Friday, December 30, 2011

Newt Gingrich Dumps Hayhoe's Climate Chapter

Unfortunate news today that a chapter on climate science, which was being written by Texas Tech Professor Katharine Hayhoe, is apparently not going to be included in a new book by former Speaker of the House and Republican Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich.  The new book was intended to be a collection of essays about the environment, a book that many Republicans who are concerned about the environment were looking forward to.  This action as well as others in his most recent campaign for the Republican nomination show significant movement back away from legitimate climate science.  As recently as 2007, he outlined a position on how the Republican party might offer alternative political solutions to climate change in an interview with Andrew Revkin, of the NY Times Dot Earth blog.  However, his recent comments show a new opposition to a cap & trade solution.

Hayhoe is also well known as an evangelical Christian, who has written a book on climate change with her pastor husband, A Climate for Change, a book designed to engage evangelicals in the debate on climate change.  It is high on my reading list for 2012.  Her views on climate science are summarized in this interview with blogger Jonathan Merritt.  Giver her credentials and influence among evangelical Christians, Gingrich's removal of her chapter from his book on the environment is a terribly unfortunate turn of events for the progression of understanding climate science in America.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Optical Mineralogy at Arizona Science Center

Back a couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Arizona Science Center, located in downtown Phoenix.  Much of the exhibits were for sciences other than geoscience - stuff like motion, gravity, building things, the human body, weather, and similar things.  There was one section on geology, and so, you know, at least it existed!  One exhibit was on the rock cycle, which had some interesting, amusing animations (although I wondered if they introduced some misconceptions, but that's another story).  Another, however, was on looking at rocks with a microscope, and showed images of optical mineralogy.

Yes, that's right, a science museum had an exhibit on optical mineralogy.

There were a bunch of different samples of rock types with a hand magnifier to look at them, but at the top, there were two screens that kept rotating through a series of images taken with a polarized light microscope.  There wasn't much information about the images, but they were at least pretty to look at & had names that lined up well with the hand samples below.  Some of the images were taken with the analyzer in & some with it out, but it didn't go into any details, unfortunately.  Here's a shot of the full display, with a cross-polars view of a garnet mica schist in the screen.
The Earth Rocks! exhibit at AZSC.
Here's the floor plan of the area that contains this exhibit, mouse-over the gray rectangle at center-left to find it (unfortunately not a lot of info on the website either).

So that pretty much made my day.  I enjoy teaching optical mineralogy, but it is very tough to do, even with dedicated geology majors.  Maybe if there were a few more exhibits like this in the world of science museums, my job would get a shade easier.  And of course, if more people in the world knew even a few basics about how to identify rocks, we'd all be a lot better off!

So on one final note, who can name this dark brown, wedge-shaped beauty in the center of this image?

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Growing Collection of Geology Field Photos

Today over at Georneys, Evelyn suggested, in what's sure to become a geoblogmeme, posting geology pictures.  I love it when geologists share their photographs, and since late August I've started building my collection of geology photos and posting them on Google+.  It all got started when I decided to take a leap and submit one of my photos to the NASA site Earth Science Picture of the Day, and they accepted it.  I mainly did that because I was a bit bored of all the cloud formations that tend to dominate the EPoDs (need more geologists submitting their pics to this site!).  Anyway, that experience as well as the huge amount of great photo sharing on G+ led me down this path.
Isoclinal folds in high-grade gneiss, eastern Blue Ridge, Southern Appalachians.
The pics are being collected in an PicasaWeb album.  When I post them on G+, I give a longer description & explanation so my followers can learn something cool about geoscience.  All of the photos are geotagged and their locations can be seen on the map in the PicasaWeb album (unfortunately, the same album viewed in G+ does not have the spiffy googlemaps with it), so that others can visit these locations and see for themselves.
Chilled margin in granite, St. Francois Mtns., MO
I've cross-posted the links to the G+ posts on my BookFace & Twitter accounts, but so far the blog here hasn't seen them.  I've also tagged each of these posts with the hashtag #geopic.  In this way, anyone can see the photos and search for the descriptions I wrote about them easily on G+.  I'm happy to let any geoscience instructors use them (unaltered, of course) as examples in their lecture slides.  A lot of photographers post beautiful pictures of landscapes, and I'm not a serious photographer in that way; these are meant for science, not necessarily for art.
Deformed mudcracks, Valley & Ridge Province, east TN.
So without further ado, here's the link to the collection:

The collection so far includes 14 pictures (I post about 1 per week).  I also upload the photos to my panoramio account so they can be viewed in Google Earth & Maps.  The collection so far includes about 10 structures (3 folds, a textbook delta clast, deformed mudcracks, en echelon veins, liesegang rings, a chilled margin in granite, and GIANT-size joints & cross beds), 2 landforms, 1 fossil, and 1 mineral/crystal.  I guess that's a bit skewed toward the structures!
Delta clast in gneiss, Parry Sound Shear Zone, Ontario, CA.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Driving Forces of Plate Tectonics

Diverting attention here at the blog again away from mineral resources & environment (I seem to do that more often than not lately!), I'm writing up a post on the driving forces of plate tectonics.  No time for uber-basic stuff here; gotta get deep in a hurry.

Yesterday, a geology student at a university tweeted that his physics professor had told him that plate tectonics was driven by the gravitational force from the moon.  Wowsa, that's awful bad.  Downright ridiculous.  A number of folks in the geotwittersphere have jumped in on the conversation, pointing out how silly this is.

