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Finding Importance

In the memorial symposium for Peter Molnar, Phillip England suggested that Peters brilliance in many ways was recognizing the next important problem to address. And Phillip asked, how do you know? Is it internal, that you just know what is important? Do other people tell you? What criteria might you use? One possibility is that in opening up a line of research, many other follow you in and the research that follows is long and fruitful. In Peter’s case, it was (initially) continental tectonics. But just how you identify important problems is, though, itself a knotty problem.

Consider two problems: earthquake prediction and paleoelevation. Earthquake prediction has been the subject of decades of research, some of it very productive (being able to recover the history of earthquakes on many faults) and much of it not (as in, virtually every prediction actually put forward). Almost nobody would say that prediction is unimportant–provided it is successful. But how about if it isn’t possible? Is an insoluble problem an important one?

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One of the common reactions to the Webb telescope’s debut images is, “wow, makes me feel insignificant.” As an earth scientist, GG is kind of familiar with this concept, as we deal with huge amounts of time but can only participate in a very tiny part of Earth’s history.

On Earth, arguably we are the first species to be aware of deep time; to know something of the different climates Earth has seen, the different biomes, the different landscapes. All that stuff that happened was unappreciated until we came along and started to recognize it. In a way, our appreciation of, say, dinosaurs and trilobites makes their existence somehow less futile and more meaningful. That we can appreciate this vast storehouse of experience is itself a wonder.

So when we look out on galaxies unimaginably distant and in numbers that boggle the mind, the temptation is to say “we are so small.” But so far as we know to this point, we are also the only ones who are aware of all those stars. That a galaxy some 13 billion years ago threw off light we are only now seeing, and that might have gone unrecognized by the entire universe until now, makes our observing of it somehow a confirmation of its existence. How sterile a universe if there was nobody to appreciate it? In a way, you could imagine this whole show of billions of stars in billions of galaxies exists for us to wonder at. Which makes us far from insignificant.

Maybe one day we will learn of other sentient species out there and will have to share the glory in observing the universe. But until then, we’re it, sole spectators to a universal show. Which seems rather more special than insignificant.

Slab Tectonics?

So Howard Lee over at Ars Technica took a swing at how our understanding of global tectonics has been changing over the past 40 or 50 years and wrote a lengthy article on it.   It is full of quotes and assertions that really don’t hang together very well, making a certain geophysicist kind of grumpy.  It doesn’t seem that any of the scientists quoted were really saying anything wrong, but the assembly in the article, which doesn’t seem to recognize the discrepancies nor fully master the techniques being used, can lead to a sense of “WTF?”

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Nature, Nurture and the Anthropocene

Kind of a few thoughts bouncing about the internet about land and how it should managed and how that relates to the challenged term of the Anthropocene epoch.  Collected, they indicate how confused we are about nature and humanity’s impacts on nature. Let’s work our way backwards through time in pondering this.

First up, a story about a transfer of management from the federal government to a Native American tribe. High Country News covers this transfer in Oregon, where the Cow Creek band of the Umpqua Tribe took over control of land just in time for a considerable fraction to burn in a forest fire. They had yet to implement a management plan, but they know the path they want to follow:

[Michael] Rondeau explained that the management of Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians reservation lands would reflect Indigenous values: an example separate from either industry or conservation groups. “We don’t believe in locking up the forests and allowing them to ‘remain natural,’ because it never was,’” Rondeau said. “For thousands of years, our ancestors used fire as a tool of keeping underbrush down, so that the vegetation remains healthy and productive.”

As the article points out, this places the tribe at odds with many environmentalists, a conflict that actually goes pretty far back–though maybe not quite as far as some would have it:

“The conservation movement began as a way for settlers to justify the seizure of Indigenous lands under the pretext that Native peoples didn’t know how to manage them,” says Shawn Fleek, Northern Arapaho, who is director of narrative strategy for OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon. “If modern conservation groups don’t begin their analysis in this history and struggle to address these harms, it becomes more likely they will repeat them.”

This is an interesting take on frontier justice, for while conservationists were indeed complicit in accepting the status quo that followed removal of Native peoples, given the opposition from locals to withdrawal of lands from private use, it seems a reach to imagine gold miners triggering armed conflict under the banner of conservation.

At the heart of this dispute is the question of what exactly do we mean by “nature”? Read More…

Mining the Data Dumps

GG is hunting around for some information related to the little trainwreck series of posts, and has noticed some issues that bear on the broader business of (upbeat music cue here) Big Data.

Now Big Data comes in lots of flavors.  Two leap to mind: satellite imagery and national health records. Much satellite imagery is collected regardless of immediate interest; it is then in the interests of the folks owning it that people will find the parts of interest to themselves.  So Digital Globe, for instance, would very much like to sell its suite of images of, say, croplands to folks who trade in commodity futures. NASA would very much like to have people write their Congressional representatives about how Landsat imagery allowed them to build a business. So these organizations will invest in the metadata needed to find the useful stuff.  And since there is a *lot* of useful stuff, it falls into the category of Big Data.

