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Understanding numbers

One of the frustrating things during this pandemic has been watching public officials and media commentators utterly misunderstand the numbers they are repeating. In essence, some numbers are really reflecting an apples to oranges comparison. So, as a public service, let’s tear apart one such example. Over at the New York Times, Bret Stephens (who has caught a breakthrough case of COVID-19) said this:

“The scary news is the abrupt rise in cases in New Mexico, where nearly a quarter of recent hospitalizations involve fully vaccinated patients. Seems to me like a pretty good argument for making booster shots immediately available for the entire adult population, nationwide. “

NY Times “The Conversation” for Nov. 15, 2021

OK, so “nearly a quarter” is 23%. Which is a touch higher than Colorado’s 18%. But we need to do a few corrections, one that is easy and others that are hard. At the end of that, this maybe isn’t quite the argument it seems; in fact, it seems the vaccines continue to provide roughly 94% protection against hospitalization.

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Ever Shrinking Wilderness

OK, one of GG’s favorite sports is spotting the New York Times engaging in “wow, stuff in the west is different” writing that often contains generalities or mislocations that reflect the general ignorance of the paper’s staff with the west (like here and here). A new article is sort of along these lines; it recounts the pressures on search-and-rescue teams in the west due to naive, ignorant, or bullheaded urbanites & suburbanites escaping all the rules of pandemic America for the freedom of the wilderness. Except, unsurprisingly, that many of them have no idea what going into the wilderness entails.

So what makes the story worthy of commentary? Well, first off, this is not remotely a new trend. From the moment cell service extended into any wild area, people have been calling for help, many of them demonstrating their ignorance. GG has brought this up a few times (like here and here and here). Search and rescue teams in Boulder are pretty much out at least once a week and often daily doing everything from getting an untrained climber down off a local flatiron to searching for somebody who wandered into the wilderness on a whim to rescuing fallen and injured climbers. Even more remote areas like around Silverton in southwest Colorado get to deal with the occasional dimwit driving their SUV across the tundra to the edge of a cliff where they get stuck (for some reason, these are usually Texans). This is common enough that GG has run into search and rescue folks while out recreating on his own. Rocky Mountain National Park, being very popular with people from flat places, is practically a training ground for search and rescue; the level of ignorance of some visitors can be breathtaking (for instance, the family that decided to cut down a tree in their illegal campsite by a very popular lake IN A NATIONAL PARK). Is it worse in the pandemic? Well, gosh, yes. Maybe this all looks new to folks in Pinedale, Wyoming, where the focus of the Times’s story is, but it surely isn’t to folks in the Sierra Nevada or most of Colorado.

So this story follows in the footsteps of so many in making something that has been going on for a long time into something dramatically changed; how much of that exaggeration is ignorance of the reporter or a calculated decision to reflect the likely views of the readers is unclear. The other thing it does is make it sound like the Wind Rivers are Xanadu or some lost continent only now being discovered–which may well be true for New York Times reporters and readers, but isn’t for millions of folks in the West. From reading this, you’d think this was the most isolated spot possible and no it is gone–GONE, I tell you! Um, well, compared to nearby Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park (both places where the search and rescue teams keep busy), yeah, the Winds are less hammered, but they are far from the last place some quotes would have you believe (GG can think of a half dozen places far less known, far less visited than the Winds, and he bets most westerners can do the same).

Now to be fair, the article does point out a big problem: search and rescue is a volunteer job. But then, too, in much of the rural west, so is firefighting (wonder if the Times will discover that soon); some of GG’s colleagues are volunteer firefighters. And if it was just locals being rescued–folks who knew their way around and had the bad luck to break a bone, get struck by lightning or get stuck behind a suddenly swollen stream–volunteers would be enough. But the influx of the woefully unprepared–and this story has a nice selection to choose from–has already stressed more popular parts of the West. Will some places decide to dedicate some of their motel taxes to rescuing visitors? It does seem like this might be a good idea. But is this purely a new thing brought on by COVD-19? Well, no.

Is Death Valley in a Mogi Doughnut?

