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On what was to be, sadly, Venue's only stop in Oregon, we went off-road to visit the world's largest organism, a colossal fungus in the remote eastern mountains of the state, about an hour west of the arid border with Idaho.

For most of the year, including the day we visited, the organism is only visible through its neighbors' distress. Armillaria ostoyae is a kind of honey fungus that parasitizes, colonizes, kills, and then decays the root systems of its conifer hosts; this leaves behind a tell-tale ring-shaped gradient of long-dead, dying, and recently infected trees.

The super-sized organism consists, for the most part, of underground rhizomorphs: long, shoestring-like threads that branch outward to find and infest new conifer roots.

(Top) Healthy trees, elsewhere in the Malheur National Forest. (Bottom) Trees felled by the world's largest organism, Malheur National Forest.

Much of the northeastern section of Oregon's Malheur National Forest is covered in discontinuous patches of fungus-killed trees. Until recently, however, they were thought to be the work of lots of separate mushrooms.

Then, in 2000, USDA researchers collected samples of fungus from a roughly four-mile square section of the forest, and cultured them together in a Petri dish; it was an experiment designed to map the boundary edges of different fungal individuals. To their surprise, the samples from different patches of forest refused to react with each other as an alien other, and subsequent tests confirmed that they were, in fact, genetically identical—all the samples came from the same individual fungus.

This single organism, which began life as a microscopic spore, had spread into a 2,385-acre web of thin, black filaments—roughly the same footprint as a second-tier American airport, such as Philadelphia International.

Further, based on estimates made for smaller individuals, Genet D, as it was fondly christened, weighs between 7,567 and 35,000 tons (an elephant, for reference, clocks in at a maximum of only 8 tons). The humongous fungus is even up there in terms of its age, which is estimated at anything from 1,900 to 8,650 years (although that is dwarfed in comparison to a 200,000-year-old patch of seagrass in the Mediterranean).

Map from the USDA guide to the Humongous Fungus, which includes GPS coordinates (PDF).

The USDA guide to the fungus (PDF) helpfully notes that the best viewpoint on the destruction wreaked by the world's largest organism is from the other side of the valley, just east of a gravel pit and next to its smaller, 482-acre cousin.

We stopped there and surveyed the devastated forest, briefly mulling the difficulties giant clones such as the humongous fungus pose to the very idea of the individual, while keeping our fingers crossed that the standing-dead trees around us wouldn't choose this moment to fall.

The Humongous Fungus in fruit. Photograph courtesy of the USDA.

In a great essay by the late Stephen Jay Gould—called, of course, "A Humongous Fungus Among Us"—Gould describes "the striking way that this underground fungal mat," in his case, a 30-acre Armillaria fungal clone in Michigan, "forces us to wrestle with the vital biological (and philosophical) question of proper definitions for individuality." He suggests, for example, that entirely new conceptualizations of parent-offspring relationships, let alone wholly new understandings of individuals and super-individuals, might be possible.

For the sake of offering an alternative, Gould asks, "Why not propose that such gigantic mats of rhizomorphs form as congeries, or aggregations made of products grown from several founding spores (representing many different parents), all twisted and matted together—in other words, a heap rather than a person?" To qualify biologically as a single individual, Gould later adds, a creature "must have a clear beginning (or birth) point, a clear ending (or death) point, and sufficient stability between to be recognized as an entity."

The "entity" all around us, then, curled up and knotted through the roots of the forest—"all twisted and matted together" both through itself and through the landscape it thrived within—was equal parts biological mystery only recently solved by genetic testing and a kind of invisible spectacle detectable only in its side-effects, a living and strangely sinister force acting on the hills from below.

Meanwhile, if you go into the Oregon woods on the hunt for the world's largest organism in the autumn, after the first rains, the fruiting honey mushrooms are supposed to be quite tasty.

Inspired by our conversation with Penelope Boston, in which she described to Venue the possibility of extraordinarily ancient lava tubes on Mars (and even the Moon), we decided to visit an earthly example ourselves.

As we looped through Arizona, from the virtual fences of Las Cruces to the lunar training ground of Cinder Lake, we detoured to explore a mile-long lava tube cave in the Coconino National Forest, just outside Flagstaff.

The Lava River Cave, as it's known, was formed roughly 700,000 years ago, when the top and sides of a stream of molten lava cooled while the interior continued to flow, hollowing out the smooth-walled, arched tunnel that still exists today.

The cave is accessible, although not easily: it's on public land and it is well-signposted, but it requires driving on unpaved roads for 15 or 20 minutes through a pine forest, at least part of which appears to be common grazing land, as we drove through a herd of slowly meandering cattle at one point, bovinely eyeing our vehicle as we rolled past, taking photos of them.

Another family were already scrambling out as we began our descent, in a light rain, into the lava tube. We negotiated the basaltic boulders and low, condensation-covered ceiling at the entrance.

Sadly, after just a few minutes spent admiring the extraordinary darkness when we switched off our flashlights, one of us slipped, hit her head, and bruised her tailbone, thus fully living up to Penelope Boston's stereotype of bumbling urban journalists, and handily demonstrating just one of the challenges future Martian explorers might face working and living in subsurface environments.

Photograph of the cave's Y-intersection, where two tubes combine into one, by Flickr user Alan Grosse.

Chastened, we retraced our steps, missing the cave's reportedly spectacular flow ripples (left behind by the last trickles of molten rock), its cooling cracks and unusual Y-shaped split, and we continued on to the roads, motels, farms, mines, landfills, and archives of Venue's onward travels.
The paleo-tectonic maps of retired geologist Ronald Blakey are mesmerizing and impossible to forget once you've seen them. Catalogued on his website Colorado Plateau Geosystems, these maps show the world adrift, its landscapes breaking apart and reconnecting again in entirely new forms, where continents are as temporary as the island chains that regularly smash together to create them, on a timescale where even oceans that exist for tens of millions of years can disappear leaving only the subtlest of geological traces.

With a particular emphasis on North America and the U.S. Southwest—where Blakey still lives, in Flagstaff, Arizona—these visually engaging reconstructions of the Earth's distant past show how dynamic a planet we live on, and imply yet more, unrecognizable changes ahead.

