SURVEY NOTES

The Utah Flux Network

A Hydrometeorological Network Maintained by the Utah Geological Survey 

by Paul Inkenbrandt & Kathryn Ladig 


Utah Flux Network station locations.

The Utah Geological Survey (UGS) is establishing a network of weather stations throughout the state of Utah, known as the Utah Flux Network (UFN), to measure evapotranspiration. Evapotranspiration is water that is evaporated from the land’s surface and transpired by plants, and it is an important part of Utah’s water budget, as it is one of the main ways water leaves Utah. We will collect long-term baseline measurements of evapotranspiration, compile existing data to make it widely available, and compare our data with remotely sensed (satellite-based) models. 

The main goal of the UFN is to provide ground-truth data for satellite-measurement-based estimates of evapotranspiration, though the network will serve many additional purposes. These data will give water managers tools to deal with drought, allowing them to accurately measure water conserved or used by agriculture. Data from the UFN will also support long-term water conservation and management strategies, such as water banks—for example the pilot Price Water Bank project which converts conserved agricultural water into instream flow near Price, Utah—and measuring consumptive use in the Upper Colorado Basin to help administer the Colorado River Compact. Our data can also be used for hydrologic and climate models because these stations measure important components of the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide (CO2), water (H2O), and available energy.

Evapotranspiration and Eddy Covariance

Conceptual movement of wind eddies near a field. Modified from George Burba.

A large portion of evapotranspiration in vegetated areas, including croplands, is due to consumptive use, which is the water that cannot be recovered or reused, including water consumed by plants and water evaporated. Winds blow over the land surface, removing evapotranspired water, allowing more water to be evapotranspired in its place. The wind carries the water vapor and other gasses in turbulent, whirling, circuitous paths known as “eddies.” The UFN uses the eddy covariance technique to measure these rapidly changing eddies.

The eddy covariance technique requires accuracy in data collection and correction to calculate valid evapotranspiration values, which is dependent on available energy. Our measurement goal is energy balance, which occurs when all incoming and outgoing energy components are accounted for and the following equation is met: Rn-G=LE+H, where Rn is net radiation, G is ground heat flux, LE is latent heat flux, and H is sensible heat flux. Latent heat is the energy required for a substance to change state, such as from liquid to vapor during evapotranspiration, and sensible heat is the energy required to change the temperature of a substance. Net radiation is the sum of incoming and outgoing shortwave and longwave radiation. Shortwave radiation is energy emitted by the sun, some of which is reflected by the earth’s surface and some absorbed. The ability of a substance to reflect shortwave radiation, controlled by the substance’s color and texture, is called albedo. Absorbed shortwave radiation warms the earth’s surface, which then emits longwave radiation. Clouds and greenhouse gasses, such as CO2, absorb the outgoing longwave radiation, warming the lower atmosphere. Balancing these energy fluxes is difficult to achieve and requires great effort to collect quality data, as well as a lengthy data post-processing protocol.

Earth’s energy balance. Solar radiation is predominantly shortwave radiation. Some of this is reflected by clouds and the earth’s surface, and some of this energy is absorbed. Long-wave radiation is emitted by the earth’s surface and captured by greenhouse gasses. From the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

UFN eddy covariance stations are built from common weather station instruments, including devices that measure the wind speed and direction (anemometers), precipitation buckets, thermometers, and humidity probes. In addition, each station includes equipment to precisely measure the movement of water vapor, CO2, and energy in and out of the area of the station. Net radiometers and soil heat flux plates help estimate energy stored and released by the soil. Sensible heat flux is calculated using multiple thermometers placed on the station at different heights, as well as some buried in the soil at different depths. All of these instruments are highly accurate, and many of them can measure very rapidly.

The UFN is also investigating the viability and applicability of the surface renewal technique, which is less costly, but not as well documented as the eddy covariance approach. The surface renewal method uses high-speed temperature and wind measurements to calculate sensible heat flux, from which latent heat flux and evapotranspiration can be calculated.

Our Progress

So far, we have constructed four eddy covariance stations in Utah, which comprise the UFN. The stations have been placed in a variety of ecosystems. Two of our stations are on agricultural sites, one is on a wetland, and one is on a salt flat (i.e., playa dominated by halite and gypsum deposits). With the emplacement of these stations, and the potential for more, we are working to develop an effective protocol for managing the stations and their data.




We constructed our first stations in 2018 in Juab Valley, funded and supported by the Utah Division of Water Rights. One station was constructed in a wetland ecosystem near Mona and the other was placed in between three pivot-irrigated fields west of Nephi. These stations were intended for short deployment and originally had only anemometers and hygrometers (which measure water vapor), with no way to measure energy balance. We have since invested in upgrading these stations with four-way net radiometers and soil heat flux plates so that we can measure energy balance. The station in Mona was decommissioned in 2020.

In early March of 2021, with significant funding and support from the Central Utah Water Conservancy District and technical assistance from Trout Unlimited, we installed our first fully equipped eddy covariance station between two pivot-irrigated alfalfa fields near Wellington, Utah, in Carbon County. Part of the impetus for this station was to provide ancillary data to a water banking study with Carbon Canal irrigation water, where instream flow is preserved by providing water conservation incentives to farmers.

The Bonneville Salt Flats station.

In September 2021, we assumed control of a weather station on the Bonneville Salt Flats (BFLAT), previously operated by the University of Utah. We disassembled the old station and installed an eddy covariance tower in its place. This station is surrounded by salt flats and, in addition to being used for our research efforts, it provides important weather information for the Bonneville Speedway. This station is also part of the Mesowest weather network and includes a time-lapse camera that takes photographs of the salt flats every five minutes. Mesowest compiles weather data from many public weather data sources, providing access to current and past conditions across Utah.

In early October of 2021, we installed a station in the Matheson Wetlands Preserve in Moab, Utah, using some of the components from the decommissioned Mona station. The Matheson station was placed on a deck because the area is subject to periodic flooding and the tower is surrounded by bulrushes. This station is part of a larger study to understand the water budget of a wetland system adjacent to the Colorado River.

In fall of 2021, we were awarded a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) WaterSmart grant. This grant will allow us to purchase upgraded equipment for the Matheson and Juab stations, making them consistent with the Wellington and Bonneville stations. The USBR funding will also allow us to purchase equipment to calibrate our instruments. Most importantly, the grant will help us develop our data processing and site maintenance workflows. 

The stations are already measuring large amounts of data and station programs allow for rapid on-the-fly estimates of evapotranspiration over time. These data are available immediately on the UFN website. We are currently working on post-processing workflows to find and remove erroneous measurements. With the support of eddy covariance expert Dr. Larry Hipps at Utah State University, we strive to ensure a good quality assurance program is in place.

We will upload our data to the AmeriFlux webpage once we have a year of post-processed data that we feel is a competent representation of the conditions at our sites. AmeriFlux is a network of eddy covariance stations in the Americas that focuses on measuring methane and carbon dioxide fluxes. AmeriFlux is part of a global network called FluxNet, which consists of over 1,000 stations located all over the globe. Data from these networks are used to calibrate global models of climate change and hydrology, including models compiled for the OpenET ensemble of models.

OpenET is a massive collaborative effort between NASA, JPL, USBR, and many others that was developed recently and made available to the public in 2021. It uses remotely sensed energy data to estimate evaporation through a compilation of models. UFN stations will help ensure that models like the ones used in OpenET are representative of the conditions observed in Utah.

In July 2022, the Colorado River Authority of Utah entered into an agreement with the UGS to build six more stations in the Upper Colorado River basin. These new stations will significantly improve our measurement of evapotranspiration in Utah.


Where to Find Our Data

To see the most recent UFN data, go to our website at Utah Flux Network. Data for the Bonneville Salt Flats and Wellington stations can be accessed through Mesowest as stations BFLAT and WLGTN, respectively. In the future, our high-frequency and post-processed data will be available through Ameriflux. Only BFLAT (US-UTB) and Wellington (US-UTW) are listed on Ameriflux currently.


About the Authors


Paul Inkenbrandt

has been a hydrogeologist with the UGS Groundwater & Wetlands Program since 2009. He has an M.S. degree in geology from Utah State University and a B.S. degree from the University of Southern Indiana. Paul is experienced in database management, geographic information systems, and Python scripting. He also teaches introductory geology at Salt Lake Community College. In his personal time, he is actively involved in the Utah Geological Association, maintains his vegetable garden, and spends time with his family. 

Kathryn Ladig

joined the UGS Groundwater & Wetlands Program in 2021. She has a B.A. degree in geology and environmental studies from Gustavus Adolphus College and an M.S. degree in earth science from the University of Maine. Kathryn has studied geology throughout the globe and was employed previously by the National Park Service to examine water quality of lakes and streams, calculate glacier mass-balance, mitigate geologic hazards, maintain weather stations, and map surficial geology. Her passions lie in tracking the impacts of climatic variability through both proxy and direct observation. 