However, within this conversation, a common misconception has arisen that could benefit from clarification, and that is the idea that mantle convection is the main driving force of lithospheric plate motions.  That's not entirely true either.  That model was initially assumed as true when plate tectonics was proposed, but has been discarded.  This model is still sometimes shown in introductory geology textbooks, and hence it still is propagated.  For example, in the text "The Changing Earth", 4th ed., by Monroe & Wicander, published by Thomson Brooks/Cole, 2006, Figure 1.9 explicitly shows mantle convection cells that are intimately related to lithospheric spreading centers and subduction zones.  The caption to the figure states "Earth's plates are thought to move as a result of underlying mantle convection cells in which warm material from deep within Earth rises toward the surface, cools, and then, upon losing heat, descends back into the interior.  The movement of these convection cells is thought to be the mechanism responsible for the movement of Earth's plates, as shown in this diagrammatic cross section."  This image below, from a web search ( demonstrates this model, and is very similar to MW Fig. 1.9 (probably from an earlier edition of the textbook):

This isn't the only introductory text that makes this error, and it certainly isn't the only error found in many introductory textbooks.  It's still a good textbook - but this figure is wrong.  In fact, if you google "mantle convection", you'll see lots of images & sites that continue this error of directly linking mantle convection with plate motion.  

To correct these issues, however, let's take a look at an extended quote from "Earth Structure", 2nd ed., written by Van der Pluijm & Marshak (W.W. Norton, 2004), from section 14.10, pp. 364-365:
"The question of what drives the plates remains controversial to this day.  In the years immediately following the proposal of plate tectonics, many geoscientists tacitly accepted a convection-cell model, which stated that convection-driven flow in the mantle drives the plates.  In this model, plates were carried along the back of flowing asthenosphere, which was thought to circulate in simple elliptical (in cross section) paths; upwelling (upward flow) of hot asthenosphere presumably occurred at mid-ocean ridges, while down-welling (downward flow) of hot asthenosphere occurred at the margins of oceans or at subduction zones.  In this model, the flowing asthenosphere exerts basal drag, a shear stress, on the base of the plate, which is sufficient to move the plate.  This image of plate motion, however, was eventually discarded for, while it is clear that the mantle does convect, it is impossible to devise a global geometry of convection cells that can explian the observed geometry of plate boundaries that now exist on Earth.  Subsequent calculations showed that two other forces, ridge push and slab pull, play a major role in driving plates."
Van der Pluijm & Marshak then go on to describe ridge-push force & slab-pull force in more detail.  This chapter is a great starting point for anyone who is interested in learning more about plate driving forces, and there are a number of references given at the end of the chapter for further reading.  Notably, Marshak has also written an introductory geology textbook "Earth: Portrait of a Planet" where this is explained correctly, but I think this might be the only introductory textbook out there to get this right!

It is certainly true that without a flowing, convecting asthenosphere, you cannot have a subducting lithosphere.  Hence, mantle convection is intimately tied to plate tectonic motions.  But it is overly simplistic to state that mantle convection drives plate tectonics.  The two systems, mantle convection and lithospheric plate movement, are related and connected to one another, but they are not a simple, single system.  Plate tectonic motion is really a passive system, largely driven by gravitational forces acting on materials that become unstable due to their density.  Once a lithospheric plate begins to subduct, the density of the plate pulls the plate down, exerting a pulling force on the rest of the plate at the surface, much like a table cloth hanging off one one end of a table too far and the whole thing slides off.  The effects of slab-pull & ridge-push forces can be seen in the rates of plate motions.  For example, the Pacific plate is bounded by the East Pacific rise and other ocean ridges to the east, and by a number of subduction zones on the western side.  The Pacific plate is cruising along at a quick pace of ~9 cm/year, largely due to the added force of slab pull.  Conversely, the in the Atlantic where subduction zones are very minor, the spreading rate is less than 1/3 of that, at only ~2.5 cm/year.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

I'm thankful for ... minerals?

So today is Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday for those of us in the U.S.; a day to set aside time for reflection about the things we are thankful for.  I think it's a great holiday.  Officially declared during the Civil War by the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, but it has deep roots in the settling of the Americas, and most of the time people think about pilgrims & native Americans on this day.

It is easy to be thankful for food.  Especially delicious food that's easy to enjoy when surrounded by family and friends.  That roasted turkey, mashed potatoes & gravy, sweet potato casserole, pecan pie, apple pie, and all the rest are going to put a smile on everyone's face; a few naps will be taken as well!

As a geoscientist, I think there is another dimension of thankfulness that often gets overlooked - the Earth itself. It's easy to be thankful for food at a meal - is it easy to be thankful for a tank of gasoline?  for copper wiring?  for concrete sidewalks?  for an aluminum can?  All of these things are part of our daily lives and make modern society possible.  Without them, life would be downright primitive. So I think I should be thankful for them, because they make life better.

Hold up, though - these things also bring about some serious problems.  In a typical copper mine, the copper makes up less than 1% of the rock, and the other 99% is worthless rock to be dug up and stuck in a huge pile somewhere, leaving an enormous scar in the surface that's never going to get filled.  Take a look at the Bingham Canyon Copper mine, one of the largest Cu mines on Earth:

View Larger Map

This hole in the ground is over 2 miles across, and is never going to be filled in because no one will ever want to spend the money to do it.  And gasoline?  Remember that incredible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a year ago?  A huge disaster, destroying life and making a mess of the whole Gulf!  If you missed it, there were some great visualizations, such as this one and this one, that allow you to see how big the spill was compared to any other place on Earth.

