Underground Cathedrals of Radiation and Zones of Irreversible Strain

[Image: Nevada test site, Google Maps, filtered through Instagram.]

There’s a great line in Tom Zoellner’s book Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World where he describes the after-effects of underground nuclear tests. Zoellner writes that, during these tests, “a nuclear bomb buried in a deep shaft underneath a mountain would vaporize the surrounding rock and make a huge cathedral-like space inside the earth, ablaze with radioactivity.”

I thought of Zoellner’s vision of a “huge cathedral-like space inside the earth” recently while reading a paper by Colin N. Waters et al., called “Recognising anthropogenic modification of the subsurface in the geological record.” Among other things, the authors describe the long-term “structural effects of subsurface weapon detonations.”

[Image: Nevada test site, Google Maps, filtered through Instagram.]

They suggest that these detonations produce spaces—such as collapse cones and debris fields—that have “no direct natural analogue,” although they do helpfully contrast weapon-test craters with meteor-impact sites. (The authors also break underground nuclear test sites down into “zones,” which include a “zone of irreversible strain,” which is an amazing phrase.)

The larger purpose of their paper, though, is to look at long-term “signatures” that humans might leave behind in our underground activity, from nuclear tests to mineralogical carbon-capture to deep boreholes to coal mines. Will these signatures still be legible or detectible for humans of the far future? On the whole, their conclusion is not optimistic, suggesting instead that even vast subterranean mines and sites of underground nuclear weapons tests will fade from the terrestrial archive.

“Many of the physical and chemical products of human subsurface intrusion either do not extend far from the source of intrusion, lack long-term persistence as a signal or are not sufficiently distinctive from the products of natural processes to make them uniquely recognisable as of anthropogenic origin,” they write. “But the scope and complexity of the signals have increased greatly over recent decades, both in areal extent and with increasing depths, and seem set to be a fundamental component of our technological expansion. There will be some clues to the geologist of the far-future, when historical knowledge records may not be preserved, that will help resolve the origin.”

[Image: Nevada test site craters, courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office Photo Library.]

Nevertheless, it is totally fascinating to imagine what future archaeologists might make of Zoellner’s “huge cathedral-like space[s] inside the earth, ablaze with radioactivity,” long after they’ve collapsed, and where sand has been fused into unnatural glass and anomalous traces of radiation can still be found with no reasonable explanation for how they got there.

Could future archaeologists deduce the existence of nuclear weapons from such a landscape? And, if so, would such a suggestion—ancient weapons modeled on the physics of stars—sound rational or vaguely insane?

(Vaguely related: “fossil reactors” underground in Gabon.)

PoMo- Mytho- Geo-

[Image: “Model of an Earth Fastener on the Delphi Fault (Temple of Apollo)” (2019) by Kylie White; photo courtesy Moskowitz Bayse.]

Artist Kylie White has two new pieces up in a group show here in Los Angeles, called Grammars of Creation, on display at Moskowitz Bayse till March 16th, which I will return to in a second.

White had a great solo show at the same gallery almost exactly a year ago, featuring a series of geological faults modeled in richly veined, colored marble Most also incorporated brass details, acting as so-called “Earth fasteners.”

[Images: From Six Significant Landscapes by Kylie White; photos courtesy Moskowitz Bayse.]

Gallery text explained at the time that White’s works “are at once sculptures, scale models, geologic diagrams, and proposals; each depicts an active fault line, a place of displaced terrain due to tectonic movement.”

The “proposal” in each work, of course, would be the fasteners: metal implants of a sort meant to span the rift of an open fault.

[Image: “Model of Earth Fastener on a Transform Fault; 1”=10” (2017) by Kylie White; note that this piece was not featured in Six Significant Landscapes. Photo courtesy Moskowitz Bayse.]

