Tree Rings and Seismic Swarms

[Image: An otherwise unrelated print of tree rings from Yellowstone National Park, by LintonArt; buy prints here].

The previous post reminded me of an article published in the December 2010 issue of Geology, explaining that spikes in carbon dioxide released by subterranean magma flows beneath Yellowstone National Park have been physically recorded in the rings of trees growing on the ground above.

What’s more, those pulses of carbon dioxide corresponded to seismic events, as the Earth moves and gases are released, with the effect that the trees themselves can thus be studied as archives of ancient seismic activity.

“Plants that grow in areas of strong magmatic CO2 emissions fix carbon that is depleted in [Carbon-14] relative to normal atmosphere, and annual records of emission strength can be preserved in tree rings,” we read. “Yellowstone is a logical target” for a study such as this, the authors continue, “because its swarm seismicity and deformation are often ascribed to buildup and escape of high-pressure magmatic fluids.” The release of gases affects tree growth, which is then reflected in those trees’ rings.

I’ve written before about how tree rings are also archives of solar activity. See this quotation from the book Earth’s Magnetism in the Age of Sail, by A.R.T. Jonkers, for example:

In 1904 a young American named Andrew Ellicott Douglass started to collect tree specimens. He was not seeking a pastime to fill his hours of leisure; his motivation was purely professional. Yet he was not employed by any forestry department or timber company, and he was neither a gardener not a botanist. For decades he continued to amass chunks of wood, all because of a lingering suspicion that a tree’s bark was shielding more than sap and cellulose. He was not interested in termites, or fungal parasites, or extracting new medicine from plants. Douglass was an astronomer, and he was searching for evidence of sunspots.

Slicing open trees, searching for evidence of sunspots. This is a very peculiar—and awesomely poetic—form of astronomy, one locked inside objects all around us.

In the case of the Yellowstone study, a particular seismic swarm, one that hit the region back in 1978, apparently left measurable traces in the wood rhythms of local tree ring growth—in other words, surface-dwelling organisms in the Park were found to bear witness, in their very structure, to shifts occurring much deeper in the planet they live upon. They are measuring sticks of subterranea.

Combine this, then, with Andrew Ellicott Douglass’s work, and you’ve got tree rings as strange indicators of worlds hidden both below and far away: scarred by subterranean plumes of asphyxiating gas and marked by the variable burning of nearby stars. They are telescopes and seismometers in one, tools through which shifts in the sun and in the Earth’s own structure can be painstakingly divined.

Archiving “Geomagnetic Spikes” in Everyday Objects

[Image: One of the pots; photo by Oded Lipschits, courtesy NPR].

Ancient clay pottery in the Middle East has inadvertently recorded the Earth’s magnetic field, including evidence of an “astonishing geomagnetic spike.”

“All those years ago,” NPR reported earlier this week, “as potters continued to throw clay, the molten iron that was rotating deep below them tugged at tiny bits of magnetic minerals embedded in the potters’ clay. As the jars were heated in the kiln and then subsequently cooled, those minerals swiveled and froze into place like tiny compasses, responding to the direction and strength of the Earth’s magnetic field at that very moment.”

Archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef, one of the researchers on the project, has compared the process to a terrestrial “tape recorder,” and a particularly sensitive one at that: the resulting jars “provide an unprecedented look at the planet’s magnetic field over those six centuries, one that’s much harder to get from rocks.”

These accidental indices also indicate that the Earth’s magnetic field at the time was much stronger than expected; ominously, this “astonishing geomagnetic spike,” as mentioned above, could happen again. Indeed, the jars have “given scientists a glimpse of how intense the magnetic field can get—and the news isn’t good for a world that depends on electrical grids and high-tech devices,” Annalee Newitz writes for Ars Technica.

“The researchers note that this geomagnetic spike is similar to another that occurred in the 10th century BCE,” Newitz adds. “Data from the 10th century spike and this 8th century one indicate that such events were probably localized, not global. That said, they write that ‘the exact geographic expanse of this phenomenon has yet to be investigated, and the fact that these are very short-lived features that can be easily missed suggests that there is much more to discover.’”

This vision—of highly localized, mysterious geomagnetic storms frying electronics from below—is not only a great plot device for some burgeoning scifi novelist, it could also almost undoubtedly be weaponized: subterranean geomagnetic warfare against an entire region of the planet, short-circuiting every electrical device in sight.

