Nefarious Whisker

Misha’s plotting something evil. I have absolute proof of this. I mean, beside the fact she’s a cat.

Image shows Misha's face. One of her white whiskers is cocked upward, looking like the beginning of a cartoon villain's moustache.

Nefarious Whisker

See it? SEE IT??? She’s trying to grow a supervillain ‘stache!

She now has her head turned to the side in a very villainy pose.

Villainy is afoot!

My gods, she’ll be twirling it next!

Anyway. You’re getting Misha because we didn’t get sea mammals today – B wasn’t feeling well. So I stayed home and caught up on some reading and housework. Sea mammals will hopefully be in the near future.

IF SHE DOESN’T DESTROY THE WORLD FIRST. Damn cat.

Ha Ha Ha Whoops. Also: Help Me Keep an Eye on Creationists

I’ve had myself so buried in Christianist textbooks, frantically trying to get this talk pulled together, when I wasn’t compulsively reading about the awful things police in Ferguson are up to now, I haven’t thought to keep an eye on my email… and it turns out that due to unforeseen circumstances, FtBCon’s postponed anyway. We’ll be trying again in a few months. So what does this mean? It means you’ll still get a talk on Why Geology Matters – To Creationists, only it will be a much better talk, because I’ll actually have gotten through these books. Well, at least through all the geology bits of the books. Ye gods, it takes ages to fact-check and debunk this stuff now that we’re in to the portions of Earth science Christianists love to hate.

Image shows an orange kitten sitting in a terra cotta pot, with one paw over an eye. Caption says, "Whew! Close Call!"

Thank you, all of you who helped me calculate mammoth populations! You’re amazing. You’ll also love the resulting post, although it’ll take a while before it comes up in the queue – trying to do this stuff in order.

Now I’m going to ask you all now to do me another favor: over the next few months, would you keep an eye out for any news about creationists and geology? It can be things like creationists infiltrating the American Geophysical Union or Geological Society of America meetings (again), creationists trying to sneak “Flood geology” in or fighting earth science standards, creationists trying to pull the wool over journal editors’ eyes and attempting to slip religion in to science publications, anything like that. You can send tips to dhunterauthor at gmail.

Some of you who are interested may want to join me for a private dry-run of said talk when it’s finished – if you’d like to help me not suck in public, and be one of the elite, exclusive ETEVers who gets to hear it first, let me know. We’ll set up a Google Hangout and do the thing when I’ve got it all written. And, if there’s room on the schedule and you’d be interested in joining me for a panel on Women in the Geosciences, also let me know that.

But wait! There’s More!

For the next few days, I’m preparing the Adventures in Christianist Earth Science Education series relaunch, and also hating my uterus, and going to go photograph All The Sea Mammals for your squees and enjoyment. I’ll also have a social justice post up on our fucked-up police state and ways you can help soon. And there’ll be a little something over at Rosetta Stones eventually this week. I have a super-awesome geology comic book I was sent that I’m going to review for you, probably early next week. People, you have no idea how excited I am about it! But you will know. I’ll also be reviewing a book I read the other morning that will give you a whole other look at the Christianist homeschool life. It’s called Homeschool Sex Machine: Babes, Bible Quiz, and the Clinton Years. And yes, it’s as whacked as it sounds.

Also, YES I AM WRITING A BOOK ON MOUNT ST. HELENS I PROMISE. I know you won’t stop asking, and it makes me happy you don’t, but I figured I’d better reassure you. I’ll be jumping back into that series shortly as well. And yes, finishing the Seattle Seahawks rings. SO MANY THINGS TO DO.

There will also be a post coming soon on that awesome bird at Mount Rainier, and muchmuch more. Good times ahead! Now if you’ll excuse me for just a bit, I need to lose the last of my hair to the geology chapters in ES4 and continue arguing with my uterus over paying attention to the pain relievers I’m feeding it…

How Pompeii Perished

(Yes, I will be watching and reviewing that bloody film on Pompeii for you. Perhaps even within a month! Meanwhile, enjoy this repeat while I despair of my country, deal with the war zone that is my uterus, and try to wrestle a bunch of creationist crap into a presentable form for you. Also, for my mental health, we are going to the zoo later this week to look at cute fuzzy animals. Even if it means I’m up 48 hours straight before this talk I haven’t actually scheduled yet… I’m afraid my brain is going to actually divorce me and take the cat when it leaves if I don’t give it a day off. And you yourselves will need cute fuzzy animals when I’m done. Creationism hurts, folks. Sigh.)

 

I see you jumping up-and-down with your hand in the air, saying “Ooo! I know this one!” I see you, too, over there groaning, “Doesn’t everybody know?” And I see you, glowering, wanting your Mount St. Helens and annoyed I’m spending time on Pompeii instead.

The ruins of Pompeii, with Vesuvius brooding in the background. Image courtesy Perrimoon.

The ruins of Pompeii, with Vesuvius brooding in the background. Image courtesy Perrimoon.

Look, I’ve got reasons. And Mount St. Helens has a little something to do with it. We’ll get to that. But first, let me tell you why I’m on about Pompeii. It’s because there’s one sure way to make a geologist howl:

For me, though, these plaster victims prompt other thoughts too – about the city of Pompeii as a whole, and what it stands for. Partly that’s because they are so eloquently trapped in that no man’s land between the living and the dead, captured at the very moment when they lost their struggle against the fumes and lava.

When my friend George read this, he tweeted, “Historian Mary Beard on the emotional power of Pompeii body castings… and how history is presented… But I can’t help wondering if Beard is confusing lava and ash. Can @Dhunterauthor help?”

Of course! Pompeii was one of the first volcanic stories I ever heard. I’d known since the tender age of six* how the people of Pompeii perished, and that it had nothing to do with lava. Absolutely pyroclastic flows. I’d never forgotten it, not after seeing the casts of those agonized bodies left in the hardened ash. I knew you could outrun lava, but not these fantastically fast flows of ash, gas and rock.

Pompeii. This area has not been fully excavated and restored. Image and caption courtesy Margaret Napier.

