Field of Science

The Earth-shattering Monster of Loch Ness

The first purported photo of Nessie was published in The Daily Mail" on April 21, 1934.  The image, taken by a London surgeon named Kenneth Wilson, was touted for decades as the best evidence for Nessie — until it was admitted as a hoax decades later.

In 2001 Italian geologist Luigi Piccardi presented at the Earth Systems Processes meeting in Edinburgh a hypothesis, explaining the supposed appearance of the lake monster in Loch Ness as a result of the local geology. According to Piccardi, the historical description of the monster - appearing on the surface with great (earth)shakes and waves - could be based on seismic activity along the Great Glen fault. The Great Glen fault is a transcurrent fault where two bits of Earth - the Grampian Highlands, composed of early Paleozoic plutonic rocks, and the Northern Highlands, composed mostly of Neoproterozoic rocks with Palozoic sedimentary covers - are sliding sideways against each other.


Loch Ness is a 36 km long lake, located just above the fault zone. As the fault moves, earthquakes happen and cause bubbles and waves on the lake's surface. In an interview published in the Italian newspaper "La Repubblica" Piccardi explains:

"There are various effects on the surface of the water that can be related to the activity of the fault ...[]... the beast appears and disappears with great shakes. I think it's an obvious description of what really happened…[] We know that there was a period [1920-1930, a period characterized by many reported sightings of Nessie] with increased activity of the fault, in reality, people have seen the effects of the earthquakes on the water."

According to the biography of St. Columba, the scene described by Piccardi happened in the year 565. Trying to cross the river Ness the missionary is attacked by a beast. However, Columba implores the protection of god and the monster promptly disappears. The original text, however, is very vague and gives no detailed description of the event, stating only that it was an "unknown beast" and it approached with the mouth wide open and a loud roar. In the myth, the supposed lake monster is of much less importance than the ability of St. Columba to tame beasts and demons and doing so
to impress the local pagans. It is quite possible that the supposed encounter with the monster was added to make Colomba´s legend bigger than real life. The vague description presented doesn't really support any proposed scenario, neither seismic activity nor a presumed surviving plesiosaur, living in a lake formed by glaciers during the last ice age some 18,000 years ago. Modern sightings in Loch Ness can more reasonably be explained by a combination of hoaxes, misidentification of common animals or waves and the local tourist industry, keeping the myth alive to attract tourists. Research done in the lake has never produced any clue for the possible existence of a population of larger animals in the Loch.

Also, historic seismicity doesn't seem to support the existence of an earth-shaking monster in the Loch. Earthquakes along the Great Glen fault range between a magnitude of 3 to 4, too weak to cause any observable effects on the lake. Stronger events are exceptionally rare and were recorded only in 1816, 1888, 1890 and 1901. These earthquakes don't coincide with the years of supposed increased activity of Nessie, like in the decade around 1933.

Darwin's First Botanizing Steps Followed His Geological Ones

 “I collected every plant, which I could see in flower, & as it was the flowering season I hope my collection may be of some interest to you." - Charles Darwin in a letter to his friend and mentor John Stevens Henslow, 1836.

Charles Robert Darwin's interest in the natural world was widespread. As a student, he loved to hunt animals and collected bugs and minerals. His mentor and friend John Stevens Henslow, mineralogist and professor of botany, introduced the young Darwin to both disciplines. Darwin attended Henslow's botany lectures and field trips each year during his three years at Cambridge, visiting also private meetings at Henslow's home. Here he met with Adam Sedgwick, president of the newly formed Geological Society of London. During a geological field trip in the summer of 1831 with Sedgwick, Darwin collected and preserved also some plant specimens.

Herbarium sheet by J. S. Henslow with three plants collected by Charles Darwin in 1831 at Barmouth, North Wales. This is the earliest-known herbarium specimen collected by Darwin.

During the five-year-long voyage of the Beagle Darwin collected plants or seeds on the Cape Verde Islands, in Argentina, in Uruguay, in Chile, in Brazil and some of the visited islands, like the Falkland, Galápagos and Cocos islands. As Darwin had limited space on the Beagle, most occupied by rocks and animals, he limited himself to remote or poorly studied localities.

Darwin had prepared several thousand labels in different colors before the voyage to be applied to every dried plant (the labels including species, locality, date and his signature). Wet specimens, conserved in "spirits of wine", were tagged with a small, metallic plate. Henslow, who back in England managed Darwin's collection, however, removed most labels when including Darwin's specimens into the herbarium. Unlike the collected rocks and animals Darwin didn't number the plant specimens, so it seems a bit confusion sneaked into the collection. Another friend of Darwin, botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, lamented to Darwin that not all notes could be attributed to the preserved plants.

