Contemplating Megadeaths

"We have evolved very elegant internal retrieval mechanisms, much of that fabric spun during dreamtime. By comparison, our cultural memory is nearly as short and foggy as our memories of our dreams."

Happy Father’s Day Y’all!

This week we are going to the vault for a blast from the past.

We originally penned this piece for the Summer, 2003 issue of The Permaculture Activist, and looking back, 10 years later, it still seems pretty good, worth a second telling. Our writing may have improved somewhat since then, so we’ve made some minor edits to the original, and here it is…

Contemplating Megadeaths 


We live in a myopic time, a time measured in nanoseconds but with no sense of history. In 1898, a leaking coal bin blew up the boilers of the warship Maine, which was anchored in Havana harbor, an incident that became the pretext for the Spanish-American War. My father was born 9 years later. When I was a child we had Spanish-American War veterans in our Memorial Day parade. I followed behind with streamers on my bike, crepe paper in the spokes.

Today the Spanish-American War is mostly forgotten, occasionally mentioned by historians as a disembarkation port for the American Empire. The students in these history classes were most likely born after the Macintosh. They don't need to commit facts to memory, they can Google them as need arises. Our sense of our place in time is becoming less a saga, more about search terms.

This essay space has become a long-periodicity blog for me (blog: English n. from web-log, a term used by internet programmers for shared progress reports; any progress report published on a regular basis for general dissemination). I have used this space to describe the politics of climate change; population and settlement patterns; forest fungal networks; a cosmic billiard-ball theory of biogenesis. This one is about civilization-ending astro-geophysical events, but it follows a theme in all my blog entries, which is where we, collectively as homo sapiens, lie along an awareness curve.

Thirty years ago Alvin Toffler made waves with his Third Wave and Future Shock, predicting far-reaching cultural shifts to accompany accelerating technological change. While change may indeed be speeding up, it still takes a long time to derive something approaching understanding. 

Dinosaur Astronomers: "I'd say we have
10 years to turn it around...."

When, in 1807, microscopic analysis by two Yale professors of meteor fragments suggested that celestial bodies occasionally impacted the earth, Thomas Jefferson allegedly remarked that he "would find it easier to believe that two Yankee professors would lie, than that stones should fall from the sky." That was ten years before the discovery of the first dinosaur bones in Dorset, England, a 17-foot Ichthyosaurus that went extinct 95 million years ago. It would take 153 years to make the connection between the Connecticut meteorite and the fossil record, and another couple dozen years before it was widely accepted that indeed, astrophysical events may affect the course of history.

As recently as 1985, the editorial page of The New York Times, referring to the discovery of the 120-mile-wide Chicxulub crater under the tip of the Yucatan and the connection by Luis Alvarez and others to the extinction of the last of the big dinosaurs 65 million years ago, declared, "Astronomers should leave to astrologers the task of seeking the cause of earthly events in the stars." At that time, just 18 years ago, 96% of scientists thought there was no connection between comets or asteroids and mass extinction events. By 13 years ago it was generally accepted, and published in school textbooks, that Chicxulub was the smoke from a celestial pistol that extinguished 75 percent of life on Earth.

These days we look a little more closely at large, crater-like depressions in the Earth's surface. That closer look has led to the discovery of a few dozen 'supervolcanoes' that have, like comets and meteors, punctuated history with mass extinction exclamation points. The largest of these is in Yellowstone Park, marked by a caldera 70 kilometers long and 30 km wide. Eight km beneath Yellowstone sits a huge magma chamber (40 km x 20 km x 10 km), slowly gathering pressure. Vulcanologists do not know when Yellowstone will blow again, but it popped its cork 1.8 million years ago, 1.2 million years ago, and 640,000 years ago. You do the math.

