Category Archives: time

The Dead Sea is Dying

DSC01681

The Dead Sea is the lowest tideline on earth, filling the deepest trench of the Great Rift Valley, which begins in Mozambique and runs north to Syria. The border between Israel and Jordan divides it in two, a border that is, unusually in the Middle East, both geological and political: not a line in the sand but a crevice in the earth. Here two tectonic plates are moving apart, ever so slowly, Jordan to the East and Israel/Palestine to the West. To infer meaning from this movement would be easy, but nothing in this region is easy.

DSC01534

The Dead Sea used to be part of the Mediterranean Sea, a mere depression in its eastern shoreline. Then around 5 million years ago, the crunching plates pushed up the Judean hills, cutting off the water supply to the inland sea left behind. One of the most impressive of these hills is Mt. Sodom, a massif of pure halite, or rock salt. This photo, of a small (80′ x 25′) chunk that broke off and rolled down hill, shows the smooth yet razor sharp material that makes up the Biblical mountain. In the background is Lot’s Wife, a pillar of salt that has eroded away from the rest of the mass. She will eventually come crashing down as well.

DSC01647

The Dead Sea is dense. With less water coming in than evaporates each year in the desert sun, the salts and minerals have become more concentrated over time, so that the water is now 30% mineral (as compared to the oceans, which are 3% saline). The water is almost 1/3 rock. This is why you float in it. It feels slippery more than wet, because of all the bitumen, manganese, potash, and salt that are suspended in this maximum concentration. Several types of single-celled creatures (halophiles) thrive in this environment, but nothing larger. Unless you count Russian tourists.

The Dead Sea has had various names over time: Salt Sea, Bitumen Sea, Stinking Sea, Devil’s Sea. The water’s very weight makes the surface unnaturally calm and reflective. It glows with shades of lavender, periwinkle, and rose that cannot be adequately conveyed in a photograph (at least, not mine.) But don’t get it in your eyes, because it bites hard.

DSC01291

The Dead Sea is dying. The water level is decreasing by more than a meter each year, which leads to a rapidly retreating shoreline, as seen in the photo above. When I was here 25 years ago, the water level was near the road in many places; now you have to take a minibus from the seaside resorts built a generation ago to the water’s edge, sometimes a kilometer away. This is because the only source of new water for the Dead Sea is the Jordan River, which is the northern extension of the Great Rift Valley, and the international border between Jordan and Israel/Palestine. Virtually all of the water is drained out of the Jordan River for Israeli agriculture, though apparently sewage effluent is released into the river so that a small, muddy stream can be maintained for passing pilgrims.

DSC02229

The Dead Sea is already dead. In the 1930s, the Dead Sea Works was formed to mine potash and other salts from the lake’s southern reaches, which were shallow and could be sealed off to create evaporation ponds. These ponds now extend for many miles and are home to one of Israel’s main industrial sites.

DSC01329

Mountains of minerals are evaporated out of the water and shoveled into piles reminiscent of Mt. Sodom. As the Dead Sea Works floods the ponds each year (thereby lowering the northern half), the water level of this part of the lake rises, causing nearby hotel resorts to build berms that act as beaches, in hopes of keeping the waters at bay and out of their lobbies. DSC01610

Though the geology of the Great Rift Valley is still under debate, this area is, according to some scientists, an “incipient, oblique oceanic spreading centre.” In geology, incipient means “to come into being or become apparent.”

Spelled with an ‘s’ it has another meaning: lacking wisdom.

DSC01392

Advertisements

Lowtidefullmoon walking

DSC00036

Following are excerpts from my recent guided walk, Tideline as Timeline.

Timeline: January 4, 2015, 2:30 – 5:30 pm

Place: Princeton-by-the-Sea, California

The tideline is one of the richest biological regions on earth. It is also a fluctuating, fractal line that rises and falls each day and over thousands of years. Today, as the sea is receding, we will walk along the tideline to the westernmost point, a series of rocks called the Boneyard. Along the way we will stop at 7 stations to consider the intersection of tideline and timeline and forms of sense, presence, and absence in this particular landscape.

Today’s low tide, which is at 4:19, is one of the lowest of 2015, and the lowest this year that coincides with a full moon. These spring tides – so called because they spring up – nearly all take place in the winter months, due to the alignment of sun and moon and earth, a celestial pattern called a syzygy. In turn the lowest ebb generates the highest flow, and in 6 ½ hours the tideline will be about 6 ½ feet higher than it is right now.

