Category Archives: Earth

Gravity

You might reasonably expect a satellite to orbit the earth in a trajectory smooth as a ball bearing in its race. Reasonable but wrong. It’s more like an Old Ford on a country road, bouncing and rattling over gravitational potholes.

The gravitational topography of the planet is less like a cue ball, more like a golf ball with all its bumps and dimples. You’ll remember your high school physics lessons on gravitation. Large objects exert gravitational force at a distance. The more dense the object, the greater the force. Massive mountain chains like the Rockies, Himalaya, and Andes create positive gravitational anomalies—areas of increased gravitational force. Negative anomalies are associated with declivities like the Mariana Trench, a rift in the sea floor of the Pacific Ocean 6.8 miles deep.

As a satellite approaches the Andes it’s pulled subtly closer to the earth. When it approaches the Mariana Islands and the adjacent sea floor trench, it bobs slightly higher. The effect is local and canceled when the satellite reenters the normal gravitational field. It’s rather like bouncing down the washboard surface of a dirt road.

The gravitational force exerted by the Andes isn’t limited to circling satellites. The roots of the Andes Mountains are washed by the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific itself is pulled toward the mountains like a massive standing wave.

It’s not only massive piles of rock that creates gravitational anomalies. The Greenland ice sheet is almost 1,500 miles long and 680 miles wide. It covers roughly 80% of the surface of Greenland—660,235 square miles. It’s typically over a mile thick and almost 2 miles at its deepest—683,751 cubic miles of ice.  And it’s the second largest body of ice on the planet.

That much ice warps the surrounding ocean, pulling it like taffy. The impact of melting Greenland ice on sea level has been recognized for some time but the effect of its reduced gravitational field has only recently been acknowledged. It further complicates a complex picture.

If all the Greenland ice sheet were to melt it’s estimated the global sea level might rise as much 23 feet but it would have little impact on sea level in the Arctic ocean. That’s counter-intuitive. The reason? Rise in sea level expected from melting ice would be countered by the fall in seal level resulting from reduced gravity. Northern Europe might be spared. New York would not.

The gravitational influence of the Greenland ice is limited to the Arctic Ocean. Melting of the northern ice would contribute to the volume of the oceans globally, increasing sea level worldwide, but that rise in the Arctic would be offset by the declining sea level resulting from reduced gravity. Areas beyond the northern ice’s gravitational influence such as the Eastern Seaboard of the US would suffer the unmitigated rise in sea level.

Western Europe isn’t without risk. If the Antarctic ice sheet melts, the sea level will likely fall in the Southern Ocean but rise dramatically in the North Atlantic.

And, of course, the change in the gravitational field would affect the Earth’s rotational momentum, but that’s a nightmare for another day.

earth orbit photo

Totality

We drove, hours before sunrise, south on the interstate to a vineyard near Sweetwater, a small town in Tennessee. Only 6,500 people live in Sweetwater. The town braced for more than 50,000 expected to arrive with the sun.

We arrived in the dark, cars parked on the edge of a narrow lane leading to the vineyard. Strangers chatted quietly in the dark. There was a hushed reverence like the foyer of a funeral. When the gates opened we drove into a field of freshly mowed grass, aligned in rows like an audience at a drive-in movie waiting for the show to begin, camp chairs arranged beneath a canopy, sheltered from the rising sun. A truck from New York was parked on one side, a truck from Virginia on the other. The sound of the Grateful Dead drifted across the field. Ramble on Rose.

The grass ain’t greener
The wine ain’t sweeter
Either side of the hill.

On the other side of the tarmacked road were fields of Muscadine vines. Muscadine grapes are native to the southeastern states. They can be made into a wine that has “…a hill-billy-red-neck-cheap-wine-get-drunk persona.” The primary flavors are ripe banana, bruised apple, lime peel, cranberry, and rubber cement. It’s not what most people expect from a wine.

There was subdued feeling to the crowd, a reticence unexpected from so many people gathered in an open field with coolers of beer and wine. Conversations were mostly muted. It seemed like a crowd at a camp meeting waiting for the revival tent to open. Even the people waiting an hour in line for the single outhouse waited patiently, introducing themselves to nearby strangers, sharing their names and their history—where they had begun their journey to arrive in an empty field near a small Tennessee town waiting an hour to pee. The sense of anticipation was as vibrant at the chorus of summer cicadas in the surrounding woods.

