Terrain Jam

[Image: “arid wilderness areas” from @witheringsystem].

I’ve long been a fan of generative landscapes—topographies created according to some sort of underlying algorithmic code—and I’m thus always happy to stumble upon new, visually striking examples.

Of course, geology itself is already “generative,” as entire continents are formed and evolve over hundreds of millions of years following deeper logics of melting, crystallization, erosion, tectonic drift, and thermal metamorphosis; so digital examples of this sort of thing are just repeating in miniature something that has long been underway at a much larger scale.

In any case, @witheringsystem is a joint project between Katie Rose Pipkin and Loren Schmidt, the same artists behind the widely-known “moth generator” and last year’s “Fermi Paradox Jam,” among other collaborations. It is not exactly new, but it’s been tweeting some great shots lately from an algorithmic world of cuboid terrains; the image seen here depicts “arid wilderness areas,” offered without further context.

See several more examples over on their Twitter feed.

(Spotted via Martin Isaac; earlier on BLDGBLOG: British Countryside Generator and Sometimes the house you come out of isn’t the same one you went into.”)

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.

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”).

Fewer Gardens, More Shipwrecks

[Image: Peder Balke, “Seascape” (1848), courtesy of the Athenaeum].

As cities like New York prepare for “permanent flooding,” and as we remember submerged historical landscapes such as Doggerland, lost beneath the waves of a rising North Sea, it’s interesting to read that humanity’s ancient past—not just its looming future—might be fundamentally maritime, rather than landlocked. Or oceanic rather than terrestrial, we might say.

In his recent book The Human Shore, historian John R. Gillis suggests that, due to a variety of factors, including often extreme transportation difficulties presented by inland terrain, traveling by sea was the obvious choice for early human migrants.

People, after all, have been seafaring for at least 130,000 years.

This focus on seas and waterways came with political implications, Gillis writes. Even when European merchant-explorers reached North America, “It would be a very long time, almost three hundred years, before Europeans realized the full extent of the Americas’ continental character and grasped the fact that they might have to abandon the ways of seaborne empires for those of territorial states.” In fact, he adds, “for the first century or more, northern Europeans showed more interest in navigational rights to certain waterways and sea tenures than in territorial possession as such.”

At the risk of anachronism, you might say that their power was defined by logistical concerns, rather than by territorial ones: by dynamic, just-in-time access to ports and routes, rather than by the stationary establishment of landed borders and policed frontiers.

[Image: “Ship in a Storm” (ca. 1826), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

Gillis goes much further than this, however, suggesting that—as 130,000 years of seafaring history seems to indicate—humans simply are not a landlocked species.

“Even today,” Gillis claims, “we barely acknowledge the 95 percent of human history that took place before the rise of agricultural civilization.” That is, 95 percent of human history spent migrating both over land and over water, including the use of early but sophisticated means of marine transportation that proved resistant to archaeological preservation. For every lost village or forgotten house, rediscovered beneath a quiet meadow, there are a thousand ancient shipwrecks we don’t even know we should be looking for.

Perhaps speaking only for myself, this is where things get particularly interesting. Gillis points out that humanity’s deep maritime history has been almost entirely written out of our myths and religions.

In his words, “the book of Genesis would have us believe that our beginnings were wholly landlocked, but it was written at the time that the Hebrews were settling down to an agrarian existence.” That is, the myth of Genesis was written from the point of view of a culture already turning away from the sea, mastering animal domestication, mining, and wheeled transport, and settling down away from the coastline. It was learning to cultivate gardens: “The story of Eden served admirably as the foundational myth for agricultural society,” Gillis writes, but it performs very poorly when seen in the context of humanity’s seagoing past.

Briefly, I have to wonder what might have happened had works of literature—or, more realistically, highly developed oral traditions—from this earlier era been better preserved. Seen this way, The Odyssey would merely be one, comparatively recent example of seafaring mythology, and from only one maritime culture. But what strange, aquatic world of gods and monsters might we still be in thrall of today had these pre-Edenic myths been preserved—as if, before the Bible, there had been some sprawling Lovecraftian world of coral reefs, lost ships, and distant archipelagoes, from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia?

