Tectonic Plates at 913,000 Kilometres per Hour

long nails

Growth that crawls.

The Earth’s plates move at the same blazing speed as fingernails grow. On average, 2 centimetres in a year. Blink and you won’t miss much. The ox may be slow, but the Earth is patient. In 650 million years, the Earth’s crust moved 13,000 kilometres. Planet-scale wrinkles, rifts, twists, collisions, and mountain ranges are possible with the vastness of time. But the only signs we might witness are some volcanoes and the occasional earthquake. We really can’t appreciate North America’s westward drift – the continent barely budges a meter or two in a lifetime.

To help us grasp the ungraspable, various analogies and visual tricks help us appreciate that plate tectonics happens. One of my favourites is an ever-widening space between some stakes in the ground at the Ontario Science Centre, where one of the leaders of tectonics theory (Tuzo Wilson) worked. One marker shows the continent’s location in 1908, when Wilson was born, the other – displaced a couple metres – shows us how much the marker has moved since then.

Without travelling to Toronto, here is another way to experience the reality of plate tectonics. This video gives us 3,300 million years of motion in 260 seconds. If we assume the rate of motion has always averaged 2 cm/year (not a likely assumption), then the various plates have meandered 66,000 kilometres. We’ll see that happen in about four minutes, with the crust racing around at almost a million kilometres an hour. So hang on:


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Rocks within rocks, and rocks within rocks within rocks

This is a great post of complicated and interesting geology. It points to the very long and very dynamic nature of Earth’s evolution.

Primate's Progress

Benalmadena, Costa del Sol, Spain, some 20 miles West of Malaga, and perhaps readers can enlighten me about what I’m seeing:

Rocks within rocks within rocks; red sandstone matrix (no stratification or bedding apparent), containing fragments of varied origin and degree of processing; some examples include fragments of chert-veined basalt. Note at far left, and also beneath scaling coin, pebbles of chert-containing cnglomerate.


How did any of this happen and in what kind of environment? The diversity of the pebbles in composition and processing suggests rapid river transport, but what process would leave so much sand between them? I haven’t seen an outcrop of this kind of rock, but there are chunks of it all along the coastline, and some examples (e.g. those to left and right in this picture) are far poorer in pebbles.

Rocks within rocks: chert vein within a very strange looking rock indeed; dark, micaceous, bands…

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The Mountain Mystery (Book Review)

Many thanks to GG at The Grumpy Geophysicist blog for this review of The Mountain Mystery book!

The Grumpy Geophysicist

Many months ago, Ron Miksha was kind enough to send a copy of his book, The Mountain Mystery, to GG (Ron writes a blog under the book’s name).  Although the book was mostly read long ago, other things kept getting in the way of condensing GG’s scattered thoughts. The quickest summary of this book might be to compare it to visiting caverns.  While most visits are on nice paths that lead you in a very direct way to the highlights, often avoiding the original historical paths into the caves, Miksha’s book is more like a discovery tour, poking into every side chamber and crevice, sometimes revealing rarely visited gems and sometimes just getting all dirty for little payoff.

Most histories of plate tectonics tend to start with Wegener or even later, but The Mountain Mystery starts far earlier, invoking the ghosts of such lesser known men as Anaximander…

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Mantle Plumes May Be Real (or maybe not)

Tuzo Wilson, explaining Earth's plumbing.

Tuzo Wilson, explaining Earth’s plumbing.

Godess making mountains.

The goddess Pele, dreaming of plumes.

Geophysicist Tuzo Wilson had a creepy daydream. He imagined himself lying at the bottom of a creek, looking up at water flowing overhead. He blew bubbles. They rose, were caught by the current, and drifted away. He came back from his mini-nightmare with an idea about the way the Hawaiian islands formed. Bubbles of magma rose from deep within the Earth, broke through the crust, and drifted along because of plate tectonics.

The original Hawaiian settlers had a similar idea. They knew that the weathered northwest islands were much older than the new big island they called Hawaii. They believed that the fiery goddess Pele had successively emerged from the underworld, creating a series of volcanic islands over the ages.

