Fossils and Atomic Testing in Nevada


(Picture from here.)

I wrote this on the trip back and promptly fell quite sick. So it’s going up now. 

Today is the last day of our vacation in Nevada. I’m writing this in the waiting area for our flight from Las Vegas back to Boston.

It’s been a good trip though probably not to everyone’s taste. We stayed in Mesquite rather than Las Vegas. Didn’t visit any of the casinos save for one fairly miserable experience where we had dinner there and had to cut our way through the smoke to the buffet. Not recommended.

We spent most of our time hiking around the area looking for neat rocks and fossils.

A few interesting facts about Nevada:

  • 87% of the state is owned by the federal government and administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that manages federal land that isn’t parks and other sorts of whatnot. (Note, BLM rules change from state to state so what is true in Nevada might not be true in Utah.)
  • The BLM allows up to 250 pounds of rocks and fossils if they’re not to be sold
  • The BLM restricts vertebrate fossils. (A permit is required.) Non-vertebrate fossils are just fine.
  • Petrified wood is not considered a fossil.
  • The BLM has very nice maps that show you the different land ownership types such as BLM land, private or park land.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the area was having the coldest winter in twenty years and the high country had significant snow—two to four inches in some places. Since we’re from New England, the bad news wasn’t all that bad.

Nevada is interesting geologically. Some of the uplifted rocks were laid down in the Cambrian so there are trilobite and other like fossils. Other areas were underwater during the time in the Jurassic so there are ichthyosaurs and the like. I didn’t research if there were dinosaur fossils in the state but I suspect there are. A lot of petrified wood.

It’s also interesting in that there is an abundance of volcanic events amidst the sedimentary rock. Often, you’ll be walking along a cut and see disintegrating mud underneath gravel underneath shale underneath basalt. A wash is the result of water flowing down the mountains and exiting down the valley. Often, you might find chalcedony, jasper, mud rock, and shale all mixed together. On one slope we found ammonites next to a pale, opalescent chalcedony. We brought home both.

We did do a few things that were not entirely rock collecting oriented. We did some hiking in Zion Park in Utah—highly recommended—and visited Hoover Dam. Also recommended.

We also visited the Atomic Testing Museum.

This was very cool.

I grew up in the fifties where we went to bed thinking wondering where we would hide if the nuclear bombs dropped. One of the movies shown in the museum had the “duck and cover” song, which made me a bit nervous.

There were a couple of things that this museum highlighted. One was that the people who were testing atomic weapons were absolutely sincere in thinking they were doing the right thing and protecting their country. To them this was not mere jingoistic patriotism. They considered the Soviet Union a very real and credible threat. The weapons stockpiles were important in maintaining peace between the nations. Whether this is, in fact, true or not is something that I’m not going to debate here.

A lot of times when you hear people talk about such things, there’s a sense that they’re trying to convince themselves. I got this feeling when I heard Robert McNamara talk about Viet Nam or Richard Cheney talk about Iraq. The people talking about what happened in the National Test Facility didn’t have a qualm about what they did at the time.

Part of this was they also now have a clear idea of the mistakes they made. Fallout yields were miscalculated. Energy release was underestimated. Bomb safety was not well characterized. None of this was due to incompetence. It was because this was all new. Much of the early testing took place in less than a decade since the nuclear explosions in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. No one really knew what was going to happen. Many of the interviewees acknowledged this and would have preferred waiting. It was just they didn’t feel they had the time. They have regrets that some things fell the way they did but have no regrets on their actions.

For example, in the sixties some incidents caused them to execute a safety review of the bombs themselves. It turns out that the way they were built, the bombs wanted to explode. They redesigned the bombs and warheads so they could be stored safely.

This is all up front in the museum. One gets the impression that the people who run the NTF feel they need hide nothing.

We live in an age where people hide acts executed in all good conscience lest they be subject to modern criticism. It’s refreshing to watch people saying, yeah: we would have told people to take shelter in the area for a couple of days after the bomb blast because we blew hell out of the ozone layer and it took three days or so for it to grow back. But we didn’t know. We would still have tested the bombs because we didn’t know squat about them back then. We would have just done it differently.

It was also a different perspective to see how people in Nevada viewed such things. I was living in California most of that time. We ducked and covered in the classrooms in case war came. But, in Las Vegas, people saw the flash. There were hundreds of tests in Nevada, many above ground. Every time an above ground test happened, it was seen across much of the state. In California, we were scared of something amorphous. In Nevada, they saw it every few months.

Then, back to the hills and looking for rocks and fossils.

We ended up with about 100 pounds of rock holding down every counter in the hotel room. Fifty pounds were our addition to the adjacent rock garden but the remaining 50 pounds needed to be shipped. We ended up purchasing a sturdy suitcase in Walmart and paying $25 for a check on. We heard, “what do you have in here? Rocks?” more than once. We just smiled and gave them our credit card.

So, now it’s back to work and writing and other stuff. I’ll get back to the Green Revolution before long. We haven’t even gotten to Darwin’s abominable mystery: flowering plants.





Fossils and Atomic Testing in Nevada — 7 Comments

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  2. I had no idea that you could take rocks and fossils from some BLM sites.

    And I so agree on your take on Las Vegas. I can’t stand the place. I still recall being out there for a conference in February years ago. The weather was beautiful and I had escaped two feet of snow on the East Coast. But there was no place within walking distance of my hotel where you could go to sit and enjoy nature and watch the sun set. Definitely never going there without a car again.

    Your take on the motives and beliefs of those working on atomic testing is very thought-provoking. I suspect that most people — including researchers — are trying to do their best with the knowledge and concerns they have at the moment. But sometimes they make huge mistakes while acting with the best intentions. And sometimes the outcome may be worth the huge mistakes. Lots to chew on here.

  3. A dear friend works at the Handford Nuclear Reservation. Imagine their excitement when they discovered a battleship that was sunk prior to the first nuclear detonation. They had tons of steel, untainted by radiation in which to keep test samples, or to run tests etc. Nothing that was above ground since August of 1945 gave them that kind of purity.

    Makes me think how much radiation we’ve thrown into the atmosphere without heed.

    • There’s lots of radiation already around in the soil, the water and the air that’s got nothing to do with nuclear weapons testing or use. The big thing about the steel from sunken battleships and the like is that it’s not contaminated with the specific isotopes produced by nuclear weapons (or indeed nuclear power plants) so it can be used to shield detectors and analysis instruments measuring those specific fission products.

  4. Thanks, Steven, for an interesting report. I worked at Hanford in the 1970s as a nuclear reactor operator (on the experimental FFTF Breeder Reactor), and the attitude among most residents and other workers (including safety engineers) seemed rather dismissive of the longterm danger potentials. I decided it wasn’t a field I wanted to continue in.
    When we visited Las Vegas, we did rent a car so we could explore the Red Rock Canyon, but didn’t know we could keep fossils on BLM land — next time, if there is one!