Category Archives: Utah

A History of Environmental Catastrophes


Monument Valley on Arizona-Utah border

These photos were all taken on an earlier trip to Arizona.

David Attenborough in his documentary summing up his life abandoned his traditional approach of nature documentaries where he carefully avoided making personal statements. This time he made exactly those statements he had avoided in the past.

Attenborough had travelled to every part of the globe. Sadly, I have not, but I have travelled extensively and have seen some remarkable things too and have given some modest thought to the same issues that have been bothering him. Like him I have been to some extraordinary places as well. Perhaps I have a little something useful to contribute as well. I have been around for 74 years and likely will not be lucky enough to live another 20 years like he has done. As he showed in his film, I will also include in these posts to follow some photographs of where I have been and creatures and organisms I have been lucky enough to see.

North Window Monument Valley

When Attenborough was very young, in 1937, the human population was “only” 2.3 billion, there was “only” 280 parts per million of carbon in our atmosphere and 66%n of the world’s wilderness remained intact. Since then, things have changed dramatically and our species is largely responsible for that. Today there are more than 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere.

Artist’s point was a favorite spot of the director John Ford who shot many of his westerns starring John Wayne in Monument Valley

Scientists have learned that over the nearly 4 billion years that life has lived on this planet, life has changed dramatically. Usually it has changed slowly, but it has always changed and given millions of more years the changes are likely to be astounding.

Over time, some species die out. New species evolve after organisms adapt to changes on earth. It is an amazing process. After about 4 billion years bacteria can evolve into humans. Think about that.  Our earliest ancestor was something in the nature of bacteria! Life has evolved from microscopic organisms to giant creatures. Some creatures on the other hand, like crocodiles have hardly evolved at all.


Totem Pole at Monument Valley

About once every 100 million years or so, planet earth has experienced truly catastrophic losses of species. These are called extinction events.  There have been 5 such extinction events. One of them led to the loss of about 95% of the species on earth. And what remained have evolved into the incredible array of biodiversity we have today. An enormous number of organisms have died out. An enormous number of species have died out too.

Great natural forces have also impacted the earth and the creative organisms on it. For example, one of my favorite places on earth is Monument Valley in northern Arizona. I am constantly amazed by the large number of people that come regularly to Arizona like we do but have never visited this place of such astounding beauty. I think it might be the most beautiful place on the planet yet far more people I meet here have been to Las Vegas than Monument Valley even though both are similar distances from Phoenix. The powers of erosion by wind, water, and ice applied to geological forces that created the enormous changes to the landscape including carved mesas and buttes.

Change is a relentless part of life. The only thing constant is change. We must live with it or die. No matter how much some us hate change we cannot avoid it. Mother Nature never stands still.

Arches National Park


I remember well a day 2 years ago when we visited Arches National Park in Utah. It was an extraordinary day. It was one of those travel days that I will never forget. It was not a long day. Sadly, our visit was all too brief.

The Geology of Arches National Parkis as fascinating as the arches. It is history told in the language of stone and rock.         The story of the area now contained with Arches National Park (“Arches”) began approximately 65 million years ago.  At that time this area was a most improbable sight for what we see today. At that time it was a dry seabed that spread from one horizon to the other.  For example, if you stood in Devils Garden 65 million years (‘mya’) ago the red rock features that make up this fantastic landscape would not have been visible at all. Everything would have been buried thousands of feet below the surface. Like the marble that lay in front of Michelangelo, all would have been uncarved raw material.

65 mya geological forces started to work on this rough landscape.  The first geological step was for geological forces to wrinkle and fold the buried sandstone.  This process has been compared to a person with a giant rug gathering the two edges toward each other. Such a process would make lumps across the middle. Geologists call these lumps Anticlines. As the sandstone warped, fractures tore through it establishing the patterns for rock sculptures of the future.

The great uplift of the Colorado Plateau occurred about 200 million years after that some 40 million years ago.   The entire region began to rise thousands of feet above sea level.  That happened for much of the American Southwest. As the Colorado Plateau rose up, layers of sedimentary rock were presereved in tact. Now, as a result,  scientists can read those rocks like a geological book. The Grand Canyon is one of the places where this geological book is most readable. The entire region, though particularly the Grand Canyon of course, is famous for its multicolored layer cake geology where each layer tells a distinctive story about a particular historical epoch that began in the Precambrian nearly 2 billion years ago and ended 570 million years ago.

