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The Mortlock Islands flying fox, a large, breadfruit-eating bat native to a few remote and tiny Pacific islands, has long been regarded as one of […]
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The black barn in George Ault’s painting January Full Moon is a simple structure, bound by simple lines. Yet its angular bones give it a commanding presence. The barn stands at attention, its walls planted in moonlit snow and its peak nosing toward a deep blue sky. It is bold and brawny, and as Yale University art history professor Alexander Nemerov puts it, a barn with a capital “B,” the Barn of all barns.
A little-known American artist, George Ault had the ability in his painting to take specific locations in Woodstock, New York, where he lived from 1937 until his death in 1948, and make them seem universal. Nemerov says that places like Rick’s Barn, which Ault passed on walks with his wife, Louise, and Russell’s Corners, a lonely intersection just outside of town, held some “mystical power” to the artist. He fixated on them—painting Russell’s Corners five times in the 1940s, in different seasons and times of day—as if they contained some universal truth that would be revealed if he and the viewers of his paintings meditated on them long enough.
After fastidiously studying his scenes, Ault would retreat to a tidy studio to paint. As his 1946 self-portrait The Artist at Work shows, he worked with the elbow of his painting arm resting in the cup of his other hand, which balanced on his crossed legs. He was methodical and meticulous, often considered part of the post-World War I Precisionism movement. With his hand steadied, he could be sure that every plane, clapboard and telephone wire was just so. “There’s always this sense of shaping, ordering, structuring as if his life depended on it,” says Nemerov.
When you take into account Ault’s tumultuous life, perhaps it did. After attending the University College School, the Slade School of Fine Art and St. John’s Wood Art School, all in London, in the early 1900s, the Cleveland native returned to the United States where he suffered a string of personal tragedies. In 1915, one of his brothers committed suicide. In 1920, his mother died in a mental hospital. And in 1929, his father died. The stock market crash dealt a hard blow to his family’s fortune, and his two other brothers took their lives soon after. Grieving his losses, the artist left Manhattan with Louise, whom he married in 1941, for Woodstock, where he lived until December 1948, when he too committed suicide, drowning in a stream near his house. As Louise once said, Ault’s art was an attempt to make “order out of chaos.”
Ault did not get much recognition during his lifetime, in part because of his reclusiveness and hostile attitude toward potential buyers. But Louise worked tirelessly to promote her husband’s work after his death. Of Ault’s paintings of Woodstock from the 1940s, she once wrote, “I believed he had gone beyond himself.”
Nemerov, guest curator of the exhibition, “To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through September 5, agrees. He sees Ault as having painted clear and calm scenes in a desperate attempt to control the muddled chaos not only in his personal life but also in the world at large, on the verge of World War II. Written on the gallery wall at the entrance to the exhibition is the statement, “If the world was uncertain, at least the slope of a barn roof was a sure thing.”
Image by The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, John Lambert Fund. Black Night at Russell's Corners, George Ault, 1943. (original image)
Image by Collection of Sam Simon. Image © Christie's Images Limited 2002. Daylight at Russell's Corners, George Ault, 1944. (original image)
Image by Cleveland Museum of Art, Hinman B. Hurlbut Fund. Festus Yayple and His Oxen, George Ault, 1946. (original image)
Image by Manhattan Art Investments, LP. Photo by David Heald. Memories of the Coast of France, George Ault, 1944. (original image)
Image by Rockhill Nelson Trust (by exchange). Photo by Jamison Miller. January Full Moon, George Ault, 1941. (original image)
Image by Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. George Ault. Photo by Geoffrey Clements. The Artist at Work, George Ault, 1946. (original image)
Image by Archives of American Art. Ault did not get much recognition during his lifetime, in part because of his reclusiveness and hostile attitude toward potential buyers. His wife Louise worked tirelessly to promote her husband's work after his death in 1948. (original image)
Image by Bruce Guthrie. Alexander Nemerov, guest curator of the exhibition, "To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America," at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, sees Ault as having painted clear and calm scenes in a desperate attempt to control the muddled chaos not only in his personal life but also in the world at large. (original image)
For the exhibition, the first major retrospective of Ault’s work in more than 20 years, Nemerov, a former pre-doctoral fellow and research assistant at the museum, selected nearly 20 paintings by Ault as well as ones by his contemporaries, including Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth and Charles Sheeler. Together, the paintings offer a much more fragile, brooding view of the 1940s than do other cultural icons of the decade, such as J. Howard Miller’s poster We Can Do It! (better known as Rosie the Riveter), Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photograph V-J Day in Times Square and Bing Crosby’s recording of “Accentuate the Positive.” Ault’s paintings are quiet and subdued—a road rising over a grassy knoll, a white farmhouse in the shadows of looming gray clouds, and a barren view of the Catskills in November. “It’s almost as though his paintings expect nine out of ten people to walk past them,” says Nemerov. “But, of course, they are counting everything on that tenth person to notice them.” For that tenth person, argues Nemerov, Ault’s works carry emotion despite their lack of human figures and storytelling. Nemerov calls the waterfall in Ault’s Brook in the Mountains, for example, “a form of crying without crying,” adding that “emotion—painting from the heart—must for him take a curious and displaced form to be real, to be authentic.”
