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Out Of The Noise: Renewal Near And Far

One Person's Noise is Another's Signal

by WKT

June 13, 2003 ::
Image of wildfire threatening a house
(Credit: Firesafe Council)
Image of burnt hillside
(Credit: Firesafe Council)
A year ago last February in a rural area of southern California, extremely dry Santa Ana winds whipped the smoldering ashes of a controlled burn back to life. In a matter of hours a full-fledged wildfire was racing through a river valley and up steep canyon slopes at speeds reaching 25 miles per hour. Within 24 hours, 45 homes were burned to the ground and 5,000 acres of chaparral, sage brush, and avocado groves were blackened. Miraculously no one was killed, although some managed to survive only by immersing themselves in a cold swimming pool.

Wildflowers
(Credit: J.Comella)
Looking at the thick layer of ashes and the charred stumps of manzanita and live oaks, it was difficult to imagine how the area would ever recover. Yet, the following winter a series of light rains fell and by springtime the hills were alive with all the colors of the rainbow in one of the most dazzling wildflower displays in memory. The rug of gray ash had been transformed into a magic carpet of blue Canterbury-bells and golden poppies, and black limbs were sprouting green. The process of renewal had begun, in extravagant fashion.

Cas A
(Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO)
Renewal is a constant theme of nature, often triggered by violent events that unlock potential that has remained dormant for years - like the wildflower seeds. Fortunately for us, many of the most dramatic examples of renewal occur, not in our back yard, but thousands of light years away.

The cataclysm of a supernova which signals the death of a massive star would in all probability extinguish life on Earth if it occurred within a dozen or so light years. Whether supernovas have exterminated other civilizations in our galaxy is unknown, but it is certainly a possibility.

SNR 0103-72.6
(Credit: NASA/CXC/PSU/S.Park et al.)
What is known is that supernovas renew the galaxy. They disperse planet-building and live-giving elements manufactured in their interiors - elements such as carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon, calcium and iron - over regions thousands of light years in diameter.

Eagle Nebula
(Credit: HST)
Orion Nebula
(Credit: NASA/PSU)
It doesn't end there. If the expanding supernova shock wave slams into a dormant cloud of dust and gas, the impact can trigger the collapse of clumps of gas. A million years later the sky is ablaze with colorful lights from a new generation of stars, and possibly new planets and new civilizations.

Burnt trees
(Credit: S.Lenfers)
Violence is always destructive and disturbing, but in the natural world it can also lead to renewal.

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