Archive | September 2017

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.

Read More…

Robinson’s Carosel

To many, science fiction is light sabers and hyperdrives and space battles and other mind-numbing eye-candy.  Yeah, it is fun to watch, but it misses the heart of good sci-fi, the consideration of just what we are and where we are going. In that world of (mostly) written science fiction, authors tend to land in a particular part of the landscape.  This is in part because of the effort taken to build their future worlds, and in part just how the author feels about things.  Pick up a Ben Bova book and you may find a heavy-handed government dominated by religious zealots in his future, but the focus is on cleverer protagonists who can outmaneuver such folk to reach an optimistic conclusion. There are fewer authors who really twist around their futures to see dramatically different sides. One of interest to us in earth science is Kim Stanley Robinson.

Read More…

Oklahoma Quakes, the Infrastructure Side

Last November, a M5.0 quake caused some damage in Cushing, Oklahoma.  A number of folks at the time were relieved that there wasn’t any noticeable damage to the nation’s largest oil storage facility.  This was only a few months after the Oklahoma Corporation Commission ordered a cutback in disposal of wastewater in injection wells. Since then, seismicity has mostly quieted down, but it seems that recognition of the scale of the hazard has been seeping into the awareness of a broader part of the media, leading to a lengthy piece in Politico Magazine on the potential disaster lurking in Cushing from facilities not really designed to survive an earthquake. While most of the stories of earthquake hazards in Oklahoma have been more focused on falling chimneys and old brick buildings, this piece exposes a pretty critical flaw in Oklahoma’s infrastructure.

So we will hope that there isn’t another unrecognized fault slowly being lubed up under Cushing.  But remember, the largest events from the infamous Rocky Mountain Arsenal injection adventure in the 1960s came more than a year after injection was totally stopped.  Oklahoma hasn’t stopped injecting fluids, and the volume of water injected so far dwarfs anything that happened in Denver in the 1960s…

Gagging Science

A couple of recent pieces, one an editorial in the New York Times and another at Vox, argue there is a “war on science” (to use the Times’s hackneyed phrase). First, let’s drop the “war” stuff.  Ever since Fox News went on the “War on Christmas” path, that terminology is meaningless short of armed soldiers killing scientists.

But what we are seeing is incredible. From the disbanding of scientific review panels to the placement of political appointees in the grants cycle to the gagging of scientists employed by the government to the cessation of collections of scientific data to the elevation of a contrarian rear-guard to equal or greater levels of influence with overwhelming scientific consensus in making regulatory decisions, it is abundantly clear that the Trump administration, rather than simply ignoring science, intends to silence science. This is not bulldozing partisan opposition; this is overlooking reality. Given their outlook, we might expect DDT to return to store shelves next to leaded paint.

This is ignorant bullshit. But before all the conservatives get hot under the collar and the liberals give each other high-fives, keep in mind that this game is not being played solely by the right.

Here in Boulder there is a vast expanse of cropland under the control of the county.  The purpose was to retain open space and maintain a rural barrier between Boulder and neighboring towns. Because the land is owned by the county, it can make rules about what happens when it leases the land to farmers. And one of those rules they’ve decided to implement–over the objections of the farmers working those lands–is to remove GMOs from county farmlands. As a five-part series of op-eds in the Daily Camera points out, this decision flies in the face of established science. One can spend hours reading the various letters to the editor, the position papers submitted to the Board of Supervisors, the various blog posts, etc. And it is almost as enlightening as the corners of the internet dedicated to showing that climate change isn’t real; GG earlier termed many of these kinds of arguments policy proxies: you use them as cudgels against actions you dislike (for instance, some GMO opponents seem to hate Monsanto as a corporate monstrosity; some GMO supporters point out that Whole Foods is a far bigger concern directly invested in the “organic = good” mindset; neither argument bears on the safety or efficacy of GMOs in agriculture). About the closest non-crop scientists can get to the science without going nuts might be the National Academy’s report from 2016.  Which really doesn’t support wholesale dismissal of GMOs.

Now the county can do whatever it wants in this regard; there is no law saying that land management has to be scientifically defensible. It is less clear that such an argument can defend the EPA’s removal of scientific review panels, but the mindset that science is a tool to be employed as a partisan weapon seems to be growing more common.  Instead of using scientific inquiry to resolve disputes that are grounded in reality, science is being selectively harvested to support one’s preexisting views.

Science is ideally a tool we use to avoid fooling ourselves.  We have to be open to discovering we are wrong, which is one of the hardest things for many of us to admit. But those who would overturn scientific consensus have to recognize that you don’t overturn such consensus on the basis of a small amount of information. For instance, evolution is observationally confirmed by thousands up thousands of studies of faunal successions in rock strata. Finding a T-Rex tooth in a 10,000 year old human campfire isn’t going to overturn evolution. Anthropogenic climate change at this point is supported by so many observations in so many ways that the possibility that it is an artifact of some other misunderstanding is vanishingly small.  GMO safety is well supported (but not to the degree climate change is; note this is not considering the economics of GMOs). There are many things we can act on now with a pretty solid assurance we won’t be mistaken; on other aspects, we should fund the science.

When making policy these days, it is incumbent on government to at least hear the scientific consensus and know where the edge of that consensus lies. For instance, global warming is caused by burning fossil fuels. Ice sheets will retreat, oceans are much warmer and more acidic, storms can be far wetter, droughts can be much drier, heat waves will be hotter are all so directly supported by simple physics, observation, and numerical simulation that all these can be acted upon without further inquiry. More difficult and unclear are things like the net precipitation budget over years-long time frames in regions of the U.S., the intensity of winter storms, or changes in the frequency of tornados; many such topics deserve continued inquiry.

But what we cannot do is simply pooh-pooh the science we don’t like. Or pretend it doesn’t exist.