19 September 2020


Age and Respect

When I was in my early 30's, my hair rather abruptly turned gray (from dark curly brown to mostly straight white, with occasional strands of dark brown in it). I inherited this from my mother, who was bothered that her hair turned white in the front during her 30's. I thought it was sort of cool-looking, however: her hair when I was a kid, and my hair when I was barely no longer a kid.

In my late 30's I was invited to teach classes in applied geophysics to upper-division and grad students at the University of Maryland and The George Washington University. After meeting with the Department Chairs, in both cases I was designated a full professor at both universities. In part this was because I already had a long science bibliography from my work with the US Geological Survey by that time, but I suspect that it also had to do with my hair color. Respect!

When I turned 40, I was called to serve as a counselor to the CJCLDS Dulles Branch President; this Branch was formed to help a large number of southeast Asian refugees who had arrived in Northern Virginia following the end of the Vietnam War. Right away I noticed that I was treated very reverently by our mainly Laotian brothers and sisters - they would bow deeply while making the 'wai', the hands-together formal bow of greeting. The deeper the bow, the greater the respect. I came to realize that their culture afforded great respect to older people - this was deeply ingrained from childhood. I remember feeling a bit awkward at being treated with a respect that I felt I had not earned. I still thought of myself as nearly a kid.

At one point, we put on a Road Show with our Dulles youth. They were short of non-musician guys in the main part of the play, so Jared and I died our hair (my white hair, his golden hair) a deep black, in order to fit in. The box of hair-color said it would wash out with the next shower... but it didn't. For many weeks afterwards, people would pass me in the hallways in the immense US Geological Survey National Center, stop, turn around, and say "Jeff? Is that you?" Just changing the color of your hair can disorient people around you.

In 2000, I was the General Chair of the Symposium for the Application of Geophysics to Environmental & Engineering Problems. This was the annual international meeting of the Environmental & Engineering Geophysical Society (full disclosure: I was president of this society in 2002-2003), and is called "SAGEEP" - because some international visitors can get authorization to travel to a "symposium", but not to a "meeting." Go figure.

As General Chair, I organized this complex nightmare: we took over the Hyatt Arlington hotel for a week, I arranged for Dan Goldin, the NASA Administrator to be our keynote speaker, and we had over 300 international participants - who all seemed to need a letter to justify getting an American visa. I noticed that a number of people who I had called in to help me from among the DC Metro geophysical community would sometimes stare at me. One day, while driving one of them back to his office in downtown Washington, DC, the guy abruptly asked me how old I was?  I was 53 at the time. "Wow," he said, "You look like you are older than that, and you look like you are younger than that. You have the energy of a 20-yr-old, but you had the guts to called Dan Goldin!"

The hair again. That, and probably my sugar addiction.

Now, in the United States we have a culture that fairly worships youth - and it was very disorienting to our younger Dulles Branch Laotian-Vietnamese-Kampuchean teenagers, recently transplanted from rural Southeast Asia. This youth-worshiping cultural emphasis can be felt just about anywhere in this country, but it is strongest in New York City and Los Angeles, at least in my observation. The desperate effort to look youthful in the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood can sometimes lead to bizarre creatures that could only be described as moms trying to out-dress each other in their teenage daughters' clothes. Madonna recently complained bitterly that her hands looked OLD, and there was nothing she could do about them. With few exceptions (Helen Mirren and Judy Dench come to mind) his adulation clearly affects your ability to market yourself as an actor or an actress. Steven Spielberg once had to quell rumors that Harrison Ford was going to be digitally "younged" in an Indiana Jones film.

At one point not long ago I looked at a passport photo, and compared it to a passport photo taken when I was 40. Hooo... when did THAT happen?!?? Around this same time I saw a TV special of before-and-after examples of several individuals getting a face-lift. The surgery was filmed, and it frankly stunned me. Don't get me wrong, I have done minor "auto-surgery" on myself a number of times. An infected ingrown toenail, acne cysts, and larvae multiplying in my feet in the jungle are strong motivations to pick up a scalpel.

