16 January 2017

Climate Change - Is It Real?

Repeatedly I have had questions about climate change addressed to me, both electronically in USGS Ask-A-Geologist queries, and verbally from acquaintances  There are a lot of things floating around in the news media about climate change. A lot of this is correct, some of it is foo-foo, and far too much of it is deliberate obfuscation by people who have a self-serving financial agenda. 

Sadly, there are scientists who sell their souls to corporations (whether Big Carbon, Big Pharma, or Big Tobacco), but we will not go there...

Q: Is climate change real, is is this some liberal Mother Earth Tree Hugger thing going on?

A: A short summary of what's going on:

1. Virtually all climate specialists not paid by Big Oil agree that the Greenhouse Effect is real. In fact, it was first reported in the scientific literature by Joseph Fourier (of Fourier transform fame) in 1824. It's been tested and proven repeatedly ever since.

2. There is a lot of yearly and decadal variability in climate data. Anyone can cherry-pick the weather data to prove any point they want to - including waving a snow-ball in a Senate hearing - but that's not science. If someone is trying to convince you that climate change is not happening, ask yourself: who's paying this guy?

3. CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere has gone from 315 ppm in 1958 to over 400 ppm today (Mauna Loa observatory). Virtually all scientists with integrity accept that most if not all of this change is due to human activity. The reason? The change has been accelerating (second derivative is positive) since about 1850, when the industrial revolution really got underway. By second derivative being positive, I mean that it is ramping up faster and faster as time progresses. This is the well-known "hockey stick" graph made famous by Al Gore. 

4. Is the increase in CO2 human-caused? If we look at the carbon isotopes in this increased atmospheric CO2, we can show that it is definitely caused by fossil fuel burning. Carbon-14 is a radioactive isotope with a half-life of 5,730 years. There is a certain amount in the atmosphere and living plants from cosmic rays transforming nitrogen in the upper atmosphere - this is well-calibrated by many studies. With a half-life this short, if something bearing carbon is buried and put out of reach of the atmosphere, the carbon-14 drops below measurable levels by 50,000 years. Fossil fuels thus have NO carbon-14 in them. Burned, these fossil carbon sources contribute only carbon-12 and carbon-13 to the atmosphere. It's not hard to calculate how much fossil carbon has been burned: about 300 billion tons since 1800 AD. It's also not hard to measure the levels of carbon-14, the radioactive isotope, in the atmosphere over the past two centuries: it's sequestered in tree-rings and other places where it can be measured, year by year. Human involvement in the growth of CO2 in the atmosphere is proven by the steady drop of carbon-14 levels in the atmosphere since 1800.  

5. The last time the atmospheric CO2 reached this 400 ppm level, according to the geologic record, was during the Pliocene (5.3 to 1.8 million years ago). At that time, about half of Florida was underwater (including the places where ~80% of Florida's population now lives). I've pulled Pliocene marine fossils (sharks' teeth and echinoderms) out of land deposits in central Florida with my own hands; they are on my bookshelf.

6. There is a latency of CO2 after it gets into the atmosphere, and some scientists calculate this to be about 30 years. Translation: it tends to stay there. The oil you burn today will really be impacting your kids 30 years later. 

7. A gallon of gasoline, which weighs 3 kg, will produce about 10 kg of CO2. The extra mass comes from the oxygen you might want to breathe instead. That gallon translates to 50 kilometers traveled in my car. And that's not counting the CO2 generated to extract and refine the gasoline. The Energy Returned on Energy Invested for Athabascan tar sands is between 4 and 7. Translation: a rather huge amount of energy is used up just getting the bitumen into the form of gasoline. 

8. Nearly 5 billion impoverished people on Earth want to have a high-protein lifestyle like their grandparents could not have even dreamed of. This means vastly-increased herds of vegetation-eating, meat-producing animals. The amount of methane a cow produces is truly breath-taking (pun intended): up to 500 liters of methane a DAY. That's more than a 5-drawer file cabinet. Methane is 37 times more potent than CO2 as a Greenhouse Gas for capturing solar heat. That pushes it up beyond the volume of my office in CO2 equivalent - in one day. One normal, flatulent cow.

9. Increased temperatures mean more glacier calving, and more melting of Arctic, Antarctic, and Greenland ice caps, which are collapsing at truly stunning rates - and the collapse accelerating. Less ice on the ground and on the polar oceans means that the darker - light-and-heat-absorbing - under-layers will be exposed, trapping yet more solar heat and making the inevitable change non-linear. Translation: these changes are accelerating with time. 

