Thursday, November 30, 2023

Geology in Pop Culture - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

 Geology in Pop Culture: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

When I started preparing my talk for the 2023 annual Geological Society of America conference (Finding Hidden Geological Lessons in the Media Around Us), I knew that I wanted to talk about Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It is a movie that had been on my radar to write about for many years and I figured it would be a fairly easy one to throw into the talk. However, when I started to do my regular research into it, fascinating things started to pop up and I figured as part of my talk, I would give the audience a walk through of my process. And that is what I will do here as well....

When we first are introduced to the eponymous dwarfs of the movie, we discover them as workers in a mine. 

The dwarfs working in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

And it turns out they have vocal talent as well, but that's besides the point. To start my research I needed to verify what it was that they were actually digging for. I assumed it was diamonds but I could not recall if it was ever stated as such.  

As the lyrics of their song state: "where a million diamonds shine". So clearly this is a diamond mine, as I was led to believe. 

From here there are several avenues that one can take while looking at this. I first wanted to confirm my suspicions, not just about the diamonds, which we just did, but also about the placement of the story. Another assumption of mine that I wanted to confirm, was whether Snow White was German. The story was written by the German writing pair, the Brothers Grimm, in 1812 as Sneewittchen, indicating that she was likely German. And while this doesn't mean that the Disney version of the character is also German, you can currently meet Snow White in Germany at EPCOT, pretty much confirming that Snow White is German (at least in the eyes of Disney).

Step 1: The original inspiration
But let us bring this back even further. What was the original inspiration for the character. Was she actually German? Did she live in a mining town? And if she did, did they mine diamonds?

The True Story Behind Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs article from Curious Historian

It is thought that the real life inspiration to the character of Snow White was Margarete von Waldeck, born to a prominent family in Waldeck, Germany in 1533. Many aspects of her life line up with the fairy tale per the article, but the most important one was that the town of Waldeck was a mining town. The only problem was that the mine was a copper mine, not a diamond mine. And those are two very different things in geology. So although the mine might still have sparkled with the light reflecting off the metal deposits, it is not a diamond mine. 

So we move on. 

Step 2: The Source for Diamonds
Although the real life Snow White didn't live near a diamond mine, we still assume that the character of Snow White is German and lived near a German diamond mine, if such a thing exists. So let us look at real life diamond mine localities. 

There are several ways that diamonds can form, and therefore there are several different types of deposits that they can be found in, but by far the most common types of deposits are known as kimberlites. 

Kimberlite model. Image courtesy of the Kansas Geological Survey

Kimberlites are the result of magma from deep in the Earth's mantle that gets erupted on the surface in a rapid and violent type of eruption. Deep in the mantle is where the pressures are high enough for diamonds to form, which typically happens at 150 to 700 km deep in the Earth. The diamonds are then carried upwards in these kimberlite eruptions, where they can then be found on the surface of the Earth.

Global kimberlite localities. From Tappe et al., 2018.

 However, there is a problem when we look at the global distribution of kimberlite deposits.

Blow up of European kimberlite deposits. From Tappe et al., 2018.

There are no kimberlite deposits in mainland Europe. So unless Snow White was Scandinavian or Russian, we are at a dead-end here as well.

Step 3: Alternative Diamond Sources

And this is where the story takes an interesting turn. During my research for diamonds in Germany, I did come across one fascinating story. It turns out that 15 million years ago the town of Nördlingen, Germany was struck by a meteorite. 

Norlingen, Germany. Image courtesy of The Travel.

Known as the Nördlinger Ries impact crater, the asteroid that struck the Earth was going at least 70,000 km/h forming an impact crater 25 km across and 500 m deep. When meteorites strike the surface of the Earth, they do so with tremendous speed, creating very high pressures. The pressures produced from this impact were large enough that they could potentially create diamonds, if the rock they are impacting has the proper carbon concentration (carbon being the element that diamonds are made out of). 

The Nördlinger Ries impact crater. Image courtesy of Digital Geology

The rocks in the area of Nördlingen were mostly sedimentary rocks (limestones, shales, and sandstones) however there is also a significant amount of graphite-bearing gneissic rocks. Graphite is another mineral that is entirely made up of carbon and is often the source mineral for artificial diamond creations. The impact of the Nördlinger Ries meteorite was then able to transformed the graphite in these source rocks into tons and tons of microscopic diamonds. 

Article highlighting all of the diamonds from the Nordlingen impact. Image courtesy of The Travel

On average the diamonds produced from the impact were less than 0.2 mm, however the total amount of diamonds is estimated to be 72,000 tons! That's a lot of diamonds. So it is my theory that Snow White and the seven dwarfs lived near the Nördlingen impact crater and mined the diamonds from a meteorite impact. 


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