Archive | November 2016

Educational Goals

Some years ago, GG was working with a more senior geoscience professor who offered one day the opinion that as he had mentored a student through his PhD, he had now successfully replaced himself and therefore need not advise any more students to get a doctorate. This came to mind upon seeing a piece by Roger Pielke Jr. that essentially was advocating for a course of study for professional athletes.

Basically Pielke’s point is that at top tier sports schools, the student-athletes have a pretty good chance of turning pro, so they should be trained in being a pro athlete.  He comes up with an estimate that power-5 conference football players have a 20% chance of landing in the NFL and a similar percentage from the top 16 basketball schools. But then he made this comparison: “…for the new PhD, the odds of landing a job as a professor, assuming all these positions are filled with new graduates, is only about 8 percent.”

So, according to an academic at a top-tier research school, the only true goal of a PhD is to be a professor.  So we should be teaching classes in grant-writing, course development, and classroom management, right? It is bad enough this impression exists outside of the academy, but it is insulting to have it offered from one who has lived in the academy and worked side-by-side with PhDs who are not professors.

So as a public service, a reminder: a PhD is degree that should reflect an ability to not only identify solvable problems but problems worth solving and to create and execute a plan of attack to solve such problems. Although you also pick up a lot of particulars about your field along the way, those main skills are very transferable.

In GG’s field, most PhDs in fact go into industry or government service, but GG is aware of several who have found more exotic paths where their training was important. One went on to work in Congress and then the White House and then government agencies.  A student of GG’s recently emailed to note that his PhD training was important in teaching him skills he uses daily in working for an investment firm.

We do graduate education a huge disservice if we think all we are doing is training future professors.  Although we academics are typically lousy career advisers (which is probably why so many graduates suffer through postdoc purgatory), we need to be clear that there are good paths for PhDs outside the ivory tower.

So yes, we probably only need to train one professorial replacement per career, but we also are training many other people for diverse futures. So if only 8% of our PhDs get to be professors, that is fine–there are places to go for the other 92% with the skills we teach. GG wonders if Pielke’s pro athlete training program would serve equally well the 80% of football and basketball players who do not hit the big time.

Single Quake Slip Partitioning?

UPDATE 2 11/22: GNS has assembled quite a lot of information, and the puzzlement deepens. It appears from the satellite and ground analysis that the bulk of the motion–up to 11 m of slip–was more nearly strike-slip and not the thrusting that appears in the focal mechanism (below). But the uplift of some areas of the coast by 6 meters (!) seems to suggest there is something more.

UPDATE 11/18: A considerable amount of information was put in an article on  This includes a map from GNS showing where the faults are that ruptured, a good deal of geodetic information.

Yesterday’s M7.5/7.8 Kaikoura earthquake in New Zealand is one of the more bizarre large earthquakes we have seen in some time. On the face of it, this appears to mostly be rupture of a subduction zone under northeasternmost part of the South Island of New Zealand. But there is a lot of other stuff going on….

First, the main focal mechanism as reported by the USGS:


Now this beachball would suggest a fault dipping to the NW while paralleling the coast. But the appearance that a toddler was not coloring in the lines tells you that there is something more here.

Some of that became apparent when the New Zealand’s GNS Science group went looking to see if there was any slip on earthquake faults.  This is what they found:

Rapid field reconnaissance indicates that multiple faults have ruptured:

  • Kekerengu Fault at the coast – appears to have had up to 10m of slip
  • Newly identified fault at Waipapa Bay
  • Hope Fault – seaward segment – minor movement
  • Hundalee Fault

I’ve tried to sketch these out from my copies of geologic maps of New Zealand:


(The base map is from Google).

This is where the other shoe drops. The Hope and Kekerengu faults are mapped as strike-slip.  Now minor slip on the Hope Fault might not mean much, but 10m on the Kekerengu means there was a lot of slip (I’ve assumed above it is strike-slip, but perhaps there is a thrust component).  Plus, the epicenter of the quake–where it started–is somewhere between Cheviot and Rotherham, well to the south (this is why initially this was called the Cheviot earthquake). Toss in a very odd slip history (the moment release was low for a minute and then things really broke) and you get the impression that a relatively small earthquake on an unnamed fault southeast of Rotherham started tripping things off to the north, which eventually tripped off a big rupture.

That big rupture probably is not on the map.  It is likely offshore, in the very southern end of the Hikurangi Trench (which is in part responsible for the whale watching that is so popular at Kaikoura).  This is the northeast trending thrust fault that the focal mechanism captured and is responsible for the large slip amounts found on the finite-fault map the USGS shares. This is probably also the reason for the ~1m uplift of the seashore at Kaikoura, which led to many photos of paua and crawfish out of the ocean (though uplift at the southwest end of the big strike-slip fault is also possible).

