Friday, July 25, 2014

Volcanoes and Fossilized Brains: Studying Earth's Past

We're learning that there's much more to learn about this universe. My response to our expanding horizons of knowledge is delight. Others react differently.

A Christian worldview and shameless interest in God's creation may seem like an odd combination, so before sharing what I've read about volcanoes, the Grand Canyon, and fossilized brains, I'll discuss why I accept reality "as is."
  1. Mount Rainier, Diapirs - - -
  2. Sharks of the Cambrian — Anomalocaridids
  3. The Grand Canyon: Old, New, and Otherwise
  4. Supervolcano "Mystery Solved" — For Now

"At the Works of Your Hands I Shout for Joy"

(Image from ISS007/NASA, used w/o permission.)
"3 Terrible and awesome are you, stronger than the ancient mountains."
(Psalms 76:5)

"For you make me jubilant, LORD, by your deeds; at the works of your hands I shout for joy.

"How great are your works, LORD! How profound your purpose! "
(Psalms 92:5-6)

"Shout with joy to the LORD, all the earth; break into song; sing praise. "
(Psalm 98:4)
Like the psalmist, the works of God make me jubilant.

That's why I share what scientists are learning about the vast, ancient, and astounding universe.

Knowing that God created a universe that's roughly 13,798,000,000 years old, and may be immeasurably vast, does not upset me.

If anything, the scale of this creation increases my appreciation of God's power: and attention to detail. (July 11, 2014)

Not all Catholics share my sense of wonder at this astounding and vast universe. That's okay. The Catholic Church is literally catholic, καθολικός, universal. We're united and diverse, a single faith celebrated and lived in all cultures. (April 18, 2012; August 5, 2011; August 26, 2010)

However, I think accepting the reality God created makes more sense than assuming that a Calvinist bishop revealed God's timetable in 1654. I'll get back to that.

Coping With Change: Or Not

(From John Martin, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Detail from John Martin's "Pandemonium," 1841.)

A recent comment in this blog warned me that I was going to Hell:
"Are you *currently* being sent into Hell forever ... automatically excommunicated (outside) of God’s Catholic Church ?

"Answer: Yes you are ... you can reverse it ... please continue. "
(Comment (July 11, 2014))
My offense, apparently, was that I don't think the most recent Vatican Council is anti-Christ. The person informed me that folks who follow Peter's successor are in a "heretic cult."

I am sure that the person who warned me is sincere. But sincerity doesn't guarantee accuracy.

Interestingly, this effort to save me from eternal damnation seems to have been a response to a post that has very little to do with Vatican II: "Coping With Change for Millions of Years; Chatty Chimps."  (July 11, 2014)

I can't be sure, but my guess is that what set her off was my acceptance of orderly change over time: which some folks think is the "religion of the Antichrist." (January 2, 2014)

I sympathize with her, a bit. She seems convinced that she, and folks who agree with her, are the only "real" Catholics left. Quite a few folks who had grown up in pre-Vatican II days did not like what happened in 1965.

I wasn't a Catholic of any sort when Vatican II published "Documents of the II Vatican Council." Even so, I heard and read about some of the shenanigans that followed.

Screwball vandalism and clueless revisions of doctrine, done "in the spirit of Vatican II," must have shocked and horrified many Catholics. It apparently convince some that the Holy See was being run by Satan. I don't see it that way, but then — I've read some of the documents.

My father once said "never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity." I think we could have avoided a great deal of trouble if more priests and bishops of the day had read what the council actually published: not what they apparently got from reading an op-ed in Time or Newsweek.

I've explained why I am Catholic, and in solidarity with Rome, before:

God's Timetable

I think I understand why folks who don't want God to exist claim that because the universe follows knowable, rational, physical laws — a rational Creator cannot exist.