Cicadas are the loudest insects in the world. Some species can produce a song (of sorts) in excess of 120 decibels. They huddle together to amplify their sounds. At close range it can be painful for humans and distracting for birds. Even cicadas protect themselves by voluntarily becoming deaf to their own music.

These were the dog-day cicadas, the ones that sing in the heat of each summer, not those that rise in biblical numbers from the cool spring soil every 13 or 17 years. Those emerge in such a glut that predators are satiated before the brood is threatened. It’s survival of the most extravagant. They live only for a few weeks and only for a single purpose—to mate. Mating occurs in ‘chorus’ trees. A chorus of trees is an intriguing image. I might think differently after living through an awakening of a great brood of cicadas.

Each species of cicada has a unique song. Some species sound like Edison electrocuting an elephant to demonstrate the evils of alternating current, others like first contact recorded by the SETI network.

The last emergence of the Great Eastern Brood in Tennessee was 2004. The 17-year reawakening is expected in 2024. It’s likely to coincide with the next total solar eclipse crossing the United States, Texas to Maine, in April, 2024. The experience of a great brood of periodic cicadas strumming the trees like a bull fiddle while the sun turns black as death might be too apocalyptic for my taste.

Jerry Garcia’s voice drifted from the New Yorker’s truck.

Cold iron shackles, ball and chain
Listen to the whistle of the evenin’ train
You know you bound to wind up dead
If you don’t get back to Tennessee Jed

There were no competing radios playing country music or even rock and roll. It seemed there was a silent consensus. The Grateful Dead was the proper soundtrack for a solar eclipse.

Drink all day and rock all night
The law come to get you if you don’t walk right
Got a letter this morning, baby all it read
You better head back to Tennessee Jed

The Virginians came back from the vineyard and shared a bottle of Hiwassee, a white wine made from a red grape. The tasting notes for Muscadine wines suggest they’re best drunk young. You could hardly find a younger bottle than the one we drank.

It’s an acquired taste, I’m told, a taste I haven’t yet acquired.

I run into Charlie Fog
Blacked my eye and he kicked my dog
My doggie turned to me and he said
Let’s head back to Tennessee Jed

The high notes of Garcia’s guitar climbed toward a dimming sun, entwined like a Muscadine vine with the rhythmic strumming of the cicadas.

Tennessee, Tennessee, there ain’t no place I’d rather be
Baby won’t you carry me back to Tennessee

We drank the last of the Hiwassee and opened another. The Virginians seemed keen on reducing the number of bottles they carried home.

The heat of the sun pressed down on the field like a weight. It beat down the grass and bent the shoulders of anyone without shade. Deciduous trees cast crescents of light among the shadows on the tarmac, leaves focusing the eclipsed sunlight like pinhole cameras.

As the moon’s shadow progressed across the sun, the day cooled slightly but the light didn’t dim. You couldn’t tell the difference in the daylight unless you looked at the sun through dark glasses. But when the last of the sun fell beneath the moon’s shadow, the world was transformed.

Anne Dillard wrote in her essay Total Eclipse, “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.” You can remain largely insensitive to a partial eclipse but you can’t ignore the full monty.

The life of the sun’s light is deeply embedded in our language and ourselves. Its corollary—darkness as death—is an equally unexamined truth. We were gathered in the open field with the Grateful Dead to celebrate an old ritual, standing witness to the death and rebirth of the sun, same as the druids among their standing stones or the Aztec on their bloody temples. It’s a ritual older than civilization, older than husbandry or cultivated wheat or religion, perhaps older than language. It wasn’t always anticipated. For millennia it was an unexpected ritual that overtook us on the savannah or hunting in the forest but always it was the direct experience of god when god was still recognized as sun, moon and earth. Always it was a metaphor for death and rebirth and the vague promise that we also might be reborn.

Science has disabused us of religious metaphors and celestial mechanics offers us no hope of immortality. Even the sun and the earth will die in the cold grip of entropy. But science has failed to steal from us, like a cat steals an infant’s breath, the sense of wonder we feel when the sun goes dark mid-day and the earth falls silent and birds return to their roosts and predators wake from hungry sleep. It’s a moment of such exception, a special dispensation from the normal, that the experience breaches our hardened defenses, our practiced disdain, and reaches some place inside ourselves where the numinous still lurks like some hibernating beast in a darkened cave. It doesn’t matter what you believe or what you don’t; the black sun is a visceral experience.

