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Listen to the Cosmic Sound of Sandstone Arches in Utah
By Zoe Woodcraft
The sound is like a low, steady rumble, soothing yet powerful. Imperceptible to the human ear, the hums of red rock arches in Bears Ears and Grand Staircase National Monuments carry with them the deep patterns of the earth's plates sparked by events like ocean currents colliding in the open Pacific that pump the ocean floor. On the surface, wind spilling over the arches amplifies the vibrations, giving voice to movements in the earth that began thousands of miles away.
Scientists like Jeff Moore have only recently discovered the arches' hum. We are one year into the legal battle to defend Bears Ears and Grand Staircase, and while we fight in the courts, life and discovery continue in these special places. Now, more than ever, the arches need our voices to protect them.
Moore, a professor at the University of Utah, has always been fascinated by what makes rocks break and move. That's how he describes his particular niche in geology, geohazards.
"The earth is teeming with these sorts of mysteries, and it's my job to uncover them," said Moore.
Hardy sandstone gives Utah its famous rock formations. Its layers can split open like an accordion and gently erode over millennia into shapes nearly impossible in earthquake country. Moore began to log the swelling and contracting of Utah's arches as temperatures rose and fell during the day. He wanted to understand their stresses, and know how long their spans will extend out over open air before inevitably collapsing.
"Most people are in awe of these geological wonders, but they don't recognize how fragile they are," said Moore. "They think rock is strong. But if you lay your hand on an arch, you get a sense that it is just hanging on. You can see the cracks … and you quickly realize how tenuous the structure is."
Soon, Moore got to wondering if the ear would be better than the eye at measuring the arches' movements. He spent hours recording the vibrations of the rocks with seismometers the size of camping thermoses. In the lab, he sped up his recordings to make them audible to humans.
[Listen to Soundcloud clips posted at the bottom of this story. Headphones recommended.]
"It sounded like nothing I'd heard before," said Moore, adding that the arches' hum is dependent on factors like their size. "Some of the smaller arches have a higher tone, and are a little squeaky."
In several arch recordings, a mysterious tapping appears on the soundtrack. Asked about the sound, Moore laughed. "It's probably my team walking as we backed away from our equipment. It's humans scurrying from the perspective of the arch."
In late 2017, President Trump threatened to silence the arches' hum after shrinking Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments by roughly 2 million acres. Mining companies started eyeing monument lands. Earthjustice went to court.
Within those evicted 2 million acres are ancient cliff dwellings and living ceremonial sites sacred to more than five Native American Tribes fighting for these lands. It's places like Valley of the Gods, where no one can travel without getting a crick in their neck staring up at red rock spires. It's dinosaur fossil beds in the Kaiparowitz Plateau of Grand Staircase, where scientists discover new species almost every year. It's the steep habitat for Utah's only native herds of cliff-happy bighorn sheep.
It's also 115 unique arches stripped of their national monument protections.
Arch Hunting in the Monuments
Jeff got to work with his research team planning expeditions in the monuments for the summer of 2018. Aamon Hatch, a local high school science teacher on break, joined. They pored over arch hunting websites where amateur geology enthusiasts share their discoveries by dropping coordinates.
"I began to call them 'the abandoned arches of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase,'" said Moore. "Grand Staircase's arches had been protected for the last 20 years. Bears Ears' arches were newly protected. Now they're left high and dry."
Determined to document as many abandoned arches as they could, the team ventured into the gutted national monuments. It was like no place Moore had been before. The Henry Mountains in Grand Staircase were the last mountains to be mapped in the lower 48. The Escalante River, which feeds into the Colorado, was one of the last rivers to be mapped. In Navajo, the range is called Dził Bizhiʼ Ádiní or "mountain whose name is missing."
Moore worries about the impact of human development near these lands—like mine blasting, or the heavy truck traffic new mining roads would bring. The arches evolved in southern Utah partly because the land experiences little seismic activity.
"I worry about them in the way you worry about something you love," he said.
He isn't wrong to worry. The Trump administration is rushing through new plans that could open roughly 700,000 acres of Grand Staircase to mining and drilling. It's a cynical strategy to speed along plans for industrial exploitation that's often worked against public lands. Earthjustice attorney Heidi McIntosh is fighting to hit the brakes on those plans in court.
While Trump's executive branch is trying to outrace the courts, Earthjustice will also be defending our monuments lawsuits against the Justice Department's motion to dismiss them this month. (The weighty question of whether President Trump had the authority to dismantle Bears Ears and Grand Staircase under the Antiquities Act may well be decided, at least preliminarily, at this point.)
Moore's team ultimately found 37 arches in Grand Staircase and 78 in Bears Ears in the territory stripped out of the monuments. Though their initial project is done, Moore suspects there are many more arches in these wild lands.
"When you stand out there today, you have the feeling 'this is where the road ends,'" he said. "In between you and the mountain there are no roads. You can feel the vastness."
Headphones may be needed to hear the lowest tones in this recording of Sunset Arch.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Earthjustice.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Tracy L. Barnett
Sources reviewed this article for accuracy.
For Sicangu Lakota water protector Cheryl Angel, Standing Rock helped her define what she stands against: an economy rooted in extraction of resources and exploitation of people and planet. It wasn't until she'd had some distance that the vision of what she stands for came into focus.
Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.
The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.
"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.
"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
Leaked documents show that Jair Bolsonaro's government intends to use the Brazilian president's hate speech to isolate minorities living in the Amazon region. The PowerPoint slides, which democraciaAbierta has seen, also reveal plans to implement predatory projects that could have a devastating environmental impact.