8 December 2017

Friday fold: Alpine cross sections by Albert Heim

In preparing for my GSW Presidential address earlier this week, I spent an hour or two leafing through a digital copy of Albert Heim’s Geologie der Schweiz (1916, 1922) and I was just blown away by the awesomeness of this sequence of cross-sections that Heim drew showing the intensely deformed structure of the Alps:

This image is both a masterpiece of art, a masterpiece of layout, and of course it’s also the culmination of an uncountable number of hours in the field traipsing over the surface of these mighty peaks, documenting the attitude of the strata, and reconciling their many orientations on a sequence of geologic maps. Heim’s work is extraordinary. Images like this are an inspiration to structurally oriented folks like myself.

Vielen Dank für diesen Freitag falten, Herr Heim.
(Hopefully Google translate made that work…)

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6 December 2017

My GSW Presidential address

I can hardly believe it but tonight I wrap up my tenure as the 2017 President of the Geological Society of Washington.

In our Society, it’s a tradition for the President to give the final talk of the year, a Presidential Address that takes up the entirety of the final regular meeting. I’ll be talking tonight about the art of geology. Specifically, my title is “Visualization in geology: A brief history, best practices, and dispatches from the future.”

Here’s a mashup image of Rene Magritte’s “Treachery of images” and NASA’s “Blue Marble” that kind of sums it all up:

A visualization isn’t the real thing: “Ceci n’est pas une planète” is French for “This is not a planet.” The point is that it’s a picture of a planet – well, sort of. Really, it’s a parody of Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pomme.” But the point remains: pictures aren’t the same thing as that which they depict. Just the same, images can depict the real thing in startling detail, and reveal insights and transmit information far better than mere words are usually capable of. Visualizations take many forms – those we make ourselves in order to force ourselves to see, those we construct for others, to help them see what we think we see. They’re worth way more than a thousand words.

There are elegant, effective ways to visualize geology. There are other ways that are less elegant, less effective. There are practices we can follow to make aesthetic masterpieces that also conform to the empirical reality of the world we are attempting to document. There are tools we can use to convey temporal information, or 3D information, or extraordinary detail, within the confines of a typical 2D “flatland” (paper, computer monitor, projection screen, etc.). I hope to cover all of that in a way that will leave my audience a little excited and feeling a little empowered. And I’m going to show them a lot of pretty pictures.

I hope to see some of my DC-based readers there tonight. The doors to the John Wesley Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club open at 7:30pm. (Access is from the small members-only parking area on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Florida Ave NW.) We’ll have some cold ones waiting for you. The formal program begins at 8pm. If you can’t make it, I intend to offer a similar talk at Spring 2018 seminars at the University of Kentucky and at West Virginia University. You might try to make one of those instead.

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5 December 2017

The quarry in Contessa Gorge

After visiting Bottaccione Gorge and reuniting with the K/Pg boundary, my summer geologizing with Alan Pitts took me next to Contessa Gorge, where we saw this lovely wall of stratigraphy and structure exposed in a quarry’s cut:

Let’s zoom in a bit and see what there is to be seen:

Here it is annotated:

“Maiolica,” “Marne A Fucoidi,” and “Scaglia Bianca” are all names of different stratigraphic units, different formations in the central Apennine stratigraphic sequence. The Marne A Fucoidi is a beautiful mix of deep green and maroon. It’s alternating shale-dominated layers and calcareous-dominated layers.

The units above and below tend toward white (“bianca” in Italiano) but the upper unit, the Scaglia Bianca, has a distinctive anoxic layer within it, the Bonarelli Level, that helps distinguish it from the lower unit, the Maiolica. (Sorry, I didn’t take a photo of it.)

All this stratigraphy is well and good — but I was here for the structure!

…And annotated:

“MTD” here stands for “mass transport deposit” – a set of sedimentary layers that slumped downward and crumpled up deeper into the basin when the sediment was still soft (prior to lithification). Alan and I have enjoyed puzzling over another MTD in West Virginia‘s westernmost Valley & Ridge province. Here in Italy, the pelagic limestones seem to have cohered a bit better in layers, while the West Virginia example saw total disaggregation of the sandstone layers into segments that folded up on themselves, wrapped up in a matrix of squishy mud. The Italian example is much better behaved:

This is interpreted as syndepositional faulting and deformation. It’s not thought to be directly tectonically induced.