White’s fasteners seemed to suggest at least two things simultaneously: that perhaps we could fix the Earth’s surface in place, if only we had the means to stop faults from breaking open, but also that human interventions such as these, in otherwise colossal planetary landscapes, would be trivial at best, more sculptural than scientific, just temporary installations not permanent features of a changing continent.

[Image: From Six Significant Landscapes by Kylie White; photo courtesy Moskowitz Bayse.]

As I struggled to explain to my friends, however, while describing White’s work, the visual effect was strangely postmodern, almost tongue-in-cheek, as if her sculptures—all green marble blocks and inlaid brass—could have passed for avant-garde luxury furniture items from the 1980s (and, to be clear, I mean this in a good way: imagine scientific models masquerading as luxury goods).

[Images: Details from Six Significant Landscapes by Kylie White; photos by BLDGBLOG.]

All of which means I sort of laughed when I saw these more recent works that seem to take this postmodern aesthetic to a new height, complete with two fault models mounted atop faux-Greek columns.

[Image: “Model of an Earth Fastener on the Hierapolis Fault (Plutonion)” (2019) by Kylie White; photo courtesy Moskowitz Bayse.]

It’s like plate tectonics meets Learning From Las Vegas, by way of Greek mythology.

Because the columns are also a fitting reference to the pieces’ own subject matter: one, seen at the top of this post, is called “Model of an Earth Fastener on the Delphi Fault (Temple of Apollo)” and the other, immediately above, is “Model of an Earth Fastener on the Hierapolis Fault (Plutonion).” They perhaps suggest an entirely new approach to natural history museum displays—boldly gridded rooms filled with heroic blocks of the Earth’s surface, bathed in neon. Pomotectonics.

In any case, more information about the show is available at Moskowitz Bayse. It closes on March 16th, 2020, although White apparently has another, currently untitled solo show coming up in 2021.

The Deep

[Image: Binnewater Kilns, photo by BLDGBLOG.]

While I was over in New York State last fall, reporting both the “witch houses” piece for The New Yorker and the Middletown High School piece for The Guardian, I stopped off in the town of Rosendale, enticed there by several things I noticed on Google Maps.

[Image: The Rosendale Trestle, photo by BLDGBLOG.]

First was what turned out to be a satirical reference to something called the Geo Refrigeration Crevice, which, even on its own, sounded worth a side-trip. But, in the exact same area, there were also photos of an incredible-looking railway bridge converted to a hiking path that I wanted to walk across; there were these gorgeous, ruined kilns built into the hillside; and there were supposedly huge caves.

How on Earth could I drive past all that without stopping?

[Image: Caves everywhere! Photos by BLDGBLOG.]

Being—perhaps to my Instagram followers’ frustration—an avid hiker, I spent far more time there than I should have, mostly looking down into jagged crevasses that extended past the roots of trees, carpeted in fallen leaves, often hidden beneath great, shipwrecked jumbles of boulders slick with the waters of temporary streams.

I crossed the bridge and was ready to hit the road again, when I saw another site of interest on the map. I decided to walk all the way down and around to something called the Widow Jane Mine.

Having visited many mines in my life, I was expecting something like a small arched hole in the side of a hill, probably guarded with a locked gate. Instead, hiking into the woods past some sort of private home/closed mining museum, the ground still damp from rain, I found myself stunned by the unexpected appearance of these huge, moaning, jaw-like holes blasted into the Earth.

[Image: An entrance to the Widow Jane Mine; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

I walked inside and immediately saw the space was huge: a massive artificial cavern extending far back into the hillside. Excuse my terribly lit iPhone photos here, but these images should give you at least a cursory sense of the mine’s scale.

[Image: Inside the Widow Jane Mine; photos by BLDGBLOG.]

Several things gradually became clear as my eyes adjusted to the darkness.

One, I was totally alone in there and had no artificial illumination beyond my phone, whose light was useless. Two, a great deal of the mine was flooded, meaning that the true extent of its subterranean workings was impossible to gauge; I began fantasizing about returning someday with a canoe and seeing how far back it all really goes.

