Rings

In the forests of northern Ontario, a “strange phenomenon” of large natural rings occurs, where thousands of circles, as large as two kilometers in diameter, appear in the remote landscape.

ForestRings1[Image: From the thesis “Geochemistry of Forest Rings in Northern Ontario: Identification of Ring Edge Processes in Peat and Soil” (PDF) by Kerstin M. Brander, University of Ottawa].

“From the air, these mysterious light-coloured rings of stunted tree growth are clearly visible,” the CBC explained back in 2008, “but on the ground, you could walk right through them without noticing them.”

Since they were discovered on aerial photos about 50 years ago, the rings have baffled biologists, geologists and foresters… Astronomers suggest the rings might be the result of meteor strikes. Prospectors wonder whether the formations signal diamond-bearing kimberlites, a type of igneous rock.

While it’s easy to get carried away with visions of supernatural tree rings growing of their own accord in the boreal forests, this is actually one of the more awesome examples of where the likely scientific explanation is also significantly more interesting than something more explicitly other-worldly.

Geochemistry of Forest Rings in northern Ontario:[Image: From the thesis “Geochemistry of Forest Rings in Northern Ontario: Identification of Ring Edge Processes in Peat and Soil” (PDF) by Kerstin M. Brander, University of Ottawa].

Indeed, as geochemist Stew Hamilton suggested in 1998, the rings are most likely to be surface features caused by “reduced chimneys,” or “big centres of negative charge that frequently occur over metal deposits,” where a forest ring is simply “a special case of a reduced chimney.”

Reduced chimneys, meanwhile, are “giant electrochemical cells” in the ground that, as seen through the example of forest rings, can affect the way vegetation grows there.

rings[Image: Screen-grab from Google Maps].

One of many things worth highlighting here is this suggestion that the trees are being influenced from below by ambient electrochemical processes in the soil, set into motion by the region’s deep geology:

Hamilton was testing an analytical technique over a Matheson gold deposit to determine if there was any kind of geochemical surface signal. To his surprise, there were signals coming through 30 to 40 metres of glacial clay.
“We’re thinking there’s no way metals can move through clay 10,000 years after glaciation.”
After ruling out transport by ground water, diffusion and gas, he theorized it had to have been lifted to surface on electrical fields.
He applied the same theory to forest rings and discovered that they were also giant negatively charged cells.
Any source of negative charge will create a forest ring.

In landscape architecture terms, a forest ring—which Hamilton describes [PDF] as “a plant assemblage that is different from the surrounding forest making the features visible from the air”—could be seen as a kind of indirect electrochemical garden taking on a recognizably geometrical form without human intervention.

In effect, their shape is expressed from below. For ambitious future landscape designers, note that this implies a potential use of plantlife as a means for revealing naturally occurring electrical networks in the ground, where soil batteries and other forms of terrestrial electronics could articulate themselves through botanical side-effects.

That is, plant a forest; come back after twenty years; discover vast rings of negative electrochemical charge like smoke rings pushing upward from inside the earth.

Or, of course, you could reverse this: design for future landscape-architectural effects by formatting the deep soil of a given site, thus catalyzing subterranean electrochemical activity that, years if not generations later, would begin to have aesthetic effects.

ForestRings3[Image: From the paper “Spontaneous potential and redox responses over a forest ring” (PDF) by Stewart M. Hamilton and Keiko H. Hattori].

But it gets weirder: as Hamilton’s fieldwork also revealed, there is a measurable “bulge in the water table that occurs over the entire length of the forest ring with a profound dip on the ring’s outer edge.” For Hamilton, this effect was “beyond science fiction,” he remarked to the trade journal Northern Ontario Business, “it’s unbelievable.”

What this means, he explained, is that “the water is being held up against gravity” by naturally occurring electrical fields.

ForestRings4[Image: From the paper “Spontaneous potential and redox responses over a forest ring” (PDF) by Stewart M. Hamilton and Keiko H. Hattori].

Subsequent and still-ongoing research by other geologists and geochemists has shown that forest rings are also marked by the elevated presence of methane (which explains the “stunted tree growth”), caused by natural gas leaking up from geological structures beneath the forest.

Hamilton himself wrote, in a short report for the Ontario Geological Survey [PDF], that forest ring formation “may be due to upward methane seepage along geological structures from deeper sources,” and that this “may indicate deeper sources of natural gas in the James Bay Lowlands.”

Other hypotheses suggest that these forest rings could instead be surface indicators of diamond pipes and coal deposits—meaning that, given access to an aerial view, you can, in effect, “read” the earth’s biosphere as a living tissue of signs or symptoms through which deeper, non-biological phenomena (coal, diamonds, metals) are revealed.

ForestRings5[Image: Forest ring at N 49° 16′ 05″, W 83° 45′ 01″, via Google Maps].

Even better, these electrochemical effects stop on a macro-scale where the subsurface geology changes; as Hamilton points out [PDF], the “eastward disappearance of rings in Quebec occurs at the north-south Haricanna Moraine, which coincides with a sudden drop in the carbonate content of soils.”