Wilson was 55 at the time that his imagination discovered a way to explain the Hawaii island chain. His first attempt to publish “A Possible Origin of the Hawaiian Islands” failed when the scientists reviewing it at a leading American geophysical journal found the idea too radical. They rejected it. Tuzo scrambled to the Canadian Journal of Physics, which published his paper in 1963 – probably because they didn’t realize it was such a controversial subject, Tuzo figured.

Tuzo Wilson’s paper explained that the Hawaiian islands formed in a string because the Pacific tectonic plate slowly slid across a fixed hotspot while a plume of magma rose directly from deep below.   This was an important idea because plate tectonics – new at the time – was struggling to explain anomalous volcanic activity occurring in places like Hawaii, thousands of kilometres from the rubbing and colliding spots where crustal plates met.

Hawaiian beachSome geophysicists don’t believe in plumes. They suggested that the material creating island paradises is sourced just below the lithosphere. The jury is out; however, most who have studied it for the past fifty years have cautiously agreed with Wilson’s original thesis. Similar streams of hot mantle rising in hot ribbons of rock possibly cause thermal events in Réunion, Yellowstone, Iceland, Galápagos, Tahiti and at least forty other places scattered about the globe. With his near-mystic vision, Tuzo Wilson invented a whole new way to understand what’s causing some of the Earth’s volcanic activity.

But not so fast.  Ten years after Wilson, in 1972, the father and son geology team of Howard and Arthur Meyerhoff took an awkward stand against all forms of plate tectonics and against Tuzo Wilson’s plume theory. They generated vigorous pleas alerting fellow earth scientists to the pitfalls of those new ideas.

Arthur Meyerhoff (1928-1994)

Arthur Meyerhoff (1928-1994)

The Meyerhoffs assembled obscure facts that disputed tectonic motion. They released reasonable commentaries voicing their opposition to the nascent theory. They were usually correct in pointing out weak and contradictory aspects of plate tectonics. They asserted their opposition was based on “geological fact, which nothing can change.”  Almost invariably, however, a scientist who clutches facts that “nothing can change,” is proven wrong. The ‘facts’ often change due to new data, investigation, and confirmation. The Meyerhoffs protested mobile continents, but didn’t provide an alternative that explained earth history as convincingly as plumes and plate tectonics.

In time, the younger Meyerhoff, Arthur,  realized that the role of naysayer wasn’t enough. He needed to add something positive to the discussion. In 1988, he proposed a creative alternative earth-model: an interconnected near-surface world-wide plumbing system that conveyed melted igneous rocks. This relatively shallow plumbing system, he suggested, was being misinterpreted as plate tectonics. He carefully explained it in his posthumously published 1996 book, Surge Tectonics, which became  popular among followers of his surge theory. And, in fact, there has been some evidence to support the notion that sub-crustal flows supply the Hawaiian island chain. In 2011, Qin Cao and her team at M.I.T. seemed to have found a hot pool of magma in the shallow mantle that could be sourcing the growth of the Hawaiian islands – possibly in a non-plume-like manner.

But plumes still has advocates. And more data has changed the idea yet again. Seismic tomography has helped by monitoring earthquake energy waves as they vibrate through the mantle. Receivers record arrivals of the earthquake signals at thousands of surface locations. Variations in those arrivals indicate waves have been influenced by variations in composition, phase, density, pressure, or temperature of mantle rock. Seismic waves travel more slowly through hotter rock. If those changes could be accurately mapped, shallow pipes and plumes might be spotted – if they exist.

Example of seismic tomography. (Source: NASA)

Example of seismic tomography   (Source: NASA)

Using seismic tomography, it should have been straight-forward to map pipes or channels or deep plumes surging with hot streams of mantle. But for over 50 years, we didn’t have an unequivocally clear rendering of a narrow, ribbon-like plume. The idea that hot spots exist became, to some scientists, a kind of belief system. Belief in an invisible God-like force that explained some otherwise inexplicable phenomenon of nature.

daniel and carlA newer technique – telescopic seismic tomography, a focused sort of tomography – recently emerged and has been enlisted in the search for plumes. Arrays of surface receivers collect billions of bits of earthquake data, collate them, and then invert the waves, mapping their probable travel paths. Yet this technique is painfully tedious and can be error-prone. The energy waves arrive steeply dipping; the Earth’s innards are far from uniform; and, a delayed arrival may be due to any combination of composition, density, pressure, phase and/or temperature differences along the seismic wave’s travel path. This underlies a fundamental problem with geophysics: almost any observation can be due to a variety of causes. Nearly every geophysics problem has multiple non-unique solutions.

