The Glacial Gothic, or the Cathedral as an “Avalanche on Pause”

[Image: Diagram from The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin.]

There are at least two interesting moments in John Ruskin’s book The Stones of Venice.

One is his description of buttresses.

Buttresses, Ruskin writes, are structures against pressure: a cathedral’s walls want to fall outward, for example, pushed aside by the relentless weight of the roof. But this gravitational pressure can be stabilized by an exoskeleton: a sequence of buttresses that will prevent those walls from collapsing outward.

However, Ruskin points out, there is a similar kind of pressure from the waves of the sea. Think of the curved hull of a ship, he writes, which is internally buttressed against the “crushing force” of the ocean around it. It is a kind of inside-out cathedral.

Consider other high-pressure environments where architecture can thrive—resting in the benthic abyss or twirling through the vacuum of outer space, where offworld stations rotate and spin through exotic gravitational scenarios—and you’ve perhaps envisioned what John Ruskin would be writing about today. Ship-buildings, buttressed against the void.

In any case, for Ruskin, buttresses perform a kind of gravitational judo: he describes “buttresses of peculiar forms, cunning buttresses, which do not attempt to sustain the weight, but parry it, and throw it off in directions clear of the wall.” They shed the load, so to speak, flipping it elsewhere, as if taking advantage of an opponent’s slow and graceless momentum.

…as science advances, the weight to be borne is designedly and decisively thrown upon certain points; the direction and degree of the forces which are then received are exactly calculated, and met by conducting buttresses of the smallest possible dimensions; themselves, in their turn, supported by vertical buttresses acting by weight, and these perhaps, in their turn, by another set of conducting buttresses: so that, in the best examples of such arrangements, the weight to be borne may be considered as the shock of an electric fluid, which, by a hundred different rods and channels, is divided and carried away into the ground.

It’s buttresses buttressing buttresses—or buttresses all the way down.

Ruskin reminds his readers, however, that a buttress’s function can even be seen outdoors, where he specifically cites Swiss landscape defenses. There, Ruskin writes, horizontal buttresses like defensive walls “are often built round churches, heading up hill, to divide and throw off the avalanches.” Again, it’s a question of parrying an oppositional force, deflecting it elsewhere.

[Image: “Profile of a buttress with vertical internal line, when the line of thrust coincides with the axis of the buttress,” taken from a paper called “Milankovitch’s Theorie der Druckkurven: Good mechanics for masonry architecture” by Federico Foce, in Nexus Network Journal.]

From an architectural point of view, you might say that a landscape is stationary until it buckles, shudders, or moves, becoming oceanic, heaving like the sea.

Or, to be pretentious and quote myself from an op-ed in the New York Times, “the ground itself is a kind of ocean in waiting. We might say that [the Earth] is a marine landscape, not a terrestrial one, a slow ocean buffeted by underground waves occasionally strong enough to flatten whole cities. We do not, in fact, live on solid ground: We are mariners, rolling on the peaks and troughs of a planet we’re still learning to navigate. This is both deeply vertiginous and oddly invigorating.”

For Ruskin, the buttress is an architectural technology—a spatial tool—that can be built to anticipate this act of marine transformation, a device that can prepare our buildings and cities to resist violent events in the landscape they are built upon.

With this in mind, it’s worth recalling a recent experiment that showed buildings can be partially shielded from the effects of earthquakes. An “invisibility cloak,” as researchers somewhat hyperbolically described it back in 2013, would use a “regular grid of cylindrical and empty boreholes” drilled into the earth to absorb and deflect seismic waves and thus protect certain structures from damage.

They would “parry it,” as Ruskin once wrote, “and throw it off in directions clear” of the city. In Ruskin’s terms, in other words, they would be buttresses: empty void-silos in the earth that nevertheless function like the exoskeletal cage of a cathedral or the internal ribs of a ship at sea.

[Image: Glacial logics diagrammed in The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin.]

