Sunday, August 30, 2020

A Life Full of Zeros: A Perspective on Human and Geologic Time

Some perspective on time. It's one of the more difficult concepts to get across in a geology education simply because the numbers lie at the very edge of comprehension. So here is a brief demonstration:

The first part is my own, but it was very much inspired by the latter part that is borrowed from Historical Geology - the Free Textbook for College-Level Geology Classes. I deeply appreciate the work that has been done to make classes more accessible to low-income students.

Imagine the years of your life as a bunch of zeros. Don't think of your life as a zero, just use them as a way of counting! So, we'll say that the average age of a college student is in the range of 20 to 30 years:

0000000000 0000000000 0000000000

Think of all that you have accomplished in that time! You've had an entire childhood, you've matured to an adult, you've navigated 13 years of elementary, junior high, and senior high school. You've maybe accomplished a few years of college, and you've perhaps held a job for several years. Some of you may be raising your own children.  You've accomplished a lot!

That's me in 1980 working on my Senior Thesis, aged 23 zeros...

So what lies ahead? We cannot know what time we have in life, and for some it will be cut short. We have goals and aspirations, the things we want to experience, the things we want to accomplish. How much time do we have? The average life span these days is around 75-85 years. How does that look in zeros? Here's 80 of them:

0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000

That's quite a few! Seems like plenty of time to plan for graduate school, or starting a career, or starting a family, raising children, and if you are idealistic, enough time to change the world in some positive way. Some of us look at this string of zeros and imagine how many are ahead of us, and some of us look at how many of those zeros we have already checked off, and some are looking at the relative few that are left. All of us no doubt see different things as we count of our potential lifetime. 

But how does our potential lifetime stack up to human history? This is where it gets sort of interesting. World War One ended just over 100 years ago. There are still several thousand people in the world who were alive when that war ended:

0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000

The California Gold Rush began in 1848:

0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 00

The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776:

0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000

The Roman Empire was at its zenith about 2,000 years ago:

0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000

So here's the thing. You can still see your potential lifetime in comparison to much of the human history. Most of human civilization is encompassed by 8,000 or so zeros, and if I put all of them up, you could see your lifetime as a small, but still a visible part of the human adventure.

But now it gets weird. When we think of geologic time and the history of planet Earth, things get crazy really quick. Look at the 2,000 zeros above, and multiply it by six; 12,000 years. If you were to step outside here in California's Central Valley where I live, you would see grazing horses, camels, Columbian mammoths, and gigantic ground sloths. You would encounter predators like Saber-tooth Cats and Short-faced Bears, 50% bigger than grizzlies. They only went extinct 10,000-11,000 years ago. Humans saw and dealt with them.

skeleton of a Short-faced bear
Short-faced Bear at the Fossil Discovery Center, Madera, CA

But geologic time is a whole different ballgame. The ice age that ended just 12,000 years ago began some 2 million years ago.

The dinosaurs went extinct about 66 million years ago.

The dinosaurs arose around 220 million years ago.

Skeleton of a Mosasaur
A Mosasaur, a sea-going reptile from the time of the Dinosaurs

Complex life, i.e. swimming things with eyes, brains and nervous systems appeared about 545 million years ago.

What happens when we try printing up enough zeros to account for these vast numbers, and what happens to the significance of your life as a result? For that, I turn to the Historical Geology Textbook for College-level Geology Classes, referenced at the top of the post:

Have a look at the image below, which illustrates 5,000 individual zeros.

There are 5,000 zeros on this page. 

0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000 0000000000

How many copies of this image (or sheets of paper) would you need to print to reach a total of a million zeros?  

1,000,000 / 5,000 = 200 sheets of paper

Now, how many copies would you need to print to reach one-billion zeros?

1,000,000,000 / 5,000 = 200,000 sheets of paper

The Earth is 4,566,000,000 years old. How many copies would you need to print to cover the age of the Earth with each year represented by 1 zero?

4,566,000,000 / 5000 = 913,200 sheets of paper

Copy paper is bundled by 500 sheets. This is called a ream of paper. How many reams of paper would you need to replicate the age of the Earth?

913,200 / 500 = 1,826 reams of paper

Typically there are 6 reams of paper per box, that makes 304 boxes of copy paper just to print out the number of zeros in the age of the Earth. 

That is a long time… 

If you are having trouble imagining 304 boxes of paper, when we moved the department a few years ago, we had 200+ boxes stacked in our lab. Here they are...



