Sunday, July 31, 2011

Passing through Moria... I mean Mt Isa Mines

Michele - It is a structural geologist's dream, to stand in the middle of a fault zone. I've stood on many outcrops of faults and I've stood next to many cliff exposures of faults before. What I'm talking about here is the ultimate 3D experience not matched in any cinema show with uncomfortable glasses; standing inside a fault zone with fresh exposures under you, to both sides and above your head. How lucky can a girl get to have such an opportunity?

Through Tom Blenkinsop's wonderful connections and Steve Micklethwaite's willingness to give a talk to the Mt Isa Mines (MIM) exploration geologists, Steve and I got an underground tour from Brad Miller, an amazing underground geologist at MIM. Until about 8 am you can descend to the mine in a cage that holds 92 people. Because we had to go through training and get suited up we missed this and drove a spiralled network of roads down to 1.8 km below the surface. The drive to the ore body took 1 hour. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Training: We had to watch two induction videos and pass a safety test. As you can imagine mine safety is huge priority. We would be under Brad's watchful eye but we also needed to know some basics before they would let us underground.

Equipment: The red suit indicates that I am a visitor. On right side of my waist belt is the battery to my head lamp. I never asked how long those batteries last between chargings but judging from the weight, I'm going to say 4.3 years. On the left side of my hip is the "self-rescuer". If needed you pop open the lid and strap a plastic bag to your face for breathing. The disk in the bag produces oxygen that should last ~1 hour as long as you breathe normally. Yeah right, breathe normally... I'm also holding eye protection, which I wore the whole time. On my feet I'm wearing standard issue steeltoed boots.

The trip: We rode in an extended cab diesel pickup through the active lead-zinc pit to the portal to the deeper copper mine. My first thought through the portal was "Ooo cool, rock bolts!". I've always had a fascination with rock bolts - but if you know me you are not surprised by this. I didn't realize in those first moment that I would get to see thousands and thousands of rock bolts in the next few hours. Forget being impressed by bolted roadsides along the Mass Pike west of Springfield, at MIM I was in the land of rock bolts. I rode in the back seat, which meant that I couldn't lipread Steve and Brad but it also meant that I was free to gawk like a kid at the surroundings without them mocking me. Although the mine tunnel snakes around, the host rock for the ore is a west-dipping shale so you can use the rock dip to get your bearings... well kind of. It was still pretty disorienting.

After an hour of driving we got out of the truck to see a faulted exposure at 1.6 km below the surface. Getting out of the truck, my first impression was "Jeesh this equipment is heavy" and my second impression was "They weren't kidding about that geothermal gradient.". I tell my GEO101 students that due to radioactive decay and residual heat of our planet's formation, the temperature increases ~25 degrees C for every km into the Earth. Sure, it makes sense but it is WAY more convincing to experience this first hand than to just talk about it. At 1.8 km, the deepest we went that day, the temperature of the rocks was probably about 45 C or 115 F. We sweated through our overalls and we kept drinking water regularly.

Because of the drilling and the passing vehicles a lot of the walls of the mine get dust covered. When the mine geologists map parts of the mine they pipe water so that they can clean off the walls. This mine is dry (no ground water) but in the active parts of the mine there is water everywhere from the drilling operations. We trudged though several pools that we nearly as deep as my boots and drove through many more pools. Near the drill it was noisy so I took out my hearing aids. The combination of dust, heat and humidity would be a perfect conditions for corrosion. I can imagine my audiologist cleaning out my hearing aids and saying "What did you do with them?!" She probably wouldn't believe the answer.

We drove around to exposures revealing a wide range of fault textures and conditions. Some of the faults were amazingly well-exposed on the walls and ceiling. I saw lots of veins in various states of deformation. We also got to visit regions of high ore grade. I picked up very warm samples of graphite, talc, quartz and chalopyrite, from which the copper is smelted. The rocks were amazingly fresh. No weathering on these rocks!

After several hours of amazing rocks, we drove the spiraled path back to the surface. At one point underground our truck died (dead battery) and I was really wanting to be back on the surface. However, once I was back in the sunlight, I appreciated how wonderful the inside of the Earth looks and wanted to go back. I may not get the chance to go underground again, but if I do, I will certainly say yes.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Yungaburra: Platypus

Gavin: When we were in Australia two years ago we stayed in Yungaburra for one night before piling back into the minivan and visiting the Undara lava tubes.

My secret super-power is forgetting names, so of course I had no idea I'd ever been in Yungaburra before when I booked two nights at Bushland Cottages. I managed to drive all around town and still not realize I'd ever been there before (in my defense, we did most of the driving around in the dark, and my mum didn't realize she'd been there before, either; maybe that particular cluelessness is genetic). It wasn't until we'd spent the night and were walking to the grocery store that I recognized the house we'd spent the night in two years ago.

Bushland Cottages was a very nice place to stay; clean, comfortable, with a wood-burning stove that we actually used because the nights were a little chilly. Their best feature is a walking path that connects to the public walking track along Peterson Creek, which is home to several platypus (Platipi? Platypuses?). Walking along the creek in the morning or evening we always saw at least one, and usually saw more than one. Like movie stars, they're smaller when you see them in person.

