How One Woman's Discovery Shook the Foundations of Geology

WORLD OCEAN FLOOR PANORAMA, BRUCE C. HEEZEN AND MARIE THARP, 1977. COPYRIGHT BY MARIE THARP 1977/2003. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION OF MARIE THARP MAPS, LLC 8 EDWARD STREET, SPARKILL, NEW YORK 10976
WORLD OCEAN FLOOR PANORAMA, BRUCE C. HEEZEN AND MARIE THARP, 1977. COPYRIGHT BY MARIE THARP 1977/2003. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION OF MARIE THARP MAPS, LLC 8 EDWARD STREET, SPARKILL, NEW YORK 10976

By Brooke Jarvis

Marie Tharp spent the fall of 1952 hunched over a drafting table, surrounded by charts, graphs, and jars of India ink. Nearby, spread across several additional tables, lay her project—the largest and most detailed map ever produced of a part of the world no one had ever seen.

For centuries, scientists had believed that the ocean floor was basically flat and featureless—it was too far beyond reach to know otherwise. But the advent of sonar had changed everything. For the first time, ships could “sound out” the precise depths of the ocean below them. For five years, Tharp’s colleagues at Columbia University had been crisscrossing the Atlantic, recording its depths. Women weren’t allowed on these research trips—the lab director considered them bad luck at sea—so Tharp wasn’t on board. Instead, she stayed in the lab, meticulously checking and plotting the ships’ raw findings, a mass of data so large it was printed on a 5,000-foot scroll. As she charted the measurements by hand on sheets of white linen, the floor of the ocean slowly took shape before her.

Tharp spent weeks creating a series of six parallel profiles of the Atlantic floor stretching from east to west. Her drawings showed—for the first time—exactly where the continental shelf began to rise out of the abyssal plain and where a large mountain range jutted from the ocean floor. That range had been a shock when it was discovered in the 1870s by an expedition testing routes for transatlantic telegraph cables, and it had remained the subject of speculation since; Tharp’s charting revealed its length and detail.

Her maps also showed something else—something no one expected. Repeating in each was “a deep notch near the crest of the ridge,” a V-shaped gap that seemed to run the entire length of the mountain range. Tharp stared at it. It had to be a mistake.

She crunched and re-crunched the numbers for weeks on end, double- and triple-checking her data. As she did, she became more convinced that the impossible was true: She was looking at evidence of a rift valley, a place where magma emerged from inside the earth, forming new crust and thrusting the land apart. If her calculations were right, the geosciences would never be the same.

A few decades before, a German geologist named Alfred Wegener had put forward the radical theory that the continents of the earth had once been connected and had drifted apart. In 1926, at a gathering of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the scientists in attendance rejected Wegener’s theory and mocked its maker. No force on Earth was thought powerful enough to move continents. “The dream of a great poet,” opined the director of the Geological Survey of France: “One tries to embrace it, and finds that he has in his arms a little vapor or smoke.” Later, the president of the American Philosophical Society deemed it “utter, damned rot!”

In the 1950s, as Tharp looked down at that tell-tale valley, Wegener’s theory was still considered verboten in the scientific community—even discussing it was tantamount to heresy. Almost all of Tharp’s colleagues, and practically every other scientist in the country, dismissed it; you could get fired for believing in it, she later recalled. But Tharp trusted what she’d seen. Though her job at Columbia was simply to plot and chart measurements, she had more training in geology than most plotters—more, in fact, than some of the men she reported to. Tharp had grown up among rocks. Her father worked for the Bureau of Chemistry and Soils, and as a child, she would accompany him as he collected samples. But she never expected to be a mapmaker or even a scientist. At the time, the fields didn’t welcome women, so her first majors were music and English. After Pearl Harbor, however, universities opened up their departments. At the University of Ohio, she discovered geology and found a mentor who encouraged her to take drafting. Because Tharp was a woman, he told her, fieldwork was out of the question, but drafting experience could help her get a job in an office like the one at Columbia. After graduating from Ohio, she enrolled in a program at the University of Michigan, where, with men off fighting in the war, accelerated geology degrees were offered to women. There, Tharp became particularly fascinated with geomorphology, devouring textbooks on how landscapes form. A rock formation’s structure, composition, and location could tell you all sorts of things if you knew how to look at it.

