Interlude: When Vehicles Become Part of the Geologic Record

The conversation might have gone something like this:

Geologists: “Hey, boss person, we need to order vehicle parts and then destroy them. For science!

Boss person: “Ummm… okay.”

The thing is, things happen to vehicles when they’re caught up in a directed blast. What the volcano did to them can tell us a lot about what was taking place inside that blast cloud. Vehicles in the blast zone at Mount St. Helens sustained all sorts of damage. See if you can figure out what this is without looking at the caption, which I will cleverly not put directly under the photo:

Vehicle damage! Lots of it! Image courtesy USGS.

Vehicle damage! Lots of it! And now you know why I filch their captions. Image courtesy USGS.

I’d say the eruption severely depreciated the value of this vehicle. If Captain Jack Sparrow were here, he’d be asking, “But why is the back seat gone?” That’s what the USGS caption says we’re looking at: “Back seat of vehicle heavily damaged by May 18 eruption, near Meta Lake 13 kilometers northeast of Mount St. Helens.” That is an ex-back seat. Still, I suppose it fared better than this poor thing, which nobody appears to be able to identify:

Interior(?) of vehicle damaged by May 18 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Cowlitz or Skamania County, Washington. June 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Interior(?) of vehicle damaged by May 18 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Cowlitz or Skamania County, Washington. June 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Note the caked-on volcanic deposits. Yum!

What happened to those vehicles tells geologists a lot about what conditions were like within that directed blast. Granted, we had eyewitnesses – stressed, terrified, traumatized, fallible human witnesses. That fallibility is why scientists turn to inanimate objects to verify and further study the effects of the eruption. These inanimate witnesses testify, too: they become part of the geologic record, and while you can’t grab a perfectly healthy person off the street and be all like, “Hey, we’re going to expose you to different levels of heat and stuff until we’re able to replicate the burns these other people suffered! Won’t that be fun?! For science!” you can certainly order some auto parts and proceed to be as volcanic as you like.

First thing before you reach for the auto parts catalog, though, is field observations. What do we see when we inspect these vehicles in the field?

Vehicle heavily damaged by May 18 eruption, near Meta Lake 13 km northeast of Mount St. Helens. Skamania County, Washington. June 18, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Vehicle heavily damaged by May 18 eruption, near Meta Lake 13 km northeast of Mount St. Helens. Skamania County, Washington. June 18, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

I don’t think we’re going to be able to trade that one in…

The directed blast was powerful, people. So powerful that even heavy logging equipment was sometimes moved, even flipped over, by it. Geologists saw battered and scorched vehicles up to 13 kilometers (8 miles) away from St. Helens: farther out, they were “only sandblasted.” Think about this for a minute, and look at the car above, and realize that’s eight miles from the source of the explosion and there was still enough power to batter that car almost beyond recognition.

How, you might ask, did it do that? Well. Have a look at what it was hurling.

Damaged bed of a pickup truck located on the north side of the South Fork Toutle River, about 6 km west of Mount St. Helens. The large rock (partially in shadow) is a piece of dacite hurled into the pickup's bed during the eruption of May 18, 1980. Cowlitz County, Washington. June 30, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Damaged bed of a pickup truck located on the north side of the South Fork Toutle River, about 6 km west of Mount St. Helens. The large rock (partially in shadow) is a piece of dacite hurled into the pickup’s bed during the eruption of May 18, 1980. Cowlitz County, Washington. June 30, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

And a double-take:

Different view of damaged bed of pickup truck located on north side of South Fork Toutle River, about 6 km west of Mount St. Helens. The large rock (partially in shadow) is a piece of dacite hurled into the pickup's bed during the eruption of May 18, 1980. Cowlitz County, Washington. June 30, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Different view of damaged bed of pickup truck located on north side of South Fork Toutle River, about 6 km west of Mount St. Helens. The large rock (partially in shadow) is a piece of dacite hurled into the pickup’s bed during the eruption of May 18, 1980. Cowlitz County, Washington. June 30, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Imagine the force of an explosion that can take a chunk of solid rock – and that sort of massive dacite is compact and heavy – and hurl it 6 kilometers (over 3 miles) with enough force to deform a 1980s pickup truck. In fact, Mount St. Helens heaved boulders up to 30 centimeters (about 12 inches) into vehicles. The blast wasn’t quite as powerful to the west: rocks that size only got thrown 5 kilometers (3 miles), whereas to the north, the blast cloud was able to carry them up to 15 kilometers (9 miles). Fifteen. Not rolling and bouncing them, either: they were carried at least 1.5 meters (almost 5 feet) above the ground (although a few may have been tossed up by falling trees). And if you think that’s mind-blowing, look at this:

Aerial view of scattered remnants of logging operation north of Mount St. Helens. This clear-cut area was buried in several feet of ash from the May 18 eruption. Photo by J. DeVine. Skamania County, Washington. June 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS; cropped from original.

Aerial view of scattered remnants of logging operation north of Mount St. Helens. This clear-cut area was buried in several feet of ash from the May 18 eruption. Photo by J. DeVine. Skamania County, Washington. June 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS; cropped from original.

What is this I don’t even.

Damaged logging equipment on Coldwater Ridge, north of Mount St. Helens. Skamania County, Washington. July 2, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS; cropped from original.

Damaged logging equipment on Coldwater Ridge, north of Mount St. Helens. Skamania County, Washington. July 2, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS; cropped from original.

I don’t know about the first photo, but judging from the fact the logging equipment is twisted into an unrecognizable mess, I’m going to hazard a guess that we’re well within 13 kilometers. The second photo was within 8-10 kilometers (about 4-6 miles). Amazing what a directed blast can do to heavy equipment.

So let’s see what these vehicles are testifying to, as they are now part of the geologic record.

Firstly, you wouldn’t want to be within 13 kilometers (eight miles) of the volcano during this eruption. In fact, I couldn’t track down any survivors inside that zone.

