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Unnatural Degrees of Disaster

A op-ed-ish piece at CNN takes the devastation of hurricane Michael and seeks it to be labelled something other than a ‘natural disaster’. The main argument is that human emissions have led to warmer ocean waters, a warmer atmosphere and higher sea level, all of which allow for stronger and more impactful hurricanes. This is not news in the climate community, which has been striving the past few years to be able to say something about the effect of global warming on major storms, heat waves and droughts. But, of course, this is not the only way that humanity makes disasters worse.

A seismological aphorism is “earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings kill people.” Although an approximation (tsunamis are pretty capable of dealing death, as are quake-triggered landslides and avalanches), this does highlight the other way that humanity makes nature even more powerful. As a result, geoscientists often walk around shaking their head and muttering under their breath “Why’d they do that?” Adobe buildings in earthquake prone areas. Beach houses on barrier islands. Developments at the base of landslide-prone mountainsides–or on active landslides themselves. Cities in floodplains. Insurance designed to force the reconstruction of things in the same hazardous places. Frankly, it is so bloody obvious that these are stupid things that you want to throw your hands up in the air and embrace the inevitable extinction of such an incompetent species.

Of course these are all things that make natural disasters worse for people, but they don’t actually make the actual trigger worse, right? Um, true, but we already do plenty more than just supercharge hurricanes. Injection of waste water into deep wells has produced quite the swarm of earthquakes in Oklahoma. Paving over wetlands made floods in Houston that much worse than they would have been without paving. Human-caused fires set the stage for catastrophic landslides and mudflows that might not have happened without the fires. Subdivision have been crushed and roads destroyed because bulldozers removed the toe of stable landslides that then failed. Excessive watering and water from septic systems is likely the cause of the Portuguese Bend landslide in Southern California as the old slip planes got lubricated and the soils above increased in weight.

In sum, we’ve been at this business of making our own “natural disasters” for some time. All we’ve done with global warming is to carry our local disaster mania on the road. Arguably we’ve reached the point where a truly natural disaster is a rarity.

Geoperil

Not what you think.  GG was hiking recently on a 15 mile loop in the mountains west of Boulder when, seven miles from the trailhead, he encountered a fellow walking with his dog.  As he passed, he stopped and asked, “is this the way to the loop?” “Um, what loop do you mean?” “The one back to Fourth of July.” “There is no loop to Fourth of July.”

This fellow apparently was told in about the vaguest possible terms that there was a loop hike from the Fourth of July trailhead.  The loop probably was the one GG was hiking that day, but that loop was out of Hessie.  Had the fellow not stopped (and had GG not wanted to know what loop he was talking about), his fate might have been dire. He had no map and didn’t seem to have much if anything in the way of gear to survive a night in the wild.

Were this a one-off, GG would chalk it up to random chance.  But he has encountered numerous folks wandering those trails with no idea where they were, where they were headed, or how to find their way out. Such nimrods occasionally have to be officially rescued, like the pair with a dog on Shoshoni Peak recently. Wearing tank tops and shorts, they were fortunate to have a sat phone, but when asked what happened, the men said they got on the wrong trail. Which might be understandable were there, in fact, a trail to Shoshoni Peak. (There is a route that somebody put into OpenStreetMaps using the same markings as a trail, but there is not and has not been a real trail). Other similar stories are common enough that only the most local papers ever relate them (and those usually have to be sufficiently unusual to merit even the smallest interest from the media).

GG frankly cannot recall in years past such widespread disregard for knowing where you were and where you were going and having the tools to confirm that you were on the right path.  Long ago there was a decent excuse for getting lost–finding a place selling the appropriate topographic maps, knowing how to read them, having a compass and knowing how to use it were all significant barriers.  But now there are dozens of phone apps that can offload maps for use away from cell towers and use GPS to plot you on those maps. Or buy a preloaded handheld GPS with all the maps you need. Even paper maps are more common than in years gone by and are often more user friendly than older topographic quadrangle maps that lacked current trail locations and often required mosaicking to be useful. Online trail guides with decent maps can be printed and carried, often with GPS coordinates that can be used with many devices. In short, it has never been easier to know where you are in the wilderness, and yet it seems more and more people are going in utterly ignorant of the terrain, the trails, and the troubles that can ensue.