[Image: One of the pots; photo by Oded Lipschits, courtesy NPR].

Of course, it’s also worth noting that this would still be happening: that is, today’s ceramics should still be “recording” the Earth’s magnetic field, even without any corresponding spike in that field’s strength. An invisible terrestrial forcefield is thus still inscribing itself inside objects in your kitchen cabinet or standing on your breakfast table. Everyday knick-knacks in retail stores around the world are still archives of planetary magnetism.

This also makes me wonder what other types of artifacts—clay figurines from nomadic Arctic tribes, mud bricks from central Africa—might also house geomagnetic records yet to be analyzed by modern technology. So what else might be discovered someday?

I’m reminded of the possibility that space weather—or “fossils of spacetime”—might be frozen into the built environment in the form of GPS glitches: hidden inside minute structural errors in large building projects, such as freeways, dams, and bridges, there might be evidence that our solar system is passing through “cosmic kinks” of dark matter.

In any case, read the original paper in PNAS; see also The New Yorker.

Alien Geology, Dreamed By Machines

[Image: Synthetic volcanoes modeled by Jeff Clune, from “Plug & Play Generative Networks,” via Nature].

Various teams of astronomers have been using “deep-learning neural networks” to generate realistic images of hypothetical stars and galaxies—but their work also implies that these same tools could work to model the surfaces of unknown planets. Alien geology as dreamed by machines.

The Square Kilometer Array in South Africa, for example, “will produce such vast amounts of data that its images will need to be compressed into low-noise but patchy data.” Compressing this data into readable imagery opens space for artificial intelligence to work: “Generative AI models will help to reconstruct and fill in blank parts of those data, producing the images of the sky that astronomers will examine.”

The results are thus not photographs, in other words; they are computer-generated models nonetheless considered scientifically valid for their potential insights into how regions of space are structured.

What interests me about this, though, is the fact that one of the scientists involved, Jeff Clune, uses these same algorithmic processes to generate believable imagery of terrestrial landscape features, such as volcanoes. These could then be used to model the topography of other planets, producing informed visual guesstimates of mountain ranges, ancient ocean basins, vast plains, valleys, even landscape features we might not yet have words to describe.

The notion that we would thus be seeing what AI thinks other worlds should look like—that, to view this in terms of art history, we are looking at the projective landscape paintings of machine intelligence—is a haunting one, as if discovering images of alien worlds in the daydreams of desktop computers.

(Spotted via Sean Lally; vaguely related, “We don’t have an algorithm for this”).

The Wreckage, The Collapse

I’ve been thinking about two art installations lately—one from the 1980s, the other from 2008—that remain interesting beyond their admittedly obvious metaphoric value.

The first is the aptly named Samson by Chris Burden, an installation piece from 1985.

[Image: An installation view of Samson (1985) by Chris Burden, courtesy Zwirner & Worth].

Samson was “a museum installation consisting of a 100-ton jack connected to a gear box and a turnstile. The 100-ton jack pushes two large timbers against the bearing walls of the museum. Each visitor to the museum must pass through the turnstile in order to see the exhibition. Each input on the turnstile ever so slightly expands the jack, and ultimately if enough people visit the exhibition, Samson could theoretically destroy the building.”

The idea that attendees might not know this—that they could continue to visit the gallery unaware of the purpose or function of this massive device sitting there in the middle of the room, disastrously expanding millimeter by millimeter with every click of the turnstile—haunted me for days after first studying this back in college. Perhaps the artist gets drunk on the night of the opening and doesn’t fully explain what the piece does, or perhaps far more people show up than anyone had expected, the wall-text is obscured by human bodies, and the outward pressure of the machine relentlessly builds. And builds.

The end is built into the very working of the machinery, even while the moment of its long-promised collapse remains impossible to anticipate.

The other is the technically and aesthetically fascinating slow-motion car crash of Jonathan Schipper’s “Slow Inevitable Death of American Muscle.”

The “sculpture is a machine that advances two full sized automobiles slowly into one another over a period of 6 days, simulating a head on automobile collision. Each car moves about three feet into the other. The movement is so slow as to be invisible.”

The tectonic effects of the ensuing collision are incredible to watch; this would be hugely useful, it seems, in a geology lab, for demonstrating the movement of faults. Slow it down even more—not days, but weeks, months—and you could watch whole mountain ranges, basins, folds, and troughs form in stressed and crumpling landscapes of different materials over the course of an entire semester.