10. Nine of the ten hottest years in now-centuries-old records have happened in the 21st Century. 2016 was the hottest year, globally, ever.

It's not hard to draw some conclusions from all this:

1. Do NOT buy beach-front property, Anywhere.

2. Move to the Pacific Northwest, or the Canadian prairie provinces. They will be among the very few winners of climate change. 

There are still several unresolved questions:

1. How FAST?
How quickly will the global climate change consequences befall us? The current speed of change has never happened before, as far as geologists can tell, in Earth's history. Ever. Predicting our future depends on climate modeling, and these models are fraught with assumptions and disagreements. However, they are beginning to coalesce, and they are now in general agreement. 

2. How BAD?
Likely consequences include (but these cannot be easily quantified):

  • Sealevel rise... and because of tectonic settling this will be worse on the east coast of the U.S. This means more, far-reaching devastation from storms like Katrina and Sandy are in our future.
  • We can expect bigger and more devastating hurricanes and tornadoes. If seawater rises and hurricanes grow in average size, then the storm surges they drag with them will reach deeper and deeper into the continental interiors. About 80% of humanity now lives within 100 km of a seashore.
  • Greater and more terrible droughts and wildfires can be expected. Because of well-intended but ultimately catastrophic wildfire suppression policies over the past century, these fires will become truly terrible in the continental U.S., Russia, and Brazil.
  • A consequence of droughts and wildfires: massive disruption in the world's food supplies.
  • We are already seeing the sixth mass extinction of animal life - and explosions of other destructive types of life (e.g., jellyfish, toxic algae). The current mass extinction of wildlife (habitat destruction and over-hunting) is comparable to what the Chicxulub asteroid did 66 millions years ago.
  • We are already seeing acidification of the oceans, with consequent dissolution and destruction of coral reefs, a major host of biodiversity - and the world's protein supply. The Great Barrier Reef of Australia is catastrophically collapsing as I write this.

3. Is it already beyond our control?
The question arises: are we already at the "tipping point"? The effect of climate warming on gas hydrates (methane clathrates) that lie beneath the continental shelves is a HUGE unknown. Most estimates (from seismic reflection data) suggest that these clathrates are many orders of magnitude greater than all other known hydrocarbon reserves (coal. oil, gas) on Earth combined. Gas hydrates are methane trapped in water ice below about 300 meters of seawater. This is the depth where pressure and cold ocean-floor temperatures currently trap them - where they remain stable. These methane hydrates have accumulated over millions of years from dying sea-life that drops to the ocean floor (some may derive from oil and gas deposits below the sea-floor sediments). A single cubic meter of these "gelids" can produce up to 180 cubic meters of methane - the internet is replete with photos of "ice" that is burning. A crucial unknown: will attempts to extract this stuff "open the doors" to a catastrophic release of vast quantities of methane into the atmosphere? 

The gas hydrates/methane clathrates issue leads to inevitable questions about non-linearity in climate forcing - and tipping-points. In other words, can things get out of control? Is it already too late - will we see a runaway temperature rise? Will we see inundation of most of the world's great cities (a real Waterworld)?

The geologic record suggests it may very well be too late - it's happened before for natural reasons - but the geologic record also shows that the Pliocene warm period came on far more slowly than what we are seeing in our modern world climate: it took hundreds of thousands of years to raise CO2 levels then - something that humanity has accomplished in just the past half century.

We are already in unknown territory, and precise predictions are probably not going to be correct.  

08 August 2016

Scientism - Its Fatal Flaw

Well, *I* believe in SCIENCE! 

Heard that before? It's certainly nothing new - it goes back to at least Voltaire.

Scientism is an expression in use for most of the 20th Century, and is often used to refer to science applied in excess - or applied unreasonably. The term scientism can generally apply in either of two ways:
  1. To indicate the improper usage of science or of scientific claims,  
  2. To refer to a belief that methods of natural science form the only proper elements in any inquiry.
In a broader sense, scientism is also used to describe the invocation of science as a focus of worship, generally by people who would describe themselves as atheists. It's sort of like Methodism, or Daoism, or... you can fill in the blanks here.

Two recent articles, "Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science", and "Trouble at the Lab" draw some obvious and frightening conclusions about this approach or life view.

John Ioannidis, a physician and mathematician, published two seminal articles in 2005. They are among the most-cited papers in all of modern science - and they are incredibly embarrasing to scientists. In the first paper, Ioannidis convincingly showed why 80 percent of non-randomized scientific studies turn out to be wrong. Fully 25 percent of supposedly gold-standard (and thus far more expensive) clinical trials gave incorrect results. It is from studies like this that the medical doctors that you and I seek help from base their diagnoses and treatment protocols. Our lives depend on these being correct. These incorrect results include recommendations to use hormone-replacement therapy in post-menopausal women, that mammograms and PSA tests are critical for extending lives, that anti-depressants such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil can help depression, that doing puzzles will ward off Alzheimers Disease, and that drinking lots of water during intense exercise is helpful.

