Archive | April 2018

War On Science: EPA Update, May Day Mayday Edition

A short pointer to a nice Economist article going through more of the background on the EPA’s utter disregard for science under administrator Scott Pruitt. This includes the formal unveiling of the policy of pitching science where the raw data is inaccessible (usually because of the confidential nature of medical records). However, Politico noted that many industry studies are similarly unavailable, and internal messages within the administration point to an effort to try to make industry studies somehow accessible while barring academic studies.

This clear and utterly shameless attack on scientific research outside industry with the totally transparent goal of removing regulations deserves all the invective available.  There is already a strong bias in the U.S. system in favor of allowing things that haven’t been demonstrated to be safe to be made or sold or released into the environment. As nearly all demonstrations of illness caused by environmental factors will require confidential medical records, the Congressional Budget Office (per the Economist article) estimated that it would cost $100M per year to properly redact these datasets to comply with this new rule.  Naturally, the Trump administration has called for budget cuts rather than seeking the funds necessary to implement their rule.

Unfortunately, too many have been yelling about far lesser transgressions so the outrage that should be directed at this move won’t register. But please yell.

Who is a Geologist?

Its been mildly amusing to see the kerfuffle over Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke’s claims to be a geologist, which even caught the attention of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight. Of course this isn’t helped by his obvious dedication to the field, as documented in his autobiography:

“I studied geology [at the University of Oregon] as a result of closing my eyes and randomly pointing to a major from the academic catalog, and I never looked back. I am just glad I did not find electronics.”

Some of the criteria mentioned in some news stories make GG wonder if he, too, is not a geologist (GG is not enrolled as a member in the American Institute of Professional Geologists or the Association of State Boards of Geologists as one story suggests as a criterion). While the CNN story on this correctly says Zinke never held a job as a geologist, other news reports simply say he is not a geologist. Is that fair? Read More…

Funding Myopia

Few if any scientists are wild about the modern funding environment.  With the exception of some big planetary probes, where the shear cost of the probe ensures some long term funding, nearly all science is funded on a 1 to 3 year timescale. Competition can be fierce and news of getting funded is often accompanied by a request to reduce the budget some amount.

GG reminds you who read this that this was not the sort of environment originally envisioned for NSF.

Even as this environment might not nurture an Einstein or Newton, one could argue that it rapidly prunes away uninteresting science. Such a view would not find comfort in the last paragraph of a perspective in Science on new research into the response of C3 versus C4 plants in a higher CO2 world (research that appears to challenge if not overturn the assumption that C3 plants will do far better than C4 plants):

Reich et al. were only able to make their discoveries because their experiment ran uninterrupted for two decades. This is extremely rare globally, showing that funding for long-term global-change experiments is a necessity. The experiment relied on a concerted effort to continually apply for funding, given the largely short-term nature of funding cycles. Because most funding agencies place a value on innovation and novelty, scientists are forced to come up with new reasons and new measurements to keep existing experiments running. The tenacity of Reich et al. and their ability to keep their experiment running has overturned existing theory and should lead to changes in how we think about and prepare for Earth’s future. Who knows how many processes remain undiscovered because of the unwillingness of funding agencies to support long-term experiments?

Frankly, similar long term programs in very diverse fields have been terminated for similar reasons, including solid earth science, so this isn’t just biology or climate change. For instance, the USGS has pulled a large number of stream gauges over the years in the western U.S. under the logic that we had seen enough to know what we needed to know–an absolute travesty given both long-term climatic oscillations, the reality that rainfall in arid and semi-arid areas is highly erratic, and the real possibility that a long term set of observations would be crucial in better understanding impacts of global warming on the hydrologic cycle. And that is for an agency that has monitoring as part of its mission; individual scientific projects are even harder to keep going.  It would seem we really need a program for taking the long view–something few in politics ever do.

