Living in the west, sad stories of families losing their houses–or their lives–in wildfires is an all-too-common occurrence. And as a geophysicist, GG is familiar with the old geoscience adage that earthquakes don’t kill people, but built structures failing in earthquakes kill people. It would seem we should adjust the second adage for the first situation: wildfires don’t kill people; flaming buildings kill people.
Have you noticed how often the pictures of destroyed houses includes green trees nearby? How often the description of the burned down house includes the oddly unburned things nearby? Although there are certainly fires so intense they take everything in their path, all too often it seems like houses burn when little else does. And this applies even to the devastation in Paradise California this week. The Los Angeles Times has a piece noting those still-standing trees and finds that the devastation in Paradise was because the fire became an urban fire. Houses were igniting other houses.
Basically the issue is that western houses catch burning embers with things like debris-filled gutters, exposed eaves and ventilation grills, and wooden porches. Once lit, houses tend to go up all at once. This is not new news–anybody with a house in the forest hears about it from their insurance and local fire officials. Yet new houses continue to be built with the same weaknesses, even in fire-prone areas. (At least most areas ban wood-shake roofs). Clearly more thought should be given to eliminating the ways houses catch burning embers.
Does this mean we’re off the hook on forest health? Well, probably not, though exactly what that means looks to be up for grabs more than ever. What seems certainly true is that frequent, low-intensity fires reduce the risk of intense damaging fires: the experiences in both Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks is that major fires lie down (lay down?) when they hit areas previously burned in a controlled manner.
But controlled burning isn’t a great option within the rural subdivisions now present in many forests. Thus many advocate for other kinds of treatment, ranging from wholesale clearcutting to selective logging to mechanical thinning of understory (to…raking???). One study recently highlighted in a CNN op-ed concluded rather strongly that more heavily managed forests are forests that burn more intensely–the opposite of what is usually claimed. And GG can attest to how mundane it can be to encounter a natural wildfire in the unmanaged backcountry, having hiked through or right next to such fires on at least three occasions. But there are confounding factors in play, some of which are noted in the study. Certainly one is ignition: wilderness areas usually see fires starting from lightning strikes. Such fires occur under conditions less apt to drive monster fires: the forest has often been wetted, and long periods of strong, dry winds are less likely. In contrast, managed forests are in more heavily used areas where neglected campfires, power lines, driving over dry grass, and sparks from machinery or gunfire are capable of starting a fire when strong, dry winds are present.
[As an aside, the above is all in reference to forests; Southern California chaparral is nearly immune to controlled burning, and unlike the forests, any such burning would leave the ground bare and hydrophobic. Chaparral is a whole different ballgame.]
What remains disturbing to GG in the forestry studies he’s perused is that the assumption remains that “pre-settlement” (apparently the currently favored term for c. 1840s western U.S.) is equal to “natural”. In some places, this will prove true, but in the Sierra foothills it is almost certainly a false equivalence. Pretending that Native American management was “natural” is likely to lead to poor decision making. Better if land mangers simply sought to restore pre-settlement fire frequency and intensity rather than assuming it was natural. The reality is that many of the places most at risk in the Sierra foothills were occupied by people who had many generations of experience in burning the landscape. We might just want to recognize that as, in some instances, their management goals might not match ours, but when they do, odds are pretty good that their management schemes would be a good place to start.
One of the peculiarities of American law is that mineral rights tend to trump everything else. Basically, if somebody owns the mineral rights under your property, good luck keeping them off, as many owners of split estate surface rights have learned.
One irony is that this is not what some of the original court decisions favored. In a California Supreme Court decision in Biddle Boggs vs. Merced Mining Company, Justice Stephen Field (who would later be the longest serving member of the U.S. Supreme Court) wrote
There is something shocking to all our ideas of the rights of property in the proposition that one man may invade the possessions of another, dig up his fields and gardens, cut down his timber and occupy his land, under the pretense that he has reason to believe there is gold under the surface, or if existing, that he wishes to extract and remove it.