This has been a bit of a theme GG has noticed.  In the geoscience literature, it is expressed as increasingly poor citations to the literature despite tools making it much easier than years ago. Or the scientists publishing a paper every five days. You see stories of people blindly following a GPS onto bike paths or into blizzards. The belief that your Google searches are superior to an expert’s training and experience seems to be related. The quest for views and likes encourages outrageousness and stupidity rather than study and subtlety. Basically, lazy slap-dash work is rewarded equally to careful and complete work, or at least it isn’t so punished as to make it unrewarding. So we have people wandering in the hills who are rescued by the few who know what they are doing, or those who answer 911 cell calls, or search and rescue teams. We have papers submitted where the authors say “oh, that will get caught in review, we don’t need to worry about it.” We have kids who aren’t inoculated who get protected by herd immunity, people diagnosing and treating their maladies from the internet, we have interlopers generating misleading materials to tilt elections.

How much of this is cause and effect? Are we just all getting stupider for no reason, or are these amazing aids crutches that atrophy the intellect? When you have a voice telling you where to turn, what happens to your spatial awareness? When every trivial fact is a click away on your smartphone, why retain any knowledge at all? When opinions that reinforce your beliefs are all around you, why bother to challenge them?

GG isn’t sure.  But he thinks maybe we should make sure cell signals don’t go into Wilderness and sat phones carry a minimum fee of $1000 per call.  Maybe then the benefit of preparedness will outweigh the cost of ignorance enough to start getting folks to anticipate disaster instead of merely survive it.

Ludicrous Certainty

One of the fixtures of modern life seems to be the hearty embrace of uninformed certainty. People who just know that certain things are an unqualified bad and will go to any lengths to fight those things seem to make up the vast majority of social media contributors. Although there are many fine examples of this on the political right, let’s complain about some on the political left.

Two such issues are centerpieces of complaints here in Boulder.  One is the presence of genetically modified organisms used in crops (GMOs) and the other is the practice of fracking. Neither warrants the blanket condemnation they receive.

Most opponents of GMOs know little about how we’ve ended up with the food crops we have now, though occasionally you get clues, like if you stumble on wild strawberries and wonder why they are so tiny.  Our food crops are the products of generations of hit or miss efforts of artificial selection (picking the outcomes you like best) and crossing of different plants to get useful hybrids. The genetic tools now available remove a lot of the hit and miss part of the effort allowing scientists to directly target the aspects of a plant that are causing trouble.

When you say that all GMOs are bad, you might as well say all spot welds in a car are bad and you only want a car assembled with no welds. The use of genetic tools is a technique and not an end per se. A spot weld might make a tougher car, but it will not make a better computer.  It is what you do with the tool that matters.

Does this mean all GMOs are good? Hardly, if for no other reason than the law of unintended consequences. For instance, there was a desire to have a variety of common golf green grass be resistant to Roundup; as High Country News tells the story, the new variety was successful–but when it escaped from where it was being grown, it became a troublesome weed along irrigation ditches in eastern Oregon. Human endeavors are filled with such mistakes, many having nothing to do with GMOs (think of all the times an exotic species was introduced and found to be a pest, and then the effort to use the pest’s natural enemy simply created another problem). Just as we recognize that bringing exotic species into someplace requires some forethought, development of GMOs needs to face similar scrutiny.

