Tales from a Westeros Geologist

Westeros Geologic Map cropped

Day 1 – Planet… Hodor

Well, the gateway seems to have worked. I won’t bore you with the details, but we seemed able to rip open a hole in the cosmos and travel through the interdimensional portal to this strange place. The gateway engineers back on Earth seemed pretty confident that I would make it to Westeros, but until I saw the Weirwood trees, I wasn’t so sure. I guess I owe them a gin and tonic when I get back.

In case you’re wondering, I’m here to survey the geology of this planet. I tried to ask a few people around here if the planet had a name, but they looked pretty dead, so I guess I shouldn’t have expected an answer. I’ll go ahead and call it something that totally doesn’t mean anything like a phrase garbled and transported through time. I’ll call it Planet Hodor.

Based on the smoldering stones and the freezing temperatures, I’m guessing I’m near Winterfell. Doesn’t look like anybody’s around, so I should probably find a place out of sight in case the Starks, Boltons, or anyone else comes by. Continue reading Tales from a Westeros Geologist

Sounds of Space

When we think of space, we typically think of beautiful images taken by powerful telescopes and interplanetary rovers. We think of the rings around Saturn; the giant red spot on Jupiter; or Martian rover selfies. But what does the surface of Mars sound like? What haunting melody should we expect from our Sun? And what do these sounds teach us about our cosmic neighborhood? On today’s episode, we journey on an audio tour of the solar system, built from a rich library of sounds recorded and converted from satellite and rover data. So put on a pair of headphones and join us for a voyage of exploration and discovery as we explore the Sounds of Space.

The Geology of Game of Thrones

Image Map

This is Westeros as it exists in the days of tumult, in the days following the death of King Robert Baratheon, in the shortening days that warn that winter is coming.  But this is also the geological history of Westeros, reaching far deeper through the annals of time than the reign of any of the Seven Kingdoms.  We pieced this geologic history together from character observations, town names, official Game of Thrones maps, and the principles of geology learned here on Earth.  Using only limited data we were able to reimagine 500 million years of planetary evolution, including volcanoes, continents rising from the oceans, and ice ages (with guest appearance by white walkers and dragons).  To explore the history, and to view our maps of the geologic reconstructions, click the numbered icons on the map, or on the links below. Continue reading The Geology of Game of Thrones

Westeros today, and the size of the Game of Thrones planet

Westeros 0 Mya
Westeros today. Click to enlarge.

From the texts, we know that the kingdoms have persisted for thousands of years, with many kings rising and falling as the tides (though we won’t concern ourselves with kings or kingdoms here).  From the same texts and carefully surveyed maps, we also know that Westeros contains mountain ranges, hot springs, granite, gold mines, deserts, ice walls, and red, grey, and black stones used to construct castles.  To the carefully trained eye – admittedly trained here on Earth – each of these elements betrays a rich and complex geologic history of the continent, reaching back over 500 million years.

We began with a simple question: what is the size of the Game of Thrones planet?  After all, understanding processes at the planetary scale is crucial to geology.  Past researchers have attempted these calculations without consideration of the coupled system of climate and geology, and these are essential initial attempts.  We started with the most basic of observations: it is cold enough in the north to maintain the Wall of ice that shields the continent from the White Walkers, and it is warm enough in the south that the maps are colored as deserts, an environment encountered most recently by the Khaleesi, Daenerys Targaryen, at approximately the same latitude on Essos.

Hadley Cells, creating hot, arid, barren landscapes since forever (via Wikimedia Commons)
Hadley Cells, creating hot, arid, barren landscapes since forever (via Wikimedia Commons)

On Earth, deserts appear within a general latitude range, with most near 30° north (for example, the Sahara in Africa) and south (for example, the Atacama desert in South America).  This is due to circulation of atmospheric Hadley cells.  The harsh cold of the north, and the presence of the Wall for millennia, suggests that the Wall is at or near the Arctic Circle, currently at 66.5° north latitude on Earth.  So we have some approximate bounds for Westeros, stretching from 30° to 66.5° latitude, and all of it likely on the northern hemisphere.  Finally, we have it on good authority that it is 3,000 miles from the Wall to the southern flank of the continent, the deserts of Dorne.  Using simple geometry, we calculate that the radius of this dragon-inhabited planet is 4,297 miles, slightly larger than Earth’s radius of 3,959 miles, but still remarkably similar.  Fortunately for us, this won’t be the last time we assume similarities between this planet and our home on Earth.

The Earth Split Westeros from Essos – 25 Mya

Westeros 25 Mya
Westeros 25 million years ago. Click to enlarge.

Twenty-five million years ago (Mya), a line of fire and molten rock cut through the planet’s crust – like Wildfire cut through the ships at Blackwater Bay – and separated the previously joined continents of Westeros and Essos.  This spreading ridge is analogous to the mid-Atlantic ridge that was largely responsible for the breakup of Earth’s last super-continent of Pangaea.  The most striking evidence of this breakup is the morphological similarities of the shores of Westeros and Essos, appearing as though they could fit together as pieces of some geological jigsaw puzzle (similar to Alfred Wegener’s, and others’, observation that South America and Africa seemed to fit in the same way).  Based on the average spreading rate of the mid-Atlantic ridge (~2.5 cm/yr), we calculate that the rifting between Westeros and Essos began around 25 Mya.

Pangea_animation_03
Dammit mid-Atlantic ridge, why are you always driving a wedge between us? (via Wikimedia Commons)

Furthermore, we propose that the Mountains of the Moon and the Hills of Norvos all belong to the same range, preferentially eroded in the east for reasons unknown (more on this later).  Also intriguing is the fact that the Hills of Norvos do not follow the same southwest-to-northeast trajectory as the Mountains of the Moon.  We cannot say for certain the orientation of the fault that created these ranges, but if they once befell a more linear path, then we can surmise that the Hills of Norvos have rotated in a clockwise direction, indicating that the rift between Westeros and Essos began in the north, and effectively “unzipped” to the south.  As of this writing, we cannot say with any certainty what caused the rifting (note: such radical changes in plate motion and the type of faulting can be found in Earth history, but generally require 100s of millions of years to come about, nearly 10 times longer than the process appears to have taken on this planet).

Perhaps the most controversial of our assertions is that plate tectonics are actively transforming the surface of Westeros, indeed the entire planet, and have done so for eons.  Yet the very presence of mountain ranges, a breathable atmosphere, and even life itself suggest that active tectonics must be considered in all analyses of Westeros.  Plate tectonics is the fundamental principal by which we understand Earth’s geology.  Among many others, tectonics explains how continents move, how rocks help regulate the atmosphere, and how earthquakes shake the ground and volcanoes ignite the skies.  Given active tectonics, we are somewhat troubled by the lack of earthquakes and volcanoes throughout the Seven Kingdoms.  While we cannot be certain, it is possible that the faulting responsible for creating the mountain ranges has since stopped, or at least slowed to a point when the recurrence intervals of large earthquakes and/or volcanic eruptions is long enough to circumvent the written records.  Though, at the moment, this remains speculation.