Archive | August 2016

When objections are overruled

A short piece in Ars Technica passes on the inference that scientific rebuttal papers have little impact. The work has some flaws (presuming, for instance, that citation rates would fall when the rebuttal was published, when often the rebuttal is voicing an opinion already established within a skeptical part of the community, or that citations of a rebuttal are all that meaningful) and the recommendation is rather weak tea (there should be links to the rebuttal in the original paper, which is fine as far as it goes and is in fact policy for many online publishers–though the links are not necessarily very prominent).  While some people like to write comments on papers, GG has resisted this urge for many years despite (as should be obvious from many other posts) being deeply skeptical about some work.  Why not write comments?

There are a number of issues writing a comment pointing out weaknesses in published work.  One is that such pieces are inherently negative, which is a bit of a turnoff.  You are asking people to simply forget or unlearn something rather than offering something new.  Another is that usually the original authors will rebut the comment; basically, if there was something appealing about the original paper, the reply will often paper over flaws well enough to allow readers to continue to embrace the thesis advanced in the original paper.  Third, the flaws being pointed out are generally well below the kinds of misbehavior that would justify retraction. Fourth, the venue is a limiting one, where a fully expansive reconsideration of the topic is simply not possible. Fifth, it is very hard not to have a rather hostile tone in a comment (and sometimes the tone is downright offensive), which again can turn readers against the comment rather than the original paper.

(This is, by the ways, part of why GG advocates for solid and thorough review of papers.  In the review stage, one can convince authors that they made some mistakes that could now be corrected; after publication there is more of a tendency to defend rather than revise work as it can be hard to publicly say “whoops, we need a redo”).

In a way this is all unfortunate because of course a robust discussion of the pros and cons of some research should be enlightening.  But the reality is that it is rarely a help.  Should you want to write a comment, though, consider those weaknesses.  It is possible to offer up a positive spin when commenting on some papers, and there is no point in writing anything mean-spirited no matter how many pictures of the lead author remain taped on dartboards in your lab. Offering insights to replace the ones you feel are mistaken would probably be wise.

GG advocates advancing the understanding of the topic at hand by conducting research relevant to the points in dispute.  You can then, armed with new data or analysis, more fully dismember a truly misdirected piece of research, and you are then in the catbird seat should your work inspire a comment. This is obviously a slower sort of response and so might not be suitable in certain circumstances (e.g., a paper influencing important policy decisions), but overall it is more satisfying.  Instead of just destroying somebody’s attempt to add a brick to the edifice of scientific knowledge, you are more in the position of replacing that rotten brick with a sounder one and maybe putting more on top of that. And it has the advantage of keeping you from making a knee-jerk stupid response.  Occasionally you learn that you were in fact wrong (GG is aware of a few instances where a scientist was convinced a line of research was misdirected and set out to prove it wrong only to discover it was right and, by trying to do solid work on it, provided stronger evidence for that line of inquiry).

So maybe it isn’t too tragic that rebuttals seem to be ineffective.  It might just be that the most influential attacks on new science are not appearing in that particular venue.

Italian tectonics, corrected

With the earthquake in Italy last night (our time) come some of the most ham-handed tectonic explanations ever (this is stuff that makes the Grumpy Geophysicist officially grumpy).  The official USGS explanation is:

The August 24, 2016 normal faulting earthquake is an expression of the east­west extensional tectonics that now dominate along the Apennine belt, primarily a response to the Tyrrhenian basin opening faster than the compression between the Eurasia and Africa plates.

This is totally off the wall and so of course has been repackaged by the BBC:

The Tyrrhenian Basin, or Sea, which lies to the west of Italy, between the mainland and Sardinia/Corsica, is slowly opening up.

Scientists say this is contributing to extension, or “pull-apart”, along the Apennines. This stress is compounded by movement in the east, in the Adriatic.

The result is a major fault system that runs the length of the mountain range with a series of smaller faults that fan off to the sides. The foundations of cities like Perugia and L’Aquila stand on top of it all.

