Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

The Ghost Forests of Cascadia: How Valuing Geological Inquiry Puts Practice into Place

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

The Ghost Forests of Cascadia: How Valuing Geological Inquiry Puts Practice into Place

Article excerpt


An earthquake occurred on January 26, 1700, in the Cascadian subduction zone. The earthquake was felt by indigenous people in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. ("Cascadia"), and a tsunami was experienced along the shores of Japan. The earthquake was unknown to the current citizens of the U.S. until U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) geologist Brian Atwater began to puzzle over stands of dead cedar trees or "ghost forests." He asked, "What could have killed so many trees over so wide an area?" (National Research Council, 2000, p. 2). Tree-ring dating placed their demise near the year 1700. He examined anomalous sand and rubble horizons beneath mud flats in tidal channels and wondered about even more deeply buried upland forest floors. Dating these phenomena at several sites along the Washington and Oregon coast converged on the same year.


What is the significance of this curious case of dead cedars, sand sheets, buried soils-and an orphan tsunamito science education? The range of inquiries contained in The Orphan Tsunami of 1700 (Atwater et al., 2005), an interpretation of Cascadian geology and its seismic hazards, reveals the synergistic value of place and practice to learning science. Organization by place makes meaning personal and practice distinctive. Diverse practices of inquiry cohere when seeking a sense of place. Insights from The Orphan Tsunami of 1700 contribute to living well in a particular landscape. The ghost forests of Cascadia harbor a stunning message: Prepare for a great subduction zone earthquake and accompanying tsunami.

Analysis of the ghost forest story brings into question pedagogical efforts to unify the sciences that have persisted for decades and haunted state assessments. Universal, general, and timeless abstractions of science-as method, process, nature, or inquiry skill-mask features distinctive of disciplined inquiry and hide the match between problem and practice. The quest to unify readily obscures the value of disciplinary expertise and tends to rank one science less scientific than another. Geoscientists lament, "As a discipline the geosciences often struggle to find a place at the scientific table" (Manduca and Kastens, 2012, p. 1). However, by extending the range of trusted, inquiry practices and by generating essential, local knowledge, a table setting for geoscience is assured.

For the citizens of Cascadia, "place" is a critical organizer of knowledge having personal and social value. The interpretation of place presumes "local, particular, timely" knowledge (Toulmin, 1990, p. 71) as much as, if not more so than, "timeless, general, and universal" knowledge (p. 35). Geological inquiry-a distinct engine of timely and local knowledge-amplifies the value of place as a context for learning. In turn, the value of a sense of place elevates the importance of understanding geological thought. In order to live informed, responsible lives "placeless" knowledge will not suffice.


Developing a sense of place requires a focus on the natural attributes of a landscape and realization that a particular place holds diverse meanings for the instructor, the students, and the community. Experience in that place or in an environment that strongly evokes that place is essential. If successful, such teaching promotes and supports ecologically and culturally sustainable living (Semken, 2005).

Geological inquiry may readily contribute to achieving a sense of place. However, achieving a "sense of place" is an end distinct from the pedagogical usefulness of place as a context for teaching. Having a sense of place contributes to both the growth of personal identity and the pursuit of community well-being. That is the value lesson of Brian Atwater's account of stands of dead cedars near Cascadian shores.

Personal Identity

Connection to place fosters identity-the strength gained from knowing who one is and where (and when) one stands, literally and metaphorically. …

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