Two forces, oppositely oriented, appear at first glance to be still, their mutual ruination—gorgeous, unstoppable—already underway.

Mass Effect

[Image: The weight of a human being; courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

Over at the consistently interesting Anthropocene Review, a group of geologists and urbanists have teamed up to calculate the total mass of all technical objects—from handheld gadgetry to agricultural equipment, from domesticated forests to architectural megastructures—produced by contemporary humanity.

[Image: Courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

Their seemingly impossible goal was to gauge “the scale and extent of the physical technosphere,” where they define the technosphere “as the summed material output of the contemporary human enterprise. It includes active urban, agricultural and marine components, used to sustain energy and material flow for current human life, and a growing residue layer, currently only in small part recycled back into the active component.”

The active technosphere is made up of buildings, roads, energy supply structures, all tools, machines and consumer goods that are currently in use or useable, together with farmlands and managed forests on land, the trawler scours and other excavations of the seafloor in the oceans, and so on. It is highly diverse in structure, with novel inanimate components including new minerals and materials, and a living part that includes crop plants and domesticated animals.

Their “preliminary” calculations of all this suggest a mass of 30 trillion tons.

[Image: Interior of Hughes Aircraft Company cargo building, courtesy U.S. Library of Congress].

The authors immediately put this number into a darkly awe-inspiring perspective:

If assessed on palaeontological criteria, technofossil diversity already exceeds known estimates of biological diversity as measured by richness, far exceeds recognized fossil diversity, and may exceed total biological diversity through Earth’s history. The rapid transformation of much of Earth’s surface mass into the technosphere and its myriad components underscores the novelty of the current planetary transformation.

This “rapid transformation of much of Earth’s surface mass into the technosphere” means that we are turning the planet into technical objects, dismantling and recombining matter on a planetary scale. The idea that the results of this ongoing experiment “may exceed total biological diversity through Earth’s history” is sobering, to say the least.

Read the rest of the article over at The Anthropocene Review.

(Originally spotted via Chris Rowan).

The Totality That Remains Invisible

[Image: Alice Aycock, “Project for Elevation with Obstructed Sight Lines” (1972)].

A few years ago, my wife and I went out to hike Breakneck Ridge when there was still a bunch of snow on the ground. It’s not, in and of itself, a hugely challenging hike, but between being ill-prepared for the slippery terrain, including a short opening scramble up snow-covered rocks, we found ourselves looking forward to the final vertical stretch before we could loop back down again to the road.

What was interesting, however, was that, from our point of view, each hill appeared to be the final one—until we got to the top of it and saw another one waiting there. Then it happened all over again: what appeared to be the final hill was actually just obstructing our view of the next one, and the next one, and the next one, and, next thing we knew, there were something like seven or eight different individual upward hikes, each hidden from view by the one leading up to it.

In 1972, earthworks artist Alice Aycock proposed a new, never-built work called “Project for Elevation with Obstructed Sight Lines.” It was part of a larger group, Aycock’s Six Semi-Architectural Projects, exhibited in 1973.

“Elevation with Obstructed Sight Lines” was meant to be a sculpted mound of earth, shaped for its optical effects.

[Image: Alice Aycock, “Project for Elevation with Obstructed Sight Lines” (1972), courtesy White Columns].

“Only one side of the resulting structure can be climbed,” Aycock wrote in her brief instructions for realizing the conceptual project. “All other side slopes are steep enough to deter climbing. The elevation of each successive climbing slope is determined by the sight lines of a 6 ft. observer so that only as the observer completes the ascent of a given slope does the next slope become visible.”

The piece obviously lends itself quite well to Kafka-esque metaphors—this structure that deliberately hides itself from view, never once perceptible in its totality but, instead, always revealing more of itself the further you go.

However, it also interestingly weds conceptual land art with hiking—that is, with embodied outdoor athleticism, rather than detached aesthetic contemplation—implying that, perhaps, trail design is an under-appreciated venue for potential conceptual art projects, where a terrain’s symbolic power only becomes clear to those engaged with hiking it.

(Aycock’s project spotted via Ends of the Earth: Land Art to 1974).

Atlas of the Underworld

[Image: Via Science].

A “complete x-ray of Earth’s interior is coming into focus,” Science reported last week. Using computerized tomography, or CT scanning—the same technology used to visualize the interior of the human body for various medical diagnoses—Dutch Earth scientists are piecing together what they call an “Atlas of the Underworld.” They are documenting invisible landscape features—the ghostly remains of entire continents—hidden inside the planet, locked beneath the surface we dwell upon everyday.