Thus, for over fifty years, plumes eluded researchers. Until now, perhaps.  With repeated studies and massive data-crunching, wide plumes of low velocity mantle material have finally been discerned. Last fall an important paper was released. It makes the strong and well-supported claim that plumes are real, putting plume atheists on the spot.

RomanowiczBarbara Romanowicz and Scott French published their findings in Nature in September. Broad Plumes Rooted At The Base Of The Earth’s Mantle Beneath Major Hotspots resulted from analysis of whole-mantle earthquake tomographic seismic data. Romanowicz’s group used full-waveform seismic computation in a  process that analyzed  energy waves from 273 large earthquakes and took 3 million hours of computation on a supercomputer.  The data indicate that plumes are real, but are much wider than the innocent trail of creek bubbles envisioned long ago by Tuzo Wilson. From the Nature paper’s abstract:

“We describe the use of a whole-mantle seismic imaging technique— combining accurate wavefield computations with information contained in whole seismic waveforms—that reveals the presence of broad (not thin), quasi-vertical conduits beneath many prominent hotspots. These conduits extend from the core–mantle boundary to about 1,000 kilometres below Earth’s surface, where some are deflected horizontally, as though entrained into more vigorous upper-mantle circulation. At the base of the mantle, these conduits are rooted in patches of greatly reduced shear velocity that, in the case of Hawaii, Iceland and Samoa, correspond to the locations of known large ultralow-velocity zones. This correspondence clearly establishes a continuous connection between such zones and mantle plumes. We also show that the imaged conduits are robustly broader than classical thermal plume tails, suggesting that they are long-lived, and may have a thermochemical origin.”

Are we done? Probably not. This was the state of the art in September, 2015. The conclusion is that plumes are real, are much broader than hypothesized earlier, they originate at the mantle-core boundary, rise almost vertically, and (closer to surface) get distorted by the same horizontal convection currents that drive plate tectonics. It’s our best description of plumes to date, arriving at the surface 50 years after Tuzo Wilson’s first puff of air from his eerie creek bottom.


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Earth Expands on Mystery Diet

Not long ago, a reader of this blog commented on my story about Alfred Wegener and continental drift. Wegener’s theory, you know, kicked around for about 50 years before enough evidence accumulated to prove its sister theory, plate tectonics. The reader asked if I am “no fan of the Neal Adams’ Expanding Earth videos, then?” No, I’m not a fan of the great cartoonist’s geofantasies. But Adams’ videos are popular. One has over two million views on YouTube. Not a bad take for a purely bonkers pseudo-science video called “Neal Adams – Science: 01 – Conspiracy: Earth is Growing!”

Neal Adams is a notable creative force in comics. He modernized the art and inspired a generation of cartoonists. He championed the creators of Superman (Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster) and helped them received awards, recognition, and pensions. Neal Adams is a fine cartoonist. He changed the look and style of Batman, Superman, and Green Arrow.  He has been called “the greatest comic book artist alive” – a statement that Adams himself unabashedly repeats on his own website. He is epic with pen and pad, but he is wrong about geology.

Adams’ video, Science: 01 – Conspiracy, begins with Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra which adds melodrama to his pseudo-science film.  But instead of authenticity, the pretentious soundtrack made me laugh. Whenever you hear Strauss, you know that something of great importance is about to unfold. It’s like the alert siren used on public service announcements. In this case, it’s a call to don your tin hat and prepare to hear about yet another science conspiracy – this time, it’s geophysicists hiding the truth about the evolution of the Earth.

