[Image: Nevada test site, Google Maps, filtered through Instagram.]
There’s a great line in Tom Zoellner’s book Uranium: War, Energy, and the Rock That Shaped the World where he describes the after-effects of underground nuclear tests. Zoellner writes that, during these tests, “a nuclear bomb buried in a deep shaft underneath a mountain would vaporize the surrounding rock and make a huge cathedral-like space inside the earth, ablaze with radioactivity.”
[Image: Nevada test site, Google Maps, filtered through Instagram.]
They suggest that these detonations produce spaces—such as collapse cones and debris fields—that have “no direct natural analogue,” although they do helpfully contrast weapon-test craters with meteor-impact sites. (The authors also break underground nuclear test sites down into “zones,” which include a “zone of irreversible strain,” which is an amazing phrase.)
The larger purpose of their paper, though, is to look at long-term “signatures” that humans might leave behind in our underground activity, from nuclear tests to mineralogical carbon-capture to deep boreholes to coal mines. Will these signatures still be legible or detectible for humans of the far future? On the whole, their conclusion is not optimistic, suggesting instead that even vast subterranean mines and sites of underground nuclear weapons tests will fade from the terrestrial archive.
“Many of the physical and chemical products of human subsurface intrusion either do not extend far from the source of intrusion, lack long-term persistence as a signal or are not sufficiently distinctive from the products of natural processes to make them uniquely recognisable as of anthropogenic origin,” they write. “But the scope and complexity of the signals have increased greatly over recent decades, both in areal extent and with increasing depths, and seem set to be a fundamental component of our technological expansion. There will be some clues to the geologist of the far-future, when historical knowledge records may not be preserved, that will help resolve the origin.”
Nevertheless, it is totally fascinating to imagine what future archaeologists might make of Zoellner’s “huge cathedral-like space[s] inside the earth, ablaze with radioactivity,” long after they’ve collapsed, and where sand has been fused into unnatural glass and anomalous traces of radiation can still be found with no reasonable explanation for how they got there.
Could future archaeologists deduce the existence of nuclear weapons from such a landscape? And, if so, would such a suggestion—ancient weapons modeled on the physics of stars—sound rational or vaguely insane?
“Japanese researchers are closing in on understanding why electrical storms have a positive influence on the growth of some fungi,” Physics World reported last month, with some interesting implications for agriculture.
These electrical storms do not have to be nearby, and they do not even need to be natural: “In a series of experiments, Koichi Takaki at Iwate University and colleagues showed that artificial lightning strikes do not have to directly strike shiitake mushroom cultivation beds to promote growth.” Instead, it seems one can coax mushrooms into fruiting using even just the indirect presence of electrical fields.
As the article explains, “atmospheric electricity has long been known to boost the growth of living things, including plants, insects and rats,” but mushrooms appear to respond even to regional electrical phenomena—for example, when a distant lightning storm rolls by. “In Takaki’s previous studies, yield increases were achieved by running a direct current through a shiitake mushroom log. But Takaki still wondered—why do natural electric storms indirectly influenced [sic] the growth of mushrooms located miles away from the lightning strikes?”
Whether or not power lines or electricity-generation facilities, such as power plants, might also affect—or even catalyze—mushroom growth is not clear.
For now, Takaki is hoping to develop some kind of electrical-stimulation technique for mushroom growth, with an eye on the global food market.
[Image: Nikola Tesla, perhaps daydreaming of mushrooms; courtesy Wellcome Library.]
It is quite astonishing to imagine that, someday, those mushrooms you’re eating in a gourmet pasta dish were grown inside some sort of wild, Nikola Tesla-like electrical cage, half X-Men, half food-technology of the near-future—underground shining domes of fungal power.
The opening image of this post, meanwhile, is from a surreal field trip I took back in 2009 with Nicola Twilley to visit the “mushroom tunnel of Mittagong,” a disused rail tunnel in southeast Australia that is—or, as of 2009, was—used as a subterranean mushroom-growth facility. Imagine this tunnel quietly pulsing with electricity in the darkness, humid, strobing, its wet logs fruiting with directed fungi.
Electrical mushroom-control techniques, or where the future of food production merges imperceptibly with the world of H.P. Lovecraft.