The second interesting thing from The Stones of Venice—among many others, to be sure, but I will only focus on two here—is that, amazingly, for a book published back in 1853, Ruskin scales his analysis up to the point of suggesting that glaciers should be considered as complex architectural objects.

Ruskin describes “a curve about three quarters of a mile long,” for example, “formed by the surface of a small glacier of the second order.” This curve, he writes, is “the most beautiful simple curve I have ever seen in my life.” So, he wonders, how could it be applied to architecture? How could we learn from glaciers?

At this point, Ruskin draws a diagram—the one I’ve scanned, above—to highlight a variety of nested curves that he believes are hiding inside a particular glacier. These are organizational systems that extend for many miles at a time through the ice and that allegedly entail geometric lessons for architects.

The idea here—that Ruskin was trying to extract architectural lessons from glaciers nearly two centuries ago—is incredible to me.

After all, if the Gothic is an architectural language that, as writers such as Lars Spuybroek have compellingly shown, draws from the natural vocabulary of leaves, plants, tree roots, and so on, then this means that Ruskin is suggesting—in 1853!—a kind of Glacial Gothic, an architectural lesson drawn from continent-spanning masses of ice.

[Image: “A Crack in an Antarctic Ice Shelf Is 8 Miles From Creating an Iceberg the Size of Delaware”; image via Ohio State University.]

I’m reminded of an old t-shirt produced by the band Godflesh that described their music as an “Avalanche On Pause.”

This is a very Ruskinian description, we might say in the present context.

An avalanche on pause brings together Ruskin’s interests in landscape-scale structural events—such as glaciers and landslides—with his attention to the mechanics of cathedrals built to resist such imposing pressures. To freeze them in place. To press pause.

(Thanks to Marc Weidenbaum for reminding me of that Godflesh shirt many years ago.)

Terrestrial Oceanica

I’m grateful for two recent opportunities to publish op-eds, one for the Los Angeles Times back in May and the other just this morning in the New York Times. Both look at seismic activity and its poetic or philosophical implications, including fault lines as sites of emergence for a future world (“A fault is where futures lurk”).

They both follow on from the Wired piece about the Walker Lane, as well as this past weekend’s large earthquakes here in Southern California.

The L.A. Times op-ed specifically looks at hiking along fault lines, including the San Andreas, where, several years ago, I found myself walking alone at sunset, without cell service, surrounded by tarantulas. I was there in the midst of a “tarantula boom,” something I did not realize until I checked into a hotel room and did some Googling later that evening.

In any case, “Faults are both a promise and a threat: They are proof that the world will remake itself, always, whether we’re prepared for the change or not.”

The New York Times piece explores the philosophical underpinnings of architecture, for which solid ground is both conceptually and literally foundational.

The experience of an earthquake can be destabilizing, not just physically but also philosophically. The idea that the ground is solid, dependable—that we can build on it, that we can trust it to support us—undergirds nearly all human terrestrial activity, not the least of which is designing and constructing architecture… We might say that California is a marine landscape, not a terrestrial one, a slow ocean buffeted by underground waves occasionally strong enough to flatten whole cities. We do not, in fact, live on solid ground: We are mariners, rolling on the peaks and troughs of a planet we’re still learning to navigate. This is both deeply vertiginous and oddly invigorating.

To no small extent, nearly that entire piece was inspired by a comment made by Caltech seismologist Lucy Jones, who I had the pleasure of interviewing several years ago during a Fellowship at USC. At one point in our conversation, Jones emphasized to me that she is a seismologist, not a geologist, which means that she studies “waves, not rocks.” Waves, not rocks. There is a whole new way of looking at the Earth hidden inside that comment.

Huge thanks, meanwhile, to Sue Horton and Clay Risen for inviting me to contribute.

(Images: (top) Hiking at the San Andreas-adjacent Devil’s Punchbowl, like a frozen wave emerging from dry land. (bottom) A tarantula walks beside me at sunset along the San Andreas Fault near Wallace Creek, October 2014; photos by BLDGBLOG.)

