Pacific Basin Anomaly

27 Oct 2017

This one came from an article in American Scientist (volume 105) which was provided by Jovan. Soon after 19th century cartographers captured the relative locations of Hawaii's volcanoes they became aware they lay on two roughly parallel tracks. Since then double tracked volcanoes have been found elsewhere in the Pacific basin. Not only that, they all seem to have switched location between 2 and 4 million years ago. Why? It is now thought Earth's largest tectonic plate, the basin of the Pacific Ocean, started to change direction at this time. Not only that but the same thing seems to have occurred 40 to 50 million years ago. The assumption of course is that there is a volcanic hotspot under Hawaii, a tenet of mainstream geological theory in order to account for said volcanoes in the middle of the Pacific (and it's theoretical plate). This is thought to move more slowly than the plate itself, hence the explanation is given that the plate has moved in relation to the hotspot - but not we may note by a great deal. More interesting is that scientists went on to show a line of seamounts connecting Hawaii to the Midway Atoll. The same line extends to Yurikaku seamount - then turns aburptly towards the Emperor chain of seamounts which extends northwards over thousands of kilometres to the Aleutian Trench. Remarkable.

In the same issue of American Scientist - 'Re-examining Lyell's Laws' (or the framework of uniformitarianism). It is by Michael Rampino - and he says increasing evidence points to the role of periodic catastrophes in shaping Earth's history, challenging long standing dogma within geology. Lyell apparently disliked the idea of cataclysmic events - and he particularly dismissed the Biblical deluge and flood (often used in pre-19th century times as a blame all for geological change in rock strata). It is still rampant nowadays - you only have to look at some of the Creationist web sites. This tends to restrict take-up of neo-catastrophism as espoused by Rampino and his ilk. Geologists play safe and stick to what they were taught when they took their degree. Nevertheless, Rampino represents a revolution in geological thinking and he goes back to the big debate that Lyell won (by words rather than by actual field evidence). Lyell was particularly dismissive of William Whiston and  his comet theory. This involved the idea that the earth was originally a comet and was hit by a comet, causing the Flood. One can see why Lyell chose to oppose this idea even though Whiston was a Lucasian professor of mathematics at the university of Cambridge and Lyell was a lawyer (and an amateur geologist). Whiston believed in the Biblical Flood - hence, uniformitarianism was rooted in the idea of opposing anything that smacks of the Flood (which ruled out catastrophism altogether). Comets were transformed into harbingers of local calamities, caught up in ancient superstition, even though the likes of Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley believed that comets played a catastrophic role in earth history. Lyell presented his followers with the idea of a safe environment - free of cosmic intrusions. This itself has Biblical parallels, the idea of a world created specifically by God for the enjoyment and benefit of humanity. Lyell was himself influenced by Biblical assumptions - just as much as Whiston. However, his world was a safe one, one in which humanity could wax and enjoy. Georges Cuvier thought there were long periods of quiet alternating with brief periods of episodic catastrophe when species suddenly disappeared - what we now call mass extinction events. According to Lyell and his supporters this was because the geological record was imperfect - a book with many missing pages and missing as a result of erosion or non-deposition. Both sides had a point - but the views of Lyell won out. Gradualism has been the asserted doctrine in geology for almost two centuries. We can actually observe gradual processes in action today and most geologists assumed that the gaps in the rock record would some day be bridged. Even the assumptions of plate tectonics as a realistic process  only came about 50 years ago - and was absorbed into the uniformitarian scheme as the process is said to be driven by invisible but slow internal forces - and the same thing, I might add, is also relevant to Ice Age theory, harnessed to uniformitarianism by changes in oxygen levels in foraminifera shells in the Atlantic Ocean (the idea of 100,000 year cycles). Both glaciation and plate movement have catastrophic potential - but that has been muted by mainstream, very effectively. Rampino goes on to claim Hutton and Lyell did not fully appreciate the full meaning of 'deep' geological time. If they had they could never have portrayed the history of the Earth as dependent primarily on visible geological processes. For example, small earthquakes are the most common, larger earthquakes less often, and the really big earthquakes (and seismic events such as basalt intrusions) are the rarest - yet the most obvious in the geological record. The same holds true of volcanic episodes.

The Mariner and Apollo space missions during the 60s and 70s brought to science evidence of volcanism and cratering on other planets, and our moon. Cratering, at that point, was an idea that was discouraged in earth sciences, but if it occurred on other cosmic bodies in the solar system it must have also occurred on the Earth - and subsequently many craters were found (and accepted as craters caused by meteors of one kind or another). This was astronomy leading geology - and astronomy in Rampino's view, is opening up what was a closed discipline, the earth sciences. It is used to explain features seen by cameras on robots and spacecraft orbiting planets, and has revolutionised what had been a very dogmatic field of research (and very often still is if individual geologists have not kept up with the new concepts). Naturally, he turns to the Chicxulub crater in Yucatan and the dinosaur bashing asteroid collision - which the general public took to instantly (partly because of the theatre involved). He goes on to dismantle what he describes as Lyell's laws and brings forth his idea of periodic pulses of geological activity (remarkably similar to that of Cuvier). He ends by saying Lyell launched a largely theoretical picture of nature organised by a divine order - the gradualist process. Well, that is turning things upside down but makes sense as Lyell was influenced by religion as much as Whiston and Newton. He was a product of his age. Is uniformitarianism another pristine version of the past? The really strange thing is that geologists have been quite happy to go along with the gradualist model for nearly 200 years - without hardly rustling the skirts. Rampino is a neo-catastrophist and is the author  and co-author of many articles and has recently written a book. This is primarily about extinction events in geological history rather than neo-catastrophism in the more recent past. See also