SURVEY NOTES

New, Novel, and Updated!
Wetland Mapping Improves Across Utah

by Peter Goodwin


Age of National Wetland Inventory mapping projects across the state. The map also shows where ongoing projects are expected to replace outdated mapping by 2024 and the location of projects where riparian areas are also mapped and LLWW descriptions are applied.

Ask folks about Utah’s wetlands and they will either reply, “What wetlands? We live in a desert!” or mention Great Salt Lake. However, Utah contains a stunning variety of wetlands, from the bleak playas of the Bonneville Salt Flats to verdant wet meadows in the High Uinta Mountains supporting plants and wildlife more typically found in Arctic tundra. Their distribution is just as varied and wetlands can be found along rivers, dry valley bottoms, montane slopes, and occasionally people’s backyards. Wetland mapping attempts to capture this broad distribution and provide decision makers, resource managers, and the general public with an accurate depiction of wetland types and their locations. There are many ways to map wetlands and several datasets for each method, but the National Wetland Inventory (NWI) is the most used mapping dataset for a few reasons: seamless coverage across the U.S., imagery-based mapping that intuitively captures wetland boundaries, and a free and publicly accessible data portal and web map. 

NWI mapping relies on interpretation of aerial imagery to identify areas supporting wetland vegetation like cattails, rushes, or cottonwoods and areas with flooding, standing water, or persistently saturated soils. This imagery-interpretation-based method produces legible mapping depicting wetlands that match expectations—rounded blobs with boundaries clearly following visible landscape features. However, this method also produces mapping with a “shelf-life” where the mapping represents a static snapshot of the moment the imagery was collected that can become outdated as changing hydrology, shifting land uses, or encroaching development reduce or replace wetlands. Much of the NWI for Utah was mapped using imagery collected during the 1980s and is severely outdated and inaccurate in several parts of the state. 

Since 2014, the Utah Geological Survey (UGS) has been remapping parts of the state using modern, high-resolution imagery and updating the NWI to reflect current conditions and improve mapping accuracy (see Survey Notes, v. 49, no. 1, p. 1–2). Original NWI mapping only included features with true wetland vegetation and hydrology and failed to capture riparian areas near streams and lakes supporting distinct vegetation and wildlife communities. Recent UGS mapping projects have mapped riparian areas to identify these important, non-wetland habitats. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently recognized the need for updated wetland mapping to support sound resource management and has started funding additional NWI mapping projects focusing on BLM-managed lands throughout the western U.S., with several projects occurring within Utah. Several of the UGS and BLM mapping projects are currently ongoing with an expected completion date in early 2024. Combined, these BLM and UGS projects will cover 51 percent of the state and will provide updated NWI mapping to 70 percent of the population. These ongoing BLM and UGS projects will also map riparian areas and enhance the NWI mapping by applying additional descriptions to each mapped wetland. 

NWI mapping describes wetlands according to characteristics easily seen in imagery (dominant vegetation, flooding duration, and typical human impacts) but misses several characteristics such as the water source, geomorphic setting, and connectivity to other wetlands that are important for habitat management and resource conservation. To address this gap, the UGS and other organizations working on NWI mapping projects in the state have been enhancing recent NWI mapping with Landscape Position, Landform, Water Flow Path, and Waterbody Type (LLWW) descriptions. These LLWW descriptions identify the geomorphic setting, shape and form, and connectivity of a given wetland and include detailed modifiers to describe unique human impacts and wetland water sources. Combined, the NWI and LLWW descriptions provide detailed information about a wetland and allow identification of unique wetland types that would be unidentifiable with a single set of descriptions, such as isolated wet meadows supported by near-permanent groundwater, emergent wetlands temporarily inundated by river flooding, and montane forested wetlands. The combination of improved accuracy with the ability to distinguish a wide variety of wetlands supports several novel landscape-level analyses and greatly enhances the dataset’s utility for planning and management. 

Mapping from UGS’s most recent mapping project showing updated wetland mapping along the floodplain of the Bear River in Cache Valley of northern Utah. Pink highlighting indicates wetlands likely to detain surface waters and attenuate floods.

The most common use of wetland mapping assesses wetland presence or absence on individual properties as an initial screen for wetland permit applications (see Survey Notes, v. 52, no. 1, p. 4–5). This use mostly ignores the wetland descriptions, but other uses such as setting management priorities, performing inventory and consequence analyses for environmental impact statements, establishing floodplain protection ordinances, or identifying conservation and restoration opportunities benefit from the flexibility of combined NWI and LLWW descriptions. Increasingly, local communities are considering the beneficial functions of wetlands in land use decisions and are prioritizing conservation of high-functioning wetlands. To support these decisions, the UGS leveraged the NWI and LLWW descriptions to identify which wetlands were likely to provide beneficial functions such as unique habitats, filtering sediments from runoff, or detaining floodwaters to create a spatial dataset that can be easily added to existing maps or analyses. 

By 2024, about one-half of Utah will have modern NWI mapping, mapped with increased accuracy standards and imagery collected within the past 10 years. This NWI wetland mapping dataset is invaluable for permitting, planning, and resource management and can be freely accessed and downloaded through the NWI Wetlands Mapper or the UGS Wetlands web app. LLWW descriptions have only been recently applied to wetland mapping in Utah and there currently is no online portal to access and download the LLWW-enhanced mapping. However, the UGS can provide copies of the mapping to anyone interested in using the enhanced mapping or exploring possible applications. For more information about wetland mapping or Utah’s wetlands, visit our wetlands page. 


SURVEY NOTES

Assessing Geologic Carbon Sequestration Opportunities in Utah

by Eugene Szymanski, PhD


Big picture perspective of the natural biogenic and geologic carbon cycles. Commercial opportunities for Carbon Capture Utilization and Sequestration (CCUS) often exist below ground within the dashed line region. Image modified from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, 23 Nov. 2015 (https://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/feature/carbon-cycle/); used with permission.

As the primary component of all life on Earth, carbon (C) is all around us: in the air as carbon dioxide gas (CO2), in plants and animals as drivers of cellular growth and respiration, including animal waste products like methane gas (CH4), and as a building block of carbonate rocks like limestone (CaCO3). Earth has two primary natural carbon cycles—the biogenic and geologic cycles—which use, exchange, and recycle elemental carbon over vastly different timescales. Carbon can be weathered from rocks, belched from volcanoes, integrated into living organisms of the biosphere, released into the atmosphere, soils, and oceans from decaying plant and animal material, and sequestered naturally as rocks and minerals in geological formations for thousands to millions of years.

These natural cycles have been disrupted since the start of the Industrial Revolution as significant volumes of CO2 have been building disproportionately in the atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels and output from industrial processes. This is problematic because, as a greenhouse gas, CO2 traps heat in the atmosphere which, in turn, affects global climate on geologic and human timescales. Commercial-scale carbon sequestration (a.k.a. “storage”) is billed as a primary tool for combating anthropogenic climate impacts by redirecting harmful volumes of produced carbon from the atmosphere into less impactful storage options.

The phrase Carbon Capture Utilization and Sequestration (CCUS) is typically used to describe the full range of techniques employed in the commercial carbon sector. Addressing each term individually: capture is the first step wherein elemental carbon, typically in the form of CO2, is either captured directly from the atmosphere or concentrated from industrial waste streams; utilization can follow where the carbon, in many forms, is recycled for use in industrial processes or as feedstock for the manufacture of consumer goods like concrete, steel, and plastics; and sequestration is intended as a solution to keep produced carbon out of Earth’s atmosphere, part of a greater initiative known as transitioning to “net zero” wherein a balance is achieved between the total volume of carbon stored versus emitted into the atmosphere. CCUS helps accomplish this in four key ways:

  1. it can be retrofitted to existing power and industrial plants to reduce emissions;
  2. it can support rapid upscaling of low-carbon hydrogen production;
  3. it can capture and store CO2 directly from the air and bioenergy—energy that is derived from the breakdown of recently living organic materials; and
  4. it is often the most cost-effective approach to curb emissions in cement, iron, steel, and chemicals manufacturing.

CCUS also complements nature-based solutions, such as afforestation, reforestation, and restoration of native plant habitats along coastlines.

Instead of being vented into the atmosphere, CO2 produced from sources like power plants can be redirected either for industrial and commercial uses like Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) and manufacturing or into geological storage, whether onshore or offshore. Figure modified from imagery provided by Global CCS Institute (https://www.globalccsinstitute.com/resources/ccs-image-library/).

Value Proposition

Apart from myriad environmental benefits, the economic value proposition for private sector carbon capture lies in tax incentives and carbon offset credits. Passed by the U.S. Congress in 2018, the FUTURE Act amends the Internal Revenue Code to extend and modify the tax credit for carbon dioxide sequestration and increases incentives for the capture and storage of CO2. Specifically, Section 45Q provides a credit for every ton of captured CO2 for secure geological storage within either enhanced oil recovery (EOR) processes or deep saline aquifers.

