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I made the mistake of mentioning on Twitter that some day I would vent about why I hate fantasy maps, and that got enough people asking that apparently today will be that day.

DISCLAIMER THE FIRST: These are my personal opinions as a reader. If you, as a reader who is not me, happen to love fantasy maps and can’t get enough of them, that’s totally fine. This is not a judgment on you. We are allowed to like different things when we’re talking pretendy funtimes and not, say, fascism.

DISCLAIMER THE SECOND: Some of my fellow writers may read this. I want you to please understand that this is not a personal attack on you for having decided to make one of those fantasy maps. Readers have different preferences, and I’m sure you have readers who will like maps as much as I don’t like them. And in fact, despite my preferences as a reader, as a geologist, I would be more than happy to help make sure your fantasy map doesn’t contain horrendous geography for a reasonable fee. Because if they’re gonna be out there, I’d like for your maps to be good ones. And I actually do enjoy maps as objects of art, weirdly enough.

We all on the same page now? Good.

Why I Don’t Like Fantasy Maps: A Short List by Alex Acks

  1. Most of them are terrible. Like geographically, geologically terrible. You’ve already probably seen me complain about the map of Middle Earth. From my experience as a reader, and I’ll readily admit that I have neither had the patience nor time to read every fantasy book ever written, the majority of fantasy maps make me want to tear my hair out as a geologist. Many of them are worse than the Tolkien map, and without his fig leaf of mythology to justify it. (And sorry, it’s not a fig leaf that works for me.)
  2. Corollary: If your fantasy map is terrible, you have probably already lost my willing suspension of disbelief before I even dive into the book. Sorry, but this is what an MS in Geology will do to an otherwise easygoing person.
  3. Corollary: Looking at these maps will often make major worldbuilding issues lunge out at me that otherwise might have slid by. Like, for example, the question of where the hell your massive population center is getting its water when it is located nowhere near a river. Or the question of where they’re getting their food from. And so on.
  4. A lot of fantasy maps stand out very glaringly as lands that have been artificially created around a story that was already written, rather than organic geographies that shape the stories and peoples. This will often point back at the previous three points, because features and geography that are located to suit a story aren’t necessarily going to make any goddamn geographical sense. I find this artificiality annoying.
  5. There’s a tendency in certain fantasy maps to make most country borders follow things like mountain ranges or rivers. This, frankly, looks extremely weird.
  6. The number of people who don’t bother to put a fucking scale on their fucking map astounds me. A map without a scale is functionally useless.
    1. We failed student projects in field lab for not doing this, because without a scale, a map (or diagram, or picture) is meaningless.
    2. Putting some kind of scale or other surveying marks to indicate how distance on a map relates to measured distance is not a recent invention. (Even if the measurements weren’t terribly accurate at times.)
    3. If you don’t put a scale on your map, then it’s basically a relativistic perception exercise for whoever the cartographer was… which could almost be interesting if one of the characters made the map, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen in a book I’ve read.
  7. I get extremely offended as a reader if understanding a book requires me to check an appendix or look at a map for what’s happening to make any sense. It breaks up the flow of reading, and a lot of times, it’s something that could be taken care of in the text.
    1. There is literally only one book I can think of as an exception to this: The Killer Angels. Which is not a fantasy novel; it’s a historical novel that closely follows the Battle of Gettysburg. It’s got some very detailed maps of the battlefield over each of the days in it that it does help to consult for understanding of things like troop movements and line of sight. I have never run across a fantasy novel that hits this level of detail, and honestly I doubt I’d be interested in one.
    2. ETA1: OH WAIT I LIED! There is one other exception, and it is a fantasy map! The map of the Stillness that NK Jemisin has at the beginning of The Stone Sky is A+ and has a scale. I didn’t feel the need to consult it during reading, but it warmed the rockles of my geologist’s heart to see all the plate boundaries laid out for the supercontinent.
  8. If the map isn’t required for understanding of the text, I’m left wondering why it’s even there. It’s not necessary. It’s more information than I need.
  9. I’d rather have the space to imagine things for myself.
  10. I don’t like that the ubiquity of unnecessary maps in fantasy literature puts pressure on me as a writer to follow suit. As someone who has drawn or otherwise generated many a map as a function of my job as a scientist, you can’t make me.

Originally published at Alex Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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A lot of people have been asking me about this one. Come on, it can’t be that bad, can it?

AHAHAHAHAHAHA ha ha ha haaaaa

Well. Uh. I like the Rock? And the geologist isn’t wearing a white labcoat? And watching the Rayleigh wave go through LA is… kind of cool, even if it’s moving way too slowly?

Oh, who am I kidding. HOW THE FUCK IS THERE A TSUNAMI EVEN AGH Deep breaths. This one must be aiming for a spot on the DVD shelf o’ bad geology, right between Volcano and The Core. Fuck you, my liver can’t take this right now.

So here’s the deal. Donate money to charity, and I will watch this movie and write a review of some sort for it. Raise more, and you get my notes. Don’t raise enough money, and I won’t go, but charities still get money, so yay! The price I’m setting on this turd is $400 $300. (You get the Rock’s biceps discount.) The movie comes out on May 29, but I have company from out of town that week so will be unlikely to see it until June 1 at the earliest. So that gives you nearly two weeks to come up with the money if this is going to be a thing.

