Field of Science

Will democracy survive climate change? - A lesson from the past

Allegory of volcanism as bringer of fortune (fertile soils) and destruction, by artist Alexandre-Évariste Fragonard (1780-1850) after a draft by French naturalist Joseph Nicolas Nicollet (1786-1843).

In June 1783 a volcano in Iceland erupted. Volcanoes are nothing unusual in Iceland, but this eruption, later referred as Laki,  was different. For eight months volcanic ash and gases poisoned the atmosphere over Europe changing the climate for years to come. In Europe the exceptionally hot summer of 1783 was followed by long and harsh winters until 1788. Crop harvests were poor and bread, essential for the large and poor population on the continent, experienced a massive price increase.

Map showing the lava flows of Lakagigar, from Magnus Stephensen "Kort Beskrivelse: Vester-Skaptefields-Syssel paa Island" (1785). The lava from the fissures ended up covering an estimated 2,500 km² (965 sq mi) of land.
At the time France was characterized by a great inequality between the poor peasants and the upper class. The rich aristocracy and the corrupted clergy lived in an own world, distant from daily problems. The lower and middle class had no political power despite its important role in economy and the king was to weak to control the aristocracy. Poor harvests and war expenditures resulted in an economic crisis and famine spread. In human history hunger was always a powerful agent of change. Italian officials noted in 1648 during a widespread famine that “it was always better to die by the sword than to die of hunger.” Women revolted on the streets demanding bread. July 14, 1789 5,000 citizens of Paris stormed the Bastille. Years of chaos followed. French lawyer Maximilien Robespierre instituted an authoritarian regime, culminating in 1793 with the execution of king Ludwig XVI. followed by 16.000 other people only in Paris. In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte promised to bring order in those chaotic times and in the end declared himself emperor - celebrated by the same people that just some years earlier battled an absolute monarch. Even if the French Revolution is often seen as starting point for the modern Europe, democracy was predated by tyranny.

Georg Heinrich Sieveking’s “Execution of Louis XVI” in 1793.
Today we observe similar tumultuous times and a changing climate. However this time the changing climate is not the result of a short-lived volcanic aftermath. The warming caused by the anthropogenic carbon-dioxide emissions  into earth´s atmosphere will continue for the next centuries. Some research has suggested that a warmer climate will fuel future conflicts. Droughts can cause water and food shortages in less industrialized nations. In 2010 drought in Russia and too wet weather in Europa caused a 20% loss of crops harvest, prices in response were raised on the international market by 40 to 70%, also due speculations. China, also suffering from a poor harvest, stocked crop, causing ulterior shortages.
The increased costs, widespread unemployment and misery lead to riots and demonstrations in many North African countries. The chaos lead in part to installments of  governments controlled by the military and in Syria (hit also by a drought from 2006 to 2010) the civil war is still going on. The civil wars in Africa and Near East caused mass migrations of refugees to the first world countries, Europe was not ready for the onrush, causing a political chaos. In response many right-winged parties, promising simple solutions like walls or travel bans, gained support in many European countries (U.K., France, Germany, Austria, Italy). Right-wing politics promised also simple solutions in the United States. The poor and middle class fears migration as this implies to share already limited resources. The rich class supports such fears as it distracts from the real causes (less than 3% of the population controls more than 50% of the global wealth).
Travel bans and suppressing research about climate change doesn´t solve problems but simply hides the truth. Already authoritarian systems like Russia or China seem also best fitted to deal with future climate change. Such systems can suppress disadvantageous news about climate change effects but also react faster to impending disasters. China, dealing with severe environmental problems due its rapid industrialization, planted millions of trees in governmental controlled projects or simply limited traffic in cities. Such projects would need more effort, time and especially support by citizens in democratic systems.
In times of supposed chaos, overwhelmed by the problems (real or faked), we demand for simple solutions, as authoritarian systems can quickly promise (if they really will hold the promise is another problem), but simple is not necessary the right way.

