Archive | June 2018

Geomovies 2018?

Its been awhile since we looked at how earth science in doing in the cinema.  The short answer is, not much and not well. Superhero and space opera movies have so abandoned reality that it is essentially pointless to be critical. For instance, Star Wars originally had some concept of the scale of space, but that was entirely wiped out by absolutely everything about the Starkiller Base in Force Awakens: the impossibly high stresses needed to make a planetary ditch at least 100 km high to the staggering variations in air pressure this would entail to the ridiculous notion of sucking a star into some weapon chamber to the impossibility of watching this thing fire its weapon in real time from a distant star system. With fanboy-fav and science-oblivious director J.J. Abrams returning for the 9th installment, we can expect to see evermore spectacular violations of reality…

Anyways, the point being that arguing the characteristics of vibranium in Marvel movies is pointless, as is the Bifrost or Dr Strange’s little portals just as the aerodynamics of the Millennium Falcon or TIE fighters is beyond hope. This seems to leave us with the Jurassic World movies.

There is little point here in even criticizing the dinosaurs since they were made imperfectly from the start–differences with real dinosaurs is explained simply as a result of the approximations used in making modern dinosaurs.  This leaves us with Isla Nublar, supposedly off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica (Hawaii acts as a stand-in) and complete with a volcano. Unsurprisingly, there is no volcanic island off Costa Rica, but at least it is on the Pacific Ocean and has volcanoes….So as its been awhile since volcanoes were front and center–how does this one look?

Well we see a lot of smoke from the summit and a lot of lava flowing out the sides. Some of this lava is exceptionally fluid, sneaking through cracks in a building (good luck with that; there’s a lot of video now of how the fairly fluid east rift lavas on the Big Island of Hawaii behave when hitting buildings or cars and it isn’t that fluid). But of course we then get some explosions from the flanks of the mountain and what would seem to be pyroclastic flow coming from the same spot.  A very slow pyroclastic flow at that, for instead of the typical speeds in excess of 100 mph usually seen, this one barely catches up to our protagonists moving at a run. Later the mountain shifts to hurling flaming boulders at everybody before some strange volcanic cloud of doom settles over the remaining dinosaurs. While not as laugh-out-loud silly as the cracks that open and close in Volcano, this is a very Hollywood volcano.

Would the volcano cause everything on the island to die? (what the movie’s news reporters call an “extinction level event,” which is not how any earth scientist would call the obliteration of a small population of animals on one island; “extinction level events” actually refer to events that cause mass extinctions, such as the asteroid impact at the end of the Cretaceous.  Extinctions of a few geographically limited species can be caused far more prosaically–by draining a marsh or damming a river).  The closest thing in recent history would be the eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat 21 years ago, which led to 2/3 of the population leaving and the abandonment of the capital of Plymouth.  Even here, though, the northern part of the island is largely unaffected and there remains large tracts of forest in the southern half of the island. So probably something would still be marching around on the island….

Overall not a lot of excitement geoscience-wise. GG avoided the train wreck of Geostorm and will need someday to see how the kaiju in Pacific Rim 2 were to “activate” the Pacific Rim of Fire (a callback to 1965’s Crack in the World?). We’ll have to wait and see how Alpha plays out (yes, more paleoanthropology than geoscience, but there has been speculation that human access to the New World required the domestication of wolves into dogs to be able to compete successfully with carnivores of the northern latitudes). Looks like the San Andreas sequel is stalled or dead, so maybe no more earthquakes or volcanoes coming up anytime soon.

Probably the most thorough examination of geology in the movies was put together in Earth magazine a few years ago. And GG has weighed in a few times before….

Ends or Means? One Paper, Two Views

How should one read a scientific paper?  As presenting conclusions one should take as our best estimate of truth? Or as information one can use to test competing hypotheses?  You might think it must be one or the other, but that is rarely the case.

Consider the just-published paper by Bahadori, Holt and Rasbury entitled “Reconstruction modeling of crustal thickness and paleotopography of western North America since 36 Ma”. From the abstract you might be tempted to say that this paper is solving a problem, in this case the Late Cenozoic paleoelevation history of the western U.S.:

Our final integrated topography model shows a Nevadaplano of ∼3.95 ± 0.3 km average elevation in central, eastern, and southern Nevada, western Utah, and parts of easternmost California. A belt of high topography also trends through northwestern, central, and southeastern Arizona at 36 Ma (Mogollon Highlands). Our model shows little to no elevation change for the Colorado Plateau and the northern Sierra Nevada (north of 36°N) since at least 36 Ma, and that between 36 and 5 Ma, the Sierra Nevada was located at the Pacific Ocean margin, with a shoreline on the eastern edge of the present-day Great Valley.

