Airborne Geology

One of several interesting things I’ve found in Alan Weisman’s new book The World Without Us is his rhetorical approach to the industrial burning of fossil fuel.

He refers to burning oil and coal as a way of “tapping the Carboniferous Formation and spewing it up into the sky” – that is, it’s “carbon we have mined from the Earth and loaded into the air.”
Or: geology gone airborne.

[Image: A glimpse of the Carboniferous Formation, or coal awaiting its own secular ascension; via].

Because of this unintentionally aero-geological project, Weisman writes, “[a]mong the human-crafted artifacts that will last the longest after we’re gone is our redesigned atmosphere.” After all, that atmosphere now has a very large chunk of the Earth’s surface floating around inside it, storing sunlight and heat.

[Image: Coal – before being “loaded into the air” through burning].

The word Carboniferous, meanwhile, refers to huge, continent-spanning deposits of coal that first began forming roughly 300 million years ago, in the appropriately named Carboniferous Period. Coal is formed from the compression, burial, and slow cooking of biological matter: old tropical forests and other organisms thus transform into an energy-intense geological formation.
In addition to the burning of oil – itself an ancient, carbon-based biological deposit – it is the combustion of all this coal that has fueled our ongoing industrial revolution.
In the process, Weisman implies, humans have achieved something extraordinary: the installation of a geological formation in the sky.

Looked at this way, it should come as no surprise that the Earth’s climate is now changing.
Its air is full of geology.

(Also in reference to The World Without Us – a very uneven but still fascinating book – see BLDGBLOG’s earlier post about the accidental discovery of underground cities in Cappadocia).

7 thoughts on “Airborne Geology”

  1. Floating dinosaur ghosts that were waiting millions of years to be set free!

    Having been in Beijing last year, I saw probably the worst pollution I have ever seen in my life. It was so bad that you could not see the sun during what was supposed be sunset. On top of that the sun that did show during the day cast an eerie diffused yellow light, which in a way made the city look bigger and more mystical. Not only was the sky not blue (kinda green-grey) but you could feel it in your throat and nose. I stayed there for three weeks, by the end of the first week I was hacking loogies every 30 minutes when outside. All around you can hear that sound, blending in with the sound of bikes and buses.

    THEN IT RAINED,and the sky the next day was blue, and the light was pure white… Kinda like LA only the difference is about four times greater.

    So it makes me think, how long would it take for nature to cleanse the sky of the dinosaurs? It it still largely CO2 up there without the dino bones, or is there more oxygen?

    On a side note, I heard from archinect (article about Ai Wei Wei and the olympics) that china had a clear skies plan for the olympics, anyone know about that?

  2. Prior to becoming geologic formations, the carbon was tied up in carbohydrates, produced by trees from… water and atmospheric CO2.

    So all that CO2 used to be in the atmosphere before, during which time the planet’s climate was… ideal for growing massive continent-spanning forests.

  3. Oh, and please don’t fail to consider underground coal mines in your survey of underground architectural wonders.

  4. The thought of geology in the air reminds me of this not-really-related quote from John McPhee’s The Control of Nature:

    Like an iceberg that had calved off a glacier, the great bulk
    of the north side of the volcano remained afloat in a molten
    sea. It was a mountain in itself, and, moreover, it moved.
    It was landscape on the loose, an incongruous itinerant alp,
    its summit high above the lava plain, its heading north by
    northwest.

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