Awesomely, these features include “oceans and mountains lost to Earth’s history,” we read, an Earth’s surface within the Earth’s surface:

The reconstructions are also resurrecting mountains that had been lost to time. For example, in a study published several months ago, [tectonicists Jonny Wu and John Suppe] reconstructed the travels of 28 slabs to recreate the Philippine Sea as it was more than 50 million years ago. Beyond identifying what appears to be a previously unknown piece of ocean crust, they predicted that as one of their paleoplates plunged into the mantle, it threw up a large chain of volcanoes that eventually collided with Asia. That convulsive process could explain mysterious folded rocks in Japan and beneath the East China Sea.

For now, however, these “lost mountains” remain digital projections based on available data, not real, physical discoveries. They are, we might say, tectonic fictions, unverified models of past Earths inside our own.

A researcher at the University of Oslo named Grace Shephard points out, for example, that she will soon “publish a comparison of 14 different models that will assess which slabs seem most likely to be real” (emphasis added).

[Image: The long-buried Farallon Plate, visible nowhere on the Earth’s surface—or, rather, only visible through its indirect, mountain-building effects; courtesy Karin Sigloch].

Twenty years ago, poet Gary Snyder published a book called Mountains and Rivers Without End. As the Freer and Sackler Galleries describe it, the book is an “epic celebration of nature and humanity that encompasses Asian artistic traditions, Native American storytelling, and Zen Buddhist philosophy,” all in the guise of a book of landscape poetry.

I mention this not because Snyder’s book is the only example of such a thing, but because it’s interesting to imagine a tomographic expansion of Snyder’s “mountains and rivers without end”—adding revelatory geophysics and otherworldly Earth-scanning technology to the book’s already eclectic mix of myths and texts.

In other words, where is the poetry of lost ghost continents, buried mountain ranges, drowned ocean basins, landlocked archipelagoes, melting thousands of miles beneath our feet, swirling slowly below us in the Earth’s deep interior?

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the tip!)

Instance Gate

[Image: Malta, Instragram by BLDGBLOG].

Down in the lower levels of Valletta’s fortified walls, an old bricked-up doorway resembles something from a computer game: an oddly colored bit of masonry you would knock aside with a hammer, or a subtle wave of a wand, to make a corridor appear leading much further into the geologic depths.

The underside of Valletta, of course, is already mazed with passages, from wartime bomb shelters to church crypts, abandoned rail tunnels to hotel sub-cellars, and the entire island of Malta, made from such easily cut rock, is home to warrens of prehistoric temples and catacombs.

That entryways into the labyrinth can be found is hardly surprising; that they can look so much like a chunky, 8-bit game landscape only adds to the sense of urban mythology.

[The phrase “instance gate,” at least as I use it, comes from World of Warcraft. It implies that through a certain gate is a world that only you or your group will experience; anyone stepping through the same gate after you will, in fact, enter an entirely different space to confront an entirely different world of experiences. It’s a great metaphor.]

“Today’s world has no equivalent”

[Image: Tromsø, Norway; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Ted Nield’s book Supercontinent: Ten Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet—previously discussed back in 2012—is an exercise in what has long been referred to here as landscape futures.

In Nield’s case, this means literally imagining what the surface of the Earth might look like after hundreds of millions of years’ worth of tectonic transformations have deformed it beyond all recognition. Supercontinent could thus be read alongside Jan Zalasiewiez’s The Earth After Us as a useful guide for thinking about radical landscape change on a truly inhuman timescale.

Nield writes, for example, that, “even if some civilization of 200 million years ago had completely covered [the Earth] in cities and then wiped itself out in some gigantic global nuclear holocaust, nothing—not even the faintest trace of some unnatural radioisotope—would now remain on the surface.” Some of us might think that writing books, for example, is a way to achieve immortality—or winning an Oscar or becoming a national leader—yet covering the entire planet with roads and buildings is still not enough to guarantee a place in any sort of collective future memory. Everything will be erased.

The book goes from a speculative, but apparently realistic, scenario in which subduction zones might open in the Caribbean—thus dragging North America back toward a seemingly inexorable collision with Eurasia—to the future implications of past tectonic activity. Supercontinents have come and gone, Nield reminds us, and the cycle of these mega-islands is “the grandest of all the patterns in nature.” “750 million years before Pangaea formed,” he writes, “yet another [supercontinent] broke up; and before that another, and so on and on, back into the almost indecipherable past.”