What makes less sense to me are Christians who make the same claim. (October 13, 2013)

I am a Christian, and Catholic, so I believe that God created everything: and constantly upholds the reality we live in. (Catechism, 279-289, 301)

I also believe that this universe is in a "state of journeying:" constantly changing, moving through time toward an ultimate perfection. (Catechism, 302-305)

God could have created this universe on at nightfall before October 23, 4004 B.C. — conforming to a 17th century Calvinist's timetable. (January 31, 2014)

Over the last few centuries, though, it's become increasingly obvious that the world we live in took a great deal longer than six millennia to reach the point it's at today. (December 13, 2013; March 22, 2013)

Theories and hypotheses describing how parts of the universe change as scientists uncover new evidence.

Some, like the nebular hypotheses, still match what scientists have observed. Others, like phlogiston, made made sense when proposed: but didn't match the facts. (February 28, 2014; January 17, 2014)

Again, I am not upset that God works on a cosmic scale. (June 6, 2014)

Even if I was, it wouldn't make much difference. God's God, I'm not: and I don't get to decide what is and is not real.

Using Our Brains

(From Tim Eagan, via, used w/o permission. (February 17, 2005))

I'm not sure why some folks see science, particularly what we're learning about how life developed, as evil.

One of my kids said presenting theories as facts is behind much of the attitude. She's got a point. That's part of what got Galileo in trouble. (April 25, 2014)

I see less scientific triumphalism these days: the sort of 'now we know everything' attitude taken by bacteriologists before the 1918 influenza epidemic. I think the 'we're all gonna die' attitude that's currently fashionable is equally silly, and that's another topic.

Expecting science to take the place of God is daft. The same goes for power, pleasure, fame, or anything that is not God. (Catechism, 2112-2114)

But God gave us brains. Part of our job is studying this universe and developing new tools for managing its resources. Using science and technology, wisely, is part of being human. (Catechism, 283, 339, 2292-2295)
"A better understanding of science should lead not to triumphalism but to the kind of humility recently expressed by Nobel Prize-winning geneticist François Jacob in 'Of Flies, Mice and Men:' 'Science cannot answer all questions. . . . It can, however, give some indications, exclude certain hypotheses. Engaging in the pursuit of science may help us make fewer mistakes. It's a sort of gamble.'"
("Triumphalism in Science;" Jon Beckwith, Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Harvard Medical School; American Scientist (September-October 2001))

1. Mount Rainier, Diapirs - - -

(From R. Shane McGary / Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, used w/o permission.)
("Scientists imaged the Earth under Mt. Rainier (red triangle). The blue arc (lower left) is old oceanic crust. Magma forms 50 miles below the surface (A) and migrates upward (B) to a reservoir near Rainier (C). Fluids that escaped from the crust higher up (D) join the magma chamber"
(Los Angeles Times))
"Scientists follow magma from Earth's belly to base of Mt. Rainier"
Julia Rosen, Los Angeles Times (July 16, 2014)

"The lava that spews from the fiery rims of volcanoes originates deep in Earth's crust, often more than 50 miles below our feet. Although scientists have a general idea where this magma comes from, it's nearly impossible to see exactly what's happening so far beneath the surface.

"Recently, however, scientists used a network of extremely sensitive instruments that act like metal detectors to shed light on this process. In a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, researchers painted a superbly detailed picture of the plumbing beneath Washington's Mt. Rainier, an active volcano.

"The scientists found that most of the volcano's magma forms deep in the mantle, where water trapped in old oceanic crust escapes and melts the rocks around it. The magma then rises more or less straight up in a massive column toward the surface, pooling in a reservoir beneath the 14,000-foot peak.

"One of the questions the researchers set out to answer was 'whether the melt goes up through a network of cracks, or whether it gets dragged up in little bits, or rises in diapirs,' said R. Shane McGary of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, lead author of the study...."
Diapirs happen when a more mobile and ductily deformable geologic material is forced into brittle overlying rocks.

Think of them as titanic lava lamp blobs.

"Diapirs" is a word you're not likely to hear often, unless you're a geologist: and then it's likely that the diapirs are salt or mud domes.