It's an aside, but it recalls to me a favorite quote that I start many of my classes with: 

“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.” Richard Dawkins

Friday, August 7, 2020

The Way it Was: Yosemite in the Times of a Pandemic

Tunnel View, close to the spot where the valley was first "discovered" by European colonizers

The pandemic rages on, and our lives have been upended in so many ways we could never have foreseen. My heart goes out to all of those whose lives have been devastated, whether by disease, unemployment, or fear. We've been fortunate so far, and we've been careful to stay out of harm's way, staying home for the most part, wearing masks in public, and always the social distancing. 

I walk along my river almost every day to maintain sanity and health, but except for a single short excursion up north for my grandmother's funeral, we've not been out of our county since March. But this week I went online and scored an E-ticket (you have to be an older person to understand that reference): a reservation for entry into Yosemite National Park.
The park has been trying to deal with two opposing directives: opening the park as much as possible, and maintaining some degree of safety in trying to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. They settled on limiting the number of visitors by instituting a reservation system (info at reservation.gov). The goal is to have the park at about 50% of usual visitation. 80% of the reservations are available a month in advance, while the other 20% come available two days before the visitor's arrival. That's the ticket I was able to get.
We headed up as early in the day as we could, intensely curious to see what things would be like. And out of the 100+ journeys we've made to the park in the last 30 years, it was unusual to say the least. There was a long wait at the entrance station like usual, but reason was different. There were fewer people, yes, but it took longer to confirm everyone's identity (the reservations aren't transferable). Once inside the park, the transformation was remarkable. There was very little traffic on the road, and there were spots available in every parking lot that we could see. The lot at Tunnel View (the top picture in this post) was only half full. And no buses were idling.
We headed up Glacier Point Road and had a long lunch at Summit Meadow, and we had it almost entirely to ourselves (admittedly not one of the 'destination spots' for visitors, but still...). We stopped at the nearly empty parking lot at Washburn Point, and then headed to Glacier Point, which was also only half full. It seemed a different world than from our 'normal' Yosemite experience. The picture below of Glacier Point was not cropped to remove people; that's how many were actually there.
After so many months of sheltering in place, it felt so good to get out of the valley and see the high country of the Sierra Nevada. We've missed it so much.
We drove back down to the floor of Yosemite Valley and found the valley to be equally devoid of crowds. There were a few gatherings near the taco trucks that are serving as food purveyors while parts of Curry Village are renovated. But again, most of the lots were uncrowded. The afternoon shadows were lengthening as we passed Sentinel Bridge and Lower Yosemite Falls (the merest trickle in this dry year), and we made our way down to Valley View.
When Yosemite Falls is dry, Yosemite Point takes on an entirely different perspective. It's the prominent cliff that is still lit by the sun on the right in the picture below. Yosemite National Park is like that...there are those most famous cliffs like El Capitan and Half Dome that dominate people's experiences, but there are dozens of lesser-known rock cliffs and spires that in any other place would be national parks and monuments in their own right.
The Cathedral Rocks are one of those cliffs. They are the incredible cliffs in the picture below. They are behind you when you stare up the vertical face of El Capitan. I don't recall ever seeing them on the t-shirts and coffee mugs in the curio shops (although I don't spend a lot of time in the shops when I'm in the valley).
We made our last stop at Valley View where we could enjoy the evening light on El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, and the other (better-known) side of the Cathedral Rocks. The Merced River was a beautiful reflective pool at this time of low water.
We noticed an American Dipper foraging in the water. It's one of the few songbirds that regularly swims. Also called the Water Ouzel, it was one of John Muir's favorite Sierra birds. I've only seen them a few times.
We saw a Black Bear at Crane Flats. There has been a lot written about the resurgence of wildlife in the absence of the usual crowds of humanity at Yosemite. It was simply napping away at the edge of the meadow and no one was bothering it. On the whole, Yosemite National Park was a delightful place to visit that day, a far cry from what we experienced during our Labor Day visit a year ago when we experienced bumper-to-bumper traffic jams, no parking, and no chance to see the sights. It wasn't fun for anyone that day.

We need to reconsider the role of our national parks in our national life. They are precious places, and we are loving them to death. Yosemite certainly isn't alone in this regard. Arches and Zion national parks in Utah in particular have become so crowded that few are able to experience and enjoy them in any meaningful way. I hate to say we need to keep a reservation system like this in place, but at the same time we also need to make more places available to our population. 

One of the most egregious acts by the present administration was the destruction of two of our most significant national monuments, Bear's Ears, and Grand Staircase-Escalante. These parks are within an easy day's drive from Zion, and offer equally spectacular natural experiences. But they were eviscerated by the administration, Grand Staircase by 50%, and Bear's Ears by 90%. We need these parks, and more. It's something to consider as we enter into a bitter election season. Which party is better equipped to safeguard our national treasures?