I was shocked at two things: the crude, intrusive nature of a face-lift surgical procedure (the anesthetized patient was treated like a slab of beef), and the... wrong-ness of the face afterwards. It's basically the "uncanny valley" of a robot not quite looking like a human. You see, as we age, a lot more changes than just the tension of our facial skin. The juxtaposition of young and old in the same individual is strikingly artificial, and it doesn't take a Michael Jackson to convince most people that they shouldn't mess with the natural progression of things. The human eye is finely-attuned to the most subtle changes in a human face - that's why working with a corpse (when I took the Advanced Trauma Life Support class at the University of Maryland Medical School) was so shocking. Visually you get mixed signals... all wrong.

I rather enjoy being a grandpa, or as my father-in-law put it as he held our first daughter, "I'm the father of several aunts and an uncle." I enjoy having clear, corrected vision after replacing my cataracts.

The take-away here is that we will age, it's NOT bad, and moreover there is nothing we can do about it that won't look at least a bit bizarre (it's easy to identify the Hollywood types who have tried plastic surgery). If we didn't age, we wouldn't want to leave this planet. We would fear the Colored Door to the next level, and might choose to be stuck here permanently in a do-loop. If you think you want to live forever, consider the last time you were stuck at home on a rainy Sunday. Instead, I think it's great to enjoy each season of our lives and accept the admiration and respect that our changing faces and hair mean we've earned. The fact that I get to play with my grandkids and I don't have to change diapers anymore is sort of like 'having your cake and eating it too'.

Life is good. There is a progressive order to it. There is a reason for that order. 

05 May 2020

The First Vision - More significant than you might think.

             I saw a pillar of light, exactly over my head, above the brightness of the Sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. When the light rested upon me, I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. The first spoke to me, calling me by name, and said, pointing to the other, “This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him.”
--Joseph Smith

There are some interesting physical phenomena involved here: Gravity is apparently constrained, and there is a “Beyond-a-19th-Century-technology-light-show,” among other things. These unusual features were also apparent in the three visits by Moroni to Joseph in 1823. Physicists have learned a lot in the past century, but mostly we’ve learned how much we don’t know. Some possibilities (among the known unknowns) are Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and Quantum Entanglement – any of which may be involved. This is another reason for physicists to look forward to crossing over to the Other Side: we’ll learn what they are, and what else is involved!

TWO Brief Asides Here:
   a. This wasn’t the only time something like this happened. As noted, three years later in 1823 Moroni appeared the same way. These weren’t dreams either, but physical visits. Moroni physically carried away the plates after the translation was completed. Also, Joseph was not the only witness to this kind of visit; the Three Witnesses, the Eight Witnesses (who handled physical plates), and others (e.g., several in the Kirtland Temple) also witnessed similar visits.

   b. Why did God the Eternal Father visit a humble, half-grown, poorly-educated kid in the boonies of western New York – the wild west of the US at the time? Why not visit the Pope Pius VII in Rome? The chief Imam in Makkah? President James Monroe? There is an important pattern here: Christ himself was born in the most humble of circumstances. He died in the most humbling and degrading way the Romans could engineer. Humility is important – the Savior makes this clear time and time again throughout the scriptures. By example.

Remarkable Consequences followed from this visit: The First Vision restored to us the only Pre-Nicaean “Primitive Christianity” Church on Earth; One not “…made of The Philosophies of Men, Mingled with Scripture,” but instead fully consistent with what Jesus taught:
·       This is the only Church that preaches all the Bible, including the principle of a Separate Godhead (Matthew 3:16-17 “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” and Matthew 17:5 “While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.”), Baptism for the Dead (see 1 Corinthians 15:29 “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?”), and a Pre-Existence (Jeremiah 1:5 “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” and Ecclesiastes 12:7 “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”), among other doctrines unique to this Church – a Church that the Savior countenances.
·       This is the only Church that has planned and operates 168 Temples, with 49 more planned or under construction, all over the Earth.
·       This is the only Church, as far as I know, that is also preached in all the World – even in China, even in Saudi Arabia (where my family were personal witnesses), even in Israel (despite severe restrictions).  It is likely even practiced in North Korea (though sub-rosa among diplomats, inferred from our experience as such in Venezuela and Saudi Arabia).

