Archive | July 2016

A guy, a girl, and three llamas walk in…

…to a campsite, that is.  If you see that, you’re probably on the John Muir Trail about now and meeting the Grumpy Geophysicist and his daughter and the three llamas they’ve rented.  So don’t expect to hear much for a few weeks, but feel free to say hello if you are in the area.

If you are curious, GG’s hike is mapped at this site.

Water Ways

Drive up the San Joaquin Valley and it is hard to miss the signs reflecting pain from the California drought: “Solve the Drought Problem NOW” and “Is growing food wasting water?”  That last one caught GG’s attention because the answer isn’t as certain as the banner’s authors might hope.

Now it isn’t like growing food is morally bad, but if, say, a man dying of thirst expires on your lawn as you dump a tumbler of water on your tomato plants, well, you certainly used the water poorly.  But as with almost any good that can be used in multiple ways, “waste” can be described as using that good more poorly than some alternate use.  In a free market economy, we use price to decide–if you can make more money by getting a unit of X than somebody else, your use is (economically) superior.  But that is not how water works, where it is a kind of limited ownership that can make it cheap for some and dear for others.  (Feel free to reread Cadillac Desert for some background; we won’t go over that again here, though somebody needs to add a new chapter there on how urban districts are buying water options as a clever means of using agricultural water when urban sources are stretched).

It is interesting to speculate on how things might have been had water rights been different.  For instance, had water been required to stay within its drainage basin, Los Angeles would certainly not be the megalopolis it is today.  Farmers might have been in a much stronger position–but then again, maybe the cities would have grown in those drainages and the same tensions would exist, but at smaller scales, basin by basin.

Or maybe if water had always been a free market good–say the government would auction that year’s water from each river to the highest bidder.  As things stand today, farmers would be destroyed–the price of water in urban areas dwarfs the cost to farmers. Presumably what would happen is that food requiring irrigation would get pretty pricy.  Oranges and raisins might have become food of the very wealthy instead of supermarket staples.

The reality in California is that probably we have over-committed water and made it too cheap for agriculture.  In addition to getting surface water sources, many can drill wells to supplement their allocations (an option not open to most urban dwellers). And although the stresses in California are portrayed as urban vs. rural, the reality is more complex.  Farmers on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley are, traditionally, more family-operated smaller farms that rely on local irrigation districts or things like the Friant-Kern canal.  Many of the farmers in fact totally dry up the streams they tap: the Tulare Lake, formerly fed by the Kern and Kings Rivers, is a distant memory. Diversions of water from Northern California do not concern them.  In contrast, the west side farmers, dominated by large semi-industrial operations, have tapped the California aqueduct, and in so doing fight to maximize the water they can get.  Their deal with the devil long ago has come due: they were at the bottom of the water rights list as Los Angeles and San Diego paid for the aqueduct, but for many years had little need for it.  The result is that agricultural users on the valley’s west side battle environmental groups to try to get more water in the canal.  [8/30/16 update: a drive on the west side of the valley turns up even more of the “Congress-created desert” signs.  Not a shock.]  Urban users are similarly non-uniform.  Commercial operations have separate water needs (and rates) from residential users (who generally pay top dollar on a per gallon basis).  Thus what often seems a simply duality is at least a five-sided fight (west side irrigators, east side irrigators, residential users, commercial users, and environmental and fishing advocates).

There is no doubt that fight will resume when water ceases to flow again, but the problem is that expectations for a long time grew settled on resources that were slimmer than expected–and are growing slimmer. This only got more complex because our water laws got distorted by early mining activities, activities that made water a commodity.

Plutonic Relationships

We are somewhere near the 100th anniversary of the completion of one of the most remarkable geologic maps ever, and yet the map was never published during the author’s lifetime and indeed has largely been overlooked despite the tremendous strides in understanding and incredible effort the map represents.

When the US Geological Society decided in 1913 that a full and complete study of Yosemite Valley was needed, they tapped topographer François Matthes and geologist Frank Calkins.  Matthes, who moved from the topographic to the geologic branch, has since been in the limelight in Yosemite, interpretive materials for most of the twentieth century based on his input. It was Calkins, though, who mapped the bedrock of the valley in remarkable detail on the equally remarkable topographic baseman prepared by Matthes a decade earlier.