[Image: “Storm at Sea” (ca. 1824), by Joseph Mallord William Turner; courtesy Tate Britain].

This is where this post’s title comes from. “In short,” Gillis concludes, “we require a new narrative, one with, as Steve Mentz suggests, ‘fewer gardens, and more shipwrecks.’”

Fewer gardens, more shipwrecks. We are more likely, Gillis and Mentz imply, to be the outcast descendants of sunken ships and abandoned expeditions than we are the landed heirs of well-tended garden plots.

Seen this way, even if only for the purpose of a thought experiment, human history becomes a story of the storm, the wreck, the crash—the distant island, the unseen reef, the undertow—not the farm or even the garden, which would come to resemble merely a temporary domestic twist in this much more ancient human engagement with the sea.

Prodigal Congress

[Image: Federal lands near Boulder, Utah; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

The incoming Republican Congress has redefined U.S. federal lands as being “effectively worthless,” making it easier to return those lands to state control, and then to auction them off to private ownership or future industrial use.

“In a single line of changes to the rules for the House of Representatives, Republicans have overwritten the value of federal lands, easing the path to disposing of federal property even if doing so loses money for the government and provides no demonstrable compensation to American citizens,” the Guardian reports.

“Essentially, the revised budget rules deny that federal land has any value at all, allowing the new Congress to sidestep requirements that a bill giving away a piece of federal land does not decrease federal revenue or contribute to the federal debt.”

As such, “federal land is effectively worthless.”

That people who voted for this party to be in power will be amongst the hundreds of thousands of Americans who drive west every summer to experience the natural beauty of the United States is so politically absurd that it is worth pointing out here, however briefly.

This is what those same voters rejected at the ballot box in November: “As a nation, we need policies and investments that will keep America’s public lands public, strengthen protections for our natural and cultural resources, increase access to parks and public lands for all Americans, protect species and wildlife, and harness the immense economic and social potential of our public lands and waters.” Their votes have also made it far more difficult to declare future National Monuments and National Parks, let alone to maintain the ones we already have.

Those same people will come home next summer with their smartphones and digital cameras full of images of extraordinary landscapes their own party just sold off the table for scrap.

Northern Sonic

[Image: Canada’s Fury and Hecla Strait, source of the “ping”].

The “mysterious ‘ping’ sound” occurring beneath the waters of Canada’s Fury and Hecla Strait is now under official investigation.

“Hunters in a remote community in Nunavut are concerned about a mysterious sound that appears to be coming from the sea floor,” the CBC reported back in November. “The ‘pinging’ sound, sometimes also described as a ‘hum’ or ‘beep,’ has been heard in Fury and Hecla Strait—roughly 120 kilometres northwest of the hamlet of Igloolik—throughout the summer.” One of many concerns is that, “whatever the cause, it’s scaring the animals away.”

To find out exactly what it is, the Canadian military has sent “two acoustic specialists to investigate the sound.” Oddly, however, “the specialists will not be visiting the actual area of Fury and Hecla Strait, but rather spending a week in Igloolik to gather information about the sound.”

In any case, if this was a novel, I wish I had written it—with slight variations. Two acousticians, carrying sensitive recording equipment and some personal baggage, are sent at short notice up to a tiny fishing hamlet in the far north to investigate a mysterious sound in the water.

No one has any idea of what it is or what’s causing it. It could be a unique natural effect of changing undersea currents, oceanographers suggest; it could be an adversarial foreign military sonar-mapping the strait for future navigation, a military advisor warns; it could be, one of the acousticians quietly begins to fear, supernatural; but the two of them continue researching nonetheless, engaging in sometimes eerie nighttime conversations with locals about a wide range of northern folklore, of vast Lovecraftian things waiting in the ice to thaw and stories of now-vengeful, thousand-year-old revenant hunters lost at sea.

[Image: The hamlet of Igloolik, Canada, visible on the left].

The acousticians return to their spartan accommodations every evening—an old creaking building whose sole resident passed away the year before, although no one will tell them of what cause—where they put on headphones and listen back through their daily recordings, this weird lurch of aquatic noise, as if they’ve wiretapped the drain of the world.

One of them becomes convinced he can hear something—a signal amongst the reverb—but the other can’t hear it, and, either way, it’s almost time to head south again.

