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Insignificant?

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.

Too much sun…

GG enjoys the occasional “huh, that seems wrong” moment. So the fact that the earliest sunset is well before the winter solstice is always good for a chuckle. Or watching where the moon rises through a month and how that sort of recaps the sun’s trip over the year. We’re coming up on another of these moments: the spring equinox and why it isn’t quite as equi- as the name suggests.

So if you got to one of the calculators showing you sunrise and sunset times, over much of the northern hemisphere you’ll see sunrise and sunset at the same time on 17 March, several days before the equinox. So what gives?

There are two main elements here, neither the same as what controlled that too-early sunrise or the lunar recap of the motions of sunrise. One is that we usually define sunrise and sunset by when the edge of the sun peeks over the horizon. But the sun has a finite size, about half a degree. At the equator, with the sun zooming straight up, that means sunrise is about 1/1440th of a day before the center of the sun comes up, which is exactly one minute. Add on the same extra minute at sunset and you can see that on the equinox that you’d expect the time from sunrise to sunset to be 12 hours and 2 minutes. At other latitudes, where the sun comes up at an angle (pretty close to 90°-latitude), the extra time is longer; here in Denver and Boulder, it buys us about another minute. So we should get three minutes more on the equinox.

But on March 20th this year, we get nine minutes of extra sun, not just three. Where are those other six minutes coming from? Well, if you’ve ever been fortunate enough to see a total lunar eclipse at the same time as the Sun was rising or setting, you’ve experienced the answer. Or if you’ve looked up from within a swimming pool. When you look up from within a pool, everything appears to be higher than what you see just above the water. Light gets bent as it enters the water, so objects appear closer to the zenith. Earth’s atmosphere bends light; the rays of light from the sun would be passing far over our heads except that as they hit the atmosphere, they get bent down towards the surface. So we actually can see a bit more than half a hemisphere when we are standing on a totally flat area. This buys us several more minutes of sunshine than we’d get on the Moon (were it rotating as fast).

It turns out that refraction in the atmosphere can be complicated by vertical variations of temperature and humidity, which can lead to the occasional misshapen moon:

Moonrise from near summit of Mt. Washington. CH Jones photo.

In addition, those of us at higher altitude have less atmosphere to play with, so the effect here in Boulder is probably a bit less than for folks on the seashore. So these numbers are closer to suggestions than rigidly precise times.

So there you go. Another little treat to enjoy as the northern hemisphere days get longer. If you want another discussion of this with some pictures, timeanddate.com has a decent exposition.

In Need of Hypotheses

GG wrote something about this awhile back, but it feels worthy of a revisit. Just why is it that geologists still like this “multiple working hypotheses” ideas?

What reminded GG of this was reading Naomi Oreskes’s book on the rejection of continental drift (or Amazon link). In there, it sort of seems as though multiple working hypotheses comes across as something of an excuse used by twentieth century American geoscientists to dance past the evidence for continental drift. It kind of comes across as a dated approach for pre-quantitative science. GG would argue that in studying complex phenomena that it is an important tool–one perhaps worthy of keeping in mind in dealing with the current pandemic.

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Mysteries of the COVID spikes

Something that has bothered GG has been just how rapidly rising COVID cases have turned into falling COVID cases, for instance:

COVID cases for Colorado and Boulder County, Colorado, from COVIDActNow

This tendency of COVID cases to rise rapidly and then fall equally dramatically is best seen in the geographically tighter county-level data, but you can also see it in places like the United Kingdom, where rapidly rising cases turned into a freefall in a couple days in the summer and in some states in the southern U.S. that are now passing their peaks.

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Despairing Despair

Lots of fun stuff these days. Fires in the western US, fires in Greece and France. Floods in New York and New Jersey. Hurricanes appearing with almost no warning. Rain on the top of Greenland. Melting ice caps. Pandemic. War. New studies with dire warnings. Cats and dogs living together…wait, that was us all getting pandemic pets. This has led to an outpouring of essays on how the world has changed and how awful things are or will be.