This represents only the 6th time (according to my count) that God the Eternal Father has physically visited the Earth. Most other interactions with prophets (Abraham, Moses, Paul, the Brother of Jared, Nephi, etc.) were with Jehovah.

            1. Organizing Adam and Eve (Genesis, Temple)
            2. Casting Adam and Eve out of the Garden (Genesis, Temple)
            3. Baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:16–17)
            4. Transfiguration on the Mount (Matthew 17:5)
            5. To the Nephites (3 Nephi 11:7)
            6. The Sacred Grove (JS—History 1:11–20)

            Let’s now put this into larger perspective (warning – we're entering the nerd zone here):

Specifically, let’s talk about Exoplanets: In the 1830’s we learned from multiple revelations that there were “other worlds” in addition to ours. This was far beyond the science of the time. Astronomers were only just discovering what existed in the Solar System – Neptune had not yet been discovered. In fact, there is very explicit information about other worlds in the Temple Endowment ceremony.  To give a sense of how ahead-of-its-time this other worlds concept was, bear in mind that it was only in 1933 that Edwin Hubble finally proved through variable stars in a photographic plate that some blurry things seen in telescopes were other galaxies!
In the past 30 years astronomers actually began discovering “exo-planets.”
·       As of January 2020: 4,108 exoplanets are “firmly” verified. 18 can support liquid water.        (About 1,000 of these exoplanets have been found by the Kepler satellite.)
·       Kepler-452b (1,402 LY) and Kepler-1638b (2,492 LY) are Earth-sized and orbit G-type stars like ours, found at 0.75 – 1.5 Earth-orbit radii from their star. They lie in the “Goldilocks Zone” – Not too hot/too cold.
·       Note that the Milky Way galaxy hosts 100 billion stars… maybe twice that. It’s kind of hard to count.
·       We have enough information from the local galactic vicinity now to suggest that 10% - 26% of stars can host an Earth-sized planet.
·       That means there could be 5 billion Earth-sized “worlds” in our galaxy alone.
·       In 1995 the Hubble telescope was turned to a dark, star-free part of the northern hemisphere sky to gather a “Deep Field” image. This effort took 10 days to gather enough photons to see anything in that apparently empty patch – a tiny patch of sky the size of a tennis ball at a distance of a football field. Another Deep Field image was acquired in the southern hemisphere the following year, and both images were full of far-distant galaxies. These have been extrapolated by cosmologists to suggest there are as many as 2 trillion galaxies in the universe.

Some simple multiplication gives 2 x 10+12 * 5 x 10+9 ≈ 10+22 worlds out there. That’s 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (in other words, ten sextillion) Earth-sized worlds.

Of course, there are caveats upon caveats with this number. For one thing, the early universe did not have enough heavy elements for any Earth-like worlds until sufficient stars had formed, grown old, and gone nova/supernova to provide the life-critical heavier elements such as oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, silica, and iron, etc. How many of these worlds orbit in a “Goldilocks Zone”? How many orbit single stars instead of complex binary stars? How many have "correct" ratios of light isotopes (C, O, N, P, Si, etc.) to heavy isotopes (Fe, Cr, Mn, etc.)

From latter-day revelation we know that the Father and the Son have tangible bodies of flesh and bone (D&C 130:22–23 / Articles of Faith 1). They look like us (or more correctly, we are organized in their image). This implies that Father in Heaven can be in only one place at a time.

I want to qualify this “implies” word carefully, because the history of humankind is full of men who try to put human limits on a Creator who is far beyond what they can possibly comprehend.