Supervolcanoes are designated at a minimum VEI8 - they are an 8 or better on the Volcano Explosivity Index. Each point on the index represents an eruption 10 times more powerful than the previous one. Mount St. Helens is a VEI5. The Greek Island of Santorini is a VEI6. When Santorini popped off 3500 years ago, cinders the size of Volkswagons were thrown out at speeds approaching MACH 2, rising 21000 feet before beginning descent.  When Toba, at VEI8, erupted in Sumatra 74,000 years ago, the force was 1000 times more explosive than Mt. St. Helens, and it ejected more than 10,000 times more ash.

Yellowstone might be a VEI9. It has the largest caldera yet discovered.

Volcanic Winter

The Scream (1893) by Edvard Munch, 
courtesy the National Gallery, Oslo / 

© 2004 The Munch Museum / 
The Munch-Ellingsen Group / 
Artists Rights Society, New York.

Lets consider what a sudden event like that means for humans and other living things.

A supervolcano erupts somewhere on Earth about every 100,000 years. When a normal-scale Indonesian volcano, Tambora, erupted in 1815, several years of global pneumonia followed, with the world's mean surface temperature about one degree Celsius below normal. Mt. Pinotubo in the Phillipines had a similar effect in 1991, but the half-degree change through the early 90s was masked by global warming. Ice-core records show that the eruption of Toba may have caused global cooling of from 3 to 5 degrees, and perhaps as much as 10 degrees during growing seasons in middle to high latitudes. 

A recent analysis of Edvard Munch's The Scream looked at the precise location where Munch and his friends were walking when he saw the blood-red sky depicted in the 1893 painting and discovered it was connected to the eruption of Krakatoa.

In "When The Sky Ran Red: The Story Behind The Scream," in the February 2004 issue of Sky & Telescope magazine, Donald W. Olson, a physics and astronomy professor at Texas State University, and his colleagues reveal how they journeyed to Oslo, Norway, to pinpoint the exact location where Munch stood when he "felt a great, unending scream piercing through nature," inspiring him to put his emotions on canvas.

They determined that Munch was walking along a road once called Ljabrochausséen, which is now a modern roadway called Mosseveien. It was along the railing of Ljabrochausséen that Munch became overwhelmed with emotion. Olson and his team located a rocky hillside overlook that precisely matches the artist's vista of Christiania (now Oslo) harbor and Hovedø island.

This woodcut of volcanic activity
at Krakatoa appeared in the London
illustrated paper, The Graphic,
on August 11, 1883. It was made by

an artist passing through the
Sumatran Straits months 
after the explosion.
Krakatoa exploded on August 27, 1883, sending dust and gases high into the atmosphere. Reports collected by the Royal Society in London show that unusually red twilight glows appeared in Norway from late November 1883 through the middle of February 1884. The spectacle was widely seen, as Christiania's daily newspaper reported on November 30, 1883.

"One of the high points of our research trip to Oslo came when we rounded a bend in the road and realized we were standing in the exact spot where Munch had been 120 years ago," Olson recalls. "It was very satisfying to stand in the exact spot where an artist had his experience," he added. "The real importance of finding the location, though, was to determine the direction of view in the painting. We could see that Munch was looking to the southwest — exactly where the Krakatoa twilights appeared in the winter of 1883-84."

At the winter 2003 meeting of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science there was a vigorous debate about whether people should be warned in advance if a supervolcano is going to blow or a giant meteor is on a collision course with Earth. Professor Bill McGuire, of the Benfield Greig Hazard Research Centre at University College, London, described what we can expect: "It's just like a nuclear winter. The effects could last four or five years, with crops failing and the whole ecosystem breaking down."

In the dim light of day, a 5C average drop worldwide would translate into 15 degrees summer cooling in the temperate to high latitudes. The effects on agriculture, on the growth of trees, on life in the oceans would be catastrophic. It might be several years, perhaps decades, before surviving seeds would re-establish field and forest.