A day before they’re set to leave, however, there is a commotion outside near the jetty as three people are rushed into the village. They are hypothermic and dehydrated—and, strangely, carrying U.S. passports despite the fact that one of them has been babbling in Russian. They were found in the strait, half-drowned, their fishing vessel sinking.

And so on. If you want to read the rest, buy me a coffee some time.

(Via Atlas Obscura).

The Doomway

[Image: The beginning of the Broomway path, at Wakering Stairs].

One of my favorite chapters in Robert Macfarlane’s recent book, The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot, has been excerpted over at the BBC—and, although the excerpt itself is well worth reading in full, it only reminds me of how good the entire chapter really is (note, as well, that the following quotations come from Macfarlane’s book, not from the BBC excerpt, lest there be variations in text).

The chapter documents a hike along the Broomway, an eerie coastal path across tidally exposed sands out where the Thames meets the North Sea.

The satellite photo, above, shows the Broomway’s launching point, at a place called Wakering Stairs. From there it heads into a shifting marine landscape of tidal flats—a “vast revealed world,” in Macfarlane’s words, of mud, half-buried guideposts, and omnipresent quicksand.

The path is also known as the Doomway: it is a path that leads “straight out to sea.”

[Image: One possible end-point—not the furthest—of the “Doomway” path].

The Broomway is “allegedly ‘the deadliest’ path in Britain,” Macfarlane writes, “and certainly the unearthliest path I have ever walked.”

It only exists at low tide, for starters, and it can often be followed only with the visual help of unstable wooden poles driven into the ground to mark its route across the landscape. Its unusual name, in fact, comes from “the 400 or so ‘brooms’ that were formerly placed at intervals of between thirty and sixty yards on either side of the track, thereby indicating the safe passage on the hard sand that lay between them.”

Without those brooms, the path—and not just where it’s heading, but the route you’ve already walked to get there–would disappear from view entirely, in effect stranding you at sea.

That might sound easy enough to account for, if you have a good sense of direction. “When the tide comes back in, though,” Macfarlane warns, “it comes fast—galloping over the sands quicker than a human can run.”

[Image: The endpoint of the Broomway tidal path].

A sense of how difficult the Broomway can be to follow is revealed by Macfarlane’s description of how people used to walk it in bad weather. “Until hand-held compasses became available to walkers, the safest way of navigating in bad conditions, when it was impossible to see from broom to broom, was with stone and thread. Walkers carried a 200-foot length of linen thread, with one end tied to a small stone. They would place the stone next to a broom and then walk away in what they believed to be the right direction, unspooling the thread as they went, until they could see the next broom.”

They would then either haul the stone up to their current position and start the process all over again, or they would search back through the mist and darkness for the correct route forward.

The path “is thought to have killed more than a hundred people over the centuries,” and what an utterly lost and disoriented death it must have been.

If you’re tempted to hike it—as am I—please take the necessary precautions; consider reading Macfarlane’s book the first necessary step.

(On a side note, it is very much not the same thing, but Andrew Michael Hurley’s novel The Loney takes place in a coastal British landscape that has its own disappearing footpath across the tidal sands; it can be, at times, uneven, but it is a good read for any fellow fans of Gothic horror).

Infrastructural Voodoo Doll

For the past few months, on various trips out west to Los Angeles, I’ve been working on an exclusive story about a new intelligence-gathering unit at LAX, the Los Angeles International Airport.

To make a long story short, in the summer of 2014 Los Angeles World Airports—the parent organization in control of LAX—hired two intelligence analysts, both with top secret clearance, in order to analyze global threats targeting the airport.

There were many things that brought me to this story, but what particularly stood out was the very idea that a piece of transportation infrastructure could now punch above its weight, taking on the intelligence-gathering and analytical capabilities not just of a city, but of a small nation-state.

It implied a kind of parallel intelligence organization created to protect not a democratic polity but an airfield. This suggested to me that perhaps our models of where power actually lies in the contemporary city are misguided—that, instead of looking to City Hall, for example, we should be focusing on economic structures, ports, sites of logistics, places that wield a different sort of influence and require a new kind of protection and security.

