A Life Well-Lived

Lawrence Morley, left, with pilot Fred DuVernet in front of the Geological Survey of Canada's aeromag collection plane, around 1952. (Image used with permission of the GSC)

Lawrence Morley, left, with pilot Fred DuVernet in front of the Geological Survey of Canada’s aeromag data-collection plane, around 1952. (Image used with permission of the GSC)

Two years ago this week, one of our greatest scientists quietly passed away. Although among the world’s unheralded heroes, the life of Lawrence Morley deserves our attention. He helped prove plate tectonics, but in a fluke too common in science publishing, the brain prize went to a lucky Cambridge grad student instead. The story of his paper’s rejection by Nature makes as bitter a tale as any you will find in the history of science.

To know Morley’s story, we need to go back to 1960, when Alfred Wegener’s much maligned theory of continental drift was getting a facelift. Wegener’s idea that continents “plow through” oceanic crust had been scientifically faulted for over 40 years – there were no scars trailing the continents as they scratched their way through ocean crust and there was no known power source strong enough to do the job. However, overwhelming evidence from paleoclimate and fossil distribution insisted that continents must move.

Iceland's Silfra Rift: North America, left, Europe, right. (Image credit: Davido69 Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/davido69/

Iceland’s Silfra Rift: North America, left, Europe, right. (Image credit: Davido69 Flickr)

Continental drift evolved into plate tectonics between 1958 and 1968. It was a fascinating ten years. Geophysics was the engine of discovery. Heat patterns on the seafloor (hottest near the newly discovered mid-oceanic rifts) and magnetic patterns that mirrored each other across those rifts were key evidence that continents move. Heat was fairly easy to measure and understand. This played a part in 1962 paper by Princeton’s Harry Hess. Dr Hess suggested that the mid-ocean rifts were splitting the seafloor, widening it and pushing the continents apart. Rather than drifting, the continents were on a slowly moving conveyor belt. Hot magma oozed out at the rifts, separated, and cooled as it got further from the center. Temperature data confirmed the idea. Professor Hess was eminently respected, a brilliant geophysicist. Yet he cautiously dubbed his revolutionary paper  geopoetry and it was ridiculed by the stubborn majority anti-drift crowd. The heat distribution was a coincidence, they said.

But soon an entirely independent set of data was interpreted to support Hess’s seafloor spreading theory. An industrious Brit, Ron Mason, attached himself to a US Navy research ship which was mapping the depths of the Pacific. The Navy was searching hiding places that might conceal enemy cold war spy submarines. Mason convinced the Navy that dragging a magnetometer behind their ship would yield some useful information. They agreed, but the raw data – gathered over a two year period in the 1950s – was deemed classified. However, Mason was allowed to publish an edited map of the results. It became known as the zebra-stripe map. Ron Mason could not explain the odd pattern.

Magnetic zebra-pattern, acquired along US-Canada west coast, 1957. (Image by permission of Geological Society of America)

Magnetic zebra-pattern, acquired along US-Canada west coast, 1957. (Image by permission of Geological Society of America)

Some of the geophysicists who studied the 1957 map (published in 1961 by the Geological Society of America and reprinted here with their permission) proposed that the stripes were due to a weird distribution of magnetic minerals in the seafloor. Others suggested that Mason’s editing and processing caused data artifacts. But the Canadian Lawrence Morley noted that alternating reversed polarity from  the Earth’s magnetic field had become embedded in the rocks as they spread from rifts and cooled. Melted iron-rich rocks acquire the magnetic orientation of the Earth’s prevailing field. It gets locked in when the rocks solidify. Morley sent his idea to Nature in June 1963. They rejected it, partly because Morley’s idea contained the non-conforming notion of seafloor spreading, and partly because Morley’s hypothesis was almost purely qualitative – the Navy would not release the actual data, just the map, so he could not describe the phenomena quantitatively. However, his explanation was completely on the mark. Here is part of what he wrote to Nature in his failed submission:

“If one accepts, in principle, the concept of mantle convection currents rising under the ocean ridges, traveling horizontally under the ocean floor, and sinking at ocean troughs, one cannot escape the argument that the upwelling rock under the ocean ridge, as it rises above the Curie Point geotherm, must become magnetized in the direction of the Earth’s field prevailing at the time. . . it stands to reason that a linear magnetic anomaly pattern of the type observed would result.”  [1]

Morley arrived at his insight after years of studying the magnetic properties of rocks. After serving five years as an officer in the Canadian Navy during World War II, Morley took a job with a small geophysical company prospecting for magnetic iron ore in the north. His magnetometer – the best available at the time – was not much better than the tool Sir William Gilbert, who discovered the Earth is a magnet, had used 300 years earlier. Morley measured the intensity of magnetism by simply watching a needle balance horizontally on a knife edge. If he trudged across a magnetic vein embedded within the granite at his feet, the needle sometimes deflected further downwards. “This was high-tech at the time. It would take a whole day to collect a mile-long magnetic profile of data. This tedious work, combined with unbelievable clouds of mosquitoes in the Canadian Shield,” he said later. [2] Hiking all day across brutal terrain was the only way to capture a few magnetic data points in 1946. But a year later, his data collection would speed up a hundred-fold.

When Morley heard about the potential use of airplanes towing magnetometers on long cables, he vowed he would never go back into the bush with a hand-held device. The airborne tool had been perfected by Gulf Research and Development Corporation just before the Second World War. The oil company planned to use it to outline potential hydrocarbon basins, but loaned the equipment to the US Navy during the war as a search tool against enemy submarines. The war was over when Morley, by then working in the Canadian Shield and nursing mosquito bites, heard a talk about the airborne magnetometer. He realized he’d rather fly in a recycled navy warplane than spend five minutes trying to get a single point reading.

