We may never have known of the existence of the Crowley columns, located along the eastern shore of Crowley Lake, if not for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). But in 1941 the LADWP created the Crowley Lake reservoir, and that water slowly began to erode the material around the base of the columns, exposing them to human eyes.
“It’s very unusual,” said local Bill Taylor, who has made several trips out to view the columns. “It looks like something out of Pompeii. It almost doesn’t look natural.”
Local Buck Wahl agreed: “And what’s really interesting is, here’s this unique thing, and it’s 25 miles from your front door, and no one even knows about it.”
Taylor described the columns as standing “like stacked disks,” some about 12 inches in diameter. While some column tops are just visible poking out from the tuff, others stand nearly 30 feet tall.
Taylor said that although some locals know about the columns, it wasn’t until the past year that interest in visiting them grew. He attributed that to the low water level at Crowley Lake due to drought, and that “the weather was so good … and people were looking for other things [than winter recreation] to do.”
The Crowley columns also attracted UC Berkeley researchers, who have now determined how the columns were formed.
Noah Randolph-Flagg, lead author of the recent UC Berkeley study, began studying the columns in 2013. “I think the most obvious reason to study the columns is that they’re so bizarre,” he laughed. “They almost look unnatural, how evenly spaced they are, and how widespread they are.”
Randolph-Flagg and a team of UC Berkeley students and professors determined that the columns formed after the powerful volcanic explosion that created Long Valley. The blast was about 2,000 times more powerful than that of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, and occurred about 760,000 years ago. Ash and pumice from the explosion “hurtled down the valley at a very, very fast speed,” he said. That ash and pumice mix is known as tuff.
Volcanic eruptions provide a snapshot in time. Studying the columns can therefore provide insight into the Eastern Sierra environment directly before and after the Long Valley Caldera explosion.
Randolph-Flagg and the research team assessed the mineral composition of the columns by studying samples using X-ray diffraction and scanning electron microscopes. They discovered that while the columns are very similar to the material surrounding them, “the tiny holes in the rock in the columns had the mineral mordenite in them, and that mordenite made the column a little harder to crumble and slide away.”
The team also came to the conclusion that the columns were formed due to water interacting with tuff. They then used computer simulations to figure out the spacing of the columns. One of their conclusions: hills or valleys would have impeded the columns’ formation, reinforcing the theory that they must have formed under the more even surface of a lake.
“What I think our work shows is that a large lake formed on top of this eruption before it had cooled, which means that lake formed within at least a couple decades of the eruption,” said Randolph-Flagg. Fresh water seeped into the hot tuff, and boiled. “Steam goes up and water goes down, and the steam and water move in these concentrated paths, and that forms a column.”
“In many cases, people don’t understand how water and steam interact in nature,” he said. “We know that they interact in lots of places, like natural volcanoes and geothermal energy; this seemed like a really good example to actually look at what’s underground in other places, where you can’t make a direct observation, but you have to guess what’s happening a kilometer into the earth.”
Given the increased level of interest, and new knowledge about the columns’ formation, the LADWP plans to bus local students from Inyo County up to view the columns. “I think the value for students is educating them about the majestic nature of their own backyard,” said LADWP spokeswoman Amanda Parsons.
“They’re really beautiful features,” Randolph-Flagg concluded. “I’m glad that people are looking at them and thinking about them.”