Our first stop in the park was near to Park Avenue. There is a short trail that is referred to as Park Avenue because of the many rocks that resemble city skyscrapers. We also saw some rocks that appeared to be balancing on pillars. These were starkly unlike. We did not walk far down the trail as we had little time for hiking. That was a shame. Next time I hope we have more time. Nearby I also stopped for some photos of the wonderful snowcapped La Sal Mountains to the east

We next drove around the trail and stopped at the rock that is referred to as Courthouse Towersbecause it does look like a classic American courthouse. These reminded me of some of the rock formations I had seen a few years ago in Monument Valley, still my favorite place in the American Southwest. Of course, I was compelled to take some more shots with my camera.



Of course, nothing ever stays the same in geological terms. What was lifted up fell subject to the forces of erosion over long periods of time. Specifically, the forces of erosion carved layer after layer of rock away from the surface. One it was exposed, the deeply buried sandstone layers rebounded and expanded, like a sponge expands after it is squeezed. Of course this process takes a very long time. This created even more fractures in the rock and that permitted water to seep into the rock and break it down even further.

It seems odd because this region is so dry, but today water is the force that shapes the environment here more than any other force. Rain erodes rock and carries sediment down and washes that sediment down washes and canyons into the Colorado River. In winter snowmelt pools in fractures and other cavities and often it freezes and then it expands as all water does when it freezes. This breaks off chunks of sandstone. Small recesses develop and grow bigger with each storm.  Little by little over thousands of years, this process turns fractured rock layers into fins and in time, fins turn into arches.



Delicate Arche

Over very long periods of time the forces that created these arches will continue to widen them to such an extent that they become unstable and collapse. That happened just a few years ago.  In 2008, Wall Arch collapsed reminding us that these rock forms are not permanent. Noting is permanent, except change. Someday Delicate Arch will collapse too. Of course most of these arches will remain much longer than I will. After all this landscape took 65 million years to be sculpted. It really is an improbable landscape.

Like a fingerprint, every arch in the park is unique. Each arch tells its own distinct story of rock, water, erosion, time and change. Yet there are some interesting categories of arches. The free-standing arch is the most obvious type of arch. It stands alone, independent of other rock walls or fins. It seems to stand proud spanning an opening. Some arches of this kind have been called Windows. Often they frame a scenic view. Of course, in Arches,everyopening frames a scenic sight. It is entirely unavoidable. The most popular arches in the park, such as Delicate Arch belong in this category of arches.


Delicate Arch

Chris and I both saw Delicate Archfrom the lower viewpoint area. She stayed behind while I walked to the Upper Arch viewpoint, but I did not walk all the way up to the Arch. It would have taken me about 45 minutes to walk up to it but I felt we did not have enough time. This is the most famous of the park’s arches.

More than 2,000 arches have been identified in the park. That is an astounding number. Arches National Park has the densest concentrations of natural stone arches in the world ranging in size from sliver thin cracks to spans of more than 300 feet.

The rock layers that are frequently visible in the park today, were once buried by over a mile of other rock. This overlying rock first had to erode to expose the sandstone beneath, for arches to have formed. Arches National Park is a wonder of nature. It truly is. I am convinced there can’t be anything like it anywhere else in the world.  Wall Arch, the 12thlargest arch in the park, completely collapsed overnight in August 2008. Wall Arch fell on August 4, 2008 while people were sleeping at Devil’s Garden Campground not far away. Many reporting hearing the sound of thunder, but the skies overhead were clear. Yet thousands of tons of sandstone came crashing to the ground. The sound was deafening.

For most of the history of what we now call Arches National Park there were no red rocks here at all. Salty inland seas, braided river systems, coastal plains, and sand dunes were what we would have found during most of the history of this park. Geologists know this because they are smart and they know what to look for. The clues are there for the discerning eye to see and interpret. Geologists interpret clues such as fossils, ripple marks and cross bedding to understand the history of each geological layer to compose their picture of what happened here.

It is worth remembering that every arch, spire or other rock shape for that matter is a remnant of ancient massive layers of rock that once covered the entire region. Over time the layers of rock bulged, cracked, and then began to erode. Of course, over time every arch will collapse and crumble. That is entirely inevitable.       Although every arch will fall, collapses are actual rare occurrences. I was surprised to learn that there is no good way to predict when an arch will be pulled to its grave by the irresistible force of gravity.