OK, here’s the problem with this explanation.  If the Tyrrhenian Sea is opening up, something else must be closing (Earth is not expanding, sorry Carey fans).  The general picture, as has been put forward by Malinverno and Ryan or Wiki Royden, goes like this: the ocean floor to the east of Italy (the Adriatic) is sinking into the mantle.  The subduction zone (where the Adriatic goes under Italy) is basically moving to the east, dragging Italy along for the ride.  To compensate for this, new ocean floor is opening up on the west side of Italy (the Tyrrhenian Sea).  This was drawn by Malinerno and Ryan like this:


East-west section from the Tyrrhenian Sea (at left, pattern 2) across Italy, with the Apennine accretionary prism (pattern 5) and on into the Adriatic (Ad, at right). Oldest section at top, youngest at the bottom. Apennines are mainly stuff scraped off the Adriatic plate. From Malinverno and Ryan, Tectonics, 1986.

If the Tyrrhenian Sea was opening faster than the convergence on the east side of Italy, then you should see compression (thrust faulting) all the way across, but you do not.  Instead, this earthquake and others in the area are extensional, north-south trending normal faults. However, these are paralleling thrust faults farther east, so some additional thought is needed.

Now given the thrust faults on the east edge of Italy, the normal faults of the Apennines seem strange, but in fact this happens in many places.  Here, the buildup of the mountains  has produced gravitational stresses in the Apennines that favor normal faulting.  The fact the sub-Adriatic lithosphere is driving the subduction zone to the east is what prevents the lithosphere from being in compression, so the relatively low potential energy in the Apennines can be expressed as normal faulting (in contrast, the very high compressional stresses from the Indian-Asian collision require very high mountains before you see any extensional faulting, and there the extensional faults are perpendicular to the thrust belt, not parallel as in Italy).

Look, it is probably a bit more complex that “it is caused by the Tyrrhenian Sea opening” but not so much that it excuses such a misleading explanation.

This is, by the ways, an example of a style of tectonics that probably produced the late Paleozoic Antler orogeny in the western U.S.  Similar stuff goes on behind “retreating” subduction zones in parts of the western Pacific, but lacking the continental material to reproduce Italy in quite the same way.

Llama learnings

The past week has had bits and pieces of things that arose from llama packing the Muir Trail. So a last few odds and ends before moving back to more typical fare.

  • If you llama pack, make a list of what is in each bag once you first get bags balanced. It speeds things up on later days.
  • Similarly, stuff sacks make that description (and packing) lots easier. We had a green stuff sack with cooking gear, a blue one with towels and shower, a yellow one with power-related stuff, etc.
  • If your llama packs have small end pouches, use them both to easily shift things to get packs in balance but also for things you might want to grab. We had water bottles, first aid kit, and sandles in ours.
  • It seems there are two strategies for keeping llamas from getting poisoned: keep them away from complexes of plants, and let them roam. The first is what we did; the second is only open to private groups with their own llamas and the willingness to chase them down.
  • Probably a bad idea to leave llamas picketed in the same place for several hours unless you are confident there is nothing bad for them to eat.
  • Sure would be nice to have a llama-friendly list of grazing sites. Not enough llama-travel to justify one.
  • Look beyond the first obvious campsite. There is almost always a better one.
  • Take at least one outrageous luxury llama packing. People will be baffled why you use llamas without one.
  • Ovaeasy egg crystals really are good enough to leave eggs at home. Hunt them down.
  • You can never take enough chocolate.
  • Nice big llama-bag-sized bear boxes are tons easier to pack than those black cylindrical her cans. But the black cylinders are great for getting tortillas to last a long time.
  • Dress well if leading llamas-you will be in lots of vacation photos and so might want to look your best.
  • Don’t use water from a lake without an outlet unless your filter can be back flushed.
  • Always check in with a ranger. You never know what good karma might emerge.
  • Gravity feed water filters rock. They last longer if you are careful with what you put in.
  • Don’t crap in campsites. Please. You walked this far in wilderness, a few more steps won’t kill you. On a related note, learn just how deep 6 inches really is.
  • Plan on taking out your used TP. This is getting to be a common rule more easily addressed with planning.
  • Llama jokes are harder to come up with than you would expect.
  • Llamas are not bothered by lightning and thunder. But they will startle if you stumble while close behind them.
  • Solar panels for backpacking work great for iPhones but we had less luck with camera batteries. Try before you hike.
  • Solar panels work well lashed atop llama packs.
  • Obscure convenience:  Muir Trail Ranch has AC power for hikers. Come prepared.
  • Crushed hope: the little store at Muir Trail Ranch has no snacks. It does have gloves, bug stuff and first aid materials.
  • Moleskin without benzoin is basically an invitation for a new blister where the moleskin piled up.
  • Molefoam is a cruel joke.
  • Somebody please make size 12 1/2 boots.
  • If you can, take a chair. If not, take a hammock.
  • Tripods make good gravity-feed filter props when above timberline.
  • Marvel at those on the trail at sunrise or sunset. Did they really come to work that hard?
  • Have at least one mildly absurd food in your resupply. (Ours was Pringles).
  • Plan ahead. You don’t want to make the journey too long when passing through areas where grazing isn’t allowed.