Fracking is a slightly different issue, though it shares the same blanket opposition that has little to do with what it is and does. Most of the concerns with fracking have nearly nothing to do with the actual process of fracturing rock deep in the earth to release hydrocarbons.  Instead when you hear the actual harms people complain about, it is the industrial noise and associated air pollution of the drilling and fracking operations, the greater density of drill pads often needed for the current “non-traditional” horizontal drilling, surface water pollution from spills, aquifer contamination from improperly sealed wells, earthquakes from injection wells disposing of accessory fluids from production, or even the antiquated forced pooling laws that greatly limit the options for those holding both surface and mineral rights. When people talk of banning fracking, it would be like a city banning a car company from using welds–it is not the welding that is the problem, it would be the noise and impacts of the car factory that are being opposed. Fracking is really being used as a proxy for resurgent oil and gas development.

Is fracking then an unalloyed good? Well, no.  There are some very positive aspects of it: by increasing the recovery of hydrocarbons from an existing field, it can slow the desire to expand production into virgin areas. The recent application in associated with horizontal drilling has opened up a lot of natural gas, which has been replacing dirtier coal in electricity generation as a result. But there are some instances where fracking is indeed a direct evil.  In a few places, it has indeed caused larger earthquakes (though far, far fewer than injection wells).  There is an indication that fracking in some shallow rocks immediately below an aquifer in Wyoming has indeed directly contaminated fresh water. And no doubt a few fracking operations have spilled fracking fluids into surface waters. And, of course, the application of the technique has opened up areas that previously were uneconomic (which is a mixed bag depending on where you are and what the land use looks like).

Most folks would probably like the world to be black and white, good or bad. But there is gray all over the place, and GG earns his nom de plume when encountering absolutism. This desire to polarize to the extreme removes all sensible middle ground.  We would all win if GMOs were not so misrepresented but also if the regulation on their development made more sense. We would all win if oil and gas development was throttled back by a more driven effort to move on to renewable energy sources. Recognizing the strengths and weakness of things like GMOs and fracking could focus our attention on the specific instances that are most troublesome. But when you just paint the whole thing one color, you lose the ability to separate the dangerous from the innocuous.

Recreation vs. Re-creation

GG has from time to time wandered on a bit about some of the contradictions surrounding public lands (as a geoscientist, GG has spent a fair bit of time on said lands). So three articles in the latest issue of High Country News (their “Outdoors and travel special issue”) caught his eye as they threw light on three different aspects of our varying and changing views of wild lands. In a sense, all three pieces reflect views that would probably have distressed John Muir and other 19th century celebrators of the wild.

The first (and cover) story documents the growing disconnect between realities: that on the ground, and those developed in social media. The story recounts the five 2017 deaths on Capitol Peak in the Colorado Rockies, focusing on one in particular where the temptation from social media wore down any resistance to doing something very risky. In a real sense, this documents the continuing replacement of wilderness as a place for reflection and understanding of our place in the big wide world with a handy backdrop for our social media musings. This has made the great outdoors nothing more than a different edgy stage for our narcissistic self-promotion (“Look at what I did!”). Unfortunately the real world has taken little notice, and so bad injuries and deaths can pile up as the temptation of one-upmanship continues.  Although the piece lays the blame on our obsession with social media, it is worth pointing out that this has gone on far longer.  Once cell phones started getting signals in wilderness areas, people would just assume they could march out and get into any fix they liked and they would be rescued.

The second deals with another aspect of the wilderness as personal gym mentality, suggesting that outdoor equipment companies might not have the best interests of the land in mind when they advocate for preserving landscapes.  In particular, the author, Ethan Linck, points out that these companies are far more interested in saving places with dramatic and photogenic places than ecologically more valuable lands. He buttresses this with some insights from research showing that outdoor recreating is only weakly related to broader environmental concerns. Thus people who recreate outdoors can be passionate about preserving access to the lands they use but are far less likely to care about other places and other threats. The author goes on to note how older distinctions between consumptive and appreciative uses of wild lands are increasingly confused. The result is something of a fraying of the coalitions that advocated for Wilderness Areas over the past 50 years; deferring to corporations to take up the slack might not be the best way to preserve what should be preserved. At the same time, the way companies glorify wild lands in advertisements acts in a way similar to social media trivialization of these places.

