Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Other California: A Journey to the Center of the Earth (kind of...)

How many of you tried to dig a tunnel to China in the backyard when you were a kid? Given the soil conditions in the yard I grew up in, I'm probably lucky to be alive. I dug tunnels looking for buried treasures, gemstones, fossils and sometimes I was just curious what was down there. Geologists, I've found, are the kids who tried to find all those things, and never really grew up.

So how far do these overgrown kids get? It turns out that the deepest tunnels that humans have ever been able to dig reach depths of about 12,800 feet, a little over 2-1/2 miles. That might seem like a lot from our point of view, but the depth to the center of the Earth is around 4,000 miles. We've barely scratched the surface, yet the temperatures of the rock at these depths is well over 100 degrees, and the rocks are under so much pressure that explosions of rocks from the walls are a constant danger to the miners. Kids, there's got to be a better way to see what lies deep below. And there is, in the Other California, one of those places not found on the postcards. The adventure lies in the Klamath Mountains, and the most dangerous thing you have to face is slipping on a slick river rock, because geological processes have brought the rocks many miles up from the depths. You need only explore the rivers flowing off the mountains to see what the deep interior of the earth looks like.

The Klamath Mountains are a collection of bits and pieces of the earth's crust that have been carried great distances from their point of origin and slammed (at geologic speeds of inches per year) into the western edge of the North American continent. A huge variety of igneous and metamorphic rocks are found around the province, and some of the most interesting are those that once resided deep in the Earth's mantle, a layer that extends from just below the crust, from maybe 15 or 20 miles beneath our feet, to a depth of about 1,800 miles. Here are a couple of bits of the Earth's deep hidden places that I found on a short trip to the Eastern Klamath Terrane in the vicinity of Gazelle.

The oceanic crust is usually described as being made of basalt, but a few miles down in the crust the basaltic magma cools slowly to form a coarse-grained basaltic rock called gabbro. Sometimes, as can be seen above, the crystals that form are huge, with black hornblende and white feldspar crystals several inches long. Igneous rocks with such large crystals are called pegmatites.

Going even "deeper" into the interior, we pass the Mohorovicic Discontinuity, the dividing line between the crust and mantle. The upper part of the mantle is composed of olivine-rich rocks like dunite or peridotite. Olivine is best known to most people as the green gemstone peridot. That's right, much of the Earth's interior is made up of gems! The rock in the picture above is dunite, in part slightly altered to serpentine.

In many parts of the Klamath Mountains, the mantle rocks are completely altered to serpentine, the state rock of California. These ultramafic rocks are fairly rich in a number of unusual metal ores, including platinum, nickel, magnesium and mercury. One of the most important ores is chromite, which is the only significant source we have for chromium, the metal that puts the "stainless" in stainless steel. We import most of the chromium that we need from foreign sources, but in wartime (especially the two World Wars), the ores were mined domestically, and a number of operations were present in the Klamaths. The black semi-metallic crystals in the picture above are chromite, with green serpentine across the top.

In our next post we are going to "climb" into the underside of a volcano...

Monday, March 29, 2010

Geological Jealousy: Why don't I get to see this in California?

This spectacular image comes courtesy of Halldor Sigurdsson at Iceland banking crisis news and more, who has been providing some nice coverage of the ongoing eruption at Eyjafjallajokull (you may be sure that I didn't spell that from memory). More pictures and a nice aerial video can be found here. Note the cars parked at the edge of the lava flow. Yeah, I know most people run away from volcanic eruptions, but geologists and I guess Icelanders aren't most people! Erik at Eruptions has a nice rundown of recent activity.

Iceland is a volcanic wonderland, with the activity resulting from the country's location on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (a divergent plate boundary), and possible location on top of a hot spot, perhaps similar to the one that underlies Hawaii. The precise nature of the conditions resulting in the volcanism is a concern of ongoing research.

So why can't we see this kind of thing in California? Well, actually we potentially could, but not for the same reasons. California does in part sit astride a divergent (or potentially divergent) boundary in a number of places. The Salton Sea and Imperial Valley area, for instance, sits in a deep trough caused by the rifting of Baja California. A few small volcanoes can be found near the lakeshore. The Basin and Range and Mojave Desert provinces in the eastern part of the state have also been rifted apart, and contain dozens of fairly recent cinder cones and lava flows. The northern Coast Ranges have a number of potentially active volcanoes in the Clear Lakes/Geysers region. And as I discussed in detail in the Other California series, the Cascades and Modoc Plateau provinces are both rich with recent volcanic activity due in part to the presence of the Cascadia subduction zone offshore to the west.

In short, our volcanoes don't erupt nearly as often as those in Iceland (39 times last century), but we do have lots of potential for future geological excitement. I would just love to see a modest eruption somewhere in the state, in one of remote spots anyway. Mt. Shasta and the Long Valley caldera are two places that I prefer would remain quiet...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Other California: There's an Endemic in those Red Hills!

Oh, that's right, it's epidemics we're supposed to worry about. An endemic refers to plant species found in specific limited locations. There are a number of these in the Red Hills "Area of Critical Environmental Concern", a rather high-falutin' name for an area that less than two decades ago was barely more than an open garbage dump scarred by numerous off-road vehicle trails. The rare and endemic species are there for a very geologic reason, the subject of this post.

The Other California is my continuing blog series on those places in California that people don't generally find on the postcards at all our tourist traps. I've been following a regional theme, traveling through the northernmost provinces, but the Other California has a temporal pattern as well, and late March is the perfect time to talk about the Red Hills, located in the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode near the Gold Rush town of Chinese Camp (I talked about the area around La Grange a few days ago for the same reason).

Much of lowland California is currently covered with a green carpet of grass (mostly of exotic and invasive origin) along with the occasional oak tree, but as you can see in the pictures above, there are a few places where the grass and oak trees are missing, and a profusion of flowers and scattered pines thrive instead. Why are the oaks and grass missing?

The Mother Lode is famous as the source of the ores during the Gold Rush in 1848-53, and many people know of the association of quartz veins with the gold. What is perhaps less known is that the Mother Lode consists mostly of metamorphic rocks like slate, greenstone, and marble, not the granite that is found in the higher parts of the Sierra Nevada. These metamorphic rocks are the twisted and baked remains of sea floor muds and silts, lime from tropical reefs and shelves, and volcanic rock from the oceanic crust. These collections of crustal rocks (called "exotic terranes") were transported across the Pacific Ocean and slammed (in the geologic sense; they moved at maybe 2 inches a year) into the western edge of the North American continent, mostly in the late Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras (the Mesozoic, from around 251 to 65 million years ago, is best known as the "age of the dinosaurs"). The different terranes are separated from one another by major fault systems.

At times the crustal terranes also include rocks from beneath the crust. This rock hails from the underworld of the earth's mantle, and includes dunite and peridotite, composed primarily of the mineral olivine (known to most people as the gemstone peridot). The rock readily alters to serpentine, California's state rock. These rocks are also collectively called ultramafic rocks, for their high content of magnesium and iron (fe, the 'fi' part). They also contain small, but significant amounts of nickel and chrome.

