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.

13 July 2013

Climate Change - Yes, Maude, she's out o' the Barn

There are a lot of things floating around in the "news media" about climate change. A lot of it is correct, some of it is foo-foo, and far too much of it is deliberate obfuscation by people who have an agenda. There is a crude expression for scientists who sell their souls to corporations, but this blog will not go there.

I thought it might help to provide a short word summary of what's going on:

The Knowns:
1. Virtually all climate specialists not paid by Big Oil agree that the Greenhouse Effect is real. 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 - 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 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. Is it human-caused, though? If we look at the carbon isotopes in this increased CO2, we can show that it is definitely caused by fossil fuel burning.

4. The last time the atmospheric CO2 reached this 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 Florida with my own hands; they are on my bookshelf.

5. 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. 

6. A gallon of gasoline, which weighs 3 kg, will produce about 10 kg of CO2. The extra comes from the oxygen you might want to breathe instead. That's 50 kilometers in my car. And that's not counting the CO2 generated to 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. 

7. Nearly 5 billion 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.

8. Increased temperatures mean more glacier calving, more melting or Arctic, Antarctic, and Greenland ice caps. Less white stuff on the ground means the darker - light-and-heat-absorbing - under-layers will be exposed, trapping yet more solar heat and making the inevitable change non-linear. Translation: the changes will likely accelerate with time. 

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

1. Do NOT to buy beachfront property. Anywhere. 
2. Move to the Pacific Northwest, or to the Canadian prairie provinces. They will be among the few winners of climate change.

The Unknowns:
There are several unresolved questions still:

1. How Fast:
How quickly will the global climate change consequences befall us? This speed of change has never happened before, as far as geologists can tell, in Earth's history. Predicting our future depends on climate modeling, and these models are fraught with assumptions and disagreements. However, they are beginning to coalesce, and are 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 tornados. 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. 
  • A consequence of droughts and wildfires: massive disruption in the world's food supplies.
  • We are already seeing mass extinction of animal life - and explosions of other destructive types of life (e.g., jellyfish, toxic algae)
  • 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.

3. Is it already beyond our control?
The question has arisen: are we already at the "tipping point"? The effect of climate warming on gas hydrates (methane clathrates) that lie beneath most continental shelves is a HUGE unknown. Most estimates (from seismic reflection data) suggest these clathrates are many orders of magnitude greater than all other known hydrocarbon reserves (coal, gas, oil) on Earth combined. Gas hydrates are methane trapped in water ice below ~300 meters of seawater. This is the depth where the pressure and cold ocean floor temperatures currently trap them. They have accumulated there over millions of years from dying sea-life that drops to the bottom (some may derive from oil and gas deposits below them). 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. The hydrocarbon-poor Japanese are pouring huge resources into extraction technologies right now. A crucial unknown question: will attempts to extract this stuff sort of "open the doors" to vast quantities of methane breaking out 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 says yes - 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 the modern world climate: it took hundreds of thousands of years to raise CO2 levels then - as fast as humanity has done in the past half century.

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

27 May 2013

Deterministic Predictability and the Power Grid

Yep, the lights are definitely gonna go out.

This year we celebrate the formal 50th anniversary of chaos theory and the end of deterministic predictability. The latter is the wonderfully intuitive idea that if you understand the physics principles and the starting parameters, you could then predict where a system would be at any time in the future. It’s seems intuitive: set up a row of dominos and you know exactly how things will end when you tip the first one, right? 

That everything-is-predictable-from-the-beginning-conditions idea, however, got us into the Viet Nam war.

Around that same time in 1963 a meteorologist named Edward Lorenz showed that this idea was a failure, at least for most systems beyond what you could set up on a table. The reason? Most “systems” (like the weather, or transform faults, or power grids) are not linear, nor are they simple, like a row of dominos. A slight change in an initial parameter in your weather model (the temperature at one of millions of points over the tropical Atlantic, the amount of dust sent westward by a sandstorm in the Sahara a week earlier, the number of sunspots on the approaching limb of the Sun, etc.) and your final calculated outcome for the Atlantic Hurricane season can be totally different from what your computer had calculated just an hour earlier.

DANG, you say. I really need to know when a hurricane/tornado is going to hit! I’m running a BUSINESS here for heaven’s sake.

