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Sweeping desert vistas and vibrant cattle skulls, yonic flower petals and lush, leafy branches—Georgia O’Keeffe’s distinctive visual lexicon and abstractions of the natural world made her one of the 20th century’s most influential artists. Some of her most stunning and recognizable work was created after she settled in New Mexico and channeled the Southwest’s colors and landscapes into her work. But after the paint had dried, O’Keeffe noticed something odd about some of her masterworks created in the 1940s and '50s: The surfaces of the paintings were marred by tiny bumps.
At first, O’Keeffe assumed these little bumps might be grains of sand—some leftover residue from her desert muse. But as time went on, more and more bumps began to appear, and paint started to flake off. O'Keeffe notified a conservator friend, Caroline Keck, and art conservationists began to worry that something more destructive might be boiling beneath the surface. Why was O’Keeffe’s work breaking out in pimples?
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Head of Conservation Dale Kronkright examined and sampled the bumps—roughly 200 microns across—and identified them as metal carboxylate soaps. These compounds form when fatty acids from the binding agents in the paint react with the lead and zinc in the pigment.This is an up-close look at a detailed section of 'Pedernal' shows micron-sized protrusions from metal soaps. Georgia O'Keeffe. Pedernal, 1941. Oil on canvas, 19 x 30 1/4 inches. (Dale Kronkright / Georgia O'Keeffe Museum)
Turns out, this “art acne” is part of a wider problem in art conservation. The work of many artists shows signs of breakouts, from Vincent van Gogh to Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall. “These are happening on works of art throughout the generations—since oil paint was created,” says Amber Kerr, Chief of Conservation at the Lunder Conservation Center at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Environmental factors like temperature and relative humidity contribute to their formation, but mostly, Kerr says, “it’s a phenomenon that happens because of the medium … it’s sort of an inherent aging process.”
Metal soaps were first spotted on Rembrandt paintings in 1996. Since then, researchers have estimated that as many as 70 percent of all paintings in museum collections around the world are affected by this kind of damage. In the same way sweat and sunscreen can combine to cause a breakout, this chemical reaction results in tiny bumps that lift up the surface of a painting.
“These surface protrusions can erupt. They can spall off the paint. They can cause deterioration of the painted material,” says Marc Walton, a research professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University. Conservators are racing to figure out how the soaps form and spread, and until now, they’ve relied on bulky, expensive and time-consuming equipment.
But Walton’s team might have found a silver bullet—and you might have one in your pocket right now.
At a press briefing at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s 2019 meeting, the researchers gave the first demonstration of an app that can run on a regular tablet or smartphone using the light source of the device—the LED flash or the LCD screen itself—reflected off the surface of the painting to measure the protrusions. The image data is processed to remove color and extract three-dimensional surface information to spot any deviations, creating a kind of topographic map of the paintings.
“Color camouflages the underlying shape,” Walton says, so “just by doing that one act we can start to get a better sense of where the problems are and how they’re changing over time.”Northwestern University professor Oliver Cossairt gathers the surface metrology of Georgia O'Keeffe's 'Ritz Tower' painting with his hand-held device. (Northwestern University)
With this new tool, a process that took days to complete can now be done in a matter of minutes. To study metal soaps in art, the Lunder Conservation Center uses a Hirox 3D microscope that can take nanometer-scale measurements. But smaller museums like the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum don’t have access to such expensive equipment—and many institutions might not even have a conservator on staff at all. The new app technology could be most helpful in these situations, Kerr says. The easier, more accessible and less expensive the measuring process, the more data researchers will have to work with to figure out the best ways to prevent deterioration.
The app is in its beta version now, being tested on other collections, and the researchers plan to release it for free to the public in a year. Their goal is to put this technology into the pockets of art conservators around the world. Fellow Northwestern researcher Oliver Cossairt compares the paint-scanning technology to the Star Trek tricorder, a hand-held device used for everything from diagnosing crewmember health to detecting the geochemistry of a new planet. “That’s the tool we’re trying to make,” Cossairt says. “The Swiss Army Knife of measurement tools.”
Ultimately, better measurements mean a better baseline for conservators to design proper care and environmental conditions, from storage to travel containers, that will help artwork beat the breakouts. According to Kronkright, the new technology isn’t a replacement for high-powered equipment like the Hirox microscope, but rather a way to help conservators manage their time. In the same way a general practitioner might spot a mole and send a patient to a specialist, this easy tool can help conservators know when to look closer.