In her foreword to Nemerov’s exhibition catalog To Make a World: George Ault and 1940s America, Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, emphasizes how art provides a means of understanding what individual people were thinking and feeling in a particular time, in Ault’s case during the 1940s. “Their specific thoughts and emotions died with them,” she says, “but this exhibition and book delve below the surface of forty-seven paintings to understand the deeper currents below, helping us recapture some long-forgotten insight.”
In the exhibition are all five of Ault’s paintings of Russell’s Corners, including Bright Light at Russell’s Corners, the third in the series, which is part of the American Art Museum’s permanent collection. Four of the scenes are set at night, and having them all in the same gallery allows the viewer to see how the black sky in each becomes more dominant as the series progresses. Buildings, trees and telephone poles are illuminated by a single streetlight in the first couple of depictions, whereas in the last, August Night at Russell’s Corners, which Ault painted in his final year of life, the darkness consumes all but two shadowed faces of barns and a small patch of road, as if Ault is losing the tight hold he once had on the world.
“I couldn’t blame people for thinking this is an unduly dark show,” says Nemerov. Perhaps for that reason, the art historian clings to the recurring streetlight in the Russell’s Corners series. “That light represents something that is about delivery, revelation and pleasure,” he says. He suggests that the light could have a religious connotation. Its radiating beams are reminiscent of the light in Sassetta’s 15th- century painting The Journey of the Magi, a reproduction of which Ault kept in his studio. But because the artist was not a religious man, Nemerov considers the light a symbol of the ecstasy and exhilaration of an artistic act, a burst of creativity. After all, out of Ault’s turmoil came one glaringly positive thing: an impressive body of art. Quite fittingly, Louise used a quotation from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to describe her husband. “Unless there be chaos within, no dancing star can be born.”
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It is no secret that the 18th-century British natural history artist Mark Catesby occasionally copied the work of his predecessors. His sketch of a land crab bears a striking resemblance to a watercolor rendered by John White (see "Brave New World" in the December SMITHSONIAN), a British artist who joined Sir Walter Raleigh's voyages to present-day North Carolina in the 1580s. The crustacean's spiny legs are bent at all the same angles as they are in White's version.
In total, Catesby replicated, possibly even traced, about seven of White's published watercolors. The patchwork of amorphous spots on his puffer fish is virtually identical to White's, and he acknowledges White as the source for his stunning illustration of a tiger swallowtail butterfly. The borrowing of images was quite common at the time. Naturalists viewed their collected works as encyclopedias and were willing to include entries originally authored by others for the sake of being comprehensive. In Catesby's case, scholars suspect that he copied others' illustrations in the rare instances when he hadn't observed the creature on his own or hadn't been in the position to sketch it.
"As an empiricist, Catesby believed that drawings by other naturalists offered him direct access to their own first-hand observations of the natural world," explains Amy Meyers, a Catesby scholar and the director of the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.