Secondly, we know that vehicles (not to mention trees, but we won’t because we’re saving those for a future installment) were overturned early. How? Because stratigraphy. Geologists saw that within 15 kilometers (9 miles), vehicles that hadn’t been flipped over had the same order of deposits they were finding on the ground. Vehicles that have been overturned also have the same stratigraphy as the ground beside them, showing that the blast cloud knocked them about in the first erosive moments, then dropped material atop them.

Sometimes lots of material. Look at Reid Blackburn’s car at Coldwater I:

Reid Blackburn's car, located at Coldwater I observation station, approximately 10 miles (sic) from Mount St. Helens. Reid was a photographer for National Geographic as well as the Vancouver's Columbian newspaper. U.S. Geological Survey image taken on May 22, 1980 by Pete Lipman. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Reid Blackburn’s car, located at Coldwater I observation station, approximately 10 miles (sic) from Mount St. Helens. Reid was a photographer for National Geographic as well as the Vancouver’s Columbian newspaper. U.S. Geological Survey image taken on May 22, 1980 by Pete Lipman. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Coldwater I was actually about 13 kilometers (8 miles) away – within that zone where havoc was wreaked in earnest. The whole sequence is here, and you can see how deep it is. Geologists found that the deposits entered laterally, blown in through the windows, which had been shattered in the initial phase. There was still enough force even that far away to hurl things sideways.

(And this is where I consider the fact that Reid didn’t stand a chance, and pause for a moment to wish fiercely he’d been just a little farther away.)

That’s some pretty serious volcanic action, and we haven’t even got to the heat, and why geologists were flipping pages in automotive catalogs looking for things to destroy. We’ll hit that up in our next installment, wherein I will show you how surprisingly informative melted plastic is. Especially when scientists are set loose with some nice, fresh auto parts and a heat source or two…

Previous: The Cataclysm: “I Was Just Instantly Buried.”

Next: Interlude: What Vehicles Say About Temperatures Within a Volcanic Blast.

References:

Lipman, Peter W., and Mullineaux, Donal R., Editors (1981): The 1980 Eruptions of Mount St. Helens, Washington. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1250.

 

Previously published at Scientific American/Rosetta Stones.

A Survivor’s Tale: “Half the mountain exploding over our heads”

One thing I love about blogging is hearing from readers, especially readers who have intriguing tales to tell. A bit ago, Timo5150 left a tantalizing clue that one such tale might prove extra-intriguing:

I was living just outside Randle Washington when it erupted, 20.2 miles from it. From there it was more of a low rumble that you more felt than heard. The ash got so thick even indoors that for awhile we thought we would suffocate. I wrote about our experience on Squidoo if you would like to read about what it was like. Just search for surviving Mt. Saint Helens.

And so I did, and promptly ended up perched on the edge of my chair:

On the morning of May 18th, I was in the groggy, lethargic state between being asleep and fully waking when I hear my wife get out of bed saying she thought her father (who also lived on the ranch) was leaving because she thought she heard a car rumble. When she reached the kitchen and looked out the window she let out a heart-stopping, blood-curdling scream that sounded like she was witnessing the end of the world, as I am sure she thought she was. It brought me straight up out of my bed and I ran to the kitchen to see what all the screaming was about. What I saw I will never forget for the rest of my life. It looked like the world was coming to an end. The sky was filled with very dark heavy clouds that were boiling and rolling towards us at a very high rate of speed with the biggest, thickest bolts of lightning I have ever seen. There is nothing I can compare it to. In one sense it was awesome, but in another, it was terrifying. What we later learned was that what we were witnessing half the mountain exploding over our heads but it looked like half the world.

There’s much, much more. It’s an amazing glimpse into what it’s like to have a mountain blow up all over you. Thank you, Timo5150, for sharing your story!

Mount St. Helens in eruption. Aerial view of eruptive column which is very dark. Top of Mount St. Helens is obscured by clouds. 0935 PDT. Skamania County, Washington. May 18, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Mount St. Helens in eruption. Aerial view of eruptive column which is very dark. Top of Mount St. Helens is obscured by clouds. 0935 PDT. Skamania County, Washington. May 18, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Previously published at Scientific American/Rosetta Stones.

Midwintering

Happy Belated Solstice! Twas yesterday, that day when the year reaches its extreme. In this hemisphere, it’s the shortest. We’re deep in the dark and cold.

Hoarfrost on my car's side-view mirror. It made the whole car look fuzzy and adorable. This close-crop makes it look silvery-dark and a bit grim.

Hoarfrost on my car’s side-view mirror. It made the whole car look fuzzy and adorable. This close-crop makes it look silvery-dark and a bit grim.

Seattle celebrated early with a bit o’ snow, the day before the darkest day.

Snow-covered fir trees on the ridge behind my house.

Snow-covered fir trees on the ridge behind my house.

That was unexpected, and delightful, considering it didn’t make the roads horrid and yet beautified everything. There was just enough for the kids to make snowpeople with, and for Luna to get severely upset by. B tells me she gave his brother a look like he’d pulled some horrible prank on her, and was rather put out by the whole thing. I love kittens and first snows. You never know how they’ll react. Knowing Luna, she’ll be dashing through it come next snowfall.

This one, alas, didn’t last long – it was already raining by the time I hauled me arse outside for a wander.

A tiny alluvial fan of snow on the rock wall near my home.

A tiny alluvial fan of snow on the rock wall near my home.

Still, got out in it, didn’t I? Had a wander up-drumlin, and looked at all the kitty tracks showing where the neighborhood cats had been through, and the dog-and-people tracks, and all of the other things that tell you how much goes on without you ever knowing until the snow records each event. I enjoy that.

Snow atop the rather pointy dark gray glacial erratic near me house, making it look like a wee snow-capped mountain in the woods.

Snow atop the rather pointy dark gray glacial erratic near me house, making it look like a wee snow-capped mountain in the woods.

