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Sacred Geology Column # 003

Date: 10/07/97
Topic: Geomyths
Type of Entry: A Technical Elucidation & Illumination

Ricard Ely headshot

Back in the old millennium, Richard Ely, long-time friend of Enlightenment.Com , gave us some written and video material that is still well worth reading and watching. As a professional geologist and long-time initiate of various neo-Pagan and earth-based religious traditions, Richard's views combine the scientific and the poetic in a singularly stimulating fashion.


by Richard W. Ely


Myths teach profound truths about Nature, human history, and psychology that are, at best, loosely based in fact. Such stories, because they are widely believed and repeated, have a profound connection to our unconscious minds -- they resonate in our souls. By paying attention to new myths as they appear, we can decipher new belief systems rising from the depths of the collective unconscious.

Many myths of upcoming Earth changes are currently being told in the New Age and Pagan communities. These geomyths typically involve geologic changes in a short time frame and on a physical scale hitherto unknown in the geologic record of planet Earth.

"Like to buy some beachfront property in Nevada?"

One popular geomyth, in wide circulation for the last three decades, states that California is Going to Fall Into the Sea. I first heard this myth in 1969 when I was working for the California Division of Mines and Geology. In those days, the Division was located in San Francisco in the Ferry Building, right at the foot of Market Street. Along with the offices of the geologists, there was a large, somewhat decrepit, display of minerals and an information desk where the public could buy publications and ask questions of the staff.

One day they were shorthanded and I was keeping an eye on the desk during lunchtime, when an ethereal young man floated through the doors. He was a type that we saw frequently in those days -- Jesus style hair and beard, with megawatt eyes that had been through far, far too many 500 microgram doses of LSD. He was nervous, but I made him feel welcome and he shared with me his concern.

He had it on good authority that atomic powered submarines had dived 1,000 feet deep 50 miles offshore in the Pacific Ocean, and then sailed below the continental shelf, eventually to emerge through a hole in the shelf into San Francisco Bay. His friend had told him that the next time there was a great earthquake, the shelf was going to break off and all of coastal California was going to sink into the sea. What he wanted to know was, how far did he have to go inland to be inside the break-off zone.

I gently explained to him that the continental shelf was not constructed like a bookshelf, but in fact was a very flat landform (also called the continental terrace), and that below it there was rock all the way to the center of the Earth with no big holes. I told him that rocks are very weak when placed under tension, and that in Nature a cliff with an overhang of 100 feet was rare, being found only in areas with exceptionally strong and sparsely fractured rock. It was physically impossible for the weak, sedimentary rocks of the continental shelf to overhang for 100 yards, let alone 50 miles.

My words seemed to reverberate inside the man's addled brains as he took in the information. He clearly was torn and part of him wanted to believe me, but at the deep level he knew that California was going to fall into the sea, even if the scientific facts said otherwise. He thanked me in a vague sort of way and departed, planning, I suspect, to move far inland.

Since that time I have heard this myth repeated many times, frequently by people with college degrees and technological training. My response generally takes the form of a question along the lines of "OK, if this is true, where is the hole California is going to fall into?" In truth there is no hole other than the Pacific Ocean. Well then, could California slide horizontally into the sea in a gargantuan landslide?

Slip-Slidin' Away?

For this to happen there would have to be a continuous subhorizontal fault that followed the foot of the continental slope, about 12,000 feet below sea level, and extended inland underneath the Coast Ranges with a seaward slope of at least 1 degree. A fault with this configuration would extend about 100 miles east of the continental slope, and underlie the entire Coast Range. Assuming the entire San Andreas fault region is involved, approximately 60,000 cubic miles of rock would be involved.

Bodies of rock on this scale are known to have moved in the past -- they are called thrust sheets -- but they are generally formed within and on the flanks of very large mountain ranges, and the maximum movement rates on the underlying thrust faults probably were on the order of inches per year.

Fortunately, there is no geologic evidence of a continuous subhorizontal fault beneath the Coast Ranges. There are thousands of oil wells and seismic profiles that have sounded the deep structure of the Coast Ranges, and long ago they would have revealed the presence of such a fault. In fact, the geologic structure of the Coast Ranges is dominated by the vertical faults of the San Andreas system, which extend for scores of miles along northwest-southeast trends. There are local occurrences of deep-seated subhorizontal fault surfaces, such as the one the Northridge earthquake occurred on, and beneath the San Francisco Bay area, where recently obtained seismic profiles suggest that subhorizontal faults may connect various strands of the San Andreas fault system.

Then there is the geologic record to consider. If coastal California were to abruptly slide into the Pacific Basin, it would be an event unique in the known geologic history of the Earth. Uniformitarianism, one of the fundamental principles of geology, in its essential form states "the present is the key to the past." The reverse of this precept also is true -- the past is the key to the present. If there is utterly nothing in the geologic record similar to a predicted event, then we should be highly skeptical about its likelihood in the near future.

