Field Report: heading towards catastrophe
06.03.2010, 12:34 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Today we are heading north to Downey, ID. It was in this area of the Red Rock Pass that Lake Bonneville broke through alluvial deposits 15,000 years ago and flooded into the Snake River, eventually making its way to the Pacific Ocean. The flood lowered the lake by hundreds of feet in a matter of days and is said to be the second largest flood in geologic history. Geologists describe it as a “catastrophic” flood. We find this an interesting word to describe a major geologic event:

Origin: 1570–80; < Gk katastroph an overturning, akin to katastréphein to overturn, turn down, trample on, to come to an end.

1530s, “reversal of what is expected,” extension to “sudden disaster” is first recorded 1748.
In geology: a sudden, violent disturbance, esp. of a part of the surface of the earth; cataclysm.

“Catastrophic” geologic events that end some state of relatively little or extremely slow change with sudden and massive change occur continuously through geologic time. It’s hard to think of these moments of upheaval as sites of misfortune or disaster because the process of change is what makes the planet so endlessly dynamic–and what ultimately makes life itself (including human life and evolution) possible. Now, major geologic events often have catastrophic effects for humans, but for the planet itself it’s just another normal day.

We’re looking forward to seeing what a site of catastrophic geologic change looks like 15,000 years after the event.

Today we depart from Logan, UT a city perched on several Bonneville terraces. On our way into the area yesterday we passed increasingly distinct wave cut benches. Signs of the lake appear in every direction.

outside Lucin, UT

land as wave, form as motion: Bonneville lapped along today’s Interstate 15

More Bonneville benches seen from the Interstate


While scanning the morning news, an article in the New York Times caught FOP’s eye. It imagines a way to stop the human-made catastrophic geologic event that is unfolding in time right now:  the vertical flood of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. “Nuclear Option on Gulf Oil Spill? No Way, U.S. Says” reports that the public and various scientists are suggesting that detonating a nuclear bomb deep inside the well might fuse the surrounding rock and stop the oil flood. Though no officials seem to be seriously considering this option, it’s an apt moment to remember Project Plowshare, a short-lived program of the Atomic Energy Commission (1961-73) that resulted in long-lasting effects to this day. Their failed attempts to use nuclear weapons for “peaceful purposes” (earth moving, resource extraction) left  behind numerous areas of intense radioactive contamination nested within the American landscape (driving directions to several of the sites and additional information about them can be found here). The legacy of contamination from these nuclear events is destined to last for deep geologic time. Both Project Plowshare and the Gulf oil spill pull the definition of “catastrophic” away from the geologic and distinctly into the realm of human-creation.

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