At the time, geologists were still struggling to understand how the large mass of granitic rock of the Sierra had come to be.  Henry Ward Turner, working with Waldemar Lindgren on the original folio maps of the northern Sierra, wrote in 1896 that “the intrusion of the large granodiorite masses…took place on so gigantic a scale that the mind strives with difficulty to comprehend the mechanics of the process.” Turner would be the one to really find the key to understanding Sierra magmatism when his mapping in Yosemite led him to identify individual bodies of plutonic rocks, each chemically or mineralogically distinct, and see that the relations at the boundaries between these bodies indicated that one side was solid while the other was molten. Turner had identified the base unit of geologic mapping in igneous terrains, the pluton–a term not to be used until 1928, when it finally supplemented the overused “batholith”. Sadly, Turner’s work only was mentioned almost as an aside in a 1900 paper on the Quaternary geology of the valley before he headed into the mining industry.

Although Turner had left, his initial mapping and insights were available to Calkins as he accompanied Matthes into the field in 1913.  Many geologists were struggling with the indications that a cooling body of magma might differentiate (Bowen’s famous series was published in 1915), and so considered the variations in the petrology of the granitic basement to possibly reflect one or another stage in the cooling of a massive molten body. What Turner started and Calkins so ably finished was to recognize that there were individual pulses of magma, and these were mappable bodies.  Although the needs of Matthes’s studies of glaciation in Yosemite only required fairly crude mapping of these bodies (for use in identifying glacial erratics), Calkins took exceptional care.  Even so, when he completed his fieldwork in 1916, he apparently could not bring himself to publish the detailed map of the complex geology of the valley, only using it as part of a far smaller scale map published in 1930 in the Yosemite Valley Professional Paper mainly written by Matthes.

Calkins’s work was arguably the first modern geologic map in the Sierra and could well be one of the first of its kind anywhere in the world. The level of detail in his mapping clearly conveys some of the igneous processes at work as in the piece of the map above, where the intrusion of the Sentinel Granodiorite (Ks) dikes and dismembers the edge of the older El Capitan Granite (Kec). It would take admirers of Calkins work, people who had themselves mapped in this terrain, to bring the map finally to publication in 1985 as USGS Miscellaneous Investigations Map 1639.

The impact of Calkins’s work is unclear; it would take a proper historian of geology to go through letters and meeting notes to see if Calkins’s mapping had broader influence. But it clearly was seminal in the Sierra (compare, for instance, Knopf’s mapping farther south at about the same time with what Calkins did); the rescue and publication of this map nearly 70 years after its completion speaks volumes about its perceived value.  Indeed, only recently has some work in the valley exceeded Calkins’s level of detail.

Are Boulderites NIMBY-diots?

Ah Boulder, favorite punching bag for those who seem simultaneously envious and angry with the town at the base of the Flatirons.  Lately the NY Times has taken Boulder as a prime example of a community destroying equality (really, guys?  With some of the most out-there, unjustifiable incomes in the country visible out your office windows, you have to look to Boulder?).  Basically the contention is that Boulder, by not allowing for a lot of high-density construction, is creating the kind of 99%/1% division that is shredding the social contract underlying American life.

Wow. And here the Peoples Republic thought it was saving the world, not destroying it…

As is often the case in such polemics, there are embarrassingly few numbers, so let’s look at this.  In the end, we’ll see that there are big problems that represent a conflict of ideals with reality with no easy solution.  Yeah, big surprise. There is really nothing new In GG’s review of this other than to point out that there really is nothing new about what is going on in Boulder, but here it is for those who might be curious.

Read More…

Demonizing State Universities

Well, maybe that is an exaggeration, but a New York Times piece on higher ed quotes a lot of people who are furious that their state U is taking more and more out of state students. This is rapidly becoming one of those “as you sow, so shall you reap” kind of stories.

