My Wonder List

There are things that puzzle GG and this is a partial list that will be updated from time to time.

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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. The paperback version came out in February 2020.

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In Need of Hypotheses

GG wrote something about this awhile back, but it feels worthy of a revisit. Just why is it that geologists still like this “multiple working hypotheses” ideas?

What reminded GG of this was reading Naomi Oreskes’s book on the rejection of continental drift (or Amazon link). In there, it sort of seems as though multiple working hypotheses comes across as something of an excuse used by twentieth century American geoscientists to dance past the evidence for continental drift. It kind of comes across as a dated approach for pre-quantitative science. GG would argue that in studying complex phenomena that it is an important tool–one perhaps worthy of keeping in mind in dealing with the current pandemic.

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Mysteries of the COVID spikes

Something that has bothered GG has been just how rapidly rising COVID cases have turned into falling COVID cases, for instance:

COVID cases for Colorado and Boulder County, Colorado, from COVIDActNow

This tendency of COVID cases to rise rapidly and then fall equally dramatically is best seen in the geographically tighter county-level data, but you can also see it in places like the United Kingdom, where rapidly rising cases turned into a freefall in a couple days in the summer and in some states in the southern U.S. that are now passing their peaks.

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Despairing Despair

Lots of fun stuff these days. Fires in the western US, fires in Greece and France. Floods in New York and New Jersey. Hurricanes appearing with almost no warning. Rain on the top of Greenland. Melting ice caps. Pandemic. War. New studies with dire warnings. Cats and dogs living together…wait, that was us all getting pandemic pets. This has led to an outpouring of essays on how the world has changed and how awful things are or will be.

GG’s advice: get over it. There has always been sadness accompanying change. Towns on the High Plains have basically dried up and blown away, leaving former occupants feeling uprooted. Cultural landmarks have been destroyed (the Notre Dame cathedral was hardly the first old structure to have a fire). Native American communities have been bludgeoned for centuries now; memories of rich runs of fish or endless bison herds long gone continue to remind of the losses of the past. People lamenting such losses of modern species are usually oblivious to the far richer ecosystems of the earliest Holocene. Probably there were folks in Greece bitterly unhappy over the loss of stuff that was replaced by the Parthenon. It seems it is human to lament the passage of time and its associated changes.

There have been other grand challenges. The Great Depression could have ended democracy. The Cold War could have ended humanity. The Civil War could have perpetuated slavery. We’ve come out of a particularly calm set of decades which maybe had lulled us into thinking that life was easy.

As a geologist, GG will point out that the planet will survive us; the darkest fantasies of dystopia will not be. Yes, some species will depart, quite possibly including us, but to eradicate life on the planet will take more than messing with the thermostat. Old vistas that will be gone will be replaced with new ones perhaps equally stunning if wholly different. Climates have changed before, not as rapidly as we are doing now at a global scale, but we are not near the coldest or warmest the globe has ever been. Armageddon has its limits.

So the message is, get to work. Pining for the past while neglecting the future is counterproductive. That future is malleable. Fewer species might vanish, more ice might survive, fewer deaths from drought or starvation if the work is done. Just because you can’t remake the world to what it was doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make it better.

So maybe take a pass on the next gloomy essay foretelling pain and suffering and heartbreak. Those have always been out there if you looked for them. Run for office. Invest in green technologies. Make new things better. Maybe even write dystopia that isn’t so incredibly despairing (e.g., Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140).

Skewing COVID vaccines

From a professional standpoint, one of the most annoying aspects of the pandemic has been the demonstration of numerical illiteracy–not only from the public, which is kind of expected, but from the media and even professionals engaged in public health. The net effect at the moment is to grossly underestimate the efficacy of the current set of vaccines. How does this happen? Well, you compare apples and oranges.

Let’s consider the New York Times‘s attempt to examine the rates of breakthrough cases as a means of seeing just how good the vaccines are. They were trying to get around the biases caused by there being different numbers of vaccinated and unvaccinated people, which has muddied the waters as breakthrough cases mounted. Their analysis finds that in Colorado (for example), if you are vaccinated, you are 22 times less likely to end up in the hospital and 8 times less likely to die of COVID-19. That should give you pause, because it suggests that should you, as a vaccinated individual, happen to get a breakthrough case severe enough to put you in the hospital, you are more likely to die than an unvaccinated patient. This is not unique to Colorado: pretty much all the states’ data look the same.

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Are COVID models useful?

OK, this is *way* out of GG’s wheelhouse, so please take this as rantings of an ignorant observer…

But something GG has noticed is that the epidemiological models out there–as far as he can see, *all* of them–will not reproduce the kind of rapid rise followed by a rapid fall in cases of COVID-19. To be clear, they can do OK on the rapid rise part–frankly, it is trivial to fit an exponential to the rising side, and all you have to do is adjust Rt a bit to hit the numbers. It is the reversal that simply gets missed; usually the models predict a long drawn-out peak, which really has not been the case for the most part (you only see that for much larger regions where local peaks are offset in time from one another). And so we have mysteries like why the bit Indian spike a few months ago suddenly died out, or even why the UK’s spike suddenly reversed a couple of weeks ago.

