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.

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.

Parícutin: “Save Me From the Dangers in Which I am About to Die”

Dionisio Pulido suddenly found himself having a very bad day.

A few moments before, he had been living an ordinary life, clearing brush from his land while his helper plowed and his wife and son watched the sheep graze. Aside from the earthquakes that had driven the presidente of San Juan Parangaricutiro to send a delegation to a larger town in search of answers, and the fact that a pit on his land had just split open, life was fine.

Now, he was feeling thunder. That’s the word he used, “felt.” We usually think of thunder as a thing you hear: when you feel it, when it’s that loud and insistent, the sensation travels right through you, setting your organs dancing and your teeth on edge. We can extrapolate from what Sr. Pulido said that his teeth and organs were very likely the same. The trees seemed to feel it, too: he and his wife saw them trembling and swaying.

The new volcano broke forth in the valley of Quitzocho-Cuiyusuru, which lay between Cerro de Jaratiro (left), Cerro de Cainiro (far center), and Cerro de Canicjuata (right). Paricutin village lies near the foot of Cerro de Canicjuata. The fields of San Juan Parangaricutiro are in the foreground. Taken from Ticuiro, near San Juan Parangaricutiro, at 5:30 P.M. Paricutin Volcano. Michoacan, Mexico. February 20, 1943. Published as plate 16-B in U. S. Geological Survey. Bulletin 965-D. 1956.

The new volcano broke forth in the valley of Quitzocho-Cuiyusuru, which lay between Cerro de Jaratiro (left), Cerro de Cainiro (far center), and Cerro de Canicjuata (right). Paricutin village lies near the foot of Cerro de Canicjuata. The fields of San Juan Parangaricutiro are in the foreground. Taken from Ticuiro, near San Juan Parangaricutiro, at 5:30 P.M. Paricutin Volcano. Michoacan, Mexico. February 20, 1943. Published as plate 16-B in U. S. Geological Survey. Bulletin 965-D. 1956. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

Sr. Pulido was going to speak to his wife about this remarkable turn of events, but when he turned toward her, he saw the ground in the fractured pit, swollen two meters or more (over 6 feet). A fine gray smoke rose from a crack in the pit. It increased in intensity, with a loud whistling, hissing sound that wouldn’t stop, and the field began to stink of sulfur. Across the pit, about 100 meters (328 feet) away, Paula Pulido saw the smoke, smelled the sulfur, heard what she described as a “whistle like water falling on live coals or hot embers.” She watched pine trees 30 meters (98 feet) from the pit catch fire. She called out to her husband as the ground rose like “confused cake” above the fracture, then disappeared, seeming to swallow itself.

It’s about this time that Sr. Pulido’s nerve broke, for which one can’t blame him. He couldn’t get to his wife, but he did try to save his oxen, terrified fingers fumbling at their yoke. He cried out to the local saint. “Save me from the dangers in which I am about to die,” he pleaded, and found a measure of calm. He ran to save his family, his workers, but couldn’t find them: turned back to save his oxen, but they were gone. So was the water from the spring near the fissure, gone suddenly away in the noise and the sulfur-scented smoke as the ground consumed itself.

Paricutin volcano at the time of its initial outbreak, showing the positions of the various features and eyewitnesses as seen by Sra. Aurora Cuara.

Paricutin volcano at the time of its initial outbreak, showing the positions of the various features and eyewitnesses as seen by Sra. Aurora Cuara. 1. Direction of Toral’s plowed furrow. 2. Position of Dionisio Pulido. 3. Position of Demetrio Toral. 4. Vent of the volcano. 5. Depression along the fissure. 6. The original fissure. 7. Piedra del Sol. 8. Path taken by Aurora Cuara. 9. A secondary crack of fissure. 10. Position of Paula Rangel de Pulido. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

 

From the path to San Nicolás, Aurora Cuara watched a fissure split the earth, and a wall of earth rise a meter (just over three feet) high. She watched the fine gray dust rise like smoke, and it frightened her, but she climbed the boundary rock for a better view anyway. She was only fifty meters (164 feet) from the fissue, and saw it throwing sparks and dust. She also saw Sr. Pulido, fresh out of family, companions and oxen, mount his horse and flee. She followed suit.