So how can we be thankful for things that bring such disasters to our world?

Maybe that's exactly the point.  Maybe we get these messes because we never think about the natural resources we use, where they come from, the price that must be paid to get them, and the impact they have on our environment.  Maybe, just maybe, if we were more thankful for these things, instead of just ignoring them, our change in attitude might cause a change in consumption.  If we valued these things enough to be thankful for them, then maybe we'd start to see more responsibility, and less waste.

I said at the beginning that I think Thanksgiving is a great holiday.  And the reason I think that is because it is one that deals entirely with attitude.  It is impossible to celebrate Thanksgiving with a crummy attitude.  The need to take some time to reflect on the important things in life and be thankful shoves the crummy attitudes of cynicism out of my head.  There are major environmental problems that result from the abuse of Earth's resources, but maybe a more thankful attitude would help us change some behaviors from neglect to proper care.  So I'm thankful for the Li in my cell phone battery, the Cu wires in my house, and the Pt & Hg lightbulbs I use to light my home.  And hopefully I can turn my gratitude into more responsible use of these things, and less abuse on the planet they come from.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sand Dunes at White Sands Natl. Monument

So apparently the geoblogosphere has gone "yeah sand dunes!!" in the last week (check them out here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here!).  I'll contribute a brief introduction to White Sands National Monument, located just west of Alamogordo, NM.  White Sands contains numerous sand dunes, and as you can see in the pics below, they are quite tall and excellent for jumping off of!  Geologically these are interesting because they aren't made of quartz, but rather are made of gypsum (CaSO4 * 2H2O).  Therefore, the sand is soft, not abrasive, and cool to the feet even when the sun has been beating down on it all summer long.  It is located in a restricted basin, and there is very little annual rainfall, which would serve to slowly dissolve the gypsum.  This location is at: 32° 49.225' N, 106° 16.404' W.  Take a look in google maps - there are hundreds of dunes of all shapes & sizes.  The area totals about 20 miles wide!  

Thursday, November 3, 2011

International Development & Geoscience

At last month's Geological Society of America meeting, there were a number of talks on the role that the geosciences can play in international development.  The presentations were fantastic and challenging, and I think you'll agree.

First off, the Darcy lecture was given this year by Stephen Silliman, a professor of hydrogeology at the University of Notre Dame University.  He spoke about the work they have been doing in Benin, west Africa, where they are working to obtain reliable, long term hydrologic data on the quality of the water.  He spoke of the conditions of the country, where many lack access to clean drinking water, and sewage is often not treated appropriately.  Consequently, many of the problems related to water quality are in fact caused by contamination of wells and streams by human and animal waste.  He spoke about the need to work with the local people in a long term relationship, where the local people come to an ownership of the changes that are needed.  But cultural norms are difficult to change.  I was deeply impressive with his passion to help the people of Benin; it was clear that he was not only interested in scientific data on water, but also he struck me as being very missional about helping these people by using his professional abilities.  It is wholly appropriate for Stephen to be selected as the 2011 Lecturer for the National Groundwater Association's Darcy Lecture Series.  In my opinion this reflects very well on the leadership who selected him for this prestigious appointment.

Additionally, there was an entire session on the subject that took place on Tuesday morning during the meeting.  The session was very well attended with about ~50 people in the audience on average.  I won't attempt to summarize all of the talks here, but the abstracts are all well worth reading.  Jeffrey Greenberg, presiding over the session, began with a discussion of the critical importance of geoscience in issues of resource development, economics, politics, natural disasters, sustainability, and even "the destiny of nations".  Paradoxically, however, he also stated that geoscientists appear to lag behind people in other disciplines in serving in these roles, and instead these roles are filled by engineers, social scientists, and biologists.  As I listened to the talks, some very common themes emerged: 1) professionals will only succeed through working with local people; 2) professionals will only succeed through long term relationships; 3) many of the obstacles are simply needing to properly deal with waste (both solid and wastewater); 4) people are working on these issues all over the world; 5) expertise in hydrogeology is necessary; and 6) behavioral change is difficult but absolutely necessary.  Fortunately, a new NGO has recently been developed, Hydrogeologists without Borders, to help centralize information & resources.  There were talks about Guatemala, Nigeria, Kosova, Dakar, Costa Rica, and Arabia.  One of the more fascinating talks was by James Clark, professor at Wheaton College, who described his work to create inexpensive geophysical equipment to be used for groundwater exploration.  I was amazed at how cheaply he was able to purchase the necessary parts and construct equipment for resistivity and seismic refraction measurements, for less than about $250 each.  He showed data comparing his equipment to more expensive (~$5000-20,000) equipment, and the results brought a smile to every face in the crowd.  He also wrote the software that can be run on an inexpensive laptop computer.  Imagine how many of these sets of geophysical equipment could be purchased & put to use in the developing world for only a few tens of thousands of dollars.  The potential here is staggering.  Another talk was given by a senior geology major in my department here at Olivet Nazarene University, Sam Smidt, who spoke about his work to test the ability of a small-scale version of a biosand filter to remove E. coli from water.  He gave a great presentation and I doubt anyone was able to tell that he's an undergrad!  Few undergrads give talks at GSA, so we're very proud of him and the work he did with my colleague Dr. Kevin Brewer.