OK, maybe it is more of a Mogi croissant, but eastern California has been hopping for the last couple of years…except around the Death Valley/Furnace Creek/Fish Lake Valley system

USGS Seismicity M>=2.5, 1/1/2019-11/13/2020

Keeping in mind the Owens Valley earthquake of 1872 and the Chalfant Valley sequence in 1986 fill in gaps on the west side of the map, that west side and the continued seismicity from the Mina/Tonopah sequence is an interesting outline. The Mina quakes that started in May sits athwart the structures that terminate the Fish Lake Valley fault (these faults run near the stateline from the east side of the White Mountains to the west side of the Grapevine Mountains). The scattered events trending southeast towards Alamo (Pahranagat Lakes area) is more like longer term background seismicity but help to outline this quiet area even more.

The previous two years saw no M>4.5 quakes in this region; since then we’ve had a 7.1, a 6.5 and a 5.8 in separate areas (Ridgecrest, Mina, and Owens Lake, respectively), not to mention a 5.2 near Mono Lake that may or may not count as part of the Mina sequence. So quite a change from 2017-2018.

Humans see patterns where they don’t exist, and GG, evidently, is human, so this may well be one of those little patterns that emerge and then vanish in the churn of seismic activity in California. But still…this seems a place to watch. And if you are wondering, rupturing the Death Valley-Furnace Creek-Fish Lake Valley system would be a mid-7 to M8 quake.

[OK, a Mogi doughnut is a quiet area surrounded by unusually active seismicity that eventually ruptures. The concept makes sense within the context of the idea of asperities (strong areas on a fault) that have to get pretty highly loaded before they can fail. A fairly recent JGR paper appealed to Mogi doughnuts in South America.]

Shadowed by St. Helens

Today news reporters are almost happily diverting from COVID-19 to recount another disaster, the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 on this date. As at least one news account notes, in a way the eruption was a great success for the efforts of the scientists who urged evacuations of areas around the volcano (there is a clear undercurrent of, “are we listening to the scientists today?”). Although there were deaths, there were far fewer than if there had been no evacuated red zone.

But events that started a week later, and went pretty much under the radar for years, provide the flip side to the “confident scientists save people” storyline: it was more “pretty worried scientists deal economic blow to town.” And given where we are in the COVID-19 story, it is worth remembering both the success of St. Helens and the failure(?) that started a week later.

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We shall not rebuild…

One of the most predictable moments after any natural disaster is the interview with the newly homeless homeowner or local politician saying “We will rebuild, and we’ll get back to normal (or be better than ever).” (Lately this sentiment is tied to various “strong” hashtags). As we are moving into an era likely to be full of disasters, it is becoming increasingly clear such soundbites are going to get rarer. This is nicely illustrated by a Los Angeles Times piece today recounting just how much “normal” changes when you have a really big disaster, in this case using the 2011 Christchurch earthquake as a relevant lesson.

Now we just were discussing the aftermath of this quake a few days back, but GG wanted to add a few photos from his visits, but first, what is this telling us? Although the LA Times chose to focus on an earthquake as the source of a big disaster (which, frankly, is not likely to be too far off in the future given past intervals), the lessons apply to floods (take a bow, New Orleans and Houston) and fires (Paradise and Napa, we see you) and droughts (a revolving door in parts of Africa). And that lesson is that you don’t return to normal from these events; you make a new normal. And unless you enjoy pain, you want that new normal to not experience the same disaster again. Reading the Times‘s article, you see many things that will never be the same in Christchurch. One emblem of the struggle is the cathedral.

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Balancing Chaos

So it is late fall here in Boulder, and with the month of November often come snowstorms. Most are fairly quick affairs, a few inches or maybe half a foot.  Streets are cleared and often snow free a day or two later, a combination of some plowing and some sunshine.

But every so often things go differently, and one of those days was earlier this week when Boulder got just under two feet of snow in 24 hours. Most fell overnight; by Tuesday morning most roads were somewhere between treacherous and impassable. And today, Friday, much of that snow has been pounded into lumpy, bumpy ice. On side streets it is sidewalk to sidewalk. On minor arterials it is a stripe of ice between mostly clear strips of asphalt. And the major highways are clear and dry.

The result, unsurprisingly, is a flurry of fury as residents demand that their road should have been plowed and relieved of its new burden of ice and packed snow. After all, it snows here, right? And we pay taxes for roads to be cleared, right? So let’s turn the bums out, they are utter incompetents.

Now while maybe local residents here in Boulder and Denver yelling at their representatives are thinking “what bozos!”, GG has seen precisely the same thing when he lived in the Boston area and again in Reno. When snowfall got beyond a certain point, road crews did triage: some roads deemed important were cleared and cleared and cleared again while the neighborhood roads vanished under a thick white blanket. So why does this happen?

