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Earthquakes, climate change and reel disasters

Geotimes on the set

Book Reviews:
Glen Canyon Dammed: Inventing Lake Powell and the Canyon Country

Mapping mining impacts in Missouri

Earthquakes, climate change and reel disasters

When the earthquake miniseries 10.5 hit the television airwaves, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) went into full attack mode. In order to counteract the fantastic premise of the movie series that aired May 2 and 3 on NBC — that a magnitude-10.5 temblor hits California — USGS posted a fact sheet to debunk some basic geological urban legends promulgated by the miniseries, among them that California will fall into the sea and that humans can stop earthquakes.

USGS was facing an interesting adversary: Once again, a heavily promoted, much-watched drama portrayed science not as it is, but as the director and producers want it to be. Since May, at least three films have brought major disasters, natural and otherwise, to audiences across the country, with varying scientific accuracy. While the disaster movie genre has gotten a shot in the arm with the technological advances that allow more realistic portrayals of death and destruction, productions still take liberties with the hazards and events on which they are based — leaving audiences struggling to separate the fantasy from the facts.

Case in point: this summer’s blockbuster special-effects flick The Day After Tomorrow , which included digital and model animations of the flooding of New York City, the destruction of Los Angeles and the Hollywood sign by several twisters at once, and ice and snow covering the Northern Hemisphere during an abrupt climate change event. The technological execution was stellar, but the movie was close to science-less science fiction, according to some researchers who digested the film. Although the producers and director Ronald Emmerich said that they wanted to raise the public’s awareness of the real threat of abrupt climate change, their portrayal required the suspension of too many laws of physics, let alone disbelief.

“It is hyperbole and almost poetic license, and it should not be taken literally,” says Tony Busalacchi of the University of Maryland, who co-chaired CLIVAR, a conference on abrupt climate change held in June in Baltimore. Nevertheless, the movie brought the issue to the attention of many viewers, he says.

“I’m disappointed that, from a science point of view, where a lot of the stimulus came from the science, they really messed it all up in such a bad way,” says Klaus Jacob, a senior research scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who specializes in flooding and other disasters. The movie producers did not use the opportunity to make it more than just summer entertainment; they could have also done “a little education,” Jacob says.

But as some researchers decried The Day After, other scientists and some policy-makers wanted the movie to serve as a booster shot for focusing on climate change. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has reportedly used it as a rallying point for the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act.

Meanwhile, moviegoers showed up. The Day After Tomorrow opened on May 28, and as of Aug. 4, the movie raked in over $534 million worldwide, according to the box-office tracking Web site Of course, Spider-Man 2 made more than half that amount in just 10 days. Still, big-budget disaster fiction is a moneymaker.

But size is not the only harbinger of success or accuracy: One disaster film that opened with almost no fanfare and will probably make a lot less money than any other summer flick is the new IMAX film Forces of Nature. Officially released on June 4 and showing at various IMAX theaters across the country through September, the film could be a paragon of scientifically accurate disaster movies.

Following volcanologist Marie Edmonds on Montserrat, seismologist Ross Stein in Turkey and tornado-chasing meteorologist Josh Wurman in the Midwest is enough to raise anyone’s heartbeat, particularly at the large scale of an IMAX movie. In this 40-minute movie, each scientist introduces the basics of their field and why they do what they do, while the IMAX footage takes the audience almost inside their research. For Stein’s segment on earthquakes, the camera even swings through a canyon-like digital reconstruction of the inside of a fault, miles below Earth’s surface.

Flying toward a volcanic ash plume is beautiful — and frightening, particularly when watching the layers of ash burying villages below the volcano. Standing beneath the Hagia Sofia’s dome in Istanbul and considering what will happen to the city outside when a large earthquake next strikes Turkey’s North Anatolian fault is scary. And the prospect of being caught in a tornado is purely panic-inducing. The real world holds enough hazards that do not need to be enhanced for freaky disaster-movie viewing.

But perhaps that is why fictional movie terrors are so goofy; if they were more reality-based, disaster flicks might attract smaller audiences. For Forces of Nature, the IMAX schedule rolls out over five years, not over an opening weekend and several months in the theaters. Although it is being shown in conjunction with partnerships with teachers’ groups and the Girl Scouts, and was funded by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation, among others, the film’s audiences will probably spend somewhere around $10 million, if it has a run similar to other recent successful IMAX science films.

In the meantime, bad-science films are probably in production somewhere at this moment. Perhaps it is worth remembering that they are meant to be entertainment. “I enjoyed it while I was sitting there,” Jacob says of The Day After Tomorrow. “But then you come out of it, [thinking] ‘what was it I just saw?’”

Sometimes, it’s a matter of sitting back, suspending disbelief and remembering that California will never fall into the sea.

Naomi Lubick

The Day After Tomorrow is scheduled for release on DVD on Oct. 5. Check Geotimes next month for a complete review of the movie and its scientific transgressions.