Genetic Markers

Scientists have been studying human DNA for traces of extinction events. By knowing the rate of mutation of mitochondrial DNA and by a complex analysis of the distribution of these mutations, Lynn Jorde and Henry Harpending have estimated the size and distribution of our gene lines in the past. They discovered that roughly 70-80,000 years ago, human population experienced  a 'bottleneck' - when its large and well distributed gene pool of millions of individuals passed through mass extinction of family lines, leaving perhaps as few as 5000 individuals, from whom we are all descended.

Like the passing of Tolkein's ages of Middle Earth, we have only inklings of life in the earlier ages - some 80,000-yr-old human remains in Brazil; the Terra Amata campsite in France, occupied 400,000 years ago; the million-year fossil record in Africa. But a few of our ancestors went through every cataclysm and came out alive, or we would not be here. The memory of how they did that is lost.

Or is it?

The Mythological Record

According to the creation stories of the African bushmen, people did not always live on the surface of the earth. At one time people and animals lived underneath the earth with Kaang, the big chief, who eventually got around to making a tree, and at its base or through roots, trunk and branches, humans and animals emerged from the underworld.

Among the tribes of Inner Mongolia there are traditions of tunnels and subterranean worlds of Antediluvian descent, somewhere in a recess of Afghanistan, or amid the peaks of the Hindu Kush. According to Theosophical tradition, the last remnants of a super-civilization that once flourished in what is now the Gobi fled into two underground cities known respectively as Shambhalla and Agharti.

Hopi/Tewa legends describe a race of "Lizard" people who, to escape an era of fire and darkness, built 3 great underground cities near the Pacific Coast, including one beneath present day Los Angeles. The Hopi say Spider Old Woman led them back to the surface of the earth, and that's when they became humans.

A Pueblo tale relates that the Third world was ended by a great flood and humans were rescued by ant people. The ant people were much larger than today (about four foot tall), although they did live in the ground. At the end of the Third world, the ant people stored away food, brought humans down into their tunnels and plugged all the holes to the surface. The calamity lasted longer than expected and rations ran low. The ant people, being honorable, kept the humans safe by giving them their own rations. Eventually the humans got back to the surface, emerging from a hole, which today is represented in the shape of Pueblo kivas. But the ant people, having not eaten for some time, had shrunk to their present size.

Some Navajo believe that they, and the ancient Anasazi, came from the underworld, and four worlds preceded this world. When the Third world was destroyed by supernatural forces, the Diné and Kiis'aanii were forced to move into the Fourth world. The Anasazi, descended from the Kiis'aanii, endured yet another catastrophic retreat underground, and brought corn with them from the Fourth world to reseed the Fifth world.

Lakota oral tradition tells us that human life on the surface of Unci Maka (Grandmother Earth) began when Wasun Wiconiya Wakan provided an opening from which people emerged from their subterranean refuge to the surface of the world. They followed the trickster Inktomi ("spider") to learn about the opening to the surface. Some say this was at He Wakinyan Hohpi (Bear Butte), in the Black Hills near present day Sturgis, South Dakota.

In Iceland we find the legendary 'Hidden People,' something like elves or leprechauns, who turned their eyes to look after Lucifer as he fell from Heaven, and were punished by being sent into the earth and commanded to dwell there in the rocks and mountains. Similar stories are found in Norse, Swedish, German and related legends.

Seneca cosmology tells a story of the creator, known as “Good Mind” who grapples with Wind. In a terrible battle Wind tears great rocks from the mountainside and lashes the water below, but Good-Mind prevails.

"Once more Good-Mind called, 'My father, where art thou?' In awesome tones the voice replied, 'A son of mine shall endure the flame,' and immediately a flame sprang out of the mountainside and enveloped Good-Mind. It blinded him and tortured him with its cruel heat, but he threw aside its entwining arms and ran."