The following images come from Ron Blakey's maps of the paleotectonic evolution of North America. The first map shows the land 510 million years ago, progressing from there—reading left to right, top to bottom—through the accretion and dissolution of Pangaea into the most recent Ice Age and, in the final image, North America in its present-day configuration.

Venue met with Blakey in his Flagstaff home to talk about the tectonic processes that make and remake the surface of the Earth, the difficulty in representing these changes with both scientific accuracy and visual panache, and the specific satellite images and software tools he uses to create his unique brand of deep-time cartography.

Like film stills from a 600-million year-old blockbuster, Blakey's maps take us back to the Precambrian—but there are much older eras still, stretching unmapped into far earlier continents and seas, and there are many more billions of years of continental evolution to come. Blakey talked us through some of the most complex changes in recent geological history, including the opening of the North Atlantic Ocean, and he allowed himself to speculate, albeit briefly, about where Earth's continental crust might yet be headed (including a possible supercontinent in the Antarctic).

Many of Blakey's maps are collected in the book Ancient Landscapes of the Colorado Plateau, written with Wayne Ranney, where Blakey also describes some of the research and methods that went into producing them. Blakey also contributed to the recent, new edition of a textbook by Wolfgang Frisch and Martin Meschede, Plate Tectonics: Continental Drift and Mountain Building, a thorough exploration of landscapes disassembling and colliding over vast spans of time.

• • •

The west coast of North America, depicted as it would have been 130 million years ago; the coast is a labyrinth of islands, lagoons, and peninsulas slowly colliding with the mainland to form the mountains and valleys we know today. Map by Ron Blakey.

Geoff Manaugh: When I first discovered your maps showing the gradual tectonic re-location of the continents over hundreds of millions of years, I thought this was exactly what geologists should be doing: offering clear, step-by-step visual narratives of the evolution of the earth’s surface so that people can better understand the planet we live on. What inspired you to make the maps, and how did you first got started with them?

Ronald Blakey: Well, the very first maps I made were in conjunction with my doctoral thesis, back in the early 1970s. Those were made with pen and ink. I made sketches to show what the paleogeography would have looked like for the specific formation I was studying with my doctorate. Three or four of those maps went into the thesis, which was then published by the Utah Geologic Survey. I’ve also done a number of papers over the years where I’ve made sketches.

But I was late getting into the computer. Basically, during my graduate work I never used a computer for anything. I kind of resisted it, because, for the kind of work I was doing, I just didn’t see a need for it—I didn’t do quantifiable kinds of things. Then, of course, along comes email and the Internet. I actually forget when I first started with Photoshop—probably in the mid-1990s. When I found that, I just thought, wow: the power of this is incredible. I quickly learned how to use the cloning tool, so that I could clone modern topography onto ancient maps, and that made things even simpler yet.

Another thing I started doing was putting these maps into presentations. There were something like five different programs back there, in the late 90s, but the only one that survived was PowerPoint—which is too bad, because it was far from the best of the programs. I was using a program called Astound, which was far superior, particularly in the transitions between screens. I could do simple animations. I could make the tectonic plates move, create mountain belts, and so forth.

I retired in May of 2009, but all of my early maps are now online. With each generation of maps that I’ve done, there has been a noted improvement over earlier maps. I find new techniques and, when you work with Photoshop as much as I do, you learn new ideas and you find ways to make things that were a little clumsy look more smooth.

Manaugh: Where does the data come from?

Blakey: It comes from various publications. You can get a publication and have that PDF open, showing what something looked like in the past, and work from that. Usually, what I’m working from are fairly simple sketches published in the literature. They’ll show a subduction zone and a series of violent arcs, or a collision zone. What I do is take this information and make it more pictorial.

If you create a series of maps in sequence, you can create them in such a way that certain geologic events, from one time slice to the next, to the next, to the next, will blend. It depends a lot on the scale of what you’re trying to show—the whole world versus just four or five states in the West.

Now, throughout the years from, let’s say, 2004 until I retired in 2009, I kept improving the website. I envisioned most of this as educational material, and I didn’t pay much attention to who used it, how they used it, and so forth. But, then, shortly before I retired, various book companies and museums—and, most recently, oil companies—have approached me. So I started selling these and I tried very diligently not to allow this to overlap with what I was doing for my teaching and my research at the University.

In the following long sequence of images, we see the evolution of the west coast of North America, its state boundaries ghosted in for reference. Sea levels rise and fall; island chains emerge and collide; mountains forms; inland seas proliferate and drain; and, eventually, modern day California, Vancouver Island, and the Baja peninsula take shape, among other recognizable features. The time frame represented by these images is approximately 500 million years. All maps by Ron Blakey.

Nicola Twilley: What do the oil companies want them for?

Blakey: They’re my biggest customers now. Usually, the geologists at oil companies are working with people who know either much less geology than they do or, in some cases, almost no geology at all, yet they’re trying to convince these people that this is where they need to explore, or this is what they need to do next.

They find these maps very useful to show what the Devonian of North Dakota looked like, for example, which is a hot spot right now with all the shales that they’re developing in the Williston Basin. What they like is that I show what the area might have really looked like. This helps, particularly with people who have only a modest understanding of geology, particularly the geologic past.

Manaugh: What have been some of the most difficult regions or geological eras to map?

Blakey: The most difficult thing to depict is back in the Paleozoic and the Mesozoic. Large areas of the continent were flooded, deep into the interior.

During certain periods, like the Ordovician, the Devonian, and parts of the Jurassic—especially the Cretaceous—as much as two-thirds of the continents were underwater. But they’re still continents; they’re still continental crusts. They’re not oceans. The sea level was just high enough, with respect to where the landscape was at the time, that the area was flooded. Of course, this is a concept that non-geologists really have problems with, because they don’t understand the processes of how continents get uplifted and subside and erode and so forth, but this is one of the concepts that my maps show quite nicely: the seas coming in and retreating.

But it’s very difficult—I mean, there is no modern analog for a seaway that stretched from the Mackenzie River Delta in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and that was 400 miles wide. There’s nothing like that on Earth today. But the styles of mountains have not dramatically changed over the last probably two billion years—maybe even longer than that. I don’t go back that far—I tend to stick with the last 600 million years or so—but the styles of mountains haven’t changed. The nature of island arcs hasn’t changed, as far as we know.

