Saturday, January 31, 2015

Twenty-five sonnets over 4 billion years

For the last 6 months, I’ve been summarizing research articles from the high profile academic journal Geology in sonnet form; trying to distill the artistic meaning of the research, be it the methodology or the interpretations.  The first 25 of these sonnets are compiled below.

They are listed in stratigraphic order of the time period studied; that is, the sonnet about the study of the most recent rocks on top, with research on older rocks below.  The one sonnet describing a study of Martian rocks is listed last, as those rocks are probably older than any of the terrestrial studies described here.

These fall into five broad categories: The Way of the World (Lab studies, simulations, and Quaternary rocks), Climate and Carbon (Tertiary); Death on a Blue Dot (Cretaceous through Cambrian extinctions) Ice ( Ediacaran and Cryogenean), and The World Forms (the first 3.8 billion years).
  Numbers refer to the described paper, in terms of volume-page in the journal Geology. They are also linked, as are some technical terms.

The way of the world

The linear progressions we assume
sphericalize our precious holy cows
the certainty simplicities presume
breed dreamt-up facts we dutifully espouse.
Repeated careful data overthrow
and phosphorus impurities reveal
Olivine is white-hot Devil's snow
A closet skeleton time can't anneal.
This phoenix from volcano is reborn
Forgotten stories texture can unearth
abandon simple models, do not mourn
Complexity's explanatory worth.
   The simple models woo, but cannot stay.
   Eventually the facts get in the way.

The vast caldera of the Yellowstone
Erupts siliceous ash from time to time.
It’s far from the Cascade subduction zone
Therefore, a mantle plume’s the suspect prime.
But magma conducts electricity
Conductors in the mantle lie out west
The tomographic maps are quite pretty
But show no melt where theory would suggest
A plume, with mantle source below the crust
Should yield a seismic and conductive trace.
Because we can’t detect deep melt we must
Explain resistance far below this place.
   A pulsed hotspot, or plate-related stall?
   Or maybe plumes do not exist at all.

The ants which scuttle by between our toes
Dissolve the min’rals of the Earth we tread
The calcic feldspar, slipped under their nose
Ten trillion insects weather, pit, and shred.
The Himalayan mountains cool the Earth
Though mangroves and the grasses do their part,
But ants may do what was the work of turf
By min’ralizing CO2, they start
Evaporating seas in Neogene
Drying the Earth to suit their sandy hives
Anthropocene becomes the Formicene
The terraformic swarm constructs, connives.
  No human teamwork makes emissions slow
  Yet toiling ants sequester far below.

The Vikings lived in Greenland 'till in cooled.
Ten thousand years before, as glac'ers thawed,
Melt water in the North Atlantic pooled,
The Younger Dryas cold snap shocked and awed.
In Norway, glaciers reappeared on high,
Above the fjords where stoic Norse rule lapsed.
Then Carolina icebergs floated by,
As Greenland outlet glaciers collapsed.
Why would cold make this icecap melt, not grow?
Emotionless wind froze the Baffin Bay.
Warm currents thawed the ice tongues from below;
Without a shelf, the glac'er sped away.
  Today such currents threaten the Antarctic
  An outburst would be deluge, not cathartic.

Discharged a hundred cubic miles yield
The timing of this eruption did bridge
Reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field.
We measure timing of this ancient blast
With argon from potassium decay
This cataclysm from the recent past
might warn us should another come today.
The crystals froze, then thawed, then froze again.
The magma chamber did not slowly stew
chronology of xenocrysts explain
What to expect, should this begin anew.
  The warning won’t be twenty thousand years
  to outburst, from when magma first appears.

Climate and Carbon

The sunset lion, as Britannia aged
Survived, with every man, the frigid waste.
Industrial hostility upstaged
The sanctity of souls, their wreck encased
In icy seas and grinding floes made cold
By deep Antarctic circumpolar flow.
Dark isolation froze this land, how old
Are continental glaciers, ceaseless snow?
Six desp'rate heroes sailed the Scotia Sea
Dead arc, live backarc ridge beneath their keel
Tectonic forces pulled their goal to lea,
Deflected currents, begat their ordeal.
  Endurance sank, endurance overcame
  Asylum, dawn, and cause were all the same.

A pox on all those proxies non-unique
Which make interpretation hard to do.
Magnesium to calcium we seek
Sea temp'rature, and not pCO2.
So lithium, uranium are used
to disambiguate the Mg curve
O. umbonatus data's not recused.
Antarctic ice growth isotopes observe,
But whence the melting in the Miocene?
Here isotopes of carbon join our tale,
And sedimentary burndown in marine
Organic carbon makes the icecap fail.
  Antarctic ice was thawed by CO2
  Let's try repeating this effect anew.

