherd Hot Spring

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Earth’s fireworks. (Photo credit: U.S. Dept. of Interior, U.S. Geological Survey)

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.    

Liz cute Small_tonemapped

Next week I get to go to Monterey. Can’t contain my excitement!!

Feature photo: Glacially polished top surface of the hexagonal basalt columns at Devil’s Postpile National Monument

8 thoughts on “Festival of Geologic Fun

    • Thank you, Janis. You are right that Monterey will be a big change from Mammoth. We have some interesting plans, and look forward to sharing our experiences. We really appreciate your interest and input.

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