When ultramafic rocks are brought to the surface, they are far out of chemical equilibrium with the ambient conditions, which means they are easily attacked by oxygen, water and organic acids. Clay is a common product of this process, as well as red or yellow iron oxides (from which the Red Hills take their name). The surface layer resulting from this weathering process is of course soil. We tend to think of soil as a rich surface layer that supports plant life, but some soils lack the necessary nutrients for most kinds of plant growth. This is definitely the case for soils developed on ultramafic rocks, which lack nitrates, phosphorus, and potassium. To make things worse, chrome and nickel are actually toxins. Hence, only specialized species can thrive on these rocks.

The shrubby Ceanothus, or Buckbrush (above) and Gray Pine (below) are two plants that are more or less indifferent to the odd soil conditions. They grow elsewhere, but compete very well in ultramafic soils. A large number of flower species are also indifferent to the soils, but the only grasses found in the region are native species. The European and Asian grass species that have overwhelmed most of the prairies in the Central Valley, Coast Ranges and Sierra foothills cannot grow on the serpentine soils.

There are a number of endemic species that grow on these soils, and at least one is found nowhere else in the world (California verbena, Verbena californica). Other rare endemics include Rawhide Hill onion (Allium tuolumnense), Layne's butterweed (Senecio layneae), Congdon's lomatium (Lomatium congdonii) and the Red Hills soaproot (Chlorogalum grandiflorum). A fairly common serpentine endemic is the Milkwort Jewelflower (Streptanthus polygaloides). Alas, I arrived very late in the afternoon and had no time to search them out (and to be truthful, I am better at identifying rocks and minerals).

Though closely associated with the rocks of the Mother Lode, the serpentine and dunite were remarkably free of gold, and so the Red Hills were mostly ignored by the miners. Farmers couldn't grow much in the soils, and grazing conditions were not favorable, so the when the federal government came into possession of these lands in 1848, they couldn't even give them away! So this swath of land, about 7,000 acres worth, was administered, somewhat indifferently, by the Bureau of Land Management. The landscape suffered the abuses of modern civilization, with trash heaps, motorcycle trails, and unrestrained target shooting. The recognition that the area was a unique geologic and biologic treasure led to the restriction of shooting and off-road vehicle use in 1991. Private groups assisted in cleaning up the trash heaps and a trail network was established, so today the Red Hills are a delightful place to visit, especially in the spring when the wildflowers are at their stunning best. And I could be wrong, but I don't think I've seen any postcards with pictures of the area.

If you want to learn more, or pay a visit, information about the Red Hills can be found on this BLM website , and the nature trail brochure PDF can be found here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Don't Let Them Fall Through the Cracks! An Accretionary Wedge...

The Wedge is back! This month's new Accretionary Wedge, hosted at Geology Happens, is asking what we geologists are up to:

"Not everything I am studying ends up in a published paper, well actually nothing I study ends up in a published paper. Sometimes my HS students hear about my adventures and sometimes I write a blog post, but mostly it is just for me.

This AW is to share your latest discovery with all of us. Please let us in on your thoughts about your current work. What you are finding, what you are looking for. Any problems? Anything working out well?"

This seems a great opportunity to find out what kinds of things one can do as a geologist, and I hope lots of bloggers and readers out there are responding. As my readers must probably know by now, I teach geology at a community college. I've talked many times about the joy and motivations of being a teacher of geology (here, here, here, and very recently, here), but I don't think I've said much about the day-to-day grind.

As a professor at a community college, I wear a number of hats. Unlike many four-year universities, we are oriented more towards teaching rather than research. The school loves to tout our research if we pursue it, but it is not expected of us. Consequently, the teaching load is larger than it would be at other schools (15 hours a week of instruction time is considered full-time, plus required office hours). A teaching overload is not unusual. I teach classes in physical and historical geology, geology of California, and a distance-learning course called "Introduction to Geology". Laboratory sections are taught as part of the first two classes. Because geology is such a field-oriented science, I teach several field courses each semester, with an extended five-day trip to the Cascades, Death Valley, or the eastern Sierra Nevada, plus a number of day trips to Yosemite, the Coast Ranges, or the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode. The summer usually includes a two week exploration of the American southwest, or Pacific Northwest. If you have read my blog for any period of time, you know that taking students into the field is my favorite part of teaching.

I spend lots of time grading lab reports and tests, which I don't particularly enjoy, but responding to the student's work is one of the most important things I do; in a classroom people can hide in the back and not participate verbally, but their written work and my response is an important direct line of communication.

My job includes other responsibilities. As part of a philosophy of shared governance, we are generally expected to serve on committees, such as Academic Senate, Curriculum, Petitions, Scholarship, and so on. We participate in department and division meetings. All professors, full-time and part-time, are periodically evaluated, which includes peer review, so we spend time sitting in on other prof's courses, and providing advice and guidance. We are also involved in the hiring processes of both professors and administrators.

Finally, although it is not always spelled out in our career announcements, we are ambassadors for our school. We visit elementary school classrooms to talk to children about our work, we give presentations on geologic topics to the community (I talked about the Haiti earthquake a few months ago), and we provide expertise to local governments. I get visits all the time from people who wish an explanation of the strange rock specimens that they have discovered.

Community colleges fill many roles. We provide a bridge for high school graduates who are unsure of what path they want to follow into the future (some data suggests that our students may change majors six times or more) and we are also a cheaper alternative to high tuition universities (our transfers often do very well). We have many reentry students as well, people who need a new career after being laid off or divorced, or need to develop new skills for a changing workplace. And some students, well, they have a life-long love of learning. We are trying to make sure no one with an educational need is falling through the cracks (I had to justify the title somehow...).

So that's what I do, if you have ever wondered (no doubt all of three or four of you), but if it sounds like something you might like to do as a career, you will need to earn at least a master's degree in geology or related science. Most geology departments at California's 112 community colleges are fairly small, so full-time openings are relatively uncommon, especially in difficult budgetary times (like right now, for instance). On the other hand, the average age of us professors is, well, not so young, and many retirements can be expected in the next decade or so.

It is not very often that a newly minted college graduate scores a full-time position as a professor. Many people teach part-time at several schools for a time, or like me, work in a related capacity for a few years (I know some of my old colleagues at Santa Barbara City College occasionally look in on the blog: thanks from the bottom of my heart for the wonderful opportunity you provided me back in the 1980's!).

Teaching at a community college is a great career choice. I'll never be financially wealthy, but I have had a rich life. I have never regretted it for a moment.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Hummingbirds and Evolution

This is what jealousy looks like: my wife, not me, took this gorgeous picture of a hummingbird in our yard today among the newly blooming flowers. I had to find an excuse, however flimsy, to share it with you.

There are between 325 and 340 species of hummingbirds in the world, all in the Americas. There is almost no fossil record, which is no surprise at all, given the small size and delicate nature of their bones. Just two specimens older than Pleistocene are known, in 30 million year old rocks from Germany, which is a bit of a surprise, given their present distribution. The ancient species are modern in their appearance.

To say that the birds are highly specialized is an understatement: their energy budget must be near the limits for terrestrial animals of any sort, their flight abilities are unique to say the least (the only bird that can fly backwards), and they have unique adaptations in their overnight activities that keep them from starving overnight (basically they hibernate). I found various notes on the "Google" that suggest these birds are "proof" of intelligent design, as they are too miraculous to ever have evolved. Oh...whatever. Some sources mention that the average hummingbird is always just hours from starvation. A bird that has to consume more than its own weight in nectar every day seems to suffer from an inefficient design parameter. I dunno...I just wanted to post a pretty picture for you all!