Pompeii. This area has not been fully excavated and restored. Image and caption courtesy Margaret Napier.

So how could Cambridge Professor Mary Beard, who had actually written books about Pompeii, get that important geological detail so very wrong? I figured I’d better ask. We had a brief conversation on Twitter, which brought to light the fact that she uses the word “lava” as a way of saying she’s not a volcanologist, and her book isn’t about the eruption but about life in Pompeii (not just the last few minutes of it). Fair enough. I asked her if she could at least use ash instead, to spare the feelings of geologists everywhere, and we ended up deciding that the Italian word “fango,” which means “mud,” must be popularized. It wasn’t mud that destroyed Pompeii, but the pyroclastic flow deposits did get reworked into lahars by water after deposition, so I’ll take it.**

I’m glad Professor Beard wrote this article, and I’m even glad she made geologists the world over grind their teeth, because it’s a thought-provoking look at how we react to the people of Pompeii. It also points out that the city we see today is a lot more put together than Vesuvius left it. And her intentional use of the word “lava” makes us look harder at what really happened to Pompeii. I think a lot of us see the restored ruins and think of ash raining down, almost gently. Sure, it suffocated people and buried them, but it also lovingly preserved the buildings. Look! Even crockery is intact!

Well, it’s true that some breakable items in protected cupboards and closets survived without breaking, but Pompeii’s death wasn’t gentle. A town doesn’t have to be buried in burning hot lava to suffer dramatically. The people in and around Pompeii spent a horrible last nineteen hours, and they didn’t have much of a chance.

Human cast and remains of a shop. Image courtesy Rome Cabs.

Human cast and remains of a shop. Image courtesy Rome Cabs.

Vesuvius erupted around one in the afternoon on August 24th, 79 AD. Magma moving up into the mountain had been shaking Pompeii and surrounding cities for some time, but no one was much worried – earthquakes happened here frequently, and they didn’t know the connection between earthquakes and eruptions then. So when Vesuvius exploded, it came as something of a surprise. Pliny the Younger witnessed the eruption from Misenum, about 21 km (13 miles) away. Later, he would describe the eruption for Tacitus: “It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius); its general appearance can best be expressed as being like an umbrella pine, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches, I imagine because it was thrust upwards by the first blast and then left unsupported as the pressure subsided, or else it was borne down by its own weight so that it spread out and gradually dispersed. In places it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it.”

Vesuvius, with an umbrella pine in the foreground. Image courtesy Paull Young.

Vesuvius, with an umbrella pine in the foreground. Image courtesy Paull Young.

That was the phreatomagmatic phase, which lasted for hours. We know people close to the volcano were terrified: one of Pliny the Elder’s friends, Rectina, who lived right at its base, sent a message to him begging rescue: there was no escape for her except by boat. Pliny sailed off with warships to his death. In the towns, people who hadn’t fled tried to take shelter indoors as pumice rained down, first in a layer of white, then as the volcano tapped a different part of its magma chamber, gray. It hurled larger blocks of old lava and limestone at Pompeii along with the pumice. Some of the people who died outdoors had their skulls fractured by ballistic rocks. The pumice fall made it terribly difficult for people to flee Pompeii. What other choice did many have but to take shelter?

I can only imagine what it must have been like inside, listening to those rocks hit the roof: the quiet roar of thick pumice falls, the sharper thuds of denser stones. Pitched roofs shed their loads, filling the courtyards and streets with deeper drifts of the bubbly stone. It was falling at a rate of 15 centimeters (6 inches) per hour. Flat and less steeply pitched roofs, which couldn’t shed the load, collapsed within hours. People taking shelter within those rooms were crushed and killed. The rooms, now open to the sky, filled with pumice: some rooms with 1 meter (3 feet), some up to 5 meters (16 feet).

he bottom stories were buried by pumice fall. Image courtesy Elliott Brown.

he bottom stories were buried by pumice fall. Image courtesy Elliott Brown.

It’s an incomprehensible amount of pumice. It buried the first floors of buildings. Trying to flee through the stuff must have been nearly impossible; being trapped inside a house with a roof that survived the onslaught, only to see it pile up past the first floor, must have been horrifying. But some people survived. Only 394 bodies have been found in that deposit. The worst was yet to come for those who made it through this phase.

The first pyroclastic flow reached the city toward morning. We don’t know exactly when it was: we know it was after the pumice stopped falling, after roofs all over the city had collapsed. People may have begun to venture out, looking for escape routes, assessing the damage, wondering if Vesuvius was done. That first flow was probably just the distal end of a somewhat small pyroclastic flow: we know it didn’t do much more than deposit a layer of ash over the pumice. We know from studies of pyroclastic flows at Mount St. Helens and other volcanoes that the further away from the volcano a flow gets, the less dense it is – so a small flow wouldn’t have been powerful enough to do much damage by the time it reached Pompeii, 8 km (5 miles) away. It was certainly more than enough to traumatize already traumatized survivors. Breathing through it would have been agonizing. But it was survivable. So was the next explosion that deposited a blanket of ash over the city, but produced no pyroclastic flows.

There was a pause. Then the big one hit.

A pyroclastic flow is no joke. It can be incredibly hot, although the ones that buried Pompeii were relatively cool. But low temperature doesn’t equal survivability. People who wish to take their chances with a cool flow of ash, gas and rock as opposed to burning hot lava have made the wrong choice. You can run away from lava. Depending on the viscosity, you can outwalk it. You can’t run away from a current of pulverized rock and volcanic gasses flowing at speeds of up to 240 kilometers (150 miles) per hour. The people of Pompeii had no chance when that flow hit them full-force. They barely would have had time to see it coming.

Not even horses could run from the pyroclastic flow. Humans had no chance. Image courtesy Craig Morey.

Not even horses could run from the pyroclastic flow. Humans had no chance. Image courtesy Craig Morey.

