I'm in the middle of a week at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, in San Francisco. This is typically a whirl of talks, posters, refreshment breaks (coffee in the morning, beer in the afternoon) and throngs of geoscientists. I typically don't cover the meeting like a journalist does, although I share the press room with them. A lot of what I seek out is background stuff that I hope is ahead of the cutting edgeat least, it's ahead of my cutting edge. A talk I saw yesterday was not one of those.
Manny Gabet, teaches at San Jose State University, has been studying the odd landscape features known as mima ("meema") mounds. They're piles of dirt, meter or two high, and range in area from dinner-table to living-room size. They occur bunched up together in big groups, and are widespread in the American West. Gabet cited two special facts about them: they're found where the winter rains regularly saturate the ground, and they're occupied by pocket gophers, one on each mound, with the unusual habit of pushing the dirt from their burrows uphill. He made a computer model of a bunch of gophers and set them loose on a flat computer landscape, showing that their behavior, over several centuries, turned the ground into fields of mima mounds.
The advantage of a mound is that it sits above the winter rains, making large areas of marginal land inhabitable for gophers. Gabet told us that by his reckoning, mima mounds are the largest set of animal-made structures on Earthother than our own, of course. It intrigues me that a single change in behavior brought this aboutpushing dirt uphill instead of downhill. That probably arose from a very small genetic change, one that doesn't make a difference east of the Mississippi, where mima mounds aren't found.
Geology gave the world the gift of immense time: not just the measly millennia counted by old civilizations, but millions of years and billions of years, more years than anyone could count. It made even the absurdly long sacred chronologies of the Hindus look reasonable. And as we explored all that time, we figured out how to organize it into structures of time, hierarchies of time periods with, eventually, actual dates assigned to them. That's what this week's "Who Wants to Be a Geo-Whiz?" quiz is about: geologic time. Now don't dawdle, you've only got a week.
Franciscan basalt Geology Guide photo
A brief remark at a talk in October led me to a clever bit of science that offered a way through the paleomagnetic mirror problem. By that I mean the ambiguity that results when a moving continent heads toward the equator. The paleomagnetic record shows it reaching the equator, then moving closer to the magnetic polebut in which hemisphere? Just from magnetic evidence, there's no way to decide whether the continent plowed straight onward into the opposite hemisphere or backed off and stayed on its original side of the line. The solution had to do with the Coriolis force, the only way we have to tell the left-handed hemisphere from the right-handed hemisphere. So far this method has been useful only once, but I was pleased that a method existed at all. Details in this new article, "Disambiguating the Paleomagnetic Record."
The city of Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2011 commissioned an update to its plans to deal with a large earthquake. This is a big deal because Vancouver, like Seattle and Portland and many other cities in the Pacific Northwest and northernmost California, all face the threat of a Japan-style magnitude-9 earthquake at a time unknown. It's also a big deal to me because next year's annual meeting of the Geological Society of America will be in Vancouver. The Canadian news site Global News summarizes the story, and a presentation about the plan (PDF) is online. It has the look of a Powerpoint presentation, but that keeps things simple and digestable.
Regardless of the steps Vancouver plans, it's worth contemplating what the report says about a big quake there. Six big things: (1) damage to buildings and infrastructure, but you knew that; (2) fires start as gas lines break, but maybe you knew that too; (3) the electricity fails; (4/5) 9-1-1 and the phone system are swamped; (6) "people flood to the streets and begin making their way from the areas of major damage." Don't count on taking your well-packed Land Rover anywhere.
Vancouver's report noted that the recent New Zealand earthquake "demonstrated the importance of trained volunter response." And Vancouver has launched a Vancouver Volunteer Corps, now more than 800 strong, to be ready to help by taking part in training and regular exercises. My particular interesthow we rebuild, and who benefitsis not addressed, but that's a fearsome topic and I understand.
Smashed home in Christchurch image from Vancouver report
Earth has many ways to kill you, or at least knock your life off track. This iteration of "Who Wants to Be a Geo-Whiz?" is a quiz on disasters that subjects you to a torturous round of a dozen challenging questions on dreaded things you may not even know about! Tell you whattry this one after a good night's rest, not just before you go to bed.
I don't know about you, but I thought that the original 1954 director's cut of the Japanese monster movie "Gojira," the one we all know as "Godzilla," would make splendid Thanksgiving entertainment, and so it did. Oh yeah, I laughed when the professor pulled a nice fresh trilobite out of the dirt on the beach of Odo Island. That happened before I could even think. But generally I try not to scoff at things in movies if they're sincerely done. Practicing science is said to demand an open mind while watching a movie is said to demand the suspension of disbelief. Those two things aren't so far apart. Your average ten-year-old dinosaur lover can spot the errors in the Godzilla story, but "Gojira" wasn't made for children. I hope you'll click through and read my thoughts on the geology of Godzilla, but really I'd be happy if you rented the DVD and watched it twice, the second time with the commentary. It's not "Godzilla Meets Elvis," really.
Here's something to discuss around your Thanksgiving table. A few months ago, Gail Collins of the New York Times wrote a column about the fractious political conditions in Washington D.C., plagued with scandals and stagnation. Why not pick something benign for the government to do, she suggested, that it can agree on and then move forward from that modest success? Like declaring a national rock, she said. "Committees could hold hearings about the relative merits of slate and granite. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell would threaten to filibuster unless his colleagues considered coal. But, in the end, I believe everybody would rally around a grand compromise for marble. And the country would feel much, much better."
Commenters had fun with that idea, but of course they disagreed about marble. Their alternatives included Manhattan schist, "porous, leak-prone" limestone, and concrete. (Concrete? why not concretions?)
The whole idea didn't seem so clear cut to me. David Williams, the author of Stories in Stone, thought the same. In his blog post "Official National Rock," he made plausible arguments for conglomerate, slate, gneiss and even rock salt. His commenters mentioned basalt, which I also think worthy.
But come on, people, granite is the obvious choice. Granite is as strong as America aspires to be. Not only that, granite is found all 13 of the original colonies and in most of the other states. (Not in Florida, I admit, but then its state gemstone doesn't occur there either.) When Whitman wrote about the robustness of his soul he said, "My foothold is tenoned and morticed in granite, and I know the amplitude of time." You don't think he'd have picked sandstone, do you? And here's another thing, granite isn't trademarkedit's such a democratic rock, so generously defined, that stone dealers can market almost any kind of hard stone as commercial granite. What could be more American? I ask you anyway.
All-American GRANITE Andrew Alden photo
Ever since the real Grand Canyon became an Arizona geological tourist attraction, other areas have been promoting their own grand canyons. Truth be told, there are many impressive chasms around the country. The gorge of Pine Creek, in north-central Pennsylvania, is billed as "Pennsylvania's Grand Canyon" and is preserved as a pair of state parks. I've just added it to my gallery of Pennsylvania Geological Attractions and Destinations.
There is also the "Grand Canyon of the East" at New York's Letchworth State Park, the Grand Canyon of the Pacific or Waimea Canyon in Hawaii, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in Wyoming and the Grand Canyon of the South between Virginia and Kentucky. Not to mention the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado, which is grand in all but name.
Courtesy fishhawk of Flickr via Creative Commons license
Geologists are working in a great time of history: Using spacecraft, we have now taken close-up looks at all of the rocky planets, the rocky satellites, and several major and minor asteroids, and at the moment we have documented thousands of planets circling other stars. In another decade the planetary catalog will support a cadre of graduate students and professors. The conversations that have started between geologists, planetologists and exoplanetographers are already really exciting. How ready are you for their brilliant future? Test your knowledge in the Planets Geo-Whiz Quiz.