15 May 2008

Oldies but Goodies: A Report on the Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah

Posted by Jessica Ball

I feel like I’ve been totally lazy about posting anything substantial lately, and (probably because I was in the throes of paper writing) I missed the PodClast again. I did, however, see this post at Clastic Detritus, and I thought it might be interesting to write about some of the older books and papers on my shelves. This is one of my favorites, probably the oldest, and (unfortunately) not one that I own in book form, because it would cost me a thousand dollars. (It’s also my favorite because it deals with my thesis field area, which I really miss at times like this when I’m chained to a desk.)

C. E. Dutton, 1880, Report on the Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah with Atlas, US Department of the Interior

Clarence Edward Dutton was one of the founders of seismology, and came up with the concept of isostacy; he worked for the U. S. Geological Survey from 1875 to 1891 (under John Wesley Powell), and published several books about geology in the Western United States. He was also the chief of the USGS Division of Volcanic Geology in 1887. (And hey, his 167th birthday is today!) He made geological investigations of the Grand Canyon in Colorado, the plateaus of Utah, and the 1886 Charleston earthquake.

Reading any of Dutton’s works is a pleasure – not only because they are accounts of the first explorations of the geology of the western US, but because of the writing style of Dutton’s time. It reads a little like a travelogue, a little like an adventure story, and is elegant, succinct and thoroughly insightful.

Some of my favorite parts of the book don’t even have to do with geology. Take the first page, for instance:

“Sir: Herewith I have the honor to transmit a report of explorations and studies in Utah Territory prosecuted during the years 1875, 1876, and 1877, in connection with the survey of Maj. J.W. Powell, under the Interior Department.”

How often do we get to say that we are honored to offer up a paper for publication? (I suspect by the time we get around to submitting anything, especially to an online system, we are anything but honored to have dealt with the thing.)

The book also contains a number of lovely heliotypes, which makes me respect and admire the people on these expeditions even more – you’ve got to be pretty damn determined to lug that kind of photography equipment over High Plateaus terrain.

The descriptions of the High Plateaus are really beautiful, and not much has changed there since Dutton’s day.

“The ‘Plateau Country’ of the west is, I firmly believe, destined to become one of the most instructive fields of research which geologists in the future will have occasion to investigate. Of its subdivisions the District of the High Plateaus is one of the most important, and the relations of the district to the province were studied with great care.”

CE Dutton is my hero! And here I thought my study area was just some obscure part of Utah that no one ever visited. Looks like it was destined for greatness long before I got there. (Now, whether it’s achieved greatness is another matter…)

The most relevant part of the book for me is the Fish Lake Plateau section, where some of the commentary reads like a travel advertisement:

“Not the smallest among its attractions for the geologist is the fact that it is a most eligible summer camping-place. In the daytime, throughout July, August, and most of September, it is mild and genial, while the nights are frosty and conducive to rest. The grass is long, luxuriant, and aglow with flowers. Clumps of spruce and aspen furnish shade from the keen rays of the sun, and fuel is in abundance for camp-fires. Thus the great requisites for Western camp-life, fuel, water, and grass, are richly supplied, while neither is in such excess as to be an obstacle to progress and examination.”

I’ll second that. Here’s a description of Fish Lake itself:

“Passing across the nearly level summit a distance of 2 miles we reach the southeastern verge of the plateau, whence we may look down upon the beautiful surface of Fish Lake. This sheet of water, about 5 1/2 miles in length and a mile and a half in breadth, is walled in by two noble palisades…No resort more beautiful than this lake can be found in Southern Utah. Its grassy banks clad with groves of spruce and aspen; the splendid vista down between its mountain walls, with the massive fronts of Mounts Marvine and Hilgard in the distance; the crystal-clear expanse of the lake itself, combine to form a scene of beauty rarely equaled in the West.”

But more on the volcanic stuff, which (despite Dutton’s glowing recommendations), is sometimes obscured by the luxrient grass and glowing flowers. He tries to tackle the tricky question of where all the volcanics on the Fish Lake Plateau came from – exactly what I’m working on at the moment. Here’s what he has to say:

“The first inquiry which arises is, whence came all these lavas? The question is not easy to answer satisfactorily, for they were erupted far back in Tertiary time, and the changes which the country has undergone since their outpouring are very great…As for the Fish Lake table itself, it does not furnish very decisive indications of being an eruptive center.”

Definitely not. While the FLP has lots of lovely grabe
, glacial moraines, and cirques, one thing it doesn’t have is volcanoes or vents. After spending several weeks scrambling over landslide deposits, scaling cliffs and bushwhacking through mosquito-infested woods, I can pretty much guarantee that there are no volcanoes or volcanic vents on the Plateau. Dutton later suggests that one of the mountains may be part of a string of vents, but mainly because (I think) his experience with volcanic deposits was limited to Hawaiian-style volcanism, and he couldn’t conceive of any other way for such thick flows to have been emplaced. My undergrad advisor and I are working on a paper that offers an alternative explanation (ash flow tuffs all around!), which we’ll hopefully have published sometime this year (so I can talk about it more).

Dutton makes very thorough descriptions of a number of the High Plateaus, and although the book doesn’t seem to have any sort of concluding chapter, we’ve found it very useful as a primary source for our Fish Lake research. One part of the book that, sadly, we didn’t have access to was the map that accompanied it. But, thanks to the wonders of Google, I managed to find a copy of it in the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, and after spending a good two hours with the “copy-paste” function and Photoshop, I am now the proud owner of a beautiful digital file that I intend to get printed up and framed. (It’s a really awesome website, by the way – you can save files from it for personal use, or you can order professional-quality reproductions.)

Fish Lake is over on the right, above the center fold, sitting in a big pink (sorry, desert rose – old joke) pool of Tertiary rocks. I certainly can’t blame Dutton for not assigning any names at the time, since the area is insanely complicated (and we’re still working on the stratigraphic correlations).

I won’t go on singing Dutton’s praises too much longer, but I will mention that in one part of the book he refers to thousands of thin sections that his group made from samples they collected. I sure wish I knew who has (or had) those, and if they still exist. I would really love to get my hands on those, if just for the satisfaction of knowing that someone other than me spent a good chunk of their life going blind by staring through a petrographic microscope.

At any rate, I highly recommend at least skimming through this book online, if only just for the pictures. Pretty much anything that came out of the western expeditions of Dutton and Powell’s time is well worth the effort, and gives you a fascinating glimpse into the early days of geology.


C. E. Dutton, 1880, Report on the Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah with Atlas (Google Book)

David Rumsey Historical Map Collection

Wikipedia article on Clarence Edward Dutton

Bailey et al., 2007, Geology and Landscape History of the Fish Lake Plateau, Utah Geological Association Publication 35.