Lunar geochemical datasets on MoonDB

The Apollo missions returned 2200 samples comprising “382 kilograms (842 pounds) of lunar rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand and dust from the lunar surface” (quoted from ref). Since then, we’ve sliced, diced, dissolved, vaporized, irradiated, and applied just about every other analytical tool to investigate these samples. An incomplete list of geochemical investigative techniques used includes: electron microprobe, instrumental neutron activation analysis, various mass spectrometry techniques (multi-collector, laser ablation, thermal ionization, time-of-flight, secondary ion), X-ray fluorescence, and cathodoluminescence. The results of these studies are scattered across the past 46 years of published literature, in various formats and accessibility.

Most lunatics probably have a ragtag collection of spreadsheets incorporating personally vetted data from the literature. But it is easy to miss good papers, and time consuming to re-type poorly scanned copies. I have spent a fair bit of time hunting down literature data on lunar basalts, and these important datasets are not always easy to find or re-use in a useful way. To make this process easier, MoonDB aims to serve as an open access data repository for lunar geochemical and petrological data. It is led by Kerstin Lehnert, PI of the EarthChem/PetDB project.


MoonDB ( is launching a program to restore and preserve lunar geochemical analytical data. The framework will be nearly identical to the Petrological Database (PetDB), where geochemical data from terrestrial studies are freely available. The framework is still under development, but it appears they have data from 500+ papers archived and awaiting release.

In addition to incorporating peer reviewed article data, MoonDB plans to serve as a “publishing” venue for otherwise unpublished datasets. Researchers occasionally collect more data then they eventually need to include in a manuscript. Or they might perform foray analyses on samples for projects that never go anywhere. MoonDB hopes to rescue these from eventual hard drive failure and publish them in a citable format. It would also be a way for instrument techs and lab managers, who might not be publishing regularly, to get some additional credit via citable works. For researchers with NASA funding, MoonDB may suffice to meet the newly implemented Data Management Plan requirements.

The topic of unpublished datasets drew the most discussion at a MoonDB lunch/seminar during the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in March 2016. Quality control was probably the biggest concern, especially when discussing the possibility of future versions of MoonDB incorporating geochronology datasets. Without context, you can calculate just about any date you want from a sample set (but really, this applies to published values as well). To combat this and other potential issues, unpublished datasets will be subject to internal review, and/or may be sent to external reviewers. In some cases, these may end up being more closely scrutinized than if they had been published online as supplementary material to a paper. On the subject of context, there is a potentially powerful (if it gets used) ability to link analyses with specific locations to sample photos (e.g., on thin sections). 

MoonDB is still seeking feedback from lunar researchers on community needs. Those who have previously submitted data to PetDB or earthchem could be especially helpful in spotting customizations necessary for lunar datasets.


SOEST Open House 2015

Started in 1991 (I think) and held every two years, SOEST Open House is a massive science outreach event. Over the course of two days, we showcase science to more than 4,000 people, most of them grade-school students.

This is my first Open House, and I helped out at the Colors of Space exhibit. Our puny human eyes only view a narrow band of light (~380 nm to 700 nm) compared to possible spectra. We’ve developed instruments to artificially extend our vision beyond human shortcomings.


At the Colors of Space exhibit, we had two thermal infrared cameras, a near infrared spectrometer, and a couple of microscopes with lunar samples. One thermal camera was pointed down the hall to grab the attention of visitors.

Our thermal cameras monitored the 10 micron wavelength. One use of thermal cameras is to locate rocky regions on other planets. Large rocks have higher thermal inertia, so rocky regions remain warmer longer than smooth surfaces. We also use near infrared spectrometer to discern between similar-appearing things. Our demo used common cooking materials, like flour vs cornstarch, and sugar vs salt.

And of course, visible light is still an important part of research. We had Apollo samples on display under a binocular microscope, and a thin section of olivine basalt 12008 (from the Apollo 12 mission) in a petrographic microscope. This is where I posted up. I would have them look at the thin section in normal light, and then put in the cross-polarization filter to show how we use light properties to identify minerals.

The change caused a lot of eyes to widen in amazement. “It looks like a church”, one kid said. Other exclamations included “kaleidoscope!” and “a bunch of dead butterflies”. Kids are weird.

To cap it off, we had an infrared photobooth with some sweet plastic props. The cold plastic props, transparent to our eyes, were opaque at the 10 micron wavelength the infrared camera monitored. Note that you can’t really see the props in the below video until it pans over to the IR screen.

Visitors of all ages were able to take home a printout of their thermal image with some of the science behind it shoehorned in. Everyone loves a keepsake!