Why should things reverse so suddenly? Maybe back in March 2020, it was everybody suddenly cowering at home; that was certainly the single most abrupt behavioral change in the pandemic. But since then, has there really been that kind of radical reversal of behaviors? Enough to stop rising infections in their tracks? This seems unlikely; the fact that the models do not produce such an outcome despite sometimes having sudden changes in “social distancing” suggests it isn’t the likely cause. It is something missing from the models; what might it be?

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War on Science: Fallout Edition

When the curtain fell on the Trump administration, there was hope that science would again be consulted as government struggled to address societal issues where scientific knowledge is helpful. But the punitive actions of the Trump administration struck deep into the scientific staffs within the federal government. As the New York Times reports, lots of people left as they refused to bow to political pressure or had their positions uprooted and moved across the country. And having had that perception that science was above politics ripped away, a lot of those who left (along with younger scientists seeking employment) are skeptical of entering governmental service. In general, governmental work pays less than private industry, so the perks are generally considered to be continuity (typically the government doesn’t fail the way a company might) and the opportunity to help society move forward. While political appointees are used to the revolving door of Presidential administrations, this has not been the case for scientists and other professionals (e.g., diplomats).

This underscores the profound asymmetry between tearing down something and building it up. Although there were civil service protections where many of those who left couldn’t be fired, when people were assigned to jobs they were ill-suited for, or told they had to move, or told that their work had to be revised to fit the outlook of political appointees, they decided that their job wasn’t worth their time. As a result, the scientific expertise to address a lot of the concerns the current administration has is simply not present, at least not in sufficient numbers to answer all the calls for expert input.

Now some of you might be thinking, well, every administration bends the science to their policy goals, and this isn’t that special. From conversations GG has had with colleagues, the magnitude of meddling from political appointees was far, far greater from 2017 to the start of this year than ever before (and there certainly had been some meddling in previous administrations). Previous administrations might try to spin the scientific results in a direction; the Trump administration sought to have a void of scientific results so that they could fill that void with their own illusions.

How will the Biden administration deal with this? While it sounds like they hope to hire more people, one possible route for now is to convene some expert panels for specific challenges. This isn’t as good as having permanent, in-house staff who can provide continuity, but such a route would let experts participate without feeling like they were risking their careers in going back into government service.

This whole experience shows just how fragile the presence of science in government really is. This was most obvious to the public when the CDC was cut out of pandemic communication (a change that still seems to have left the agency stumbling), but also became clear when the former president wanted to revise storm warnings to soothe his ego at having misspoken. The playbook for getting rid of pesky scientists has now been written in large block letters. The only question will be, will we elect another administration eager to use it?

Does hyperbole and misattribution really help fight climate change?

GG occasionally gets annoyed with the New York Times over their provincial view of the West, and this extends to essays they publish. The latest is from a woman who spent a glorious summer in Yosemite in 1993 and returned this year to find a sooty husk of the place she remembered. The reason? Climate change, she says, and all the comments online echo this melancholy.

However, this is at minimum exaggeration and at worst misdirection, and the shallow understanding of ecosystems becomes painfully clear in the certitude of many commenters. Of course the forest having experienced beetle kill is from climate change. Of course the fires are from climate change. Of course the drought is from climate change. And if you disagree, you are a tool of the evil carbon fuel industry.

GG is no tool, but hates to see bad arguments made for good causes, and this is a bad argument. First, the basis for the article is that she remembered a very wet Yosemite and it isn’t that right now. Well, welcome to the west: 1993 was a pretty wet winter, and 2021 follows a pretty intense drought. So yeah, it is a lot drier.

We’ve known for decades that the west suffers from megadroughts and that the twentieth century was unusually wet. Attribution studies found that the recent series of California droughts were made more intense by extra heat pulling moisture from soils, but the dearth of precipitation may be more typical of the natural system, though the 2015 low snow year might be quite exceptional in the past 500 years. [This is very much moving target territory, and if you have better intel, please make a comment below].

In contrast to uncertainty there, there is a lot of certainty about other factors. Native Americans regularly burned the forests and meadows in the Sierra in low intensity fires. The cessation of that activity c. 1860 led to a century and a half of accumulating debris that would make for far more intense fires. Pollution stress has been a major issue in the Sierra, though it is increasingly overlooked because of other threats. But widespread browning of needles from ozone (which tends to hang out at the top of atmospheric inversions) has been seen for decades; how much of the insect infestations were because of stressed trees? GG doesn’t know, but it seems a potential issue (here in Colorado, though, a lot of infestations were a combination of cyclical issues and winters lacking a killing cold, so climate change could be a player here). And a few studies have pointed out that weather systems associated with fires in California (Sundowner, Santa Anas and the like) did not produce widespread fires in the prehistoric past. But today we have lots of ignition sources (especially in California, PG&E power lines) that start fires in these conditions.