Gulf was headquartered in Pittsburgh; Morley was in Ontario. Getting across the Canadian-American border was a problem. According to historian Henry Frankel, Morley said, “I couldn’t get a job unless I had a visa, and I couldn’t get a visa unless I had a job. I actually sneaked across the border.” [3] Morley presented himself to Gulf, but they wouldn’t hire him as a researcher without a PhD. Instead, they referred him to a small independent contractor. Morley spent 1947 and 1948 as their party chief, flying an aeromagnetic survey in Venezuela and Colombia over the Llanos Basin, east of the Andes. It was the world’s first commercial aeromagnetic survey and Morley proved that a huge tract of land could be surveyed from the air by peering through thick inaccessible jungle and cloudy rain forest to assess mineral deposits and oil basins. Morley returned to Canada, determined to use aeromagnetic surveys to explore the vast Canadian Shield.

Morley in 1963

Morley in 1963

Back in Ontario, he realized that learning theoretical geophysics would be useful. Because of the war, his BSc had been truncated. Morley returned to the University of Toronto where Tuzo Wilson became his PhD supervisor. Tuzo Wilson was already legendary in both geology and geophysics. Canada’s first geophysicist, Wilson would later play a pivotal role in plate tectonics theory by solving a thorny problem with crustal motion along mid-oceanic ridges and for proposing that the Hawaiian islands came to life from a hotspot under the moving Pacific plate.

Wilson, in 1949, introduced Morley to the idea of continental drift. Although the great Wilson had not yet made up his own mind about the theory, Lawrence Morley became intrigued. He was even more captivated when, as part of his preparation for graduate research, he encountered a new paper on palaeomagnetism. Its author suggested that the magnetism of ancient rocks might offer evidence for continental drift. [4] If one could plot old magnetic pole positions, one could track the ancient movement of the continents. This was fifteen years before plate tectonics would enter mainstream geology. It was still a fringe science with many more detractors than supporters. Nevertheless, for his doctoral thesis, Morley pursued the remnant magnetism of the Precambrian Shield’s rocks. But the polar drift data he sought eluded him – geophysical equipment in 1950 was simply not accurate enough. Background noise and primitive equipment overwhelmed his efforts. “I could not get a constant direction. I couldn’t clean the samples enough to get a consistent direction,” he said. [5]  Morley’s effort to prove continental drift through remnant magnetism failed; nevertheless, his research was sound and he earned his doctorate.

GSC Magnetic Intensity NWT: tight circles could indicate diamond-rich kimberlite pipes

Magnetic Intensity of NWT: tight circles could indicate diamond-rich kimberlite pipes

In 1952, he became the first geophysicist to work for the Geological Survey of Canada. Most of his time was now spent planning and supervising government aeromagnetic surveys to encourage mineral exploration. Data collecting was contracted at a cost of $30 million dollars and took 17 years to complete. “The benefits of this survey to the mining industry in Canada have never been calculated, but they must be more than several billion dollars and are still going strong,” he wrote in his reminiscent article The Zebra Pattern. [6] It was this government data that inspired diamond prospecting in the Northwest Territories and led to ore discoveries from Newfoundland to the Yukon.

As an expert in magnetic properties of rocks, Lawrence Morley was drawn to Ron Mason’s zebra-pattern magnetism map of the Pacific Ocean. Morley, working at the Geological Survey of Canada, was the first to correctly interpret the alternating stripes as direct evidence of seafloor spreading. He called it his “Eureka Moment.” The stripes, he believed, were because new seafloor was being created by magma at oceanic rifts, and as it cooled into solid rock, the magnetic polarity of the moment was captured. Hence, the stripes. Morley was right. He tried to get his paper published in Nature, the prestigious British science journal, in February 1963. He penned a simple, non-analytic interpretation of Ron Mason’s zebra-striped map, but the journal and the geophysical community were not ready to entertain musings that linked magnetic anomalies to the spreading seafloor.

However, Morley had perfectly captured the solution. Independently, and just a few months later, the British team of Frederick Vine and Drummond Matthews came to the same conclusion. They were successfully published, in Nature, in September, 1963. It was unfortunate timing for Morley – and for Vine and Matthews, who likely didn’t know about the Canadian work. But the entire episode points to a fundamental problem with peer-reviewed publication. As Morley himself noted, “I knew that when a scientific paper is submitted to a journal, the editors choose reviewers who are experts on the topic being discussed. But the very expertise that makes them appropriate reviewers also generates a conflict of interest: they have a vested interest in the outcome of the debate.” [7] Morley’s reviewer, who remains anonymous, may have felt seafloor magnetic zebra stripes prove nothing, and may have been staunchly opposed to the concept of continental drift. Or he may have been aware of the research at Cambridge wanted those scientists to receive credit. Morley was told that Nature did not have room to print his short paper. Lawrence Morley quickly dispatched it to another research journal, which also rejected it. There, the anonymous reviewer scolded that although Morley’s idea was interesting, it was best discussed over martinis, rather than published in the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Perhaps the real problem was that Morley’s explanation of the zebra pattern was qualitative, not quantitative. The zebra map’s raw data were still classified, so Morley did not have the actual numerical values in hand, nor did he have other marine data that might have corroborated the Pacific magnetic set. At Cambridge, scientists had been gathering similar, albeit unclassified, data from the Indian Ocean and North Atlantic long before Frederick Vine became a grad student there, so the Matthews and Vine article had the university’s considerable quantitative material to draw upon for their analysis. Nevertheless, Dr Norman Watkins in 1974 wrote in Geology that Morley’s theory was “the most significant paper in earth sciences ever to be denied publication.” Instead, “Magnetic Anomalies over Oceanic Ridges” by Matthews and Vine was submitted to Nature (the same journal which had rejected Morley) in July and was published in September 1963. The Cambridge paper had numerical data which Morley’s work lacked, but the interpretation and results were the same. When it became apparent Lawrence Morley had previously tried to publish the same conclusion, he was also belatedly credited in the Morley-Vine-Matthews Hypothesis.