The University of Utah’s Energy & Geoscience Institute (EGI) has led the way on CCUS research and projects in Utah for over 20 years, often partnering with the Utah Geological Survey (UGS) to leverage geologic knowledge and share technical project tasks related to assessing the potential for geologic CO2 sequestration in Utah. Previous CO2 projects in Utah include a large-scale CO2 injection demonstration for storage and EOR in the Aneth oil field of southeastern Utah and a detailed geologic characterization of potential CO2 storage reservoirs in saline aquifers in the northern San Rafael Swell of Emery County—more information about the CarbonSafe project can be found in Survey Notes, v. 49 no. 3. Most recently, EGI and the UGS are active members of the Carbon Utilization Storage Partnership (CUSP), a U.S. Department of Energy-funded research consortium consisting of academia, government agencies, national laboratories, and industry that was established in 2019 to accelerate onshore CCUS technology deployment in 13 western states.

Geological Assessment Work

The opportunity for Carbon Capture Utilization and Sequestration (CCUS)—sometimes abbreviated to CCS—depends considerably on the type of rock present in the subsurface. (A) CO2 storage can occur by injecting gas deep underground into rock strata deemed unsuitable for other purposes. Modified from imagery provided by Global CCS Institute (https://www.globalccsinstitute.com/resources/ccs-image-library/). (B) A 4-inch-wide slabbed rock core from the Covenant oil field, Sevier County, Utah. The sandstone (buff-colored) is a good reservoir rock due to its porous and often permeable grains. The mudstone (red) is a good geological seal because it has low permeability and prohibits fluid and gas from escaping upwards. The sharp color contrast indicates the boundary between the seal and reservoir rock. The five holes in the rock core are where plugs were drilled into the rock and removed for analysis. (C) and (D) are photomicrographs of Jurassic-age Navajo Sandstone (reservoir rock) from the Covenant oil field that illustrate pore space availability (blue areas) for CO2 storage between quartz grains (white areas). Images B, C, and D modified from Chidsey and others (2020) (https://doi.org/10.34191/ss-167). Note the significant difference in scale from the well (kilometers) to the core (meters) to the rock grain and pore space (millimeters).

The opportunity for Carbon Capture Utilization and Sequestration (CCUS)—sometimes abbreviated to CCS—depends considerably on the type of rock present in the subsurface. (A) CO2 storage can occur by injecting gas deep underground into rock strata deemed unsuitable for other purposes. Modified from imagery provided by Global CCS Institute (https://www.globalccsinstitute.com/resources/ccs-image-library/). (B) A 4-inch-wide slabbed rock core from the Covenant oil field, Sevier County, Utah. The sandstone (buff-colored) is a good reservoir rock due to its porous and often permeable grains. The mudstone (red) is a good geological seal because it has low permeability and prohibits fluid and gas from escaping upwards. The sharp color contrast indicates the boundary between the seal and reservoir rock. The five holes in the rock core are where plugs were drilled into the rock and removed for analysis. (C) and (D) are photomicrographs of Jurassic-age Navajo Sandstone (reservoir rock) from the Covenant oil field that illustrate pore space availability (blue areas) for CO2 storage between quartz grains (white areas). Images B, C, and D modified from Chidsey and others (2020) (https://doi.org/10.34191/ss-167). Note the significant difference in scale from the well (kilometers) to the core (meters) to the rock grain and pore space (millimeters).

The basic premise of sequestration is that compressed and liquified CO2 is pumped via injection wells into underground porous rock formations (reservoirs) where it can invade pore space and either become trapped beneath impermeable strata (a.k.a. seal rock), dissolve within saline groundwater, or react with reservoir rock to form carbonate minerals, thus becoming stored for relatively long periods of time (thousands of years or more). A lot of scientific, technical, legal, and administrative work is required to rate the suitability of storage sites. Fortunately, Utah has many potentially viable geologic formations suitable as large-scale CO2 sequestration reservoirs including, but not limited to: 1) the Leadville Limestone and Paradox Formation salts in the Paradox Basin, 2) the Mesaverde Group in the Uinta Basin and Mesozoic-age sandstone units in the south and east (e.g., the Navajo, Weber, and Entrada Sandstones), 3) the Navajo Sandstone in the northern San Rafael Swell, and 4) the Navajo Sandstone or deeper Kaibab Limestone in the southwest part of the state.

One interesting area of study is Iron County, Utah, where the UGS and EGI are performing rigorous site characterization including subsurface geological CO2 storage viability and capacity, environmental risk assessment, and economic feasibility options. This region in Utah’s Basin and Range Province—expressed topographically as low, broad valleys punctuated by tall, north-south-oriented mountain ranges—was selected for several reasons including accessible outcroppings of key geologic strata, existing public datasets, and wells that provide strong control on subsurface geology potentially favorable for CO2 injection.

In southwest Utah, wildcat oil and gas exploration has had very few economic successes, but those efforts demonstrated the presence of thick sequences of Paleozoic- and Mesozoic-age sandstone and limestone strata in the subsurface that could potentially store vast volumes of CO2 gas. Several world-class reservoir/seal pairs are present in the area, providing multiple injection targets, and the absence of working petroleum systems lowers the risk of unavailable pore space and overpressure. Additionally, relatively low drilling and injection costs are anticipated since some reservoirs lie at relatively shallow depths (less than 7,000 feet) still acceptable for proper storage.

The UGS and its partners use many techniques to study the local geology. Rock collected from wells provides important ground-truth information about groundwater conditions, pressure domains, and the range of rock types. Interpretations made from 2D (two-dimensional) seismic, gravity, and magnetics data allow us to create images of the subsurface for mapping structural controls and to develop models of fracture networks that control reservoir permeability and seal rock competency.

Future Direction

Utah has a natural wealth of subsurface geologic reservoirs suitable for carbon sequestration. Utah also has several major industrial carbon emitters within the state. Because the Iron County region can be used as a geologic analogue for other sites in the Basin and Range Province, characterization work by the UGS and its partners will reduce geologic uncertainty, allow prioritization of potentially viable CO2 sequestration sites elsewhere, and set precedents for rigorous site characterization reports, data, and products in other western states.


See the following publications for more information:

1. U.S. launches net-zero world initiative to accelerate global energy system decarbonization: Energy.gov, November 3 2021

2. IEAGlobal Energy Review 2021: IEA, Paris

3. S.1535–115th Congress (2017–2018): FUTURE Act. (2017, July 12)

4. Carbon Utilization Storage Partnership (CUSP)


Eugene Szymanski

Eugene Szymanski

Eugene Szymanski

is a Senior Geologist in the UGS Energy and Minerals Program with research interests in landscape evolution, chronostratigraphy, and source-to-sink analysis of modern and ancient depositional systems. Prior to joining the UGS in 2021, Eugene worked at Chevron for 11+ years where he conducted hydrocarbon exploration, strategic geologic research, and applied technology development. He holds Adjunct Faculty appointments at The University of Kansas and The University of Arkansas where he co-advises students and collaborates on research projects. Eugene holds degrees from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania (2000, B.S. Geology), Boston College (2005, M.Sc. Geophysics), and The University of Kansas (2013, Ph.D. Geology). He is a Licensed Professional Geologist in Utah.

SURVEY NOTES

Coal for High Technology

by Ryan Gall


Utah is a fortunate state with ample opportunities to develop high-tech renewable energy. In the past decade, Utah has put itself on national and global green energy maps with rapid development of utility-scale solar farms (together contributing over 1,500 megawatts to the electric grid), three large windfarms (totaling 387 megawatts), the FORGE (Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy) research station, and the novel Advanced Clean Energy Storage project which aims to use hydrogen to aid storage of renewable energy in subsurface salt domes. Remarkably, Utah may have another previously overlooked contribution to the green energy transition: coal! Yes, coal, the carbon-rich resource that most individuals emphatically consider not green. However, a new U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)-funded project, “Carbon Ore, Rare Earth and Critical Minerals” (CORE-CM), aims to demonstrate whether western U.S. coal and coal waste streams might have alternative
uses that can support the development of carbon-neutral infrastructure and other high-technology industries. The study is led by the University of Utah, Department of Mining Engineering, and has 25 partnering institutions including the Utah Geological Survey.

Coal and coal-adjacent strata can be enriched in rare earth and other elements important to the development of high-tech products. Rare earth elements, or REEs, consist of the 15 lanthanide series elements as well as yttrium and scandium which exhibit similar geochemical properties. These elements are important components of cameras, LED lights, electronic displays (e.g., smart phones, televisions, and computer monitors), medical devices (e.g., MRIs and X-rays), and notably, magnets and batteries integral to the establishment of carbon-neutral infrastructure. Praseodymium (Pr), for example, is a common component of batteries used in electric bikes and automobiles. Neodymium (Nd) and dysprosium (Dy) are used in permanent magnets for industrial-scale wind turbines and electric vehicle motors. 