From the article, which is now online at The Atlantic:

Under the moniker of “critical infrastructure protection,” energy-production, transportation-logistics, waste-disposal, and other sites have been transformed from often-overlooked megaprojects on the edge of the metropolis into the heavily fortified, tactical crown jewels of the modern state. Bridges, tunnels, ports, dams, pipelines, and airfields have an emergent geopolitical clout that now rivals democratically elected civic institutions.

For me, this has incredible implications:

It might sound like science fiction, but, in 20 years’ time, it could very well be that LAX has a stronger international-intelligence game than many U.S. allies. LAX field agents could be embedded overseas, cultivating informants, sussing out impending threats. It will be an era of infrastructural intelligence, when airfields, bridges, ports, and tunnels have, in effect, their own internal versions of the CIA—and LAX will be there first.

There are obvious shades here of Keller Easterling’s notion of “extrastatecraft,” where infrastructure has come to assume a peculiar form of political authority.

As such, it also resembles an initiative undertaken by the NYPD in the years immediately following 9/11—a story well told by at least three books, Peter Bergen’s excellent United States of Jihad, Christopher Dickey’s Securing the City, and, more critically, Enemies Within by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman.

However, there is at least one key difference here: the NYPD unit was operating as an urban-scale intelligence apparatus, whereas the L.A. initiative exists at the level of a piece of transportation infrastructure. Imagine the Holland Tunnel, I-90, or the M25 hiring its own in-house intel team, and you can begin to imagine the strange new powers and influence this implies.

In any case, the bulk of the piece is focused on introducing readers to the core group of people behind the program.

There is Anthony McGinty, a former D.C. homicide detective and Marine Reserve veteran, kickstarting a second career on the west coast; there is Michelle Sosa, a trilingual Boston University grad with a background in intelligence analysis; and there is Ethel McGuire, one of the first black female agents in FBI history, who undertook their hiring.

There are, of course, literally thousands of others of people involved, from baggage handlers and the LAX Fire Department to everyday travelers. LAX, after all, is a city in miniature:

At more than five square miles, it is only slightly smaller than Beverly Hills. More than 50,000 badged employees report to work there each day, many with direct access to the airfield—and thus to the vulnerable aircraft waiting upon it. More than 100,000 passenger vehicles use the airport’s roads and parking lots every day, and, in 2015 alone, LAX hosted 75 million passengers in combined departures and arrivals.

LAX is also policed like a city. The airport has its own SWAT team—known as the Emergency Services Unit—and employs roughly 500 sworn police officers, double the number of cops in the well-off city of Pasadena and more than the total number of state police in all of Rhode Island.

However, the actual space of the airport—the built landscape of logistics—is probably the main potential source of interest for BLDGBLOG readers.

For example, at the western edge of the airfield, there is an abandoned suburb called Surfridge, its empty streets and sand dunes now used as a butterfly sanctuary and as a place for police-training simulations. The runways themselves are vast symbolic landscapes painted with geometric signs that have to be read to be navigated. And then there are the terminals, currently undergoing a massive, multibillion dollar renovation campaign.

At one point, I found myself sitting inside the office complex of Gavin de Becker, an anti-assassination security expert who has worked for celebrities, foreign dignitaries, and even U.S. presidents. Protected behind false-front signage, de Becker’s hidden complex houses a full-scale airplane fuselage for emergency training, as well as ballistic dummies and a soundproofed shooting range.

I had a blast working on this piece, and am thrilled that it’s finally online. Check it out, if you get a chance, and don’t miss the speculative “case files” at the end, brief examples of what might be called infrastructural security fiction.

(Thanks to Ross Andersen and Sacha Zimmerman at The Atlantic for the edits. All images in this post from Google Maps, filtered through Instagram).

The Season of Burning Trucks

Stories of GPS directions run amok are a dime a dozen these days: gullible travelers led astray by their iPhones or dashboard navigation systems, driving for hours into the desert night, straight into mountain lakes, up unpaved rural roads that are clearly no more than footpaths, or even halfway across Iceland before they realize something’s wrong.