The problem? Not one of these turns out to be true. THOUSANDS of stories in magazine articles have been written based on these published studies. The number of studies that contradict other studies of the same thing are so high that The Week magazine actually has a section called "Health Scare of the Week".

Many physicians, on their own, have discovered that just taking a patient off of every drug can improve their health immediately. 

The truly glaring problem: the large majority of these studies cannot be replicated. This means that other groups cannot repeat the same experiments and get the same results. Amgen, an American drug company, tried to replicate 53 landmark studies in basic research on cancer. They were able to reproduce the results on just 11 percent of the studies. In a separate study done by Bayer, the German pharmaceutical company, only 25% of published results could be reproduced. These analyses aren't being published by disgruntled scientists, but by editors in the premier of all science journals: Nature. Dr. Ioannidis says that between a third to a half of  medical research results has been shown to be untrustworthy. He suggests that physicians, when faced with all this potentially lethal error and confusion... simply ignore them all!

Ioannidis' second paper explains why these flawed studies happen and get published in peer-reviewed journals. Without belaboring the details (you can read them yourself), it comes down to many things - but things that compound themselves:
  • The "publish or perish" ethos for young scientists to get tenure or grants
  • Ignorance of what constitutes statistical significance among most scientists
  • Ego
  • Fear of reprisals by peers or superiors
  • The tendency of scientific journals to publish almost exclusively "new" and "exciting" discoveries
  • Bias in research study design, bias in analysis, self-serving interpretation
  • Fraud.
This latter issue is interesting, and when identified firmly it is supposed to lead to retractions of published articles. However, a University of Edinburgh study of 21 confidential surveys of scientists worldwide found that only 2 percent of them admitted to falsifying or fabricating data - but 28 percent said they knew of colleagues who engaged in these practices! If that difference hints to you at a broader problem, then give yourself three stars. 

The problem with Scientism is that it falls for the oldest trick in the book: it worships at the feet of the Golden Calf. One of several modern versions of the Golden Calf is Science. But like all man-made things, their faith is based on something that is fatally flawed. It is very, very human.

Are we advocating that people not trust science? Absolutely not - just don't bet your life on it, and certainly don't pour your faith and belief into it! Science is still far better and more honest than the The Talking Heads and Corporate Paid Pundits on talk radio or "fair and unbiased" news channels. 

24 June 2014

Hot Magnetic Oxygen Water World

There is another version of the Anthropic Principle, one that applies only to the planet Earth. We may be more alone, or unique, in this universe than the Drake Equation - the calculation of the possibility of other life out there in the universe - may have led us to believe.

The deepest hole ever drilled into the Earth's crust reached down to about 7.6 miles (12 km) below the Kola peninsula of northern Russia. The technology available to humankind cannot get below that depth (and that depth took 24 years of drilling and billions of Rubles to achieve). The rocks are so hot and plastic with overlying rock pressure at those depths that the hole closes in on the drill bit - and partially fills the shaft back in from the sides as the bit is drawn back to the surface to be replaced. So... the maximum depth achieved by humanity's best effort is less than 1/10,000 the Earth's diameter, or the distance of a short commute on a Monday morning. We actually know more about galaxies, comets, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn than we do about what lies below our feet on our own planet. No matter how you look at it, we cannot really touch virtually all of the world beneath our feet.

In other words, everything we think we know about the interior of the Earth is obtained by very indirect means, and a lot of this is from mathematical modeling.

To see below the depth of the Kola well, we must rely in electrical geophysical methods like magnetotellurics (which is one of the things that I "do" as a geophysicist; it can detect resistivity layering down to perhaps 50 km or so), and on earthquake seismology. For nearly a century seismologists have traced the powerful vibration signals from very large earthquakes as these signals propagate and refract through the Earth. By comparing the time of arrivals elsewhere around the planet - and whether just P-waves, or P-waves and S-waves together make it - they can discern contrasts in density and other physical parameters as these change with depth. P-waves (or primary waves) are pulses of energy, momentarily compressing the material they pass through. It's the blast wave from an explosion expanding outward. S-waves (or secondary waves) are shear waves, oscillating material back and forth, sideways, as they pass through the material. Think of how you would move your hands forward and backward to tear a piece of paper. A key feature of S-waves is that they cannot propagate through a liquid. Think of trying to use your hands to tear water. By the 1920's seismologists had used the initial earthquake seismic information and some density calculations to conclude that there is a solid iron core to the Earth, surrounded by an outer liquid iron part of the core. The outer liquid core is overlain by a hot and plastic Mantle, and finally by a relatively thin crust serving as a very thin solid shell above them both. All living things live on or just beneath the top of that crust.