“We’re art doctors, if you will—or in this case, art dermatologists,” Kerr says. “We see what’s going on, and it’s cuing us that we need to look at the surface a little deeper to understand how these materials are changing, what’s causing them to change, and what we need to do to mitigate that change.”
Studying artwork this closely can solve chemical mysteries, but it also emphasizes human connections. “You start to see the artist more intimately,” Walton says. “You get into the act of creation, why she made certain decisions—and how that work of art came to be.”
Sometimes, looking closely can help us see the big picture.
The front desk at Yosemite National Park’s Wawona Hotel – the largest Victorian hotel in a national park – is flanked with white columns, making it look a bit like the veranda of a Southern mansion. But the woman working the daybreak shift at the desk in late April had anything but sunny climes on her mind. She frowned as she wrote the daily weather report on a board that visitors would consult throughout the day as they made their plans.
“Forty percent chance of snow,” she muttered.
Two workmen who had come inside to get coffee groaned loudly.
“Forty percent chance of snow over 8,000 feet,” she continued.
“Let’s just hope it stays up there,” one of the men said.
I was sipping an early cup of coffee on one of the Wawona lobby’s wicker chairs, savoring the early-morning quiet. My sister and I had had a fancy cocktail there the night before, enjoying the pianist singing Depression-era songs our mother once taught us and cocking our heads at the swirl of accents and languages from other travelers. But this morning, the piano was closed and draped with a cloth, the twin stone fireplaces were cold, and I was starting to worry that the weather report might thwart our Yosemite agenda.
I finally approached the woman at the front desk. “Do you think we’ll be able to see any frazil ice today?”
She quickly checked her list of temperatures and prognostications and shook her head. “It has to dip down to around 28 degrees at night for frazil ice to form.”
But my sister had assured me that it had been a cold spring, and I hoped—even if new frazil ice wasn’t forming this morning – that some might remain from previous cold days. That’s why we had come – that, and the fact that I was sure I was the only native Californian who hadn’t visited the glacier-carved wonder of Yosemite. Brass room key in hand, I went back to our cottage, woke my sister, and we began the drive through Yosemite Valley to Yosemite Falls.
Frazil ice is a phenomenon limited to spring, when the snow in Yosemite’s upper elevations melts and swells the volume of the park’s many waterfalls. The creeks below begin to surge with new vigor, but the air is still so cold that mist from the waterfalls freezes into crystals, which fall into the streams. They don’t melt and can’t solidify into solid sheets of ice in the fast-moving water, so they remain suspended in the water, forming a slurry. When this happens, the creeks behave like white, frothy lava flows, as clumps of frazil ice create temporary dams, forcing the creeks off course and even, sometimes, to run backward for a while.
Signs of spring abounded as we crossed the valley floor. The branches of the deciduous trees were still stark and nearly naked against the sky, but closer inspection showed tiny chartreuse leaves ready to unfurl along the branches. The meadows were covered in feathery green. Some snow still lay along the road among the shadowed evergreens, like a thick layer cakes documenting the winter’s storms, as well as on the mountain tops. Waterfalls burst from the peaks in great white plumes. Only a few other cars were on a road that would be clotted with traffic in summer.
Image by Donald Smith / Alamy. Spring is the best time to see a rare phenomena called "moonbows" or "lunar bows." (original image)
Image by Oleksandr Buzko / Alamy. Springtime visitors to Yosemite National Park are treated to sweeping views of lush landscapes. (original image)
By the time we reached the park service office, the clouds were spitting rain. We met up with naturalist Bob Roney, who had agreed to help us find some frazil ice. He set off at a brisk pace toward Yosemite Falls despite the rain. We passed a grizzled old apple orchard where the bears tore down the branches last fall, trying to get the apples. We passed the spot where 19th century naturalist John Muir lived and worked at a sawmill. We passed a tiny pine tree jutting from a crack in a huge boulder.
“That was there the first summer I started working here,” Roney said. “It hasn’t gotten any bigger.
Roney has been a park ranger at Yosemite since 1968, and he told us he’d seen his share of frazil ice. Soon he stopped at a footbridge over Yosemite Creek. “Imagine a daiquiri 12 feet high,” he said. “The first time I saw the frazil ice, it got so high it lifted this bridge off its moorings. It can be dangerous, because people think it’s snow and step into it and drop right into the creek.”
“Think there’s any left?” I asked.
“That might be some over there,” he said, pointing to a fat white line against a fallen log in the creek. “Or it might be foam. I think it’s foam.”
