Thursday, February 23, 2012

Accretionary Wedge #43 - The Art of Geology

This edition of the Accretionary Wedge concerns geologic illustrations and art.

"All types of geological illustrations qualify -- drawings, paintings, maps, charts, graphs, cross-sections, diagrams, etc., but not photographs." 

Honestly I am not much of an artist. I have never taken an art class, and when I draw people you had better believe they are the stick variety. However, this morning I had a slight art epiphany. The epiphany was precipitated by watching a video showing how we have been able to map out debris from Fukushima using a model generated by data from satellites using sea surface height and wind data. 
International Pacific Research Centre
I really think that there is something artistic about the way the purple (representing debris) moves across the ocean in a pattern of swirls and undulations, expanding outward at the whim of the ocean's currents, wind and waves. Of course, as with any good art there is also a deeper message to be drawn from watching this. Think about what the purple represents as it flow across the ocean. The debris is composed of the objects we all collect and surround ourselves with and it is a testament to the havoc wrought by the tsunami and the loss of life and livelihood it caused by the power of the nature and the Earth. This is also a reminder of the materialism of our society as this mass of garbage spreads outward covering the ocean and causing untold damage to the delicate ecosystems and organisms it encounters. Honestly, I find this video nice looking, intellectually stimulating, tragic, and humbling all at the same time. It is truly a powerful piece of art.

So what about other interesting geology art? Well, some of what I do for my research involves using a model of wind patterns over time. The model is called HYSPLIT (HYbrid Single-Particle Lagrangian Integrated Trajectory) and is operated online by the National Oceanic and Aeronautic Administration (NOAA). The model computes air parcel trajectories and dispersion of airborne chemicals and particles  using meteorological data. Luckily for me the tool is available for free online. All you have to do is input your start parameters and it gives a nice output like the one below. It can also output to GIS or Google Earth.

Air parcel trajectories for Ottawa, ON for Feb 21-22, 2012.
I think that the outputs from HYSPLIT are another great form of science art. They are attractive, and are intellectually stimulating. Here is another one that incoporates two weeks of data that I have then overlain onto Google Earth. 

A two week back trajectory analysis from HYSPLIT.
So what do you think of my efforts as an artist?? Not bad for about 40 mins of work. The interpretation of this is potentially even more interesting than the picture though. This diagram allows us to see and understand the patterns of natural world in simple and attractive manner. It allows to us to envision things that occur over long time frames and make conclusions about them. I think that this is one of the coolest kinds of art because it instills in the viewer a sense of the belonging to the larger world around them and what natural processes are at play without us even realizing it. 

So those are my thoughts on the art of geology and the natural sciences. Feel free to leave comments and suggestions...or other ideas for geology art. 



Draxler, R.R. and Rolph, G.D., 2012. HYSPLIT (HYbrid Single-Particle Lagrangian Integrated Trajectory) Model access via NOAA ARL READY Website ( NOAA Air Resources Laboratory, Silver Spring, MD. 

Rolph, G.D., 2012. Real-time Environmental Applications and Display sYstem (READY) Website ( NOAA Air Resources Laboratory, Silver Spring, MD.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Canadian Museum of Nature - Review

I live in Ottawa, Ontario. It is an absolutely gorgeous city and is the capital of Canada. As such it is home to numerous attractions, the best of which are: beavertails, the Rideau Canal, Gatineau Park and the Canadian Museum of Nature, which has just been newly renovated. Due to the museum renovations, which concluded several months ago, the geology galleries were closed. However, they are now open. I thought it might be a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon touring around, taking photos and then writing a review. So I dragged my girlfriend along with me and off we went to look like tourists.

The front entrance of the museum.

The front also has these charming moose sculptures with leaves and vines in relief...very appropriate.
The musuem is a fantastic old building, full of interesting history. In fact, it was the first home of the Geological Survey of Canada and its mineral displays. However, the building is now Canada's natural history museum.  Of course, the main/only reason I wanted to go was to check out the new geoscience galleries. The rest of the museum was awesome and I encourage anyone visiting Ottawa to check it out but I will confine this post primarily to the new mineral displays and some of the paleontology displays.

In judging the overall quality of a museum display I think it is important to base my assessment on a few key criteria. I'll talk about the aesthetics of the gallery and my impressions on the quality of specimens displayed and how they looked. Second and most important, how are the specimens described and is the gallery effective at educating the public.

Overall Appeal and Specimen Quality

First, we'll do a quick virtual tour of the gallery. When you enter this is pretty much what you see in front of you. There is a cool rotating globe thing on the left that I didn't take a photo of as well. This section is on the origins of the solar system, the planet and meteorites, many of which are on display and some that you can touch.

Next, you turn to the left and enter the main mineral display area. Which has displays centrally arranged in a polygon shape and more displays on the outer lots and lots to see in here.

The central polygon of displays
One of the display cabinets. Very colourful.
The specimens on display in this gallery are nothing short of phenomenal. Indeed, as I stood in the gallery I heard lots of oohs and ahhs and "so and so, come look at this one". I think the best way to emphasize how nice the specimens are it to show you so here are a few of the best photos that I took:

Canyon Diablo meteorite

Silver (wire)


Quart var. Chalcedony


Tourmaline var. Elbaite (Blue cap)

Obviously you cannot argue with the quality of the specimens on display. They are awe inspiring for sure and I think that the gallery layout is effective at showing specimens well. Each case in the gallery is dedicated to showcasing a particular class of minerals e.g. sulphides, oxides, elements, etc., while the displays on the outside of the central polygon give information the uses of minerals and how they are formed. When you are in this room you feel surrounded by geology as there is some sort of specimen or panel occupying every spare centimeter of the room. So how do I score the gallery for aesthetics? I have to give high marks on this one: 9/10.


