Thursday, January 14, 2021

Geological Destination - The Bingham Canyon Mine

Identified as the largest open pit mine in the world, the Bingham Canyon Mine, also known as the Kennecott Copper Mine, is a local attraction here in Salt Lake City. The mine sits within the Oquirrh Mountains, on the opposite side from where I live. I had the frequent hopes of grabbing a good photo of the mine taking off from the Salt Lake airport and that time finally arrived when flying down to Las Vegas a couple of years ago. 

View of the Bingham Canyon Mine facing west

In the photo above you can see the mine nestled within the Oquirrh Mountains. The mountains in the background are the Stansbury Mountains with the Tooele Valley (where I live) located in between. 

View of the Oquirrh Mountains facing the western side of the mountains

Above is a view of the Oquirrh Mountains from the western side of the mountains (facing east). The Bingham Canyon Mine is located on the other side of the mountains towards the right (southern) edge of the picture. 

Another shot of the pit a little further along in the flight path.

Per the Utah Geological Survey, the Bingham Canyon Mine:
"...  is one of the largest and most efficient mines in the world. It has produced more copper than any other district in the U.S., accounting for over 16% of total U.S. copper production. In addition to copper, the mine produces gold, molybdenum, and silver. KUC’s combined annual value of these metals peaked in 2011 at $2.9 billion."
Currently the Bingham Copper Mine is the 2nd most active copper producing mine in the US and one of the top gold producers in the US as well. 


The rocks within the Oquirrh Mountains were deposited a long time ago during the Paleozoic (250 to 540 million years ago). Much of these rocks were deposited in marine environments as Utah represented the edge of the North American continent. Eventually the land started to be raised up and dried off and then around 100 million years ago the Farallon Plate started to subduct beneath the North American Plate.

Diagram of the Farallon Plate subduction zone along the western United States. Image courtesy of the NPS

The pressure of the Farallon Plate pushing on the North American Plate did two things. First, it compressed the North American Plate, creating a "wrinkle" in the surface producing mountains along the western part of the US. Second, as the Farallon Plate was subducting, it then started to melt. That melted rock eventually rose up and created a line of volcanoes. Around 30 to 40 million years ago, that line of volcanoes was located within Utah. Magma was slowly injected into the Oquirrh Mountains, predominantly into the 300 to 350 million years old rock formation known as the Oquirrh Group. These rocks, laid down in the Carboniferous (i.e. the Pennsylvanian and the Mississippian), are composed mostly of quartzites and limestone beds. This magma body slowly cooled to form what is known as the Bingham Stock, an igneous body identified as a monzonite porphyry. In addition to the magma body itself, is that the hot magma produces a lot of hydrothermal fluids within proximity of the magma body. These hydrothermal fluids move the heavy metals (such as gold, copper, silver, etc.) from within the magma and redeposit them within the surrounding landscape. 

Model for the magma-hydrothermal mineral deposits. From Groves and Santosh, 2015.

Cross Section of the Bingham Canyon Mine from Kennecott, 1991. Image courtesy of the Society of Economic Geologists

Stratigraphic column of the Bingham Pit Mine from Kennecott, 1991. Image courtesy of the Society of Economic Geologists.

So what you are left with is an isolated region that has a high concentration of metallic ore deposits. Many of the more prolific ore deposits across the globe have formed in a similar way (hydrothermal fluids surrounding a magma body) and therefore understanding how the Bingham Canyon mine formed helps us to understand where other ore deposits originated from.  

Friday, January 08, 2021

Paleo in Pop Culture - Star Wars Paleontology Xcavations

Back in 2018, Uncle Milton came out with a line of "educational" Star Wars toys that blurred the lines between paleontology and Star Wars. These toys called Xcavations Creature Crates were short-lived toys that I only saw once in the aisle of my local Walmart. Searching for any Uncle Milton Star Wars toys now seems to be a game of hide-and-seek, where they must have lost the Star Wars license since I see nothing current up on their own website

I had wanted to wait and do a post once I could find more of the toys, but then time slowly slipped away and several years has now passed without me personally seeing any of these anymore, so we will make a post about them now. For anyone interested in finding these toys, they are available on eBay though, and for not too bad a price (~$10 a piece for new, in crate ones). 