And I like the way snow turns all the well-know prosaic items into artsy little delights. I’ve seen this erratic boulder a quintillion times, but I’ve never seen it play mountain range before.

A slightly different angle, showing snow gathered in a dip on the boulder, looking very much like a glacier descending a mountaintop.

A slightly different angle, showing snow gathered in a dip on the boulder, looking very much like a glacier descending a mountaintop.

And some of the trees haven’t yet let their changed leaves go. A few drifted down into the smooth blanket of snow, and they stood out stark and wonderful.

A dark browny-red leaf lying atop the new white snow, covered in drops of water from the falling rain.

A dark browny-red leaf lying atop the new white snow, covered in drops of water from the falling rain.

Some must have fallen with the snow; they’re now half-buried within it.

Another of the same type o' leaf, this one covered with a bit o' snow.

Another of the same type o’ leaf, this one covered with a bit o’ snow.

And if I play with the brightness a bit, I end up with what looks like a white leaf on a lightbox.

Dark red leaf on brilliant white background.

Dark red leaf on brilliant white background.

This is a stark time of year, appropriate for stark sorts of images. This is the time when Misha and I tend to snuggle down, warm together, and laze away those short days with a book or dozen, all communication cut off. But this year, I have other kitty-kin to visit. And while Misha’s old and has seen it all, Luna’s having her first midwinter, and her first encounter with a Christmas tree.

Kirby swats at an ornament on a tiny Christmas tree on the table, while Luna observes closely.

Kirby swats at an ornament on a tiny Christmas tree on the table, while Luna observes closely.

You’ll notice how bare that poor little tree is. Kirby’s been after the ornaments, taking them down and running off to play with them. Luna’s learning how the thing’s done.

Luna takes her turn swatting at the ornament, while Kirby watches.

Luna takes her turn swatting at the ornament, while Kirby watches.

Kirby actually took an entire limb out of the tree at one point. Fortunately, it’s the kind of artificial tree that can withstand two active kitties. You just stick the branch back in the foam core and watch them play with their prize.

 

Kirby and Luna bat their pilfered ornament around on the table beneath the tree.

Kirby and Luna bat their pilfered ornament around on the table beneath the tree.

Kirby, like any good teacher, then left his pupil alone to practice.

Luna, by herself now, smacks at an ornament on the tree.

Luna, by herself now, smacks at an ornament on the tree.

She’s not as adept as Kirby, so it’s going to take her some time before she can easily unhook them.

Luna tries removing the ornament with her teeth.

Luna tries removing the ornament with her teeth.

Those are the things that make the absence of the sun barely noticeable. There’s plenty to enjoy.

And with that, it’s time for the cantina’s midwinter break. There are some Mount St. Helens posts scheduled, never fear, and I may pop in time-to-time for a word or picture or two, but it’ll be rather quiet round here for a few weeks while I catch up on reading and email (yegads, the box is filling up…), snuggle kitties, watch the greatest Christmas movie ever (caution – spoilers at the link), and prep for the new year.

See you for the New Year’s party, and in the meantime: may your lives be full of warmth, wonder, and possibly even some wassail. With extra brandy or sherry. Yum. Love you, my darlings!

New at Rosetta Stones: Why Geologists Aren’t Worried About Ending Up on the Naughty List

Some of you may remember when I originally discussed why naughty geologists have no fear of what’s in their stocking, but you may enjoy it again – especially since there are added bonus pictures!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to do something naughty so that Santa will fill my stocking with coal. Yay!

The Cataclysm: “A Boiling Mass of Rock”

For most survivors of Mount St. Helens’s catastrophic lateral blast, the devastation was nearly silent. You would think that a wall of ash, hot gas and rock hurtling at a minimum of 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph), mangling vehicles and ripping down every tree in its path, would be loud, incredibly loud – but only one witness reported hearing much more than a rumbling sound. Some said it sounded “like a freight train,” others that it was similar to a prop plane or jet. Some said the rumbling was loud, a roar: others described it as soft, “barely audible.” This close to the mountain, the cloud seemed to destroy even its own sound. In the debris-laden cloud, “sound was attenuated more than 10,000 times as rapidly as in clear air.” Witnesses described the approaching cloud as a “wall,” and like a wall, it served to mute sounds, leaving no more than an eerie rumble to audibly signal its approach.

MSH Eyewitnesses

Map showing the area devastated in the directed blast, and locations of witnesses interviewed by USGS geologists. Modified after Figure 35, Rosenbaum and Waitt 1981, in USGS Professional Paper 1250. Image courtesy USGS.

It did not look so calm as it sounded.

Within the blast zone, 13 km (8 miles) to the northwest, Charles McNerney watched the black wall approach through a haze of white. A warm breeze ahead of it became wind, then a gale, bending and breaking trees. Charles and his friend quickly realized they needed to flee: they jumped in their car and sped down the road toward Highway 504. Even at speeds up to 121 kilometers per hour (75 mph), they couldn’t outdistance the blast cloud. Heat poured in through the sun roof. Reaching the highway, they accelerated to 137 km/h (85 mph) and finally began putting some distance between themselves and the eruption. After a few miles, they could no longer see the cloud: they stopped, and looked back, and within moments saw the cloud rushing down the North Fork Toutle River valley at speeds of at least 72 km/h (45 mph). Though the white mist, they could see the base of the cloud, “like avalanches of black chalk dust.” They fled again, outracing the cloud at 105 km/h (65 mph).

They survived. They didn’t think those who lingered at the viewpoint longer than they had could have lived.

A few kilometers down Highway 504, at a roadblock with a good view of the mountain, Gil Baker and his friend Kathy Baker watched the eruption begin. As the blast cloud obscured their view of the erupting volcano and cascaded down the valley, they sped west at around 161 km/h (100 mph). Even at that speed, the blast cloud nearly overtook them, “coming down with much authority,” churning and bubbling like “boiling oil with huge bubbles six or more feet in diameter.” After five minutes of frantic driving, they finally outdistanced the cloud and reached safety.

