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Bones in the Belltower, a Berkeley Science Review feature by Sara ElShafie

fall_2015_elshafie_featureThe Fall 2015 issue of the Berkeley Science Review features an article by Sara ElShafie, a UCMP graduate student in the Padian Lab, on the McKittrick tar seep fossils that have been stored in the Campanile since the 1930s. The convergence of an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant to the UCMP to clean and catalogue more the 12,000 specimens in the collection and the centennial celebration of the Campanile in 2015 shined a spotlight on these unique fossils.

In interviews with UCMP graduate students Eric Holt and Ashley Poust, and UCMP staff Lisa White and Pat Holroyd, Sara details the work performed to preserve history and scientific significance of the McKittrick collection. Over 3,000 collective hours spent by more than a dozen students will improve the accessibility to the collection for future research and a rich digital archive facilitates sharing with the education community.

The Berkeley Science Review is a graduate student-run magazine showcasing research conducted UC Berkeley in a variety of disciplines.

The 2015 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar now available

UCMP and the development of the ichthyosaur quarry at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park

2015 calendar image

The focus for the 2015 calendar became Nevada’s Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park when a trove of 35 mm slides and black & white prints chronicling the development of the ichthyosaur quarry was found in the museum archives. These images, from the Charles L. Camp Papers, dominate the calendar, however, there are also slides from the collections of Sam Welles and Joe Gregory, images from the Huff family archives, newspaper clippings, printed materials, and scientific illustrations.

A short summary
In 1953, the bones of large ichthyosaurs found east of Gabbs, Nevada, were brought to the attention of UCMP’s Charles Camp. The following year, he began excavations that led to the discovery of bones representing some 37 individuals of a new kind of ichthyosaur that he later described and named Shonisaurus. From the beginning, Camp felt that the locality should be protected as a state park and, working with other interested parties in Nevada, he was successful in convincing the legislature to do this.

Camp turned one quarry containing the bones of several ichthyosaurs into a showcase for visitors, leaving the bones in situ and sandblasting them clean; this became the Visitors’ Quarry that people see at the park today.

Camp died before he was able to publish his description of the new species, but Joe Gregory saw that the manuscript was completed and published in 1980. UCMP’s Sam Welles, with the assistance of volunteers, spent three summers in the early 1980s at the Visitors’ Quarry cleaning and preserving the exposed bones and making a new map of the bonebed. Read more about the park.

Order now!
Contact Chris Mejia at cmejia@berkeley.edu or call 510-642-1821 to obtain your 2015 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar. They're only $10 each (plus postage) and all proceeds support museum research, education, and outreach.

And for you collectors, a few copies of both the 2013 and 2014 UCMP Fossil Treasures Calendar are still available for a mere $2.

Paleontological field work and nuclear testing

In the mid to late 1950s, Charles L. Camp, Professor in the Department of Paleontology and former Director of UCMP (1930-1949), spent his summers working at what would later become Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, about 55 miles north of Tonopah, Nevada, and 150 miles northwest of Yucca Flat at the Nevada Test Site.

Beginning in 1951 and ending in 1992, the United States did extensive nuclear testing at Yucca Flat. There were 739 tests conducted there, resulting in Yucca Flat being called “the most irradiated, nuclear-blasted spot on the face of the earth.”1 Large amounts of radioactive material were released into the atmosphere, and communities downwind of the test site, such as St. George, Utah, felt the effects of this. See this Journal of the American Medical Association article.

The government publicized the dates and times of scheduled tests so Camp was aware that they were going on while he worked at the ichthyosaur site. In his field notes from 1955 to 1957, he mentions three of these tests:

Apple-2 test

The Apple-2 atomic test conducted on May 5, 1955.


On May 6, 1955, Camp wrote “The atom went off yesterday morning and I didn’t hear or see it. Harold [Harold Newman, a local who assisted Camp] claims he did.”

This was “Apple-2,” the 13th atomic test in a series of 14 called Operation Teapot conducted at the Nevada Test Site. It’s yield was 29 kilotons.

A few days later, on May 15, Camp could not help noticing the atomic blast: “The 14th big atom went off this morning at 5 [5:00 am], 200 miles away. I sat up in bed and saw a violet-pink flash lasting a fraction of a second. About 15 min. later a low grumbling thunderous roar came in like thunder shaking the earth a little. This came in two or three crescendos. About 3-5 min. later a more subdued noise like far away growling of lions came through the air without quite so much force.”

This was “Zucchini,” the final test of Operation Teapot, with a yield of 28 kilotons. According to a 1997 National Cancer Institute report, civilian exposure to some 24,500 kilocuries of radioiodine that had been released into the atmosphere by the Teapot tests would eventually cause about 13,000 cases of thyroid cancer.

On July 5, 1957, Camp experienced another blast: “Big bomb from balloon went off at 5 am and rattled the windows, shook the cabin and growled like thunder. Flash very bright 20 seconds before blasts hit. Three blasts (one ‘aftershock’ I suppose).”

Hood test

The 74-kiloton Hood atomic test conducted on July 5, 1957.


This was the 74-kiloton “Hood” test, fourth in a series of 29 tests called Operation Plumbbob that were conducted from May through October of 1957. It was the largest atmospheric test ever conducted within the continental United States and it was almost five times as powerful as the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima (15 kilotons). The device was carried aloft by a balloon and detonated at 460 meters above the ground. According to the same National Cancer Institute report mentioned above, the Plumbbob test series put more than twice as much radioiodine into the atmosphere as any other series, and about 38,000 eventual cases of thyroid cancer were expected to be the outcome.

Despite his proximity to the test site, Charles Camp lived to be 82, dying in 1975, albeit from cancer. The prevailing westerly winds that blew the radiation clouds towards Utah were probably his saving grace.

 

1Clarfield, G.H., and W.M. Wiecek. 1984. Nuclear America: Military and Civilian Nuclear Power in the United States 1940–1980. Harper & Row, New York. P. 202.

Photos are from http://nuclearweaponarchive.org; the images are believed to be in the public domain.