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Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Temperature Inversion - Air Pollution Montana-Style

This photo of a temperature inversion was taken from Bompart Ridge on the southern edge of Helena, Montana on Sunday, December 10. Cold air was sitting in the valley below. The temperature on the valley floor was ~15 F, and it was ~20 F on this ridge. The reason you can see the cold air is that it fills with fog and pollution.

Its a valley thing.
During winter months, the mountain valleys of western Montana are prone to inversions – called this because they really are "upside-down situations". NORMALLY the atmosphere gets colder as you get farther away from Earth's surface because the air is warmed from the bottom up by heat given off by the Earth. However during inversions, air at the surface is much colder than the air above. Local hikers know this means that it can be 5-10 degrees warmer on top of the mountain than it is down at the trailhead.

Recipe for a temperature inversion - Clear, Calm, Cold
Mountain valleys serve as “sinks” where cold, dense air may sit for several days. They develop during clear, calm, cold nights – especially in December and January. Clouds act like a blanket, keeping much of the heat given off by the Earth close to the surface. So, on clear nights this heat escapes quickly out to space, and air at the surface becomes cold (and heavy). The low angle of the Sun in December and January prevents this valley air from heating up during the days. Snow cover, which reflects sunlight, and the shortness of winter days also help prevent it from warming. If the inversion persists for several days, air quality worsens as the stagnant, cold air fills with pollutants such as smoke from wood-burning stoves or emissions from automobiles.

For more about this (blog with photo tour) CLICK HERE.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Ancient Sea-Floor Sediments Store Huge Amounts of Carbon.

Click on the photo to see higher resolution.

Got carbonates?
Scapegoat Mountain (elevation 9,186) is located in the Scapegoat Wilderness of western Montana. Both the cliff and peak are made of layers of carbonate rock deposited during the Cambrian Period (540-485 million years ago) when Montana was beneath a shallow part of the ocean as shown on this map. The cliff consists primarily of two limestone formations; the Pagoda formation lies beneath the Steamboat formation - and the peak is made of Devil's Glen dolomite. Limestone is mostly calcium carbonate (calcite, CaCO3), whereas dolomite is calcium magnesium carbonate. Dolomite can form as magnesium-rich groundwater moves through limestone, giving magnesium ions a chance to replace calcium ions.

Not that kind of reservoir.
Dolomites and limestones store huge amounts of carbon, hence they are an important reservoir of carbon and part of Earth's carbon cycle. It is estimated that Earth's carbonate rocks store over 60,000,000 gigatons of carbon, compared to the estimated 840 gigatons in the atmosphere (Source: Atmospheric carbon is mostly in the form of CO2, and experts believe that CO2 levels during the Cambrian Period were much higher than today. Movement of this carbon from the atmosphere to the rocks shown in the photo began with rain. Carbon dioxide combined with cloud droplets to form a weak carbonic acid that rained to the surface. This acidic rain "ate away" rock material (chemical weathering), releasing calcium, magnesium, and other ions that rivers carried to the ocean. In the ocean, the calcium ions combined with bicarbonate ions to form calcium carbonate, which precipitated to the sea-floor. These processes were certainly in high gear during the Cambrian Period as evidenced by the thickness of the carbonate layers shown in the photo. In fact the carbon in the cliffs of Scapegoat Mountain has been stuck there for 500 million years. So, what natural process(es) could put some of these carbon atoms back into the atmosphere? Read this to find out.

A couple "plot twists" in the carbon saga.
In modern oceans, most of the carbonate material being deposited originates from corals and shell-building organisms, including plankton (foraminifera, etc.). As these organisms die, they build up on the seafloor. Eventually layers of shells and sediment will be cemented together and become rock, storing the carbon in stone (limestone and dolomite). Another way that carbon is stored is as fossil fuels. Under certain circumstances dead plant matter or algae builds up faster than it can decay, Then as these deposits of organic carbon are buried and compressed they become oil, coal, or natural gas instead of sedimentary rock. (Source: NASA - The Slow Carbon Cycle)

There's been a disturbance.
Scapegoat Mountain sits near the southern end of the Lewis Overthrust Belt, which includes the spectacular mountains that extend northward through Glacier Park, into Canada. The overthrusting happened as the Pacific Plate pushed into North America starting in the Middle Jurassic Period (174 to 163 mya) and ending in the Early Eocene Epoch (56-34 mya). The super-slow collision forced slabs of crust (mostly sedimentary rock) to fault, and then slip up and over younger layers to the east, resulting in the unique north-south trending ridges and valleys found along the Rocky Mountain Front.