This flow was huge. Its leading edge filled the air with ash, dust and gas. People who tried to flee it fell in the streets, unable to breathe. Then the main body arrived, powerful enough to tear through walls still standing after the roof collapses. Lower floors in Pompeii were protected by their pumice tomb, but above them, walls athwart the flow were bulldozed, surviving roofs ripped off. The flow poured in through those gaping wounds in the buildings; where roofs had managed to survive, ash and rock still found its way in through courtyards and other openings. Many people lived long enough to try to shelter their faces from the onslaught, but it buried them where they lay, some of them propped half-upright, fighting to breathe. Indoors or out, it buried them. When it was over, it had left a hard, dense, layer of pyroclastic material up to 3 meters (10 feet) thick.

Vesuvius finished its cataclysmic eruption with a few more phreatomagmatic explosions, blanketing the remains of Pompeii with more layers of ash. By the end of the eruption, around 8 in the morning on August 25th, only a few of the tallest buildings remained visible, like tombstones on a grave. The deposits, heavy and rich with fine ash and rock fragments, settled, hardened over ages. The city and the citizens who had died with it would remain buried for almost two thousand years.

We're still excavating Pompeii from its volcanic tomb. About a quarter of the city remains buried: more victims doubtless lie within. Image courtesy Irene.

We’re still excavating Pompeii from its volcanic tomb. About a quarter of the city remains buried: more victims doubtless lie within. Image courtesy Irene.

We’ve found 650 of the people who died in that final pyroclastic flow. We’ve found their bones, and we’ve found the voids their bodies left in that hard deposit. We pour plaster in and an afterimage of a person emerges. Some of them look peaceful, some desperate and distraught. Some are huddled together, some alone. The adults are tragic to look at. The children are devastating. You can almost persuade yourself that the adults had a choice, that they decided to stay, tried their luck and lost, but you can’t say that about the kids. The adults didn’t have any good choices: the children had none at all.

Those voids in the ash, now filled, are so much more than bones could ever be. They don’t allow much of a distance. They look eerily like us. They make Pompeii a uniquely human tragedy; they make two thousand years seem like yesterday.

And they remind us of the tremendous power of pyroclastic flows. Lava is easy. We battle it off with seawater and hoses. We stand beside it as it runs by in molten rivers. We can’t always save our possessions from it, but we can generally outrun it. But a pyroclastic flow isn’t something we can run from. It destroys in an instant. This is why, when these subduction zone volcanoes wake up, it’s best for those nearby to get well out of the way, well in advance.

The people of Pompeii didn’t know what was coming. But in the years since, we’ve learned. Mount St. Helens, among others, taught us what to watch for and what to expect. We’ve successfully predicted eruptions. We’ve evacuated cities before they could become modern Pompeiis. We’re learning to live with Vulcan’s forges.

Pompeii reminds us never to forget what those mountains can do.

Volcanic landscapes are beautiful - and dangerous. Image courtesy Lyn Gateley.

Volcanic landscapes are beautiful – and dangerous. Image courtesy Lyn Gateley.

 

References:

Giacomelli, L. et al, 2003: The eruption of Vesuvius of 79 AD and its impact on human environment in Pompei. Episodes, 23.

Luongo, G. et al (2002): Impact of the AD 79 explosive eruption on Pompeii, I. Relations amongst the depositional mechanisms of the pyroclastic products, the framework of the buildings and the associated destructive events. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research.

Luongo, G. et al (2002): Impact of the AD 79 explosive eruption on Pompeii, II. Causes of death of the inhabitants inferred by stratigraphic analysis and areal distribution of the human casualties. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research.

 

*Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Great Disasters. Every child should own a book like this.

**She also assures me that “the book is technically accurate,” so geologists needn’t fear apoplexy if they pick it up. I certainly intend to!

 

Previously published at Scientific American/Rosetta Stones.

The Cataclysm: “From Unbaked Fragments to Vitreous Charcoal”

There’s a fundamental fact one learns about trees when growing up in dry country forests: they’re flammable. Folks in Flagstaff, Arizona can tell what part of summer it is by the smell. If it’s all piney-fresh, it’s May or early June, and everything’s still safely damp from the spring snowmelt; if it smells like warm turpentine and dust, it’s mid-June; and if it smells like winter with all of the fireplaces cozily burning logs, its the late-June-early-July dry-lightning season, and you’re hoping the monsoon rains come before the whole county burns. I’ve seen smoke that looks like a volcanic eruption billowing from fierce fires. I’ve felt like someone caught in the middle of the apocalypse. I’ve choked on wood ash on hot summer nights. Our forests gets so dry you find yourself avoiding heated language in them. Our trees ceased being lovely green oxygen-producers with sweetly-scented wooden trunks and become tiki torches, just waiting for one stray spark to light the place up.

This view of the Schultz Fire, one of Flagstaff's worst, shows just how intense the smoke can get - it looks like the mountains have erupted. You can just barely see the San Francisco Peaks peeking out at the left. "By 1:30 p.m. on June 20, 2010, the Schultz Fire had exploded and was in full-force." No kidding, right? Image courtesy Mike Elson and Coconino National Forest.

This view of the Schultz Fire, one of Flagstaff’s worst, shows just how intense the smoke can get – it looks like the mountains have erupted. You can just barely see the San Francisco Peaks peeking out at the left. “By 1:30 p.m. on June 20, 2010, the Schultz Fire had exploded and was in full-force.” No kidding, right? Image courtesy Mike Elson and Coconino National Forest.

You can imagine my relief when I moved to the Pacific Northwest and discovered that the trees on the western side of the Cascades are usually too wet to burn. But they’re still made of wood. Apply adequate heat, and they’ll at least char. Raise the temperature enough, and you can even persuade them to burst into flames.

The geologists who studied the cataclysmic May 18th eruption can tell you precisely how much heat you need to barbecue a west-side PNW tree in May: they experimented. Their adventures in pyromania sober science revealed you need temperatures of around 350°C (662°F), give or take 50°C (122°F), to achieve a nice, deep char. If you want just a thin crust of char with a nice unburnt center, turn the heat down to about 300°C (572°F), plus or minus 50°C (122°F). And if you just want a nice seared tree that’s perfectly raw beneath, yet still very dead, you’ll probably want to keep it between 50-200°C (122-392°F).