I have read a few misguided stories that claim Lawrence Morley was so bitter from the experience that he disappeared and was never heard from again. I guess that would be one way to end this piece. But instead of sinking into oblivion, Morley served as head of geophysics at the Canadian Geological Survey for the next 17 years – he stayed in earth science research for over 50 years. As founder of the Canadian Remote Sensing Society, he slowly shifted his focus from earth-bound geophysics to space-probing geophysics. Through that society, and later Natural Resources Canada, he pioneered the ground-breaking Radarsat system of satellite imaging as a way to monitor floods, fires, urban sprawl, sea ice changes, Russian Arctic invasions, and as an aid to mineral exploration.

Morley in 2008

Lawrence Morley,  in 2008

One of Lawrence Morley’s last public acts was a defiant stand against the conspired sale of the Canadian government’s advanced Radarsat-2 series of satellites (and the Canadarm) to foreign interests. Morley had been instrumental in the creation of Radarsat. He lamented the potential loss of a cutting-edge system that Canadian taxpayers spent billions of dollars developing. He was especially upset that the buyer would be American defense contractor Alliant Techsystems. Morley was 88 years old in 2008 when he went on a spirited speaking and letter-writing campaign, saying that the sale would be a blow to Canadian sovereignty. Others joined the cause, including Canada’s first astronaut, Marc Garneau, who was by then a member of parliament.

They won. Today, Canada still has a space agency, Radarsat satellites, and the Canadarm. Invoking the Canada Investment Act, it was the first time in 23 years that an impending sale was stopped by the federal government on the basis of “net benefit” to Canada. Jim Prentice, Industry Minister (and now Alberta’s premier) confirmed in a 2008 news conference that sovereignty questions over the transfer of Radarsat-2 technology were factors in halting the sale. Lawrence Morley was elated. The former Navy officer, geophysicist, space pioneer, and plate tectonics revolutionary was once again proven right.

**Much of the preceding was pilfered from my book. You can read more about this and other stories of geophysical discovery in The Mountain Mystery.

1. Morley, Lawrence (1963). Morley’s “Letter” from John Lear’s article, “Canada’s unappreciated role as scientific innovator,” Saturday Review (2 Sep 1967), p 47.
2. Morley, Lawrence (2001). “The Zebra Pattern,” Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth, edited by Naomi Oreskes. p 70. Westview Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
3. Frankel, Henry R. (1987). The Continental Drift Controversy: Evolution into Plate Tectonics, Vol 4, p 126. Cambridge University Press.
4. The paper that deeply influenced Morley’s thesis choice was John Graham’s 1949 monograph, “The Stability and Significance of Magnetism in Sedimentary Rocks.”
5. Frankel, Henry R. (1987). The Continental Drift Controversy: Evolution into Plate Tectonics, Vol 4, p 126. Cambridge University Press.
6. Morley, Lawrence (2001). “The Zebra Pattern,” Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth, edited by Naomi Oreskes. p 71. Westview Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
7. Morley, Lawrence (2001). “The Zebra Pattern,” Plate Tectonics: An Insider’s History of the Modern Theory of the Earth, edited by Naomi Oreskes. p 84. Westview Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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200 Years of Volcanic Legacy

How Tambora changed our planet.

How Tambora changed our planet.

I am rather pleased when my favourite non-science journal explains a bit of science – and gets it right! I’ve been reading The Economist ever since I discovered the world, and the magazine has seldom let me down. Here is a great little video from The Economist’s science and nature folks. It shows how volcanoes rule. Or at least can briefly interrupt the climate’s intentions. Their model is the 1815 Indonesian Tambora eruption which indirectly inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein and Joseph Smith’s family to leave freezing Vermont’s Year without a Summer and settle in New York where young Smith soon found the golden plates that started the Latter Day Saints on their march to salvation and Utah.

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the April 10, 1815 Tambora explosion that killed hundreds of thousands. Except for Young Frankenstein and some nice buildings in Salt Lake City, there really isn’t much left to remind us of that infamous volcano. But if you’d like to know more about Tambora, I wrote a blog a few months ago which details this connection. Meanwhile,  here’s The Economist video.

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Trumpeting the Quake

Why is this elephant running?

Why is this elephant running?

Earthquake prediction may run off in a new direction. We’ve tried electronics attached to seismic detectors (and made some progress), but there may be a new ally in the battle to give a warning before the next big one knocks you off your feet. The way things work now, geophysicists can’t tell you when an earthquake will strike – we can’t predict which hour, day, month, nor even year. We don’t know. But some people think that perhaps the elephants know.

The animal stories about quakes border on pseudo-science.  Elephants were much in the news after the 2004 Boxing Day quake and tsunami in southeast Asia. Eyewitnesses claim that very few animals were killed in the carnage that took hundreds of thousands of human lives. Flamingos and bats flew to high ground, dogs and cats fled together from seaside villages, and elephants screamed, then trumpeted as they ran, heralding the coming doom. Reports asserted that elephants were particularly keen to escape the lowlands during the moments before the tsunami. Ravi Corea, president of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society said he was surprised by the lack of animal carcasses (other than two water buffaloes) following the tsunami, though about 50 humans died on a beach in his area. About an hour before the tidal wave hit, people noticed three elephants running away from the beach, said Corea. Another person claimed that his family dogs refused to go for their daily run along the water’s edge shortly before the tsunami struck. Three elephants running, two dogs hiding, and a flamingo flying uphill does not prove that animals have extra senses attuned to impending disaster. However, for centuries, folk legends have been telling us that animals know when woe is nigh.