Health data is a bit different and far enough from GG’s specializations that the gory details are only faintly visible. There is raw mortality and morbidity information that governments collect, and there are some large and broad ongoing survey studies like the Nurses’ Health Study that collect a lot of data without a really specific goal. Marry this with data collected on the environment, say pollution measurements made by EPA, and you have the basis for most epidemiological studies. This kind of cross-datatype style of data mining is also using a form of Big Data.

The funny thing in a way is that the earth sciences also collect big datasets, but the peculiarities of them show where cracks exist in the lands of Big Data.  Let’s start with arguably the most successful of the big datasets, the collection of seismograms from all around the world. This start with the worldwide standardized seismic network (WWSSN) in the 1960s.  Although created to help monitor for nuclear tests, the data was available to the research community, albeit in awkward photographic form and catalogs of earthquake locations. As instrumentation transitioned into digital formats, this was brought together into the Global Seismographic Network archived by IRIS.

So far, so NASA-like. But there is an interesting sidelight to this: not only does the IRIS Data Management Center collect and provide all this standard data from permanent stations, it also archives temporary experiments. Now one prominent such experiment (EarthScope’s USArray) was also pretty standard in that it was an institutionally run set of instrument with no specific goal, but nearly all the rest were investigator-driven experiments.  And this is where things get interesting.

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Dating Stumbles

So Paul Braterman was asking the other day about some advance knowledge of how the new infatuation with detrital zircons and HeFTy plots might be misread in some circles. This is really a question for a real card-carrying geochronologist, but GG will take a swing at it because he’s kind of worried a bit about this and is not staking out any particular terrain.

For the most part both of these are simple variants on classical age-dating techniques (uranium-lead dating and potassium-argon dating), and though rooted in geochronology, most of the applications are elsewhere (e.g., detrital zircons are mainly used as a means of identifying the sources (provenance) of clastic sedimentary rocks, while HeFTy (Helium-Fission Track analysis) is dominantly a means of assessing the thermal or unroofing history of some body of rock through application of multiple geochronometers). But they start pointing at things that could be misleading, so let’s look a bit more….

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The Age of Ages

Not so long ago, you would get a date (one) for some igneous unit.  And that was hard enough that you wouldn’t bother with two or three. Dates were so valuable one well-known scientist had an equally well-known safe to keep them in (we still live with a rule at GSA related to this fellow in that recording or photographing presentations is forbidden). Then there was recognition that some systems closed up shop at different temperatures than others.  So maybe you’d see a U-Pb date and a K-Ar date.  A few labs did this work, often under contract; you (the non-geochronologist) might wrap up a sample and send it on to be dated. Dates, while important, were just some numbers that were part of a geologic story.

Now, however, dates are everything (that, and chemical and isotropic analyses at the tiniest levels, which is a related outgrowth). It seems like more than half the talks at GSA involved dating detrital zircons, or dating zoning in zircons, or dating helium diffusing out of zircons. Dates are used to understand erosion, tectonics, stratigraphy, sedimentology, volcanology, paleoearthquakes, glacial action and more. Arguably this ability is utterly changing geomorphology and sedimentology and it seeps into other fields more slowly.

If you haven’t seen a pdf (probability distribution function, not portable document format) or a HEFTY thermal evolution-o-gram, you haven’t been in a geological talk in some time now.

And so it is about time for the revenge of the grumps.  Not GG so much as others.  For the broad application of these new techniques has excited most geologists, but history tells us that there will be a reckoning.  As GG watched lots of folks who have not themselves sat in front of an LA-ICPMS machine in their lives display plot ofter plot of geochronology-derived stuff, you sense that something will come along to threaten this grand promise.

This has always been the way of new techniques.  They appear, they are exciting and new, they are applied everywhere, and then discrepancies emerge. Look back in olden days and see how potassium-argon dating started; it took awhile for practitioners to recognize that sometimes crystals would lose argon and they got dates that were too young, or that certain materials would introduce an excess of argon from other minerals and a date would be too old. Some early results were discarded, the community identified situations when problems were likely to arise, and early over interpretations were scaled back.

There are hints of this already.  Conflicts between U-Th/He dating and some classic geologic constraints hints at some problems in some places. Some work in the past few years indicated that fission-track thermal histories relying on track length distributions were dependent on specific laboratory practices that are not uniform. Puzzling results are emerging in some sedimentological studies where things that simply cannot be seem to be. On occasion, dates seem backwards, with younger dates from systems that should have closed well before materials yielding older dates.

None of this is really a worry. It is the shake-out that is needed.  And as long as you keep in mind that there might be some landmines out there, the hazards are manageable. It is a kind of “trust, but verify” environment. But there will be reverses ahead, and some promising studies might turn out to be chimera. Don’t be surprised to see some papers saying that a certain technique is wrong when applied under certain conditions. But in the end, we will still come out with a host of tools well suited to consider geologic problems. The age of ages is upon us, like it or not.

Utility of Fantasy

Secretary of State Tillerson was quoted this weekend as saying “Racism is evil — it is antithetical to America’s values, it is antithetical to the American idea.” From this, a naive listener might think that racism has been opposed throughout American history, which is of course fantasy. Racism has lived within America for a long time and has been embraced at times (as in the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry in WWII, not to mention slavery and Jim Crow laws) as formal government policy. We like to think we are better than that, and so we think that our good ancestors of course embraced our modern vision of “the American idea.” This all got GG mulling about a far more pedestrian fantasy.

