Mirabilite Mounds and The Great Salt Lake

Mirabilite Mounds in the Great Salt Lake Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Mirabilite Mounds
in the Great Salt Lake
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Back in October 2019, the ranger at the Great Salt Lake State Park began to notice a white mound forming on the sand flats behind the visitor center. The white mounds turned out to be hydrated sodium sulfate – known as mirabilite- which was being carried to the surface by the upwelling of a fresh water spring. Since the 1940’s geologists have known that in this area, 30 inches below the surface, there was a 3 – 6 foot thick shelf of mirabilite. They knew about the fresh water springs What was new was cold air. Since this stretch of sand was no longer underwater, the mirabilite carried to the surface stayed there as crystals, piling up on each other, puddling and spreading out. One mound rose to the height of 3 feet.

Mirabilite Springs in the shadow of the Kennecott Smelter stack Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Phorographer
Mirabilite Springs in the shadow of the Kennecott Smelter stack
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Phorographer
When the mounds started to form again this winter, I jumped at the chance to to go and take a look. I must admit at first I was a little underwhelmed at the size, perhaps because the Kennecott Smelter Stack nearby dominates the view, rising to 1,215 feet – roughly the same height as the Empire State Building. But the park ranger got my attention when she told us that mirabilite mounds have only been seen in four places in the entire world – the Canadian Arctic, Antarctica, Central Spain, – and Utah. Just seeing them turns out to be a rare winter treat. When the air warms to 50 degrees, the mirabilite will crumble into a fine white powder and disappear.

Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970) Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970)
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
My mind flashed back to a trip I’d made to the other end of the lake ten years ago. I’d just graduated from the docent training class at the Utah Museum of Fine Art, and a friend and I wanted to celebrate by having High Tea at the center of the Spiral Jetty, a 1,500 foot, long, 15 foot wide coil of black basalt rock – a stunning example of land art jutting out from the northern shore. We’d been warned that it might be underwater, but when we arrived we were delighted to find we could easily walk to the very center of the spiral as the lake water gently lapped at the edges of our shoes. We clinked our tea cups, and toasted the greatness of the lake.

Suddenly I wanted to see the jetty again, so I hopped in my car and drove to the remote site. I saw the Spiral Jetty was now high and dry. Drifting sand had already started to bury parts of it. The water’s edge was now over 300 yards away. I thought of the millions of migratory birds that would be arriving in the spring to rest and feast on the tiny treasures of the lake, the brine shrimp. I hoped a smaller lake would still be enough for all of them.

The recent words of the director of Friends of the Great Salt Lake, Lynn de Freitas, rang in my head: “The Great Salt Lake is a gift that keeps on giving. Just add water.”

This is Mary Heers and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers, Photographer
Featured Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections/kevin-colver
Text & Voice: Mary Heers, Generous Contributor, Utah Public Radio
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading

Mirabilite Spring Mounds Near Great Salt Lake Marina, Utah Geological Survey (UGS), Utah Department of Natural Resources, https://geology.utah.gov/popular/general-geology/great-salt-lake/mirabilite-spring-mounds/

Mirabilite, Mindat.org, Hudson Institute of Mineralogy, https://www.mindat.org/min-2725.html

Tabin, Sara, Rare salt formations return to Great Salt Lake’s shores; take a tour while they last, The Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 13, 2021, https://www.sltrib.com/news/2021/01/14/rare-salt-formations/

USGS 412613112400801 The Great Salt Lake at Spiral Jetty, Site Map for the Nation, U.S. Geological Survey(USGS), U.S. Department of the Interior, https://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/nwismap/?site_no=412613112400801&agency_cd=USGS

Case, William, GEOSIGHTS: PINK WATER, WHITE SALT CRYSTALS, BLACK BOULDERS, AND THE RETURN OF SPIRAL JETTY!, Survey Notes, v. 35 no. 1, Utah Geological Survey (UGS), Utah Department of Natural Resources, January 2003, https://geology.utah.gov/map-pub/survey-notes/geosights/spiral-jetty/

Board & Staff, Friends of the Great Salt Lake, https://www.fogsl.org/about/board-staff

Petrified

Petrified: Shannon Woods by Petrified Wood Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Shannon Woods by Petrified Wood
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
“Charlie climbed onto the bed and tried to calm the three old people who were still petrified with fear. “Please don’t be frightened,” he said. “It’s quite safe. And we’re going to the most wonderful place in the world!”