Look, *people* are the problem, and there certainly is a problem. That much is easy. But if the issue is the Sierra forests, just how people are messing things up remains unclear. If you want to write about places where climate change is clearly the singular cause of change, have at it: there are places in Greenland, heat waves in Europe, bleached reefs in Australia, Alaskan towns falling into the ocean–even the forest fires in the boreal forests–all that have the fingerprints of climate change as the main cause. But when you take a complex story and boil it down to “climate change” you miss the chance to really understand how the system works. The irony of course is that it wasn’t long ago when *nothing* could be attributed to climate change, and now it seems *everything* can. Reality is in between, maybe closer to the latter than the former.

Oops, we did it again…

A story in the LA Times cuts close to home for the grumpy geophysicist. It describes scientists as vandals. Not a good look. And it is kind of hard to argue with that characterization. It cuts close to home because GG has done similar work and has worked in (or had students work in) the labs that have stumbled.

No doubt you are expecting a story of bad science, but it is really what happens when an old “anything goes” ethos hits a more nuanced reality. In this case, two prominent paleomagnetists were caught drilling holes in rocks right near petroglyphs in separate incidents. (“Prominent” you say? Well, one got an award from each of the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America; the other was a president of GSA, among other laurels). The main case discussed came from Caltech some four years ago, where a class was taken to an outcrop near Bishop California to drill out samples. Without having obtained permission. Off a road that is mainly used to visit petroglyphs. A few feet from a petroglyph. Frankly, it is almost impossible to imagine how this came to pass (did nobody in the class notice where they were?), but a person who passes through to watch for vandalism spotted them and reported them. The other was a year later in a less prominent locale in Nevada with a UT Dallas investigator. Both resulted in five figure fines that their universities covered, not to mention this bad press.

Now GG may one day hear from the individuals involved their side of the story (and indeed one is to write a journal article as part of his reparation), but GG is willing to speculate on what went wrong so, you know, he and others might not screw up the same way. “How could you possibly think it a good idea to drill holes next to sacred petroglyphs?” Well, that was not the question at hand, not that this excuses what happened.

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The Power of Denial

As we in the U.S. stand at the brink of our fifth (!) wave of COVID-19, it is worth taking a moment to ponder what this says about society as a whole and our chances of reining in climate change.

First up, why a fifth wave? Unlike the previous four (March-April 2020, mid summer 2020, late fall 2020, spring 2021), this one is one that should have been prevented. An irony is that the Trump administration put all its eggs into one basket marked “vaccine”–and it paid off–and yet the people who are most disdaining of the vaccines are Trump’s supporters. Because we are increasingly living in politically uniform communities, the result has been some communities where nearly nobody has gotten vaccinated and others where nearly everyone has. With the delta variant rolling along (it has been responsible for most Colorado cases for well over a month), case numbers have returned to rising. In places like Boulder, this is a rise from very small numbers of cases to small numbers. In places like Branson, MO and Grand Junction CO, it is a rise from kind of OK to oh-my-gosh. It seems clear that we’re headed for a long haul of COVID kind of rumbling around, flaring up in unvaccinated areas while just steaming a bit on corners of well-vaccinated communities.

The first and obvious lesson is that even experience isn’t enough to fully educate some fraction of the populace. Lincoln supposedly said that you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. With dying patients spitting in the eye of nurses who are telling them they have COVID and people who spent many days in ICU saying that COVID isn’t that big a deal, it is pretty clear we have identified the people who can be fooled all the time. The science is about as crystal clear as it gets: COVID-19 is a transmissible disease that can be made far less infectious and far less dangerous through the use of vaccines. Everything else is quibbling.

So it is clear that no number of hurricanes or droughts or forest files or king tide floods or historic heat waves are going to convince some people–probably close to 30-40%–that climate change is a real problem. There will not be a hosanna moment when we all unite to defeat the scourge of climate change. After all, if we can’t unite to defeat a fatal disease by getting one or two shots, how likely is it that we’ll be willing to unite behind a realignment of society’s energy system?

So we’re doomed?

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Too Few People in the Parks?

GG was out-grumpied recently on a hike in the mountains when he encountered a hiker still seething from his discovery that he was supposed to have a timed entry permit for the hike he was originally planning on. Grumbling about the eco-Nazis, as he put it, he felt that we needed to get loggers into the dead trees in the parks and to quit making it hard to get into the parks.

And it got GG to thinking there is something to that. But not quite what the grumpy hiker was thinking.

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