Villa Epecuen felt like it would thrive forever. The popular resort town in Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires attracted people from all walks of lives with shopping, museums, spas, and the almost-magical health benefits of Lago Epecuen, the town’s scenic lake.
But then action came to a screeching halt when residents suddenly found the historic town had, almost inexplicably, been wiped off the map. It took years for an adventurer to visit the once-thriving spot, and he documented his trip with incredible photos that showed what happens to a town that practically disappears.
But long before tourists were rushing to the plot of Earth called Lago Epecuen, it was a local hotspot, too. Native populations recalled the myth and legend of the area over generations.
According to the myth, Levuche Indians found a badly burned boy after a forest fire, and he grew into a successful warrior. He kidnapped a rival leader’s daughter after battle, and the tears she shed formed Lago Epecuen.
Of course, that’s just a tall tale, but nevertheless the lake became the focal point of Villa Epecuén, a tourist haven founded in the area on January 23, 1921. It rapidly grew in popularity thanks to one form of easy transportation.
The farming industry in the land surrounding the town required a train to transport grain to and from Buenos Aires. After the grain was carried to the capital city, it returned with tons of visitors.
Obviously the people coming by train were excited to explore the town, but it was the lake that had people really talking. Its high-salinity level supposedly had mystical healing properties. In fact, there was only one saltier body of water.
The Dead Sea, below, which is known for having such a high salt content that you literally lie suspended in it, was the only saltier place in the world. Over time, this legendary salinity made the area almost therapeutic for visitors.
People suffering from ailments like rheumatism, anemia, depression, and even diabetes believed in the healing nature of the salt, and before the long, the area exploded with foot traffic from all over the world.
There were nearly 300 businesses and enough hotels in the village to cater to up to 5,000 visitors at one time. Plus, to ensure the lake never dried up, the Buenos Aires government installed what was known as the Ameghino Canal.
An elaborate series of canals waterways were dug to keep the water constantly flowing. Officials knew the lake drew the crowds, and without the salty swimming lanes, the popularity of the area would quickly die off.
For decades, the village thrived. However, everything changed in 1976 after Argentina suffered from serious unrest in their government. While officials argued and fought in the spotlight, no one had their eyes on Lago Epecuen.
The lack of care for the waterways immediately caused the lake to rise at a rate of 20 inches per year! With no outlet for the water to flood into, it only took a few years for total disaster to strike.
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It was 1985 when the final straw shattered the camel’s back. Heavy rainfall pounded Villa Epecuen and its lake, and water flooded into the town, destroying everything in a matter of hours.
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The vibrant life of Villa Epecuen vanished underwater. Residents fled to local communities but lost everything. The town remained submerged until 2009, when a series of intense droughts hit. The lost town suddenly reappeared after over two decades!
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Of course, it was just the skeletal remains of the once-thriving resort town, but it was incredible to see. A photographer named Federico Peretti visited the ghost town in 2011 to capture whatever was left through his lens.
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As you can see, the photos he snapped were haunting. Gnarled remains of once-lush trees lined nearly every path, and what were once entertaining venues to kick back a few cocktails just stood cold and gutted.
There was a lingering eeriness that hung in the air like thick humidity. One of the craziest experiences Peretti had while snapping pictures was running into the one man who still lived in the town.
That’s right, an elderly man named Pablo Novak lived in a run-down building. When asked about his life, Novak replied, “I am okay here. I am just alone. I read the newspaper. I always think of the town’s golden days.”
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For whatever reason, Novak put up with the disastrous environment every day in a small stone hut complete with a fridge and stove. He did occasionally see people, and many of them were actually film crews.
The current scenery of the town made for a great backdrop for horror films. In 2010, a director named Marcos Efron shot a thriller called And Soon The Darkness, and the town provided the perfect creepy energy.
Sadly, Villa Epecuen will never see the action it did in its heyday; the vibrant energy it once held is now just a memory. The speed at which the town vanished was alarming, and experts are concerned similar disasters could strike coastal towns.
Every year, our sea levels gradually rise. In the 1990s, they rose by about 0.1 inch per annually, and in 2018 the average rose to 0.13 inches. As this happens, more ocean water touches more of our freshwater sources.
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As the seawater spreads inland, it can poison deciduous trees as it changes the freshwater to a more brackish concentration. It normally kills the sensitive hardwood trees first, like oaks.
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Some of the last trees to finally perish are the loblolly pines. They can stand the salty onslaught longer than the hardwoods and other salt-sensitive trees. But eventually, they, too, will also be poisoned and die.
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When the trees are dead, marsh plants move into the area and further alter it. Cordgrass and glassworts are some of the first grassy plants to transform the space, but it can easily be overtaken by invasive species like phragmites.
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Even the aquatic life changes in the area. Blue crabs and flounders can move in, indicating a much higher salt presence. And all of this indicates the subtle impacts of global warming starting to eat our home alive.
The ghost forests forming along the coasts signal the rapidly rising sea levels and how much they are already irreparably changing the landscape. Storms are growing in strength, due to higher temperatures.