The way that the toys work was that they had one skull, broken into a few pieces, from a variety of Star Wars characters/species located within a crate. The person opening the crate would dump the entire block of sand and skull pieces out onto the table and "excavate" the skull pieces out of the sand from which they skulls were embedded. The sand was essentially Kinetic play sand, that was fairly easy to excavate and didn't make a terrible mess once it was out. My gripe would be that they were too easy to excavate, reducing the level of fun (but that's just my opinion). 

After the pieces had been excavated, reconstructing the skull is fairly straightforward with each skull being made up of only a few pieces (3-4 or so). The fun is then discovering what skull you had unearthed, because each package was blind-boxed, meaning you didn't know what you were getting. The two that I got are below...

Here is a Gamorrean skull, pictured on the top left of the packaging in the first picture.

Here is the Hutt skull that I got. This one is also picture in the display case that all of these boxes came out of. Each skull came with a different colored sand, so I am curious what the range of sand colors were. But the different colored sand gave the impression that these skulls were fossilized within different environments, hence the different sediment properties. 

One of the best parts about Uncle Milton toys was that they tried to make everything they did not only fun, but also educational. With these skulls they came with a paleontology pamphlet that not only described paleontology but also included comparisons of the Star Wars skulls to those found on Earth.

From the pamphlet above:
Paleontology is the study of life from the past. These scientists, or paleontologists, search for and study fossils here on earth. By simply examining the fossils, they can discover clues that teach them about different creatures, plants and other living things from the past and how they lived on earth.

There are numerous types of fossils that a paleontologist might discover all over the world. Most can be grouped into two main categories - traces fossils and body fossils. Trace fossils are tracks, trails and other marking that have been preserved in rocks, shells and other things that show evidence of past life. Body fossils are the actual remains of past living things such as skeletal bones.  

On the back of the pamphlet you can see that they compare the Star Wars skulls as a combination of real life skulls. Such as the Gamorrean skull being a combination of a Gorilla and a Wild Boar skull.

Close up of the Gamorrean skull

A replica of a gorilla skull from Skulls Unlimited

A replica of a wild boar skull from Skulls Unlimited

Since the skulls are essentially sculpted, they don't have the level of detail that I would expect from one that is based on a real life animal. They are also a bit thicker than I would expect, I assume for durability. But they do have some pretty cool features. One of my favorites is the brain case area of the skull. In vertebrate animals, the brain is not typically (if ever) preserved in fossils. However, the skull that protects the brain, is left with impressions of the brain where they came into contact. They recreated these skull impressions within the fossils as well, of which you can open up the skull casing to see the brain cavity.

Brain case of the Hutt skull

Brain case of the Gamorrean skull

Are these skulls works of art? No, definitely not. The level of detail, while admirable, is still rather low. However, they do provide a gateway drug for kids to start asking questions. "What is that impression within the skull? Is it really a brain impression? Is that found in real life skulls?" I'm tempted to pick up a few more of these just to see what I can find. 

I love it. As a friend said to me "It seems like they made these just for you."

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Dinos in Pop Culture - Indoor Mini Golf Displays

 Welcome to another rendition of Dinos in Pop Culture, where I look at different instances were dinosaurs have been presented within our everyday lives. A couple of years ago, my daughter and I went to play mini golf at the indoor sports and games place, All Star Bowling & Entertainment in Salt Lake City. While playing we were surprised by the random dinosaurs that happened to be mixed with the other random decoration.

I would assume that this is meant to be a miniature T. rex

Again this is a rather unidentifiable dinosaur, although with the three fingers, I would assume Allosaurus. Although the size of the skeleton would lend to the same "miniature" aspect as the T. rex is above.

And for the last one we have the rather famous recreation of the famous Megalodon shark (Otodus megalodon) jaw, although significantly smaller than the actual shark jaw in real life. 

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Geology in Pop Culture - Radiator Springs Racers

One part of Disney's California Adventure that really screams "Geological Wonder" is the Radiator Springs Racers ride towards the back of the park in what is known as "Cars Land". The backdrop of the ride is an awesome looking faux rock built panorama, evoking a southern Utah feel to it. They even provide a National Park Service type brochure explaining all of the features.

The region is even known as "Ornament Valley", an obvious play of the real life Monument Valley, a Navajo Tribal Park that straddles the border between Utah and Arizona. 

Here is a photo of Monument Valley. This also happens to be the "Forest Gump Hill", where we, of course, stopped for photo ops. 

