Archive | November 2018

Mistaking Desire for Solution

As many may have noticed, there has been a big recall of romaine lettuce in the U.S., and this has affected the local school district’s lunch menu.  But there was an interesting quote at the end of the local story about this:

She [Food Services Director Ann Cooper] said this most recent recall is a symptom of a much larger problem of a global and national food system.

“If it was summer, we could get everything locally,” she said. “It’s because we have a broken, un-localized food system that causes these huge problems. If we had a regional system, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

Probably true.  If we had a localized food system, the kids would be eating potatoes, because lettuce doesn’t grow outdoors in the snow so very well. Or there would be a lot of greenhouses with a lot of energy being expended to grow a crop that, well, just grows all by itself in other climates.

Of course if there was any contamination here, we wouldn’t know it until there was quite a bit of illness locally–and by then you’d have no other options for food as well as a pretty severe local outbreak. Sure, you’d be able to go back to the grower and bop them on the head right away, which is undoubtably a big plus, but there are a lot of other costs that would get in the way of replacing our current system.

The food system is broken, but not quite in how Director Cooper is saying. We can’t track back food to its source, and that is indeed hard to understand in this day and age. This means that most of the lettuce that was pitched was perfectly fine, and the disruptions to the marketplace are way out of balance. But it is not because food is transported across the country from places where it is (ahem) dirt cheap to grow to places where it is not. While there is a lot to like about locally sourced produce, cheap and abundant and year-round is not often what is on the table.

Its hard to remember sometimes that humanity moved from everyone collecting their own food to specialization, allowing most of us to do something other than farm.  And so farmers specializing in what they can grow more cheaply than others is no surprise either. Is that why people get sick and it takes weeks to figure out why? No. Let’s try to recognize the actual problem and solve it, not impose our personal desires on top.

A Fortnight In A Day

We are all such creatures of the indoors that there are some simple and obvious things about the sky above us that we don’t really get. Most Americans would not know the phase of the Moon unless they were looking at it, and a lot of folks don’t realize you can see the moon in daylight just fine (let alone Venus, under the right conditions). GG likes poking around in such little oddities as the offset from the earliest sunset to the shortest day. Here’s another one: you can kind of see the whole year of sunshine play out in a month of watching the Moon.

If you look for the Moon at moonrise on successive days, you will notice it moves around. A lot. As the Moon is pretty close to the ecliptic, you are in fact seeing the same motion that sunrise makes over the course of a year, though the phase varies with the season. Right now (Nov. 25th) the Moon rose nearly at the same place the Sun will rise on the summer solstice–the longest day of the year. In a couple of weeks, it will rise near the place the sun will rise a few days later, on the winter solstice. Of course, you might not notice that as it will only be a narrow waxing crescent just two days after being new.

How long can you see the Moon on a given day? Most people might think 12 hours (maybe even less). If you recognize that the lunar month means that the Moon has to make a circuit of the sky in about 28 days, you might guess 12 and a half hours–and on average you’d be close (if you guessed 11.5 hours, you just had the Moon in a retrograde orbit). But here is the difference between moonrise and moonset for Denver this November:


The average is a bit less than 12 1/2 hours (about 12:24 here), but you can see that some days you can see the Moon a long time, and other days you don’t see it for long at all.  Near the winter solstice (either hemisphere), the full moon is high in the sky a long time (full moon above is on the 22nd)–just like the Sun near the summer solstice. But in the summer, the full moon is low in the sky and not up nearly as long.

This can drive photographers batty. First, the Moon will rise in a different spot nearly every night–the exceptions are when it is near the northernmost or southernmost positions. The second is that the timing of moonrise will vary–and not just by that 48 minute average difference between a full lunar “day” and a solar day. When the lunar day lengthens the most, the moonrise will come only about 30 minutes later each night–around the 18th day in the plot above. And then when the lunar day shortens the most, as near day 3 above, it will take over an hour. These extremes are when the north-south position of moonrise changes the most.

All this is because the Moon traverses the ecliptic in just under a month while the Sun takes a whole year on the same journey. One night for the Moon is 12 days for the Sun. So when it seem like it will take forever to get through winter, go look for the moonrise and see it change day to day. It might help the long winter nights pass more quickly…

One has to wonder how often archeologists look for lunar alignments in ancient constructions.  There is often considerable attention paid to solar alignments, and for good reason, but don’t you think that sometimes ancient peoples might have marked lunar positions as well?

