Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Landscape of Math


[a portion of the terraces of Moray near Cusq'o, Peru; the terraces consist of concentric rings giving way to sinuous ovals around a series of constructed depressions; no surface drainage is visible in the bottom of the depressions, but the soil has low salinity, suggesting a sophisticated and sturdy subsurface drainage system that has endured 500 years of no maintenance]

Near the former Incan Imperial capital and modern-day tourist hub of Cusq’o exists a strange construction- the series of concentric rings and seductive oval terraces at an elevation of 11,600 feet known as Moray.  The archeological evidence suggests that this was not a ritualistic religious site or military outpost but rather an experimental agricultural station.  The design and engineering of this landscape enabled the creation of different microclimates, providing wide ranges in temperature, sun exposure, and moisture over a tightly condensed area.  This probably allowed for Incan scientists to test a variety of crops within a microclimatic range similar to that which exists on the steep hillsides common to the surrounding region.

In Volume 7 of the 1894 Engineering Magazine, badass photographer and amateur archeologist Alice Dixon LePlongeon writes:

The Incas seem to have understood the law of fluids- known as equilibrium- their temples and palaces having been supplied through inverted siphons.  Their system of irrigation was so complete that much of the now arid land was productive during the Inca period (p 58).

[Alice Dixon DePlongeon photographing her husband photographing a Mayan frieze in Uxmal in 1881; this was some crazy pre-modernism postmodern photography]

Writing more specifically about Maras in 2011, civil engineer Kenneth Wright notes that the Incas employed the decimal system for counting and developed many other techniques and concepts related to algebra and geometry.  However, because they had no writing, the best evidence of their mathematical expertise is not written but material.  Wright notes that the Inca likely developed a mathematics that included complex division, “multiplication of integers, and use of fractions… Examples of this use of a reliable measuring system and mathematics are widely apparent in the engineering evidence left by the Inca builders.” 

Moray is located in the Sacred Valley, the former heart of the Incan Empire that was a major population corridor in the 15th century and served as a highly productive agricultural landscape.  The site of Maras is only 25 miles from Cusq’o, suggesting that it was sited to be near the political and intellectual elites living in the capital.  Through the intensification of microclimatic difference it seems likely that Maras worked as the testing bed for the agricultural products driving the Andean social system that would become known as the vertical archipelago thanks to anthropologist John Murra.

What strikes us as curious, and illuminating, is that this exaggeration and intensification of natural characteristics, features, and processes through landscape design employs many of the same conceptual tools that Frederick Law Olmsted would harness in designing public landscapes in North America 400 years later.  And both achieve similarly striking aesthetic effects, although Olmsted focused more on picturesque composition as a contrast to the industrial city, whereas the terraces of Moray achieve the sublime through their perfect geometrical terraces amidst the rugged Andes.  The result appears to be the work of alien construction geniuses with an eye for platonic forms and a taste for potatoes.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Andean Anthropogenic Alluvial Fans

[the mining spoils dump site to the west of the Chiquicamata Mine outside of Calama, Chile in the Atacama desert forms a sort of alluvial fan working towards the Andean cordillera; this anthropogenic deltaic fan is also fundamentally shaped and formed by water, as well as Catepillar trucks and Cenezoic Era geology]

Copper has been mined at the Chiquicamata Copper Mine since at least 550 CE. Industrial scale operations began on the site in 1910, only 30 years after Chile had wrested control of the area away from the Bolivians at the behest of British agricultural interests (among other things). To date it has produced some 29,000,000 metric tons of pure copper, leaving a hole in the Atacama that is nearly 900 meters deep and creating a complex nearly 5 kilometers wide. As the mine has expanded, it's pits and waste dumps have covered old mining camps and evacuated formerly thriving towns.

None of this would be possible without the aqueduct that was constructed to bring water 55 miles over the Andes to the site in order to enable the Guggehnheim Process perfected in Utah by Elias Smith. This process is a method of chemical precipitation that prepares sludge for filtration. However, to get sludge you need water, and to get water in the middle of the Atacama, you have to build a 55 mile aqueduct bringing water up over the Andes and down to Calama, which the Guggenheims paid some people to do. In this way, the great alluvial fan of the Chiquicamata Mine is a natural history of one hundred years of open-pit industrial operations.

According to Mining Technology there is currently a project to shift these operations to below ground mining tunnels. With this shift the mine is projected to remain operational until 2060. At that same time a new project was announced to bring some 6,000 cubic liters of water every hour to the Chiquicamata and Escondida Copper mines from the aquifer below Salta, Argentina. This new influx of extra-basin water, limited to 170,400,000 cubic meters per year, combined with a radical shift in mining operations are sure to produce their own mophologies and natural histories. New delta landscapes of the Atacama Desert.

