You are here: Home » Reports by Year and Month » 2011 » ERTHAWARE Report #201 part 3 “The Inescapable Problem of a Savage Beauty: Our Shaking Home Planet”
May 252011
Dear ERTHAWARE Explorers of our little Planet,

I’m so glad you survived Harold Camping’s mistaken prediction of a sudden Rapture on May 21 for his exclusive brand of believer, and his coldly calculated prediction of a horrible rolling global earthquake that would kill millions, but also exhume the dead bodies of billions. Now let’s finish our 3 part REPORT about earthquakes, and end with a few challenges about the use or neglect of scientific data.

Thirty three years ago, Lynn accompanied me to a national school administrator’s convention in Las Vegas. We drove there in our 1974 VW Westfalia Camper Van. Even though we were on a Washington State funded expense account for a plane flight and room in the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, we preferred to camp 55 miles north in a stunning desert area whose exotic beauty, by our scale, exceeded any of the garish glamour of the Strip. Because it was February, we encountered almost no visitors except ravens and coyotes, that is, until we commuted to the Vegas Convention Center each morning. Strange creatures roamed the Strip.

The picture I took below shows this favorite camping area to which we have returned four times since. Geologically it is totally fascinating as a meeting place for three great deserts – the Great Basin Desert to the north, the high Colorado Desert to the east, and the Mojave Desert to the south. But the story of its geology tells us a lot about the structure of our little home planet and the violent history of earthquakes and mountain building. Compressing the time scale of 500 million years, this is indeed a place of savage beauty.


The tall gray mountains in the background are limestone created under the Pacific Ocean floor in the Cambrian period 500 million years ago. Limestone, wherever it is found on earth, is the accumulation under sea water of calcium from dead shelled creatures piling up on the ocean floor for millions of years and forming into rock. The multi-colored ridges of rock in front of the dark mountains are much younger Jurassic (170 million years) sedimentary and wind swept rock formed when this area was much like a giant Sahara desert with super-sized sand dunes. You are looking at petrified sand dunes that have folded and eroded and oxidized into different colors depending on their chemical make up and exposure to air and moisture seepage. But how did the much older gray Cambrian mountains get shoved over the much younger Aztec Sandstones? This is a dynamic story of our perpetually changing little planet.

If you recall our earlier REPORT, our planet is like a liquefied round egg with a very thin shell, or crust that we call terra firma. The innermost core of the earth is a solid ball of iron close in temperature to the surface of the sun. It is solid because the pressure is so great that the iron cannot expand and liquefy. However, as we move out from the core and pressure decreases, the iron and other chemicals turn into a very hot liquid mass, until under the thin skin of the earth is a molten, viscous, moving magma that in places oozes or explodes where the earth’s thin shell is weak.

If you have ever watched water boil and put something that floats on the surface, the convection currents in the hot water will move the floating debris around. That is like our planet. Since the mid-20th century, scientists have discovered that the thin shell of our planet is cracked. It is broken up into 15 big pieces that they call plates. All of the biosphere, including 7 billion humans, live on this thin cracked shell. And the powerful convection currents coming from the center of the earth move these thin crusted plates, sometimes apart, or sliding and rubbing against each other, and sometimes in head on collision. It is these movements that account for the million and more tremors that are detected every year by seismographs. These are not magical acts of judgment randomly perpetrated by some fundamentalist’s or self aggrandizing preacher’s small god, or a belief in demi-spirits who trigger dangerous phenomena according to their pleasure or displeasure over local behavior. There are systemic scientific reasons for the natural dynamism and location of earthquakes.

The map below from the U.S. Geological Survey clearly shows the major plates of the earth’s shell, and, how, with very accurate scientific instruments, they are shown to be consistently moving in predictable directions.

Another fascinating map (below) is the global pin-pointing of a half million significant earthquakes over the past 50 years. You can see how closely it outlines the major cracks in the crust of our planet. The vast majority of the earth’s quakes happen along these major plate fault-lines. Concerning our first picture of our camping area, geologist suggest that the Siever Fault thrust belt that began about 80 million years ago was a sideways pushing of a more southern limestone Pacific Ocean floor northward and up and over the desert sandstone, building the topsy-turvy gray mountain range. And to this day the coastal southern California basin and Baja Peninsula are inching northward.

If you look at the black line of recorded tremors that run north and south through the Atlantic Ocean, this is the mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American and South American plates are moving away from the Eurasian and African Plates several inches every year. This is called Continental Drift. If you look at the profiles or outlines of these continents you can see how they were once conjoined in a super-continent in the Jurassic Age. But this also means that the westward movement of these two western continents are pushing into the Pacific Plate, which is also pushing into the eastern Eurasian and Australian Plates. 90% of all the our planet’s earthquakes happen around this Pacific Rim. These realities must be taken into account as cities develop and populations concentrate into the future.

One of the exciting privileges of this scientific age is our beginning to understand how the systems of our little home planet work. In the last 200 years we have begun to understand the organs of the human body which has resulted in new behaviors regarding health as well as developing remedial technologies and medical skills to deal with challenges to that health. As with the human body, we now understand that our home planet has geological and biological (environmental) systems that make this rare dot in space flourish with rich diversity of life. These systems are NOT confined to nationalistic, political, economic, cultural or religious boundaries. They are universal. Thus, the new global frontier is to internationally and cooperatively apply this knowledge to the health of our home planet as the demands of the human population expands to 12 billion and beyond in the next centuries. Will the diverse and interdependent richness of this blessed biosphere flourish or become like the tarmacked emptiness of an abandoned shopping mall parking lot?

The geo/biological dynamism of this tiny, tiny rotating speck in space is marvelously fascinating. If we learn to respect her rules, life can be good for all. If we selfishly disregard her ways over personal or national exploitation, it may not be Camping’s god that destroys the planet. It could be us. Thus we need an open heart and mind to learn how to think globally, and act locally, and to live with grounded mystical gratitude.

On the journey,

Hugs from Lynn and me
The L.E.A.R.N. GROUP (Life Education And Research Network) non-profit
2204 Chestnut St. Port Townsend, WA. 98368 USA
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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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