Mt Isa (the town) and Mt Isa Mines (the mine)

Michele -- Mt Isa. I’d heard about this place for years. Urbanites shun Mt Isa’s remoteness. It is in western Queensland, near the border with the Northern Territories and closer to Alice Springs than the east coast. Mining geologists praise Mt Isa’s richness of resources. The area has a vast array of zinc, lead, silver and copper deposits that make the Mt Isa Mines (MIM) one of the richest single mines in the world. Prosperity from this and other mines are a large reason why Australia, unlike much of the rest of the world, is enjoying a strong economy. The Mt. Isa mine and smelting operations are huge and tower over the town from the hills to the west of the river. Environmentalists criticize Mt Isa’s impact on the area. The area has naturally high lead levels but the smelting operations must contribute to the conditions. The smelting process also releases SO2 into the atmosphere. Employees appreciate Mt Isa’s prosperity. Positions go unfilled here as there are more jobs than qualified people. Many people work two weeks on and one week off and fly out to homes in Cairns or Brisbane for their weeks off. Because companies pay for the air tickets, it is expensive to fly to Mt Isa. Rooms there are hard to book. Geologists rave about Mt Isa’s great outcrops that reveal orogenic events from over a billion years ago and provide insights into the mechanisms of faulting at depth. The isolation of the town leads to high turnover but some people stay for a long time and love the opportunities and lifestyle.

Steve reported seeing a t-shirt that read “Happiness is Mt Isa in the rearview mirror.” Of course, it was worn by someone who chose to leave.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Evil Aussie Bush grass

Michele -- The rocks in Cloncurry and Mt. Isa (western Queensland) are really amazing but we’ve encountered a drawback even more ubiquitous than the poisonous snakes out here -- evil Aussie bush grass with spikes of death. Sure it looks innocuous enough in this picture. Just a pleasant clump of grass waving in the breeze. Don’t be deceived! Those ‘blades’ of grass are truly blades of grass. The blades are rigid and extremely sharp tipped. As I walked by I swear I heard them whispering “Ha! Your tough canvas trousers present no challenge to us. Take that!”. Of course the grasses have Aussie accents. I now appreciate why Kangaroos hop across the outback and did my best to leap over the grass clumps.

So far I haven’t seen any of the famous Aussie snakes even though yesterday’s rocks were part of the Snake Creek Anticline. This is just fine with me.

Addendum: My field partner, Steve Micklethwaite, has pointed out that I erroneously ascribed Gallic inflections to the Evil Aussie Bush Grass. What Steve heard as he passed was "I'll cut ya down t' size, ya bloody tall poppies!". I stand corrected.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tasmania, more than just a penal colony

Michele -- Tasmanians are subject to many jokes among Aussies. Sort of like New Jersey in the US. Since I grew up in New Jersey, I felt an instant camaraderie with the Hobartians. We are misjudged and our homelands maligned. Together we can fight against the comedians jokes told at our expense and end this oppression! At the same time, I was curious if all the inbreeding stories were true and examined my Hobartian neighbors closely. Maybe. No obvious signs of second head removal surgery.

It seems that everyone has heard the stories of the Tasmanian penal colony. In the 18th and 19th centuries, after England couldn’t ship her convicts to the US anymore, she shipped them to Australia. The badly behaved of those convicts were then sent to the ends of the Earth -- Hobart. More specifically, to Port Arthur at the southern tip of the Tasman Peninsula and 90 km from Hobart. The transportation of convicts ended in 1853.

It may surprise some that these days some people voluntarily travel to Hobart. I’ve met graduate students and post-docs at the University of Tasmania who have come from all around the world. Hmm.. Is graduate school a modern-day penal system?

I've been working very hard since arriving in Hobart. After giving a public lecture and running a 2.5 day workshop I'm pretty worn out. Now that I've served my time, tomorrow I get to leave for Queensland. I will miss the old stone buildings in the Battery Park neighborhood where we are staying and the exquisite views of Mt Wellington when it isn't raining. Who knows, if I behave badly, maybe I will get to come back.

Down... there...

Gavin -- "Map of Tasmania" is Australian slang for part of the female anatomy. Amanda Palmer (Massachusetts resident) made a "Map of Tasmania" video earlier this year, and since we're in Tasmania I can't resist sharing. Don't watch if you're easily offended or don't like loud, noisy music:

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Food glorious food

We've been down under for a bit over a week and we've been really enjoying some foods that we just can't find at home. Here is our list so far:
  • passionfruit yogurt
  • Vegemite
  • meat pies (Yes, that is Robin enjoying her first pie of the trip at the Toranga Zoo)
  • lemon squash
  • fish and chips
  • passion fruit on ice cream
  • Carlton Draught (Yes it is a kiwi beer but you can get it in Australia and not in the US)
  • Tim Tams
  • licorice straps. Not just cherry and anise, these are straps 2.5 feet long and thick. The aussies do licorice like nobody's business. One of our favorites is sour lime. I've only seen licorice strap vendors at the weekly markets.
  • sausage rolls
  • lemon slice
  • passionfruit
  • lamb snags
  • tasmanian cheese <-- this is a new favorite
  • smoked mutton sausage
  • Tasmanian pinot noir <- discovered this evening
I'm probably forgetting some... We haven't hit the bakeries much yet and they have lots of yummies. Getting hungry just thinking about it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