This is the thing about the birth of a cinder cone: it’s somewhat violent and definitely terrifying, but eminently survivable. Sr. Pulido found family, companions and oxen all safe and well in the village of Parícutin when he arrived. And when he told his remarkable story to the chief of the Parícutin subdivision and the presidente of San Juan Parangaricutiro, a delegation formed, full of people willing to investigate this new and interesting (never mind explosive) thing. They headed off to Sr. Pulido’s field, arriving around six in the evening, a mere hour and a half after the earth had begun its pyroclastic display. Luis Ortíz Solorio observed the fissure, and saw it had developed a hole about a half-meter (almost 2 feet) in diameter, from which “smoke” rose and rocks were tossed to modest heights.

Paricutin volcano at 6 p. m., February 20, 1943, showing the appearance of the vent and its surroundings as seen by Juan Anguiano E.

Paricutin volcano at 6 p. m., February 20, 1943, showing the appearance of the vent and its surroundings as seen by Juan Anguiano E. 1. Small mounds of gray ash. 2. The fissure that opened. 3. The pit from which vapors issued. 4. The fractnre that opened while Anguiano and Martinez watched the vent. 5. Anguiano and Martinez. 6. Other members of the Parangaricutiro party. Image and caption courtesy USGS.

He decided he’d gone quite close enough.

Juan Anguiano Espinosa and Jesús Martínez made a closer approach, as close as they could manage. The ground, they said, was “jumping up and down” rather than swaying like one would expect with an earthquake. The scent of sulfur choked them. Dust and sparks flew; small stones hurtled five meters (16 feet) into the air, while in the vent, sand “boiled,” looking, they thought, much like sand churned by the water of a rising spring. And the sounds they heard reminded them of water, too: water boiling in a large jug, like floodwater dragging boulders in a stream. The fissure formed a trench, and the ground had slumped around the hole in a strip twenty meters (almost 66 feet) long and twelve meters (39 feet) wide. Along that slump, the ground had cracked, and along that crack, half-meter (around 3 feet) piles of the fine gray dust had accumulated. Anguiano, a man with the instincts of a geologist, scooped up a sample with his handkerchief. He found it warm, and the two small stones he also collected were hot. To him goes the honor of the first samples taken from Parícutin.

He almost didn’t make it back to town with them. From his safe distance, Solorio saw the earth fracture about six meters (almost 20 feet) from the vent. He shouted for Anguiano and Martínez, who jumped back just in time. The ground fell in, the vent widened to two meters (6.5 feet) and the column of smoke grew as the vent spat little stones “like incandescent marbles and oranges.”

Paricutin, Mexico This slide taken in 1943 shows a spectacular view of an eruption of Paricutin at night. Glowing projectiles and pyroclastic fragments outline the conical shape of the volcano. The eruption consisted mostly of spheroidal bombs, lapilli, glassy cinder, and glassy ash formed by disintegration of the cinder.

Paricutin, Mexico This slide taken in 1943 shows a spectacular view of an eruption of Paricutin at night. Glowing projectiles and pyroclastic fragments outline the conical shape of the volcano. The eruption consisted mostly of spheroidal bombs, lapilli, glassy cinder, and glassy ash formed by disintegration of the cinder. Image and caption courtesy R.E. Wilcox, U.S. Geological Survey via Wikimedia Commons.

They hurried back to San Juan Parangaricutiro to report. After hearing their description, the priest consulted the church’s book on Vesuvius. After reading up on that volcano, they were all pretty certain they’d just seen one. And they could still see it, even from there: the column of smoke was now visible, and at ten that night, Aurora Cuara stood and watched while the baby volcano hurled incandescent bombs, which she could see through the screen of trees between town and fissure. A little over an hour later, Parícutin began roaring. It hurled its stones vigorously; lightning began dancing through its eruption cloud. This was a sight the townfolk would grow quite used to in the coming years, before Parícutin forced them to leisurely flee.

When Aurora Cuara passed near the newborn volcano on her way back from checking on her husband in San Nicolás the next day, she found a little round hill of stones and sand where the hole had been. Rocks hurtled up from its center, some quite large, and some exploding in mid-air. And she saw a fire slowly flowing from its base. Later, she would learn this fire was lava, the beginning of the flows that would destroy Sr. Pulido’s field and the surrounding towns, and change all of their lives forever.

