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image:Brian Roman © clastic detritus
A canyon, comparable in depth to the Grand Canyon, exists 100 miles off the coast New York City. It’s a submarine canyon. Maybe that’s why most New Yorkers don’t know about it. It also has been under water for awhile. The canyon dates to the Pleistocene and is actually an ancient extension of the Hudson River. During the Pleistocene, sea levels were 400 feet lower (in part because of all the water locked up in glaciers). The reduced sea level meant that the Hudson flowed 100 miles further east of its present location at the terminus of Lower Manhattan. The canyon carved by the Hudson extends a remarkable 450 miles across the continental shelf, then connects with the deep ocean basin where it descends to depths of 3 to 4 kilometers. As the Wisconsin Ice sheet retreated from what is present day New York City, the mighty Hudson of the Pleistocene transported heaps of glacial discharge and carved the surrounding landscape in its path. Today the sea floor is a mix of glacial silt and the City’s industrial sludge, by-products from the rather recent past when directly dumping garbage into the River was allowed.
It’s easy to wish we could follow the ancient river’s path to the edge of the Canyon today and gaze over the plunging edge. Though today, the path would most likely be scattered with the detritus of the industrial age.
Back in the Pleistocene, the Wisconsin Ice Sheet literally stopped in what is now New York City. Long Island is a terminal moraine and marks the dramatic retreat of the Ice Sheet. The island is essentially a gigantic assemblage of what had accumulated in the glacier’s fist. Staten Island was part of Long Island until Glacial Lake Hudson, which filled the Upper New York Bay, broke through the Narrows (site of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge) around 6,000 years ago. From there the Hudson River could take its preferred, more direct route to the Atlantic. The lower Hudson River, technically a tidal estuary, is also known as the Hudson Fjord.
Views of New York City’s very own fjord, image: CC Katy Silberger
Mesmerizing traces of the ancient River’s path, from the edge of Lower Manhattan to the depths of the Canyon, are distinctly visible from satellite view.
The Pleistocene and the depths of the Canyon might seem far away, too deep to be known, or too remote to be relevant to our daily lives. But modern humans and especially New Yorkers actually have a lot at stake in what goes down in relation to this geologic wonder. Submarine canyons, due to the temperatures maintained at their frigid depths in combination with the high pressures at the sea floor, are thought to contain immense pockets of methane hydrates, a clean-burning energy source. If a way to extract the gas from the sea floor could be resolved, some researchers think that the resulting fuel could power the United States for centuries.
Image courtesy of Hudson Canyon Cruise 2002, NOAA/OER.
This is such a viable possibility that teams of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been embarking on expeditions over the last decade to map the canyon and its auspicious gas reserves. A dramatic counterpoint to the promise of a new source of energy is the reality of the gas’s intense volatility: gas pockets could cause undersea landslides and trigger tsunamis with devastating effects for the metropolitan area. A portentous foreshadowing could be the 1929 7.2 earthquake off Newfoundland. This earthquake triggered a large submarine slump that created a tsunami that killed 28 people and ruptured 12 transatlantic cables.
Such undersea landslides are of immediate concern in connection with Hudson Canyon. As noted on the NOAA site, “The Hudson Canyon region is a hub of trans-Atlantic fiber-optic telecommunications cables that connect the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area to the rest of the world.” So, if you live in New York, next time your internet goes out, let’s hope it’s not a Hudson Canyon landslide slicing through the cables that enable the metropolitan area of 18.8 million people to keep connected with the world at large.
It’s a bit bewildering to think that a massive population of people inhabiting New York City lives in close proximity to this monumental culmination of geologic forces- AND most of us don’t even know it exists. Becoming aware of an incredible geologic phenomenon such as Hudson Canyon creates a perspective that’s both fantastic and REAL–one that both humbles and dishes out a healthy dose of pure wonder. When we start to see familiar icons such as the Hudson River as connections to places and times that we could never inhabit ourselves, they can become massively more interesting, perhaps even venerable. It’s also fun, given FOP’s mandate, to sense how directly the Pleistocene continues to shape and reshape today’s world.