Well, don’t give up hope – we can’t predict earthquakes, but meteorologists have made huge progress in the past two decades. Nate Silver in his book “The Signal and the Noise” points out that massive new computing power, coupled with the vaster integrative capacity of thousands of human minds, have together contributed to huge progress in predicting weather out for more than a week at a time. They correctly and precisely predicted the landfalls of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. For human reasons, however, very few people took the warnings for Katrina seriously and thus many people died as a result.

However, weather forecasters still can’t predict when a hurricane will start (though they know when the hurricane season will “light up” their boards), nor can they predict very well the power of these monsters when they hit. The damage usually comes not from the wind, but from the so-called low-pressure storm surge that lifts the ocean up 5 or 10 meters as the eye of the storm approaches land. Think: a 20-foot wall of ocean pouring in on your neighborhood at 20 miles per hour. As an interesting anecdote, Nate Silver shows that local television weather people have a truly abysmal predictive record, far worse than the NOAA weather forecasters, whose data they can easily access for free. How could this possibly be? The reason for this is very human: no forecaster wants to get flogged for UNDER estimating the likelihood of precipitation.

Let’s go back again to the foundations of predicting things. This is, basically, prophesying. Deterministic predictability actually does hold, at least theoretically. The problem is having ALL the parameter data PRECISELY correct in your weather model. It is also important to have a computing grid fine enough that when you do your calculations the temperature and pressure on any given point is not that different from that of any adjacent point. In other words, so the point-to-point behavior can be treated mathematically as approximately linear. Some of Lorenz’ earlier computer models used to try to predict the weather gave different results when run more than once. What? But everything input was the same! Not quite, it turned out. The starting numbers were returned to the computation with only the third decimal place retained – in other words the numbers were rounded up. 26.2653 became 26.265 - and the final results were startlingly different. It took Lorenz awhile to realize this, but there was a big clue down there in the minute decimals.

Classical physics teaches that given the current state of a system, all future states can be calculated. It seemed to work in the 19th Century: it was used to predict the orbits of planets and comets, and slight perturbations successfully guided the search for Uranus and then Neptune (and in 1930 a small perturbation in the orbit of Neptune led to the discovery of Pluto, though that case is arguable). 

However, back in the 1880’s, Henri PoincarĂ© was studying the three-body problem, in which three bodies continuously influence each other in celestial mechanics in complex and overlapping ways. PoincarĂ© noticed “…that small differences in the initial conditions produce very great ones in the final phenomena.” He concluded that prediction is impossible for three bodies orbiting in space. Contemporaries thought they just had a data quality problem, but the root was much deeper than that.

So chaos theory, but without that name, preceded Lorenz by nearly a century. Chaos theory, by the way, has a common metaphor that is fairly widespread: the so-called “The Butterfly Effect”. This stems from the title of Lorenz’s 1972 presentation to the American Association for the Advancement of Science: “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” This is also called ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’, and it’s a trademark characteristic of a complex non-linear system. On the other hand, the trademark behavior of a chaotic system is apparent randomness – but this is deceiving. Determinism actually works, but you have to know ALL the initial data and ALL the force actors to high precision.
Well, what has all this got to do with the electric grid in the title? In the United States there are really three quasi-independent power grids: The Eastern Interconnection for the entire eastern US to about the Kansas-Colorado border, the Western Interconnection from there to the Pacific coast… and the Texas grid. We always knew Texas would insist on being different. It may surprise you to know that these grids are the largest engineering structures ever built, and consist of thousands of energy sources from coal-fired power plants, to the huge Bonneville and Grand Coulee Dam hydro-electrical generators, feeding ultimately to billions of power outlets in our homes. These systems affect virtually every aspect of our day-to-day lives. If you are reading this, it means the grid is working.

However, within each of these domains – and increasingly across their boundaries – a perturbation in one place will cascade across the rest of the network with usually unpredictable consequences.