Darwin's plant collection is especially interesting as it includes many species from less visited islands of the Galápagos and the Cocos archipelago. Darwin was intrigued about the relationship of the isolated species found on the islands to the species found on nearby continents. Later Darwin conducted experiments with seeds, showing that some can survive salty water for months and so be dispersed by marine currents. Despite Darwin's plans, he didn't publish the collected plants in “The Voyage of the Beagle” (published in 1839), as a very busy Henslow didn't meet the deadlines for publication.

Darwin collected 756 different species, subspecies or varieties of vascular plants during his five years long voyage around the world, 220 species were new to science. Darwin was especially surprised by the variability displayed by plants. A collected grass species was divided by Henslow into fifteen different varieties! This was an intriguing observation, important for his later formulated theory of evolution, how one species can split over time in various new ones. Also, the relationship of plant species on islands to nearby continents was an important observation. The plants from the Galápagos islands showed, according to Hooker, a remarkable variability between the single islands, however some even more remarkable similarities to species from North America and Brazil. Would a divine creator not be able to create distinct, unique species on remote islands as he pleased? However, if seeds can be dispersed with marine currents and islands be colonized by plants from nearby continents, couldn't they also evolve there in new species?

Radioactivity and Earth's Age

In the 19th century, the discrepancy between the age of Earth and the age of the cosmos posed a great problem to scientists. Geologists had calculated, using methods like erosion or sedimentation rates, ages for Earth spanning from three million to fifteen billion years. Physicists and astronomers, based mostly on the energy output of stars, calculated an age for the universe spanning from twenty million to ten billion years - so in many models of the cosmos, Earth seemed to be too young or too old to fit in. In August 1893, during a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, geologist Charles D. Walcott (1850-1927) summarized the debate as follows:

"Of all subjects of speculative geology, few are more attractive or more uncertain in positive results than geological time. The physicists have drawn the lines closer and closer until the geologist is told that he must bring his estimates of the age of the earth within a limit of from ten to thirty millions of years. The geologist masses his observations and replies that more time is required, and suggests to the physicist that there may be an error somewhere in his data or the method of his treatment."

In 1896 the French physicist Henri Becquerel (1852-1908), based on Conrad Röntgen's (1845-1923) research, discovered that naturally occurring elements, like uranium, also emit X-rays and in 1897 Polish physicist Marie Curie (1867-1934) coined the term radioactivity to describe this energy of unknown origin. Her husband, Pierre Curie (1859-1906), realized that this energy from radioactive decay must be considered when calculating the age of Earth. Physicists supporting a young Earth based their calculations on a quickly cooling Earth. However, radioactive decay in Earth's interior provided a continuous source of energy and heat, therefore Earth was cooling slowly and so could be quite old.

Radioactive decay or another similar long-lasting and high-energy source (nuclear fusion was discovered later) could also explain how stars could produce light and heat for very long periods of time. The notion that stars or the sun had to be young (in most calculations younger than Earth) could also be dismissed.

But even better - the discovery of radioactivity provided not only indirect evidence of an old Earth but by measuring the constant decay it was also possible to calculate the exact age of a mineral, a rock and even of Earth.

High-energy rays, derived from radioactive decay, form a halo of alteration around a mineral grain in the larger biotite-crystal, image from J. JOYLE (1909): Radioactivity and geology, an account of the influence of radioactive energy on terrestrial history.

The British Diplomat Who Studied Volcanoes

When, in 1631, Vesuvius erupted violently after having been dormant for more than 300 years, it aroused great interest among Europe's elite. German Jesuit and naturalist Athanasius Kircher traveled to Southern Italy to study Vesuvius, descending even in the crater. The volcano was almost continuously active, especially after 1750 and Naples became part of the cities traveler should visit when in Italy.

Sir William Hamilton (1730-1803) was a British diplomat in Naples from 1764 to 1798, He got so interested in the nearby Mount Vesuvius that in 1776 he published a monograph on the mountain, illustrated with stunning artwork by local painter Peter Fabris. Hamilton's "Campi Phlegraei: Observations on the Volcanos of the Two Sicilies" is considered a pioneering work of early volcanology.
 The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in August 1779.
The eruption of May 1771. An Aa lava flow (recognized by the broken surface texture) passes the observer's location and reaches the sea at Resina. Note the steep, slowly advancing front of the flow. Pietro Fabris is amongst the spectators (below left) as is William Hamilton, who explains the view to other onlookers.
Inside the crater of Mount Vesuvius.