But even though we couldn’t satisfy our curiosity about the frazil ice on this trip, even though my sister and I were soaked, the walk was splendid. Yosemite Falls – divided into the Upper and Lower falls and together, the highest waterfall in North America – was thundering powerfully just ahead. As we got closer, we had to shout to be heard – with all the spring melt overhead, the water made so much noise crashing down the mountain that it was as if a jet were flying in tight circles just over our heads.
“By August, there will just be a trickle,” Roney said. “Right now, you could fill up a swimming pool four times in a minute with the water that’s coming down.”
We peered into the mist to see if there was a rainbow, but the clouds were too thick to let the sun through. Regardless, Roney told us that spring was not only the best time to see rainbows but also to see a rare phenomena called “moonbows” or “lunar bows.” Spring not only produces sufficient spray, but the full moon in April, May and June is at the perfect angle to Yosemite Falls to create these apparitions. “You get an opalescent arc in the spray,” Roney said. “Beautiful but more delicately colored than a daytime rainbow because our eyes don’t pick up the intensity of the color in dim light.”
Then he bent his head so that the pools of water rolled off his plastic-covered ranger hat.
It seemed our luck was bad for seeing the special sights of springtime Yosemite, aside from the emerging green and the booming waterfalls. Then we went on a bus tour through the Yosemite valley. We arrived at an elevated viewing area and, as if decreed by a higher power, the clouds parted, displaying many of Yosemite’s iconic landmarks in a single view: El Capitan on the left, Yosemite Falls towards the center, Half Dome in the distance and Bridalveil Falls to the right.
The bus driver, a climber who’s been working at Yosemite for 14 years, pointed. “Look at the bottom of Bridalveil Falls,” he said. “When the sun hits it, you’ll see a rainbow in the mist.”
And sure enough, the sun lit up the valley and shone on the falls. Suddenly, there were colors in the mist. Not a rainbow, exactly, but a roiling turbulence of greens and reds and yellows, like colorful ruffles at the hem of a long white dress. We gasped along with everyone else on the bus, our thirst for spring spectacle quenched.
Since 1962, a crew in Chicago takes to the river once a year, dumping in 40 pounds of an orange powder that, when it hits the water, turns bright green. It’s a St. Patrick’s Day tradition anyone can enjoy—especially when followed by a parade and a green beer. The dye itself is an environmentally friendly chemical compound—although if you ask some of the more sarcastic locals, it isn’t needed because the river is always a peculiar, if less flourescent, shade of green.
But by turning their river green, Chicagoans are simply mimicking a phenomenon that happens naturally in the wild: bodies of water that are green all year long. These natural wonders run from neon to bright jade to a deep emerald—and they gain their St. Paddy's-worthy hues in different ways.
Rick Stumpf, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says that green shades aren’t from just one source. Rather, green water comes from a mix of chemical, biological and optical sources.
“You could potentially find chemical ones where there’s volcanic activity, because weird stuff in the water tends to happen most there,” he tells Smithsonian.com. “On the biological side, the extreme case would be cyanobacteria blooms, which are really thick and bright green. It’s obvious pond scum. But you can also get other algae in nutrient-dense water, like chlorophytes that can grow in the ocean. You put a little bit of that in a place and the water will have a greenish tint to it.”
Wai-O-Tapu in New Zealand shows color from volcanic activity—this green is milky and yellowish, caused by not-quite-dissolved particles of sulfur floating in the water. On the other hand, Stumpf explained, Valle Verzasca in Switzerland shines clear jade green because chlorophytes and benthic algae underneath the water reflect green light. The color on the surface also reflects the surrounding steep tree-filled slopes.
One of Stumpf’s favorite places to spot green water is in Florida Bay near the Keys. The water in many places in the Bay looks like “skim milk,” he says, due to a high occurrence of carbonate mud. But on a windy day, sunlight shines into the water and bounces back a green hue from sea grass a few feet down on the bottom.
“It looks like you have a vanilla milkshake that you put green food coloring in,” he says. “You’re not actually seeing the grass, but rather a greenish tint where the grass is.”
Instead of crowding onto a bridge to watch a river change color artificially, why not head out to one of these nine naturally green locales?