The session proposal was written up last December by Jeffery Greenberg, my friend and colleague at Wheaton College, and first sponsored by the Affiliation of Christian Geologists.  As current President of the organization, I couldn't be more proud of Jeff's work to make this session happen.  I hope he'll go for it again this coming year, and that more geoscientists will get involved in presenting and attending.  International development is a place where the abilities of many geoscientists meet with the world's deep needs.

Monday, October 31, 2011

7 Billion

Last night a fascinating thing happened.  There is a counter on a website, ticking upwards at a very impressive pace, and tonight it crossed the number 7,000,000,000.  Seven Billion.

The counter is at the website for Population Action International, and this ticker is counting the number of human beings on the planet.

Seven Billion.

Here's video of the cross over that I recorded at about 12:12 AM central daylight time.

For thousands of years, the global human population was in the millions, perhaps a few hundreds of millions.  We reached one billion in the year 1800 and haven't looked back since, crossing each billion in fewer years than the one before.  Our exponential growth has been staggering!

Image from wikipedia
The details of global population have been discussed a number of places.  National Geographic has been running a year-long series on it, including an impressive photo gallery and this video on the subject that is well worth watching.  

Also at the New York Times Dot Earth blog last January, Andrew Revkin wrote up a great piece on the matter as well.  The wikipedia article for this issue is also quite good in my opinion with lots of useful and good quality information, with details on birth rates, projections of future population, and other things.

Now some might argue that we don't really know if that ticker is right, and in fact the U.S. Census Bureau isn't projecting we cross 7 billion until next March, 2012.  But both of these tickers are models of global population, they aren't of course actual counts of people.  But that's really beside the point.  It doesn't really matter if we crossed 7 billion today, in 5 months, or 5 months ago.  It's kind of like Christmas in this regard - sure, baby Jesus may not have been born on Dec. 25th, but that's irrelevant to the spirit of celebrating Christmas.  The significance of these events in terms of the impact they have on our world is more important than the actual date on which they happen.

A few facts are clear: most of the world's population lives in Asia, and the highest growing area of population is in Africa.  The question is simply how will our world cope with these numbers.  How will all of these people get clean water, and get enough food to eat?  How will these numbers of people affect natural resources, such as metals, energy, and other industrial materials?  The challenges are daunting, but I'm hopeful about it.  I think humanity is able to solve these crises, but we need hearts that value our fellow human beings, our brightest minds to be active at solving these problems, and many hands active in the work.  Perhaps we can all find some kind of role to play in this.

I believe geoscientists have a crucial role to play in this crisis.  Our natural resources, including the essentials of food and water, come from the Earth.  Geoscientists already invest themselves in the study of soils, water, and other natural resources, and it isn't a dramatic adjustment to apply this knowledge to aid areas of the world that are in great need.  Further, we have knowledge about these issues that others need to be informed about; all geoscientists can be educators of those around them on these issues.  We are in a unique position to use our profession to help solve some of the biggest problems the world is currently facing.  A few weeks ago at the annual meeting for the Geological Society of America, there were several sessions focused on the intersection between geoscience and the developing world.  I'll have another post on that topic in the coming days.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Goods vs. Commodities: Why Shell & Exxon are not Walmart

Today in my natural resources & environmental issues course, I brought in a guest speaker, an economics professor.  He visited with my class in order to discuss some of the relationships between ore deposits and economics.  Though I'm certainly no economist, even some of the basic stuff is misunderstood by a large number of people (kind of like geology...).  The relationship between ore deposits & economics is obvious if you know that an ore deposit, by definition, is a mineral deposit that is economically viable.  The issues we are facing related to energy resources, economic growth, environmental preservation & protection, and climate change are complex, and we don't do ourselves any favors by continuing to misunderstand some fundamental concepts.  Our society won't solve these massive, complex problems until we better understand them and rid ourselves of many common misunderstandings.

One of the more common misconceptions that I hear from people about energy resources is the idea that oil companies set the price of oil.  When we hear that these companies are making record profits and at the same time the price of gasoline is breaking our bank accounts, people are quick to get angry and many ask why those companies can't simply lower the price to something that American's could more easily handle.  Large corporations are easy targets in our society - partly for good reason - but falsehoods are falsehoods no matter who believes them or what purpose they might serve.  And so here's a fact: Shell and Exxon/Mobile do not set the price of oil.  They don't decide what they are going to sell it for.  And neither does any other single entity on earth - not even OPEC, or the single most influential member, Saudi Arabia, gets to set the price of oil.  A major producer like Saudi Arabia certainly has some impact, but they don't get too choose.  The misconception boils down to this: people think that oil companies are like Walmart - that the company itself decides what price it will mark on the product when it puts it up for sale.  This problem is that people don't understand the difference in economics between goods and commodities.

In economics, commodities are basically extracted materials - just about any kind of raw material that is extracted from the Earth.  This includes energy resources such as coal, uranium, & oil, metals such as gold, silver, copper, chromium, aluminum, & iron, and other non-metal mineral resources such as road salts, fertilizers, & building stone.  Outside of geology, economic commodities also include timber, corn, soybeans, & other agricultural materials.  Goods, on the other hand, are finished products.  A computer, a desk, a chair, and a kitchen sink are all goods.  The difference between goods and commodities is that commodities have no real difference between one sample of the product and another.  A bushel of wheat is a bushel of wheat.  And a barrel of oil is a barrel of oil.  One company can't claim their bucket of copper is any better than someone else's bucket of copper, so all buckets of copper sell for the same price.  The prices of commodities are determined by the buying & selling of the commodity on international markets.  With a finished good, however, different sellers can try to convince buyers that their version is better.  So computers & lawnmowers don't all sell for the same price, because one lawnmower can be significantly better than another.