Photo of the day by Mrs. Geotripper.

"...(they) must teach them how to get history from the ground"

"After customary greetings and handshaking, White gets down on his hands and knees with a few fossil hunters to show the tribesmen how the researchers crawl on the ground, shoulder to shoulder, to look for fossils...White explains that these stones and bones reveal the ancient history of humankind. The Alisera smile wanly, apparently amused that anyone would want to grovel on the ground for a living. They grant permission to search for fossils - for now. But they add one caveat. Someday, they say, the researchers must teach them how to get history from the ground."*
This short passage, from an article this month in Smithsonian magazine, brought to mind much of what I find so wonderful about being a teacher in the earth sciences. And a bit of frustration that I occasionally feel as well.

Human beings are curious creatures, and the earth sciences are a treasure trove of fascinating phenomena. Children are endlessly intrigued by dinosaurs, volcanoes, earthquakes, crystals and rocks. Though they try to hide it under a veneer of jaded indifference, my "grown-up" students will suddenly act like excited kids when unleashed on a slope that may reveal a fossil trilobite, a shark tooth or a gemstone. To enter the world of geology is to enter a realm of time and space where pretty much everything that could have happened did happen at some point in the past: massive volcanic eruptions, asteroid impacts, exploding stars, mass extinctions, evolution of strange and wonderful creatures of all shapes and sizes. The clues to these events lie in the grains of sand and silt, in the shapes left behind in the rock of the creatures that swam, walked or crept in numerous environments, in the trace elements found in the rocks. There are even atomic clocks in the rock that allow us to put a date to these events. I love being a teacher, I love being a story-teller. It is what makes "groveling on the ground for a living" a wonderful career. Reading of the natural curiosity of the Alisera people made me smile in recognition of the same impulses that led me into the earth sciences.

Because I realize this curiosity exists, I am patient with the visitors from the community who come to my office, explaining why the chunk of rock they found in their yard is not a dinosaur egg, or an asteroid fragment. They have come to learn something, after all. My enthusiasm dims a bit sometimes when they say "well, where can I go to find out the truth about my rock?" (it happens...), or they ask if I want to buy it anyway. But sometimes something really neat happens. A woman last year brought in what she thought was a piece of petrified wood, only to find she had a one foot section of a mammoth tusk!

But how to explain the willful and downright irrational ignorance I encounter on a too-regular basis? Well, I can't. Sometimes it is relatively harmless, but in other instances it dangerously misguided.

In the relatively harmless category we have a long discussion from Eric's Dynamic Earth about a hilariously over the top video made by an expanding earth supporter. What started as a bit of hilarity among geologists turned into a long debate with true believers, who turned out to be ignorant of some of the most basic tenets of geology. But they believe the earth is expanding, by golly, and we geologists are involved in a conspiracy of silence, preventing the truth from emerging (or expanding, as it were). For a while it was amusing to respond to the questions, but it was soon clear that the people asking the questions had no real interest in learning anything new, and especially not from people who actually understand the processes involved.

And then there are the discussions that pop up once in awhile about evolution and global climate change. The former gets into religious issues, and the latter into conservative politics. I don't want to go into details just now, but I've had a frustrating week in both areas. In short, it saddens and angers me how easily people will believe there is some kind of scientific conspiracy designed to control minds and research dollars. It makes no logical sense, but that doesn't matter. It does make sense that energy companies who stand to lose money would pay immense amounts of money to manufacture doubt. In any case, people have been told specifically what to believe by preachers with no science education, and senators or talk radio hosts with no science education. But the Jim Inhofes and Rush Limbaughs of the world do have their agendas, and the majority of us will not benefit if they are successful. Neither will our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And how they kill a sense of wonder and understanding!

The sciences like biology, geology, and astronomy have led humanity into some of the greatest adventures of our history. We've explored the limits of outer space, and the innermost workings of the cell. We explored the vast expanse of time, the development of life, and the forces that have moved continents thousands of miles. I don't know the solution to dealing with global warming deniers or creation scientists (although I have some suggestions here). It's not easy, but it must be done.

Below, a treasure of the past, and one of the more exciting moments in one of my student's life!

* Ann Gibbons, 2010, The Human Family's Earliest Ancestors, Smithsonian, volume 40, number 12.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Other California: The Day of the Fiddlenecks (a trip in the Mother Lode)

The Other California is my continuing exploration of the places in our state that don't tend to show up on the postcards, and are missed by most of the visitors. It's the first day of spring and we headed up into the Sierra Nevada foothills to seek out the Golden Poppy, which should be blooming explosively on the grassy slopes by now. We traveled east on Highway 132 out of Waterford towards the Gold-Rush-era town of La Grange. The poppies hadn't popped out in the lower foothill areas, but the slopes were alive with one of my favorite flowers, the Fiddleneck (Amsinckia). The shape of the flower is reminiscent of the head of a violin.

Amsinckia was utilized as a medicine and a food source by Native Americans, but the seeds and foliage are toxic to cattle. Today, for us, it was a beautiful splash of color along the slopes of the Tuolumne River, which were following out of the Central Valley.

Upstream, the first bedrock outcrops we encountered were low cliffs of rhyolitic ash of the Valley Springs formation. This gentle, quiet landscape was the scene of great violence between 22 and 28 million years ago, as huge calderas to the east exploded out vast amounts of pulverized rock and sent clouds rolling down the slopes of what would one day be the western Sierra Nevada. The rock is solid enough to form cliffs, but is easily shaped, so it was ideal for use as a building stone in the towns of the Mother Lode.

We passed through the quiet village of La Grange, looking at the 1875-vintage schoolhouse and cemetery, and a short distance east we encountered some of the evidence of gold mining (below). The sediments covering the surface were washed away to get at gold particles trapped in the small fissures and cracks in the bedrock below. Sometimes hoses were used. Downstream, where the sediments were deeper, giant dredges were used (these methods will be discussed in later posts). One of the dredges used in the area sits abandoned in a meadow just south of La Grange.

A bit east of the hydraulic pits, the old metamorphic rock of the Foothills Terrane start peeking through the soil cover. These so-called "tombstone rocks" are slate and phyllite that originated as mud and silt on the ocean floor which were accreted to the western edge of the North American continent in Mesozoic time.

Some of the rocks include metavolcanic rocks and an occasional metaconglomerate (picture below, very small penny for scale). These rocks are far more resistant to erosion, and form long high north-trending ridges in the western Mother Lode. We found a delightful new pathway over the metavolcanic ridges from Don Pedro Reservoir to the village of Moccasin along Marshes Flat Road. On this spring day, greenery was everywhere, and most of the gullies had streams flowing.

Did we find poppies? They aren't widespread just yet, but a few beautiful patches showed up along Marshes Flat road. There will be a great many more in the coming weeks. If you are in the area, make time to check it out!

