Mountains that Remade America

Jones_comp proof

For those who come hoping to see material related to the Grumpy Geophysicist’s trade book on the Sierra Nevada, The Mountains that Remade America, here are a few quick pointers.

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Memory Loss

As we all get older, we find it harder to remember things from the past (or names or words).  The same thing seems to be true of nations and their leaders–well, at least America (seems like some other nations cannot forget any slight). So as the generation that grew up in the Depression and fought WWII passes from this earth, we are left with a nation that has not known true economic devastation either from unbridled capitalism, as in the 1930s, or devastation from war, as US GIs witnessed in Europe. The result seems to be a delight in saber-rattling and glorifying the military at the expense of diplomacy and alliance-building, an unbending desire to remove all regulations, whether good or ill, from the private sector. It is easy to imagine plunging into some of the worst mistakes of the twentieth century by following such a course.

There are, perhaps, two cures.  One is to study history–not the hagiography of a noble nation that saves the world from tyranny, but to recognize the success and the failures.  To understand how the Marshall Plan worked when the League of Nations didn’t. To see the folly in restoring the French to Indochina after WWII and the Shah to the throne in Iran even as Nixon going to China and Reagan reaching an arms accord with the Soviet Union lessened world tensions. To really recognize the tremendous losses the Russian peoples suffered in WWII, which dwarfed the devastation even to the occupied Low Countries and France. To see Lincoln’s greatness as a war leader even as he failed to deal with atrocities against Native Americans. Even to discover that James Buchanan, whose South-favoring administration made the Civil War a near-certainty, gaining a backbone and choosing not to cede federal installations to states that seceded before Lincoln’s inauguration.

The other might well be cinema and perhaps television. Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice*, to name three WWII movies, bring home some of the horror of war in ways that books might fail. Watching these and similar movies is a far different experience than the anodyne violence of video games and some other media.  With many Americans becoming more isolated from members of the military who have experienced combat and suffered from it, the need for some kind of emotional reset is more necessary. Given too that modern wartime devastation is distant from the main tourist destinations, we need to viscerally understand the cost of war before bumbling into it. Americans should recall that the deaths in the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 were only about one tenth of the number of deaths on an average day during WWII.

War needs to be a last resort; regulations should not simply be a bad word. Those now leaving us learned these lessons the hard way so we wouldn’t have do.  Will we take advantage of their wisdom?

*well, OK, so two of these could also be understood as lessons in situations when the horror of war is justified.

Making America Less Great

When President Trump signaled that the US would pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, the new President of France, Emmanuel Macron, offered to bring climate scientists to France to “make our planet great again.” He has delivered on that promise, luring 12 American climate scientists to go to France to continue their research under five year grants from the French government. [All the press reports say 13 US scientists, but GG only finds 12 with a current US affiliation and hasn’t figured out the 13th.  Maybe Camille Parmesan, a Texan who is a UK Professor? If you count that way, then several non-U.S. natives should not be counted as U.S. losses. You can count for yourself at the Science story]. Another 6 scientists come from other countries. While this upsets some French academics, who feel their higher education system needs more money (translated), the list of the 12 leaving the US–and their reasons–suggest that US science may be facing serious headwinds. This is a little different than typical grant applications in that the winners are relocating to France: this definitely represents a loss to the U.S. science community. The names of the 18 heading to France are in Science report, but GG wanted to see who was moving and what they had to say about it. Two are coming from CIRES, the research institute where GG is a Fellow, another from CU, and a fourth from Boulder’s NCAR, so the Boulder address of more than a fifth of the global haul here speaks to the visibility of the climate community here.

There are two ways to look at this list.  One is that only one tenured professor has gone for this (Derry, from Cornell) and only a couple senior research scientists, so established talent by and large remains.  Several NOAA-affiliated research scientists, including a couple of fairly senior people, will be leaving, but the rest are largely junior soft-money researchers or postdocs. So the U.S. isn’t necessarily seeing a mass migration of the very best.

But this does point out that the soft money postdoc purgatory is well stocked with capable scientists with a global profile, and these folks might never return. Worse, that so many have applied underscores the growing perception that the future of climate research in the U.S. is bleak. Freeing these researchers for five years of funding guarantees that instead of spending time writing numerous grant applications, they can focus on bigger, tougher problems than they can in the current U.S. system. If, as many in Congress like to say, STEM capability is important to the nation, then this is a warning shot across the bow that the U.S. will fall back if it continues to erode support for science.

The 12 with U.S. affiliations, with a few quotes: Read More…

Fiddling while Earth burns

It is hard as an earth scientist to watch how mindless America has become. We are now seeing the climate refugees (Puerto Ricans settling in central Florida), the stronger hurricanes, the heavier rainstorms (remember Houston?), the rising seas, the increased fires and intensified droughts that climate scientists warned of more than 10 (and arguably closer to 30) years ago. And that is just within the USA.