The reality is of course more nuanced than “those idiots mismanaged everything!” And it is instructive because it points to how we should, as a society, come to grips with far more intense emergencies than mere snowfalls.

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The Pessimists Have It

Story in the New York Times on how climate scientists blew it–that climate change is already much worse than expected.

This was inevitable for a couple of reasons.  First, it was obvious almost from the very start that the biggest effects were going to be in the high latitudes (when GG taught historical geology, this point was made by looking at paleotemperature in the Cretaceous, which were much higher at high latitudes while perhaps only slightly higher in the tropics). Most of the IPCC reports did not attempt to include increased melting of ice or releases from permafrost, in large part because efforts to include these elements were viewed as too speculative.  And this then points to the main reason why thing seem to be unravelling fast: there was (and is) tremendous pressure to focus on the minimal impacts of climate change, which we discussed once before.

So what were these forces for moderation? Start with the science itself. Science is astonishingly conservative. If you are showing that something will occur, you have to show that the low-end assumptions will yield a significant change compared to the status quo. So the focus is not on the worst case, it is on the best case.

Then there is science building on science. This is the same problem: if you are working on, say, glacial melting, you are taking results from some other studies (which, as noted above, are likely already conservative) and again, you are looking to show what the minimum impact might be. So if we were working at, say, the 95% limit in the first study, we could be at the 99.75% level if the second study.

Now, the scientists working on this were well aware that the published literature was decidedly focused on the most conservative possibilities; there was plenty of concern that things could be a lot worse than those papers were showing.  After all, forecasting has large uncertainties–if the conservative results were showing melting glaciers and acidifying oceans, the most radical results were daunting in the extreme.

This leads to the next pressure to minimize impacts: wanting to appear reasonable to policy makers. These scientists were very sensitive to assaults on them as being alarmists. The result was that the already conservative published literature was then presented as more likely than it probably was. This is especially true for the more derivative impacts of climate change: the amount of warming hasn’t been horribly misanticipated, but ice melting has.

Finally, of course, we have “both-side-ism,” which was rather cleverly attacked by John Oliver a few years back. Because media managers decided that this was something that was controversial, they would bring on “pro” and “con” speakers, disregarding expertise in the field. The result is that there remains a steady stream of op-eds and editorial cartoons that question whether the globe is warming–a stance that is clearly, uncontrovertibly wrong.

So, you might think, things like that NY Times piece mean this is all behind us, right? Wrong.  As the story mentions, we’ve discovered that there are some unanticipatedly large feedbacks. Surface melting on glaciers can accelerate their flow into the ocean. The Antarctic ice sheet has proven vulnerable in ways unanticipated two decades ago. Loss of sea ice might also reduce clouds, enhancing the albedo problems that the loss of sea ice alone represents. Marine clathrates are still not on the agenda for IPCC but could be a huge problem later in the century. And, of course, we have the most anti-science administration probably ever in the U.S. There are few encouraging signs: some species are proving somewhat more resilient than expected, for instance, but on balance the pessimists are proving to be more prescient.

In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered; the report at the time claimed that more than 30 New Yorkers failed to call the police. The line that stood out in the story was from one witness who said “I didn’t want to get involved”. For decades this story was used to encourage people to act instead of turn away when witnessing .

Today it is the planet itself under attack. We are all part of the attack, and we are all witnesses who can try to prevent it from being fatal. The victims are those young enough to bear the full brunt of our inaction. When we die, will we be apologizing to our heirs by uttering the line “I didn’t want to get involved?”

Fracking Crossroads

It’s been awhile since we visited fracking.  As a reminder, fracking is injecting high pressure fluids into rock to break open fractures for oil and/or gas to migrate into the well; however, the term has been converted in popular culture to more or less be synonymous with oil and gas development in general. This misappropriation has largely been because of renewed oil and gas development fueled by the application of horizontal drilling into “tight” source rocks that have to be fracked to produce petroleum. (“Tight” formations are usually the source rock of petroleum but lack the porosity for the fluids or gas to migrate into a traditional reservoir; these are usually shales). You could just as well call it “horizontal drilling” as “fracking” and remain exactly as accurate.

GG has argued that fracking (senso stricto) itself isn’t nearly the problem; most of the complaints really come from having industrial activities (with associated noise and air pollution) near residential areas along with occasional failures of the packing of the well that can release drilling fluids or produced water into shallow aquifers. The other hazard that developed is the huge increase in produced fluids (the foul waters that accompany oil and gas development) that are usually disposed in injection wells, which has led in some places to pretty considerable increases in earthquakes, most notably in Oklahoma.