Wai-O-Tapu, New ZealandWai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, Waiotapu, North Island, New Zealand (Michael Runkel/robertharding/Corbis)
Wai-O-Tapu is more than just this one pool—it’s an entire watery wonderland filled with some of New Zealand's most colorful spots. Everything in the active geothermal area was caused in some way by volcanic activity. The green geothermal landscape is extensive and marked trails lead visitors on hikes around its natural hot springs and mud pools.
Lake Carezza, ItalyGreen waters of Lake Carezza, Italy. (Roberto Moiola/robertharding/Corbis)
In Italy’s Dolomites mountain range, the colors in Lake Carezza, nicknamed the “rainbow lake,” shift from blue to green to purplish, reflecting the sky, forest and towering mountain range. The lake is fed by a nearby subterranean spring, and local Ladin folklore says the hues are the work of a rainbow made by a sorcerer marauding as a jewelry salesman to trap a beautiful water nymph. When the nymph discovered the trap and disappeared (the sorcerer forgot to put on his disguise), the lovesick sorcerer smashed the rainbow into colorful pieces that fell into the water.
Cathedral Beach, Galicia, SpainGrowing tide at Cathedral Beach in Galicia, Spain. (Lou Avers/dpa/Corbis)
Arched and vertical rock formations and glassy green water make this one of Spain's most beautiful beaches. But its appeal is about the chase, too: Cathedral Beach is only accessible in its entirety at low tide, when its caves can be explored by walking over sand bridges.
Valle Verzasca, SwitzerlandEmerald green water in Valle Verzasca, Switzerland. (Heinz Hudelist/imageBROKER/Corbis)
This valley in southern Switzerland is the perfect example of a color effect that's both biological and optical. Trees above the water reflect brilliant green, and so do organisms under the surface. The result is an otherworldly shade of emerald. The water's color isn't the only thing that attracts visitors: Adventurous travelers can try the 007 Jump, a 220-meter-high bungee jump popularized by James Bond.
Ambergris Caye, BelizeAmbergris Caye, Belize (Christian Heeb/JAI/Corbis)
Ever since Madonna "dreamt of San Pedro," Ambergris Caye has been nicknamed "La Isla Bonita." It lives up to the Material Girl's tribute with a tropical paradise vibe and is one of the main stops on any tourist’s trip to Belize. Shallow waters at the shore combined with bright Caribbean sunlight give off that iconic sea-green hue. Nearby, visitors snorkel, dive and swim or visit the Belize Barrier Reef, a Unesco World Heritage Site that's the world's second-longest reef system and the northern hemisphere's longest.
Blue Spring State Park, Orange City, FloridaManatees find refuge in the warm green waters of Blue Spring located at Blue Spring State Park, Orange City, Florida. (Red Huber/ZUMA Press/Corbis)
The green waters at this park are manatee heaven—not only is Blue Spring a designated manatee refuge, but several hundred call the park their winter home between November and March. Every year, manatees head for its waters when the St. Johns River gets too cold. Though it’s against the rules to swim or dive with the manatees, they can be observed from one of the overlooks or a live webcam.
Quilotoa, EcuadorView of a lagoon with green water; Quilotoa, Cotopaxi, Ecuador (Rick Senley/Design Pics/Corbis)
About 800 years ago, a massive eruption created this lagoon when a volcano above collapsed. Geologists estimate that it's at least 820 feet deep—although locals say it’s bottomless. Quilotoa's water is mineral-rich and changes color based on the season, ranging from green to an almost yellow hue. But there's danger lurking in the vivid water: Volcanologists monitor it periodically for limnic eruptions, rare disasters in which large amounts of CO2 are belched into the atmosphere by crater lakes.
Barkley Sound, British ColumbiaScuba Divers swim among Puget Sound Rockfish with a cloud of pacific herring schooling in the background in the emerald green waters of Barkley Sound, British Columbia. (Eiko Jones/Corbis)
Tourists flock to Barkley Sound for a bevy of outdoor activities, including fishing, diving, kayaking and hiking. It’s a major path for migrating salmon in the summer. Green kelp forests and nutrient-rich water draw a wide variety of other marine life, too; visitors can spot whales, octopus, sea otters and seals on the sound.
Abyss Pool, WyomingAbyss Pool at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming (Stefan Auth/imageBROKER/Corbis)
Heading into the abyss has never been so beautiful: This pool in Yellowstone’s West Thumb Geyser Basin is one of the national park's deepest. Right now, the temperature sits at 172 degrees, but it’s thought that it was once even hotter. People throwing in coins and other debris may have caused the source vent to plug, lowering the overall heat index. The distinct color is caused by a mixture of water depth and algae.
