10 responses to “Geologic Now conversation

  1. In One Million Years of Isolation, Geoff Manaugh and Nicola Twilley interview Abraham Van Luik about his work in Yucca Mountain, the home of a proposed nuclear waste-entombment site. The interview took place in 2009, and while the status of the site was then undetermined (but believed to be a go), it appears that the Obama Administration has terminated funding to its development, effective on April 14, 2011. Steven Chu cited newer technologies as one justification for ending Yucca, mentioning fast-neutron reactors that could burn down the actinide waste (a highly radioactive byproduct of the nuclear waste being stored) and the need to have multiple waste storage sites at various geographic locations rather than the larger and consolidated Yucca, Nevada site. Yucca’s closure raises a number of questions and concerns, notable, though, is that the United States still does not have a long-term storage site for high-level radioactive waste. The interview with Abraham Van Luik, a geoscientist with the U.S. Department of Energy, takes place before it was shutdown, and thus proceeds as if Yucca were to continue developing into a successful long-term radioactive storage site.

    One thing to note right away is that when Van Luik says “long-term,” he really means it. In order for Yucca Mountain to get the approval for their facility from the EPA, the agency that oversees radioactive waste standards in the U.S., Yucca has to be certain the materials are safe and contained for a million years. In fact, previously in the U.S., radioactive waste sites were only required to account for the next 10,000 years, however with the research Yucca conducted to trap and seal in the waste, scientists at Yucca Mountain and the National Academy of Sciences determined that there was predictability for roughly a million years, which led directly to the EPA’s decision to increase the requirement of safeguarding nuclear waste without any site of its kind having been built in the U.S. yet. This strikes me as somewhat odd: increasing the regulation of nuclear waste based on the predictions from the only site that is proposed for keeping said nuclear waste.

    The actual containment of the waste is a complex operation that depends on the materials stored and the environment in which they are held. Van Luik narrates the process, and it looks something like this: shipping containers are sent to the nuclear utility companies that can handle the nuclear waste before they are slid onto trains and shipped to Yucca. These full shipping containers are then placed directly into a metal shell made out of the compound known as Alloy 22, and then welded shut. The Alloy 22 was the most successful out of six other metals in experiments that were tested for their durability in water, oxygen, and various solutions, and itself was an alloy developed for pulp mill companies that work in highly toxic chemicals. After being welded shut, the containers are lowered underground and place end-to-end in long tunnels that they call drifts. Once a drift has these containers lined up, a large door is placed on the front of the entrance and welded shut.

    Here’s the interesting thing: the whole reason to block the exits is not for the radioactivity of the containers (at this point, they are safe in their Alloy 22 shells, and concerns to their longevity relate entirely to the outside environment: if water drips on them or how much oxygen there is that could corrode the outside), but rather their security from outsiders. In other words, the side exits are shut to “make it very difficult for someone to reenter the mountain – to the point where they would basically be much better off reentering it by drilling a whole new entryway beside one of the old ones that’s filled in.”

    Van Luik also describes an interesting process of material selection for the container shells that is entirely location dependent. For example, Switzerland decided not to use crystalline rock (like granite) since the Alps “are still growing and slopes are not all that stable over hundreds of thousands of years” and went for clay container materials that would be used closer to the Rhine River. Other nations have gone for granites, salts, and clays depending on the proposed nuclear waste storage site’s location. In addition to the fascinating materials/environmental research that is invested into a particular site, Van Luik writes about the need to deter future generations from coming into contact with the waste. The Yucca Mountain site is trying to develop a marker system that can warn people for the next million years not to tamper with the mountain. Van Luik isn’t even sure it’s people he has to communicate this to, but following the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico that did a similar job creating markers in seven languages with the hope that someone will study ancient languages in the future, Van Luik’s team also hopes to make sure nobody reenters the waste site once it is closed up.