But if so, then the significance of Father In Heaven visiting our world even once is hugeMuch less six times.

Why Now? I put together a chart of the (growing) Signs of the Times. I found seventeen separate prophesies about these Signs in scripture – and more than half of the seventeen – nine – have been fulfilled only since 1820! There are just five more to go, and two are pretty terrifying:

Clearly the Signs are accelerating. Gathering Steam.

In “Nerdlish” the curve is non-linear; the 2nd Derivative is strongly positive.

Pres. Nelson reinforced this observation in the October 2018 General Conference:

“If you think the church has been fully restored, you’re just seeing the beginning… There is much more to come.… Wait till next year. And then the next year. Eat your vitamin pills. Get your rest. It’s going to be exciting.”
We are celebrating the 200th anniversary of one of just six Cusp Events in all of human history.

I am so grateful that my Father in Heaven chose to come here personally – first to bring about, and now to accelerate our salvation.

==Jeff Wynn, 8Mar2020, the last talk given in the Grass Valley Ward.

15 January 2019

Climate Change - Is IT REAL?

        Yep, Nelly, that cow’s left the barn.

You can choose not to believe in climate change, but it's pretty much a done deal. A landmark peer-reviewed study (Cook, et al., 2013) evaluated 10,306 scientists, and concluded that over 97 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is real and largely caused by humans. These are the guys actually gathering the data and doing the scientific analyses – not politicians. No “belief” is really necessary anymore, because evidence such as spiking carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, sea-level rise, the disappearance of arctic sea-ice, northward migrations of pests, and decimations of formerly healthy species are all around us.

        In fact, climate change has been going on since the beginning of time, and there is a huge trove of geologic evidence supporting the fact that our world is always changing. This evidence comes from stable isotopes in lake sediments. It also comes from fossil evidence such as cold-blooded fresh water animals whose remains have been found in Antarctica. It comes from packrat middens (ancient packrat nests that can be dated using Carbon-14) and tree-rings (Thompson, 1990).  One of us has visited Anasazi building sites in the southwestern United States, and the density of these structures in now-waterless lands prove that a large number of people lived in a region that today could no longer support even a fraction of that evident population. We could fill our house with all the documentary evidence that has been accumulating that shows our climate has changed and is changing.

What climate-change deniers are fighting about most about these days is a slightly more specific question: how much of the recent climate change is Anthropogenic – that is, caused by humans? It's no surprise to anyone that we are using more fossil fuels today than are being replenished, by many orders of magnitude. Records kept since the 1950's at an atmospheric observatory on Mauna Loa volcano's north flank in Hawai'i show a steady rise in CO2 in our atmosphere. It has gone from 312 parts per million in 1955 to over 400 ppm today. (See for instance http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/ ).

        That’s a 25 percent increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in less than our lifetime!

        Recently, scientists have made enough measurements to quantify what is contributing to this CO2 increase in our atmosphere. It’s not volcanic eruptions. A USGS scientist named Terry Gerlach (Gerlach, 2011) showed that volcanoes do not contribute most of the CO2 to our atmosphere. In fact, they contribute a minuscule amount, two orders of magnitude less than the contributions to atmospheric CO2 from humans. Here are the final measured numbers:
Volcanoes:       0.26 Gigatons of CO2 per year     
  Humans:        35.00 Gigatons of CO2 per year

And it's accelerating: there has been a 550 percent increase in the rate of atmospheric CO2 emissions just since 1950. CO2 is a known greenhouse gas, as high-school kids sometimes prove in physics classes. A greenhouse gas is a gas that causes heat to be retained by our atmosphere. Methane is an even more effective heat-retaining greenhouse gas than CO2 – and the dramatic increase in population in the past century of people who want to eat beef has dramatically raised the methane naturally released by herbivores in their fermentation-digestion process.

