My Favorite Geology Word(s)

For Accretionary Wedge #35 Evelyn Mervine asks “What’s your favorite geology word?” This is a tricky one, because there are so many great geology words – I’m seriously tempted to start flipping through the Glossary of Geology to avoid missing some great word that I’ve forgotten or never used, but I literally fear being sucked into an hours or days long sinkhole that would expand my vocabulary, but ultimately lead to frustration and gnashing of teeth at the plethora of possibilities.

Of course, one of the challenges in choosing a word for this Accretionary Wedge is trying to find one that is both interesting and not likely to be chosen by someone else. The most straightforward way to fulfill these requirements is to pick a word close to your own specialty, perhaps even one that figures into the title of your cleverly named geoblog. Since I named my blog in a decidedly (geologically) unclever way I’ve got no help there. My web domain “” was chosen with a definite nod to the place I’d rather be, but is it really my favorite word? I don’t think so. Part of my Ph.D. research involved geochronology, though its now over a decade since I’ve worked on that. Zircon? Xenotime? I like them, but they’re not my favorite words. One of the other aspects of my Ph.D. research was tectonics. During a Penrose Conference in the southern Sierras, while discussing the possibility of tectonic erosion (specifically subduction erosion) removing the larger mass of a geologic body, but leaving behind just the “head”, a colleague coined the wonderful term “decorpitation” (think decapitation, but from the head’s perspective) to describe this event. Unfortunately, I don’t think decorpitation has made it into the literature so I’m a little hesitant to make it my choice. Besides, these days I think of myself as a geology generalist, so choosing a word on the basis of a geologic specialty has less appeal to me.

There is also the strategy of choosing a word for its humor value as a word. The classic geologic word in this category is cactolith, defined by the venerable Charles Hunt as “a quasihorizontal chonolith composed of anastomosing ductoliths whose distal ends curl like a harpolith, thin like a sphenolith, or bulge discordantly like an akmolith or ethmolith.” Yes, it’s a real word, describing a real geologic feature, published in a real scientific report, but let’s face it, its the definition more than the word itself that’s the source of the humor. (Oh, to have been drunk around the campfire with Hunt and field crew in the Henry Mountains when they came up with that one!) Another word that I gave strong consideration to comes from my undergrad advisor, Art Goldstein’s Ph.D. field area. He worked on the Lake Char Fault in eastern Massachusetts. Lake Char is an abbreviation, however. The full name for the lake is Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg (spellings, as you might imagine, vary somewhat), and therefore that is the more complete name for the fault, too. (As a bonus of being Art’s advisee, I had the honor of learning to pronounce this monster – ask me sometime when you see me at a meeting.) While it’s definitely a winning word and a favorite, it’s really Art’s word, not mine.

That last example got me thinking along a slightly different line. What about choosing a favorite geologic word that described not a geologic process or general type of geologic material or landform, but rather a specific example? For example, the word Grímsvötn has a certain appeal to me both as a specific volcano and for the sound of the word itself – or more accurately, what I think the word itself sounds like. The fact is I can’t be sure how to pronounce any Icelandic word – I’d love to learn, but it’s just not in my native DNA. But that brings me to another volcano that I’ve always loved the name of: Tavurvur. I love the fact that it’s a very active volcano, part of an active caldera complex, a previous WoGE locality (where I foreshadowed my affinity for its name), but most of all I love just the sound of the word Tavurvur. And that’s good enough reason for me to name Tavurvur as my favorite geology word.

Meandering East and South

Towards the end of the spring semester I usually begin plotting all the great things that I want to get done once summer starts and the luxury of unscheduled time (not precisely vacation, in this case, but something very much like it) is at hand. I even hinted at this in a tweet at the beginning of the month, but alas, just as I was beginning to see the light of summer at the end of grading finals, another rather important appointment placed itself on my calendar and postponed the unscheduled bliss just a bit longer. So before I get to tilting at summer windmills, I figured I’d chronicle a few bits and pieces from the trip east and back to the high plains that occupied my past two weeks. Mainly, this post serves to force me to upload and share some of the electronic media I captured along the way, before it dissapears into the dustbin of my Drobo.

Van Saun walkThe business end of my trip occupied the first couple of days. I’ll spare you the details for now, but suffice it to say it ended up with an enjoyable meetup with @callanbentley at his academic home in northern Virginia. After that, I took a couple of days to visit my parents in northeast New Jersey. They wasted no time in getting my out-of-shape butt walking through some of the parks of my childhood. I captured one of these walks through Van Saun Park on my Droid. I know this technology has been available via dedicated GPS receivers for a while, but having it on the phone makes the phone the equivalent of a Swiss army knife; I’m definitely going to look into working this into future hikes. I love being able to capture something like this with technology – almost enough to motivate me to exercise more often… almost. Alas, we didn’t get to ride the train at Van Saun – I guess I’ll have to plan that into my next trip home to NJ.