Copies aside, Catesby was innovative in the way he presented his comprehensive survey of the flora and fauna of America's colonies in his Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. While most of his predecessors' illustrations were of birds mounted on dead stumps or ducks bobbing on a shallow strip of water, Catesby's, mostly drawn from life, were some of the first to depict environmental relationships—a bead snake wrapped around the potato root that it's often dug up with or a blue jay shown with the berries it eats.
When Catesby translated his copied drawing of White's land crab into an etching, he added a small branch bearing a dangling fruit, clasped in the crab's claws. In doing so, Catesby created "a study of organic interaction," writes Meyers. "The naturalist thus transformed a traditional specimen drawing into a composition reflecting his own observations of the way in which two species interrelate in their shared habitat." In some cases, however, which Meyers points out are "the exception rather than the rule," Catesby pictured a plant and animal together purely for aesthetic reasons.
Many natural history artists before him drew from specimens carried back to Europe by sailors and diplomats who could only provide the country or region of their origin. But Catesby's etchings often provided information about what an animal feeds on or what plants and animals are found in the same environs—information he could only have attained by immersing himself in his subjects' habitats. Catesby was 29 when he made his first trip to the American colonies in 1712. He stayed with his sister, who was living in Williamsburg, Virginia. Not much is known about his training as a naturalist or artist. Some suspect that British naturalist John Ray and Ray's colleague, botanist Samuel Dale, who Catesby would have known through family connections, may have mentored him. But he explored the Virginia landscape, unsponsored and largely on his own, collecting leaves and seeds and sketching his findings as he followed rivers from settlements to the wilder woods around their sources. After seven years, he returned to England, where members of the Royal Society of London had begun to take interest in his drawings. One member offered him a salary "to Observe the Rarities of the Country for the uses and purposes of the Society," and in 1722 Catesby traveled to Carolina. In the four years he spent there and in Florida and the Bahamas, he combed the fields, forests, swamps and shores for wildlife. He painted watercolors in the field; recorded details such as an animal's coloring, where it was seen and any additional information natives provided; and shipped specimens back to his Royal Society patrons, who often planted his exotic seeds in their gardens.
Image by Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia / Corbis. Mark Catesby's The Hiccory tree, The Pig-Nut, The red Bird. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian Institute Libraries. Mark Catesby's Blue Jay. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian Institute Libraries. Mark Catesby's The Brown Viper. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian Institute Libraries. Eastern chipmunk and Tamias striatus. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian Institute Libraries. Mark Catesby's The Flamingo. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian Institute Libraries. Image from Mark Catesby's The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama islands: containing the figures of birds, beasts, fishes, serpents, insects, and plants. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian Institute Libraries. Mark Catesby's The Parrot of Carolina. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian Institute Libraries. Mark Catesby's Cornus & c. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian Institute Libraries. Mark Catesby's Bison. (original image)
Image by Smithsonian Institute Libraries. Mark Catesby's blue-tail lizard and plant (original image)
Image by Smithsonian Institute Libraries. Mark Catesby's lizard and plant. (original image)
Soon after returning to London in 1726, Catesby etched his drawings onto copper plates, often combining two different sketches into one to create his engaging and informative compositions. He organized the 220 etchings into two volumes—the first featured birds and plants and the second included fish, insects, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and the plants associated with them—and decided he would release them in 20-plate installments. With subscribers, many from the upper echelon of society, wanting some 180 copies, he had to hand color close to 40,000 prints. The endeavor amounted to nearly 20 years of labor and literally became his life's work. Catesby died, in 1749, just two years after its completion.
I recently visited the Smithsonian Institution's Cullman Library, a temperature- and humidity-controlled room in the bowels of the National Museum of Natural History that contains two of the estimated 80 to 90 remaining original copies of Catesby's Natural History. Leslie Overstreet, the library's curator of natural-history rare books, pulled from the shelves a classic encyclopedia of animals from the 1560s, a book of John White's watercolors, a major anthology of birds by Catesby's contemporaries and, of course, Catesby's Natural History. Thumbing through the books, I could see the progression from isolated specimens on sterile white backdrops to animals artistically framed by their natural settings. I became acutely aware of the vitality in Catesby's etchings—a blue jay's beak open in mid-song, a viper hissing, a playful lizard hanging from a stalk of sweet gum, a kingfisher slurping down a fish—and I was not surprised when Overstreet said, "It was the book for about a hundred years."
