Some things are better left unsaid

(I’m currently on a plane, en route to Florida for the STS-134 NASA Tweetup.)

A British couple behind me are looking out the window and ask a flight attendant if that’s the Grand Canyon below us and to our left. She says yes, so I look out and see that it’s actually Valley of the Gods in Southern Utah (neeeeerd). I turn around to say something, right as the husband says, “Oh, that is so great! I’ve always wanted to see the Grand Canyon!”

Alright then. Just smile and turn around, Dave. 🙂

Good grief, we geologists can (nearly) be assholes sometimes!

Insane geological coincidence at Lotta’s Fountain

Lotta’s Fountain, originally uploaded by Dave Schumaker.

Today marks 105 years after the great earthquake and fire ravaged San Francisco in 1906. I decided to take a stroll downtown and pay my respects at Lotta’s Fountain.

I took this photo at 2:54PM. Three minutes later, a magnitude 3.8 earthquake hit the Bay Area. It was located on the San Andreas fault and was just southeast of where the 1906 epicenter was thought to be. What?!

Christchurch – Then and Now

EDIT: The Big Picture is featuring powerful and scary photos of the damage.

We’re just starting to find out how bad today’s M6.3 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand was.

A former professor of ours when we were in New Zealand in 2006 dropped us an email this evening and let us know that it was going to be bad. He also informed us that the iconic Christchurch Cathedral in the center of the city was destroyed.

It was an absolutely beautiful building – originally built in mid-1800’s and completed in 1904.

As we saw it in 2006:

Christchurch Cathedral - 2006

Christchurch Cathedral - 2006


And as it lays today:

Chch Cathedral 2011 Quake

[via TwitPic]

My heart goes out to everyone in Christchurch. This is going to be fairly bad.

Earthquakes in 2010 – A final update

Back in March of 2010, I wrote a post looking at the frequency of earthquakes occurring around the world and examined whether or not there were more earthquakes occuring than normal. Specifically, I chose to look at earthquakes between M6.0 and M6.9, as they are sufficiently large enough to be detected by seismometers around the world and they seem to be well documented in recent history.

So, what were the final numbers for 2010? Using the global earthquake search tool on the USGS website, we can see that there were 151 M6.0 – M6.9 earthquakes detected last year.

FILE CREATED: Mon Jan 3 19:59:37 2011
Global Search Earthquakes = 151
Catalog Used: PDE
Date Range: 2010/01/01 to 2010/12/31
Magnitude Range: 6.0 – 6.9
Data Selection: Historical & Preliminary Data

According to recent USGS data, an average of ~134 earthquakes happen in this range every year. Yes, we had 151, but does that mean it’s time to freak out?


It falls well within what we would expect. In fact, there were more earthquakes within this magnitude range in 2007 (178) and 2008 (178)! What? Crazy!

A few more data points:
M7.0 – M7.9 eq’s in 2010: 21 (avg: ~17)
M8.0 – M8.9 eq’s in 2010: 1 (avg: ~1)

Here’s a handy table from the USGS [via]:


So, to sum things up, the world is not ending, despite what crazy folks say, earthquakes are not increasing, and there’s probably a number of other things more important to worry about.

Cheers and happy new year!

“This is my church…”

Owens River Gorge overlook

Overlooking the Owens River Gorge near Bishop, California

Finally have a chance to fully check out Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”

In the first episode, they document the discovery of Yosemite Valley and a quote by Lafayette Bunnell.

“None but those who have visited this most wonderful valley can even imagine the feelings with which I looked upon the scene that was there presented.

The grandeur of the scene was but softened by the haze that hung over the valley-light as gossamer-and by the clouds which partially dimmed the higher cliffs and mountains. This obscurity of vision but increased the awe with which I beheld it, and as I looked a peculiar exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being, and I found my eyes in tears with emotion.
…for I have seen before me the power and glory of a Supreme being.”

It’s a great quote (and a great geology related quote at that) and reminds me of something a friend said to me on a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada a number of years ago.

While eating lunch on an outcrop overlooking a forested valley, he said, “I may not believe in much, but this right here, this is my church.”

Agreed, my friend. Agreed.

My biggest environmental consulting fear

More drilling
My old office

In what seems like another lifetime, I used to be a geologist for an environmental consulting company here in the Bay Area. One of my biggest fears was drilling through a gas line.

We were often in the field, supervising remediation projects or gathering data in preparation for a remediation project. This often involved gathering soil and rock samples while drilling a series of boreholes that ranged anywhere from 3 feet in depth to around 100 feet in depth.

Before we ever drilled on a site, we consulted numerous maps and hired a company to carry out a USA (underground service alert) survey. The objective of a USA survey was to detect any utilities (gas, water, electricity) and mark them on the ground so that any drilling or excavation work wouldn’t impact said utilities.

This is what all the crazy markings you see all over a sidewalk or on a street mean.


While working on a project in Ukiah a few years ago, we marked a series of spots to drill and had a survey company make sure our spots were clear of any subsurface obstructions. Then we had a drill rig come out and start putting down boreholes.

Midway through the first day of drilling, we were sitting at our logging table when we heard a loud rushing sounds followed by frantic shouts. We looked up in time to see a 30 foot geyser of water shoot up through the top of rig’s tower and the workers scrambling away from the site.

We promptly contacted one of the property owners who turned off the water. After surveying the mess (a lot of muddy ground and a very wet drill rig), it turns out we had drilled right through the middle of an old asbestos cement water main about 6 feet below the surface. It never appeared on any site maps nor did the company conducting the USA survey detect it.

Since the pipe contained asbestos, special care had to be taken to clean up and repair the main, which involved masks for air filtration and disposable Tyvek suits.

Fortunately, it was only a water main (and not a very big one, at that), but it’s something that I was extremely paranoid about in future drilling operations that we conducted.

What if, through sloppy work, unmarked maps, or some other coincidence, it was a gas main? It’s a thought that still scares me today.

Dislike for Corona saves geologist from death.

I’m sure Corona’s marketing department is thrilled about this.

[H]e returned to his residence in Kabul to find it had been burgled. The intruder took money from a drawer and left behind a bottle of Corona beer. The Corona bottle sat on his counter for the next two weeks Yeager says, because Corona is one of his least favorite beers. He finally opened it during a going away party as the other drinks began to run low.

“I pulled it out and when I popped it there was no fizz and the cap was loose,” says Yeager. “Because this one didn’t have fizz you wonder if it went rancid or not, and I just kind of sniffed it and I went ‘Oh, that doesn’t smell like beer.’ “

Yeager, a geochemist familiar with acids, realized it smelled like sulfuric acid – otherwise known as battery acid. He called a friend over who had the same reaction to the smell. Yeager poured the “beer” into the toilet and it foamed and fizzed, leaving “no question” in his mind it was sulfuric acid.