Showcasing Oregon's Stunning Geology

December 18, 2008

An exhibit at the Oregon State Capitol lets visitors view evidence
of the tectonic, volcanic and seismic forces that have sculpted the
state over 150 million years

By Lee Sherman

Oregon
will be 150 years old in February. Its landscape, however, is a million times
older. You can see the story - "Oregon: 150 Years of
Statehood, 150 Million Years in the Making" - for yourself in a state
Capitol exhibit opening January 12.

In
honor of the state's sesquicentennial, 16 windows in the Rotunda will tell
visitors about the tectonic, volcanic and seismic forces that have sculpted
Oregon (get a preview, courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society). Beginning with a cataclysmic rise from ancient seas, edge-of-your-seat
chapters describe ice ages, catastrophic floods, massive lava flows and
tropical jungles. The exhibit wraps up with a look at climate change - past,
present and future. Though a newcomer to this story, the human footprint plays
a crucial role.

"The
exhibit illustrates how geology has crafted Oregon's landscape and natural
resources - and how it continues to shape land and lives today," says Bob Lillie,
the OSU geology professor who, along with graduate student Jason Kenworthy, developed the
exhibit in collaboration with the Oregon
Historical Society
, the Oregon Paleo Lands
Institute
, Portland State University,
OSU's Hatfield Marine Sciences Center
and the Oregon
Department of Geology and Mineral Industries
. (Although Lillie is the education and outreach
manager in the National EarthScope Office, this project is not affiliated with
EarthScope.)

Sandals
and Pillow Lava

Four
themes organize the exhibit: "assembling Oregon," volcanoes, geological
materials, and processes that continue to affect Oregonians. Digital maps and
colorful photos and illustrations are threaded together by lively text and
punctuated by actual artifacts and museum-quality rocks and minerals. Visitors
will see the scientific evidence of an unimaginable past: a sandal preserved for more than 7,500 years
in volcanic ash from the eruption that created Crater Lake. Fossils of animals
reminiscent of modern rhinos and hippos, which once grazed in banana-treed,
subtropical jungles where Prineville now sits. A photo of pillow lava that
oozed from a long-ago seafloor and then was lifted, over countless millennia,
3,000 feet above sea level. "Today," Lillie reports, "it sits atop Mary's Peak
west of Corvallis!"

Visitors
will learn surprising science about familiar places - about beloved
recreational destinations, treasured geological icons, even taken-for-granted
local landmarks. Portland- area residents, for instance, might be startled to
learn that their region sits on the remnants of 50 volcanoes and cinder cones.
Or that the silica in a volcanic ash cloud can turn to molten glass inside a
jet engine, prompting the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor Oregon's active
volcanoes for the Federal Aviation Administration.

One
of the Largest Volcanoes

fossilOn display, too, is Oregon's state rock, the
ball-shaped thunderegg, whose name comes from a Native American legend about
spirits hurling thunderbird eggs in fits of rage. There's the state fossil, the
Metasequoia (dawn redwood), its lacy,
33-million-year-old impression discovered in the ochre-colored sediments of the
Painted Hills and photographed (at right) by Ellen Morris Bishop of the Oregon Paleo Lands Institute. 

Visitors will learn about the oldest fossil reptile ever
unearthed in Oregon: a predatory,
crocodile-like Thalattosuchia uncovered
in the Blue Mountains. And about the recently discovered Crooked River Caldera,
which at 22 miles long by 12.5 miles wide is one of the world's largest
volcanoes.

Throughout the exhibit, the ancient is linked to the
present. And the land is linked to human life, both indigenous and immigrant. A
window called "Pints and Pinots" describes why geology matters in Oregon's thriving
microbrew and wine industries. Chemical and physical clues to past climate flux
preserved in Oregon sediments, fossils and glaciers show not only what happened long ago but also suggest what might occur in the future. The urgency of switching from fossil fuels to
alternative energy resources - a high priority for state lawmakers - is
reinforced by what scientists know about the past.

Quiz: Cheetah Versus Tsunami?

A brochure for schoolchildren will guide kids through
the exhibit as they search for answers embedded in the display cases.  A "Your Turn" question in each of the 16 windows
asks a questions like, "The cheetah is the fastest land animal on earth. Who
would win a race, the cheetah or the tsunami?" The answer: The tsunami wins handily at 500 miles an hour.

"Oregon's diverse regions reveal a variety of geological processes that have had profound impacts on climate, culture and commerce," says Lillie. "Our ever-changing landscape affects our lives and our spirit."