Accepted charities are:


As usual, honor system. Donate, then contact me via social networking site, email, or messenger pigeon to tell me how much you donated. If you don’t get some kind of acknowledgment from me, I didn’t get the message. (If you prefer your donation to remain anonymous, please tell me that too.)

Progress: $155/$300


  1. Zig Zag Claybourne ($20)
  2. Emily ($10)
  3. Madred ($100)
  4. Pat ($25)

ETA: Sorry to say, but the time for this has passed and the goal wasn’t met. So I don’t have to see the movie (Yay!) and charity got $155 (YAY) so I think we all still win. :)

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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A lot of descriptive geology is just pattern recognition. I spend a lot of time Googling pictures of various structures, minerals, and other phenomena to get an idea of how the same thing can look wildly different.

So today:

You keep using those words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

You keep using those words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

….no, Google. No.

you tried

(Psst: This is nodular bedding.)

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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Andrew asked:

Would a planet terraformed fifteen million years ago have any petroleum or coal reserves? If so, how would the extent of the deposits compare to Earth?

So, in order to get petroleum or coal, you need the following:

  1. Lots of organic matter building up
  2. Heat and pressure via burial
  3. Time

How much time? That’s kind of the question. You need enough time for geologic processes (normally subsidence) to bury the deposits of organic matter deeply enough that they get pressure cooked at around 49-149C, and then those deposits need to stay cooking long enough for the heat and pressure to crack the organic matter into more familiar hydrocarbons.  How long is that going to take precisely? To be honest, we don’t precisely know. Probably hundreds of thousands of years, not counting the sheer time it’s going to take to bury everything deeply enough.

That said, we at least have an idea of a minimum time, just because we can look at the youngest oil and coal deposits in the world, which are Oligocene to Miocene in age–that gives us a range between about 5.3 and 36.6 million years old.

So yes, as long as your terraforming ramped up quickly enough that you had lots of plants and plankton to die and get buried on land and in the ocean, and your planet was tectonically active enough for active burial (and the temperature and pressure curves line up appropriately for burial) you could potentially have petroleum and coal.

There would probably be a lot less in the way of reserves than we have on Earth, just because your production window would be so much shorter than the one we’ve got. On Earth, we’ve had coal deposits forming since the Carboniferous (a ~355 million year window) and petroleum deposits go back even further, into the Proterozoic (a >565 million year formation window). Just how big the difference will be depends also on how much organic matter your new world is pumping out–if you’re having a mini carboniferous for all 15 million of those years, for example, it still won’t be that much in comparison, but it would be more significant than if your world looks like the Permian.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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Andrew asked:

Given ancient alien artifacts which take the form of giant stone cubes, made roughly fifteen million years ago, on an airless moon, what sort of information about them or their makers could a geologist infer from analyzing them?

All right, off the top of my head:

Age analysis:

  1. How old the rock itself is, via radiometric analysis, looking at zircons, etc. but this only tells you when the rock itself cooled. Which is of questionable use if we’re talking a sedimentary rock, since at best that will tell you the age of the parent rock. If it’s metamorphic, what radiometric analysis would tell you age wise really depends on the degree of metamorphism.
  2. How long the rock has been exposed on the surface. If we’re taking a moon with no atmosphere, then the artifacts could be examined for pitting/scarring caused by micrometeorites. As long as some measurement can be made as to the historical frequency of that sort of impact on the moon in general, then you could do some statistical analysis and get an idea of exposure time.

Why do we care how old the rock is? Well, if it’s a wildly different age from what it’s sitting on, that implies some interesting things. As does knowing how long it’s been sitting out on the surface, since those two numbers might be quite different.

Basic compositional analysis (here I’m assuming igneous or metamorphic rather than sedimentary rocks):

  1. Are there weird, unknown minerals? What about ones that are incredibly rare on Earth but common elsewhere? Particular sorts of minerals (eg Olivine versus quartz) will tell you about the type of melt the rock came from. Some minerals only occur in certain conditions (eg metamorphic minerals like silliminite) while others indicate a particular, very specific set of formation conditions (like diamonds). This is something you’d learn from x-ray diffraction.
  2. Textures will also tell you important things, like how rapidly the rock cooled, etc. Spinifex texture, fit example, tends to be seen in things like komatiites, which have a very specific melt composition and literally no longer form on Earth today. And all this you can do with thin sections. If you have a sedimentary rock, you can learn ridiculous amounts about the formation of the rock with thin sections, such as looking at generations of cement or weathering features.
  3. Even just looking at bulk oxide makeup (via something like xrf analysis) can give you clues about origin and formational conditions. For example, I used XRD analysis of samples from my vertisols to calculate mean annual precipitation during their formation in my master’s thesis. There is a ton of research out there about various sorts of rocks, formation or weathering conditions, and how that relates to their basic chemical makeup.
  4. At the very least you can use this to figure out if the rock is even native to the area. If there’s something really wild about the composition (for example, there are absolutely no impurities in any of the crystals) that could be a hint that the rocks were manufactured in some way rather than formed in natural conditions.

Visual assessment:
Just by looking at it even, there will be clues about how these things were–or weren’t–made. Tool marks? No tool marks? Or if you look microscopically using some sort of pocket scanning electron microscope, what will you see? Crystals cut cleanly in half? Evidence of flash melting, as if these were shaped using some kind of super heated plasma blade? Or were they made in molds, in which case everything would have crystallized perfectly flat against the mold surface? These visual clues might tell you the most about the makers of the artifacts.