In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson considers the Western sagebrush. “For here the natural landscape is eloquent of the interplay of forces that have created it,” she writes. “It is spread before us like the pages of an open book in which we can read why the land is what it is, and why we should preserve its integrity. But the pages lie unread.” She is lamenting the disappearance of a threatened landscape, but she may just as well be talking about markers of paleoclimate.
To know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been. That’s particularly true for climate scientists, who need to understand the full range of the planet’s shifts in order to chart the course of our future. But without a time machine, how do they get this kind of data?
Like Carson, they have to read the pages of the Earth. Fortunately, the Earth has kept diaries. Anything that puts down yearly layers—ocean corals, cave stalagmites, long-lived trees, tiny shelled sea creatures—faithfully records the conditions of the past. To go further, scientists dredge sediment cores and ice cores from the bottom of the ocean and the icy poles, which write their own memoirs in bursts of ash and dust and bubbles of long-trapped gas.
In a sense, then, we do have time machines: Each of these proxies tells a slightly different story, which scientists can weave together to form a more complete understanding of Earth’s past.
In March, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History held a three-day Earth’s Temperature History Symposium that brought teachers, journalists, researchers and the public together to enhance their understanding of paleoclimate. During an evening lecture, Gavin Schmidt, climate modeler and director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and Richard Alley, a world-famous geologist at Pennsylvania State University, explained how scientists use Earth’s past climates to improve the climate models we use to predict our future.
Here is your guide to Earth’s climate pasts—not just what we know, but how we know it.
How do we look into Earth’s past climate?
It takes a little creativity to reconstruct Earth’s past incarnations. Fortunately, scientists know the main natural factors that shape climate. They include volcanic eruptions whose ash blocks the sun, changes in Earth’s orbit that shift sunlight to different latitudes, circulation of oceans and sea ice, the layout of the continents, the size of the ozone hole, blasts of cosmic rays, and deforestation. Of these, the most important are greenhouse gases that trap the sun’s heat, particularly carbon dioxide and methane.
As Carson noted, Earth records these changes in its landscapes: in geologic layers, fossil trees, fossil shells, even crystallized rat pee—basically anything really old that gets preserved. Scientists can open up these diary pages and ask them what was going on at that time. Tree rings are particularly diligent record-keepers, recording rainfall in their annual rings; ice cores can keep exquisitely detailed accounts of seasonal conditions going back nearly a million years.Ice cores reveal annual layers of snowfall, volcanic ash and even remnants of long-dead civilizations. (NASA's Goddard / Ludovic Brucker)
What else can an ice core tell us?
“Wow, there’s so much,” says Alley, who spent five field seasons coring ice from the Greenland ice sheet. Consider what an ice core actually is: a cross-section of layers of snowfall going back millennia.
When snow blankets the ground, it contains small air spaces filled with atmospheric gases. At the poles, older layers become buried and compressed into ice, turning these spaces into bubbles of past air, as researchers Caitlin Keating-Bitonti and Lucy Chang write in Smithsonian.com. Scientists use the chemical composition of the ice itself (the ratio of the heavy and light isotopes of oxygen in H2O) to estimate temperature. In Greenland and Antarctica, scientists like Alley extract inconceivably long ice cores—some more than two miles long!
Ice cores tell us how much snow fell during a particular year. But they also reveal dust, sea salt, ash from faraway volcanic explosions, even the pollution left by Roman plumbing. “If it’s in the air it’s in the ice,” says Alley. In the best cases, we can date ice cores to their exact season and year, counting up their annual layers like tree rings. And ice cores preserve these exquisite details going back hundreds of thousands of years, making them what Alley calls “the gold standard” of paleoclimate proxies.
Wait, but isn’t Earth’s history much longer than that?
Yes, that’s right. Paleoclimate scientists need to go back millions of years—and for that we need things even older than ice cores. Fortunately, life has a long record. The fossil record of complex life reaches back to somewhere around 600 million years. That means we have definite proxies for changes in climate going back approximately that far. One of the most important is the teeth of conodonts—extinct, eel-like creatures—which go back 520 million years.
But some of the most common climate proxies at this timescale are even more miniscule. Foraminifera (known as “forams”) and diatoms are unicellular beings that tend to live on the ocean seafloor, and are often no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence. Because they are scattered all across the Earth and have been around since the Jurassic, they’ve left a robust fossil record for scientists to probe past temperatures. Using oxygen isotopes in their shells, we can reconstruct ocean temperatures going back more than 100 million years ago.