GG’s advice: get over it. There has always been sadness accompanying change. Towns on the High Plains have basically dried up and blown away, leaving former occupants feeling uprooted. Cultural landmarks have been destroyed (the Notre Dame cathedral was hardly the first old structure to have a fire). Native American communities have been bludgeoned for centuries now; memories of rich runs of fish or endless bison herds long gone continue to remind of the losses of the past. People lamenting such losses of modern species are usually oblivious to the far richer ecosystems of the earliest Holocene. Probably there were folks in Greece bitterly unhappy over the loss of stuff that was replaced by the Parthenon. It seems it is human to lament the passage of time and its associated changes.

There have been other grand challenges. The Great Depression could have ended democracy. The Cold War could have ended humanity. The Civil War could have perpetuated slavery. We’ve come out of a particularly calm set of decades which maybe had lulled us into thinking that life was easy.

As a geologist, GG will point out that the planet will survive us; the darkest fantasies of dystopia will not be. Yes, some species will depart, quite possibly including us, but to eradicate life on the planet will take more than messing with the thermostat. Old vistas that will be gone will be replaced with new ones perhaps equally stunning if wholly different. Climates have changed before, not as rapidly as we are doing now at a global scale, but we are not near the coldest or warmest the globe has ever been. Armageddon has its limits.

So the message is, get to work. Pining for the past while neglecting the future is counterproductive. That future is malleable. Fewer species might vanish, more ice might survive, fewer deaths from drought or starvation if the work is done. Just because you can’t remake the world to what it was doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make it better.

So maybe take a pass on the next gloomy essay foretelling pain and suffering and heartbreak. Those have always been out there if you looked for them. Run for office. Invest in green technologies. Make new things better. Maybe even write dystopia that isn’t so incredibly despairing (e.g., Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140).

Skewing COVID vaccines

From a professional standpoint, one of the most annoying aspects of the pandemic has been the demonstration of numerical illiteracy–not only from the public, which is kind of expected, but from the media and even professionals engaged in public health. The net effect at the moment is to grossly underestimate the efficacy of the current set of vaccines. How does this happen? Well, you compare apples and oranges.

Let’s consider the New York Times‘s attempt to examine the rates of breakthrough cases as a means of seeing just how good the vaccines are. They were trying to get around the biases caused by there being different numbers of vaccinated and unvaccinated people, which has muddied the waters as breakthrough cases mounted. Their analysis finds that in Colorado (for example), if you are vaccinated, you are 22 times less likely to end up in the hospital and 8 times less likely to die of COVID-19. That should give you pause, because it suggests that should you, as a vaccinated individual, happen to get a breakthrough case severe enough to put you in the hospital, you are more likely to die than an unvaccinated patient. This is not unique to Colorado: pretty much all the states’ data look the same.

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Are COVID models useful?

OK, this is *way* out of GG’s wheelhouse, so please take this as rantings of an ignorant observer…

But something GG has noticed is that the epidemiological models out there–as far as he can see, *all* of them–will not reproduce the kind of rapid rise followed by a rapid fall in cases of COVID-19. To be clear, they can do OK on the rapid rise part–frankly, it is trivial to fit an exponential to the rising side, and all you have to do is adjust Rt a bit to hit the numbers. It is the reversal that simply gets missed; usually the models predict a long drawn-out peak, which really has not been the case for the most part (you only see that for much larger regions where local peaks are offset in time from one another). And so we have mysteries like why the bit Indian spike a few months ago suddenly died out, or even why the UK’s spike suddenly reversed a couple of weeks ago.

Why should things reverse so suddenly? Maybe back in March 2020, it was everybody suddenly cowering at home; that was certainly the single most abrupt behavioral change in the pandemic. But since then, has there really been that kind of radical reversal of behaviors? Enough to stop rising infections in their tracks? This seems unlikely; the fact that the models do not produce such an outcome despite sometimes having sudden changes in “social distancing” suggests it isn’t the likely cause. It is something missing from the models; what might it be?

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The Power of Denial

As we in the U.S. stand at the brink of our fifth (!) wave of COVID-19, it is worth taking a moment to ponder what this says about society as a whole and our chances of reining in climate change.