The methodical genius who first figured all this out was a quiet Danish lady named Inge Lehmann, who died in 1993 at 104 years of age.

Seismology and magnetotellurics show us the layering in the Earth with depth. Indirectly we also know that the center of the earth is very hot. After all, there are volcanoes and fumaroles, and the deeper you mine in places like South Africa the hotter it gets. Nearly everywhere scientists have measured temperature in wells, a thermal gradient exists: deeper means hotter. But we also know there is a lot of heat below us for several other reasons, including plate tectonics. SOMETHING has to be powering whole continents to be able to wander around. And then there's the magnetic field of the earth.

What distinguishes Earth from Mars and the Moon? A magnetic field, an atmosphere, liquid water - and life. The last requires the first three in our limited observations so far. Without a magnetic field to deflect it, Solar radiation would  sterilize the Earth and disrupt any attempt for life to gain a foothold. Solar radiation would also strip away any atmosphere, which is apparently why Mars doesn't have much atmosphere left to speak of. Mar's atmosphere is only a few percent of the density of our own atmosphere - though there is evidence of much more at one time in the distant past.

What distinguishes Venus from the Earth? Venus has an atmosphere, but it has fallen under a runaway Greenhouse Effect - too hot for water and in fact so hot that raw sulfur is a liquid on its surface. The Earth lies in what is sometimes called the "Goldilocks Zone" where it's not too hot and not too cold, between roasting Venus and frigid Mars. Water on Earth not only exists, but can exist in all three states (solid, liquid, and gaseous). This is not so for Mars or Venus, neither of which has a magnetic field, nor plate tectonics, nor significant water.

It has been apparent for quite awhile that the Earth's magnetic field is the reason why life exists on our planet. A magnetic field, however, requires some sort of dynamo to create and sustain it. How to power this? Well, if there are enough radioactive elements - or sufficient heat from the collapse of the proto-planetary disk to form our planet - well then maybe there is enough energy to drive a dynamo. However, this requires a lot of assumptions that scientists cannot test - they can't drill deep enough.

There is another problem: hot things tend to cool when surrounded by colder things... like interplanetary space. A magnetic field driven by an internal dynamo cannot last forever.

Hot things cool in two ways: by conduction and/or by convection. Conduction is like the metal pot you cook your cream of wheat in. Heat transfers from a hot source beneath to a cooler part above without any motion of particles involved. With convection, however - the bubbling cream of wheat - the heat is transferred by particles moving in three-dimensional loops called hydrothermal cells. You see them as bubbles driven by steam in the sauce pan. A hotter particle of the wheat from the bottom, in contact with the metal pan, rises because it is hotter (and thus less dense) than the particles above it, thus transferring heat from the bottom to the top of the cream of wheat. If the stuff cannot convect - if it's not liquid enough - then it will get hotter and hotter until it burns. It not only tastes terrible, but the sauce pan is a bear to clean up afterwards. In the same way, the solid iron core can only conduct heat out; like the metal sauce pan it cannot convect heat. However, the liquid iron outer core and the hot and plastic mantle above it can convect heat - and these convection cells of highly conductive material must be the source of the magnetic dynamo. The convection cells in the mantle are also what's driving whole continents around across the face of the Earth.

Remnant magnetization in rocks 3.5 billion years old, however, proves that the Earth's magnetic dynamo has existed for at least that long. The oldest known life is found in stromatolites - clumps of cyanobacteria - just about that old. This is not a coincidence. If there was no protective magnetic field, the stromatolites and then algae (and Earth's atmosphere) would not have survived Solar winds and radiation. But 3.5 billion years is a long time for something to stay hot enough to drive a magnetic-field-producing dynamo. Older computer models based on relatively low thermal conduction assumptions for iron seemed to suggest that it would take awhile for the solid iron core to give up its heat. This could conceivably sustain a dynamo lasting that long.  According to these older models, the heat from the core would take billions of years to conduct out to the outer liquid core and Mantle where a different form of heat transfer - the much faster convection - takes place.