Presumably the large strike-slip faulting on the Hope and Kekerengu faults is what has contaminated the focal mechanism, making it a composite of complex motions instead of the clean double-couple. (Pure strike-slip faulting is seen in many aftershocks.) As such, it seems this earthquake might well have captured both major thrust motion on the subduction zone and strike-slip on the upper plate faults, a form of slip-partitioning in a single event that is quite striking.

It will be interesting to see how the seismological and geological analysis continues; the main seismological slip appears north of these faults and so there could well be more to be found.  But rain is in the forecast, which tends to ruin the easiest of signals to see.

Dear Donald Trump,

Dear President-Elect Trump,

I know you are a busy fellow now, between preparing to be President and accepting congratulations from your supporters and what not, and you probably have other things to attend to.  But I hope you might take a moment to hear two things from an earth scientist: climate change is a serious issue that we desperately need your administration to tackle, and prevention of a nuclear exchange is far more serious than bombing some far off city.

Some in your party claim that climate change is made-up, but you (or your campaign) said to that “Science is science and facts are facts.” Fact is, carbon dioxide is increasing in the atmosphere, faster than almost any example we can find in the geologic record. Fact is, it is from us burning fossil fuels. Fact is, that increases the mean temperature of the planet. Fact is, this is a long, slow problem that, neglected, becomes impossible to reverse. Mr. President-Elect, you watch polls, so perhaps you’ve seen the poll showing most Americans are worried about climate change.  As you’ve confidently asserted your freedom from big donors who might keep you from doing the right thing, I hope you will see your way to making progress on addressing this. And I hope you will discourage your fellow Republicans from trying to defund climate change research.  Just because we don’t study it doesn’t mean it won’t hurt us or even kill us.

At times in this campaign, you have spoken rather casually about the spread of nuclear weapons, seeming to feel that there is no particular problem if many other countries have a nuclear arsenal. We don’t need more possible places where such war could erupt. These weapons are totally different from the drones and smart bombs and other devices used in conventional war; they can change the way the planet functions.  An all-out nuclear exchange would mimic the events that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Even a limited nuclear exchange between, say, Pakistan and India, could have global consequences.

So, President-Elect Trump, I implore you on these topics to take a moment to listen to the people whose life work has been to understand them. They are threats to the world of our children and grandchildren. There might be many topics on which you and I would disagree, and while many of them are important, I am no more an expert on those than you are. But on these two critical issues, as an earth scientist, I wish to share my concerns and ask you, when President of the United States and a global leader, to help make a better world for the generations that follow.


Craig Jones (aka the Grumpy Geophysicist)

Oklahoma Dreamin’

Back in September, Oklahoma had a M5.6.  Some of you might recall the difference in opinion between USGS scientist Dan McNamara, who expected continued seismicity, and Oklahoma Geological Survey director Jeremy Boak, who said “I’d be surprised if we had another 5.0 this year.”

Well, Director Boak hopefully was in the vicinity to be surprised in person by the M5.0 today that damaged buildings in Cushing, OK, site of the largest oil storage facility in the country (which at least apparently escaped any damage). Yeah, once more wishful thinking trumped by actual scientific examination….increasingly it seems the branch McNamara has climbed out on is the real stout one while the hopes of the Oklahoma injection operators rest on thin reeds.

At least nobody has died, but when you are evacuating a senior housing facility in the night and cancelling school, you know you are playing with fire.

And hey, we aren’t even done with 2016 yet.

Why can’t science be more like sports?

Perhaps the single most distressing turn in politics reflects an equally disturbing change in the public at large: the disregard for facts. Inflation is booming! The climate is cooling! Crime is soaring! Jobs are vanishing! Accompanying this is a numerical illiteracy: the temperature this winter where I live was colder than normal, so global warming must be hoax. The risk of dying in a terrorist attack is greater than the odds of dying in a car crash. (in fact, you are more likely to die overseas in a car crash than by terrorist attack, and even more likely to die in a bathtub accident). Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s old saying that “you are entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts” now seems quite quaint.

And yet amidst all this mental fog we find a pastime, one utterly irrelevant to the world our children or grandchildren might live in, where these issues are singularly absent: sports. GG has never heard somebody claim that the Cubs really lost the World Series, that Babe Ruth didn’t hit 714 home runs.  What is more, die-hard fans are well-versed in the statistics of their games. None are more addicted than baseball fans, where OPS and WAR now clutter conversations still sprinkled with traditional statistics like batting average and earned run average. Just where are these people when we discuss climate change, environmental risks, government finance and the like? Why are we so obsessed and dedicated to something that matters so little and so cavalier about things that do?