[the Chiquicamata Mine from above; in this aerial south is up; the different morphologies can be read as a natural history of a massive interbasin water transfer, Cenezoic copper deposits, and the movement of diesel shovels and dump trucks]

The Bold and the Beautiful

[in the Atacama Salt Flat brines are pumped to the surface from the subterranean hydrological system and held in evaporation pools to concentrate the salts. The subterranean waters are fed by snowmelt from the surrounding volcanoes and are therefore rich in certain minerals- especially lithium and phosphates- which are then extracted from the salts after evaporation; the industrial infrastructure is extensive, only a very small portion is indicated in this NASA satellite photo but the huge system of wells, pipes, and evaporation ponds can be seen in google earth]

In the Chilean borderlands of the Atacama Desert the important thing is to listen to the music of the pan flute. You may see the sun burndt mountains and dry gullies and think that all you need in that landscape of windswept plains and scrub grasses is a horse, like you're goddamn John Grady Cole; you may feel the altitude making you queasy after making a couple of steps a little too quickly and think you need a few coca leaves; you may see this parched landscape, some of which has never received rain in recorded history, and think you need to be sure to bring lots of drinking water; but the most important issue you need to make sure of is that you have enough pan flute music for the journey.

Sure, when the Bolivian guy is standing on the platform at the 14th Street F stop hitting his guitar and blowing his pan flute it can seem a little sad, but not everything is made to be played in a subway tunnel like the Dirty Projectors. On the Andean altiplano, and especially in the Atacama region, the pan flute starts to make a lot of sense. The Atacama is an extreme environment rich in minerals, low in population, and located on a contested national border that is notoriously difficult to control. In this way it offers an example of what we mean when talking about an American frontier landscape. Within this larger landscape the Atacama Salt Flats offer an instructive case.

Bound by a highly active volcanic section of the Andes Mountains rising more than 6,000 meters in the east and the Domeyko Range rising over 4,500 meters in the east, the Atacama Salt Flats are an industrial-ecological landscape built on a regional hydrological system that is completely lacking in precipitation. As a hydrological system, the surrounding mountains block all precipitation, collecting it as snowfall at their peaks, some of which is slowly released into the Salt Flat drainage basin via subterranean flows. This water carries with it the minerals concentrated in each volcano in the form of salts which become highly concentrated in the salt flats because the drainage basin has no outlet except via evaporation.

[farming terraces in a dry gully on the outskirts of the mining town of Toconao; these draw from historical techniques for intensive farming in the region and are a combined effort by the Chilean government and local residents who have moved here for work in the salt lagoon mines to produce some of their sustenance locally- not an easy task in a place with no rain and poor soil]

The subterranean waters create an opening for evaporation by breaking through the surface in the low point of the basin, where the salt flats are located. As the water evaporates the salts are left behind, creating a series of mineral rich lagoons that grow and shrink with the season's snow melt. The hydrological system resulting in mineral rich salt lagoons has created a unique ecosystem: algae that feed on the concentrated minerals bloom in the lagoons and are then consumed by microscopic briny crustaceans. Flamingos and insects are attracted to the crustaceans, and migratory birds stop for the insects and water.

In recent decades these conditions have been maintained and exploited by the creation of the Los Flamencos Nature Reserve and by the construction of large scale mineral operations using pumps, wells, and evaporation lagoons to mine lithium and phosphates from the salts produced by the hydrological system. To enable these industrial process and to protect the ecological functions a small population center has been established at Toconao and new infrastructure has been created- roads, pumps, wells, lagoons, terraces and irrigation canals.

This is a pattern that has appeared time and again in our studies of the American landscape- a national park or nature reserve concomitant with a population center and the installation of a new infrastructural or militaristic project. Given this evidence we have suggested that the historical role of national parks in the American landscape should be radicalized; they should be pulled from the European art-historical narrative that they have been confined to and understood as geo-political instruments providing a unique adaption to a historical frontier condition that is endemic to the American landscape.

Of course, this thesis likely has some holes and shortcomings and our results are surely skewed by the fact that we are looking for these cases, but we are interested in pursuing it for the readings it offers on a place like the contemporary American landscape in the Atacama Salt Flat. Here a nature reserve was created at the same time as a new industrial mining operation began operation and new roads and agricultural infrastructures (irrigation canals and terraces) began to be projected for small new population centers in this harsh desert landscape. The result is spectacular, especially if you are listening to the pan flute as you move through it.

[the Atacama is also fantastically Martian; it is one of four sites in the Earth Mars Cave Exploration Program detailed wonderfully here by Jut Wynne; it is also home to the ALMA astronomical observatory, the base camp of which sits perched on the slope between the Salt Flat and the volcanoes of the Andean Cordillera]