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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Prisoners of the Meme

Certain knee-jerk phrases and assumptions just kind of get GG all grumpied-up.  The two from today? “Nevadaplano” and “Laramide flat slab”.

Now GG is not in possession of God’s plan for the universe or operating a time machine with X-ray vision into the earth. In fact, those who are explicitly investigating such concepts are not the targets of this venom today.  It is those who use these terms–or, probably more properly, use these memes–that drive GG to distraction.

Why? When Peter Bird spoke of a flat slab in his 1988 paper, it was crystal clear what he meant. There was no real ambiguity.  His flat slab had a real purpose, it was a firm creation that could be encountered face-to-face (after a fashion) and be dealt with.  If you spoke of Bird’s flat slab, you knew why it was there, how it hooked into everything, what it was and was not supposed to do.  It was something you could–and many did–disprove. It was an honest to goodness hypothesis.

But the flat slab of the meeting talks is a nebulous invention designed to deflect attention.  “The Laramide flat slab” could be almost anywhere in the western U.S.  It could start back at 90 Ma.  It might be lurking today under Mississippi or the Great Lakes or New Jersey [all such suggestions are indeed out there]–or under your bed calling you on the phone! [OK, that one isn’t in the literature]. It is, essentially, an invitation to suspend critical thought. The flat slab can move mantle lithosphere, hydrate crust hither and yon, it can depress the crust, or raise the crust, stop volcanoes or start them. It is all-powerful. Need something to happen?  Invoke the flat slab and criticism is silenced.

The other boogeyman is of a different stripe.  The “Nevadaplano” is one of those portmanteaus so easily rolled off the tongue that it was, from the moment of conception, a favorite in oral presentation. It was just too fun a phrase to pass up. While it lacks the powers of the flat slab, it, like many superheroes, has its own abilities: it flickers in existence between eastern Nevada, western Utah, eastern California and southern Arizona, appearing where needed just in the nick of time–whether that time be in the mists of the Cretaceous or the dying days of the Oligocene. Its partial namesake, the Altiplano, is known for being flat, a product of internal drainage, yet many (most?) incarnations of the Nevadaplano are externally drained. Nearly all the times speakers call upon the spirit of Nevadaplano, they really have no real need of it. They just need a highland in the right place at the right time–and there is good evidence for many of these highlands.  They just don’t look or behave like the image projected by the Nevadaplano, and one speaker’s Nevadaplano would spit on another speaker’s. You really do wish that the spirit of Nevadaplano would object and not show its face in such instances.

Science is supposed to be a precise business.  When we speak of the San Andreas Fault, the Navajo Sandstone or the Channeled Scablands, these are things that are well defined even if there are some blurry edges somewhere. Even multifaceted terms like “lithosphere” rarely convey different notions to different listeners within the context of a talk. But the flat slab and the Nevadaplano are, as usually used, lazy shortcuts designed to avoid grappling with a more complex world. They are oral mirages, temping visions made in one’s mind that cannot be examined too closely or compared with others. Simply enough, they are not science.

Meeting Survival

Sorry to have left loyal readers in the lurch without a dose of grumpiness for awhile–been taking the show on the road the past couple of weeks.

Presently though at the Geological Society of America conference, which means it is time to try to get through one of these meetings without going either broke or insane.

Now, if you have a grant where you actually budgeted for the real cost of the meeting and you aren’t trying to stretch that money to cover two meetings and an extra week of field work, stop here.  This isn’t for you, you lucky dog.

The rest of us find ourselves in meeting hotels that are usually insanely expensive but, thanks to the group rate from the meeting organizers, are merely expensive. What is amazing is just how expensive they can be after you’ve already paid for the room: of course there is the honor bar (“honor”–yeah, right, that is why they installed a frigging weight sensor in the fridge to charge you if you lift anything out). Gotta love that $20 mini bottle of wine–nothing says desperate than drinking a small bottle of grossly overpriced hotel wine from the honor bar while alone. And there is the little place in the lobby to buy things at only slightly under honor bar prices, or the gift store with fine and tastefully lacquered beer steins with pictures of the host city on them for a mere $50. For parents, nothing says “I love you, my child” more than a $15 hotel gift store pencil case with the corporate logo on it (unless it is the little bouncy balls some of the booths in the expo give away for free).

But while the rest of the world has decided that free wifi and a complementary breakfast should be part of nearly every American hotel stay costing more than about $60, here in the land of the $250 room (if you are so lucky), there is not so much as complementary mint at the front desk (well, ok, GG sees a Dasani on the desk here with a note claiming its free–but you know what? Can you really trust that its free?). Unless the meeting has arranged free wifi, be ready to drop a sawbuck a day on an internet connection (or plan to frequent local coffee houses that will let you use their wifi for the cost of a cup of joe–sorry, in Seattle now, PUMPKIN SPICE LATTE), or join the ranks of your peers plopped on the edges of corridors in the meeting area like the street people cadging quarters outside the facility while the glom off the free meeting internet).

Heaven help you if you brought a car.  That goes double if you rented it.

Then there is the actual reason you are here: the meeting.  Younger attendees wonder why the graybeards they are trying to meet are so hard to find, and the answer is that they have strategies to avoid the meeting except near their invited talks or when there is an NSF program officer available to strong arm. They’ve learned that a four or five day meeting is enough to send the strongest to a week of recovery in a spa.

With all of that, here are GG’s suggestions for surviving a professional meeting with a minimum of financial and mental damage.