Lava samples from Mount Vesuvius.

Another view of the August 1779 eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

The excavation of the Temple of Isis in Pompeii.
 Hamilton at the crater of Forum Vulcani (Solfatara near Pozzuoli), examining the sulphur and arsenic deposits near the hot springs.

Hitler's Geologists

Already during the first World War the Germans established a special class of soldiers known as "Kriegsgeologen", military geologists working on the front line in special offices called "Geologen-Stellen". Their tasks included solving water supply issues by locating the best spots for wells, locating rock-materials for construction or roads and choosing sites suitable for bridges, trenches and galleries. 

In 1936 Adolf Hitler, now the Führer of the German Reich, announced his Four Year Plan to boost economic growth and make the country independent from imports (an important, at the time not mentioned, goal was to prepare the economy for a coming war). This plan included also projects to map all resources available in the Reich, like rare metals and especially oil. Geologists explored old mines to find new veins of ore and until 1939 almost the entire territory of the German Reich was mapped with geophysical methods (like gravimetry and seismic survey), hoping to discover new oil fields. At the beginning of World War II. many geologists were incorporated in the "Ahnenerbe", a unit established by Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel. The Schutzstaffel (or SS) was a vast military organization inside the Nazi regime, controlling the police, secret police, troops but also business like quarries and mines. The Ahnenerbe was the "science institute" of the SS, dedicated to geological, archaeological and ethnological surveys, but also political propaganda and pseudo-scientific research.  

Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler visiting a quarry in southwestern Germany, 1935.

During the field campaign to invade Poland in 1939 it was decided to establish also an "Oil Kommando", a unit of 50 geologists mapping oil reserves in occupied areas. The reserves in Germany and occupied areas were not sufficient to keep the German forces running for long. When Hitler ordered to attack the Soviet Union in summer of 1941, he hoped also to secure the rich oilfields of the Caucasus and Crimea where 80% of the Russian oil came from. Geology became now part of the war efforts and Himmler established in April 1941 the "SS-Wehrgeologen Battalion 500", the Schutzstaffel equivalent of a unit of military geologists. The battalion comprised four units, a unit specialized in the construction of tunnels (the "Stollenbau Kp"), a unit of hydrogeologists, a unit of Earth scientists (ranging from archaeologists to geophysicists) and a unit specialized in drilling operations. Members were recruited from other SS units including the Ahnenerbe. The unit included experts like Erich Marquardt, an archaeologist, Karl Heinzelmann, a geologist who worked on tectonics, and Joachim Schlorf, who studied the toxic effects of Vanadium-ore. The unit was commanded by Rolf Höhne, an archaeologist and geologist. The official tasks of the Wehrgeologen included all aspects of military geology, like prospecting for water, oil, gas and other valuable resources in the field, support during construction work of fortifications, underground mines and galleries. One project included mapping the route for a planned “Autobahn” (highway) between Berlin and the peninsula of Crimea (never realized). 

Geophysical surveys carried out until the beginning of the war in 1939. After BENTZ and CLOSS 1939.

However, more esoteric tasks included archaeological digs to prove the superiority of the Aryan race and research in ancient artifacts and unknown energy sources. Rolf Höhne believed in the Hollow Earth theory and published various archeological and pseudo-scientific articles on the topic. The Hollow Earth was a theory dating to the early 19th century, claiming that after a series of natural disasters a race of superior beings survived in a vast undergroudn reign, accessible only be gateways hidden in the mountain ranges around the globe.

In 1943 the Wehrgeologen were sent to northern and southern Europe to help build a defense line along the coasts of France and in the Italian Alps. The "Blaue Linie" was a system of fortifications to be built in the Prealps to stop the allied forces, landing at the time Sicily. An even more ambitious plan included the idea to use the mountains as the  “Alpenfestung”, a mountain fortress as a last refugium for the Nazis. In the Bretagne and Normandy, they helped to plan a defense line against a possible invasion by allied forces from the sea. The "Hindernisbau" consisted of a system of antitank obstacles along the beaches, bunkers hidden in the rocky cliffs and areas to be flooded in case of successful landfall of allied troops. In France and the Netherlands, the geologists studied the best location to build the launch pads for the secret rocket project of the Reich. The ground had to be stable enough to absorb the vibrations caused by the launch of the Vergeltungswaffe V1 and V2.

A V2 on the launch ramp. Called the 'flying bomb', it was used by the Germans to bomb English cities towards the end of the war.