The global demand and production of rare earth oxides (that can be refined into rare earth metal) has increased markedly over the past few years. From 2016 to 2021, rare earth oxide production more than doubled from 129,000 to 280,000 metric tons. Projections for the next decade indicate an additional fivefold increase in demand for REEs specific to the manufacturing of carbon-neutral technology (Nd, Dy, Pr, and Tb). The projected need and lack of domestic production has led the U.S. Geological Survey to classify REEs as “Critical Minerals” (defined as mineral commodities integral to our economic and national security, whose supply chains rely on foreign markets). Clearly, production of REEs will need to substantially increase to meet societal needs. 

Utah coalfields and active coal infrastructure. Sample points represent data compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey CoalQual database and highlight the limited historical dataset of thorough geochemical sampling. CORE-CM will increase sampling across the region to add to this dataset and improve understanding of how critical minerals vary across coalfields.

Utah coalfields and active coal infrastructure. Sample points represent data compiled by the U.S. Geological Survey CoalQual database and highlight the limited historical dataset of thorough geochemical sampling. CORE-CM will increase sampling across the region to add to this dataset and improve understanding of how critical minerals vary across coalfields.

Interbedded coal and sandstone in the Blackhawk Formation (just off SR-6, near Helper). Source : Mike Vanden Berg

Interbedded coal and sandstone in the Blackhawk Formation (just off SR-6, near Helper). Source: Mike Vanden Berg

The Utah and Colorado geological surveys are assisting the CORE-CM project via a detailed characterization of REEs and other critical minerals in coalfields of the Wasatch Plateau and Book Cliffs. These current and historical coal mining regions contain thick Cretaceous-age coal beds representing 85- to 75-million-year-old marshland deposits within the Blackhawk Formation and the Emery and Ferron Sandstone Members of the Mancos Shale. This regional characterization aims to define the elemental composition and variation of coal and adjacent rocks using samples collected from mines and drill cores. Partnering institutions will also assist in the geochemical characterization of select coal waste streams such as coal wash plant material (rock “washed” out of the run-of-mine coal production stream) and coal ash waste collected from power plants. Additional engineering teams are researching methods that can develop carbon fibers, graphene, and important polymers from coal’s carbon. Thus, the comprehensive study aims to showcase how the entire commodity and associated waste streams can be used to produce multiple end products that each contribute to technological and economic success. 

REEs are a particular high-value commodity because mineable rocks enriched in economic concentrations of REEs are exceptionally rare. Most REEs are currently mined from uncommon igneous deposits (carbonatites and alkaline rocks) and to a lesser degree, placer deposits (sedimentary deposits sourced from weathering of an REE-enriched rock). Though coal itself typically contains low REE concentrations, some coal contains interlaminated claystone and/or volcanic tuffs that are considerably REE enriched. Waste product from coal-fired power plants is another potential REE source, because burning coal removes carbon and concentrates heavier elements in the leftover ash. These potential sources of REEs, combined with an established coal supply chain, makes coal a contender to contribute to the growing REE market.

Geoscientists still have much to accomplish in the effort to characterize REEs and other critical minerals, although researching and identifying prospective resources is necessary to accommodate growing societal need. Utah is not alone in its study of coal as a potential contributor to new industries. More than a dozen other similar DOE-funded studies are assessing other coal resources across the nation while also developing novel coal product processing methods. Who would have thought that coal could be part of 21st century research as a potential contributor to new high-tech industries? 

Rare earth elements and their common uses 


REECommon Uses
Scandium (Sc)Lighting, aluminum alloys
Yttrium (Y)Lasers, cancer therapy, LED lights
Lanthanum (La)Rechargeable batteries, camera lenses, refinery catalyst
Cerium (Ce)Catalytic converters, LED lights, glass polishing
Praseodymium (Pr)Magnets, electric vehicle batteries, ceramics
Neodymium (Nd)Magnets, electric vehicle batteries, lasers, ceramics
Samarium (Sm)Cancer therapy, magnets nuclear reactor control rods
Europium (Eu)Color displays, lasers, nuclear reactor control rods, superconducting alloys
Gadolinium (Gd)MRI contrast agent, nuclear reactor shielding
Terbium (Tb)Color displays, magnetorestrictive alloys, solid-state devices
Dysprosium (Dy)Magnets, lasers, nuclear reactor control rods
Holmium (Ho)Magnets, artificial magnet fields
Erbium (Er)Surgical lasers, fiber optics, nuclear reactor control rods
Thulium (Tm)Portable X-ray source, lasers
Ytterbium (Yb)Atomic clocks, stainless steel additive, lasers, cancer therapy
Lutetium (Lu)PET scan detectors, refinery catalyst, refractive glass

Suggested reading:

SURVEY NOTES

Paleo News: New Discoveries of Morrison Formation Plant Fossils Expand Our Knowledge of Jurassic Ecosystems

by James Kirkland, Utah Geological Survey
John Foster, Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum
Don DeBlieux, Utah Geological Survey
ReBecca Hunt-Foster, Dinosaur National Monument


A few of the species from the Jurassic Salad Bar site. A) The reproductive organs of the fern Coniopteris hymenophylloides. B) Partial leaf of the ginkgophyte Sphenobaiera sp. C) Leaf bundles of the ginkgophyte Czekanowskia turneri. D) Partial leaf of the ginkgophyte Ginkgoites sp. E) Partial frond of the fern Coniopteris hymenophylloides. F) Abdominal segments and forewing of the giant water bug-like insect Morrisonnepa jurassica (Lara and others, 2020); abbreviation se = abdominal segment. G) Conchostracans, often called clam shrimp. All scale bars = 1 cm. Photos by Tom Howells, Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum.

A few of the species from the Jurassic Salad Bar site. A) The reproductive organs of the fern Coniopteris hymenophylloides. B) Partial leaf of the ginkgophyte Sphenobaiera sp. C) Leaf bundles of the ginkgophyte Czekanowskia turneri. D) Partial leaf of the ginkgophyte Ginkgoites sp. E) Partial frond of the fern Coniopteris hymenophylloides. F) Abdominal segments and forewing of the giant water bug-like insect Morrisonnepa jurassica (Lara and others, 2020); abbreviation se = abdominal segment. G) Conchostracans, often called clam shrimp. All scale bars = 1 cm. Photos by Tom Howells, Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum.

Utah’s Jurassic-age Morrison Formation is world-famous for its many dinosaur fossil sites such as Dinosaur National Monument, Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry, and the Hanksville-Burpee site. These sites attract visitors and researchers from all over the globe to see and study iconic dinosaurs such as Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Diplodocus among many others. Artistic museum reconstructions of these animals in their environment allow us to envision what it was like to be living in the distant past. These reconstructions are based on renderings of the plants that were living during the time of these dinosaurs. However, our knowledge of the plant communities that existed during the time of deposition of the Morrison Formation is limited because well-preserved plant fossils are quite rare. The discovery of a new fossil site in the Morrison Formation near Blanding, Utah, however, is greatly expanding our understanding of Utah’s environment during the Jurassic. 

The most commonly preserved plant fossils in the Morrison are petrified conifer logs like those displayed at Escalante Petrified Forest State Park in south-central Utah. In 2015, the Utah Geological Survey (UGS) Paleontology Section helped move a large petrified log to a display near the park entrance, which allows visitors, especially those with limited mobility, to view the iconic fossils for which the park is named. Another extensive petrified forest in the Morrison Formation is located south of Dinosaur National Monument. The Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum (FHPR) in Vernal, Utah, led by Mary Beth Bennis and with the help of Utah Friends of Paleontology volunteers, collected a large petrified log from this area. This massive log, known as the “Manwell Log,” is on display at the Field House’s Jurassic Hall. Most of these Morrison Formation logs are from conifer trees and we sometimes find fossilized seeds and cones. Other less-common petrified woods include those of cycads, cycadeoids (an extinct group of cycad-like plants), and the stems of the enigmatic gymnosperm Hermatophyton. 

The Manwell Log on exhibit at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum (Vernal) with Ruby and Harrison Foster for scale. The log preserves wood grain and bark textures. Photo courtesy of John Foster.

The Manwell Log on exhibit at the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum (Vernal) with Ruby and Harrison Foster for scale. The log preserves wood grain and bark textures. Photo courtesy of John Foster.