After all, Cromwell Mortimer, secretary of the Royal Society and former owner of one of the Smithsonian's copies, hailed it as "the most magnificent work I know since the Art of printing has been discovered." Carolus Linnaeus named Catesby's trillium, Catesby's lily and Catesby's pitcher plant, as well as Rana catesbeiana, the North American bullfrog, in the naturalist's honor. Not to mention, artist John James Audubon's paintings, done more than a century later, were a natural extension of Catesby's illustrations.
Audubon eventually became the more remembered of the two wildlife artists, but in the last decade, there's been something of a Catesby revival. His appeal has broadened among academics, for one. Overstreet says that the researchers who visit the library to see Catesby's Natural History are split almost evenly between those studying it for its scientific value and those studying it for its artistic value. And there has been a push to increase public awareness of the artist. In 1997, 50 of Catesby's original watercolors, previously owned by King George III, toured America for the first time. This past summer, the Smithsonian Institution Libraries hosted "Mark Catesby's America," a symposium featuring experts who approached the artist and his work from the perspectives of science, art and history. The 2007 documentary "The Curious Mister Catesby" was shown at the symposium and now its producers will be encouraging public television networks to air it on Earth Day in April. An exhibition titled "Catesby, Audubon, and the Discovery of a New World" opens December 18 at the Milwaukee Art Museum. And following the example of a few other institutions, Smithsonian Libraries will be creating a digital copy of Natural History for inclusion on an all-Catesby Web site to be launched next year.
Adding an element of poignancy to Catesby's story is the fact that several of the species he depicted (the parrot of Carolina, the largest white-billed woodpecker and the greater prairie chicken) are now extinct and others (the hooping crane, flying squirrel and wood pelican) are endangered.
"We must look closely at how well 18th-century Colonial naturalists in the trans-Atlantic world understood that the project of empire was setting into motion new patterns of organic interaction, since it involved not only the movement of people, but other living organisms from across the globe," says Catesby scholar Meyers. "Catesby understood that radically new organic relationships were being established that would remake this New World in highly significant ways."
Surely there's a lesson to be learned in his passion.
In 1962, Tomas Kjellman's family bought a cottage in southern Sweden, knowing very well that the property was still occupied by another long-term resident. A eel nearly a century old lived in the property's well, The Local reports. Young Tomas and his family took to their slippery new friend, dubbing him Åle ("eel" in Swedish) and often introducing him to family friends that visited.
The Local explains how the eel came to find itself in a well:
In 1859 an 8-year-old Swede by the name of Samuel Nilsson threw the eel into the well. While the act may be reminiscent of children throwing strange objects into toilets in modern times, it was in fact common practice to throw an eel in your well.
Many towns didn't have public water systems until the 1960s, and eels ate the flies and other creepy crawlies, keeping the house's water supply clean.
Normally, the Local continues, eels live to be just seven years old or so. This one, however, refused to kick the bucket. Over the years, its eyes grew abnormally large—perhaps a reaction to the dark environment that it called home—and it started to gain notoriety in Sweden, where it was featured in children's books, a documentary, and several TV shows.
Now, however, Åle has finally succumbed to old age. When Tomas removed the lid from the well this August, the Local says, he found the eel floating belly up and partly decomposed. Its body will be picked up by scientists who hope to study the eel's ear bones to discover its exact age (a common method used for fishes). They also hope to find clues about how the eel managed to achieve such extreme longevity.
The Kjellman residence isn't entirely free of eels, however. Åle had a friend who lived with him in the well, though that eel "is 'only' believed to be 110," the Local reports.
In 1900, Greek divers rifling through an ancient shipwreck recovered dozens of bronze fragments that turned out to be parts of a 2,000-year-old mechanical calendar. Now, more than a century after that discovery, scientists who studied these pieces are hailing the device as remarkably advanced for its time.