Leading up to this year’s open house, I had tried finding some details from past years. There were surprisingly few photos or details posted, and I realized there wasn’t much documentation of events happening. I had originally planned to set up a twitter account to tweet photos from our photobooth. That idea began to grow. Why not use it to share all aspects of open house? But how? I was going to be rooted to the Colors of Space exhibit all day. How could I find out who would be tweeting within the department? Instead of me searching for them, why not let them come to me? I sent out an email with the password to the account to the department mailing list. Unfortunately, the only people that took me up on it were also at my table, so it didn’t expand our feed as much as I had hoped. But I also teamed up with volcanology prof/chair Ken Rubin, which gave us a little more variety.

All in all, it was worth a shot, and we had a bit of engagement from the UH Manoa twitter accounts and some visitors. I think next open house, it would help to get the word out earlier, and have an option for people to send photos without having to be familiar with twitter.

Mt. St. Helens, Part III: Epilogue

Morgen and I spent a few hours hiking in the blast zone of Mt. St. Helens. Around us were signs of recovery from that singular event. But in reality, it really wasn’t a single event, isolated in time. Especially for Washingtonians. The dramatic and deadly initial blast rightfully receives significant coverage when talking about May 18th. But for ten hours (hours!) afterward, Mt St. Helens continued to erupt rock fragments (tephra) that spread across eastern Washington.

Our base of operations was in central Washington near Yakima, 120 miles east of Mt. St Helens. After our hike, our host told us her story about that day in 1980 Yakima: The weather forecast was for sunny skies; Yakima gets 300 days of sun a year, you know. But as she readied for church, the skies began to darken. It wasn’t long before she recognized the event would be rather unique. She placed a small bowl outside the door to catch some of the falling pyroclastic material. With my geology background, she knew she had my attention when she said “I think I still have it around here tucked away in a closet somewhere…Would you want to take some with you?”


Mt St. Helens ash that fell on Yakima, WA in May, 1980

Photo by my friend Ben (the Beekeeper). Visit the USGS site for a high-mag view of volcanic ash.

Read Part I (Rainier) and Part II (Mt. St. Helens)

Advances in Nuclear Forensics: GSA 2014 Technical Session

The lunar basalts in my doctoral research were almost four billion years old, plus or minus a couple hundred million years. The rocks I study now were created on July 16th, 1945, at 05:29:45 AM (Mountain War Time). It’s a strange thing to know so precisely. But how can I pinpoint the exact second of creation? Because these rocks are trinitite, the glassy result of a sandy New Mexico desert experiencing the first atomic bomb blast.


Two views of a common green glass variety of trinitite. Image from the Simonetti Lab at Notre Dame.

The first nuclear bomb test, codenamed Trinity, was performed at the White Sands Proving Grounds (near Alamogordo, New Mexico). The device, Gadget, was an implosion-type design with a plutonium (Pu-239) core. The heat resulting from the 18 kiloton explosion melted the desert sand surface out to distances of 400 meters from ground zero. trinitite_thin_section The surface sand melted to form a glassy layer (1-2 cm) on top of incipiently melted desert sand together, these form trinitite (alternatively, Alamogordo glass). This post-detonation material is a valuable tool in nuclear forensics research. Trinitite incorporated pieces of Gadget and the blast tower, and one of our goals is to identify and characterize the distribution and composition of individual components through geochemical and radionuclide analysis. At right, a vertical cross-section of trinitite is shown in thin section.

The analysis of postdetonation material (like trinitite) is one arm of the nuclear forensics field. An effective nuclear forensic analysis requires technical information and relevant databases, and specialized skills and expertise to generate, analyze, and interpret the data. This analysis combined with law enforcement and intelligence data can provide valuable information on the provenance of such materials, and processing history so as to improve source attribution. Identifying the source(s) of stolen or illicitly trafficked nuclear materials will therefore prevent, or make more difficult, terrorist acts that would use material from these same sources. Moreover, effective forensic analysis of postdetonation materials in the unlikely event of a nuclear terrorist attack is also expected to deter individuals or groups involved, and provides incentives to countries to enhance their security and safeguards relative to their nuclear materials and facilities.

The microscopic and macroscopic appearance, as well as the elemental and isotopic composition of nuclear materials, i.e. its ‘signature’ reflects its entire history. The term ‘signature’ is used to describe material characteristics that may be used to link nuclear samples to people, places, and processes, much as a written signature can be used to link a document to a particular person. Forensic methods employed to establish signatures in nuclear materials typically combine physical and chemical (e.g. X-ray fluorescence, scanning electron microscopy, electron microprobe analysis, secondary ion mass spectrometry) characterization and radiometric measurements (e.g. alpha, beta and gamma spectroscopy). The methodologies and interpretation of forensic analyses are constantly being advanced and perfected.

gsa-logo_14CAt this year’s annual meeting of the Geological Society of America, the Notre Dame crew (Drs. Tony Simonetti, Sara Mana, and myself) are chairing a session to update the geoscience community on the latest developments of nuclear forensics. The cleverly-titled session, “Advances in Nuclear Forensics”, will emphasize analytical techniques, database development, and implications for our ability to identify and possibly prevent nuclear attacks and trafficking of illicit nuclear materials.