Sometimes a mud diapir under pressure reaches the bottom of the ocean, or the top of land, and then you'll get a mud volcano: which is another topic.

Diapirs have nothing to do with diapers, by the way.

The L.A. Times article explains why "ductily deformable" stuff deep underground matters to folks who aren't scientists: without, I think, too much emphasis on the drama.

Julia Rosen also explained why so many volcanoes pop up along the Pacific "Ring of Fire."
"...old crust gets gobbled up at plate boundaries and then reborn as lava. This happens all around the Pacific 'Ring of Fire,' including along the West Coast from Northern California up to Alaska. These volcanoes form at the surface, above where oceanic crust slips beneath the continent in a process known as subduction.

"Diving at about a 45-degree angle from where it ducks under the North American plate, doomed oceanic crust sinks deep into Earth’s mantle and is eventually cannibalized by the extreme temperatures and pressures it encounters. This process creates melt that percolates upward — that's why volcanoes typically sit a few hundred miles inland from the plate boundary, which lies offshore under the chilly waters of the North Pacific...."
(Julia Rosen, Los Angeles Times)
Mount Rainier's next eruption could be spectacular: and very dangerous for anyone in Tacoma.

- - - Lahars, and Knowing When to Run

Mount Rainier is a few dozen miles from Tacoma, Washington. That gives folks living in the area a place for hiking, camping, and admiring the scenery. It's an active volcano, but hasn't erupted since the 1800s.

Mount Rainier is a stratovolcano, the same sort as Mount St. Helens. Sometimes its eruptions are comparatively quiet, like the Hawaiian volcanoes. Sometimes they're not.

The next time Mount Rainier explodes, folks in downtown Tacoma should have an hour or so to get out. Those who live or work among the scenic vistas south and east of the city would, of course, have to skedaddle faster: if they want to live.

"Lahar" is another word you probably don't run into often.

Lahars are volcanic mudflows. They're about as dense as concrete, and sometimes move tens of meters a second, that's upwards of 20 miles or 36 kilometers per hour.

An eruption at Mount Rainier about 5,600 years ago sent the Osceola lahar shooting down the White River Canyon. That mudflow was 460 feet deep. Another eruption, roughly 2,250 years back, sent the National Lahar down at least 62 miles of the Nisqually River valley.

More about Mount Rainier's mudflows:

Eruption Forecasts: Not Yet

Not all scientists are convinced that every detail of this study is accurate. One said that one of the shallow magma reservoirs spotted is really a coal deposit, for example. For the most part, though, it looks like most "agree that the results present a road map for how magma moves from deep in the mantle all the way to the bowels of Mt. Rainier." (Julia Rosen, Los Angeles Times)

This won't let scientists predict when the next big eruption will come: but it's a step toward a better understanding of why volcanoes like Mount Rainier are where they are. Each time vulcanologists learn more about how volcanoes work, we're closer to having reliable eruption forecasts.


2. Sharks of the Cambrian — Anomalocaridids

(From Nicholas Strausfeld/University of Arizona, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
("A side-by-side comparison reveals the similarity between the brain of a living onychophoran (L) and that of the anomalocaridid fossil of a Lyrarapax unguispinus, as seen in an undated handout illustration courtesy of the University of Arizona."
"Fossils show strange sea creature's half-billion-year-old brain"
Will Dunham, Reuters (July 16, 2014)

"Researchers on Wednesday described fossilized remains unearthed in China showing in fine detail the brain structures of a bizarre group of sea creatures that were the top predators more than half a billion years ago.

"The fossils show an animal called Lyrarapax unguispinus that lived during the Cambrian Period, a pivotal juncture in the history of life on Earth when many major animal groups first appeared. It was a member of a group known as anomalocaridids - primitive relatives of arthropods, which include crustaceans, insects and spiders - that hunted prey with a pair of claw-like grasping appendages in front of the eyes.