For an excellent road guide to some of the areas covered in this post, and for a discussion of remediation efforts along the Tuolumne River region, check out this guide from the National Association of Geoscience Teachers and Columbia College.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday Fun: A Periodic Table of Science Bloggers

Just for the fun of it, check out Dave Bradley's Periodic Table of Science Bloggers at Yours truly is hidden in there, but you have to know something about my recent blogs to track down the right "element" symbol. There are still a few elements available, so if you blog, jump in (I see Magma Cum Laude is there too)!

Who Sacrifices?

I'm off geological topics today, but I am talking about education, my other life concern...

I heard stories from my grandparents about life in the Great Depression and World War II, and I have heard and read plenty of accounts about how the country came together to try and deal with threats and the intractable problems of those times. My grandparents still had some of the ration stamps that they used during the war. It was an astounding time in the country's history that we came through a horrific war and terrible depression all the stronger for our collective pain.

This week, a number of my friends and fellow earth science teachers got some of the 23,000 pink slips that were handed out in California because of the pathetic budget situation in our state. I know that similar things are happening elsewhere across the country, and I share their fears and uncertainties. I'm one of the lucky teachers that continues to have a job, but the budget cuts have cut close to home, and I am concerned for the future of education in this state, and in the nation.

Shared's how our society is going to survive and thrive.

For the last few years, the sacrifice has fallen disproportionately on different groups of people.

We have been and still are fighting two of the longest wars in our nation's history. Who is paying the price? Mostly our military personnel and the reservists who have been trapped in a de facto draft. They fight the wars of wizened old men in Washington, and 5,000 have paid the ultimate price. Tens of thousands more are maimed and scarred for life. Who has benefited? As far as I can tell, it is the companies and corporations that build the weapons, and oil companies who are securing future petroleum resources.

How many people have followed the rules and followed their dreams to buy their own home? Because of the greed and stupidity of the banks and insurance companies and their financial shenanigans, we are sacrificing in a big way now. Foreclosures and lost equity have devastated millions of families and destroyed the budgets of states all over the country. Those responsible for the financial meltdown sit in their Wall Street offices and continue to collect billions in bonuses.

How many people have followed the rules and purchased or tried to purchase health insurance, only to have their coverage denied or canceled because they had the bad form to actually get sick? The so-called "death panels" are with us now, and have been for a long time. They're called health insurance companies. People are sick and dying, and the company executives collect record salaries and bonuses.

So here we are in the worst recession since the 1930's, and where I live, some counties have unemployment rates comparable to the Great Depression. So who is sacrificing now? It is the unemployed, a massive group of people who want to work, are ready to work, but who cannot find work. It is the homeowners, who were buying into a dream, but were being sold a bill of goods by con men. It is the teachers, who have given over their lives to make the lives of children better, and the students, who will be all the more ignorant and ill-prepared for life.

Of course, there is a resource that we could draw on to help in these terrible times. Those in the uppermost tax brackets had their taxes cut a decade ago, and they have seen their incomes double, triple, quadruple and more while the wages of the middle class have lost ground to inflation. These people are the bank presidents, the executives of the weapons companies, the health insurance CEOs. Why haven't they been asked to sacrifice in these difficult times? We haven't asked them to sacrifice because our elected politicians who should be doing this are no longer elected, they are bought and paid for by the people who sit in those executive offices. Heaven forbid that we ask them to pay a price, in the form of slightly higher taxes, equal to what they would have paid a decade ago....

A simplistic stream of consciousness today, I know. But I recall a certain uncomfortable Bible passage, Luke 12:48: "And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask the more."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Earthquake Activity in Puerto Rico

There has been a fair amount of earthquake activity in the vicinity of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in the last few days, with the largest at magnitude 4.1 (near Monte Plata, Dominican Republic), and more than a dozen at greater than magnitude 3. These quakes are happening several hundred miles east of Haiti, which was struck by the horrific quake in January.

Earthquake swarms like this are not unusual, and probably don't signify a threat of greater quakes to come. We have swarms in California constantly, but they quiet down, and nothing comes of it. If anything, though, the quakes should be a reminder that Haiti is not the only Caribbean Island to experience serious earthquakes. Puerto Rico has a "rich" history of earthquakes, with magnitude 7+ events in 1670, 1787, 1831, 1844, 1846, 1865, 1867, 1875, 1890, 1906, 1918, 1943 and 1946. Science Daily has a good rundown on the geologic environment and associated earthquake risk in the region.

Thanks to Edie for the tip!

The Other California: Getting All Excited About Natural Disasters....

I was kind of hard on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox cable "news" for their overwrought coverage of the Chile earthquake and resulting tsunami a few weeks ago (and it was justified, too, the coverage was terrible). Just the same, it's easy for anyone to get overwrought in the face of intense geologic events.

A few weeks ago, I was discussing the geologic story of Lassen Volcanic National Park, which erupted in the years of 1914-17, the last time any volcano erupted within California. Not too surprisingly, the eruption generated a tremendous amount of interest in the state and across the country. Kurt was kind enough to send along a photo of a page from the register of a hotel in Chester, which lies just a few miles from the national park. It provides a taste of what it was like to be caught in the middle of geologic events, and how easily rumors can be passed along. The eruptions began in May of 1914, and steam explosions and ash falls were happening almost every day for the next year. This passage is from June 14, 1914:

"June 14 blowouts 10:00 AM-6:45 PM

Man killed by flying boulder from the blowout this morning.

Same man came to life June 15.

He died again -----June 15.

Second man injured & two lost."

As far as I have heard or read, no one was killed by the eruptions of Lassen, but given the date, the notation is a garbled early mention of the story of three men who climbed the volcano, only to have it erupt while they were standing on the crater's edge. One of the men, Lance Graham, got hit by a rock and was knocked unconcious while his "friends" hightailed down the mountain, thinking Graham dead. They came back to get his body, and he later related having an out-of-body experience on top of the mountain*. In reference to the "died again" comment, Lance lived until 1955.

I was aware about the story of the three men, and I knew the story of a famous set of photographs taken by B. F. Loomis of one of the ash eruptions (one of which is shown below), but for the longest time I did not know that the two were of the same eruption. The three men are in the ash cloud in the picture!

One last coincidence...I was telling this story to my California Geology class a few years ago when a student in the back row chirped up and said I was talking about her great-grandfather! A small world...

*Hill, M.R., 1970, Mount Lassen is in eruption and there is no mistake about that: California Geology, November 1970, volume 23, no. 11, p. 211-227.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hope for Taz, and Natural Selection in Action

A form of cancer has been devastating wild populations of the Tasmanian Devil in their homeland on the island south of Australia. Devil Facial Tumor Disease is being spread among the creatures as they fight and scratch each other; the tumors cause horrific disfigurement of their faces, ultimately making eating impossible. Something like 70% of the Tasmanian Devil population has died out since the disease was discovered in 1996. Estimates were that the entire species could be wiped out within 25 years.

There have been recent news reports that a colony of the Taz has been found that is resistant to the cancer. This is wonderful news, and if it is correct there may be a future for the species. The Taz is a unique animal. I'm not sure I would use the word "cute" to describe them, but they are part of one of the world's most interesting ecosystems, and they have much to teach us about how evolution shapes the world. I wrote extensively about the marsupials in one of my earliest posts (The Long Strange Journey of the Marsupials), and I continue to be fascinated by paleontological research in the Australian region.