What has changed is the amount of vegetation on the landscape. My maps that are in the early part of the Paleozoic—the Cambrian and the Ordovician early part of the Silurian—tend to be drab-colored. Then, in the late Silurian and in the Devonian, when the land plants developed, I start bringing vegetation colors in. I try to show the broad patterns of climate. Not in detail, of course—there’s a lot of controversy about certain paleoclimates. But, basically, paleoclimates follow the same kinds of regimens that the modern climates are following: where the oceans are, where the equator is, where the mountain ranges are, and so forth.

That means you can make broad predictions about what a paleoclimate would have been based on its relationship to the equator or based on the presence or absence of nearby mountains. I use these kinds of principles to show more arid areas versus more humid areas.

The next three sequences show the evolution of the Earth's surface in reverse, from the present day to, at the very bottom, 600 million years ago, when nearly all of the planet's landmasses were joined together in the Antarctic. The first sequence shows roughly 90 million years of backward evolution, the continents pulling apart from one another and beginning a slow drift south. They were mapped using the Mollweide projection, and, in all cases, are by Ron Blakey.

Twilley: And you paint the arid area based on a contemporary analog?

Blakey: Right. I know the modern world reasonably well and I’ll choose something today that might have matched the texture and aridity of that older landscape.

I use a program called GeoMapApp that gives me digital elevation maps for anywhere in the world. Most recently, they have coupled it with what they call the “Blue Marble.” NASA has stitched together a bunch of satellite photos of the world in such a way that you can’t tell where one series of photos come in or another. It’s a fairly true-color representation of what Earth would look like from space. So this Blue Marble is coupled with the GeoMapApp’s digital elevation topography; you put the Blue Marble over it, and you use a little slider to let the topography show through, and it gives you a fairly realistic looking picture of what you’re looking for.

For example, if I’m working with a mountain range in the southern Appalachians for a Devonian map—well, the southern Appalachians, during the Devonian, were probably far enough away from the equator that it was in the arid belt. There are some indications of that, as well—salt deposits in the Michigan Basin and in parts of New York and so forth. Plus, there are red-colored sediments, which don’t prove but tend to indicate arid environments. This combination tells me that this part of the world was fairly arid. So I’m going to places like modern Afghanistan, extreme western China, northern Turkey, or other places where there are somewhat arid climates with mountain belts today. Then I clone the mountains from there and put them in the map.

But you have to know the geologic background. You have to know how the mountains were formed, what the grain of the mountains was. That’s not always easy, although there are ways of doing it. To know the grain of the mountains, you need to know where the hinterland and the center of the mountains were. You need to know where the foreland area is, so that you can show the different styles of mountains. You have to move from foreland areas—which tends to be a series of parallel ridges, usually much lower than the hinterlands—to the center and beyond.

I use this kind of information to pick the right kind of modern mountain to put back in the Devonian, based on what that Devonian landscape probably had a good chance of looking like. Do we know for certain? Of course not. We weren’t around in the Devonian. But we have a good rock record and we have a lot of information; so we use that information and, then, voilà.

To give another example, let’s look at the Devonian period of the east coast. The big European continent that we call Baltica collided with Greenland and a series of micro-continents collided further south, all the way down at least as far as New Jersey, if not down as far the Carolinas. We know that there are places on Earth today where these same kinds of collisions are taking place—in the Alps and Mediterranean region, and the Caucasus region, and so forth.

We can use the concept that, if two plates are colliding today to produce the Caucasus mountains, and if we look at the style of mountains that the Caucasus are, then it’s reasonable to think that, where Greenland and Baltica collided in the Silurian and the Devonian, the mountains would have had a similar style. So we can map that.

This second sequence shows the continents drifting apart, in reverse, from 105 million years ago to 240 million years ago. They were mapped using the Mollweide projection, and, in all cases, are by Ron Blakey.

Manaugh: That collision alone—Baltica and Greenland—sounds like something that would be extremely difficult to map.

Blakey: Absolutely. And it’s not a one-to-one relationship. You have to look at the whole pattern of how the plates collided, how big the plates were, and so forth.

Then there’s the question of the different histories of particular plates. So, for example, most of Scotland started out as North America. Then, when all the continents collided to form Pangaea, the first collisions took place in the Silurian-Devonian and the final collisions took place in the Pennsylvanian-Permian. By, say, 250 million years ago, most of the continents were together. Then, when they started to split apart in the Triassic and Jurassic—especially in the Triassic and Cretaceous—the split occurred in such a way that what had been part of North America was actually captured, if you will, by Europe and taken over to become the British Isles.

Scotland and at least the northern half of Ireland were captured and began to drift with Europe. On the other hand, North America picked up Florida—which used to be part of Gondwana—and so forth.

One of the things that is interesting is the way that, when mountains come together and then finally break up, they usually don’t break up the same way that they came together. Sometimes they do, but it has to do with weaknesses, stress patterns, and things like this. Obviously, all time is extremely relative, but mountains don’t last that long. A given mountain range that’s been formed by a simple collision—not that there’s any such thing as a simple collision—once that collision is over with, 40 or 50 million years after that event, there is only low-lying landscape. It may have even have split apart already into a new ocean basin.

But here’s the important part: the structure that was created by that collision is still there, even though the mountains have been worn down. It’s like when you cut a piece of wood: the grain is still inherited from when that tree grew. The pattern of the grain still shows where the branches were, and the direction of the tree’s growth in response to wind and sun and its neighbors. You can’t reconstruct the tree exactly from its grain, but, if you’re an expert with wood, you should be able to look and say: here are the tree rings, and here’s a year where the tree grew fast, here’s a year where the tree grew slow, here’s where the tree grew branches, etc.

In a sense, as geologists, we’re doing the same things with rock structure. We can tell by the pattern of how the rocks are deformed which direction the forces came from. With mountains, you can tell the angle at which the plates collided. It’s usually very oblique. What that tends to do is complicate the geologic structure, because you not only get things moving one way, but you get things dragging the other way, as well. But we can usually tell the angle at which the plates hit.