At one point, Nield asks, “what of older supercontinents? What of the supercontinent that broke up to give us Pangaea? And the one before that? Compared with Pangaea, those lost worlds seem truly lost. As with all geological evidence, the older it is, the less of it survives, the more mangled it has become and the harder it is to interpret.”

It is all but impossible to picture them—to see oneself standing on them—as you can with Pangaea. They have their magical names, which lend them reality of a sort despite the fact that, for some, even their very existence remains controversial. About Rodinia, Pannotia, Columbia, Atlantica, Nena, Arctica or distant Ur, the mists of time gather ever more thickly.

The amazing thing is that this cycle will continue: long after North America is expected to reunite with Eurasia, which itself will have collided with North Africa, there will be yet another splintering, following more rifts, more bays and inland seas, in ever-more complicated rearrangements of the Earth’s surface, breeding mountain ranges and exotic island chains. And so on and so on, for billions of years. Bizarre new animals will evolve and bacteria will continue to inter-speciate—and humans will long since have disappeared from the world, unable to experience or see any of these future transformations.

While describing some of the potential ecosystems and landscapes that might result from these tectonic shifts, Nield writes that “our knowledge of what is normal behavior for the Earth is extremely limited.”

Indeed, he suggests, the present is not a key to the past: geologists have found “that there were things in the deepest places of Earth history for the unlocking of whose secrets the present no longer provided the key.” These are known as “no-analog” landscapes.

That is, what we’re experiencing right now on Earth potentially bears little or no resemblance to the planet’s deep past or far future. The Earth itself has been, and will be again, unearthly.

[Image: Oulanka National Park, Finland; photo by Peter Essick, courtesy of the University of Missouri].

In any case, I mention all this because of a quick description found roughly two-fifths of the way through Nield’s book where he discusses lost ecosystems—landscapes that once existed here but that no longer have the conditions to survive.

Those included strange forests that, because of the inclination of the Earth’s axis, grew in almost permanent darkness at the south pole. “These forests of the polar night,” Nield explains, describing an ancient landscape in the present tense, “withstand two seasons: one of feeble light and one of unremitting dark. Today’s world has no equivalent of this eerie ecosystem. Their growth rings show that each summer these trees grow frenetically. Those nearer the coast are lashed by megamonsoon rains roaring in from [the lost continent] of Tethys, the thick cloud further weakening the feeble sunshine raking the latitudes at the bottom of the world.”

There is something so incredibly haunting in this image, of thick forests growing at the bottom of the world in a state of “unremitting” darkness, often lit only by the frozen light of stars, swaying now and again with hurricane-force winds that have blown in from an island-continent that, today, no longer exists.

Whatever “novel climates” and unimaginable geographies lie ahead for the Earth, it will be a shame not to see them.

(Related: Ghosts of Planets Past: An Interview with Ron Blakey).

Shocked to discover “they were living in ‘hill country’”

MysteriousUpswelling[Image: “Mysterious upswelling of Opp street above curb, Wilmington (1946),” courtesy USC Libraries].

In 1946, a “mysterious upswelling” occurred in a street in the neighborhood of Wilmington, California, near Long Beach. The photograph above, courtesy of the USC Libraries, pictures a young boy who went outside to measure it.

As part of an irregular series of short posts for KCET’s Lost L.A.—about things like Los Angeles partially illuminated by the light of an atomic bomb—I wrote a quick piece, inspired both by the photo itself and by its caption. “Surprising uprising,” it begins. “George Applegate measures mysterious swelling of Opp Street in Wilmington. Residents were shocked yesterday morning to discover they were living in ‘hill country.’ Street is seven inches above the curbing. Officials are investigating.”

Although I don’t mention this in the KCET post, I was instantly reminded of terrain deformation grenades and the instant, pop-up landforms of an old LucasArts game called Fracture. There, specialized weapons are put to use, tactically reshaping the earth’s surface, resulting in “mysterious upswellings” such as these.

There could be hills anywhere in Los Angeles, we might infer from this, lying in wait beneath our streets and sidewalks, prepping themselves for imminent exposure,” I write over at KCET. “A street today is a mountain tomorrow.”

(Also related: The previous post, Inland Sea).