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.

Will be giving the campfire talk in Mineral King 4 August.

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Ludicrous Certainty

One of the fixtures of modern life seems to be the hearty embrace of uninformed certainty. People who just know that certain things are an unqualified bad and will go to any lengths to fight those things seem to make up the vast majority of social media contributors. Although there are many fine examples of this on the political right, let’s complain about some on the political left.

Two such issues are centerpieces of complaints here in Boulder.  One is the presence of genetically modified organisms used in crops (GMOs) and the other is the practice of fracking. Neither warrants the blanket condemnation they receive.

Most opponents of GMOs know little about how we’ve ended up with the food crops we have now, though occasionally you get clues, like if you stumble on wild strawberries and wonder why they are so tiny.  Our food crops are the products of generations of hit or miss efforts of artificial selection (picking the outcomes you like best) and crossing of different plants to get useful hybrids. The genetic tools now available remove a lot of the hit and miss part of the effort allowing scientists to directly target the aspects of a plant that are causing trouble.

When you say that all GMOs are bad, you might as well say all spot welds in a car are bad and you only want a car assembled with no welds. The use of genetic tools is a technique and not an end per se. A spot weld might make a tougher car, but it will not make a better computer.  It is what you do with the tool that matters.

Does this mean all GMOs are good? Hardly, if for no other reason than the law of unintended consequences. For instance, there was a desire to have a variety of common golf green grass be resistant to Roundup; as High Country News tells the story, the new variety was successful–but when it escaped from where it was being grown, it became a troublesome weed along irrigation ditches in eastern Oregon. Human endeavors are filled with such mistakes, many having nothing to do with GMOs (think of all the times an exotic species was introduced and found to be a pest, and then the effort to use the pest’s natural enemy simply created another problem). Just as we recognize that bringing exotic species into someplace requires some forethought, development of GMOs needs to face similar scrutiny.

Fracking is a slightly different issue, though it shares the same blanket opposition that has little to do with what it is and does. Most of the concerns with fracking have nearly nothing to do with the actual process of fracturing rock deep in the earth to release hydrocarbons.  Instead when you hear the actual harms people complain about, it is the industrial noise and associated air pollution of the drilling and fracking operations, the greater density of drill pads often needed for the current “non-traditional” horizontal drilling, surface water pollution from spills, aquifer contamination from improperly sealed wells, earthquakes from injection wells disposing of accessory fluids from production, or even the antiquated forced pooling laws that greatly limit the options for those holding both surface and mineral rights. When people talk of banning fracking, it would be like a city banning a car company from using welds–it is not the welding that is the problem, it would be the noise and impacts of the car factory that are being opposed. Fracking is really being used as a proxy for resurgent oil and gas development.

Is fracking then an unalloyed good? Well, no.  There are some very positive aspects of it: by increasing the recovery of hydrocarbons from an existing field, it can slow the desire to expand production into virgin areas. The recent application in associated with horizontal drilling has opened up a lot of natural gas, which has been replacing dirtier coal in electricity generation as a result. But there are some instances where fracking is indeed a direct evil.  In a few places, it has indeed caused larger earthquakes (though far, far fewer than injection wells).  There is an indication that fracking in some shallow rocks immediately below an aquifer in Wyoming has indeed directly contaminated fresh water. And no doubt a few fracking operations have spilled fracking fluids into surface waters. And, of course, the application of the technique has opened up areas that previously were uneconomic (which is a mixed bag depending on where you are and what the land use looks like).

Most folks would probably like the world to be black and white, good or bad. But there is gray all over the place, and GG earns his nom de plume when encountering absolutism. This desire to polarize to the extreme removes all sensible middle ground.  We would all win if GMOs were not so misrepresented but also if the regulation on their development made more sense. We would all win if oil and gas development was throttled back by a more driven effort to move on to renewable energy sources. Recognizing the strengths and weakness of things like GMOs and fracking could focus our attention on the specific instances that are most troublesome. But when you just paint the whole thing one color, you lose the ability to separate the dangerous from the innocuous.

Teach Everything?