You see, we Americans (well, mainly non-Native Americans) have this fantasy of the empty wilderness continent. The idea that there was Nature, untouched and primeval, that Euro-Americans encountered on invading the New World. Now this is utter and complete balderdash on several levels.  First is the obvious presence of Native Americans in the many millions on the continent; although some rationalize away their impact as somehow treading so lightly on the land that they made no changes, this is absurd.  These peoples were apex predators, and many groups farmed or managed “wild” lands through burning, harvesting, planting and so on such that their absence from many landscapes led to vast changes in ecosystems. There was no “wilderness” for them.

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Rubia Slippers

Last fall GG’s Western U.S. Tectonics class took on trying to evaluate the status quo challenging hypothesis of Robert Hildebrand that the western part of the U.S. (west of central Utah, roughly) was a separate ribbon continent, Rubia, prior to colliding with North America in the early Tertiary, creating the Rocky Mountains. (That status quo holds that the far west was gradually assembled from the latest Paleozoic going on to the Miocene, with an arc being present on the edge of North America from the Permian to the late Cretaceous and again in much of the Tertiary). As Hildebrand’s argument was wide ranging and published as two lengthy GSA Special Papers (457 and 495), it isn’t a casual affair to consider the question of whether Hildebrand has caught western geologists in a huge misinterpretation or not.  Many workers, content with their personal knowledge, have not peered into this abyss, so the class set out to take a swing at this.  Basically, has Hildebrand identified observations inconsistent with our current interpretation of the geology? And are observables more consistent with Rubia than the standard model? A “yes” to the first might show that Hildebrand has put his finger on a problem even if the answer to the second is a “no”.

The class broke the hypothesis into these elements:

  • North America was subducted under Rubia in the late Cretaceous
  • Mesozoic and late Paleozoic magmatism, widespread in Rubia, never extended into “true” North America
  • The magmatic volumes at the end of the Cretaceous in the western arcs are far too voluminous to have been produced by subduction of oceanic lithosphere
  • Much of the classic late Precambrian – Paleozoic Cordilleran miogeocline is exotic to North America (i.e., is Rubia)
  • Deformation from accretionary events is limited to Rubia.
  • Mesozoic thin-skinned thrusts contain too much shortening to be limited to North America and are far greater than found in backarcs of typical continental arcs
  • Magmatism and uplift in the latest Cretaceous and early Tertiary was produced by the oceanic part of the subjected North American plate falling off.

You can go and read the individual assessments made by class members to particular parts of this analysis, but a summary is below.

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Can Geology Overcome Climate Denialism?

A piece in ArsTechnica reports on some research suggesting that conservatives are more likely to respond positively to news about climate change if they are seeing that the world of the past is not the world of the present rather than being shown ideas about what the future will bring. The piece ends with the author, Cathleen O’Grady, pondering the reason for this result:

There’s also the question of why conservatives found the material more persuasive: did it tap into their desire to preserve the past, as Baldwin and Lammers suggest? Or could it be because the past-focused materials showed evidence about what has already happened, which is more persuasive than predictions about what may happen?

In a sense, the crux of the matter is twofold: showing that something is happening, and showing what the cause of that something is. This paper is addressing the first point, and heavens only knows we have lots and lots of examples now to point at, from the decline in the size of the North Polar ice cap to the decline in the volume of the Greenland ice sheet to the change in the ratio of record high to record low temperatures to the changes in hardiness zones for gardeners to changing dates when frozen lakes and rivers thaw out to the increasing incidence of non-storm related flooding of low-lying areas. In point of fact, many conservative communities have notices some of these impacts and are working to ameliorate the problem. But this level of recognition might only result in attempts to deal with a particular symptom and not the underlying disease.

So that second level, seeing the connection between the things you can see changing and the underlying cause, is also important.  The climate community has leaned heavily on their climate models to make the case, but these are not compelling for many in the public, in part because of confusion between the use of retrospective models and predictive models and in part because this then seems like predicting an uncertain future. GG has harped on this before; an alternative is to look at what has happened in the geologic past.  And here we can find that times when the earth was warmer were times when carbon dioxide (and/or methane) was present at higher levels. We even have an example of a moment when atmospheric carbon levels rose at a geologically rapid rate: the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum (PETM). We find the ocean becoming more acidic in cores of seep sea sediments, shifts in the forest trees on land, and an extinction event that defines the end of the Paleocene. We also learn that many of the environmental impacts grow more severe the shorter the time period when the carbon is added to the atmosphere: the PETM was triggered by a carbon release over a few to a couple thousand years, with many (probably most) scientists who have worked on this inclined toward the few thousand year end. Higher temperatures were achieved more gradually in the early Eocene climatic optimum, but that event was not associated with such a pronounced extinction record.

Would bringing these geologically relevant examples to the fore help in convincing folks that the core problem here is our increase in CO2 levels?  It sure deserves a chance…