Geology of the National Parks

Virtual Field Trips


Join Dr. Alley and his team as they take you on "virtual tours" of National Parks and other locations that illustrate some of the key ideas and concepts being covered in Unit 12.

TECH NOTE - Click on the first thumbnail below to begin the slideshow. To proceed to the next image, move the mouse over the picture until the "next" and "previous" buttons appear ON the image or simply use the arrow keys.

Virtual Field Trip #1: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR): Where Caribou Meet Oil Conduits

Two pictures.  1.  A section of the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline.  2. A caribou eating grass.
The builders of the Alaska pipeline (upper left) for carrying oil had to worry about impacts on critters including caribou (upper right), and about geological issues such as earthquakes (the bend in the pipeline shown is part of the engineering to allow the pipeline to shake but not break in a quake).

Source. USGS,

A caribou eating grass.
Oil and gas aren’t quite as photogenic as mountains or canyons. Here are a few pictures from ANWR, and some shots showing oil wells, coal mines, and the occurrence of oil, gas, and coal in the U.S. You might want to know that, with heating, plants turn into peat and then into lignite and into bituminous or into anthracite, and that western PA has bituminous and eastern PA has anthracite, and that making oil too hot produces natural gas so western PA has oil, but eastern PA doesn’t.
Two pics.  1. The Artic National Wildlife Refuge with flat land in the forefront and mountain range in the background.  2.  Caribou in ANWR.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (above) and its caribou (right).

Source. Right: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Left: hosted on website of Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy.

Satellite image of ANWR.  To the north (top) sea ice floats in the Beaufort Sea.  Below, rivers drain from snow covered mountains.
Satellite image showing ANWR. To the north (top of picture) sea ice floats in the Beaufort Sea. Below, rivers drain from snow-covered mountains.

Source. NASA,

USGS map of the oil, gas and dry holes in the US.
Slightly fuzzy USGS map of oil (green), gas (red), and a lot of dry holes (gray) for the U.S. Alaska is reduced to fit; ANWR is at the far north (top) of Alaska. The map shows that oil and gas are produced in only certain areas, with much of the country not having any resource, and that oil companies have drilled many, many holes that did not produce commercially useful quantities of oil or gas.

Source. USGS

2 pics.  1. World’s first oil well – a wooden shed with people standing in front.  2.  Modern PA oil well – mechanical drilling device.
(left) Historical photo of the world’s first oil well, Drake Well Museum, Titusville, PA. (right) Modern Pennsylvania oil well. This happens to be a well that was seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of the U.S. Government as part of investigation of drug crimes.

Source. Left: eia, U.S. Energy Information Administration. Right: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement,

USGS map of coal resources in the contiguous US.
USGS map of coal resources in the contiguous U.S. The numbers and blue lines refer to different coal regions used in USGS studies. 1-3 on the far right are anthracite, 4-8 and 12-23 (shown in green and blue) are bituminous (of various grades; greener colors are closer to lignite, and the red bits in 4 and 7 are close to anthracite), and regions 9-11shown in yellow and orange are lignite.
The map shows that only certain areas produce coal, with no coal from most of the country. Lignite is especially common in the west and south, bituminous in the west and Appalachians, and a little anthracite in the parts of the Appalachians that were heated most strongly during mountain building, in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia, and also Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Source. USGS

Three pictures. 1.  Coal fired power plant. 2.  A coal mine.  3.  Scientists in a coal mine taking a coal sample.
Left: coal-fired Navajo power plant near Page, AZ. Upper right: Mining lignite-to-bituminous coal, WY. Lower right: Scientific sampling of Lower Freeport Coal, Indiana County, PA.

Source. USGS Circular 1143, Coal – A Complex Natural Resource, above by J.C. Willett, right R.W. Stanton, Upper right P.D. Warwick

Three pictures:  1.  Peat from Indonesia.  2.  Lignite from Texas.  3.  Bituminous from West Virginia.
Slightly-low-resolution photos of peat from Indonesia (upper left), lignite from Texas (upper right; the darker beds are coal, and the lighter beds are volcanic ash) and bituminous from West Virginia (bottom left; bituminous usually is blacker, but it has been weathered here).