 Proximal downed tree, at Obscurity Lake 15 km north of Mount St. Helens, projecting to left beneath coarse layer A1, in turn overlain by layers A2 and A3 at right. Tree is darkened where tree was debarked and scorched where not protected by overlying layer A1. Photo by R.B. Waitt, Jr. Skamania County, Washington. 1980. Figure 266, U.S. Geological Survey Professional paper 1250. Image courtesy USGS.

Proximal downed tree, at Obscurity Lake 15 km north of Mount St. Helens, projecting to left beneath coarse layer A1, in turn overlain by layers A2 and A3 at right. Tree is darkened where tree was debarked and scorched where not protected by overlying layer A1. Photo by R.B. Waitt, Jr. Skamania County, Washington. 1980. Figure 266, U.S. Geological Survey Professional paper 1250. Image courtesy USGS.

And yes, Mount St. Helens was perfectly capable of those temperatures. It could also serve up trees en flambé in certain sectors.

You might expect due north to be the hottest part of the blast, but it was actually the west-northwest and northeast sectors that endured the worst. Also, it was very not good to be the side of the tree facing Mount St. Helens. The closest trees, of course, were pulverized and incorporated into the blast deposits. Where the blast cloud left the trunks standing, it stripped the bark from the near sides, then charred the wood black to thicknesses between .1 mm up to .5 mm, which may not sound like much until you consider the fact these trees were several kilometers away, and all the bits of ash and rock riding the blast sandblasted off some of the char. Out to as far as 15 km (9 miles) north, the trees got scorched on their near sides – and that wasn’t even the hottest part of the blast.

In areas where trees were afforded a bit of protection by a ridge or a goodly amount of distance, the bark stayed on, but suffered if it faced volcano: it was “dried, cracked, blistered, and partly detached from the underlying wood.” But if you walked round to the far side, the bark was intact and not cooked. Sap even continued running under it for several months, until, like a headless chicken whose nervous system finally gets the memo that the brain is now in a bag, the remains of the trees finally finished dying.

 Tree blowdown on the South Fork Toutle River showing small stand of trees protected from the force of the blast but not from the heat. Photo by Lyn Topinka. Cowlitz County, Washington. August 14, 1981. Image courtesy USGS.

Tree blowdown on the South Fork Toutle River showing small stand of trees protected from the force of the blast but not from the heat. Photo by Lyn Topinka. Cowlitz County, Washington. August 14, 1981. Image courtesy USGS.

So what are these severely singed trees saying about the blast? Well, the fallen ones testified that the burst of searing-hot gas that scorched and bent their roots either outlasted the portion of the blast that knocked them flat, or followed that unhappy event. Other evidence, which we’ll explore further when we talk about the blast deposits, indicate that the hot gas wave followed the leading edge of the blast cloud.

The burst of burning-hot gas didn’t distribute its temperature evenly. The hottest gas from the cryptodome escaped to the northeast, with another, extra-hot lobe roared off to the northwest. We know this because the surge of gas left trees smoldering and burning throughout the area. Eleven days after the eruption, geologists had a look through night-vision goggles, and discovered fires still burning out to 15 km (9 miles). The west-northwest and northeast sectors were orders of magnitude more fiery than the north: two orders to the west-northwest and a whopping three to the northeast. Wood fragments in the deposits in those sectors were baked into vitreous charcoal up to a centimeter thick; some of the smaller trees are very well done, deeply charred on the outside and brown and brittle on the inside. Some of these trees kept burning for weeks. Weeks. In the PNW. In May. The eruption was powerful enough to defeat a soggy west side spring, which is a pretty amazing feat.

 Aerial view of Mount St. Helens looking northeast. Catastrophic eruption began at 0832 PDT. Photo taken at approximately noon. The day had dawned clear, and clouds in this scene may be eruption related. Vapor rises from vent and from lakes, rivers, melted snow and ice, and from hot deposits of debris avalanche and pyroclastic flows. Ash billows from vent and from pulverized material collapsing into crater. Smoke originates from forest fires ignited by initial eruptive blasts and from later pyroclastic flows. Lightning was occurring every few seconds. No air turbulence was felt on windward side of mountain. Photo by R.M. Krimmel. Skamania County, Washington. May 18, 1980. Portion of Figure 23, U.S. Geological Survey Professional paper 1250. Image courtesy USGS.

Aerial view of Mount St. Helens looking northeast. Catastrophic eruption began at 0832 PDT. Photo taken at approximately noon. The day had dawned clear, and clouds in this scene may be eruption related. Vapor rises from vent and from lakes, rivers, melted snow and ice, and from hot deposits of debris avalanche and pyroclastic flows. Ash billows from vent and from pulverized material collapsing into crater. Smoke originates from forest fires ignited by initial eruptive blasts and from later pyroclastic flows. Lightning was occurring every few seconds. No air turbulence was felt on windward side of mountain. Photo by R.M. Krimmel. Skamania County, Washington. May 18, 1980. Portion of Figure 23, U.S. Geological Survey Professional paper 1250. Image courtesy USGS.

Trees and tree fragments and other sectors fared relatively better. The bits weren’t as thoroughly baked in the northwest-northeast sector, so that seems to have been somewhat cooler. (Not that you would’ve wanted to dabble your toes in the resulting blast deposit – it was certainly too toasty for toeses.) The southern part of the devastated area on the volcanoes east flank contained completely unburnt twigs, and the heat only ever got intense enough to yellow the incorporated needles, so that part of the blast wasn’t very hot at all. The west flank is a different story – the fragments and trees there are scorched and rather wide zone, showing that part of the blast was searing-hot. If you wanted your trees done medium-rare, this sector was probably your best bet.

Now, here’s the really wild part: all that searing, scorching, en flambéing hot blast madness doesn’t gradually fade out: it ends abruptly. The standing trees in the scorch zone show a sharp demarcation between singed and unsinged. Geologists saw the base of the scorch pattern climb “through the trees from the inner edge to the outer edge of the scorch zone.” Those pattern showed that the blast cloud rapidly lost energy and density, and when it did, it lifted like the lid being yanked off the pièce de résistance by a particularly theatrical chef.