The news on the head-in-the-sand approach of dismissing scientists from agency panels, down-funding scientific agencies, promoting red and blue debate teams and other such counterproductive activities is drowned out by reporting on the Russia scandal and an erratic legislative hustle to rescind health insurance regulations and impose a major tax cut [itself overlooking basic macroeconomics: you want to increase revenues when times are good, both so government spending doesn’t crowd out private needs, but also so there is a cushion for government to spend in deficit when needed in a downturn]. Rather impressively, all the science shenanigans got ranked as the #4 science story in Discover‘s annual review of the top 100 science stories, a review usually dedicated to new science findings both profound and obscure. GG isn’t sure politics made the top 100 before.

And its not like things will improve anytime soon, not when we get told that talking about climate change immediately after a disaster is “misplaced”, not when the most likely thing to happen if Democrats control the House in 2019 is an increased focus on investigating the executive branch. The circus that is governance in the US at this point is incapable of dealing with small stuff like reauthorizing non-controversial legislation.  Facing the big stuff seems well beyond our politicians.

We can only hope that in the margins of the GOP tax bill someone scrawled in “enact a carbon tax”. Given the chaos there, this isn’t the least implausible thing to happen…

Did Trump Just Jumpstart National Park Discussions?

Much of the environmental and conservation community is furious over the reduction in size of several national monuments (not to mention archaeologists and paleontologists). Right now they are directing their fury into the courts, but given that a couple of Presidents had already reduced the size of some national monuments without controversy or opposition, one can question the likely success of that attack (and potentially its wisdom, as Congress might decide to revise the Antiquities Act to strip a President of the ability to act so broadly in the first place).

The President’s actions here expose a heresy that both advocates for and opponents of parks and monuments like to conveniently forget when rallying their troops: these lands are not protected forever.  They are only protected until elected government chooses to change its mind.

Take Yosemite Valley, which was passed to California in 1864 to preserve it “inalienable…for all time”.  Arguably this was the single most ironclad act of preservation in American history. To remove that protection required an act of the California Legislature, an act of Congress and the President’s signature. That these restrictions were nearly removed suggests how tenuous legislative protection can be (California did pass such an act, overriding the Governor’s veto, and the House of Representatives passed the equivalent act–it was the Senate that denied passing Yosemite Valley land titles to Hutchings and Lamon). Arguably Yosemite Valley became less protected when passed back to the federal government in 1906.

Or take Yosemite National Park (the federally-run one established in 1890). It originally included the Ritter Range and Devil’s Postpile, but these were removed from the park in legislation passed 15 years later. (The Postpile was then preserved in 1911 by the creation of Devils Postpile National Monument, but it would take the creation in 1964 of the Minarets Wilderness (now expanded and renamed the Ansel Adams Wilderness) to protect the Ritter Range).

Creation of national parks has largely stalled out. Every decade of the twentieth century save the 1950s saw at least 3 parks created; only four have been made this century, and only one small park (Pinnacles) was designated this decade. So maybe the time has come to revisit parks instead of monuments.

The lesson? The more layers you can wrap around protection, the less likely it is to be reversed. Having worked to make the case to Presidents Clinton and Obama to protect some of these places, monument advocates might be advised to carry those same arguments to Congress and seek park status for them. After all, they are still monuments, and as the promotion of Death Valley and Grand Canyon from monument to park was accompanied by an even larger footprint, so might creation of parks from these monuments restore some of the lands worthy of protection. These are harder fights: advocates have to convince half of the House and Senate these lands are worthy instead of just one President. But maybe this is the better path forward for the longterm stability of protection….

Daylight Recovery

Today (Dec. 7) marks the end of months of the sun setting earlier and earlier for us north of the equator. As GG has explained before, due to the Earth’s rapid acceleration as it swings closest to the Sun, the earliest Northern Hemisphere sunset comes well before the shortest day of the year.

The latest sunset came on June 27 in Denver–after the longest day of the year–so we’ve endured 163 days where the Sun set earlier and earlier.  [Oddly, the sunrise tables GG uses show an even later date for latest sunset in Miami, perhaps because it is so close to the Tropic of Cancer]. Which means we now face 202 days of the Sun setting later each day. Odds are that you would win lots of bar bets if you said there were nearly 40 more days where the Sun set later than the day before than days where the Sun set earlier.

Forty days is a pretty substantial margin, and yet despite many Americans longing for daylight savings and later sunsets, most (by a large margin) have no idea there is this asymmetry.