The next criteria upon which every gallery should be evaluated is how well does it convey its message to the general public. I think that this is the most important category. I mean what is beauty without substance?

In general I felt the displays were very effective at conveying their message. The primary way to get information on the minerals in each case was with the little touch-screen console standing beside each one.
Bad photo, but you get the idea.
Each console shows a picture of the display case in front of you. You then touch the shelf that you want to know more about and the mineral on the shelf that you want to look up. It then opens a nice display that has a hi-resolution picture of the mineral that allows you to zoom in, a well written write up the mineral you selected and more information such as location, etc.

Pick your shelf
Now pick your mineral
I found this system to be pretty user friendly and easy to navigate from one place to another on. I particularly liked the idea of using pictures of the shelves and minerals to make it simpler to select the one you want more info on as opposed to a list of somewhat intimidating names. My only complaint is that this is the only way to get more information on the central displays, meaning if someone is already using the console, you are out of luck. This is annoying since once using it the temptation to look up numerous minerals in the display it to great to avoid and others around either have to wait or move on. The displays themselves only give the names of the minerals and no other info increasing the need for the console if you want more. 

Otherwise I was impressed at the clarity and readability of the text in the descriptions and on the panels at the edge of the room. There are also several other interactive displays around that teach about the uses of minerals in society and geology. Overall I score the educational presentation of the gallery an 8/10. 

That is all for now. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to post. I encourage you to visit the museum website for more information. The museum also contains a very extensive gallery on vertebrate paleontology and has some great dinosaur skeletons and other mid-Cretaceous fossils. 

Canadian Museum of Nature:


Monday, February 13, 2012

GeoMedia: Russian Scientists reach Lake Vostok

Recently a team of scientists from Russia, working in Antarctica, broke some new scientific ground...or should I say ice? For the past few years the researchers have been drilling into the Antarctic ice in an effort to reach the lake trapped 3-4 km beneath it called Lake Vostok. Lake Vostok is a massive subglacial lake that is liquid despite the fact that it is trapped beneath the Antarctic Ice Sheet. It is kept from freezing by a combination of the immense pressure exerted by the ice sheet above (350 atmospheres) and geothermal heat from below, which combined keep the lake at -3 degrees. It is 15,000 square kilometres in size and up to 800 metres deep, making it one of the largest lakes in the world.

LA Times

However, while subglacial lakes such as this are a rarity compared to the usual article, it is one of ~300 others in Antarctica that have been detected using geophysical means such as seismic testing and gravity surveys and have been completely isolated from the rest of the world for...well, we don't know quite how long, but at least 1,000,000 years.

Map of Antarctica showing Lake Vostok and other subglacial lakes. (Source: BBC)
So the obvious question to be asked here is why would we want to drill into a pristine lake that has never seen the effect of human kind? Well, there is a lot that we can learn from sampling such a rare place. One of the main reasons that I have seen discussed in the media is the potential for finding all sorts of funky new microorganisms that have never been discovered before an have evolved over the last million years in complete darkness and isolation. Sampling such an incredibly isolated environment will further allow us to understand how the process of evolution occurs on our own planet, but also possibly on others where we can only dream/hope that life exists. For example, the ice covered moon of Jupiter called Europa, which is believed to have a liquid ocean beneath a hard icy shell, could possibly support life similar to that in Lake Vostok. In fact, sampling of the ice above the lake has yielded a few bacteria trapped within it, which are believed to have come from the lake itself as the ice directly above the lake is lake water that has frozen onto the bottom of the glacier.

Siegert, M.J. et al. Physical, chemical and biological processes in Lake Vostok and other Antarctic subglacial lakes. Nature 414, 603-609 (2001)

Another reason that we are interested in this lake is a little closer to home than extraterrestrial bacteria. Drilling into the lake gives us the ability to sample lake sediments and understand the hydrogeology of Antarctica, neither of which we have ever had an opportunity to do. The opportunity to study ancient lake sediments is a particularly valuable one as the sediment residing at the bottom of Lake Vostok has lain undisturbed for the past million years making it one of the oldest lake sediment records that I have heard of and certainly the most undisturbed. The sediments will give us clues to the past climate conditions on Antarctica and changes over time allowing us to understand the climate record much further back in time than we do presently as well as extrapolate to the very ancient past and future.

Of course, drilling 3 kilometres down into Antarctica is not without its environmental concerns. The primary ones being will the drilling contaminate the lake? This was a very real, and extremely undesirable, possibility as in order to keep the drill going and the hole open the team was forced to inject fluids. However, the Russian team has assured the scientific community that this outcome has been avoided and that the lake has not been contaminated. 

That is all for now. Feel free to post any comments or questions.



Siegert, M.J. et al. Physical, chemical and biological processes in Lake Vostok and other Antarctic subglacial lakes. Nature 414, 603-609 (2001)

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory:

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Happy Birthday - GeoSphere turns 1

Hi All,

Happy Birthday to me!! I just thought that I would write a really quick note to celebrate the fact that GeoSphere has been a part of the great infoweb for a year now. Thanks to anyone and everyone that reads and comments on my posts. I really appreciate the feedback.

All the best and happy reading,


p.s. The photo below is what you get when you type geology birthday cake into Google Images.