Thursday, December 27, 2012

The End was near (Accretionary Wedge #53)

"The End is Near" back in 1984.  The World didn’t end then either.
I’m very embarrassed about this ... I missed the End of the World.  I also missed the deadline for Accretionary Wedge #53, hosted by Lockwood of Outside the Interzone.  The topic:  "It's the End of the World As We (Don't) Know It (And I Feel Fine)."  Lockwood set an early deadline because he wanted everyone to submit their posts before the World ended, not after.  From what I’ve heard, once again the World didn’t end, and there are still folks out there that might read my humble and overdue contribution.
“You could make up a tale of geologic and sciency absurdity, describing in the most insanely over-the-top manner how the world/universe will end” suggested Lockwood.
Ann of Ann's Musings on Geology & Other Things thinks the End will come when Hell freezes over.  I can relate to this as I heard a lot about it as a kid (my mom was from the South).  The actual End probably will be the moment Ann describes when Hell (Earth’s core) solidifies and disables our electronic devices.  We will be disconnected, alone ...

Jazinator at The Geology P.A.G.E. provides a graphic description of Earth being struck by asteroids and splitting like a head of lettuce slammed on a table (see post for more gory details).  Possible safe havens include the Christmas Islands, Easter Island and of course the Intercourse Islands.  I think Laramie would be a safe haven too, as our horrendous wind would deflect the asteroids.

Lockwood himself convincingly argues the End will come due to our messing with the Higgs boson.  The Earth will turn inside out, bringing short-term benefits but disaster in the long run.  Of course, geophysicists will be very excited at the opportunity to see the Earth’s insides up close.  And the NRA is preparing to defend us ... whew, I was worried there for a moment!

Personally, I envision a mystical and entertaining End, one that could be appreciated by anyone with enlightened awareness of impermanence ... or the right drugs.  Here in Wyoming, we will have front row seats when Yellowstone explodes in a catastrophic eruption several orders of magnitude larger than any known from the geologic record.  Initially there will be lots of color and warmth, and flowers of all kinds will bloom simultaneously.  Those not terrified by the End will be dancing in the streets and on dirt roads, in meadows and cow pastures, and on the shores of plains lakes and stockponds, celebrating the spectacular final episode of the World.  Quite miraculously, in the mountains there will be fresh deep powder on the slopes and miles of well-groomed cross-country ski trails.  But all things must end.  After just a few days, Yellowstone will emit a gargantuan burp of euphoria-inducing gas.  We will all happily swoon and then be peacefully frozen stiff with the onset of a prolonged very cold and very dark volcanic winter.  In other words, I’m an optimistic person.
Welcome to Wyoming -- where the End will begin.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Best Wishes from In the Company of Plants & Rocks

It’s the end of another year and time for the traditional blog roundup.  But first, I want to offer a paean to blogging, a wonderful democratization of publishing that allows everyone to share their excitement and passion.  I thought maintaining a blog would be a good way to work on my writing, but there are so many more benefits than that.  Now when I'm out and about, I look around more carefully, think more about what I’m seeing, and often learn more too.  And because of everyone else’s blogging, I can visit far corners of the world, explore the natural history there, and enjoy amazing scenery.

So to my friends and colleagues in the blogosphere:  best wishes for a merry winter holiday and a happy and productive 2013 ... i.e. blog on!

Now for a quick round up.
Wyoming blog roundup.
Back in December 2011, while I was at one of our prairie lakes looking for fossil periglacial wedges in a cut bank, I shot a few photos of ice buildup. These led to The Myth of Frozen Waves, which continues to be the most visited of my posts. Go figure. How could our little Sodergreen Lake be so popular?!
Not-a-frozen wave on Sodergreen Lake, Laramie Basin, Wyoming.

Another post from 2011 that continues to draw lots of hits, often coinciding with visitors from South America, is El Tío -- god of underground miners about the mystical side of silver mining.

The number one post of 2012 is Taxonomy of Agaves and Vino-mezcal, written in part to support an online campaign to stop the Mexican government and big business from branding "agave" and "mezcal" ... and thereby shut down smaller producers.

A post about one my favorite vacation destinations (below) currently is second but soon may take over the lead:  the amazing Expanding Great Basin!
Several economic botany posts are doing well:  The Queen of Spices (cardamon), What fruit is this? (tomatoes), and Will the real Yam please stand up ...
Other geological favorites are Little Bone House on the Prairie (above) and two about Devils Tower:  what's on top? and Many Views.
I was happy to see that a post about legendary rock climbers Herb and Jan Conn and their adventures with ferns has been popular ...

... same for High Desert Trees and Leaving Home (seed dispersal, below).
Recipe for a technologically-enhanced roadtrip, an Accretionary Wedge post, was a surprising hit.  However, visitation seems to have peaked.
Most popular recent posts are There's a hole in the ground (geology is destiny) and AW#52, dream course: the gods must be angry (below).  Will they continue to draw? -- hard to predict.