Global Sea Temperatures As High As Never In Last 800,000 Years

The sea surface temperatures (SST) of the last interglacial, some 129,000 to 116,000 years ago, were similar to temperatures we are approaching nowadays. The Eemian was one of the warmest interglacial periods, short pulses of rapid warming during the longer ice ages, in the last 800,000 years. Sea level was 19 to 29ft higher as today as large portions of the polar ice melted. Until now the correlating sea temperatures were debated. A now published paper analyzed 104 previous publications dealing with sea surface temperatures in the past and as recorded in marine sediments. The temperatures were compared to modern reference periods spanning from 1870-1889 and 1995-2014.
At the beginning of the Eemian, 129,000 years ago,  SST were similar to the 1870-1889 period. 4,000 years later the temperature rose by 0.5°C with values similar to the second modern reference period from 1995-2004. The results suggest that most models underestimated the rate of modern sea surface temperatures rise in response to man-made climate change and that SST will still significantly rise in the future. With higher temperatures also the ice will melt as happened during the Eemian. A sea level rise of at least 19 to 29ft will significantly impact coasts all over the planet.

In the Dolomites during the Eemian temperatures were so high that vegetation could be found 3,200ft higher than today, this cave with cave bear remains was at the time probably surrounded by a forest, providing sustainment to the bears.

Fantastic Rocks and Where to Find Them – High Pressure Metamorphites

Only a small part of rocks are stable on earth´s surface, as widespread erosion and alteration shows. Magmatic rocks, like granite, crumble and minerals composing these rocks, like feldspar and mica, react with water to become soft clay. Similar things happen to metamorphic rocks, eroding under atmospheric conditions. Often metamorphites, formed deep within earth, quickly start to decay already during uplift. Especially unstable are metamorphic rocks formed under very high pressure (25-30 kbar) and temperature (650-700°C), conditions as found in earth´s crust in a depth ranging from 56 to 186miles (90-300km). One locality where such Ultra-High-Pressure (UHP) rocks are partially preserved are the Western Alps between Italy and France, in particular the Dora-Maira Massif.
Fig.1. Geological map of the Western Alps DM=Dora-Maira-Massif, by Phil Mair 85, source Wikipedia.

Here whiteschists, named after the white-greyish color, are embedded as large lenses in a thick layer of gneiss. The whiteschists are geologically speaking not true schist, as this term refers to low grade metamorphic rocks, but pyrope-quartzites. This rock is composed mostly of quartz with large garnets (pyrope) embedded within, also some other typical metamorphic  minerals, like kyanite (an aluminum bearing silicate), talc (a magnesium bearing silicate), phengite (a mica variety) and rutile (a titanium dioxide), can be found. 

Especially interesting is the presence of the high-pressure modification of quartz, called coesite, and the pink mineral ellenbergerite. Ellenbergerite is a complex magnesium-aluminum-titanium-silicate known only from the Dora-Maira-Massif and described for the first time as typical UHP mineral 30 years ago. The minerals are preserved as grains in large garnet crystals, the crystals acted like a pressure chamber preserving these unstable minerals. Both ellenbergerite, coesite and garnets formed when parts of the oceanic crust of the Penninic Ocean were subducted into a depth of at least 186miles. During the later uplift forming the Alps minerals like ellenbergerite and coesite adjusted to changes in pressure and temperature by decaying into other minerals, coesite becomes for example common quartz. However mineral grains entrapped in the larger garnets remained, like in a closed pressure chamber, under high pressure conditions and were also protected from circulating fluids. 

Fig.2. Outcrop of pyrope-quartzite. Some of the garnets embedded in the white quartz-phengite matrix are more than 10 inches in diameter, unfortunately very requested by mineral collectors only the casts remain here (geologist is sadly looking at the hole...)..

Fig.3. UHP rocks are rare even in the Dora-Maira Massif, as most decayed during uplift, adjusting to lower pressure and temperature. Evidence for medium-grade metamorphism during uplift is the presence of blueschists, here with blue glaucophane-amphibole and alterated garnets.

At the time of the discovery an unique find in the Alps, similar UHP rocks are nowadays described also from China and the German Erzgebirge.

