Nature up close: Bryce Canyon National Park

Backlit hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park by Verne Lehmberg.

Verne Lehmberg

By “Sunday Morning” contributing videographer Judy Lehmberg.

“A hell of a place to lose a cow!” That’s what early pioneer Ebenezer Bryce said about Bryce Canyon.

I have to admit geology isn’t my favorite science. I agree with Sheldon Cooper from the best sitcom on TV, “The Big Bang Theory,” who says geology is not a real science and calls geologists the “Kardashians of science.” I would rather see something cute and fuzzy than something cold and hard, but I have to admit Bryce Canyon is an exception. 

Nature: Bryce Canyon

I first saw it over 35 years ago on an extended college field trip. Our geology professor took us down into the canyon. Looking up at those delicate orange hoodoos was something I’ve never forgotten, along with him singing “Oh what a beautiful morning!” when we were so hot and tired we wanted to throw rocks at him (Just kidding Dr. Brown). Now that I am older and lazier, I can stand at the canyon edge and remember what it looks like from below without having to go to the effort to actually walk down there. It really is stunning either looking up or down.

Although it is named Bryce Canyon, it’s not really a canyon. It is an eroded bowl or amphitheatre on the edge of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, an area uplifted 10 to 20 million years ago in what is now southwestern Utah. The formations in Bryce are known as hoodoos, which comes from a Paiute phrase meaning “red rocks standing like men in a bowl shaped canyon.” There, sedimentary nature is obvious in the reddish rock, rich in iron oxide, interspersed with lighter rock. The sediments of Bryce were deposited in shallow lakes, streams and marshes during cycles of inundating and retreating sediment bearing water. Uplift of the region left these layers 9,000 feet above sea level. The rocks are sandstone, clay bearing limestone, siltstones, mudstones, and dolomitic limestone. Mudstones are more easily eroded while dolomite, magnesium-calcium carbonate, is harder than the other layers and more resistant to naturally acidic rainwater. Carbonic acid in rain preferentially dissolves calcium carbonate in the clay limestone. Resistant dolomite often acts as a protective cap on top of the hoodoos. 

Bryce Canyon hoodoo.  Sherri O'Brien

The hoodoo’s shapes are also strongly influenced by water and its unique ability to expand when it hardens into ice, literally prying rock apart. When water freezes in a cast iron engine block it can break that engine. The prying action of ice on rocks is obviously considerable. The temperature at this high elevation gets below freezing about 275 nights a year. During many afternoons the temperature rises above freezing. Water therefore freezes and thaws frequently. After liquid water seeps into cracks and freezes, the wedging action breaks rocks apart. The steep slope surrounding the hoodoos allows the occasional monsoon rainfall to carry away sediments at an accelerated rate so the bowl’s edges are receding about 1.5 feet every 100 years. If you want to see this magnificent geological wonder, you better come quickly. In three million years it may be gone.

Bryce Canyon hummingbird.  Verne Lehmberg

Bryce is home to several species of hummingbirds, the smallest, and some of the fastest moving, birds on Earth. They are also quite aggressive. They are beautiful, but I wouldn’t want to pick a fight with one. Their metabolic rate matches their fast movements. If our metabolic rate was as high as a hummingbird we would have to eat somewhere around 200,000 calories a day! In fact the only reason hummingbirds can survive all night without eating is that they can go into torpor. Torpor is similar to hibernation, except shorter, when an animal lowers it’s body temperature as much as 50 degrees Farenheit, as well as lowering their heart rate and breathing.

Judy Lehmberg is a former college biology teacher who now shoots nature videos.

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