Using computer imaging techniques previously unavailable to researchers, a team led by mathematician Tony Freeth of the University of Cardiff reconstructed the Greek instrument, known as the Antikythera Mechanism, from the 82 recovered fragments. The original mechanism involved 37 gear-wheels held together by a complex pin-and-slot system, the researchers report in the Nov. 30 Nature.
One section of the instrument's gear systems predicted lunar and solar eclipses, another synchronized lunar months and solar years. A large gear in the middle indicated the position of the moon.
"The Antikythera Mechanism is the most sophisticated such object yet found from the ancient and medieval periods," writes François Charette of Ludwig-Maximilians University in Germany in a commentary accompanying the paper.
Freeth's team deciphered previously illegible inscriptions on the wooden walls that housed the mechanism. Based on these markings, the calendar likely dates to about 150 B.C., the researchers report.
Physical evidence of an ancient technology is rare, says professor of Greek and Roman studies John Humphrey of the University of Calgary, who recently published a book on the subject. Most early devices are known from writings describing the machines, which may or may not have been built.
"That's what makes the Antikythera Mechanism different," he says.
Humphrey, who was not part of the new research study, highlights some other intriguing early technologies:
The Bottomless Wine Glass
Inventor: Hero of Alexandria
Date: Around 65 A.D.
How it works: The goblet is connected to a reservoir by a tube. As a person drinks wine, the liquid level in the reservoir falls, releasing a plug coming from a hidden reservoir. As the liquid levels replenish—perhaps between gulps—the plug once again stops the hidden reservoir.
Proof of complexity: Several of Humphrey's engineering students have been unable to replicate the device's complex plug.
Quirk: "The trouble is, you have to drink the wine through a straw," Humphrey says.
Automatic Temple Door
Inventor: Hero of Alexandria, again
Date: First century A.D.
How it works: A worshipper lights a fire on an altar. The fire heats the air, which increases its volume. The heavier air causes a container of water to flow into a bucket. As the bucket fills, a series of pulleys and gears lifts the temple door.
Proof of complexity: The applied physical principles of pneumatics.
Quirk: "I doubt it if was ever constructed," Humphrey says.
World's First Vending Machine
Inventor: Hero (busy man)
Date: First century A.D.
How it works: A person puts a coin in a slot at the top of a box. The coin hits a metal lever, like a balance beam. On the other end of the beam is a string tied to a plug that stops a container of liquid. As the beam tilts from the weight of the coin, the string lifts the plug and dispenses the desired drink until the coin drops off the beam.
Proof of complexity: Early modern vending machines actually used a similar system, before electrical machines took over.
Quirk: It was devised to distribute Holy Water at temples, because "people were taking more Holy Water than they were paying for," Humphrey says.
Double-action Piston Pump
Date: Third century B.C.
How it works: Two pistons rest in cylinders attached to a handle. As one piston is raised, the other falls. The rising piston allows water to enter a chamber. The falling piston presses the water out of the other side in a constant stream.
Proof of complexity: Such a device is a predecessor of the modern engine. Quirk: With the addition of a nozzle on one end, the device was subsequently turned into a fire-fighting tool—by none other than Hero.
A self-proclaimed taphophile—someone fascinated by death and cemeteries—Loren Rhoads has documented more than 150 sites for her blog CemeteryTravel.com.
"Visiting cemeteries on vacation helps me understand what the surrounding community values; it makes me feel more connected to people, to the past, and to life itself," says Rhoads, also the author of Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel.
In fact, Rhoads has plenty of company. Search Facebook, and hundreds of cemetery-centric groups or pages pop up. The nonprofit Association for Gravestone Studies has 11 chapters in the U.S., and gravers, who record and photograph headstones, are a growing subculture.
The most haunting cemeteries, however, have an appeal that extends well into the mainstream. (Paris's Père Lachaise cemetery, for instance, attracts more than 1.5 million annually.) They lure visitors with a combination of natural beauty, ornate tombstones and crypts, notable residents, vivid history, and even wildlife.