In the last several years, however, scientists have been forced to re-evaluate what they think they know about the center of the earth. Several years ago, another piece of information became available from some Japanese extreme-high-pressure experiments. Iron at pressures and temperatures we calculate must exist in the center of the Earth has a far higher thermal conductivity than anyone had thought could be possible. According to milecular orbital theory, if you smash material together hard enough, it frees up electrons and changes its conductivity. This means that the Earth's heat-driven dynamo should have burned out billions of years ago. In other words, the Earth's magnetic field would have then died, and the atmosphere and any nascent life would have all disappeared before most of the geologic record could even take place. Think of dead Mars.

Speaking of geology, fluid and gas inclusions in ancient rocks tell us that around 2.5 billion years ago the Earth's primordial atmosphere of CO2 and nitrogen transitioned to an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. The world as we presently understand it began then. In part we can blame this on the stromatolites and photosynthesizing plant life that was expanding at that time.

In the 1970's a few scientists offered what seemed like a ridiculous idea: the Moon formed well after the Earth formed. It formed in its current size and shape when a large Mars-sized planetoid crashed into the proto-Earth and splattered material into space around the Earth. That material blasted into multiple orbits then coalesced to form the Moon, leaving a very different - and very hot - planet Earth behind. Computer models show that this is easily feasible. If so, then the Earth would have glowed like a small star from the massive infusion of heat from all the kinetic and potential energy of the collision. This idea is now taken seriously for several reasons, but mainly because the rocks on the Moon are sooooo much like the rocks on the Earth, and sooooo different from rocks on Vesta, Ceres, Mars, and Venus. We can discern these by optical spectroscopy, coupled with sampling meteors that the spectroscopy says must come from those places.

Could that ancient impact hold the answer for why we have such a long-lasting magnetic field around our planet? That seems to be the best explanation at this time. If so, then life exists on this planet because of some pretty amazing circumstances: 
  • it exists in a narrow Goldilocks Zone, 
  • it was given a huge heat boost by a collision from a large planetoid, and 
  • its crust was given a lot of water from impacting comets that allowed it to be less solid, more flexible, and have an ocean of liquid water. 
  • Photosynthesis then started early and gave this planet an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, and finally
  • The Earth's magnetic field lasted a very, very long time.

Those are a lot of things that had to come together at just the right time for life to form and evolve here.

There are so many coincidences - like the Anthropic Principle that allows molecules - and thus life - to exist. It seems remarkably like our Earth has its own local version of the Anthropic Principle: just the right features and additions at just the right times to allow life to form and evolve over an extended period of time.

Bruce Buffett, a geophysicist at Berkeley puts it this way: "The more you look at this and think about it, the more you think it can't be a coincidence. The thought that these things might all be connected is kind of wondrous." (Discover, July/August 2014, p. 41)

With all the exoplanets being found in solar systems nearby in the Milky Way Galaxy, what is the likelihood that one of them could have all these coincidences? Since Galileo, humanity has been humbled to know that it isn't the center of the universe. 

However, it appears that we certainly are unique.

31 December 2013


Anyone who has read 3 Nephi 8, especially if they are aware of some of the details of Mount St Helens' 1980 eruption, have pondered expressions such as "...there were exceedingly sharp lightnings...", "...the city of Moroni did sink into the depths of the sea...", "...the whole face of the land was changed...", "...there was darkness upon the face of the land...", and "...the inhabitants thereof who had not fallen could feel the vapor of darkness..." that engulfed the Nephites nearly 2,100 years ago.

Central America, of course, is an integral part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, so-called because of the string of volcanoes that all lie just inland from the Pacific Ocean margins. The Ring includes hundreds of volcanoes, some of them HUGE, like Cerro Hudson in southern Chile, Masaya in Nicaragua, Shasta in California, Mount Rainier in Washington, Mount Edgecumbe near Sitka, Alaska, and Katmai and Veniaminof, the monster volcanoes of the Aleutians. Farther east, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the Ring of Fire includes Bezymiani, Sheveluch, and Mutnovski-Gorely in Kamchatka, and Alaid and others in the Kuriles. The Ring includes Usu, Fuji, and Sakura-Jima, the best-known volcanoes in Japan. We can't leave out Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, whose 1992 eruption lowered the world wide temperature by two degrees centigrade, and we must include the long arc of volcanoes in Indonesia, including the monster Toba. The phenomenal eruption of the Toba supervolcano around 72,000 years ago may have reduced the proto-human population on Earth to less than 10,000 individuals according to genetic studies.