Paricutin, 1943, not long after its birthday. The nine-year life of this little cinder cone was closely studied by geologists, and has allowed us to study the life span of a cinder cone from birth to extinction. Image credit K. Segerstrom, U.S. Geological Survey

Paricutin, 1943, not long after its birthday. The nine-year life of this little cinder cone was closely studied by geologists, and has allowed us to study the life span of a cinder cone from birth to extinction. Image credit K. Segerstrom, U.S. Geological Survey

 

Previous: Parícutin: “Here Is Something New and Strange”

References:

Foshag, William F. and Gonzalez, Jenaro R. (1956): Birth and Development of Paricutin Volcano Mexico. US Geological Survey Bulletin 965-D.

Luhr, James F. and Simkin, Tom, Editors (1993): Paricutín: The Volcano Born in a Mexican Cornfield. Phoenix, Arizona: Geoscience Press.

Fundamentals of Fungi: Blue-Gray Beauties

Remember way back to those first heady days of freedom after giving ye olde daye jobe the old heave-ho, when B and I celebrated by taking a last-minute trip down the Washington-Oregon coast? Good times, good times! Especially when I stumbled across this beauty at Cape Disappointment which is sure to delight all lovers of fine fungi – and may inspire the next blockbuster horror movie flick.

Image shows some crinkly-edged flat blue-gray fungi poking through stringy green moss.

Fungi I

So there it was, poking through the green moss on the bank of the trail. And it may not look like much in the above photo, but believe me – it’s loving the camera.

Fungi II

Fungi II

Pacific Northwest coastal forests are pretty shady places, and this was an overcast day, but you can still see a gorgeous interplay of filtered light and dark shadow on these beauties.

Fungi III

Fungi III

Of course the little curled-up bits at the end that look like screaming, toothy mouths is a bit disturbing, but still. That fine wavy-frilly shape at their ends, the way they swing out like a flamenco dancer’s skirts, put me more in mind of Spanish dancing than imminent horror movie.

Fungi IV

Fungi IV

Makes me want to go design a dress, actually. Maybe if I fail at this writing gig, I’ll remake myself into a costume designer. Wouldn’t be a bad old life. I would just have to find rich clients who like looking like a fungus. That shouldn’t be at all hard, right?

Eh, maybe I’ll stick to writing. But don’t be surprised if you see me doing some fungus-inspired scarves on the side!

Kudos in advance to the first person who can tell us what this fantastic fungi is.

New Photos of Mount Rainier! Plus Super-Cute Critters

It’s been a long but fruitful day, my darlings. B and I took a little trip to Mount Rainier for you. We hadn’t yet hit the Sunrise VC, you see, so we decided it was about damned time we went. Can you believe I’ve been going to Rainier for years and have never been to top of that road? Scandalous! Now remedied.

Here’s the mountain peeking at some lovely andesite columns you will get to know very well later on:

Image shows gray andesite columns poking toward the road on the right, with a shoulder of Mount Rainier and the jagged crags of Little Tahoma in the distance.

Mount Rainier, Road, and Columns.

Now. I’m going to set the non-geologists in the audience a question: what are the columns telling you about the valley at the time of this lava flow? No cheating by looking up stuff on Mount Rainier, kiddos. But you can go look at Callan’s handy guide to columns wot he made just for us. You can totally get this from just this photo:

Images shows a bunch of gray andesite columns pointed at us.

Here we’re standing direct across the road, with the valley behind us, looking the columns dead in the tops of their darling little heads. Nose of an indeterminate blue sedan for scale.

Right, now you’ve had a challenge, you shall get your cute! This poor little dude was so conflicted.

Image shows a little striped rodent sitting on a somewhat flat rock in an I'm-Very-Tempted manner.

Conflicted ground squirrel or possibly chipmunk, I am terrible at identifying these cute fuzzy things BECAUSE THEY ARE BIOLOGY NOT ROCKS AND I DO ROCKS OKAY?

On the one hand, there was this humungous clump of grass with delicious ripe seeds and it really really wanted them so bad, only there were these people standing there, and it was a little afraid, but it wanted those seeds soooo bad. It spent a moment thinking about it, and dashed up and down a bit, and rushed the seeds and rushed away, and then decided “Sod this for a game of larks” and went and hid, so we left it to get its lunch in peace.