Cordilleran Contradictions, 2018 edition

Spent many hours in November sitting in on sessions and perusing posters at the Geological Society of America annual meeting; one goal was to see what’s up with the evolution of elevation of the U.S. Cordillera.

First a quick recap. There are two camps, more or less, on each side of the Cordillera.  The old mountains camp on both sides points mainly to oxygen and hydrogen isotope variations in proxies for precipitation. There are also attempts to retrodeform the lithosphere resulting in thick crust and high elevations. The dominant counterargument is that the paleometeorology used to interpret the isotopic values is flawed. On the young mountain side, classical geologic observations are invoked, including apparent tilting of river channels and the recent incision events in many places. The counterargument to this is that the appearance of a tilted channel may be biased by the depositional environment and that changes in climate can drive incision as easily as uplift. In between in some ways are geophysical observations of the lithosphere; recent changes in the lithosphere seem likely in much of the region, supporting younger mountains, but seem older east of the Southern Rockies.

Well, a meeting in Indianapolis isn’t one to bring out all the western geologists (next year’s meeting in Phoenix is a whole different matter), but a couple of things popped up. Did anything look to change the landscape, either by opening up new vistas or overturning old results? Not that GG discerned.  Below are some notes probably only of interest to the most interested….

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Parks: Love Them and Leave Them?

Well, another story about the national parks breaking down. Another story lamenting that “tourists are loving nature to death,” as the headline puts it. The article (published in multiple papers) documents a stream of thoughtless tourist actions, from literally leaving their shit on the ground to engaging in fistfights over parking spots. As such stories are wont to do, this one reminds us of the estimated $11B backlog in upkeep in the parks.

While nearly none of this is new, this article does tab a couple of new culprits. One is Snapchat and Instagram, where people now can find from geotags where scenic spots are and trek to them. Another, related, problem is the selfie, which has led to deaths and injuries as people scramble closer to cliff edges or wildlife.

But if you look closely, you’ll see that, once again, the reporters missed (ahem) the forest for the trees. The tone of the reporting repeats the mantra, too many people.  But a graph in the piece reveals that this is misleading: in 1987, 287 million visited the 305 units in the national park system. This capped a near exponential rise in visitation the previous 3 or 4 decades. That number was only exceeded in 2014, 27 years later and after 65 new units were added to the park system. The article talks about how challenging traffic is in Estes Park.  GG drives through there lots virtually every year in the past 25 years, and frankly, it has always been bad. Although there is no doubt that the starvation diet that the Park Service has been on for about 50 years has led to decay of services and facilities, the reality is that most of the current problems are not simply numbers. So what might be behind the concerns voiced in the article?

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Green Trees, Ash Houses

Living in the west, sad stories of families losing their houses–or their lives–in wildfires is an all-too-common occurrence.  And as a geophysicist, GG is familiar with the old geoscience adage that earthquakes don’t kill people, but built structures failing in earthquakes kill people. It would seem we should adjust the second adage for the first situation: wildfires don’t kill people; flaming buildings kill people.

Have you noticed how often the pictures of destroyed houses includes green trees nearby? How often the description of the burned down house includes the oddly unburned things nearby? Although there are certainly fires so intense they take everything in their path, all too often it seems like houses burn when little else does. And this applies even to the devastation in Paradise California this week. The Los Angeles Times has a piece noting those still-standing trees and finds that the devastation in Paradise was because the fire became an urban fire. Houses were igniting other houses.

Basically the issue is that western houses catch burning embers with things like debris-filled gutters, exposed eaves and ventilation grills, and wooden porches. Once lit, houses tend to go up all at once. This is not new news–anybody with a house in the forest hears about it from their insurance and local fire officials. Yet new houses continue to be built with the same weaknesses, even in fire-prone areas. (At least most areas ban wood-shake roofs). Clearly more thought should be given to eliminating the ways houses catch burning embers.

Does this mean we’re off the hook on forest health? Well, probably not, though exactly what that means looks to be up for grabs more than ever. What seems certainly true is that frequent, low-intensity fires reduce the risk of intense damaging fires: the experiences in both Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks is that major fires lie down (lay down?) when they hit areas previously burned in a controlled manner.