Would You Kindly Help To Expand A Rock Collection

If you eventually enjoy my blogging or like the historic titbits I share on social networks and would show some gratitude - I´m not asking for money but rather some samples to expand a rock collection used for teaching purpose. If by chance you got some smaller samples (6x8x4cm/8x8x4cm or smaller would be enough) with basic info (where, when, who, what) to share, drop me a mail at HistoryGeology"add" to discuss details, direct contact and refund.


David Bressan

Of Love and Lava: A Geomythological Tale of Kilauea

The first colonists arrived on Hawai´i probably in the years 800-1.000. Lacking a written history their nevertheless developed a rich oral tradition, inspired in part by past events. 
One of the most important stories involves the volcano goddess Pele and her youngest sister Hi‘iaka. Once, so the myth, they arrived on Hawai´i and after a long search Pele decided to settle on the summit of Kilauea, since then also named Kalua o Pele, the pit of Pele. She send her youngest sister  Hi‘iaka‘aikapoliopele (generally shortened to Hi‘iaka) to search for Lohi‘au, a man Pele loved. The sister promised to bring him back to her and Pele promised as reward to her sister to spare the beloved forest of Hi‘iaka from fire and lava. Hi‘iaka had to overcome many obstacles, but finally she managed to bring Lohi‘au back to  Kilauea. However Pele had grown tired in the meanwhile and in a moment of anger she burned the entire forest.  Hi‘iaka for revenge take Lohi‘au and Pele, seeing the two together, became so envious that she killed Lohi‘au during a furious eruption. Hi‘iaka desperately searched for many weeks the corpse of Lohi‘au between the lava and rocks send by Pele.

Fig.1. On the rim of Pele´s pit, painting by P. Hurd, 1824.

It maybe is possible to interpret this myth in a geomythological way, linking it with features really found in the landscape and the geological history behind the formation of such features. The caldera of Kilauea is dated to 1470-1500 and also the Aila‘au flow (named after another Hawaiian deity), a large lava flow covering the north side of Kilauea, formed around 1470. Morphology and a well developed network of lava tubes suggest it formed during a single, prolonged volcanic eruption of Kilauea. The historic date makes it seems reasonable to assume that the event was watched by the locals and possibly the event was recorded and passed from generation to generation in form of a myth. The destruction of Hi‘iaka´s forest by the furious Pele could describe the lava burning down the vegetation around the crater, suggesting also that before this eruption enough time passed from the previous eruption to grow a dense forest. Also the last part of the myth is interesting.  Hi‘iaka moves and throws rocks into air during her search, maybe the description of an explosive eruption or explosions resulting from the lava coming into contact with groundwater or the sea.


The interpretation of myths in geological light helps also to better evaluate the risk, as eruption style of former volcanic events and the impact on the society can be reconstructed in more detail than just from studying the volcanic deposits.

Interested in reading more? Try: 

SWANSON. D.A. (2008): Hawaiian oral tradition describes 400 years of volcanic activity at Kilauea. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 176: 427–431

From Rocks to Angels

Fig.1. Medieval engraving of a scala naturae showing the "ladder" concept. The words on the steps read: rocks, flame (as a chemical reaction), plants, beasts, humans, heaven, angels, god.
The scala naturae or great chain of being placed all natural objects in a supposedly divine order and can be traced back to the ancient Greek Aristotelian philosophy. A common scala naturae in the 18th century started with less complex objects, like the (supposed) elements air, water, earth, to proceed towards metals, salts, rocks, corals (as half plants, half rock), lichens, higher plants, animals and finally Homo sapiens (just outclassed on the highest steps of the scala naturae by angels). 
Until the 19th century also science reflected this chain, as it was divided in physics, chemistry and natural history, the latter including the study of animal, plants and rocks. Still in the various disciplines a certain order, from the inanimated to animated, is present. Around 1800 for the first time it was suggested that the science of “biology”, or the philosophy of life forms, should study the laws that rule and circumstances that enable life as we know it and, more important, be distinguished from geology as the study of earth and its lifeless matter. However the idea didn´t at first attract much interest and still in 1842 German botanist Matthias Jacob considered the proposed distinction between the animated an inanimated world an absurdity, as there could be found a gradual transition between every single object. However Jacob was among the last opponents, as indeed biology had started to become an own, distinct scientific discipline. 