Naturalist John Muir captured the many splendors of Savannah, Georgia's Bonaventure Cemetery—long before it was featured in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—in his book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. "The rippling of living waters, the song of birds, the joyous confidence of flowers, the calm, undisturbable grandeur of the oaks, mark this place of graves as one of the Lord's most favored abodes of life and light," he writes.
You may be similarly moved by a visit to Mount Koya cemetery in Japan, where 10,000 lanterns illuminate the forest setting, or by witnessing Day of the Dead graveside fiestas in Oaxaca, Mexico. And a coastal walk in Sydney will bring you to Waverley Cemetery, whose cliff-side Victorian and Edwardian monuments face out to the ocean, sparkling in Australia's near-constant sunshine.
Such beautiful burial sites may be the final destination for the deceased, but for those of us still traveling, they can be decidedly uplifting.
The newest landmark in Indonesia is a spectacular disaster. On May 29, 2006, mud and steaming hot water squirted up in a rice field in Sidoarjo, East Java, marking the birth of the world’s most destructive mud volcano. Since then, the volcano, nicknamed Lusi (a contraction of the Indonesian word lumpur, meaning mud, and Sidoarjo), has erupted almost nonstop, engulfing an area more than twice the size of New York City’s Central Park and belching as much as six million cubic feet of muck—enough to fill 800 railroad boxcars—in a single day.
The ongoing disaster has displaced 13,000 families and closed 30 factories and hundreds of small businesses. Dozens of schools and mosques are buried in muck. Rice paddies and sugar cane plantations have been replaced by a brown expanse of cracked mud. A major toll road was inundated, and a gas pipeline exploded after it broke under the weight of Lusi’s outpouring, killing a dozen people.
The land surrounding the volcano’s main vent has started to sink because so much water and mud from beneath the ground have erupted and now weigh it down. New mud bubbles—smaller fissures where mud and gas escape to the surface—continue to pop up across the landscape. The price tag to contain the mess and compensate victims is more than half a billion dollars—and that number is rising.
But now, after more than five years, the mud volcano’s behavior appears to be changing; the nonstop eruptions have given way to more episodic spewing. Geologists are working to determine what that means for the future and how long Lusi will continue to ravage East Java.
“I think it’s good news,” says Richard Davies, a geologist at Durham University in England. “I think the worst is over in terms of the volume of mud coming up.”
Mud volcanoes are common in Indonesia. The humid climate provides an abundance of rain that washes sediments down the country’s numerous volcanic peaks, says Michael Manga, a geologist at the University of California at Berkeley. The wet sediments collect in low-lying areas and are rapidly buried by more and more debris eroding down from the mountains. The overlying sediments compress the lower layers, and pressure builds as the upper layers get thicker and heavier, and the squeezed water has nowhere to go. If a path to the surface opens, the highly pressurized water will shoot up like water from a fire hydrant and bring subsurface sediments with it.
Lusi is an unusual mud volcano for several reasons, including its long eruption period—most mud volcanoes erupt for only a few days at a time. It’s also unique because it’s the first mud volcano that scientists have observed from day one. Oil and natural gas exploration is common in East Java, and researchers have used subsurface data collected from a nearby exploration well to learn more about Lusi’s origins and behavior. It’s “the first time ever you know exactly what the subsurface was like prior to an eruption,” says Manga. “That’s kind of cool.”
But that same well may be to blame for the disaster. The day before the eruption began, the Indonesian company PT Lapindo Brantas removed a drill from the exploration well and experienced a “kick,” or influx of water into the well’s borehole, which cracked the surrounding rock. The next day, just 650 feet away, Lusi erupted.