However, we must be careful not to get trapped in the narrow interpretation of uniformitarianism that rejected, for example, the meteorite-impact hypothesis of dinosaur extinction because we have never observed such an impact. A look at the Moon, Mars, and Mercury is enough to convince anyone of the reality of large impacts. At the core of uniformitarianism is the belief that the laws of physics were the same in the distant past as they are now, and, as a consequence, geologic processes have acted in a similar manner and at similar rates throughout geologic time.

The largest fault displacements that I know of, either horizontal or vertical, which occurred in a single earthquake are less than 50 feet. This is three to four orders of magnitude smaller than the scale of movement necessary to submerge the Coast Range. Therefore, from a uniformitarian perspective, tens of miles of fault movement in a short time are inconceivable. Rock displacements of several miles in a few days are thought to occur in the collapse of very large volcanic calderas such as Yellowstone, but these events are restricted to volcanic areas and have no bearing on the Falling Into the Sea myth.

Interestingly, submarine exploration in the 1980's using side-looking sonar revealed the presence of a score of prodigious submarine landslides on the abyssal plain surrounding the Hawaiian Islands that are among the largest on Earth. The biggest slide involved about 2,000 cubic miles, and many of the slides appear to have occurred fast enough to create tsunamis. The slides happened because the volcanic islands were built steeper and higher than the angle of repose of the lava flows. Pele's strong point is not civil engineering.

These slides happened in a special situation, where the most active volcanic center on Earth was building enormous mountains (Mauna Kea is the highest mountain on Earth above its base), which eventually collapsed under their own weight. The southeast flank of Hawaii is currently subsiding and pulling away from the rest of the island and may someday collapse catastrophically. The chain of erupting fissures that extend northeast through the Puna district from Kilauea Crater delineate the landward limit of the incipient slide. The fissures open as the seaward landslide pulls away, allowing the lava to vent to the ground surface.

The Persistence Of The Non-Disintegration Of This Myth

What are we to make of the continued popularity of this geomyth of Falling Into the Sea in the collective story we are telling ourselves? First consider the profound mythic connection of the sea with many of the rejected values of patriarchal culture -- the feminine, goddesses, feelings and emotions, sexuality, irrationality, chaos, the soul, dark mystery, the unconscious mind.

Looking back at the past 30 years, it is clear that California is one of the most important global centers for all of these values. I know of no place on Earth where Goddess-loving Pagans are as free to worship and live as they choose as in coastal California. If you doubt this, pay attention to the stories from the East Coast and the Bible Belt in the Pagan press of desecrated shrines, lost jobs, child custody discrimination, evictions and home burnings. They look askance at us out here on the touchy-feely Left Coast with our sinful, irrational ways.

What the California geomyth really symbolizes is the ultimate outcome of the long strange trip that began in the 1960's, which included the emergence of such heretical social trends as the Pagan revival, feminism, Goddess worship, sexual freedom, gay liberation, cultivation of Dionysian ecstatic states, psycho-emotional therapy, somatic therapy, deep ecology, and radical environmentalism. If one had to point to a single place on Earth as the fountainhead of these trends it would be California, and particularly the Bay Area.

Ironically, the left wing politics that dominated in the 1960's has faded into the background, and Earth-centered spirituality, so reviled by political 'realists', has emerged as the one of the great legacies of that revolutionary time. So the geomyth is true in the archetypal sense, California is falling into the oceanic realm of the sacred feminine.

Spock to Kirk: "All great myths have a kernel of truth"

Strangely, if we adopt a long enough time frame, there is some scientific truth in this geomyth. The Great Basin, which lies between the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada and the Wasatch Front in Utah, has been the repeated location of intense volcanism and tectonic activity for the past 250 million years. This tectonism has resulted in hot, thin continental crust that stands above sea level only because it, and the underlying mantle, are thermally expanded. Ten or twenty million years from now, if current trends continue, the Great Basin will have cooled to the degree that the present ground surface will be a mile or two below sea level. California will then become a peninsula, or perhaps an island, depending on what happens to the north.

Consider also the potential for continued global warming to melt the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps. If the acceleration of the buildup of greenhouse gasses continues, the ice caps could begin melting at a significant rate within 100 years or so. If the ice caps melt, global sea level will rise by about 220 feet, most of the Central Valley will be flooded (think of it, Chico-By-The-Sea), the Coast Ranges will become long peninsulas, and Marin County will be an island.

Ursula LeGuin, in her book Always Coming Home, has beautifully described what California would be like in such an eventuality. Warming of sea water will also produce additional sea level rise due to volumetric expansion; this is thought to be the principal cause of sea level rise during the 20th century, with only a minor contribution from the melting of the ice caps.