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“Following dream waters upstream, the historian will learn to distinguish the vast register of their voices. As his ear is attuned to the music of deep waters, he will hear a discordant sound that is foreign to waters, that reverberates through the plumbing of modern cities. He will recognize that the H20 which gurgles through [the] plumbing is not water, but a stuff which industrial society creates. He will realize that the twentieth century has transmogrified water into a fluid with which archetypal waters cannot be mixed.”
-Ivan Illich, H20 and the Waters of Forgetfulness
Yesterday we cited Lucy Raven’s piece (from Triple Canopy Issue 7) on the 93,000 acre suburban development in Utah called Daybreak–part of Kennecott Copper’s attempt to both diversify its corporate activities and redress its legacy of environmental pollution on the edge of Salt Lake City.
FOP visited the development’s prized amenity, a new artificial lake named Oquirrh Lake, when we were on a research trip last summer. Both Daybreak and Oquirrh Lake are sited on the dry lake bed of ancient Lake Bonneville.
Two things intrigue us about Oquirrh Lake: how its “fresh” waters got there, and, as Illich writes, in what sense might we consider this artificial lake to be made up of what humans call “water.”
If we were to join Illich in following the dream waters of Oquirrh Lake upstream, we’d find two streams to follow.
One would lead to the source of its life today: Utah Lake, one of the last remnants of Lake Bonneville. The other would lead up to the Bingham Copper Pit.
Stream One: Utah Lake, also known as Timpanogos. One of the largest fresh water lakes in the Western United States, fed by the Provo, Spanish Fork and American Fork Rivers. It flows out to the Great Salt Lake. It is one of two living remnants of Lake Bonneville (three when Lake Sevier occasionally returns during wet years). It’s an ancient lake, a former source of what Illich would call archetypal waters. Utah Lake’s age and geologic story give it a significance that in some places, such as Lake Titicaca or the Dead Sea, is considered sacred.
However, today Utah Lake’s waters bare a closer resemblance to Illich’s “transmogrified waters” — the “stuff which industrial society creates.” It has become a “man made” lake, kept alive today by artificial means–dammed in ways that keep it from evaporating. The compromised waters from Utah Lake (there was a PCP advisory in 2006) are now being pumped north through canals to fill artificial Oquirrh Lake under water rights that Kennecott has long used for its mining operations.
Stream Two: Oquirrh Lake has also had multiple names–one given by Kennecott: The South Jordon Evaporation Ponds. And another given by the Environmental Protection Agency: OU7 (“operable unit 7″).
Oquirrh Lake’s site is a ghostly palmpsest of the evaporation ponds that collected downstream from the copper mine. Starting in 1936, the ponds were:
“used to store, evaporate, and dispose of excess waters originating from Bingham Canyon mining operations. Because the ponds were built on a former Lake Bonneville delta, the waters soaked into the ground and some of it reappeared in seeps along the face of the delta. Two new ponds (Eastside Seepage Collection Pond and Southside Seepage Collection Pond) had to be constructed there to collect the water.” EPA superfund record of decision, EPA/ROD/R08-01/518, 2001, pg. 28
In recent years, Kennecott Land cleaned up the evaporation ponds to satisfy the EPA. It removed elevated metals, tailings and acid-generating waste rock from the area. They were placed in repositories and waste rock disposal areas. Pond sediments also were excavated and placed in a 200-acre on-site repository, which was designed to accommodate a future transportation corridor. For the project, about 7.9 million cubic yards of waste were moved. Kennecott’s clean up satisfied the EPA, which then determined that no further action was needed or required “because the wastes remaining on site contain only low levels of lead and arsenic.” (EPA/ROD/R08-01/518, 2001)
A mutated Pleistocene lake now grows at the former site of the evaporation ponds. It is lined with a 65 acre sheath of thick High Density Polyethelene (HDPE) designed to block seepage in both directions. A Kennecott document describes the artificial lake:
“Nearly 35 million cubic feet of earth will be excavated for construction of the lake. Excavated earth is used for construction in other areas of Daybreak … Water flows over the dam as an aesthetic waterfall feature into a reflection pool. A computerized lake management system monitors and controls water treatment equipment, regulates the level of the water and controls the aeration system ensuring water purity. All of these elements have been devised to assist plant and animal life that live in the lake.”
