After cobalt was discovered beneath one neighborhood, Congolese began digging under their houses. Some tunnels extended into neighbors’ properties. Illustration by Pola Maneli
Nicolas Niarchos appeared in our pages in 2017 with two short form and inherently pleasant stories. Now he is in full force with a longform account of the impacts new technologies are having on the ground, or rather in the ground, in one of Africa’s more fragile countries:
In June, 2014, a man began digging into the soft red earth in the back yard of his house, on the outskirts of Kolwezi, a city in the southern Democratic Republic of the Congo. As the man later told neighbors, he had intended to create a pit for a new toilet. About eight feet into the soil, his shovel hit a slab of gray rock that was streaked with black and punctuated with what looked like blobs of bright-turquoise mold. He had struck a seam of heterogenite, an ore that can be refined into cobalt, one of the elements used in lithium-ion batteries. Among other things, cobalt keeps the batteries, which power everything from cell phones to electric cars, from catching fire. As global demand for lithium-ion batteries has grown, so has the price of cobalt. The man suspected that his discovery would make him wealthy—if he could get it out of the ground before others did. Continue reading
The Salton Sea is one of numerous new mining proposals in a global gold rush to find new sources of metals and minerals needed for electric cars and renewable energy.
Thanks to the New York Times for this coverage of the choices surrounding how and where to mine a key ingredient of more efficient batteries–a consequential environmental question:
A race is on to produce lithium in the United States, but competing projects are taking very different approaches to extracting the vital raw material. Some might not be very green.
“This is the most sustainable lithium in the world, made in America,” Rod Colwell, the chief executive of Controlled Thermal Resources, said. “Who would have thought it? We’ve got this massive opportunity.”
Atop a long-dormant volcano in northern Nevada, workers are preparing to start blasting and digging out a giant pit that will serve as the first new large-scale lithium mine in the United States in more than a decade — a new domestic supply of an essential ingredient in electric car batteries and renewable energy.
The mine, constructed on leased federal lands, could help address the near total reliance by the United States on foreign sources of lithium.
But the project, known as Lithium Americas, has drawn protests from members of a Native American tribe, ranchers and environmental groups because it is expected to use billions of gallons of precious ground water, potentially contaminating some of it for 300 years, while leaving behind a giant mound of waste. Continue reading
Old Harry Rocks in Dorset. Photograph: Adam Wearing/Getty Images/500px
Thanks to the Guardian for this long read on rocks and the people who dedicate their lives to studying them, and informing we lay people about them:
Swathes of England’s landscape were shaped by the immense block of chalk that has lain beneath it for 100 million years. For a long time, even geologists paid it little heed – but now its secrets and symbolism are being revealed
The Seven Sisters cliffs in East Sussex, England. Photograph: eye35.pix/Alamy
On the British Geological Survey’s map, chalk is represented by a swathe of pale, limey green that begins on the east coast of Yorkshire and curves in a sinuous green sweep down the east coast, breaking off where the Wash nibbles inland. In the south, the chalk centres on Salisbury Plain, radiating out in four great ridges: heading west, the Dorset Downs; heading east, the North Downs, the South Downs and the Chilterns. Continue reading
Antarctica has not featured in these pages as much as tropical places, where we mostly work. The closest my work has come to Antarctica was between 2008-2010 when I worked with entrepreneurs in the Magallanes region of Chile, which includes Antarctica. Even then, the portions of my work in Tierra del Fuego were still 600+ miles from the northern most point of the Antarctic Peninsula. By contrast my work in Yakutia took me within the Arctic Circle. But in both places my work was always above ground, and never brought me close to the scientists working below ice shelves. So, thanks to Mother Jones for this:
Scientists taking sediment samples found animals nobody thought could survive there.