And that's the way it was in Yosemite. Words can barely describe the beauty and serenity of the day.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

You CAN see it! Comet Neowise Now Visible After Sunset

First, the disclaimer: The comet Neowise does NOT look like the glorious and incredibly beautiful pictures that have been posted on social media. Those pictures aren't fakes at all, but they ARE time exposures that bring out the details of the tail.

My long-term readers (thank you!) may have noticed that I've never had a post about comets. There's a reason for that. I haven't seen, much less photographed, a comet since the last century. There were two great comets in 1996 and 1997, Hayakutake and Hale-Bopp, and they were spectacular. I also saw Halley's Comet back in 1986, most memorably as we sat on the desert floor in Death Valley next to a broken-down bus waiting for rescue. But since then? Nada.
That changed last night, when I was able to spot Comet Neowise from my Tuolumne River Parkway trailhead around 9:30 PM. I had been too lazy to try and spy it in the early morning hours as many others have done in the last week or two, but it now is in the evening sky as well. It only took a few minutes scanning the sky with my binoculars to find it. My pictures are fuzzy and indistinct, but the comet is definitely in each one, just left of center. I had no tripod, and my camera seems not to have a time exposure setting anyway.

I'm not kidding. You need binoculars. If you are lucky enough to have a super-dark area with no air pollution, you might see what looks like a fuzzy star in the location noted below. But in binoculars, the tail was clearly visible. Give it a shot! It will be visible for a few more days, but it will fade soon. It is always a thrill to see something new and different in the sky!
Source: EarthSky.org


Friday, July 3, 2020

Hopes for the Healing of a River: Northern River Otters on the Tuolumne


I had the delightful privilege of watching a River Otter family hanging out along the Tuolumne River the other day. There were three of them, two adults and a juvenile. It's the most time I've ever seen any of them out of the water. It's a good sign that recovery is possible in a river system despite the abuses we've heaped on our wonderful gift of nature.

The Gold Rush of 1848 was catastrophic to the Tuolumne. Miners dug up river vegetation and processed literally all the river gravels for the elusive metal. Gold dredges did incalculable damage to stretches of the rivers in the Great Valley by ripping out the riparian vegetation and destroying the soils along the river floodplain. Underground mines brought minerals to the surface that oxidized to form acids and other toxins. Mercury used in the gold recovery process leaked into river waters. In the twentieth century we built massive dams that altered the water quality and flow levels. These have wreaked havoc with what remains of the natural ecosystem.

One of the bellwethers of the health of a river system is the presence or absence of apex predators and other native species. The predators cannot thrive if their prey species are not present, whether from pollution, drought or other cause. I'm always looking for signs that the native species are present and hopefully thriving. In the last few years I've run across bobcats, foxes, raccoons, beavers (gnawed trees, anyway), hawks and ospreys and Northern River Otters (Lontra canadensis). There was even a report recently of a Mountain Lion downstream in Modesto.

There used to be an even more diverse group of predators and prey species along this river. In historic times there were California Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, and Gray Wolves, along with the California Condor. In prehistoric times, the tally included Sabertooth cats, Dire Wolves, and several other rather scary beasts. The river was populated by gigantic tusked salmon up to nine feet in length.



Geologically, our river otters were a relatively late addition to the river ecosystems of North America. Their family evolved more than 30 million years ago, and spread throughout the Old World and migrated into the Americas, including the Giant Otter of South America. But the Northern River Otter fossil record only goes back to the beginning of the ice ages about 1.9 million years ago. They are related to European species, and probably came across the Bering Land Strait when sea levels were lower (although being an aquatic species, they could have swam the relatively short distance between Russia and Alaska).

The current range of the otter ends in our region. It's their frontier. According to the River Otter Ecology Project, there have been sightings on the Tuolumne River, and just one or two in the Merced River one drainage to the south (some otters were spotted in Yosemite Valley for the first time in decades recently). I'm hoping they will be able to spread farther south into the San Joaquin River drainage. I have seen them on the valley floor in the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge in a slough of the San Joaquin.

The otters cooperated long enough that I was able to get some video too. Enjoy!


Monday, June 22, 2020

Last Light on the Longest Day: Green Flash on the Summer Solstice

It isn't really a time for traveling, but a funeral had us traveling up the California Coast yesterday evening. We stopped at Clam Beach north of Arcata to watch the sun set. It was almost 9:00PM and the sun was setting nearly half an hour later than it did back home (hundreds of miles south). It was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.