This is obviously a non-exhaustive list. I’m sure there’s a million other things a geologist with a different specialization than mine could think to assess. But hopefully this will get you started!

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

Deep Time

Dec. 13th, 2013 01:06 pm
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In perfect Rachael World (you know, the same place where my best friend Kat will be Minister In Charge of Hot Forking People Wot Deserve It) everyone will be required to take a basic geology class. And not be allowed to escape until they have at least a rudimentary grasp of the concept of Deep Time. (That thing that involved metaphors about if the life of the Earth was a football field, humanity’s entire existence would be the last blade of grass, etc.) Once you’ve had your mind completely blown by the immensity and longevity of the universe, you end up with two contradictory but true conclusions:

  1. The world is immense and old, and we are tiny and brief. What happens today is less than the blink of an eye in the grand scale of mountains and planets and stars. Whatever happened? It’s okay. It’s not a big deal. The stars are still there, the Earth still turns. In ten billion years it’ll all be dust anyway. Let it go.
  2. The world is immense and old, and we are tiny and brief. And yet somehow in this moment that is less than the blink of an eye to the universe, you have sat next to someone, you have fallen in love, you have hated, you have laughed, you have cried. You stand at the confluence of infinite rivers carrying sand without number, and yet somehow you have plucked one grain from the flow and licked it from your finger. This will never be repeated. This single, beautiful heartbeat is all you get.

    Make it count.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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Andrew asked:
Given a rough Earth analog that experienced a major nuclear war about 1 Ma, would there be any evidence of in the rocks in modern times?
All right, so I can think of two major potential lines of evidence off the top of my head when it comes to nuclear weapons:
1) Radioactive isotopes: Most of the radioactive isotopes in nuclear fallout are incredibly short lived, with half lives ranging from minutes to hours to days. (None of the common ones seem to have a half life that lasts more than a year.) So the blasted nuclear hellscape probably wouldn’t still be glowing in a million years, from what I’ve read. If nothing else, consider the fact that it’s safe for people to go to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Trinity test site.
On the other hand, nuclear fallout does cause isotopic shifts that can be traced by chemists. For example, there are different calculations you have to do for pre-industrial and pre-nuclear samples in various kinds of radioactive dating (particularly carbon-14) because it’s caused the amounts of various atmospheric isotopes to shift. Strontium-90 levels also changed due to nuclear testing and that change is recorded in teeth, for example. However, 90Sr and 14C are both short-lived enough isotopes that I don’t think they’d be all that useful for the chemists in a million years. Presumably all the isotopes will have decayed away, though maybe there’s some magical chemistry that could be done looking at relative proportions of daughter isotopes. At this point we’re way outside my comfort zone; geochemistry was never my strong suit. But there is potential there, and if you want to go that route I’d suggest finding a geochemist to ask.
2) Sedimentary evidence. Probably more useful, if your future people have some geologists among them. If you had a worldwide nuclear holocaust, you’d end up with mass extinctions, large-scale fires, and presumably the collapse of civilization. So at the very least, your future explorers would find these signs. Paleontologists would see the evidence for mass extinction, and more damning, would potentially find massive boneyards in multiple locations all dating to the same time, that would indicate a single cataclysmic event. You’d also get charcoal layers associated with the extinction from worldwide fires, and occurrences of “nuclear glass” like the “Trinitite” found at the Trinity test site. All those could be geologically dated to the same time, which would be some pretty damning evidence.
Of course, since it’d be evidence preserved in rocks, they’d have to dig for it or find outcrops. But you should find that kind of stuff around. Heck, you could probably even find buried portions of cities (concrete is pretty hardy stuff; it’s already a rock) and maybe some shadows would be preserved on it, things like that. The trappings of civilization don’t necessarily weather away that fast, particularly not if they get buried in ash and sediment.
As a note, you’d see this kind of evidence preserved both on land (anywhere sediment is aggrading rather than eroding) and in the ocean. Ocean sediment cores would probably show some very strange things going on, an abrupt shift in sedimentation followed by a slow recovery.
Andrew later clarified that he was talking about a slushball Earth, with the global ice age touched off by the nuclear holocaust.
Now, I’m not entirely certain that a global nuclear war would set off global glaciation to begin with. I did some reading on the snowball Earth for a grad class, and I didn’t find most of the proposed mechanisms all that convincing other than lesser solar output and/or change in ocean circulation. The worldwide disaster from a nuclear war might throw a lot of particulates in to the air (and we know those will cause cooling) but they’ll fall out of the air fairly quickly, and consequently dirty up your snow.
But anyway. The slushball Earth isn’t something we need to debate here.
Even with global glaciation, you’ll still end up with geological evidence getting deposited in your oceans, even if at a different rate–but it’s something you’d be able to see with, say, a core drilled into ocean sediments. There’s a reason these kinds of corse get used often for paleoclimate research. In the slushball, there’s still open-ish water at the equator, which can allow for some sediment settling (such as say, the big ash layer) and input. Or if suddenly you’ve got what looks like normal sedimentation that has an ash layer than shifts to something odd like banded iron formations, that’s a big glaring clue that something weird and catastrophic happened.
Thoughts from other geologists?

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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Andrew asked:

What DOES happen when you get a bunch of geologists drunk?