Bivouacked in the middle of the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf—a five-hour flight from the nearest Antarctic station—nothing comes easy. Even though it was the southern summer, geologist James Smith of the British Antarctic Survey endured nearly three months of freezing temperatures, sleeping in a tent, and eating dehydrated food. The science itself was a hassle: To study the history of the floating shelf, he needed seafloor sediment, which was locked under a half mile of ice. Continue reading
Discover Magazine’s blog has a post by Anna Bitong, who offers a few clues to help us understand what is happening in the deep recesses of a cave in Spain:
…A sign at the entrance warns visitors not to enter. Continue reading
When a professor does years of research and teaching on a topic related to this particular pond, and then takes the additional effort to share his observations in cogent form as an op-ed, we believe it is worth at least 5-10 minutes of reading time:
In 1845, Henry David Thoreau repaired to a cabin in the woods beside Walden Pond “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.” During the last two years, my students and I have come to that same pond to see what we could learn from the sediments beneath it. Continue reading
Photo by Brad Wilson
Best known for its characteristic flat-topped mountain formations known as “tepuis,” Canaima National Park is a geologic marvel that astounds the most experienced geologists and intrepid travelers alike. Between the table-top mountains, grassy savannah blankets the valleys and the perimeters of the tepuis, which cover about 65% of the park. The park is the sixth largest park in the world, measuring three million (yes, million) hectares, and is located in Venezuela close to the border between Brazil and Guyana.
Image from 4gress.com
Found in a remarkable landscape entirely sculpted by erosion, Göreme National Park in Turkey is characterized by a rocky landscape honeycombed with networks of ancient underground settlements and outstanding examples of Byzantine art. Located on the central Anatolia plateau, the unique rock structures of Göreme not only create a distinctive terrain of mountain ridges, valleys and pinnacles known as “fairy chimneys” or hoodoos, but also reveal one of the most striking and largest cave-dwellings complexes in the world.
Credit James Rajotte for The New York Times
Some of La Paz Group’s senior contributors have recollections of Santorini going back three decades, and the history of the place is both geological and cultural; the complexity of that history is still being revealed:
In the 17th century B.C., Santorini was a small volcanic island in the Aegean Sea, home to Akrotiri, a Late Bronze Age outpost of Minoan civilization, which preceded ancient Greece. Then the volcano erupted, burying Akrotiri in ash and obliterating much of Santorini, turning it into a few smaller islands. Continue reading
One candidate to be considered as evidence of the Anthropocene is plastic pollution. Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images
We’ve covered the science and evidence behind the idea of our new geological epoch – one influenced by human activity – several times over the years, quoting various sources like The New Yorker, the New York Times, and The Economist. Now, the Working Group on the Anthropocene has presented their official recommendation to the International Geological Congress that the Anthropocene be declared a new epoch starting around 1950, based on world-wide evidence such as radioactive elements from nuclear bomb explosions, plastic pollution, and even domesticated chicken bones. Damian Carrington reports:
The current epoch, the Holocene, is the 12,000 years of stable climate since the last ice age during which all human civilisation developed. But the striking acceleration since the mid-20th century of carbon dioxide emissions and sea level rise, the global mass extinction of species, and the transformation of land by deforestation and development mark the end of that slice of geological time, the experts argue. The Earth is so profoundly changed that the Holocene must give way to the Anthropocene.
Split by the Isthmus of Panama: Species of butterfly fish, sand dollar and cone snail that today live on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts of Central America are very closely related. Genetic sequencing shows that only 4 to 3 million years ago, each pair was a single species, demonstrating that marine connections between the oceans must have existed until that time. (Image by Coppard et al., via The Smithsonian)
It’s probably not something you’ve given much thought to, unless perhaps you’ve visited Central America in the past and experienced first-hand the incredible biodiversity displayed in such a small area. Part of the reason why this little strip of land has so many different species of animals and plants is that it connects two very large continents that used to be separate, but it also has given birth to new aquatic species via evolution, as you can see from the image above. Previous thought on the topic had been that the Isthmus of Panama rose from the ocean roughly between 23 and 15 million years ago, but a very large and very interdisciplinary team of researchers – mostly with some link to the Smithsonian Institution, which has its Tropical Research Institute in Panama City – have reaffirmed that the enormously important geological change occurred around 3 million years ago.
From the current issue of Economist, a bit of readable geological science to help make sense of the splashier headlines:
The origin of coal
More than any other substance, coal created modern society. But what created coal?
