02 December, 2010

Geocandy: Earth Fall Down and Go Boom

Suzanne sent me a link to a fascinating article from KTAU.  State workers in Oregon just dug up trees that have been buried in a landslide.  No big, right?  Landslides happen up here all the time.  In fact, they've been happening for a very long time indeed - this one's on the order of 50,000 years old.

You'd think there'd not be much fascinating about landslides that happened before the last Ice Age.  It's a lot of jumbled dirt, rock, and unfortunate plants.  So maybe the botanists would have a field day, but who else cares?

If you're a geologist, you're probably jumping up and down about now shouting, "Me!"
Those dates are important to Portland State University geologist Scott Burns, an authority on landslides and debris flows.

“That gives us the date when the tree died and then it is telling us when that particular landslide probably occurred,” he said.

Burns said it’s another piece to the puzzle for geologists studying not only these devastating events but also the giant historical earthquakes which have occurred along the coastline.

“We can put together a record and see how often these big earthquakes occur,” he said. “And so if we can get them over the last 50,000 years, then we can say this is what happened in the past and this will be the recurrence interval for the future.”

It gives scientists an idea of when the region can expect a major tsunami like the one that nearly wiped out Sumatra. Coincidentally, the very highway project where the discovery was made will serve as an escape route for tsunami survivors when the Big One hits here.

Kinda sorta important, yeah.

I run in to a lot of people who sneer at science news.  They mock the people chasing the past, or odd questions, or studying bizarre subjects like methane emissions from livestock.  I used to be one of those people, before I understood just why scientists hare off after seemingly useless things.  So many advances are made because somebody got curious about something strange.  Lives can be saved because scientists go digging in ancient dirt.  Even when we may not see the use in something for years, down the road, that little piece of the puzzle they solved can turn out to have been extremely important.  Radiation, radio waves, and mold come to mind.

And then there's just the sheer wonder of knowing.  We can look into an old landslide and see a day in the life of an Oregon tens of thousands of years gone.  It's like a time capsule, holding traces of trees, plants and animals, telling us what the climate was like, what it might have been like to live back then.  It's amazing to be alive in an age when science can uncover the past.

Makes me glad to be alive, that does.


Lockwood said...

There's an outcrop on the Quartzville trip that is going to knock your socks off. Maybe two.

Suzanne said...

this is what fascinated me:

“They were cedar logs and they had bark on them. They had root wads on them. There were small branches,” he said. “You don’t see well-preserved wood 150 feet below grade too often, and when you do, you have to imagine, how did it get there?”


The nature of the slide also preserved pine cones with seeds, bark, roots, pollen and possibly fossilized insect remains.

so much was still intact. i had always thought that a large landslide would crush everything to rubble.

Wayne Ranney said...

I guess I shouldn't be surprised you run into people who aren't impressed with scientific discoveries. But things like this just wiggle my toes! Being able to see the past is like riding on a time machine. Get on board folks - this ride is fun.

Cujo359 said...

I run into a lot of people who sneer at science news.

Those folks should watch a few episodes of Nova when it covers actual science. The inter-relatedness of knowledge is impressive to see.

Sean G said...

The thing that most shocks me about this story is that they're still working on widening Hwy 20 between Corvallis and the coast. That was going on when I moved away nine years ago... and they're still not done?

I do love the science and all, but thank goodness I'm still not making that drive to Newport a couple of times a year.