For fifty million years, ‘tis understood
A vanished forest froze in permafrost.
The isotopes of carbon in the wood
Tell secrets of the climate we have lost.
Then brackish duckpond, now a frozen sea,
Ex-crocodiles where Franklin did maroon.
Those Rains of Castamere, we can’t agree:
Cold drizzle or a tropical monsoon?
Extinct sequoia yearns for rain no more
Yet in its fossil rings it has preserved
A dryad’s weather journal, yielding lore
of summer rain and winter drought observed
  The Arctic Ocean’s lost half of its ice
  What happens when it’s gone? We need advice.

Death on a blue dot

Just Sixty-six million short years ago
(Though Deccan volcanism coincides)
The Yucatan was smote a cosmic blow
And the Gulf shelf collapsed in those fell tides
Late Cretaceous sediments were scoured,
Deposited as “boundary cocktail.”
Unsorted forams, lime mudstone, powered
By Chicxulub-induced collapse of shale
The wildcatters call the seismic line
“Middle Cretaceous Unconformity”
Not middle, end; deluvian, malign,
Complete destructive uniformity
  The Mesozoic ended with this splat
  So Gerta Keller, please hang up your hat

From flood basalt hot sulfur will exhale,
Across the dying planet, smog bank draped
The genie left the bottle, empty grail,
No evidence what long ago escaped.
The lava flows forget what they degassed
A fleeting daydream, lost with time’s progress
But though a hundred million years have passed
The clinopyroxene preserves the S.
Partitioning experiments defined!
A synchrotron or ion probe can see
The sulfur clouds to which we once were blind
Are quantified now, analytically.
   Sulfurous magma wrecked the biosphere
   While clean eruptions let life persevere.

The Central Atlantic Magmatic Province
Erupted tholiitic and potassic.
C O two upset atmospheric balance.
Eco-collapse ended the Triassic.
Green sulfur bacteria’s isotopes
Show photic zone euxinia prevailed.
Stomatal size decreased (show microscopes)
And carbon biomass was soon curtailed.
Compound-specific isotopes will tell
Which phytoplankton thrived in these tough times,
While wax from leaves and calcite from a shell
Record recovery in clastic slimes.
  The Triassic ended as it began
  Can those extinctions be surpassed by man?

The strontium which weathers from the land
Is held by teeth and shells beneath the waves
Their creatures live, then die, interred in sand
with isotopes in stratigraphic graves.
The greatest dying Earth has ever seen
Initiated the Triassic time
Before the ants evolved, rock weathering
Was temperature dependent, leaching lime.
Warm mud in post-apocalyptic waste
Bereft of vegetation, washed away.
And Gaia, both hungover and disgraced,
Left complex biomes for another day.
  She sobered up in five or six epochs
  But those hard times forever changed the rocks.
The Permian extinction was severe,
though only callous geos call it "great."
Sulfur and carbon choked the atmosphere
Siberian eruption exhalate.
A lava-coal explosion, it’s surmised
Spread fly ash all around the sickly Earth,
But if this ash is made by wildfire,
The evidence for coal fly ash is dearth.
A sulfate drought could set the world aflame,
The brimstone vapors choking off the rain.
The lava’s murder weapon’s not the same,
But "Lip" can improvise to kill again.
   If carbon, sulfur cycles stop their flow
   The ecosystem has nowhere to go.
On Mars and Venus air is CO two,
While on the Earth it is but a trace gas.
Our rocks and water scrub the gas into
The stable carbonates, which won’t degas.
In torrid climates, weathering is fast.
Cold rivers transport unreacted grains
Fluvial temperature in eons past
Can be deduced with XRF and brains.
The elements in sediments explain
An early Permian heats up and thaws.
Jokulhlaups warm up more than the jungle rain
Digesting rocks chewed up by glacial jaws.
   This weathering drew down the CO two
   But not enough for ice to grow anew.

The oxidation of the atmosphere,
And buffered ocean water do record
Life’s radiation into a frontier.
When proxies tell this tale, they are adored.
While sulfur oxidation can detect
Stagnation deep in Neptune’s dusky realm,
A noisy delta S makes us suspect
Metabolism signals overwhelm.
Portentous albatross foresaw the brine,
Which makes the sea the beverage of the dead,
Has sulfate contents greybeards can divine
With isotopes of calcium instead.
  The ocean’s respiration, waves to slab,
  Can be deciphered in a far off lab.

Australia is a dry and stable land.
No mountain range, no active slipping fault,
And yet this plain had lava seas erupt.
We call them Kalkarindji flood basalt.
It’s hard to know just when these rocks were formed.
The weathering and rock type complicates
Radiometric dates of dykes that swarmed
When seas contained the first protochordates.
For ten long years they searched the outback rocks
For grains unhurt since fossils first were formed.
In hopes the nucleii-related clocks
Survived half billion years, still undeformed.
  510 MA, a date of some distinction.
  Flood basalts can lead to mass extinction.