Walker Lane Redux

It’s been an interesting few days here in Southern California, with several large earthquakes and an ensuing aftershock sequence out in the desert near Ridgecrest. Ridgecrest, of course, is at the very southern edge of the Walker Lane—more properly part of the Eastern California Shear Zone—a region of the country that runs broadly northwest along the California/Nevada state border that I covered at length for the May 2019 issue of Wired.

[Image: My own loose sketch of the Walker Lane, using Google Maps].

To make a story short, a handful of geologists have speculated, at least since the late 1980s, that the San Andreas Fault could actually be dying out over time—that the San Andreas is jammed up in a place called the “Big Bend,” near the town of Frazier Park, and that it is thus losing its capacity for large earthquakes.

As a result, all of that unreleased seismic strain has to go somewhere, and there is growing evidence—paleoseismic data, LiDAR surveys, GPS geodesy—that the pent-up strain has been migrating deep inland, looking for a new place to break.

That new route—bypassing the San Andreas Fault altogether—is the Walker Lane (and its southern continuation into the Mojave Desert, known as the Eastern California Shear Zone).

What this might mean—and one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by this idea—is that a new continental margin could be forming in the Eastern Sierra, near the California/Nevada state border, a future line of breakage between the Pacific and North American tectonic plates.

If this is true, the Pacific Ocean will someday flood north from the Gulf of California all the way past Reno—but, importantly, this will happen over the course of many millions of years (not due to one catastrophic earthquake). This means that no humans alive today—in fact, I would guess, no humans at all—will see the final result. If human civilization as we know it is roughly 15,000 years old, then civilization could rise and fall nearly 700 times before we even get to 10 million years, let alone 15 million or 20.

In any case, these recent big quakes out near Ridgecrest do not require that the most extreme Walker Lane scenario be true—that is, they do not require that the Walker Lane is an incipient continental margin. However, they do offer compelling and timely evidence that the Walker Lane region is, at the very least, more seismically active than its residents might want to believe.

I could go on at great length about all this, but, instead, I just want to point out one cool thing: the far northern route of the Walker Lane remains something of a mystery. If you’ve read the Wired piece, you’ll know that, for the Walker Lane to become a future continental edge, it must eventually rip back through California and southeastern Oregon to reach the sea. However, the route it might take—basically, from Pyramid Lake to the Pacific—is unclear, to say the least.

One place that came up several times while I was researching my Wired article was the northern California town of Susanville. Susanville is apparently a promising place for study, as geologists might find emergent faults there that could reveal the future path of the Walker Lane.

If you draw a straight line from the Reno/Pyramid Lake region through Susanville and keep going, you’ll soon hit a town called Fall River Mills. Interestingly, following the long aftershock sequence of these Ridgecrest quakes, there was a small quake in Fall River Mills this morning.

While seeing patterns in randomness—let alone drawing magical straight lines across the landscape—is the origin of conspiracy theory and the bane of serious scientific thinking, it is, nevertheless, interesting to note that the apparently linear nature of the Walker Lane could very well continue through Fall River Mills.

[Image: The Ridgecrest quakes and their aftershocks seem to support the idea of a linear connection along the Walker Lane; note that I have added a straight orange line in the bottom image, purely to indicate the very broad location of the Walker Lane].

While we’re on the subject, it is also interesting to see that, if you continue that same line just a little bit further, connecting Pyramid Lake to Susanville to Fall River Mills, you will hit Mt. Shasta, an active volcano in northern California. Again, if you’ve read the Wired piece, you’ll know that volcanoes seem to have played an interesting role in the early formation of the San Andreas Fault millions of years ago.

In any case, in cautious summary, I should emphasize that I am just an armchair enthusiast for the Walker Lane scenario, not a geologist; although I wrote a feature article about the Walker Lane, I am by no means an expert and it would be irresponsible of me to suggest anything here as scientific fact. It does interest me, though, that aftershocks appear to be illuminating a pretty dead-linear path northwest up the Walker Lane, including into regions where its future route are not yet clear.