The "National Park Brochure" for Ornament Valley is pictured above and below. (I tried to do a panorama shot on it but it is really hard to do that on an iPhone for a static picture so I also took an overall picture.) They have fantastic references to actual geologic features like "Pipe's Peak", "Mount Ever Rust", "Lincoln Continental Divide", and "Mount Hood".

As you can tell, several of the name are reminiscent of other features across the country (i.e. Mount Hood, referencing the volcano Mount Hood in Oregon, and Pipe's Peak referencing Pike's Peak another mountain in Colorado). The actual "geological" formations that they are showing are also reminiscent of features in Utah. The Lost Wheel Arch on the right of the brochure, and under which the path goes in the photo above, bears a striking resemblance to the Window Arch at Arches National Park.

The Window Arches as Arches National Park

The balancing rock just to the left of the arch, called Willy's Butte, also bears a strong resemblance to Balanced Rock, also at Arches National Park. 
Balanced Rock at Arches National Park.

Even the background landscape for the entire ride looks so much like the sandstone at Arches that I would say this was just an Arches homage. The sandstone in Arches is known as the Entrada Sandstone, a Jurassic age (~150 million years old) sandstone, formed from a coastal dune environment. The features that are present in Arches are due to the low amount of precipitation that the area receives each year. This sandstone is cemented with calcite, a mineral the dissolves in rain water fairly easily. So when rain water absorbed into the porous sandstone, a little bit of the cement is dissolved and eventually the sand is washed away. Some layers erode easier than others, which is what produces these phenomenal geological features in the landscape. 

And for my last photo, I had to take a photo here while I was actively running the inaugural Star Wars Half Marathon in Disneyland, way back in 2015. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Geological Destination - Red Cliffs Recreation Area Utah


One the great things about Utah is that even when not going to the National Parks, there's literally countless little geological oases that one can find themselves in. One of my favorites is a little campsite/park called the Red Cliffs Recreation Area just outside of St. George, Utah. The park straddles the line between two geological formations, the Kayenta Formation and the Navajo Sandstone, with the boundary between the two running right through the middle of the campground.

Starting within the campground, the Silver Reef Trail almost immediately takes you to one of the paleontological highpoints of the area, the Dinosaur Track Site! These dinosaur tracks are located in the uppermost reaches of the Kayenta Formation. The Kayenta Formation is an Early Jurassic (~190 million years old) mix of reddish-brown sandstones, siltstones, and conglomerates that interbed with each other. These were deposited within a meandering river environment and one of the notable features within the deposits are … dinosaur tracks. 

The lighting on these at the time wasn't fantastic but you can still make them out. I also tried to adjust the contrast and lighting on the picture to emphasize them. Dinosaur tracks are a type of trace fossil. Trace fossils, which I go over HERE, are evidences of behavior of animals without the actual animals being preserved; things like worm burrows or fossilized poop or footprints. Trace fossils are also named like regular fossils but instead of being a genus and species, they are named with an ichnogenus and an ichnospecies (ichno meaning trace). The dinosaur tracks found within this park are identified as Grallator and Eubrontes. It should be noted that the makers of any trace fossils is often up to conjecture. Very rarely do scientists find the animal associated with the trace but often it can be narrowed down by the size and build of the animals around at the time compared to the trace morphology. 

A great place to learn about dinosaur tracks is the nearby St. George Dinosaur Discovery site, which has tons of footprints with many of them preserved in place (in situ) and the building is literally built right on top of them. Of the tracks found at Red Cliffs, Grallator is a 4- to 8-inch-long, three-toed print, that probably belonged to a slender, meat-eating dinosaur such as the 10-foot-long Megapnosaurus. Eubrontes (seen in the center of the picture above) is a larger 13- to 18-inch-long, three-toed print, which is thought to be made by a large meat-eating dinosaur such as the crested Dilophosaurus (think the original Jurassic Park but much, much bigger). 

Above the Kayenta Formation is the Navajo Sandstone creating a amphitheater around the campground. Here is a view over the campgrounds with the Navajo Sandstone in the background. The Kayenta Formation is forming the rocks on the very edge of the left side of the image.

The Navajo Sandstone is a rather famous sandstone, being found in many of the national parks in southern Utah creating fantastic geological outcrops, such as those seen here. The Navajo Sandstone is a very thick (~1000 feet) eolian sandstone from an ancient sand sea known as an erg that formed during the Early Jurassic (just slightly younger then the Kayenta Formation at ~180 million years old). This sand sea was larger than the present day Sahara Desert. 