[Image: Flooding inside the Widow Jane Mine; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

Three, there were plastic lawn chairs everywhere. And they were facing the water.

While the actual explanation for this would later turn out to be both entirely sensible and somewhat anticlimactic—the mine, it turns out, is occasionally used as a performance venue for unusual concerts and events—it was impossible not to fall into a more Lovecraftian fantasy, of people coming here to sit together in the darkness, waiting patiently for something to emerge from the smooth black waters of a flooded mine, perhaps something they themselves have invited to the surface…

[Image: Lawn chairs facing the black waters of a flooded mine; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

In any case, at that point I couldn’t be stopped. While trying to figure out where in the world I had left my rental car, I noticed something else in Google’s satellite view of the area—some sort of abandoned factory complex in the woods—so I headed out to find it.

On the way there, still totally alone and not hiking past a single other person, there was some sort of Blair Witch house set back in the trees, collapsing under vegetation and water damage, with black yawning windows and graffiti everywhere. I believe it is this structure in the satellite pic.

[Image: A creepy, ruined house in the woods, photo by BLDGBLOG.]

Onward I continued, walking till I made it, finally, to this sprawling cement plant facility of some sort just standing there in a clearing.

[Image: Cement world; photos by BLDGBLOG.]

I wandered into the silos, looking at other people’s graffiti…

[Image: “Born to Die”—it’s hard to argue with that, although when I texted this photo to a friend he thought it said “Born to Pie,” which I suppose is even better. Photo by BLDGBLOG.]

…before continuing on again to find my car.

Then, though, one more crazy thing popped up, sort of hidden behind those kilns in the opening photo of this post.

There was a door in the middle of the forest! With a surveillance camera!

[Image: Photos by BLDGBLOG.]

It turns out this door leads down into the massive document-storage caverns of Iron Mountain located nearby, a company whose subterranean archive fever was documented in The New Yorker several years ago (albeit referring to a slightly different location of the firm). I would guess that this is the approximate location of that door.

This was confirmed for me by a man sitting alone in a public works truck back at the Binnewater Kilns parking lot, near my rental car. He was smoking a cigar and listening to the radio with his window rolled down when I walked up to the side of his truck and said, “Hey, man, what’s that door in the woods?”

Class Action

[Image: Still from the end of Garbage, Gangsters and Greed.]

I have a long new feature up at The Guardian this weekend that tells the story of an English teacher at Middletown High School, in upstate New York, named Fred Isseks. In the early 1990s, Isseks was given the task of instructing teenage students at the school in how to use a bunch of new video cameras the school had acquired.

To the school’s surprise—and to some administrators’ long-term political frustration—Isseks’s students quickly formed an investigative journalism unit, taking on local politicians and the New York Mafia, and producing a feature-length documentary about the illegal dumping of toxic waste in local landfills.

The resulting film, called Garbage, Gangsters and Greed, made it as far as the Clinton White House, helped turn public opinion against the landfills, leading to their closure, and helped to reinvigorate official New York State hearings, run by Assemblyman Maurice Hinchey, on the subject of organized crime families and the illegal hauling of toxic waste.

The story of the students is pretty incredible—involving death threats, threats of arrest, trespassing onto contaminated land, and more—and I was thrilled to be able to meet or speak with several of them, even to tour the old high school with Fred Isseks in tow. It is not an exaggeration to say that Isseks’s class changed the direction of those students’ lives, as many now work in environmental law or film and television. (One former student, Rachel Raimist, even has a media center named after her at the University of Minnesota.)

The whole thing really pivots on Isseks’s belief that teenagers need to be given projects of true meaning and significance, not simply assigned more tests to take. Indeed, Isseks himself later went on—while still teaching at the high school but after a final cut of the landfill documentary had been completed—to earn a Ph.D. at the European Graduate School, studying under Wolfgang Schirmacher.