Insofar as the locations of these aftershocks can be taken as scientifically relevant—not just a seismic coincidence—the next few weeks could perhaps offer some intriguing suggestions for the Walker Lane’s next steps.

Terrestrial Concussion / Infinite Half-Life

[Image: Courtesy Xenon Collaboration, via ScienceNews].

Earthquakes, popularly seen as discrete, large-scale events that occur only once every few years—once a decade, once a century, once every thousand years—turn out to be nearly continuous. There are always earthquakes.

According to ScienceNews, “millions of tiny, undetected earthquakes rumble through the ground” every day in California. These are “quakes of such small magnitude that their signals were previously too small to be separated from noise.”

In other words, while we wait for the Big One—a true seismic event with the power to punctuate and interrupt everyday life—there are millions of smaller earthquakes constantly rattling the floors, walls, and roads we consider stable.

I’m reminded of a recent article in the New York Times about football player Ryan Miller. “Miller has had 10 concussions in all,” we read, “and that is to understate his battering. The brain sits in fluid inside the armor of a skull, and even nonconcussive whacks can result in brain colliding with bone. A couple of hard hits can come to resemble a concussion. The average football player, according to Cantu, takes 600 to 800 hits in high school and 800 to 1,000 in college.”

Concussions are like earthquakes, in other words: we wait for the Big One, but this means that, by definition, we miss the cumulative effects of all the little shocks along the way. Everything is moving; the earth is not stable; the landscape is jolting and cracking at a concussive rate, every day, beneath our feet.

On the opposite side of this temporal spectrum, the same website, ScienceNews, also reported that some radioactive decay takes so long, they can outlast our current universe.

“It takes 1 trillion times the age of the universe for a xenon-124 sample to shrink by half,” we read. “The decay, seen in xenon-124 atoms, happens so sparingly that it would take 18 sextillion years (18 followed by 21 zeros) for a sample of xenon-124 to shrink by half, making the decay extremely difficult to detect.”

That’s a bit of an understatement: it means you would need a machine significantly older than the universe to detect and measure these moments of decay.

[Image: Xenon, via Images of Elements].

The breakdown of this specific example—the element xenon-124—involves something called “two-neutrino double electron capture,” and I won’t even pretend to understand what it means. Nevertheless, what interests me here is the implied possibility that, well, on a universal timescale, everything is decaying. Everything is breaking down. But it occurs on a scale so huge it is inaccessible to human experience, certainly, but perhaps even to human cognition.

Imagine an element that decays only once every 750 trillion years. (Our current universe is 14 billion years old.) Imagine a creature living 749.999 trillion years, arrogantly thinking that its world is immortal.

In any case, this feels like the exact inverse of the previous example: while we’re on the hunt for radioactive decay, or while we’re out there looking for millions of overlooked mini-quakes and micro-concussions, we might actually miss detecting these massive punctuations of time, epic cycles so rare and daunting that our own universe cannot accommodate them.

For those attentive enough, in other words, there are concussions and earthquakes constantly; yet, on a large-enough timescale, everything decays, everything breaks down, everything has a half-life. Everything is radioactive. In the midst of all that, we make breakfast and take the subway to work.

Fault Lines/Point Clouds

[Image: Otherwise unrelated satellite view of the Pyramid Lake Fault (diagonal line from top left to bottom right), via Google Maps].

As a quick update to the Walker Lane post, there are some Walker Lane fault system LiDAR data sets available for download, if you’re able to play around with that sort of thing.

Walker Lane

[Image: The shadow of the San Andreas Fault emerges near sunset at Wallace Creek; photo by BLDGBLOG].

All four long-term readers of BLDGBLOG will know that I am obsessed with the San Andreas Fault, teaching an entire class about it at Columbia and visiting it whenever possible as a hiking destination.