Then, in many cases, based upon the nature of how the crust has been deformed and stacked up, we can tell the severity of the mountain range. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we can say: oh, this structure would have been a twenty-thousand-foot high mountain range. It’s not that simple at all, not least of which because rocks can deform pretty severely without making towering mountains.

This final of the three global sequences shows the continents drifting apart, in reverse, from 260 million years ago to 600 million years ago. There was still nearly 4 billion years of tectonic evolution prior to where these maps begin. They were mapped using the Mollweide projection, and, in all cases, are by Ron Blakey.

Manaugh: Are you able to project these same tectonic movements and geological processes into the future and show what the earth might look like in, say, 250 million years?

Blakey: I’ve had a number of people ask me about that, so I did make some global maps. I think I made six of them at about 50-million-year intervals. For the fifteen to 100-million-year range, I think you can say they are fairly realistic. But, once you get much past 75 to 100 million years, it starts to get really, really speculative. The plates do strange things. I’ll give you just a couple of quick examples.

The Atlantic Ocean opened in the beginning of the Jurassic. The actual opening probably started off the coasts of roughly what is now Connecticut down to the Carolinas. That’s where the first opening started. So the central part of the Atlantic was the first part to open up. It opened up reasonably simply—but, again, I’m using the word simple with caution here.

The north Atlantic, meanwhile, didn’t open up until about 60 to 50 million years ago. When it opened up, it did a bunch of strange things. The first opening took place between Britain and an offshore bank that’s mostly submerged, called Rockall. Rockall is out in the Atlantic Ocean, northwest of Ireland—near Iceland—but it’s continental crust. That splitting process went on for, let’s say, ten million years or so—I’m just going to talk in broad terms—as the ocean started opening up.

Then the whole thing jumped. A second opening began over between Greenland and North America, as Greenland and North America began to separate off. That lasted for a good 40 or 50 million years. That’s where you now get the Labrador Sea; that is actual ocean crust. So that was the Atlantic Ocean for thirty or forty million years—but then it jumped again, this time over between Greenland and what is now the west coast of Europe. It started opening up over there, before it jumped yet again. There’s an island in the middle of the North Atlantic, way the heck up there, called Jan Mayen. At one time, it was actually part of Greenland. The Atlantic opened between it and Greenland and then shifted to the other side and made its final opening.

The following two sequences show the evolution of Europe from an Antarctic archipelago to a tropical island chain to the present day Europe we know and recognize. The first sequence starts roughly 450 million years ago and continues to the Jurassic, 200 million years ago. All maps by Ron Blakey.

So it’s very complicated. And that’s just the Atlantic Ocean.

The Northern Atlantic took at least five different paths before the final path was established, and it’s all still changing. In fact, the south Atlantic is actually even worse; it’s an even bigger mess. You’ve got multiple openings between southwest Africa and Argentina, plus Antarctica was up in there before it pulled away to the south.

These complications are what makes this stuff so interesting. If we look at events that we can understand pretty well over the last, let’s say, 150 or 200 million years of time—where we have a good indication of where the oceans were because we still have ocean crusts of that age—then we can extrapolate from that back to past times when oceans were created and destroyed. We can follow the rules that are going on today to see all of the oddities and the exceptions and so forth.

These are the kinds of things I try to keep track of when I’m making these maps. I’m always asking: what do we know? Was it a simple pull-apart process? There are examples where continents started to split across from one another, then came back together, then re-split in a different spot later on. That’s not just speculation—there is geologic evidence for this in the rock record.

So, when it comes to extrapolating future geologies, things become very complicated very quickly. If you start thinking about the behavior of the north Atlantic, creating a projection based on what’s going on today seems, at first, like a fairly simple chore. North America is going on a northwesterly path at only one or two centimeters a year. Europe is moving away, at almost a right angle, at about another centimeter a year. So the Atlantic is only opening at three centimeters a year; it’s one of the slowest-opening oceans right now.

OK, fine—but what else is happening? The Caribbean is pushing up into the Atlantic and, off South America, there is the Scotia Arc. Both of those are growing. They’ve also identified what looks like a new island arc off the western Mediterranean region; that eventually would start to close the Atlantic in that area. Now you start to speculate: well, these arcs will start to grow, and they’ll start to eat into the oceans, and subduct the crusts, and so forth.

Again, for the first 50, 75, or even 100 million years, you can say that these particular movements are fairly likely. But, once you get past that, you can still use geologic principles, but you’re just speculating as to which way the continents are going to go.

For instance, the one continent that does not seem to be moving at all right now, relative to anything else, is Antarctica. It seems to be really fixed on the South Pole. That’s why some people think that everything will actually coagulate back towards the South Pole. However, there are also a bunch of subduction zones today along southern Asia, and those are pretty strong subduction zones. Those are the ones that created the big tsunami, and all the earthquakes off of Indonesia and so forth. Eventually, those could pull either parts of Antarctica or all of Antarctica up toward them.

But I’m more interested in reconstructing the past than I am the future, so I’ve only played around with those five or six maps.

This second sequence, showing the next phase in the evolution of Europe, begins approximately 150 million years ago and extends to the present day. All maps by Ron Blakey.

Manaugh: To ground things a bit, we’re having this conversation in Flagstaff, on the Colorado Plateau, which seems like a great place to teach geology. I wonder whether there might be another Colorado Plateau, so to speak, elsewhere in the world—something geologically similar to the extraordinary landscapes we see here that just hasn’t had the chance to emerge. Maybe the tectonics aren’t right, and it’s still just a crack, rather than a canyon, or maybe it’s covered in vegetation or ice so we can’t see it yet. Conversely, I’m curious if you might have found evidence of other great geological districts in the earth’s past—lost Grand Canyons, other Arches National Parks—that have been lost to time. How could we detect those, and where are they?

Blakey: This is indeed a great place to teach geology. It’s a great place to live.

As for Colorado Plateau analogs—it’s an interesting question. There’s an area in South America that I’d say is fairly similar. It’s got a couple of famous national parks that I can't remember the name of. It’s a smaller version, but it’s very similar to the Colorado Plateau. It’s between the Andes and the Amazon basin, part of the general pampas region there of South America. It even has similarly aged rocks. Parts of northern Africa would also be similar.