Barbar readingThe United States Geological Survey (USGS) decided to investigate the wisdom and predictive powers of animals. Is there real proof that creatures detect earthquakes and tsunamis before they occur? Or is it a case of hindsight on the part of observers? Humans have a brilliant tendency to recreate history and fill in gaps as part of our hard-wired system of explaining the world to ourselves. We are also excellent at extrapolating a few examples and turning them into a complete world-view. We are particularly susceptible to confirmation bias, our tendency to find explanations for odd phenomena that agree with our ideas of how the universe should work. (For example, a person may recall that just before a tremor, the cat was hissing. Perhaps it was. But that feeble old cat hisses thirty times a day, the tremor happened just once. Retrospective explaining that confirms a prior notion is confirmation bias.) Is this what is happening after a catastrophe when people report unusual activity of pets and wildlife that they noticed? The USGS wanted to know.

housequakeTentatively, the USGS scientists concluded that a geophysicist-elephant’s skill at predicting earthquakes and tsunamis is not convincing. In their paper, Animals and Earthquakes, the investigators suggest that “We can easily explain the cause of unusual animal behavior seconds before humans feel an earthquake. Very few humans notice the smaller P wave that travels the fastest from the earthquake source and arrives before the larger S wave. But many animals with more keen senses are able to feel the P wave seconds before the S wave arrives.” Elephants are known to hear low frequency sounds (the rumbles of distant tribe members, the roar of an incoming tsunami) even when the source is 30 kilometres away. This might have something to do with those huge ears and big flat feet. But, as the USGS paper says, there might be senses other than auditory involved. Could animals feel the ground tilt, could they sense electric or magnetic atmospheric changes before an earthquake? The authors inform us that we don’t even know if electromagnetic field changes are involved and suggest that this is an area ripe for scientific inquiry.

The USGS paper cites three sources, all relatively old, dating from 1985, 1988, and 2000. The sources, especially the 1988 paper by UCLA’s Rand Schaal, looked for statistical correlation with commonly reported animal phenomena. In particular, Schaal reviewed the number of missing dogs reported in the local papers. (Schaal writes, “For a dozen years a theory has been advanced in the south San Francisco Bay area that when an extraordinarily large number of dogs and cats are reported in the “Lost and Found” section of the San Jose Mercury News, the probability of an earthquake striking the area increases significantly.”) Schaal’s statistics show that there were 62 large quakes during the study period but only 9 correlated with runaway dogs while 16 earthquakes were preceded by stay-at-home pooch activity. The paper’s bottom line: There is no relationship between missing dogs and impending quakes. Furthermore, the number of missing dogs “is not proportional to the quantity or magnitudes of quakes,” wrote Schaal.

Howling wolfOK, so dogs don’t make howling great seismologists. But there is still the nasty business of a story that has lasted at least 2400 years, a folk legend that tells us to mind our dogs, cats, and toads because they know when to run. For example, when the Greek city of Helike was flattened by a quake and tsunami in 373 BC, dogs ran three kilometres (2 miles) to Keryneia, a hill town about 300 metres (1000 ft) higher than coastal Helike. The destruction was preceded by flashes of bright light. Religious folks at the time said that the catastrophe was attributed to the vengeance of Poseidon (god of oceans, horses, and earthquakes) because the inhabitants of Helike had refused to give their statue of Poseidon to the Ionian colonists in Asia. Maybe they are right – I wasn’t there when it happened and the locals of the time swear it’s true. But I digress. And I glossed over the flashes of bright light. Maybe they caused the dogs to run.

auroraAbout those flashes of bright light. In second-year geophysics, I was taught something called the piezoelectric effect. If you squeeze particular minerals, ceramics, bones, money, proteins, or rocks hard enough, a bit of electricity is released. We are talking about enormous masses of rock and enormous earthquake pressures, so the amount of piezo- electricity could be significant. When visible, scientists call these discharges Earthquake Light. The flashes are reported to have shapes similar to those of polar auroras and are usually a white to bluish hue. The glow is reported to be visible for several seconds, sometimes even minutes. Earthquake Light has been reported in Hawaii, New Zealand, California, Japan, and ancient Greece – it seems unrelated to culture or geography, but is centered around earthquakes and has been seen before, during, and after quakes. But not every earthquake is accompanied by a glow show. However, it has been speculated that every earthquake may have some piezoelectric effect going on. If the right equipment is in place to monitor a fault zone, it may be possible to detect the buildup of rock stress and predict earthquakes.

One would think that the piezoelectric effect could become a potent tool for forecasting imminent earthquakes. There must be dozens of geophysicists investigating this. If there are, they are keeping pretty quiet about their work.

But one scientist willing to talk about this quake link is Friedemann Freund. Freund’s research into the way rocks under stress can release hundreds of thousand amperes may lead to a real breakthrough in earthquake forecasting. His work uses the subtle electromagnetic signals generated when stresses build up along fault zones. Freund, working with two post-doctorate researchers at NASA and later with a group of students, showed that air molecules become significantly ionized near rocks that are stressed. They even observed tiny sparks flying off the edges of the rocks – likely a scaled-down version of the bright light phenomenon observed since Grecian times in Helike.

This led Freund, working with Thomas Bleier at Stellar Solutions, to monitor the output of dozens of ultralow frequency sensors set along fault zones in California, Peru, Greece, Sumatra, and Taiwan. They say that they have found significant increases in ionization whenever there has been a moderate to large earthquake nearby.

“Changes in Animal Activity Prior to a Major (M=7) Earthquake in the Peruvian Andes”, appearing in last month’s Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, and written by Friedemann Freund, Rachel Grant, and Jean Pierre Raulin, correlates animal behaviour in Peru to a major 2011 quake. In their paper, the researchers

“…present records of changes in the abundance of mammals and birds obtained over a 30 day period by motion-triggered cameras at the Yanachaga National Park, Peru, prior to the 2011 magnitude 7.0 Contamana earthquake. In addition we report on ionospheric perturbations derived from night-time very low frequency (VLF) phase data along a propagation paths passing over the epicentral region. Animal activity declined significantly over a 3-week period prior to the earthquake compared to periods of low seismic activity.”

Freund believes that evidence indicates that ultralow frequency electromagnetic waves in the environment prior to an earthquake can have effects on animal behavior. Freund et.al. propose that the “multitude of reported pre-earthquake phenomena may arise from a single underlying physical process: the stress-activation of highly mobile electronic charge carriers in the Earth’s crust and their flow to the Earth’s surface… [These are] known to be aversive to animals.”