Studying the crack in the ocean floor, Tharp could see it was too large, too contiguous, to be anything but a rift valley, a place where two masses of land had separated. When she compared it to a rift valley in Africa, she grew more certain. But when she showed Bruce Heezen, her research supervisor (four years her junior), “he groaned and said, ‘It cannot be. It looks too much like continental drift,’” Tharp wrote later. “Bruce initially dismissed my interpretation of the profiles as ‘girl talk.’” With the lab’s reputation on the line, Heezen ordered her to redo the map. Tharp went back to the data and started plotting again from scratch.

Heezen and Tharp were often at odds and prone to heated arguments, but they worked well together nonetheless. He was the avid collector of information; she was the processor comfortable with exploring deep unknowns. As the years went by, they spent more and more time together both in and out of the office. Though their platonic-or-not relationship confused everyone around them, it seemed to work.

In late 1952, as Tharp was replotting the ocean floor, Heezen took on another deep-sea project searching for safe places to plant transatlantic cables. He was creating his own map, which plotted earthquake epicenters in the ocean floor. As his calculations accumulated, he noticed something strange: Most quakes occurred in a nearly continuous line that sliced down the center of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, Tharp had finished her second map—a physiographic diagram giving the ocean floor a 3-D appearance—and sure enough, it showed the rift again. When Heezen and Tharp laid their two maps on top of each other on a light table, both were stunned by how neatly the maps fit. The earthquake line threaded right through Tharp’s valley.

They moved on from the Atlantic and began analyzing data from other oceans and other expeditions, but the pattern kept repeating. They found additional mountain ranges, all seemingly connected and all split by rift valleys; within all of them, they found patterns of earthquakes. “There was but one conclusion,” Tharp wrote. “The mountain range with its central valley was more or less a continuous feature across the face of the earth.” The matter of whether their findings offered evidence of continental drift kept the pair sparring, but there was no denying they had made a monumental discovery: the mid-ocean ridge, a 40,000-mile underwater mountain range that wraps around the globe like the seams on a baseball. It’s the largest single geographical feature on the planet.

LAMONT-DOHERTY EARTH OBSERVATORY

In 1957, Heezen took some of the findings public. After he presented on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at Princeton, one eminent geologist responded, "Young man, you have shaken the foundations of geology!” He meant it as a compliment, but not everyone was so impressed. Tharp later remembered that the reaction “ranged from amazement to skepticism to scorn.” Ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau was one of the doubters. He’d tacked Tharp’s map to a wall in his ship’s mess hall. When he began filming the Atlantic Ocean’s floor for the first time, he was determined to prove Tharp’s theory wrong. But what he ultimately saw in the footage shocked him. As his ship approached the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, he came upon a deep valley splitting it in half, right where Tharp’s map said it would be. Cousteau and his crew were so astonished that they turned around, went back, and filmed again. When Cousteau screened the video at the International Oceanographic Congress in 1959, the audience gasped and shouted for an encore. The terrain Tharp had mapped was undeniably real.

1959 was the same year that Heezen, still skeptical, presented a paper hoping to explain the rift. The Expanding Earth theory he’d signed on to posited that continents were moving as the planet that contained them grew. (He was wrong.) Other hypotheses soon joined the chorus of explanations about how the rift had occurred. It was the start of an upheaval in the geologic sciences. Soon “it became clear that existing explanations for the formation of the earth’s surface no longer held,” writes Hali Felt in Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor.

Tharp stayed out of these debates and simply kept working. She disliked the spotlight and consented to present a paper only once, on the condition that a male colleague do all the talking. “There’s truth to the old cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words and that seeing is believing,” she wrote. “I was so busy making maps I let them argue. I figured I’d show them a picture of where the rift valley was and where it pulled apart.”

By 1961, the idea that she’d put forward nearly a decade before—that the rift in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge had been caused by land masses pulling apart—had finally reached widespread acceptance. The National Geographic Society commissioned Tharp and Heezen to make maps of the ocean floor and its features, helping laypeople visualize the vast plates that allowed the earth’s crust to move. Throughout the 1960s, a slew of discoveries helped ideas such as seafloor spreading and plate tectonics gain acceptance, bringing with them a cascade of new theories about the way the planet and life on it had evolved. Tharp compared the collective eye-opening to the Copernican revolution. “Scientists and the general public,” she wrote, “got their first relatively realistic image of a vast part of the planet that they could never see.”