It isn't the cold, it is the humidity

Michele - Yes, that is snow on Mt. Wellington viewed from the house we are staying at in Hobart. A few days before we arrived, it was snowing at sea level, a remarkable event even for Hobart. Hobart, at the southern side of Tasmania, gets its weather straight from the southern Ocean. Yeah, that same ocean that swirls around Antarctica. The high today was 6˚ Celsius, which in New England units is partway between wicked cold and pretty cold. But it isn’t really the cold or the humidity, it is the lack of insulation. I’ve heard Tim way up in Brisbane lament the lack of insulation but I was very surprised that even houses here in Hobart, at 43˚ south latitude, lack insulation. The temperature outside is pretty much the temperature inside most buildings. Furthermore, in a country rich in petroleum resources, I’m surprised that nearly all the heating in Tasmania is electric. No insulation + high electric costs = buildings remain cold.

The coldest room I’ve been in so far is the ladies toilet (restroom) at work (University of Tasmania Center of Excellence in Ore Deposits). There is no heat in the room but also the windows of the toilet do not close so the temperature inside is indeed the SAME as the temperature outside. Talk about leaving the ladies vulnerable! Needless to say, everyone is very quick with their business and there isn’t any chit chat in that room.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Michele: This picture at the left shows the variety of Euro coins I was given in just two transactions on my first day in Australia. Apparently, I had ‘jet-lagged dumb tourist’ stamped on my forehead that day. Actually, since we couldn’t check into our hotel until 3pm that first day, I probably did. It was frustrating to get these coins. Euro coins are pretty useless in Australia. In fact, you really couldn’t get much farther away from Euro trading countries than Australia.

I could take some solace in the fact that since the Australian economy is so strong, the Euro equals the Australian dollar. So I might have been given the same value of Euro currency as Australian currency. However I was not. The photo at right reveals the evil intent of those Aussie change makers
. The 2 dollar Australian coin (center) looks very similar to the 20 cent and 10 center Euro coins. So while I should have pocketed several Aussie $2 coins, I ended up with a pocket of eurotrash. Since that first day I’ve check my change more carefully but no one has slipped me anymore eurotrash. I’m glad that the ‘dumb tourist’ stamp washes off .

The sun is in the not-south

Michele - In mid-winter here, days are short and the sun hangs low in the northern sky. When we exit from a Sydney subway station we have to think carefully. OK the sun is there… so that must be the not-south (my fellow nerds know that !south =north). Lots of things are the opposite of what we expect so that whenever you feel an urge to do something, chances are you should do the opposite. When crossing the street, first look in the not-left direction. When driving, stay to the not-right. When going through airport security, keep your shoes not-off and go ahead and put your diet coke on the conveyor belt. She’ll be right.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Oh those crazy Aussie birds!

First day in Sydney.
After some luggage adventures and >30 hours of travel we arrive at our hotel at 10:00 am but our room isn't ready until 3:00 pm. So cruel - but we take this opportunity to avoid sleep and explore the city a bit. They say that staying in the sun helps your body adjust to time changes so it is probably good for us to wander around. It won't surprise you that we, well-documented city-non-appreciators (see trend in earlier blog entries), ended up spending the day in the Royal Botanical Gardens.

Michele: The gardens are awesome! Until today, the Hampstead Heath in London was my favorite city gardens. You feel like you are far from the city in the Heath's meandering paths and undulating topography. The Hampstead Heath is now officially demoted. In the Royal Botanical gardens, the skyscrapers poke above the trees so you still feel close to the city BUT the Royal Botanical Gardens has something Hampstead Heath will never have.... crazy Australian birds.

There are many signs declaring not to feed the birds. The ibises have found work arounds for this by poking through picnic baskets and the remains of peoples lunches. The sulphur-crested cockatoos however, use their charm to solicit food. Some rule-breakers brought peanuts for the cockies and became quite popular. While we didn't have any food for them, the cockies needed to check us out to be quite certain. I'm amazed that the birds are able to stand securely on people's heads without digging their claws too much.

We also saw curlews of the famous tortured children call. Fortunately, they weren't calling today. The park also houses loads of fruit bats. I know that fruit bats are mammals but they fly so I'm including them in this blog on birds. I was surprised to see so many bats in Sydney in mid-winter because I think of them as a feature of tropical Queensland. Many trees are bare. The weather reminds me of Palo Alto's winter. Chilly in the morning (45 degrees) but warm at mid-day in the sunshine.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

going back

Tomorrow we leave again for Australia, only a month this time and the itinerary is crazy: Sydney, Hobart, Townsville, Cairns, Yungaburra, Mt Isa and Mission Beach. We will have different stories this time in part because of the different places and in part because of all the changes since we left Mission Beach. In addition to the normal changes that occur in two years, cyclone Yasi went right over our old town, stripping trees and destroying buildings.

A whole new round of adventures wait for us this time around and we can't wait to share them with you.