DSC00035

A chart of sea levels over the past million years looks like a graph of breathing, a predictable rise and fall during which the water withdraws 400 feet below its present level as the climate cools and ice builds at the poles, and then rises to our current level as the ice melts. This has taken place every 100,000 years, like an EKG of the planet. However, the rise happens quickly, over just 20,000 years, while the cooling period is much slower, because ice melts more easily than it forms.

On the timeline of ice ages, we are living in the pause that occurs between the last rapid melting and the next slow cooling phase. We call this the Holocene Epoch, and it has coincided with the emergence of all human societies, though whether this is coincidental is a matter of debate.

In the past two millenia, this time of climatic stasis and security we have lived in, sea level has risen 7 feet according to soil records. In the past century, the Golden Gate Bridge tidal bridge have recorded a rise 8 inches, while scientists predict a rise of up to 55” by 2100 which would the new tideline near the line we just inscribed.

DSC00032

For the Ohlone people, death of one tribe member was a traumatic event for the entire community. When a person died, the family destroyed everything that belonged to them in life, breaking their bows and arrows, tearing their baskets and bear skins, throwing it all onto a funeral pyre along with the body of the deceased. The mark of success in Ohlone culture was generosity, rather than wealth, so members of the tribelet would throw their best tools and hides onto the pyre as gifts to the deceased. To ever speak the name of a dead person was to invite dangerous ghosts into the community, so as a result, family lineages were soon forgotten, and history as we understand it did not exist. The distance between Sacred Time, which was the time of the creation, and the present moment had no substance or dimension.

When the Ohlone were forcibly removed to Mission San Francisco, their culture and language were obliterated in a similar way. The last native speaker of Ramaytush, the language of the San Francisco peninsula, died in the 1950s. In the 1970s Cal Berkeley anthropologist Richard Levy trawled through mission records and early anthropological sources, to reconstruct this language. He gathered 104 words.

On an 1861 coastal map, the salt marsh behind us encompassed 10 acres of open water, and was, according to the 18th century French sea captain Jean de la Perouse, a place of ‘inexpressible fertility”. Stephen Powers, a 19th century ethnologist described the people here as “almost amphibious”, wading among deep reeds and grasses to trap birds, and digging shellfish by the ton along the shore. Hunger was absent in this place, even in the myths, which accounted for the stability of their culture over thousands of years.

DSC00049

Above us is a radar station that is used to track missiles fired from Vandenburg Air Force Base, 280 miles to our south, some nine missiles a year on average. These include the intercontinental ballistic missile Minuteman III and the Atlas V rocket, which launches military satellites.

To our southwest are the outer and inner breakwaters that form Half Moon Bay Harbor. The outer walls were built by the Army Corps of Engineers following World War II to create a harbor for the local fishing fleet; the inner walls and piers were built in the 1970s and 80s, as the fleet expanded. The bluffs and beaches beyond the harbor have eroded by several feet every year since then, as the wave energy has been displaced to the south. Some 35 feet of coastal bluffs have eroded in recent decades.

Behind the harbor is El Granada, a town commissioned by the Ocean Shore Railroad to be a resort destination for people from San Francisco and designed by the renowned architect Daniel Burnham. Construction on the Ocean Shore Railroad began in 1905, though its bridges and trestles were severely damaged by the 1906 earthquake.

During the speculative decade that followed, Frank Brophy, who held title to this land, and was selling it off in lots, advertised it the local newspaper as “Princeton: Future Home to a Million People”. I undertook this project in part to find out why the streets here are named Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and West Point; the answer has thus far eluded me, but I suspect Frank M. Brophy may have had something to do with it. But the people did not come, and the railroad eventually folded in 1921. The collapse of the railroad, in combination with Prohibition made Princeton a locus of bootlegging, black markets, and bordellos. And at 10 in the morning on April Fool’s Day, 1946, a tidal wave brought the sea up to the windowsills of the houses in Princeton.

IMG_7058

We come from the sea. We are fish out of water. The sea was formed 3.8 billion years ago in a great rain that lasted millions of years; first there was only boiling rock and roiling clouds. And then waters flowed from high to low, bringing salts along, and the ocean was born. The tide has been doing just this, ebbing and flowing, every day since. This particular wave-cut platform, with all its creatures, may be submerged in a generation or two, but there will be others. In the future, these waves will be either bigger or smaller. The only constant is change.

We can see ourselves as different and separate from this ocean, these rocks, and stand at the edge of the sea with measures of fear and awe. Or we can learn from the barnacles and anemones about finding our right relationship, a fluid state of connection that sustains us as part of a larger system.

Tideline as Timeline

tideline as timeline poster

Join me for this New Year walk, marking the edge of the low tide and the rise of the full moon. We’ll think about presence and absence in Princeton-by-the-Sea, a neighborhood on the site of a former Ohlone village.

