WHEN GEOLOGY COMES TO LIFE
We know much more about the last ninth of the Earth’s history than we do the remaining eight ninths combined. From the Cambrian to the present the geologic time scale is largely informed by and sometimes arranged according to a series of world-changing events. The great extinctions of the Permian Period. The asteroid that ushered in the Cretaceous. Snowball Earth. You probably get the picture. It might be fair to label these events as tragedies. Then again, “tragedy” is a word that implicates the human experience, and there were no people around to experience any of the episodes that were profound enough to merit a boundary line between two Eras or Periods. And if we had been around, our species may not have survived the hostile living conditions that ushered Earth into its next geologic chapter.
This is not to say that the game-changing events acknowledged by the stratigraphic time scale were sudden. For the most part they unfolded over thousands or even millions of years. To the human eye these geologic “events” would have been invisible. The North American Continent is consuming the Pacific Ocean, but it is easier to watch your fingernails grow than it is to see this plate motion. Such is the way of the geologic process: profound change over profound periods of time. The arcane and obtuse meditations of geology concern changing landscapes that simply can not be witnessed within the reference of a single lifetime.
Except for when they can. Geology comes to life in volcanoes. This is one of the few places where notions of human history and the narrative of geology intersect. Sometimes in a big way. The Toba super volcano erupted around 73 thousand years ago and is thought to be responsible for a genetic bottleneck wherein the entire human population was reduced to around 15 thousand individuals. The 1815 Mount Tambora eruption is thought to have killed nearly 100 thousand people, is responsible for the 1816 “Year Without a Summer,” and was heard more than 1,600 miles away. For all of their destruction, for all of the devastation and tragedy they spew into the human time scale, volcanoes remain shrouded in mystery. They taunt a small community of geologists to draw ever closer to their smoldering flanks, daring them toward eye-to-eye contact and luring them in with promises of “zero-age samples” of red-hot blood and a taste of their demonic breath.
One such geologist is Ken Sims, a Professor at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Sims has spent much of his career learning the secret language of volcanoes, finding clues to their culture that might increase our ability to predict when they will next reach into our world. He is an international authority on this subject and was recently featured in a National Geographic special regarding his work in Africa.