“In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is a story of the earth,” Carson once wrote. Those stories, it turns out, are also hiding in the waters that created those beaches, and in creatures smaller than a grain of sand.Foraminifera. (Ernst Haeckel)
How much certainty do we have for deep past?
For paleoclimate scientists, life is crucial: if you have indicators of life on Earth, you can interpret temperature based on the distribution of organisms.
But when we’ve gone back so far that there are no longer even any conodont teeth, we’ve lost our main indicator. Past that we have to rely on the distribution of sediments, and markers of past glaciers, which we can extrapolate out to roughly indicate climate patterns. So the further back we go, the fewer proxies we have, and the less granular our understanding becomes. “It just gets foggier and foggier,” says Brian Huber, a Smithsonian paleobiologist who helped organize the symposium along with fellow paleobiologist research scientist and curator Scott Wing.
How does paleoclimate show us the importance of greenhouse gases?
Greenhouse gases, as their name suggests, work by trapping heat. Essentially, they end up forming an insulating blanket for the Earth. (You can get more into the basic chemistry here.) If you look at a graph of past Ice Ages, you can see that CO2 levels and Ice Ages (or global temperature) align. More CO2 equals warmer temperatures and less ice, and vice versa. “And we do know the direction of causation here,” Alley notes. “It is primarily from CO2 to (less) ice. Not the other way around.”
We can also look back at specific snapshots in time to see how Earth responds to past CO2 spikes. For instance, in a period of extreme warming during Earth’s Cenozoic era about 55.9 million years ago, enough carbon was released to about double the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. The consequentially hot conditions wreaked havoc, causing massive migrations and extinctions; pretty much everything that lived either moved or went extinct. Plants wilted. Oceans acidified and heated up to the temperature of bathtubs.
Unfortunately, this might be a harbinger for where we’re going. “This is what’s scary to climate modelers,” says Huber. “At the rate we’re going, we’re kind of winding back time to these periods of extreme warmth.” That’s why understanding carbon dioxide’s role in past climate change helps us forecast future climate change.
That sounds pretty bad.
I’m really impressed by how much paleoclimate data we have. But how does a climate model work?
Great question! In science, you can’t make a model unless you understand the basic principles underlying the system. So the mere fact that we’re able to make good models means that we understand how this all works. A model is essentially a simplified version of reality, based on what we know about the laws of physics and chemistry. Engineers use mathematical models to build structures that millions of people rely on, from airplanes to bridges.
Our models are based on a framework of data, much of which comes from the paleoclimate proxies scientists have collected from every corner of the world. That’s why it’s so important for data and models to be in conversation with each other. Scientists test their predictions on data from the distant past, and try to fix any discrepancies that arise. “We can go back in time and evaluate and validate the results of these models to make better predictions for what’s going to happen in the future,” says Schmidt.
Here's a model:
It's pretty. I hear the models aren’t very accurate, though.
By their very nature, models are always wrong. Think of them as an approximation, our best guess.
But ask yourself: do these guesses give us more information than we had previously? Do they provide useful predictions we wouldn’t otherwise have? Do they allow us to ask new, better questions? “As we put all of these bits together we end up with something that looks very much like the planet,” says Schmidt. “We know it’s incomplete. We know there are things that we haven’t included, we know that we’ve put in things that are a little bit wrong. But the basic patterns we see in these models are recognizable … as the patterns that we see in satellites all the time.”
So we should trust them to predict the future?
The models faithfully reproduce the patters we see in Earth’s past, present—and in some cases, future. We are now at the point where we can compare early climate models—those of the late 1980s and 1990s that Schmidt’s team at NASA worked on—to reality. “When I was a student, the early models told us how it would warm,” says Alley. “That is happening. The models are successfully predictive as well as explanatory: they work.” Depending on where you stand, that might make you say “Oh goody! We were right!” or “Oh no! We were right.”
To check models’ accuracy, researchers go right back to the paleoclimate data that Alley and others have collected. They run models into the distant past, and compare them to the data that they actually have.
“If we can reproduce ancient past climates where we know what happened, that tells us that those models are a really good tool for us to know what’s going to happen in the future,” says Linda Ivany, a paleoclimate scientist at Syracuse University. Ivany’s research proxies are ancient clams, whose shells record not only yearly conditions but individual winters and summers going back 300 million years—making them a valuable way to check models. “The better the models get at recovering the past,” she says, “the better they’re going to be at predicting the future.”