But as more and more operations are active, we’re seeing more incidents of the rarer side effects of fracking itself, in this case earthquakes generated by fracking activities. The most recent case is in England, where the sole fracking operation in the country now is at a standstill after producing a M2.9 earthquake.  Although it isn’t entirely clear whether there is a separate injection well in this system, it does seem from the reports online that this was caused directly by fracking. Following fracking induced events in Canada, Ohio, and Oklahoma, it seems that this worry can’t be entirely anticipated but can be managed by being ready to stop. In England, though, this might mean the end of attempts to use fracking to develop tight oil and gas in that country.

In the U.S., several Democratic candidates have called for an end to fracking, generally with little clarity of what exactly that might mean.  For instance, Elizabeth Warren tweeted out that she would “ban fracking- everywhere” on her first day in office (um, no, not a power the president has).  However, fracking is not mentioned at all on her rather meaty website, suggesting that her program might be a bit more nuanced than her tweet, but the rationale for at least some of the candidates is to end oil and gas development as a means of addressing climate change, which is a more scientifically literate reason for opposing all new development.

But one should be careful in these matters.  While we certainly need to leave a lot of carbon in the ground (barring a major success in CO2 scrubbing from the atmosphere), one would want to make sure that, say, banning fracking in areas where the technique is well developed not lead to new conventional development in fields presently untouched.

The British experience, though, is suggesting that exporting the U.S.’s success in tight oil and gas development might not go as smoothly as many in industry had hoped. Whether that is a good or bad thing depends on your perspective.

“We Missed It”

“We’d like to think we know about all of the faults of that size and their prehistory, but here we missed it,” Dr. [Ross] Stein said.

“The geologists in this area are the very best — people aren’t asleep at the wheel,” he said. “But there are real opportunities for young scientists to come in and learn how to do this better.”–New York Times story on Ridgecrest earthquake

We missed it?  As one who has worked in this area, GG didn’t feel that way, though he was never asked beforehand if a M7 was possible there.  There were mapped scarps in very young alluvium along a pretty well established seismic lineament. That this could be one connected fault seemed pretty darn obvious, but close study was always a challenge due to the presence of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center.  It even had a name–the Airport Lake fault zone.  And frankly, there are many others like this kicking around in the west.

There is in point of fact a very long list of geoscientists “missing it” out there, including most prominently these:

  • When GG was an undergraduate he was taught that all earthquakes in California with a magnitude above about 6 would produce ground rupture.  This was then followed in short order by the Coalinga earthquake (1983, M6.7), the Whittier Narrows earthquake (1987 M5.9), the Loma Prieta earthquake (1989 M6.9), and the Northridge earthquake (1994, M6.7), none of which produced the kind of dramatic surface rupture expected. (While there was some surface deformation in Loma Prieta, it isn’t clear that any of it was from the main fault). Frankly, the peculiar relation between the surface rupture and fault rupture of the 1952 Kern County (Arvin-Tehachapi) earthquake should have been a hint that surface rupture wasn’t a given.
  • Seismic hazard assessments assumed that the biggest earthquake you could get associated with slip on a fault was related to the length of that fault.  Then we got the Landers (1992 M7.3) earthquake, which ruptured several unconnected but similar faults. This should have been seen coming, though, as the Dixie Valley/Fairview Peak earthquakes in 1954 demonstrated much the same kind of behavior. A related misjudgment was that big faults were segmented and thus there was a maximum earthquake that could be inferred from past ruptures. Tohoku (M9.1, 2011) underscored that as a bad interpretation.
  • Seismologists often would say that earthquakes don’t trigger distant earthquakes because the finite stress changes don’t go out that far. The Landers event triggered seismicity as much as 1250 km away, mainly (it seems) from the dynamic stresses associated with the surface waves from that event. This has now been observed in other large events. There are suggestions that other stress transfer mechanisms might be out there that led, for instance, to the Little Skull Mountain earthquake and the much later Hector Mine (M7.1) earthquake after Landers.
  • Not as clearly stated but clearly in the mindset of seismologists was that big earthquakes are of one dominant motion.  So while Landers was on several faults, they were all pretty much strike-slip faults and the feeling was they were connected at depth. But we then got the Kaikoura earthquake (M7.8, 2016) (among others), which spectacularly lit up a large number of individual faults with wildly different styles of slip. Frankly, the Big Bear earthquake (M6.3) that shortly followed Landers but was a totally separate and very different orientation should have hinted that very complex earthquakes were possible.

