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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Whither Monuments

Its been awhile since President Trump signed orders to reduce the size of both Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument; GG passes through those lands from time to time and was curious where things stand.  The answer, not too shockingly, is that this revision is still in the courts.  Bears Ears lawsuits have been merged into one and a request from the administration to dismiss the suits failed in early October.  Meanwhile, a trove of Triassic fossils has been found in part of Bears Ears that was removed from the national monument. Meanwhile, and rather to everybody’s surprise, oil and gas leases adjacent to the monument were snapped up at auction despite an NPS official’s concerns. Whether these leases go anywhere remains to be seen…

Grand Staircase-Escalante is in much the same boat. Excluded lands have indications of major fossil localities as well.

Odds are that this battle will not end soon.  Probably the soonest possible end would be if a Democrat wins the presidency in 2020 and, shortly after inauguration, redesignates the two monuments at their original scale. This might end the court cases, depriving us of learning what rules govern presidents in changing these areas. While redrawing the boundaries of a national monument are somewhere in the range of rare to unprecedented, what in general is the fate of controversial national monuments?

Pretty good, actually. Grand Canyon National Monument came about after efforts to make it a park failed repeatedly due to vocal opposition. Jackson Hole National Monument resulted from Rockefeller’s subterfuge in purchasing land for a park as locals were opposed to transfer of lands in the valley to the government. In fact, some 27 national parks were originally national monuments, several of which were locally quite unpopular at the time they were created. Among these are such well-known parks as Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Petrified Forest, and Bryce Canyon.

Whether or not the president can reduce a monument on his own remains to be seen (National monuments have been deauthorized by Congress). Obviously the ultimate protection is a national park (though those, too, can be changed or even eliminated); in a way, it is a bit of a surprise that there hasn’t been more of a push on that front to make these two controversial units into parks. (The closest seems to be bills introduced by Utah legislators formalizing the smaller monuments as parks, though neither bill went anywhere despite concerns that increased visitation has elevated risks to archeological and fossil resources in the area).

The Pessimists Have It

Story in the New York Times on how climate scientists blew it–that climate change is already much worse than expected.

This was inevitable for a couple of reasons.  First, it was obvious almost from the very start that the biggest effects were going to be in the high latitudes (when GG taught historical geology, this point was made by looking at paleotemperature in the Cretaceous, which were much higher at high latitudes while perhaps only slightly higher in the tropics). Most of the IPCC reports did not attempt to include increased melting of ice or releases from permafrost, in large part because efforts to include these elements were viewed as too speculative.  And this then points to the main reason why thing seem to be unravelling fast: there was (and is) tremendous pressure to focus on the minimal impacts of climate change, which we discussed once before.

So what were these forces for moderation? Start with the science itself. Science is astonishingly conservative. If you are showing that something will occur, you have to show that the low-end assumptions will yield a significant change compared to the status quo. So the focus is not on the worst case, it is on the best case.

Then there is science building on science. This is the same problem: if you are working on, say, glacial melting, you are taking results from some other studies (which, as noted above, are likely already conservative) and again, you are looking to show what the minimum impact might be. So if we were working at, say, the 95% limit in the first study, we could be at the 99.75% level if the second study.

Now, the scientists working on this were well aware that the published literature was decidedly focused on the most conservative possibilities; there was plenty of concern that things could be a lot worse than those papers were showing.  After all, forecasting has large uncertainties–if the conservative results were showing melting glaciers and acidifying oceans, the most radical results were daunting in the extreme.

This leads to the next pressure to minimize impacts: wanting to appear reasonable to policy makers. These scientists were very sensitive to assaults on them as being alarmists. The result was that the already conservative published literature was then presented as more likely than it probably was. This is especially true for the more derivative impacts of climate change: the amount of warming hasn’t been horribly misanticipated, but ice melting has.

Finally, of course, we have “both-side-ism,” which was rather cleverly attacked by John Oliver a few years back. Because media managers decided that this was something that was controversial, they would bring on “pro” and “con” speakers, disregarding expertise in the field. The result is that there remains a steady stream of op-eds and editorial cartoons that question whether the globe is warming–a stance that is clearly, uncontrovertibly wrong.