Freund is studying the potential link and is looking for ways of using pre-quake radiation to predict earthquakes. His key investigation is to determine if we can use the signals produced during the build-up of quakes and detect them at the Earth’s surface. Freund says his hope is that we will reach a point where we can forewarn of impending tremors in a way similar to severe weather alerts – we can not predict any particular lightning strike, but we can usually give warnings that extreme thunderstorm damage is likely in a region within a few hours. Such a warning may take the form of “Stresses at a particular fault seem to be building up deep in the earth’s crust and there is an increased chance of an earthquake within the next few days.” This would be a great improvement over our current predictive abilities which simply give a probability in the range of years. Parts of California’s San Andreas Fault, for example, have a 97% probability of being visited by a 6.7 or greater magnitude earthquake within the next 30 years. This, of course, is extremely helpful for construction plans and safety guidelines. But it is not the sort of information that will send you off on a two-week visit to Calgary or London.

What about the animals? It may be possible that dogs and cats and birds and lizards sense the buildup of electricity due to the overwhelming rock stress preceding an earthquake. But what would they do with such information? Is there an evolutionary advantage to fleeing earthquakes? Not likely. Devastating earthquakes may occur every elephant headcentury or two along an active fault zone. Even then, small surface animals would not likely be hurt. Most damage and death is structure-related. Humans fare poorly during earthquakes because our homes collapse. Burrowing animals may be similarly disadvantaged, but most surface-dwelling animals would simply be annoyed – not killed – during an earthquake. There would not be an inherited genetic predisposition that alerts animals to a brewing quake, nor would most animals have first-hand experience or handed-down legends to inform them of the best reaction to an earthquake.

If there is any animal-quake relationship, it may be due to the annoyance of the increasing electromagnetic field which some animals may find irritating enough to cause a quick jaunt towards anyplace away from the snap and crackle of atmospheric static. Relating charges to elevated earthquake threats makes an interesting hypothesis, but will take time to prove. However, such a study has life-saving potential and is worth the effort.

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Finger pointing frustrations


More on fracking – a great analysis and explanation of the cause and geology behind the way water injection causes seismicity – from The Grumpy Geophysicist:

Originally posted on The Grumpy Geophysicist:

Well, the New York Times finally decided to dial in to the ongoing seismic mess in Oklahoma. And while the coverage highlights the potential conflicts of interest and ability of the oil and gas industry in that state to dampen if not entirely prevent criticism of its operations, it doesn’t exactly shed a lot of light on the problems of saying why there are these earthquakes and it doesn’t help folks to understand how these earthquakes might be connected to the wells in question.  Rather than get into the mud and argue the details in Oklahoma (you can read the 2014 Science paper if you want to see how that is done), consider a much simpler system.

For the past 24 years, the Bureau of Reclamation in southwest Colorado has been pumping saline water into a deep aquifer (the goal is to reduce the salinity of Colorado River…

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In Pursuit of Dead Squishy Things

T-rex at the T-rel Museum, Drumheller, Alberta

T-rex at the T-rel Museum in Drumheller,
Alberta, Canada   (photo: Miksha)

If you spend a little time at your favourite dinosaur museum, you are sure to hear parents explain to their child that the T-rex about to swallow the kid’s head is just a bunch of dead bones. “Quit bawling, Johnny. It won’t eat you, it’s just bones. Now settle down while I take your picture.” I always delight in telling such folks that these are not bones, they are stones. They have as much relationship to bones as Rodin’s Thinker has to a contemplative Richard Dawkins. Similar shape. One is the original; the other was made from a mold.

Fossils are rocks. They may start out as bones. Some might argue that bones are rocks even when they are still covered with flesh, but that’s not quite true. Bones are mostly made of flexible strings of proteins called collagen. Attached to that pliable framework are the rocky minerals calcium phosphate and calcium carbonate. Calcium gives bones their strength. It also builds reefs, which create limestone and marble. Bones are not quite rock hard, but close enough. However,  fossils are not bones.

After a boney creature shuffles off its mortal coil, it quickly disintegrates, though its calcium-rich bones may linger in the soil for hundreds of years. If mineralized water seeps through the bone bed, precipitate will replace gaps and spongy holes once occupied by fluids and collagen. Eventually, in the right environment, the bone becomes stone. Some day I will post a blog filled with words like rot, decay, microbes and bacteria – I will then decompose the entire fossilization process in painful detail. Until then, just remember that when palaeontologists uncover dinosaur bones, they are actually digging up dinosaur stones. (There are very rare exceptions. Even in stone bones that are a hundred million years old, there are occasionally bits of organic original dinosaur. Such discoveries are hugely important, but hugely rare.)

Fossil bones are actually stones. At least for those dead animals that once had bones. But for most of its existence, the Earth hosted non-boney lifeforms. Scientists crave details about the lives and habits of those early boneless creatures. These animals existed for hundreds of millions of years, predating dinosaurs and humans by eons. They were around for a ridiculously long interval. The amount of time from the last dinosaur to the first human is far less than the time that pre-boned animals filled the Earth’s environment.

A Burgess Shale Cambrian Arthropod

A Burgess Shale Cambrian arthropod fossil

For two billion years, nothing more complicated than tedious uninteresting unicellular life existed on the Earth. Then, about five hundred million years ago, an incredible transformation erupted. Everything changed. In under ten million years, our planet’s life went from single-celled biochemical slime to a full spectrum of diverse, complicated creatures. The trigger for the sudden unprecedented evolution of arthropods, worms, and figmentasias from microbes is unknown. Until we figure out the mechanism, we have a gap in our knowledge. Suffice to say, the event known as the Cambrian Explosion (an eruption of living diversity) represents a gap being bridged by intense research and speculation. The paucity of fossils of Cambrian animals makes the mystery difficult to resolve. In a geological blink, life evolved from gooey simpleness to puppy-sized carnivorous arthropods. But we don’t have enough fossils to piece together the entire transition.