Finally, plans for 2013:  I intend to learn more about Blogger and blogging, and to check out some “best of blogging” sites for ideas, like Open Lab and Nature Blog Network.  Oh ... and I want an SLR!   I hope Santa got my letter.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A very short trip to the Great Basin

Evening view from the Confusions -- the sun is just north of Wheeler Peak in the Snake Range.
Here's another short, photo-laden post.  Semi-retirement was supposed to do away with the misery of concurrent deadlines, but somehow I’m in the throes of it anyway.  This suffering has been compounded by Silver Fox’s recent posts with beautiful Nevada scenery, making me feel distinctly “homesick” for the open road.

So let’s take a short virtual trip to the Great Basin -- a land of extension, which for at least 30 million years has been stretching roughly east-west, creating a multitude of basins and ranges in the process.  In contrast with the Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin generally lacks charismatic colorful rocks.  Rather it is a land of expansive dramatic landscapes, which I love very much.  Several days in this setting are enough to make the rest of the world fade, leaving me with a sense of freedom of sorts.
Great Basin landscapes make clear our humble role in the Universe -- we’re not so special after all!
(whew, what a relief)

Wheeler Peak, posing just left of the setting sun in the first photo, is the high point of the Snake Range on the east edge of Nevada, and is considered the highest “independent” mountain in the state (more explanation here).  On a road trip in the 1970s, we stumbled upon the Wheeler Peak Scenic Area on Humboldt National Forest, one of many cool places off of what was then a lonely highway -- US 50.  We hiked up a lonely trail through rocky habitat with amazing gnarled old bristlecone pines to the cirque at the base of Wheeler Peak.  But things have changed.  The scenic area now is a managed destination, Great Basin National Park, with fees for the various inconveniences. Dogs must resign themselves to hanging out in the vehicle while their human friends have fun.  So I haven’t been back.  But maybe there are benefits -- like the off-the-beaten-path treasures of the Great Basin I've stumbled upon instead.
West flank of the southern Confusion Range.
Looking southwest across the Snake Valley, with the Crow's Nest in mid-distance (Guilmette Formation).
Driving home on US 50 last October, I passed by Wheeler Peak and continued east into Utah.  It was near the end of the day and time to find a place for the night.  About 19 miles from the state line, I headed into the “foothills” of the Confusion Range on a sandy road through piñon - juniper woodland, and soon found a camping spot with wonderful views across Utah’s West Desert to the Snake Range and Wheeler Peak, which were waiting for the sun to join them.  In the meantime, I wandered uphill among outcrops of Paleozoic carbonate rocks of the Guilmette Formation.
 GoogleEarth view of camp “site” in piñon - juniper woodland and Devonian outcrops.
The Devonian Guilmette Formation includes “chertless, gray dolomite and limestone that forms resistant ledges and cliffs; stromatoporoids abundant in some beds” (Utah’s Online Interactive Geologic Maps, Utah Geological Survey).  Stromatoporoids were common reef-forming creatures of the Paleozoic, but that's all I know about them.  Did I see any? Maybe.  There certainly were lots of interesting crystalline structures in the rocks:
Oh yeah ... indication of scale needed:
It was the second week of October, but some plants were still in bloom -- like this wild buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.).  Flower clusters are on the order of 1 cm across.
I got back from my wanderings in time to set up camp before dark and take in the sun's fiery performance above Wheeler Peak -- the end of another great day in the Great Basin.

“He was alone.  He was unheeded, happy, alone, and near to the wild heart of life ... alone amidst a waste of wild air ...”  James Joyce by way of Jerry and Renny Russell, On the Loose.

How to get there:
West to east:  Snake Range with Wheeler Peak, Snake Valley, Confusion Range.
Click photo to view (from ArcGIS online).

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Excruciatingly Beautiful

Cacti are odd plants -- they lack leaves, photosynthesis takes place in their fat green stems, and most are covered with pain-inducing spines.  Yet they are charismatic.  We find their unusual forms striking, beautiful, even enchanting.
Echinopsis mamillosa, an easter lily or sea urchin cactus of Bolivia.  Photo by Stan Shebs.
Various species of Parodia cacti (South America).  Photo by Karelj.
“In a Sahuaro forest, Arizona”   Lollesgard Specialty Co., Tucson.  Published 1936.