The 85 Ma Trainwreck: Introduction

It used to be when we thought what the southwestern U.S. looked like at 85 million years ago, back in the Cretaceous, we thought things were pretty simple.  There was a nice volcanic arc running from the Sierra down through the Mojave into the (restored) Peninsular Ranges. To the east was a fold-and-thrust belt extending nicely from well up in Canada down to the Las Vegas area in continuous fashion before taking a left turn to angle more erratically into more complex geology across Arizona and New Mexico. East of that was the foreland, its western edge bowed down under the weight of those fold-thrust mountains and the torrent of sediment washed off those ranges toward the inland sea that stretched up from Texas towards the Arctic Ocean. The only real wrinkle in this had to do with where the troublesome exotic terranes now in British Columbia were at the time.

Now it feels like 85 Ma is instead a pivot for everything about the western U.S.  A number of puzzling things seem to be going on around this time.

  • Emplacement of the first of the subducted oceanic/forearc schists (the Catalina and San Emigdio Schists) appears to occur about 85-90 Ma [Jacobson et al., 2011]
  • The Sierra Nevada sees the culmination of the most massive plutonic episode in its history just prior to a complete end to plutonism [e.g., Ducea, 2001]
  • The Mojave Desert will continue to see both peraluminous and metaluminous magmatism for another 10 million years despite the inferred emplacement of most of the Rand Schist over that time. [e.g., Barth et al., 2013]
  • Shortening in the hinterland appears to be a short-lived interval between extensional episodes [Wells et al., 2012]
  • The Sevier fold-and-thrust belt in the vicinity of Las Vegas is dead or dying–some put its end before 90 Ma [e.g., Fleck et al., 1994]
  • Perhaps a northwest-trending thrust belt has instead invaded the area about this time. [Pavlis et al., 2014]
  • Canyons start to form in the southwesternmost Colorado Plateau [Flowers and Farley, 2012].
  • In contrast, the simple foredeep geometry of sediment accumulation in the foreland begins to broaden out, suggesting a “dynamic subsidence”. [Liu and Nummedal, 2004]

By 75 Ma, it is really clear that things have gone super strange.  The Sierran arc is dead with no real replacement. Magmatism at that latitude is limited to smaller intrusions in the Colorado Mineral Belt and some peraluminous (two-mica) granites in Nevada, eastern California and parts of Arizona. In contrast, the Mojave continues to see plutonic activity with both peraluminous and metaluminous magmatism, seeming to be the southwestern end of a long linear belt of unusual magmatism. The Sevier hinterland has several examples of significant decompression accompanied by more limited evidence of extension. The foredeeps in front of the fold-thrust belt seem to have ceased to accumulate much sediment, which is now captured in broader basins farther east. Laramide uplifts are certainly underway.

Although 75 Ma is often taken to be the start of the Laramide orogeny [Dickinson et al., 1988], it increasingly seems like the orogeny’s origins lurk in the preceding 10 million years. What exactly was going on?

Some of the things we don’t really have a solid handle on:

  • Where was the Insular Superterrane? [We might have a more decent view of the Intermontane Superterrane due to work in Idaho over the past decade].
  • What really was the plate geometry? The Kula plate dates back to about this time; were there other plates to the east of the Kula-Farallon-Pacific triple junction?
  • Do we have a good handle on where plutonism was active in the Mojave/Sonoran deserts?
  • How much of the Cretaceous decompression events are from extension vs. some kind of intra-crustal pseudo-convection?
  • How could the southern Nevada part of the fold-thrust belt be inactive?
  • How can schists be emplaced against the middle continental crust immediately below fresh plutonic rocks?

The Laramide Orogeny made North America look the way it does today; this time period holds the keys to understanding how it could happen. Some way-out ideas are kicking around [e.g., Hildebrand, 2009, 2013; Sigloch and Mihalynuk, 2013], though some are moderating a bit [Sigloch and Mihalynuk, 2017]. Conversely, most earth scientists have gravitated to some flavor of subduction of an oceanic plateau as the cause of all the misadventures near the start of the Laramide orogeny. That all of these have pretty substantial flaws shows that the community is struggling to understand just what was going on at the start of the Laramide.  Hopefully over the next few months we can explore some of these topics in some detail…

Oops update

Update 7/29/18: The corrected figures are now officially online.