Sites that preserve identifiable foliage, however, are rare in the Morrison Formation as most sites preserve only carbonaceous fragments. Out of the thousands of fossil sites documented in the Morrison Formation in the Rocky Mountain region, only nine sites yield an abundance of leafy plant material. In 2016, the UGS Paleontology Section was funded by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to survey for fossils in the Morrison Formation of San Juan County near Blanding. While surveying an area of Morrison badlands, Jim Kirkland found some bone eroding from a hill. He then noticed that in addition to bone fragments, there was an abundance of macerated plant fragments and petrified driftwood. Based on extensive field experience, he knew these rocks might preserve a microsite, a site of very small animal and plant fossils. Microsites can typically only be identified by digging into fresh rock because the small fossils do not withstand surface weathering of the rock. Our UGS team later returned to the site along with fellow experts on Mesozoic-age microsites, Scott Madsen (retired UGS) and Jeff Eaton (retired Weber State University geologist). We noticed a band of dark-colored rock at the top of the hill overlying a volcanic ash. This dark layer was a finely laminated shale that contained well-preserved leaf fragments. We collaborated with John Foster (FHPR) and ReBecca Hunt-Foster (Dinosaur National Monument) to direct the investigations at this unique site. John is a leading expert on the paleontology of the Morrison Formation, and he enlisted the help of the late Sid Ash (Weber State University), an expert on Mesozoic plants, to help identify some of the many spectacular plant fossils that have been collected. Most sites are just known by their locality number, but when a site is special, we sometimes give it a name. This site has been dubbed the Jurassic Salad Bar. The fossils here belong to ferns, conifers, and relatives of modern ginkgos. A possible ginkgophyte, Czekanowskia turneri, occurs in dense mats, and the abundance of these fossils should lead to a much better understanding of this plant. Additionally, palynomorph samples first examined by the Smithsonian’s Carol Hotton yield a well-preserved assemblage of pollen and spores. 

Simplified stratigraphy of the Jurassic Salad Bar site showing two prominent fossil levels: a lower level of pebbles with plant and bone fragments (Sa1134), and an upper finely laminated leaf level overlying a volcanic ash (Sa1212). This site has produced some of the best-preserved plant and invertebrate fossils ever found in the Morrison Formation.

Simplified stratigraphy of the Jurassic Salad Bar site showing two prominent fossil levels: a lower level of pebbles with plant and bone fragments (Sa1134), and an upper finely laminated leaf level overlying a volcanic ash (Sa1212). This site has produced some of the best-preserved plant and invertebrate fossils ever found in the Morrison Formation.

The plants found at the Jurassic Salad Bar site are typical of wetland environments, potentially deposited in an oxbow lake or small pond. Work is ongoing with Carol Gee (University of Bonn, Germany) to better refine the stratigraphy and plant fossil assemblages. We expect that fossils from this site will greatly expand our knowledge of Jurassic-age plants. In addition to the exquisite plant fossils, this site has produced some other surprises. A giant water bug-like insect was described in 2020 with the help of an Argentinean colleague, Maria B. Lara (Centro de Ecología Aplicada del Litoral), and named Morrisonnepa jurassica. This insect is only the second documented in the Morrison Formation. Another interesting find is a rare crayfish that is one of the few ever found in the Morrison Formation. In addition, conchostracans (clam shrimps), insect eggs on leaves, fish, frogs, and salamanders have been found. We interpret one small splotch of tiny frog and salamander bones as a regurgitalite (fossil vomit) of a predatory amioid fish (based on scales found at the site). Although fossil plants may be more abundant at other sites, this locality has the best-preserved plant fossils ever found in the Morrison Formation. The fossils here are helping to expand our knowledge of Jurassic Period ecosystems and illustrate the importance of continuing fossil surveys even in formations that have been studied for well over a hundred years. 

SURVEY NOTES

Glad You Asked: What is Utah’s Largest Meteorite?

by Jim Davis


The Drum Mountains meteorite at the Smithsonian. Flat surface at top is where the meteorite was cut for sectioning. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Drum_Mountains_meteorite_in_Museum_of_Natural_History.jpg

The Drum Mountains meteorite at the Smithsonian. Flat surface at top is where the meteorite was cut for sectioning. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Drum_Mountains_meteorite_in_Museum_of_Natural_History.jpg

Hands down, the Drum Mountains meteorite is the biggest meteorite from Utah. The iron-nickel meteorite is more than five times heavier than the collective weight of all 25 other official meteorites of Utah. At 1,164 pounds, it was at the time of its discovery the 9th largest meteorite to be recovered in the nation. The Drum Mountains meteorite has been held at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History since transfer from Topaz—the War Relocation Authority’s (WRA) Central Utah Project—in October of 1944, three weeks after its discovery.

Akio Ujihara, of West Los Angeles, and Yoshio Nishimoto, of Stockton, California, found the meteorite on or before September 24, 1944, while rockhounding for chalcedony for a lesson at the Topaz Lapidary School. They at once recognized that the rock was out of place, the size of a “potato sack” and the color of “burnt sienna.” Spectacular “thumbprints,” called regmaglypts, patterned its surface. Upon striking it with a hammer they knew it was pure metal by the sound. They detached chips off the meteorite and sent one to the Smithsonian with a sketch and description. 

The letter arrives on the desk of Edward P. Henderson, Associate Curator, Mineralogy and Petrology. Henderson was keen on finding out the location of the meteorite, if there were others nearby, if it was on public land, and if a crater was present. He requests a site visit from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Salt Lake City. Two weeks after the discovery, USGS geologist Arthur E. Granger is guided to the site. Henderson writes Granger, “. . . the sample is an iron meteorite, and if his [Nishimoto’s] measurements are correct, it is a large one, and therefore an important new find.” Granger reports, “The specimen was found in an area of low hills lying between the Drum Mountains and Little Drum Mountains” and “The country rock is entirely basic or basaltic lavas . . .” Granger finds no section corner markers, but concludes from “other observations” that the meteorite is in Township 15 South, Range 10 West, and “approximately” Section 29. This section is now geologically mapped as the Drum Mountains Rhyodacite, a dark-colored volcanic rock that spans the entirety of the broad saddle between the Drum and Little Drum Mountains. Section 29 is one square mile of federal public land. 

Inexplicably, Henderson’s official report published four years later gives the location as 5 miles east-northeast of Section 29, at 39° 30’ N, 112° 54’ W. By excluding seconds in the latitude and longitude coordinates, the area cannot be defined more precisely than around one square mile and places the meteorite on gently sloping stream-deposited (alluvial) sediments—more than 2 miles from bedrock. Yet in reinforcement of the geologist’s description, G.V. Morris, Evacuee Property Officer for the WRA at Topaz, recounts the journey with Granger, “. . . more or less extensive outcroppings of some black rock and the ground immediately thereabout more or less was covered by loose boulders.” Granger and Morris are the only officials to see the meteorite in its original setting. 

A meteorite this size might have produced a small crater, but none was found, perhaps erased by erosion. It lies in loose gravel, the bulk of it above ground. Mechanical weathering from wind-blown dust highlights the internal gridded crisscrossing fabric (called Widmanstätten) that stands in relief on the exterior. The buried portion is heavily weathered, corroded from continuous contact with soil moisture, the regmaglypts replaced by corrosion pits. Granger estimates it has sat in place for at least a century, but never sees the deteriorated underside. The weathering of the exposed section of the meteorite is minimal, a few hundredths of an inch, enough to remove any flow lines, or as Henderson writes to Ujihara, “. . . delicate flight markings . . . [which] differ a little from the big pits or depressions you noted (and said resembled Swiss cheese).” Oddly, when the story is finally released, newspapers quote Ujihara and omit the most descriptive word, “Swiss.” 

After Granger’s site visit Nishimoto and Ujihara muster friends and hire “local boys” to load the meteorite and truck it back to Topaz where it was placed on display for residents to view. Nishimoto then arranges for the meteorite to be transported by rail from Delta, Utah, to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. 

Topaz and the Drum Mountains/Little Drum Mountains

Topaz and the Drum Mountains/Little Drum Mountains

The Drum Mountains meteorite reinforced and contributed to future court rulings on meteorite ownership, such as they are property of the federal government if found on federal lands and subject to the 1906 Antiquities Act and that meteorites cannot be acquired through mining claims on federal land. Nishimoto staked a claim, or attempted to, on the site, likely at the suggestion of Morris, who mentions this particular to Henderson in a letter. This letter prompts Henderson to write the U.S. Secretary of the Department of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, as to whether this would be an issue obtaining the specimen. The Assistant Secretary responds to Henderson that meteorites, like caverns, are “crystalline deposits marketable as curiosities,” and not patentable under mining laws. Regardless, no record of this claim seems to exist. 

Legally, meteorites are the property of the landowner. Henderson states in his letter to Granger, “If the meteorite is now on public land it is the property of the U.S. government. . . ” The meteorite’s transfer to the Smithsonian is swift, before a news release. Morris writes Henderson, “As far as I know the knowledge of the discovery has been kept within the bounds of the immediate center, and no publicity has been released except in the residence’s local paper [Topaz Times, October 11, 1944] which ran one story inviting the resident public here to inspect the specimen.” Nishimoto and Ujihara write Henderson, “For your information, both the University of Utah and the State Government of Utah have discovered with regret that the specimen has left the State and is now in your hands.” 