How on Earth could I drive past all that without stopping?
[Image: Caves everywhere! Photos by betway必威
Being—perhaps to my Instagram followers’ frustration—an avid hiker, I spent far more time there than I should have, mostly looking down into jagged crevasses that extended past the roots of trees, carpeted in fallen leaves, often hidden beneath great, shipwrecked jumbles of boulders slick with the waters of temporary streams.
I crossed the bridge and was ready to hit the road again, when I saw another site of interest on the map. I decided to walk all the way down and around to something called the Widow Jane Mine.
Having visited many mines in my life, I was expecting something like a small arched hole in the side of a hill, probably guarded with a locked gate. Instead, hiking into the woods past some sort of private home/closed mining museum, the ground still damp from rain, I found myself stunned by the unexpected appearance of these huge, moaning, jaw-like holes blasted into the Earth.
[Image: An entrance to the Widow Jane Mine; photo by betway必威
I walked inside and immediately saw the space was huge: a massive artificial cavern extending far back into the hillside. Excuse my terribly lit iPhone photos here, but these images should give you at least a cursory sense of the mine’s scale.
[Image: Inside the Widow Jane Mine; photos by betway必威
Several things gradually became clear as my eyes adjusted to the darkness.
One, I was totally alone in there and had no artificial illumination beyond my phone, whose light was useless. Two, a great deal of the mine was flooded, meaning that the true extent of its subterranean workings was impossible to gauge; I began fantasizing about returning someday with a canoe and seeing how far back it all really goes.
[Image: Flooding inside the Widow Jane Mine; photo by betway必威
Three, there were plastic lawn chairs everywhere. And they were facing the water.
While the actual explanation for this would later turn out to be both entirely sensible and somewhat anticlimactic—the mine, it turns out, is occasionally used as a performance venue for unusual concerts and events—it was impossible not to fall into a more Lovecraftian fantasy, of people coming here to sit together in the darkness, waiting patiently for something to emerge from the smooth black waters of a flooded mine, perhaps something they themselves have invited to the surface…
[Image: Lawn chairs facing the black waters of a flooded mine; photo by betway必威
In any case, at that point I couldn’t be stopped. While trying to figure out where in the world I had left my rental car, I noticed something else in Google’s satellite view of the area—some sort of abandoned factory complex in the woods—so I headed out to find it.
On the way there, still totally alone and not hiking past a single other person, there was some sort of Blair Witch house set back in the trees, collapsing under vegetation and water damage, with black yawning windows and graffiti everywhere. I believe it is this structure in the satellite pic.
[Image: A creepy, ruined house in the woods, photo by betway必威
Onward I continued, walking till I made it, finally, to this sprawling cement plant facility of some sort just standing there in a clearing.
[Image: Cement world; photos by betway必威
I wandered into the silos, looking at other people’s graffiti…
[Image: “Born to Die”—it’s hard to argue with that, although when I texted this photo to a friend he thought it said “Born to Pie,” which I suppose is even better. Photo by betway必威
…before continuing on again to find my car.
Then, though, one more crazy thing popped up, sort of hidden behind those kilns in the opening photo of this post.
There was a door in the middle of the forest! With a surveillance camera!
This was confirmed for me by a man sitting alone in a public works truck back at the Binnewater Kilns parking lot, near my rental car. He was smoking a cigar and listening to the radio with his window rolled down when I walked up to the side of his truck and said, “Hey, man, what’s that door in the woods?”
[Image: An engraving of mining, from Diderot’s Encyclopedia.]
A Scottish firm called Gravitricity wants to turn abandoned mine shafts into gravity-driven, underground electrical batteries. Power could be generated and stored, the Guardian reported back in late 2019, “by hoisting and dropping 12,000-ton weights—half the weight of the Statue of Liberty—down disused mine shafts.”
By timing these drops with regional energy demand, Gravitricity’s repurposed mines could act as “breakthrough underground energy-storage systems,” a company spokesperson explains in a video hosted on their site.
“Gravitricity said its system effectively stores energy by using electric winches to hoist the weights to the top of the shaft when there is plenty of renewable energy available, then dropping the weights hundreds of meters down vertical shafts to generate electricity when needed,” the Guardian continues.