But you have to look at all the characteristics of the Plateau. Number one: the rocks are flat. Number two: the rocks have been uplifted. Number three: the rocks are dissected by a major river system. Number four: it’s a semi-arid climate. There are probably five or six defining characteristics in total, and I’ve heard many people say that there is no other place else on Earth that has all those characteristics in exactly the same way. But I went to an area in eastern Mauritania many years ago, where, for all the world, it looked like the Grand Canyon. It wasn’t as colorful, but it was a big, deep canyon.

In fact, the Appalachian Plateau would be somewhat similar, except it’s in a humid climate, which means the land has been shaped and formed differently. But the Appalachian plateau has flat-lying rocks; it’s dissected by some major rivers; it’s experienced uplift; and so forth.

The next two sequences of images, followed from left to right, top to bottom, illustrate the gradual evolution of the Colorado Plateau, where, in its modern day incarnation, this interview with Ron Blakey took place (specifically, in Flagstaff, Arizona. The earliest map included here depicts the Proterozoic; the first sequence ends in the Triassic. All maps by Ron Blakey.

Twilley: I’m interested in the representational challenges you face when you decide to make a map, and, specifically, when you’re in Photoshop, what your most-used tools might be. I thought it was fascinating when you said that the cloning tool really changed how you make geological maps. What other techniques are important to you, in order to represent geological histories?

Blakey: Oh, the cloning tool is the most important, by far—at least when I’m actually painting. Of course, I use the outline tool to select areas, but, when I’m actually painting, it would be impossible to paint these different maps pixel by pixel. I couldn’t do it. Occasionally, I will actually hand-draw some things in the flatlands, where I want to put a river system, for example, but, at least for mountains and rugged terrain, I clone everything.

Some times, I’ll cut and paste. I’ll select an area in the GeoMapApp, I save it as a JPEG, and then I can select it and copy it and paste it in, and I can rotate and deform it a little bit. Are you familiar with the warp tool in Photoshop? I use that a lot, because you can change the shape of mountains a little. If you do it too dramatically, it really looks flaky. But, if you do it right, it still looks pretty realistic.

This second sequence, also showing the evolution of the Colorado Plateau, begins with the Triassic and ends roughly 5 million years ago—basically the present day, in geological terms. All maps by Ron Blakey.

Twilley: And do you have certain filters you rely on for particular geological effects?

Blakey: A little bit. I like to use the craquelure filter. It actually gives you little bumps and valleys and so forth. I use that especially for continental margins. Continental margins are anything but regular slopes, going down to the abyssal depths. They’re very irregular. There are landslides and all kinds of things going on there at the margins, so I add a little texture with craquelure.

It can be difficult to use, though, and it doesn’t work at really high resolutions—so, what I actually have to do some times, is that I will actually copy a part of my map, take it out, make it smaller, do the craquelure on it, and then blow it back up and paste it in again.

A painting by Ron Blakey depicts a geological landscape near Sedona, Arizona.

Dee Blakey, Ron's Wife: I think the other reason that he can do what he does is that he paints. That’s one of his paintings, that one over there [gestures above fireplace].

Blakey: Well, I guess I should have said that right away, when you asked me why I got interested in this, because I am interested in the artistic aspect of geology. The artistic aspect of science, in general, but especially geology. Astronomy, for example, would be another field where artistic visualizations are useful—any time you’re trying to show things that can’t easily be visualized with something comparable here on present-day planet Earth, you have to use an artistic interpretation.

Anyway, I can’t explain it, but I understand color pretty well. I use the hue saturation tool a lot. I’ll select an area and then I’ll feather it, let’s say, because you don’t want the edges to be sharp. I’ll feather it by thirty, forty, fifty pixels. Then I'll take the slider for hue saturation, where, if you go to the left, you make things redder and, if you go to the right, you make things greener. If I’ve got a landscape that looks a little too humid, I’ll just slide it slightly to the left to make it a bit redder. You can also change the lightness and darkness when you do that. There’s also regular saturation. By killing the saturation, you can really kill the nature of a landscape quite a bit.

And I use hue saturation a lot. That took me a long time to master, because it’s really easy to screw things up with that tool. You start sliding things a little too far and, whoa—wait a minute! All of a sudden, you’ve got purple mountains.
An hour's drive east-southeast of Pittsburgh, hidden among the picturebook-perfect red barns, white fences, and green fields of the Lignonier Valley, lies an equally carefully maintained landscape of bird research—a nature preserve whose ponds and wildflowers have been augmented with mist nets, field microphones, a songbird recording booth, and a one-of-a-kind rotating flight tunnel.

On a recent morning, Venue joined researchers Luke DeGroote, Amy Tegeler, Mary Shidel, Kate Johnston, and Matt Webb, as well as several dozen warblers, catbirds, and a cuckoo, for a tour of the various devices of bird surveillance at the Powdermill Avian Research Center (PARC), part of Carnegie Museum of Natural History's Powdermill Nature Reserve.

Founded in 1961, PARC is the longest-continuously running bird banding station in the United States, and has assembled one of North America's largest census data sets on migratory songbird populations. Six days a week during the spring and fall (and only slightly less often during the winter and summer), DeGroote and his team head out before dawn to unfurl the Center's 61, forty-foot long, eight-foot tall nylon mesh mist-nets.

Over the course of the morning, until either the temperature reaches 78 degrees or the time hits 11 a.m., whichever comes first, these superfine, over-sized volleyball nets form a network of barely visible barriers stretched between trees, along the banks of artificial ponds, and hanging parallel to overgrown hedgerows, trapping both droplets of dew and unwitting birds from the atmosphere.

The majority of the nets have stood in the same place for the past half-century, raised and lowered each day to create a sort of avian calendar, marked by the arrival and departure of different species within the northern Appalachian landscape. Indeed, as we accompanied DeGroote on his rounds, he noted that the preponderance of warblers signaled that the spring migration was drawing to a close.