How could the CO2 emission rate ramp up so strongly? Well, for starts, China is bringing one new coal-fired power plant online nearly every week. There are commonly dense-smog days that are declared health hazards by the American embassy, because the Chinese government has blocked publication of the air-quality numbers. India is fast converting itself from a rural agrarian society to a society of middle-class people who ALL want their own car. While some American states and European countries are making small steps, they are nowhere near enough to offset the huge carbon and particulate emissions from just these two countries alone.

There is now even a new name for this era we live in: the Anthropocene. Until recently, geologists broke up prehistory into several categories:
The Precambrian Era ended about 542 million years ago (we start seeing fossils).
The Paleozoic Era ended about 250 million years ago – when 95 percent of all living things died during what is called the Permian Extinction.
The Mesozoic Era (the age of Dinosaurs), which ended about 65 million years ago when a 10-km/6-mile diameter asteroid crashed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula.
We are now in the Cenozoic Era, which has several sub-sets:
  - The Paleocene lasted until 56 million years ago
  - The Eocene (when horse ancestors first appeared) lasted until 34 million years ago
  - The Oligocene lasted until 23 million years ago
  - The Miocene lasted until about 5 million years ago
  - The Pliocene lasted until about 1.8 million years ago
  - The Pleistocene (Saber-Tooth Cats, Mastodons, etc.) lasted until about 11,000 years ago.
        - The Anthropocene (the Epoch when Man changed EVERYTHING).

Until recently, the last ~11,000 years have been just called the Holocene. Now the Holocene has been divided up to add a more recent epoch: the Anthropocene: The Time When Man Started Changing Things.  A singular characteristic: in the last century, mass-extinctions have accelerated so fast (Kolbert, 2014) that it's comparable to the extinction event that ended the age of dinosaurs. Instead of a killer asteroid this time, it’s… humankind.

        There are a number of other Signs of the Times, but this may be the most seriously under-estimated one.