Balanced Rock

 On our too brief drive through the park, we stopped at Balanced Rock with the La Sal Mountains in the background. This was an improbably and acutely precarious balanced boulder sitting on top of a sandstone spire. Together with the arches this is one of the signature rock formations of the park. It looks like it is ready to fall off at the next summer breeze. It has been estimated to weight 3,577 tons, the weight of an ice-breaker ship or 27 blue whales.

Balanced Rock

We had spent about 4 hours in the park and travelled right to the end of the self-guide tour. Not nearly enough time, yet this concluded one of my best days sight seeing ever! This was right up there with my experiences at Monument Valley, Yellowstone National Park, Sedona, Canyon de Chelly, Plitvice Lakes Croatia, Saguaro National Park, Churchill, and a few others.  My camera shutter got hot from over use. I used the word “Wow” far too often to count. If I had shot film images at the rate I shot digital images, I would have had to declare personal bankruptcy.  Thank goodness digital “film” is “free.”  Long live digital photography.

I still have one of Utah’s 5 National Parks to see–Canyonlands. Next year I hope to see it.

Bryce National Park: “Poetry in Stone”

Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah has been described as “Poetry in Stone.” I loved that description.  Each of us who visits Bryce has to remember that the landscape is never static. It is always dynamic and changing. Change is the only constant. The forces of weathering never get fatigued and exert a relentless force on the rock. Bryce Canyon consists of a series of deep amphitheaters filled with a variety of colored rock formations. Some of them are called hoodoos and they are what Bryce Canyon is most famous for.   Hoodoos are eroded columns of sandstone.  They were formed when wind, rain, and ice eroded “fins” of harder rock that eventually being columns and then further eroded into strangely shaped hoodoos. When those windows grow larger, their tops eventually collapse.  Everyone wonders why do they appear here and not in many other places of the world, though I have seen them in Alberta. Frank Decourten wrote a book called Shadow of Timeabout Bryce and its hoodoos “the grand icons of erosion.’ He also pointed out that “Hoodoos are ephemeral–new columns form while older ones are destroyed–and erosion is both their creator and, eventually, their executioner.”  They are created by differential erosion, the cap is harder and does not erode as fast, protecting the column underneath.


We loved the views at the various look offs. Each was spectacular in its own unique way. The spires of pink, orange, and red spires were breathtaking. The Paiute Indians who used to hunt here described them as “red rocks standing like men in a bowl-shaped recess.” The image above is a panorama. That means I combined a number of photos into one image. If you click on it, I hope it gets bigger.


Of course in the world of geography nothing is forever. As Decourten said, “Inevitably, even the pillars, protected to some degree by dripstone and caprock , succumb to the relentless attack of the elements and the hoodoos begin to crumble.”   Bryce really is a phantasmagorical funhouse made of stone. Bryce is one of the few places where people notice–really notice–the rock. That is because it is so strange. There is no place like it. But they are not only beautiful, they are fascinating if you dig into the geology of Bryce. As Decourten pointed out, “The vibrant colors, the intricate patterns of erosion, and the infinite variations in the surface textures of these rocks are both enchanting and mystifying.”


If you look closely at this picture of me you might be able to see Fear.

Bryce was affected by the Cretaceous Period is one of the most interesting periods in the history of our planet. It lasted approximately 79 million years145.5 million years ago 65.5 million years ago when the dinosaur disappeared. Decourten said “The Cretaceous was perhaps nature’s greatest excursion into mayhem. It was a time when the gradual, steady, geological processes of the planet went haywire.  For example, the slow spreading of the ocean basins which results in continental drift was proceeding at a rate up to three times greater than the rate at which such spreading occurs today!  During the Cretaceous, the plates of the Earth’s brittle crust were dashing around the planet at a geologically reckless speed–as much as 8 inches per year–about five times faster than your fingernails grow (the normal speed of the tectonic plates). Partly as a result of the high rate of seafloor spreading, great quantities of magma were produced and volcanoes erupted on an unprecedented scale with astonishing intensity.  More igneous rock formed worldwide during Cretaceous time than in any other period of geologic history (except perhaps the period just after the formation of the Earth). Ash and gases erupting from the Cretaceous volcanoes seem to have created a natural “greenhouse effect” which profoundly changed the global climate. It was warm 100 million years ago, very warm.  Tropical forests grew as far north as Alaska. The arctic zones disappeared and temperate conditions at eh poles caused the icecaps to melt. Water released during this great thaw lifted the world’s oceans onto the low borderlands of all the Cretaceous continents.