    In sum, a fascinating story about what might have become the first long-term nuclear waste storage site in the United States. Congress initially chose the Yucca Mountain site for economic reasons in 1987 (and not Van Luik’s other more ideal scenarios in the Dakotas, which were more expensive), and it seems that budget was again partly an issue in closing down Yucca. What the plan is for all of the accumulated nuclear waste is unclear, but once we begin to hear the process for developing, testing, and building one of these containment sites, we realize the seriousness of the endeavor, and the almost absurdity in having to plan for a lifespan of a million years.

  2. Space. Time. Fossils.

    Trevor Paglen is an experimental geographer and visual artist who engages with space, material, and time. Chapter 21 Trevor Paglen’s Frontier Photography’, is an exploration of his visual work, and chapter 22, The Uneven Time of Space Debris’, is a Smudge Studio interview with the artist that captures the theory and motivation behind his work.

    Paglen seeks to expand the frontiers of how we contextualize human impact on earth and beyond. Instead of solely compiling a geographic or astronomical framework, he seeks to combine perspectives and create ”a topography of the universe.”

    Most famous are Paglen’s photographs taken with a digital telescope of “space debris,” or “space junk,” now stuck in earth’s orbit. These bits and pieces of spacecraft are artifacts and fossils of human culture. In comparison to other cultural artifacts such as cave paintings and the pyramids that have existed for a few tens of thousands of years, space trash will potentially exist for millions if not billions of years leaving a “human footprint in the cosmos.”

    The artist’s motivation for his research and work seem to come from a quest to alter geographic thinking from a linear understanding with a beginning and end, to a grid like view where time progresses horizontally as well as vertically. If the vertical axis of understanding time includes space and the future, then this axis is infinite. This creates an uneven relationship with the present and the past. Paglen explains this unevenness by stating:

    My point is that human societies are both speeding up and slowing down at the same time. One consequence of these “anthropogeomorphic” processes is that the effects of our activities are played out over longer and longer time periods: one example is climate change: we are setting earth processes in motion that are going to play out over a hundreds, of not thousands of years. …For me, making this geologic turn is a way to try to come to terms with the uneven temporalities of contemporary human existence.

    This interview is concise, and only scratches the surface of Paglen’s work both as a researcher and as an artist. However, these chapters can serve as an effective launching point to discuss not only the imprints of humans on earth, but also our effect and impact that we are leaving on the universe. Once we begin to expand our understanding to a universal scale, understanding of “deep time” and “time-space” must also expand.

  3. MAKING THEGEOLOGICAL NOW: CHAPTER 6-Exposing the Anthropocene Art and Education in the Extraction State by Erika Osborne
    Erika Osborne is a professor at West Virginia University. The momentum that the Anthropocene is gaining has changed her pedagogy as a teacher and an artist. Erika teaches a Place Based art course in the mountains of West Virginia. West Virginia is well known for its Mountain Top Removal (MTR) coal extraction. Mountain top removal not only permanently scars the topography of the land; it also obliterates habitats and species as well as causing health degradation in the surrounding communities. Mountain top removal is a blatant display of proof of existence of man’s alteration of the earth’s structure. Mountains are blasted with explosives to reveal the coal within them.
    Erika takes her students for a three day trip to a local mountain to experience the process, with guidance from the late Larry Gibson, a well-known activist who fought against MTR. The students are encouraged to create art to document and process what they have seen, an art therapy of sorts.
    Many of the students have grown up with MTR as a background in their lives, being from the Appalachia area, but none truly knew the horrors of this practice until they witnessed it with their own eyes.
    Students returned changed, considering the extraction process every time they flip on a light switch. Many get involved in MTR activism, using art to create visual displays of defiance. Students gain an understanding of their role in the geological processes, rather than feeling they are enacted upon by them.
    This chapter is of specific interest to me as an educator who believes strongly in place based education as a conduit to developing a sense of responsibility and activism. Place based education operates on the premise that before we can expect individuals to deeply understand and react to global environmental issues, they must first understand their place and their role in it. It has been shown that children who experience this education at a young age have a deeper responsibility to the environment. This is lacking in children and adults today. The Anthropocene is hard proof of human impact on the earth and its implications for the future. If there is any hope of creating a more sustainable future, we must act quickly to develop these ties to place in order for the next generation to feel the duty and need to start healing our world.