I'm not posting this to in any way defend "big oil" companies.  I don't have any intention to either attack them or support them in this post.  My goal is to simply point out that understanding a few simple principles of economics can help us understand what is true, and what just ain't so.  Walmart certainly sets the prices for the products in their store, but Exxon/Mobile doesn't set the price of oil any more than a farmer sets the price of corn.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Accretionary Wedge #38: Back to School: What Teaching Has Taught Me About Learning.

In the Call for Posts to this latest edition of the Accretionary Wedge, Anne asked:
"What should you and I and other geosciences profs be doing better?" 

In graduate school, I took some really sweet courses - like Igneous Petrogenesis from Calvin Miller (at Vanderbilt), and later Tectonics from Rob Van der Voo and Metamorphic Petrology from Eric Essene (both at Michigan).  These courses were fun and memorable, challenging yet enjoyable, and above all, made me think critically about the topics at hand.  There were a number of others too.

And then there were the OK ones, the so-so ones, and the awful ones, and I won't name names.  I knew I wanted to be a professor when I got out, and I knew, as everyone does, that there are professors who are good teachers, and there are those who are in-between, and there are those who need to be encouraged to find another profession.  And I would be one of the good ones, right?

I'm in my 8th year as a professor now since leaving UM.  The one thing I've learned clearer than anything, is that graduate school does not prepare one to be a good instructor.  At all.  I realize now how very little I knew about how people learn.  Spiraling? Student Learning Outcomes? Scaffolding? Pedagogy?  Bloom's Taxonomy? Cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains?  Assessment?  Goals and objectives?  I hadn't really heard of any of those terms.  I was in training to become a professor, a job that at least in part involves teaching, but I hadn't even heard words of the language spoken by those who understand the literature on how to teach well.  Graduate school does not prepare faculty to be good teachers, at least not intentionally.

In my early years as a professor, I absolutely couldn't understand why some of my students struggled so much to learn.  Because I did some things really well.  A lecture, now that I can deliver, with schnazzy, well organized  powerpoint slides, numerous examples, interesting sidenotes, a couple of breaks for questions & discussion, and even a joke or two that drew actual smiles.

But here's what every professor needs to know: of that fantastic 50 minute lecture you just gave, the one you spent 2 full days preparing, organizing, scanning your old field photographs for examples, sifting through textbooks to find the right figures, and all of that - of that 50 minutes where you deliver a great lecture, students might retain about 10 minutes.

10 minutes?!!?  Are you kidding me?!??!  Unfortunately, no.  Now, most of us professor go "now wait a minute, I got a whole lot more out of lectures than that!"  Yes, you did... and that's why, today, you're the professor.  But unfortunately the research shows that most people do not learn well from lectures.  That's something I never learned as a student.  But in my role as a teacher, this point has become crystal clear - for most students, lecture is largely a waste of time, even the good ones!

One concept that has revolutionized my teaching for the better is the realization that if students don't actively use the information being communicated to them, they won't really assimilate it or retain it.  I've seen it many times now in the past 7+ years - I'll give a good lecture, students will comment that they learned the material, and we both feel good about what went on in that time we spent learning new concepts - but then I give them some problems to solve, or an activity to do, and they suddenly have tons of questions!  They may have thought they understood a concept, but now having to apply it they realize they don't get it like they thought. Questions they didn't know to ask, now start coming out.  These are the moments when they are really learning!  All of us learn through our experiences, experiences that require us to overcome something, solve something, find a new way around something, etc.  No one learns to ride a bike by sitting and listening to someone talk about how to ride a bike.  You learn to ride a bike by getting up on that bike and trying to ride it - and you fail the first few times, maybe the first hundred times, but eventually, the neurons start to fire together in the right way, the skills are honed, and off you go!

So professors out there, if your students are struggling, even though you've given them what they need to know in a great lecture, and they've got some good books to help them out, and you went over that concept in class 5-6 times, and they asked questions, and it seemed to go really well, realize this - lecture is largely a waste of time.  Man, I hate to say it!  Partly because I've listened to some really great lectures at times, and really gotten a lot out of them.  Instead, or rather in addition, think about what activities you could have them do, what problems you can give them to try and solve, and whatever else you can do to stop being the sage on the stage and start being the guide on the side.  Because the good thing is, the students still need you.  Student-centered learning doesn't mean that the teacher isn't important, far from it!  Figured out a great way to talk about a tough concept?  Got a great slide to summarize some complicated processes?  Great!  Deliver it well!  Good lectures are still better than bad ones!  But after that, what problems will you give them that will require them to use the information you just presented?  What activities will you assign to them, where they apply the lessons learned?

When I first started teaching, this was really hard.  What am I going to have them do?  Do I have the materials I need?  What questions will I ask?  A really well developed activity takes a lot of work.  To think about the learning goals of the activity, how to immerse the student in the subject, to assemble the right materials and equipment, and to write up a nice looking assignment sheet isn't an easy job.  Fortunately, there is the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College.  For many years now, professors from all over have been contributing activities, labs, and other information to the site.  I find that for me, the best way to use the site is to follow the Teach the Earth link, and then head to the "Upper Level Geoscience Courses" link, find the course I'm teaching, and start searching from there.  There is a wealth of information there, but it isn't always easy to find what you need or what you're looking for even if you know it exists there.  But a lot of the stuff submitted is pretty good, and with enough patience I can generally find something that at least sparks an idea in my head.  Now that I've done it a few times, it has become much, much easier,  to think about, create, and implement good activities, and student learning is increasing.

