Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Door to Hell

Drilling in what was thought to be a substantial oil field in the early seventies, Soviet geologists struck a methane gas-filled subterranean cavern in the Karakum Desert. The ground beneath their drilling rig collapsed into the subsurface cavern, leaving a hole of about 70 meters in diameter.

The gas could not be safely extracted for use. To avert the hazards of the poisonous gas, the geologists decided to burn off the gas.

It was hoped the fire would consume the gas discharge in a matter of days. Incredibly it is still burning today.

Locals refer to the gaping hole in the desert as "The Door to Hell".

Double, double, toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble!

William Shakespeare
(From the incantation of the three witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth)


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Sea Foam

Sea foam, Asbury Park, NJ
Sea foam occurs when seawater containing high concentrations of dissolved organic matter is agitated by wind and wave action.

Offshore decomposition of phytoplankton blooms dissolves large amounts of organic matter in seawater. Dissolved organic matter acts as a foaming agent or surfactant.

Breaking waves in the near-shore surf zone trap air. The presence of foaming agents generates persistent bubbles that stick to each other by surface tension.

Sea foam can be blown inland by strong on-shore winds.
I am forever walking upon these shores,
Betwixt the sand and the foam,
The high tide will erase my foot prints,
And the wind will blow away the foam,
But the sea and the shore will remain forever.

Kahlil Gibran (Sand and Foam)

Saturday, November 10, 2012

From Dust and Rocks to Earth

What is a beginning? Organisms, at least in a superficial sense, seem to have a distinguishable beginning and a distinguishable end. We call this phenomenon life, or a lifetime.

Does Earth have a life?

Believing it possible to distinguish a beginning or an end to anything is reminiscent of Alice following the March Hare down the rabbit hole. Alice goes without looking or thinking.

It is reasonable to wonder if life has a beginning and an end. Things - living or inert - do not seem to have a beginning or an end as much as humans seem comforted by recognizing them in that way. This comports with our sense of mortality. An expansive view might be to consider life a momentary transition of billion year-old carbon.

Is is reasonable to consider the beginning of Earth as we know it. The clause "as we know it" is important because nothing is static.

We know Earth as a spinning planet. We observe that Earth orbits the Sun. We describe our global position as the outer rim of the Milky Way.
"There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is due to the poverty of our imagination."
Bertrand Russell (1872 -1970)
Perhaps a broader concept of Earth is that of continual metamorphosing of aggregated materials. Even in transitional objects we recognize a momentary signature - a recognizable pattern that transmits familiar characteristics to our mind. Transmission of familiar patterns leads, or deceives us to believe we know a thing.

We objectify by naming and classifying. Objectifying is one of our primative tools for understanding. We conjure terms like stellar dust and rocks. We invent names like Earth, Sun, and The Milky Way. We conceive systemic notions like the Solar System.

What is a meaningful concept of Earth?

Imagine when Earth had not yet formed into the familiar orbiting planet we recognize today:
"Long, long ago (some 5 billion years ago) in a perfectly ordinary place in the galaxy, a supernova exploded, pushing a lot of its heavy-element wreckage into a nearby cloud of hydrogen gas and interstellar dust. The mixture grew hot and compressed under its own gravity, and at its center a new star began to form. Around it swirled a disk of the same material, which grew white-hot from the great compressive forces. That new star became our Sun, and the glowing disk gave rise to Earth and its sister planets."
— Andrew Alden
Imagine that over millions of years gravity pulls stellar dust into tiny rocks. Then over millions of years gravity causes those materials to coalesce into a molten Earth. Earth becomes one of many planets orbiting the sun.
We have the satisfaction to find, that in nature there is wisdom, system and consistency. For having, in the natural history of this earth, seen a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that, there is a system in nature; in like manner as, from seeing revolutions of the planets, it is concluded, that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. But if the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is vain to look for anything higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present inquiry is that we find no vestige of a beginning,-no prospect of an end.
James Hutton (1726-1797)
If Earth formed from coalescing dust, where did the dust come from? One notion is that the universe exhibits conservation of mass.

Conservation of mass begets the notion of the Earth engaged in a circle game where the dust that forms planets originates from the dust made by stellar collisions and disintegrated planets.

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

— excerpt from The Circle Game by Joni Mitchell

Earth doesn't seem to have a life as much as it has a narrative - an ongoing story of dust and rocks to Earth and a perpetual story of coalescence and disintegration.


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Nature's Forces and Tools

How a granite boulder, many times larger than man, finds it restful place amid a grove of lodgepole pines is a curiosity. The density of granite is about 2 tons per cubic yard.

What are the forces and what were the tools?

Granite boulder near Yellowstone Canyon.
Photograph by William Henry Jackson (1843–1942)
John Muir considered those questions in the summer of 1869 when he observed huge boulders in the high, cool pastures of the Sierra Nevada:
They look lonely here, strangers in a strange land, - huge blocks, angular mountain chips, the largest twenty or thirty feet in diameter, the chips that Nature has made in modeling her landscapes, fashioning the forms of her mountains and valleys. And with what tool were they quarried and carried?
― John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
Although controversial at the time, Muir believed receding glaciers, aided by water (solid and liquid) and by gravity, shaped the Sierra Nevada landscape by carving, fracturing, transporting, and depositing rock.

The Sierra Nevada was cold enough 2-3 million years ago to support ice fields and glaciers along the its crest. Ice fields sent out and sustained glaciers in many of the valleys. Muir recognized that:
Glacial ice quarried and transported huge volumes of rock debris.
Evidence suggests glacial ice scoured and modified the landscape. As the glaciers began melting away, much of the rock debris was deposited in situ, or flushed into valleys by swollen streams of melt-water.

Angular boulders on the summit of Mt. Whitney.
John Muir's observations and writings became a personal guide into nature for generations of people. American environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote:
"Muir invented a new grammar, a contagious vocabulary for communicating the splendor of the natural world."
Through rich prose, and via clear-thinking and insightful observation, Muir inspired and urged us into the modern paradigm of environmental consciousness -- the recognition that man is one of many creatures blessed by the vast wealth of nature and its phenomena.
"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn."
― John Muir
Muir's writing is both analytic and poetic.

To contemplate and consider the events and phenomena that surround us, these questions remain indispensable:
What are the forces and what were the tools?