The story of the day tells us of a different aspect of how evolution works. A common misunderstanding of natural selection is that animals somehow change in response to changes in their environment. If it gets drier, animals somehow magically develop a way of surviving on less water. If the vegetation changes, the animals survive by changing in a way as to better digest the new leaf types. If drought leaves foliage out of reach, giraffes develop longer necks to reach the higher leaves. In other words, animals somehow change themselves in order to survive. Natural selection doesn't work this way at all, and this model, Lamarkian evolution, was discredited long ago.

What does happen is that natural variations exist within species: some are taller, some smaller, some are darker, some lighter, some have slightly thicker fur or longer feathers, and these variations result from the recombination of genes in the the reproductive process (you don't look exactly like your parents; you have aspects of both of them and are a unique variation of their genetic material). Sometimes these variations are introduced by mutations in the DNA sequence. When the environment changes, some individuals are better adapted to survive those new conditions. It is the animals that possess these variations in advance of the change that are the ones who survive. They tend to be the ones that are able to pass along their genes to future generations.

No one could have predicted the rise of Devils Facial Tumor Disease, least of all the animals themselves. But in a small subset of the species there was a genetic trait already in existence that recognized the tumor cells as foreign. Who knows why or how it developed? That part doesn't matter. What matters is that the variation exists. And now the species may survive, and the descendants of this colony will be the ones who are able to pass their genes on. It is a great example of natural selection and evolution in action. And I hope a positive future for one of my favorite animals.

Today's picture was taken at a wild animal park outside Sydney, Australia. The photo may have been featured in the movie Inconvenient Truth, though I haven't found it there yet (you can find my name in the movie credits, though!).

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Does Anyone Really Care About Rocks and Minerals?

Let's see...geology and earth science programs are imperiled at a number of colleges and high schools around the country. Teachers are being laid off. Federal and state geologic surveys are having their budgets deeply slashed, and some are proposed for elimination. These kinds of programs are critical to the health of our society as we face practically insurmountable problems of global warming, the end of plentiful fossil fuels, shortages of safe water, and many, many others. The programs and organizations are being cut because of a general lack of understanding of the geological sciences by legislators, and because they lack the kind of constituencies that other disciplines might have. Geologists don't have a lot of powerful friends. Is it due to a lack of public interest? I don't think so.

I'm drawing my conclusion from a totally non-scientific observation, seen in the photo above. You are seeing a huge crowd at a rock and mineral show. I'm not usually a real fan of these things, as in my experience, they are sometimes little more than highly commercialized ventures designed to separate cash from customers. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, but so many times an opportunity is lost. I've got to say that our local rock and mineral show is a huge exception. The Mother Lode Mineral Society puts on a great show every March at our local fairgrounds. Thousands of people show up every year. What makes their effort so unique?

In a word, education! They devote a huge amount of space to displays and hands-on demonstrations for the visitors. The members of the society offer up wonderful displays of fossils, rocks and minerals, and presentations by paleontologists and mineralogists are going on practically every hour during the two day run.

Our corner of the Central Valley in California is generally lacking a good foundation of earth science education. Only a handful of our high school educators actually have degrees in the geological sciences, and most of the elementary teachers never take a geology class to fulfill their science requirements in college. Our children hardly have an opportunity to learn about subjects they are naturally curious about like volcanoes, earthquakes, fossils, rocks and minerals.

A child attending the show may arrive thinking dinosaurs are cool enough, but when they leave, they will know that our corner of the country had creatures more interesting than regular ol' dinos: there were sabre-tooth cats, woolly mammoths, giant sloths, and in earlier ages, giant mosasaurs and 45 foot long megalodon sharks. That's a Tylosaurus in the photo below. One of its relatives was found just thirty miles away from the fairgrounds in the Coast Ranges. If they pay close attention, the kids will know the difference between igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks.

The show does have vendors; lots of them. It's just so very nice that their wares are interspersed with so many wonderful displays and educational resources. Did I fall for their siren songs of crystalline temptations? Of course I did! I apparently have a weakness for isometric crystals. Put a beautiful crystal of pyrite, garnet, or fluorite under a bright light, and I melt. I got a little sample of green fluorite from the Rogerly Mine in northern England, courtesy of Rocks in a Hard Place of Modesto.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Denizen of the Underworld in the Land of the Living

I was leading my students today on a geology field trip through California's Mother Lode. We were in the southern reaches of the 1848 Gold Rush country between the towns of Mariposa and Jamestown, with stops at some of the (near) ghost towns, the California State Mineral Exhibit with the 13-pound Fricot Nugget, and a surface exploration of one of the Gold Rush era mines.

It is a fascinating region to explore, with a wide variety of interesting rocks and minerals, including familiar ones like quartz and pyrite, and rarer minerals like mariposite and ankerite. For today's short post, I share a moment of reflection at a stop high above the Merced River in a canyon called Hell's Hollow.

The name is appropriate enough. The rocks are exposed along the canyon walls are serpentinite with some occasional pods of slightly altered peridotite, the rocks of our own physical underworld, the mantle. Like the underworld of myth and religion, the mantle is a place of unrelenting heat and metaphorical fire (the term igneous has the same root as ignite). Although we are finding that certain forms of life (like extremophile bacteria) survive deep within the crust, the mantle is not a place for the living. But sometimes, the rocks from deep places in our underworld are brought to the surface, and life can be tested against the chemistry of the land of no life.

As I walked along the ridge top, I was struck by the juxtaposition of this chunk of altered peridotite and the small yellow flowers that were growing in profusion across the thin soil. It turns out that few plants can tolerate these soils, as they contain high amounts of toxins such as nickel or chrome, and low amounts of needed nutrients like nitrogen and potassium. But some rare plants adapt to the harsh chemical conditions, and they are able to grow in profusion, and to our human sensibilities, beauty.

As I looked at this life among the rocks of the underworld, I thought of the strangeness of life on earth, our unlikely survival on this rock in space. Life is a struggle against the elements, and so many times that struggle is against the odds imposed upon us by society. Land of the Living is the title of a song by Lucy Kaplansky that I have always found haunting (lyrics here; listen here). The song is about surviving in bad times and bad situations. There has been too much grief in the world recently, in Haiti, in Chile, in Afghanistan, and so many other places, whether caused by natural disasters or human ones.

There are shadows of the lost on the faces I see
Brothers and strangers on this island of grief
There's death in the air but there's life on this street
There's life on this street

This is the land of the living
This is the land that's mine

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Friday Cat Blog...and "2012" again

It's a Friday! I've been grading midterms and lab reports non-stop for two weeks. I am geologized out for an evening. I'm heading up into the Mother Lode tomorrow with my students for an exploration of the gold rush mines and ghost towns, but tonight, it's a Friday Cat Blog. That's our ferocious cat Zoe either yawning, or dreaming about eating us.

By the way, for recreation tonight, I am once again enjoying the mayhem and total geologic destruction of the earth in the movie "2012". Why wasn't Woody Harrelson nominated at the Oscars for the best geologic movie death ever?

Photo courtesy of Mrs. Geotripper.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Other California: I've Seen These Mountains Somewhere Before: The Big Ripoff!