In Subterranea: The Magazine for Subterranea Britannica, where I initially read about this plan, some of the proposal’s inherent design limitations are made clear. “What would be required for the Gravitricity scheme,” SubBrit suggests, “would be very deep, wide, and perhaps brick-lined shafts clear of ladderways, air ducts, cables and the like. On what sort of surface the weights might land, time and time again, is another consideration.”
Of course, this suggests that such shafts could also be deliberately designed and excavated as purpose-built battery-voids stretching down hundreds—thousands—of meters into the Earth, a not-impossible architectural undertaking. Repurposed domestic wells, using smaller weights, could also potentially work for single-home electrical generation, etc. etc.
[Image: An otherwise unrelated photo of a cave in China, taken by @PhailMachine, via wallhere].
An interesting story that re-emerged during recent coverage of the Thai cave rescue is that a team of British cavers trapped underground in central Mexico for “more than a week” back in 2004 had been accused of having an ulterior motive.
The conspiracy seems to have begun when someone noticed a particular piece of equipment in a photo of the caving team: “someone spotted radon dosimeters being used. This wasn’t a military training exercise; it was a bunch of guys on holiday, some of whom happened to be in the armed services.”
What the British team would even have done with such materials, if they had found them, including how they would have safely transported uranium out of the underworld in their caving gear—not to mention how they would have exploited this knowledge later, perhaps by developing a vast, illegal, underground mine in the middle of central Mexico?—is difficult to imagine, but, wow, would I like to read that novella.
Six British soldiers descend into the Earth beneath Mexico looking for the infernal materials of war, part of a much larger, secret global mission for subterranean weapons-prospecting, slipping into caves in Central America, the U.S. Southwest, the Namibian desert, and beyond, combining raw international espionage, classified satellite reports, weaponized mineralogy, advanced underground mapping techniques, and every gear-head’s camping equipment fantasy turned up to 11.
“Imagine a city with more than 400 underground facilities, tunnels that span over hundreds of kilometres and 10 million cubic meters of space carved into old Precambrian bedrock,” they write. These spaces serve as “athletic training sites, energy distribution networks, globalized data centers, archival chambers, a buried church or undisclosed military facilities,” to name only a few of their everyday uses.
The exhibition is up until June 17th, in Québec City. Read more at l’Œil de Poisson.
“Radar satellite images show significant movement of the ground across a 4000-square-mile area—in one place as much as 40 inches over the past two-and-a-half years,” Phys.org reports. The land is tidal, surging and rolling with artificially induced deformation.
“This region of Texas has been punctured like a pin cushion with oil wells and injection wells since the 1940s and our findings associate that activity with ground movement,” one of the researchers explains.
[Image: Infrastructure near Wink, Texas].
What’s particularly fascinating about this is why it’s alleged to be happening in the first place: a jumbled, chaotic, quasi-architectural mess of boreholes, abandoned pipework, and other artificial pores has begun churning beneath the surface of things and causing slow-motion land collapse.
For example, “The rapid sinking is most likely caused by water leaking through abandoned wells into the Salado formation and dissolving salt layers, threatening possible ground collapse.” Or a nearby region “where significant subsidence from fresh water flowing through cracked well casings, corroded steel pipes and unplugged abandoned wells has been widely reported.”
This utterly weird, anthropocenic assemblage—or should I say anthroposcenic—has also changed the terrain in other ways. Water leaking into an underground salt formation has “created voids,” for example, which have “caused the ground to sink and water to rise from the subsurface, including creating Boehmer Lake, which didn’t exist before 2003.” It’s like upward-falling rain.
The site brings to mind the work of Lebbeus Woods: jammed-up subterranean infrastructure, in a sprawling knot of abandoned and semi-functional machinery, causing the solid earth to behave more like the sea.
The Punchbowl more or less lies astride the San Andreas Fault, and the Devil’s Chair, in particular, surveils this violently serrated landscape, like gazing out across exposed rows of jagged teeth—terra dentata—or perhaps the angled waves of a frozen Hokusai painting. The entire place seems charged with the seismic potential energy of an impending earthquake.