The singed needles bear witness to the 660 deg F (350 deg C) temperature of hot blast gases. Image and caption courtesy USFS. (P. Frenzen, 1980)

The singed needles bear witness to the 660 deg F (350 deg C) temperature of hot blast gases. Image and caption courtesy USFS. (P. Frenzen, 1980)

They were the lucky ones. Many people didn’t realize the need to flee until it was too late. Many others didn’t have time to make it to their vehicles and escape. They were caught in the blast cloud, enveloped by it, and in many instances survival hinged on luck.

Dale and Leslie Davis and their friend Al Brooks, 19 kilometers (11 miles) north of the mountain, made it to their pickup before the blast overtook them. The cloud was terrifying in its ferocity. “It looked like a boiling mass of rock – and just as high as you could see,” one of them would later tell USGS geologists. They watched trees being hurled into the air by its leading edge, and when it reached them, huddled in the cab of the truck, they were plunged into a thick, searing-hot darkness. Chunks of material struck the vehicle, sandblasting and denting the side facing the eruption. The heat grew intense enough to melt a styrofoam cooler in the bed. The grill of the truck heated to the point where it softened and deformed. A vent window broke, allowing the intense heat inside: Mr. Brooks suffered burns to his arms, while Mrs. Davis sustained burns to her legs so deep they hadn’t healed three months later. Yet these weren’t the kind of burns one would suffer in a fire: a doctor compared them to microwave burns.

Dashboard of pickup truck located on ridge top about 14 km north of Mount St. Helens. Skamania County, Washington. June 18, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Dashboard of pickup truck located on ridge top about 14 km north of Mount St. Helens. Skamania County, Washington. June 18, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

And then the heat was gone. The interior of the windshield became wet, cold enough to make them think the material hitting the truck must now be icy. The cloud lightened, then plunged them into darkness again. Afterward, they would walk out to safety. They would never forget the terror of that morning.

Others, trapped in the open, would have an even more intense experience. Not all of them would survive it.

North side of Spud Mountain at equipment site, northwest of Mount St. Helens. Cowlitz County, Washington. June 5, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

North side of Spud Mountain at equipment site, northwest of Mount St. Helens. Cowlitz County, Washington. June 5, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

 

Previous: The Cataclysm: “That Whole Mountain Range Had Just Exploded.”

Next: The Cataclysm: “I Was Just Instantly Buried.”

 

References:

Lipman, Peter W., and Mullineaux, Donal R., Editors (1981): The 1980 Eruptions of Mount St. Helens, Washington. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1250.

 

Previously published at Scientific American/Rosetta Stones.

Dana’s Super-Gargantuan Guide to Atheist Books Suitable for Gift-Giving (Part II)

We covered a lot of territory with Part I of our super-duper guide, and there ain’t many shopping days left. But we’ve still time for more of the specialized stuffage. Let’s go!

Image shows a kitten perched on an open book, looking as if it's reading, with the caption "Reading Rainbow." History

 

Doubt: A History by Jennifer Michael Hecht.

This is a sweeping study of religious doubt, spanning the Ancient Greeks up through the Jews, the Romans, and even Asian doubters. You’ll meet freethinkers you didn’t even know existed, from 600 BC until the present. This is a most helpful book for understanding that doubt isn’t a modern invention. History’s full o’ freethinkers, and we are in excellent company. There is a fine tradition of doubt behind us. This book demonstrates that doubt is part of our humanity. It’s a strangely comforting truth after doubt has been so demonized by demagogues for so very long.

Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby.

Did you know American history is full of freethinkers? No? Well, Susan Jacoby aims to remedy tha. This book covers the entire period of America’s history from the first European settlers to the present. It explores the important contributions secularists have made to movements such as Abolition and feminism. You’ll see the history of the culture wars beginning with the religious opposition to evolution, and be reminded that America, for all its devout citizens, has always been a land of freethinkers.

You should totally give this book to Uncle “America’s a Christian nation!” Ralph.

 

Culture Wars

 

Why Are You Atheists So Angry? by Greta Christina.

I can’t believe some of you thought I wouldn’t remember Greta’s excellent book on all those things that piss us off. Do you have a friend or relation who wonders why atheists seem angry? Do you need to get your angry thoughts in order? All of you will benefit from this book. Give it freely.

Marriage: A History by Stephanie Coontz

This is an excellent book for shattering the notion that there’s any such thing as “traditional marriage.” In it, we learn that marriage has always been in crisis, probably since about five minutes after the first human couple got married. There’s nothing new under the marital sun: this heterosexual nuclear family thingy is the real oddball. In these pages, Stephanie Coontz explores the smorgasbord that is marriage throughout the world, and discovers that traditional marriage is really in the eye of the beholder, even if you ignore all of those different types from the ancient times of a few centuries ago. This book contains truths inconvenient to culture warriors. And that is why it’s a book every atheist should have handy.

Freedom to Love for All by Yemisi Ilesanmi.

Written for an African audience, this tome will be quite helpful for anyone with African friends or family, or those interested in political struggles for equality in Africa. But it’s broad enough to be of use to anyone fighting that battle anywhere fundies rear up and attempt to legislate their morality. It debunks some of the common myths fundies love to spread: that homosexuality et al is unnatural, that gay marriage is a slippery slope to a whole new definition of animal husbandry, and that if the majority of people support so-called “traditional marriage,” that somehow gives them a license to discriminate. This book, while not large, accomplishes a lot.

Liars for Jesus by Chris Rodda.

