You are here: Home » Reports by Year and Month » 2011 » ERTHAWARE REPORT #198 part 1 “The Inescapable Problem of Savage Beauty: some thoughts about Earthquakes”
Mar 212011
Dear ERTHAWARE Planetary Citizens,

In the next three episodes of the ERTHAWARE REPORT I want to say some things about earthquakes. I will start with the story below.

A month ago after several days of Winter storm, the day dawned with stunning clarity. I walked the 60 paces from our front door to the edge of the bluff and was awed with a 200 mile (322 km) vista of mountains on the horizon awash in the first glow of morning light – from the Coastal Range of Canada to Mount Rainier. To the northeast was the prominent volcano Mount Baker (10,778’ – 3285 m) and to the southeast the massive sentinel Mount Rainier (14,411’ – 4392 m) . However, directly to the east (picture below), as if aflame with an inner fire, was the least known volcano among the 5 prominent volcanoes of Washington State, Glacier Peak (10,541’ – 3213 m).

In 1971, Bob Gunning (one of the premiere Northwest wilderness photographers), Dennis Hendrickson and I traversed this peak with full packs on a 10 day cross-country scramble among the mountains of the Glacier Peak Wilderness area. Well do we remember being suddenly caught in a zero-visibility blizzard on the large Honeycomb Glacier during the first week of August. Dennis, at the head of our rope team, cautiously plunged his ice ax ahead of him to probe for any hidden crevasses; I in the middle with compass and altimeter set the general direction; Bob at the tail was our experienced belay/anchor lest we fall through. Thus, we blindly picked our way through a maze of crevasses up to the pass where we set up camp before our climb over Glacier Peak.

However, we were tent bound for two days engulfed in thick cloud offering no visibility. We were seriously thinking of aborting our attempt, but the skies finally opened at 3 am on the third morning, and we had a sunny ascent and descent. We accomplished 11,000’ (3353 m) of elevation up and down with our full packs that day. Oh, to be that young again! The next 2 days we were deluged with gully-washer downpours as we exited the wilderness.

(Gunning on the left, Ring in the middle, Hendrickson on the right at the summit of Glacier Peak in August 1971. My mother sewed my orange mountain parka)

This summer we will have our 40th year reunion in some local Pub where we will gild our memories with each sleeve of IPA.

Glacier Peak is a dominant mountain nestled amidst a group of very rugged lesser peaks hosting many active glaciers, dozens of alpine lakes and extensive alpine meadows that bloom with prolific masses of wild flowers in summer. It is a phenomenally beautiful and magical place set aside in 1964 as a pristine wilderness of 572,000 acres, bounded on the north by North Cascades National Park. But my purpose in writing this is not just to highlight this beautiful area which is relatively little known outside the Pacific Northwest. It has a lesson to teach us about the dynamic processes of our lively planet.

When you contemplate the top bucolic picture of a sailboat motoring south on a placid Puget Sound with distant picturesque mountains bathed in morning light, you are peering into a dramatic and violent geological history. 15,000 years ago, where I stood last month taking this picture, was covered then with 4000’ (1219 m) of glacial ice during the most recent ice age — and that was the last of 5 ice ages in the past 250,000 years that carved out the deep Salish Sea from northwest of Vancouver Canada to Olympia Washington. The island across the water is basically a pile of glacial silt and gravel with some rock anomalies that has been over-washed in places by tsunamis. The rugged mountains in front of Glacier Peak were formed as the under-water Juan de Fuca plate off the Washington, Oregon and British Columbia coasts pushed (subducted) underneath the Continental plate, thus wrinkling up the lighter land mass. This involved multiple small and larger dramatic earthquakes over millions of years to push up these coastal mountains which have since been eroded by ice and snow and storm and landslides. And wherever you have the heavier skin of the ocean floor subducting under the lighter continental plate, fissures are opened for the molten interior of the earth to escape in violent  flows or explosions – thus the volcanoes on the horizon. In our short life-span, we must realize that these unsettling, powerful processes still go on and on. In fact, most of the charming areas that we set aside as places of natural wonder where we can calm our frantic modern souls in the beauty of nature are places that have been formed, and are still being formed by the earth-shaking activity of our planet. I call this the inescapable problem of savage beauty.

As much as we grieve the human tragedy of what is happening in Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand, Chile, New Guinea, Haiti, Mexico, China, Pakistan, etc. this is not some sudden new and unusual phenomena. From the beginning of seismographic record keeping in the 1930s, we now understand that over a million earthquakes happen around the globe every year – maybe 1 or 2 a year over 8 on the Richter Scale, a dozen over 7, a hundred 6 and over, and multiplying more and more as we go down the Scale. And from geological studies, it is likely that our home planet was more volatile in the past. However, with human population expanding to 10 billion people in this 21st century, if we don’t understand how our dynamic planet works and make cautionary decisions and preparations, these sad tragedies will happen again and again.

Our earth is not a static stage prop where we live out some benign mythical drama. It is alive and changing constantly. When looking at our planet from a cosmic perspective, it is the combination of the energy from the sun and the seismic trembling and folding of the skin of the earth caused by its blistering hot inner core plus the presence of the carbon and water cycles that makes the prolific diversity of life possible. What appears to be a demonic chaos is a creative dynamism that can be awesomely dangerous and powerful, but stunningly beautiful – a savage beauty. How do we live with this?

To be continued in our next ERTHAWARE REPORT.

On the journey,

Hugs from Lynn and me

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The L.E.A.R.N. Group (Life Education And Research Network)
2204 Chestnut St. Port Townsend, WA. USA 98368

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Glacier Peak on the Map


Hello. Welcome to the Blog version of Erthaware Report. I have been photographing nature for over 40 years and writing about it for almost that long as well. I hope you like the content of this site and come back often!

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