    Hallucigenia, a squishy Cambrian animal     (Image Credit: Apokryltaros) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Apokryltaros

Hallucigenia, a squishy Cambrian animal
(Image Credit: Apokryltaros)

They were bigger than algae and much more complex, but the new pre-vertebrates had juicy bodies that melted away upon death, rarely leaving evidence of their existence. It takes extremely unusual circumstances to preserve the outlines of dead, squishy creatures. Soft animal fossils are found in just a few places. The soft tissues need to be gently enveloped by mud and clay. The mud is then overlain with more mud or heavier sediments, erecting a shale tomb for our beloved ancestors. Inside the tomb, there has been no mineralized replacement of the gelatinous organs, but there are occasionally impressed patterns, much as your fingers might make by squeezing Play-Doh. In the case of Cambrianites, the envelope is made of very old rocks. Not only are the conditions of proper entombment rare, but because of the age of the rocks, they have had a much greater opportunity to tectonically lift above sea level and erode, leaving dust in place of marvelous imprints of animals such as Polychaete worms, Molaria, and the exquisite Marella.

The tectonic forces that lift Cambrian rocks to sunlight are still active today in Canada’s Rockies where  shale containing the rare fossil imprints of soft animals are exposed to the destructive vigor of wind, rain, and geologists. Until two years ago, the last truly great discovery of a Cambrian-age fossil assemblage was found by Charles Walcott in 1909, at a place we call the Burgess Shale.  The fine-grained rocks of the Burgess preserve the world’s best Cambrian fossils. About 505 million years ago,  when these particular creatures lived, North America was visiting the equator, the sea was warm, and marine plants and animals thrived. (By the way, the continents were completely lifeless, all the planet’s biology was in the oceans.) At the time, competing to capture prey, while avoiding becoming a dinner snack, while racing away from mud slides, while looking for suitable mates were likely the stresses that helped evolve the conservative life forms into creatures which could eventually blog about their ancestors. But what was the trigger? What started all this in motion?

Charles Walcott, his wife and son, working the Burgess.

Charles Walcott, his wife, and son, digging M. walcotti from the Burgess Shale’s Walcott Quarry, 1913.

We are not likely to solve the Cambrian explosion mystery with just the soft-tissue patterns pressed into the original Burgess Shale Walcott Quarry. Although many diverse species have been described since this discovery a hundred years ago, the UNESCO World Heritage site has likely yielded the bulk of its astonishments. We now know much about the ecology and habits of the Burgess denizens. They have been examined and re-examined, especially during the last thirty years. But just when the work was drifting towards monotony, an amazing thing happened. A whole new fossil field was discovered about forty kilometres away.

Marble Canyon

Marble Canyon, Photo by Miksha

Marble Canyon, with a hiking trail connected to the Kootenay Highway that links Calgary and Radium Hot Springs, would not seem the place to find a whole new batch of enigmatic Cambrian creatures. I have tramped the trail around the fake marble cliffs several times. (Marble Canyon is made of shiny limestone.) While oohing at the dramatic narrow canyon (a few metres wide at top, plunging 20 metres to the stream below), I missed noticing Cambrian fossils. Nothing to feel too embarrassed about – for a hundred years, everyone missed seeing the fossils. They were discovered in 2012. And to be even more fair to myself, the location of the new Cambrian fossils is not in the canyon. Instead, the fossils are being sliced out of shale somewhere a couple of kilometres from the lovely gorge, at a secret location on a mountain cliff.

The Marble Canyon fossils are important. Their host rock is a continuation of the same Burgess Shale formation found to the northwest. But the new discovery is far enough from the early fossil bed to have fostered a local, unique microenvironment with somewhat different creatures than those at the 100-year-old Burgess Shale discovery. Here, near Marble Canyon Trail, cousins of the older Burgess Shale site also thrived. But 22% of the species just unearthed at Marble Canyon had never before been known to science.

Metaspriggina walcotti

Metaspriggina walcotti

Although arthropods are well-represented, along with some animals that look like nothing now living on the planet, there was also an experimental fish. A proto-fish called Metaspriggina. The minnow-sized ichthys is one of the oldest fish ever found and is particularly notable because of signs that it had a jaw. Perhaps the first jaw ever found anywhere, filling a missing link in the evolution of vertebrates. Until the Marble Canyon fossils were found, the only two other samples of this cartilaginous fish were not complete enough to reveal the jaw. With Marble Canyon, 44 more samples are now known and the simple jaw is definitely present. Not only were the Cambrian dwellers of Marble Canyon exercising their right to evolve past primordial slime, they were on their way to becoming creatures with jaws and backbones.

Gabriela Mangano U of Sask

The Marble Canyon shale – site of the century’s greatest Cambrian fossil discovery. (Photo by G Mangano)

Fittingly, the team included Gabriela Mángano, a geology professor and ichthyologist from my own alma mater, the University of Saskatchewan. It is her picture of the dig that I’ve included here, to your right Dr Mángano is also an author of the first important paper to come out of this new site.

The team that unearthed the Marble Canyon Cambrian creatures was led by University of Cambridge geologist Simon Conway Morris and by palaeontologist Jean-Bernard Caron of the Royal Ontario Museum and the University of Toronto. They worked the shale along with at least seven others, all of whom were heli-lifted to the undisclosed location. 2014 was their first full year of excavating the 10-meter long, 3-meter high strip of exposed cliff – they found samples of 60 different species, 14 never before identified. Their paper on the Marble Canyon discoveries, published in Nature last year, is just the beginning of years and years of study that will continue to unveil the mystery of how life evolved.

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Rare Earths in Rare Places

China FlagSome of our favourite toys – including cells phones and computers – function through the kind benevolence of the People’s Republic of China. OK, it’s a business deal with the Communists, it’s not benevolence. China has a near monopoly on materials called rare earths. Without those ‘earths’ (which are indeed rare) our electronics would fail. By an accident of nature and the whims of geology, mainland China finds itself custodian to at least 90% of the world’s essential rare earth supply. The scarce metals are mined and refined there through companies that either work closely with the government in Beijing, or are branches of the government.