Let’s start with the cost of going to college.  Here is what the CollegeBoard found for in-state students attending 4-year public universities:


Published and net costs in constant 2015 dollars for in-state students attending a public 4-year college.  Source: College Board

OK, over the last 20 years published fees have about doubled while the net cost has only gone up about 60% in constant dollars.  [There is an interesting story lurking in the increase in the cost eaten by room and board, but let’s save that for another day]. But many might look at this and say “wow–what a deal!”.  And indeed it is:


Published and net costs for attending a private, not-for-profit 4-year college.  Source: CollegeBoard.

So going to a private school the net cost is more than triple a state university. Now private schools didn’t have their net costs rise nearly so much as state schools, and in fact their net costs dropped in the Great Recession for quite awhile while state schools’ costs rose. The obvious reason was that states were pulling back from funding higher education.

Read More…

Egregious citation statistic abuse

The world of citation statistics is, arguably, science’s answer to doping in athletics.  As new tests emerge, new ways of cheating follow. What is becoming increasingly clear is that the rewards for cheating are far more direct than many of us ever thought.

The whole business of coming up with quantified measures of research “success” continues (the new tests), but GG brings this one about relative citation rates up more for a (to GG) shocking insight. Namely that research dollars in some fields are directly distributed based upon some of these metrics.  (This is not true at any institution GG has been at).

The JIF [Journal Impact Factor] is a very convenient metric. If a medical faculty wants to incentivize the research of its clinicians and scientists, it can simply add up the impact factors of the journals in which a particular researcher has published in a certain period (e.g. last 3 years). This factor is then multiplied by a sum of money set aside for rewarding researchers in a performance based manner. This sum will be handed to the researcher as a supplement to the funds that he or she acquires via foundations and other funding agencies. This is how we do it at the Charité, one of Europe’s largest academic medical centers and schools, and at many other medical faculties in Germany. Roughly 5 Mio € are distributed every year to clinicians and researchers at the Charité according to this simple algorithm.

Um, wow.  Maybe you knew this; GG didn’t. No wonder there is the cornucopia of bad behavior in the biosciences. Read More…

Alien Bait

OK, while pondering the bizarre motivations for evil alien monsters (must…destroy…schoolbus…which can dodge plasma blasts even as fighter jets cannot), GG wondered, why would any alien civilization want to conquer or destroy Earth?

Arguably the most likely reason would have something to do with our biosphere.  Maybe there are cool new medicines to be found–the cure for some intergalactic plague.  Or maybe they really are into zoos (hmm, didn’t Kurt Vonnegut go there?).  Our biosphere is presumably highly unique and probably pretty rare (current enthusiasm for planets possibly harboring life not withstanding).

Not knowing anything about alien ecosystems or diseases or the like, can’t really go any further.  Is there anything else special about Earth?  In the past, movies and some science fiction have used the water on Earth as a main motivation (see Oblivion for a recent example).  But water is simply hydrogen–which is widespread–and oxygen, which is also pretty common.  If you have the muscle to move spaceships all over the place, making water is probably not that hard to do.

Oddly enough, one possibility is one that feels more like motivation for a spy movie and not for some extra-terrestrial invasion: gold.

Now gold on Earth isn’t the most common thing, but the funny part is that there is a lot more of it near the earth’s surface than you’d expect.  If you make Earth by condensing all the material in the solar nebula at about this distance from the Sun, you kind of expect the gold to all end up in the core [woo-hoo! Another motivation for a movie about the core–travel there to get gold!]. Although this difference might be related to other elements present in early Earth and issues with experimental simulation of the partitioning of gold between core and mantle, if this is real, a decent proposal is that things like gold and iridium were emplaced on the earth’s surface in the Late Heavy Bombardment period just under 4 billion years ago (a review of much of this can be found here; a popular science story here and a 2011 Nature article providing observational support is here). What this might mean is that the earth might be uncommonly rich in metals like gold.  And if our solar system were unusually rich in gold to start with (the production of gold in stars requires either supernovae or even more exotic events), we might be quite unusual. So maybe a good ET movie might combine sci-fi and a Ft. Knox heist….

Of course you’d have to have some big reason for wanting gold (hint: probably not to make coins with).  But gold is exceptionally malleable and resistant to corrosion; it is also an exceptional conductor.  Perhaps there is some kind of gold-based superconductor out there (so Earth could be Avatar’s Pandora for some other species).

GG will wait for that call from Hollywood….