Source, USGS Circular 1143, Coal – A Complex Natural Resource, upper left by S. G. Neuzil, lower left by C.B. Cecil, right by P.D. Warwick

Five pictures.  1.  A drag line or crane with a shovel. 2-4.  Gulf Coast lignite mine.  See detail in the text alternative document.
Draglines (left and top center) are huge motorized shovels that are often used to remove unwanted rock above coal in surface (“strip”) mines, such as the Gulf Coast lignite mine shown in the right-hand four pictures, where volcanic-ash interbeds separate the coal beds, with a fossil palm leaf (upper right).

Source. Left. US Bureau of Reclamation, photograph from Colorado, 1914, Right four images. From Warwick, Peter D., in preparation, Geologic Assessment of Coal in the Gulf Coastal Plain: U.S. Geologic Survey Professional Paper 1625E, DC-ROM.

Virtual Field Trip #2: Charismatic Macro Fauna

A bighorn sheep in the Canadian Rockies.
Charismatic macrofauna--big attractive animals--are one of the major attractions at national parks. In much of the world, competition for resources between large animals and humans is greatly endangering the animals; however, big animals in the U.S. and Canada, such as this bighorn sheep in the Canadian Rockies, are actually doing quite well. This slide show is mostly for fun, but the point--that humans endanger the biodiversity from which we benefit--is important. All photos by R., C., J. or K. Alley.
Mule deer in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada
A century ago, deer were largely eliminated from Pennsylvania and most of the eastern U.S., while mountain lions and some other large animals were completely eliminated, so we might be careful before feeling smug about more-recent successes. This is a mule deer in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
Close up of an elk in Yellowstone National Park
The eastern subspecies of elk is extinct. Elk from Yellowstone and elsewhere were transplanted to Pennsylvania and other eastern localities in this century. This elk is in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.
Another view of a big bull elk in Banff.
Another view of a big Banff bull elk.
Close up of a moose in Captain Cook State Recreation Area, Alaska
Moose, Captain Cook State Recreation Area, Alaska
Moose walking across a park in the town of Anchorage Alaska.
Moose in town, Anchorage, Alaska. Humans and wildlife are interacting more and more, because we keep moving into their habitat.
Two pictures.  1.  Elk resting on the upper surface of Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone NP.  2.  Elk walking across the hot springs.
Elk at Yellowstone National Park rest on the upper surface of Mammoth Hot Springs. The open setting discourages the bugs that torment the elk.
Caribou in South Greenland.
Caribou, south Greenland, doing the same thing as the elk in the previous picture--dodging bugs.
Pronghorn, Petrified Forest National Park
Pronghorn, Petrified Forest National Park.
Golden-mantled ground squirrel sitting on a rock, Yoho National Park, Canada
Not quite so large… a golden-mantled ground squirrel, Yoho National Park, Canada.
Bald Eagle soaring through the air, Sitka, Alaska
Bald eagle, Sitka, Alaska
Harlequin duck and a tufted puffin, Seward, Alaska
Harlequin duck (left), tufted puffin (right), Seward, Alaska.
Metalmark butterfly on a flower, Manning Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada
Metalmark butterfly, Paintbrush Trail, Manning Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada
Four pictures.  1.  Blueberry.  2.  Yellow salmonberry. 3. Red salmonberry. 4. Bunchberry flower, Sitka, Alaska
Blueberry (upper left), yellow salmonberry (lower left), red salmonberry (upper right), and bunchberry flower (lower right), Sitka, AK
Two Images.  1.  Close up of  a Devil’s club stem.  It has many thorns.  2.  Leaves of the Devil’s Club plant.  Sitka, Alaska
Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus), Sitka, Alaska. Many plants have external defenses, but almost all have internal defenses, chemicals to help keep them from being eaten. The native peoples of the Alaskan coast have long used devil’s club as a medicine--what works for the plant also works for humans. Many of our medicines have come from plants, and many more will.
Three pictures.  1.  Wax flower.  2.  Skunk cabbage.  3.  Club moss.  Sitka,  Alaska.
Wax flower (left), skunk cabbage (middle), and club moss (right), Sitka, Alaska. Biodiversity really is beautiful.
Two pictures.  1.  Steller sea lions on a rock.  2.  Sea otter.  Seldovia, Alaska
Steller sea lions (left) and See otter (right), Seldovia, Alaska

