Under the Dome

[Image: Courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)].

A gigapixel bathymetric map of the Gulf of Mexico’s seabed has been released, and it’s incredible. The newly achieved level of detail is almost hard to believe.

[Images: Courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)].

The geology of the region is “driven not by plate tectonics but by the movement of subsurface bodies of salt,” Eos reported last week. “Salt deposits, a remnant of an ocean that existed some 200 million years ago, behave in a certain way when overlain by heavy sediments. They compact, deform, squeeze into cracks, and balloon into overlying material.”

This means that the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico “is a terrain continually in flux.”

How the salt got there is the subject of a long but fascinating description at Eos.

It is hypothesized that the salt precipitated out of hypersaline seawater when Africa and South America pulled away from North America during the Triassic and Jurassic, some 200 million years ago. The [Gulf of Mexico] was initially an enclosed, restricted basin into which seawater infiltrated and then evaporated in an arid climate, causing the hypersalinity (similar to what happened in the Great Salt Lake in Utah and the Dead Sea between Israel and Jordan).

Salt filled the basin to depths of thousands of meters until it was opened to the ancestral Atlantic Ocean and consequently regained open marine circulation and normal salinities. As geologic time progressed, river deltas and marine microfossils deposited thousands more meters of sediments into the basin, atop the thick layer of salt.

The salt, subjected to the immense pressure and heat of being buried kilometers deep, deformed like putty over time, oozing upward toward the seafloor. The moving salt fractured and faulted the overlying brittle sediments, in turn creating natural pathways for deep oil and gas to seep upward through the cracks and form reservoirs within shallower geologic layers.

These otherwise invisible landscape features “oozing upward” from beneath the seabed are known as salt domes, and they are not only found at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.

[Image: Avery Island, Louisiana, archived by the U.S. Library of Congress].

The black and white photos you see here are from a salt mine on Avery Island, Louisiana, archived by the U.S. Library of Congress. The photos date back as far as 1900, and they’re gorgeous.

[Image: Avery Island, Louisiana, archived by the U.S. Library of Congress].

This is what it looks like inside those salt domes, you might way, once industrially equipped human beings have carved wormlike topological spaces into the deformed, ballooning salt deposits of the region.

[Image: Avery Island, Louisiana, archived by the U.S. Library of Congress].

Obviously, the Gulf of Mexico is not the only salt-rich region of the United States; there is a huge salt mine beneath the city of Detroit, for example, and the nation’s first nuclear waste repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP—which my wife and I had the surreal pleasure of visiting in person back in 2012—is dug into a huge underground salt deposit near the New Mexico/Texas border.

[Image: Inside WIPP; photo by Nicola Twilley].

Nonetheless, the Louisiana/Gulf of Mexico salt dome region has lent itself to some particularly provocative landscape myths.

You might recall, for example, the story of Lake Peigneur, an inland body of water that was almost entirely drained from below when a Texaco drilling rig accidentally punctured a salt dome beneath the lake.

This led to the sight of a rapid, Edgar Allan Poe-like maelström of swirling water disappearing into the abyss, pulling no fewer than eleven barges into the terrestrial deep.

[Image: Avery Island, Louisiana, archived by the U.S. Library of Congress].

But there is also the story of Bayou Corne, one of my favorite conspiracy theories of all time.

[Images: Avery Island, Louisiana, archived by the U.S. Library of Congress].

As the New York Times reported back in 2013, “in the predawn blackness of Aug. 3, 2012, the earth opened up—a voracious maw 325 feet across and hundreds of feet deep, swallowing 100-foot trees, guzzling water from adjacent swamps and belching methane from a thousand feet or more beneath the surface.”

One resident of the area is quoted as saying, “I think I caught a glimpse of hell in it.”

More than a year after it appeared, the Bayou Corne sinkhole is about 25 acres and still growing, almost as big as 20 football fields, lazily biting off chunks of forest and creeping hungrily toward an earthen berm built to contain its oily waters. It has its own Facebook page and its own groupies, conspiracy theorists who insist the pit is somehow linked to the Gulf of Mexico 50 miles south and the earthquake-prone New Madrid fault 450 miles north. It has confounded geologists who have struggled to explain this scar in the earth.

To oversimplify things, the overall theory—that is, the conspiratorial part of all this—is that the entire landscape of the Gulf region is on the verge of subterranean dissolution. The very salt deposits so beautifully mapped by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management are all lined up for eventual flooding.

As this vast underground landscape of salt dissolves, everything from east Texas to west Florida will be sucked down into the abyss.

[Image: Avery Island, Louisiana, archived by the U.S. Library of Congress].

It’s unlikely that this will happen, I should say. You can sleep well at night.

In the meantime, the sorts of salt-mining operations depicted here in these photographs have carved their worming, subterranean way into the warped terrains of salt that dynamically ooze their way up to the surface from geological prehistory.

[Image: Avery Island, Louisiana, archived by the U.S. Library of Congress].

Be sure to check out the full gigapixel BOEM map, and the helpful write-up over at Eos is worth a read, as well. As for the Bayou Corne conspiracy—I suppose we’ll just have to wait.

(Bathymetric maps spotted via Chris Rowan; salt mine photos originally spotted a very long time ago via Attila Nagy).

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.

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).