Archive | February 2019

Space views

CNN ran a piece about a couple of men who hiked the whole length of the Grand Canyon–which is a pretty substantial achievement. But reading this, GG hit this quote and, well, got grumpy:

Being inside the only canyon on the planet that can be seen from space makes you feel miniscule.

Oh, come on! Didn’t this kind of ill-informed prose die out decades ago?

You really think Kings Canyon, Hells Canyon, any number of major Asian or Andean canyons, are somehow invisible from space?

This “seen from space” fallacy has been kicking around forever (at one time, it seemed like every tourist bureau had something that was the only one seen from space).  Wikipedia uses the definition of “seen from space” as something visible from low earth orbit without magnification (since, as most of us recognize these days, you can see pretty nearly everything from space that is outdoors with the proper optics). The Great Wall of China seems to have been the prototypical “thing uniquely visible from space,” but it turns out it is awfully hard to see from orbit.

You can see lots of stuff from low earth orbit. Reservoirs, for instance, are man made and easily visible.  Get the right light and you can see canals like the California Aqueduct glinting in the sunlight. The gray stain of urban areas is easy recognized. And pretty nearly any canyon you care to mention.

Now to be fair, the Grand Canyon is peculiarly visible because it is cut into strata with different colors within a smooth plateau with far more uniform (and bland) colors.  So it stands out more than, say, Kings Canyon, which is cut into granites lacking much color contrast and is surrounded by rugged topography. But only canyon visible from space? Puh-leeze.

Forced Pooling note

Just a quick pointer to a real rarity–an op-ed on oil and gas development that seems firmly based on fact.  The Boulder Daily Camera weighed in on the rather ridiculous forced pooling laws in Colorado (the next time some oil and gas advocate claims that Colorado is the strictest state in the country for development, remind them about Colorado’s forced pooling laws, which are the nation’s loosest). As a quick reminder, forced pooling means that your minerals can be developed against your wishes; GG discussed this at somewhat greater length awhile back.  In some states it takes 50% or more of the rights holders to trigger this.  In Colorado, it is a single rights holder. In some areas, oil companies have canvased neighborhoods looking for one resident willing to sign over development rights, which would unlock the whole area.

Is Oklahoma Now OK?

Its been quite awhile since we checked in on the seismicity in Oklahoma.  As we’ll see, on the whole the news is good, but there are a couple of things worth watching…

First, the number of quakes has steadily dwindled…


This is what you’d hope to see with decreases in wastewater injection.  Some of this is regulatory, but a big piece is because the low price of oil made the more water-rich (an thus injection-heavy) fields less attractive.

If instead we look at seismic moment, things are somewhat less clear:


Now first off you see the big drop in increase of seismic moment starting in late 2016; that rate has continued to the end of 2018 (the red curve is new since the last post). But curiously it hasn’t dropped: the M4.6 in April of 2018 offsets the seemingly slowing rate since then–a straight line from the end of 2016 through early 2018 projects right to where the cumulative seismic moment stood at the end of 2018. At present it seems the moment release rate is pretty constant. For this to coexist with a decreasing number of earthquakes means that earthquakes are getting larger even as they are less frequent.

What this means is that while things are a lot better, they might not be improving as much as you could hope.

If you want to see some reporting on how others view this, Tulsa World had a good end-of-year review. The data used here is from the USGS’s earthquake catalog.

The Biggest Disasters

GG recently commented on Lucy Jones’s [no relation] book on the Big Ones, disasters out of proportion to recent experience. An LA Times article on concerns that dams in the Los Angeles basin are not up to dealing with a superstorm brings up an interesting question: how big can you go? Forty days and forty nights?

For seismologists, the magic equation has often been the Gutenberg-Richter equation which basically says that the log of the number of earthquakes of a given magnitude over a specified time is inversely proportional to the magnitude (so log N = a + bM, where N is the number of earthquakes of magnitude M and a and b describe the distribution in some area). The rate of decrease in number of earthquakes with increasing magnitude, the b-value, is close to -1.  So say you have 10 M5 earthquakes in a year, you expect to have one M6. You’d then expect over 10 years to have 100 M5s, 10 M6s, and 1 M7.

If you keep playing this game, you might say that in 100 years you should see a M8, and in a thousand a M9, and in ten thousand a M10. And this is where seismologists see a problem: physically, a M10 is probably impossible (and if the area we’re concerning ourselves with is anything less than a quarter of the globe, it is certainly impossible).

Read More…

Perils of Professional Restraint

After years of bubbling along below the political surface, climate change has suddenly gained prominence thanks to the “Green New Deal” proposal put forward from some Democrats. The response has been interesting, ranging from accolades that some politicians have finally recognized the magnitude of the challenge through bemusement to strident ridicule of the idea. Some even call it out as lacking courage.

Too bad all this attention comes now, 31 years after Congress was warned that this was a big problem that needed addressing.

Here’s the sad thing.  The scientific community has by and large shared a rosier vision of the future than most felt was actually likely.  Scientists didn’t want to be painted as alarmist, though this label was in fact applied to them even as they recoiled from sharing the darker forecasts that were in the models. This nobility clearly backfired.

Read More…


It’s been awhile since the midterm elections and its worth looking at how all those science candidates did.  A Nature article makes it sound like scientists made massive gains in Congress, with 11 Congresspeople with some scientific background (including medicine, which arguably is often quite different). When you consider that more than 50 science-oriented folks tried to get through primaries, that 11 (which includes some incumbents) isn’t all that impressive.  Some of those who lost in the primaries were pretty discouraged, though others felt that they were making progress.

But the descriptions of the campaigns makes it sound like being a scientist was a pretty peripheral aspect of most of the campaigns, and you get the sense that the people who emphasized their science backgrounds had the least success. The funny thing is, if you really believe in representative democracy, scientists should be pretty competitive.  After all, what you want in a representative is somebody who probably shares your overall worldview but who will take the time and effort to study the facts relevant to particular pieces of legislation. So why are scientists doing poorly electorally?

Arguably it is because we don’t want our representatives to think for themselves.  We want them to be our proxy, to vote however we want them to vote despite the possibility that we know a lot less about the topic. And scientists just don’t tend to approach problems this way.  It doesn’t help that both liberals and conservatives have positions that are scientifically indefensible, so an honest scientist is likely to get crosswise with virtually any audience.

So its great there are now some 11 people with science or science-like backgrounds out of the 435 members of the House or the 100 Senators. But when less than 2% of our representatives have science backgrounds, it feels like we could stand to see a few more and a few less lawyers.