UPDATE (Aug 9, 2014): The session has been designated a poster session.

Note: A significant portion of this post was reused from our session proposal, which isn’t published by GSA.

Further Resources:

Conversation with a Microbiologist (audio)

Do you know how to complement a bacterium? What about the difference between flagellum and Type 4 pili (and why it matters)? Listen and learn! Headphones recommended.

This was an in-person chat with Morgen Anyan, PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame (research page). Morgen is researching environmental and morphological effects on the behavior of the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa.

For those few who listened to my previous interview with Ben the Beekeeper, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find that the audio is much better thanks to a Zoom H2n recorder. I’ve also edited it a bit heavier to keep it clipping along (mostly cutting out myself as much as possible to let Morgen tell her story). Avery made the cut, though.


Pat’s Field Trip (Guide?) to Mt. St. Helens, Part II

Pat: We left off last time resting our legs in the Sunrise Visitor Center parking lot. It was a good stop, but now it is time to leave Sunrise and continue on our way to Mt. St. Helens. Turns out our Sunrise jaunt lasted almost until sunset, so we’ll have to stop somewhere for the night. Fortunately, it is the offseason and we have our pick of spots in the La Wis Wis Campground. Definitely pick a spot along the Ohanapecosh River to get easy access to the riverside. Perfect for morning tea. In fact, I’ll step out for a moment to finish my cuppa, and let Morgen step in.


Morgen: Morgen here! I’m the lady pointing at the river. Pat has (perhaps rather foolishly), left his blog in my hands, so I’ll do my best to help finish this story. First, a disclaimer:  I am not a geologist. I’m an environmental engineer studying bacterial motility, so if you’re hoping for lots of insightful geologic-y things, you’re out of luck. Thanks to Ms. Frizzle and her magic school bus, I know the difference between igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks, but that’s pretty much it. Regardless, I will do my best to learn you a thing or two.

P: Try not to spend all morning down by the river. There’s still a two-hour woodsy drive to Mt. St. Helens. Unlike from the west, our eastern approach doesn’t yield any glimpses of Mt. St. Helens until you are within the park. It is a fun, windy road through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, with little indication of the nearby volcanic history. Then, suddenly, you get Mt. St. Helens’d.

Mt. St. Helens entrance sign

The Cascade Peaks overlook, on the edge of the lateral blast zone (location).

P: While not the first roadside pullout, the Cascade Peaks overlook is located on the edge of the lateral blast zone to the northeast. Some of the tall pines in this area are untouched, but many, like the one in the photo above, are skeletons of their former selves. Ten miles out, we are in the zone of the “standing dead”. Even here, the air temperature during the eruption exceeded 100°C (Winner and Casadevall 1983) and killed many trees, but the force of the blast had dissipated enough to leave them baking upright. A little further on and the landscape changes rapidly.


The blast zone is readily apparent today, dotted by new growth. Mt. Adams looms in the background, thinking “Soon…”.

P: Those of you with a passing interest in volcanoes have likely seen photos of once-forested hillsides newly draped in a blanket of tree trunks.

M: Seeing this in person can be somewhat unnerving, given that trees are supposed to a) stand upright, and b) not be stripped of branches, leaves, bark, etc. It’s a stark reminder of the power the Earth periodically unleashes on the surface.


Fallen trees aligned with the blast direction, interspersed with new growth.

M: The Windy Ridge Observatory lies at the end of the winding trek through the blast zone. It certainly deserved its name, and the constant winds may help to explain why the Johnson Ridge Observatory is the more visited of the two. A short hike brings you to a wonderful vantage point, from which you can see Spirit Lake, clogged with trees blown into it by the 1980 eruption, and St. Helen’s caldera.


Spirit Lake and Johnston Ridge (on horizon about 1/3 from left) viewed from Windy Ridge.

P: Is there a word for the desensitization that follows word repetition? When you say, for example, “pine” ad nauseam: Pine. Pine. Pine, pine pine pine pine, pine pinepinepine. Eventually, “pine” becomes just another sound, and you lose the mental association with the tree (or cone). That, I think, is the dissonance that takes root when I see photos of Spirit Lake. We all know that the tan raft up there is made up of individual trees, but it’s all just “tree, tree, treetreetreetree…yeah, that’s a lot of trees. Look, water.” Being there, it is much easier to make that connection between the trees and the scarred hillsides from which they came.