And Deseret News reports:
“Waterfalls and a reflection pool will act as an aesthetic way to control the water level. And water pumped from the canals will be diverted into natural streams that will fill the lake. But those streams won’t provide enough circulation to keep the water from becoming stagnant and dirty. So at points throughout the lake’s bottom, small purple aeration systems, much like the systems used in fish aquariums in homes, will filter, circulate and clean the water based on a computerized monitoring system.”
The making of Oquirrh Lake, from its Utah Lake waters to its bathtub-like protection from the former Evaporation Ponds, “has transmogrified water into a fluid with which archetypal waters cannot be mixed.” Still, Daybreak’s public relations brochure encourages residents to dream of archetypal waters–nothing but pure H2O–at the shores of Lake Oquirrh:
“There aren’t many places where you can say: ‘Let’s walk to the neighborhood lake.’ All 65 acres of Oquirrh Lake are complete. It’s surrounded by trails, parks, and open space. Stocked with more than 200,000 fish. It has free kayak, canoe and sailboat rentals for residents. And eventually it will be a recreational area bigger than Sugarhouse Park.” Explore Daybreak
Unfortunately, any confusion between the “music of deep waters” and “what reverberates through the plumbing of modern cities” ended last summer when the water of artificial Oquirrh Lake was found to contain the rare parasite: roundworm. The illnesses of three residents of South Jordon caused the closing of Oquirrh’s swimming beaches and the cancellation of the Lake’s use for a triathlon.
The waters of Utah Lake have mixed with the human efforts, desires, and dreams that created Oquirrh Lake. The archetypal waters of Lake Bonneville’s remnant have left the Pleistocene and entered the Anthropocene.
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The Oquirrh Mountains reside at the south shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. This range of mountains is just one of many that exist in the vast Basin and Range Province’s seemingly endless procession of north south trending basins, and ranges. During the Pleistocene, when Lake Bonneville held dominion over 20,000+ miles across what are now three states, its waters lapped at the shores of these mountains, carving benches into their sides that remain visible today. The Oquirrh Mountains, with Lake Bonneville’s impact clearly discernible (documented in the late 1800’s. by the artist H. H. Nichols), grace the header of this website.
A lot has changed for the Oquirrh mountains since the Pleistocene. Most of this change has unfolded in the last 160 years. The range has been logged, mined for gold, silver, lead and most dramatically, for copper. It is upon this range that Kennecott Utah Copper Corporation set up shop back in 1906. Since then, the Corporation has been steadily, and methodically, morphing sections of the Oquirrhs into negative inversions of their former selves. This act of tunneling is a descent into deep geologic time, uprooting rock over 550 million years old (or an eighth of the Earth’s history).
As of late, the story has gotten even weirder for the Oquirrhs. Artist Lucy Raven’s documents this latest chapter of transformation in her piece Daybreak (appearing in Issue 7 of the online publication Triple Canopy). In Daybreak, Raven takes a close look at the area from the ground level and discovers a landscape once submerged by Lake Bonneville has taken on yet another life:
“Daybreak, a twenty-thousand-home development. When it’s completed, Daybreak will be the largest planned community in Utah, and one of the largest in the nation. It will extend twenty miles from South Jordan to the Great Salt Lake, stretching over forty-two hundred acres of “surplus mining land”—formerly mining tailings and settling ponds—bought throughout the 1900s by Kennecott Land’s much older sister company, Kennecott Copper.”