Author Roald Dahl uses the word petrified as being motionless, stonelike, frightfully frozen, as he describes Charlie Bucket’s puzzled grandparents and his own excitement about a trip to Mr. Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Utah’s San Rafael Swell rates as one of the most wonderful places in my world, and not because of an abundance of chocolate or gleeful oompa loompas. Beneath the towering spires on my bucket list-quest to see desert bighorn sheep in the wild, I’ve wandered among the petrified wood fragments scattered in the desert sand, so many that I almost forget to appreciate them for what they are. Petrified wood is a fascinating fossil, colorful evidence that what is now desert was once lush forest. We’ve set aside places like Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, and Utah’s own Escalante Petrified Forest State Park boasts something like five and a half million tons of fossil wood.

When I adventure through and research Utah’s geologic history, it makes sense that the Chinle layer is a major host rock for petrified wood and uranium in the San Rafael Swell. Let’s go back in time to find out why: Over 100 million years ago, an ancient sea covered much of Utah. The San Rafael Swell was a large island where tall conifers lined its riverbanks and dinosaurs slogged through its swamps. Evidently, as understood by radiation specialist Ray Jones in a 1997 Deseret News feature titled “Hot Spot,” “Uranium isotopes dissolved in water tend to bond chemically with decaying material, like branches and logs.” Uranium prospectors in the early 1900s would follow petrified branches in the San Rafael Swell to uranium ore-bearing larger stumps buried with almost Geiger-counter precision. It’s no wonder that uranium mines dot the hills and debate continues about mineral resource rights in the area.

Petrified Wood Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Petrified Wood
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
The Greek root petro means “rock,” so petrified wood is prehistoric vegetation “turned to stone.” Permineralization is this process when minerals replaced the organic tree material when the organism was buried in water-saturated sediment or volcanic ash. Without oxygen, the logs, stumps, tree rings, knots, and even bark were preserved, giving paleobotanists clues to relationships between prehistoric plants and those we have today. According to Dr. Sidney Ash, we even find evidence of busy bark beetles in the petrified specimens in the Wolverine Petrified Wood area of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

In “Petrified Wood: Poetry Written by the Earth” released by the Myanmar Geosciences Society, I learn there are sacred shrines erected in Thailand’s petrified forests attracting visitors praying for protection. Thai legend states that touching petrified wood will give a person long life. Charles Darwin also mentioned his fascination with prehistoric plants and upright fossilized tree stumps in his naturalist journals during his expeditions, and we know he gathered and catalogued specimens. It may be bad luck, however, to move a petrified fossil from where it lies, a superstition shared by many Escalante Petrified Forest State Park visitors who have ignored the “leave only footprints, take only photographs” warnings. It seems that the park rangers receive packages from petrified offenders returning the fossil shards with apologetic notes, wishing they’d just admired the artifacts in their natural Utah settings. I’ll admit that, had I been able to lift the massive specimen I stumbled upon while I was Behind the Reef this spring, I might have been tempted to take it home. The magic for me, though, is imagining a dense forest once where cactus and rabbit brush now thrive. Whether one uses the word to mean frozen as stone from fear or geologic processes over time, and whether one is searching for uranium or a glimpse into prehistoric biomes, petrified wood is a symbol of long-lasting wonder.

I’m Shannon Rhodes, and I am wild about petrified Utah.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & ©
Text:     Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Ash, Sidney. (August 2003). The Wolverine Petrified Forest. Utah Geological Survey. https://ugspub.nr.utah.gov/publications/survey_notes/snt35-3.pdf

Bartsch-Winkler, Susan, et al. (1990). Mineral Resources of the San Rafael Swell Wilderness Study Areas, including Muddy Creek, Crack Canyon, San Rafael Reef, Mexican Mountain, and Sids Mountain Wilderness Study Areas, Emery County, Utah. U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1752. https://pubs.usgs.gov/bul/1752/report.pdf

Bauman, Joe. (Nov. 26, 1997). Hot spot. Deseret News. https://www.deseret.com/1997/11/26/19347933/hot-spot