26 April 2018

Subduction Events, Related Volcanoes – and Nephi’s Smoking Gun

In 1973 Hugh Nibley gave a lecture at the University of Arizona. We tried to get him to autograph our copy of his book, “Since Cumorah,” (Nibley, 1967), but he initially refused. “There are so many better examples now available, some discovered even as this book was being printed, that I’m embarrassed to sign this poor thing.” Eventually he signed it, however, and the book is still treasured by our family.
            In fact, while “Since Cumorah” was going through the publishing process and for years afterward, hundreds of new geographic and scientific discoveries have been made (and are still being made) supporting the veracity of historical and geographical details in the Book of Mormon. All of these appeared more than a century after the Book of Mormon was first released and were, of course, unknown to anyone in Joseph Smith’s time, let alone a poorly-educated young man living on the edge of a rough frontier.
            For example, one item that did not make it into “Since Cumorah” was the surprising similarity of details in 3 Nephi 8 to the events surrounding the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens, which took place 13 years after “Since Cumorah” was first published. To a professional volcanologist, this chapter accurately describes a cataclysmic volcano-tectonic event on a major subduction zone. Yet volcanoes, earthquakes, subsidence, and allocthons are geological phenomena that don’t exist within 3,000 kilometers of western New York State, nor were they known to any Americans in 1828.
Joseph Smith grew up in Vermont and New York State. He received only three years of formal education in his entire lifetime. Western New York is covered with glacial moraines – huge gravel and boulder piles shoved down from their origins in Canada by the glaciers that retreated with the Younger Dryas epoch about 11,700 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. Cumorah, the hill where Joseph found the golden plates that he translated as the Book of Mormon, is one of these glacial moraines. Joseph Smith had never seen a volcano nor felt an earthquake in his short life. A primitive form of the field of volcanology existed at the time, mainly in Italy around Vesuvius, Etna, and Stromboli volcanoes, but Pompeii and Herculaneum had not yet been seriously excavated. Tectonics as a scientific field would not develop until more than a century later.
            Back to Mount St. Helens: Its 1980 eruption was classified as a VEI 5 event – that stands for “Volcano Explosivity Index Level 5.” This VEI scale (Newhall and Self, 1982) is approximately logarithmic: a VEI 4 is about 10 times smaller than a VEI 5 event, and a VEI 6 is about 10 times greater than MSH 1980. Third Nephi, chapter 8, describes a geological event that would rank somewhere between a VEI 6 and a VEI 7. In 3 Nephi 8 we encounter 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..." describing the disaster that engulfed the Nephites nearly 2,000 years ago.       
Huge, hot pyroclastic density currents and tephra typically burn and bury all living things within their reach during these events, and completely reshape the face of the land. Magnitude 8+ earthquakes sink cities and everything else – there is a drowned forest in Puget Sound that was sunk by the January 1700 AD subduction megathrust earthquake (Atwater and others, 2005; 2015). Earthquakes this violent commonly redistribute whole sections of mountains to cover and fill valleys, sometimes even causing flanks of mountains to slide so fast that they fly through the air before they hit; these are called allocthons by geologists; and these monster events make smooth places very, very rough.
For “vapor of darkness” substitute “volcanic ash” and everything falls precisely into place. This kind of ash suffocated many of the people who died during the eruption of Mount St Helens on May 18, 1980; and the city of Yakima, Washington, was essentially shut down hours later as a meter-thick blanket of ash fell on the town. Contemporary descriptions tell us that day turned to night and the street lights came on around noon (Waitt, 2015). Please keep in mind that the May 18, 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens was relatively small when compared to ash and tephra falls now well documented in Central America.
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 of Fire includes hundreds of volcanoes, some of them HUGE, including supervolcanoes like Cerro Hudson in southern Chile, Masaya in Nicaragua, Katmai and Veniaminof, in the Aleutians, Sheveluch and the Mutnovski-Gorely complex in Kamchatka, Aira in Japan, and Taupo in New Zealand. We can't leave out Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, whose 1992 eruption lowered the worldwide temperature by two degrees Celsius, and we must include the long arc of volcanoes in Indonesia fronting the Indian Oceanic plate, 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 (Gibbons, 1993; Ambrose, 1998).
            All these volcanoes (except the Indonesian archipelago volcanoes like Toba) 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 each over-riding continental plate with its subducting 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 (which caused a tsunami that 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 then created the "Orphan Tsunami" that destroyed villages on the Japanese east coast (Atwater and others, 2015). The magnitude 8.6 Aceh subduction earthquake of 2004 triggered a tsunami that killed at least 250,000 people along the Indian Ocean margins. The magnitude 9.0 Tohoku Earthquake of 2011 triggered the meltdown of the Fukushima-Di-Ichi nuclear plant and devastated the northeastern Japanese coast yet again.          