"Even though anomalocaridids do not have any direct descendants alive today, the brain structures of Lyrarapax closely resemble those of worm-like animals called velvet worms that crawl along the ground in tropical and semitropical forests in the Southern Hemisphere...."
Velvet worms look like worms with legs, caterpillars, or slugs. About 180 species live in the tropics, or southern temperate zone. If you want folks to ignore you at a party, loudly announce that velvet worms are of the genus Onychophora, and are a minor ecdysozoan phylum.

Getting back to Will Dunham's article, anomalocaridids lived in shallow seas where China, United States, Canada, Poland and Australia are today. That was some 515,000 years back.

In their day, anomalocaridids were the biggest animals on Earth: the biggest we've found, anyway. A large anomalocaris, the critter that small picture, was two meters long.

Anomalocaridids may be "primitive," in the sense of preceding today's arthropods, and being an early stage in their development. But they were most likely the sharks of Earth's oceans right after the Cambrian Explosion.

Anomalocaridids and Velvet Worms: What's Different, What Isn't

(From Peiyun Cong and others, via Nature, used w/o permission.)
(Photos and drawings of the front part of a velvet worm, and an anomalocaridid.)

These photos and drawings show why Peiyun Cong and the other scientists think there may be a connection between anomalocaridids velvet worms. The photo and drawing on the left show a velvet worm, seen from below. The ones on the right, an anomalocaridid.

Blue parts of the drawings are the critters' nervous system, including the brain. Apart from the difference in size, the two animals are obviously different: but they've got pretty close to the same general layout.

Both have a roundish mouth on the underside, behind the brain; a pair of eyes just ahead of the mouth, and then two extensions of the head. Granted: in the velvet worm the extensions are antennae, not grasping organs. but the neural wiring looks about the same.

I'm fascinated by the ways life on Earth has changed over the last half-billion years: and by how much hasn't changed.

The velvet worm's fancy name is E. rowelli, Euperipatoides rowelli, by the way. Now, for those who can't get enough of academese, here's that illustration's caption: the whole thing.
"a, Horizontal section of hemibrain of E. rowelli stained with osmium–ethyl gallate, showing frontal appendage ganglion (frg) anterior to optic tract (opt) and second optic neuropil (on2) connected to medial protocerebral neuropil (mpr; lateral protocerebrum, lpr). b, c, Both sides of brain of L. unguispinus YKLP 13305 aligned to match orientation of a. Corresponding areas (and retinas, re) indicated, as is one root of descending tracts (dt). d, e, Comparison of E. rowelli and L. unguispinus brains. Nervous extensions into the frontal appendages (fa; on subsequent sections of E. rowelli; Extended Data Fig. 2e), not visible in the fossil, are added (paler blue). Incomplete distal part of frontal appendage of L. unguispinus reconstructed (paler grey). Eye, ey. Scale bars: a, 100 μm; c (also for b), 2 mm."
("Brain structure resolves the segmental affinity of anomalocaridid appendages," Peiyun Cong, Xiaoya Ma, Xianguang Hou, Gregory D. Edgecombe, Nicholas J. Strausfeld; Nature (Accepted May 16, 2014; Published online July 16, 2014)))
Actually, the caption is fairly straightforward: not replete with the turgid prolixity endemic to learned tomes. Moving on

Complex Brains, Secondary Causes, and All That

Oddly enough, anomalocaridids probably didn't have the Cambrian's most complex brains. Fuxianhuia, for example, had a three-part brain: the same general arrangement we find in crabs, insects, and centipedes. That's a fossil fuxianhuia, by the way: found in China.