This is an ongoing exploration of the "Other California"; the wonderful geological places in our state that are rarely found on a postcard. After some geological distractions (like giant earthquakes in Chile and tsunamis in Hawaii), we are back on the road looking at some peaks that look strangely familiar. They're made of granitic rock, they've been subjected to exfoliation and jointing, forming the sheer cliffs and rounded peaks. The mountains here have been glaciated. Where would you think we were, if you are a dyed-in-the-wool Californian?

If you guessed the Sierra Nevada, you would be wrong. And right, too, in a sense.

We started a tour of the Klamath Mountains talking about their origin as bits and pieces of oceanic crust and continental fragments that were assembled into a complicated exotic terrane that was attached to the North American continent in Mesozoic time. We followed up by discussing the alleged presence of Sasquatch in the region (though the discussion didn't last long; the Chilean earthquake proved far more interesting as a scientific issue that week).

Today we note the striking similarities between the Klamath Mountains and the northern part of the Sierra Nevada (see the map above). Both mountain systems have rocks that are primarily metamorphic sequences that have been intruded by Mesozoic granitic rocks. The metamorphic rocks are of similar age and structure. They have been faulted in much the same way. They are, in few words, the same mountain range, at least in the origin of the rocks. Direct correlations of the complicated metamorphic sequences have been established in recent publications by the US Geological Survey.

The oddest part of the story seems to be the overall shape of the two provinces. They look as if they were bent and torn apart from each other and separated by a distance of around 60 miles. And they were, around 140-150 million years ago, in late Jurassic or early Cretaceous time. A shallow sea opened between the two landmasses, and several thousand feet of sediments were laid down on the rocks (the Hornbrook Formation). It was a huge rip-off!

By Pliocene time (4 or 5 million years ago), the region was a flat low plain, but it rose rapidly, as much as 6,000 feet, in the last few million years. Rivers coursing across the flat surface quickly incised the deep canyons that characterize the region today (small gravel remnants of the rivers can be found on some of the higher parts of the topography).

The implications of the similarity of the two provinces was not lost on the Forty-niners. Gold was mined from the metamorphic rocks of the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode, and the rocks in the Klamaths were clearly of the same origin. Gold was discovered in the Klamaths in 1848, and numerous towns sprang up soon after. The region was the second most important gold mining region in the state of California after the Mother Lode, with several million ounces of gold produced.

For some recent research on the uplift history of the Klamath Mountains, check out: Cretaceous Sedimentary Blanketing and Tectonic Rejuvenation in the Western Klamath Mountains: Insights from Thermochronology

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Earth: The Alternative Story

I look at my posts for the last week and I see that I have been on quite a rampage of "munching Cheetos in the basement" blogging, complaining about treatment of geologic topics in the media. It was set off when I experienced the full brunt the appalling coverage of the impending tsunami in Hawaii (and the aftermath), and soon after came comments on headlines about the demise of the dinosaurs, the continuing lack of full opportunity for women (and minorities) in geology-related industries, and finally a bit on the manufactured doubt industry and climate change deniers.

Truth be told, people who know me well know that I am a pretty even-tempered person in person, and very few of my students have ever seen me angry. Those who have seen me angry have remarked about what a quiet experience it is. Very...quiet. But a couple of things brought me to a slow simmer and the tsunami business just caused my temper to boil over. I am reminded of an old Gary Larson Far Side cartoon about a herpetologist that gets an accumulated case of the willies after working for decades in the reptile house of a zoo. Or even better, the famous XKCD comic "Someone is wrong on the Internet". One doesn't want to be shrill, but things have just gotten so...ridiculous.

Like the denizen of the insane asylum who is "feeling MUCH better now", I'm beginning to think about returning to the Other California series, but I just wanted to deal with one more of THOSE topics. It's like I want to kick the beehive one more has to do with the value of a good science education.

A poll by the University of Texas/Texas Tribune published a couple of weeks ago indicated that 30% of Texans believe that humans and dinosaurs coexisted, and another 30% don't know. This is a sad commentary on the state of education in Texas, not to mention the rest of the country, and is obviously a religious issue as well (people who reject basic scientific knowledge on this topic generally do so because of a conflict with their religious beliefs).

We discussed this topic in my historical geology class this week. We've had seven weeks of basic stratigraphic principles, rock identification, analysis of sedimentary structures and environments, and some background material on paleontology. Evolution was the topic at hand, and being that I live in an exceedingly conservative part of California, I am quite sure I have some religiously conservative students. I've never tried to squelch their questions, nor have I attacked their beliefs, but I do insist that they at least understand why geologists, biologists and paleontologists accept evolutionary theory (and that's theory, mind you, not hypothesis). Our interactions are generally congenial.

I did try something new this week though. In an act that would make a creation-scientist proud (or perhaps very nervous), I presented the entire creation-science model to a classroom full of students with a certain level of geologic expertise. This has always been the wish of the creation-science community, that teachers "teach both sides of the issue". I don't think they've ever fully considered the ramifications of what happens when people with just a minimum of geologic knowledge hear the whole story. Keep in mind, we aren't "introducing God" into the science classroom, this is all "science".

Let's see, the earth starts. That's right, it starts, because it all happened only 6,000 years ago, and there was no evolution of the crust or anything like that. Life is present from the very beginning, and all life is living under a cloud. Well, actually a canopy of lots and lots of water vapor. The vapor prevents bad energy rays from the sun from striking the living things, so the living things live much longer, the humans for nearly a thousand years. There weren't any carnivores; T-rex ate leaves, and so did every other creature that we think of as animal devourers. The canopy also screws up radioactive carbon, so carbon-dating is inaccurate (unless it gives the right dates, that is). It's not clear how uranium, rubidium and potassium dating methods were affected. The surface of the earth is very smooth and covered with vegetation. If there are any seas at all, they are shallow. No major mountains to speak of.

Then something goes very wrong, and, well, all hell breaks loose. The canopy collapses into an incredibly vast rainstorm that goes on for several weeks (40 days maybe? Can't say for sure). A vast amount of water that was stored within the earth becomes superheated and blasts to steam at various seams in the crust as supersonic geysers shoot even more water in the atmosphere. The earth's crust destabilizes, and vast amounts of basalt come pouring out, producing what would become oceanic crust at a rate of around 3 feet per second, roughly 50 miles a day. In just a few months, this is enough to form our ocean basins. The smooth crust is broken up, and lots and lots of mud swirls around in the maelstrom of water, laying down tens of thousands of feet of sediment in just a few weeks or months. The continents rise, crash into each other, form giant mountain ranges, and deep subduction zones start swallowing up the crust. Water drained off the higher areas, carving deep canyons (like the Grand Canyon) in a few days, while the mud and lime layers were still soft.

Meanwhile, everything and everyone dies. All those things that died were left behind as fossils. The fact that there seems to be an order to the appearance of species in the rocks (fish first, amphibians later, reptiles after that) is an artifact due to the fact that the more intelligent species knew to climb hills while the water was rising, so they didn't get entombed until later in the flood. Of course, life still exists on the planet, so somehow all the species survived the "hydraulic cataclysm". One suggestion is that some humans gathered all the species on a big boat of some sort, and released the animals after the water drained away from the higher parts of the continents. The strange distribution of animals (marsupials in Australia, giraffes in Africa, llamas in South America) resulted from various humans taking their favorite animals with them as they repopulated the earth.