Finally, some lousy llama jokes:

  • What is a religious llama’s favorite off-Broadway play?  Hello Dalai Llama.
  • Where do expectant llama mothers go?  Llama mamas class (Or llama-Lamaze)
  • What does a startled llama see in the mirror? His spitting image.
  • What is a llama’s favorite drink on a hot day?  Llamonade. (No it does not make sense).

Disrepair…or misunderstood?

Nicholas Kristof apparently was on the John Muir Trail with his daughter about the same time GG was on the trail with his daughter (but GG had 3 llamas, while poor Nicholas had to make do with a backpack).  How did we miss each other?  Anyways, he wrote a bit about how we all own national parks but then included this damning note:

Even on the John Muir Trail, large stretches are in disrepair and had turned into creeks of snowmelt when my daughter and I hiked them. This quickly erodes the trails so much that new ones have to be built nearby. This reluctance to pay for maintenance isn’t even fiscally prudent, for it’s far more expensive to build new trails than to maintain old ones.

Now there are a lot of things that need repair or maintenance in national parks, but you know what?  It isn’t clear that the John Muir Trail is anywhere near the top of the list.

Read More…

Road gaps

Hiking the Muir Trail this summer got GG pondering what might have been, as is still evident in the California highway numbering system…

If you are in Denver and driving east on I-70 and want to be on I-70 in Washington DC, you can simply stay on I-70.  This is pretty much true throughout the interstate system: get on I-5 in San Diego and you can follow it all the way to Seattle.  But get on California 190 in Porterville and head east and you’ll need an atlas to somehow get on California 190 heading east from Olancha. Similarly, following highway 168 east out of Fresno will carry you past a small ski area and to the edge of the Huntington Lake Resort, but try to continue on to the Bristlecone Pine forest and you’ll quickly find yourself on what amounts to a paved horse trail heading to Florence Lake with no hope of getting across the range in your motor vehicle. Those oddly disconnected pieces of numbered highway are reminders of how the long Wilderness of the Sierra very nearly was not to be.


Disconnected and incomplete trans-Sierra highways

These highway numbers are not an accident or a malicious joke by Caltrans.  These two highways were intended to be connected; two others were the Minarets Highways crossing the Sierra near Devils Postpile (a continuation of highway 203) and a continuation of highway 180 across Kearsarge Pass to Independence. As roads to the north were completed, continuing the march to the south seemed likely in the 1950s and plans were laid for expansion of the highway system.