FOR 60m years of Earth’s history, a period known to geologists as the Carboniferous, dead plants seemed unwilling to rot. When trees expired and fell to the ground, much of which was swampy in those days, instead of being consumed by agents of decay they remained more or less intact. In due course, more trees fell on them. And more, and yet more. The buried wood, pressed by layers of overburden and heated from below by the Earth’s interior, gradually lost its volatile components and was transformed into a substance closer and closer to pure carbon. Continue reading
Tourists visit the the Mendenhall Glacier, in Alaska. Geologists are considering whether humans’ impact on the planet has been significant enough to merit the naming of a new epoch. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY MATTHEW RYAN WILLIAMS/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX
Thanks to, Michelle Nijhuis in general, for her science writing and environmental journalism–making these topics simultaneously fun and fascinating, if also sometimes depressing; and to the New Yorker for making space for this note in which she briefly explains the naming of the epoch we live in:
The duties of the Anthropocene Working Group—a thirty-nine-member branch of a subcommission of a commission of the International Union of Geological Sciences—are both tedious and heady. As the group’s chairman, Jan Zalasiewicz, whom Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about, in 2013, says wryly, “People do not understand the very slow geological time scale on which we work.” Yet the A.W.G.’s forthcoming recommendations may bring an end to the only epoch that any of us have ever known—the Holocene, which began after the last ice age, about twelve thousand years ago, and lasts to this day. The group’s members are pondering whether the human imprint on this planet is large and clear enough to warrant the christening of a new epoch, one named for us: the Anthropocene. If it is, they and their fellow-geologists must decide when the old epoch ends and the new begins.
In a paper published today in the journal Nature, Continue reading
The jury is no longer out on how climate change has been influenced by man, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and especially in the last 70 years. But the jury has not even convened yet on many phenomena in the natural world, including some geological oddities. Thanks to National Geographic‘s news service for this story from the far reaches of Siberia:
Scientists narrow down the cause and think it is related to warming.
When a massive and mysterious hole was discovered in Siberia last July (see pictures), social media users pointed to everything from a meteorite to a stray missile to aliens to the Bermuda Triangle as possible causes. But the most plausible explanation seemed to be the explosive release of melting methane hydrate—an ice-like material frozen in the Arctic ground—thanks to global warming.
A Russian scientist prepares to descend into a mystery crater in Siberia in November. More holes have since been found. PHOTOGRAPH BY VLADIMIR PUSHKAREV, THE SIBERIAN TIMES
Photo by Janne Morem/Flickr. Could global warming be overcome by releasing light-reflecting chemicals into the atmosphere? With safety and efficacy at the forefront of debate, David Keith discusses the moral and political quandaries surrounding the science of geoengineering.
We have mentioned geothermal engineering on and related topics on than one occasion, but there is a more radical branch of engineering the thermal options at our disposal, with special regard to the climate change “solutions” debate. Thanks to Harvard Gazette for this informative interview on the topic:
Keith says new reports will likely boost deeper look at geoengineering concepts
When the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a pair of reports this month on geoengineering, which involves deliberately intervening in the climate system to counter global warming, discussion of the controversial topic moved into the mainstream science community. The reports concluded that geoengineering is no silver bullet, and that further research is needed. Continue reading
Here is the second installment in a series on natural/environmental history from the perspective of what is referred to here as human impact and the geology of the future. The author requires you to work, but it is important work, worthy of the effort to focus the lens of history for the sake of our decisions about the future:
The Geological Society of London, known to its members as the Geol Soc (pronounced “gee-ahl sock”), was founded in 1807, over dinner in a Covent Garden tavern. Geology was at that point a brand-new science, a circumstance reflected in the society’s goals, which were to stimulate “zeal” for the discipline and to induce participants “to adopt one nomenclature.” There followed long, often spirited debates on matters such as where to fix the borders of the Devonian period. “Though I don’t much care for geology,” one visitor to the society’s early meetings noted, “I do like to see the fellows fight.” Continue reading
Encased in Ash – Body Mold from Pompeii
In 79AD, Mt. Vesuvius erupted with disastrous consequences for the residents of nearby Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other cities in the Campania region. Flows of boiling mud and rock rushed down the slopes, clouds of noxious fumes billowed upwards in the wind, and thousands of tons of rock and ash rained down upon the countryside. Pliny the Younger saw the eruption and likened it to a pinus, a pine tree. This may baffle some American readers, who may be accustomed to see pine trees that taper from a wide base to a narrow point Continue reading
In the Middle Ages, Iceland’s Mount Hekla was commonly thought of as a mouth of Hell, from whence one could hear the cries of the damned and even see their spirits haunting the peak — if the raging flames of hellfire weren’t blocking your view, that is. A few hundred years later, describing imagery as infernal or unearthly was still popular in travel accounts, as we saw in the case Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould’s thoughts on Námarskarð. Given the image above and those from the mud pits in the linked post, it really isn’t too surprising, especially after you consider that to reach these chthonic scenes the travelers had been riding ponies over a “tortuous and wretched” landscape of lava.