Perhaps strangest of all is the way in which water has once again returned to the feet of the remaining Oquirrhs:
“We’ve put more thinking into the design of this lake than any I’ve seen.”
—Russell Sanford, vice president of land development, Kennecott Land
“Oquirrh Lake is the centerpiece of Daybreak’s commitment to leisure time. The sixty-acre manmade body of water is framed by a perimeter of lush natural grasses and lined with a multimillion-dollar synthetic sheeting system that seals it from the contaminated soil below. As the ground beneath Oquirrh Lake is still a brownfield, swimming is not permitted, but there are ducks to feed, and there is catch-and-release fishing (the lake is regularly restocked with tens of thousands of local species). The lake is currently in the first of three phases of construction, and its acreage will eventually be tripled.” – Lucy Raven, from Daybreak
Though Daybreak and the Bingham Copper Pit are immense on a human scale, another perspective appears with a few thousand feet of elevation.
With our angle of sight adjusted, traces of the Pleistocene become more visible, perhaps even dominate. The Eastern extent of Lake Bonneville meets the lush Wasatch Mountains. Interventions from the Anthropocene such as the Bingham Copper Pit, the Daybreak development and Oquirrh Lake sink into near oblivion. They become dwarfed by the extent of the ancient Bonneville’s expansive, dessicated body (encompassing the Bonneville Salt Flats, the copper pit, Salt Lake City, Daybreak), bordered on the east by its living remnants: The Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake to the south. From here, we see geologic epochs existing alongside one another in a state of transitional co-existence.
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This morning FOP watched artist Trevor Paglen speak about “humans as geologic agents” (view the video here). His talk was recorded at the Sputnik Observatory for the Study of Contemporary Culture in 2006.
Paglen’s short talk offers up interesting questions around just how much human activities have reshaped the surface, and in turn, the geologic history of the earth.
We thought that a little geologic context would be helpful when considering the question of human intervention into geologic history. Luckily, we have handy tools like the Geologic Time Scale (see below) to assist in positioning ourselves in this history.
Humans evolved from Homo erectus into Homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago. That is somewhere towards the end of the Pleistocene (10,000 to 2.58 million years ago). The span of time representing the Pleistocene up to the present is highlighted in the little box below.
An important geologic era has yet to be adopted into official geologic time scales. But a few artists and scientists are beginning to define it: the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene, though disputed in its starting date, encompasses exactly the kind of human interventions that Paglen describes: inverting mountains for mining, accumulations of nuclear fallout (and waste) and non-biodegradable plastic. Basically, the Anthropocene is marked by the newest strata of the earth’s layers and is made up of things uniquely human in their design.
This brings up a few interesting questions. Humans have been living in relation to the planet for 200,000 years but have only been BIG shapers/rearrangers of the surface of the earth for (arguably) the past 100 years. FOP is drawn to the insight shared among scientists that humans have been designers for the entire extent of our 200,000 year existence. We have had to design built environments and rearrange the surface of the earth in order to survive this long. Humans have put geologic materiality to our use for the entire 200,000 years of our existence. But what kind of designers have humans become in the past 100 years? Why the big impact in these most recent years? And, is that impact really that BIG, that lasting, when you consider it in relation to the entirety of geologic time, past and future?
If humans have been around only 1/23,000th of the planet’s history, is our impact on the earth’s geomorphology really that big, or does it just seem that way to us? And, given the humbling brevity of our history, might a more provocative question be: what kind of geologic agents do humans want to become in the future? Mammals have an average species lifespan of 1 million years (although species have survived for up to 10 million). That gives us about 800,000 years to become more responsive to planetary forces as designers.