His thesis would later be published under the name Media Courage: Impossible Pedagogy in an Artificial Community, and it includes a chapter that, as I describe it in the Guardian piece, advocates for “the philosophical potential of the American high school system. [Isseks’s] belief that teenagers need to be given work with genuine meaning and consequence in the world would shape his entire teaching career and, in the process, change his students’ lives.”

Of course, the rabbit hole of Mob connections to toxic waste in the United States is bottomless, and the true consequences of illegal disposal—particularly, the long-term medical and environmental effects—are yet to be fully accounted for.

I will undoubtedly come back to this topic, but, for now, check out the Guardian piece online (or in this weekend’s print edition), watch the students’ film in its entirety over at YouTube, and click through to Fred Isseks’s blog, where I first read about all of this. His long post putting the landfills into a deeper historical and geological context is superb.

(A brief note from the small-world files: my awareness of Fred Isseks came entirely through a friendly tip from my friend, Ed Keller, who had read an earlier post here on BLDGBLOG called “Terrestrial Warfare, Drowned Lands.” The “Drowned Lands” are not only the area of New York State where Ed Keller lives, but are the same region where the toxic landfills explored by Isseks and his students are all located. I owe a huge thanks to Ed for the heads up!)

Geoarchitecture

[Image: “Dolmen du Mas d’Azil,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

I’ve been enjoying looking at these photos of ancient dolmens in the French countryside, taken by Eugène Trutat, after reading about them as part of a forthcoming exhibition here in L.A. called Rude Forms Among Us.

[Image: “Dolmen de Cap del Pouech,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

“Over a span of several decades, the 19th-century photographer Eugène Trutat documented the Dolmen de Vaour,” the show’s curator, architect Anna Neimark, writes. “Three stones form the perimeter of a nearly rectangular interior; they are called orthostates. One orthostate is long, presenting a sort-of wall, while the other two are chunky and can be read as truncated columns. All three are set in from the perimeter, allowing a rather peculiar capstone to appear to float above them.”

Geology rearranged becomes architecture; the built environment is just the surface of the Earth, spatially amplified.

[Image: “Dolmen de Brillant, Mas d’Azil,” by Eugène Trutat, via Wikipedia.]

There is an opening reception and event with Neimark tomorrow night—Friday, January 31, at 7pm—for those of you near Los Angeles.

Brainglass

Given the right geological circumstances, brains can become glass. During the 1st-century eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, for example, one fleeing victim’s brain was allegedly vitrified, its soft, thinking tissues transformed into “small, glassy black fragments that were just attached inside the skull,” the Washington Post reports, like shards of a broken window.

[Image: Brainglass, via the Washington Post.]

These reflective fragments—little black mirrors—“contained proteins common in brain tissue, researchers found, and had undergone vitrification and transformed into glass.” That made this “the first time brains from any human or animal have been found fossilized as glass.” This, of course, could be because we haven’t been looking: what other deposits of obsidian lying around on the Earth’s surface are actually fossilized animal brains? Vitrified neurology.

In any case, I was reminded of an exhibition last summer at the Getty Villa here in Los Angeles called Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri. Among the artifacts on display were these incredible “carbonized papyri,” or scrolls—ancient books—that had been turned into seemingly useless lumps of charcoal.

[Image: Carbonized papyrii on display at Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri; photo by BLDGBLOG.]

The amazing thing was that, by using advanced medical imaging equipment to peer inside the lumps, researchers discovered that these previously illegible objects could be made readable again, virtually unrolled using X-ray tomography and character-recognition algorithms, to reconstruct the scrolls’ lost content. They were “able to use the medical imaging technology, which is usually used to examine soft human tissues, to detect the tiny bump of ink on the surface of a scroll without damaging the fragile artifact.”