The San Andreas is often a naturally stunning landscape—particularly in places like Wallace Creek, Tomales Bay, or even the area near Devil’s Punchbowl—but the fault’s symbolism, as the grinding edge of two vast tectonic plates, where worlds slide past one another toward an unimaginable planetary future, adds a somewhat mystical element to each visit. It’s like hiking along a gap through which a new version of the world will emerge.

I was thus instantly fascinated several years ago when I read about something called the Walker Lane, a huge region of land stretching roughly the entire length of the Eastern Sierra, out near the California/Nevada border, which some geologists now believe is the actual future edge of the North American continent—not the San Andreas. It is an “incipient” continental margin, in the language of structural geology.

[Image: My own sketch of the Walker Lane, based on Google Maps imagery].

In fact, the Walker Lane idea suggests, the San Andreas is so dramatically torqued out of alignment at a place northwest of Los Angeles known as the “Big Bend” that the San Andreas might be doomed to go dormant over the course of several million years.

That’s good news for San Franciscans of the far future, but it means that a world-shattering amount of seismic strain will need to go somewhere, and that somewhere is a straight shot up the Eastern Sierra along the Walker Lane: a future mega-fault, like today’s San Andreas, that would stretch from the Gulf of California, up through the Mojave Desert, past Reno, and eventually back out again to the waters of the Pacific Ocean (most likely via southwest Oregon).

Much of this route, coincidentally, is followed closely by Route 395, which brings travelers past extinct volcanoes, over an active caldera, within a short drive of spectacular hot springs, and near the sites of several large earthquakes that have struck the region over the past 150 years.

That region—again, not the San Andreas—is where the true tectonic action is taking place, if the Walker Lane hypothesis is to be believed.

[Image: The gorgeous Hot Creek Geologic Site, along the Walker Lane; photo by BLDGBLOG].

In an absolute dream come true, I was able to turn this armchair obsession of mine into a new feature for Wired, and it went online this morning as part of their May 2019 issue.

For it, I spend some time out in the field with Nevada State Geologist James Faulds, a major proponent of the Walker Lane hypothesis. We visited a fault trench, we hiked along a growing rift southeast of Pyramid Lake, and we met several of his colleagues from the University of Nevada, Reno, including geodesist Bill Hammond and paleoseismologist Rich Koehler.

I also spoke with early advocates of the Walker Lane hypothesis, particularly Amos Nur and Tanya Atwater, both of whom have been suggesting, since at least the early 1990s, that something major might be in store for this under-studied region.

[Image: Coso Volcanic Field, near where the Eastern California Shear Zone meets the Walker Lane; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The Wired story is almost entirely focused on the science behind discovering the Walker Lane, from GPS geodesy to LiDAR, but there are also a few scattered thoughts on deep time and the vast imaginative horizon within which geologists operate. This comes mostly by way of Marcia Bjornerud’s new book Timefulness. There is also a brief look at indigenous seismic experience as allegedly recorded in Native American petroglyphs along the Walker Lane, via an interesting paper by Susan Hough.

But, on a more symbolic level, the Walker Lane totally captivates me, including how vertiginous and exciting it is to think about—let alone to hike along!—a new edge to the known world, a linear abyss emerging in the desert outside Los Angeles, slowly rifting north through hundreds of miles of dead volcanoes and disorganized fault lines, gradually pulling all of it together into one clear super-system, flooding with the waters of the Gulf of California, bringing a new version of the Earth’s surface into being in real-time.

In any case, check out the piece over at Wired if any of this sounds up your alley. The piece includes some great photos by Tabitha Soren.

Seismic Potential Energy

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

I got to hike with my friend Wayne last week through a place called the Devil’s Punchbowl, initially by way of a trail out and back from a very Caspar David Friedrich-ian overlook called the Devil’s Chair.

[Image: Wayne, Rückenfigur; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The Punchbowl more or less lies astride the San Andreas Fault, and the Devil’s Chair, in particular, surveils this violently serrated landscape, like gazing out across exposed rows of jagged teeth—terra dentata—or perhaps the angled waves of a frozen Hokusai painting. The entire place seems charged with the seismic potential energy of an impending earthquake.