The rate of sea level rise would depend on the rate of global warming. If sea level rose at the rate of 1 inch per year it would take 2,600 years to melt the ice caps. Up to 10,000 years ago, at the close of the last glaciation, sea level was rising at 2 inches a year. This would have been very inconvenient in shoreline settlements, particularly those on coastal plains and deltas, where the land typically rises at a gradient of about 1 foot per mile or less.

It is likely that the myth of the world flood found in numerous mythologies is in part rooted in the tribal memories of this process. In Mesopotamia and the Nile valley, the flood myth may be rooted in the replacement of the ancient nomadic cultures by the irrigation-based 'hydraulic' civilizations.

Another historical source of the flood myths can be the found in the environmental effects of deforestation on the fertile crescent, which ensued after large urban populations appeared. Excavations of most ancient Mesopotamian cities have revealed thick flood deposits in their oldest levels.

Cities that were once founded in safe locations were subjected to destructive floods because of the greater volume and more rapid runoff from the newly deforested hillsides. These floods would have marked the historical transition from the state of untrammeled Nature, to the post-edenic ravaged landscapes of urban centered civilization. The sin that was punished by the flood was the despoilment of Creation.

Polar Opposites Forever?

A popular geomyth with many variants involves the polar ice caps growing to the point that they somehow create a rotational instability such that Earth will tip over and the poles will end up near the present day equator. I first heard of this spin axis flip myth while camping at Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument, again in 1969. Few people camped in the park in those days, and our only neighbor was an older man with a vaguely eccentric quality. He was repeatedly twirling a child's top on the picnic table and watching it slow down and fall over. When he learned that I was a geologist he told me ice cap theory and asked me what I thought about it.

I offered several objections, the principal one being the fact that his top was spinning in the gravity field of the Earth, which was what caused it to fall over once friction had reduced its rotation rate to the point that the gyroscopic effect was too weak to keep it upright. The Earth, on the other hand, was spinning in space and was not embedded in the gravity field of a gigantic neighbor, nor was it slowing down. Therefore, the top analogy was invalid and the Earth was not about to fall over no matter what the ice caps did.

Furthermore, the ice caps were such a small percentage of Earth's total mass that the effects of the changes in ice distribution were trivial. In fact, when water is transferred to the polar regions, conservation of angular momentum requires the Earth to compensate by slightly speeding up its rotation rate, not slowing it down, resulting in a slight enhancement of the gyroscopic effect. Think of how an ice skater can spin faster when she raises her arms above her head. Indeed, atomic clocks have been used to measure minute seasonal variations in the Earth's rotation rate that are caused by changes in the global distribution of ice and water vapor.

The essence of the axial-flip geomyth is a profound reorientation of the two basic planetary reference frames, the equator and the spin axis. The equator is circular, archetypally symbolizing the circle of life, wholeness, the primal mind, cyclical time, eternity and the feminine. The spin axis is linear with distinct ends, archetypically symbolizing separation, dualism, the rational intellect, time's arrow, eschatolgy, and the masculine. Note that the in axial-flip geomyth, the masculine symbol moves toward the feminine symbol, coming to rest within the previous plane of the great round. As a consequence of this reorganization, the new equator passes through the poles of the old spin axis.

This geomyth is a foreshadowing of the reconciliation of the ancient rupture between the sacred masculine and the sacred feminine, with the dominant masculine principle moving to accommodate with the feminine, and the feminine principle reorienting to pass through the previous limits of the masculine principle. Thus the feminine is empowered by occupying the position of the once dominant masculine symbol and subsuming it within the plane of the circle. The masculine principle is tempered and ameliorated by moving into the plane of the previously subordinate feminine principle. The two are taking on some of each other's attributes and coming into balance.

Consequently, we are not seeing a dialectical reversal of the older power equation, with the feminine becoming dominant at the expense of the masculine, but rather the emergence of a new masculine and feminine spirituality. The symbolic reorientation is 90 degrees, not an 180 degree reversal. In Riane Eisler's terminology, the axial-flip myth predicts the replacement of dominator values by partnership values.


In closing, I want to emphasize the importance keeping myths in the mythic realm, and of not concretizing them into historical events on the physical plane. This is the trap that fundamentalists of all stripes fall into, and great social harm can result when they try to politically impose their narrow interpretations on the rest of us.

Within the mythic realm, myths are living things that have continuing relevance to human existence throughout time. When a myth is concretized onto the physical plane it becomes narrow, dull, and the object of derision. This is not to deny the possibility of historical antecedents to some myths -- indeed I have identified some -- but to realize that great myths have a universal truth that transcends time and culture, and connect us with the deepest part of our self. That is why they endure.

Blessed Be,


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