The Confluence of Geological and Human Scales of Space and Time

The confluence of two scales of space and time – geological and human – resulted in three events that dominated the news headlines for much of the past year: the tragic earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, and the Gulf oil spill.

It is difficult – perhaps impossible – for humans to comprehend the vastness of geological scales of space and time. Our life experiences are brief and miniscule relative to the scale of the Earth’s immense and complex systems. These long-term global scale processes are thus often hidden from our direct experience. But even though we don’t experience these geological processes directly, they affect our lives.

The Haiti and Chile earthquakes were the result of plate tectonic processes, which occur on a time scale of millions of years. These slow, inexorable, long-term Earth processes can occasionally manifest themselves on a very human time scale when, in a matter of seconds to minutes, plate tectonic forces deep within the Earth are released in a major earthquake.

The Haiti and Chile earthquakes once again reminded us that despite the brevity of our lives relative to the powerful forces of nature, we can nonetheless make a difference in mitigating the tragic effects of those forces. Improved earthquake-resistant construction, for example, made it possible for the huge magnitude 8.8 Chile earthquake to be far less devastating than the much smaller magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti. Chile was fortunate to be better prepared when the huge earthquake struck, with well-developed building codes and emergency response plans, and a long history of studying causes and effects of earthquakes associated with the plate boundary that runs along the Chile coast. The fact that Chile was able to prepare for earthquakes, and thus mitigate their effects, is evidence that we needn’t always be passive victims of nature’s “wrath.” There are things that we can do to minimize the destructive effects of earthquakes on society.

The Gulf oil spill on the other hand, resulted from the drilling of a tiny “hole in the Earth,” miniscule relative to the global scale of the geological processes at work to create fossil fuel resources beneath the Gulf of Mexico. The oil beneath the Gulf of Mexico was formed over millions of years by geological processes involving the burial of organic material in a sedimentary basin. Our probing of the interior of our planet to obtain the oil needed to sustain our fossil fuel-based society has been minuscule compared to the vast scale of global Earth processes, and yet that minuscule probing can have major consequences for us living here on the surface.

The Gulf oil spill disaster was yet another reminder that we are still very far from being able to predict the consequences of our poking and prodding of the Earth. The activities of humans on the scale of just a tiny fraction of the thin skin overlying the Earth’s interior can dramatically influence life on Earth. We need energy to run our society, and at least for now, a large part of that energy comes from fossil fuels. But, in spite of the tiny scales of space and time associated with our exploration for and extraction of fossil fuels, the activities involved in finding and using them have major consequences for the continued vitality of our civilization.

We are living off the resources generated by long-term, global scale geological processes, and we are living on the not-so-solid ground formed by geological processes deep within planet Earth. As historian Will Durant put it, “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” While this power imbalance is humbling, we also need to remember that there is much more we can and should do to actively protect human lives against the destructive forces of nature.

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