Tharp herself had never seen it either. Some 15 years after she started mapping the seafloor, Tharp finally joined a research cruise, sailing over the features she’d helped discover. Women were generally still not welcome, so Heezen helped arrange her spot. The two kept working closely together, sometimes fighting fiercely, until his death in 1977. Outside the lab, they maintained separate houses but dined and drank like a married couple. Their work had linked them for life.

In 1997, Tharp, who had long worked patiently in Heezen’s shadow, received double honors from the Library of Congress, which named her one of the four greatest cartographers of the 20th century and included her work in an exhibit in the 100th-anniversary celebration of its Geography and Map Division. There, one of her maps of the ocean floor hung in the company of the original rough draft of the Declaration of Independence and pages from Lewis and Clark’s journals. When she saw it, she started to cry. But Tharp had known all along that the map she created was remarkable, even when she was the only one who believed. “Establishing the rift valley and the mid-ocean ridge that went all the way around the world for 40,000 miles—that was something important,” she wrote. “You could only do that once. You can’t find anything bigger than that, at least on this planet.”

Some Fish Eggs Can Hatch After Being Pooped Out by Swans

iStock/olaser
iStock/olaser

A question that’s often baffled scientists is how certain species of fish can sometimes appear—and even proliferate—in isolated bodies of water not previously known to harbor them. A new study has demonstrated that the most unlikely explanation might actually be correct: It’s possible they fell from the sky.

Specifically, from the rear end of a swan.

A study in the journal Ecology by researchers at the Unisinos University in Brazil found that killifish eggs can, in rare cases, survive being swallowed by swans, enduring a journey through their digestive tracts before being excreted out. This kind of fecal public transportation system explains how killifish can pop up in ponds, flood waters, and other water bodies that would seem an unlikely place for species to suddenly appear.

After discovering that some plants could survive being ingested and then flourish in swan poop, researchers took notice of a killifish egg present in a frozen fecal sample. They set about mixing two species of killifish eggs into the food supply of coscoroba swans living in a zoo. After waiting a day, they collected the poop and dug in looking for the eggs.

Of the 650 eggs they estimated to have been ingested by the swans, about five were left intact. Of those, three continued to develop. Two died of a fungal infection, but one survived, enduring 30 hours in the gut and hatching 49 days after being excreted.

Because killifish eggs have a thick outer membrane, or chorion, they stand a chance of coming through the digestive tract of an animal intact. Not all of what a swan ingests will be absorbed; their stomachs are built to extract nutrients quickly and get rid of the whatever's left so the birds can eat again. In rare cases, that can mean an egg that can go on to prosper.

Not all fish eggs are so durable, and not all fish are quite like the killifish. Dubbed the "most extreme" fish on Earth by the BBC, killifish have adapted to popping up in strange environments where water may eventually dry up. They typically live for a year and deposit eggs that can survive in soil, delaying their development until conditions—say, not being inside a swan—are optimal. One species, the mangrove killifish, can even breathe through its skin. When water recedes, they can survive on land for over two months, waddling on their bellies or using their tails to "jump" and eat insects. A fish that can survive on dry land probably doesn't sweat having to live in poop.

The researchers plan to study carp eggs next to see if they, too, can go through a lot of crap to get to where they’re going.

[h/t The New York Times]

8 Facts About the Animals of Chernobyl

iStock/Tijuana2014
iStock/Tijuana2014

Three decades after the Chernobyl disaster—the world’s worst nuclear accident—signs of life are returning to the exclusion zone. Wild animals in Chernobyl are flourishing within the contaminated region; puppies roaming the area are capturing the hearts of thousands. Tourists who have watched the critically acclaimed HBO series Chernobyl are taking selfies with the ruins. Once thought to be forever uninhabitable, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has become a haven for flora and fauna that prove that life, as they say in Jurassic Park, finds a way.