Paleoclimate shows us that Earth’s climate has changed dramatically. Doesn’t that mean that, in a relative sense, today’s changes aren’t a big deal?
When Richard Alley tries to explain the gravity of manmade climate change, he often invokes a particular annual phenomenon: the wildfires that blaze in the hills of Los Angeles every year. These fires are predictable, cyclical, natural. But it’d be crazy to say that, since fires are the norm, it’s fine to let arsonists set fires too. Similarly, the fact that climate has changed over millions of years doesn’t mean that manmade greenhouse gases aren’t a serious global threat.
"Our civilization is predicated on stable climate and sea level," says Wing, "and everything we know from the past says that when you put a lot of carbon in the atmosphere, climate and sea level change radically."
Since the Industrial Revolution, human activities have helped warm the globe 2 degrees F, one-quarter of what Schmidt deems an “Ice Age Unit”—the temperature change that the Earth goes through between an Ice Age and a non-Ice Age. Today’s models predict another 2 to 6 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100—at least 20 times faster than past bouts of warming over the past 2 million years.
Of course there are uncertainties: “We could have a debate about whether we’re being a little too optimistic or not,” says Alley. “But not much debate about whether we’re being too scary or not.” Considering how right we were before, we should ignore history at our own peril.
When a magnitude 5.5 earthquake roiled El Reno, Oklahoma on April 9, 1952, workers paused in shock to see their cash registers jittering, desks quivering and typewriters swaying. Then they evacuated in a state of panic. Though only one person was injured in the temblor, the event was rare and troubling.
But when an earthquake that clocked in at magnitude 5.8 roiled Oklahoma on Sept. 3, sending tremors to neighboring states and cracking old buildings near its epicenter, it came as no surprise. These days, earthquakes are a routine part of life in the seismically active state. Since 2009, it’s become an unlikely earthquake hotspot, experiencing more magnitude 3.0 and higher quakes than California in both 2014 and 2015. But why?
Jeremy Boak, who directs the Oklahoma Geological Survey, thinks he has the answer—oil and gas extraction in the state. The phenomenon is called “induced seismicity,” and it’s become a buzzword in a state that depends on oil and gas for much of its revenue (approximately one in four Oklahomans works in oil and gas.) But oil extraction in the state leads to something else: wastewater that is disposed of deep in the ground and may be the source of the recent quake swarm.
Oklahoma has always been seismically active. The OGS has recorded quakes since 1882, but they definitely weren't the region's first. Boak explains that a paleoearthquake of at least a magnitude 7 is thought to have occurred about 1,300 years ago—one of many in the region, which lies in the New Madrid Fault Zone. It's the eastern United States' most active seismic area, but unlike faults like, say, the San Andreas Fault, the faults are tucked beneath hundreds of feet of soft layers of river soils. Bigger quakes can shake the New Madrid, as in 1811 when a Missouri quake set off mass chaos in the area. But the 1952 quake was one of just a few larger temblors. In fact, by 1962, only 59 Oklahoma earthquakes total had ever been recorded.
Now, however, the story is different. As Oklahoman oil production has risen, so have the number of earthquakes. Around 2009, Boak tells Smithsonian.com, “most faults in the central part of the U.S. were very close to critical stress. They were kind of ready to go.”
Though the word “fracking” might cross your mind when you hear about human-induced quakes, the practice doesn’t seem to be linked to the majority of the manmade quakes in Oklahoma. Hydraulic fracturing pumps a controversial cocktail of water and chemicals into geologic formations to crack the shale rock deep inside the earth, yielding more oil and gas. But the Oklahoma Geological Survey ties most of the manmade quakes in the state to wastewater disposal wells. Those wells, filled with pressurized byproducts of oil extraction, can set off an earthquake.
Humans have been accidentally triggering quakes for decades. As the U.S. Department of Energy explains, oil production in California in the 1930s induced a series of earthquakes due to a kind of geologic collapse triggered by removing too much oil without balancing the pressure out with water. Modern water injection has a different purpose—to get rid of the millions of gallons of saltwater that gush up to the surface along with oil and gas. The water is not only useless because of its high salt content, it’s also expensive to get rid of. So oil producers simply inject it back into the earth again.
That might not be an issue with small-scale oil production, but we’re talking a lot of water. “Ten, 20, I’ve even heard 50 barrels of water per barrel of oil,” says Boak. And then there’s Oklahoma’s unique geologic landscape. “In certain formations you can put it back down underground and use it to drive more oil into your producing wells, but [Oklahoma’s] wells are already wet,” Boak explains.