So, you might think, things like that NY Times piece mean this is all behind us, right? Wrong.  As the story mentions, we’ve discovered that there are some unanticipatedly large feedbacks. Surface melting on glaciers can accelerate their flow into the ocean. The Antarctic ice sheet has proven vulnerable in ways unanticipated two decades ago. Loss of sea ice might also reduce clouds, enhancing the albedo problems that the loss of sea ice alone represents. Marine clathrates are still not on the agenda for IPCC but could be a huge problem later in the century. And, of course, we have the most anti-science administration probably ever in the U.S. There are few encouraging signs: some species are proving somewhat more resilient than expected, for instance, but on balance the pessimists are proving to be more prescient.

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered; the report at the time claimed that more than 30 New Yorkers failed to call the police. The line that stood out in the story was from one witness who said “I didn’t want to get involved”. For decades this story was used to encourage people to act instead of turn away when witnessing .

Today it is the planet itself under attack. We are all part of the attack, and we are all witnesses who can try to prevent it from being fatal. The victims are those young enough to bear the full brunt of our inaction. When we die, will we be apologizing to our heirs by uttering the line “I didn’t want to get involved?”

¿No Inglés?

Science is an international effort at this point. Journals and publishers that were specifically American decades ago are now globally leading repositories of research on all corners of Earth; many other nations’ journals have advanced English over their own native tongues. As a result, English-language journals attract authors whose native language is not English. As a result, they are often victims of unkind comments about language usage that is, um, untraditional. Now many times these comments arise from the frustration of having a paper in front of you that you can almost understand; by the time you write the review, your response becomes exasperated–and, often, rude and unfair to the authors. This is obviously irritating to all involved, and all of us reviewing such materials need to be careful in our response.

Those of us who lucked into being native English speakers, though, have gotten off easy.  Most reviewers speak the language and are unlikely to complain about ungainly sentences and idiomatic phrases. Oddly enough, the result is that prose written by English-speaking authors can be relatively inaccessible to non-English speakers.

What would actually be best would be for journals to have copy editors who correct grammar and usage for all submissions prior to a paper going out for peer review. Maybe Elsevier could afford that, but the society journals can’t.

So GG has a suggestion: maybe it is time for reviews of papers written by English speakers to include a non-English speaker as a reviewer. Such a reviewer might complain about how the phrasing of some sentences doesn’t  seem to make sense, or that the cute idiom the authors stuck in meant something very different in her culture. They might complain about ambiguity (look back at the first sentence in this post: is “at this point” clearly referring to time? Or is the use of “exasperated” misleading?–can an inanimate object–a review–carry that emotion?). Frankly, our writing might be clearer with feedback like that. And of course in a global community, clarity to all is important.

Science in an age of partisanship

Here in the U.S. we are seeing the emergence of spectacularly different views of government. Ronald Reagan’s election and administration represented the end of activist government from the New Deal to the War on Poverty; his pithy take on government (“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help. “) defined a generation’s approach to government–which includes the centrist policies of Democrat Clinton (end of welfare as we know it, cutting back on government enough to create a budget surplus). While Obama’s foray into activist government in the form of Obamacare was something of a turn leftward, it was hardly installing socialism. Meantime, the Trump administration has carried Reagan’s words forward in a far more literal way, disassembling government through ending advisory boards, moving employees in a manner more likely to have them leave government than continue, reassigning employees to jobs ill-suited to their abilities, changing mission goals enough to lead to early retirements, and leaving numerous positions unfilled. The response from the Democratic left is a full-throated battle cry for government intervention. The contrast between these two visions has not been starker in the lifetime of the modern American electorate.

So where does science it into all this? It certainly is not a priority of the Trump administration (ahem, like here and here and, well, search “war on science” on the right), and it doesn’t seem to rate a plan on Elizabeth Warren’s extensive website (the word “science” even missing from her page on climate change, though she spoke forcefully about it in 2013). Sanders’s page is only tangentially related to science research. So it is reading tea leaves and entrails to guess where science might go after the 2020 election–but it is instructive to note that Congress, including years when the GOP held both houses,  has refused to accept the Trump administration’s recommendations to gut science in the budget.

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Fracking Crossroads

It’s been awhile since we visited fracking.  As a reminder, fracking is injecting high pressure fluids into rock to break open fractures for oil and/or gas to migrate into the well; however, the term has been converted in popular culture to more or less be synonymous with oil and gas development in general. This misappropriation has largely been because of renewed oil and gas development fueled by the application of horizontal drilling into “tight” source rocks that have to be fracked to produce petroleum. (“Tight” formations are usually the source rock of petroleum but lack the porosity for the fluids or gas to migrate into a traditional reservoir; these are usually shales). You could just as well call it “horizontal drilling” as “fracking” and remain exactly as accurate.

