Montag, 30. November 2009

Dating catastrophes

Methods for dating mass-movement events earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other geological hazards comprise a wide range of methods, historic, radiometric, stratigraphic and biological. For example Carbon-14 dating, applicable when the moving mass incorporated vegetation, or other radioactive elements that decay with time, surface dating of freshly exposed boulders by cosmogenic isotopes, dating of sediments by thermoluminescence, dendrochronology or lichenometry and for historic times written records or witness accounts.
Historical references are the most reliable sources for reconstructing the temporal distribution of catastrophes, especially for the last few centuries. Going further back in time, medieval time and antiquity ,the record gets poorer and more inexact. And for prehistoric time we miss descriptions of this kinds, or did we?

Considering (pre-)historic events, the oral tradition and legends all over world maybe represent first efforts to record and explain such phenomena, even if we have to be cautious, myths in geology can only be a supplementary help, not a fact, and much is left by the interpretation of stories by the compiler. Nevertheless knowing some old stories about the landscape can not be so bad for a geologist.

In the area of Seattle, Washington, at least five sites with landslide deposits or large boulders are known by local legends of the Duwamish people to be haunted by a´yahos. A´yahos are spirits with the body of a serpent and the antlers and forelegs of a deer. Old folks used to say not to look directly to an a´yahos because it could shake the ground or turn people to stone.

Non-Salish Cascadia Native representation of two -headed snakes, likely to represent spirits comparable with a´yahous. Quileute ceremonial representation of t´abale, a vicious guardian spirit on the northwestern Washington coast (from LUDWIN et al. 2007).

In 1990s geophysical investigations revealed that the area of Seattle is passed by a fault system and at least 1100 years ago an earthquake hit the entire zone- triggering mass movement all over the landscape.

Reconstructed "events" by means of oral tradition and mythological conventions.
Date range estimates used the following assumptions: a 'generation' is no fewer than 15 and no more than 40 years, events before age 5 are not remembered. the maximum lifespan is 100 years, flood survivors were 'old' when seen. and an 'old' person is at least 40.
(from LUDWIN et al. 2007).

The bay of Lituya situated in Alaska is a narrow, only 2 kilometres broad, but 11 long bay open to the Pacific Ocean. The native Tlingit Indians tell that in a cavern, deep underground, lives a demon, similar in appearance to a great toad or frog. If someone dares to disturb the tranquillity of the bay, the demon will rip apart the sea and the earth and catch the intruder and transmute him to a bear.

Behind the anger of demons maybe an exceptional (yet undated) geological event hides, as a recent example shows:
On the 9th July 1958 an earthquake produced by a fault nearby triggered a rockfall, with an estimated volume of 40 million cubic metres and a weight of 90 million tons that felt from a height of 1000m in the water. The resulting wave reached a height of 524, the highest ever (human-) documented wave.

The Yurok Indians, once native in the Cascade Range, tell about the creation of the world by "earthquake" and "thunder":

And from there, earthquakes and thunder went south. They first went to the south and let fall the ground. In rapid succession, there was an earthquake and another earthquake, and then the water filled the place. "This is what brings people to live", said earthquake. "They would have no food, if there were not place for the creatures of the sea, to live in it. From here, they will obtain what they need to live, where prairie has become water."

During excavation in today's marshes along the coast of the region a series of sand and peat layers was discovered. Such deposits are formed when the coast is flooded by a tsunami, and sand is deposited, overlying an ancient soil. The discovery proves that this area in the past has been repeatedly devastated by tsunamis.


FRITZ, H.M., HAGER, W.H., MINOR, H-E. (2001): Lituya Bay Case: Rockslide impact and wave run-up. - Science of Tsunami Hazards 19(1), 3-38.
LUDWIN, R.S. & SMITS, G.J. (2007): Folklore and earthquakes: Native American oral traditions from Cascadia compared with written traditions from Japan. From PICCARDI, L. & MASSE, W.B: (eds): Myth and Geology. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 273: 67-94
LANG, A.; MOYA, J.; COROMINAS, J.; SCHROTT, L. & DIKAU, R. (1999): Classic and new dating methods for assessing the temporal occurrence of mass movements. Geomorphology 30:33-52

1 Kommentar:

Mike hat gesagt…

The question I want to ask is "Did you expect a thing to last for ever". Meaning the marsh, did the marsh exist before the Precambrian? Did the marsh even exist before the Holocene? Not likely... Since the ocean levels have risen ~1/4 a meter per century for the last ~11k years, the marsh is likely a few hundred years old at best.
I'm rather taken back by the title of catastrophe, when the event you are is merely "a change".