 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 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 courtesy USGS.

So there you are: if you want to cook a whole forest of soggy PNW trees in the spring, all you need is a volcano with a hot cryptodome bulging out its side, an earthquake, and a nice toasty lateral blast. Shame about the uneven temperatures, but that’s one of the hazards of cooking volcanically.

 Sand-blasted and lightly charred piece of a tree limb which fell on Mount Adams from the May 18 eruption cloud of ID. Mount St. Helens. Ruler for scale. Yakima County, Washington. May 18, 1980. Image courtesy USGS.

Sand-blasted and lightly charred piece of a tree limb which fell on Mount Adams from the May 18 eruption cloud of ID. Mount St. Helens. Ruler for scale. Yakima County, Washington. May 18, 1980. Image courtesy USGS.

 

Previous: The Cataclysm: “All of the Trees Seemed to Come Down at Once”

Next: The Cataclysm: “The Path of Maximum Abrasion”

Originally published at Rosetta Stones.

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.

Help Me Calculate Wooly Mammoth Populations

Ya’ll, I’m sorry, but I need you to put on your calculating hats and help a woman defeat creationists. I have numbers, but no higher math skills to work ‘em out*. Any of you care to calculate?

Here’s what I need to know: how many wooly mammoths can we expect 900 years after the Food?

Let’s give creationists the benefit of the doubt, and pretend Noah kept two wooly mammoths aboard. Let’s further say they were of breeding age when they got off the boat, and there was lots of forage, and they got it on right away. Here are the relevant stats, pulled from their closest living relatives, the Asian elephant.

Breeding age: 10-15 years until around 50-55

Gestation: around 18-22 months

Weaning: around 3 years

Which gives us a birth interval of about 4-5 years.

Life expectancy: roughly 60-70 years.

So, if our wooly mammoths pump out bebbies on the regular, and all is ideal, and we even let ‘em all live to ripe old ages, how many mammoths will we have after 900 years?

Herd of wooly mammoths. Painting by Charles R. Knight, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Herd of wooly mammoths. Painting by Charles R. Knight, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve got plenty of other ways to show that the creationist crap being spouted about wooly mammoths in this textbook is utter bunk, but it would be nice to hoist them by their own petard, while we’re at it. Thanks for your help, my more numerate darlings!

*Gawds, I can’t math. Up until pre-algebra, I was actually pretty good at the stuff, but I got jumped ahead before I had the proper foundation, then had a string of truly awful math teachers and never recovered. I shoulda kept up on the tutorials I was doing back in the early aughts, but I let my skillz atrophy because hey writers don’t need math right?

Let this be a cautionary tale to all aspiring authors: keep your math skills polished. Otherwise, you’ll end up on the intertoobz at three in the ay-em begging your readers to do the math for you and feeling a right nitwit.

Skeptoid’s Dunning: The Story of a Man Who Hoodwinks Unskeptical Skeptics*

It’s a very good thing other folks have written things about Brian Dunning’s wire fraud shenanigans, because you won’t find anything about it on his site. Not even his it’s-my-fault-only-kinda-not-and-everybody-was-doing-it-and-it-didn’t-really-make-me-any-money-and-who-cares-about-eBay-never-mind-the-other-affiliates-I-probably-ripped-off-and-anyway-I-once-helped-some-people-who-got-stuck-and-hey-listen-to-my-podcast-while-I’m-in-prison! letter. In fact, if you’re only a Skeptoid fan, you may not really know anything about what’s going on, especially since he or someone in his organization has set up the Twitter feed to neverever let on that anyone’s talking about him being a big fat fucking fraudster:

This lovely little screenshot our own Jason Thibeault got shows that the Twitter feed widget's set to exclude words like -cookie -ebay -fraud -cookies -criminal -jail -prison - y'know, all mentions of Brian Dunning's fraudulent ways. Can't have the rubes - I mean, skeptics - finding out!

This lovely little screenshot our own Jason Thibeault got at Skeptoid.com shows that the Twitter feed widget’s set to exclude words like -cookie -ebay -fraud -cookies -criminal -jail -prison – y’know, all mentions of Brian Dunning’s fraudulent ways. Can’t have the rubes – I mean, skeptics – finding out!

I’ve not paid much attention. Brian Dunning means jack diddly shit to me – I never even knew his podcast existed before it came out that he’d been defrauding eBay out of a lot of money. Clever people doing stupid things to rake in illicit dollars doesn’t surprise me a bit. And the brigade of screaming howler monkeys constantly attacking some of my favorite atheists, combined with a bunch of Big Names turning out to be horrible people, has given me a certain immunity to crushing disappointment. Skeptics can be just as bad as the rest of humanity, news at 11. Brian Dunning’s story is an old, tired one: making his way in the world by hook, but mostly by crook, and not owning his crimes in the end.

But due to the fact that people I like are being trodden on by self-declared Skeptics™ who cannot believe their own Hero is a criminal jackass, I figured I’d go ahead and signal boost. And hey, one or two of you may have missed the news that Brian Dunning is a big fucking fraudster, someone you cannot trust, because he is willing to lie to your face, even in his supposed mea culpa. Skeptics deserve better. Skeptics should be better. So read up on this ratfucker, so that when he returns after his 15 or so months in the Big House, he doesn’t sucker you in.

Fraudster skeptic Brian Dunning’s shell game

The Worst Thing Brian Dunning Has Done for Skepticism

Brian Dunning Sentenced to 15 Months in Prison for Fraud

A Critical Analysis of Brian Dunning’s Explanation

The virtual radio silence on Brian Dunning’s fraud

Why won’t you “skeptics” let Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning put his misdeeds into the memory hole!?

The sophistry and revisionist history in Skeptoid Brian Dunning’s statement 

And, as a reminder that even as a skeptic (minus the fraud) he fails, just one example of Brian Dunning doing it rong:

Brian Dunning’s DDT Fail

Surely the skeptic community is not so hard-up for skeptic entertainers that we can’t boot fraudsters out.

