Geology of the Pacific Northwest

Cover of Geology of the Pacific Northwest

I’ve had my eye on this one for quite a while, and when my nephew came to visit, I decided to go for it. Cynthia Light Brown’s Geology of the Pacific Northwest is everything I hoped for. It covers a fair chunk of territory: Northern California to Alaska (excluding Canada, alas) and east to the Rockies. I love the scope of it. There is a huge amount of intriguing geology in these areas, and it’s great to have a book kids can take with them on visits to the national parks throughout the region.
She writes with a refreshing enthusiasm. You can tell she loves her subject, and she uses a lot of energetic words to convey the excitement, beauty, and grandeur of her subject.

Kids who are just starting to get interested in how these lovely landscapes form and how we study them will find everything clearly explained. Cynthia starts by defining geology and geography as sciences, then dives into the biggest theory in geology and the most important shaper of the PNW: plate tectonics. She has an absolutely delicious experiment at the end, using a candy bar to demonstrate some of the mechanisms. In fact, every chapter ends with an activity or two, some tastier than others.

From there, she explores mountain ranges, their rainshadows, and glaciers. Some of the differences in the various ranges are explored. Then we get to know volcanoes and earthquakes. (Alas, here is where we learn this book was published just ahead of the solving of the Mima Mounds mystery. She seemed to find earthquakes to be the most plausible cause, but twas gophers all along. It’s still a fun way to get kids to generate and test hypotheses, though!)

We get to explore the Columbia River Basalts in the Basin and Plateaus chapter. I love that she recognizes them as emerging from volcanoes: some authors don’t realize that fissures actually are volcanoes. And then she does a pretty great job explaining the Missoula Floods and Channeled Scablands. My only quibble here was talking about how the ice dam broke without mentioning that Glacial Lake Missoula repeatedly got deep enough to float its ice dam. That’s one of my favorite details about the floods, and I wish it had been included here! But we get a good section on J Harlan Bretz and how he proved his theory to skeptical colleagues, which is a great way of showing kids how science gets done. And there’s an excellent discussion of the Snake River Plain that makes me want to go there very, very badly. Then we get an activity where we’re making “basalt” columns out of a non-Newtonian fluid, which is about the best thing ever and something I need to do next time Nephew is up. Is there much of anything more fun for kids than playing around with non-Newtonian fluids?

The next chapter does an admirable job of explaining climate and weather, including some of our weird winds like the Chinook and the Pineapple Express. That chapter segues nicely into Rivers, which includes a bit on the plans to remove the dams on the Elwha River on the Olympic Peninsula. Since that’s now been done, a fun extra for kids would be having them investigate how the area has changed now that the river’s flowing freely. The activities for this chapter include making your own river bed, which I also want to do.

We next learn about ecosystems, which has a lot of potential to blow kids’ minds repeatedly, what with the temperate rainforests, the epiphytes, and the 2,224 acre fungi colony.

The chapter on The Coast teaches wonderfully well about ocean currents, food webs, and fractals. It’s a mini-oceanography course and I’m here for it.

Throughout the book, proper scientific terms are presented in hexagonal boxes reminiscent of the tops of basalt columns. Light-Brown often asks kids to ponder the reasons why things might be the way they are, and come up with their own answers. I love the way information is presented and critical thought encouraged.

Really, the only real quibble I have with this book is the drawings: Eric Baker’s illustrations are often so stylized they’re confusing. His diagrams of mountain belts are especially counter-productive. But his sea otters are cute. Yay?

Overall, despite the failings of the illustrations, this is a really solid book. I recommend it for any kid who’s interested in the PNW’s geology and animals. It’s a pretty great introduction. I can’t wait to investigate other books in the series!

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Geology of the Pacific Northwest
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