For ease of answering, I have prepared this handy-dandy flowchart:

drunk geologist flowchart

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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The lovely and cupcake-alicious E. Catherine Tobler had a couple of geology-related questions, which I have simplified because sooper sekrit reasons:

1) Pretend it’s before 1900–how do you test if a piece of jewelry is made from a meteorite?

After trawling around on the internet a bit, the most likely thing I could come up with is just checking if the jewelry is magnetic and then doing a double check with a streak plate… basically, if the piece is attracted to a magnet, that at least indicates it involves naturally magnetic minerals. And then if you scratch it on a ceramic streak plate and it leaves a metallic gray streak, that’d be a pretty good indicator that it’s at least not one of the usual suspects. Magnetite leaves a black streak and hematite leaves a red streak.

The streak test is a pretty old school one for mineral identification, so it would at least indicate that something weird is going on if you have this magnetic thing that’s not leaving an expected streak color. I know there are also chemical tests you can do to see if something contains nickel, which would be a big hint since all metallic meteorites are nickel/iron.

I don’t know precisely when the streak test came into wide use or when they really started cataloging streak color for minerals. But Mohs hardness scale was invented in 1812, and that kind of testing has been in use since basically the Greeks, just not standardized. Streak testing is an outgrowth of hardness testing, since when you rub something on a substance that is harder than it, you leave a streak of powdered mineral behind.

That said, I didn’t quite trust my own answer on this, so I e-mail my planetologist buddy John Dee since he knows space rocks so much better than I do. Here’s what he had to suggest:

Easy-peasy – just cut it in two, etch it with nitric acid and look for the Widmanstätten pattern. The pattern is formed when the iron core of a planetismal slowly cools and creates interlocking crystals. When the planetismal is later broken into pieces, it forms the stoney and iron meteorites.

Magnetism won’t be much use, as the planetismal probably wasn’t large enough to have an intrinsic magnetic field. And the streak pattern won’t be diagnostic because you’ll get the same result for native iron. But only a meteorite will give you the Widmanstätten pattern!

I don’t know if cutting the jewelry in half is actually an option, but even just etching the outside of it should reveal the Widmanstätten pattern. And so long as the jewelry was made without completely melting down the meteorite–if you just heated it enough to get it to bend instead, for example–that would be the best indicator for certain.

Question number two was a little less out of this world:

2) You’re in ancient Egypt. What kind of rock would you use to make a container for a liquid?

I found this awesome site that listed Ancient Egyptian quarries and mines and what each one produced. Which made answering this a lot easier. Basically, the material would need to be workable (well, presumably anything in the above quarries were things the Egyptians knew how to work), would need to be durable, would need to not react with what you put in it, and would need to be non-porous (to prevent seeping or desiccation).

So this eliminated things like schist (flaky), sandstone (potentially porous), and gypsum (too dang soft).

That leaves a lot of good options still:

  • Quartzite would definitely work. A good quartzite will be completely cemented with quartz, so that would take care of the pore space issue. Quartz is also pretty resistant to chemical weathering, so wouldn’t interact with much you’d put in it to the best of my knowledge… it’s a tough mineral. And we know that the Egyptians had access to a quarry with quartzite in it.
  • Travertine and regular limestone (which would potentially be cool looking and fossiliferous) also might work all right since as far as I’ve been able to find, and unless you filled it with acid wouldn’t interact with the liquid. (And as long as you keep them in a dry climate, both of those will last forever and ever.) The big thing again would be to make certain it was non-porous limestone–it just can’t have vugs in it, or a lot of dissolution molds. I think Travertine would likely be good since it’s hydrothermal… though the other thing to keep in mind is that hydrothermal sourced rocks might have some other nasty impurities in them since a lot of metallic and heavy elements tend to get kicked up in hydrothermal systems.
  • Granite or diorite could potentially work too. Since all the crystals are interlocking, it’d make for a water-tight or even air-tight vessel, but it could be a bitch to work and polish up I imagine.
  • The one option I like the best is serpentinite. There’s a quarry for that, and it would make a darn cool looking green or black jar. I also found a reference that said serpentinite was used for small decorative containers, so there you go.

Looking up all that information about quarries was really fun!

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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My friend Andrew Barton asked me, a bit out of the blue via twitter:

Given a now-earthlike planet terraformed 15 million years ago, which previously resembled an Earth-sized Iapetus or something, how obvious would the pre-terraforming rocks be, or what governs how deep they’d be now?

He also provided a bit more background as to the reason behind the question:

I’m still working out a lot of the details; this involves Esperanza, the terraformed habitable moon of HD 28185 b that was the setting of “The Paragon of Animals” in the March 2013 Analog, and hopefully additional stuff down the line. While tectonically active and geographically varied at present, it was entirely lifeless before the terraforming process began.

I should probably be ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t actually have an idea what Iapetus would be like. And didn’t look it up until this very moment (naughty, naughty) but I don’t think that would have changed the answer I sent him. Which is long and a bit rambling, but I was thinking it through as I went since the question was fairly general.