[Image: It is difficult to get a sense of scale from this image, but this geological feature alone is at least 100 feet in height, and it is only one of hundreds; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The rocks themselves are enormous, splintered and looming sometimes hundreds of feet over your head, and in the heat-haze they almost seem buoyant, subtly bobbing up and down with your footsteps like the tips of drifting icebergs.

[Image: Looking out at the Devil’s Chair; photo by BLDGBLOG].

In fact, we spent the better part of an hour wondering aloud how geologists could someday cause massive underground rock formations such as these to rise to the surface of the Earth, like shipwrecks pulled from the bottom of the sea. Rather than go to the minerals, in other words, geologists could simply bring the minerals to them.

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

Because of the angles of the rocks, however, it’s remarkably easy to hike out amidst them, into open, valley-like groins that have been produced by tens of thousands of years’ worth of rainfall and erosion; once there, you can just scramble up the sides, skirting past serpentine pores and small caves that seem like perfect resting spaces for snakes, till you reach sheer drop-offs at the top.

There, views open up of more and more—and more—of these same tilted rocks, leading on along the fault, marking the dividing line between continental plates and tempting even the most exhausted hiker further into the landscape. The problem with these sorts of cresting views is that they become addictive.

[Image: Wayne, panoramically doubled; photo by BLDGBLOG].

At the end of the day, we swung by the monastic community at St. Andrew’s Abbey, which is located essentially in the middle of the San Andreas Fault. Those of you who have read David Ulin’s book The Myth of Solid Ground will recall the strange relationship Ulin explores connecting superstition, faith, folk science, and popular seismology amongst people living in an earthquake zone.

Even more specifically, you might recall a man Ulin mentions who once claimed that, hidden “in the pattern of the L.A freeway system, there is an apparition of a dove whose presence serves to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas fault’.”

This is scientifically cringeworthy, to be sure, but it is nonetheless interesting in revealing how contemporary infrastructure can become wrapped up in emergent mythologies of how the world (supposedly) works.

The idea, then, of a rogue seismic abbey quietly established in a remote mountainous region of California “to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas Fault’”—which, to be clear, is not the professed purpose of St. Andrew’s Abbey—is an idea worth exploring in more detail, in another medium. Imagine monks, praying every night to keep the rocks below them still, titanic geological forces lulled into a state of quiescent slumber.

[Image: Vasquez Rocks at sunset; photo by BLDGBLOG].

In fact, I lied: at the actual end of the day, Wayne and I split up and I drove back to Los Angeles alone by way of a sunset hike at Vasquez Rocks, a place familiar to Star Trek fans, where rock formations nearly identical to—but also less impressive than—the Devil’s Punchbowl breach the surface of the Earth like dorsal fins. The views, as you’d expect, were spectacular.

Both parks—not to mention St. Andrew’s Abbey—are within easy driving distance of Los Angeles, and both are worth a visit.

Tree Rings and Seismic Swarms

[Image: An otherwise unrelated print of tree rings from Yellowstone National Park, by LintonArt; buy prints here].

The previous post reminded me of an article published in the December 2010 issue of Geology, explaining that spikes in carbon dioxide released by subterranean magma flows beneath Yellowstone National Park have been physically recorded in the rings of trees growing on the ground above.

What’s more, those pulses of carbon dioxide corresponded to seismic events, as the Earth moves and gases are released, with the effect that the trees themselves can thus be studied as archives of ancient seismic activity.

“Plants that grow in areas of strong magmatic CO2 emissions fix carbon that is depleted in [Carbon-14] relative to normal atmosphere, and annual records of emission strength can be preserved in tree rings,” we read. “Yellowstone is a logical target” for a study such as this, the authors continue, “because its swarm seismicity and deformation are often ascribed to buildup and escape of high-pressure magmatic fluids.” The release of gases affects tree growth, which is then reflected in those trees’ rings.