Well, it looks like the world’s greatest comic book illustrator has unmasked us geoscientists. For years, we’ve been gathering in dark parkades, exchanging stuffed envelopes of incriminating geophysical formulae. Our goal: to promote the idea of plate tectonics, thereby gaining mastery of the universe. A minute into his video, Adams tells us “There is a kind of conspiracy of science among certain scientists. They know, but are not telling you, that…”  Well, you can watch the video for yourself to see what we know but are not telling you.

Mr Adams would like us to believe that the Earth is rapidly expanding. If you imagine a small balloon with (Hey, look!a squirrel drawn on it,  the eyes of the squirrel drift apart as you add more air. The Expanding Earth Theorists believe the same is happening to our planet, except eyeballs become continents and mystery substances replace air. Our planet Earth fattens because . . .  darn, I didn’t give Mr Adams $5 for his PDF, so I don’t know how to finish this sentence. (But you may go to his website and buy the $5 answer for yourself.)

Drop into Neal Adam’s alternate reality website, nealadams.com, and you’ll be treated to the opportunity to buy his PDF as well as a couple dozen videos explaining his version of the Expanding Earth Theory. Before you do, though, you might want to become familiar with past iterations of the theory. You see, the idea of an expanding Earth has been around since the time of Sir Francis Bacon who (over 400 years ago) wrote that the Earth looks like an expanding flower blossom, as evidenced by the way the African and South American continents have apparently parted.

Heezen and Tharp's Rift Map, 1957.

Heezen and Tharp’s Rift Map, 1957.

In 1909, professional musician Roberto Mantovani wrote a popular  science piece about the Earth expanding. More recently, a series of scientists put their voices to the idea. In the 1950s, Bruce Heezen (who inadvertently helped prove plate tectonics), co-discovered the great mid-ocean rift. He felt that the rift proved that the Earth was breaking and cracking as it expanded. His partner in science, Marie Tharp, believed they had found the source of continental motion and the cradle of oceanic crust. New crust formed at oceanic rifts, pushed the continents apart, then merged into the mantle at subduction zones. She was right; Heezen was wrong.

Another bright geologist/geophysicist who promoted expansion theory was the Australian Warren Carey. Carey adopted the hypothesis of planetary inflation early in his career and advocated it with congenial vigour. Well liked, correct about many things, but rejecting plate tectonics, he clung to expansion as the explanation for the odd way that fossils and rock formations are distributed around the world.  Late in his life, he continued to attend conferences and held court with a dwindling number of like-minded expansionists. Warren Carey, like Neal Adams, fell into the trap of promoting expansion while rejecting plate tectonics. It is not necessarily an either/or situation. Perhaps both drift and expansion are true.

Is our planet expanding? Maybe. A Hungarian geophysicist, László Egyed, calculated that due to internal chemistry, the Earth’s radius increases by a millimetre, or less, each year. That’s imperceptible within the lifetime of a human, who may live on a planet that grows only a single hand’s width in a hundred years.

Model of layered Earth: cooling may result in boundary phase changes.

Model of layered Earth: cooling may result in boundary phase changes.

The cause of expansion, said Egyed, is a change in the materials at the hot boundaries between the inner core, the outer core, and the mantle. Expansion, by his theory, occurs along those adjacent zones.  At each phase change, the Earth’s inner stuff becomes less dense. It expands. Egyed seems correct about those phase changes. They may really be happening, with inner core morphing into outer core, and outer core into mantle. If so, the planet might expand a millimetre a year.

If Egyed is right, our planet’s rotation must slow so that angular momentum is conserved. The Hungarian geophysicist proposed a geomagnetic test, but the results are not yet clear. So far, geophysicists aren’t sure that our planet has expanded as Egyed suggested, but there is no conspiracy rejecting the idea. Instead, it’s examined and studied – as are any credible scientific theories.

But expansion without plate tectonics can’t explain what we see on the Earth’s surface. For example, only plate tectonics accounts for the fact that the oldest seafloor is 180 million years old. Older ocean crust has subducted into the mantle.  To account for the young age of ocean crust, expansionists say expansion just started 180 million years ago. Most expansionists think the planet has doubled in size within this brief window. Neal Adams rejects subduction, but he’s wrong. There is no doubt that heavy ocean crust is pulled under lighter continental crust at subduction zones. Geophysical data from three lines of evidence (gravity, GPS, and seismic) overwhelmingly prove subduction.