[Image: It is difficult to get a sense of scale from this image, but this geological feature alone is at least 100 feet in height, and it is only one of hundreds; photo by betway必威
The rocks themselves are enormous, splintered and looming sometimes hundreds of feet over your head, and in the heat-haze they almost seem buoyant, subtly bobbing up and down with your footsteps like the tips of drifting icebergs.
[Image: Looking out at the Devil’s Chair; photo by betway必威
In fact, we spent the better part of an hour wondering aloud how geologists could someday cause massive underground rock formations such as these to rise to the surface of the Earth, like shipwrecks pulled from the bottom of the sea. Rather than go to the minerals, in other words, geologists could simply bring the minerals to them.
Because of the angles of the rocks, however, it’s remarkably easy to hike out amidst them, into open, valley-like groins that have been produced by tens of thousands of years’ worth of rainfall and erosion; once there, you can just scramble up the sides, skirting past serpentine pores and small caves that seem like perfect resting spaces for snakes, till you reach sheer drop-offs at the top.
There, views open up of more and more—and more—of these same tilted rocks, leading on along the fault, marking the dividing line between continental plates and tempting even the most exhausted hiker further into the landscape. The problem with these sorts of cresting views is that they become addictive.
[Image: Wayne, panoramically doubled; photo by betway必威
At the end of the day, we swung by the monastic community at St. Andrew’s Abbey, which is located essentially in the middle of the San Andreas Fault. Those of you who have read David Ulin’s book The Myth of Solid Ground will recall the strange relationship Ulin explores connecting superstition, faith, folk science, and popular seismology amongst people living in an earthquake zone.
Even more specifically, you might recall a man Ulin mentions who once claimed that, hidden “in the pattern of the L.A freeway system, there is an apparition of a dove whose presence serves to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas fault’.”
The idea, then, of a rogue seismic abbey quietly established in a remote mountainous region of California “to restrain ‘the forces of the San Andreas Fault’”—which, to be clear, is not the professed purpose of St. Andrew’s Abbey—is an idea worth exploring in more detail, in another medium. Imagine monks, praying every night to keep the rocks below them still, titanic geological forces lulled into a state of quiescent slumber.
[Image: Vasquez Rocks at sunset; photo by betway必威
In fact, I lied: at the actual end of the day, Wayne and I split up and I drove back to Los Angeles alone by way of a sunset hike at Vasquez Rocks, a place familiar to Star Trek fans, where rock formations nearly identical to—but also less impressive than—the Devil’s Punchbowl breach the surface of the Earth like dorsal fins. The views, as you’d expect, were spectacular.
Both parks—not to mention St. Andrew’s Abbey—are within easy driving distance of Los Angeles, and both are worth a visit.
Picher is something like the Centralia of Oklahoma, where Centralia is the town in Pennsylvania that has been slowly abandoned over a generation due to coal mine fires burning away beneath its streets. In Picher, however, it’s not coal smoke but collapsing lead mines that have led to a forced buy-out and evacuation, a haunting process tragically assisted in 2008 when a massive tornado hit town, ripping apart many of its remaining houses and 必威手机版
Today, Picher is not entirely empty, but it has become more of a macabre curiosity on the state’s border with Kansas, its quiet streets overgrown and surrounded by looming piles of “chat,” or mine tailings, alpine forms that give the landscape its toxic profile.
[Image: Picher, surrounded by its toxic artificial landforms; via Google Maps].
The Washington Post visited the town back in 2007. “Signs of Picher’s impending death are everywhere,” they wrote at the time. “Many stores along Highway 69, the town’s main street, are empty, their windows coated with a layer of grime, virtually concealing the abandoned merchandise still on display. Trucks traveling along the highway are diverted around Picher for fear that the hollowed-out mines under the town would cause the streets to collapse under the weight of big rigs.” Note that this was written a year before the tornado.
Oklahoma native Allison Meier has written up Todd Stewart’s exhibition, including a longer, horrific backstory to the town, with red rivers of acidic water “belching” up from abandoned mines, kids playing in sandboxes of powdered lead, and horses poisoned by the runoff.
“The poisoning of Picher may seem like a local story,” Meier writes, “and, indeed, remains little known on a national level. Yet the state of Oklahoma continues to practice environmentally hazardous extraction, including fracking for gas. And in the United States, the promotion of toxic industry—even if it results in the destruction of the very place it is supporting—endures.”