Paglen calls humans the biggest shapers of the surface of the earth, and this might be true of the last 100 years. Until we widen the view and take in the reality that we simply exist on the edge of a immense span of time that will keep going, with or without us. When the planet has this much time, it becomes THE most significant geologic agent, hands down, every time. And, though humans might be able to invert an entire mountain into a copper mine 3/4 of a mile deep in a 100 years, the earth can and will do what is always has done: break continents apart in seconds or turn volcanoes into craters in a matter of hours. What might it mean for humans to design with deep time in mind?
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This postcard hung in the rack amongst others. Celebratory scenes of men in uniforms, planes, communication towers, clearly it was a nation at work. This is the image that stood out, jumped off the rack with its difference. The stark clean lines of the “X” upon Wendover Airfield not only demarcated a built space within a vast, uninhabited space. The “X” also literally marks the Pleistocene lakebed as target, landing zone, and proving ground for the atomic era. Lake Bonneville prepared the space 10,000 years ago and humans in the 1940’s put this landscape to use for their purposes. A seemingly omnipotent view is afforded by a few thousand feet of altitude above the playa floor. From here, the lakebed stretches towards the horizon, offering up a blank slate readied for the urgent (human) task at hand. It was from here that the Enola Gay headed for Guam, Tinian and finally Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945.
William L. Fox wrote the following words in his most recent book, Aereality, in preparation for a recent departure (via airplane) from Wendover Airfield.
“My reaction is that aerial images are now more important than ever to study as aesthetic objects within the broader range of visual culture, precisely because they are so widespread in their use and influence. Aerial representations of the earth’s surface, whether photographic or remotely sensed and digitally reconstructed images, are used for everything from land-use planning to military campaigns…aerial imagery is now infinitely penetrable; you can interpolate any kind of digital information into it and map any kind of change upon it. It is perhaps at this point of malleability when aesthetics actually provide more efficient and relevant algorithms for parsing images than mathematics…It becomes my conviction that more than ever we needed to understand why and how we accord such authority to views elevated literally and figuratively above all others… If our view of the world has been increasingly aerialized since World War II- in part because our view of that war was so dominated by aerial imagery-flying out of a former military base from that era would “ground” my writing in a specific set of circumstances.”
The postcard begs for the lake to return and to have material presence once again. By washing into view, the lake would bring with it a longer, vaster geologic perspective on the historical moment contained within the postcard’s frame. After all, the distinct strandlines in the background hold a memory of Lake Bonneville’s shores across thousands of years, visible even from this height. By interpolating the lake into the postcard’s photograph, perhaps we can begin our initiation into deep time. Bonneville magically “returns” in the spirit of Eliade’s Eternal Return of Great Time/sacred time. The Lake returns as the mythical and sacred ancestor to the landscape depicted in the postcard. While the “X” of Wendover airfield becomes illuminated as Eliade’s profane: the strandlines of human history.
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FOP made a field-expedition this weekend to Prospect Park. It turns out, during the Pleistocene the neighborhood park was the site of a 1,000 ft. high ice sheet.
From the Prospect Park Alliance website,
“Although many of Prospect Park’s landscape features were man-made, the Park has geology to thank for much of its natural beauty. Fifty thousand years ago – in a period known as the Pleistocene Epoch – the land beneath the Park was buried under a sheet of ice 1,000 feet thick. During this Ice Age, North and South America were submerged under slowly shifting glaciers. In the vicinity of New York, the Wisconsin Ice Sheet crept slowly south, dragging along detached bedrock, sediment, clay and soil.
When the climate began to warm 20,000 years later, the ice retreated, leaving a belt of hills (known as a terminal moraine) that runs through Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. The northern edge of Prospect Park lies on this ridge, on land too steep for easy farming but well-suited for a Park complete with rich woodlands, steep ravines, and hilly meadows. The southern edge of the Park was built on crushed rock and gravel left behind by the melting glacier. This outwash plain would one day serve as the site for Prospect Park’s 60-acre Lake.