Efficiency

The first people who lived on Puget Sound lived lightly on the edge of the land, mostly on the coast. They didn’t travel far from the shore where mountains were piled like shards of flint and old growth forests layered the ground with the bones of trees once 200 feet tall, where narrow valleys carved by the sharp edge of ice through winters that lasted a thousand years were a succession of bogs and swamps and wet grass meadows, where streams were a clutter of sloughs and islands and beaver ponds and driftwood snags and rivers were blocked with driftwood dams so massively built they persisted for hundreds of years.

The first people lived lightly and within their means. Those who followed, the ones who ‘settled’ the land as if it were unruly and needed restraint, didn’t see the land as it was but as it might be. They saw the opportunity of shaping the land in their own image, optimizing it for their own use. It was their manifest destiny, their biblical imperative.

First were the loggers who felled the old growth forests moving inland from the water’s edge. They cleared the beaver ponds from streams and built splash dams to raise the water level, floating downed trees to the saw mills. Then came the men who sweated and sawed and dynamited the logjams to allow steamboats and rafts to navigate the rivers. South on the Willamette above Corvallis, Oregon more than 5,500 driftwood logs were pulled from a 50-mile length of river. The driftwood measured 5 to 9 feet in diameter, 90 to 120 feet in length, and maybe 500 to 700 pounds per foot dry weight.

The streams and rivers of Puget Sound were eventually straightened, diked, and disciplined.

On the Skagit River in Washington driftwood was piled like windfall 3/4 mile long and 1/4 mile wide. The Stillaguamish River was blocked by six logjams from the head of tidewater for 17 miles upriver. Dead trees were so large, so numerous, and so deeply embedded in the river bottom that a steam snag boat hammered and hauled and labored for 6 months to open a channel only 100 feet wide.

The streams and rivers of Puget Sound were eventually straightened, diked, and disciplined. The wetlands were drained by the farmers that followed. Less than 10% of the historic wetlands and floodplains of Puget Sound remain. By most contemporary opinions it was a good thing. Fallow land was made productive. Forests were harvested like crops. Isolated communities were connected by river traffic. But all the wood removed from the water that seemed such a nuisance at the time had served a purpose that wasn’t recognized for another hundred years.

When water approaches an obstruction in the current like a driftwood dam it begins to well from hydraulic back pressure. The raised water tops the river banks and onto the floodplain, creating side channels and backwaters, habitat for fish. It spills over the obstruction forming a plunge pool. The deeper pool allows fish to remain cool in the heat of summer and protects them from predators. Numerous species of salmon and trout live in the same pool, each occupying different layers defined by water temperature and granularity of sediment, accommodating different species of fish or even the same species in different sages of its life-cycle. Where the current rushes around the edge of the driftwood a stream of vortexes form at the boundary of still water like pinwheels on parade, providing nutrients for the inhabitants of the pool. The driftwood dam raises the water level in the river, especially during times of low water when fish are stressed and struggle to survive.

…the salmon were once so common that, after spawning, their bodies were pitched into carts and plowed into fields as fertilizer.

None of this was known a hundred years ago. Even the wildlife managers responsible for the health of salmon and trout populations cleared deadwood from rivers and streams, genuinely convinced they were helping with upstream migrations and breeding, unaware that they were tampering with the deposition of sediment and the spawning grounds of the very species they were trying to promote.

On the Ozette River west of the Olympic Mountains the salmon were once so common that, after spawning, their bodies were pitched into carts and plowed into fields as fertilizer. After 26 large log jams were removed from the river the salmon populations crashed. Some will likely never recover.

Simplicity isn’t always a solution. Mirroring Einstein, a thing should be as complex as necessary, and no more.

Life is messy. Trying to clean it up, remove the clutter, straighten what’s crooked, smooth what’s rugged and irregular isn’t likely to make it better, even for ourselves. Optimizing the land for our own use above all others has reduced the land’s resilience and replaced it with a system that’s robust but fragile. We squeeze from the land every bit of efficiency possible, much like we do our companies and ourselves. The danger of such extreme efficiency is its proximity to disaster. It only takes a slight push from a highly optimized system to push it over the edge into chaos.

Birdsong

There is a bird that sings at the edge of night when the sky is first faintly colored by light. It sings among the tall trees—cedar and fir—beside the driveway. It sings alone, before the rest of the world wakes and begins making noise, while I’m sitting in meditation beside the Christmas three that should have been boxed and stored in the garage months ago.