An utterly thorough, unimpeachably sourced beatdown of the lies Liars for Jesus tell about America, this book is a vital necessity for those of us on this side of the culture wars. It combats right wing authoritarian bullshit with actual truth, which is always refreshing. It’s indispensable to those of us who are trying to disabuse lied-to people of the erroneous notions stuffed into their heads. It’s suitable for giving to those religious relations who love to spout America-is-a-Christian-nation nonsense at the feast table – and quite handy for those who must endure them.

Dishonest to God by Mary Warnock

This is a very British book, investigating the intersection of religion and public policy in a country where, despite an established church, secularism is strong and fundie religion rather weak. Despite Warnock not being a fire-breathing New Atheist, and rather more indulgent towards religion than many of us atheist activist types feel comfortable about, she argues strongly that morality must be decoupled from religion when it comes to the law. Eminently sensible, and containing good ideas suitable for all countries.

 

Science

 

The Happy Atheist by PZ Myers.

Despite the awful title which he didn’t choose, this is an excellent collection of PZ’s finest atheist thought, including much biology. Chapters are short (basically blog posts) and include many of his most famous essays, including The Courtier’s Reply. The majority of the book isn’t about science, but builds to the science section, and those chapters are inspiring and meaty. This book is perfect for people who need unapologetic atheism and beautiful science in bite-sized morsels.

For the Rock Record edited by Jill S. Schneiderman and Warren D. Allmon.

I’m so excited about this book. Within, geologists take on – and take down – creationism and Intelligent Design. Biologists are already in the ring and have been for some time: with this collection of essays, geologists get in the cage and crack their knuckles before delivering a victory by knockout. Written by geologists and earth sciences educators, this book faces the fact that geology is just as much under attack by creationists as biology – after all, the rocks hold a lot of the evidence for evolution and an old, uncreated Earth. It covers geologic and paleontological claims made by creationists; their encroachment into earth sciences education, politics, and philosophy; and in a final section, covers the clash of geology and religion. It reflects on evolution with a focus on the earth sciences, and doesn’t forget that Darwin was, first and foremost, a geologist. Got a geologist/atheist on your list? This is their book. You just have to get it for them.

God and the Folly of Faith by Victor Stenger.

With this book, Victor has mounted up as one of the horsepeople of the atheist apocalypse. Seriously. No quarter is given, and if you want a book that will make religion ashamed to play at science, this is the one.

 

Women and Minorities in Atheism

 

Does God Hate Women? by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom

A gut-shot of a book, in which Ophelia and her coauthor show us the religious terror perpetrated upon women. It slays the “cultural” argument for brutal practices and gives religion no quarter. Its main focus is on Islam, but it also blasts Orthodox Judaism, Hinduism, the FLDS branch of Mormonism, Catholicism, and more. It shines a very harsh light on the fact that, actually, according to most of the World’s Great Religions™, God does indeed hate women.

Women Without Superstition by Annie Laurie Gaylor.

You know how people are always having a hard time remembering that women have been doing the atheism thing for half of forever, too? Give them this book. It has 51 female freethinkers in it. It spans a slice of history from just before Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein up to our own Taslima Nasrin. It includes both bios and excerpts, and if you walk away from it without being able to recite the names of at least a dozen hugely influential freethinking women, you didn’t read the damn book.

Moral Combat by Sikivu Hutchinson.

An excellent book exploring black infidels and African American secular thought, which fiercely challenges religion’s stranglehold on morality. Social justice is crucial in minority communities, and this book shows that secular humanism can step up to fight for that justice, no religion necessary. And you’ll see how atheists of color are providing an alternative to the unrelenting whiteness of new atheism.

 

Here endeth Part II, mostly because my router is being an asshole. I’ll do me best to get Part III up tomorrow, which is all about the young folk – and if we get super-ambitious, may include some atheist fiction as well. (Also, if you would like to suggest a good, inexpensive, easy-to-use, and awesomely reliable router, please do feel free. This one’s getting chucked in a body of toxic water as soon as I can find a suitable replacement.)

The Cataclysm: “I Was Just Instantly Buried”

A falling tent heralded catastrophe.

Until the summer dry season comes, things in the Pacific Northwest are perpetually wet. Edward Smith and his companions, camped 18 kilometers (11 miles) north of Mount St. Helens, had set their tent on its side to dry out. At 8:32 am, an unusually strong wind gusted, again, and again: the tent tumbled, and a sound like a trio of rifle shots sounded. The surrounding pressure seemingly changed; they found themselves forced to the ground. And then the leading, black edge of the blast cloud soared overhead. Chunks of juvenile gray dacite fell like hail, some as large as golf balls. In the rock rain, Edward and his companions watched the cloud rush to the north before abruptly pulling back to the south. Blue sky appeared, briefly, though the black cloud never completely left his sight. Then the interlude ended. The blackness roared back. A cedar fell; seconds later, he told geologists, “there were no trees left.” They tumbled in eerie silence, in eerie stillness, no sensation of the blast that ripped them down. “Whatever happened,” Edward said, “it happened over our head.”

Cold, muddy ash possibly mixed with ice spattered them, somewhat larger than the sand-sized ash that would be ubiquitous elsewhere. Ash, later dry, fell so heavily they couldn’t see more than a foot even with a flashlight. The cool darkness turned hot a minute or so after the trees fell: it didn’t last long, but while it did, it gave the impression of forest fires raging nearby.

Edward Smith and his friends had just survived a lateral blast and the destruction of a forest without benefit of protective vehicles. They were extremely lucky. Others wouldn’t survive so unscathed.