So frankly having a seismic zone with scattered preserved scarps in an alluviating environment be the hints of a through-going fault is hardly a shock.  GG thinks that a better interview target would have been Egill Hauksson, who has studied the seismicity of the Coso region in particular (something that Ross Stein had not prior to this event) to see if he felt that this was “missed.”

Given all this, what are some of the under-appreciated hazards out there? After all, the Big One is supposed to be a rerun of the 1857 Ft. Tejon earthquake. GG thinks worse could be out there.  You want a really big one? What if the Malibu Coast, Hollywood Hills, Raymond Hills and Sierra Madre faults all went as one event?  They all are doing the same sort of thing, but hazard mappers consider each to be independent.  And while that is probably true for the average surface rupturing earthquake (as, for instance, 1971 San Fernando was separate from the kinematically similar and adjacent Northridge earthquake), that is no guarantee. Maybe you wouldn’t exceed M8, but a rupture like that would pound LA like nothing else. Or maybe multiple segments of the Wasatch Fault go as one (though frankly even the one segment in Salt Lake City would be devastating). There are no end of partially buried, poorly studied structures across the whole of the Basin and Range. Lots of stuff could be hiding in the forests of the Cascades as well.

Basically, when we look as geologists at the Earth, we are seeing only the top surface of a deforming medium.  That top surface is constantly being modified by other processes (mainly erosion, deposition and urbanization). Toss in that major earthquake faults are not razor sharp planes penetrating the earth but are a complex creation of a network of smaller faults that have coalesced in some manner and you expect it to be hard to pick out all the big faults. Even adding subsurface information (which is often quite deficient in these areas) and faults can hide. Go farther east and it gets even hazier as recurrence times get really long and so hints of past activity hide from view. Frankly, there are probably some truly great misses out there; Ridgecrest really isn’t that far off the mark from what we might have expected.

Coso Concerns

Update 7/14/19. Things are steadily quieting down in this area, though there are still a lot of small (M<2.5) quakes just west of the rhyolite domes. This spot and the area near Little Cactus Flat to the north remain the most active areas outside of the original ruptures.

Update 7/11/19. While the number of quakes in this area is declining, there was a M4.3 that also had a large non-double couple mechanism–according to Caltech.  The USGS-NEIC also estimated a solution and got something much more like regular fault slip. Which indicates that getting mechanisms for very shallow M4s can be tweaky.  While more action is now farther north, those events look more fault like–though those mechanisms are also from NEIC, so could be NEIC’s procedures tend towards double-couple solutions more than CIT’s. And as an aside, it is a bit surprising how little activity has been at Mammoth–it is an area that has had seismicity triggered by surface waves in the past, but has remained fairly quiet this go round.

Original post: One thing GG has kind of been looking for is whether the M7.1 Ridgecrest event is triggering things near the Coso volcanic field. And it seems there is something worth being concerned about going on.


Annotated version of USGS seismicity map (past week M2.5 and above). Band of orange (past day’s) events about 3 km west of rhyolite domes noted.

Seismicity in this area is traditionally shallow, meaning above 5 km depth (Monastero et al., 2005). The tight cluster of orange dots include 2 M4+ earthquakes.  This area is at the west edge of a seismic discontinuity at about 5 km depth inferred to represent the top of a magma chamber (Wilson et al., 2003). While there has certainly been seismicity in this region before, given the proximity to fairly recent volcanic activity, one has to wonder if there is magma on the move.  Supporting that are the focal mechanisms for the two M4 earthquakes, both of which have substantial non-double couple components (indeed, the mechanism for one looks very much like a diking event). Given that all these events are being located in the top 2 km (probably relative to sea level, so top 3 km of crust), this could get pretty interesting pretty fast.

As background, the central core of the Coso volcanic field are silica-rich rhyolites that appear as blister-like bodies in the image above.  Surrounding this core area that overlies the seismically inferred magma body are basaltic eruptions (like Red Cone, in lower left corner). The troubling seismicity is directly on the road into the geothermal area from Coso Junction to the west.

An overview of the M7.1 with the first InSAR image of the 7.1 rupture is at This also discusses seismicity in this area, but with less consideration of volcanic activity.