Gordon, Greg. (2003). Landscape of Desire. Logan, Utah: University Press of Colorado. https://muse.jhu.edu/book/10431/

Hollenhorst, John. (May 26, 2014). Fossil-theft phenomenon has petrified forest visitors returning ‘keepsakes.’ KSL News. https://www.ksl.com/article/30052683/fossil-theft-phenomenon-has-petrified-forest-visitors-returning-keepsakes

Htun, Than. (March 6, 2020). P. Wood (Ingyin Kyauk): Poetry Written by the Earth. The Global New Light of Myanmar. https://www.gnlm.com.mm/petrified-wood-ingyin-kyauk-poetry-written-by-the-earth/

Mickle, D. G. et al. (1977). Uranium favorability of the San Rafael Swell Area, East-Central Utah. https://www.osti.gov/servlets/purl/5292653

Rawson, Peter and Aguirre-Uretta, M. (2009). Charles Darwin: Geologist in Argentina. https://www.geolsoc.org.uk/Geoscientist/Archive/October-2009/Charles-Darwin-geologist-in-Argentina

Van Wyhe, John. (2002). The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/) http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?viewtype=side&itemID=NHM-408865-1001&pageseq=1

Viney, Mike. (2015). The Anatomy of Arborescent Plant Life Through Time. http://petrifiedwoodmuseum.org/PDF/AnatomyVineyRevOct2013.pdf

Karst Topography

Karst Topography: Entrance to a Karst Cave Courtesy & © Josh Boling
Entrance to a Karst Cave
Courtesy & © Josh Boling
Rivers run beneath these hills, carving winding caverns through ancient stone, plumbing a subterranean watershed—a second topography, ever changing. What little we’ve seen must lead further in, places mythology might only describe.

Karst topography’ refers to landscapes cleaved apart by the leaching of water through a soluble bedrock layer comprised of carbonate-rich rocks like the limestone and dolomite found throughout Utah’s mountains or the evaporate-type gypsum and rock salt layers found in Utah’s redrock country. Over time, this erosion by surface and groundwater creates pinnacles, rippling fissures, gaping sinkholes, or springs on the surface—deep caverns, plummeting vertical shafts, and winding tunnels through which entire rivers can flow below.

We floated one such river once, in complete darkness, guided only by a subtle current and the voice of our local guide. He said he was of Mayan descent, so we listened closely when he relayed stories of Chaac, the Mayan god of rain responsible for the generous flow of water through the caverns we explored. Indeed, it is within these same caverns that he dwells, we were told. Further north, in Mexico and the desert southwest, it’s Tlaloc, the goggle-eyed Aztecan deity that controls the rain. He, too, is supposed to reside within the body of the earth.

Karst Cave Courtesy & © Josh Boling
Karst Cave
Courtesy & © Josh Boling
There’s no mythology I’m aware of for my little corner of the globe. So, scientists and explorers alike descend into the karstic caves of northern Utah to see what they might learn. “Utah is unique,” one such explorer told me, “with some of the most difficult caves that exist in the world, then some of the most spectacular, and some of the most benign.” Intrigued, I set out to see what I could find in my own back yard. Ribs of bleached limestone called karrens spread across a plateau like a washboard road, sinkholes that occupy the better part of an entire meadow, blind valleys sunken into a void in the bedrock, innumerable unnamed springs, and a small, non-descript cavity in the crust—the thing I had really been looking for this whole time.

Main Drain is Utah’s deepest and the nation’s 11th-deepest cave. It’s also wildly difficult and dangerous to navigate, yet absolutely critical to explore for the sake of furthering scientific understanding. I talked to Larry Spangler of the US Geological Survey in Salt Lake City about the significance of karst landscapes like Main Drain. “The caves that are developed in these terrains,” Spangler says, “are…valuable sources of information in regard to changes in climate and landscape evolution over time.” The chemistries of these caves are unique to their environment, and analysis of mineral deposits within the caves can provide insights into how average surface temperatures have changed over time and how wet or dry the landscape above was in any given period. Karst caves can reveal climate data for specific locales that may help us predict how a warming planet might affect our local ecosystems.

