Describe Two Ways In Which Lava Flows Can Be Controlled Craters of the Moon: Lava and Cinders

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Craters of the Moon: Lava and Cinders

The country was nervous for several days. She shivered with anticipation. Then clouds of sulfurous stench hissed from the widening vent. Fountains of lava shot skyward from the fissure and piled up ash and smudges around them. The prevailing southwesterly wind carried volcanic dust and distorted the growing cinder cone towards the northeast. Suddenly, as if they had closed, the fountains returned to the crack. The earth stopped trembling: only a hot hiss remained.

But the country was not finished. A coal-black cone protruded from his side and opened a new wound. Blood from the lava flowed unstoppably. The earth collapsed and sent lava to the surface. Shards of the cone broke off and were carried away by the torrent. As the lava crust cooled from red-hot to dark, arteries of lava flowed beneath, suppressing the flow. Like honey, lava spread across the landscape.

Just about two thousand years ago—a mere tick of the geologic clock—an event similar to the one just described occurred at Craters of the Moon National Monument in south-central Idaho. But that was not the only incident of volcanism here. A large weakness in the earth’s crust, known as the Great Rift, has allowed molten rock to bubble up from deep within the earth on several occasions.

The park’s visitor center is the ideal place to start exploring this seemingly bleak land of lava. The center contains books and exhibits related to the geology, history and biology of the park. The video shows recent eruptions in Hawaii that were similar to those that occurred in the Moon’s craters centuries ago. Across the street, visitors can camp among the volcanic rocks and ash in the only campground (no hookups) and enjoy an evening campfire program during the summer at the nearby amphitheater.

Once you’ve acquired a map, a campsite, and extra water (the visitor center and campground are the only sources), you can begin driving the seven-mile loop road to explore the area. Immediately after the camp, the road turns sharply to the right and reaches part of the young stream of the North Crater. Around the bend, a paved interpretive trail awaits those who want to see the lava up close. Along this trail, you’ll see the Triple Twist Tree – an old, gnarled pine. By counting the years of growth on this tree, scientists estimate that this stream could have occurred two thousand years ago, making it one of the youngest streams in the park.

You will learn that there are two types of basaltic lava flows in the craters of the Moon. One species is called pahoehoe (pronounced pa-hoy-hoy; a Hawaiian word meaning ropy). A cool but pliable crust formed on top of this flow, which pushed the crust into folds. Another type is aa (pronounced ah-ah; Hawaiian for “hard on your feet”). Aa lava, which is less gaseous and slower than pahoehoe, forms spiky pieces on its surface as it flows.

A little further from the parking lot is the North Crater Trail. This path will take you to the crater where the lava flowed.

Continuing on, you will turn left from the loop and reach the Devil’s Orchard. Geologists believe this is the site of an ancient cinder cone that was broken into pieces by erosion. You can take a self-guided trail – featuring numbered markers bound in a booklet – through the stubby remains. You will learn about geology, bird life, lichens and other plants. Lichens are a community of fungi and algae that can live on bare rocks. Look for purple dwarf monkeyflowers covering the ground here in the early summer season.

If you continue on the circular road, you will reach the Inferno Cone. A short, steep trail leads to the top of this ash pile. The summit provides a good vantage point for viewing the many cones along the Great Rift to the southeast and northwest. Standing at the top, you can feel the full blast of the park’s incessant southwesterly winds. Big Cinder Butte, one of the largest pure basaltic cinder cones in the world, is the tallest cinder cone in the Southeast.

From late spring to late summer, many of the more than 200 species of plants native to the Craters of the Moon line the slopes of the cones. Dwarf buckwheat, with its pom-pom-like flower clusters, and bitterroot, whose bright white petals contrast sharply with dark centers, are especially common.

Spray cones are the next interesting formation along the loop. Nowhere else in the continental United States can you find a better example of spray cones than in the Craters of the Moon. They were formed when the earth threw out lumps of lava that stuck to each other. One of the cones here contains ice all year round. This is because lava rocks almost always contain gas bubbles, which act as insulators.

The turnoff from the loop leads past the frozen lava cascades to the Tree Molds Parking Lot. From here, you’ll follow a path to the tree molds, which were formed when lava flowed over the trees and then cooled, often leaving stone imprinted with the burning bark of the trunks. You can take the Wilderness Trail from the parking lot to the rarely visited Craters of the Moon Wilderness Area. You will need a free permit to enter the wilderness area if you are backpacking.

The Wilderness Trail separates from the Tree Molds Trail which descends steeply to Pahoehoe Stream and crosses the stream. Stone crags mark the way across the undulating, wrinkled surface. At the far end you’ll find an old dirt road that stretches about four miles into the wilderness. If you follow this road, you will enjoy a gentle hike through the wide countryside with only a little bit of dust and ash to worry about.

After crossing the wilderness line, you’ll pass between Big Cinder Butte and Half Cone, then continue through Trench Mortar Flat. The flat’s name is derived from the lava tubes that formed like tree molds, except the lava formed around standing trees. After going around Coyote Butte, you’ll come to Echo Crater – one of the area’s better backpacker campsites.