And with this, the court found that the surface rights prevented miners from entering John Fremont’s Mariposa Estate to seek and extract gold. (Only later did the courts decide that Fremont owned the gold under terms of his patent). But later decisions eventually upended this, giving the owner of mineral rights the opportunity–indeed, the right–to invade a surface right holder’s land to get at their minerals.
The result of the upper hand mineral rights holders have had has been that oil and gas developers have forced themselves on individuals and communities that are not welcoming their presence. Here in Colorado that has led to efforts from communities to ban development–efforts that have foundered on the supremacy of state law. So now the effort is to impose state-level restrictions on oil and gas development that would probably prevent development in nearly any city or town but would also restrict it in more rural areas where the rights are not split and the person occupying the house near the oil well is the one receiving the royalty checks every month. The fight over this issue has led the oil and gas community to advance their own proposed amendment, one that would cripple everything from zoning laws to fire codes to noise ordinances. Just how this approach by both sides will play out remains to be seen, but it is clear that strong battle lines are drawn and there will be unintended casualties.
An alternative GG has never seen advanced is to use the eminent domain power of government to intervene in mineral development when it is contrary to the public interest. Eminent domain is not itself uncontroversial–while mainly used to do things like build a road, it has also been used to condemn an area to make way for new shopping centers, and so it is the bane of libertarians. But it is a well-known and well-established power in the U.S. So why not use it for retiring mineral rights?
The first and most obvious answer is that the cost is too high. Most communities, and especially those with lower income residents, wouldn’t be able to afford the rights. But maybe this isn’t as clear-cut as it seems. First, it isn’t the value of the oil or gas, it is the net value that should matter. When it costs millions of dollars to sink holes in the ground, the return is relatively meager. So meager, in fact, that many financial people are now viewing the oil and gas industry as one threatening to drown in red ink. When the federal government is getting about $450/acre for oil and gas leases, it would seem that the price of shutting down an oil play in a town could be pretty doable.
The second reservation may well be that eminent domain is limited to surface rights. GG is not a land law attorney and so has no idea. But it might not be hard to change state law to allow it if indeed you can’t do it today.
A third reservation is that this wouldn’t stop imminent drilling. But that in fact can be stopped by municipal action–drillers have face moratoria as local governments have tried to settle on requirements regarding drilling in floodplains, near schools, etc. Simply putting a moratorium in place until an eminent domain purchase is concluded or denied would seem to be in line with current Colorado law.
In a sense the City of Longmont has kind of pursued this already, swapping rights in the city for income from rights the city holds elsewhere. As this included shutting down existing wells, it is a bit harder to relate to the question of using eminent domain, but the $3M price tag would seem to be higher than what would result from precluding drilling rather than shutting down existing and proposed wells.
Odds are that the current scorched earth approaches both sides are taking will be rejected by voters. Coloradans are unlikely to want to so greatly eliminate the ability of rural residents from cashing in on their good fortune, but they are also unlikely to approve of making it impossible for their city or town government from enforcing such basic rules as zoning laws or noise ordinances. Perhaps after the dust has settled interest will shift to other means of addressing the legitimate concerns of drilling neighbors.
GG has been piddling along though the Sierra (ostensibly to give a campfire talk in Mineral King) and in doing so stared a bit longer at a recent paper on the age of a pediment in the Sierran foothills by Sousa et al. in Geosphere in 2017. In a way this is a callback to concepts from far back in the geologic literature, namely the significance of an “Eocene erosion surface.”
Here, to be brief, low-temperature thermochronology from a low-elevation pediment in the western foothills of the Sierra yields very old ages–in fact, overlapping with the emplacement of plutons in the Sierran crest [this was not a unique observation; Cecil et al., 2006, had a pretty old point in their collection]. Sousa and coauthors model these data and get a cooling to surface conditions by about 40 Ma. Because these pediments abut noticeable topography, this means there was at least that much local relief in the ancient Sierra. While the pediments had been noticed by others, many suspected a far more recent age.