The last is more of a current news item: legislation in Congress would remove restrictions on bikes in Wilderness Areas (along with motorized wheelchairs and a few other wheeled vehicles). This bill splinters the mountain biking community: the Sustainable Trails Coalition supports the bill while the International Mountain Biking Association opposes it. This is again moving to further trivialize the wild, to say it is really only useful as a free gym.  While there are legitimate complaints from the biking community about how some Wilderness areas are drawn, there are some good reasons for excluding bikes from Wilderness.

All three stories point to nature becoming little more than a scenic backdrop for feats of derring-do, for getting pumped up, for setting records and personal bests.  And if that is all we want, that is all we’ll save, and we’ll lose a lot more than we’ll know.

(Updated on 5/15 with links to the HCN stories now online)

Fiddling while Earth burns

It is hard as an earth scientist to watch how mindless America has become. We are now seeing the climate refugees (Puerto Ricans settling in central Florida), the stronger hurricanes, the heavier rainstorms (remember Houston?), the rising seas, the increased fires and intensified droughts that climate scientists warned of more than 10 (and arguably closer to 30) years ago. And that is just within the USA.

The news on the head-in-the-sand approach of dismissing scientists from agency panels, down-funding scientific agencies, promoting red and blue debate teams and other such counterproductive activities is drowned out by reporting on the Russia scandal and an erratic legislative hustle to rescind health insurance regulations and impose a major tax cut [itself overlooking basic macroeconomics: you want to increase revenues when times are good, both so government spending doesn’t crowd out private needs, but also so there is a cushion for government to spend in deficit when needed in a downturn]. Rather impressively, all the science shenanigans got ranked as the #4 science story in Discover‘s annual review of the top 100 science stories, a review usually dedicated to new science findings both profound and obscure. GG isn’t sure politics made the top 100 before.

And its not like things will improve anytime soon, not when we get told that talking about climate change immediately after a disaster is “misplaced”, not when the most likely thing to happen if Democrats control the House in 2019 is an increased focus on investigating the executive branch. The circus that is governance in the US at this point is incapable of dealing with small stuff like reauthorizing non-controversial legislation.  Facing the big stuff seems well beyond our politicians.

We can only hope that in the margins of the GOP tax bill someone scrawled in “enact a carbon tax”. Given the chaos there, this isn’t the least implausible thing to happen…

Monolithic Logic

Two substantial rockfalls at the east end of El Capitan (near where Horsetail Falls sometimes appears) have resulted in one death and two injuries. Frankly with all the climbers and tourists it is kind of surprising that this is limit of the human toll. This corner of the face of El Capitan seems to have had less activity prior to this than some other nearby corners of Yosemite.  Things could be a lot worse: Stock and Uhrhammer (2010) dated the very large rock avalanche from the east face of El Capitan to about 3600 years ago (in red on map below excerpted from Wieczorek et al., 1999), and a couple other younger rockfalls have come off El Capitan in historic time (the orange areas on the map). From the photos out there, GG has guessed at the approximate location of the debris that came down this past week (added to map below; the rockfall source is on an essentially vertical rock face).

YoseRockfallMapYoseRockfallKey

Anyways, the intent here is not to consider the geology of this so much as a controversy that coverage of this event has sparked in some corners, namely, is El Capitan the “largest granite monolith” as termed by some reports?

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Whose Fault?

Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist at MIT who is perhaps best known for arguing that in a warming climate, hurricanes will be stronger, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post basically saying that it is high time to recognize that disasters are not entirely natural.  Well, he was bit stronger than that:

We must first recognize the phrase “natural disaster” for what it is: a sham we hide behind to avoid our own culpability. Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and wildfires are part of nature, and the natural world has long ago adapted to them. Disasters occur when we move to risky places and build inadequate infrastructure.

So there are no natural disasters? Op-eds like this are to challenge the reader and try to get that reader to come to grips with uncomfortable facts.  Reading the comments online suggests it didn’t really do that…. But here we can parse things more finely. There is both truth and exaggeration in Emanuel’s piece.

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