But there is still something remarkable and almost Raymond Carver-esque about this story of a small town in Arkansas being visited—over and over again—by runaway trucks, their drivers misled by GPS, their vehicles mechanically unprepared for the town’s sharp curves and steep terrain. “Several of them go through here with their brakes smoking or on fire,” a local resident tells ArkansasOnline.

This vision of a town—population a mere 100—now seeing the blazing and violent side-effects of digital navigation technology is both hilarious and beautifully symbolic of the larger phenomenon, of people becoming over-reliant upon algorithmic systems and finding their journeys no longer proceeding as planned.

Like freak weather caused by atmospheric events halfway across the country—bringing unexpected local snow or unseasonably heavy rain hundreds of miles away—intangible changes in route-mapping software send burning trucks roaring through a remote mountain town.

It is both a macabre spectacle and a symptom of bigger technological shifts—before, of course, those same algorithms receive slights tweaks and all those trucks, as mysteriously as they first arrived one night, halo’d in oily flames, now cease to appear.

Imagine being five or six years old in a town like that, not knowing what GPS is, looking out from the darkness of your bedroom over several weeks of late nights, and living through this season of burning trucks, those infernal visitors from further up the mountainside, tumbling down past houses, trailed by smoke, their fiery wheels reflecting bright red in the windows of parked cars. It’s like the visions of Ezekiel, updated for an age of car accidents and Google Maps.

Where are they coming from? And why? Then it all stops and the mystery deepens.

From Bullets, Seeds

[Image: From the “Flower Shell” project by Studio Total].

The Department of Defense is looking to develop “biodegradable training ammunition loaded with specialized seeds to grow environmentally beneficial plants that eliminate ammunition debris and contaminants.”

As the DoD phrases it, in a new call-for-proposals, although “current training rounds require hundreds of years or more to biodegrade,” they are simply “left on the ground surface or several feet underground at the proving ground or tactical range” after use.

Worse, “some of these rounds might have the potential [to] corrode and pollute the soil and nearby water.”

The solution? From bullets to seeds. Turn those spent munitions into gardens-to-come:

The US Army Corps of Engineers’ Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) has demonstrated bioengineered seeds that can be embedded into the biodegradable composites and that will not germinate until they have been in the ground for several months. This SBIR effort will make use of seeds to grow environmentally friendly plants that remove soil contaminants and consume the biodegradable components developed under this project. Animals should be able to consume the plants without any ill effects.

The potential for invasive species to take root and dominate the fragile, disrupted ecology of a proving ground is quite obvious—unless region-specific munitions are developed, with bullets carefully chosen to fit their ecological context, a scenario I find unlikely—but this is nonetheless a surprising, almost Land Art-like vision for the U.S. military.

Recall our earlier look at speculative mass-reforestation programs using tree bombs dropped from airplanes. This was a technique that “could plant as many as a million trees in one day,” in a state of all-out forest warfare. Here, however, a leisurely day out spent shooting targets in a field somewhere could have similar long-term landscape effects: haphazardly planted forests and gardens will emerge in the scarred grounds where weapons were once fired and tested.

In fact, the resulting plants themselves could no doubt also be weaponized, chosen for their tactical properties. Consider buddleia: “buddleia grows fast and its many seeds are easily dispersed by the wind,” Laura Spinney wrote for New Scientist back in 1996. “It has powerful roots used to thin soil on rocky substrata, ideally suited to penetrating the bricks and mortar of modern buildings. In London and other urban centres it can be seen growing out of walls and eves.”

It is also, however, slowly and relentlessly breaking apart the buildings it grows on.

Pack buddleia into your bullets, in other words, and even your spent casings will grow into city-devouring thickets, crumbling your enemy’s ruins with their roots. Think of it as a botanical variation on the apocryphal salting of Carthage.

In any case, if seed-bullets sound like something you or your company can develop, you have until February 7, 2017 to apply.

(Spotted via Adam E. Anderson).

Voids and Vacuums

[Image: Google Maps view of Mosul Dam (bottom center) and the huge reservoir it creates].

Dexter Filkins—author of, among other things, The Forever War—has a long new piece in the first 2017 issue of The New Yorker about the impending collapse of Iraq’s Mosul Dam.

The scale of the potential disaster is mind-boggling.