I don’t know the name of the bird or it’s life history, whether it’s programmed to sing in solitude, whether its behavior is soldered in place like a circuit board. I suspect something different or there would be more birds singing in chorus. Certainly it’s not the only one of its kind in these woods.

It matters less to me why it’s singing—attracting a mate or marking its territory—than its choice to forgo silence. Perhaps there’s a competitive advantage in announcing itself first  but there’s also a distinct risk. These woods are hunted by owls, foxes, coyotes and bobcats. Occasionally cougar follow the wooded ravines into our neighborhood and wander the backyards and unlit streets. Broadcasting its position to every predator pressed by hunger to still hunt at the end of night is a bold move for a small bird. I wonder how often boldness profits birds of its kind? That may speak to why it sings alone.

Silence would be safer. Silence would be the norm. There’s safety in normality. It’s the reason hunted creatures flock and school and herd together. Statistically, anonymity safeguards. It takes something approaching courage to stand alone when you’re potentially a predator’s meal—or whatever passes for courage among birds.

I’m at risk myself of anthropomorphism, projecting human concepts on the non-human, but the greater risk might be the opposite, assuming ourselves separate and apart from the rest of life, removed from the reality of a small bird singing alone at the edge of night. I don’t know if there’s a word for that, something more pompous and scientific-sounding than simple arrogance.

We carry the genetic memory of troupes of apes who descended from trees to the savannah, becoming more predator than prey but still comforted by anonymity. The ancient resentment of the hunted may bare relevance on why we’ve become such ruthless and undiscerning predators. But to stand alone and sing, surrounded by silence and risk, is admirable among both birds and people.

Postscript: The Christmas tree remains three months after the winter solstice as a symbol, I suppose; evergreen branches and bright lights to ward off the darkness of my wife’s cancer. It’s a promise of renewal after loss. It will remain lit every day until her chemotherapy and radiation treatments end in another four months. It may be an ancient pagan symbol but this one is made of metal and powered by electricity.

A Dream of Place

I woke from a dream this morning. We were kids throwing a baseball in an empty lot. Each time it was my turn I was hesitant, apprehensive, unsure how hard to throw, how much force to exert, and each time I threw the ball it fell short, rolling on the ground in front of the catcher. Each time I threw I felt more embarrassed and inept.

Then something changed — I’m not sure what — but I no longer wanted to restrain myself, exactly measure the force of each throw, hesitantly attempt perfection and always fail. Something in me no longer cared whether I tried and failed nor how obvious my failure might be to others. I just wanted to throw the ball for all I was worth.

I cocked my arm back so far my front foot cleared the ground. I was balanced on a single foot, pivoting, utterly committed, focused only on the throw. I put everything I was into that throw, conscious of nothing else. My body uncoiled, my arm whipped forward, and my wrist snapped the ball as it left my hand.

The ball burned past the catcher and broke the windshield of a car parked on the street. The car alarm blared as we stood and looked at the shattered glass.

“Jeez, the cops” some kid said (in my dreams kids still say things like that) and we all ran as if it spooked by a Halloween wind.

I suppose some context is needed. I’ve been wondering about my place in the world and more so, the world in which I have my place. I’ve spent the last year trying to convince other people to do the right thing, the thing I thought right, with predictable results. Even if the right thing was apparent, it remains a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma.

fire_and_ice_expiremental_imag_by_kc502-d3ec93q

I don’t have the passion to be an evangelist however secular the cause. I wore myself out for little purpose. Questions haunted me. What was my enduring passion? What sustained me through the bleak times? What made me whole?

I suspect we live our lives in spirals, returning to common themes and familiar places but at different levels, different perspectives. I’ve come ‘round again to this familiar need, to understand the world in which I have my place.

The stories that linger on the land aren’t divorced from our own. They shape our days and measure our nights. They frame our lives with daylight and night, with mythic images, with fire and ice. This place especially, at the edge of the world, between the mountains and the sea, this mythic place obscured by cloud.

We weren’t the first ones here. There are stories older than ours. And older still, the stories told in rock and water, restless mountains and glacial ice. Those are the stories I want to learn.

We are so deeply rooted in the earth that our disdain for it wounds us immeasurably. Without knowing the stories of a place we can’t know where we belong. We become like ghosts driven by the wind.

The Age of Altruism

The only thing that will save the human race from ourselves is hope—hope in a future where we treat the earth and each other with dignity, respect, and consideration. Fear isn’t enough to change our behavior, not even fear of death, or patients who’ve had bypass surgery or angioplasty would quit smoking, lose weight, exercise more. It doesn’t happen. Fear isn’t enough to move us—only hope.