In some ways, this is old news. The Eocene sediments in the northern Sierra have long made clear the presence of significant local relief, and many workers had inferred that such relief was probably higher in the southern Sierra (e.g., Wakabayashi and Sawyer, 2001). But the southern Sierra lacked the Eocene sediments necessary to know what the Eocene landscape might have looked like, so this paper opens up a new window for us.
Where does this lead us? Kind of down a rabbit hole only to come up with no strong and useful statement–though perhaps future work could nail things down. This is more a personal attempt to try and grasp what is going on, so profound errors might exist and insights are few. So, proceed at your own risk….
A favorite shortcut employed by many in trying to decide between hypotheses is to enlist Occam’s Razor–that the simplest explanation for something is most probably right. Now this has strength because humans are pretty good at rationalizing notions they put forward, adding in new ingredients to keep a favored explanation from collapse. But a theory that has probably passed its must-use-by date will have enough extra bells and whistles to discourage Rube Goldberg from trying to get it to work.
However, there is nothing that says Mother Nature had to be supremely parsimonious. In a complex system like Earth, there can be odd coincidences that are meaningless (like the Moon and Sun sharing the same apparent diameter from Earth’s surface) and outcomes that might be highly improbable (taking over 500 million years to get intelligence after making complex animals with hard parts seems like dawdling, especially when burning most of that time on dinosaurs). Even so, Occam can be a help if used with care.
But lots of times you can face competing hypotheses that lack Occam-style clues. For instance, which is simpler: that post-5 Ma erosion of the High Plains of the U.S. was caused by an eastward tilt, or that this was the product of a changing climate? Both are pretty easy to describe; both have issues. Yet many earth scientists feel pretty comfortable arguing that one is correct; what is the basis of such assurance?
Arguably the most common discriminator used by earth scientists is the principle of least astonishment. What surprises you least feels, in an Occam kind of way, like the interpretation that is most likely. The problem is, we all are astonished differently.
If you are a sedimentologist, you might look at the problem of the High Plains as one of depositing the Ogallala Group in the Miocene as crucial. Could you possibly deposit something like that on a slope like that we have today? This seems so astonishing that if can’t be right; the original slope had to be lower.
But maybe you are a geophysicist looking at the ways to create a tilt about 5 million years ago over something like 1000 km. That looks really hard to do, especially if dynamic topography from flow under the lithosphere is ruled out. It would be astonishing if that happened; it must be that the grade was already there much longer ago.
Skepticism from both geoscientists is warranted; either of these seems really hard to do. Data is gathered by both sets of experts. Margaret McMillan and colleagues measure paleogradients in the Ogallala using a widely applied approach and find there must have been a lot of tilting. Will Levandowski and colleagues (including GG) look at geophysical measurements and find support for the elevations comes from within the crust, where changes over the past 5 million years seem exceptionally implausible.
Could these be resolved? Well, you could posit that prior to 5 Ma there was dynamic subsidence holding the western end down and once that was released, the crustal buoyancy expressed itself. But now Occam detectors are flashing red–this feels ad hoc. Of course, there could be mistakes in the measurements of paleogradient, or in relating seismic wavespeeds to densities–each side has poison darts to shoot at the other side.
What makes this frustrating is what makes this interesting. After all, in the end somebody will be astonished–the earth did something they didn’t expect.
And a funny thing, shoes flip feet in the Sierra, where those studying the sediments argue for no tilting despite deposition at an even steeper grade than modern-day Ogallala, while geophysicists feel they have good evidence for a very recent change in the buoyancy structure of the region.
Are you astonished yet?
Well, it’s January and ski season is in high gear in North America, halfway between the Christmas and Presidents Weekend high water marks for ski areas. So many of you have seen lots of signs like those above. The irony is that these symbols, now so universal, were developed for a ski area that never was.
