We're more than stardust — we're made of the Big Bang itself

As Carl Sagan told us, we and our apple pies are made of star stuff. But there's something more: We are made of particles formed in the first moments of the Big Bang.

Anna Frebel: The work of stellar archaeology really goes to the heart of the "we are stardust" and "we are children of the stars" statement. You’ve probably heard it all but what does it actually mean? We are mostly made all humans and all life forms that we know of are made mostly of carbon and a bunch of other elements but in much lesser quantities. Where does this carbon come from? Well, you could say it comes from the Earth and yes that is true. But how did it get into the Earth, right? And so that is where astronomy comes in because there are multiple so-called nuclear synthesis processes that create elements, heavy elements. They fuse lighter ones into heavier ones starting with hydrogen. Four hydrogen atoms come together and fuse into a helium atom. And if you throw three helium atoms together, you get a carbon nucleus. And this is how carbon is created and we are establishing how much carbon was created at various times in the universe and through which processes and in which types of stars and what evolutionary phases of the stars this all happens.

And so this is how we can piece together the chemical evolution of the universe that is really the basis for any biological evolution to take place on Earth. And I find it really exciting to go back and really look at the constituents of life separately and we have studies not just carbon, but also nitrogen and phosphorus and sulfur and oxygen and iron and all the different elements through our work in stellar archaeology. And actually if you come to think about it, the body is not just made of carbon, but also a lot of water. And there is hydrogen and oxygen in the water and well we know oxygen also comes from the stars. You add another helium nucleus to a carbon nucleus and you get an oxygen nucleus. But the water, the hydrogen, that’s just protons. They were all formed in the Big Bang. So we actually carry about 10 percent of our body weight in us that is Big Bang material. The protons were all recycled numerous times throughout the stars, but the actual protons were made in the hot Big Bang when all the subatomic particles actually came together and formed protons and neutrons. And so that we are not just children of the stars. Actually we are also children of the Big Bang. And I think it’s really nice once in a while to reflect on that and really realize how much we are actually connected to the cosmos.

 

One of the most poetic and perspective-giving phrases belongs to Carl Sagan: "The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff." But not only are we made of star dust; we're made of elements so fundamental to the universe they were created in the first moments of the Big Bang. The history inside of us stretches back further than we knew and our future remains inescapably among the stars.

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An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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