The quarry was a treat to see. I love outcrops like this – beautiful, with some structure and some stratigraphy, and something to compare to other places.


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4 December 2017

Book reviews: Recent fiction reads

How about I take this opportunity to catch on Reporting My Books?

These are some not-necessarily geology-relevant, but also maybe pretty interesting books that I’ve read lately. All are fiction.

11/22/63, by Stephen King

I started reading this time-travel novel by Stephen King last month when a significant trove (though not everything) of files from the government’s accounting of the Kennedy Assassination was declassified and released to the public. King’s novel involves a high school teacher using a peculiar wormhole through time to go back to the late 1950s and then wait around, preparing to save President Kennedy from being shot by Lee Harvey Oswald (after seeking to verify that Oswald acted alone). Along the way he saves a few more lives, gets into a few scrapes, and falls in love. The strongest part of the story is the love story – I found it very affecting and authentic. The time travel bit is a familiar trope in American fiction at this point, of course, but this iteration had a few interesting new angles, which I won’t reveal for fear of spoiling the story. I haven’t read any Stephen King since I was in high school or maybe college, but I was delighted to re-discover what a good writer he is. The guy knows how to tell a story. It’s good. Long, but good. I’m watching the Hulu mini-series based on the book now, too.

Artemis, by Andy Weir

Artemis is the first novel that Andy Weir has published since his blockbuster The Martian, which was brilliant and endearing in its unabashed love of physics, chemistry, and engineering. The Martian made data collection cool: it was a quantitative MacGyver on Mars. The new novel had whiffs of the same nerdy brilliance, but has a very different overall feel to it. The namesake Artemis is a city on the Moon in the near future, occupied by a few thousand people and visited by a great many tourists. The protagonist, Jazz, is a woman who has grown up in Artemis, and learned to make a living as a smuggler. She’s socially rebellious, fragile and yet tough, and extremely profane in her language. Jazz gets involved in a business maneuver that requires an act of industrial sabotage. The sabotage goes awry, and Jazz is soon fighting for her life, and the life of everyone in Artemis, by trying to outsmart bad guys, good guys, and those tricky laws of physics that make living on the Moon pretty dicey. While The Martian had such a clear and noble goal – save this abandoned astronautArtemis feels morally murkier – Make money by breaking other people’s stuff. Even if those other people are the Brazilian mob, it doesn’t feel as compelling a drive to power the novel’s drama. That said, it keeps moving, and there’s no dull stretches or downtime. It will hold your attention.

The Golden Ocean and The Unknown Shore, by Patrick O’Brian

I’m a huge fan of Patrick O’Brian’s fiction, in particular the superlative, awesome, rich sequence of 20+ books in the Aubrey/Maturin series, starting with Master and Commander. I recently discovered two early books by O’Brian in a similar vein, set in the British Navy in the years immediately proceeding the Napoleonic Wars, and featuring the stories of groups of sailors on two separate ships in the same squadron. In The Golden Ocean, we follow the travails of Peter and Sean, two Irishmen who set sail on a British ship with the intent of harassing Spanish shipping in the Pacific. In The Unknown Shore, the protagonists are Jack and Tobias, a naval officer and a surgeon’s mate, on a different ship in the same expedition. The two ships are separated by foul weather, and Jack and Tobias are soon shipwrecked and struggling for their lives against the harsh elements of coastal western South America. The second novel is far preferable, I think because Jack and Toby are such opposites in character, and the dynamic between them works to generate terrific conversation and social tension (Tobias doesn’t care at all for manners or social niceties, and is interested only in science and natural history). As such, these two are clear precursors — rough drafts, if you will — for the characters of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in the O’Brian’s opus. So it’s also fun to read if you want to see wisps of those epic, durable characters forming in O’Brian’s imagination before Master and Commander was ever written.

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1 December 2017

People and Pyroclastics: Mount Agung at the Confluence of Science and Society

A guest post by Kenny Peavy:

[Note: Kenny has been a dear friend of mine for many years. He’s an American expatriate living in Indonesia. I’m glad that I can bring you his first-hand report on the situation for people living in east Bali as the volcano Mount Agung erupts. Note that the title of the blog post has been updated to avoid conveying the mistaken impression that Agung is a caldera. (Because it’s not.) We regret the misleading word in the original title. -CB]

We got the notice about 9pm. Luckily, we were prepared.