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Geotimes on the Set

A Geotimes story has caught the attention of TV producers around the world. The article, published in October 2001, follows the investigations of Lee Allison and colleagues at the Kansas Geological Survey into a series of explosions in downtown Hutchinson on Jan. 17, 2001. They eventually uncovered the geologic source: natural gas.

Now the History Channel is interviewing Allison about his work for its show Modern Marvels, as part of a special episode on “engineering disasters.” And in June, the BBC interviewed Allison for its documentary Inside Out, which is set to air this September. Allison says that both productions used the Geotimes story as a basis for their shows.

"Hutchinson, Kansas: A geologic detective story," Geotimes, October 2001

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Book Reviews

Glen Canyon Dammed: Inventing Lake Powell and the Canyon Country
by Jared Farmer.

University of Arizona Press, February 2004.
ISBN 0 8165 1887 4. Paperback, $26.95.

How did we lose Glen?
Bart J. Kowallis

As someone born and raised in Utah, spending most of my summers as a youth camping and roaming through the state’s mountains, plateaus and canyons, I thought that I had a fairly good handle on the history and issues surrounding the creation of Lake Powell and the resulting destruction of Glen Canyon. However, Jared Farmer’s Glen Canyon Dammed has shown me that I only had a superficial understanding. Farmer has woven together a story every bit as colorful and interesting as the country he is writing about.

The book’s title made me suspect that it might be strongly slanted toward those who want to eliminate Lake Powell and reopen Glen Canyon. This is not the case: The book is a straightforward, balanced history of the demise of Glen Canyon and the formation of Lake Powell.

In the preface, Farmer summarizes his position regarding the current debate surrounding the dam by saying, “I’m somewhere in the middle — or somewhere else entirely ... the canyon may not have been everything we imagine, and ... the reservoir could be more than we’ve let ourselves admit.” Reading between the lines though, there is no question that Farmer mourns, as do many others, the loss of one of the most spectacular, scenic and wild canyons found anywhere on Earth.

Divided into three main sections, the book covers a wide historical range, including discovery of the canyon country, its exploration and development, and finally the open accessibility and the problems it has created in this once wild and isolated region. It also contains a substantive “afterword” section that should not be skipped.

Farmer details the initial Western discoverers of Utah’s canyon, including those who came out of assignment or necessity (the Spaniards and the Mormon pioneers), those who came for discovery and science (John Wesley Powell and others), those who tried early on to promote tourism, and those who wanted to utilize its resources (uranium miners, tour guides and government dam builders). He is careful to point out that all of these “discoverers” came long after the native populations found and settled the land.

The most interesting aspect of the book for me is the insight Farmer gives us into the attitudes of different individuals and groups of people, including the American population as a whole, during the time this history was unfolding. The book introduces several personalities: David Brower, “perhaps the most innovative and influential American environmentalist of the late twentieth century”; Floyd Dominy, head of the Bureau of Reclamation and perhaps the “federal official [most] hated by environmentalists”; Arth Chaffin, “developer, prospector and builder”; John and Louisa Wetherill, trading post and lodge operators who guided individuals to Rainbow Bridge; and Nasja Begay and Jim Mike, two native guides who led the first white men to the “discovery” of Rainbow Bridge in 1909. In addition, the story includes many more widely known individuals, such as Theodore Roosevelt, Edward Abbey, Zane Grey and Wallace Stegner.

This book is about the human history of the canyon and not its geology. Farmer says very little about the rocks and the geologic processes that have created them. So if you are expecting to learn something about the geology of the canyon, this is not the right book.

Additionally, in a place or two, Farmer has mixed up his facts. For example, in discussing the Reclamation Service (the precursor to the Bureau of Reclamation), he states that “As of 1923 ... [they] had put 1.2 million new acres under irrigation [in Utah] ... equivalent to 0.2 percent of the state.” In reality 1.2 million acres is more than 2 percent of the state. On the very next page, Farmer tells us that planners used 16.4 million acre-feet as an estimate of the annual flow when dividing Colorado River water between the states. This amount of water, he informs us, is enough to cover the state of Utah three times with a foot of water. However, because the state of Utah contains 52.7 million acres, this calculation again is incorrect. In reality, 16.4 million acre-feet of water would cover less than one-third of Utah with a foot of water or the entire state with about 3.5 inches of water. These minor factual errors, however, should not detract from this otherwise excellent historical account.

Having personally benefited from Lake Powell (I have collected research samples around its shores) and having been completely awed by its beauty, I will admit that I am not in favor of draining the lake. I also know that the Grand Canyon has been dammed several times in the past by basaltic lava flows. These lava dams undoubtedly created havoc on the upstream ecosystem in much the same way that the Glen Canyon Dam has done. On the other hand, I have also seen the accumulation of trash on the shores of Lake Powell, the closing of beaches because of human waste, the loss of solitude and peace, and the lack of respect of the land by many who now come.

If I had known Glen Canyon before the dam, had I walked the long path up Forbidding Canyon to Rainbow Bridge to see it without the throngs of other tourists, and if I had seen the Cathedral in the Desert, Gregory Natural Bridge, Music Temple and hundreds of other sites before they were drowned, I might feel differently about Lake Powell and the dam that keeps it in place. Farmer’s book will make you ponder and perhaps rethink or refocus on what are the important issues that should be considered as our population continues to grow and development pressures on the land become more intense.