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Monolithic Logic

Two substantial rockfalls at the east end of El Capitan (near where Horsetail Falls sometimes appears) have resulted in one death and two injuries. Frankly with all the climbers and tourists it is kind of surprising that this is limit of the human toll. This corner of the face of El Capitan seems to have had less activity prior to this than some other nearby corners of Yosemite.  Things could be a lot worse: Stock and Uhrhammer (2010) dated the very large rock avalanche from the east face of El Capitan to about 3600 years ago (in red on map below excerpted from Wieczorek et al., 1999), and a couple other younger rockfalls have come off El Capitan in historic time (the orange areas on the map). From the photos out there, GG has guessed at the approximate location of the debris that came down this past week (added to map below; the rockfall source is on an essentially vertical rock face).


Anyways, the intent here is not to consider the geology of this so much as a controversy that coverage of this event has sparked in some corners, namely, is El Capitan the “largest granite monolith” as termed by some reports?

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Why worry? (off topic)

OK, so GG is not a military student or a proper historian or anything like that…but can’t quite find the reassurance that North Korea-U.S. saber rattling is going to end well, which is the popular consensus. Why so glum? Because modern wars start when two sides misunderstand the others’ goals, and this seems quite possible here.  The precept of the “don’t worry” crowd is that North Korea’s main interest is survival. But is it?  If it is only survival, then having a nuclear weapon they can shoot at Seoul or Tokyo is quite enough.  Why push to have one they can shoot at the U.S.?

What North Korea has said in their internal propaganda is that they want to reunify Korea under the North’s government. They have a huge army (twice the size of South Korea’s), so they might well think they could win a ground war if only other nations stayed out. How to keep the U.S. out? Simple: threaten nuclear retaliation.  Keep out of our little war and you get to keep your big metropolises. Hence the ICBMs.

This would be a grave miscalculation as what keeps the U.S. from a military strike is the prospect of a conventional assault on Seoul; the moment North Korea decides to launch an assault, the U.S. and South Korea would try to decapitate the regime and attack any recognized launch facilities. So why would North Korea make such a miscalculation? If they decide the U.S. is all bluster.  Repeated empty threats from the U.S. would encourage such thinking. And if they make this miscalculation, they would probably decide to launch the moment they see the U.S.A.F. heading their way.

Hopefully this is all wrong and all Pyongyang is up to is a new level of their old game of threaten in order to get something in return. But it is hard to look at playing with such high stakes–and looking at the behavior of the players involved–and not get nervous….

When numbers lie

Quick pointer to a web posting about an article that gained a lot of attention (and so really good metrics) by being really bad. A good reminder that numbers of citations need not reflect any intrinsic quality.

Fingers in Dikes

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Montreal protocol that started to phase out chemicals destroying the stratospheric ozone layer. This is widely and justifiably hailed as a major international success, as concentrations of these chemicals in the atmosphere have declined and ozone levels have stopped decreasing. A side benefit is that the CFCs and related compounds that have been discontinued are strong greenhouse gases, so Montreal is in a sense the first treaty to combat climate change. Of course, what everybody would like to see is a rebound in the ozone layer.

That such a rebound isn’t obvious is the subject of a review in Nature from about a week ago. While measuring the concentration of the destructive chemicals is straightforward as is the total amount of ozone in the atmosphere, what is less clear is what else is going on and how that is affecting the changes we’re seeing.  Recovery of the ozone layer is expected to be slow in any case, and natural variability both spatially and temporally complicates any signal, especially in whole atmosphere ozone measurements. There are indications that stratospheric ozone is starting to increase, but the signal is still noisy. The review’s authors explore possibilities using constraints from observations and different modeling approaches to try to untangle things.  While this shows a clear and strong success from Montreal’s restrictions, other elements are creeping into the equation. Basically, the changing climate is also impacting ozone, with its role gradually increasing relative to that of the destructive chlorine compounds. Warming of the troposphere and increased carbon dioxide and methane emissions leads to cooling of the stratosphere, which is good for ozone. But increased N2O emissions work the other way. And then the changes in the strength of atmospheric circulation mean that the recovery won’t be uniform–in fact, the authors suggest that the tropics could see a decrease in overall ozone even as global ozone levels rise, which would increase UV levels over a significant part of the inhabited globe.

What all this means is that something as heavily studied as the ozone layer is a product of complex interactions between relatively unfamiliar chemistry, appearances and disappearances of chemical species both from human and natural events, and the evolution of the atmospheric circulation.  Montreal wasn’t the solution; it was a finger in the dike holding back a flood of consequences from using the atmosphere as a dumping ground. Dramatic ozone loss from CFCs was unanticipated because the peculiar chemistry in stratospheric clouds was unexpected. Fortunately that oversight was caught. What we need to recognize is that this part of earth’s atmosphere needs to be monitored closely as a changing level of greenhouse gases could introduce yet another unexpected surprise.  Unfortunately, such ongoing research seems to be a target of the current U.S. administration. We might not be done plugging holes in this dike…it might be good to know where to next stick our finger in.

Whose Fault?

Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist at MIT who is perhaps best known for arguing that in a warming climate, hurricanes will be stronger, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post basically saying that it is high time to recognize that disasters are not entirely natural.  Well, he was bit stronger than that:

We must first recognize the phrase “natural disaster” for what it is: a sham we hide behind to avoid our own culpability. Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and wildfires are part of nature, and the natural world has long ago adapted to them. Disasters occur when we move to risky places and build inadequate infrastructure.

So there are no natural disasters? Op-eds like this are to challenge the reader and try to get that reader to come to grips with uncomfortable facts.  Reading the comments online suggests it didn’t really do that…. But here we can parse things more finely. There is both truth and exaggeration in Emanuel’s piece.

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