There is one key word in that paragraph that should make you careful in accepting the results: “model”. What is the model, and how reliable is it?

Read More…


The Nature Index stuff made GG wonder just how highly cited are the best geoscience papers from those prestigious journals? And how do they stand up to some other journals?  So here are some results from Web of Science.

For ease of calculation, we’ll just look at the journals that were all earth science, and let’s limit things to since 1960.  So of the prestigious journals in the Nature list, here are the number of citations of the top three papers:

  • Earth and Planetary Science Letters (1966 start): 6600, 5835, 2482
  • Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta: 8167, 3035, 2348
  • Geology (1972 start) 1562, 1158, 1113
  • Geophysical Research Letters (1974 start) 2342, 2241, 1239
  • Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth (1991; 1985-1991 Solid Earth and Planets, before that just JGR B) 2583, 2529, 2516.
  • Nature Geoscience (2008 start) 1374, 1017, 931

The four bold faced citations are those above 3000. Now here are some other reasonably prominent geoscience journals with their top 3 citations.

  • Applied Geochemistry (since 1987) 3593, 776, 692
  • Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America 3237, 2388, 1898
  • Chemical Geology (since 1968 WoS) 5846, 2639, 2087
  • Contributions to Mineralogy and Petrology (since 1969 in WoS) 2210, 2090, 2042
  • GSA Bulletin 2143, 1560, 1246
  • Geophysical Journal RAS (to 1987)/GJI (1989-) 3454, 2763, 1910
  • Journal of Geology 2105, 1905, 1850
  • Lithos (1975 start in WoS) 1226, 1147, 976
  • Tectonics (1981 start) 1263, 1021, 785
  • Pure and Applied Geophysics (1964 start in WoS) 2342, 610, 599

Several of the most highly cited papers are in review journals not listed here (which are quite prestigious and often the good review papers carry more than just a review). But looking at this list it is hard to say that this second list is really all that different in producing extremely highly cited papers, and you could argue that this list might be just as important a set of journals as that used in Nature Index.  Even a journal as uneven as Tectonophysics occasionally has a gem in it (1756 citations) and specialty journals like Quaternary Research (2253) and Precambrian Research (1267) often produce influential papers. Even some of the new electronic journals (G^3, Geosphere) have some well cited papers despite starting this century.

The message? Prestige is earned by what you say, not where you say it.

Metrical Madness

And now, for your enjoyment of the ability to place your institution above others, we introduce yet another metric! (Applause, hosannas, people falling to the floor in ecstasy). And so, as is usually the case, the promotion people at the relevant universities (like GG’s) push any favorable numbers out the door, like here.

The new metric? Well, OK, technically it is now 4 years old but it seems to have gained some prominence with a recent modification: Nature Index. And just what does it measure?  It is simply counting the number of articles in a subset of “prestigious” journals over the past year affiliated with institutions.  Which journals are prestigious? You wouldn’t be wrong to say Nature journals, many of which make the cut. In earth and environmental science (where CU ranked in the top 10, much to the pleasure of the university’s promotors) the list is:

Read More…

The New Land Race

Occasionally stories are written about the conflict between suburbs in Colorado and the oil and gas industry.  What often eludes reporters, especially those from outside the area, is that the battle lines are not static but moving, and that acts to reinforce rather than temper the conflict.

Here’s the deal. One of the hotter oil and gas plays in the U.S. is the Watternberg field, a northeast trending belt of Denver Basin rocks cooked enough to yield both oil and gas. This field stretches from Boulder to the northeast, encompassing rapidly growing communities like Erie and Longmont and on out into the plains near Greeley. When first exploited in the twentieth century, the region was rural; Erie, for instance, was a shrinking coal mining town at that time with a population under 5% of its current population. Oil and gas wells were pretty widely placed but widespread.

What has happened this century has been to put a modern twist on an old conflict.  In the very early days of oil development, forests of oil derricks could be found in cities like Long Beach and Dallas. At that time there was no question that you’d drill for oil wherever it was. But today?