If you recall that there were once naturally-occurring nuclear reactors burning away in the rocks below Gabon, then the implication here would be that large-scale geological formations, given the right slurry of carbonates, metals, and clays, can also form naturally-occurring super-batteries during particular phases of their existence.

To put this another way, through an accident of geology, what we refer to as “ground” in northern Ontario could actually be thought of a vast circuitboard of electrochemically active geological deposits, where an ambient negative charge in the soil has given rise to geometric shapes in the forest.

ForestRings6[Image: Forest rings at N 49° 29′ 48″, W 80° 05′ 40″, via Google Maps].

In any case, there is something pretty incredible about the idea that you could be hiking through the forests of northern Ontario without ever knowing you’re surrounded by huge, invisible, negatively charged megastructures exhibiting geometric effects on the plantlife all around you.

Several years ago, I wrote a post about the future of the “sacred grove” for the Canadian Centre for Architecture, based on a paper called “The sacred groves of ancient Greece” by art historian Patrick Bowe. I mention this because it’s interesting to consider the forest rings of northern Ontario in the larger interpretive context of Bowe’s paper, not because there is any historical or empirical connection between the two, of course; but, rather, for the speculative value of questioning whether these types of anomalous forest-effects could, under certain cultural circumstances, carry symbolic weight. If they could, that is, become “sacred groves.”

Indeed, it is quite thrilling and strange to imagine some future cult of electrical activity whose spaces of worship and gathering are remote boreal rings, circular phenomena in the far north where water moves against gravity and chemical reactions crackle outward through the soil, forcing forests to take symmetrical forms only visible from high above.

For more on forest rings, check out the CBC or Northern Ontario Business or check out any of the PDFs linked in this post.

17 thoughts on “Rings”

  1. It seems odd that, in aerial photos, these rings are all the same size. Is there a conventional proportion to the formation or ‘recipe’ that achieves this electrochemical formation? Could there be a biological component?

    interesting…
    AndyH

  2. You’re kidding, right? Those rings look exactly like every other fungus ring I have ever seen, but you somehow manage to not even mention that in the article, or reference a single botanist?

      1. Shocking 😉 I, too, thought of fungus rings when reading through this article. Arturo – do you have some links that outline the hypothesis? I wasn’t able to find anything from a quick googling.

  3. An idea I had a couple of years ago for space-based botanical prospecting that dovetails nicely with the possibility of botanical “indicator geometries” at a scale legible to remote sensing:

    An indicator species is a plant type strongly correlated with deposits of a particular mineral (e.g., Ocimum centraliafricanum for copper or juniper/sage for Uranium) — whether because the deposit alters the geochemistry in a way that supports the plant, or because the plant can absorb large quantities of the mineral without toxification, or some other reason. The investigation of these plants for purposes of identifying new mineral deposits is called geobotanical (or just botanical) prospecting.

    Every plant has a unique spectral signature* — which can be seen using near-IR or some other band of multispectral imagery of the type produced by a handful of the largest commercial satellite imagery providers (as well as aerial imagery companies with sufficiently good coverage and multispectral sensor packages). In theory, it should be possible to analyze that imagery to separate out the spectral signatures of the known indicator species from background noise (i.e., everything else)**. That accomplished, one could produce a global base map of indicator species that could be mashed-up with a variety of other data types, or further filtered algorithmically, based on industry expertise, proprietary mineralogical exploration maps, and so forth, to help improve the efficiency of prospecting — one of the main cost centers of the mining business.

    *No catalog of these signatures exists. It might, however, be possible to build a catalog relevant to the mining industry in cooperation with imagery providers in (the) space.

    **Software already exists to do similar things. There are solutions for identifying the spectral signatures of explosive materials that could be “retrained” toward this end, for instance.

    The second part of the idea has to do with identifying candidate indicator species for certain minerals (precious metals and Rare Earth Elements, particularly) where none currently exist. If one had an archive of historical imagery with the right bands and resolution (which at least one commercial satellite imagery provider does)***, you could take the locations of known gold, platinum, silver, and REE deposits, wind the clock backwards to look for imagery prior to their exploitation (i.e., before the vegetative ground cover got destroyed) and back out the spectral signatures of plants surrounding the deposits. By comparing all of the known spectral signatures associated with deposits of a particular mineralogical type, it might be possible to identify candidate indicator species which could be fed into an analysis pipeline identical to the one described above.

    ***Such imagery archives will be exceedingly thin, and only extend back <15-20 years. Other sources may exist that could help fill in the gap between the first satellites to utilize multispectral imagery and the present, but it's fair to say that the global vegetation imagery record — like the archaeological record, the fossil record, or any other historical data set — will remain incomplete, and that "before" images for only comparatively recent mining operations will be analyzable.

  4. Very interesting post. I want to thank you for writing clearly and concisely. So important for conveying complex ideas for those of us with absolutely no geo-bio-magnetic-specific knowledge.

  5. Very interesting article and great discussion about the interconnection and influence of what may initially be considered separate disciplines.