GG asked readers whether or not an error in a figure drafted 8 years ago should be corrected and the answer was a resounding yes.  So the figures in question have been redrafted and will go to the journal shortly.  If you are curious, the “dynamic” version (uses Flash) can be found here.

To be clear, the intent is simply to remove a mistake in the past and not to update the figure to reflect how it might get drawn today. So if you find things you don’t agree with that reflect scholarship since 2010 or so, don’t expect a correction, but if there are other mistakes substantial enough that somebody might misinterpret things, let GG know.

Retraction Watch was apparently amused at the notion of polling the web to decide whether or not to update the figure and so ran a story on this episode. When the journal puts out the correction, a link will get posted here.

The Reign of Strain Isn’t Very Plain

Having just remembered the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake brings to mind Harry Fielding Reid’s model of elastic rebound for earthquakes developed from observations of that 1906 quake. The idea that the earth’s surface was slowly moving in opposite directions across a fault over a long time period, straining the rocks near the fault until a critical point was reached when the strained rocks would cause the fault to rupture, allowing each side of the fault to “catch up” with the more distant parts of the earth’s surface farther away.

Much later, when plate tectonics was developed, earth scientists could tell what the average velocity of plates were over a couple million years from analysis of magnetic anomalies on the seafloor.  When space-based geodesy came along, first with VLBI and then with GPS, geodesists found that the plates were moving today at a rate equal to that seen over millions of years.  It seemed as though the earth ran at a smooth and even pace.

The combination of ideas would suggest that one hope expressed about a hundred years ago was that faults would be triggered like clockwork. Every so many years, termed the recurrence interval, a fault would rupture with what would be called a characteristic earthquake. Ideally you could then predict the next earthquake if you knew when the last couple had happened.

This ideal view of the earthquake world has gradually unravelled, with a couple of observations in the past decade indicating that there really is something more variable in how geologic strain is created than the elastic rebound model and smooth plate motions would have suggested.

Read More…

Rocks and Hard Places

Quite awhile back, GG compared CU (GG’s home institution) with the University of Wisconsin, which was facing budget cuts. At that time, GG’s calculation was that it cost CU about $19,000 to educate an undergraduate in a year, while Wisconsin took $26,000 to do the same thing. For an in-state student then paying just under $11,000, it meant somebody was picking up the other $8,000–and it was the out of state student, who was paying $14,000 more than the cost of the education for the privilege of having a city bus that went to a ski area.

How does CU manage to spend $7000 less than another public university to educate students? Well, CU faculty get to empty their own trash cans.  New buildings essentially are funded either out of student fees or private donations. They also get paid less than equivalent faculty at other peer public schools even as they teach more students per faculty member. Similarly (as we discussed recently), CU graduate students get paid less than their peers elsewhere. And CU is restrained by the Legislature from raising in-state tuition too much or admitting too many out of state students.  As CU’s out of state tuition more or less matches that of quality private schools, the university is backed against a wall.

So to maintain even this toehold on excellence, CU has to balance the books on out-of-state students. So it was hardly a shock to learn that CU recruits from well-to-do out of state high schools. And so, of course, this means that CU’s student body is unusually well-to-do and pretty darn white. CU responded by more or less pointing out this same problem; the university’s position is that they don’t hold any responsibility for promoting economic or social equity outside the state of Colorado, so they shouldn’t be chastised for recruiting from the wealthy that will balance the books. And so there are no plans to alter their out-of-state recruiting.

The sad thing is that the university may have reached the edge of the ledge it has inched along for years.  There are potential graduate students choosing not to come because the cost of living isn’t covered adequately by TA and RA stipends. There are faculty interested in coming who decide that the salary hit they would take isn’t worth it. Basically the system is on the verge of collapse.

Society wants a free lunch.  Colorado residents expect their flagship university to be financially accessible for all residents, but they aren’t willing to contribute through their taxes for that.  In the long run, you get what you pay for. At this point, the only thing that will save the University of Colorado is the failure of other state universities as their state governments follow the state of Colorado and decide higher education is not something worth investing in.

Probably the last avenue will be advertising, don’t you think?  How about getting your syllabus courtesy of Chevron, or having to view ads at the start of lecture? Think that might have any influence on the education you’d receive?