The Navajo is very well known because of the desert features that are so well preserved in it. The most notable is the cross bedding, which is seen in the pictures above and below. Cross-bedding is a depositional feature of sand that forms during the creation of sand dunes. When wind blows sand, the sand bounces along the ground rolling up the side of a dune (the windward side of the dune). Eventually, it reaches the crest of the dune, and falls over the crest of the dune (the slipface or leeward side of the dune). On the slipface, the grains of sand all form into little parallel rows that curve down at the base. These curved lines are what we see when we are looking at cross beds. 

A cross-bedding diagram. Image courtesy of Teach the Earth.

The different sets of curved lines represent different generations of sand dunes that passed through this area. As winds change, frequently with different seasons, the sand dune migrate in different directions along with the wind. These changing sand dune migrations cause the erosion of previous sand dunes, however the bases of some of the sand dunes may be left behind, which is what is then preserved into rock. Then future sand dunes travel over the old dunes, creating new cross beds. 

These sand grains are cemented with other minerals, often calcite or silica (quartz), creating the rock known as sandstone. Because of the nature of these rocks, the cement will often not fill all, or even most, or the pore spaces, creating a very porous rock. This is one of the reasons that sandstone is a popular water or oil/gas repository known as an aquifer. 

The Navajo Sandstone is also known for these pockmark features along it's surface. This is a type of weathering known as honeycomb weathering. Honeycomb weather is produced as water wicks into the porous rock and dissolves the calcite cement holding the grains together. Eventually the dissolution of the cement allows for the grains to be washed away with future rain events. 

One of the cool features of southern Utah is the ability to hike these gorgeous rock units that have remained mostly intact due to the low amounts of precipitation that the area gets. This low amount of precipitation also produces such gorgeous features such as these slot canyons which are a small hike towards the north of the campgrounds called the Red Cliffs hiking trail. The hike continues up the canyon, however it gets a bit harder from here as evidenced by the hand and footholds carved into the rock on the right and the rope used to get up to the top of this little waterfall.

But as the hike continues it is a gorgeous way to soak in the geology. And generally I have noticed that the crowds are fairly small, especially due to the small size of the campgrounds. Sandstone has a tendency to fracture along naturally occurring joints in the rocks. The joints are then further widened by streams flowing through the area creating the slot canyons as they are seen today.

A little bit of a ways to the south of the Red Cliffs Recreation Area is the Quail Creek Reservoir, which is a great place to spend the afternoon. They allow boating and swimming, but what I want to focus on is this great anticline across the water. We are looking towards the northeast but the anticline cuts right through the middle of the reservoir basically towards where I am standing. These are Triassic age rocks of the Moenkopi Formation and the Chinle Formation, which are older than the rocks found just to the north in Red Cliff Recreation Area and would be located below those rocks. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Geological Destination - The Tallest Mountains in the World

 One of the definite geological destinations in my "Must Do" list was visiting the "Tallest Mountain in the World". Now, that's not Mount Everest, which is the highest point above sea level. When measuring the tallest mountain in the world, you need to measure it from the base of the mountain. So here are some of the "tallest" stats:

Highest point above sea level: Mount Everest (at 29,029 feet [8,848 meters]).

Point furthest from the center of the Earth: Mount Chimborazo (at 20,564 feet [6,268 meters]). The Earth is not a perfectly round sphere. The equator bulges a bit so the Earth is a bit larger around the middle than if you measured it around the poles. For that reason Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador ends up being 6,800 feet further from the center of the Earth than Mount Everest.

Tallest Mountain on Earth: Mauna Kea (at 13,803 feet [4,207 meters]). Now, since the bases of both Mount Everest and Mount Chimborazo are on crustal rocks, it causes the heights of both of those mountains to be approximately their elevation above sea level. However, since Mauna Kea is based on the ocean floor, it ends up being a much, MUCH, taller mountain, with the entire height of the mountain measuring at more than 33,500 feet [10,210 meters]. 

Mauna Kea as viewed from the Saddle Road.

Biggest Mountain on Earth: Mauna Loa (elevation at 13,448 feet [4,100 meters]). Second to Mauna Kea as the tallest mountain in the world, Mauna Loa is the most massive mountain on Earth. Overall, it takes up 9,700 cubic miles of mountain. This is much more than Mount Everest or any other crustal mountains since those are often mixed together as parts of mountain ranges, where Mauna Loa is essentially one massive mountain, with the other four volcanos merging together to form the Big Island of Hawaii. .