GG has argued that fracking (senso stricto) itself isn’t nearly the problem; most of the complaints really come from having industrial activities (with associated noise and air pollution) near residential areas along with occasional failures of the packing of the well that can release drilling fluids or produced water into shallow aquifers. The other hazard that developed is the huge increase in produced fluids (the foul waters that accompany oil and gas development) that are usually disposed in injection wells, which has led in some places to pretty considerable increases in earthquakes, most notably in Oklahoma.

But as more and more operations are active, we’re seeing more incidents of the rarer side effects of fracking itself, in this case earthquakes generated by fracking activities. The most recent case is in England, where the sole fracking operation in the country now is at a standstill after producing a M2.9 earthquake.  Although it isn’t entirely clear whether there is a separate injection well in this system, it does seem from the reports online that this was caused directly by fracking. Following fracking induced events in Canada, Ohio, and Oklahoma, it seems that this worry can’t be entirely anticipated but can be managed by being ready to stop. In England, though, this might mean the end of attempts to use fracking to develop tight oil and gas in that country.

In the U.S., several Democratic candidates have called for an end to fracking, generally with little clarity of what exactly that might mean.  For instance, Elizabeth Warren tweeted out that she would “ban fracking- everywhere” on her first day in office (um, no, not a power the president has).  However, fracking is not mentioned at all on her rather meaty website, suggesting that her program might be a bit more nuanced than her tweet, but the rationale for at least some of the candidates is to end oil and gas development as a means of addressing climate change, which is a more scientifically literate reason for opposing all new development.

But one should be careful in these matters.  While we certainly need to leave a lot of carbon in the ground (barring a major success in CO2 scrubbing from the atmosphere), one would want to make sure that, say, banning fracking in areas where the technique is well developed not lead to new conventional development in fields presently untouched.

The British experience, though, is suggesting that exporting the U.S.’s success in tight oil and gas development might not go as smoothly as many in industry had hoped. Whether that is a good or bad thing depends on your perspective.

Growing Pains

As GG has noted before, Boulder finds itself torn between NIMBYism and starry-eyed idealism. The discussion is getting snippy, with the slow-growth neighborhood activists accusing kill-joys of wanting to destroy what makes Boulder a nice place to live and make it Manhattan under the Flatirons. Affordable housing advocates accuse the slow-growthers of being selfish, pulling up the ladder behind them to prevent worthy but lower-paid folks from achieving the Boulder dream. We’ve talked about the inconsistencies in both stances before, so we’ll let you see the particulars elsewhere.  Just let it be known that neither side comes off as cleanly idealistic as they claim.

Here’s the thing.  The only reason for this dispute is growth. Read More…

A Rift Origin for the Plains?

One of the most popular explanations for the High Plains is that they were dragged upward by a buoyant body, probably in the upper mantle under the Rio Grande Rift.  This is arguably the only late Miocene to Pliocene event one could plausibly associate with post-Ogallala Formation tilting. GG has tended to be dismissive of this but hasn’t been through the math. Now there must be a simple analysis somewhere in the literature, but GG isn’t seeing it, so let’s make a simple model and see what it takes to make it work. We’ll assume a north-south trending horizontal cylinder with some density contrast under an elastic plate represents the source of uplift (although many folks like a “broken” plate, the physics of such a boundary are inappropriate here). We’ll place the cylinder at a depth z and calculate the uplift and the gravity anomaly from this body. We’ll tweak these until we can fit the observations.


Now we have a little difficulty in that the modern topography is due to more than just the Rift: the sub-Ogallala unconformity reveals rather clearly that there were east-flowing streams when deposition began, meaning that topography back then was tilted to the east, though that potentially was very close in time to deposition.  So that topography was presumably compensated by some mechanism that might be well distributed (e.g., variation in crustal thickness).  Since the free-air anomaly across the Plains is near 0, the Bouguer anomaly for local compensation of topography should be 0.112 mGal/meter. We’ll just add that to our theoretical models as needed.

The problem is that we don’t know how much topography we want to ascribe to the late Cenozoic Rift: one extreme view (seemingly that of Eaton, 1986, 1987, 2008) is that things were pretty flat in prior to the Rift on an east-west profile, with major rivers going more or less directly to the coast to the south-southeast; another that there was some gradient, though much lower than today (e.g., McMillan et al., 2002).  Let’s tackle both and see what we get. In both cases we will focus on the topography east from about 105°W and we’ll place the cylinder at 106°W, under the axis of the Rift.

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