“We have a crisis in higher education in this country today. Our faculties are not reflecting the diversity of thought in America” -CU Regent John Carson (via Daily Camera)

Is this what we have come to? Are we supposed to reflect the diversity of thought in America?  So we should have people who think homeopathy is solid science? That the Earth is 6000 years old? That astrology works? That evolution does not occur? That the Earth is flat, even? How about that Barack Obama was born in Kenya? That “Ronald Wilson Reagan” having 6 letters in each name was a mark of the devil? That the moon landing was faked? That LSD is a great cancer cure? America is absolutely overflowing with ‘diversity of thought’, but a lot of that thought is lazy, unsupported or easily refuted from evidence. Do we really want that in the university?

To be fair, Regent Carson wasn’t advocating for cranks on the faculty, he was arguing that political conservatives are underrepresented on the faculty.  But that line of argument can be used to support almost anything (astrologers are even more underrepresented than conservatives).

What seems to be missing from these concerns is evidence that being a conservative results in discrimination in either hiring, promotion, or salary increase. Read More…

Did Science Help Start Big Lies?

Certainly one of the most striking things about modern American political discourse is the magnitude of outright lying going on.  While misdirection and obfuscation were not uncommon in political speech, outright provable lying wasn’t.  And yet now we have a President who Politifact says has made statements that are either false or “pants on fire” 47% of the time and who has inspired the Washington Post fact checker to keep a running count of lies. This follows years of internet chain emails and conspiracy theorists that have made Snopes expand rapidly to capture and review all the questionable stuff circulating on the internet. Needless to say, this tends to encourage others to play equally fast and loose with truth. For a scientist, this is a distressing trend–but it isn’t really that new.

Now to be clear, big lies have made the circuit before, being a staple of the Nazi government, for instance; the related game of “whataboutism” was a favorite of the old Soviet state. Some might point to McCarthyism in the US as a domestic episode, though the Red Scare had less questioning of objective truth and more vilification by insinuation. Here GG refers to outright misrepresentations of is going on. And as science’s goal is to discern the nature and rules of the reality we inhabit, it has a habit of landing in the crosshairs of those whose interests conflict with reality.

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“You attract more flies with honey than vinegar” the old saying goes.  It would seem a pretty marginal publisher got the word and is trying it out:

*Dear Dr. **C. H Jones**,

* *Greetings from Nessa Journal of Geology & Earth Sciences (NJGES)*

Recently we have come across your presentation at the *”Seismology of the Americas Meeting Latin American and Caribbean Seismological Commission Seismological Society of America May 2018 Miami, Florida” *with the title *”**Exploring the Extent of Wave Propagative Effects on Teleseismic Attenuation Measurements within the Sierra Nevada**”*. I presume that it will outstandingly attract the readers and will receive applause from the people of all walks of life. I believe it will enrich the knowledge and experiment of people who are involved in all these researches and experiments.

Man, what temptation! “receive applause from the people of all walks of life”! GG cannot wait to walk out to the mailbox to thunderous applause from the neighborhood, or be mobbed in the grocery store for having published in the legendary NJGES!

Though to “outstandingly attract the readers” might mean standing out on a street corner with a sign “please read and applaud.”

Geologic Illustrations, Part 3: Directions

Its been awhile since we discussed ways to make publication figures both accurate and fair: part 1 dealt with the problem of mapping variables that varied across the map.  Part 2 was mainly an illustration of just how horrible Excel is for earth science work.  Here we’ll consider some issues with directional data such as paleomagnetic directions and paleocurrent and such not.

Let’s start with the classic rose diagram:


Pretty different looking, no? On the right is the classic rose diagram where the length (radius) of each pie wedge is scaled by the value in that azimuth range. In this case, these are back azimuths of teleseismic arrivals measured for a tomography study. You can easily see that things are dominated by events to the northwest and to a lesser degree to the southeast and southwest.

To the left is the exact same data plotted by area instead of length. Which is better? As a test, what fraction of the data lies in the wedges from 120-140° and 300-320°?

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Geomovies 2018?

