Tag Archives: geology

My First Week as an Intern at Fossil Butte National Monument

First off, I have to apologize for my infrequent posting on my site but I wanted to let you all know that I have completed my first week as an intern at Fossil Butte National Monument! Long story short, it was amazing and I’m so far having a great time at FOBU. Already, I’m doing many of the things that I always wanted to do as a park ranger (although to be clear I’m not officially one yet). Tours, fossil preparation, hiking, greeting visitors, and finding fossils neatly summarize my first week at FOBU. Now, to be honest, the experience is not all flowers and sage bushes, sometimes, it can get a little slow in the visitor center or at the Research Quarry but that’s not really surprising given FOBU’s status as a lesser known National Monument. In fact, I have already talked to several visitors who only know of the Monument because they were in the area and they wanted to check it out.

Now, what makes FOBU so special is its status as a Fossil Lagerstätte. A Lagerstätte is a fossil quarry that has either an exceedingly high amount of preserved fossils (like Dinosaur National Monument or La Brea Tar Pits) or fossils that are preserved in exceptional quality (think Burgess Shale). FOBU satisfies both of these categories by having an exceptionally high and diverse amount of fossils (ranging from fish to bats) that are preserved in excellent quality (skin impressions, flowers, feathers, coprolites and even cartilaginous bone). As such, FOBU paints a picture of a world quite different from its modern, semi-arid desert climate. A lake stretched across Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah, known as Fossil Lake, deposited the vast array of fossils. This lake was a semi-tropical paradise and was the home for stingrays, crocodilians, large soft-shelled turtles, early horses, palm trees, ferns, and much more. This diversity helped established FOBU as a national monument and is the reason why I’m here today and writing to you this article. I applied for an internship at a national monument via the GeoCorps program and FOBU was one of the monuments I had chosen. I had actually visited FOBU years ago and became reacquainted with it when I took a Fossil Ecosystems course last year and learned about its vast diversity. Needless to say, I was pretty stoked when I got offered the position. SO Here’s a list of the things that I have done and noticed in no particular order

-I started working on a fish at the fossil preparation lab. The setup is arranged so that visitors can see your work on a tv screen and personally ask you questions about what you’re doing. I’ve never worked on fish before so it was a bit awkward at first but now I’m getting the hang of it. It will be awhile before I get actually good at it though.

-I sworn in my first Junior Ranger! Her name was Sarah and I believe she was six.

-Most common question at the visitor center is “Where’s the bathroom” haha

-I never used a cash register before so that is surprisingly one of the more stressful things to learn although I’m somewhat used to it now.

Mioplosus Fossil

-Got to give some mini tours at the Historic Quarry and show some excited visitors some freshly excavated fossil fish. That was awesome. I even got a photo holding up one of the fish with some children. I even found a fish eating another fish! That was rad (although I didn’t notice that at first due to the fossil’s state).

Research Qua

-On Fridays and Saturdays, I work with another colleague at the Research Quarry although we only work when there are guests present. We have to protect and preserve the monument but at the same time we have to interpret and demonstrate paleontology so it becomes a bit of a paradox. When guests aren’t at the Research Quarry, we have to sit and wait for them to come up before we can continue.

-Saturday morning I gave my first two tours to a rock group from Logan, Wyoming. I eagerly volunteered for the tour and gave my whole schpeal to them. I got a round of applause from them at the end that, whether done sympathetically or not, was nonetheless appreciated! Some of the visitors told me that I did a good job afterwards. I still have things to improve on (I kind of faltered at the bird and plant fossils) but I thought I did a pretty good job overall. It was fuuuuun.

-It’s been surprisingly cool and rainy here. I have to sometime wear jackets in the middle of the day and it can get to the low fifties at night. I was told it was quite hot before I arrived.

-I’ve been cramming as much knowledge as I can about this place. Geologic history, park history, species’ names, or where to eat in Kemmerer, it’s kind of intense but at the same time, it’s easy to do considering I’m constantly exposed to the information. This video succinctly summarizes my view of the whole thing. Fossil Butte View -We can hike off trail so I’ve been doing that more and more. I’m not exaggerating too much when I say that no matter where you hike in FOBU, you’re going to get a good view.

-Kemmerer, the nearby small town, has expensive grocery food but the liquor is at a reasonable price, take that for what you will.

-I live in fear of running over the cute, fat prairie dogs. They stand by the side of the road, on the verge or running across the street despite the approaching vehicles.

-Internet is very scattered out here but I can get wireless access at the local public library and, of all places, a Mexican restaurant called Taco Time. God bless you Taco Time and your so-so burritos. That’s all for now! I’ll write updates every now about my experiences here and I will try my best to continue on my usual articles. Until next time!