The water that flows through Main Drain and other cave systems like it in the form of snowmelt and subterranean streams carves its way vertically and horizontally through layers of bedrock hundreds of millions of years old—providing researchers a literal inside look at the formation of mountains. And as a map of these subterranean watersheds begins to come together, we gain a better understanding of the hydrology of an area and its effects on water quality.

When I spoke to Spangler, he wanted to make it very clear just how sensitive these karst landscapes are to surface activities, for the health of ecosystems and the integrity of watersheds, of course, but also for the health of human communities. The US Geological Survey estimates that as much as a quarter of the world’s population depends on karst landscapes for their water supply. The city of Logan, where my family and I live, sources its water from one of the larger karst springs in the area. The people are drinking straight from the mountain.

Rivers run beneath these hills, and through us as well.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah!
 
Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Sound: Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling
Text: Josh Boling, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Josh Boling

Sources & Additional Reading

Author’s note: Caves and other karst features are inherently dangerous. You should never enter a cave or other karst feature without the appropriate training, gear, and an experienced person(s) to accompany you.

Shurtz, David K & Shurtz, Ryan K, The Discovery, Exploration of, and Sufferings withing Utah’s Main Drain Cave, Utah Grottos, April 2005 http://www.jonjasper.com/TonyGrove/MainDrainCave-NSSApril2005.pdf

Haydock, Adam, Cave Dive Operations in Main Drain Cave, Utah, https://www.even-further.com/dive-expedition-in-main-drain-utah

Caving Main Drain Cave, Logan Canyon, Utah, Outdoor Activities, The Dye Clan, August 31, 2013, https://dyeclan.com/outdooractivities/caving/?id=334

Main Drain Cave, Utah Caving, February 14, 2014, https://utahcaving.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/main-drain-cave/

Karst Topography Paper Model (Learning Activity, Grade Level: 9-12), National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/caves/karst-topography-model.htm
Karst Topography Paper Model Background
Soto, Limaris R.(modified by), After: Alpha, Tau Rho, Galloway, John P, and Tinsley III, John C., Karst (U.S. Geological Survey Open-file Report 97-536-A), Topography Paper Model, U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/subjects/caves/upload/Karst-Topography-Model-_Written-Section_508c.pdf (formerly: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/caves/upload/Final-Karst-Topography-Model-_Written-Section_5-14-2014.pdf)

Weary, David J. and Doctor, Daniel H., Karst in the United States: A Digital Map Compilation and Database, Open-File Report 2014–1156, U.S. Geological Survey(USGS), https://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2014/1156/pdf/of2014-1156.pdf

Lawrence, Lawrence E., Delineation of Recharge Areas for Karst Springs in Logan Canyon, Bear River Range, Northern Utah, U.S. Geological Survey/The Pennsylvania State University, https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.543.5904&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Francis, George Gregory, Stratigraphy and Environmental Analysis of the Swan Peak Formation and Eureka Quartzite, Northern Utah, (1972). All Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 1684 https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2683&context=etd

Morgan, Susan K., Geologic Tours of Northern Utah, Miscellaneous Publications, 92-1, Utah Geological Survey, Adivision of Utah Department of Natural Resources, (1992), https://ugspub.nr.utah.gov/publications/misc_pubs/mp-92-1.pdf

Connecting Caves, Karst Landscapes and Climate Around the World, Circle of Blue, January 18, 2010, https://www.circleofblue.org/2010/world/connecting-caves-karst-landscapes-and-climate-around-the-world/

Bahr, Kirsten, “Structural and Lithological Influences on the Tony Grove Alpine Karst System, Bear River Range, North Central Utah” (2016). All Graduate Theses and Dissertations. 5015. https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6053&context=etd

Imaginary Wanderings

Imaginary Wanderings: The edge of the Great Basin, top of the Bear River Range Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
The edge of the Great Basin, top of the Bear River Range
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
I’ve fancied a certain type of wandering lately—to grab my pack and boots and walk the lines of Utah’s political border—a trail made not of dirt and stone, but of imaginary lines of latitude and longitude. But, as of yet, I haven’t found the time or resources to do so beyond my own imagination and the 3 or 4 minutes I have with you now. Come join me in a stroll around Utah, at least the way I’ve imagined it.