Its been awhile since we looked at how earth science in doing in the cinema.  The short answer is, not much and not well. Superhero and space opera movies have so abandoned reality that it is essentially pointless to be critical. For instance, Star Wars originally had some concept of the scale of space, but that was entirely wiped out by absolutely everything about the Starkiller Base in Force Awakens: the impossibly high stresses needed to make a planetary ditch at least 100 km high to the staggering variations in air pressure this would entail to the ridiculous notion of sucking a star into some weapon chamber to the impossibility of watching this thing fire its weapon in real time from a distant star system. With fanboy-fav and science-oblivious director J.J. Abrams returning for the 9th installment, we can expect to see evermore spectacular violations of reality…

Anyways, the point being that arguing the characteristics of vibranium in Marvel movies is pointless, as is the Bifrost or Dr Strange’s little portals just as the aerodynamics of the Millennium Falcon or TIE fighters is beyond hope. This seems to leave us with the Jurassic World movies.

There is little point here in even criticizing the dinosaurs since they were made imperfectly from the start–differences with real dinosaurs is explained simply as a result of the approximations used in making modern dinosaurs.  This leaves us with Isla Nublar, supposedly off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica (Hawaii acts as a stand-in) and complete with a volcano. Unsurprisingly, there is no volcanic island off Costa Rica, but at least it is on the Pacific Ocean and has volcanoes….So as its been awhile since volcanoes were front and center–how does this one look?

Well we see a lot of smoke from the summit and a lot of lava flowing out the sides. Some of this lava is exceptionally fluid, sneaking through cracks in a building (good luck with that; there’s a lot of video now of how the fairly fluid east rift lavas on the Big Island of Hawaii behave when hitting buildings or cars and it isn’t that fluid). But of course we then get some explosions from the flanks of the mountain and what would seem to be pyroclastic flow coming from the same spot.  A very slow pyroclastic flow at that, for instead of the typical speeds in excess of 100 mph usually seen, this one barely catches up to our protagonists moving at a run. Later the mountain shifts to hurling flaming boulders at everybody before some strange volcanic cloud of doom settles over the remaining dinosaurs. While not as laugh-out-loud silly as the cracks that open and close in Volcano, this is a very Hollywood volcano.

Would the volcano cause everything on the island to die? (what the movie’s news reporters call an “extinction level event,” which is not how any earth scientist would call the obliteration of a small population of animals on one island; “extinction level events” actually refer to events that cause mass extinctions, such as the asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous.  Extinctions of a few geographically limited species can be caused far more prosaically–by draining a marsh or damming a river).  The closest thing in recent history would be the eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat 21 years ago, which led to 2/3 of the population leaving and the abandonment of the capital of Plymouth.  Even here, though, the northern part of the island is largely unaffected and there remains large tracts of forest in the southern half of the island. So probably something would still be marching around on the island….

Overall not a lot of excitement geoscience-wise. GG avoided the train wreck of Geostorm and will need someday to see how the kaiju in Pacific Rim 2 were to “activate” the Pacific Rim of Fire (a callback to 1965’s Crack in the World?). We’ll have to wait and see how Alpha plays out (yes, more paleoanthropology than geoscience, but there has been speculation that human access to the New World required the domestication of wolves into dogs to be able to compete successfully with carnivores of the northern latitudes). Looks like the San Andreas sequel is stalled or dead, so maybe no more earthquakes or volcanoes coming up anytime soon.

Probably the most thorough examination of geology in the movies was put together in Earth magazine a few years ago. And GG has weighed in a few times before….

Ends or Means? One Paper, Two Views

How should one read a scientific paper?  As presenting conclusions one should take as our best estimate of truth? Or as information one can use to test competing hypotheses?  You might think it must be one or the other, but that is rarely the case.

Consider the just-published paper by Bahadori, Holt and Rasbury entitled “Reconstruction modeling of crustal thickness and paleotopography of western North America since 36 Ma”. From the abstract you might be tempted to say that this paper is solving a problem, in this case the Late Cenozoic paleoelevation history of the western U.S.:

Our final integrated topography model shows a Nevadaplano of ∼3.95 ± 0.3 km average elevation in central, eastern, and southern Nevada, western Utah, and parts of easternmost California. A belt of high topography also trends through northwestern, central, and southeastern Arizona at 36 Ma (Mogollon Highlands). Our model shows little to no elevation change for the Colorado Plateau and the northern Sierra Nevada (north of 36°N) since at least 36 Ma, and that between 36 and 5 Ma, the Sierra Nevada was located at the Pacific Ocean margin, with a shoreline on the eastern edge of the present-day Great Valley.

There is one key word in that paragraph that should make you careful in accepting the results: “model”. What is the model, and how reliable is it?

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