While there are power generating stations everywhere throughout the three grids, there are powerful sources of irregularity in the entire system. Wind energy sources can drop suddenly, and the growing solar input systems are diurnal (they produce nothing at night), or a power plant may go offline for maintenance. Furthermore, a Coronal Mass Ejection (see  http://jeffwynn.blogspot.com/2012/01/cme-events-how-they-affect-your-life.html) can send a huge bolus of charged particles at our planet. The Earth’s magnetic field is a pretty good defensive barrier, but it can be – and has been – beaten down to the ground. When that happens there are huge telluric currents set up – vast flows of electricity along the ground. When this hits a power substation it can cause huge shorts in the giant accumulators. If you’ve never seen a power transformer “pop”, then you are in for a spectacular surprise as long as you are not next to it. I’ve watched video of a tornado approaching Oklahoma City, and its approach is marked distinctly by bright flashes as these pole-top transformers explode.

When a small transformer like this goes down, it blacks out a part of the network and is repairable within a few days at most. When a larger accumulator explodes in a power substation, it’s a different matter, and there will be huge surges of power coming in on the grid to try to compensate for its loss. Enough of these kinds of events and the instability they bring will cause vast areas to go down. 

The most famous of these events happened in the summer of 1965, when New York City was blacked out. Interestingly, there was a huge surge of births in the area precisely 9 months later. More recently, a CME shut down the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario, when they experienced a huge and long-lasting blackout in the middle of winter. If electricity is your source of heat, this could be a life-threatening event. If you survive, your water pipes will freeze and burst, and you will have heck to pay when it warms up again.

When these surge-and-sag events happen, human operators jump in and try to stop the cascading failure from propagating. But they don’t always succeed, in part because the entire grid is fundamentally a non-linear system, sensitive to the tiniest things. In other words, we can’t predict ahead what is going to happen to our home power supply, because there are too many variables involved and we don’t understand the behavior of the system except in statistical ways.

But the human and growing automation reasons for grid instability are perhaps the most interesting – and the least predictable. Thousands of induction motors in air conditioners can all surge at once and drag down (“brown out”) the entire system when a sudden heat wave hits California, or New York, or any other major collection of humanity. As more and more renewable energy sources come online, the points of failure and surge grow even further. Newer smart appliances just add to this mix because human control steadily diminishes.

It’s perhaps not really surprising, then, that Chinese military hackers have turned their attention to the North American power grid, and have persistently probed the computer control systems monitoring and adjusting against just these sorts of failures.

Yes, chaos theory rules our world. Another way to say this is that our small part of the universe is chock full of nonlinear systems, including especially humans, and nonlinear systems are very hard to forecast.
One final quote, this time from the famous mathematician Pierre Simon Laplace: “An Intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it – an Intelligence sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis… for It, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to It’s eyes.”

01 April 2013

Home Invasions and Practical Statistics

I was awakened a few days ago around 4am by a thump downstairs. This is about the time that the newspaper is delivered to our front porch, so I rolled over and went back to sleep.

But a thunk sound below my bedroom at 1:30am a few days later was a different thing, and I got up and did a systematic search of my 3-level house. In truth, I was pretty sure the sound was a book falling off an unbalanced stack downstairs, or perhaps even a weird dream. How I did that search speaks more to my “weaponized” (NOT firearms) house and my background: I'm a Taiho-Jutsu sensei. Of the Japanese martial arts, this one is sometimes called “Jujitsu on steroids.”

Oh BOY! There may be a 1% chance I can USE this!

But first, back to home invasions. The expression alone conjures terrible images from lurid newspaper reports. If you are only robbed and beaten up, you are fortunate. Home invasion differs from a burglary in its violent intent, and this distinction appears to be largely American.

Home invasions are real, if very rare. Statistics on these are notoriously hard to find, in part because of different crime classifications in different jurisdictions (in many places these are classified separately as homicide, rape, kidnaping, etc.). However, the impact on the human psyche is not unlike the impact of shark attacks. As in most of these “news” events, the real killers are rarely mentioned:
  • fishermen wantonly kill millions of sharks every year just for their fins; 
  • handguns in the United States kill 1,130 times more people per year than lightning does, and 
  • 31,672 more people are killed by handguns in the United States each year than are killed by sharks.
To put things in perspective:

In 2011, there were 8,583 murders in the United States committed with handguns. However, there were 31,672 TOTAL handgun deaths - all the rest (73%) were suicides, with the occasional handgun accident lumped in. This is comparable to motor vehicle deaths in the US.

There is a message here: having a handgun ready to blast someone in your home is statistically a far greater threat to you than the statistical chance of any possible safety it may offer. Read on.