Teaching has taught me that even the best lecture is largely a waste of time, but working through activities, solving problems, and recreating experiments is time very well spent.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Discussion of Peak Oil

A couple of days ago the Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece stating essentially that all the hype over peak oil is wasted air.  Yergin writes with a clear distaste for anything and anyone who has cautioned the world that oil may not last forever or that we ought to be thinking about what to do about that now.  Let me right away state my first issue with the article: it is filled with flashy, attention-getting language that is mixed with a fair share of hyperbole and grandstanding.  For any of my students out there reading this, when you see language like this, you know one thing: you aren't going to get an analysis that is carefully reasoned, looks fairly at all sides of an issue, and reaches a balanced judgement on the topic at hand.  That doesn't mean it doesn't have some good points to make, but it does mean we need to take a careful look at what it has to say.

The idea of "peak oil" is pretty simple - it is the idea that at some point the world will no longer be able to keep up oil production and over the years global production of oil will begin to decline.   Pretty much everyone believes this; the debate is always about when that time will come and what a post-peak oil world will look like.  The Wikipedia site for Peak Oil is in my opinion quite good on this subject, and another excellent site is The Oil Drum.  The idea was put forward by a geologist named Hubbert, who made some calculations about how much oil is possibly recoverable and then made some predictions about how U.S. national oil supplies will trend in the coming decades.  He began with the idea of small oil fields, and noticed that in many cases the production of oil from oil fields tends to follow something like a bell-shaped curve (technically it isn't a true bell-shaped curve, but it resembles one).  Production is low at first, rises quickly, eventually hits a maximum, and then begins to decline.  Within a larger region, the total amount of oil is higher, so the curve has a very similar shape with the difference being that the curve is larger and the peak comes later.  Hubbert speculated that since fields of oil and regions of oil fields tend to proceed in this manner, then so will the total amount of oil in a larger area - such as a nation, and eventually the whole planet if we continue to extrapolate.  So really it is a matter of scale - small oil fields tend to follow a small bell-shaped curve, larger regions follow a similarly shaped but slightly larger bell-shaped curve, nations and the planet as a whole will likewise follow a similarly shaped but much larger bell-shaped curve.  But in each case, a peak in production is reached and production decreases after that.

In the mid-1950's, Hubbert predicted a curve for the United States and stated that the U.S. would achieve peak oil production ~1965-1970, and decline from that point.  His prediction has been impressively accurate for actual U.S. oil production. Yergin attempts to downplay this in the WSJ article, focusing on the trees and arguing against the existence of the forest.  But it is a simple thing to compare Hubbert's prediction of the U.S. peak with now historical data and see an impressive similarity.  U.S. oil production peaked in 1970, and has been in decline since.  It has also been applied to numerous other regions and again the fit is often pretty good.  In other words, Hubbert's peak is an important concept for us to understand.

In some ways, Yergin is right to critique Hubbert.  Hubbert's idea was a simple, starting model.  It was a model based primarily on geologic volume of available oil.  But the availability of natural resources is not simply due to geologic factors, but also to technological, economic, and political factors.  Hubbert didn't include any wiggle room for advancements in technology, which have increased the total amount of recoverable oil from the world's oil fields by a significant percentage.  There is no doubt that new technologies have allowed us to find more oil than initially anticipated for various oil fields and regions.  These improvements have changed the back end of the curve, so that it doesn't fall as quickly.  What this tells us is that the model needs to be updated and improved, not that the model needs to be ridiculed.

Hubbert's idea applied to the planet as a whole also doesn't incorporate economic factors well (really, at all).  But neither does Yergin's analysis seem complete here.  One problem with applying Hubbert's peak to global oil production is that there is a difference in the relationship between production and price at these different scales.  For a small field, when production begins to decline, there is no affect on the price of oil in the global market.  Production falls and price is unaffected.  This simply cannot translate, however, to the global scale, where decreasing production will have a tremendous impact on price.  As global production begins to decline, price generally will increase.  As the price increases, demand may decrease and cause the price to fall again, but eventually price & demand will find a new equilibrium as the total supply continues to decrease.  The net result generally is that price will rise, but it is buffered by decreasing demand.  But a brief history lesson is in order here.    

Oil prices, production, and reserves have at times followed a pattern such as this: oil reserves begin to get low, decreased supply causes prices to begin to rise, increased prices lead to increased profits, a portion of profits are re-invested into exploration for new oil fields, new oil fields are discovered, reserves & production increase, and prices then drop again.  This scenario played out on a large scale in the 1970's & '80's, when oil jumped from $3/bbl to over $30/bbl in a short decade.  But as the price rose, oil companies began spending their money on finding new sources of oil.  And they were successful, especially in the North Sea (UK & Norway) and in Mexico, both also important for being non-OPEC nations.  As these new discoveries were put into production, reserves and production increased, and price began to fall.

Hence, at times we might think we have reached a global peak in oil production, but the factors surrounding that may lead to new discoveries that in turn cause production to rise again.  So that what we thought was the peak, wasn't.  And this could certainly happen again.  Anyone who's climbed a mountain is familiar with this - often times you think you can see the peak ahead of you, but then you get there and you realize it isn't.