1. The animals of Chernobyl survived against all odds.

The effects of the radioactive explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986 devastated the environment. Around the plant and in the nearby city of Pripyat in Ukraine, the Chernobyl disaster’s radiation caused the leaves of thousands of trees to turn a rust color, giving a new name to the surrounding woods—the Red Forest. Workers eventually bulldozed and buried the radioactive trees. Squads of Soviet conscripts also were ordered to shoot any stray animals within the 1000-square-mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Though experts today believe parts of the zone will remain unsafe for humans for another 20,000 years, numerous animal and plant species not only survived, but thrived.

2. Bears and wolves outnumber humans around the Chernobyl disaster site.

While humans are strictly prohibited from living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, many other species have settled there. Brown bears, wolves, lynx, bison, deer, moose, beavers, foxes, badgers, wild boar, raccoon dogs, and more than 200 species of birds have formed their own ecosystem within the Chernobyl disaster area. Along with the larger animals, a variety of amphibians, fish, worms, and bacteria makes the unpopulated environment their home.

3. Most Chernobyl animals don’t look any different from their non-Chernobyl counterparts.

Stray puppies play in an abandoned, partially-completed cooling tower inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

Tour guides tell visitors not to pet Chernobyl animals due to potential radioactive particles in their fur, but some biologists have been surprised that the incidence of physical mutations appears lower than the blast of radiation would have suggested. There have been some oddities recorded within the area—such as partial albinism among barn swallows—but researchers think that the serious mutations mostly happened directly after the explosion. Today’s wild animals are sporting their normal number of limbs and aren’t glowing.

4. Radiation may have killed off Chernobyl’s insects.

In contrast to the large carnivores and other big fauna, bugs and spiders have seen a big drop in their numbers. A 2009 study in Biology Letters indicated that the more radiation there was in certain locations around the Chernobyl disaster area, the lower the population of invertebrates. A similar phenomenon occurred after the 2011 nuclear accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Bird, cicada, and butterfly populations decreased, while other animal populations were not affected.

5. Despite looking normal, Chernobyl's animals and plants are mutants.

There may be no three-headed cows roaming around, but scientists have noted significant genetic changes in organisms affected by the disaster. According to a 2001 study in Biological Conservation, Chernobyl-caused genetic mutations in plants and animals increased by a factor of 20. Among breeding birds in the region, rare species suffered disproportional effects from the explosion’s radiation compared to common species. Further research is needed to understand how the increased mutations affect species’ reproductive rates, population size, genetic diversity, and other survival factors.

6. The absence of humans is returning Chernobyl to wilderness.

As WIRED points out, the Chernobyl disaster presents an unintended experiment in what Earth would be like without humans. Hunting is strictly illegal and living within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is not recommended. The fewer humans there are, the more nature can re-establish itself unencumbered by human activity. According to The Guardian, an official nature reserve recently created on the Belorussian side of the zone claims to be “Europe’s largest experiment in rewilding,” where animals are losing their fear of humans. In fact, a few species are actually living better within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone than outside of it. Wolves were found to be seven times as abundant on the premises than in other, non-radioactive areas. Moose, roe deer, red deer, and wild boar were found to have similar numbers within the CEZ as compared to those in three uncontaminated nature reserves in Belarus.

7. An endangered wild horse is making a comeback thanks to Chernobyl.

A Przewalski's horse lays in a meadow
PATRICK PLEUL, AFP/Getty Images

British ecologists Mike Wood and Nick Beresford, who specialize in studying the effects of radiation on Chernobyl’s wildlife, observed that the Przewalski’s horse—an endangered wild species that originated in Mongolia—is thriving within the CEZ. In the late 1990s, about 30 Przewalski’s horses were released in the Ukrainian side of the CEZ. Based on camera trap images, Wood estimated that some of the original horses (identified by their brand markings) are still alive. Photos of juvenile horses and foals also indicated that the population is expanding.

8. You can adopt a Chernobyl puppy.

Hundreds of pooches—the descendants of dogs abandoned by their owners during the site’s evacuation on April 27, 1986—have made the desolate area their home. Until 2018, it was illegal to bring any animal out of the zone due to the risk of radiation contamination. But now, puppies cleared of radiation are getting a chance to find their forever homes. Spearheaded by the Clean Futures Fund and SPCA International, the management and adoption program ensures that the stray dogs are spayed, neutered, and vaccinated so they will be healthy and ready for adoption.

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