Bretzian Geology

A Flood of Ideas

J Harlen Bretz, 1949

Geologists have a tendency to get really worked up about flood-related theories. Early in the history of the science, the Biblical flood provided the foundation for most every claim, and we approached all of geology in that context.

Evidence built up over time until it forced the geological community to acknowledge that nothing of the sort had happened. In fact, they went so far as to construct a doctrine called uniformitarianism, which claimed that all past geological processes are the same as the ones operating now.

Then, in 1920, a geologist named J Harlen Bretz developed a new set of flood theory that would shake things up all over again.

Bretz's research and field work led him to propose a series of absolutely catastrophic floods in the Pacific Northwest. I won't go into all the various iterations of the idea over the years, but the floods as we understand them now are far more destructive than almost any other geological events today.

The Cordilleran

During the ice ages, the Cordilleran continental ice sheet dwarfed any glacier existing today. It and its several sibling glaciers around the world held enough ice to lower the sea levels by hundreds of feet. As the temperature gradually increased, however, a massive lake, around the size of one of the Great Lakes, began to melt into the top of the ice sheet, somewhere in Western Montana.

Over time, cracks began to grow in the massive ice dam holding the lake in, until it finally shattered, releasing all the water at once. The floodwaters would have moved between 45 and 60 miles per hour, cresting at over 400 feet tall in the Columbia River Gorge and the Willamette River Valley.

McCoy Fields, 2017

Flood waters carried enormous boulders as though they were twigs, deforming entire landscapes. The debris from the flood flowed hundreds of miles through Idaho and Oregon, and from there well into the Pacific Ocean.

Oh, and there wasn't just a single flood. The ice sheet eventually formed a new lake and the cycle repeated itself as many as forty times. This all took place well before any humans arrived in North America.

The geological establishment resisted Bretz’s ideas for years, but Bretz and his allies eventually won the day in a crushing victory. Decades later, Bretz complained that he no longer had any enemies to gloat over.

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Quotable

Yes, Yard Ramp GuyNow, here’s a quotation:

“Nature gave men two ends -- one to sit on, and one to think with. Ever since then man's success or failure has been dependent on the one he used most.”

— Robert Albert Bloch

McCoy vs. The Volcano

How a Volcano Invented Science Fiction & the Bicycle

The Ramp Rules: Volcanic

It Begins...

On April 5th, 1815, Mount Tambora—in present-day Indonesia—began erupting.

The noise made by these eruptions was loud enough to be heard hundreds of miles away. Some English garrisons thought it was cannon fire and sent troops around their islands to investigate.

The eruptions continued until the whole mountain exploded from April 10th and 11th. Mount Tambora's eruption was the single largest in recorded history. So much ash was blasted into the sky that it was pitch black outside as far as four hundred miles away from the mountain.

Tsunamis ravaged the shores of countless islands, and countless more died from ashfall-related complications. (Volcanic ash is really, really nasty stuff, filled with tiny bits of volcanic glass that shred your lungs. Note to file: Don't breathe it in, and don't drink water contaminated with it.)

That was just the start of things, though. By 1816, the Mount Tambora’s airborne ash had spread through the atmosphere to the Northern Hemisphere, kicking off the Year Without a Summer.

A dry fog persisted throughout the spring and summer (what scientists call a “stratospheric sulfate aerosol veil”) that blocked much of the sunlight and kept the temperature from rising to normal levels. Frost began killing off crops in North America, and heavy rain drowned crops in Europe.

Massive famines cased severe social unrest and famine. Hundreds of thousands died in North America, Europe, and Asia. Hungary experienced brown snow, while Italy saw red snow falling throughout the year. The family of Joseph Smith was forced to leave Vermont due to famine, kicking off a chain of events that would lead to the founding of the Mormon Church.

Karl Dranis was inspired by the lack of horses in Germany (no oats to feed them) to invent the velocipede, ancestor of the bicycle.

Mary Shelley, trapped in a Villa with her husband and friends, decided to have a contest to write the scariest story. Her entry, Frankenstein, is commonly considered the original science fiction novel.

I could go on listing consequences for a while. The rapid migration into Indiana and Illinois, leading to their statehoods. Spectacular sunsets. And on and on.

Mount Tambora’s eruption changed the face of the world as we know it. Here's the thing, though: This isn't an anomalous event. It is a singular one, due to its size, but natural disasters and climatic events are major drivers of history, and are far-too seldom treated as such. The current civil war in Syria? One of the primary causes is a drought that led to crop failures.

As much as we like to pretend that we're the bosses of the planet, we need to remember how big our planet is, and how easily it can devastate civilization with a slight shrug.

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Quotable

Dear Yard Ramp GuyI’ve read your quote-off challenge and take it on…only backwards, starting with “Z.” I’ll meet you at “M” in mid-April.

“Zoo: An excellent place to study the habits of human beings.”

— Evan Esar

A Not-So-Fine Mess

Faster Than Molasses in January

Boston Molasses Disaster

Spilt

On January 15, 1919, a storage tank in Boston broke, releasing 2.3 million gallons of molasses. The resulting wave of molasses rolled through the streets at about 35 miles per hour. In all, 21 people died and 150 were injured.