To my surprise, the skies were clear (we expected coastal fog and overcast conditions), so we got to see the disk of the sun dipping below the horizon. I was watching for the 'green flash', and saw it, although it was most visible between snaps of the camera. You can still pick out some greenish color at the top of the sun's disk.

The green flash is a sudden flash of greenish light above the sun at the moment of sunset, and it is said to last only a second or so. As the sun dips into the horizon, the layers of the atmosphere will cause some of the sunlight to be refracted, with red and orange on the lower parts of the disk along with green (and rarely blue) across the top.

I saw one in 2013, but not since then.
It was the last day of a strangest spring, and probably a similarly strange summer. Stay healthy. Wear that mask in public. It's all we've got to fight this thing.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

When Treasures are Discovered, for Better or Worse: A Tale of Two Tuolumne Rivers

Today on "my" river.

It looks like I'm about to complain bitterly, but it is more nuanced than that.
The river is not mine of course, I just inhabit it almost every day. It belongs to our community. But there has never been a day like this. The parking lot has 85 spaces, and including street parking there were 100 cars parked there today (I've never seen more than 20 or so). With the nearby state parks and recreation areas closed, this was a free spot to gain access to the river, but they had to "earn" it by going down and then back up a 135-step stairway (close to  a 100-foot climb). Then they had to climb down an embankment to get to the rocky river shore, carrying the canopies, bbqs, and ice chests. But it looks like the family groups were spread out. And nobody seemed to be blocking the stairwell by exercising (that was BIG issue yesterday; total lack of physical distancing with 30 junior high kids). So all good.
But I'm really worried about how this is all going to look tomorrow (or Tuesday; I'm not going down there until they're all gone). Ever since the shutdown, the garbage on the trail has increased radically. It's bad enough that some of the trail regulars are carrying trash bags and picker-uppers when they hike.

I'm glad people are discovering the treasure that flows through their community, but I wish they also had a sense of ownership and a desire to take care of it and keep it clean and beautiful. The Tuolumne is a special river.
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper

So what was I doing on this hot, but beautiful day? I'm not going to take chances during a pandemic with so many careless people, so Mrs. Geotripper and I headed upstream to a couple of other spots that are less "discovered". We had a pleasant walk up a dirt road that we had to ourselves along the Tuolumne. It was lonely, beautiful...and quiet.
Photo by Mrs. Geotripper
 There are treasures somewhere near you. Seek them out!


Monday, May 18, 2020

The Eruption of Mt. St. Helens at 40 years: Why it Still Matters and Why Science Matters


It is the 40th anniversary of the eruption of the St. Helens volcano and as I think of those days, I realize that even though a majority of the population wasn't even alive at the time, the volcano still matters. Not because of the potential for future eruptions (although that remains a distinct possibility), but because of the way we process and deal with the natural hazards that we all face, no matter where we live.


When the volcano began rumbling and sending ash into the atmosphere, we had only a few avenues to get information, mainly television news, radio, and newspapers. I think now how limiting these sources were compared to the nearly instantaneous delivery of news over the internet in the present day. We can look up earthquakes just moments after they happen, and webcams allow us to monitor volcanoes around the world in real time. There is both good and bad in this profound change. There were terrible sources of news in those olden days, like the Weekly World News or the National Enquirer, but they pale in comparison to the sewage found on the internet today. Back then, national news outlets and newspapers practiced careful journalism in most instances, but it often seems today that the only reward for excellence and honesty in reporting is decreased ratings and falling revenues. To get attention in a crowded internet environment media outlets have to dress their stories as shiny objects and provide them with the worst possible clickbait titles. In the olden days we often had to wait impatiently for information about natural disasters, but the information that came through the media was more often vetted and checked for accuracy. The journalistic filters today are completely gone in many media sources, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the trash and the truth.




There are so many conspiracy theories floating around today about natural disasters and potential disasters. The eruptions of Steamboat Geyser in Yellowstone National Park numerous times after years of quiescence caused a blizzard of posts on the internet pondering whether Yellowstone has been disturbed and may blow as a "supervolcano" eruption soon (and we'll all die). The same has happened after a number of recent small earthquakes. But a reading of the reality-based data says that Yellowstone caldera has not had a lava flow or eruption of any kind in 70,000 years, and no knowledgeable geologist sees any evidence of precursors to any new eruptions. A few years back, an earthquake and an internet video of a group of bison running "away" from Yellowstone caused the same kind of internet speculation (it turns out the bison were running towards the caldera).