Brian Dunning, wire fraudster. Image courtesy DarylNickerson via Wikimedia Commons.

Brian Dunning, wire fraudster. Image courtesy DarylNickerson via Wikimedia Commons.

*I don’t mean you, if you liked his podcast but, when news broke of his perfidy, carefully considered the evidence against him, and waited to see how the trial shook out before coming to a conclusion, and are not, now he’s convicted and sentenced, trying to tell yourself he’s a really great guy who just happens to have maybe done some shady things to a big rich company, so no big. You’re not unskeptical if you didn’t catch on from the very first podcast. You’re only unskeptical if you’re now trying to spin the facts in this con artist’s favor.

Attention Brian Dunning’s Loyal Fan Club: Yes, he committed a serious crime. Yes, he deserves to go to jail. Yes, you really are a rotten skeptic if you think his actions are defensible, but a psychic’s claims they can talk to your-dead-relative-whose-name-begins-with-j-no-wait-maybe-a-w are not. Yes, you are a sucker if you read that “explanation” of his and didn’t have every this-asshole’s-got-a-thick-wool-sack-and-is-coming-at-my-eyes-with-it-whilst-preparing-to-reach-for-my-wallet alarm. And yes, it is a fact that you won’t be allowed to whine all over the comments here. Go elsewhere.

Interlude with Cat Eating Bacon Jerky

You knew bacon jerky was inevitable, right? Here is Misha enjoying some with me while we read our newest creationist textbook.

Image shows Misha sniffing a bit of bacon jerky I'm holding out for her.

Misha getting her jerky on. It’s BACON!

Turns out she adores the stuff, so I’ll have to get more. Look, 20 year-old kittehs get what they want. Well, aside from my attention when I’m sleeping, no matter how loud she yowls directly in my ear. Damn cat. I think it’s because I haven’t been filling her porch kibble bowl due to rainy weather. She thinks food on the porch is far tastier than food inside. I’m sure there’s a scientific reason for it.

In case you’re dying of anticipation: yes, A Beka’s newest earth “science” text is as whacked as SPC. Only difference is that it’s got more room to expand on ridiculous ideas, and they’ve corrected a few of the glaringly-wrong facts that made SPC’s geology chapter snigger-worthy. You’ll see what I mean shortly.

Now off to continue grinding through ES4. And possibly feed the cat moar bacon.

White America Has Outlawed Existing-While-Black

That’s the only conclusion I can come to after a day spent reading about 18 year-old unarmed black kid Mike Brown’s murder by a white cop with a god complex. It’s 2014, and we’re still a society in which black parents have to explain to their kids how not to get killed by the police, and a society in which a black man can get executed for selling untaxed cigarettes, a black woman for opening her door to police, a young black man for lying face-down as the police compelled him to., and a black man can’t be assaulted by a white one without getting pepper-sprayed and detained. Meanwhile, white people can carry assault rifles wherever they wish, and even brandish them at police without getting shot instantly, but a black man can’t carry a BB gun in Wal-Mart without getting executed by police. An unarmed black teenager gets murdered by a policeman, and a white pundit wants to know why President Obama won’t offer the murderer condolences for having given in to the impulse to destroy an innocent human being.

Are we happy, white Americans? This is the country we’ve made. Remember all that tough-on-crime talk that’s kept us electing people who’ve promised more cops with more powerful weaponry? Remember how we all panicked after 9/11 and decided it was okay if our police were turned into paramilitary units? And how we’ve put all this heavy weaponry in the hands of white people who disproportionately target black people?

I want you to look at what’s happening in Ferguson, to the people who are peacefully protesting a black teenager’s murder.

An unarmed black protestor retreats from police, who have enough firepower to reduce him to random chunks of meat. Image credit: Whitney Curtis, NYT

An unarmed black protestor retreats from police, who have enough firepower to reduce him to random chunks of meat. Image credit: Whitney Curtis, NYT

This country was founded on the premise that citizens should be able to express their displeasure to their government. The Constitution enshrines the right to protest:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

States are as bound by that Constitution as the Federal government. And yet, in Ferguson, a young black man with his empty hands raised to the sky, petitioning his government for redress of a very serious grievance, is met with overwhelming force. In America, if you are a black person protesting the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, the First Amendment does not apply. You will be silenced with military hardware.

As for freedom of the press, well, they are free to get arrested in McDonald’s and slammed into things by the arresting officers when they do not respond instantly to conflicting commands.

This is the world we’ve made.

Some of you may like it. You’re not likely to be targeted. You don’t have to walk out your front door with the possibility of getting shot to death by the police on your mind. You think the black people you’ve discriminated against and had your proxies brutalize and robbed of any hope of a future deserve everything the police dish out. You like the tough-on-crime rhetoric that lets you enjoy your drugs in peace while black kids have their slender chance at a decent life ruined over a little bit of pot. You can break the law in a thousand minor ways without being murdered by a cop, but will look for any tiny misdeed on the parts of the black folk executed by law enforcement. You think this society is just, that the police are in the right, and those who are suffering deserve their suffering. You think that everything the police do is justified if people who have suffered endless injustice are backed into a corner, and have no way out except to lash out. You condemn them for anything you can, just so that you won’t have to confront the uncomfortable fact that you’re part of a system that crushed them, and then sent riot police to attack them when they had the temerity to protest the brutality visited upon them.

I have nothing to say to you. I will not waste my time digging for that shred of humanity that may be left in you.

For those of us who just didn’t pay attention, who let our fear get the better of us, who didn’t realize the horrific scope of the problem because we never get pulled over for driving while white, stopped and frisked for being white in public, and are treated with at least a patina of respect by police officers who know they can’t get away with casual brutality toward white people, I think it’s well past time we wake the fuck up, and start doing something about the things we’ve allowed to happen in this country. It can start right now, with a signature on this petition, asking for a full investigation into the shooting death of Michael Brown. Sign it now.

And then listen to the stories pouring out, the anger and the pain.

Listen.

Image is a drawing of Mike Brown, with the caption, "I am Mike Brown and my life matters."

