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Posts Tagged ‘sea level

“Appearances are a glimpse of the unseen”

A shower of comets rains down on Earth while violent volcanic eruptions billow up from below. Both events may follow our planet’s passage through dark matter concentrated in the Milky Way’s plane and help to trigger extinction events.

Are we on the verge of understanding the upheavals that have shaped the earth?

Do geologists dream of a final theory? Most people would say that plate tectonics already serves as geology’s overarching idea. The discovery of plate tectonics 50 years ago was one of the great scientific achievements of the 20th century, but is the theory complete? I think not. Plate tectonics describes Earth’s present geology in terms of the geometry and interactions of its surface plates. Geologists can extrapolate plate motions both back in time and into the future, but they cannot yet derive the behavior and history of plate tectonics from first principles.

Although scientists can interpret the history through the lens of what they see today, an important question remains: Why did geologic events — such as hot-spot volcanism, the breakup of continents, fluctuations in seafloor spreading, tectonic episodes, and sea-level oscillations — occur exactly when and where they did? Are they random, or do they follow some sort of a pattern in time or space?

A complete theory of Earth should explain geologic activity in the spatial domain, as plate tectonics does quite well for the present (once you incorporate hot spots), but also in the time and frequency domains. Recent findings suggest to me that geology may be on the threshold of a new theory that seeks to explain Earth’s geologic activity in time and space in the context of its astronomical surroundings.

The solar system oscillates with respect to the midplane of the disk-shaped Milky Way Galaxy with a period of about 60 million years. The Sun’s family passes through this plane twice each period, or once every 30 million years or so. The solar system behaves like a horse on a carousel — as we go around the disk-shaped galaxy, we bob up and down through the disk, passing through its densest part roughly every 30 million years.

Surely, it is too much of a coincidence that the cycle found in mass extinctions and impact craters should turn out to be one of the fundamental periods of our galaxy. The idea seemed almost too pretty to be wrong. But people searching for cycles have been fooled before, and we still had to answer the question: How does this cycle of movement lead to periodic perturbations of the Oort Cloud comets?

The idea of a roughly 30 million-year rhythm in geologic events has a long history in the geological literature. In the early 20th century, W.A. Grabau, an expert on sedimentary strata, proposed that tectonic activity and mountain building drove periodic fluctuations in sea level with an approximately 30 million-year cycle. In the 1920s, noted British geologist Arthur Holmes, armed with a few age determinations from radioactive decay, saw a similar 30 million-year cycle in Earth’s geologic activity…

If the cycles are real, what could be driving these long-term changes in volcanism, tectonics, sea level, and climate at such regular, if widely spaced, intervals? At first, I thought that the periodic energetic impacts might somehow be affecting deep-seated geological processes. I suggested in a short note in the journal Nature that large impacts might so deeply excavate and fracture the crust — to depths in excess of 10 miles (16 km) — that the sudden release of pressure in the upper mantle would result in large-scale melting. This would lead to the production of massive flood-basalt lavas, which would cover the crater and possibly create a mantle hot spot at the site of the impact. Hot spots could lead to continental breakup, which can cause increased tectonics and changes in ocean-floor spreading rates, and in turn cause global sea levels to fluctuate. Unfortunately, no known terrestrial impact structure has a clear association with volcanism, although some volcanic outpourings on Mars seem to be located along radial and concentric fractures related to large impacts.

The potential key to resolving this geological conundrum may come from outer space. Remember that Randall and Reece suggested that Earth passes through a thin disk of dark matter concentrated along the Milky Way’s midplane every 30 million years or so. Astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek of Harvard University, and independently Katherine Freese, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, proposed that Earth could capture dark matter particles that would accumulate in the planet’s core. The number of dark matter particles could grow large enough so that they would undergo mutual annihilation, producing prodigious amounts of heat in Earth’s interior.

A 1998 paper in the journal Astroparticle Physics (which I am sure few geologists ever read) provided a potential missing link. Indian astrophysicists Asfar Abbas and Samar Abbas (father and son, respectively) at Utkal University also were interested in dark matter and its interactions with our planet. They calculated the amount of energy released by the annihilation of dark matter captured by Earth during its passage through a dense clump of this material. They found that mutual destruction among the particles could produce an amount of heat 500 times greater than Earth’s normal heat flow, and much greater than the estimated power required in Earth’s core to generate the planet’s magnetic field. Putting together the predicted 30 million-year periodicity in encounters with dark matter with the effects of Earth capturing this unstable matter produces a plausible hypothesis for the origin of regular pulses of geologic activity.

Excess heat from the planet’s core can raise the temperature at the base of the mantle. Such a pulse of heat might create a mantle plume, a rising column of hot mantle rock with a broad head and narrow tail. When these rising plumes penetrate Earth’s crust, they create hot spots, initiate flood-basalt eruptions, and commonly lead to continental fracturing and the beginning of a new episode of seafloor spreading. The new source of periodic heating by dark matter in our planet’s interior could lead to periodic outbreaks of mantle-plume activity and changes in convection patterns in Earth’s core and mantle, which could affect global tectonics, volcanism, geomagnetic field reversals, and climate, such as our planet has experienced in the past.

These geologic events could lead to environmental changes that might be enough to cause extinction events on their own. A correlation of some extinctions with times of massive volcanic outpourings of lava supports this view. This new hypothesis links geologic events on Earth with the structure and dynamics of the Milky Way Galaxy.