  1. How deep do the effects of the terraforming go? If it’s just a matter of soil modification/creation, I wouldn’t really expect most bare rock to be all that altered. If it’s a change to atmospheric chemistry that will completely redefine the way weathering works on the planet, that’s a whole different matter. Also, microbial life does have a profound effect on how any rock that’s exposed to air will degrade (we even see this deep in mines/hydrothermal vents) but did the terraforming, say, completely alter the habitats of the extremophiles?
  2. How tectonically active is your planet? If you’re getting regular tectonic activity like you see in modern Earth, there’s a good chance that you would get exposures of relatively pristine rock fairly regularly; if there’s a large earthquake that causes a major landscape drop, you’ll get a fault scarp where new rock will be exposed. These aren’t the most common events, but you’d probably get a bit of that happening during 15 million years. Of course, as soon as you expose the fresh rock face to the surface, it will start being effected by the terraforming.
  3. If you’ve got landscapes with a lot of relief (eg: mountains) then you’ll have an ongoing process of mass wasting (landslides, rockslides, etc) that can expose fresh surfaces.
  4. Weathering rates will determine a lot, but 15 million years isn’t that much time to redefine a landscape, particularly if you’re just changing the air and water chemistry and not effecting the tectonics at all. Erosion rates are generally less than 1mm/yr (but up to 10mm/yr in places like New Zealand and the Himalayas that have high relief, active mountain building, and plenty of moisture) and one thing you have to consider is that as material is being eroded from the surface, it’s not necessarily going to just expose something pristine beneath it… whatever is right beneath it will probably be in some way chemically weathered by the time you get to it, because water ruins everyone’s life.
  5. As far as “how deep” the pre-terraforming rocks would be, it’s basically just going to be anything below the zone where your new bacteria/weather can effect it. Which will vary wildly depending on the environment in question. In the classic case of a single non-stacked soil, you could potentially hit bedrock less than 1.5 meters down… but then that bedrock has been subjected to the presumably terraformed water regime. And how deep that water would go would be determined by things like the type of rock, its porosity, and how fractured it is.
  6. So basically your biggest problem, depending on what exactly the terraforming entailed, is trying to find rocks that have not been touched by air/microbes/water from the new surface.
  7. Probably your best bet if your people are digging would be to get below the water table if you want completely pristine rocks. In the majority of places, the freshwater table will stop at about 30-35 meters below the surface, but it can go as deep as 370 meters or so.
  8. Just as a note, for buried pre-terraforming rocks, what you’ll be looking for are sedimentary rocks. Those are the ones that will give you the clearest picture of surface and near surface conditions at the time of their formation (and early diagenesis). And that would presumably provide a very different environmental picture from what currently exists. (Like gosh there are no fossils of any kind in these older rocks…) The good thing is, those rocks have had the entire existence of the planet to form and be buried, so there ought to be plenty of them lurking just below the surface.

Tl;dr: That’s a really complicated question.

Obviously, I’m not the world’s greatest expert on this topic–any other geologists out there have thoughts? Did I get anything completely wrong? Just drop a note in the comments. I’m sure I didn’t think of everything.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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Now you can read the whole enchilada for free! It’s a steamy but heart-wrenching story about a river and the course of its life as the world heats up and the mammals become ever tinier and more cute. Sandstones! Siltstones! Mudstones! Who will be swept away next? Will I need dental work from all those rocks I ate in Bremen? Will I overcome the cat vomit yellow sandstone or will it succeed in ruining my life? The answers can be found inside:

Sedimentary and climatic response to the Second Eocene Thermal Maximum in the McCullough Peaks Area, Bighorn Basin, Wyoming, U.S.A.
by Acks, Rachael, M.S., UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER, 2013, 81 pages

The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) was followed by a lesser hyperthermal event, called ETM2, at ∼53.7 Ma (Zachos et al., 2010). The carbon isotope excursion and global temperature increases for ETM2 were approximately half those of the PETM (Stap et al., 2010). The paleohydrologic response to this event in the continental interior of western North America is less well understood than the response to PETM warming. Although ETM2 is better known from marine than continental strata, the hyperthermal has been identified from outcrops of the alluvial Willwood Formation from the Deer Creek and Gilmore Hill sections of the McCullough Peaks area in the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming (Abels et al., 2012). The presence of ETM2 in Willwood Formation strata provides a rare opportunity to examine local continental climactic and sedimentary response to this hyperthermal.

Core drilled at Gilmore Hill was described and analyzed geochemically. The core consists of paleosols formed on mudrocks that are interbedded with siltstones and sandstones. Carbon isotope analysis of carbonate nodules from paleosols in the core shows that the top of the core, below a prominent yellow sandstone, most likely records the very beginning of the carbon isotope excursion that marks ETM2 (Maibauer and Bowen, unpublished data).The rest of the CIE was likely either not recorded due to sandstone deposition or removed by erosion prior to the deposition of the sandstone.

Analysis of bulk oxides in the paleosols using the methods of Sheldon et al. (2002) and Nordt and Driese (2010b) provides quantitative estimates of precipitation through the core section. The estimates reveal drying over the ∼15m leading up to ETM2. Red and brown paleosols, attributed to generally dry conditions, dominate the entire section below the onset of ETM2 and confirm drier conditions. In contrast, thick purple paleosols are associated with ETM2 at the Deer Creek site and suggest wetter conditions during most of the ETM2 interval. The prominent yellow sandstone at the top of the Gilmore Hill core was probably deposited during those wetter climate conditions.

