5.04.2009

Tar Party - La Brea Tar Pits
















What could be more heart wrenching than a mommy mammoth being slowly sucked down into a deep, sticky, smelly, bubbly pit of deadly tar while her husband mammoth and baby mammoth watch from the shore of the pit? Well, lots of things, but that isn't what we are talking about today. Today, we are filling you in on the magic and the agony of La Brea Tar Pits.

In the heart of LA, right on the Miracle Mile known for its hot 'n' happening retail scene, tar bubbles up right out of the ground. Right there. In the middle of a park. Right there, adjacent to the renowned Los Angeles County Museum of Art, right next to a cute sandwich cafe, there are burbling pits of tar.

In Pleistocene times (about 1.5 million years ago, give or take 5,000 years), mammoths would wade in maybe thinking it was a regular pond (can they not smell the methane and tar stench?) and get stuck. Wolves and saber-toothed cats and bears would try to get a nice mammoth meal, and would also get stuck. All would sink into the tar, slowly drowning in the black, sticky petroleum.

In the 1700's, the tar was widely used to seal up sea-faring ships. In the late 1800's and early 1900's, some of the oil, tar, and gas were pumped out and used in industry. It wasn't until 1910 that the pits became interesting to scientists as excavation sites where one could find well preserved saber-toothed cats.

The ancient swamp-now-petroleum-pond continues to burp and bubble, regardless of how built up the city has become. In 1985, a Ross Dress for Less on the Miracle Mile blew up due to the the accidental ignition of methane gas that had built up under the Ross' sub-basement.

As anyone who went to camp as a kid and learned how to light their farts will tell you, methane is highly flammable and as dangerous as it is stinky. Methane vented from a deep subterranean fissure into the Ross department store, where it ran into some old wiring or maybe a furnace, and the explosion blew out windows and collapsed part of the roof. Gas continued to spout off and burn for a day or two. Several people were hurt, but luckily, nobody was killed.

In 1989, on the other side of the street, similar geological digestive rumblings blew out a crater several feet deep. In the years since then, several release valves have been drilled to allow gas release sans explosions.

Now, the gas issue tamed, and the pits safely fenced off, pitch is not harvested for sealing boats or roofs, but the tar ponds are explored for fossils. To see more about what is found there, check out The Page Museum.

In the visitors kiosk of one of the active exploration pits, they show the clothes of a pit worker. Tide will make no dent; that Tshirt is toast.

The park is lovely and quite scenic, if not a bit malodorous. The tar bubbles up just right there in the middle of the greenery. Geology is not happening somewhere else, it is alive and well, right here, in the middle of downtown LA.

Check out our pics - Ian and I are really showing off our pointing skills. The pics of the ground are just a spot on the sidewalk where the tar is just seeping up. RIGHT THERE ON THE SIDEWALK!!










As an aside, this locale piqued one of my peeves. Turns out that La Brea is Spanish for tar, or pitch, so the name of this area falls under the same linguistic translation redundancy category as Chai Tea (chai means tea).


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