But another point needs to be made that is completely avoided by Yergin: cheap oil is found first, expensive oil is found later.  Yergin states that the world has 1.4 trillion bbl of reserves, and another ~3.5 trillion bbls of reserve base, material that is either not economically viable at the present time (i.e., too expensive to get out right now) or material that is not precisely known from a geological standpoint.  That 3.5 trillion number by the way is highly controversial.  Most of that 3.5 trillion is tied up in very non-conventional sources of oil - tar sands and oil shales.  While these do exist, the problem is two-fold:  1) they will require very high prices for oil in order to be possible; and 2) they will require significantly higher impact on the environment in order to extract them.  Focusing on #1, what this means is that as we continue to move forward in time, the next oil fields are going to require higher oil prices.  As oil production declines and remaining production moves to more and more expensive areas of extraction, price is going to go up.  The days of $2/gal gasoline are very likely long gone and aren't coming back, a point that Yergin doesn't bring up.  Yes there is potentially still a lot of oil out there, but fewer and fewer people will be able to afford to buy it.

In the end, we must also realize that in such a complex global system involving geology, economics, engineering, technology, & politics, no one is ever going to be able to correctly predict the peak of oil in such a way that all of the rest of us will find it absolutely convincing.  There will always be differing opinions on when peak oil will occur.  One thing is clear - we aren't going to know when peak oil happens until after it does, and perhaps not even until a decade or more has passed.  Only in hindsight will we be able to say when peak oil occurs.  The prudent thing then is to make preparations for it earlier rather than later, but currently too few understand the concept and there is no consensus yet on what should be done about it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Earth Sci Pic of the Day

Well I'm thrilled to report that the photo of Diamond Head Crater I shared here a couple of weeks ago was selected to be the Earth Science Picture of the Day for today!  If you missed it, here is my post about the picture from a couple of weeks ago.

Monday, September 5, 2011

GeoTech Review: USGS WaterAlert service

This past week on Thursday, Sept. 1st, the USGS tweeted out the following:

"Smart Phones Know When Rivers Rise...with USGS WaterAlert #usgsnews"

The link takes you here:  to the USGS news release page, which describes the release of a new service called WaterAlert.  I assumed from the tweet that the announcement was for a smart phone app, the kind of thing people download on their android or iphone that uses the capabilities of portable computing.  My mind immediately started thinking of the potentials for combining real-time and historical stream data with all the functionality that comes with a smartphone or tablet, such as an app that shows stream gage height and discharge data, options for "nearby my location" and "search any location", a map view with interactive capabilities, some flood stage warnings/notifications, perhaps some water level & quality forecasts (floods do eventually move downstream, after all), and maybe even some way to work in links to pictures or videos.  That could be pretty cool!  That capability would be very useful for scientists & people in the media out in the field, especially when rivers are rising past flood stage and people or property are potentially in danger.

You Know What Happens When You Assume
Unfortunately that's not quite where we're at.  The WaterAlert service doesn't require a smartphone, in fact it doesn't even require a phone at all for using the service.  To sign up, you click over to, which is linked in the instructions given in the link above.  This page takes a bit of time to load.  The service requires that you choose a single, specific USGS river gage site, and then it will either send you a text to your phone or send you an email based on your preference.  There are several other options to choose from, such as whether you'll get hourly or daily notifications, whether you'd like gage height or discharge data (apparently you can't get both, in a single notification, however), and you can set it so that you only receive these notifications if the data reach parameters you set, such as above or below a certain value, inbetween values, etc.  You get to pick what you want those parameters to be, so to test it out I chose to get notifications when discharge was between 1 and 100,000 cfs for a couple of sites on a fairly large river nearby.

Subscribing to the System
To choose a site at the WaterAlert website, you must first select a state from a list on the left.  There is a map in the center of the page showing the locations of thousands of USGS StreamGage sites in the U.S., but it isn't clickable, at least not at first.  Once you click on a state and on a data type (surface water, groundwater, water quality, or precipitation), then the map zooms to that dataset (e.g., all IL surface water sites) and becomes interactive.  The map is based on googlemaps and so has much of the typical functionality (zooming, panning, and basemap types).  If you select a new state, it will jump to it and show the stations there.  If you zoom back out, the map will still show the stations for the first state you chose as clickable options, so you can see the stations for a large number of states at a time if you like.  However, it will only show one data type at a time - clicking on "Groundwater" after first choosing "Surface Water" will change all the icons in all the states you've clicked on from surface water to ground water, and so on.  At this point, if you mouseover a data station on the map, you'll get an info box showing the name of the station.  Clicking on a station gets you a larger pop-out box that shows the name of the site, the USGS Site Number, and most recent discharge and gage height data.  There is a box at the bottom of the call-out window to subscribe to the data from that site.

Clicking on the subscribe requires that you allow a pop-up borwser window, which brings up the subscription form.  There you enter your email address, phone# if you prefer text messages, and set your preferences for recieving the data.  The first thing you get is an email that you must respond to in order to confirm your subscription, even if you only want text messages, which is typical protocol for most any internet service you want to sign up for.

A major limitation of the service is that you have to submit a subscription to every single data site that you are interested in.  If you want stream gage height data for 3 locations, you'll need to submit 3 subscriptions and confirm each one.  If you want water quality data or information on groundwater, those are different subscriptions.  The problem is obvious - if you really want to follow what's going on in a region, you're going to need a whole lot of subscriptions.  

