Museum of the Earth, 1259 Trumansburg Road, Ithaca, NY 14850. Phone: (607) 273-6623.
Buttermilk Falls State Park, Ithaca, NY 14850. Phone: (607) 273-5761.
Geology somehow proved elusive to me in school.
I learned to identify my share of rocks, but the larger picture seemed blurry. Too much memorization (Jurassic, Devonian and all that), plus too many leaps of faith (plate tectonics and the like).
I'd have fared much better if I had had the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca as my classroom. This impressive facility, opened by the Paleontological Research Institute in 2003, somehow makes difficult concepts clear.
The 44-foot skeleton of a right whale greets visitors in the admission area. It got its name for being the "right" one to hunt. The giant mammal swam close to shore, floated when dead, and yielded plenty of oil and baleen. Unfortunately hunting was efficient — devastating might be the more appropriate term. Only 350 are estimated to survive in the oceans today.
A colorful art installation entitled "Rock of Ages, Sands of Time" lines the stairway down to the main part of the museum. Each tile represents a million years of the earth's life. Some of the creatures depicted could star in science-fiction movies.
We started in the "The Universe Forms." Five minutes of terrific video narrative described the Big Bang and coalescence of swirling dust into the planet on which we now reside. And we learned the qualities that make the earth unique — the presence of water, a protective cloud cover to help keep the water from evaporating and gravity to keep it in its place most of the time.
Next came the feared division of the planet's geologic history into specific eras. Feared because of my one-time need to keep it straight on exams, but also for their impact on the waxing and waning of life on earth.
At least now I have a sense of how these time periods were delineated. Each geologic era is examined for the impact of warming or cooling of the earth, rise or fall of the seas and other more idiosyncratic issues (like the sudden impact of an asteroid hitting the earth) on the degree of biodiversity. Consequently, these divisions of time begin to feel less arbitrary.
"Great Moments in Evolution" impressed upon us that it was hundreds of millions of years before multicellular organisms came onto the scene. There was major diversification of life in the Cambrian Explosion 545 million years ago, during which all the basic animal forms emerged. Sea life flourished during the Ordovician, Silurian and Devonian periods.
We also learned about concepts of "extinctions," distinct periods during which many species were wiped out by changing conditions. During the Permian Extinction, 255 million years ago, more than 90 percent of species became extinct; life almost disappeared from the earth.
And we found out how these eras were named — Devonian because the first representative fossils were found in Devonshire, England; Jurassic for the Michael Crichton movie depicting a colony of huge reptiles. (Just kidding! I want to make sure readers are paying attention.)
It's the fossil record that backs up the theories of geologists. The Museum of the Earth owns an estimated 2 million of them. Thus, when a display highlights the Cambrian Period, there are plenty of trilobites to see. A 464-million-year-old spiral gastropod was found in Plattsburgh. A bony-plated fish called the dunkleosteus was as big as a school bus.
Dinosaurs appeared during the Triassic Period, coincidentally the same time that mammals arrived. It's believed the giant reptiles' 140-million-year reign was cut short by the sudden impact of comets or asteroids. Mammals evolved rapidly during the subsequent Tertiary Period, during which time birds and plants also diversified extensively.
A stimulating panel elucidates concepts of radioactive dating to determine a specimen's age. Carbon-14 dating does a good job of identifying ages in thousands of years. When knowledge going back millions of years is needed, scientists turn to rubidiuim and strontium.
In "When Continents Collide," the museum offers an excellent description of plate tectonics. This is an important unifying theory behind tenets of modern geology. The movement of huge plates in the earth's crust explains formation of continents and oceans, creation of fault lines and folding of mountains. (If you plan to row across the Atlantic one of these days, you might want to begin now — the ocean is continuing to widen.)
Another alcove is devoted to issues of evolution and natural selection. A computer game gives a sense of how random mutations and inherited traits can confer survival advantages in a changing environment. The 10-year-old boy who showed me how to play the game seemed to be crafting a broader variety of species than I did.
Near the exit there's a mastodon skeleton. Imagine running into this specimen when enlarging your backyard pond, as Hudson Valley residents Larry and Sheryl Lozier did in 1999. I'll bet they've become more interested in geology now, too.
Please don't assume I've actually mastered all this information. This can't all be absorbed in a single visit. However, our day at the Museum of the Earth has heightened my desire for further understanding of geologic concepts. We'll need to return periodically for refresher courses.
Buttermilk Falls StatePark
After a day at the Museum of the Earth, it's nice to go outside and look at geology firsthand. We drove to Buttermilk Falls State Park, on the outskirts of Ithaca. Buttermilk Creek runs six miles through one of the sedimentary gorges so numerous in the Finger Lakes region. When the water flow is just right, it apparently looks frothy, the reason for the cascade's name.
Glaciers carved these glens 12,000 years ago, but the force of water continues to deepen and widen the channels. Freeze-thaw cycles and periodic flooding have further sculpted the steep cliff walls.
Most visitors spend their time by the large pool formed at the base of the 165-foot main cascade. This is indeed a beautiful place for picnicking and pondering nature. One should go farther. A hike on the Gorge Trail can help consolidate concepts of glacier activity and erosion.
Expect a bit of a climb up steep steps at the trail's beginning. The effort brings one right to the brink of the water's force. You can almost feel the ferocious flow's continuing erosive activity.
The initial falls may be the largest, but there are multiple additional cataracts along the one-mile path. Among the most notable is a double falls just past the trail's midpoint. The broader upper component ripples down multiple rock layers, while the shorter one has a more sheer drop with a stairstep falls feeding in from the right. Another unique feature is Pinnacle Rock, a solitary spire completely separated from the surrounding cliff face.
At trail's end, a stone highway bridge crosses to the Rim Trail for return. Though a pleasant forest walk, the latter offers only a few overlooks to the marvels below. A visitor should really take the Gorge Trail to fully appreciate the park. There is a pedestrian bridge at the halfway point for those without time or stamina to complete the entire route.
E-mail Richard Frost at: firstname.lastname@example.org