Mauna Loa as viewed from the Saddle Road

Viewing the two tallest mountains on Earth: As you can see by the pictures above, there is a road, Saddle Road, that traverses the center of the Big Island where you go across the saddle between the two tallest mountains in the world and can get a photo of both of them from a pretty good vantage point. You can also drive most of the way up Mauna Kea and hike the rest of the way, however I wasn't able to do that on this trip. Perhaps next time. And, as a side note, you can see here that even in late March, there is snow on Hawaii. 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Geological Destinations - Hawaii's Lava Flows

 Anyone who has been to the Big Island of Hawaii can attest to this as well, but the shear number of lava flows all over the island is simply breathtaking. As a geologist I may have pulled the car over an exorbitant number of times to get random photos of lava flows everywhere we went. 

Lava flow at location A on the map below.

And with all of the lava flows dating from today to back thousands, tens of thousands, and millions of years, Hawaii offers a spectacular opportunity to see how basalt and lava flows age over time. Although Hawaii is a tropical paradise, in places, it also has a wide variety of environments, especially on the Big Island. Due to the rain shadow effect, the eastern portion of the Big Island has a tendency to see a lot more rain with the western portion of the island being more akin to a desert. Therefore the breakdown of the lava flows on the western portion of the island takes a lot longer and we can see the individual stages of breakdown much clearer. 

The lava flow pictured above is located on the northwestern part of the island along the coast where the Mauna Loa lava flows sneak through Mauna Kea and Hualalai.  

Look closer at the geological map of the area (below) we can see the above lava flow at Location A. Here we have two generations of Kau Basalts. The Kau Basalts are the geological name of the lava flows from Mauna Loa. The "fresh" looking lava flows are dated to 1859 CE (AKA AD 1859), meaning these really are fresh. And you can see the fantastic contact with the older lava flows beneath it, dated from 11,000 to 30,000 years ago. Even though the older lava flows date to the Ice Age, you can see that they have really only have sparse vegetation growing within them. 
Geological Map of the lava flow area.

Lava flow at location B on the map above.

Here is another view of the 1859 lava flow. Here the lava flow is basaltic and consists of 'a'a lava, which is a blocky, sharp edged type of volcanic eruption. Mostly all of the lava on Hawaii is basaltic, meaning that it has a low silica content (quartz), is dark in color, has a high iron and manganese content, and has a low viscosity, meaning it flows really well. So many of the lava flows on the island are rather thin, which gives you an impression of how many lava flows it takes to makes an island this big. When you have basaltic lava flows constantly piling up on top of each other you create a type of volcano known as a shield volcano, named for the slight curve to the peak, similar to a shield. 

The older lava flow is a type of lava flow known as pahoehow. Pahoehoe lava has a smoother, ropier texture than the 'a'a. The two types of lava flows (pahoehoe and 'a'a) do not differ chemically at all, they are formed during variations in the eruption process. But these two lava's do weather remarkably differently. The older pahoehoe lava seems to still be intact in many places near the contact with the fresher 1859 lava flow. 

Comparing the much older Kua Basalt to the nearby Hualalai Volcanics at site B, just to the south, gives us a clear view as to how much that difference in eruption can impact it in the long term. Pictured above is the 5,000 to 10,000 year old 'a'a Hualalai Volcanics from the Hualalai Volcano. These lava flows are aged in between the two lava flows above and have started to "rust". This is because of the high iron content within basaltic lava flows that over time the can turn red if exposed to the elements for a long time. This breakdown also allows for the soil to begin to develop. This breakdown process seems to have completely destroyed the original lava flow texture here, while the much older pahoehoe lava are still relatively intact, although with plants growing through cracks in the surface. 

Here we can see the reddish Hualalai Volcanics with the southern extent of the Kua Basalt 1859 CE overlapping on top of it. This location is where the Mauna Loa lava flows are wrapping around the backside of the much smaller Hualalai Volcano before hitting the coast. 
Geologic Map of the Big Island. Image courtesy of the USGS

As you can see above, the island is a mishmash of lava flows stemming from five different volcanos that have been ongoing for thousands and millions of years. And it's super awesome to get to experience that in person. 

And I'll leave this post with one last lava flow. This one is along the southeastern shore of the island, nearby to Punalu'u Black Sand Beach. Here we are looking at a 3,000 to 5,000 years old Kua Basalt from Mauna Loa sticking out into the Pacific Ocean.