Walking north out of Logan, I’ll wander through the grid-patterned neighborhoods that pepper the flanks of the Bear River Range, the still-snowy peaks that serve as sentinels over my daily commute and the adventure on which I embark now. They serve another, greater purpose, too, though. Without the Bear Rivers, the Rocky Mountains would be otherwise dissected. The snowy peaks I adore and which now pass in slow motion over my right shoulder form the only range of mountains that connect the northern and southern Rockies. Though they only measure about 70 miles in length, they provide a critical ecological thoroughfare from the south end of Cache Valley, Utah, north to Soda Springs, Idaho.

I won’t follow them that far, though. I’ll turn left (west) at the Idaho border toward the Great Basin.

I’m technically already there. We all are if we live along the Wasatch Front. And there are just a few minor ranges—the Clarkston Range, Blue Spring Hills, and the northern fingerling ridges of the Promontory Mountains—to wander across before reaching the Great Basin proper.

My favorite hidden gem of this often-overlooked portion of Utah are the Raft River Mountains. Like the mighty Uintas to the east, the Raft Rivers run East-to-West. So, despite being a stone’s throw from the Great Salt Lake, the tributaries running off their northern flanks drain not into the Great Basin and the Great Salt Lake, but north onto the Snake River Plain toward the Columbia River and, eventually, the Pacific Ocean.

The Tri Corners Landmark is a simple granite pillar sticking 3 or 4 feet out of the sand amongst wind-whipped sage brush. It’s easy to miss, but marks some interesting irregularities. Utah’s political border is not, in fact, made up of straight lines. According to cartographer Dave Cook, surveyors who created the state’s initial boundaries hastily covered ground with their crude survey instruments. They were paid by the mile, so they were more interested in finishing quickly than correcting any errors they made along the way.

The border wiggles at least four times by my calculations—one of which comprises two right angles—as it wanders across ridgelines and through the dusty draws of the basin and range mountains toward the Mojave Desert of southwest Utah.

Imaginary Wanderings: The wrinkled topography if the Colorado Plateau Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
The wrinkled topography if the Colorado Plateau
Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
I won’t be there for long, though. The border only runs for roughly 50 miles along the two legs of the right triangle that constitutes Utah’s allotment of the Mojave Desert before it climbs up onto the Colorado plateau. Ed Abbey famously compared the wrinkled topography of Utah, particularly his beloved canyon country of the Colorado Plateau, to the two largest of our states. “Alaska is our biggest, buggiest, boggiest state,” Abbey wrote. “Texas remains our largest unfrozen state. But mountainous Utah, if ironed out flat, would take up more space on a map than either.” Ropes, technical climbing and canyoneering gear, and a fair amount of fortitude would be required here.

The eastern border we share with Colorado is a varied expanse of high desert plateaus, rugged cliffs, out-of-place riparian zones, and a few spectacular snow-capped mountain ranges leading through some of the most beautiful and gloriously desolate places on the planet. The Book Cliffs, Dinosaur National Monument, and the La Sal Mountains come to mind.

A short walk distance-wise would require heaps of route finding across the Green River’s Flaming Gorge and along the northern toes of the Uinta Mountains. Here is perhaps the greatest of Utah’s geologic juxtapositions. Low basins adjacent the Intermountain West’s highest peaks.

Imaginary Wanderings: A view of the high Uintas from their northern foothills Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
A view of the high Uintas from their northern foothills Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
I’ll take my first right turn at the western edge of the Uinta foothills. Here I might skip the formalities of a longitudinal walk—stick my thumb out instead, and make a bee-line for Bear Lake, Logan Canyon, and home: the walks I’ve already known for some time.

Perhaps you’re inspired now to know parts of this walk better yourself.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah!

Credits:

Imaginary Wanderings:
Photos: Courtesy and Copyright Josh Boling, Photographer
Audio: Includes audio from
Text: Josh Boling, 2020, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Boling, Josh, Why I Teach Outside, Wild About Utah, November 11, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/why-i-teach-outside/

Kiffel-Alcheh, Utah, National Geographic Kids, https://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/states/utah/

The Geography of Utah, NSTATE LLC, https://www.netstate.com/states/geography/ut_geography.htm

Fisher, Albert L, Physical Geography of Utah, History to Go, Utah Division of State History, https://historytogo.utah.gov/physical-geography-utah/