Now, a boat containing all the millions of species on the planet is an impossibility that even a young child can figure out. So it wasn't "species" that went on the boat, it was "kinds". Species are an artificial human convention anyway; they don't have meaning in the real world. These "kinds", or baramin, included a dog kind, a cat kind, a sauropod kind, and so on. In the aftermath of the flood, the dog kind diverged genetically (but not evolved; this isn't evolution) into foxes, wolves, coyotes and...good ole dogs. The cats changed into tigers, lions, and jaguars. And so on. This happened in a few centuries after the "hydraulic cataclysm". The dinosaurs lived on, too, but then there was another disaster.

Because the vapor canopy was gone, the sun was shining on the earth surface and the climate became exceedingly unstable. Within a few hundred years of the flood, an ice age covered much of the planet, and wiped out the dinosaurs and a whole bunch of other strange beasts that we only find as fossils today. Other incredible canyons in the world, like Yosemite, were carved by the glaciers in a few tens of years through solid granite.

Finally things settle down, maybe 3,500 years ago. Volcanoes slow down, earthquakes happen less often, sea-floor spreading declines to a few inches a year. And that's all you need to know.

If I have gotten some minor details wrong, don't bother me about it because life is too short to argue endlessly. It it seems fanciful, you can check out the details with groups like the Institute for Creation Research. But for some reason, they never seem to put the whole story in one place. It might draw too much attention towards the conflicts this story has with the basic laws of astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, and logic. And it will draw lots of derision too, just like it did in my historical geology class last week. You have work very hard to "believe" this model, much less accept the so-called evidence.

If you feel I have insulted your religious beliefs, you would be wrong. This isn't about religion. This is about an alternative "scientific" history of earth and life that would be taught in public schools under the banner of "equal time" if local governmental entities like the Texas Board of Education had free rein on their collective desire to stop the teaching of evolution (I am happy to hear that the worst member of the creation-science faction lost his primary race to someone else a few days ago).

Once again, this is also a rant of sorts about media treatment of science. I have grown accustomed to seeing stories of evolution "balanced" by an interview with a creation-scientist as if their model has some kind equivalency with actual science. It doesn't. Not even close. And believing really, really hard won't make it so either.

UPDATE: One of my students (commenting on my Facebook version) makes a really good point: "You know how little kids sometimes play pretend, and as they get more competitive with one another, they backtrack and add stuff to the game, changing the original 'rules'? Creation 'science' reminds me a lot of that... "

Friday, March 5, 2010

Is Climate Change a Scientific Controversy?

Retreat of Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rockies, 1919-2005 (photos from different angles, but most of the foreground of the recent picture was covered by ice in 1919)

In my previous post, I made some comments on a report that I hadn't read on dinosaur extinctions, and had some questions instead about the researchers (41 of them) who had produced the paper for the journal Science. Bryan at In Terra Veritas gently suggested that the sheer number of authors might be a form of appeal to authority, that is, if enough experts/famous people/authorities say it, it must be true. An appeal to authority in philosophical circles is considered a logical fallacy in many circumstances, and in science this can include situations where a scientist makes a fallacious claim because he/she has a financial stake in the outcome (a new medicine works really well, for instance, or cigarettes don't cause cancer). On the other hand, the citing of peer-reviewed research is an appeal to authority that is considered a proper form of evidence in a scientific debate.

These thoughts were tumbling about in my mind that I ran across two interesting lists (via Daily Kos and the Wonk Room at Think Progress) that represent a sort of appeal to authority. It involves global warming and climate change, and the question of the role of humans in the rising temperatures that are beginning to overwhelm ecosystems across many parts of our planet. The news media have been in the practice of presenting the controversy as a scientific one. Is it? Is there no real consensus between scientists? The first of these is a list of organizations, not just individual scientists, who accept the evidence that global warming is a human-caused phenomenon requiring action (bear with me for the length of the list):

U.S. Agency for International Development
United States Department of Agriculture
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration
National Institute of Standards and Technology
United States Department of Defense
United States Department of Energy
National Institutes of Health
United States Department of State
United States Department of Transportation
U.S. Geological Survey
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research
National Center for Atmospheric Research
National Aeronautics & Space Administration
National Science Foundation
Smithsonian Institution
International Arctic Science Committee
Arctic Council
African Academy of Sciences
Australian Academy of Sciences
Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts
Academia Brasileira de Ciéncias
Cameroon Academy of Sciences
Royal Society of Canada
Caribbean Academy of Sciences
Chinese Academy of Sciences Académie des Sciences, France
Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences
Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina of Germany
Indonesian Academy of Sciences
Royal Irish Academy
Accademia nazionale delle scienze of Italy
Indian National Science Academy
Science Council of Japan
Kenya National Academy of Sciences
Madagascar’s National Academy of Arts, Letters and Sciences
Academy of Sciences Malaysia
Academia Mexicana de Ciencias
Nigerian Academy of Sciences
Royal Society of New Zealand
Polish Academy of Sciences
Russian Academy of Sciences
l’Académie des Sciences et Techniques du Sénégal
Academy of Science of South Africa
Sudan Academy of Sciences
Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Tanzania Academy of Sciences
Turkish Academy of Sciences
Uganda National Academy of Sciences
The Royal Society of the United Kingdom
National Academy of Sciences, United States
Zambia Academy of Sciences
Zimbabwe Academy of Science
American Academy of Pediatrics
American Association for the Advancement of Science
American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians
American Astronomical Society
American Chemical Society
American College of Preventive Medicine
American Geophysical Union
American Institute of Physics
American Medical Association
American Meteorological Society
American Physical Society
American Public Health Association
American Quaternary Association
American Institute of Biological Sciences
American Society of Agronomy
American Society for Microbiology
American Society of Plant Biologists
American Statistical Association
Association of Ecosystem Research Centers
Botanical Society of America
Crop Science Society of America Ecological Society of America
Federation of American Scientists
Geological Society of America
National Association of Geoscience Teachers
Natural Science Collections
Alliance Organization of Biological Field Stations
Society of American Foresters
Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics
Society of Systematic Biologists
Soil Science Society of America
Australian Coral Reef Society
Australian Medical Association
Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
Engineers Australia
Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies
Geological Society of Australia
British Antarctic Survey
Institute of Biology, UK
Royal Meteorological Society, UK
Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences
Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
European Federation of Geologists
European Geosciences Union
European Physical Society
European Science Foundation
International Association for Great Lakes Research
International Union for Quaternary Research
International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
World Federation of Public Health
Associations World Health Organization
World Meteorological Organization

The second list is a group of organizations who say, based on their involvement as petitioners versus the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that human-induced climate change is a fraud (often with accusations that scientists are just after grant money for research):

American Petroleum Institute
US Chamber of Commerce
National Association of Manufacturers
Competitive Enterprise Institute
Industrial Minerals Association
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association
Great Northern Project Development
Rosebud Mining
Massey Energy
Alpha Natural Resources
Southeastern Legal Foundation
Georgia Agribusiness Council
Georgia Motor Trucking Association
Corn Refiners Association
National Association of Home Builders
National Oilseed Processors Association
National Petrochemical and Refiners Association
Western States Petroleum Association

One could add to this list, of course, Senator James Inhofe, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, and all of the other "climate scientists" in the Senate and in political theatre. The next time climate change is presented as a scientific controversy needing a balanced response by the "other side" of the issue in the mainstream media, consider who has the short-term financial interest in the political outcome. And consider who stands to lose in the long run, as the glaciers continue to melt, sea level continues to rise, droughts continue to devastate vast regions, and agricultural production is disrupted.