Mt. St. Helens from the top of Windy Ridge Observatory.

M: Mt. St. Helens’ caldera got its unique shape due to the nature of the eruption that created it. Before magma began building up, St. Helens was an almost perfect example of a composite volcano (imagine Mt. Fuji in Japan if you need a modern equivalent). Unfortunately, this perfection was not to last, as the magma building up under the earth caused the northern face of the mountain to bulge. When the eruption finally did occur, it blasted out, not up, leaving the inside of the volcano’s crater exposed.

Thirty-three years after that eruption, Pat and I decided that it was the crater, or as close as we could get without extensive permits and preparations, that was our destination for the day’s hike. This meant Loowit Falls. 

P: It was a park ranger that suggested Loowit Falls, which originates in Crater Glacier. Having hiked the trail herself, she was spot on with the timing, distance, and difficulty of the hike (plus a little extra for photos).

M: Leaving Windy Ridge, we embarked on a nearly ten-mile (round trip) hike through the blast zone. If you go, bring plenty of water, and remember to reapply your sunscreen often, as there is little in the way of shade. The path is pretty well-marked, but if you get confused (as happened to us repeatedly when we had to walk through dry stream beds) the park rangers have erected stone markers to guide you. Think 2010 Vancouver Olympics logo, and you have a rough idea of what some of the markers looked like.


A herd of mountain goats lounging on Mt. St. Helens’ slopes.

M: While out and about, you may be fortunate enough to spot some mountain goats (see above). Unlike deer, who returned to the blast zone less than a week after the eruption, mountain goats have taken a little longer to warm back up to the place. However, this is mostly due to their need to eat butting up against the mountain’s lack of suitable vegetation.

P: We would have missed them entirely if not for stopping to talk with a Father/Son pair returning from Loowit Falls. It is easy to miss what you weren’t looking for.


Loowit Falls from as close as we could get.

MPerhaps the greatest downside to this particular hike is that Loowit Falls is inaccessible from the trail. You can clearly see it from the trail’s end, but how close you get to it depends in large part on the zoom capabilities of your camera. While this is disappointing, it is also somewhat refreshing: The Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is meant to afford scientists the chance to watch nature recover without (major) interference from people. The fact that we’re allowed to hike through this living laboratory at all is pretty amazing, so being kept back from a waterfall in order to preserve it (and, one presumes, our own safety and well-being) is a small price to pay.


Hey, who’s that young lady walking so purposefully towards the Lonely Mountain…I mean Mt. St. Helens? She looks like she’d be really good at pointing at rivers during morning tea.

P: In reaching Loowit Falls, our visit to Mt. St. Helens has reached a turning point. As in, we have to turn around. Although the mountain is at our backs, we are faced with constant reminders that we are in a transient landscape. After 33 years, the Pacific Northwest is well on its way to reclaiming the environment. Willows grow dense along the banks where water is in plentiful supply, and together we wander through the remnants of May 18th, 1980.


Mt. Rainier thoughtfully peeks over the horizon to make sure we’re okay.

MWell, the sun is setting, and we still have a two hour drive ahead of us, dinner to make, and an air mattress to exhaustively fall upon before going to sleep. Maybe tomorrow as we drive home we’ll get in one last hike. The White Pass ski hill offers some spectacular views of Mt. Rainier. Wait…what’s that, Self? You’d rather not hike anymore? You’d rather drive to Yakima and get a burger and fries at Miners?  Well, I guess we can do that instead.


P: Thus Part II concludes, having attained our goal of visiting Mt. St. Helens. What could be in store in Part III of our Mt. St. Helens guide? It’s starting to look like a Peter Jackson film. I’ll let Morgen have the last word since she was kind enough to help me get this post out there.

M: And so, good reader, I must bid you farewell.  I hope I didn’t bore you with my rock-less tale.  As a thank you for sticking with me, I’m going to write every geology-related word I can think of in 60 seconds:  Metamorphic, plate tectonics, magma, lava, plagioclase, olivine, mineral, thin section, crystal size distribution, titanium, microprobe, rock hammer, iron banded formations, calcite, sediment, cooling, partition coefficients, and ROCKS!
Best wishes!

Geologist Photographer, Photographer Geologist

The TV screen flickered to life as my family arranged themselves on the couch. On-screen, an aerial photo of Porto Rafti, a small seaside town east of Athens, Greece, marked the beginning of a two-week undergraduate geology department field trip to Cyprus. Figuring it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I had diligently photographed everything notable. I began regaling the family with photos of layered gabbro, sheeted dikes, pillow basalts, slag, boudinage, gypsum, corals, umber, and more. But halfway through, my dad interrupted to ask, “So, were there any people on this field trip with you”?