    Wayne Chambliss, lots of good ideas for exploring the potential of what these mean, although I can’t say I’d be a fan of exploiting it to go mining. It did make me think of the recent usage of LIDAR data to look for ancient civilizations ruins in heavily forested tropical areas. There have been quite a few discoveries, in recent years, using the technology.

    I wonder if species surveys in the rings indicate differences in community structure, versus outside the zone. I do recognize the floral diversity that far North isn’t great, thus a much smaller pool of taxa, but the influences of water table and potentially different chemical composition of the soils could affect the species present.

    Several people mentioned fungal/fairy rings, but what about frost heaves?

    Regardless, interesting material – thanks for the read!

    1. Leopold,

      Needless to say, for those less interested in resource extraction than comparative folklore, or making diplomatic entreaties with the right branch of the royal family of the Fay, or whatever, a similar remote sensing-based technique could be used to globally classify features based on geometries and spectral signatures of mycorrhizal/saprotrophic fungi to help distinguish between Calvatia cyathiformis fairy rings and Leucopaxillus giganteus ones — which can make all the difference on a Midsummer night.

      Wayne

  6. I understand why they suspect some kind of electromagnetic effect in Ontario. Hydro-Quebec, the power company, had a lot of trouble with its transmission lines running power from their hydroelectric dams in the north to the south. A lot of it involved electrical interaction with metals in the earth, ore deposits and so on. High voltage lines can be touchy and build up weird resonances leading to overloads and shutdowns. To help analyze the situation they even bought a Cray computer back in the 1990s, back when Cray made the fastest computers around, almost as powerful as low end laptops these days.

    Power transmission at extremely high voltages is not quite like running a power cord in one’s house. One always has to watch for resonant frequencies, interactions with the earth or just a result of topography. The power loops in upstate NY, across PA and north of Lake Ontario required continuous monitoring to keep them from ringing.

  7. Excellent article – thank you for writing on this. Though I too wish that you’d at least mentioned fungal rings and explained why they were eliminated as a possible cause since they are the most obvious idea to spring to mind. I assume that possibility has already been excluded for some reason.

    I’m curious about the description of the subterranean features as “batteries”. That implies a voltage gradient. I wonder, if somebody were to drill two well-placed holes and insert a well-chosen cathode and a well-chosen anode into just the right places, how much power could be drawn and for how long? This would be a fascinating alternative to geothermal generation.

    1. Marshall, this comes from one of the PDFs linked in the post (PDFs that I would also encourage you and others to download + read):

      Forest rings were first reported in the 1950s (Dean, 1956) with the advent of aerial photography as a surveying tool. The term forest ring was first applied by the Ontario Geological Survey, in order to differentiate the features from “fairy rings”, smaller rings caused by fungus growing in a radial pattern, and to establish a unique name for them. Previous designations included “circular ring features” (Pinson, 1979), “giant circular patterns” and “whitish rings” (Giroux et al., 2001). To date, the overall published literature regarding forest rings is sparse: 7 forest rings were studied in Québec by Giroux et al. (2001) and 14 forest rings were examined by the Ontario Geological Survey (Hamilton, 1999 ; Hamilton et al., 2004a ; Hamilton and Hattori, 2008). In addition to Ontario and northwestern Quebec, 200 rings have been identified on Anticosti island in Canada (Dubois, 1993), and anecdotally in Russia, Minnesota (USA), and Australia (Hamilton, personal communication). Their abundance in northern Ontario is however unmatched with over 2000 forest rings inventoried to date within a study area of 150 000 km2, stretching westwards from Timmins to Geraldton, and northwards from Timmins to the western edge of the James Bay Lowlands (Hamilton et al., 2004a; Veillette and Giroux, 1999). Within this area, the spatial and size distribution of forest rings appears correlated to both the regional bedrock, and the overburden geology. Rings are larger and twice as abundant above Phanerozoic than Precambrian bedrocks. Rings are also six times more likely to occur over glaciomarine and marine deposits, rather than organic, glaciolacustrine and till deposits. Rings are least likely to occur over fluvial, glaciofluvial and bedrock deposits, although they sometimes do.

      Early studies suggested a biological origin, where forest rings are caused by radial growth of giant fungi within the Black Spruce root system (e.g. Mollard, 1980). These conclusions were speculative, based on the circular morphology of forest rings, without providing field evidence. Usik (1966) was the first to favour a geological origin, interpreting forest rings as the surface expression of dispersion halos, caused by the localized diffusion of elements above zones of mineralization. Prospectors in Ontario have repeatedly observed these features and believed them to be the surface expression of buried kimberlites or other circular features of economic interest (e.g. Millar, 1973; Reed, 1980; Adams, 1998; Diatreme Explorations, 1999). The results of repeated drilling in several forest rings have so far not supported this possibility. Other possible origins of forest rings include relict permafrost features, thermokarst and periglacial features (Mollard, 1980).

      1. Thank you! (Has anybody looked into the potential geoelectrical power source? I’m thinking that, especially when combined with a parallel geothermal system, there may be a substantial amount of “green” energy there…

  8. Similar rings in Florida may be residuae of an explodiing meteor over Michigan, some tens of thousands years ago. At least on theory. Might change the mineral content. Florida rings are depressions with raised edges.

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