Rare Earths. (Photo: Wikipedia)

These rare earths have rare properties. In tiny amounts, they are essential for computer memory, DVDs, rechargeable batteries, catalytic converters, magnets for wind power generation, fluorescent lighting, and other devices that keep the electronic age beeping and humming. If it wanted to, China could   price       Neodymium, Scandium, Cerium, Lath- anum,  Europium, and Yttrium out of the consumer’s reach. But Chinese producers don’t inflate prices too much – that would result in the pursuit of substitute sources.

New sources are indeed sought. Generally they are uneconomical and simply can’t be mined cheaply enough to compete against Chinese supplies. In December, RioSol, an American-Peruvian company,  announced the discovery of a potentially huge reserve of rare earths near Machu Pichu. The geologists working the new claim think it is Peru’s largest discovery. Now they need “litho-magmatic studies, petro-mineralogical and additional geophysical study of the main Capacscaya claim,” and perhaps diamond-bit drilling to recover core samples, according to local geologist Rildo Oscar Rodriguez. In a January 2015 report, the company and its geologists gave evidence that seems to support an assay of total Rare Earth Oxides at 3 percent or greater within part of their claim.


Peru’s idyllic Altiplano. Awaiting paved roads and health care.  (Photo by author)

I have little doubt that RioSol, a company with 14 years experience in Peru, has found something. It will take months to delineate the size of the discovery and to consider the best way to develop it. The prospect is about 95 kilometres northwest of Cusco, a regional capital that sits 3,400 metres above sea level. I’ve been there, and made the train trip from Cusco up to Machu Pichu – a beautiful but tortuous route through the Altiplano. I remember viewing those gentle high prairies. I was especially intrigued by the small farms which included dairies and potato fields. It seemed idyllic, with its year-round spring weather and wispy atmosphere. But I realized life on a stoney equatorial farm 11,000 feet above sea level could also be brutally difficult. A new mine in the area – if properly developed – might bring decent benefits, including local health care and paved roads. And maybe a few jobs for farmers’ sons and daughters, too.

Ron and friends at Machu Pichu

That’s me in the chair, with Peruvian friends.

Ron at Machu Pichu I squeezed my trip to Machu Pichu into a single weekend, slipping away to the mountains while I was working in Lima. My job in Peru involved teaching seismic geophysics through a project sponsored by CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency.  Lima,  in 2010 at least, was an optimistic (albeit poor and crowded) city. The country had beaten back corruption and had won a decades-long battle against drug lords and against the Shining Path, a revolutionary communist league that controlled parts of the Altiplano just beyond the Andes.

When I was in the country, things were stable and relatively safe.  (Although I had to submit a sample of my hand writing to the Canadian International Development Agency – just in case I was kidnapped and CIDA needed to confirm my identity.) I rode to work in old unmarked taxis (sometimes had to stop and buy fuel for the driver) but usually it was enough to hand five dollars to the driver. I tried to be inconspicuous – not easy for a tall North American who needs to use a wheelchair to walk more than a few metres.  This leads to another aspect of the Peruvian culture that I found encouraging. I have a motor neuron disorder that puts me in my wheelchair fairly often. I was apprehensive about the reception my titanium hubcaps might incite in Peru. But the people I met were unfazed. (Machu Pichu would have been impossible, except for a small Cusco-based company specializing in excursions for folks like me.)  It was all good and I’d love to go back sometime.

The stability and prosperity that result from the rule of law and the reduction of corruption can not be overstated. Peru is certainly not perfect. Transparency International ranks Peru just behind Italy, China, and Serbia in vulnerability to corruption – that puts it exactly mid-point in the world and it means a certain amount of cash may sometimes lubricate the wheels of bureaucracy. Personally, I’d rather run a company in Peru than Italy, China, or Serbia because it seemed everyone was trying to improve the system. Good governance may move Peru ahead of its rivals. Others in its neighbourhood, Chile and Uruguay, actually tie with the USA, UK, and Japan on the same scale, indicating Latin America can be an honest place to do business.

Will Peru open a significant rare earth mine? Will the new mine bring an economic boost to the people of the Cusco district? Will the production help reduce dependency on single-sourced rare earths? The people closest to the project seem to think so. “It proves that the potential for rare earth elements exists outside of China with significant opportunity for development of new production in a mining-friendly country,” says Peruvian geologist Rildo Oscar Rodriguez. That’s a good start.

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Ted Cruz, The Science Guy!

Ted Cruz, the science guy! Those are five words that tickle your tongue when spoken together. But it’s true, the senator is now America’s science guy. Senator Ted Cruz (R–TX) is the new chair of the science and space panel, a Senate commerce sub-committee. On Thursday, March 12, Cruz bugged geophysicists everywhere when he sat at a committee hearing and stated that earth sciences are not “hard science.”  They are not core, he added. Apparently that makes them ‘soft science.’ I suppose some geologists, hydrologists, oceanographers, and geophysicists would disagree, but what would they know about their profession?

Cruz knows the difference between hard and soft. He is head of the committee that oversees most of the federal government’s science expenditures. It’s a powerful role, but the unofficial presidential candidate may soon be in an even more powerful office.  The Texas senator made the claim about the ‘softness’ of earth sciences at his first-ever Q&A session as the chairman of the science and space subcommittee. You can see his comments in this 10-minute video clip. His purpose may be to denigrate the people who would like to study the planet. Cruz is fed up with launching satellites that track hurricanes and with wasteful projects that investigate earthquakes. He figures the money would be better spent sending people into space. Cruz is staunchly libertarian and has no use for pork-belly politics, so it is unlikely that his position is related to the fact that he represents Houston, home of the manned space program.

The panel chaired by Cruz is a funding committee. You don’t need to know anything about science to be on the senate science committee, apparently you just need an overwhelming desire to fix the way science is done in America. Others in the group include Senator Cory Gardner (R–CO), who strongly supports his new boss. But Gardner  has never had a non-political job. He graduated with a political science degree (perhaps poli-sci is one of the ‘hard sciences’ that Cruz finds more endearing). Gardner became a lawyer, though he has been a congressman and senator nearly  all his working life.