Damaged bed of a pickup truck located on the north side of the South Fork Toutle River, about 6 km west of Mount St. Helens. The large rock (partially in shadow) is a piece of dacite hurled into the pickup's bed during the eruption of May 18, 1980. Cowlitz County, Washington. June 30, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Damaged bed of a pickup truck located on the north side of the South Fork Toutle River, about 6 km west of Mount St. Helens. The large rock (partially in shadow) is a piece of dacite hurled into the pickup’s bed during the eruption of May 18, 1980. Cowlitz County, Washington. June 30, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Three kilometers (about 1 mile) north of Edward, 21 kilometers (13 miles) from Mount St. Helens, Danny Balch and Brian Thomas differ on the pressure change issue: one may have felt it, while the other did not. But there was an odd sense that set them both looking for a source of the sensation, whatever it was. Brian looked through their tent flap to the west, and the sight must have poured ice into his blood: a red column rising to dizzying heights. He scrambled from the tent and took shelter under a tree toppled by time or storms long before the eruption. He’d barely reached huddled shelter beneath the log when the blast hit with a rumble. Trees toppled around the log he was under: one struck him, breaking his hip. “I was just instantly buried,” he told interviewing geologists.

Out in the open, Danny found himself knocked sprawling by the arriving blast. He reached out, probing the sudden darkness with his hands, and found logs. He dragged himself up as muddy, icy material fell, melting as it hit, soaking him. The cold only lasted for a few seconds before the air around him became so hot it dried him nearly instantly before burning his hands, scalp and other exposed areas. Brian, semi-safely buried a few feet away, wasn’t burned, but could feel the heat. The searing part of the blast passed quickly, but the air remained hotter than a midday, midsummer desert for some time. A chunky rain of debris fell for several minutes, cutting their visibility down to no more than a foot, often less. It stopped falling suddenly, they say: “Then it was almost sunny.” The main part of the blast had passed, leaving a deposit 8-10 centimeters (3-4 inches) deep. Minutes passed before ash began to fall.

Upper Coldwater Creek more than 15 km north of Mount St. Helens summit. Skamania County, Washington. May 24, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Upper Coldwater Creek more than 15 km north of Mount St. Helens summit. Skamania County, Washington. May 24, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Not far from Brian and Danny’s camp, a quartet had watched the initial strong wind blow their campfire flames flat, lapping at the ground. Braids blew horizontally. No one heard a sound – no explosion, no cracks or “shots,” no grinding of falling trees – but within fifteen seconds of the wind gusting, blackness arrived and all of the trees came down. Sue Ruff and Bruce Nelson found themselves buried in timber and ash. Fortunately, they had fallen into the cavity left by the ripped-out root ball of a fallen tree. Their companions, Karen Varner and Terry Crall, weren’t so fortunate.

Sue and Bruce huddled in the darkness, able to speak but unable to see each other. The air warmed a few seconds after they were buried, growing so hot their hair sizzled. Bruce, a baker, compared that singing warmth to a 300°F (150°C) oven: it cooked the trees, forcing pitch to boil out, remaining so hot for several minutes that it could burn. In their hot, debris-filled nest, they watched the sky clear suddenly after several minutes of darkness, before the ash fall began. They climbed out, calling for their friends – but Karen and Terry were dead.

Sue and Bruce did find Danny and Brian, however. They helped build a shelter for Brian. Danny’s shoes couldn’t be found, and the ash was too hot to hike through barefoot, so Sue and Bruce set out on their own. They would encounter another survivor, Grant Christiansen (not interviewed by the USGS), and a few hours later flagged down a helicopter to carry them, Brian and Danny to safety.

Unidentified survivors being flown to safety by Washington National Guard. Harold Kolb, the last pilot to fly out of Yakima before aircraft were grounded by falling ash, flew this family to safety. "One instance involved locating and picking up two men and their sons.  One man's hands were burned from his tent melting around him.  (Kolb) recalls that one of the eeriest sights was of trees that were still standing having an orange glow from sap baked to the surface where the bark had been blasted off." Image courtesy Washington National Guard.

Unidentified survivors being flown to safety by Washington National Guard. Harold Kolb, the last pilot to fly out of Yakima before aircraft were grounded by falling ash, flew this family to safety. “One instance involved locating and picking up two men and their sons. One man’s hands were burned from his tent melting around him. (Kolb) recalls that one of the eeriest sights was of trees that were still standing having an orange glow from sap baked to the surface where the bark had been blasted off.” Image courtesy Washington National Guard.

They were all in the direct path of the northward blast. Another group, four loggers at work in the forest that sunny Sunday morning, were 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the northwest along the North Fork Toutle River valley. Mount St. Helens hid behind a ridge; with their view blocked, James Scymanky, Leonty Skorohodoff, and Evlanty Sharipoff had no idea anything had happened until Jose Dias ran toward them, shouting: he’d seen the mountain erupt. Just about ten seconds later, James heard “a horrible, crashing, crunching, grinding sound” advancing through the forest from Mount St. Helens, and darkness fell, cutting off their vision. James doesn’t remember an interval of cold material falling. Instead, they were subjected almost instantly to intense heat. As they struggled to breathe in the thick, stifling, debris-laden darkness, they pulled in air and ash hot enough to sear their mouths and throats. James was knocked to the ground – not by a rock or falling tree, to the best of his recollection, but something toppled him. When he rose, he found his back being seared by incredible heat that lasted an intolerable two minutes. Hot as the blast was, it didn’t burn their clothes, just their skin.

When the heat passed, the blast cloud ended, and visibility returned, the men found themselves in a gray wasteland. Toppled trees were coated in a foot of ash. Twenty minutes later, as they picked an agonizing path through the debris, trying to find a way out, ash began falling again.

They’d been burned inside and out: only James survived.

Blowdown of trees in Green River valley from the May 18 "blast". Photo by D. Dzurisin. Washington. June 2, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS. Note the twisted, damaged logging equipment.

Blowdown of trees in Green River valley from the May 18 “blast”. Photo by D. Dzurisin. Washington. June 2, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS. Note the twisted, damaged logging equipment.

Outside of the blast zone, witnesses watched from a safe distance as the blast cloud rolled and roared over ridges, tossed trees like sticks at its leading edge, and continued on with implacable force until something seemed to stand it up. Several described it that way: as if it had hit a wall, the blast stopped, recoiled, rose vertically. It lifted so abruptly it left a clear, thin line of singed trees standing between complete destruction and healthy forest.