A few days before the status of Mount Agung in East Bali went from Level I (normal) to II (alert).  Then quickly elevated again and went to Level III (standby). We weren’t too worried. We had bags packed. Important stuff. Emergency route was planned and we would evacuate to go stay with friends.

We’d moved to Bali four years ago after I left a science teaching position in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We chose rural Bali far from the tourist areas because I wanted my 5-year old daughter to grow up outdoors roaming around unfettered free to explore and play outside. I had also recently started an Education Outside The Classroom Expedition business to do the same with students and Bali was the perfect place to connect kids with local communities and the natural world.

We were definitely in the right spot for being immersed in Balinese culture and exploring nature but that also meant we were close to Mount Agung!

Mount Agung before the current eruption. Photo by Kenny Peavy.

When neighbors started leaving we were calm and planning to stay until it went to Level IV (caution). It was dark, and we headed off away from the volcano.

There was plenty of misinformation on social media. People claiming it was raining fire and stones. It wasn’t. Videos of other volcanoes erupting with captions that it was Agung. It wasn’t. People panicking and envisioning fire and brimstone and imagining themselves running just ahead of a pyroclastic flow of red-hot lava. They wouldn’t.

That was my biggest concern. Panic. Mayhem and misinformed people. Chaos.

At 9pm on September 22nd we got notice. Agung was elevated to Level IV (caution)- the highest level. A quick check on the government websites confirmed. It was time to leave.

So with my wife and daughter we loaded our motorbike with four medium sized bags and took off into the night.

The roads were crowded. Thousands of motorbikes. Hundreds of bemos. Dozens of large trucks all on the two-lane road heading out of town.

There was a steady stream of traffic from Karangasem in East Bali towards the south into the safe zones. But overall it was smooth. The traffic was moving. A few people were panicking but by and large it was going well.

We have a motorbike. We have friends. We have options. Not everyone does.

Along the way we saw folks waiting on the side of the road hoping to hop in a truck or possibly waiting for someone to come and pick them up.

The waiting and imagining. Not knowing. That’s the worst part.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be waiting on the side of the road during an evacuation and hoping you will get a ride or your ride will arrive in time.

Excruciating. Nerve wracking.

A few trucks were headed the other way. Presumably to evacuate folks from the 12km radius of the No Go Zone.

Two hours later we’d completed a ride that normally takes thirty minutes and arrived at a friends house in the safe zone.

The next day stories of farmers getting cheated by folks that bought their cows for next to nothing were already circulating. The poorest farmers on the slope of Agung would be hit the hardest. They would potentially lose their livestock and their land.

They were the ones living in the No Go Zone and being evacuated on big trucks with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

Some folks were taking advantage of this and buying the cattle at next to nothing rates from panicked farmers that saw no other choice.

Sad. Infuriating. Reality.

Thankfully not everyone was like that and we witnessed plenty of good people helping other people in a time of need.

From what I could see who you are, where you are from, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, white or brown didn’t matter any more. It all dropped away.

During a time of crisis those things don’t truly matter. People were helping each other however they could. We were sharing updates and information. Folks were carrying and loading stuff for each other.

The superficial differences disappeared. People helping people.

School girls that helping with a census of the evacuation camp and some administrative paperwork. Photo by Kenny Peavy.

When will we learn that those differences never truly matter?

Now we are refugees.  Technically speaking, of course.

Since we evacuated on September 22nd we’ve relocated and moved to a new house down near the airport about 45km from the volcano.  Although we can’t predict the ash fall we’re as safe as we can be. Evacuating in the middle of the night was pretty stressful and something we don’t want to do again so a permanent move was the right choice.

We love East Bali. Karangasem is a quiet, peaceful place dotted with rice fields, black sand beaches and spectacular views of Mt. Agung. Amlapura, where we lived, is a very local small town with just enough energy and busyness to keep you happy but not too much that’ll stress you out.

We lived there for almost four years and had become part of the community. My daughter was attending a local school. We had friends and neighbors we connected with.

Idyllic really.

Mount Agung erupting earlier this week. Photo by Delphine Ménard, via Michael W. Ishak, via Wikimedia Commons [source page]

Agung forced us to move and start anew. So we move forward and try to get on with a normal daily life. For us it’s been a disruption and a big inconvenience but we’re the lucky ones. We have friends willing to help. We have an education. We have access to accurate information.