However still some interdisciplinary ideas survived. Like in crystallography, many biologists believed at the time that there exists, like for crystals, a smallest possible unit of life, a physiological unit or like Darwin proposed in 1867, a “gemmules”. Ernst Haeckel even named this supposed smallest entity (even smaller as a cell, at the time the smallest observable organic structure) Kristalloid” in 1876. Like a crystal forms and can grow by putting together the basic unit cells, an organism was composed of smallest units, each possessing the “lifeforce” and so giving life to the entire being. 

Only at the beginning of the 20th century and discovery of cellular organelles and DNA the idea of such "living basic units" was abandoned.

The Early Exploration and Geology of the Chamois Mountains

Su le dentate scintillanti vette, 
salta il camoscio, 
tuona la valanga da' ghiacci immani
rotolando per le selve scroscianti; 

ma da i silenzi de l'effuso azzurro esce nel sole l'aquila,
e distende in tarde ruote digradanti il nero volo solenne.

Giosuè Carducci (1835-1907)

In medieval times the Alps, especially the alpine regions above the tree line, were simply referred as Gamsgebirg - the chamois mountains.

Fig.1. The Livre de chasse is a medieval book on hunting, written between 1387 and 1391 by Gaston III, Count of Foix and dedicated to Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. One figure shows an alpine hunt with ibex and chamois hiding between the peaks.

Only, as a guide from 1917 describes, fools would venture there. However the Alps since ancient times were a traveled region. Shepherds, merchants, collectors of plants and minerals and hunters populated the valleys, high-altitude pastures and maybe sometimes also climbed a peak.
The first person to climb a mountain just "because it´s there" was supposedly Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), as he describes an ascent on Mount Ventoux in France. 

Italian author Valerius Faventies in 1561 publishes “De montium origine”, wherein he collects all the contemporary theories explaining the formation of mountains. An important role was given to celestial influences. But only later authors like cartographer Sebastian Münster (1489-1552), cartographer Johannes Stumpf (1500-1566),  naturalist Konrad Gessner (1516-1565)  and especially naturalist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672-1733) describe mountains in great details, including plants, animals and the geology.

Fig.2. The chamois in Konrad Gessner´s „Allgemeines Thierbuch“ (1565).

Scheuchzer used examples of large-scale folds observed in the Swiss Alps as evidence for the veracity of the Biblical account of a flood in remote times. Only a large flood, a deluge, could twist, break and fold the sedimentary rocks.

Fig.3. "Views of Chamonix, as seen [during the expedition] in 1742", apart glaciers the drawing shows also typical animals, like the ibex, the chamois and the marmot. Figure from a report to the Royal Society in London by William Windham.

Also English theologian and naturalist Thomas Burnet in his book “The Sacred Theory of the Earth“, published in 1684, tries to explain the mountains and shapes of the continents by the biblical flood. The homogenous primordial crust of earth was shattered, releasing water from the underground. The water covers the entire planet and finally flows back in the fissures, leaving behind fragments of the crust that now forms the modern islands and continents. Mountains, so Burnet, were fragments of the primordial crust of earth stacked atop, ruins of the former perfect paradisic world.

Fig.4. The chamois hunter's hunting ground, by Johann Baptist Zwecker (1814–1876).

Still for a long time the Alps were seen as haunted, dangerous and most important unholy territory. One there was "in company of the devil,..." as Swiss naturalist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740-1799) refers to the chamois when writing about the Alps. De Saussure was also the first naturalist to describe the geology of one of the highest peaks in the Alps (mostly composed of granite), the 4,808.73m high Mont Blanc, climbed by his expedition in July 1789.

Interested in reading more? Try: 

BEATTIE, A. (2006): The Alps: A Cultural History. Oxford University Press: 246
BRIDLE, B. (2011): Mountaineers. Royal Geographical Society,The Alpine Club: 359
MacFARLANE, R. (2003): Mountains of the Mind - Adevntures in Reaching the Summit. Random House Publishing, New York: 324