Thousands of Ice Age fossils disrupt 500-mile-long solar energy line

Greenlink West power line project runs into an ice-age roadblock.
Sade Agard
Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument near Las Vegas
Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument near Las Vegas

Matthew Dillon/Flickr 

A proposal to build a nearly 500-mile-long stretch of a transmission line to connect solar projects in Nevada to millions of households has been delayed by months due to the potential discovery of thousands of ice-age fossils in its path.

According to E&E News, a plan for the Greenlink West power line, as proposed by NV Energy, was scheduled for release in January. It would carry as much as 4000 megawatts of primarily renewable energy from Las Vegas north to Reno to often remote areas, expanding the power grid. As such, it's a priority for the Biden administration. 

However, a new environmental study has pushed this date back to at least May. This is due to its route across 1.5 miles of Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, designated as a National Park Service since 2014. 

What could Ice Age fossils be found in Nevada?

Many thousands of fossils from the Pleistocene Period, or Ice Age, can be found in the monument. The area was covered in wetlands for almost 90,000 years—until about 12,500 years ago—which helped to conserve the Pleistocene wildlife. This includes mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and more common animals like coyotes, jackrabbits, and snails.

The National Park Service suggested ground-penetrating radar to find local fossils. Geotech Global Consulting carried out the scans with NV Energy funding, and the findings were released in September.

The report described the detection of Pleistocene vertebrate fossils within the national monument. The description of one scan reads, "a collection of anomalies that could well be vertebrate fossils."

Another scan revealed many small bone fragments eroding out of the surface. Several anomalies were also detected, "some of which resemble vertebrate fossils." A third scan revealed two proboscidean tusks poking out of an escarpment.

The deepest scan revealed potential fossils at over 33 feet (10 meters). Still, ground-truth observations (and excavations) may be required to prove precisely what the power line could disturb should plans for the line go ahead. 

Previously, paleontologists found a solution along the route for the Harry Allen to El Dorado 500-kilovolt transmission line, which was also once roadblocked by fossils. 

At the time, scientists unearthed thousands of fossils which were then removed and carefully cataloged. In this way, the correct sediment formation and depth were recorded for each one, preserving history and enabling the project's progress. 

Could a plan of a similar fate be worked out for the ice-age fossils and the Greenlink West line in Nevada? This remains to be seen.

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