Scientists REALLY REALLY Know What Killed the Dinosaurs! Well, Kinda...Maybe...

What Bryan at In Terra Veritas said (and he said it better, but read on if you wish!)...

What's going on? Another group of headlines on scientific topics/events and the media response that I've been complaining about in the last week: a tendency to overstate, overhype and overdo things. A week ago it was the Chile earthquake and resulting tsunami. This week is a perennial favorite topic of the media: what did in the dinosaurs?

An article in Science (abstract only, check your library for access to the whole article) titled The Chicxulub Asteroid Impact and Mass Extinction at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary would seem to be attempting to put an end to the ongoing debate about what did in the dinosaurs 65.5 million years ago. I can't really speak to the merits of the paper, I haven't read it and I am not an expert in the area, but in my mind I immediately had questions.

The paper had 41 authors. Forty-one! I immediately wondered who they were. Were these 41 people the most prominent researchers on all sides (not "both" mind you, because there are not just two sides, but "all") of the decades-long debate? Was this the surrender of the opposition, and a final nail in the coffin of the hypothesis that an intense episode of volcanism in India caused the extinction? Was this a paper by the volcanism researchers agreeing that theirs was a failed hypothesis? Or were they all experts on the potential effects of asteroid impacts trying to present the final argument of the prosecution, presenting an overwhelmingly powerful case backed up by new evidence? I look forward to hearing from my paleontologist friends and colleagues. I'd like their take on this study.

My source of irritation is the response of the media. The headlines of the articles include phrases like "It's Official...", "Scientists Settle...", and "Mystery Solved!" that suggest that the matter is settled. I could be wrong, but I strongly suspect it is not. Bryan's take on the article strongly suggests that the debate is fated to continue. It's exceedingly rare for a single research article to be the final word on any debate in science. There are few of those "eureka" moments in science, but a great many bits of incremental advances of understanding brought about by newly emerging evidence. But for some reason, the media seems most often to miss the distinction.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention some of the media articles that do a better job of placing the report in proper context: Popular Science notes at the end of the article that the debate really is continuing, and the title ("According to New Comprehensive Review, a Giant Meteorite Caused the Dinosaur Extinction") is less sensationalistic. In the same way, an AP story also carries a more appropriate headline: "Researchers reassert that impact killed dinosaurs".

At least no one is going to die if the media gets the framing of the story wrong on this issue....

Today's picture focuses on some dinosaur tracks found near Moab, Utah, along the Colorado River.

UPDATE: Scientific American has a good review as well, but the subtitle would have made the better title ("remains the best explanation").

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Ten Worst Corporations for Women to Work For: Why Should Earth Scientists Care?

The first time I saw any data about women in the geological sciences was a long time ago, but a brochure dating from the 1960's pointed out that only 2% of geologists were women (no link; this is from an old memory), and by 1989, that number was 10% (although 40% of majors at that time were female). Back then (way back then), I heard explanations that the oilfields were no place for women geologists. Not a great excuse, really, so one would hope the situation has changed for the better. Well some, maybe. There are still lots of problems. A good review of the current situation in geoscience academia, for instance, can be found on the Association for Women Geoscientists website.

I bring up the subject because of a totally unrelated business article I ran across. What does it say when a report on the 10 worst places for women to work has four energy-related companies?

Quoted from the report....
6. EOG Resources (EOG) is an oil and natural gas company with 2,100 employees and a $23 billion market cap, which makes it one of the most valuable firms in its sector. The head of human resources and administration and the head of accounting are women.

7. Cameron International (CAM) provides equipment for the national gas and oil industries. The company has 17,000 employees, eight board members, no women in positions of major responsibility. Seven senior executives are listed in the proxy–all male. Also, all board members but one are over 60–a sort of reverse age discrimination.

8. National Oilwell Varco (NOV) is an oilfield services company which provides mechanical components for oil and gas drilling projects. About 40,000 employees. Eight directors, none of which are women.

10. XTO Energy (XTO) has 3,100 employees and a market cap of $27 billion. The firm prides itself on its ability to find and import oil and natural gas. Apparently, they aren’t quite as concerned about scavenging for corporate gender diversity.
Are you interested in opportunities and challenges as a woman in the geosciences? Check out the Association for Women Geoscientists.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Words That Have Meaning: False Alarm and Warning (A Tsunami Wrap-up)

This was a false alarm? Photographs from CBS News and AP

Two situations:

In the first, it's a school day, and some kid pulls the fire alarm. Bells ring and students have to evacuate even though there is no evidence of a fire and everyone knows it was a prank. This is a false alarm.

In the second, a teller pushes the alarm button. There's a man demanding money. No one knows if the man is armed or not. The police evacuate the neighborhood, surround the bank, and ultimately arrest the man. If the man turns out to be unarmed, it makes the whole thing a false alarm, right? No? I don't think so either. The police and the people of the neighborhood were warned of a possible dangerous situation. There could have been a deadly shootout. Will anyone fault the police for doing their job?

So why are scientists being forced to defend themselves for their warnings about a tsunami? Just because the tsunami proved to have less violence than expected doesn't mean they should have acted any differently. The media bean-counters are probably sorry they didn't get the death and disaster in Hawaii and other Pacific Islands that would have driven up ratings (sorry for the cynicism), but the seismologists did nothing improper. And I was personally impressed that Hawaiians and others did such a fine job of responding. They know from experience what could have happened. And in the end, there was a tsunami that extended from Chile all the way to Japan where the pictures above were taken. There was a fine line between an interesting geologic event and a worldwide disaster. There is disaster enough in Chile, where the death toll continues to climb.

With that in mind, I'm glad to see the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center is not caving in to media accusations of a "false alarm":
"It's a key point to remember that we cannot under-warn. Failure to warn is not an option for us," said Dai Lin Wang, an oceanographer at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii. "We cannot have a situation that we thought was no problem and then it's devastating. That just cannot happen."
The media should know better than to loosely toss the words "false alarm" in their wrap-up stories about the tsunami. Words have meaning, and "false alarm" sends the wrong message, a sort of "boy who cried wolf" attitude. Millions of people across the Pacific have now experienced an evacuation, and will know what to do the next time. Unless they think of the seismologists as boys crying wolf. These men and women take their jobs seriously, and will never play such games with the public.

Don't forget to donate to relief efforts in Chile, and in Haiti. It's so easy to forget a tragedy when another one crowds out the headlines.

UPDATE #2: More people may have been killed in Chile by the tsunami than by the earthquake itself. Magma Cum Laude provides a nice example of good media coverage on the tsunami, with Dr. Chuck Bailey at William and Mary College. Nice catch!

UPDATE #3: Earth Magazine checks in with a good analysis of the quake and tsunami and links to some excellent media coverage by PBS News Hour (and thanks for the shout out for Geotripper, Magma Cum Laude, and Goodschist!)