            During the colonization of Central and South America by Spain, a number of regional Central American capitals (including Santiago de Guatemala, and Managua, Nicaragua) were repeatedly buried and/or pulverized. In each case, the city had to be entirely rebuilt, often in a different location.  To say that earthquakes and related volcanic tephra-falls have 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 especially since the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens, volcanologists have known that lightning storms are closely associated with Plinian eruptions (named for Pliny the Elder, killed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD). This is because of the prodigious electric charge dragged aloft along with the vast amounts of volcanic ash that are blasted up to the stratosphere. Those electric charges accumulate until voltage differences are so great that they must discharge back to the earth via lightning.
            But what caused the "vapor of darkness" described in 3 Nephi 19 and 20? This was almost certainly a smothering blanket of volcanic ash. As attention-garnering as it was, Mount St. Helens 1980 was a relatively small eruption (VEI level 5). Yet this event still lofted about 3 cubic kilometers of material and left nearly a meter-thick blanket of ash on Yakima, Washington, 240 kilometers to the east, within a few hours of its eruption (Waitt, 2015). Can ash put out fires? Yes – ask any forest fire fighter (one of us worked his way through college fighting forest fires each summer) or ask anyone who learned how to shovel dirt and ashes onto a campfire to smother it.
            So, what caused all this destruction? To get a handle on a “smoking gun” responsible for 3 Nephi 8, we must examine the largest volcanic eruptions in Central America (Sigurdsson et al., 2000; Jordan, 2003; Kutterolf, et al. 2008; Grover, 2014). One sneaky but efficient way to do this is to accumulate information on tephra, the fragmental (pea-to-cantaloupe-size) material blown out by a volcanic eruption. More to the point, we want to know how far the tephra reached (we are not really interested in ash here, because ash can travel all around the earth). The greater the distance that the tephra falls reached, the larger was the eruption. Two events stand out:
  • Masaya volcano, Nicaragua, about 2,100 +/- 100 years ago. It deposited tephra as far as 170 km distant.
  • Chiletepe volcano, Nicaragua, erupted about 1,900 +/- 100 years ago and dropped tephra as far as 570 km distant.
            Note that these dates are very approximate (see Kutterolf, et al., 2008). 
            The Masaya eruption lofted approximately 8 cubic kilometers of ash and tephra, nearly three times more than Mount St Helens in 1980. Both Chiletepe and Masaya lie east 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 of crustal movement is important, because it is nearly three times faster than the Cascadia subduction rate in the Pacific Northwest of the US. This faster subduction rate means that there are proportionally larger and more frequent volcanic eruptions in Nicaragua than in the Washington and Oregon Cascades. Central America is basically a gargantuan pile of volcanic lava, tephra, and ash covered with recent soils and vegetation. In that sense, 3 Nephi 8 doesn’t record such a remarkable event, at least not by local standards – except for the timing of it.
            In other words, the Book of Mormon is fully conformable with the geologic record of Central America.
            This subduction-earthquake-volcano cataclysm is just one example among many where modern science seems to be converging with events and geographical details recounted in the Book of Mormon.  Other examples include linguistics (for instance chiasmus, Egyptian names, and other Semitic cognates seen in the Bible (see Welsh, 1969; 1981), and the remarkable correlations of the first 17 chapters of the Book of Mormon with the still-accumulating details of the Frankincense Trail (see Hilton and Hilton, 1976; Givens, 2002). The stories recorded in the Book of Mormon by prophets over the 1,021 years of its internal history are remarkably consistent with geologic, geographical, and historical evidence now known.  The Uto-Aztecan language group in the Western Hemisphere is loaded with both cognates and fossil linguistic structures only found in Semitic languages of the Arabian Peninsula (Stubbs, 2016). 
          None of this information, however, was available in Joseph Smith’s lifetime. None of it "proves” the veracity of the Book of Mormon – but it sure hints at that direction pretty strongly.  

           That name Masaya is a coincidence, but it still took my breath away. 

13 December 2017

Is Water Wet?

In the response below I had to throttle back my Inner Scientist from wanting to strangle certain abusers of social media. Facts are NOT the same as Alternative Facts. Internet Foo-Foo is NOT truth. Much of it represents all the bad consequences of the 1st Amendment to the American Constitution - without any redeeming good.

Q: So on social media there’s been a huge debate on whether water is wet or not. I believe water is not either wet or dry. So is water wet?  - Kacie M

A: This is akin to Medieval arguments about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. In other words, it's a pointless issue. Water is water. Wet means something has water on or in it in all versions of the English language that I am familiar with. I did a cursory look and did not see a "huge debate" on social media about water being wet or not. 

Social media should NEVER be considered a source of meaningful information, as there is no vetting, no peer review of the content you see there. People make up "Alternative Facts" and post them to social media, and if it's done with flashy visuals, some weak-minded and poorly educated people might take this stuff as fact. Don't YOU fall into that old make-up-a-fact trap. That's what humanity fought its way out of the Middle Ages to get away from. Your smart phone doesn't work because of some made-up fact about electricity.

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.