Or Dinosaurs? Dinosaurs would be fine, too. (Source: Jurassic Park / University Studios)

Or Dinosaurs? Dinosaurs would be fine, too. (Image source: Jurassic Park / Universal Studios)

It was a jarring question, and I realized my family was about to be bored out of their skulls.  If the roles were reversed it would be like sitting through “And here were are standing in front of the Historical Building. And here we are inside The Building. Oh, and this is a great one of your father pointing out the millwork on the ceiling joists”. I had wanted to share with them my portraits of Cyprus and the fascinating geology of an ophiolite. They wanted smiling faces in front of stuff – and not just for scale. The story on screen was not the one they expected, and I wound up fast-forwarding through most of the geology-centric photos.

brittle_ductile_faultsCommon advice when speaking to the ‘public’ is to respect your audience, which would have served me well. Photos are a form of communication, and as in all forms it is important to keep the audience in mind so part of the image stays with them. Sometimes the form is academic, to fill the frame with brittle and ductile faults (right). We can annotate, measure, discuss, hypothesize, and argue about the rocks. These are the sorts of photos to put in conference talks, the simplest “true” photos of the Geologist as Photographer Wedge.

However, geology is a global science, and geologists have the opportunity to photograph some wonderful locations (even in our own backyard, or in the lab). Extending beyond the utilitarian will naturally draw more interest to geological phenomena. There are multiple ways to improve image aesthetics, the simplest of which is to improve technical ability: composure, lighting, post-processing, etc. Tips and resources are everywhere, and a subset deal specifically with geological photography. However, there’s a field resource I think is underused by almost every geologist photographer: Humans. And not just for scale.

People crowd outcrops, poke their head into frame at inopportune times, shy away from the camera, or maybe only ever show their backside. But at the same time, they are interacting with the environment, picking up rocks, and pointing out interesting features. Capturing these aspects can be difficult, but when done properly will make for more dynamic photos. You can still get the academic shots and record sweeping vistas. It’s something I’ve noticed more by following National Geographic’s new blog PROOF, which tells some behind the scenes stories from Nat Geo photographers.

BIF and JeremyAn easy place to start is with your trip leader, as they typically gesture at everything and point out interesting features that everyone can see. Geologists get animated in the field, too, and are more animated in front of an outcrop.

Candid shots are rather more difficult, but it seems worth the effort when a broader audience will be interested in the photos. I think visiting zoos has helped me to practice for the field (not to draw too close a comparison…), because you get a feel for how patient and predictive you need to be to get a good photo. For example, one of my current favorites is of a relatively simple geologic feature, below:

students on rocks

Notre Dame students examine a large-scale reduction band in the Jacobsville Sandstone at Presque Isle Park, Marquette, MI.

Field work (and field trips) typically involve long hours, so it is not uncommon to be in the out for both the morning and evening golden hour. Above, our early morning expedition was rewarded with a clear sunrise on Lake Superior. For the geologists, the reduction band in the Jacobsville sandstone shows up clearly as the large ‘diagonal’ band at our feet. But there’s another layer of texture on top that draws other viewers in. The group was not scattered across the band for long, and I had to get into position and adjust my aperture to get a well-exposed and properly framed shot before the next shift.

People feature in more than half the photos (approaching 65%) from my last two field trips, up from less than a third in the Cyprus trip mentioned above. I’ll end with an encouragement for everyone to try and take more interesting photos of people in the field, and include one more photo below. The two halves show the same thing (ejecta strewn fields) on two planetary bodies, and it is the humans that tie the photos together.

Top: Boulder field at Camelot Crater from the Apollo 17 mission. Panorama compiled by Warren Harold of NASA/JSC. Bottom: Looking outward from the rim of Meteor Crater

Top: Boulder field at Camelot Crater from the Apollo 17 mission. Panorama compiled by Warren Harold of NASA/JSC. Bottom: Looking outward from the rim of Meteor Crater

This was originally intended to be part of Accretionary Wedge #56 (Geologist as Photographer) but wound up heading in a different direction and taking too long to be included.

Pat’s Field Trip (Guide?) to Mt. St. Helens, Part I

In August 2013, Dana Hunter started posting a day trip guide to Mt. St. Helens. The timing couldn’t have been better, as I was (a) about to embark on a weeklong vacation to Central Washington that September, (b) planned to spend a day around Mt. St. Helens with a friend, and (c) had no idea how to spend that day. Dana teased us with distant mountain views oozing with serenity and grandeur and other Muir-y words. Unfortunately, Dana did not take my vacation plans into account, and her guide approached Mt. St. Helens from the west. Because my friend and I were coming from Eastern Washington, we would be stationed northeast in foresty La Wis Wis Campground. To loop around to the West entrance of Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument would require a few extra hours drive, and thus less time around the mountain. And so, instead, we figured on writing our own story by taking the road less traveled to the Windy Ridge observatory. This is that story (with GIFs!).