Of course it is true that the Yellowstone caldera was born in one of the most colossal eruptions ever recorded. Learning the story of the eruption of the Huckleberry Tuff is fascinating. It brings an entirely new appreciation of the incredible scenery to be observed in a place that contains 70% of all the world's geysers. It should be enough. But there are so many individuals out there who would like to make a buck by scaring people needlessly. And there are too many gullible and ignorant people out there who can't pick rational accounts out of the confusing mix of conspiracy theories that exist on the internet.




And then there is the Big Island of Hawai'i. There were some serious and tragic things going on summer before last when the longest eruption in recorded history reached a climax. The activity endangered lives and destroyed homes as Kilauea underwent major changes from the "norm" of the eruptions that had been ongoing for the last 35 years. The U.S. Geological Survey and Hawaiian civil defense authorities did a pretty good job of providing up-to-date information about the latest activity, but that didn't stop all kinds of stories from popping up on the internet about the "Ring of Fire" which has nothing at all to do with Hawai'i. It was just too easy to pick up stories of eruptions in Alaska and Indonesia and think there was a pattern of increasing volcanism or earthquake activity (OMG, a magnitude 6 quake in the Kermadec Islands and an eruption at Mt. Cleveland in Alaska! It's a pattern and therefore Seattle will fall into the sea very soon!). The problem is one of perspective: if you had signed up for earthquake notifications and volcano advisories from the USGS or other geologic research institutions, you would have realized that these things happen all the time, and that a cluster of events is not unusual.


It's one thing to make up stories about normal volcanic activity to scare people. One can argue that they are ultimately harmless because the eruptions aren't actually taking place or hurting anyone. But there are real-world consequences of ignoring journalistic standards. Many of those who make their money with false headlines about such things will also traffic in climate change denial. When science becomes a matter of believing whatever one wishes, the very real problem of global warming becomes just another "scare" story, and the alarm bells being sounded by climate scientists become just more noise in an internet full of noise. But the real-world consequences are happening now, and action is needed to counteract the changes or to stop them. But it has become too easy to ignore the problem because it is so incremental and slow-acting. It just can't compete with the shiny baubles and clickbait on the web.
People in Hawai'i mostly trusted the geologists who studied the volcanoes all their lives and thus made the correct decisions about evacuating homes and businesses. In the same way they trusted the seismologists when a tsunami threatened the islands in 2011 after the massive earthquake in Japan. No lives were lost when the tsunami hit because people had evacuated the low-lying areas. The wave surge was 8 feet deep in places and caused millions of dollars of damage. Many people could have been killed, but they accepted the authority of the scientists who predicted the timing and magnitude of the seismically induced waves.

There has been one characteristic about the natural disasters that I've described above. They were local events that profoundly changed lives, but in large and yet limited regions. When earthquakes and volcanic eruptions strike, survivors can turn to other regional state and national governments for support, since those entities were not so badly affected. Now we face a different set of natural disasters: those that affect the entire planet. Pandemics and climate change affect all of us. Witness the spread of the COVID-19 virus to literally every corner and every country of the planet in a matter of weeks.

Scientific experts have long predicted the emergence of dangerous new strains of viruses, and previous administrations used the best scientific minds to prepare for their inevitable arrival. But those administrations were replaced by one that denigrated scientific expertise and fired the experts who could have crafted an appropriate national response to the COVID-19 virus. And today we see the result: nearly 100,000 deaths in the U.S. already with many more to come, lack of critical medical supplies and stockpiles, and no coordinated federal response. Even worse is a propaganda campaign that is convincing people that the disease is not as bad as it clearly is. Other countries listened to their scientists and saved countless lives. We are instead loosening critical restrictions even as the numbers in many areas of the country continue to rise.

And that's why the Mt. St. Helens eruption of 1980 matters today. Scientific expertise matters. Pandemics will be a continuing problem in our interconnected world. And climate change is an even more profound danger to society than any virus, earthquake or volcanic eruption. We need people to give climate scientists the same kind of respect they give geologists when volcanoes are rumbling and smoking. They are the ones to listen to, not the hucksters on the internet who are out to make a buck, or trying to protect those industries that make their profits off of producing greenhouse gases. We seem to talk little these days about integrity and striving for excellence, but scientific researchers are among those who still have those traits. There are always exceptions, but I would trust a scientist over a politician every time (unless it is clear that the politician knows how to listen to a scientist).




There is a sign seen at some of the March For Science protests that have been happening for the last two years around the country: "At the start of every disaster movie there's a scientist being ignored". Unfortunately, it is too true in real life as well.

This has been a highly abridged and updated version of last year's St. Helen eruption anniversary reflection.