What about Neal Adams’ idea that scientists conspire against him? It is hard to seriously study Adams (or anyone else) when part of their argument is that a group of us is quietly withholding secret knowledge about the way the world really works. Real science is quite the opposite. Scientists relish the idea of discovering that a theory is wrong. During the 1960s 70s, and 80s, hundreds tried to disprove plate tectonics. There is no better way to make one’s name than to revolutionize a field. But you’d better have the data to prove your idea.

Neal Adams, in an interview that you can hear at this link, says continents have not twisted and turned, Pangaea never existed (“Everything about the Pangea theory is wrong scientifically. Everything is wrong.”), the Earth has more than doubled in size, mountains didn’t exist until 80 million years ago, subduction is physically impossible, and plate tectonics is wrong. On all of this, Mr Adams is mistaken. Sadly, in the interview, you will hear him give the wrong ages of oceans and mountains, incorrectly explain the evolution of fish, and show a total lack of knowledge about sea salinity and salt domes. Neal Adams’ breadth of misinformation is impressive. So is the fact that over two million people have watched his science video.

We have empirical data – facts, not speculation – confirming continental mobility. These data come from real-time GPS measurements of the crust. Discrete plates twist and turn along paths that confirm plate tectonics and reject the simplified expansion model used by Adams. That does not mean that some expansion is impossible.

But the overwhelming data says that Neal Adam’s theory is incorrigibly false.  As Batman and Robin said, “Boom! Bash! Bang!” – continents collide tectonically, crust subducts, and the cartoonist is wrong.

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Cuba, America, and Oil

With America’s president visiting Cuba this week, I thought it might be helpful to re-post my story “Has Cuba Got Oil?” which I wrote in 2014.  It’s still valid. Cuba still has oil. But I argued that I doubt oil has much to do with normalization of relations between the USA and the tropical island. Cuba’s oil – and there may be quite a bit – is hard to find and even harder to recover. So, petroleum likely has little to do with the pending American-Cuba reconciliation . Here’s my original blog post on Cuba’s oil . . .

Havana lawyer, Dr Fidel Castro, in Washington DC, 1959.

Havana lawyer, Dr Fidel Castro, visiting Washington DC in 1959.

Besides sunshine and sugar cane, what has Cuba got? It looks like the USA is serious about letting Americans party along Havana’s beaches and carry home a cigar or two. It has long bemused me that two of the continent’s closest neighbours have been isolated for two generations, with nary a neighbourly howdy between them. I can understand the American disdain when Castro turned to Russia for help and converted his island into a Communist dictatorship instead of a socialist democracy. But I can also see the point that others have made – sometimes an obstreperous foe’s behaviour changes more quickly by talking rather than isolating.

Let's concentrate on geology

Let’s concentrate on geology

This geology blog tends to steer clear of politics, so instead of pitching my three cents worth of non-expert opinion about embargoes vs free trade, I thought I’d write a few words about Cuba’s major oil fields. There really aren’t any elephants – not yet. Some readers may be surprised by the fact that the politics of oil exploration seems to play no role at all in the new American-Cuban detente.

Cuban village

Cuban village life south of Havana

Three geologists whom I know – Canadians working for three different companies – have spent time exploring Cuba’s subterranean oily treasures. They discovered very little oil, though one found a wife and settled into village life south of Havana. Nevertheless, there is oil within Cuba’s domain – the US Geological Survey estimates billions of (mostly offshore) barrels are awaiting discovery. Unfortunately, after drilling deeply in 2012 just off the north Cuban coast, hopes for the discovery of big oil fields were dashed. At least for now.

Things that make an oil field include source rock (usually oily shale), porosity (fractures and cracks that deliver hydrocarbons to the well), and traps (which can be ancient buried reefs, sand bars, pinched thrust sheets, or a bunch of other structures). There’s much more to an oil field than this, of course, but without a source, porosity, and trap, you’d better keep your derrick stashed in the shed at home. The things that make an oil field economical are the cost of production (depth of well, rock type, existing infrastructure), nearness to market, and the rule of law within the jurisdiction. How does Cuba stack up among these?