Mike Brown. Image courtesy dignidadrebelde via Flickr.

In Solidarity w/Ferguson sick of your colorblind bullshit

White America:

Michael Brown.

The young man was on his way to college the next day.

Yet he was brutally executed by fascist police state thugs in occupied territory and left to bleed in the street like a dog.

He did everything that white America claimed he should do to keep from being branded a savage and was murdered in cold blood.

This Is Why We’re Mad About the Shooting of Mike Brown

As a black person in America, it’s getting exhausting to still have to explain, in the year 2014, your right to exist in this country. To explain that you are a human being whose value sits no lower than anyone else’s. To explain our basic humanity. And perhaps worst of all, to explain exactly why we are outraged.

We shouldn’t have to explain why it’s not acceptable for unarmed teenagers to be gunned down by the police.

Things To Stop Being Distracted By When A Black Person Gets Murdered By Police

Talking to people on Twitter about Mike Brown and what’s happening in Ferguson right now, I’ve noticed (again) how easily folks get distracted when Black people are murdered by the police. It seems as though every detail is more interesting, more important, more significant—including looting of a Walmart in Ferguson, which a local Fox news station focused its entire coverage on—than the actual life that was taken by police.

So, to get folks back on track to focus on what matters most here—the killing of yet another unarmed Black teenager—I’ve compiled this list of 6 Things To Stop Being Distracted By When A Black Person Gets Murdered By the Police.

Even atheists have sacred cows

Trayvon Martin was just walking home with skittles and a fucking iced tea. He was killed for nothing, bc of a racist scumbag who should be in prison. I’ve walked to the store at night before. I’ve worn a brightly colored tee shirt, and shorts. I’ve carried my cellphone and wallet at all times. Why? Because in the back of my mind, I have to worry about the possibility that someone will want to shoot me because I’m a person of color. Nevermind that I don’t own a gun, and don’t want to. Nevermind that I’ve never been in a fight in my life. Nevermind that I’m not an aggressive person prone to violence. Nevermind that I have a hard time hurting a roach, let alone another human being. No, nevermind all that. There are people out there that wish I were dead, or would take the opportunity to kill me for nothing.

[snip]

Perhaps you’ve even heard of Ezell Ford, a 24 year old black man who was killed by police while he was walking along 65th street, some TWO HUNDRED blocks north of where a shooting had been reported. He was lying on the ground and obeying police orders when he was killed by police.

He died on August the 13th. oh look.

That’s today.

you all going to be paying attention when the next unarmed black man dies to police on the 15th? you gonna remember their names when there’s another black person lying dead in the street, killed by police on the 17th? are you going to remember eric garner’s name?

The Mellow Monkey on Even atheists have sacred cows

Racial profiling, disproportionate sentencing including the application of the death penalty, police brutality and murder, institutionalized discrimination, systemic inequality in matters of health and quality of life, changes in voting laws and redistricting to try to minimize Black votes, disproportionate rates of being the victims of violent crimes, involuntary sterilizations and contraceptives with serious side-effects offered without proper counseling, high maternal and infant mortality, children disappearing into the foster care system instead of being placed within their own communities, etc.

Some things have gotten better since We Charge Genocide, but mostly they’ve just gotten a little less official.

Midwestern Police Trying New ‘Shoot All Black People’ Approach

Here are a couple stories in which police officers shot people, and race was most certainly not a factor, because race is never a factor now that Barack Obama is President/Dictator for Life. We begin with the tragic death of a man named John Crawford, who was shot by police officers in an Ohio Walmart for the crime of shopping for a BB gun while black. While Crawford was busy exercising his Second Amendment rights, two other shoppers, April and Ronald Ritchie, decided they ought to inform the local police that a scary black man was carrying a gun in a store where guns are sold.

NAACP Should Already Know That The Politics Of Respectability Cannot Save Black People’s Lives

This is not the same as every race’s intraracial crime (yes, every fucking race has intraracial crime; every race does not face anti-Blackness [or settler colonialism, which connects to this history] and this particular historic structure of violence, however) nor would be prevented by the politics of respectability. Black people in America do not have the power of the police or the State. We cannot “earn humanity” through behavior, dress, or even beliefs. We are dehumanized as Black people based on who we are, the fact that we are Black, not based on what we do. A lack of “respect” for the city (one already under investigation for profiling and racist policing long before Michael was executed) didn’t kill Michael Brown. A long legacy of anti-Blackness and violence in that city, in this country, in our history is why he is dead.

Silence is Not an Option

I don’t care if Mike Brown was going to college soon. This should not matter. We should not have to prove Mike Brown was worthy of living. We should not have to account for the ways in which he is suitably respectable. We should not have to prove that his body did not deserve to be riddled with bullets. His community should not have to silence their anger so they won’t be accused of rioting, so they won’t become targets too.

America Is Not For Black People

Officers have tanks now. They have drones. They have automatic rifles, and planes, and helicopters, and they go through military-style boot camp training. It’s a constant complaint from what remains of this country’s civil liberties caucus. Just this last June, the ACLU issued a report on how police departments now possess arsenals in need of a use. Few paid attention, as usually happens.

The worst part of outfitting our police officers as soldiers has been psychological. Give a man access to drones, tanks, and body armor, and he’ll reasonably think that his job isn’t simply to maintain peace, but to eradicate danger. Instead of protecting and serving, police are searching and destroying.

If officers are soldiers, it follows that the neighborhoods they patrol are battlefields. And if they’re working battlefields, it follows that the population is the enemy. And because of correlations, rooted in historical injustice, between crime and income and income and race, the enemy population will consist largely of people of color, and especially of black men. Throughout the country, police officers are capturing, imprisoning, and killing black males at a ridiculous clip, waging a very literal war on people like Michael Brown.

Protesters use hands-up gesture defiantly after Michael Brown shooting

Yet again, the protesters took to the sidewalks and streets, facing a row of police guarding the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office. “Hands up!” they chanted, their arms aloft. “Don’t shoot.”