The core displays distinct changes in stratigraphic architecture: the bottom ∼100m is mudrock-dominated and the top ∼100m is sandstone dominated. Several PETM studies have suggested that sediment coarsening in continental basins in the US and Spain developed in response to precipitation changes associated with global warming. Analysis of the Gilmore Hill core’s stratigraphic architecture in conjunction with carbon isotope and precipitation data shows that the prominent sandstone in the position of ETM2 was not caused by climate change. The sandstone is the uppermost part of the sandstone-rich interval whose base underlies ETM2 by more than 50m. This study shows that the shift from mudrock- to sandstone-dominated stratigraphy at Gilmore Hill, and possibly throughout the McCullough Peaks area, was not caused by climactic change associated with ETM2. While studies of PETM sections have suggested that the hyperthermal caused sediment coarsening in several different basins including the Bighorn Basin (e.g., Schmitz and Pujalte, 2007; Smith et al., 2008b; Foreman et al., 2012), this study suggests that the lesser magnitude ETM2 did not cross the necessary threshold to provoke a sedimentological response in the Bighorn Basin.

Originally published at The sound and nerdery of Rachael Acks. You can comment here or there.

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NK Jemisin tweeted this article this morning with an appended “Oh no:” massive (and it seems illegal) ocean fertilization project taking place off the coast of Canada. (And a little follow up here.) Oh no indeed. This is scientifically problematic for a lot of reasons, the two main ones being a) algal blooms ain’t exactly great for the surrounding waters and b) it most likely won’t have the intended effect. (And this doesn’t even touch on the grossness of the pretense used to convince the indigenous people in the area to go for it, that it was supposedly about the salmon population.)

Let me give you some background.

First off, “ocean fertilization” is the process of dumping some kind of nutrient that normally limits planktonic growth into an area of the ocean, thus letting the little guys eat their fill, have wild plankton sex, and increase their numbers rapidly. This works because basically every bit of the ocean has its planktonic growth limited by the scarcity of one or more nutrient (e.g.: Rivkin and Anderson, 1997); otherwise the oceans would be one giant algal matt. In some areas it’s nitrogen, in some it’s phosphate, in some it’s iron (because iron is necessary for photosynthesis).

Okay, so why do it?

The theory here is that the planktonic organisms (since there is more to ecosystem than algae, even if they’re the ones sucking up the iron for photosynthesis) contain carbon. Living things tend to do that. Additionally, quite a few planktonic organisms build themselves shells or internal structures from calcium carbonate, which also pulls carbon from the surrounding water. So a surge in these organisms should suck carbon out of the atmosphere and ocean waters, right? Then the organisms die, fall through the water column as marine snow, and take all the carbon with them. They get to the bottom waters, get buried, and hey presto, that carbon is now out of the short-term carbon cycle and into the long-term carbon cycle.

Because of course, the problems we are having right now are quite literally caused by us taking carbon from the long-term cycle and releasing it into the short term cycle at prodigious rates.

So why wouldn’t that work?

We actually talked about this topic when I took Oceanic Geochemistry about a year and a half ago. It sounds very simple on paper, like it really ought to work. However, recent research has shown that it might decrease planktonic populations long-term (not good) and that diatoms might suck up all the iron anyway, because diatoms are basically the freeloading college roommate of the plankton world, you know, like that guy who always drank all the beer in the fridge and never replaced it.

There’s an even more basic issue with the idea, however. In order for carbon to get into the long-term cycle, it needs to be buried, and before critters have the chance to eat it. The oceans are teeming with life, most of which are single-celled eukaryotic organisms and bacteria, who just love to eat anything organic. Even at the beginning of burial, when oxygen content is almost non-existent in the sediments, there are plenty of anaerobic bacteria who will just keep munching away and effectively poop out pyrite. (The process is far more complicated than that, of course, but there’s a reason you tend to see a lot of pyrite in super organic-rich shales. Or in shales that used to be organic-rich before the bacteria came along and ruined your life.)

For a long time the model of how sufficient carbon could be buried to give us our lovely black oil-producing shales depended on anoxic events (literally, no oxygen in the bottom waters), but it really seems to depend more on just burial rate. The way to get the carbon buried and out of the way is to inundate the bottom sediments with so much that the bacteria can’t possibly eat it all.

So then in order for this ocean fertilization idea to work, you’d have to up the productivity sufficiently and for a long enough period of time that you could provide a buffet so large for the organisms in the water column that they can’t possibly eat it all. Then

Read the rest of this entry »

Originally published at katsudon.net. You can comment here or there.

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I’m back I’m thin section heaven at work, slaving over a hot petrographic microscope and continuing my second listen to the Vorkosigan saga audiobooks. (Excellent, by the way.) And I saw something a bit like this today:


Out rather, a bit like the portion marked with a T. A trilobite! Or rather a cross sectional cut through the carapace of one. I wish I could show you a picture of my actual thin section because it was way prettier and had the more characteristic hooked W shape. But I like that whole having a job thing so, no. Sorry.

But this is why it’s cool and why I love geology. Something like 340 MILLION years ago, a time so distant in the past that my brain can’t really comprehend it as anything other than wow a long fucking time ago, a little trilobite was hanging out on a shallow marine shelf. Because there were trilobites back then (and realize that no human being had ever seen a live one, we missed them by hundreds of millions of years). And this little trilobite presumably had an awesome trilobite life and hung out with his or her little trilobite friends and then one day died. Waves swept the little guy further out to sea, where he was given a proper burial in carbonate mud and…

Over three hundred million years later, met me.

I’m looking at a piece of rock that was the bottom of a tropical sea in the distant past long before biology every got around to even thinking of primates, key alone drinks involving little paper umbrellas. And I get to touch that. Every day I get a tiny window into an Earth alien to the one we live on now.