Henderson writes Morris and requests specifics on Nishimoto and Ujihara and the circumstances of their discovery. Ujihara writes to Henderson on letterhead from the Topaz Lapidary School, stating, “The pleasure is mine to communicate with a great scientist like Mr. Henderson through our finding which was merely an accident. As for myself, I lost my home, business, and major part of my savings due to the evacuation. But it is only infinitesimal compared to the millions of people of war zones. My only desire is that by this incident it may benefit to the scientific world and in some way it may open a way to establish a better world for the coming generations. . . ” 

The Arizona State University (Tempe) slice of the Drum Mountains meteorite is one of several sent to meteoritic institutions around the world. This slice has been polished and treated with a nitric acid solution to reveal the Widmanstätten pattern—a latticework of ribbon-like crystals of iron-nickel alloys (kamacite and taenite) that differ in color and luster due to varying concentrations of nickel. The sample weighs about 1.4 pounds. Photo by Devin L. Schrader/Center for Meteorite Studies/ ASU. Courtesy of the ASU Center for Meteorite Studies.

The Arizona State University (Tempe) slice of the Drum Mountains meteorite is one of several sent to meteoritic institutions around the world. This slice has been polished and treated with a nitric acid solution to reveal the Widmanstätten pattern—a latticework of ribbon-like crystals of iron-nickel alloys (kamacite and taenite) that differ in color and luster due to varying concentrations of nickel. The sample weighs about 1.4 pounds. Photo by Devin L. Schrader/Center for Meteorite Studies/ ASU. Courtesy of the ASU Center for Meteorite Studies.

Although under no obligation, the Smithsonian, using funds from an endowment for obtaining specimens, allots a finder’s fee to Ujihara and Nishimoto of $700 ($11,000 adjusted for inflation). Henderson writes Ickes, “We intend to reward these men for their discovery and have reason to believe they will accept it without hesitation.” Newspapers at the time had such titles as “Utah Meteorite Purchased,” though it was not a transaction because the meteorite was recovered on federal land; rather, it was an award for efforts and to more than cover moving and shipping expenses. 

The Smithsonian has a long history of meteorite collection and curation, scientific study, and collaboration with other meteoritical institutions and has been the traditional repository of meteorites found on federal land. The Smithsonian cut the Drum Mountains meteorite and sent samples, from largest to smallest, to Chicago, Moscow, Tempe, Ann Arbor, Calcutta, Madrid, and Harvard. Henderson also arranged, entirely unconventionally, for a slice to go to Ujihara and Nishimoto. Henderson writes Morris, “Most likely these men would appreciate a small polished slice as a memento of their discovery and I see no reason why we cannot present them each one.” In February 1950, a 6-ounce polished and etched slice was sent to Nishimoto in Stockton, California, and presumably one was sent to Ujihara’s address as well. Both discoverers of the Drum Mountains meteorite persisted in their zeal for rockhounding and lapidary, continuing in gem and Earth science clubs in California and appearing in magazines and articles for their techniques and notable finds. 

*Correspondence from Smithsonian Accession 168531. Misspellings in quotations are corrected.


Author’s Note, August 2022

Twenty-six meteorite finds in Utah are listed in the Meteoritical Society’s Meteoritical Bulletin Database. The odds of finding a meteorite are slim even if you see it fall. Most disintegrate before reaching the ground. For more information on meteorites and identification, please see the following resources.

Utah’s Clark Planetarium has a few meteorite experts. Contact them for local meteorite information.

Meteorite Information
Washington University in St. Louis

A Comprehensive Guide to Meteorite Identification
Aerolite Meteorites, Tucson, AZ

Meteorite Testing and Classifying Institutions
meteorite-identification.com

Meteorite or Meteorwrong?
UGS Survey Notes, 2008

What is Utah’s Largest Meteorite?
UGS Survey Notes, 2022

Have Meteorites or Meteorite Craters Been Found in Utah?
UGS Survey Notes, 2004

Do I Have a Meteorite?
Center for Meteorite Studies, Arizona State University


SURVEY NOTES

GeoSights: Big and Little Brush Creek “Ice” Caves, Uintah County, Utah

by Mark Milligan


Spaced nearly 5 miles apart, Big and Little Brush Creek Caves (BBCC and LBCC, respectively) are found high on the south slope of the Uinta Mountains, about 17 miles north of Vernal, Utah. Unlike better known caves with mineral formations of stalagmites and stalactites, these caves are filled with spectacular ice crystals and formations that vary seasonally and from year to year depending upon seasonal temperature and precipitation variations.

A substantial ice column in the entrance room of BBCC can persist into or throughout summer, and perennial ice is reportedly found a bit deeper in the cave. LBCC contains seasonal ice but no perennial ice; however, it is easier to access in winter, being near U.S. Route 191, which is plowed.

Ice formations in the entrance room of BBCC. February 2022.

Ice formations in the entrance room of BBCC. February 2022.

The ability of BBCC to hold ice is due to multiple factors, including:

  • High elevation—The cave is located at a chilly 8,160 feet above sea level.
  • Cold trap—The entrance lies at the bottom of a dead-end canyon with a disappearing stream, causing dense cold air from higher up the mountain to settle and collect. Furthermore, the cave has no lower exit point so cold air cannot escape through the cave.
  • No warming sun—The entrance faces north and is heavily shaded.
  • Significant ice volume—When air temperatures drop below freezing, groundwater continues to drip into the cave, creating spectacular ice formations in winter. The larger they grow, the longer they take to melt away.
  • Limited airflow—In the northeastern part of the cave, where perennial ice is found, a ridge of bedrock, sediment, collapse material, and ice itself constricts openings and thus airflow, keeping temperatures low during warm weather.
  • Limited streamflow—Much of the water that would otherwise flow into the cave and melt ice, is lost to underground plumbing (karst) upstream of the cave.

Both caves are located at the bottom of active though often dry stream channels within the Madison Limestone, which contains multiple caves and sinkholes in the greater area. These caves, like most caves, formed as acidic groundwater dissolved the limestone and carried it away in solution.




WARNING:

Beyond their initial cavernous openings both BBCC and LBCC have extensive cave systems that abound with hazards including vertical drop-offs and areas with bad air (high carbon dioxide levels). Spring snowmelt and/or rain can cause unexpected flooding. Do not explore these cave systems unless you are well prepared and have extensive spelunking experience. For more information on cave safety and spelunking, contact the National Speleological Society—or a local affiliate such as the Wasatch Grotto.

Accessibility and Location:

The caves are accessed via U.S. Route 191, which is plowed and open through winter. However, secondary U.S. Forest Service roads are only open to automobiles when not covered by snow. During the winter the route from U.S. 191 to BBCC is a groomed snowmobile trail that is part of the Uintah Basin Snowmobile Complex. The route to LBCC is a dedicated cross-country ski trail during winter. Furthermore, high creek flow from spring snowmelt can seasonally flood BBCC making it inaccessible. Similarly, LBCC is often flooded in spring and summer. FOR ROAD CLOSURE DATES AND CREEK CONDITIONS, PLEASE CONTACT THE ASHLEY NATIONAL FOREST, VERNAL RANGER DISTRICT, 435-789-1181.

Dye tracer tests by the UGS show that water entering BBCC and LBCC during high streamflow emerges at Brush Creek Spring, which is nearly 6 miles from the caves. Yellow arrowed lines are dye trace flow lines.

Dye tracer tests by the UGS show that water entering BBCC and LBCC during high streamflow emerges at Brush Creek Spring, which is nearly 6 miles from the caves. Yellow arrowed lines are dye trace flow lines.

How to Get There:

The caves can be found using either GPS navigation or the indicated mileage below. Beginning on U.S. Route 191 at Main Street in Vernal headed north:

Big Brush Creek Cave coordinates—40.697169° N, 109.584026° W

19.7 miles Turn LEFT onto East Park Road (FR 018).

3.3 miles Turn LEFT onto Red Cloud Loop (FR 018).

3.5 miles Trailhead is on the LEFT at a slight gap in the shoulder barrier with a “non-motorized” trail marker. Note: a roadside parking spot is about one-quarter of a mile farther on the road.

0.5 mile HIKE Follow the double track trail for about one-half of a mile. At the fork, go right and then proceed down into the drainage bottom. The final descent is very steep and it may be easier to walk farther up the canyon and double back along the bottom. The cave mouth, which opens onto the creek bed and faces north, is easily spotted from above.

Little Brush Creek Cave coordinates—40.709144° N, 109.500585° W

22.0 miles Turn LEFT onto FR 278.

0.4 miles The cave mouth faces north and can be seen in the drainage bottom to the left. The final descent is very steep and it may be easier to drive farther up the canyon and double back along the bottom.