I’ve written before about how tree rings are also archives of solar activity. See this quotation from the book Earth’s Magnetism in the Age of Sail, by A.R.T. Jonkers, for example:

In 1904 a young American named Andrew Ellicott Douglass started to collect tree specimens. He was not seeking a pastime to fill his hours of leisure; his motivation was purely professional. Yet he was not employed by any forestry department or timber company, and he was neither a gardener not a botanist. For decades he continued to amass chunks of wood, all because of a lingering suspicion that a tree’s bark was shielding more than sap and cellulose. He was not interested in termites, or fungal parasites, or extracting new medicine from plants. Douglass was an astronomer, and he was searching for evidence of sunspots.

Slicing open trees, searching for evidence of sunspots. This is a very peculiar—and awesomely poetic—form of astronomy, one locked inside objects all around us.

In the case of the Yellowstone study, a particular seismic swarm, one that hit the region back in 1978, apparently left measurable traces in the wood rhythms of local tree ring growth—in other words, surface-dwelling organisms in the Park were found to bear witness, in their very structure, to shifts occurring much deeper in the planet they live upon. They are measuring sticks of subterranea.

Combine this, then, with Andrew Ellicott Douglass’s work, and you’ve got tree rings as strange indicators of worlds hidden both below and far away: scarred by subterranean plumes of asphyxiating gas and marked by the variable burning of nearby stars. They are telescopes and seismometers in one, tools through which shifts in the sun and in the Earth’s own structure can be painstakingly divined.

Atlas of the Underworld

[Image: Via Science].

A “complete x-ray of Earth’s interior is coming into focus,” Science reported last week. Using computerized tomography, or CT scanning—the same technology used to visualize the interior of the human body for various medical diagnoses—Dutch Earth scientists are piecing together what they call an “Atlas of the Underworld.” They are documenting invisible landscape features—the ghostly remains of entire continents—hidden inside the planet, locked beneath the surface we dwell upon everyday.

Awesomely, these features include “oceans and mountains lost to Earth’s history,” we read, an Earth’s surface within the Earth’s surface:

The reconstructions are also resurrecting mountains that had been lost to time. For example, in a study published several months ago, [tectonicists Jonny Wu and John Suppe] reconstructed the travels of 28 slabs to recreate the Philippine Sea as it was more than 50 million years ago. Beyond identifying what appears to be a previously unknown piece of ocean crust, they predicted that as one of their paleoplates plunged into the mantle, it threw up a large chain of volcanoes that eventually collided with Asia. That convulsive process could explain mysterious folded rocks in Japan and beneath the East China Sea.

For now, however, these “lost mountains” remain digital projections based on available data, not real, physical discoveries. They are, we might say, tectonic fictions, unverified models of past Earths inside our own.

A researcher at the University of Oslo named Grace Shephard points out, for example, that she will soon “publish a comparison of 14 different models that will assess which slabs seem most likely to be real” (emphasis added).

[Image: The long-buried Farallon Plate, visible nowhere on the Earth’s surface—or, rather, only visible through its indirect, mountain-building effects; courtesy Karin Sigloch].

Twenty years ago, poet Gary Snyder published a book called Mountains and Rivers Without End. As the Freer and Sackler Galleries describe it, the book is an “epic celebration of nature and humanity that encompasses Asian artistic traditions, Native American storytelling, and Zen Buddhist philosophy,” all in the guise of a book of landscape poetry.

I mention this not because Snyder’s book is the only example of such a thing, but because it’s interesting to imagine a tomographic expansion of Snyder’s “mountains and rivers without end”—adding revelatory geophysics and otherworldly Earth-scanning technology to the book’s already eclectic mix of myths and texts.

In other words, where is the poetry of lost ghost continents, buried mountain ranges, drowned ocean basins, landlocked archipelagoes, melting thousands of miles beneath our feet, swirling slowly below us in the Earth’s deep interior?