  4. One Million Years of Isolation: An Interview with Abraham van Luik

    Ever since learning of the WIPP program a few years back, I’ve become increasingly interested in thinking about geology as a kind of archive. I don’t mean this in the explicit sense of strata upon strata, each layer of which captures and entombs planetary data of the deep past. Rather, I’ve often found myself contemplating the idea of the subterranean as providing comparably stable environments in contrast to the windswept, corrosive characteristics of the surface. It is in this sense that the subterranean might be understood to offer spaces of refuge for materials we hold dear – as is the case with the Svalbard Global Seed vault – or for those materials that pose considerable threats to the conditions of life in general – as is the case with nuclear waste.

    So, it is with this interest in mind that I read through the interview with Abraham van Luik, a geoscientist with the U.S. Department of Energy, who provides considerable insight into just how thorny of a problem long-term nuclear waste storage presents. Simply put: what do we do with hazardous materials whose radioactive duration far outstrips the record of civilization itself? As van Luik suggests, the issue is not so straightforward as a kind of chronological ticking away of radioactive decay over the course of a million years. Rather, the issue involves how such ticking away takes place within the very materiality of the planet. This might seem an obvious point to make, but when we consider that this planet is not a static, unmoving rock floating about in the cosmos, but rather fundamentally volatile and subject to considerable material variation over time, then we’re left with the inconvenient realization that a pure faith in regularity of a ticking clock to mark radioactive decay fails to take into account the precarious environments in which that clock might be situated.

    This complication leads to two immediate thoughts. First, the problem of how to bury nuclear waste for a million years involves much more than that million years. What this problem ultimately requires is that the entire ‘subterraneity’ of the planet be coded as being suitable or unsuitable for storing civilization’s own instable materials or, better yet, material instabilities. In effect, what this coding requires of ‘us’ is to identify the most stable zones on a volatile planet, while simultaneously accounting for the geological flux of the deep future.

    Second, it helps to clarify my aversion to the idea of “the long now.” My issue with the long now, I think, hinges on the implied fixity of the ‘now’ and how this fixity – which might be understood as simultaneously implying a kind of stability – gets stretched out over time. What this stretching fails to take into account, in my opinion, is space. That is, the long now seems content with the regularity of a ticking away, but remains unaware of its material contexts, and how those same contexts are likely to eventually destroy the ticking mechanism itself. Put somewhat differently, my sense of “the long now” is that it works to extend a human experience of time into a future that might not contain humans to mark that time. It is, thus, more of a coping mechanism than it is a mechanism capable of accounting for the deep future.

    To close off, I wonder what others think of the distinction between “the long now” and “the deep future.” Whereas the former seems tied to an explicitly human project, the latter is perhaps capable of accounting for futures that don’t contain the human. Yet, I wonder if “the deep future” still retains the qualities of a coping mechanism since it, too, implies a chronological conception of time that always and forever begins here and now only to be cast off into the farthest reaches of space and time. Might we think of time and volatility in quite different ways?

  5. Since I study glaciers in Greenland, I was of course attracted by chapter 10: “Inner-City Glaciers” by Christian Neal MilNeil. In this short piece, MilNeil explores the piles of snow left by plow trucks that can persist for weeks or months in northern cities. Instead of being pristine, dynamic, and awe-inspiring like real glaciers, these “inner city glaciers” are often black, sooty, and toxic, having trapped and incorporated undesirable particulates and larger items of garbage from around the city.

    I had never thought of these snow piles as anything resembling a glacier (and technically speaking they’re not since they’re neither multi-year nor flowing). However, there are certain similarities. These snow piles are large, imposing, and can persist late into the season after all other snow has melted (apparently the snow piles in Portland, Maine, often last into June). When they finally melt, they leave behind piles of debris that are not unlike real glacial moraines. Sadly, for the vast majority of the population, these sooty lumps are the only “glaciers” they will ever see.

