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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).


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.

Read More…

Oklahoma Quakes, the Infrastructure Side

Last November, a M5.0 quake caused some damage in Cushing, Oklahoma.  A number of folks at the time were relieved that there wasn’t any noticeable damage to the nation’s largest oil storage facility.  This was only a few months after the Oklahoma Corporation Commission ordered a cutback in disposal of wastewater in injection wells. Since then, seismicity has mostly quieted down, but it seems that recognition of the scale of the hazard has been seeping into the awareness of a broader part of the media, leading to a lengthy piece in Politico Magazine on the potential disaster lurking in Cushing from facilities not really designed to survive an earthquake. While most of the stories of earthquake hazards in Oklahoma have been more focused on falling chimneys and old brick buildings, this piece exposes a pretty critical flaw in Oklahoma’s infrastructure.

So we will hope that there isn’t another unrecognized fault slowly being lubed up under Cushing.  But remember, the largest events from the infamous Rocky Mountain Arsenal injection adventure in the 1960s came more than a year after injection was totally stopped.  Oklahoma hasn’t stopped injecting fluids, and the volume of water injected so far dwarfs anything that happened in Denver in the 1960s…


Geologists have for a long, long time been telling people not to build things in certain places.  Barrier islands? They move and evolve, which means property comes and goes. Not good.  Floodplains? They, um, get flooded.  Landslides? Only if you want a mobile home with a mobile yard. Sometimes we get heard, but usually we don’t. And the more subtle stuff, like recognizing how paving large areas can make floods worse? Lots of luck there. Doesn’t matter if the communities are rich or poor, building in bad places seems a national habit.

Maybe that is changing.

Even as the national media seems to just be noting that flood insurance is encouraging building in vulnerable spots, Politico has a big story on Louisiana’s program to consider how some communities will be forced to move and how to prepare to absorb that exodus as it occurs. For the Grumpy Geophysicist, this is a moment of actual hope, a ray of sunshine in the currently clouded over world of using science to guide public policy. [If you want more darkness, consider that politicians are rewarded for disaster relief and not disaster preparedness.]

The basic point is that people don’t like getting hammered by really bad weather (you know, like floods).  And so they leave–and this isn’t typically a slow migration but instead a real wave of refugees from hurricanes or floods or other such unpleasantries. They don’t often go really far away, so neighboring communities suddenly are flooded with people. There are two main forks to preparing for this: one is to try and get the vulnerable communities to start to think about how they will evolve in the face of the next storm, and the other is for those neighboring communities to prepare for the eventual migration of their neighbors. The state is actively trying to do this kind of work.

While there are uncertainties in our future, there are a few things that will happen.  There will be sea level rise.  There will be bigger rainfall events. These are both so clearly tied to the basic physics of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere that there really is no avoiding them; the best we can do now on that side of the ledger is to try and keep the magnitudes lower than they might otherwise be (and some areas also see land subsidence, which is unrelated to global warming but also causes problems). So we need to prepare, which means surrendering land we cannot defend and defending land we dare not surrender.

That Louisiana is starting to consider this landscape triage may just mean we’ve moved off the “we will rebuild it” mantra of the past century. As the article makes clear, this won’t be easy–but it should be much better than letting the chaos of the next disaster drive change.