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the tip!)

Inland Sea

For two closely related projects—one called L.A.T.B.D., produced for the USC Libraries, and the other called L.A. Recalculated, commissioned by the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial, both designed with Smout Allen—I wrote that Los Angeles could be approached bathymetrically.

Los Angeles is “less a city, in some ways, than it is a matrix of seismic equipment and geological survey tools used for locating, mapping, and mitigating the effects of tectonic faults. This permanent flux and lack of anchorage means that studying Los Angeles is more bathymetric, we suggest, than it is terrestrial; it is oceanic rather than grounded.”

[Image: Underground seismic counterweights act as pendulums, designed to stabilize Los Angeles from below; from L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].

Because of seismic instability, in other words, the city should be thought of in terms of depths and soundings, not as a horizontal urban surface but as a volumetric space churning with underground forces analogous to currents and tides.

This bathymetric approach to dry land came to mind again when reading last month that the land of Southern California, as shown by a recent GPS study, is undergoing “constant large-scale motion.”

It is more like a slow ocean than it is solid ground, torqued and agitating almost imperceptibly in real-time.

“Constant large-scale motion has been detected at the San Andreas Fault System in Southern California,” we read, “confirming movement previously predicted by models—but never before documented. The discovery will help researchers better understand the fault system, and its potential to produce the next big earthquake.”

[Image: “Vertical velocities” along the San Andreas Fault; via Nature Geoscience].

This is true, of course, on a near-planetary scale, as plate tectonics are constantly pushing land masses into and away from one another like the slow and jagged shapes of an ice floe.

But the constant roiling motion of something meant to be solid is both scientifically fascinating and metaphorically rich—eliminating the very idea of being grounded or standing on firm ground—not to mention conceptually intriguing when put into the context of architectural design.

That is, if architecture is the design and fabrication of stationary structures, meant to be founded on solid ground, then this “constant large-scale motion” suggests that we should instead think of architecture, at least by analogy, more in terms of shipbuilding or even robotics. Architecture can thus be given an altogether different philosophical meaning, as a point of temporary orientation and solidity in a world of constant large-scale surges and flux.

Put another way, the ground we rely on has never been solid; it has always been an ocean, its motion too slow to perceive.


10-HaywardCornerWEB[Image: Photo by Geoff Manaugh].

Lacking any sort of seismically-themed historic preservation plan, this seemed all but inevitable: a city works crew has fixed, and thus destroyed, the amazing offset curb at the intersection of Rose and Prospect in Hayward, California, where seismic “creep” has been inadvertently tracked for decades.

From the L.A. Times:

Since at least the 1970s, scientists have painstakingly photographed the curb as the Hayward fault pushed it farther and farther out of alignment. It was a sharp reminder that someday, a magnitude 7 earthquake would strike directly beneath one of the most heavily populated areas in Northern California.
Then, one early June day, a city crew decided to fix the faulty curb—pun intended. By doing what cities are supposed to do—fixing streets—the city’s action stunned scientists, who said a wonderful curbside laboratory for studying earthquakes was destroyed.

As you can see here, small black lines had been drawn on the curb as a visual aid for helping measure exactly how far its opposing sides had been displaced by so-called “fault creep.”

11-HaywardCornerWEB[Image: Photo by Geoff Manaugh].

The curb on the west is moving north—along with the rest of that part of Hayward, California—while the curb on the east basically marks the edge of a different tectonic plate.

I was there roughly two years ago, looking at fault creep up and down California—primarily along the San Andreas Fault—when I took these shots; at the time, I wrote that the intersection could be thought of as “something like an alternative orientation point for the city, a kind of seismic meridian—or perhaps doomsday clock—by which Hayward’s ceaseless cleaving can be measured.”

CurbsTwoWEBCurbsWEB[Images: Photos by Geoff Manaugh].

Alas, we’ll have to wait presumably until the 2050s before the curbs offset to anything like they were when these photographs were taken.

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for the heads up!)