    The concept I found most intriguing in this piece was the idea that these inner-city glaciers catch and display what is normally invisible. During the summer, pollutants and garbage of all sizes quickly gets removed through rainfall, wind, decomposition, and other processes. During much of the year, we have no visual reminder of how dirty our living environments actually are. But in the winter, these persistent snowbanks trap everything from motor oil to heavy metals to dog poop. They allow us to see the vast amounts of particulates that we breathe into our lungs every day.

    Although the idea of these filthy, fouled, inner-city glaciers is of course disheartening, they also may represent an opportunity for education. Most city residents probably walk by these deposits every day without giving them a second glance. Maybe future advertising campaigns could focus on them, encouraging residents to look to them as examples of the toxins ubiquitous in our everyday environment. Maybe school science projects could analyze their contents for education and public outreach. Maybe local newspapers could provide photographs and data each spring. Since these inner-city glaciers are so tangible and striking, they seem like ideal opportunities for promoting public awareness.

  6. Also, I think I might have agreed to write up some thoughts on Clark’s second chapter. However, I can be brief since in many respects, what I’ve addressed above deals with one of Clark’s central points: “We … need to think of the entire zone of human-nonhuman interchange as itself nothing more than a concrete, localized and contingent region in the midst of an overwhelmingly inhuman expanse” (48-49). In part, what I see Clark providing is a substantive critique of some of the more hyperbolic claims found in some (but not all, contra Crist!) discourses of the Anthropocene, especially those that suggest that humanity has become a primary driver of global environmental systems. I see Clark’s challenge working in two interrelated ways.

    First, there are distinct material processes that persist independent of any relationship humans might have with them (plate tectonics, expansion of the universe, fusion, etc.). That these things persist, and clearly have significant bearing on material conditions of reality, places into question the notion that humanity has ascended to such a point as to overshadow such autonomous processes.

    Second, Clark states, “This is the bottom line of human being: we are utterly dependent on an earth and a cosmos that is, to a large degree, indifferent to us” (50). Similar to the first point, this challenges aspects of Anthropocene discourses that aim to fix humanity as a kind of culprit – a not-unproblematically aggregated subject that has succeeded in dominating Nature in service of its own voracious, collective greed. Following Clark, despite the ostensible destructiveness of contemporary ‘humanity’-global environment relations, it seems a little hyperbolic to frame these relations purely in terms of domination. Domination, in this sense, implies a one-way transfer of power, within which one might lose an important sense of dependence.

    To close off, Clark’s contributions thus far have had the effect of reigning in some of the hyperbolic rhetorical flourishes of an emerging discourse, reminding us that humanity is not nearly as all-powerful as some narratives of the Anthropocene might imply. This, I think, is a welcome intervention since I’ve long had the feeling that aspects of the more alarmist narratives are merely crudely fashioned inversions of Enlightenment-era dreams of mastery over the realm of nature. That is, “Finally we have succeeded! But we arrive not as rational beings, but insatiable monsters!” Fair enough, but some of us are more monstrous than others…

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  8. In Chapter 15, Landscapes of Erasure: The Removal-and Persistence-of Place, Paul Lloyd Sargent discusses the lasting networks of naming places. He mentions how massive geological forces obliterate places, such as Pompeii, and the remarkable feat that humans are a comparable force at changing landscapes.

    I chose to read this chapter as it reminded me of the concept of a landscape as a palimpsest introduced to me by Dr. Anna Grichting Solder and written about by André Corboz (http://dio.sagepub.com/content/31/121/12.full.pdf+html). Interestingly enough the word “palimpsest” appears at the end of this chapter.

    The fundamental question evoked is what layers are erased and what are preserved? By who and for what accompany this question. The concept that a name of a mountain will live beyond the mountain itself creates a mirage of nomenclature and ultimately a palimpsest of words.

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