Now, we were up there specifically to look at Emmons Glacier, because I’ve been up the White River Valley it is responsible for, and would have gotten to one of its old moraines if Cujo and I hadn’t been stopped by the small but significant fact that the trail bridge over the river had washed out. So we went down to the Emmons Glacier Vista overlook thingy and had a nice look, and it was really gorgeous.

Image shows Mount Rainier's summit, Little Tahoma, Emmon's Glacier, and a gorgeous glacial valley with a glacier-fed river and lake. Also, much green, because PNW.

A view of Emmons Glacier, and the valley, and river, and a wee little turquoise-colored lake that I could probably identify if I wasn’t too tired at the moment.

Unfortunately, it was a bit hazy, and hot as hell, or we might have gotten better photos. Still. We got some good ones, and yes, someday, you will get more. But if you embiggen this one, you’ll be able to see some snazzy glacial features. Tell me all you can find, if you feel like digging!

We attempted the trail up Sourdough Ridge, but that’s all in bright sunshine, and did I mention is was at least 80 bloody degrees? And I’m not used to high altitudes and heat anymore. So we decided to tackle that in cooler times, and possibly when the air is clearer. We went down to Sunrise Point, where there’s a short-ish side trail to Sunrise Lake.

Image shows Sunrise Lake, a beautiful round pool surrounded by tall trees and mountains. The water is so still you can see the pines clearly reflected in it, even from hundreds of feet above.

Sunrise Lake is a lovely blue-green gem set at the bottom of a glacial valley surrounded by majestic, glacier-carved peaks. Alas, it is down in a valley…

This trail is mostly in shade with a wonderbar cool breeze. Trouble is, it is also a long way down to the lake. Down, of course, translates to up on the way back. But it was worth it. We got to see lots of pretty nature, and the lake, and there was this bird you will squee over when I show you it later this week, and, on a scree slope, this wee little rabbit-like thing running across the rocks with a big sprig of leafy something in its mouth. See if you can spot it in the shot of the slope I took.

Images shows a slope of platy gray rocks surrounded by the usual alpine greenery. There's a little critter on it. Very hard to see.

Wee beastie is somewhere on this scree, I promise you.

Really hard to spot, innit? Alas, I had the camera turned off to conserve battery when the little bugger first darted out, and by the time I had it on, our wee beastie had dashed further downslope. Take it from me, it was cute as the dickens, especially with its bit of greenery clutched in its mouth. Here’s a crop of the above image, and if you can identify they wee beastie from just this blurry pic, I will be very surprised. Also, I will suggest you become a cryptozoologist, because why not?

If you look at the gray rock at the very bottom center, then at the green bush right in front of it, then in front of that bush, you will see a timorous little brown fellow holding very still on the scree and clutching its little sprig.

If you look at the gray rock at the very bottom center, then at the green bush right in front of it, then in front of that bush, you will see a timorous little brown fellow holding very still on the scree and clutching its little sprig.

After the beastie and the birdie, we hauled our sorry butts back up that slope, and I can tell you my lungs haven’t ached like that for ages. Like a bellows, they were. I need to spend less time lounging with the cat and Christianist textbooks, and more time on mountains. So it’s a good thing B has decided we should go back to Mount Rainier before our current pass runs out. Weather permitting, we’ll be up there again at the end of the week. Then, depending on what the weather looks like, we’re off to either the Olympics or over the mountains to Ross Lake. Well, weather and our own energy levels permitting, I should say.

And I can definitely recommend sunset as seen from Highway 410 from outside of Sumner, looking over the Puget lowland toward the Olympics. Oh, my, yes. Alas, we were unable to stop and obtain photos, so I shall just have to ask you to imagine jagged black peaks against a salmon-orange sky, with the dark night blue above and the deep pools of shadow in the valley below, with city lights sparkling merrily, and a huge orange full moon rising over the hills behind. So, so wonderful.

Parícutin: “Here Is Something New and Strange”

Imagine a pastoral scene, seventy years ago in Mexico. On a sunny February day, a woman and her son watch over their flock of sheep from the shade of oaks; her husband strides across his fields toward a pile of branches that need burning, while his helper completes a furrow. The oxen begin to turn; a brand-new volcano begins to erupt.