“This is how the boy died!” Kendrick Strong, 42, hollered at police officers Tuesday morning. “This is how the boy died! With his hands up in the air!”

[snip]

The hands-up — a sign of surrender and submission black men and boys here say they learn early on when dealing with police — has been transformed into a different kind of weapon.

Police in Ferguson Fire Tear Gas on Protesters Standing in Their Own Backyard

Standing in his backyard along with a few friends and family was 24-year-old Rich West. And after seeing the police deploy tear gas as they marched down the empty street, West and his friends felt like protesting.

“You go home! You go home!” they chanted. As the police come closer, they all put their hands up.

Once again, the police officer with the megaphone ordered the protesters to go home.

“We’re in our yard!” they responded.

At one point West walked to his fence with his hands high up in the air.

“This my property! This my property!” he shouted, prompting police to fire a tear gas canister directly at his face.

Be Proud Americans Still Know How to Riot

Whether you identify positively or negatively with the term or the idea, whether you feel that uprising is an appropriate reaction to state violence or whether you prefer the term rebellion instead, the act of the riot is a historical one as necessary to democracy as any form of civil or uncivil disobedience.

Hey, Step Back with the Riot Shaming

One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s lesser known quotes ‘riot is the language of the unheard’ keeps me grounded here. In fact, did you know that MLK and many other non-violent black activists employed armed guards in the 60s?

Besides, all of this talk about ‘violence’ this and stereotypes that is just so unhelpful. Let’s maybe talk about the fact that in cases like this police deliberately censor footage gathered, in some cases arresting photographers for fear of sparking unrest. You know why that is? Because they understand what most riot shamers don’t: if you corner injured people, there is no where to go but against.

Ferguson P.D. Would Like All Y’all Black People To Hush Up And Be ‘Respectful’ Now, Ya Hear?

When your town is two-thirds black, your police force is almost exclusively white, and you’ve taken to the streets in tanks like it’s fucking Fallujah, you need to hush your cracker mouth about “respect.”

Rachel Maddow on the record of racial disparity in Ferguson

The white establishment is absolutely terrified that they may have gone just slightly too far by murdering a young black boy who was unarmed and whom witnesses claim was 35 feet away from the police officer who murdered him. And they’re expressing this terror by creating a paramilitary presence to gas and attack and try to frighten the living bejeezus out of the people who dare say “yeah, murdering that boy WAS a little too far over the line, thanks.”

Inaji on Even atheists have sacred cows

You also think the stomp of boots, rumble of tanks, teargas, rubber bullets, big damn guns and real bullets can’t ever come marching to you. Because you don’t want to understand what happened yesterday. That day when a police force went rogue military and shut down a town is a day I thought I would not see. I didn’t think I’d live to see that happen, but I have. And what I have lived to see is fucking terrifying. It should scare the hell out of every single person in the U.S., regardless of class, colour, or location.

Go look at what the police are doing there.

Never think it can’t happen here.

It’s time for the police to be de-militarized, time for this country to truly confront its problem with racism and racial injustice, and time for us to demand the brutality stops.

Start today.

Cryptopod: Home Sweet Hornet-Made Home

I went for butterflies, and came back with some sort of hornet, probably. Or mebbe a beehive. Dunno. All I know is, it was a big blob in the tree branches that got my attention.

Image shows a tree-top with a blob of something hanging in the branches.

Cryptopod I

Up til then, I hadn’t had much luck. I’d come over to the Seattle Times building because it’s close, and there’s a park, and I’ve had good luck seeing butterflies there in the past. I yearned for butterflies. There haven’t been that many in the places I’ve been this summer. Nor dragonflies, although the backyard is full of them. They don’t land on my porch railings often. When they do, it’s always when I don’t have a suitable camera handy. So I popped down to the park when I needed walkies, and had a lovely encounter with a fluttery white butterfly that zipped back and forth past me for a while, but didn’t ever land. No photographs, but plenty of happy.

On the way back, I noticed a great blob hanging in the branches of one of the trees, and decided to investigate.

Closer image of the nest, showing the swirly-lumpy structure and the lighter and darker brown streaks.

Cryptopod II

How beautiful! And no, I wasn’t worried about getting stung – the thing was up fairly high, and there weren’t many little critters flying about. I figured if I didn’t poke ‘em with a stick, we’d be copacetic. And we were. The few crawling about on the nest didn’t mind my presence a bit.

Close-up image showing the full nest with crypotopds on it. They're hard to see, but they don't appear to be yellowjackets.

Cryptopod III

I love the patterning – it reminds me just a bit of liesegang banding, although this is clearly life-made. From what little reading I did on the subject, it appears that this is made of chewed-up bark. But we’ll know more if one of you are able to identify these critters.

Another full view showing a few critters on the nest.

Cryptopod IV

Because of the distance and the branches in the way, it was hard to get any shots of these house-building cryptopods. And it was really hard to see from a distance – I couldn’t even tell until I looked at the zoom that there were any there. But I got a couple of shots that may aid in identification.

Image shows the hive-makers haging out on the hive. They are fairly large, black, with a white band across their heads and what look like white patches on their butts.

Cryptopod V

As far as I can tell from a desultory internet search, this kind of hive looks like a yellow jacket hive. But these don’t look like yellow jackets – too much black and no yellow.

Another close-up of the hornets or wasps or whatevers.

Cryptopod VI

I have no idea. But I like them better than the bee that’s been buzzing round my place at least once a day, all curious about what I’m doing and wanting to get all up in my business. I had to eventually whap it with a duster dealie to make it go away. The duster dealie doesn’t hurt it a bit, just tells it to get gone. And it does – until the following day. These guys, on the other hand, were very mellow, and had a “we’ll stay up here as long as you stay down there” philosophy.

Image shows the nest surrounded by branches.

Cryptopod VII

I took one last, lingering look, and then headed back toward home. I didn’t get far, though, before running in to a herd of bright-orange butterflies dining on clover flowers. They were completely adorable and delayed my departure by some time.

Image shows a clover flower with a small orange butterfly on it.

Cryptopod VIII

I love these moments in urban nature.