It’s very easy for us to forget that not everyone is so lucky and with access to those resources.

Imagine you’re a farmer and your whole village was loaded on a truck and then plunked at a relief camp far from your home. Your collective memory is of the 1963 eruption that killed 1000+ people.

Chances are you don’t quite understand what’s going on and you especially don’t understand the geology of it all. Much less the risks, hazards and long term effects. Even though the information is out there you don’t really know where to look or how to find it.

You are worried about your cows, pigs and chickens that are left on the mountain.

Who will feed them?

You’re worried about your village and home. Your whole life is there.

All you know is that the government showed up in big trucks and buses and told you that you have to leave right away. That’s where we are now. So we try to carry on with our daily lives even though our natural rhythm has been disrupted.

It’s been stressful, exciting, interesting, taxing, exhausting with emotional ups and downs but I try to see the learning and wisdom that can come from this experience.

We can understand the science of it. But what’s interesting for me is where that intersects with culture, religion and society.

We’ve been sending volunteers to the area to educate evacuees about the dangers of ash fall.  We’ve been providing masks and goggles and posters about their proper use. But it doesn’t always seem to sink in and it can be quite puzzling when you consider human behavior.

Playing fun and educational games with kids in the evacuation camp. Photo by Kenny Peavy.

Some folks have masks and goggles but they aren’t wearing them. Some of our friends want to leave with their children but other family members refuse. Some folks take a more spiritual route and say the Great Mountain will protect and provide. It doesn’t always make sense to me.

These are all interesting perspectives.  As a Westerner trained in science, I value the data, the facts and the geological perspective. But that’s not the case for everyone and even though I don’t always understand the different points of view I must respect them.

So we do what we can and help where we can while realizing the confluence of science and society is turbid and murky. It doesn’t always make logical sense. The whirls and eddies of human behavior aren’t always explained by logic and reason.

For me, understanding this intersection is a worthwhile endeavor and a path that will take a lifetime of exploring and learning to even begin to understand.

Want to help out and donate to a good cause? Here’s a link to pitch in:

Face masks to be distributed to evacuees. Photo by Kenny Peavy.

More on Kenny’s Blog

Kenny in the Media

Sydney Morning Herald

Daily Telegraph

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28 November 2017

A new approach for teaching the geologic history of Virginia

I believe in tinkering with my teaching, and reflecting on the new approaches to see if I think they’re worth keeping or not. One of the topics I teach is the geologic history of Virginia. I do this because it’s essential knowledge to put the students’ upcoming field trip in context, but it’s also a nice example of how geologic techniques can be applied to understand the history of a particular place. And of course, it happens to be the place where my students live – so it’s “home” in a very visceral sense.

Traditionally, I’ve presented this material as a lecture, the week prior to our field trip. However, this year I wanted to try something different. I was inspired by the “lecture tutorials” published by Karen Kortz and Jessica Smay. I’ve also been inspired lately by a semester-long professional development workshop I’ve been participating in, called SAGE2YC, wherein a bunch of great ideas have been tossed around.

So, here today I wanted to offer a brief report here about the approach I took to the Virginia geological history lecture. I passed out a handout at the start of the lecture that looked like this:

(click through for a full-resolution PDF)

And over the course of the lecture, I wanted the students to match up the different geologic events with the provinces in which they occurred, resulting in something that would look roughly like this:

(click through for a full-resolution PDF)

It went fine, I think – it gave students a “puzzle” to solve during the lecture; like bloodhounds, they sniffed the lecture’s content for clues to fill in their chart. And we reviewed it at the end to make sure everyone had roughly the same pattern of Xs. (The big ones are big bits of evidence, by the way, and the small ones are relatively minor.)

However, once I got through with the experience I thought that a better approach would be to replace the Xs with actual descriptions of the geology that served as evidence, to reinforce what certain rocks, structures, and landforms mean. So this is the final version I came up with, and the one I intend to use in future iterations of covering this material.

(click through for a full-resolution PDF)

It’s certainly a lot more complicated, and more comprehensive, though there are interesting things it too elides for the sake of space. I feel it’s a decent compromise though – and I feel good enough about it that I intend to keep it for the next go-round.

Those of you who teach or who learn: Have you ever used an approach like this? What was successful about it? How do you think it could be improved? Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts and your feedback.