[Image: Courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)].
A gigapixel bathymetric map of the Gulf of Mexico’s seabed has been released, and it’s incredible. The newly achieved level of detail is almost hard to believe.
[Images: Courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM)].
The geology of the region is “driven not by plate tectonics but by the movement of subsurface bodies of salt,” Eos reported last week. “Salt deposits, a remnant of an ocean that existed some 200 million years ago, behave in a certain way when overlain by heavy sediments. They compact, deform, squeeze into cracks, and balloon into overlying material.”
This means that the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico “is a terrain continually in flux.”
How the salt got there is the subject of a long but fascinating description at Eos.
It is hypothesized that the salt precipitated out of hypersaline seawater when Africa and South America pulled away from North America during the Triassic and Jurassic, some 200 million years ago. The [Gulf of Mexico] was initially an enclosed, restricted basin into which seawater infiltrated and then evaporated in an arid climate, causing the hypersalinity (similar to what happened in the Great Salt Lake in Utah and the Dead Sea between Israel and Jordan).
Salt filled the basin to depths of thousands of meters until it was opened to the ancestral Atlantic Ocean and consequently regained open marine circulation and normal salinities. As geologic time progressed, river deltas and marine microfossils deposited thousands more meters of sediments into the basin, atop the thick layer of salt.
The salt, subjected to the immense pressure and heat of being buried kilometers deep, deformed like putty over time, oozing upward toward the seafloor. The moving salt fractured and faulted the overlying brittle sediments, in turn creating natural pathways for deep oil and gas to seep upward through the cracks and form reservoirs within shallower geologic layers.
These otherwise invisible landscape features “oozing upward” from beneath the seabed are known as salt domes, and they are not only found at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico.
This is what it looks like inside those salt domes, you might way, once industrially equipped human beings have carved wormlike topological spaces into the deformed, ballooning salt deposits of the region.
Obviously, the Gulf of Mexico is not the only salt-rich region of the United States; there is a huge salt mine beneath the city of Detroit, for example, and the nation’s first nuclear waste repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or WIPP—which my wife and I had the surreal pleasure of visiting in person back in 2012—is dug into a huge underground salt deposit near the New Mexico/Texas border.
Nonetheless, the Louisiana/Gulf of Mexico salt dome region has lent itself to some particularly provocative landscape myths.
You might recall, for example, the story of Lake Peigneur, an inland body of water that was almost entirely drained from below when a Texaco drilling rig accidentally punctured a salt dome beneath the lake.
This led to the sight of a rapid, Edgar Allan Poe-like maelström of swirling water disappearing into the abyss, pulling no fewer than eleven barges into the terrestrial deep.
As the New York Times reported back in 2013, “in the predawn blackness of Aug. 3, 2012, the earth opened up—a voracious maw 325 feet across and hundreds of feet deep, swallowing 100-foot trees, guzzling water from adjacent swamps and belching methane from a thousand feet or more beneath the surface.”
One resident of the area is quoted as saying, “I think I caught a glimpse of hell in it.”
More than a year after it appeared, the Bayou Corne sinkhole is about 25 acres and still growing, almost as big as 20 football fields, lazily biting off chunks of forest and creeping hungrily toward an earthen berm built to contain its oily waters. It has its own Facebook page and its own groupies, conspiracy theorists who insist the pit is somehow linked to the Gulf of Mexico 50 miles south and the earthquake-prone New Madrid fault 450 miles north. It has confounded geologists who have struggled to explain this scar in the earth.
To oversimplify things, the overall theory—that is, the conspiratorial part of all this—is that the entire landscape of the Gulf region is on the verge of subterranean dissolution. The very salt deposits so beautifully mapped by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management are all lined up for eventual flooding.
As this vast underground landscape of salt dissolves, everything from east Texas to west Florida will be sucked down into the abyss.
It’s unlikely that this will happen, I should say. You can sleep well at night.
In the meantime, the sorts of salt-mining operations depicted here in these photographs have carved their worming, subterranean way into the warped terrains of salt that dynamically ooze their way up to the surface from geological prehistory.