What it also means is that the rate of change of sunset time is more rapid as the Sun sets earlier, which means in autumn that we have had our nose rubbed in the earlier and earlier sunsets. The return of later sunsets is more gradual, but if you take note today of when the sky darkens and then remember it on New Year’s Eve, you’ll see the sun set 10 minutes later in the conterminous U.S. So rejoice!

Unless of course you are an early riser and it is an early sunrise you yearn for.  You have more than a month of later sunrises to endure before things turn around…


Recently, Paul Braterman pointed out the pro-truth pledge.  It is an interesting idea and noble, in its own way, and certainly worth a look given the current environment, which would make Joseph Goebbles blush.  But there is something about it that bothers GG, and it is in some ways tangled with the roots of science.

It is one thing to lie.  That is deliberately communicating a falsehood, something known to not be true.  And we have seen a tremendous increase in bald-faced lying in the past couple of years. So fighting lying–and committing to trying hard not to propagate falsehoods–is a perfectly fine endeavor. Being reminded, as the pro-truth pledge does, of the many ways we can inadvertently transmit untruth is valuable.

But telling truth…that is actually hard for many things. Sure, simple things are easy–did you eat the last cookie? Was the bill paid on time? But for science, it is hard to be sure you are telling the truth. You can recognize lies or other related deceptions, but truth? Most scientists would agree that you can’t prove a hypothesis, only disprove it. Rather like some kind of convergent infinite series, the more a hypothesis survives disproof, the closer it likely is to truth.  But some wrong theories were awfully close for a long time: Newtonian mechanics is, technically, wrong given relativity. In a sense, when we ask intro physics students to determine the velocity of a body after a collision, we demand that they lie because they aren’t telling the whole truth.  In a practical sense, it would be ridiculous to include relativity when talking about a couple of bowling balls colliding at a couple kph. But does truth accommodate approximation? How far can you stray before you are lying?

Plate tectonics is, in a real sense, a lie for large parts of the earth’s surface.  Strictly defined, plate tectonics means the surface of the earth is divided into rigid pieces of shell where infinitesimal edges accommodate all motion. This does not describe most of east Asia or the western U.S., for starters.  Yet plate tectonics is closer to truth than geosynclinal theory or a contracting earth.

Consider a more treacherous playing field: evolution. We can state very clearly the relationships in the fossil record and claim a name for the progressions observed as evolution, and it is awfully hard to defame that as a lie. As a description of observation, it might be as close to truth as we can get in geoscience. But any explanation for those patterns is a theory, and any particular theory is likely to run into problems in some detail somewhere. Is natural selection truth? Its awfully good, but truth?  A high bar to clear.

Truth implies an absolute.  Science doesn’t have those; the best we can do is rank things in some order of increasing truthfulness. So if you get holier-than-thou on somebody about, say, how earthquakes in Oklahoma are all obviously artificial and not natural, be ready to have somebody point out the Meers Fault and historic intraplate earthquakes to let you know that while much of the seismicity in Oklahoma is triggered, some might not be. Perhaps you want to say “it is more accurate to say…” than “the truth is…”.

Message control

In looking at the little advertisements (“press releases”) for newsworthy new science that is the website SciTechDaily, GG found this stunning assertion:

First-of-Its Kind Seismic Study Challenges Concepts of Geology

Wow!  A first-of-its-kind study and challenging some unnamed concepts of geology. Not every day that happens. What was more, the study was authored by well-respected scientists like Vadim Levin, who was quoted in the puff piece saying “The upwelling we detected is like a hot air balloon, and we infer that something is rising up through the deeper part of our planet under New England.”

Frankly, this is a case of university promotion run amok, and Vadim has to take at least partial ownership.

First, the study is hardly the first of its kind.  It compares tomographic wave speeds with measurements of shear-wave splitting, stuff that has been done now for decades. What is new are some SKS splitting measurements from some sites that hadn’t been included in previous regional studies. The splitting magnitudes were small, suggesting that the regionally present transverse [horizontal] anisotropy was damped or reoriented in this region.  Yet we get quotes from Vadim (who certainly should know better) like this: “Our study challenges the established notion of how the continents on which we live behave.”

Oh, be real. This study is not about to rewrite the textbooks despite Levin’s statement that “It challenges the textbook concepts taught in introductory geology classes.”

Look, the paper is perfectly fine. But it was not the work that originated the idea that this body under New England was a convective upwelling; in fact, those papers don’t challenge any notion about continents, instead suggesting that the trailing edges of continents might generate convective motions in the mantle. (Vadim was a coauthor on at least one of these papers published a year ago).

Clearly the hype with the press release is way out of proportion to the significance of the paper.  This is not how we should be promoting science; in fact, it is just the kind of press release that can torque other workers in the field. GG’s view is that scientists need to control their message–not only in their papers but in the press releases they contribute to.

As an aside, how believable is this interpretation? Read More…