While carefully untangling a Kentucky Warbler and a stunning Scarlet Tanager (the first male of the season, apparently) from the first net, and stowing them in cloth bags attached to a system of color-coded carabiners he wore on a chain around his neck, DeGroote explained that the landscape is pruned and maintained to remain as similar as possible to its 1970s "early successional" state: arrested in a state of post-agricultural regrowth that will never be allowed to mature into secondary forest. The more things the banders can keep the same within their own research ecology, the more valuable their data becomes for detecting changes in bird populations and behavior. It is both a control landscape, anchoring the variables of the various experiments, and a landscape of control.

Bird-banding, we quickly realized, does not make for a relaxing morning. Every minute spent away from its normal activities eats into a bird's valuable refueling and breeding opportunities, so PARC's operation is set up with assembly-line efficiency. Back at the banding station, DeGroote and his colleagues unhooked bird bags from their necks and hooked them onto a washing-line pulley for processing.

PARC catches roughly 13,000 birds each year (their up-to-date tallies are posted online), 3,000 of which are recaptures. The other 7,000 need to be issued with a unique 9-digit number ("bird Social Security," joked DeGroote), which they will carry with them for the rest of their lives on a small aluminum cuff gently fitted around one leg. On the wall, behind the bird pulley, was a map showing all the places PARC bands have been reported, with sightings as far afield as Peru.

DeGroote held a bird in one hand and typed with the other, measuring and entering data on weight and wing length, all the while continuing a running commentary on sage grouce dance-offs, the particular chirrup a bird makes when it is released ("like it's saying 'potato chip'"), and the dietary choices to blame for the cuckoo's notorious stink (too many caterpillars). By blowing gently on the birds' stomachs, he revealed more data points: their fat stores (visible through translucent skin) and breeding condition.

The only pause in the otherwise seamless process came when trying to determine the birds' age. The quality of their feathers is apparently the main giveaway—baby birds grow all of their feathers in a hurry so that they can get out of the nest, and then have to regrow some to a higher standard. The difference is almost impossible for a novice to spot—the juvenile feathers have slightly less of sheen, and the plumage pattern is muddier—and it is sometimes quite challenging even for experts.

As we watched, hypnotized by the banding team's practiced, economical motions, PARC's bird processing line ground to a brief halt over the cuckoo, whose spotted tail feathers were of inconclusive quality. DeGroote pulled down a reference book to look for additional clues before playing it safe with a broad "older than two years" designation, and swinging smoothly back into action.

Even the architecture had been modified to account for this avian activity: a small hole in the wall, complete with a sliding panel, acted as a quick-release hatch for any birds not destined for additional research. With the banding as its baseline activity, PARC balances releasing birds quickly with the opportunity to conduct additional research, and this season was also hosting a West Nile virus swabbing station, as well as its own ongoing programs for flight tunnel and bioacoustic research.

We accompanied Amy Tegeler, the bioacoustics program manager, over to her recording studio, with a gorgeous and talkative black, orange, and yellow American Redstart in tow.

In addition to its mist nets, the landscape around PARC is also miked, with three pole-mounted "sky ear" recording devices, based on a simple plastic flowerpot design originally developed by Bill Evans.

As they migrate, most songbirds emit short, single-note nocturnal flight calls. No one, Tegeler explained, is quite sure why they do this—she likened it to trying to make a phone call while running a marathon—although the generally accepted hypothesis is that it has to do with maintaining flock spacing and cohesion.

Researchers are not only interested in learning about these nocturnal calls for their own sake, however: the idea behind PARC's bioacoustics program is that, by using software to analyze recordings of the nocturnal soundscape, it will be possible to conduct a remote, automated census of migration and species numbers.

This, Tegeler was quick to explain, won't replace bird banding. Instead, a bioacoustic survey can pick up species that aren't often caught in nets, can be used in environments that would be difficult for humans to reach or set up nets in the first place (remote rainforest and cities, for example), and offers the opportunity to conduct lower-resolution counts across a larger landscape (perhaps even as a citizen science effort—the microphone costs about $50 to make out of parts readily available at a hardware store and RadioShack).

While exciting, the technique is still in its infancy, and the Raven Pro software that Tegeler uses to extract flight calls from the hours of night recordings—cross-species cryptanalysis as app—also flags, unfortunately, each and every raindrop impact as a bird. After spring migration season, Tegeler estimates that she ends up with 75,000 audio clips, only 5,000-10,000 of which are actually calls. Sorting through the terabytes of data takes months.

Andrew Farnsworth and colleagues developed this 2006 guide to warblers' nocturnal flight calls using field recordings. A larger version, with sound samples, can be seen/heard at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website.

To help improve the call identification process, PARC has built a custom-designed bird recording studio, which it uses to capture a "Rosetta Stone" library of "clean" nocturnal flight calls, to replace the fuzzier field recordings currently used as reference.

To demonstrate, Tegeler dropped our Redstart into an "acoustic cone" (actually a black-out fabric cylinder built from a long-sleeved T-shirt and two embroidery hoops from Jo-Ann), hung it between four mics in a soundproof booth, closed the door, and sat down at the control desk with her headphones on. The whole set-up looked like something Paul McCartney might use to re-record a vocal track—that is, if he liked to sing suspended in mid-air in complete darkness.

With her headphones on, Tegeler played our avian rock star two minutes of American Redstart nocturnal flight calls recorded in the field, interspersed with silence, and the croak of a spring peeper frog as a control. From within the booth, the bird responded to the calls with four high-pitched squeaks—in the process, yielding a perfectly clean recording for Tegeler and other researchers in her field to work with.

Spectrographs of the nocturnal flight calls of the American Redstart (left) and Savannah Sparrow (right), from Bill Evans' spectrograph library.

With most common birds recorded, this migration season, Tegeler has been collecting data to try to establish what other information, beyond species identification, is embedded in nocturnal flight calls.

Zeep, double-banded upsweep, and single-banded downsweep nocturnal flight calls, from Bill Evans' spectrograph library.

"There are patterns to the calls, but we don't yet understand why, or what they mean," Tegeler explains, adding that the calls themselves can be separated into distinct types, named for their sound: buzzy, zeep, upsweep, downsweep, and chip. An entire acoustic ecosystem awaits decoding: some species will respond to other species' flight calls, others, for reasons known only to themselves, won't; and Tegeler can detect variations within a species' calls, based on an individual bird's age and sex.