Take the GeoSights Tour

ZNP flood-damaged overflow parking area. Park guest vehicle trapped in the flood deposit. Photo date: July 1, 2021.

SURVEY NOTES

Incorporating Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS) Technology in Geologic Hazard Characterization and Emergency Response: Zion National Park

by Ben A. Erickson, Jessica J. Castleton, and Adam I. Hiscock


ZNP flood-damaged overflow parking area. Park guest vehicle trapped in the flood deposit. Photo date: July 1, 2021.

ZNP flood-damaged overflow parking area. Park guest vehicle trapped in the flood deposit. Photo date: July 1, 2021.

The Utah Geological Survey (UGS) often uses small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS) technology (including unmanned aerial vehicle [UAV] or drone, pilot, and observer) in geologic hazard characterization and emergency response in ongoing hazard identification and mapping. sUAS surveys can be used to create valuable three-dimensional (3D) data and high-resolution images, as well as decrease the response time and costs while increasing the level of safety for scientists responding to geologic hazards.

The UGS recently had the opportunity to conduct an sUAS survey for the National Park Service at Zion National Park (ZNP). With annual visitation at ZNP exceeding 4 million in recent years and only dropping to over 3.6 million in 2020, the likelihood of geologic hazards affecting park visitors and infrastructure continues to rise. In the summer of 2021, and at the request of ZNP, the UGS conducted multiple sUAS investigations to evaluate the extent of severe flooding that occurred during that summer. This investigation followed a similar one we conducted for ZNP in the summer of 2019 for the Cable Mountain rockfall. The use of the sUAS can provide data for future flood mitigation designs and determine the measures needed to mitigate the risk associated with the remaining material from the rockfall event, as well as determine future safety. Drone use is currently restricted within all U.S. national parks (and always prohibited for private citizens without proper permitting). However, the UGS and ZNP were granted emergency authorization allowing the drone flights.

Drone flight paths (yellow lines) used to collect imagery data for SfM modeling and lidar data comparison.

Drone flight paths (yellow lines) used to collect imagery data for SfM modeling and lidar data comparison.

sUAS Flash Flood Investigation

On June 29, 2021, an intense monsoonal rainstorm occurred in the early afternoon, resulting in sheet flooding, channel flow, canyon debris flows, and flash flooding of the Virgin River. A weather station located within ZNP recorded 1.16 inches of rain within a two-hour time span with 0.7 inches recorded in the final hour. The total rainfall recorded for the day was 1.18 inches. The ZNP South Gate, part of Utah State Route 9, and the Park Transportation, Inc. (PTI) areas, including shuttle and oversized parking areas, experienced an intense, ten-year flooding event, resulting in the closure of their respective services. Cleanup and repair lasted several weeks after the event. Fortunately, no injuries were reported, but the park and the nearby community of Springdale, Utah, had extensive flood damage.

The UGS evaluated the impacted areas and created a flight plan for optimal coverage of the area. The drone is equipped with a 1-inch CMOS Hasselblad camera and Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS). The imagery data gathered by the sUAS flights and GNSS points were combined to generate a structure-from-motion (SfM) three-dimensional model using Agisoft Metashape software, on which digital measurements and mapping were performed. The SfM model also includes point cloud data, similar to lidar elevation data. Using CloudCompare and ESRI’s ArcGIS Pro software, we compared our model to 0.5-meter lidar elevation data acquired by ZNP in 2015. By comparing the model and lidar, we were able to detect changes in erosion and deposition of sediments in the area between 2015 and 2021.

The differencing results of the 2021 SfM model and 2015 lidar data show where erosion from water flow channels occurred and the areas where sediments carried by the flood water were deposited. In the figures below, blue indicates where erosion has occurred and red indicates where deposition has occurred since 2015, whereas yellow indicates no change since 2015. Some areas near the PTI maintenance building and shuttle parking area appear to have unexpected, widespread erosion since 2015, perhaps due to a registration error with the lidar data; however, additional analysis would be necessary to evaluate the erosion anomaly.

Volume calculations also can be performed on areas of interest to determine the amount of material that was removed or added (see bottom figure). Based on the volume calculations, more deposition took place within the area where the drone was flown, compared to erosion, with about 47,816 cubic feet of material added and 35,491 cubic feet of material removed. Much of the deposition occurred in drainages and on floodplains leading to the North Fork of the Virgin River. Road culverts and parking lots were also inundated with deposition of mud and debris. The prevalence of deposition within the flight path indicates much of the erosional process took place at higher elevations outside of the imaged area. Areas that experience erosional scouring are also hazardous and can impact infrastructure, such as exposing buried pipelines, undermining foundations, and causing pavement to move.


sUAS Cable Mountain Rockfall Investigation

On August 24, 2019, around 5:30 p.m., an approximately 31,292-ton (calculated with sUAS data obtained by the UGS) slab of Navajo Sandstone detached from the vertical northwestern face of Cable Mountain and broke apart, sending about 435,712 cubic feet (calculated with sUAS data obtained by the UGS) of debris flowing downslope toward the Weeping Rock Trailhead parking lot. The granular debris damaged the East Rim and Weeping Rock Trails, deposited sediment on the Hidden Canyon Trail, and flowed across Zion Canyon Scenic Drive to the Virgin River.

Cable Mountain rock avalanche source area outlined in yellow; the scar measures approximately 133 feet wide, between the white lines, based on the SfM orthomosaic image. The volume of the rock avalanche was calculated to be 435,712 cubic feet, with a corresponding mass of approximately 31,292 tons. Photo date: October 24, 2019.

Cable Mountain rock avalanche source area outlined in yellow; the scar measures approximately 133 feet wide, between the white lines, based on the SfM orthomosaic image. The volume of the rock avalanche was calculated to be 435,712 cubic feet, with a corresponding mass of approximately 31,292 tons. Photo date: October 24, 2019.

The popular Weeping Rock Trail is still closed due to this large-scale rock avalanche. Another large rock slab having void space behind it, like the slab that fell, is located to the northeast on the Cable Mountain cliff face. This slab was investigated due to its proximity to the failed slab’s scar; however, fractured rock slabs that pose a rockfall hazard are located all along the cliff face. The acquired sUAS imagery data show these large rock slabs are highly fractured and semi-detached, bulging away from the cliff face. Using differencing between the 2015 lidar elevation data digital terrain model (DTM), point cloud data, and our sUAS model, we were able to estimate deposition depths to assist ZNP in developing a mitigation plan. We later returned in July 2021 and performed an additional flight to compare with the 2019 sUAS data. The results provided change information showing areas that have experienced erosion and deposition in the two-year timeframe.

A. Drone photo showing the void space between the rock bulge (white arrows) and the main cliff face of Cable Mountain. B. Photo from the top of Cable Mountain showing significant rock bulging (white arrows) and fractures filled with vegetation. (Photo credit: Tyler Knudsen) Date of photos: October 24, 2019.

A. Drone photo showing the void space between the rock bulge (white arrows) and the main cliff face of Cable Mountain. B. Photo from the top of Cable Mountain showing significant rock bulging (white arrows) and fractures filled with vegetation. (Photo credit: Tyler Knudsen) Date of photos: October 24, 2019.

The use of sUAS within the UGS Geologic Hazards Program has become a vital tool in the assessment of geologic hazards. It has provided a means of increasing the evaluation of hazards and improving detail, while increasing the safety of our geologists at minimal expense. The utilization of sUAS has been incorporated in multiple types of geologic hazard responses, including landslides, flooding, fire-related debris flows and rockfalls, rock avalanches, fault mapping, sinkholes, fissures, subsidence, earthquakes, and the clarification of general hazard mapping. Future deployment of sUAS within the UGS is anticipated to increase. The addition of other sensing tools like thermal cameras, multi-spectral cameras, and lidar sensors would increase the capabilities, demand, and quality of the resulting analysis products the UGS provides. The UGS has just started enabling the capabilities of using sUAS and looks forward to future applications to help us better understand Utah’s geology and hazards.


About the Authors


Ben Erickson

is a Project Geologist with the Geologic Hazards Program who joined the Utah Geological Survey in 2011. He is a Utah native and has a B.S. degree in earth science from Utah Valley University and an M.S. degree in geological engineering from the University of Utah. Ben works to share knowledge of geologic hazards through mapping and working with communities. His role in emergency response ranges from logging digital data to explaining geological hazard conditions to local communities, civic leaders, and the media.

Jessica Castleton

is a Senior Geologist with the Geologic Hazards Program. She earned a B.S. degree in applied environmental geoscience from Weber State University in 2005 and an M.S. degree in engineering geology from the University of Utah in 2015. In addition to mapping hazards, Jessica responds to debris flows, floods, and other geologic hazard events, and provides outreach for communities to inform about local geologic hazards.