It is still too early to tell if the ingredients of this hypothesis will withstand further examination and testing. Of course, correlations among geologic events can occur even if they are not part of a periodic pattern, and long-term geological cycles may exist apart from any external cosmic connections. The virtue of the galactic explanation for terrestrial periodicity lies in its universality — because all stars in the galaxy’s disk, many of which harbor planets, undergo a similar oscillation about the galactic midplane — and in its linkage of biological and geological evolution on Earth, and perhaps in other solar systems, to the great cycles of our galaxy.

Dark matter’s shadowy effect on Earth“: Earth’s periodic passage through the galaxy’s disk could initiate a series of events that ultimately lead to geological cataclysms and mass extinctions. From Michael Rapino (@mrr1_michael)

For very different angle on the evolution of the earth, the wonderful Walter Murch: “Why Birds Can Fly Over Mount Everest.”

* Anaxagoras


As we dig deep, we might spare a thought for Harlow Shapley; he died on this date in 1972. An astronomer known as “the Modern Copernicus,” he did important work first at the Mt. Wilson Observatory, and then as head of the Harvard College Observatory. He boldly and correctly proclaimed that the globulars outline the Galaxy, and that the Galaxy is far larger than was generally believed and centered thousands of light years away in the direction of Sagittarius: he discovered the center of our Galaxy, and our position within it.


“Water, water everywhere”*…




On November 14, 2016, six days after Donald Trump was elected president, a man named Richard Conlin found an octopus in the parking garage of his Miami Beach apartment building. The translucent creature, which a viral photo showed sitting in a small puddle by a row of cars, had been brought ashore by an unusually large high tide that sent sludgy water rushing through nearby streets. A local biologist speculated that the octopus had found its way inside one of the apartment building’s drainage pipes: the pipes had been positioned well above the waterline when the condo complex was constructed, but rising sea levels meant they were now submerged at high tide, allowing aquatic creatures to make their way inside. (Conlin wrote on Facebook that he spotted a small school of fish swimming in another puddle.)

The octopus makes for an apt little parable not just about the extent to which climate change is already changing daily life in the United States, but about the way in which it is doing so. The cephalopod did not arrive in the parking garage Day After Tomorrow-style, on the crest of an apocalyptic wave, but by means of a crucial yet neglected piece of infrastructure. The alarming fact the octopus represents is not that the ocean threatens to destroy us, but that it threatens to destroy the structures we have built in its midst.

Miami, as you may have heard, is doomed: depending on which study you prefer, the city will be underwater by 2100, 2060, 2050, or whenever the next hurricane hits. It is poised to see two, five, eight, ten, or twelve feet of sea-level rise in the next century. Even numbers on the low end of that range would be enough to inundate Conlin’s apartment building, not to mention billions more dollars of real estate. Tidal flooding events of the kind that brought the octopus ashore increased by more than 400 percent between 2006 and 2013, and the city has only barely been spared by a number of major hurricanes in that same time span. The right storm—The Big One, as they call it in Florida—could raze whole swaths of Miami, send its property market and tourism industry into a death spiral, and spur a mass exodus of domestic climate refugees. Even in the absence of such a storm, the city’s lowest-lying neighborhoods may need to be abandoned by midcentury if the rest of it is to be preserved…

The coming scramble for free space won’t be as bad as it could have been, though, because many of the most vulnerable homes in the city don’t have anyone living in them in the first place. The glistening condo towers that make up the high end of Miami’s housing market serve predominantly as parking lots for foreign capital, much of it of dubious origin. The absentee ownership rate in many of these buildings is well above 50 percent, and even as the streets of Miami Beach begin to flood, the emirs and mafiosi who own these apartments will be somewhat insulated from the crash in the rest of the city’s housing market, since the selling point of these condos is not their view of the Biscayne Bay but their ability to serve as storage units for foreign capital.

For everyone who actually lives in Miami, though, it’s going to get ugly, and there isn’t much the city can do about it. [Journalist Mario Alejandro] Ariza opens the book [Disposable City: Miami’s Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe] with the image of an enormous water pump designed to flush out water from the streets in the event of a high tide or a hurricane; the city has installed a number of these pumps in the past few years, financing them with a new climate-oriented municipal bond, and has also endeavored to raise dozens of miles of streets. Even if these interventions always worked out, which they don’t—a former mayor of Miami Beach prioritized installing pumps and raising roads near property he owned, inadvertently increasing flooding in nearby businesses he didn’t own—they wouldn’t be enough to forestall a crisis that is coming sooner rather than later. With enough money from the federal government, the city could in theory move the most vulnerable homeowners out of harm’s way before it’s too late, build green infrastructure to absorb floodwaters, and sponsor high-density affordable housing for those who want to stay, but a hat trick in that regard seems unlikely. If sea level rise reaches nine feet by the end of the century, though, none of these interventions will matter: all of Miami and much of South Florida will be underwater. Even if the city doesn’t sink altogether, hundreds of thousands of Miamians will likely be displaced to Orlando, Atlanta, and other nearby cities, none of which are going to feel exactly like paradise in the year 2100…

Miami’s bleak future on the front line of climate change; “The City That Lived.”

And to put it into a broader context: “2020 Is our Last, Best Chance to Save the Planet” and  “The Great Climate Migration Has Begun.”

* Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”


As we search for a drop to drink, we might spare a thought for a man who successfully manged water in a different physical state, Frank Joseph Zamboni, Jr.; he died on this date in 1988.  An engineer and inventor, he is best known for the modern ice resurfacer, seen at work at hockey games and figure skating competitions; indeed, his surname is the registered trademark for these devices.

220px-Frank_Zamboni source


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 27, 2020 at 1:01 am

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