View along Smith Creek showing tree blowdown, singed trees, and green trees which missed the Mount St. Helens blast. Photo by Lyn Topinka. Skamania County, Washington. April 26, 1982. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

View along Smith Creek showing tree blowdown, singed trees, and green trees which missed the Mount St. Helens blast. Photo by Lyn Topinka. Skamania County, Washington. April 26, 1982. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

It rolled up into the sky, joining the emerging eruption column. The lateral blast, an event no one had expected, had ended almost as quickly as it was unleashed. But Mount St. Helens had an entire repertoire of volcanic events to demonstrate. The eruption was far from over.

Aerial view of devastated timber area after May 18 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Skamania County, Washington. May 19, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Aerial view of devastated timber area after May 18 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Skamania County, Washington. May 19, 1980. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

 

Previous: The Cataclysm: “A Boiling Mass of Rock.”

Next: Interlude: When Vehicles Become Part of the Geologic Record.

References:

Fisher, R.V; Heiken, G. and Hulen, J. (1998): Volcanoes: Crucibles of Change. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Lipman, Peter W., and Mullineaux, Donal R., Editors (1981): The 1980 Eruptions of Mount St. Helens, Washington. U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1250.

 

Previously published at Scientific American/Rosetta Stones.

Dana’s Super-Gargantuan Guide to Atheist Books Suitable for Gift-Giving (Part I)

It’s about that time when we perpetual procrastinators begin to feel each grain of sand dropping through the narrow bit of the glass, innit? If you’ve left gift-buying a bit late, never fear! Books are easy, Amazon and other online retailers are quick, the local bookstore may even be stocked, and you can get someone in your life a gift that will give them more than a moment’s pleasure.

I’m here to help you pick just the right one. Many of these, I’ve read. Some, I’ve only read bits of, but heard much about from other sources and thus feel comfortable recommending. I’ve split things into categories, so you can more quickly make a match between gift recipient’s interests and the right book. And, of course, these will also give you ideas as to how to spend those nifty gift cards you might end up with.

If I’ve reviewed the book, I provide a link to said review. If I haven’t, I’ve provided a brief synopsis to assist you. As always, feel free to add any favorites of your own in the comments – the more, the merrier!

Let’s go!

Photo of a cat lying atop books on a shelf, biting one. Caption says, "I am looking for a book I can REALLY sink my teeth into."Religion

In this section, you’ll find books on religion, wherein religion decidedly does not come out on top.

An American Fraud by Kay Burningham.

Anyone interested in Mormonism, and wanting to know if there’s a legal case for it being a big fat fraud, will love this book. You’ll also love giving it to Mormons.

Not the Impossible Faith by Richard Carrier.

I read the online version, and it was fascinating. In this book, Richard takes on and crushes the “common apologetic argument for the truth of [Christianity] that its origins were too improbable to be false.” This is a thing amongst some fundies. One of them is J.P. Holding, who pretty much recited All the Tropes having to do with this argument, thus painting Richard a maclargehuge target. By the end of this book, everyone will know why Christianity could succeed despite being utter bullshit. If fundie Christians could feel this particular type o’ shame, they’d be ashamed to try these arguments ever again. And the book not only crushes their pathetic apologetics with relentless precision, it also introduces the reader to amazing bits of ancient history, religion, society, and culture, which is an added bonus and great for history addicts.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.

Suitable for gifting to those who want a no-holds-barred look at what religion really is. A book that has made many an atheist.

Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett.

If you need to give someone a book that gives religion no quarter, and yet doesn’t seem like one of those merciless New Atheist books, this is an excellent start, especially if the recipient likes philosophy.

The Complete Heretic’s Guide to Western Religion: the Mormons by David Fitzgerald.

An excellent introductory guide to Mormonism for those who don’t actually know that much about it.

50 Simple Questions for Every Christian by Guy P. Harrison.

Ha ha ha, simple. Also a good book to innocently slip your religious relations. Tell them you thought it would help them argue with atheists. Heh.

The Skeptics Annotated Bible by Steve Wells.

The only Bible that has ever made me want to go to church as an atheist, this is a fantastic gift for atheists and believers alike. Give one to your fundie friends and relations! They can’t complain – you are, after all, giving them a nice King James edition. With, um, some extra footnotes…

 

Leaving Religion

Here we have books that are mostly about getting the fuck out of faith.

Godless by Dan Barker.

Fascinating tome by a man who used to be a born-again evangelist who was really on fire for the Lord, and is now an atheist champion.

Why I Believed by Kenneth W. Daniels.

So this is a book by a former missionary that is extraordinary in its ability to really get to the nuts-and-bolts of believing, and then losing that belief. Suitable for gifting to friends and family members who just can’t understand your atheism in the least.

 

Atheism

Here’s the meaty atheist goodness! Not that the above wasn’t, this stuff has just got more atheism in it.

The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas edited by Robin Harvie and Stephanie Meyers.

This book is snarky as hell, and I fell in love with it instantly. That was while I read the table of contents. It’s an excellent resource for atheists at Christmas, and safe for leaving near religious grandmothers. It includes all you need to know, really: the history, philosophy, science, and how-to of Christmas. Royalties from its sales go to charity, and our own Jen McCreight is in it, so if any atheists out there need some help with the holiday, give ‘em this.

The Portable Atheist edited by Christopher Hitchens.

This is a smorgasbord of freethought readings that includes many you’d never have considered freethought. I mean, The Rubáiyát? But yes, a lot of atheism and freethinking existed even during times that were deeply religious. This book covers ancient to modern times, includes a lot of different folks, and is a great place for a new (whether New, Gnu or not) atheist to begin.

Why I Am Not a Muslim by ibn Warraq.