Dan Pink’s book Drive includes a remarkable insight. As a person matures, their interests tend to become more altruistic. That isn’t the insight. What’s remarkable is that we’re approaching a unique moment in human history when there will be more people in Western societies over the age of 60 than under the age of 8.

Wave

The aging of the West represents a potential wave of altruism the likes of which the world has never seen. It comes at a time when we are gravely threatened by diminishing oil reserves, the end of cheap energy, radical climate change and a human population that can’t be sustained by dwindling resources. If any time in human history desperately needed altruism, it’s now.

We need to recreate our economy based upon sustainability rather than compound greed. We need to use our resources wisely and share equitably or I’m afraid the wars for water, arable land, food and energy will leave human civilization in ashes. And as our days darken we will be at grave risk of surrendering ourselves to another brutal savior, another demagogue promising salvation and security in exchange for our souls, when what we really need is kindness and common sense and the will to act for the good of others.

Only hope will prompt us to action, hope in a better world, hope despite the evidence, despite our history, hope that we can be more than what we’ve been.

Perhaps the unprecedented numbers of people approaching the age of altruism will be the tipping point that makes our hope a reality. It seems to me our last, best hope before the encroaching darkness.

You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction

Charles Thrasher

Michael_Rupert_Collapse

Recently I watched Collapse, a documentary about the ideas of Michael C. Rupert. Those ideas aren’t unique—the imminence of peak oil production, the unsustainable burden of human population in the absence of cheap energy, and the cascading failures that threaten our entire species as a result. I’ve heard them before when I first read James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency (see Black Plague and Boatwrights.)

If I expect the gruesome end
of humankind, I’ll see evidence
enough all around to justify my
dark faith. But if I live without
fear or worry, what might I see?

This time rather than imagining the worst and despairing, a response which I’ve polished like the family silver, something influenced my response. I read an article by Akaya Windwood in Yes magazine titled Life After Worry.

Yes magazine tends towards unrelenting optimism. I rarely read it cover to cover although I subscribe, probably to ease my sense of guilt for doing nothing to leave the world in better shape than I found it or at least no worse. (I’ve been a dreadful failure at both.) The article caught my attention partially because I had seen Collapse, partially because I’m the consequence of religious fundamentalism.

Atomic bomb There is a self-fulfilling force to the belief in apocalypse. The unofficial but persistent faith of America is justified by the world’s end in judgment and retribution. Only the chosen few will survive. It’s the end that we’ve shaped for ourselves if unconsciously. I’ve contributed to that end despite my fall from faith.

Windwood’s article confronted me with the obvious, my attitude was also self-fulfilling. I could face the possibility of our impending collapse with despair, adding my small stone to the cairn we’re piling over the corpse of civilization, or I could approach the same potential future free of that burden, free to act differently, to act freely, to act with grace and spontaneity. Abandoning worry wouldn’t teach me to dance but it might free me from a crippling weight.

It’s a foundational truth of quantum physics that the observer influences what’s observed. We’re all busily influencing reality by our observations and preconceptions. My retreat from the world, my lack of contribution in creating a more humane reality, was just as much an act of creation—an act of observation—as engagement with the world. Every action, even inaction, has an effect. You bring something to the game even if you don’t want to play.

The question then becomes, what replaces worry? If worry isn’t my autonomic response to risk, what is? Compassion? Trust? Meditation? Your choice—my choice—has significant impact upon the future of the world.

Melodramatic, admittedly, but there’s a truth science has discovered about complex systems. Sometimes a small change can have asymmetrical consequences. It’s the Butterfly Effect popularized by chaos theory and a horrible film by Ashton Kutcher. The flapping of a butterfly’s wings over the African coast can create the smallest disturbance in the air, a faint eddy introduced into a complex system (the weather) at the right time and place that can grow into a hurricane that collides with the Eastern seaboard of the United States, impacting the lives of millions of people.

HURRICANE-IKE

Every act of observation influences what’s observed.

I think it’s equally true that how you observe influences what you see. My emotional baggage has weight and substance. My unexamined history filters my perception. I see what I expect to see. If I expect the gruesome end of humankind, I’ll see evidence enough all around to justify my dark faith. But if I live without fear or worry, what might I see? What might be possible?

We’re approaching a moment that will define our species. It may transform us—or end us. Either way, I’d prefer to face that moment with grace and dignity rather than fear and trembling.