Their vicious spines are lovely too -- arranged as they are in such elegant patterns.
Spines of Echinocereus viridiflorus, a hedgehog cactus.
Coryphantha vivipara, a pincushion cactus.  This one is recovering from a fire.
Cacti are not the only spiny plants in the world, though spines often prompt people to call a plant a cactus.  When I lived in northeast Wyoming, I was a resident botanist of sorts and one day Shirley asked me “What’s that cactus in my garden with yellow flowers and leaves like a watermelon?”  I was puzzled, though I should have guessed from her apt description. It was buffalo bur (Solanum rostratum) -- quite spiny but not a cactus.
Buffalo bur is a member of the Nightshade Family, like tomato, potato and eggplant.
Photo by Joseph Marcus, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Only in the cactus family (Cactaceae) are spines arranged in clusters.  These develop in leaf axils -- where the leaves join the stem.  But wait -- cacti don’t have leaves!  It turns out they do, but most are tiny and soon fall off.
Clusters of spines on a prickly pear cactus pad (Opuntia sp.).
The spines themselves often are referred to as highly-modified leaves, but we still aren’t sure.  There are two interpretations as to how spines developed evolutionarily.  They may be highly-modified leaves on specialized condensed shoots (side branches), or they may be modified bud scales (also modified leaves, which cover an embryonic shoot).

At maturity, spines and leaves are very different.  Spines have none of the usual leaf features, like blades, veins, stomates and photosynthetic tissue.  Instead, they contain fibers and thickened, almost woody epidermal tissue, neither of which is found in leaves. Thus different sets of genes are utilized during development.  Finally, spines are basically dead, while leaves are composed of living tissue.  So why call spines modified leaves? ... because both develop from the same type of embryonic structures -- leaf primordia.  Bud scales come from these primordia too, hence the confusion.  See Mauseth 1976 and 2006 for more details and discussion.
Prickly pear spine clusters:  large spines radiate outwards,  pale-colored glochids form clusters at base (click photo for closer view).

Members of the prickly pear subfamily (Opuntioideae) have two types of spines -- the normal type we’re used to seeing, and insidious hair-like little buggers called glochids.  The larger ones generally stay put when bumped, but glochids come off easily.  They can burrow into the skin, are hard to find, and sometimes seem impossible to remove.  Chart courtesy REI (click to view).

Spines develop on structures called areoles.  Wikipedia explains that these are “highly specialized branches on cacti ... apparently they evolved as abortive branch buds while their spines evolved as vestigial leaves.”  “apparently” is the proper adverb in this case; as with spines, more work needs to be done to understand the evolutionary path to areoles. Above and below:  a pincushion cactus (Coryphantha vivipara) post-burn on Sheep Mountain, southeast Wyoming.  In the recovering plant, green tubercules are visible, with clusters of spines growing from the areoles on top.

Left:  Mammillaria bombycina, by Brian Johnson (Micscape); used with permission.  Spines are clustered on areoles at the top of tubercules.  For more stunning photos and photomicrographs of cacti, see Brian’s A Close-up View of Several Members of the Cactus Family.  Even if technical details of cactus anatomy are not your thing, this site is still well worth visiting -- for the incredible beauty of the portraits.

Areoles also are where cactus flowers develop -- those beautiful, colorful blooms that contrast so strikingly with the dull green plants.
What's that bright red patch in the piñon - juniper woodland? (San Rafael Swell, Colorado)

It's that show-off prima donna -- claret cup cactus (Echinocereus triglochidiatus).

Areoles commonly occur on tubercules, but they also may be arranged along ribs, as in Echinocereus viridiflorus, the hedgehog cactus below.

Along with spines, this "old man cactus" has "whiskers" -- hairs said to have evolved to shade the stem and reduce water loss.  But who knows?  Maybe they really evolved to appeal to people -- who take them in and care for them  ;-)

Sources (in addition to links in post)

Websites: is a handy reference site for cacti.

James D. Mauseth’s research site (cacti):

Dalhousie Collection of Cacti & Other Succulents at Dalhousie University


Mauseth, J.D.  1976.  Cytokinin- and gibberellic acid-induced effects on the structure and metabolism of shoot apical meristems in Opuntia polyacantha (Cactaceae).  American Journal of Botany 63: 1295-1301.

Mauseth, J.D.  2006.  Structure-function relationships in highly modified shoots of Cactaceae.  Invited review.  Annals of Botany 98: 901–926.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Wonder of the Week: more Ice Art

December often is a month of deadlines, and so it is this year -- two final project reports and a paper are due.  In the absence of time for anything more, here's another collection of photos of Jack Frost’s enchanting artwork.

I “discovered” the beauty of ice up close last year, when frigid arctic air moved in and provided Jack with great conditions for his masterpieces.  We’ve had nothing like that so far this winter.  The first ice on the river I posted about a few weeks ago has melted, and recently we’ve had daytime temperatures in the 40s and 50s (F) -- hardly a Laramie winter.

But it still freezes at night, and if we’re lucky and keep an eye out, we find Jack has been hard at work after all.
Angular patterns on the surface, and little ice mounds/blobs just below.  Field of view is less than 2 inches. 
As always, there is even more beauty to behold by zooming in once the photos are downloaded (click on photos for better views).
We found Jack’s creations in a stock tank during a recent "winter" hike in the Laramie Mountains.

All ice art courtesy Jack Frost.
From Central Park in Winter by Thomas Nast, 1864.