Paricutín. Image courtesy Karla Yannín Alcázar Quintero via Wikimedia Commons.

Paricutín. Image courtesy Karla Yannín Alcázar Quintero via Wikimedia Commons.

Later, some would say that Demetrio Toral “plowed up the volcano.” That used to mean something different, pre-Parícutin. The Itzícuaro Valley nestles among many volcanoes. Cinder cones abound. Some are breached and eroded; some are conical with flat-floored craters. Within those last, farmers of the region grew maize. In a land filled with old lava flows, some of them malpais – badlands where no hoofed animals could drag a plow even if there had been adequate soil to drag it through. The Tarascan (Purépecha) natives crossed the rough vesicular basalt to the doughty trees growing there, harvesting their timber and backpacking it out to pack animals beyond the flows. Older flows that had developed soils were cultivated. Benches and cliffs: that’s the terrain those flows formed, and if anyone there knew a bit about volcanoes, they could read the stories of previous eruptions in them.

Five villages that would later be destroyed occupied flat bits of the valley near springs and seeps. Villagers tilled their soil and worked their forests, selling any excess products in the regional market towns farther on. They had a church in San Juan Parangaricutiro, a tall and stately stone structure, which housed the image of a saint, and a library with a book that would help them comprehend what was about to break their peace.

Outside, a world war raged: inside the valley, aside from some occasional interpersonal conflict, life went on much as it had for hundreds of years. No one knew that way of life would end rather abruptly in February of 1943. Sure, there had been a lot of earthquakes, but no one thought much of them: they lived in a seismically lively region, and those quakes didn’t shake them psychologically (at least, not until mid-February, when their frequency and intensity escalated rather dramatically).

And there was that pit on Dionisio Pulido’s farm.

It had been there a long time. Señora Severina Murillo had played around it as a girl, fifty years before. It was maybe five meters (16 feet) in diameter, and maybe a meter and a half (5 feet) deep. It made strange noises, underground noises, sounds like rocks falling. The kids found it warm, and their sticks never reached the bottom. Storm waters drained through it in the winter, and sometimes there would be a mist, but it was never hot, not so Sr. Pulido noticed. He’d stash his yoke and plow there, sometimes, when he didn’t feel like hauling them all the way back to Parícutin village. He and his brother would sometimes try to fill in the hole, but no matter how much material they threw in to it, they could never fill it. A depression had formed around it the previous August. But no one thought much of it.

***

Quitzocho-Cuiyusuru valley and surrounding area before the outbreak of Parícutin volcano as reconstructed from observations of early volcanism. 1, Quitzocho; 2, Cuiyusuru; 3, Pastoriu; 4, Uricua Llostiro; 5, Tancítaro; 6, Cebo; 7, Camiro; 8, Piedra del Sol; 9, Sherecuaro; 10, Parícutin Arroyo; 11, Parangaricutiro-Parícutin boundary-passes in front of foreground and follows ridge along Cebo and Tancftaro. Road from Camiro hill, San Nicolas, and Teruto follows left boundary of sketch, Uruapan-Parícutin road follows front boundary.

Quitzocho-Cuiyusuru valley and surrounding area before the outbreak of Parícutin volcano as reconstructed from observations of early volcanism. 1, Quitzocho; 2, Cuiyusuru; 3, Pastoriu; 4, Uricua Llostiro; 5, Tancítaro; 6, Cebo; 7, Camiro; 8, Piedra del Sol; 9, Sherecuaro; 10, Parícutin Arroyo; 11, Parangaricutiro-Parícutin boundary-passes in front of foreground and follows ridge along Cebo and Tancftaro. Road from Camiro hill, San Nicolas, and Teruto follows left boundary of sketch, Uruapan-Parícutin road follows front boundary. Fig. 109 from USGS Bulletin 965-D. Image courtesy USGS.

At the beginning of 1943, the earth began to shake, and the local folk heard noises deep in the ground. Residents of the largest town, San Juan Parangaricutiro, didn’t feel much until February 5th. The earthquakes, some larger than a 3 on the Mercalli scale, were accompanied by subterranean sounds, and townfolk quickly recognized a pattern: the louder the sound, the stronger the tremor. Celedonio Gutiérrez, who would later become an observer for the geologists who flocked to the area, noted, “They followed each other almost every minute. If they were delayed, the noise or the tremor was stronger.” And by February 20th, they’d become so strong and frequent that everyone was worried the church would collapse. They sent a messenger to Uruapan, one of the larger market towns, that morning, asking its presidente for advice. No one knew quite what to do.