The scale of the potential disaster is mind-boggling.
If the dam ruptured, it would likely cause a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, loosing a wave as high as a hundred feet that would roll down the Tigris, swallowing everything in its path for more than a hundred miles. Large parts of Mosul would be submerged in less than three hours. Along the riverbanks, towns and cities containing the heart of Iraq’s population would be flooded; in four days, a wave as high as sixteen feet would crash into Baghdad, a city of six million people. “If there is a breach in the dam, there will be no warning,” Alwash said. “It’s a nuclear bomb with an unpredictable fuse.”
Indeed, “hundreds of thousands of people could be killed,” according to a UN report cited by Filkins.
What’s interesting from a technical perspective is why the dam is so likely to collapse. It’s a question of foundations. The dam was built, Filkins writes, on rock “interspersed with gypsum—which dissolves in contact with water. Dams built on this kind of rock are subject to a phenomenon called karstification, in which the foundation becomes shot through with voids and vacuums.”
Filling those voids with grout is now a constant job, requiring dam engineers to pump huge amounts of cementitious slurry down into the porous rock in order to replace the dissolved gypsum.
At one point, Filkins goes inside the dam where “engineers are engaged in what amounts to an endless struggle against nature. Using antiquated pumps as large as truck engines, they drive enormous quantities of liquid cement into the earth. Since the dam opened, in 1984, engineers working in the gallery have pumped close to a hundred thousand tons of grout—an average of ten tons a day—into the voids below.”
Finding and caulking these voids, Filkins writes, is “deeply inexact.” They are deep underground and remain unseen; they have to be inferred. The resulting process is both absurd and never-ending.
The engineers operating [the grout pumps] can’t see the voids they are filling and have no way of discerning their size or shape. A given void might be as big as a closet, or a car, or a house. It could be a single spacious cavity, requiring mounds of grout, or it could be an octopus-like tangle, with winding sub-caverns, or a hairline fracture. “We feel our way through,” [deputy director Hussein al-Jabouri] said, standing by the pump. Generally, smaller cavities require thinner grout, so Jabouri started with a milky solution and increased its thickness as the void took more. Finally, after several hours, he stopped; his intuition, aided by the pressure gauges, told him that the cavity was full. “It’s a crapshoot,” [civil engineer Azzam Alwash] told me. “There’s no X-ray vision. You stop grouting when you can’t put any more grout in a hole. It doesn’t mean the hole is gone.”
It’s hard not to think of a scene in Georges Perec’s novel Life: A User’s Manual, a scene I have written about before. There, a character named Emilio Grifalconi picks up an old, used table only to find that the support column at its center is “completely worm-eaten.” Slowly, painstakingly, operating by intuition, he fills the worm-eaten passages with a permanent adhesive, “injecting them with an almost liquid mixture of lead, alum and asbestos fiber.”
The table collapses anyway, alas, giving Grifalconi an idea: “dissolving what was left of the original wood” in order to “disclose the fabulous arborescence within, this exact record of the worms’ life inside the wooden mass: a static, mineral accumulation of all the movements that had constituted their blind existence, their undeviating single-mindedness, their obstinate itineraries; the faithful materialization of all they had eaten and digested as they forced from their dense surroundings the invisible elements needed for their survival, the explicit, visible, immeasurably disturbing image of the endless progressions that had reduced the hardest of woods to an impalpable network of crumbling galleries.”
Whether or not such a rhizomatic tangle of grout-filled chambers, linked “voids and vacuums” like subterranean grapes, could ever be uncovered and explored beneath the future ruins of a safely dismantled Mosul Dam is something I will leave for engineers.
[Image: Mosul Dam water release; photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brendan Stephens].
However, Filkins points out one possible solution that would sidestep all of this: this option, he writes, “which has lately gained currency, is to erect a ‘permanent’ seal of the existing dam wall—a mile-long concrete curtain dropped eight hundred feet into the earth.”
This would not be the only huge subterranean wall to be proposed recently: think of the “giant ice wall” under construction beneath the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan: “Japan is about to switch on a huge refrigeration system that will create a 1.5-km-long, underground frozen ‘wall,’ in hopes of containing the radioactive water that’s spilling out of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which went into meltdown following the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.”