And that is why geology is cool.

Plus volcanic lightning because fuck yeah.
Eyjafjallajökull by Terje Sørgjerd

Originally published at katsudon.net. You can comment here or there.

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All right, I’m coming back for more. Same rules as usual, I’ll be updating the liveblog every five minutes or so. Unfortunately if you want to play at home, I can’t help you at the moment. I’m watching part two on the DVR.

I know you’re terribly sad to be missing this.

WHEN LAST WE LEFT OUR INTREPID ACTORS, a volcano had just erupted because compressed magma (argh what even) and oil look EXACTLY THE SAME to their bullshit made-up technology. And now the entire world might explode because as we know, all volcanoes are actually connected, which is why every time a volcano erupts, every other one in the world does as well. (Wait, that’s not how it works?)

Oh, and the Yellowstone caldera is apparently now part of the Ring of Fire, which is news to everyone except for Dr. Cooper, the hot geologist with an aneurysm that is bad enough to be a dramatic plot device but apparently not bad enough to warrant emergency surgery.

Liveblog commencing in 10… 9… 8….

Read the rest of this entry »

Originally published at katsudon.net. You can comment here or there.

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All right, I’m going to do it. Apparently it’s THE COUNTDOWN TO MELTDOWN. Or something.

Same rules as usual – I will update the liveblog every five minutes or so. If you’re reading this on LJ or Dreamwidth you’ll need to come to the blog at katsudon.net to see the updates most likely, though I think edits are now supposed to push through so we’ll see.

If you’d like to play at home, this likely stinker of a miniseries is on Reelz. Yes, with a Z.

Liveblog commencing in 10… 9… 8…

Read the rest of this entry »

Originally published at katsudon.net. You can comment here or there.

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I mean. Look at it. Just look at it.

Gratuitous Mt. St. Helens reference? Check.

Ridiculous implication that somehow all volcanoes are connected and therefore THEY WILL ALL BLOW UP AT ONCE EHRMERGAHD? Check.

Gratuitous Yellowstone reference sure to guarantee a fresh crop of concerned people who will ask me when Yellowstone is going to blow up and kill us all? Check (Answer, by the way: “Soon” in geology speak. Which means chances are we’ll probably have killed our own species off before Yellowstone gets around to erupting.)


Just. Wow.

Bonus for what appears to be a bomb being dropped into a magma chamber. Because everyone knows that the way you keep a composite volcano from exploding is… uh… blowing it up first.

Because science.

Well, there’s my incentive to buckle down and get lots of work done in the morning. Part 1 of this hot (har har) mess is repeating at 4 pm my time tomorrow, followed by part 2. I don’t know if I have the strength.

Originally published at katsudon.net. You can comment here or there.

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I swear to god, this is the post that keeps on giving. By which I mean that it keeps me supplied with random comments and e-mails like this one. (Though in Mr. Alli’s defense, he was quite coherent and not frothily paranoid, counter to the norm.)

Hello Rachel Acks, this is Shawn Alli. I came across your article about abiotic oil: “4.5 Billion Years of Wonder.” If the abiotic oil theory is a laughable then so is the fossil fuel theory indoctrinated to everyone in the West as a child, a student, a young adult and by the time they’re an adult, there’s no need to question it all at. As a philosopher everything can and should be questioned, no matter how long a current theory has been in practice. The day we stop questioning scientific theory and current ideologies is the day humanity dies. Hopefully it will never come to that even though it’s moving in that direction.

Your small attacks on Thomas Gold’s status as an astrophysicist not being a petroleum geologist would be called a low blow, below the belt in reality. You’re attacking his credibility as a scientist believing that he can’t or anyone else for that matter can have a justified view of a topic outside the norm of their research. Your attack is similar to global warming advocates. If a meteorologists says man made climate change is bunk, the standard scientific dogma reply is “he’s not a climate change expert.”  If someone is an arctic research scientist and refutes man made climate change…”he’s not a climatologist, clearly he knows nothing.”  A paleo-climatologist refuting man made CO2, “clearly he’s being paid by oil corporations.”  These attacks on credibility need to stop despite the fueling of the media to people wanting a showdown.  Stick to attacking the arguments, not the credibility.

While I condemn your sarcasm to the abiotic theory I thank you for bringing in Richard Heinberg into the mix, doing so shows a more objective point of view, different from your starting laughable position. Heinberg’s paper makes a good point about nothing in science being conclusive, but that’s the crux of the problem as well. While nothing is objectively conclusive in all scientific disciplines, mainstream science/media/schools push the dominant findings into the norm of common knowledge, thereby taking away the concept of objective science being unfalsifiable with absolute conclusion. While this can be said to be a problem, the real problem (so many now…) is when scientists are funded based on their research, and not objective uninterested research, but massive bias that goes on to produce corporate science. And this is where almost all scientific discipline is. If large stakes of money are involved in the research, if status and reputation is in the pot, corporate science will be the result….(What was my point again?…what a tangent…but I’m a philosopher, so it’s allowed).  Ah yes, Mr. Heinberg’s point about abiotic oil being impossible to prove with absolute certainty. Good point, but absolute certainty is not what science is about nor what people need.  They think they need absolute results from science only b/c they’re conditioned to from society’s garbage institutions called schools and universities. By the way, congrats on your thesis defense coming up.  While I could care less about any higher education in the current archaic educational system (as if real knowledge is being obtained…sound of philosophers laughing), I understand why people go onto MA’s, MSc and PhD’s; for status, jobs and money. All of which are necessary to live a comfortable western lifestyle in the cities/suburbs.