All these volcanoes (except for Indonesia) lie just inland of the Pacific Ocean margins because they lie just above their sources: the down-going Pacific Ocean seafloor that is being over-ridden by continental margins all around it. Linking the over-riding continental plates with their subducted oceanic plate are huge subduction faults. These are the sources of the largest earthquakes in Earth's recorded history, including the magnitude 9.5 Valdivia earthquake of 1960 in Chile (whose tsunami destroyed downtown Hilo, Hawai'i, about 8 hours later). Other subduction earthquakes include the magnitude 8.7 to 9.2 Cascadia event of 1700, which sank an entire forest in Puget Sound, and whose "Orphan Tsunami" destroyed villages on the Japanese east coast. The magnitude 9.0 Tohoku Earthquake of 2010 triggered the meltdown of the Fukushima-Di-Ichi nuclear plant and devastated the northeastern Japanese coast. The huge magnitude 8.6 Aceh subduction earthquake of 2004 created a tsunami that killed at least 250,000 people along the Indian Ocean margins.

During the Spanish era, a number of regional Central American capitals such as Santiago de Guatemala and Nicaragua, Honduras, were repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. To say that earthquakes and related volcanic tephra-falls changed the face of the land in Central America would be an understatement.

Since the 1963 eruption that created the island of Surtsey, Iceland, and the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens, volcanologists have known that lightning storms are closely associated with Plinian eruptions. This is because of the vast electric charge dragged aloft along with the prodigious amounts of volcanic ash that are blasted up to the stratosphere.

But what caused the "vapor of darkness" described by Nephi? This was almost certainly a smothering blanket of volcanic ash. Mount St Helens, 1980, was a relatively small (VEI 5) eruption. This event lofted about 3 cubic kilometers of material, and left nearly a meter-thick blanket of ash in Yakima, Washington, 244 kilometers to the east, within a few hours of its eruption.

To get a handle on a smoking gun for 3Ne:8, we must examine the largest volcanic eruptions in Central America. One way to do this is to accumulate information on tephra falls that reached out great distances - the larger the reach, the greater the eruption. Two events stand out:

  • Masaya volcano, Nicaragua, about 2,100 years ago, left tephra as far as 170 km distant.
  • Chiletepe volcano, Nicaragua, about 1,900 years ago, left tephra as far as 570 km distant.
Note that these dates are somewhat approximate (they come from Kutterolf et al, 2008, Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems). The Masaya eruption lofted approximately 8 cubic kilometers of ash and tephra, nearly three times more than Mount St Helens. Interestingly, ancient human footprints have been found at Acahualinca - these are ~2,100-year-old fossils discovered along the shores of Lake Managua, Nicaragua, frozen in the volcanic ash blown out from Masaya. Both these volcanoes lie eastward of the subduction zone where the Cocos Plate is being over-ridden by the Caribbean Plate at a rate of nearly 7 cm/year. This rate is nearly three times faster than the Cascadia subduction rate, which means that there are proportionally more frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions in Nicaragua than in Washington and Oregon. 

I'm just struck by that name: Masaya


22 December 2013

Earthquakes - do they occur at certain times of the day?

According to my calculations, the 6th grade means students are around 11-12 years old. If so, then the Rising Generation is full of people a lot smarter than I was at that age. The question below from Ask-a-Geologist is just one of many like it: 
Q: Dear Geologist,

Our name is Arianah and Cray and we are sixth grade students at Preston Middle School in fort Collins, Colorado. We are currently learning about how the Earth’s surface changes over time. We are curious about earthquakes. We have a couple questions for you. Is there a common time when earthquakes happen during the day? Also, why did you become a geologist?
Yours sincerely, Arianah and Cray :D
1. Earthquakes are essentially random. We understand why they happen, we understand where they happen, but we do NOT understand WHEN they will happen. There are always aftershocks following a main event, of course, but the main event cannot be predicted. Extensive research has shown that there is no correlation between earthquakes and certain times of the day or external * events - for instance there is no correlation with either the location of the Sun, or of the Moon, or with tides (alignments of celestial bodies, which cause neap tides or spring tides, is called syzygy). Some of the brightest minds on this planet have been searching for more than a half century for some evidence that main event earthquakes can be predicted, but without success. They can be forecast #, but not predicted
2. I was a solid-state physicist and realized that if I didn’t do something drastic, I would be stuck inside a laboratory all my life with radioactive sources and high-pressure cells. This was brought very much to my attention one day when I had a high-pressure cell blow out and spew Cobalt-60 all over the inside of our lab, and had to call in a special Spill Team. Also, by this time physics as a profession was drifting into a dead end with string theory, and I saw relatively little value to humanity to spending billions of dollars to see if another exotic particle existed. I checked out breakoffs of physics, including astrophysics, hydro-geophysics, weather physics, and geophysics, and found the last one to be very exciting. It also got me out into exotic places, like the Venezuelan jungle, the southeastern Alaska panhandle, the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, etc. Geoscience gives me amazing opportunities to visit these places and many more. But even more interesting to me is to be a detective – to be the first to discover something beneath the ground or the seafloor. I was the first to say where the groundwater was beneath the San Pedro Basin in Arizona and Sonora, Mexico, and the first to map where titanium sands lay beneath the seafloor off the coast of South Africa. That’s ever so cool. 
* It has been shown that if you inject fluids into certain formations (e.g., deep sediments northeast of Denver, CO), you can trigger swarms of micro-earthquakes. Basically this is the ground shuddering to equilibrate and adjust itself to a slightly new stress regime. However these sorts of events are so small that they are almost never felt.They really are not earthquakes as the general public understands earthquakes.
# A forecast: in other words, there is an X% chance that there will be a magnitude Y event on the Z fault zone in northern California within the next 30 years. This is very, very different from saying that there will be a Magnitude Y event at Z location on X day - that would be a prediction. We can't do that.