After brief visits to both of my sisters places I proceed on a bit of a southern detour on my way back to Hays, KS. The first real geological stop on my way back was a visit to the Sideling Hill roadcut on I-68 in western Maryland. I got rather fortunate with the weather, catching the cut on one of the few relatively sunny mornings on this trip.

The first view is from the bench at the end of the paved trail. The gate there was locked so it was impossible to go further along the bench. Also, it was disappointing that the interpretive visitor center at the cut was closed – budgetary issues?



It’s hard to imagine a more “textbook” syncline. My only regret is that there’s no way to really get a GigaPan unit out to the optimal viewpoint to capture an on-axis view.

After a brief visit to a friend in southwest Virginia I continued southwest along the spine of the Appalachians. This leg of the trip brought me into some virgin territory (for me) – beginning with a first visit to Alabama, where I was greeted by a chorus of cicadas that practically drowned out the thunder of a nearby thunderstorm. Sound incredible? I pulled out the handy voice recorder and recorded about a minute of it – listen for yourself – if you listen carefully you can hear the swelling and ebbing of the cicadas (of at least two different types), cars on the interstate, and thunder. Otherworldly!

I was hoping to find a spot near Tuscaloosa, AL to GigaPan the tornado damage from last month, but though I saw some definite signs of wind damage, it appears the tornado paths didn’t cross I-59. (In fact, I had passed up stopping earlier in the day near Pulaski, VA for what was some very clear tornado damage visible from I-81.) Nonetheless, tornadoes fall outside the scope of what I usually teach about in geology classes, so I pressed on for Mississippi and the real goal of this “detour” – the flooding lower Mississippi River. (At the same time I was looking to GigaPan some tornado damage, my southern route was also keeping me clear of one of the more deadly tornado outbreaks this year.) By the time I’d finished the trip I’d added three of the five remaining US states that I hadn’t previously visited (AL, MS, LA) – all that I have left are North Dakota and Alaska.

48 States Visited, 2 To Go

Last Monday I arrived at my goal. I crossed the Mississippi at Baton Rouge, Louisiana and thence turned north to seek out the two great diversionary structures along the western mainline levee of the Mississippi at Morganza and Old River. Already at the bridge at Baton Rouge it was obvious that the Mississippi was at a high flood stage, but wow nothing quite prepares you for climbing up atop the levee just north of Morganza and seeing just how high the water is on the Mississippi side. Not that the water was especially low in the Morganza spillway, which by this time had been flooding for over a week.

US Army Corps of Engineers, State of the Mississippi & Distributaries, May 23, 2011
US Army Corps of Engineers, State of the Lower Mississippi & Distributaries, May 23, 2011


Below is the video I shot as I drove along the crest of the Morganza Control Structure. I had hoped to be able to shoot a GigaPan of the structure, but as you’ll see, there was absolutely no place to pull over to set up and shoot one. I’m still pretty new at shooting video, and I wish I had cleared the dashboard of objects that reflect in the windshield (the shiny object is the Droid dock, in case you’re wondering). I also wish I had narrated my thoughts as I drove along – all you hear from me is a muttered “holy crap” as I get a good look at the discharge passing through the structure.

Of course, as a great fan of John McPhee‘s The Control of Nature, the highlight of this journey was crossing over the Old River Control Structure during the height of a flood comparable to the 1973 flood he described in Atchafalaya. Suffice it to say that the Army Corps of Engineers was considerably better prepared for the 2011 flood than the 1973 flood. That in no way lessens the impact of the current flood. There’s a huge amount of water in the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya remains poised to capture it if (or more likely in the long tern, when) the western levees or one of the control structures fails.

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It’s hard to get across in pictures and words just how impressive it is to stand atop the mainline levee and see the Mississippi within a few feet of its crest, moving fast on one side, and cropland sitting some 20 feet lower and dry at the base of the levee on the opposite side. The 360 degree GigaPan below is my best effort to simulate this for you, but even with all the detail therein it’s hard to translate the impact of seeing it firsthand.

Mississippi River, Maximum Flood Stage, May 23, 2011
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On the recommendation of Steve Gough, my next stop was Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vicksburg is one of the few places along the lower Mississippi where one can get real elevation above the river. Unfortunately even this does not get across the full extend of the flooding – only aerial or space views really seem to capture that well. I was also plagued by clouds and failing batteries, thus the GigaPan that was intended to look like this:



… ended up somewhat truncated (and rainbowed):

Mississippi River in Flood at Vicksburg, MS
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My last stop on the trip was a visit to Little River Research & Design for a meetup with @gravelbar and the crew in Carbondale, IL. I got so carried away with the great discussions that I forgot to ask for a couple of those great “pencils for scale”. Oh well, maybe next time.