Farmer’s book should be required reading for every politician who has anything to do with Western land development and preservation. The wholesale development mentality of Director Floyd Dominy and the Bureau of Reclamation in the 1950s and 1960s, even to the point of damming the Grand Canyon, may seem farfetched today, but in reality, this attitude is still pervasive in Utah and, I am sure, in other states as well. Many people view development, population growth and subduing the land as natural rights.

Overall, this is a significant and interesting book that is well-worth reading for anyone who is interested in the history of Western exploration and development, and in the significant land and water issues that will continue to face those who live there for many years to come.

Kowallis is a geology professor at Brigham Young University, where he has worked since 1982. He has published several papers on Middle and Late Jurassic strata of Utah and Colorado.

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Mapping mining impacts in Missouri

Geologic mapping in the Ozarks of southeastern Missouri, an area with potential lead and zinc deposits, is aiding federal land-use managers. The maps are providing information key to understanding how potential mining on National Forest land could affect groundwater and a world-class karst spring system within the Ozark National Scenic Riverways National Park.

Environmental protection of Big Spring in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways is a major focus of a U.S. Geological Survey project to map the region. Courtesy of Randall Orndorff.

The world's largest lead-zinc mining district, the Viburnum Trend, lies on the northern fringe of the study area and exploration for similar deposits has been carried out within the study area. Federal and state agencies are concerned about the environmental impact of exploration and potential mining activities on natural and recreational resources. These competing interests have generated a need for detailed geologic and hydrogeologic studies in order to provide data for informed land-management decisions. Geologic mapping that identifies karst, stratigraphic and structural features contribute to the understanding of how aquifers interact and how groundwater is transported. To better understand the groundwater and karst systems, the maps include detailed information on joints.

The following 10 1:24,000-scale maps are part of a total of 18 detailed geologic maps to be produced by the U.S. Geological Survey over the next several years. These maps show the distribution of Cambrian and Ordovician carbonate rocks along with exposures of Mesoproterozoic volcanic rocks that form an outlier of the St. Francois Mountains of Missouri.

I-2618. MISSOURI. Geologic map of the Greer quadrangle, Oregon County, Missouri, by R.C. McDowell. 1998. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet 50 x 32 inches. Available for $7.00 from USGS Information Services or free at

I-2653. MISSOURI. Geologic map of the Eminence quadrangle, Oregon and Shannon Counties, Missouri, by R.E. Weems. 2002. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet 53 X 38 inches. Available for $7.00 from USGS Information Services or free at

I-2719. MISSOURI. Geologic map of the Low Wassie quadrangle, Shannon County, Missouri, by R.C. Orndorff, R.W. Harrison, D.J. Weary. 1999. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet 54 X 40 inches. Available for $7.00 from USGS Information Services.

I-2722. MISSOURI. Geologic map of the Powder Mill Ferry quadrangle, Shannon and Reynolds Counties, Missouri, by R.C. McDowell and R.W. Harrison. 2000. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet 54 X 33 inches. Available for $7.00 from USGS Information Services or free at

I-2749. MISSOURI. Geologic map of the Winona quadrangle, Shannon County, Missouri, by R.C. Orndorff and R.W. Harrison. 2001. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet 53 X 33 inches. Available for $7.00 from USGS Information Services.

I-2767. MISSOURI. Geology of the Stegall Mountain quadrangle, Shannon and Carter Counties, Missouri, by R.W. Harrison, R.C. Orndorff, and D.J. Weary. 2002. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet 54 X 40 inches. Available for $7.00 from USGS Information Services.

I-2775. MISSOURI. Geologic map of the Fremont quadrangle, Shannon, Carter, and Oregon Counties, Missouri by R.C. Orndorff. 2003. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet 50 X 34 inches. Available for $7.00 from USGS Information Services.

I-2801. MISSOURI. Geologic map of the Wilderness and Handy quadrangles, Oregon, Carter, and Ripley Counties, Missouri, by R.W. Harrison and R.C. McDowell. 2003. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet 58 X 38 inches. Available for $7.00 from USGS Information Services.

I-2802. MISSOURI. Geologic map of the Van Buren North quadrangle, Carter and Reynolds Counties, Missouri, by D.J. Weary and R.E. Weems. 2004. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet 57 X 37 inches. Available for $7.00 from USGS Information Services.

I-2803. MISSOURI. Geologic map of the Van Buren South quadrangle, Carter County, Missouri, by D.J. Weary and J.S. Schindler. 2004. Scale 1:24,000. One color sheet 56 X 36 inches. Available for $7.00 from USGS Information Services.

To order USGS maps: contact USGS Information Services, P.O. Box 25286, Denver, Colo. 80225. Phone: 888-ASK-USGS (888/275-8747).

Randall Orndorff compiles the Maps section and is the associate program coordinator for the USGS National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program. Email:

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