Well, all the elements that could create a profitable oil field actually exist in Cuba. The country itself has amazingly varied geology with plenty of source rock and plenty of traps buried in its highly structured geology, although the porosity element is sometimes problematic. Oil seeps were discovered centuries ago – strangely, though, the oil drips from igneous rocks, not the typical sedimentary limestones and sandstones that usually host hydrocarbons. An American Association of Petroleum Geologists’ 1932 paper, Occurrence of Oil in Igneous Rocks of Cuba, estimated that over 200 million barrels of “asphalt grade” oil was locked in rock along the north-central Cuban coast. In places, the heavy oil seeps from intrusive diorite dikes which have cut through 1,500 feet (500 metres) of oily Jurassic limestone and shale. All of this bode poorly for the explorers of the 1930s and it still does today. It means the hydrocarbon setting is complicated and unpredictable – and much of the oil itself is not much better than low-grade tar.

Regardless the US Geological Survey’s prediction of massive potential, Cuba has been energy-starved for a century. To fix this, Cuba famously entered into a deal with Venezuela, shipping well-regarded Havana-trained doctors south in exchange for South American oil. This worked well enough as long as Hugo Chavez was alive, but the flow may be stanched. Cuba needs to pump its own oil. Consumption has been around 155,000 barrels per day; production is one-third that. The shortfall has been purchased or bartered from Russia and Venezuela, but this creates a foreign expense of $5 million dollars a day – about $0.50/person in a country where daily income (GDP/pop) is a dismal $6. Both Russia and Venezuela are former big-bucks oil-ogarchies and were generous benefactors when oil prices were high. But things have changed. Those former sugar daddies have turned into sugar duds.

A Dog's Breakfast of geological puzzlement - USGS Cuba Structure Schematic

Dog’s Breakfast of Geology – USGS Cuba Structure Schematic

With the help of seasoned foreign geologists, Cuba has tried to produce its own oil. A very capable Canadian company – mining giant Sherritt International – explores and develops much of the country’s onshore oil. Sherritt is the largest independent oil producer in Cuba. But there is not an enormous amount of onshore oil. The real prize is waiting off the north coast – that’s where the USGS estimates 4.6 billion barrels of oil will eventually be produced. (The Cuban government claims the number is 20 billion barrels – but they are looking for investment partners.) Deep sea oil is not seeping to the surface – it is locked in rock deep below the ocean floor. Even though Cuba is near huge deep-water oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico, the geology under Cuba’s waters is remarkably different. The sticky prize is under 300 metres of seawater, then beneath 8,000 metres (25,000 feet) of twisted, faulted, thrusted rock. Geologists have a technical name for the jumbled thrust sheets that hold Cuba’s submarine oil – they call such formations a dog’s breakfast. It’s not pretty.

Not far from Cuba’s bit of the Caribbean are Gulf of Mexico oil platforms – some of which each produce 200,000 barrels a day. That’s more than the entire country uses. Large reserves are also under Cuba’s water, but so far none of it has been pumped to the surface. A recent casualty in the deep drilling effort was the Spanish oil company Repsol. After years of seismic exploration and testing under the tropical waters, Repsol gave up in 2012. Others have been poking holes in the Cuban exploration blocks – Brazil’s Petrobras (sometimes considered the world’s expert at deep marine exploration), Russian companies Rosneft and Zarubezhneft, as well as Norwegian, Indian, and Malaysian companies. All have given up on their offshore projects. Venezuela’s national oil company continues to be supportive, but can’t afford to drill the deep tricky wells off Cuba’s coast. Because of the 50-year embargo, American firms have not been involved at all – even though the huge Florida market for the offshore hydrocarbons is only a hundred kilometres to the north.