But controlled burning isn’t a great option within the rural subdivisions now present in many forests. Thus many advocate for other kinds of treatment, ranging from wholesale clearcutting to selective logging to mechanical thinning of understory (to…raking???). One study recently highlighted in a CNN op-ed concluded rather strongly that more heavily managed forests are forests that burn more intensely–the opposite of what is usually claimed.  And GG can attest to how mundane it can be to encounter a natural wildfire in the unmanaged backcountry, having hiked through or right next to such fires on at least three occasions. But there are confounding factors in play, some of which are noted in the study. Certainly one is ignition: wilderness areas usually see fires starting from lightning strikes.  Such fires occur under conditions less apt to drive monster fires: the forest has often been wetted, and long periods of strong, dry winds are less likely. In contrast, managed forests are in more heavily used areas where neglected campfires, power lines, driving over dry grass, and sparks from machinery or gunfire are capable of starting a fire when strong, dry winds are present.

[As an aside, the above is all in reference to forests; Southern California chaparral is nearly immune to controlled burning, and unlike the forests, any such burning would leave the ground bare and hydrophobic. Chaparral is a whole different ballgame.]

What remains disturbing to GG in the forestry studies he’s perused is that the assumption remains that “pre-settlement” (apparently the currently favored term for c. 1840s western U.S.) is equal to “natural”. In some places, this will prove true, but in the Sierra foothills it is almost certainly a false equivalence. Pretending that Native American management was “natural” is likely to lead to poor decision making.  Better if land mangers simply sought to restore pre-settlement fire frequency and intensity rather than assuming it was natural. The reality is that many of the places most at risk in the Sierra foothills were occupied by people who had many generations of experience in burning the landscape. We might just want to recognize that as, in some instances, their management goals might not match ours, but when they do, odds are pretty good that their management schemes would be a good place to start.

The Quiet Hemisphere

This is pretty unusual, but at 9:45 am MST on Nov 14, this is what the USGS earthquake map showed:


Two things stand out.  Most amazing, the entire southern hemisphere lacks earthquakes sizable enough to make the map.  The second is that the very largest earthquake in the last 24 hours is a just a M5.0 in Japan. Given that on any given day you expect to see 4-5 earthquakes larger than that 5.0, and that 7/7 earthquakes above M4 are all in the northern hemisphere, this is highly unusual.

[Just so there isn’t too much confusion– there was a M2.9 in New Zealand and Chile had some M3s over this time period–just not big enough to get on the USGS map]

Enjoy it while it lasts….

Changing Subscriptions

Once upon a time, having a “subscription” meant that things would come to you until either the term of the subscription ran out or you cancelled the subscription. The stuff that had already come, whether issues of Teen Vogue, the record of the month or volumes of an encyclopedia, were yours to keep. But in the world of the academic library, that model is vanishing, and with it potentially are large parts of the academic literature.

In the paper past, an academic library’s subscription to a professional journal meant that the library got paper copies of the journal that they could then place on shelves and allow people to read. As budgets might tighten or interests wane, libraries would cancel subscriptions–but those journals they had purchased remained on the shelves unless purged to make room for other material. This model is essentially dead.

Instead publishers have shifted to the software definition of “subscription”–which isn’t really a subscription at all. Just as to use Adobe’s Cloud package of software requires you to have an active subscription, so does getting access to all the issues of Science that you had subscribed to over the years. And if the journal decides to go to predatory pricing? Your options are nil. That money you poured into the journal all those years means nothing. In general, libraries are not allowed to make local copies of all the content they are subscribing to.

In some ways there is an even worse side to all this.  Publishing once meant that there would be lots of copies of your work out there.  One library burns down, another is vandalized–it doesn’t really matter as there are plenty of other copies of the work out there. Now, there is essentially one. Admittedly there is more than one copy of all the work–most publishers subscribe to the LOCKSS model or the CLOCKSS model for preserving their materials–but the terms of use are still restrictive. An academic publisher might go belly up and have their archive bought by a private firm that then charges a fortune for access. Or maybe a vandal degrades all the copies of the works in the online archive. It takes little imagination to envision a wealth of knowledge effectively evaporating.

Arguably this is one of the best facets of a true open access policy: the freedom to copy materials means that there can be multiple archives.  University archives can legally maintain and share copies of work produced at their institutions. Research groups can maintain thematic collections of articles relevant to their focus. (Note that current open access policies do not necessarily allow this: much as you can view some movies online so long as you watch the ads, some open access materials could require you to access the original portal and, perhaps, see advertisements there).  In a sense, this can return libraries to their original function: instead of mere portals for providers, they return to being actual repositories of knowledge. So while we may have permanently lost the meaning of “subscription,” we can recover the true meaning of “library.”