The "Bob" is a great Montana place.
The Scapegoat Wilderness is part of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex south of Glacier Park - The fifth largest wilderness area in the lower 48 and home to some of the most primitive back-country in the USA. Affectionately known as "The Bob," the complex consists of three wilderness areas, including the original Bob Marshall, which was established in 1964, along with the Scapegoat and the Great Bear Wildernesses, which were added in the 1970s.

To learn more about Scapegoat Mountain and see many more photos, CLICK HERE.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Carbon Cycle Video - Short, sweet, and to the point.

I came across this 3-minute video while looking for a good way to introduce my ninth-graders to the carbon cycle. It's a good starting point. After you watch the video, check this out as well.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Chief Mountain - A classic "klippe" in Glacier Park

As an Earth Science teacher, I felt like a kid in a candy store during this hike. Chief Mountain the classic example of a "klippe" (associated with the overthrust that formed Glacier Park), plus we had great views of a landslide that happened in 1992, Slide Lake, and a weird vegetation pattern (shown in photo above; not sure how it formed). CLICK HERE to access the blog, which includes a photo tour of all that we saw.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Logan Pass on Continental Divide - Glacier Park, Montana

Logan Pass (elevation 6,646 feet) on the Continental Divide is the highest point on the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park. Although there are higher areas in the south-central part of the state, Logan Pass gets more precipitation than any place in Montana. Mountains along the divide force moist air from the Pacific upward, causing cooling by expansion. As the air reaches its dew point, vapor changes to snow (or rain). Also, Arctic air often moves into Montana along the east side of the divide, contributing to the lifting and cooling of Pacific air from the west. An area just east of Logan Pass, called “The Big Drift”, often records over 80 feet of snow, much of it pushed there by strong westerly winds that blow in the winter. A record gust of 139 mph was recorded in April of 2014.

The Going to the Sun Road, which can be seen in the photo, is one of the most scenic drives in the USA, and also one of the most difficult to snowplow. Crews usually begin plowing in early April, and the road is usually open from early June to mid-October, with the latest opening date being July 13, 2011 due to tremendous amounts of snow that fell that winter. The road, which was completed in 1932 and opened in 1933, connects the east entrance of the park (St. Mary) with the west entrance (near Lake McDonald). Although there aren’t many glaciers left in the park, the road provides visitors with excellent views of features carved by glaciers, including, hanging valleys, horns, glacial troughs, arĂȘtes, and cirques. For those who want a closer look, there are several hiking trailheads along the highway, including the spectacular "Highline Trail" that starts at Logan Pass. The trail passes above the highway and below a portion of the Continental Divide known as “The Garden Wall.” The Highline Trail can be seen on the left side of the photo - between the highway and the patches of snow.

More information

1. Peak Bagging Near Logan Pass (many more photos)

2. Hiking the Highline - best trail in the park

3. Montana Precipitation Map

4. Wikipedia: Going to the Sun Road

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

GREAT eclipse site from NASA - Must see!

Thanks to Rick Dees for sending this one my way. The total eclipse of the Sun will happen on Monday, August 21 this summer. Make plans now!

CLICK HERE to find out what it will look like from various locations. You can zoom, tilt the globe, or select a new location. THIS IS GREAT! It shows what it will look like from your location, including the timing. *See credits below.

Map courtesy of

Producer: Kevin Hussey

Ranger Task Manager: Marc Pomerantz

Software Engineering Team Lead: Andrew Boettcher

JPL Ranger Software Engineering team: Andrew Boettcher, Michael Hans, Anton Kulikov, Mi Nguyen, Marc Pomerantz, Michael Sandoval, Davit Stepanyan, Brian Wright

Additional JPL support: Jason Craig, Matthew Garcia, Kevin Hussey, Daniel Sedlacko

UI Design and Development: Moore Boeck

Copyright 2017, by the California Institute of Technology. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. United States Government Sponsorship acknowledged. Any commercial use must be negotiated with the Office of Technology Transfer at the California Institute of Technology.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Montana Lake Carved by Outburst Floods During Ice Age

Lots of geology going on here. Two of my hiking buddies are standing on the remains of a laccolith looking at Lost Lake whose basin was carved by outburst floods during the last ice age. The mountains in the background (Highwoods) are the remains of an ancient volcano that was active 50 mya.

After visiting Lost Lake we hiked up onto Square Butte (another laccolith). Both features are made of rock formed as magma cooled beneath the surface tens of millions of years ago. However, the story of Lost Lake includes another chapter that involved an unusual set of circumstances that happened during the last ice age. To learn how outburst flooding of Glacial Lake Great Falls was involved, go to