Zero Hour, 9AM: On the road in Yakima, the “Palm Springs of Washington”. Yakimanians gave themselves this nickname partly because the sun shines 300 days a year, and mostly to point out that they are not Seattle (motto: “The Seattle of Washington”). After two hours of westward & upward driving over a mountain pass, we caught our first glimpse of the mountain.

Wait, that's Mt. Rainier! Well, we can work with that

Wait, that’s Mt. Rainier! Well…we can work with that. Taken just south of Chinook Pass on the east edge of Tipsoo Lake (in foreground).

Obviously, Mt. Rainier should be your first stop on the road to Mt. St. Helens. Approaching from the east, it’s about the same time and distance to either the Sunrise or Paradise Visitor Centers. We headed for Sunrise to get a face-full of mountain. Sunrise is also the higher and typically less-crowded of the two visitor centers.

At Chinook Pass on State Route 410, you can stop and stretch your legs around Tipsoo Lake (0.5 miles), or take the longer Naches Peak Trail (3.75 miles) if you have more time. This area is also your best bet for views of Mt. Rainier before heading into the White River Valley, where Mt. Rainier is hidden behind smaller mountains, ridges, and the tall pines. Outcrops are plentiful on the switchbacks down from Chinook Pass, but I was too focused on the mountain to take more than a couple of photos along the way (foolishly deleted because we never stopped to examine the rocks). Continuing on your way to Mt. St. Helens, continue on State Route 410 to get to the Sunrise entrance. This will technically take you north and away from Mt. St. Helens, but don’t worry about that for now. There are a few pull-offs for viewing valley vistas, but the only must-stop area (besides at the park entrance) is well within the park, at Sunrise Point. This is an obvious stop on a switchback that curves around a parking lot. The small lot can get rather full late in the day, so I advise you to stop on your way to Sunrise since it is now just before lunch. You can’t see Mt. St. Helens from here – Mt. Rainier is kind of in the way – but there are relatively unobstructed views north and south.

Mt. Rainier from Sunrise Point

Mt. Rainier from Sunrise Point

Mt. Adams from Sunrise Point. This photo taken almost immediately to the left of the previous shot of Mt. Rainier.

Mt. Adams from Sunrise Point. This photo taken almost immediately to the left of the previous shot of Mt. Rainier.

Looking north from Sunrise Point over Sunrise Lake. Marcus Peak (6962 ft) is the small peak at left

Looking north from Sunrise Point over Sunrise Lake. Marcus Peak (6962 ft) is the left-most peak.

High Noon. Read up on the sights at the informative signs here, or even take a 7 mile trek (3.5 miles out and back) north on the Palisades Lakes Trail. While you are out doing that, we’ll continue to our next stop on the road to Mt. St. Helens, which is of course the Sunrise Visitor Center. Fuel up with some lunch before heading out, and hopefully you’ve brought some food because the gift shop doesn’t pack much in the off-season. Also, turns out the iconic visitor center is closed for renovations (something about asbestos) and because it is the off-season. And grab a map (PDF of the printed version available on site) to plan your hike, because the forest ranger is also gone for the day! We decided to hike a mish-mash of trails, starting out on the Sourdough Ridge Trail toward Frozen Lake, looping down to the First Burroughs Mtn. and then back via Glacier Overlook:

An afternoon hike around the Sunrise area

An afternoon hike around the Sunrise area. I think we spent around three hours on the trail.

Be warned, that first incline is like a punch in the face after sitting in a car all day. It’s good to get the blood flowing, but pace yourself! Once you get warmed up, that second climb feels more reasonable. Fortunately there is an excellent vista on the Sourdough Ridge Trail where you can stop to take photos because it is beautiful and definitely not because your heart is working its way up into your skull.

McNeeley Peak from Sourdough Ridge Trail. Marcus Peak is just off to the right of center.

McNeeley Peak from Sourdough Ridge Trail. Marcus Peak is just off to the right of center.

Did you notice that the trees are shorter on the left side of that image at higher elevation? That’s because you are close to the treeline, and will be above it when you reach Frozen Lake. Also note how green is the valley, especially compared to similar mountainscapes from the Rockies. For now, Mt. Rainier has not suffered much from pine beetles or the more common (in the Northwest) white pine blister rust (PDF, 2008).

An elk grazes in Rocky Mountain National Park with Bowen Mtn in the background. The pine beetle has left its mark in the form of swaths of dead trees.