Adam Hiscock

is a Project Geologist with the Geologic Hazards Program. He earned a B.S. degree in geology from the University of Utah and a Professional Geologist license in 2016 while working at the UGS. Adam specializes in paleoseismology and active fault mapping, has co-led multiple UGS paleoseismic research projects on the Wasatch fault zone, and re-mapped many active faults in Utah. He has extensive experience using sUAS platforms to study geologic hazards. He serves as staff to the Utah Seismic Safety Commission, providing outreach and education on Utah’s earthquake hazards.

SURVEY NOTES

The New Utah Aerial Imagery Database: A Statewide Resource of Historical Aerial and Related Imagery

by Steve D. Bowman


The Utah Geological Survey (UGS) recently released the new online Utah Aerial Imagery Database (https://imagery.geology.utah.gov) containing aerial photography (air photos) and related imagery dating from 1935 to 2020; about one-half of the collection dates before 1960. As of December 2021, the database contains over 1,200 imagery projects totaling over 277,000 air photos and 4,300 aerial project index sheets. The database is the most comprehensive publicly accessible online aerial imagery system at a state level in the United States.


Imagery and Related Items in the Utah Aerial Imagery Database as of October 2021


Database CategoryTotals
Air Photos48,332
Externally Linked Air Photos228,682
Index Sheets4,378
Camera and Lens Reports1,705
Aerial Project and Other Documents116
Total Items:283,218
Imagery Collections:1,231

Oblique color air photo view of the Gunnison River looking north from the 1988 P8867 collection and acquired by the UGS.

Oblique color air photo view of the Gunnison River looking north from the 1988 P8867 collection and acquired by the UGS.

Historical aerial imagery is critical in the investigation of infrastructure hazard vulnerability; watershed and land management; engineering, environmental, and geologic projects; and past land uses to understand how the landscape and man-made features have changed over time and how they may affect current and future infrastructure. Nearly every infrastructure planning and design project uses aerial imagery to help understand the land surface, its features, and how they have changed over time. The imagery is also used by the public exploring Utah’s backcountry, seeing what their property looks like in an aerial view, and dealing with property boundary location issues. The UGS also uses aerial imagery in nearly all its applied geologic research projects.

Most of the frames in the database were acquired in stereoscopic mode, meaning successive frames overlap and create stereo pairs that provide a three-dimensional (3D) image when viewed with a stereoscope. Other related imagery includes frames that are low-sun-angle photographs acquired during the morning or afternoon when shadows highlight certain topographic features, such as fault scarps, or oblique photographs taken at a non-vertical angle to the ground, like a panorama.

Various federal government agencies originally acquired most of these frames for agricultural and/or forest management purposes. The database also includes all UGS-acquired imagery. Aerial and related imagery is separated in the database by acquisition agency and the project code or name the agency assigned to the project as a collection. The project code consists of the year or year range the images were acquired and the specific project coding.

The externally linked air photos are contained in the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Earth Resources Observation and Science Center (EROS) EarthExplorer system (https://earthexplorer.usgs.gov/). Upon searching and discovering these photos in the Utah Aerial Imagery Database, the user clicks the Download button and is redirected to the EarthExplorer website to complete the download where a free EarthExplorer user login is required.

Imagery in the database can be easily searched for using the Map Search feature. The user simply draws a search box and all imagery within the search box will be shown as thumbnail images, a text list, or as markers on a map. Markers on the map are color coded based on year ranges of the imagery. When markers overprint other markers in a search area, a green dot is displayed showing the number of clustered markers. Clicking on the green dot or zooming further into the map will show the clustered markers. In addition, imagery may be searched for using metadata that individually describes the images, such as the Project Code, Project Name or individual roll and frame numbers, among other metadata.



Additional imagery and related items are being routinely added to the database. Donations of imagery are much appreciated, so the database may be more complete and serve as an easily accessible public archive.

Classification of critical minerals and battery metals. Bold typeface indicates the most commonly cited battery metals.

SURVEY NOTES

Energy News – Critical Minerals: Reshaping the Minerals Industry

by Stephanie E. Mills


Classification of critical minerals and battery metals. Bold typeface indicates the most commonly cited battery metals.

Classification of critical minerals and battery metals. Bold typeface indicates the most commonly cited battery metals.

Anyone who has been paying attention to the mining industry over the past few years will have noticed a shift in the language around commodities. Gone are the simple days of precious versus base metals (with a few bulk commodities thrown in). In the modern market conversation, commodity groups now run the gamut from critical minerals and battery metals to specialty metals, future minerals, energy metals, green metals, and beyond. This complexity of language comes from the realization that modern economies and a shift to carbon neutral energy production are dependent on high-tech devices and new battery technology, which require a wider variety of materials than at any other point in history.

In general, the term “critical minerals” encompasses the commodities in most other mineral groups. Critical minerals refers to a formalized group of mineral commodities defined and published by governmental organizations. Most governments use the same basic definition, that critical minerals are those essential to domestic economy and/or security and that have a supply chain vulnerable to disruption. In the United States, the most recent iteration of critical minerals created by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) was published in 2018. However, the list of critical minerals is not static. The USGS reviews the critical mineral list every three years, and the 2021 review identified five commodities that no longer meet the definition of critical mineral (helium [He], potash [KCl and K2SO4], rhenium [Re], strontium [Sr], and uranium [U]), and two new ones that do (nickel [Ni] and zinc [Zn]), for a total of 33 commodities or commodity groups, such as rare-earth elements (REEs) and platinum-group elements (PGEs).

Can we just use the term critical minerals and call it a day? In general, yes. But critical minerals cover a wide range of commodities with very different economic and mining implications, hence the complicated language around commodity subgroups. Below are three of the most common questions about critical minerals.

What about battery metals?

One of the most commonly discussed subgroups of critical minerals are the battery metals, referring to the mineral commodities used in the production of batteries for everything from electric vehicles to renewable energy storage. Battery metals and critical minerals have always had a significant overlap, and in the 2021 critical mineral list update all the commonly cited battery metals (lithium [Li], cobalt [Co], graphite [C], and manganese [Mn]) are now considered critical minerals. Is there any point to singling out the battery metals? Yes! Just because a mineral commodity is considered critical does not mean there is potential for substantial market expansion. Beryllium, for example, is a critical mineral essential to aerospace and defense, but demand is projected to continue at current rates. Battery metals, however, are expected to go through substantial market growth in the near future given the focus on shifting to a carbon neutral economy, and this demand has and will continue to have major impacts on allocation of exploration and development expenditure.

Do critical minerals have any blindspots?

Given that the 2021 critical mineral update contains 33 mineral commodities, it would seem that everything of importance for future economies is covered. However, Utah’s most significant produced mineral commodity, essential to current and future economies across the world, is copper, and copper is not a critical mineral. Other major infrastructure metals like iron (also mined in Utah, with the restart of the Black Iron mine in 2020) and aggregate are also not considered critical minerals. So although critical minerals tell a big part of the story about the future of the minerals industry, many of the traditional mineral commodities will continue to be essential. It is important that government and industry long-term planning continues to include these commodities.

An example of the mineral systems approach to critical minerals exploration, with the West Desert skarn deposit type and critical mineral potential highlighted.

An example of the mineral systems approach to critical minerals exploration, with the West Desert skarn deposit type and critical mineral potential highlighted.

How do we explore for critical minerals?

Critical minerals span every known geologic terrane, and many may not have strong enough economics to support stand-alone mining, such as gallium. How then do we approach critical minerals from an exploration standpoint? The USGS recently published a “mineral systems” approach to critical minerals. The mineral systems approach helps explorationists understand the critical mineral potential of known types of mineral deposits and encourages a holistic view of deposit economics, including consideration of critical mineral byproduct production along with core commodities. A good example of this in Utah is the West Desert skarn deposit in Juab County. Under the mineral systems approach, West Desert can be classified as a skarn deposit in a porphyry mineral system. The mineral systems approach suggests possible enrichment of nine critical minerals in a skarn deposit, one of which is indium. As it turns out, West Desert hosts an established resource of indium, the only known indium resource in the United States and enough indium to cover U.S. indium consumption for more than 15 years, based on 2020 imports. This demonstration of the mineral systems model shows how important it can be to remove blinders, especially in an exploration phase, and consider all the mineral potential in a deposit.

Periodic table showing the critical minerals from the original 2018 list, those that were not included in the 2021 update, and those that were added in the 2021 update.
Critical minerals produced or having established resources in Utah are highlighted.


The UGS and critical minerals

As the minerals landscape evolves, the Utah Geological Survey (UGS) remains at the forefront of understanding emerging and traditional commodity trends. The UGS has been leading the way with understanding Utah’s critical mineral landscape and published a summary of knowledge to date in 2020 (Critical Minerals of Utah, UGS Circular 129). Currently the UGS is carrying out a mapping and critical mineral assessment of the Gold Hill mining district, and a critical mineral web map will be available later this year. As always, look for updates on projects and publications at geology.utah.gov.