A neuroscientist at the University of Arizona, Nicholas Strausfeld, said that being hunted by smart predators like anomalocaridids may have given prey with better brains a better chance of surviving.
" 'Predation may have in part contributed to the evolution of more elaborate brains that could process more complex ecological cues that might have offered camouflage or other protection,' Strausfeld said...."
(Will Dunham, Reuters)
I don't have to choose between believing that God exists or that physical reality exists. I've been over this before. (July 15, 2014)

I'm a Catholic. I believe that God creates and maintains this universe. God can make a difference in the blatantly obvious way we call miracles. But most of the time secondary causes are at work: creatures acting on their own, according to their nature. (Catechism, 156-159, 301-308)

Since I do not believe that God is a liar, and did not maliciously plant false evidence about this creation's nature, fearing knowledge is irrational. As Leo XIII wrote, "truth cannot contradict truth." (Catechism, 159, 214-217; "Providentissimus Deus")

3. The Grand Canyon: Old, New, and Otherwise

(From asdf, used w/o permission.)
("The eastern Marble Canyon segment was only cut in the last six million years, says the team"
(BBC News))
"Grand Canyon 'formed recently' "
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (January 26, 2014)

"The world famous Grand Canyon, which snakes through the American state of Arizona, only took its present form relatively recently.

"New research suggests that most of it was put in place just five to six million years ago.

"Earlier studies had claimed the canyon was perhaps 70 million years old...."
It looks like the "old canyon model" and "young canyon model" were both right: sort of.

Part of the problem is the Grand Canyon's size. It's enormous: 277 miles, 446 kilometers, long; more than a mile deep and 18 miles wide in spots.

Gathering and analyzing data from enough different sites has been challenging.

These scientists used techniques called thermochronology to study the Grand Canyon's rocks.

A rock's crystalline structure changes over time — and involves diffusion of the parent or daughter isotopes, which is probably why Jonathan Amos decided not to discuss closure temperatures. I'll do the same: or, rather, not do the same. Polonius had a point, and that's another topic.

"Just five to six million years" is "young," geologically speaking. The Grand Canyon's oldest rocks are about 2,000,000,000 years old. By that time, cyanobacteria had been dumping oxygen into Earth's atmosphere for hundreds of millions of years: driving obligate anaerobes, critters that die when exposed to oxygen, into oxygen-free pockets.

Rocks at the bottom of Granite Gorge aren't Earth's oldest, though. Australia's Narryer Gneiss Terrane has been around for about 3,300,000,000 years; and the Acasta Gneiss rock outcrop in Canada's Northwest Territory formed between 3,580,000,000 and 4,031,000,000 years ago, in the neighborhood of 7/8ths Earth's age.

Change Happens

(From Laura Crossey/UNM, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The Eastern Grand Canyon segment was half-carved between 15-25 million years ago"
(BBC News))
"...The latest investigation, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, agrees that some segments are very ancient, but says the full system is young.

" 'The "old canyon model" has argued that the Grand Canyon was carved 70 million years ago in the same place and to nearly the same depth as the modern canyon. We are refuting that,' said Prof Karl Karlstrom from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

" 'We are also refuting the 'young canyon model', which claims the canyon was cut entirely in the last six million years. Instead, we show that the Colorado River used some old segments as it found its path from the Rockies to the Gulf of California in the past six million years...."
(Jonathan Amos, BBC News)
I'm not surprised that these scientists say that Grand Canyon's history isn't either "young," or "old," but started forming 70,000,000 years back, with the latest major set of changes starting around 66,000,000 years later.

Sudden, catastrophic events happen: but so does change that spans geologic ages.

4. Supervolcano "Mystery Solved" — For Now

(From Google Maps/Terramtercis, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Lake Toba in Sumatra was formed during the eruption of a supervolcano 74,000 years ago"
(BBC News))
"Supervolcano eruption mystery solved"
James Morgan, BBC News (January 6, 2014)

"Scientists have made a breakthrough in their efforts to understand what causes so-called supervolcanoes to erupt.

"Supervolcanoes are capable of eruptions thousands of times larger than normal outpourings.

"It was thought that an external trigger, such as an earthquake, was needed to bring about a giant blast.

"But tests at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble show the sheer volume of liquid magma is enough to cause a catastrophic super-eruption...."
First of all, "mystery solved" is a nifty headline, but I'd be astounded if we have no more to learn about Earth's supervolcanoes.

That said, what scientists at the ESRF discovered is a big step forward.