There is also a cataclysmic origin story in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It's the story of Adam and Eve. The Forgotten Books are the work of unknown Egyptians, part of a larger body of pre-biblical oral history known as the Pseudepigrapha. Parts of the Pseudepigrapha are found in the Talmud, the Old Testament and the Koran. Catholics may know of these as the biblical Apocrypha. They date to the origins of writing and likely go back in oral tradition much, much longer.

Odes of  Solomon, 3rd Century CE
One example is the recovered Odes of Solomon. Vatican scholars consider these heretical because of their image of the Father having breasts that are milked by the Holy Spirit to bring about the incarnation of Christ, and because they are at odds with the concept of knowledge providing the means of release from an imperfect world. The authors of the Odes clearly were having a good time on Earth. Can we hear a Hallelujah?

In the Forgotten Books, Adam and Eve leave the garden in a hail of sand and stones, which covers the ground in front of them. The sky is completely dark. They make it into a cave, where they stay for a week, and then venture out for water from a spring nearby. Adam notices how searing the heat of the sun has become, and so they retreat again to the cave, remaining for a long time, living off the flesh of animals that stray into the cave, and finally they get out again and gather some food.

One piece of the Pseudepigrapha that did not make it into the New Testament was the Gospel of Judas, dated to the first to third century CE. In it, Judas contradicts the other gospels and says that the true form of the Father is something akin to celestial light, and that Adamas was created in the imperishable form of the Father.

Adamas, according to Judas, enlisted Angels to create the form of his son, Adam, the first man. The mission of the Son of God, Christ, in taking the form of man, was to show that salvation lies in connecting to the God within man. Through embracing his internal God, the man can then return to the imperishable realm.

The Gospel of Judas says that Christ planned the course of events that led to his death and told Judas, “you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”

These days we don't pay much attention to the old tales told by the history-keepers: folk fables, lyric poems, troubadour music, and children's bedtime stories. They are 'old wives' tales;' part superstition, part cultural fossils. And yet, there must be something very deep about these archetypes because we keep reiterating similar motifs in film, television, and works of fiction.

Neurobiologists are starting to say that, while our experiences occur in linear time, our memories are stored in the folds of our brains as a woven matrix, accessible from multiple directions, along different search routes. We don't have to review our entire lives in reverse in order to notice similar patterns between a seashell and a sunflower. We have evolved very elegant internal retrieval mechanisms, much of that fabric spun during dreamtime. By comparison, our cultural memory is nearly as short and foggy as our memories of our dreams.

I started off saying this has become a long-periodicity blog for me. The blog is the way the Internet Age has chosen to shelve and catalog its contemporaneous memories. It is far more decentralized than cunieform, parchment or papyrus catalogued by a caste of curators, testaments translated by monks laboring in candlelight, or multivolume memoirs of former heads of state.

So here we are, modern griots, rhyming the tales of our fathers, and our fathers’ fathers, because somewhere deep inside are precious truths that our children must not forget. And we are storing these precious bytes in moving electrons; in media that read only ones and zeroes!

We prosper between catastrophes, and in those times of peace and plenty we tend to forget the horrors of our past, even, eventually, our collective near-death experiences. In designing our future we need to also consider designing new forms for propagating cultural memory. Fables and rhyme have worked remarkably well in preserving information, but the ambiguity inherent in their formula for longevity has also left them open to wide-ranging interpretation, reducing their fidelity and credibility. The paintings in the Lascaux cave give a real glimpse into a 12,000 year-old worldview, but they are also very vulnerable to the ravages of time. 

Rather than having to repeat unpleasant experiences endlessly, we humans would do well to find ways to boost the transgenerational signal strength and reduce the noise distortion of our most important memories.


Dan Miner said…
Hi Albert. This is a remarkable post. Revision of an old post or note, it's excellent. Its pairing with your Katz-inspired microbiology explorations adds to the dazzle. Glad to hear you had a good time with Nicole. I'm doing well here in NYC - a month into a new job as a minor NYC official, here in the heart of empire. Hope you are well. Thanks for your ongoing work. Good to see you in PA. - Dan

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