He Died as He Lived: David A. Johnston

To summarize the importance of Dr. David A. Johnston and his work on Mount St. Helens in an 1000-word blog article is a nigh impossible task given the impact he had on volcanology and the infamous volcano he studied. I always wanted to write about him ever since I wrote my first HDaHL article featuring Karl Patterson Shmidt but I struggled to do so considering this was a man whose legacy saved lives.

Let me back up, Johnston was a USGS volcanologist who had a personal history with volcanoes both active (Augustine Volcano in Alaska) and extinct (volcanoes in Michigan). His insightful knowledge in volcanology got him hired to study Mount St. Helens in March 1980.

Mount St. Helens is a composite volcano with a history of periodic eruptions. After its last few eruptions in the mid-1800s, Mount St. Helens became active again in March 27th, 1980 when steam erupted from it after a 4.2 magnitude earthquake struck it in March 20th. The volcano’s continuous activity prompted a response from the state government to close off many areas that were proximally located to the volcano.

Dr. Johnston continuously monitored the volcano for the next two months. Sometimes, he became so involved with his work that he would climb into the volcano’s active crater to perform experiments on it. Understandably, Johnston was terrified but he knew he had to risk the tests in order to learn more about volcanoes and how much of a threat Mount St. Helens was.

On May 17th, Johnston replaced his student, Harry Glicken, at the Coldwater II outpost, located five miles north of Mount St. Helens. He thought this outpost would be safe from an eruption but unfortunately, that was not true. On the morning of May 18th, Mount St. Helens erupted and its signature lateral blast destroyed everything north of the volcano, taking Dr. Johnston’s life in the process. Before his death, he was able to contact his USGS colleagues in Vancouver and was able to utter his famous last words

“Vancouver, Vancouver, this is it!”

before his radio was cut out. His words were that of excitement and not dread and were the response to two months of anticipation to the now awaken giant. Fifty-seven people, including Johnston’s life, ended that day. It is estimated that hundreds, perhaps thousands of deaths were prevented on May 18th, due to Johnston and other scientists’ insistence in keeping the area around the volcano closed from the public.

Johnston’s work on volcanism, especially on Mount St. Helens, should not go unnoticed and there are plenty of webpages around the internet that highlight his accomplishments. Instead of talking about his accomplishments, I want to focus instead on how people remember him and the differences between him and Karl Patterson Shmidt.

Johnston is thankfully recognized on his volcanic work ranging from scholarships, to documentaries, to having the Johnston Ridge Observatory at Mount St. Helens National Monument named after him. One documentary, the Fire Below Us, however, barely spoke about him having instead inserted a random interview he gave to the press along with his famous last words. “St. Helens,” a movie that premiered in 1981, had him as a primary character (although he is called David Jackson) though his portrayal in that film, from what I gathered, is very poor, painting him as a rebel and not as a cautious scientist.

Now, why is David Johnston more revered than Karl Patterson Shmidt? Both are scientists who died doing the things they love and both provided life-saving information to their respective fields. Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is that Johnston’s continual persistence in keeping the vicinity closed around Mount St. Helens is the stuff history loves to tell. We love those stories of the one man who was right, trying desperately to save the people around him even when others think him wrong (similar to Jaws now that I think about it…). Johnston’s actions against the grain is a triumphant victory.

Less romantically speaking, Johnston was going toe to toe with force of nature that he knew could kill him at any moment. I can imagine only a few people who would be willing to go out to an active volcano to actively perform observations and experiments on it. Johnston once quoted that Mount St. Helens was a “dynamite keg with the fuse lit.” With that kind of analogy, you have to hand it to the guy for continuing his studies even when death was literally right below him.

Even though Johnston thought his outpost was safe, he was still killed in the blast. This is almost similar to Schmidt’s reaction to the baby boomslang snake biting him at the tip of his thumb. Schmidt thought the snake was harmless and the bite won’t kill him. Yet Johnston’s outpost was based on careful predictions on the volcano’s eruption path. If Johnston was willing to not only have himself and his student stake out this area for observation, you can be sure he was confident in his predictions. Schmidt, on the other hand, did not fully grasp the dangers of the snakebite even when his health was failing him. As such, Johnston, unlike Schmidt, knew he was in danger and was willing to face it every day.

Finally, Johnston saved lives. Hundreds or thousands of lives were saved on May 18th thanks to his persistence along with other scientists. Though Schmidt gave us crucial information on the boomslang bite, determining how many lives he saved is quite hard to gauge. What’s more, boomslang bites symptoms would have been revealed to us sooner or later if Schmidt wasn’t as unlucky as he was that day. Johnston saved lives in one geologic instant. And that instant was all that mattered.

I highly encourage you to look more into Johnston’s life as he was a fascinating man with much to contribute in volcanology. Any webpage talking about him will do but you should also visit the Johnston Ridge Observatory. I’ve been to it before and man, it’s fantastic, definitely one of the best visitor centers I have been to (and the monument is quite beautiful as well).