To be honest, this is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen—the “noninvasive digital restoration of ancient texts… hidden inside artifacts.” Otherwise mute objects given technical legibility. (A similar technique inspired one of the greatest New York Times headlines of the past few years: “Scanning an Ancient Biblical Text That Humans Fear to Open,” combining, at a stroke, H.P. Lovecraft, X-ray imaging technology, and possible Christian apocrypha.)

Stepping away from realistic technical applications for just a moment into the world of pure science fiction, it is fascinating to imagine a team of future researchers using 21st-century medical imaging techniques to scan, Jurassic Park-style, for lost thoughts lodged inside pieces of obsidian, black glass fossils of animal brain tissue, almost like the reader of unicorn skulls in Haruki Murakami’s novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

The idea that some of the rocks around us might, in fact, be glass brains—brainglass, a new mineral—neurological apocrypha awaiting decipherment, suggests a thousand new novels and storylines. Neurogeonomicon.

Black and ancient brains dreaming inside what humans mistook for geology.

Rock Impostors

[Image: Photo by Rob Arnold, courtesy National Geographic].

A new type of plastic pollution has been discovered, “hiding in plain sight on the beaches of southern England,” National Geographic reports. These are “rocks [that] aren’t rocks at all,” we read, but “rock impostors” made from heavily weathered plastic, colored with streaks of lead and chromium.

“Because they look geological,” environmental scientist Andrew Turner told the magazine, “you could walk by hundreds of them and not notice.”

(Previously: Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach and Intermediary Geologies.)

Exotempestology

Purely in terms of extreme landscapes, this planet is certainly one of the most notable: eight times the mass of Jupiter, but starless, adrift, an “orphaned world” without a sun, “somehow shot out of its orbit” into the darkness of space, its skies thundering with storms of molten metal.

(Story is from 2015, but randomly rediscovered this morning in my bookmarks.)

Walker Lane Redux

It’s been an interesting few days here in Southern California, with several large earthquakes and an ensuing aftershock sequence out in the desert near Ridgecrest. Ridgecrest, of course, is at the very southern edge of the Walker Lane—more properly part of the Eastern California Shear Zone—a region of the country that runs broadly northwest along the California/Nevada state border that I covered at length for the May 2019 issue of Wired.

[Image: My own loose sketch of the Walker Lane, using Google Maps].

To make a story short, a handful of geologists have speculated, at least since the late 1980s, that the San Andreas Fault could actually be dying out over time—that the San Andreas is jammed up in a place called the “Big Bend,” near the town of Frazier Park, and that it is thus losing its capacity for large earthquakes.

As a result, all of that unreleased seismic strain has to go somewhere, and there is growing evidence—paleoseismic data, LiDAR surveys, GPS geodesy—that the pent-up strain has been migrating deep inland, looking for a new place to break.

That new route—bypassing the San Andreas Fault altogether—is the Walker Lane (and its southern continuation into the Mojave Desert, known as the Eastern California Shear Zone).

What this might mean—and one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by this idea—is that a new continental margin could be forming in the Eastern Sierra, near the California/Nevada state border, a future line of breakage between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates.

If this is true, the Pacific Ocean will someday flood north from the Gulf of California all the way past Reno—but, importantly, this will happen over the course of many millions of years (not due to one catastrophic earthquake). This means that no humans alive today—in fact, I would guess, no humans at all—will see the final result. If human civilization as we know it is roughly 15,000 years old, then civilization could rise and fall nearly 700 times before we even get to 10 million years, let alone 15 million or 20.

In any case, these recent big quakes out near Ridgecrest do not require that the most extreme Walker Lane scenario be true—that is, they do not require that the Walker Lane is an incipient continental margin. However, they do offer compelling and timely evidence that the Walker Lane region is, at the very least, more seismically active than its residents might want to believe.

I could go on at great length about all this, but, instead, I just want to point out one cool thing: the far northern route of the Walker Lane remains something of a mystery. If you’ve read the Wired piece, you’ll know that, for the Walker Lane to become a future continental edge, it must eventually rip back through California and southeastern Oregon to reach the sea. However, the route it might take—basically, from Pyramid Lake to the Pacific—is unclear, to say the least.