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27 November 2017

Visiting the K/Pg boundary at Bottaccione Gorge, near Gubbio, Italy

An hour ago, I asked if anyone recognized this green book, known among geologists as The Green Book.

It’s in a small roadside cafe, the Osteria del Bottaccione, in Bottaccione Gorge, near Gubbio, Italy. It’s the nearest place for a coffee (1 €) while visiting a famous outcrop. Geologists who visit the gorge sign their names in the book.

Here’s my four-year-old geologist-in-training, etching his name into history:

We were led into the gorge by my friend and former student Alan Pitts (University of Camerino), who brought us to the outcrop that everyone travels there to see:

Here’s the outcrop from the other side of the road, and without Alan and me blocking the view. It’s squeezed in between the road and an aqueduct up the hill. Chain-link fencing covers the slopes above to retard the passage of falling rocks.

The reason this site is worth visiting? It’s the spot where the Cretaceous ends and the Paleogene begins, a major moment in Earth history preserved in a conformable stratigraphic sequence of pelagic limestones (the Scaglia Rossa). A thin seam of clay along the boundary (heavily etched out due to the intense interest of geotourists through the years) was found by Alvarez and Alvarez to be extraordinarily enriched in iridium, leading them to postulate an extraterrestrial impact hypothesis for the end-Cretaceous mass extinction event.

This thin seam is the geological “moment” that the ammonites died out, that the non-avian dinosaurs ceased existing, that the world switched from the Mesozoic to the Cenozoic. This clay seam is the end of an era, literally. It’s a profound moment in geologic time; a rough time for the global biosphere and a warning to those who survived.

It’s also a place where science changed: where the strict uniformitarianism of bygone years was replaced with a brasher, more violent “actualism,” that allowed one-off violent (“catastrophic”) events as major players in the evolution of the planet Earth. Team Alvarez changed the way geoscientists think about the nature of change in the Earth system; armed with compelling data, they pushed the boundaries of our imaginations. It was an inexpressible treat to be able to visit it last summer in person.

It’s not a gorgeous place. Signage alerting passers-by to the importance of the site is unfortunately in a pretty shabby state of repair:

Also, the outcrop has been heavily pockmarked with drill core sampling, leaving a ugly population of holes:

That said, I think anyone with the slightest interest in Earth history would be thrilled to put their hand on that crack between the strata, to contemplate the extraordinary shifts that took place there.

Here, the Littlest Stratigrapher and his stuffed wild boar toy approach the outcrop:

Visiting the K/Pg boundary at Gubbio perhaps meant more to our family than the average geo-family: My wife and I met on a dinosaur paleontology field course in Makoshika State Park, Montana, in the Hell Creek Formation and overlying Fort Union Formation. The boundary between the two? You guessed it: the K/Pg boundary, there marked by a coal seam containing some volcanic ash. We fell in love at the stratigraphic signal of the dinosaur’s demise, and here was an opportunity to revisit that same moment in geological time, in a different country, in a different depositional setting. And: we got to tote along our son this time – in a way for him, it is a sort of homecoming. He likely wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for our particular history with this particular stratigraphic interval.

…And so: this image is going on my family’s Christmas card this year:

“Happy holidays from the dawn of the Cenozoic, from the most extraordinary moment in the past 250 million years!”

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Pre-post contest: What is this book?

Which of you can you tell me what this green book is all about (three volumes)?

I’ll follow up in 1 hour with a post about the place where I took this photo.

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24 November 2017

Friday fold: Idaho Springs Fm. amphibolite

Here’s a guest Friday fold from reader Carl Brink:

Carl tells me that this is:

Precambrian Amphibolite schist float boulder from the Idaho Springs Formation in Rist Canyon west of Fort Collins, Colorado.  Knife is 2.25 inches long.

Thanks for sharing, Carl!

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10 November 2017

Friday fold: soft sediment deformation in California’s Castaic Formation

The Friday fold comes to us today from Bret Leslie of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a friend through the Geological Society of Washington. It shows soft sediment deformation in the Late Miocene Castaic Formation, a unit deposited in the Ridge Basin, a wrench basin that opened in a releasing bend along the San Andreas Fault:

Click to enlarge

Details of the site can be explored at this geocache description.

Thanks for sharing, Bret!

If you have a Friday fold you’d like to share, get in touch with me.

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