Greatly complicating things for Cuba, the drop in oil prices has further driven deep sea exploration projects from the stage. Low prices force drillers away from risky targets because the potential for a big financial return is too small. It must be frustrating for the Cuban people to own a non-recoverable resource that even the Americans assess at a $250 billion value. Because of the stubbornly unyielding deep sea reserves, Cuban leaders have refocused their efforts to the original fields – the proven onshore resources that already supply a chunk of the country’s oil. The Cubans have also begun focussing on solar, wind, and biomass energy (garnered from sugar mill waste) in earnest. Cuba’s vice president, Marino Murillo, recently told his parliament that Cuba plans to invest $3.6 billion over the next 15 years to develop alternative energy.

Oil well on Cuban beach

A safe oil well on a Cuban beach

This might be good news for Cuba’s growing tourist industry – oil production lies very near Havana and Varadero and is found on beaches popular with Canadian and European winter holidayers. The threat of leaks and spills worries Cuban residents as well as foreign resort developers. Cuba’s inadvertent switch away from deep sea oil exploration towards other energy schemes reduces their anxiety a bit.

The bottom line to this story is that Cuba and the States may become friendly neighbours but oil is not the reason. Someday the potential offshore Cuban oil reserves may be drilled, but with the current low price of oil and with the difficult geology of Cuba’s thrust and fold belt, development is decades into the future. By then the other elements that make an oil field – including lower cost of production and rule of law – will hopefully be ingrained features of the Cuban business environment.

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Broken Crystals

Rene Just HauyEvery now and then, I write a short post on a long-dead geologist whom I had never heard of before, but have discovered that it’s their birthday anniversary. I do this because it forces me to learn something about someone who perhaps deserves remembrance. And it gives a nod of appreciation to the hammer and chisel folks who came before us. Today we salute  René Just Haüy, born February 28, 1743. He’s a fellow who broke things.

By discovering the geometrical law of crystallization, this French mineralogist is considered  the founder of crystallography. I should hate the man. His discipline created a required university course that was my Achilles’ heel, knee, and thigh. As a colour-blind person, and someone who often mistakes his lampshades for his wife,  recognizing minerals and crystals was brutal for me. By I digress. Today, I honour Father René Just Haüy.

Calcite crystals growing on fossil shell. (Source; Wikipedia)

Calcite crystals growing on fossil shell.
(Source: Wikipedia)

In 1781, the klutzy priest accidentally dropped a valuable calcite crystal that belonged to a soon-to-be ex-friend. The crystal broke into rhombohedral pieces. In rage – or more likely, scientific curiosity – Haüy deliberately broke variously sized crystals of calcites and found similar rhombohedral pieces locked inside each one, like little Kinder surprises. He concluded that molecules of calcite always have the same basic shape, regardless of their size and general outside appearance. Further, he discovered that many other minerals also have basic structures particular to their species – six primary shapes in all. He realized that this meant different classes of minerals have different (but self-similar) angles on their crystal faces. For that inference, he became famous.

Haüy described his mathematical-crystallographic discovery in Traité de minéralogie, leading to immediate induction into the French Royal Academy of Science. A few years later, the king’s mineralogist was thrown in prison by anti-monarch revolutionists.  He escaped execution when Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (an evolutionary paleontologist) interceded on his behalf. A good thing, too, because Haüy soon discovered pyroelectricity, a geophysical property of some crystals whereby they acquire an electrical charge when heated or cooled. Nothing much has been done with this discovery yet, but some day it may prove to be a source of power in spacecraft in science fiction epics about aliens from crystal plants.

Eiffel Tower in 1888Keeping his head during the revolution, Haüy was later befriended by friends of Napoleon. In 1802, they appointed him professor of mineralogy at the National Museum of Natural History. There, Haüy founded the Musée de Minéralogie. However, being associated with Napoleon’s people was an honour that eventually backfired. He was stripped of his appointments by the Restoration government that replaced Napoleon. Haüy’s final days were depressingly impoverished. However, when the Resortationists disappeared, Haüy was again in favour. He lived to almost 80, boarding the great celestial crystal cruise (or more likely, not) in 1822.  Securely back in vogue, Haüy’s name was one of just 72 inscribed on the Eiffel Tower. However, his name will probably disappear again when the iron tower is replaced by something more aesthetically pleasing.

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