An elk grazes in Rocky Mountain National Park with Bowen Mtn in the background (Estes Park, CO). Dead pines are the work of the pine beetle.

While you were thinking about the Rockies, we made it to Frozen Lake. Only a bit of snow is lurking in the leeward side of the nearby hill, shielded from the wind blowing ripples across the decidedly unfrozen surface of Frozen Lake. Can’t have it all…

Golden-mantled ground squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis) near Frozen Lake

Golden-mantled ground squirrel (Callospermophilus lateralis) near Frozen Lake. Goldie here is common in mountainous regions of North America.

Wildlife Corner: We saw two golden-mantled ground squirrels (Callospermophilus lateralis) near Frozen Lake who didn’t appear too fazed by our presence. Birdwise, there were a few scattered crows and mysteriously chirpy birds near the First Burroughs Mountain. Below the treeline, I think we saw a few Clark’s Nutcrackers hopping about in pines (if I’m remembering what they looked like correctly). Milbert’s Tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais milberti) landed on the trail near us for a moment, and the meadows below Sunrise were full of very friendly bees.

Milberts Tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais milberti)

Milbert’s Tortoiseshell butterfly (Aglais milberti)

Above the treeline, a sign informs us, the area is similar to the arctic tundra. It is quite a visual contrast to the valley we left behind.



Our closest approach to Mt. Rainier was the First Burroughs Mtn. Perhaps if you are in better shape or have more time, you could continue on to the Second Burroughs. We’ll stay here and catch our breath, munch a granola bar, and enjoy the view for a while.

Our closest approach to Mt. Rainier

Mt. Rainier from the First Burroughs.

Little Tahoma Peak (at left) is relatively snow-free, as is flat-topped Gibraltar Rock. The snowpack is split into two glaciers by the triangular Steamboat Prow (Emmons at left, Winthrop at right). The isolated glacier in the foreground of Steamboat Prow is Inter Glacier (a.k.a. the Interglacier). Hidden from view at the apex of Steamboat Prow is Camp Schurman, which serves as a ranger station and climbing stop. In Emmons Glacier, a narrow ridge pokes out at high elevation and transitions to a medial moraine downslope. The center of Emmons Glacier is covered by less debris than the margin, as it is relatively faster-moving and further from those debris sources. The thick, flat slab coming down off the peak to the right is Willis Wall, a remnant of one of Mt. Rainier’s more recent volcanic episodes (10-15 thousand years ago). Age refs and a useful simplified geologic map are available in a USGS Special Publication.

Emmons Glacier is the source of the White River and that glacial lake.

Emmons Glacier, the source of the White River and that glacial lake. That beautiful hanging cirque has origins in colder times.

On the way to Glacier Overlook, be sure to turn around every once in a while to get new perspectives on Rainier and the valley. A cirque (the bowl shaped depression carved out by a glacier) hangs over the White River Valley above a milky green glacial lake. The toe of Emmons Glacier is covered by a debris from a 1963 avalanche.

Emmons Glacier on Mt. Rainier

In the previous images, you can see the snowpack transitioning from soft-edged at the peak, to more dissected and then debris covered downslope. I’m curious to know where the equilibrium line is, which is where snow accumulation is equal to loss via melting and ablation. I think it might be at the transition to the more jagged, exposed form, but it isn’t always an obvious “line”.

Sunrise Visitor Center

Sunrise Visitor Center

The visitor center is always picturesque, and only looks better after a long hike. Here it is flanked by the Sourdough Ridge Trail leading to Antler Peak (second peak in from left) and Dege Peak (right). Later, on your flight back to Seattle, be sure to sit on the left side of the plane for a potentially fantastic view of Mt. Rainier and the Sunrise area.


4PM: Recoup in the parking lot for a bit before continuing on your way to Mt. St. Helens.

A change of plans: LunGradCon goes virtual

For the past four years, the Lunar Graduate Conference (LunGradCon) was held the Sunday prior to the Lunar Science Forum. The Forum’s host organization was recently restructured into the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute. This is something I’ve mentioned before, and it means future Forums will be broader in scope. The final lunar-centric forum was scheduled for July 16-18, 2013 at NASA Ames in California. However, NASA travel restrictions and nebulous budget cuts to planetary science forced lunatics and research organizations alike to tighten their belts. Despite promises to the contrary, most scientists I spoke with believed the Forum would end up cancelled. Thus it was a bit of a mixed bag when an April e-mail announced a change in format to an all-virtual Forum. Three months before the meeting. Three months before LunGradCon.