If the dam ruptured, it would likely cause a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, loosing a wave as high as a hundred feet that would roll down the Tigris, swallowing everything in its path for more than a hundred miles. Large parts of Mosul would be submerged in less than three hours. Along the riverbanks, towns and cities containing the heart of Iraq’s population would be flooded; in four days, a wave as high as sixteen feet would crash into Baghdad, a city of six million people. “If there is a breach in the dam, there will be no warning,” Alwash said. “It’s a nuclear bomb with an unpredictable fuse.”

Indeed, “hundreds of thousands of people could be killed,” according to a UN report cited by Filkins.

What’s interesting from a technical perspective is why the dam is so likely to collapse. It’s a question of foundations. The dam was built, Filkins writes, on rock “interspersed with gypsum—which dissolves in contact with water. Dams built on this kind of rock are subject to a phenomenon called karstification, in which the foundation becomes shot through with voids and vacuums.”

Filling those voids with grout is now a constant job, requiring dam engineers to pump huge amounts of cementitious slurry down into the porous rock in order to replace the dissolved gypsum.

[Image: Mosul Dam spillway; photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brendan Stephens].

At one point, Filkins goes inside the dam where “engineers are engaged in what amounts to an endless struggle against nature. Using antiquated pumps as large as truck engines, they drive enormous quantities of liquid cement into the earth. Since the dam opened, in 1984, engineers working in the gallery have pumped close to a hundred thousand tons of grout—an average of ten tons a day—into the voids below.”

Finding and caulking these voids, Filkins writes, is “deeply inexact.” They are deep underground and remain unseen; they have to be inferred. The resulting process is both absurd and never-ending.

The engineers operating [the grout pumps] can’t see the voids they are filling and have no way of discerning their size or shape. A given void might be as big as a closet, or a car, or a house. It could be a single spacious cavity, requiring mounds of grout, or it could be an octopus-like tangle, with winding sub-caverns, or a hairline fracture. “We feel our way through,” [deputy director Hussein al-Jabouri] said, standing by the pump. Generally, smaller cavities require thinner grout, so Jabouri started with a milky solution and increased its thickness as the void took more. Finally, after several hours, he stopped; his intuition, aided by the pressure gauges, told him that the cavity was full. “It’s a crapshoot,” [civil engineer Azzam Alwash] told me. “There’s no X-ray vision. You stop grouting when you can’t put any more grout in a hole. It doesn’t mean the hole is gone.”

It’s hard not to think of a scene in Georges Perec’s novel Life: A User’s Manual, a scene I have written about before. There, a character named Emilio Grifalconi picks up an old, used table only to find that the support column at its center is “completely worm-eaten.” Slowly, painstakingly, operating by intuition, he fills the worm-eaten passages with a permanent adhesive, “injecting them with an almost liquid mixture of lead, alum and asbestos fiber.”

The table collapses anyway, alas, giving Grifalconi an idea: “dissolving what was left of the original wood” in order to “disclose the fabulous arborescence within, this exact record of the worms’ life inside the wooden mass: a static, mineral accumulation of all the movements that had constituted their blind existence, their undeviating single-mindedness, their obstinate itineraries; the faithful materialization of all they had eaten and digested as they forced from their dense surroundings the invisible elements needed for their survival, the explicit, visible, immeasurably disturbing image of the endless progressions that had reduced the hardest of woods to an impalpable network of crumbling galleries.”

Whether or not such a rhizomatic tangle of grout-filled chambers, linked “voids and vacuums” like subterranean grapes, could ever be uncovered and explored beneath the future ruins of a safely dismantled Mosul Dam is something I will leave for engineers.

[Image: Mosul Dam water release; photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brendan Stephens].

However, Filkins points out one possible solution that would sidestep all of this: this option, he writes, “which has lately gained currency, is to erect a ‘permanent’ seal of the existing dam wall—a mile-long concrete curtain dropped eight hundred feet into the earth.”

This would not be the only huge subterranean wall to be proposed recently: think of the “giant ice wall” under construction beneath the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan: “Japan is about to switch on a huge refrigeration system that will create a 1.5-km-long, underground frozen ‘wall,’ in hopes of containing the radioactive water that’s spilling out of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which went into meltdown following the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.”

Read more over at The New Yorker.