One place that came up several times while I was researching my Wired article was the northern California town of Susanville. Susanville is apparently a promising place for study, as geologists might find emergent faults there that could reveal the future path of the Walker Lane.

If you draw a straight line from the Reno/Pyramid Lake region through Susanville and keep going, you’ll soon hit a town called Fall River Mills. Interestingly, following the long aftershock sequence of these Ridgecrest quakes, there was a small quake in Fall River Mills this morning.

While seeing patterns in randomness—let alone drawing magical straight lines across the landscape—is the origin of conspiracy theory and the bane of serious scientific thinking, it is, nevertheless, interesting to note that the apparently linear nature of the Walker Lane could very well continue through Fall River Mills.

[Image: The Ridgecrest quakes and their aftershocks seem to support the idea of a linear connection along the Walker Lane; note that I have added a straight orange line in the bottom image, purely to indicate the very broad location of the Walker Lane].

While we’re on the subject, it is also interesting to see that, if you continue that same line just a little bit further, connecting Pyramid Lake to Susanville to Fall River Mills, you will hit Mt. Shasta, an active volcano in northern California. Again, if you’ve read the Wired piece, you’ll know that volcanoes seem to have played an interesting role in the early formation of the San Andreas Fault millions of years ago.

In any case, in cautious summary, I should emphasize that I am just an armchair enthusiast for the Walker Lane scenario, not a geologist; although I wrote a feature article about the Walker Lane, I am by no means an expert and it would be irresponsible of me to suggest anything here as scientific fact. It does interest me, though, that aftershocks appear to be illuminating a pretty dead-linear path northwest up the Walker Lane, including into regions where its future route are not yet clear.

Insofar as the locations of these aftershocks can be taken as scientifically relevant—not just a seismic coincidence—the next few weeks could perhaps offer some intriguing suggestions for the Walker Lane’s next steps.

Magnetic Landscape Architecture

[Image: R. Fu, via ScienceNews].

Although I seem to be on a roll with linking to ScienceNews stories, this is too amazing to pass up: “People living at least 2,000 years ago near the Pacific Coast of what’s now Guatemala crafted massive human sculptures with magnetized foreheads, cheeks and navels. New research provides the first detailed look at how these sculpted body parts were intentionally placed within magnetic fields on large rocks.”

The magnetic fields were likely created by lightning strikes.

This is incredible: “Artisans may have held naturally magnetized mineral chunks near iron-rich, basalt boulders to find areas in the rock where magnetic forces pushed back, the scientists say in the June Journal of Archaeological Science. Predesignated parts of potbelly figures—which can stand more than 2 meters tall and weigh 10,000 kilograms or more—were then carved at those spots.”

It’s like a geological farm for the secondary effects of lightning. A lightning farm for real!

The mind boggles at the thought of magnetic landscape architecture, or magnetic masonry in ancient stonework, or even huge sculptures invisibly adhering to one another through magnetic forces, giving the appearance of magic.

Imagine a valley of exposed bedrock and boulders, its unusually high iron content making the rocks there attractive to lightning. Over tens of thousands of lightning strikes, the valley becomes partially magnetized, resulting in bizarre geological anomalies mistaken for the actions of a spirit world: small pebbles roll uphill, for example, or larger rocks inexplicably clump together in structurally precarious agglomerations. Stones perhaps hover an inch or two off the ground, pulled upward toward magnetic overhangs, or rocks visibly assemble themselves into small cairns, clicking into place one atop the other.

As you step into the valley, the only sound you hear is a trembling in the gravel ahead, as if the rocks are jostling for position. Your jewelry begins to float, pulling away from your wrists and chest.

Anyway, read more at ScienceNews.

(Also, watch for my friend Eva Barbarossa’s book on magnets coming out this fall.)