The Ediacaran saw creatures grow
Diversify as animals evolved.
But Cambrian descendants do not show
A lineage, preserved or else dissolved.
A missing fossil yearns to be dug up.
The Flinders Ranges burn to tell their tale
Trace fossils, both a spicule and a cup
Mean evolutionary theories can prevail.
Coronacollina was once a sponge
With opaline supports to hold it flat
Choia’s ancestor, before the plunge
Into the Cambrian destroyed the mat
  On which it lived, before it then evolved.
  Another fossil puzzle has been solved

The ozone and peroxide in the air,
enriched in isotope O seventeen,
Pass on the spike reaction products bear;
This stratospheric label’s not marine.
If limestone sulphate bears this airy mark
deceitful proxy! geosaboteur!
Thus reconstructed oceans fade to dark,
Eliminating tales that never were.
A lithologic memory withdrawn,
Built on assumptions hereby disallowed
The dreams of times hypothesized are gone
Mere fanciful illusions, disavowed.
  A lab revealed the havoc smog did wreak
  Perhaps they need a microbeam technique.

The Earth once had a frozen shell of ice
encasing oceans, land, from pole to pole.
The mystery: what process could suffice
To kiss Snow White, rouse cryogenic soul.
One theory says volcanic CO2
Would slowly warm the Earth until the thaw
As ice breaks up, the air and water brew:
Carbonic acid forms: paleo-spa.
The isotopes of boron measure bases.
Post-glacial carbonates record the change
As acid forms, the calcium replaces
Hydronium, a weathering exchange.
   Across the world, the acid came and went;
   A single ocean-atmosphere event.

New biostratigraphic data may
Help Cryogenian stratigraphy
The timing’s known from rhenium decay
The vase shaped fossils match from every sea.
Were they amoebas wearing armor plate?
Or protist tanks, cilia on the brink?
Eukaryotic arms race tempted fate
Destabilizing carbon source and sink.
Darwinian selection did not give
Thoughtful reflection, cool restraint, or mirth.
Organics buried, still they strove to live,
Turned pale blue dot into a snowball Earth.
  Three quarters of a billion years ago
  The first nuclear winter: “Let it go…”

The world forms

Enough with carbon, climate variation
Let’s look at rocks from a far older time,
Which lacked much copper mineralization,
And when anorthosites were at their prime.
Earth’s middle age- boring for a reason?
Tectonics were remarkably unchanged.
Ice and iron were both out of season.
A billion years of uniform exchange
Of isotopes, strontium, and S
The active margins ringed the continent.
Slow, steady mantle cooling caused the process
Strong lithosphere held melts incipient
  It ended with Rodinia dispersion
  Which led to Earth’s exciting, current version.

Nobody studies fucking iodine.
The halogen too rare for us to care,
But iodate to carbonate’s inclined
So we might have a useful proxy there.
This IO3 requires oxygen,
And thus does not exist in reduced seas.
Its presence in old carbonates means then
Ozone and oxygen were in the breeze.
Archean carbonates do not have I,
But it appears when O first graced the air.
And thus another tool is forged, whereby
Our planet’s past can be unearthed to share.
  This gas we breathe controls the biosphere.
  We’d like to know what made it first appear.

Our early atmosphere was quite anoxic
‘till early algae terraformed the Earth.
One grand event, replacing gasses toxic?
Or did O oscillate since life’s first birth?
Did evolution make fate manifest?
Inexorable progress of the gene?
Or was the early oxygen repressed?
Methanogenic dominance was seen.
These visions of our past yearn to be fact.
Hypotheses distinct yet plausible.
The dawn of life’s mysterious, abstract,
Lest ancient rocks reveal what’s causable.
   Archean soil lets us know the way.
   Oxygen came, but then it went away.

The cratered lunar face preserves the song
Of bolide roller derbies eons past
But while the cold dead moon remembers long
The rains of Earth reshape the surface fast.
Did impacts peak four billion years ago?
Or taper off through geologic time?
Archean rocks are analysed to know
micaceous balls were hot glass in their prime.
This impact melt was blasted into space
By comets larger than the dino's doom.
Thus diminution models must replace
The cut-off LHB has us presume.
   Can cratering effect how cratons grow?
   Tectonic orogens changed status quo.

The Schrödinger bacteria’s Barsoom,
Where robots scan the wadi of the Styx.
There died, or never lived a microbe bloom
When déjà vu and Dejah Thoris mix,
Her hungry eyes fixed on Hadean seas,
Lowell’s canal dream just an aquifer.
The playa droid with X-ray vision sees;
Areocalcrete Earthings soon infer.
With carbonate and opal intergrown,
Australia’s prayer of cheap uranium,
As vengeful Ares, orbited by drone
Blends nukes and life within his cranium
  Thus Opportunity grinds sands of time
  Which mortals fancy Ceres made of lime.


EliRabett said...

Ranks right up there with karaoke lounges and tooth pulling.

Ben said...

I find it impossible to read these without hearing them as rap lyrics. Rather awesome rap lyrics, actually. Perhaps there's an opportunity for some hip hop lab lemming collaboration?