Supervolcanoes are, somewhat arbitrarily, defined as volcanoes which can produce 1,000 cubic kilometers or more of debris. That's 240 cubic miles, thousands of times what most volcanoes eject.

There's one very roughly a thousand miles west and a bit south of where I live.

The Yellowstone Caldera doesn't erupt often, but when it does: a sizable fraction of North America gets covered in volcanic ash. Geologists found evidence of major eruptions 2,100,000 1,300,000, and 640,000 years ago.

These 'big ones' came very roughly 700,000 and 670,000 years apart. My inner geek noticed that the last one happened 30,000 years sooner than it would have, if the intervals were exactly 700,000 years.

If, and that's a big if, the next one comes 30,000 years sooner, too: the Yellowstone Caldera will erupt about 10,000 years from now. If you were planning a trip to Yellowstone National Park next year: it'll probably still be there.

Volcanoes, Supervolcanoes, and Really Big Volcanic Events

(From ESRF / Nigel Hawtin, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Pressure from magma buoyancy creates cracks in the Earth’s crust through which magma can penetrate"
(BBC News))
"...Simulating the intense heat and pressure inside these 'sleeping giants' could help predict a future disaster.

"Lead author Wim Malfait, of ETH Zurich, said: 'We knew the clock was ticking but we didn't know how fast: what would it take to trigger a super-eruption?

" 'Now we know you don't need any extra factor - a supervolcano can erupt due to its enormous size alone.

" 'Once you get enough melt, you can start an eruption just like that.'

"There are about 20 known supervolcanoes on Earth - including Lake Toba in Indonesia, Lake Taupo in New Zealand, and the somewhat smaller Phlegraean Fields near Naples, Italy.

"Super-eruptions occur rarely - only once every 100,000 years on average. But when they do occur, they have a devastating impact on Earth's climate and ecology...."
(James Morgan, BBC News)
If what happens at intervals at places like Lake Toba, Lake Taupo, and the Phlegraean Fields are "super-eruptions," I'm not sure what we should call Earth's really big volcanic events, ones that leave large igneous provinces in their wake. (May 23, 2014; April 4, 2014)

My guess is that the article's "20 known supervolcanoes on Earth" are the active ones. Lake Toba, Lake Taupo and the Phlegrean Fields had eruptions a few centuries back. Obviously, these recent ones weren't on the same scale as Lake Taupo's Oruanui eruption 26,500 years ago.

A big Toba eruption, between between 69,000 and 77,000 years back, may or may not have something to do with apparent population bottlenecks in humanity's long history. Either way, Toba poured hundreds of cubic miles of volcanic debris into the atmosphere: covering parts of Malaysia 30 feet deep in ash.

Southeast Asia and India were not healthy places to live just then.

"Soon," on a Geologic Time Scale

(From Robert Smith, Lee J. Siegel, United States National Park Service; via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.)
(Yellowstone's four overlapping calderas.)

The last time I checked, quite a few scientists think the Yellowstone Caldera has one big eruption left: which could happen "soon," on a geologic time scale.

On the other hand, geologists who are studying the Yellowstone area say that "...current rates of ground deformation are well within historical norms...." (Featured Articles, Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, USGS (February 28, 2014))

Movies like "2012" are — more dramatic. I like rip-roaring tales, but I see them as entertainment: not public service announcements.

Scientists may be wildly wrong about what's happening under Yellowstone, or space-alien lizard-men may be hiding 'the truth:' but I don't think so. I'm also not particularly concerned about what may happen in the next 6,000 years: or 60,000.

I do not think that humans have gotten more stupid since we learned how to use fire, and we don't seem to be running out of things to learn about Earth.

My guess is that when the next Yellowstone eruption is imminent, folks will decide whether it's easier to evacuate North America, divert the geothermal energy harmlessly. Some will almost certainly decide to stick around and watch the show. Humans are like that.

It's even possible that someone will be running the 121st century equivalent of an RV park with energy drained from the Yellowstone magma chamber. (May 3, 2013)

There's more, if you're interested:

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.