The presidente of San Juan Parangaricutiro wasn’t sure how to confront all the shaking, but he told a newspaper he thought he knew what might be causing it: he thought there would be a “new volcanic outbreak.” Spot on, that man.

***

While officials worried, Sr. Pulido went about his work. Presidente Cuara-Amezcua hadn’t predicted the volcanic outbreak’s precise location, and he had no reason to think anything of the pit, which was being its usual self: slightly depressed, definitely unfillable, but otherwise ordinary. It would soon be time for the spring sowing, and seismic shenanigans or no, the field needed preparing. His helper, Sr. Toral, tended to the plowing while Sr. Pulido, his brother, and another helper cleared branches.

Oxen plowing near Lima. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Oxen plowing near Lima. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

In the afternoon, Sr. Pulido headed over to the trees where his wife, Paula, and his son were tending their grazing sheep. He asked her if anything new had occurred, considering the seismic show they’d been subjected to for the past two weeks.

She’d noticed “noise and thunder underground,” she said, and as she said it, Sr. Pulido heard it, too: “like thunder during a rainstorm,” he’d tell geologists later. “But I could not explain it, for the sky above was clear and the day was so peaceful…”

He left Paula at four that afternoon and headed off to burn the branches he and his brother had cleared from the field. He noticed that a fissure had opened in the old pit. It began at his feet, passed through the hole, and went on toward the Cerro de Canicjuata, one of the old local volcanoes. Here is something new and strange, he thought. He poked about a bit, trying to figure out when it had opened, and noting its depth (around half a meter, or about 1.5 feet), before losing interest and returning to his branches.

From the trail to San Nicolás, Aurora Cuara saw him dropping the last branches and weeds onto the pile. She watched Sr. Toral complete a furrow with the plow, passing right over the place where the earth would momentarily split apart. Toral began turning the team; Paula Pulida heard a whistle; Sr. Pulido felt a thunder.

Parícutin was born.

To be continued…

Paricutin, Mexico This slide taken in 1943 shows a spectacular view of an eruption of Paricutin at night. Glowing projectiles and pyroclastic fragments outline the conical shape of the volcano. The eruption consisted mostly of spheroidal bombs, lapilli, glassy cinder, and glassy ash formed by disintegration of the cinder. Image and caption courtesy USGS via Wikimedia Commons.

Paricutin, Mexico This slide taken in 1943 shows a spectacular view of an eruption of Paricutin at night. Glowing projectiles and pyroclastic fragments outline the conical shape of the volcano. The eruption consisted mostly of spheroidal bombs, lapilli, glassy cinder, and glassy ash formed by disintegration of the cinder. Image and caption courtesy USGS via Wikimedia Commons.

Next: Parícutin: “Save Me From the Dangers in Which I am About to Die”

 

References:

Luhr, James F. and Simkin, Tom, Editors (1993): Paricutín: The Volcano Born in a Mexican Cornfield. Phoenix, Arizona: Geoscience Press.

 

Previously published at Scientific American/Rosetta Stones.

Ohai! I’ve Added a Spiffy New Mount St. Helens Page!

Remember the Prelude to a Catastrophe/The Cataclysm series? Yes? No? Never heard of it? Well, no matter your answer, I’ve got just the page for you! I’ve stuck all the links to date up on their very own page. The last few links aren’t yet live because I haven’t brought those posts over from Rosetta Stones quite yet, but they’ll be appearing here over the next few weeks. Or you could get enterprising and just search the title.

Image shows a cat winking with its mouth open. Caption says *wink*

But wait! Der’s moar! I’ll have new posts in the series coming up sometime this fall. There’s so much more to explore about this eruption and its aftermath. And then, when that’s finished, there’s a whole lot more we’ve learned over the past few decades – we won’t be done with this volcano for a long while yet.

So I really do hope you enjoy reading about it…

Mount St. Helens in May of 2014.

Mount St. Helens in May of 2014.