Increased experience in mountain highways and a shift from a need for access to a need for preservation conspired to block this march of progress.  The cost of maintaining the existing trans-Sierra roads was proving to be significant, lessening Caltrans’s appetite for more expensive mountain roads only open a few months of the year; the need for residents of Fresno to visit Bishop was hardly compelling, the Forest Service established a Primitive Area across some road alignments, Congress legislated Wilderness areas in some other areas, and the most promising road (the Minarets Highway), which would have given Central Valley ski bums a quick link to Mammoth Mountain, was scotched by Governor Reagan and his Secretary of Resources, Ike Livermore, who apparently was scarred by finding automobiles at Reds Meadow as a youth working as a packer. [Reagan also killed the designation of the Mineral King road as a state highway].

This is generally good news though for Muir Trail hikers, though.  Had planned highways been completed, we would have crossed three major trans-Sierra highways instead of hiking for nearly 200 miles through wilderness. While this maybe has made getting a resupply harder than it might have been, it is difficult to imagine Highway 168 plowing down Evolution Valley or winding down Piute Creek towards the Muir Trail Ranch; the halfway point for the John Muir Trail might have been a highway rest area. Highway 180 would have replaced the busiest backcountry area in Kings Canyon National Park with gas fumes, car campgrounds and even more abuse. The fragmented wilderness would have been quite different.

In a way, it is possible that Los Angeles’s appropriation of the Owens River helped to keep the roads from being completed.  Had water stayed in the valley, it is nearly certain that populations would have been larger and more eager for major east-west highways.

Whatever the reasons, it is well to recall that one of the longest wilderness hikes in the country nearly became impossible.

“Your Trail Rep Is Poor…”

GG and his daughter were greeted at Guitar Lake by an upset hiker GG had passed some days earlier, who announced loudly that GG had mistreated him and followed this with the statement that he had talked with some others and three felt that we mistreated them. [FWIW, we met literally hundreds of people.  Pissing off 4 seems a fair ratio.]

Setting aside the mentality which might best be described as “trail rage” [guy, if you are reading this, get help, or you’ll probably be dead in five years due to a road rage incident], how does one have a “trail rep”?

To have a reputation, there must be a community.  For instance, all professional geoscientists have some kind of reputation with their scientific colleagues, another reputation with their grad students, another with the faculty at their school, etc. What struck GG was, where is the community necessary to generate a reputation?

For GG, going to the wilderness was to go and see and experience the wilderness and let civilization seep away to some degree.  It was not to meet people and form some kind of temporary community capable of passing judgement on the various folks found on the trail. Yet this fellow felt there was a community and that he was part of it and could convey its sentiments to us.

This made GG wonder, are there folks coming to hike these trails not to experience the nature along them but to connect with a fairly random collection of other people? If so, that might explain the very strong concentration of people hiking the Muir Trail versus the surrounding trails.  After all, the trail community on the Gardiner Basin trail or in Simpson Meadow is probably your own group. Does this mean that these days, the only way to escape your real-life reputation is to go to the wilderness with a group of strangers? Is this a primary motivation for some folks?

GG doesn’t know, but it was an interesting insight….

Is Through-hiking Killing the Wilderness?


One observation from hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT) with llamas was just how many people are on that trail (a separate observation was just how many of those backpackers are baby-boomers–seems like about a third if not more). Does this represent a big increase in Wilderness use, or is it misleading?

If you try and hike the Muir Trail, you quickly learn it is very popular.  Yosemite has a quota of 45 on permits leaving the park over Donahue Pass; this was instituted after the number of JMT hikers jumped from about 1000/year 14 years ago to 3500/year more recently. Similarly, the Forest Service has a quota of 25 people/day for exiting at Whitney Portal (there is also a quota for entering there).  The result of these has been to push hikers to other trailheads; the quota for entering at Cottonwood Pass, for instance, was met for most days in July this year. We met a lot of folks who started there.


JMT trail use, from Yosemite National Park website.

Is this a blip on the radar?  Is it an increase in popularity?  It is hard to tell…

Read More…