So the water is injected into a deep zone known as the Arbuckle formation, which has become a kind of underground disposal area for the oil and gas industry. This layer of rock—Oklahoma’s deepest sedimentary layer—is beneath the area where oil and gas is extracted, so it has not been studied as much. What is known is that the porous rock takes up lots of water and has kept accepting water over the last half-century, so it’s become the layer of choice for oil companies with water to get rid of.
Despite mounting evidence that wastewater disposal linked to oil and gas is causing the quakes, scientists still aren’t exactly sure what happens to the water once it gets into the Arbuckle. Does it drain into the basement rock beneath? Does something else happen to it? Do the faults causing the earthquakes even extend all the way down into the Arbuckle? It simply isn’t clear, says Boak.
“We have no proof that there is a communication pathway down,” he admits. But something seems to be happening in the Arbuckle—and Boak’s organization currently thinks that faults are slowly pressurized with water, then spurred to seismic activity when pressure rises above a certain level.
That pressure has translated into a veritable pressure cooker for Oklahoma residents, who have experienced property damage and the unsteady feeling of seemingly constant earthquakes since the seismic surge. Insurance rates have risen 300 percent or more since 2009. About 20 percent of Oklahomans now have earthquake insurance, but given that such insurance usually only covers catastrophic damage, it’s not much of a comfort.
For Angela Spotts, enough was finally enough on October 10, 2015, when a 4.5 magnitude earthquake struck about 20 miles away from her home in Stillwater. “October 10 was truly a defining moment,” she tells Smithsonian.com. “[My husband and I] both looked at each other and went ‘wow, I don’t want to live like this anymore.’” Spotts, who spent years fighting both wastewater disposal and fracking in Oklahoma, says that the stress from ongoing quakes was a major factor in her decision to move to Colorado, where she now owns and operates a small hotel. She accuses the state of colluding with the oil and gas industry and dragging their feet on helping real Oklahomans deal with the new instability of the earth below.
After years of inaction, Oklahoma is finally cracking down manmade quakes. The state’s oil and gas regulator, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, avoided action on Arbuckle wells for years. But recently, it’s shown signs of finally taking the quake problem seriously—largely after earthquakes rattled the homes of elected officials. The Commission has released several response plans, has adopted a “traffic light” system for permitting disposal wells, adopted stricter monitoring and reporting rules and regulated how deep water can be injected. It took years of lawsuits and community organizing by people like Spotts to get the issue on the legislative radar.
Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil & Gas Association, tells Smithsonian.com that the oil and gas industry is working closely with regulators and geologists to help prevent manmade quakes. “I’m pretty pleased with the outcome,” he says. “We’ve made a very honest effort to really figure out what is going on and what we can do to impact the seismicity outbreak in the state.” He says that association members have borne the brunt of the regulatory cleanup, providing proprietary data to geologists and cutting back production. Indeed, some producers like SandRidge Energy, which fought hard against the restrictions, have since declared bankruptcy.
“The restrictions have done exactly what they wanted them to do,” said Warmington. “It’s reduced earthquakes, it’s reduced production and it’s driven the oil and gas industry elsewhere.”
While Boak says that earthquakes have dropped off since 2014, when the strictest regulations were introduced, he notes that much of the reduction was likely driven by declines in oil prices. But both agree that if oil prices rise again, producers will still be forced to dispose of less water, which will likely affect future quakes.
For Spotts, that simply isn’t good enough. “Why should one group of people have to take it just because we live in the wrong place?” she says. “It’s manmade and they’re taking advantage of us.”
“The water has to go somewhere,” counters Warmington. “Until they come up with a way to dispose of it that’s cheaper, it’s going to be a severely limiting factor.”
After last weekend’s quake, 37 wells remain shut down by the state as a precautionary measure. But will the problem simply drift to another state as Oklahoma gets tougher on oil and gas wastewater disposal? We may soon find out: The U.S. Geological Survey has tied spikes in earthquakes in states like Kansas, Ohio, Texas and Arkansas to the practice and says that some seven million people live in a place that could experience a damaging, manmade earthquake this year. Unlike Oklahoma, Kansas has limited how much wastewater may be injected as opposed to how deep it may go. To truly cut the number of earthquakes created by humans, the answer may not lie in how much water is disposed of, but whether water is disposed of at all.