We camped at Echo Crater during our first and last visit to this wilderness. During our first visit, we set up camp on the rim of the crater and hiked from there day after day in search of watercourses, fissures and other features we noted on the topographic map. On our last night there we heard and saw peregrine falcons flying around the crater. After watching them for a while, we discovered that they were a male and a female who alternated hunting and guarding their nest on the edge of Echo Crater.

During a visit in the 1980s, we reached Echo Crater after dark. The wind was normally persistent, so we camped inside the crater for protection. As it happens, the crater has a crescent shape – a high western rim that slopes down to a lower opening to the east. As we began to cook dinner, the moon rose a full, flaming, orange-red orb, casting its light over our camp and into the crater.

In the late 1990s, we investigated mapped features that form in lava flows, such as caves and lava bridges. Lava can flow like a river, and when the lava at the top is exposed to cooler air, a crust can form that solidifies and stops moving. But the lava crust is a good insulator, so the still-hot lava below can continue to flow. Eventually, the still-flowing lava may flow out, leaving behind a tube. If part of the roof eventually collapses, then there is a cave with lava tubes. If another part of the roof collapses near the second collapse, the solid crust covering the space between them is a lava bridge.

The Craters of the Moon map lists two lava bridges, Bridge of Tears and Bridge of the Moon. We went to the Bridge of Tears and camped next to it, and also explored Moss Cave and Amphitheater Cave, which formed along the same lava tube as the bridge. We had heard rumors that the Moon Bridge might have collapsed and wanted to go to the area where it was supposed to be and see if we could find it. That they couldn’t find it could be taken as a sign that it had crashed.

After camping on the Bridge of Tears, we set out on a footpath that will take us straight to the marked location of the Moon Bridge. Once we started, we had to go around an elliptical depression. We noticed that at the opposite end of the dent it looks like there is an opening. So we decided to take some time to explore it. It turned out to be a cave with two openings next to each other. The map didn’t show the feature, so we noted it down, including its GPS coordinates. We continued to the marked location of the Moon Bridge, but could not find it. We headed back out of the wilderness but spent another night.

After the next day’s hike, we turned in our records of the uncharted cave to the rangers at the visitor center and asked if this feature had ever been described before. It turns out that he is not, we see that we have to name him. Since we are twin brothers and the cave had two openings, we called it the twin cave. However, they will never appear on any maps, as the Park Service tries to protect the caves from vandalism and does not want to give away their locations.

In August 2016, we returned to the Craters of the Moon Wilderness to visit “our” cave after almost 20 years and found that one of the openings had enlarged due to the collapse of parts of the roof, but the other appeared to be about the same as before. We took what we call a “twin selfie” at the entrance to post on our social media pages.

The dirt road into the wilderness narrows when it reaches two cinder cones located next to Echo Crater – The Sentinel and The Watchman. South of here, in 1879, JW Powell and Arthur Ferris of Arco, Idaho, left a mark at Vermilion Chasm during a scouting trip to determine if the Craters of the Moon area had enough water for grazing livestock. It’s not. Then in 1921, Robert Limbert, WL Cole and a dog headed north from Minidoka to explore this largely unknown region. During their journey across the aa flows, they could hardly sleep at night because of the sharpness of the lava. The dog cut his legs, so people had to carry him. After they ran out of water, they managed to find watering holes by watching the flight of doves. Despite these difficulties, these two men were enchanted by this land and gave many of its features the descriptive names by which they are known today. Thanks to Limbert’s reports, photographs and lobbying, as well as an article he wrote for National Geographic, the Craters of the Moon were declared a National Monument in 1924.

Back on the road, after rejoining the loop, you will continue towards the Caves area. Pahoehoe flows advance through channels or pipes beneath the cooling crust. As the eruption subsides, the lava may flow out of the tube, leaving the crust to fend for itself. The India Tunnel is an example of a lava tube where most of the upper crust has collapsed. Because of this condition, you don’t need to carry a flashlight to explore India’s subway-sized tunnel. Just outside the tunnel, a ring of rocks is all that remains of a windbreak where the Shoshone Indians once camped while hunting deer and other wildlife in the park. However, you will need a flashlight to explore the second cave. The scout cave is especially interesting. Throughout the year, this cave contains a thick layer of ice, which can be covered by a layer of water in the summer.

Moon craters are also famous for being part of NASA’s efforts to send humans to the actual Moon. Several astronauts came here to study the area as an example of what they might encounter when they land on the moon.

To find the Craters of the Moon, drive 15 miles east of Carey or 17 miles west of Arco on combined routes US 20, 26 and 93 in Idaho. The monument is open year-round, although the ring road is usually only open from late April to mid-November. Cross-country skiing is available in winter. For further information, write to Craters of the Moon National Monument, Box 29, Arco, ID 83213 or call headquarters at (208)527-1300, visitor information at (208)527-1335.

The Craters of the Moon National Monument website is at:

To learn more about lava, see the Wikipedia entry on lava at:

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