The Wehrgeologen Battalion now included 600 men, both academics as soldiers. When air raids became more frequent over Germany in the last years of the war, mines or galleries were used to store ammunition and later also to host industries of strategic importance, like weapons production and research labs. Also, new underground bunkers were excavated, often involving forced labor of inmates of concentration camps. More than 800 subterranean bunkers and galleries are mentioned in contemporary documents, 400 still exist today.

In spring of 1945, shortly before the defeat of the Reich, the Stollenbau Kp helped in the construction of "Klein Berlin", a vast system of underground bunkers located beneath the Italian city of Trieste. During this operation, the geologists explored also caves and ancient mines, in part prospecting for valuable minerals, but also searching for the mystic gateway to an ancient underground reign. Based on research by two members of the Ahnenerbe, Wilhelm Teudt and Josef Heinsch, the city of Triest was built supposedly over a force field, the "Heiligen Linien", of subterranean origin. Nazi geologists searching the gateway to the Hollow Earth sounds like the plot for a bad movie. This should not hide the cruel reality of the war and the regime. The SS Wehrgeologen were also involved in war crimes, like the assassination of civilians in the Italian village of Laita.

How WWI Bombs Shattered Bedrock And Changed Geological History

The war in Europe began as a battle between infantry and cavalry, like in old times, and was believed to be quickly over. However, new weapons, like the machine-gun or heavy artillery, made direct attacks almost impossible as soldiers were killed in their thousands. The war quickly became a war of attrition as both sides dug in in a network of trenches and tunnels separated by the “No Man’s Land.” One hundred years after the end of World War I traces can be still found in the landscape.

Alpine Tsunami

Strange as it may seem,  also high in the mountains there is a tsunami risk.

In the Alps, various event can trigger a tsunami, like earthquakes, landslides or glacial lake outbursts. The 1806 tsunami of Lake Lauerzer (Switzerland) was caused by a large landslide and killed almost 500 people. 

Painting of the 1806 tsunami of Lake Lauerz made by David Alois Schmid, who observed the disaster from his hometown Schwyz.

In September 1601 an earthquake hit the area of Lake Lucerne. The 5.9 magnitude earthquake triggered both an underwater landslide as a rockfall from the nearby Bürgenstock mountain. The resulting wave was almost four meters high and inundated  "a thousand steps" (50 to 100 meters) broad area around the lake. Eight people were killed.  In 1867 a second wave caused widespread destruction.  As no earthquake was recorded before the tsunami, experts believe that the collapse of lake sediments and an underwater landslide caused the wave. 

In October 1963 the entire slope of Mount Toc in the Italian Dolomites collapsed. Within 30 to 40 seconds estimated 240 to 270 million cubic meters of rock plunged into the reservoir of Vajont, filling the 400 meters deep gorge behind the dam. The wave generated by the impact of the landslide traveled 140 meters up on the opposite shore, reaching some buildings of the village of Erto. At the moment of the impact,the reservoir contained 115 million cubic meters of water. The landslide pushed part of the water out of the lake, producing a wave with a maximal height of 230 to 240 meters. 

A 100 to 150 meters high wave rushed into the gorge of the Vajont, in direction of the larger and inhabited Piave valley. There the wave destroyed the villages of Longarone, Pirago, Villanova, Rivalta and Fae, and in less than 15 minutes more than 2,000 people were killed.

Glacier outburst floods (GOF) refer to the rapid and sudden discharge of water from within a glacier or from an ice-dammed lake. In the Alps and Cascades most outburst floods occur in the summer, when the melting glaciers provide large quantities of water. In the Andes and the Himalaya also another type of floods is common, outbursts from moraine-dammed lakes, referred to as glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF). Floods resulting from moraine-dam failure have been increasing in frequency in the Himalaya over the past 70 years. One of the best-documented examples happened in August 1985, when the terminus of the Langmoche Glacier in the Khumbu Himal collapsed into the Dig Tsho glacial lake, triggering a wave overflowing the moraine. The wave destroyed a power plant and five people were killed.

Laguna Paron (Cordillera Blanca, Peru) in 2009, a lake dammed by the glacier Hatunraju with a capacity of 75 million cubic meters. The lake is surrounded by a 250 meters high moraine.  If this dam fails an outburst of around 50 million cubic meters could flood the valleys downstream.
The worst glacial lake outburst in historic time was caused by the failure of such a moraine-dam in Peru, when in December 1941 the town of Huaraz was partially destroyed by a flood, 60.000 people were killed.