Diagram showing the moon-watching technique developed by George H. Lowery Jr from Gatherings of Angels: Migrating Birds and Their Ecology, edited by Kenneth P. Able. The original caption explains that "as birds cross the disk of the moon their flight paths are coded as 'in' and 'out' times on an imaginary clockface. All paths are then analyzed to produce a migration traffic rate—the number of birds crossing 1.6km per hour."

Astonishingly, before bioacoustic research got started just a few decades ago, the only way to gather data on nocturnal bird migrations was a technique called "moon-watching," in which researchers and volunteers would point a telescope at a full moon from twilight until dawn, counting and identifying birds silhouetted against its disk.

Now, nocturnal flight call surveys are matched with radar bioscatter analysis in a new scientific discipline called "aeroecology," or the study of the planetary boundary layer and lower free atmosphere as a biological ecosystem.

A screengrab showing "Composite Reflectivity in the National Radar Mosaic" from the SOAR (Surveillance of the Aerosphere Using Weather Radar) website.

Meanwhile, bioacoustic bird monitoring is just one area of an emerging field of acoustic ecology: researchers are using sound to assess population shifts in species as diverse as whales and bark beetles, while the National Park Service recently recognized soundscapes as an intangible asset, worthy of historical protection, and has begun installing field microphones across their lands to conduct a system-wide acoustic survey.

An acoustically instrumented landscape at Kenai Fjords National Park; photograph courtesy the National Park Service.

From the ways in which humans use invisible information to see birds, we moved to the bird's final stop in their short, PARC-assisted detour—a device designed to test how birds see human infrastructure.

One of only two bird flight test tunnels in the world, this prototype was built in partnership with Christine Sheppard of the American Bird Conservancy, in order to test how birds interact with different window treatments. An astonishing number of birds—more than a billion, according to the most recent estimates—die each year as a result of flying into the glass facades of urban America.

Clouds reflected in the Time-Warner Center towers in New York City (left) and a temptingly plant-filled glass atrium (bottom left) are among Christine Sheppard's collection of bird-unfriendly buildings. In her caption to the top right image, Sheppard notes that "architectural cues show people that only one panel on the face of this shelter is open; to birds, all the panels appear to be open." All photographs by Christine Sheppard, American Bird Conservancy.

Birds killed by building collisions, collected by monitors with FLAP (Fatal Light Awareness Program) in Toronto, photograph by Kenneth Herdy, via the American Bird Conservancy.

Sheppard's goal is to measure "relative threat values" for different kinds of glass patterns or finishes, in order to develop a recommendation for the most bird-visible (and thus bird-friendly) glass. And the device she has designed to do that is extraordinary: a stretched-out shed combined with the trompe-l'oeil trickery of a Baroque cathedral.

Matt Webb, the technician in charge of these bird/window strike-avoidance studies, retrieved a bagged Grey Catbird from the banding station ("they love flying in the tunnel"), in order to show us how the system works. He released the Catbird from its bag into a tiny hole at one end of the tunnel, and, as it flew down the ten meter-long darkened shed, a video camera recorded the bird flying toward the plain glass control panel covering half of the tunnel's other end, rather than the crazy-paving patterned glass on its right.

As we braced sympathetically, anticipating impact, the bird was saved by an invisible mist net (the same kind the banding team use). It hopped about in the felt-lined tunnel, completely unharmed and making the miaow-ing sound for which the species is named, while Webb logged the result, walked around to the side, opened a small door in the tunnel wall, and released it.

This particular manufacturer's "bird-friendly" glass, Webb told us, has a 73 percent avoidance rate, meaning that out of 120 tunnel test flights (each using a different bird), 88 had presumably seen the pattern, and chosen to avoid it by flying toward the clear—and hence invisible—glass to the left.

Not all birds are suitable research subjects, Webb explained: Yellow Warblers "get confused" and fly around in all directions; our vocal friend the American Redstart often sees the safety net, rending the whole test moot; and House Sparrows and other cavity-nesting birds simply make themselves at home in one of the tunnel's dark corners.

The tunnel itself is an experimental prototype: it is based on a design originally created by Austrian scientist Martin Rössler to test free-standing glass panels used in highway barriers, and Sheppard is already fine-tuning the next-generation tunnel from her base in the Bronx.

Briefly, it is worth noting some resonances here between Sheppard's architectural design for tracking and framing bird flight and a body of much earlier work done by bio-media pioneers such as Étienne Jules-Marey, who performed his own controlled studies of bird flight.

Jules-Marey's work combined innovations in multi-lens camera design and wearable media for birds with an interest in the science of flight to produce astonishing documents of animal bodies in motion.

These often took surreal form, including a proposal for hooking birds up to a machine that could register individual wing beats.

In any case, at the moment, Sheppard's current flight-monitoring structure is mounted on a turntable so that it can follow the sun, thus ensuring that its mirrors bounce sunlight onto the front of the glass at the same angle all morning. Inside the tunnel, and for the birds that fly through it, it is always the same time of day.

When we followed up with her by phone, Sheppard explained that this feature, while ingenious, is not perfect:

On a cloudy day, for example, you're going to have a break in the clouds that's nowhere near the location of the sun, but it's still the brightest part in the sky, and that will throw the reflections off.

One of the things that we're most interested in studying is ultraviolet patterns, because birds can see UV and we can't, but the mirrors we're using to reflect light onto the glass surface take out more of the UV in light than they do other wavelengths. At the moment, our flight tunnel handicaps the UV patterns.

In Sheppard's new design, the entire tunnel is housed in a shipping container, which allows for a much more closely controlled, and potentially more sophisticated, set of lighting parameters, in which an array of "daylight" and UV bulbs can be set up to mimic a variety of natural solar conditions.

The shipping container also weather-proofs the structure: although we visited on a sunny, calm morning, the current tunnel has been known to pivot with a sudden gust, giving bystanders a nasty shock.