LunGradCon would have been in Mountain View, California, which is lovely in mid-July. Our host was the NASA Ames Research Center, where in the past we’ve taken tours of the wind tunnels and helicopter research wings. We were making plans to expand our tours to include SETI and the vertical gun range. And although travel to California can be costly, the majority of our budget was allocated toward travel funds for all attendees. Suffice to say, we never had a problem enticing grad students to fly out early to network and present among their peers. But with no Lunar Science Forum to glom on to, the numbers just weren’t there. We had to adapt or cancel.

Maybe next year, Ames.

Maybe next year, Ames.

The LunGradCon planning committee was really non-plussed about the situation. With no in-person component, what did we have to look forward to? Another day of staring at a computer and listening to talking heads? With conferences, if you only go to talks and posters then you are missing out on half the experience. The other half is networking, with real human interactions, introductions, collaborations, and commiserations at the bar. My gut reaction was to vote to cancel in protest with an accompanying statement from the committee (maybe leaving out the part about the bar).

Network building in action! (2011 LunGradCon)

Network building in action, a.k.a. bringing people together through random activities. (“Point at the Moon”, 2011 LunGradCon)

Honestly though, canceling would have been a selfish snap decision. LunGradCon was not singled out for a virtual makeover. Times are tough all over, and planetary science in general has taken quite a hit. We could pick up our toys home and refuse to play this new game, but that would take us out of the conversation. We would also lose the opportunity to reconnect with LunGradCon alums and build new contacts in the lunar graduate student community. And bare bones, that is what LunGradCon was established to do. So we put out the call for registrants and abstracts and left it up to the community to decide if they wanted a virtual conference. It turns out they did.

The amount of interest from graduate students exceeded my expectations. There was a fairly even split of registrants between returning (15) and new (18), from 23 different institutions. Unfortunately, I was too busy with planning committee details during the conference to note the maximum number of people to join the day of. We had a good number of talks to keep LunGradCon brief and engaging, with scheduled time for extra discussion and overviews on lunar research.

Last minute group shot with some of the attendees (2013 LunGradCon)

Last minute group shot with some attendees of the 2013 LunGradCon.

The participants roundly agreed (via post-conference survey) that LunGradCon went over rather well. I was pleased to see some old colleagues and make new acquaintances. The conference opened with an icebreaker that everyone enjoyed (despite it running over time, which was our fault for not scheduling enough time for it). International students found it easier to join a virtual conference compared to getting visitor badges for NASA Ames, and we had students presenting from Canada, Germany and India. More questions were asked during discussion sessions compared to some previous years – we think it was a combination of participants having more time to flesh out questions before asking, the detached nature of virtual questions providing a comfort zone, and the ability to revisit questions from earlier in the day. Kerri had also compiled a glossary of terms that proved a valuable resource for many students listening to talks outside their field.

Some of my worries did, unfortunately, play out. A major selling point of LunGradCon is to provide a peer-only environment for students to present their work and get feedback on content, style, cohesion, etc. Normally these are handouts everyone fills out during/after each talk. This year the forms were Google Docs and we only had responses from ~1/3 of the group for each presenter. I was certainly forced to leave a few forms blank, as were several planning committee members. We were engaged in a surprising number of tech troubleshooting and schedule issues. The session chairs reported similar distractions on occasion.

This year’s meeting was successful, but I hope that future SSERVI Forum and LunGradCon meetings will be more tangible. There really is no substitute for meeting people face to face. Lastly, after guiding the conference into the digital realm, the Heidi-Jamey-Kerri-Patrick organizing committee is disbanding. Jamey Szalay is sticking around as a link to the past, and we are bringing in some excellent new planning committee members. And with a virtual conference under our belt, I am more confident in the ability of LunGradCon to continue bringing students together in any venue.

The 2011 & 2012 LunGradCon planning committee. From Left: Pat Donohue, Kerri Donaldson Hanna, Jamey Szalay, Heidi Fuqua

The 2012 & 2013 LunGradCon planning committee with our poster at the 2013 Lunar and Planetary Science Conference. From Left: Patrick Donohue, Kerri Donaldson Hanna, Jamey Szalay, Heidi Fuqua

Long live LunGradCon!

AW#58: Signs

July’s impromptu Accretionary Wedge is Signs! (geological or geographical). Obviously I’m going geological. Enjoy a photo from the Catskills trip previously featured in the Field Stories Wedge. This photo is from later the same day, as the group discussed structural interpretations of a roadcut just out of frame. Although you can’t see it, you should believe in the road cut because of the FALLEN ROCK ZONE sign. Believe!

Class and Fallen Rock Zone Sign

Caution: Geologists and Fallen Rocks!

Warning signs are great markers for geology stops, and this sign is a classic example from Upstate New York. As a bonus, discussing structures on the side of a busy highway (or on-ramp, in this case) is also a classic “sign you might be a geologist”!