The Wisconsin Ice Sheet also left behind depressions in the land known as “knob and kettle terrain.” These “kettle ponds” formed the geological surface necessary to create the Park’s watercourse, beginning with Fallkill Falls and continuing into the Ravine, Lullwater and the Lake.”
We took the Park’s information and calculated that the ice that ground its way to the northern boundary of Prospect Park towered above the Grand Meadow to a height just under that of the Empire State Building (102 stories / 1,250 feet).
We projected our imaginations into the Pleistocene through the contemporary landscape, and arrived at this speculative image of the Wisconsin Ice Sheet rising above the park. A 1000 ft thick ice sheet would exceed the height of the apartments surrounding the park by roughly seven times their height:
(Photo composite by FOP with special thanks to Alan Vernon for his Creative Commons glacier image)
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“The human consciousness may have begun to leap and boil some sunny day in the Pleistocene, but the race by and large has retained the essence of its animal sense of time. People think in five generations – two ahead, two behind – with heavy emphasis on the one in the middle. Possibly it is tragic, and possibly there is no choice. The human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time. It may only be able to measure it. At least, that is what geologists wonder sometimes, as they have imparted the questions to me. They wonder to what extent they truly sense the passage of a million years. They wonder to what extent it is possible to absorb a set of facts and move beyond them, in a sensory manner, beyond the recording intellect and into the abyssal eons. Primordial inhibition may stand in the way. On a geologic time scale, a human lifetime is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about.”
-John McPhee, p.127 Basin and Range
Are we humans really stuck in an evolutionary eddy? Are we really cognitively incapable of comprehending deep time? Maybe it’s just that up to this point, our species’ survival has never depended on having the cognitive capacity to think beyond a generation or two in either direction. But now, our material existence requires that we reach into deep time. The very fabric of our daily lives depends on mining resources that took millenia for the earth to form. And our actions have created “waste” that will most likely outlast our species. Perhaps it’s time to evolve ways of imagining time that equal the reach of our grasp.
What if aesthetic experiences could help us recalibrate our imaginative capacities? What if everyone did what geologists do: stretch imaginations to recognize signs of worlds that preceded us? I could imagine that the red sandstone on the building outside my New York apartment is from the Triassic, as suggested by geologist Anita Harris in John McPhee’s In Suspect Terrain on a drive through Brooklyn, “Our first apartment there was a sixth-floor walkup. The building was from the turn of the century and was faced with red Triassic sandstone.” Materials, colors, and textures on my street are not from the world I inhabit. They’re from former worlds that existed millions of years ago, as strange as any in science fiction. The Manhattan Bridge for example stands as a message from Pre-Cambrian times (570 million to 4.7 billion years ago). The deep geologic memory and future of its iron ore communicate to architect John D. Martens:
“That bridge is alive, and in more ways than one. [It responds] to its environment, albeit at a different frequency than we humans usually perceive. It is also alive on a microscopic level as molecules are changing over time: oxidation, and the progression of a certain amount of fatigue… These things are all occurring simply but inevitably at a different scale and time period than we humans are accustomed. And what about the geological memory of the materials that have gone into it?” -architect John D. Martens
A foundational rule of the game of recalibrating your imagination for deep time: What you see is not what always was or what will be. What you see is actually a complex culmination of dynamic and multi-layered events–still unfolding. Thinking in and through deep time is thinking wide and deep at the same time: it’s a shift into dimensional thinking–from 3D to form as motion in real, slow time.
Pleistocene Lake Bonneville did not simply vanish, leaving the Bonneville Salt Flats or today’s Great Salt Lake as its traces. Lake Bonneville is still unfolding, now into its fifth stage of transition and on its way to the deep future.
In June of 2009, FOP transported a watery remnant of Pleistocene Lake Bonneville, in the form of a polaroid, 80 miles west to the floor of the present-day Bonneville Salt Flats. Two epochs of Lake Bonneville, separated by 10,000 years, co-existed momentarily on a sunny morning in a present-day Pleistocene landscape.