Other members of the science committee include Marco Rubio (R-FL), also educated as a lawyer and also a life-long politician; Jerry Moran (R-KS), a lawyer and career politician; Dan Sullivan (R-AK), a lawyer and politician (but was once a Marine); and Steve Daines (R-MT) who is not a lawyer. Daines actually has a chemistry degree and worked for years for Procter & Gamble, opening new factories in Asia for the company. So, the Republicans controlling science consist of 5 lawyers and a businessman with a science degree. The minority Democrats are not outfitted much better, but their top guy is the only former astronaut now in Congress – Bill Nelson (D-FL). He was an astronaut, but has spent most of his life as a lawyer and politician. I am not sure how the lawyer became a Payload Specialist, but I’m impressed – as I was when Howard Wolowitz went to space. Regardless the presence of a token astronaut on the funding committee, science is in for a bumpy trajectory for the next several years.

Over at the House of Representatives, the new chair of their science spending panel is John Culberson (R–TX). In recent weeks, he has declared that the earth sciences don’t meet his definition of “the pure sciences.” That, I guess makes geophysics both an impure and a soft science. Who is Rep. John Culberson and what is his definition of pure science? He’s a lawyer. I don’t know how he defines purity. Culberson was elected to the Texas House in 1987, while he was still a law student. He has been a professional politician for 28 years and is a leader of the Tea Party caucus. American science is in the good hands of Tea Party lawyers.

Since Ted Cruz is head of the Senate science funding committee, I’d like to focus on him and his qualifications for the job. What gave him the wisdom to decide Earth Science is not hard science? Was it a political science degree? Well, Ted Cruz is a lawyer, of course. For years, he was the governor’s chief lawyer in Texas, then he became a senator.

About Ted Cruz. Cruz told the Dallas Morning News, “I’m Cuban, Irish and Italian” – but he is not. His parents were. Instead, Ted Cruz is a native-born Canadian. As late as 2014, he still held Canadian citizenship. The well-educated lawyer says he didn’t realize he held Canadian citizenship until just over a year ago, though he knew he lived the first four years of his life in Canada. Surprising statement from someone who presumably could make laws affecting other people’s immigration. And Cruz is one of the strongest critics of immigration reform. You’d think he would have been aware he was Canadian, especially whenever he dug out his Canadian birth certificate to apply for passports and the like.

His parents lived here in my hometown, Calgary.* The senior Cruz ran an oil patch company from 1968 to 1974. The younger Cruz was born at the same Canadian hospital as two of my kids. (I assume his folks got the same excellent government health care, too, which paid for Teddy’s delivery.) But Rafael Cruz did not stay in Canada. He left the oil business, moved to the USA, divorced his wife, dropped his Catholic faith, and became a fundamentalist pastor. His church, a branch of Purifying Fire Ministries (of which the elder Cruz is a director) is run by Suzanne Hinn, who was/is married, divorced, remarried to the ex-Canadian (now American) faith-healer Benny Hinn. (The Hinns advocated “Holy Spirit enemas” at their Orlando-based church. One can only imagine the sacred rites involved with that.) All of this is to say that Rafael Cruz is involved with some pretty weird people.

Ah, yes, Rafael Cruz is not Senator Ted Cruz, he’s just the dad and he can be as weird as he likes. That would be true, and I do not mention a politician’s family unless the politician keeps them in the spotlight. Rafael was paid $20,000 last year to assist, lecture, and consult in his son’s various campaigns. So Ted Cruz himself brought the man into the fray. Among Rafael’s notable pronouncements is this one:

“I’ve met so many Christians that tell me, ‘Evolution is a scientific fact.’ Baloney!  I am a scientist, there is nothing scientific about evolution.”  – Rafael Cruz

I guess we can debate whether Rafael Cruz was once a scientist. He did earn a maths degree, so maybe he has a “hard science” degree, but he is a preacher now and he recently said, “It takes more faith to believe in evolution than to believe in the first two chapters of Genesis.” No, it takes logic and reasoning, not faith – Holy Spirit enemas do not figure into studying genetics and biology. But this is enough about Cruz, Senior. The son, Ted Cruz, does not bear the intellectual sins of the father. (Although there is that issue about paying the old man to stump the trail.)

It must have been difficult – divorced parents, uncertain citizenship, and a father with an odd and evolving spirituality. But it is Ted Cruz’s science that concerns us. As head of a powerful  group that could potentially stop science expenditures for ‘non-core, impure, non-hard’ sciences like geophysics, we have to hope his pre-law education included a few basic science lectures. We do know this about the senator – he says he is keen on keeping US astronauts in space. He would like to reduce NASA’s earth-studies budget, but he has repeatedly said he will keep funding manned space exploration.

Ted Cruz may not realize that NASA’s first satellite, Explorer I, launched in 1958, was part of the International Geophysical Year. While the Russian Sputnik aimlessly circled the Earth and simply beeped its presence, the American Explorer was a real scientific earth-explorer. It proved the existence of the speculated Van Allen radiation belt. (Explorer carried a Geiger counter; Sputnik carried a beeping radio transmitter.) Yes, NASA’s first step into space was scientific, not a macho statement of physical conquest. Hopefully the bright new chairman of science will keep this in mind. Without using NASA’s geophysics to understand the Earth’s enveloping radiation and magnetic fields back in 1958, it would have been irresponsible to send humans aloft. If Ted Cruz, America’s new science guy, wants to safely send astronauts to space, he must also fund NASA’s earth studies so that all the potential risks can be understood.

* (Incidentally, some readers may rightfully wonder about my concern for US science: Even in Canada, where I now live, American science impacts us. But there is also this: I moved to Canada from the USA, where I was born. I was 20 when I arrived in 1974, the same year Ted Cruz moved his parents south to the States. I’m think I saw him screaming from the back seat of his family’s station wagon while my ’61 Chevy pickup and I crossed the opposite direction, at the inland border port of Monchy. We were ships passing in the prairie night.)

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