These also push water against the land. Increasing periods of drought mean less freshwater flowing outward against the ocean water coming inland. On top of all the other factors, some areas are sinking.
At the end of the last ice age, geological processes made certain sections of land sink. When the land dips inward, sea water can claim even more forest, where it shouldn’t touch.
Though they signal something terrible, they are useful for researchers. “A ghost forest is a way to capture geological history. There’s not always a way to do that,” Dr. Able, a professor emeritus of marine and coastal sciences said.
One of the first researchers to study ghost forests was Paul Taillie, a PhD student at North Carolina State University. He recreated a study from 15 years earlier and was surprised at the results.
The plant processes — tree death and marsh plant encroachment — remained the same. What was interesting was that this wasn’t happening at a uniform rate across the area.
Paul figured droughts were responsible. If there’s a drought, freshwater isn’t flowing into the ocean and waters that are close to the shore can become even saltier. This flows into the land, killing the trees as it touches them.
Wildfires also increase ghost forest creation. During a dry year, wetlands normally burn, and the fires travel across the water. Trees normally grow back after these, but they aren’t always growing anymore.
Scientists believe many areas are becoming too salty for the wildlife that naturally occurs there and this greatly decreases tree regeneration. This factor, combined with increase fires from global warming, means more ghost forests will pop up in the future.
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Though what remains of the trees in a ghost forest is spindly, the marsh plants that appear are creating important homes for various types of wildlife in the area — birds, young fish, and other animals.
These also create something else: a barrier for the remaining forest against the still-rising ocean. This brings us back to Oregon’s Neskowin ghost forest, which isn’t normally as visible.
Many researchers believe it was covered by a Cascadia subduction zone earthquake, but no one is completely sure. The last one of these was in the 1700s in the area — though another one is expected in the near future.
If you’re interested in the Neskowin ghost forest, you can get a good view of the trees during low tide. They can sometimes appear close to Proposal Rock — one of the park’s most popular landmarks.
When tourists learn about the reasons behind the Neskowin, they become uncomfortable with the changing scenery. Seeing these trees reminds us of the massive earthquake Oregon has in store.
We don’t know when the earthquake will hit. We don’t know how destructive it will be. All we can do for now, is look at the reminder that grows in visibility during low tide. Luckily, there are people keeping an eye out for doomsday scenarios.
When Brian Wilcox joined the NASA Advisory Council on Planetary Defense, the mission laid before him was simple: find the realistic ways the world might end, and then, stop them from happening. He never could’ve predicted where his research would take him.
At first, his job mostly entailed drawing up schemes to prevent Earth from getting smashed with an asteroid or comet (none of which involved a Bruce Willis Armageddon situation). But because of his research, Brian’s attention — and worries — turned away from space debris.
What really started to concern Brian was in Yellowstone National Park, the 3,500-square-mile stretch of rivers, canyons, forests, and sights like Old Faithful that draws tourists from all over the world. Beneath the beauty, trouble was brewing.
Five miles under the surface is a pool of magma with access to the surface. In laymen’s terms, it’s a volcano. But because it holds so much explosive potential, scientists classify it as a super volcano, one of twenty on the planet.
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“I came to the conclusion during that study,” Brian, who eventually transferred to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said, “that the super volcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat.” When diving into the possibilities, it’s easy to see why.
Every 100,000 years or so, a super volcano erupts, and Yellowstone’s, according to the doomsday experts, could potentially be due: throughout history, it’s burst three times, about once every 600,000 years. It’s been about that long since the last blast.
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Of course, eruption models aren’t exactly a precise science. Just because we’re at the 600,000 year mark doesn’t guarantee another magma blast. But Brian, focused on doomsday, couldn’t ignore the potential devastation of an explosion.
Three feet of ash could blanket states like Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, and Idaho. Atmospheric cooling would induce a “volcanic winter,” wiping out crops and making it impossible to grow more. Food reserves, according to the UN, would run out 74 days later.
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After studying the destructive potential, NASA scientists were left scratching their heads. The chances of such a devastating eruption were low, sure. But they couldn’t sit around, fingers crossed, hoping the odds were in humanity’s favor.
At the drawing board, scientists considered what they knew about volcanoes, namely that they erupted once the magma inside reached a certain temperature threshold. So, these experts thought, why not simply cool the volcano down?
Soon, a hazy plan started to form: all they needed to do to prevent potential volcanic annihilation was dump enough water into Yellowstone’s super volcano to cool it down. It was oddly archaic, but crazy enough to work. Still, others voiced criticism.
Creating the infrastructure to transport all that water would never get mainstream support. “Building a big aqueduct uphill into a mountainous region would be both costly and difficult,” said Brian Wilcox, “People don’t want their water spent that way.”
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He went on: “People are desperate for water all over the world, and so a major infrastructure project, where the only way the water is used is to cool down a super volcano, would be very controversial.” So, what could be done?
The plan needed another layer, more depth. Back at the drawing board, experts tossed around cooling methods, keeping in mind that any infrastructure necessary would likely have to get Congress’s approval. Finally, their collective brainpower has an answer.