First up, why a fifth wave? Unlike the previous four (March-April 2020, mid summer 2020, late fall 2020, spring 2021), this one is one that should have been prevented. An irony is that the Trump administration put all its eggs into one basket marked “vaccine”–and it paid off–and yet the people who are most disdaining of the vaccines are Trump’s supporters. Because we are increasingly living in politically uniform communities, the result has been some communities where nearly nobody has gotten vaccinated and others where nearly everyone has. With the delta variant rolling along (it has been responsible for most Colorado cases for well over a month), case numbers have returned to rising. In places like Boulder, this is a rise from very small numbers of cases to small numbers. In places like Branson, MO and Grand Junction CO, it is a rise from kind of OK to oh-my-gosh. It seems clear that we’re headed for a long haul of COVID kind of rumbling around, flaring up in unvaccinated areas while just steaming a bit on corners of well-vaccinated communities.

The first and obvious lesson is that even experience isn’t enough to fully educate some fraction of the populace. Lincoln supposedly said that you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. With dying patients spitting in the eye of nurses who are telling them they have COVID and people who spent many days in ICU saying that COVID isn’t that big a deal, it is pretty clear we have identified the people who can be fooled all the time. The science is about as crystal clear as it gets: COVID-19 is a transmissible disease that can be made far less infectious and far less dangerous through the use of vaccines. Everything else is quibbling.

So it is clear that no number of hurricanes or droughts or forest files or king tide floods or historic heat waves are going to convince some people–probably close to 30-40%–that climate change is a real problem. There will not be a hosanna moment when we all unite to defeat the scourge of climate change. After all, if we can’t unite to defeat a fatal disease by getting one or two shots, how likely is it that we’ll be willing to unite behind a realignment of society’s energy system?

So we’re doomed?

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Risk and Sensibility

The Denver Post ran an opinion piece posing a useful question: how did we do in evaluating risk of COVID-19? Answers are all over the map, but so many are so breathtakingly stupid as to make the value of the piece pretty minimal (“Hey, the mortality rate was only 1.4%, so not so bad!” “My restaurant didn’t have a case, so restaurants were safe!”). The tone of the op-ed leans towards “hey, we panicked, this wasn’t such a big threat after all.” Having the cojones to put that in print after over half a million Americans perished in under a year–easily the number three cause of death in 2020, and when you toss in the excess mortality since the start of the pandemic, you are up to ~650,000 deaths either directly or indirectly caused by the pandemic. The age-adjusted death rate increased by nearly 16% in 2020. COVID-19 was the number three killer in the U.S. Sure, your odds of dying if you were between 25 and 34 only increased by about 4%, making COVID about the #6 killer in that age range, but for 44-55 year olds, the odds of dying went up by 11% or so, making COVID the number 4 killer and close enough to “unintentional injury” that it could well be #3. And then none of this considers the long term impacts of having had COVID-19–of the more than two million Americans who have spent time in the hospital, something like a half million or more are seeing long-term effects from COVID-19, effects that are often pretty debilitating.

A way of looking at this is years of life lost to the disease–in essence, if you die at 25 and were expected to live to 85, that is 60 years lost, but if you die at 80 it is only 5 years lost. A paper in Nature tackles this and makes comparisons with traffic deaths, seasonal influenza, and heart disease. In the U.S., COVID-19 has been seven times the losses from influenza, about 2.3 times the loss due to transport (mainly auto accidents) and maybe about 0.4 times the loss due to heart disease. This is with a pretty conservative estimate of COVID’s impacts, and it is worth keeping in mind that we tried very hard to limit COVID-19 but not so much many of these other causes of death. Additionally, this study found that about 20% of the loss of years of life in the U.S. was suffered by those under 55.

So were we overreacting to a disease that did cause more loss of life that auto accidents (by more than a factor of two)? Certainly had we done nothing the toll would have been far, far worse (millions dead), so the question maybe should be, what were the really effective steps, and what was theater that did little? in other words, a better question is, how well did we do in balancing the risks posed by different activities for dying of COVID-19?

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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.