Climate Change In Color at the John Day Fossil Beds

When people think of Oregon they tend to think of rain, a sort of never-ending rain, over forty inches a year on average. But eastern Oregon is all but a desert, receiving a third of Portland’s average, and some of Oregon really is a desert, with less than ten inches of rainfall a year.

This low level of rainfall exposes the ground and the ground can tell its story, the story of rains from the distant past.

The red is from a time when the hills here were warm and wet, as wet as Portland is now, and volcanic ash fell from the sky, bringing with it all that iron. As the rainfall decreased over millennia the soil records that decrease, the soil now yellow.

The black bands are a bit of an oddity, colored by manganese, and may tell a story about the difficulties experienced by the life here. One possibility is that the manganese became concentrated in pools as the climate dried, another possibility is that certain plants may have fixed manganese in the soil. The candidate plant suggested by the people who write the signs for the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument might be akin to the “Kenyan Toothpick Tree” which is used by the local people in Africa as a famine indicator, because the tree grows new shoots and flowers when experiencing unusually dry weather, and who eat the fruit from the tree during these times as a “famine food.”

TThis post is from a series of articles chronicling a 2020 cross-country trip with my wife and two daughters and a boyfriend, from California to Ohio (to visit family) and Pennsylvania (to drop off my oldest daughter at grad school), and then back. We spent over five weeks on the road during the pandemic.

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