The actual failure can be traced to stress failures in the huge cylindrical tank. The steel was only about half as thick as it should have been and completely lacked manganese, which would have made it less brittle.

The company that owned it skipped basic safety tests, like filling the tank with water before use to check for leaks.

Compounding all of this was a rapid increase in temperature over the course of the day (almost 40 degrees), which contributed toward weakening the storage tank, resulting in the massive failure.

Rescue efforts were badly hampered by the fact that the molasses didn't clear away quickly. It remained clumped up in knee-high pools, and the search for victims took more than four days.

Workers finally used a fireboat to pump salt water from the harbor over the molasses, eventually clearing it away. Cleanup workers tracked molasses all over. Much of the city was perpetually sticky for weeks and months afterward, and the molasses stained the harbor brown until the summer.

More than a century before, on October 17, 1814, a vat containing more than 162,000 gallons of porter ruptured in London, causing multiple other vats in the same building to collapse as well. All told, almost 388,000 gallons of beer were released into the streets.

Only eight people died, due to the much smaller quantity of fluid than the Boston molasses disaster, less-crowded streets, and the lower viscosity of beer compared to molasses.

The torrent of beer demolished two houses, severely damaged a nearby pub, and flooded a nearby wake.

Otherwise, quite a few people sustained injuries when they ran outside to collect beer, making sure it didn't go to waste.

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Quotable

Oh, Yard Ramp Guy: my blog-relevant quotations continue…

“Welcome those big, sticky, complicated problems. In them are your most powerful opportunities.

— Ralph Marston

The World is Still Round

But Kansas is Still Flatter Than a Pancake

 

Quick quiz: When did humanity discover that the Earth is round?

hand holding the earthIf you answered Copernicus or Galileo, you're off by a millennia or two. The Ancient Greeks actually discovered this.

To prove the theory, they created an experiment using two dry wells, hundreds of miles apart. Then, at noon on the same day, the Greeks measured the shadows at the bottom of the well to see if they were at the same angle. When they weren't, they used the difference in angle to figure out the actual size of the Earth…with remarkable accuracy.

(Trigonometry is important, kids. If you don't believe me, just ask Jeff over at The Yard Ramp Guy.)

Okay, another quick quiz: When did humanity forget that the world was round?

I bet the most specific thing you can think of is the Dark Ages or the Fall of Rome, right? Well, both are incorrect: We never forgot. To quote the brilliant Stephen Jay Gould, "There never was a period of 'flat Earth darkness' among scholars (regardless of how the public at large may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the Earth's roundness as an established fact of cosmology."

FlammarionIn fact, we can trace the popularization of the idea that people thought the Earth was flat back to specific historians in the 1800s.

Sadly, this is pretty common stuff when we think about history. People are swift to assume that their distant ancestors (or at least other people's distant ancestors) were dumber than people today.

It really doesn't take that much effort to realize that idea is wrong, but most people won't even try to put in the effort.

(Really don't believe me? Then let's see you design an aqueduct with pen and paper.)

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Quotable

Oh, Yard Ramp Guy: what goes around comes around:

"’I'll follow him to the ends of the earth,' she sobbed. Yes, darling. But the earth doesn't have any ends. Columbus fixed that."

— Tom Robbins, Still Life with Woodpecker

Mysteries of the Earth

Terra Preta as Terra Firma

For being one of the most verdant and lush places in the world, the Amazon rainforest has some of the worst soil on the planet. It's highly infertile. In fact, sand from the Sahara desert, blowing across the Atlantic Ocean, supplies many of the nutrients it needs.

When sand becomes a source of nutrition, I’d call that a mystery.

There are large patches of dark earth—known as terra preta—scattered all over the Amazon Basin that are inexplicably fertile. In fact, terra preta contains some of the richest soils on the planet.

For years, settlers were not sure where it came from. One common idea was that terra preta was the result of volcanic ashfalls originating in the Andes mountains. Eventually, though, we figured out where that soil came from: it was man-made.

The native peoples of the region had spent centuries managing the soil carefully. To make it fertile, they added a mixture of charcoal, bone, and manure to the soil.

You've heard of slash-and-burn, right? Well, the natives used slash-and-char, which involves turning the cut down plants and trees into charcoal (hence the name) instead of just burning it. The charcoal is then mixed with the bone and manure, and then buried within the soil.

The creation of terra preta isn't just an interesting type of fertilization, either. That soil stays immensely fertile for thousands of years. Charcoal is the most important ingredient: it lowers soil acidity, can absorb and then slowly release nutrients over time, and provides habitat to important soil microbes with its porous surface.

The other ingredients are important as well…though much of this remains a mystery. Scientists still do not fully understand terra preta. They are working quite persistently at it, though. I’d say that mastering the creation of terra preta would be a vital tool in regenerating damaged soils around the world.

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Quotable

Yes, the Quote-Off with that other Yard Ramp Guy. En garde:

“There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast.”

— Charles Dickens