This is rather like what Bertrand Russell did to Christianity, only aimed squarely at Islam. It’s also harsher and more thorough. It absolutely destroys the myth of the divine origins of the Koran, explores the horrifying political implications of fundie Islam, and rather murders that “Islam loved People of the Book!” trope. There are informative and infuriating sections on Women in Islam, taboos, heretics, Islamic skeptics, and more. For those leaving Islam, those of us wanting to critique Islam without sounding like raving right-wing assholes, and those of us who are terminally curious about being apostates from a religion other than Christianity, this is a fantastic book.

The Atheist’s Bible edited by Joan Konner.

A book full o’ freethinking quotes, arranged somewhat like a bible (beginning with Genesis, even), and eminently suitable for leaving lying innocently about where a non-atheist may encounter it, such as on a coffee table or in a bathroom. Perhaps they will pick it up out of idle curiosity, horrified fascination, or sheer desperation for reading material. Two things, if the moment is just right, may happen as a result:

1. They will learn that someone they admire and respect was, quite possibly, an atheist.

2. They will be prompted to think thoughts they haven’t before thunk.

And these are outcomes greatly to be desired.

Nothing: Something to Believe In by Nica Lalli.

I love how, in the intro, Nica says that she chooses “nothing” because it cuts out the god root (theos). She’s right: nothing can stand on its own. This is a journey of discovery about what it means to be nothing in a world swimming in religion. She spent most of her life “frightened or upset by religion,” and realized that not having a religious identity meant having no ammo when the religious freaks came gunning for her soul. She eventually learned to defend her beliefs, and also learned that being despised by the majority of the country is not equal to being despised by your own family, as she discovered when faced with an uber-religious sister-in-law. But there’s comfort to be found in “nothing,” and possibly some decent coexistence, too.

Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell.

This is one of the original New Atheist tomes, really. It’s a classic by a no-holds-barred philosopher, and while it’s a tiny little book, it contains pretty much everything you need to get started on a career of unapologetic atheism. Make sure all the new (and possibly New) atheists you know have got a copy. It wouldn’t hurt to slip one in the stockings of believers, either, should you feel the need to counter their typical religious gift schlock.

Here endeth Part I. Part II coming as soon as I can manage it.

Kitties Are An Enormous Help

My brain is bleeding. You know those times when you’ve read so much of so many different things that you can feel bits of gray matter edging their way toward your ears, clutching the metaphorical hat and coat as surreptitiously as possible, hoping the hostess won’t notice their departure? Yeah. That’s my brain right now. But you’ll love the result when you get it, you late shoppers who love to give books: I’ve got a post upcoming that will give you many ideas.

I’ve also got about five trillion emails to answer (eventually, I swear, I will do it), feedback to give for a book, calls to make for future posts, reviews to complete, and OH MY HECK I JUST WANT TO LIE ABOUT EATING PIE AND GELATO. And I just started typing reading pie. Whimper. At least B and I have plans to watch MMA – I could use some good, clean, people-beating-the-living-crap-out-of-each-other just now. And there will be kitties.

Here are the kitties last week, when I went over for fight night and also spent some time pinning B’s new scarf. Scarves are my thing at the moment, great for a bit of simple, mindless sewing whilst engaged in other things. Wait til you see the candy-cane scarf I made for Starspider. Anyway, there I was, laying out and pinning material for scarves for B and myself, and you know what trying to lay something flat in a household full of cats invites, don’t you?

Kirby lying atop the material for B's scarf. Note the typical feline expression, eyes half-closed by way of saying, "This scarf belongs to me, now, and I shall not relinquish ownership. Good day."

Kirby lying atop the material for B’s scarf. Note the typical feline expression, eyes half-closed by way of saying, “This scarf belongs to me, now, and I shall not relinquish ownership. Good day.”

Yep.

And that’s not even the super-fleecy side, it’s the wrong way out, but Kirby doesn’t care.

Now, where’d my measuring tape go…?

Luna onna chair, getting thoroughly tangled in my pink measuring tape.

Luna onna chair, getting thoroughly tangled in my pink measuring tape.

Ah.

Luna sitting with the tape wrapped round her midsection, with the cutest "What? Whatsa matter? I'm not doing anything wrong! I's helping!" look on her face ever.

Luna sitting with the tape wrapped round her midsection, with the cutest “What? Whatsa matter? I’m not doing anything wrong! I’s helping!” look on her face ever.

She’s getting huge, and so enormously fluffy, but she’s still got that kittenish tendency to explore everything and play lots. Of course, Kirby hasn’t lost that playful tendency, either. He decided measuring tapes are for eating when I tried to measure the fold.

Kirby at one end of the long strip o' cloth, industriously chewing on the end o' the measuring tape, while Luna stands in the middle wondering what the fuck he's doing. She loves to imitate him, and is trying to learn all about being a kitty from him.

Kirby at one end of the long strip o’ cloth, industriously chewing on the end o’ the measuring tape, while Luna stands in the middle wondering what the fuck he’s doing. She loves to imitate him, and is trying to learn all about being a kitty from him.

And this is typical of the household: when Kirby settles down, Luna heads over to bite his butt.

Kirby having a rest after tape-chewing, while Luna sneaks up behind, ears back, and gets ready to pounce on his ass.

Kirby having a rest after tape-chewing, while Luna sneaks up behind, ears back, and gets ready to pounce on his ass.

I love those two.

In other kitty news, Misha has turned a corner in the socialization category, and actually came out and associated with multiple guests o’ mine. She only tried to kill one once. I’m so proud. Of course, this seems to have exhausted her capacity for socializing, because she’s stayed in her room, on her pillow, determined to isolate herself from humankind ever since. Must be time to freshen the catnip – she does head straight for that before she goes to greet other people, so I know she’s using a chemical crutch to cope.

Now if only she’d help me get my reading done… alas, ebooks aren’t as attractive to kitties as the paper kind, and so she’s mostly ignored me during this reading marathon. Sigh. Where’s the feline assist when you really need it?