I believe I’ve taken up enough of your time Rachel and wish you all the best while attacking your views on abiotic oil. I’m sure we could get along with respectable conversation. But feel free to read my book for more info. Hmm…I wonder, if I just said that at the beginning of the sales pitch would the end result have been the same?

“Oil, The 4th Renewable Resource”




Shawn Alli

P.S. Forget about kungfu with fixed styles. Look more into Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do where movement is free and flowing. So when it’s necessary to use, it won’t be dependent on the other person’s style.


Hello back atcha, Shawn Alli:

Having done my thesis on one tiny bit of paleoclimate, I have a lot of respect for what kind of bulk exists in the research literature. And you are darn right I’m skeptical about people making wild claims outside their field of expertise precisely because they do not generally prove they have a good grasp of current research – and often make claims that a simple literature search will show are false. I would also point out there is a fine but very important distinction between questioning conclusions (good) and wasting someone’s time with unfounded claims that are not backed up with good research (bad).

I do find it curious that you spend an entire paragraph scolding me about my rather throw-away mention that Thomas Gold is an astrophysicist and not a geologist (literally a single sentence in a much longer post) as an attack on his credibility… then spend your lengthy next paragraph attacking the basic credibility of research and educational institutions. You similarly complain about people questioning the motivations and funding of climate change deniers and then turn around and question the motivations of scientists based on their research funding.

The congratulation on my defense is appreciated, by the way, though it would have been much more congratulatory if not preceded by a paragraph tearing down the entire concept of higher education and the presumption of entirely mercenary motives on my part.

Feel free to read my book when it comes out on April 5th. It’s a steampunk murder mystery, a topic that is, to my mind, far more interesting than diving further down the crackpot rabbit hole of abiotic oil, and probably about as fictional.

Rachael Acks

PS: I like my kung fu style just the way it is.

PPS: The end result of my complete lack of interest in reading your book would have been the same, but without the added bonus of me thinking you’re a patronizing jerk.

PPPS: I have posted your e-mail with links intact on my blog at http://www.katsudon.net, as well as my answer. Seems fair to me.

Originally published at katsudon.net. You can comment here or there.

katsu: (Nice cup of shut the fuck up)
My awesome mom found the following article on Alternet and sent it to me, with the question "Plausible or wingnutty?" : Scientists Find Link Between Global Warming and Earthquakes

At this point, I know better than to accept at face value what an article claims that a scientific paper says, so I set out to find the paper - particularly since for once I have a chance of understanding at least some of the paper since it's about geology! I had to comb through the RawStory article that the Alternet article links to in order to actually find the paper in question. Which is:

Giampiero Iaffaldano, Laurent Husson, Hans-Peter Bunge, Monsoon speeds up Indian plate motion, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, Volume 304, Issues 3-4, 15 April 2011, Pages 503-510, ISSN 0012-821X, DOI: 10.1016/j.epsl.2011.02.026.

The article is available on ScienceDirect, though you may not be able to read the whole thing for yourself if you don't have a subscription to the service. You should be able to at least read the abstract, which should give you the gist of it.

So what does Alternet take out of this paper? "Climate change can affect plate tectonics, oh shit, that's why we've got all the huge earthquakes OH MY GOD."

I will point out that there's one VERY salient quote from Giampiero Iaffaldano (the lead scientist) that's in the RawStory article that Alternet leaves completely out:

Iaffaldano stressed that his study did not mean that global warming would translate to stronger earthquakes happening more often, with the relevant patterns developing over "the order of millions of years."

"Of course earthquakes do occur at the boundaries between plates because of plate motions, but our work doesn't imply at all that we will see an increase in these types of events," he told AFP.

Emphasis added by me. This little omission really leaves me wondering about the motivations of the Alternet author.

As for the paper itself, what does it actually say, and is it interesting? The paper does make a reasonable case for linking climate change with an effect on plate motion and speed. However, the important part that also gets left out of the Alternet article is that this link is explored on a million year scale. It's an examination of how the change in climate over the last 10 million years or so - the climate change in question being a strengthened Indian monsoon - has affected the erosion of the Himalayas, which ultimately lead to decreased resistance in the convergence between the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates.

Now, personally, I find this fascinating, since it links relatively "fast" surface processes (eg weathering and erosion) to much slower tectonic processes. I think that opens up a lot of very interesting research questions - Iaffaldano points out that he's curious to see if there's a climate signature to be found in other fairly recently uplifted areas.

But I think for general interest, it's VERY important to note that when we're talking a scale of millions of years - which is what plate tectonics operates on - the current climate change we are inflicting on the planet is NOTHING in terms of duration. It's not even a blip. Now, if we keep pumping carbon into the atmosphere and manage to really fuck things up in the long, long, long, long term, maybe in ten million years future humans or aliens will be using simulations to wind the tectonic clock back and say, "DAMN, look at those plates move!" But this will have no measurable effect on our short little human lives.

It really bothers me that an interesting study is being misrepresented in this way. While I appreciate wanting to add some urgency to the issue of climate change - trust me, I do, BIG TIME - this is not the way to do it. It smells like a scare tactic, and it plays into the hands of the global warming deniers.


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Tetsugawa Katsuhiro

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