Two Geologic Time Spills: One Liquid, One Radioactive
07.10.2010, 2:02 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Project Shoal site, FOP 2009

The liquid, transformed remains of animals and plants that lived 23-65 million years ago are now spilling into our world with immense ecological, cultural, and economic consequence.  The oil rising into the Gulf of Mexico has become a portal into deep geologic time that we can’t seem to close.  Obviously, Deepwater Horizon carried us all far beyond the horizon of human understanding and tools.

Of course, this isn’t the first time that technology, as a long extension of the human hand, has reached into a former world and beyond our grasp.  In light of events unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, one precursor seems important to recall.

In the 1960s and 1970s, at sites scattered across public lands in New Mexico, Colorado, Mississippi and Nevada, humans tunneled thousands of feet below the earth’s surface.

FOP 2009

Using drills that, in Italo Calvino’s words, push “an instant from one millennium to the next,” we arrived at former worlds known to geologists as the Tertiary, Cretaceous and Permian. There, we detonated nuclear bombs.  Some were part of Operation Plowshare–a failed attempt to find “peaceful” uses for nuclear bombs (such as earth moving, excavating harbors and canals, and generating steam as an energy source).

Last summer, we traveled, as artists, to conduct research at seven sites of nuclear explosions under public lands in the Southwest.  We arrived at a meadow near Dulce, New Mexico. We had just crossed out of the Apache reservation into the Carson National Forest.  Nearby, hardly visible in the overgrowth, was the monument marking Project Gasbuggy.

Gasbuggy monument, FOP 2009

Aside from a few pieces of rusted pipe, it is the only sign above ground of what exists below.

Gasbuggy site, FOP 2009

On December 10, 1967, a 29 kiloton nuclear bomb twice the size of that dropped on Hiroshima was detonated here at a depth of 4,240 feet, in 90 million year old shale.  The test was a collaborative effort between the Department of Interior, the Atomic Energy Commission, and El Paso Natural Gas Company.  Project Gasbuggy was intended to “stimulate flow of natural gas through the fractures created by the blast and use the chimney as a collection chamber.”

Office of Legacy Management Gasbuggy Factsheet

According to government fact sheets, the Gasbuggy test “worked.”  But it also made the natural gas radioactive.  As with similar attempts in Colorado (the Rulison and Rio Blanco tests), “elevated levels of radioactivity in the gas made it unacceptable for use.”

Today, six hundred and forty acres of land surrounding the Gasbuggy site are restricted to human use–quarantined because of the nuclear contamination below.  It remains there because, as the Office of Legacy Management puts it: “the DOE does not plan to remove subsurface radioactive contamination in or around the test cavity because no feasible technology exists to do so.”

Gasbuggy monument, FOP 2009

Deep ocean drilling and peaceful uses of nuclear explosions were intended to serve human needs.  Instead, they are requiring humans to redirect entire careers and lifetimes toward monitoring, cleaning-up and attempting to control their effects.  They have become limit cases of technology–feeding off of rather than adding to human capacities.

Now that humans are able to unleash geologic forces that will shape life and planet for millennia to come, it seems only obvious that we need to be just as able to project our imaginations into deep geologic time. Very few of us, if any, will have direct, personal experience of the depths, time spans, or forces that we tap by ocean drilling or nuclear tests such as Gasbuggy.  And the planet we inhabit has dimensions that no human will ever fully grasp.  But as artists, we know that humans can experience such things indirectly–through aesthetic works and acts of imagination.

British Petroleum and the Environmental Protection Agency websites are calling for citizen input on how to stop the spill and clean it up.  What if they also called for artworks and visualizations–aesthetic prostheses to help citizens, policy makers, and corporations actually feel the reality of deep geologic time and appreciate its force in our daily lives?

from Worlds to Come, 2009

With the help of artists, we might figure out how to bend contemporary human life and work toward the fact that the geologic forces of this planet are real.  Which means, we might find ways to design for the fact that they have an ever present potential to exceed our tools and capacities.

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