The state of Colorado regulates where operators can drill for oil and gas, but local communities regulate where you can build buildings. Since 2013, oil and gas wells have to be 500′ from an occupied building. Seeing development covering large areas in the southwestern Wattenberg field, companies have wanted to move quickly to drill before available lands are off limits.  This has led to a flurry of permit requests in these rapidly growing areas. Ironically, the efforts residents have made to preserve open space now boomerang as open space lands often offer locations where drilling is feasible; even when the government holds the mineral rights, Colorado pooling laws mean that a single mineral rights holder can force drilling in an area, and once that is approved, surface rights’ owners can not prevent drilling.

There is pressure on the other side, too. Surface land owners in these growing communities want to take advantage of the red-hot housing market in the region; construction is largely limited in the region by the availability of construction workers. Right now many communities allow new buildings to be placed much closer to existing wells–150 feet in the case of Firestone, where a house blew up awhile back. Some communities are considering larger setbacks, though this is typically expressed as an attempt to expand on the state’s rules on where new wells can be sunk rather than a limit on new construction. Nevertheless, developers and landowners don’t want to be caught having to leave open land because of an abundance of wells.

The result is an intense competition along the I-25 corridor north of Denver. You can find drill rigs seemingly a few feet from new houses in Erie, for instance, as the wells are being drilled as the houses are being constructed. As with any such race, the best solutions fall by the wayside. Given the need to move away from fossil fuels, leaving the oil and gas under the southwestern part of the field makes a lot of sense, both for locals and the global environment. Shifting to an emphasis on developing the rural, northeastern part of the field would seem a better outcome for all save the mineral rights holders in the southwestern part of the field.  And the reality is that for most of those folks, those rights are found money–until recently there wasn’t much value to those rights. [Congress never intended for mineral rights to go to homesteaders and the like, but that is another story].

Instead the only legal out is to buy your way out, which is what the city of Longmont decided to do. Or cover everything with houses, which seems to be some other cities’ approach….

It’s worse than you think…

…or maybe worse than the NY Times thinks.  They have collected all the various scraps of  examples of how the current administration ignores/villifies/overrules/denigrate science and scientists.  None of this is new if you’ve been following along, but it is depressing litany of persecution that is unlikely to improve.

But wait, they left some stuff out.

One point then NY Times makes is that there are a lot of unfilled science advisory positions; what they don’t investigate is how many qualified scientists would be willing to take one of those positions.  A quick guess suggests the answer is not many. Why bother when it is clear the boss doesn’t care what you say?

Recall that the scientists running for Congress this past Tuesday all lost to Democratic opposition within primaries.  Scientists, it appears, are not desired by the people in the halls of Congress.

And while there is comfort in the words of Democrats (and a very few Republicans) running for office about the role of science, one has to wonder how much is simple political expediency–since climate change has become so fiercely partisan in this country, it is unsurprising to hear Democrats say that science is important.  Will they say the same of research that shows GMOs are not harmful or that challenge the presumed ecological benefits of farm-to-table or organic farming? If not, they might not be the big boost science is looking for.

Science is the art of asking observational questions whose answers can change your view of how the world works.  If you want to find policies that will have impacts in the directions you want to go, it is wise to see if there is science that bears on those policies. Silencing the scientists won’t change the end results of bad policy choices, it just makes the inevitable bad decisions more tragic.

Science in the Backseat

While the political press continues to chatter endlessly about horse races, pardons or the prospect of pardons and the apparently unending series of Scott Pruitt missteps, more substantive stuff dribbles into the background.  Among those things is the role science and scientists play in American governance.

Yesterday saw a pretty serious failure of scientist-candidates to survive primary battles.  As Science notes, only one of the candidates endorsed by 314 Action survived to appear on a November ballot–and that candidate had no primary opposition. Most of the scientist-candidates fell to the bottom of the vote. It would seem that a science background is not something voters desire in their representatives. The experience of getting clobbered does not seem to be encouraging at least some of the losers to return to fight again in the future, though some other losers are continuing to be interested in public policy.

While the losses of scientist-candidates suggests a lack of desire among Democrats for that kind of expertise (nearly all the scientists are running as Democrats), administration action continues to sideline science, suggesting an equal lack of respect from the conservative part of the body politic. The science advisory board for EPA was sidelined from the development of the “transparency” policy proposed by the administration; it will instead weigh in separately, but having been left out of the loop, it seems clear that the board’s review will have little impact. This continues trends of disbanding advisory groups, barring scientists receiving grants from serving on remaining advisory panels, etc.

It is as though the world is putting on their virtual reality headsets and setting them to “personal ideal,” oblivious to real impacts resulting decisions might have. Meantime, science, the actual attempt by humans to develop a conceptual framework about the world around us that accurately describes reality, is being dropped to the wayside.