There were 118 reported shark attacks world-wide in 2011, with 17 fatalities. There were 47 “unprovoked” shark attacks in the United States in 2012, with just 1 fatality. You have to wonder about the “unprovoked” caveat: do a lot of people “mess” with sharks? The vast majority of shark attacks occur in Florida. One human death to several million shark deaths is a very unsportsmanlike ratio, IMHO.

There were 28 Lightning fatalities in the United States in 2012, and some 24,000 lightning deaths worldwide. Again, you have to wonder at the disparity in the statistics, as the US represents 6% of the world population. There are many possible reasons, including regions like the Pacific Northwest where lightning is a very rare thing, or perhaps people live in flimsier houses elsewhere.

Back again to home invasions. Are you at risk of one? A pattern of dealing in illegal and “recreational” drugs will dramatically increase your potential likelihood for being targeted. Living in Anacostia, Maryland, or south Chicago will also dramatically increase your risk, but this is probably no surprise to anyone in the US.

What can you do about it?

The reality here is dramatically different than what the National Rifle Association would have you believe. If a woman carries a handgun, there is an 80% statistical likelihood that it will be used against HER: in other words, she will be either shot with her own weapon, or pistol-whipped with it. That’s a pretty large statistical number - basically it is a high probability.

Another take-away: don't carry a pistol in your handbag.

If you’ve ever been to a gun-range, the following observation will be obvious:
It takes slow, calm focus and concentration to hit a human target at 5 meters (16 feet) distance. Imagine trying to do that in the dark, when charged with adrenaline, and both the shooter and the target are moving.

There is a video on YouTube where a traffic stop ends with a perp jumping out of a stolen car and firing several shots at the police officer. The dashboard cam shows that the officer then proceeds to fire at least 12 rounds at the perp, who is running in a straight line towards the nearby forest. NOT ONE BULLET ON EITHER SIDE HIT ITS TARGET.

In a home invasion situation, a handgun is an excellent means to poke holes in your house - and probably several neighboring houses at the same time. It will likely NOT protect you.

  1. Actually, there are several. There are two excellent and inexpensive tools for this, in fact, and used together they are pretty effective:  The first is a cell-phone that has been charging near your bed. USE IT. Call 911 and the entire conversation will be recorded. 
  2. The second tool is a Mag-Light. This has a steel shaft, and a six-C-cell version is the sine qua non, if hard to find. Held on your shoulder, it can be used to both momentarily blind an attacker in the dark and strike a devastating blow. It works like an ASP baton, but it is significantly heavier.
  3. There is also a Taser, if you can afford one (and the necessary training that goes with it). A Taser has been shown to be nearly 100% effective in disabling a targeted human being for up to several minutes after a single zap. There is at least one case, however, where a very angry man fired weapons at police and nearby civilians continuously after taking 42 separate bullet "hits" to his body. Only the 43rd bullet, which severed his upper spine, stopped his murderous rampage. So much for handguns - the N.R.A. loses the facts war yet again.

So...should you then search for the invader and pound him? 

NO! Searching for the invader in your home, no matter HOW many stripes you have on your black belt, is statistically stupid - tactically, medically, and legally*.

Instead, with the cell phone in one hand, you can provide your address to the 911 Operator, and then maintain a running recording of what you see - perhaps including the only court-defensible and relevant description of any intruder that you might encounter. Your objective, however, is to GET SAFELY TO YOUR FRONT DOOR, UNLOCK IT FOR THE POLICE, AND THEN GET OUT.

Leave it to the professionals to deal with the intruder. They can use a Taser (far more disabling than a handgun), pepper spray (which you would only inflict yourself with if you tried to use it without some training and experience), and a handgun if absolutely necessary.

Then stand back and watch. Use your phone to video the "perp walk" for your family, friends, and local TV station.

* Stupid Tactically, Medically, and Legally:
  1. First, compare yourself against a trained pair of completely awake and alert police officers. You lose majorly in this comparison.
  2. Second, a significant number of people, inexperienced in using a handgun in complex circumstances, end up injuring themselves with their own weapon (3rd degree burns, lacerated hands, even self-inflicted gunshot wounds). 
  3. Third, unless you have an unlimited bank account, you should expect that ANY use of a firearm on another human being - for whatever reason - will require hiring an attorney, and then months of court appearances (and thinking about them, which will dramatically reduce your quality of life).