Aerial Geology: A High-Altitude Tour of North America’s Spectacular Volcanoes, Canyons, Glaciers, Lakes, Craters, and Peaks, by Mary Caperton Morton


Five stars, read in December 2017.

I took this book home intending to flip through its beautiful large pages, look at the photos, and return it in a day or two. I’ve ended up keeping it three weeks, reading a few pages a day, because there is so much interesting information presented in easily-navigable layers that allow you to take as much or as little time as you like. (I also decided to find a bigger picture of the book cover than the one I already had, so it could be as visually striking here as it is in person.)

I started out just reading the small boxes with headlines like one of the only east-west mountain ranges in North America (about the Uinta Mountains where my in-laws live), or a slice of Mexico’s west coast that was sheared off by earthquake action (about the stiletto heel of Mexico’s boot, otherwise known as the Baja California Peninsula), or 3-billion-year-old diamonds brought to the surface by volcanic conduit (in Arkansas, of all places). But soon I was pulled into the bigger blocks of text on each page spread, and I learned so many fascinating things about the actual earth underneath us.

Geologic Map of North America

I learned that there’s a mountain peak in New Hampshire that gets hurricane-force gusts of wind 100 days of the year, and that the world’s largest bas-relief carving is of the leaders of the Confederacy in Georgia.

I learned that Lake Tahoe is basically a death trap, sitting atop three fault lines that are overdue for an earthquake, which—because the lake is so deep—could cause a tsunami big enough to destroy all the homes around the lake within seconds.

I learned a new word for the next time I play Boggle with Mike’s family (ooid, a shell that forms around single grains of sand and gets compressed into limestone in the Everglades), and that Niagara Falls has moved seven miles upstream from where it started out 10,000 years ago, and that enough water passes over it to fill an Olympic swimming pool every second.

I learned that Mount Rushmore’s another thing we stole from Native Americans (don’t know about you but I am shocked, SHOCKED I TELL YOU). It was called the Six Grandfathers by the Lakota Sioux, and used to be the site of spiritual quests before some live white guys decided to display dead white guys on it (done by the same artist as the one in Georgia, who I just this second learned was a member of the KKK because of course he fucking was).

I re-learned some things, too, that I know I would have been taught in school as a child but didn’t retain the information. For example, that glaciers form when snow doesn’t melt from year to year, but keeps packing down under new snow and hardening until it’s heavy enough to start sliding down the mountain, carving valleys and dragging along dirt and rocks that collect toward the end, and sometimes as swirly patterns within the glacier. The one below is the Malaspina Glacier in Alaska (and the swirly dirt is called a moraine, lateral when it’s in stripes in the glacier itself, terminal when it’s at the end).


The Finger Lakes in New York were carved by glaciers, and they totally look it.

I read about Pingualuit Crater, which is somehow one of the world’s deepest lakes even though it has no inlets or outlets, but is filled solely by rainwater and snowmelt (and therefore has a unique, isolated population of fish). Also in Quebec is Lake Manicouagan, a lake which looks like someone forgot to use a coaster; that’s actually a huge central island in the middle.

I learned that rain falling on Triple Divide Peak in Montana ends up flowing to three different oceans—to the Columbia River in the west, and out to the Pacific Ocean; to Hudson Bay in the northeast (part of the Arctic Ocean); and to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico in the southeast (part of the Atlantic Ocean). To me, even more incredible than such a distinct three-way divide is the fact that water from that one mountain peak can travel thousands of miles across the continent. Surprisingly, I couldn’t find any photos online that show the peak as well as Morton’s own photography does in this book; happily, that page is available in the Google Books preview.

Until the most recent phase of my life, I would have said geology was one of the least possibly interesting sciences, and I think that is because I associate it with the color brown. I picture deserts like Utah and Arizona, sedimentary rock, possibly some sand dunes, and it’s all brown and beige and the thing about nature that seizes my soul is color, especially green. But there are astonishing colors in this book, and even the brown parts are less (metaphorically) brown than I thought they were. Guys, this planet is fucking gorgeous—not just the stuff on top of it but the actual earth we’re standing on.

(The Badlands in South Dakota, Painted Rock at Lake Superior, The Wave in Arizona, Zion National Park in Utah, Sand to Snow National Monument in California)

I am so curious now, and would love to see a book like this for the other six continents—although there was definitely an element of excitement here that came from things being local. I haven’t seen most of these geological features myself, but some I have (Bear Lake in Utah/Idaho, Shiprock in New Mexico) and some are just familiar because they’ve shown up in movies and textbooks my whole life. This book is lovely and educational and entertaining, and I will be buying a copy sometime to keep on my coffee table. If you’ve bothered to make it to the end of this post, the subject matter is clearly interesting enough to you that you’ll want to check it out yourself.

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