A little background. This phrase — tideline as timeline — occurred to me earlier this year while writing my Master’s thesis. I didn’t know what it meant then, except in the poetic sense of the daily pulsing of the ocean, in and out. Yet as I’ve taken a deeper dive into geology, sea levels, and climatic change, I now see the phrase as both more literal and more meaningful.

In fact, the tideline has shifted dramatically over time in response to tectonic shifts and the effect of global temperature on planetary ice levels. Over much of the last 500 million years, the planet was significantly warmer than it is now; there was no ice anywhere during much of that time, and sea levels were as much as 600 feet higher than they are now, due to the very different continental configurations of the distant past.

More recently — that is, since North America joined the South American plate 3.5 million years ago — the planet has had a consistent sea level range. When ice ages develop, as they have about every 100,000 years for at least a million years, sea levels drop about 400 feet. When the ice partially melts, as it has systematically done as part of this cycle, sea levels have risen to about where they are right now.  It’s as if the planet has been breathing in and out in a deep time, mirroring the ocean’s daily pulsing at a different scale. We are currently at the bottom of the cyclical exhale, when things are warm and wet.

Knowing this makes it even more alarming that our global temperatures and sea levels are about to spike. The planet has spent the past 20,000 years exhaling (i.e. warming) and we are about to exhale again, without any in breath to sustain us. We have never been here before.

When all the ice melts, as it likely will over the coming 500-1000 years, sea levels will be 212 feet higher than they are today. Where will our tideline be then? It’s one of the things we’ll think about on the Tideline as Timeline walk, the first in a series I’m developing with fellow artist and ocean lover, Zoe Farmer.

Standing at the edge of the ocean

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Standing at the edge of the ocean, I tell my children the story of how the seas formed 3.8 billion years ago in a great rain that lasted millions of years. Before, there had been no water, only roiling clouds and molten rock. Then the deluge began, eroding the land to form the saltwater that has been ebbing and flowing, just like this, every day since. Myth and fact mingle in the misty recesses of time, where nature and culture are equally mysterious and equally true.

I watch a line of pelicans glide over the breakers as gulls cluster and cackle on the shore. On my right lies a tern, belly splayed and picked clean, near the seal carcass that has been weaving its way back into the sand for two months now, like an old burlap sack. I stopped believing in God as a child, but as I look out at this infinite vessel that seems to absorb all it encounters into its eternal cycle, it is not lost on me that I, too, believe in something. In this.

It is easy to think the mundane is distinct from the sacred. So I seek out writers and artists who stands in stubborn solidarity with every single thing: John Cage, Mary Oliver, Andy Goldsworthy. If there is only one substance and one system, of which every object and process is an evolving expression, then my relationship with the world becomes that of cell to organism, and I can, on occasion, experience life as an immanent, shimmering plane of existence. Are we humans indeed part of nature? I believe we are. So I spend time with an array of creatures, processes, and systems that shed light on the relationship between the parts of the whole.

It’s a foggy morning, low and damp. It’s easier to see clearly on days like this, without the stark shadows of right and wrong, that everything is connected, even the broken plastic bucket tangled in the kelp next to me. Should I pick it up and put it in a landfill that will also one day be an ocean? What is the half-life of my neighborhood, its tidy houses a few yards away, staring at the incoming tide?

This day in history, 1000 years ago

taurid_nsl_big

A coincidence is leading me down the research rabbit hole today.

Last night I was reading The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millenium by Robert Lacey, an enjoyable portrait of the daily lives of English serfs just before the Norman Invasion. In 1014, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the few surviving written sources, “This year, on the eve of St. Michael’s day (September 28), came the great sea-flood, which spread wide over this land, and ran so far up as it never did before, overwhelming many towns, and an innumerable multitude of people.”

I’ve never heard reference to a tidal wave in Britain before, because they are very rare; a little digging and I found that there have only been a handful going back to 6100 BCE, caused either by earthquakes offshore or unusual meteorological conditions. Yet forensic geologist Dallas Abbott, of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, has found evidence that a large meteor or comet struck in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean around 1014, part of the largest Taurid meteor shower display in recorded history.

The Taurids are debris left over from comet Encke and are known for slow-moving fireballs with long smoke trails; research by I. S. Astapovich and A. K. Terent’eva found that 42 fireballs were part of the 11th century Taurids. One can only imagine what people were thinking about on the night of September 28, 1014.

Except that, in the modern Gregorian calendar, this date translates to October 4, 1014. Today, one thousand years ago.