Virtual Field Trip #3: Global Warming

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slide 2
Contact your instructor if you are unable to view this image UN IPCC The rise in the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide over last millennium, and rise and fall in acid-rain sulfate over last 600 years, from ice-core data (sulfate and dots on gas graphs) and instrumental records (lines for gases). Changes are clearly human-caused.
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Instrumental record (from thermometers) of global average temperature from 1860-2000. Corrections have been made for the heating effect of cities, so this shows real warming. Instrumental record (red) and proxy-data record (tree-rings, etc., blue with uncertainty in gray) of global average temperature over last 1000 years. Details of proxy interpretation are still debated, but other approaches give similar results.
Contact Instructor if you are unable to view this image UN IPCC Each panel shows measured global-average temperature 1860-2000 (red line) and a model reconstruction with uncertainty (gray band). Natural causes (more sun, fewer volcanoes) started warming (upper left) but switched to cooling; human causes (greenhouse gases, plus acid rain blocking sun) cooled in 1950s, now warming strongly (upper right and bottom).
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How much more fossil fuel is there? We’re sure of reserves; we think we have resources, and unconventional reserves. Resources include oil shale, tar sands and such. Most of the fossil fuels have not been burned yet, but we’re burning them much faster now than we have in the past.
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Past changes in CO2 levels are small compared to the change that is coming. CO2 is still likely to be going up in 2100, and the world doesn’t end then (you may live past 2100…).
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Past temperature change is small compared to the expected change for all scenarios and climate models tested. Change so far has been small enough that only those really paying attention have noticed; future change is expected to be much greater. All projections show temperatures rising beyond the year 2100, which is not the end of time.
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Projected warming in the greenhouse future, compared to changes over the last millennium. Again, all the projection curves are rising as they cross the year 2100, and the world does not end in 2100.
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Warming of mean-annual temperature by the year 2100, in degrees Celsius. (To get Fahrenheit, multiply by 1.8; the largest warmings in the Arctic are almost 10oC or 18oF.) Scenario A2 is one in which the economy does pretty well, and we don’t try very hard to clean up, giving warming toward the upper end of the scenarios tested by the UN IPCC.
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Experts were asked how much warming would worry them about various things. White means few were worried, and red means most were worried. Even a little warming endangers rare species (category I)--they need to move as climate changes, but humans in the way may block migration. Much warming is required before most experts are worried about ice-sheet or thermohaline-circulation collapse (category V), but beyond 2100, such warming becomes increasingly likely unless actions are taken. How the economy grows, and how we try to clean up, determine how hot it gets, as shown on the right for the year 2100--burn-it-all makes enough warming to be worried about most things by then; slow-down-some leaves a little safety zone. UN IPCC
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(left) Projected sea-level rise for a range of human-behavior scenarios and from a range of models, to the year 2100. Rise over the last few years seems to have been faster than any of these projections. Projected change is from warming-caused ocean-water expansion and melting of mountain glaciers. (right) Number of people likely to be flooded by coastal storm surges (blue bars) after a 40-cm (16-inch) sea-level rise (the yellow dotted line on the left) (includes population growth to the year 2080), versus without sea-level rise (green), assuming either modern sea-walls, etc., or efforts to build more sea-walls, etc. Loss of the Greenland ice sheet would raise sea level over 7 m or 23 feet, and Antarctica almost ten times more than that. UN IPCC

Want to see more?

Join Dr. Alley in this optional video (no, it won’t be on the quiz) to learn about formation of Fossil Fuels, in Barataria Reserve, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, Louisiana, from the PBS television special Earth: The Operators’ Manual.