In 1964, the nascent National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) decided to try to make relatively uniform sign markers for skiers in North America. European ski areas had simply used colors; the new USA system would add shapes to the colors (which has obvious advantages for color blind skiers and for monochrome signage). But they committed a bit of a faux pas: the US intermediate color was used in Europe for out of bounds areas.
As this system was being promoted, Walt Disney Corp. was working on ski areas, largely because Walt had decided after the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley that he’d like his own ski area. Disney settled on Mineral King Valley, which set up a lengthy legal and political battle, but as part of the work being done for that development, Disney Corp. studied what would be the best signage to use. They were perhaps more sensitive to this given their experiences getting people around Disneyland. Their studies suggested that circles were the softest shape and most suitable for easy slopes, followed by the squares and then diamonds. The NSAA saw their work and adopted it, pitching their own system aside.
Disney was never able to use their system at their own resort.
As is discussed more thoroughly many other places (including GG’s own Mountains that Remade America), first the Park Service (that had to approve a realigned road) dragged its feet, and then the Sierra Club chose to oppose the development. Toss in the additional requirement of an Environmental Impact Statement, the death of Disney shortly after holding a news conference in Mineral King, a change in political representation and a general shift in the public from favoring development to favoring preservation¹ and the eventual death of the ski area proposal becomes clear.
Anyways, those signs (er, and the Country Bears Jamboree) are among the most lasting reminders of the Mineral King debacle. The influence of Disney’s work on skiing symbols even evolved into a warning system for something a bit more hazardous: volcanoes. Although the USGS was blocked for awhile after a volcano advisory in Mammoth Lakes misfired, because communication with local officials and, later, the public became necessary, the Long Valley USGS group used these now-familiar symbols for awhile (1997-2006):
So while Disney loyalists to this day pine for the ski area that never was, they can console themselves (a little) in seeing these reminders on any North American slope they care to visit.
¹ for instance, during this time Denver went from seeking the 1976 Winter Olympics to refusing to host them, largely over financial concerns but also because of environmental objections.
It seems like the Fall AGU meeting brings some new wrinkle to the GPS measurements in the Sierra. In the past we’ve seen suggestions that the Sierra were going up tectonically, then that they were going up because of water removal from the Central Valley, then they were still going up even with water removal in the Central Valley, and now we have the Sierra going up because of water removal in the Sierra itself. This latest missive is from Don Argus and several colleagues at JPL deserves a look; their paper on this was published about at the same time in the Journal of Geophysical Research (though that paper doesn’t have the coda from the AGU talk about the loss of elevation in the wet winter of 2016-2017)
Basically they wrote that during the California drought from 2011 to 2015 that the Sierra lost 48 km³ of water and so rose at least 17 mm from that loss while also rising an additional 5 mm from water loss in the adjacent Central Valley and then might have risen no more than 2 mm from tectonics for a total elevation gain of 24 mm (or just about an inch). That is a lot of uplift for a few years. This interpretation means that the Sierra actually stores a lot more water within its granites than is typically thought to be the case, which aligns with earlier work by Argus and colleagues.
Lesson 4: There is always more to learn
While my influence on friends of a friend through my travels was unexpected, the one place we do look to be a guiding light is with our children. Having learned our lessons before parenthood, we hope to be that beacon of wisdom that can infuse our children with knowledge without the necessity of living through the same mistakes we made. While we all discover that our abilities in this vein are limited, it is usually because we aren’t heard or heeded. Even so, I don’t think things necessarily worked out the way I had planned when my younger daughter joined me for a llama-pack on the John Muir Trail…
I’ve spent months living in the backcountry, and while there are those who have had to deal with more severe situations (animal attack, major injury and the like), and there are those who’ve spent a lot more time in wilderness (rangers, packers, trail crews, some guidebook authors and some really serious aficionados), I’ve felt like after all that time and all those mistakes that I have reached a place where I am about as comfortable in the wilderness (well, at least the pretty dry wildernesses of the southwest) as anybody. And so on this trip I could show my youngest just how it is done.