Most important, however, is the fact that the new tunnel will increase capacity. "With only one tunnel," explains Sheppard, "we actually can't do enough testing to conduct our own research and test prototypes for glass companies that are trying to develop products for bird-friendly design. And, because we definitely want to encourage the market for bird-friendly products, we've been doing a lot of commercial testing over the last two years."

Even as scientists move toward a better understanding of avian perception (Sheppard told us of one project to build a model of the avian retina using a digital camera equipped with a series of specially designed filters), they still can't necessarily model how the bird will react to that visual information—"the 'what do the birds think about this?' question," as Sheppard puts it.

Will a bird think it can go through a space in between stripes? What about if the lines are diagonal? Will birds perceive a cobweb pattern as an obstacle?

Although the American Bird Association already knows (and recommends) several strategies for bird-friendly design, their goal is not to arrive at a single avian-endorsed glass solution. Instead, Sheppard says:

What we want is to create the situation where architects have maximum flexibility, and they don't feel like bird-friendly design is a burden. We're not trying to get them to stop using glass, and we're not trying to make them to design ugly buildings; we want to give them lots of different possibilities. To do that, we have to ask these birds a lot of different questions.

In other words, PARC's spinning, elongated garden shed, with its trompe l'oeil sky, wing mirrors, and slide-in glass panels, is a cross-species translation tool—a structural device designed to test whether the built environment makes perceptual sense both to people and to birds.

As the last stop on our tour of this well-oiled bird surveillance machine disguised as a nature reserve, the flight tunnel provided an intriguing counter-perspective, asking, in this artificially shaped landscape disguised as a natural preserve, how birds see our habitat and what their perceptual frame might require from our own future designs.

Thanks to a well-timed tip from landscape blogger Alex Trevi of Pruned, Venue made a detour on our exit out of Flagstaff, Arizona, to visit the old black cinder fields of an extinct volcano—where, incredibly, NASA and its Apollo astronauts once practiced their, at the time, forthcoming landing on the moon.

The straight-forwardly named Cinder Lake, just a short car ride north by northeast from downtown Flagstaff, is what NASA describes as a "lunar analogue": a simulated offworld landscape used to test key pieces of gear and equipment, including hand tools, scientific instruments, and wheeled rovers.

Astronauts Jim Irwin and Dave Scott in experimental vehicle "Grover." Photograph courtesy of NASA/USGS, from this informative PDF.

As Northern Arizona University explains, NASA's Astrogeology Research Program "started in 1963 when USGS and NASA scientists transformed the northern Arizona landscape into a re-creation of the Moon. They blasted hundreds of different-sized craters in the earth to form the Cinder Lake crater field, creating an ideal training ground for astronauts."

Photo courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.

The sculpting of the landscape began in July 1967, with a series of carefully timed and very precisely located explosions.

Photo courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.

In the first round alone, this required 312.5 pounds of dynamite and 13,492 pounds of fertilizer mixed with fuel oil.

Photo courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.

Photo courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.

At the end of a four-day period of controlled explosions, USGS scientists had succeeded in creating a 500 square foot "simulated lunar environment" in Northern Arizona—forty-seven craters of between five and forty feet in diameter designed to duplicate at a 1:1 scale a specific location (and future Apollo 11 landing site) on the moon, in a region called the Mare Tranquillitatis.

On the left, an aerial view of the first stage of Cinder Lake Crater Field, designed to duplicate a small area of the Apollo 11 landing site shown in the Lunar Orbiter image to the right. Photographs courtesy NASA/USGS; see PDF

An aerial view of the second crater field constructed at Cinder Lake. This is more than double the size of the first field, and contains 354 craters. Photo courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.

Geologic map of the crater field that was used to plan astronaut EVA traverses. Image courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.

Sadly, the craters today are very much reduced both in scale and in perceptibility.

Indeed, at a certain point nearly every dent and divot in the landscape began to seem like it might also be part of this monumental project of planetary simulation, a possible detail in the stage-set used to rehearse hopeful astronauts.

This pronounced fading of the craters is due to at least two things.

One factor, of course, is simply long-term weathering and exposure in the absence of any plans for the historic preservation of the site.

As we'll discuss in a future post in relation to another of Venue's visits—specifically, to see the so-called "Mars Yard" at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena—these sites of offworld simulation are intellectually thrilling but also integral parts of the U.S. national space project.

That these locations—works of scientific utility, not art—can be discarded so easily is a shame, although exactly how, and under what departmental authority, they would be preserved is a thorny question.

Of course, all questions of budget or federal jurisdiction aside, an Offworld Landscapes National Park or National Monument is an incredible thing to contemplate.

A National Park—or, why not, a UNESCO Offworld Heritage Site—that consists only and entirely of landscapes designed to simulate other planets!

In any case, the other major factor in the craters' gradual disappearance is Cinder Lake's current recreational status as a place for off-road vehicles of a much more terrestrial kind.

Indeed, for much of the two hours or so that Venue spent out on the volcanic field—where walking is very slow, at best, as you sink ankle-deep into tiny pieces of black gravel that make a sound remarkably like dipping a spoon into dry Ovaltine—distant bikes, buggies, and trucks kicked up dust clouds, giving the landscape a distinct and quite literal holiday buzz.

Oddly, though, it's hard to complain about such a use, as this is more or less exactly what NASA was doing, albeit with taxpayer support, better costumes, and a much larger budget.

Apollo Field Test-13: astronauts Tim Hait and David Schleicher are in spacesuits, testing equipment and protocols, with a simulated Lunar Module ascent stage in the background. Photograph courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.

As Northern Arizona University goes on to describe, the astronauts "ran lunar rover simulations and practiced soil sampling techniques wearing replica space suits in the shadows of the San Francisco Peaks. The training gave them the skills essential for the first successful manned missions to the Moon."

Photograph courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.

Off-road to off-world, by way of a black lake of pumice on the outskirts of a college town in Arizona.

Astronauts Jack Schmitt and Gene Cernan practice describing crater morphology to Mission Control. Photograph courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF

Better yet, you can visit the lake quite easily; here is a map, with driving directions from the best breakfast in Flagstaff.

Final photo courtesy of NASA/USGS; see PDF.
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