You have to wonder if there was an much of a cult following of science as sports if things like p-hacking, shingling and plagiarism would long survive.  Would there still be a public debate about whether or not there was global warming, or would the debate focus on the amplification factor of methane loss from pipelines vs. gains from a shift away from coal? You could even imagine enthusiasts deriding the simplicity and misleading applications of the h-index in favor of some more complicated scoring for research impact.

What if there were fantasy leagues?   Read More…

Scientific transparency

For some time, when GG talks to folks about climate change, he avoids saying “models predict thus-and-so will happen,” instead focusing on some more basic information like the correlations of CO2 content and temperature in the geologic record. Part of the reason is that climate models have some big issues, and one of those is that they of necessity use empirical stopgaps to replace basic physics going on at scales below the resolution of the models.  These stopgaps are at the most basic level fudge factors, and the deal is that they are chosen to match our instrumental record–and usually the instrumental record on temperature. This in a sense makes them backwards-looking; it is possible that the tuning values that make a model fit the last half of the twentieth century are wrong for slightly different conditions in the twenty-first century (and arguably that such fancy climate models are utterly out of touch with how the earth back in the Pleistocene or Eocene or Cretaceous really worked). It is also possible that an incorrect combination of fudge factors  happens to work out in some situations but is highly misleading others.

Most of that tuning went on behind closed doors, making it hard to know what trade-offs different groups were accepting in making their models match some part of the climate record. Now, finally, Science reports that the lid on these internal deliberations is being taken off. Users will be able to see what model-creation groups have been assuming.  It sounds as though part of the result of this new-found transparency is a recognition that you might want to tune these models differently if you are interested in different aspects of the climate system.

It is ironic that the presence of aggressive climate-change skepticism has prevented more public sharing of this information to this point because arguably some of this activity is what might most benefit from critical examination.   One might hope that the exposition of these trade-offs, most of which are presumably well-known within the community, might focus research on the most critical of these tuned parameters, getting into the proper dependence of the desired factor on physical inputs.

Anyways, it is high time for this, and GG looks forward to seeing this improve the responsiveness of climate models to substantially different environmental conditions.

Politically Incorrect, but Scientifically Appropriate

In a Daily Camera story talking about how persecuted conservatives are on the CU campus, the following caught GG’s eye:

In CU’s political science department, professors are uniquely focused on political diversity in their classes, said department chair David Brown….Conservative students say that’s less true in some other fields that study inherently polarizing topics, such as climate change.

OK, now it is possible that the conservative students are talking about classes asking how to deal with climate change, but in terms of classes taught by climate scientists, this is NOT a conservative/liberal thing.  This is a science/anti-science thing.  It is greatly unfortunate that in the U.S. this presently maps into a Democratic/Republican framework (it didn’t always!), but you don’t go around looking for science faculty solely because they have a “conservative” view on climate change so you can “balance” the faculty any more than you’d want a dishonest accountant to be teaching accounting to “balance” double-entry bookkeeping. And to be clear, we don’t hire young-earth “scientists” to balance out the old-earth teachings in geology because their “science” is a grab bag of misrepresentations, tortured interpretations, and cherry-picking of results, not because they (typically) have conservative political leanings.

Look, dear lovable conservative students (and their equally adorable conservative adult advocates), climate scientists didn’t infer climate change because they are liberals eager to  bend the power of the state to control all our lives; they inferred climate change because that is where the science led them.  Some were (and a few might even remain) Republicans! That one political party has chosen to walk away from the science and demonize the scientists doing that work does not mean that we adjust science instruction to match the party line.  (Arguably all it has done is push those GOP scientists away from the Republican Party; after all, if your political representatives said you were professionally dishonest and cheating and misleading after you’ve spent years learning how to practice your craft and they didn’t even bother understanding an executive summary, would you want to keep supporting them?). The same would be true on the other side, should anti-vaxxers and GMO opponents come to dominate the Democratic Party; we would not hire the charlatans opposing vaccinations to teach in biology or at the medical school just to make things politically balanced.

There are arguably conservative and liberal approaches to trying to address climate change, and these might be equally effective scientifically but be profoundly unacceptable to one side or the other politically. As scientists, we’d need to study both approaches and evaluate them on their scientific merits, and if that is not done fairly, then claims of bias have some merit. But this is not typically what the discussion is about.

We equate scientific skill with political diversity at our great peril. This was done in the old Soviet Union and it hurt them. Maybe we need to make sure that students understand the difference between science and politics.