Image by Stringer / Indonesia / Reuters / Corbis. The disaster in Indonesia has displaced 13,000 families and closed 30 factories and hundreds of small businesses. (original image)
Image by Stringer / Indonesia / Reuters / Corbis. On May 29, 2006, mud and steaming hot water squirted up in a rice field in Sidoarjo, East Java, marking the birth of the world's most destructive mud volcano. (original image)
Image by Reuters / Sigit Pamungkas. Since 2006, the volcano has erupted to almost nonstop, engulfing an area more than twice the size of New York City's Central Park and belching as much as six million cubic feet of muck in a single day. (original image)
Image by Reuters / Sigit Pamungkas. The land surrounding the volcano's main vent has started to sink because so much water and mud from beneath the ground have erupted and now weigh it down. (original image)
Image by Reuters / Sigit Pamungkas. Mud bubbles—small fissures where mud and gas escape to the surface—continue to pop up across the landscape. The price tag to contain the mess and compensate victims is more than half a billion dollars—and that number is rising. (original image)
Many geologists, including Manga and Davies, say drilling unleashed Lusi. Others, including geologist Adriano Mazzini of the University of Oslo, think a magnitude-6.3 earthquake centered 155 miles southwest of Sidoarjo that struck two days before Lusi began reactivated a fault, allowing water and mud to spurt to the surface. In 2008, the issue was put to a vote at an international conference of petroleum geologists; 55 out of 74 attendees agreed drilling played some role in the birth of the mud volcano. Lapindo has paid hundreds of millions of dollars to the displaced and to mitigate further damage, according to the non-governmental organization Humanitus, despite its claim of no wrongdoing.
Geologists are now moving on from the debate over what caused the disaster. “The most important question isn’t who’s responsible but when is the eruption going to end,” Manga says. “It’s a billion-dollar question.”
This year, two research teams considered the question—and came to different conclusions. Manga and his colleagues reported in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters that there is a 50 percent chance Lusi will last more than 41 years and a 33 percent chance it will last more than 84 years. A team led by Davies had a slightly more optimistic outlook: It suggested in the Journal of the Geological Society of London that the mud volcano’s most likely total life span is 26 years.
In either case, more territory will be swallowed by mud. Further geological analyses might help Indonesian officials better manage the disaster and explain how the recent slowdown in Lusi’s eruptions fits in with the predictions.
The different results emerge from the way the teams modeled Lusi’s plumbing and driving forces. Davies’ team says the water propelling the eruption comes from a 15-million-year-old layer of rock that sits at least 2,000 feet beneath the erupting mud. Twenty-six years, Davies says, is an estimate of how long it will take for the water pressure to return to normal.
Manga’s team says water within the mud layer itself is fueling the eruption. “If we’re right, it’s not typical of most mud volcanoes,” Manga says. Lusi is acting like a can of fizzy soda, he says, with bubbles of carbon dioxide and methane helping bring mud to the surface.
The mud volcano’s recent changes in activity may signal that the mechanism driving the eruption has changed, Davies says, but it’s not yet clear what they mean for the long-term outlook.
This year, scientists who study the eruption met in Indonesia for a conference and to observe the volcano. Instead of belching continuously, Lusi seemed to be “pulsing” every few minutes, Davies says. “It’s a bit like Old Faithful.” It’s also spewing less mud, adds Max Rudolph, a graduate student at UC-Berkeley. At a rate of about 530,000 cubic feet per day, he says, “the current eruption rate is [down by] a factor of 10 or more from its peak in 2006.”
Does this mean Lusi is quieting down for good, or just taking a break before ramping up again? Nobody knows for sure. It “made me realize we need to constantly re-evaluate the longevity estimates,” Davies says.
Getting a good estimate of Lusi’s life span is one reason why Humanitus, an education and community development organization based in Australia, organized the conference. After watching a documentary about the mud volcano, Humanitus Executive Director Jeffrey Richards says, he realized that “no one seemed to be looking at the future.” The controversy over the eruption’s cause was overshadowing the disaster, he says. “It has made it difficult for the government to get any sort of international assistance, which is normally the case for any disaster on that scale.”
Ironically, Lusi may offer ways to fix the area’s damaged economy. Businesses could use the heap of mud to make bricks and other construction materials, Richards says, and the mud volcano could even become a tourist destination. After years of coping with the hardships created by the disaster, the people of Sidoarjo “need some good positives to start coming out of this,” Richards says. As he and other scientists at the conference suggest, “It’s time to look at Lusi as a positive for this region.”