On land and in the swollen seas, a riot of evolution, induced by the rapid and profound environmental changes, produced bizarre life forms: giant seagoing lizards (mosasaurs); flying reptiles the size of small jet aircraft; the horned, armored, and duck-billed types of dinosaurs (not to mention the fearsome predators, such as Tyrannosaurus, which fed on them); tree-sized ferns and other primitive plants. Finally, there is some good evidence the Cretaceous might have been punctuated, 66 million years ago, by a collision between the Earth and an asteroid, an appropriately violent end to a turbulent period. A great extinction followed this event resulting in the extinction of vast amounts of life on earth, including, the dinosaurs.  Much of that ancient history is told in the rocks and fossils of Bryce. The story is endlessly fascinating.


An inland sea divided North America east to west 90 million years ago (‘mya’). During this time sediments were deposited at the bottom of that sea, forming the oldest rocks in the park. Before the canyon was filled with hoodoos it was filled with water. I am particularly interested for some reason in the fact that much of North America was at one time split by an ocean seaway. How can that possibly be? How weird is that desert regions like the American southwest were at one time inundated by this interior seaway? This has been called the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway. When this interior seaway covered much of North America, including Manitoba, coal, sandstone, and mudstone accumulated along the western edge of this seaway. If it had accumulated on the eastern edge we might be richer here in Manitoba today. What a pity. During this time what we now call the Gulf of Mexico penetrated north across the low plains of central North America and joined the waters that were advancing from the northern Arctic Ocean. This incredible seaway in time submerged the entire region where the Rocky Mountains are now found (though they were not in existence yet at that time). This great interior seaway divided North America into two island continents!

Between 55 and 40 mya years ago much of Utah was a basin of water encircled by mountains.  That seems impossible now because it is so dry. Yet for millions of years rivers deposited sediments –mainly dissolved limestone—into a system of large lakes at the top of the Plateau . 20 mya ago, as the Colorado Plateaubegan to be uplifted the lakes dried up and their mixtures of sediments became the muddy limestone that geologists now refer to as the Claron Formation. Then massive tectonic plate activity from 20 to 15 mya began to push up an incredible part of the Earth’s crust. Eventually this uplifted the region by an astonishing 2 miles, creating the 130,00 sq. mile Colorado Plateau that I have come to know a little bit and love a lot.

If one stand on the rim of one of the amphitheaters in Bryce Canyon and thinks about things like this one’s mind is expanded to near stretching limits. The world is and has been a very strange place and much of that strangeness can be detected right here at Bryce.  This ancient world has been recorded in stone. That stone of course was subject to what Decourten called “Water, wind, gravity—nature’s wrecking crew—worked in concert to efface and obscure. He also said, The erosion which removed much of the younger layers created this glorious shrine to the dynamic artistry of geologic processes. Whatever else Bryce Canyon National Park may be, it is certainly a monument to erosion.

What we saw today was the product of massive rock layers that had been uplifted and fractured over millions of years and then submitted to the relentless never-ending forces of erosion. Those forces are not at sleep today. They never sleep. What we see tomorrow will also be the product of those same forces.


I have fallen in love with geology the study of how these forces have shaped our wonderful planet.  That is to me an astonishing admission. I would never have dreamed this were possible when I was a liberal arts student as an undergraduate at the University of Manitoba. I despised all science. I was enamoured of the arts and humanities. Science was irrelevant. Now I know how foolish I was. Science is critically important to understanding our world. If we understand it, even if we don’t solve all of its mysteries, we can’t help but love it and if we love it we will try to care for it. That is why science—just like arts and humanities—is vitally important.


Our next stop was one of my favourite—i.e. Natural Bridge formed through the erosion of rock by streams or rivers. This window or arch formed from a combination of processes. First, frost wedging, which is the expanding of cracks in rock as water turns to ice, weakened the rock. Then over time, dissolution occurred as a result of chemical dissolving of the rock by rainwater that cut away at the top and sides of this wall of rock. Over time the relentless force of gravity pulled loose the weakened pieces of rock at the center and that created a hole in the wall that we could clearly see and photograph today. That is why the “bridges” of Bryce Canyon, such as Natural Bridge, are spectacular examples of arches that, like the hoodoos, are constantly at risk of destruction as the never ending forces of erosion chip away at the rock. Nothing stands in the way of time. Everything changes.