Instead of transporting water into the mouth of the super volcano, experts can drill down just over six miles into the earth on each side of it. Then, recyclable water will be pumped in at high pressure, cooling the magma from the bottom up. This has an additional perk.
“Through drilling in this way,” Brian Wilcox said, “it could be used to create a geothermal plant, which generates electric power at extremely competitive prices.” Unfortunately, the strategy isn’t without seriously catastrophic risks.
Drill at the wrong angle, and scientists risk damaging the cap over the magma chamber, which could release toxic gasses into the atmosphere or only expedite any volcanic eruption. The project also comes with a serious price tag.
At $3.46 billion, cooling the super volcano will not be cheap. Worse, those who start the project will never see it finished: lowering temperatures to “safe” levels will take tens of thousands of years. Still, the rewards outweighed the risks.
That’s why NASA experts hope they’ve created a blueprint to tackle every super volcano threat in the future. More importantly, scientists hope they’ve brought mainstream attention to a true potential threat to the world.
“When people first considered the idea of defending the Earth from an asteroid impact, they reacted in a similar way to the super volcano threat,” Brian Wilcox said. “People thought, ‘As puny as we are, how can humans possibly prevent an asteroid from hitting the Earth.’”
“Well,” he said, “it turns out if you engineer something which pushes very slightly for a very long time, you can make the asteroid miss the Earth.” Experts are hoping their plan does the same for this super volcano.
However, even with their attentions turned to Yellowstone, experts haven’t forgotten about meteoric threats. Lindley Johnson, a 23-year veteran of the Air Force, joined NASA’s ranks in 2003. Ever since, his mind has mostly been fixated on the end of the world.
But don’t worry — Lindley is no crackpot. He’s not urging on the apocalypse, but rather approaching it from an analytical standpoint. Lindley serves as NASA’s Planetary Defense Officer, so nobody is better equipped to take on doomsday than he.
While humanity does a pretty good job of endangering itself on a daily basis, Lindley doesn’t worry about terrestrial threats. He’s more concerned with space rocks. Granted, most meteorites that come down to Earth are pretty small, or even microscopic.
However, what if an asteroid — say, one that is multiple football fields in diameter — was hurtling toward our planet? Odds are pretty good that it would land in the middle of the ocean, but Lindley wants more than luck on his side.
That’s why his NASA team investigates (hypothetical) cases of giant asteroids hitting densely urban areas. Thousands of years typically pass between such catastrophic events, but Lindley intends to be ready at any point.
After all, Earth’s geography proves just how destructive a collision can be. NASA certainly doesn’t wish to see Midtown Manhattan turned into a crater, but they are interested in exactly how far that damage would spread.
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Lindley’s team continually runs simulations to get a better idea of where asteroids are most likely to strike, plus what kind of damage we can expect. In some cases, a collision may be inevitable. But Earth isn’t totally helpless.
For years, Lindley and his colleagues were operating on a shoestring budget. Fortunately, a 2015 audit convinced Congress just how essential planetary defense could be. They immediately buffed up Lindley’s annual spending power from $5 million to $50 million.
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With more resources on his side than he ever imagined, Lindley has led the charge against galactic peril. His NASA team assembled an arsenal of data and cutting-edge technology to keep asteroids at bay.
NASA keeps this fact on the down-low, but they’ve cataloged over 2,000 asteroids in our solar system capable of obliterating an entire continent. Blowing up such a massive rock might cause too much fallout, so Lindley has other tricks up his sleeve.
The most promising method to redirect an asteroid is through the use of kinetic impactors. These unmanned spacecraft would crash into an asteroid at high speed, thus deflecting it away from our planet. Think of it as a game of high-stakes billiards.
With all due respect to fans of Armageddon, Lindley doesn’t believe that landing on an asteroid would be the most effective solution. Still, NASA hasn’t taken that option off the table.
Astronauts have trained for complex asteroid landings, though nobody has ever attempted the feat. NASA foresees this operation more as a way to collect mineral samples, but there’s always the chance they’ll go full Michael Bay in an emergency.
NASA has a selection of hypothetical fixes to choose from, though they’re also ramping up their asteroid prevention in more concrete ways. For instance, they’ve installed more orbital telescopes to monitor any life-threatening space rocks in the solar system.
The capability to spot catastrophe coming could be the most important factor in the end. Most deflection techniques require months or years to mobilize, so a few days notice won’t help at all. The good news is that NASA isn’t alone in this fight.
Lindley’s team ran exercises with FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — to prepare for collateral damage from a collision. “They are a great way for us to learn how to work together and meet each other’s needs,” Lindley explained.
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In 2019, Lindley also organized a conference with the European Space Agency and the International Asteroid Warning Network. Working together, they’ll have eyes on the sky all over the world.
While it seems unlikely that we’ll have to deal with an impending apocalypse, civilization is better prepared than ever. That news will only disappoint doomsday preppers, who may very well have stocked up their bunkers for nothing.
In spite of the life-or-death consequences of his job, Lindley says he sleeps just fine at night. It’s just another day at NASA. Besides, Lindley can name plenty of colleagues who have responsibilities that might be even more trying than his own.