27 August 2013

One-Eyed Science, One-Eyed History

            Let me begin with two anecdotes:
            One day many years ago I was walking down a hallway in a chapel in Sterling, Virginia. Walking towards me was our Relief Society President. As she came near, she suddenly grabbed both my lapels and shoved me into the wall, her nose inches from mine.
            “Have you any idea of what you have done?!??” she demanded.
            My mind raced, but all I could say was “Uhhh…”
            “As the counselor to the Bishop you have been setting apart sisters in the Relief Society as they receive new callings. As the Relief Society President I have been recording these. Several months ago in separate blessings you told two sisters that they would have more children. One sister has MS, and the other is 44 years old and newly married. BOTH had been told by their doctors that they would never have more children. BOTH ARE PREGNANT. “
            It took a while for me to realize that (a) I had done nothing egregiously wrong, and (b) Jinx was not mad at me. Both women gave birth to little boys. The father of one held my right hand in both of his and thanked me repeatedly. The second little boy, whose name I will never forget, lived just a few days. His parents asked me to join them at Fairfax, VA, General Hospital to give this infant a name and a blessing. I drove down to the hospital with a deep sense of foreboding. As his father and I held his tiny body, and blessed him, he was struggling for all he was worth just to breathe. He died shortly afterwards, and for weeks afterwards I cried every time I thought of him, which was often. I’m tearing up as I write this, in fact, more than 30 years later. His parents, however, were calm as a summer morning. They told me later that they knew where this child had come from, and where he had gone. He was in the hands of a loving God, forever part of their family now, and waiting for them on The Other Side.
            Another anecdote:
            Many of us during our lifetimes will have to wear an eye-patch. We may have amblyopia (“wandering eye”) as a child, or we may have an infection, or we may scratch the cornea by rubbing the eye when sand gets into it. There may be an injury, temporary or permanent. Whenever we wear an eye-patch we have what is called mono-vision. We no longer have stereo vision, and our depth perception is seriously impaired. We may stumble over a curb or doorway, we may walk into a door jamb. We are visually crippled, and we have continuing problems from our one-eyed vision, though we may partially adapt to the condition.
            What have these two stories have in common? Consider the following.
            In science we must evaluate the data that we collect, and there are always arguments on how we do this. As I write this there are at least two major schools of how to use statistics in science: how to calculate a numerical probability, from a given set of data, that a certain answer or conclusion is true. The main schools of thought are called Bayesian and Fisherian. The former school teaches that a prior understanding – an eye on what we think are the physical processes involved – must be built into the calculation, and there is a deceptively simple equation to do that. Implicit in this is that we are thinking about the larger picture – the underlying principles. The Fisherian statistical school on the other hand, which dominates the biology field at this time, believes that all information is contained only in the dataset. To these scientists a prior understanding is only a bias, and must be discounted, or it’s not good science.
            However, any scientist who has collected data knows that where there are data, there is always noise: random noise, systemic noise, measurement noise. The tendency to evaluate all the data blindly means that in many cases we are trying to fit a solution to noise. In simplest terms, this is trying to draw a curve through dots scattered all over a graph. A least-squares-fit line or curve drawn through some data points is called a regression fit, or just a regression. If there is significant noise, this line can tilt in a number of different directions depending on how the points are “weighted” – how important the scientist thinks the outliers are. In simplest terms, we are trying to make sense out of junk. We are giving weight to noise, and this means that we are often just trying to put lipstick on a pig.
            This leads, as you can imagine, to study after study that contradicts other earlier studies on the same topic. One has only to read the popular science magazines or the morning news to become painfully aware that “science” disagrees with itself at least as often as it agrees. In one study of drug research papers, less than 15% of scientific results reported could be replicated by other independent science teams. Should you take vitamin C to strengthen your immune system – or avoid it because it leads to greater cancer likelihood? Does hormone replacement therapy (HRT) lead to greater or lesser likelihood of heart attacks or cancer in post-menopausal women? There are scientific papers that support all of these conclusions. As mentioned elsewhere in this book, one current magazine even has a section titled “Health Scare of the Week.”
            Where are these disparate lines of thought leading? Are we looking at the forest or just seeing a tree? Are we letting something that is just noise become disproportionately important over everything else? Are we missing the big picture?
            In a talk given by Jeffrey R. Holland or the Quorum of Twelve Apostles titled “Lord, I believe,” he relates the story of the man with the thrashing son, who says “Lord, I believe. Help Thou mine unbelief” [see Mark 9:22–24; also verses 14–21]. Elder Holland goes on to note that there are people who, despite much of a lifetime in the Church, will find some small item that really upsets them. They may not understand why the Mountain Meadows Massacre took place, why a Church leader (Relief Society President, Bishop, General Authority, President of the Church) did or said something. I personally know people who have left the Church over such issues, or are unwilling to forgive some offense, or cannot reconcile some remote event in Church history.
            I count myself among these. A Mormon family once instructed their six children to attack my 8-yr-old son whenever they encountered him playing in our neighborhood cul-de-sac. This went on for a week before we accidentally found out what was going on. They later queried their 5-year-old again, and then acknowledged that, well, Jared had actually NOT struck their 3-year-old, but by that time the damage was done and there was anger on both sides. The idea of encountering that couple in the Church hallways led me to suggest to my wife, who had taken the brunt of the social ostracism, that we simply stop attending Church. I will never forget her response. Last I checked, this was CHRIST’S Church, not XYZ’s church!
            Elder Holland’s key point is this: hang onto the things you KNOW. Do not be afraid to seek answers for something that bothers you, but at the same time don’t throw everything else out for one or two negative things that bother or offend you.  In his words, Now, with the advantage that nearly 60 years give me since I was a newly believing 14-year-old, I declare some things I now know. I know that God is at all times and in all ways and in all circumstances our loving, forgiving Father in Heaven. I know Jesus was His only perfect child, whose life was given lovingly by the will of both the Father and the Son for the redemption of all the rest of us who are not perfect. I know He rose from that death to live again, and because He did, you and I will also. I know that Joseph Smith, who acknowledged that he wasn’t perfect, was nevertheless the chosen instrument in God’s hand to restore the everlasting gospel to the earth. I also know that in doing so—particularly through translating the Book of Mormon—he has taught me more of God’s love, of Christ’s divinity, and of priesthood power than any other prophet of whom I have ever read, known, or heard in a lifetime of seeking. I know that President Thomas S. Monson, who moves devotedly and buoyantly toward the 50th anniversary of his ordination as an Apostle, is the rightful successor to that prophetic mantle today. We have seen that mantle upon him again in this conference. I know that 14 other men whom you sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators sustain him with their hands, their hearts, and their own apostolic keys.”—Jeffrey R. Holland, April 2013 Ensign, p. 96.
            I remember the little boy improbably born to the mother who had MS, and how he came to dwell for a short time on this Earth. I remember uncounted priesthood blessings that suddenly healed me, or in one case brought a man out of a 4-day coma as I laid my hands on his head. I still keep the list of the 13 steps that all had to happen in sequence for our family to move to Venezuela, where incredible adventures and opportunities awaited all of us. A failure to complete just one of the complicated steps would have aborted the entire three-year stay. A few of these events and blessings would have been remarkable coincidences, but the aggregate of them all is immense.
            My counsel is this: Don’t get all wrapped up in a single tree. Look at the entire forest. If you feel your faith is being shaken by something, first consider who benefits from this? Then remember this from Elder Holland’s talk:When doubt or difficulty come, do not be afraid to ask for help. If we want it as humbly and honestly as this father did, we can get it. The scriptures phrase such earnest desire as being of “real intent,” pursued “with full purpose of heart, acting no hypocrisy and no deception before God.”11 I testify that in response to that kind of importuning, God will send help from both sides of the veil to strengthen our belief. –ibid.
            This requires some patience, or a little faith, however you wish to view it.
            But from my vantage point, it’s so very, very worth it. Your long-term happiness depends on this.