Notifications by Text and Email
A short time after confirming my subscriptions, I got my first text from  I then got another 19 minutes later; not sure why the second was necessary, but after that the messages started coming either every hour or every 24 hours, depending on the settings.  But, all of the text messages for a single subscription are the same - you get a link.  I was surprised to see that there wasn't any actual data contained within the text message.  The link takes you to a USGS WaterAlert Help page.  Even here, there was no data!  It shows your subscription information, a link to the real time data for the site you've chosen, and a number of "help" links/info for modifying your subscription.  This help page includes your cell number listed on it, with your provider info, otherwise I'd show you a link to see what the page looks like.  When you click on the realtime data link, you'll get a gage site specific page such as this one: By default, it shows all the data for the site (in this case both discharge and gage height) for the past 7 days in a couple of graphs.

But there is an obvious problem - if you don't have internet access and a web browser on your phone, the link doesn't do you much good.  So the text messages really are only good for smart phones and feature phones that minimally have access to websites.  This isn't at all obvious from the sign-up page!  If the text messages contained the actual data that you've subscribed to, then you could use this service on any cell phone that allows text messaging.

If on the other hand you choose to get email notifications, then it is a bit different.  The email message contains actual data - essentially the measurement you requested (e.g., streamflow of  77 cfs) as well as the subscription limits that you set, the time & date of the current measurement, the stream gage number and name, and your notification interval.  It also contains a link for the real time data at the specific station, just like the link shown above, as well as some help links.

Final Thoughts
Now let me first say that I think the USGS is a great organization and it is one that I think is woefully underfunded.  I'm a big fan of the USGS and what they do.

But the bottom line is that this system wasn't nearly as useful or interesting as I had hoped it would be.  The text notifications aren't terribly useful, especially not every hour since the text simply sends you the same link, over and over, every hour.  Once you've got the link from one text message, you can simply check it as often as you like and there is no need to receive the same link as a text every hour or even every day.  The email notifications are more useful since it sends actual data.  But, as is evident from my description of the service above, there aren't a lot of bells and whistles here to get really excited about, and this could clutter up your inbox pretty quickly.  It could be useful if you want to be notified when a stream reaches flood stage, because you could set the parameters so that you only get notifications when gage height or discharge reach those values.  But if you really want to know what's going on with the water in an area of interest, probably the best thing to do is still go directly to the USGS website at and surf around the various gage sites to gather the information you want.

I'm hopeful that at some point someone will write an application for smart phones that can retrieve the data and organize it in a map format so that it can be more easily seen at a glance.  Until then....

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Mountain Cannot Bow To It

I've always been drawn to mountains.  As a kid I lived in western Washington and could see Mt. Rainier in the distance on any clear day.  It was always stunning, and awesome.  As a geologist, I've spent my professional time studying the tectonic and geochemical processes involved when mountains are built up and eroded back down.  Obviously geoscientists have a thing for mountains; they are fantastic and reveal their secrets only after copious amounts of time in the field and lab.

Beyond the scientific interest, however, it seems that mountains have always held an allure to people.  People have found ways to relate them to their lives.  So in this post, I'm taking a step away from the science and even the just fun geoscience related stuff to write something a bit more from a literary, life, and character standpoint.  References to mountains pervade our culture (speaking as an English-speaking white person from a wealthy western nation), and not just ours but also the cultures of many people groups throughout geography and history, space and time.  Mountains are often used as literary references for various principles in life.  Things we love, admire, respect, and fear.  Things we must overcome, or things that might protect us, or perhaps things that might bring terror down upon us.

One of my favorite references to mountains comes from the Disney movie 'Mulan'.  In one critical scene of the story, there's this fantastic 'kneel before zod' movie moment, where the antagonist warrior Shan-Yu orders the Emperor of China, "Bow to me!".  The Emperor holds his cool, and in strength-of-the-man-of-steel fashion calmly replies:  

"No matter how the wind howls, the mountain cannot bow to it."  

I love the emperor's clarity, tenacity, and boldness.  It's one of those story moments where, although he clearly does not possess the physical strength to overcome the snarling warrior, nonetheless he possesses a strength of character that somehow makes up for the gross difference in physical power.  Here, the mountain represents strength, endurance, and steadfastness in the face of the threat.  Life is full of people who howl like some awful bag of wind, crying to us that we bend to their demands.  You see, if you're a tree, you may stand up to the wind, you may not.  You may end up getting blown over when some wind-bag suggests you compromise your ethics so whatever-it-is on the job-site will have an easier go, never-mind the risks or who might get hurt.  But if you're a mountain, well, you simply can't.  

Friday, August 26, 2011

Accretionary Wedge #37: Sexy Geology: Bancroft, Ontario

For the first time in this blog, I've decided to join a host of other geobloggers in the geoblog carnival, which is aptly named The Accretionary Wedge.  This time around, Lockwood at Outside the Interzone has called for posts around the topic "Sexy Geology", described as geology that makes you heart race and your pupils dilate.

In thinking about what to contribute many places came to mind, but in the end so many of them are found near a magical place called Bancroft, Ontario.  Bancroft is a small town that is world renowned for its mineral specimens.  It is the "Mineral Capital of Canada", due to the great allure of the area to rockhounds and mineral collectors, who are drawn there not only for the vast number of minerals that can be found but also the quality of specimens in size and shape.  Of the ~4000 known minerals, at least 1600 are known in the Bancroft area, some sources have said the number is even higher.

There are way too many sites around Bancroft to really give a full account; I'll highlight just a few of my very favorites:

1) Egan Chutes Provincial Park at the York River:
This locality includes several stops on both sides of the York River-
The Goulding-Keane Nepheline Pegamtite Quarry (N 45° 04.201’, W 077° 43.947’) is an abandoned small quarry with easily seen large crystals of magmatic nepheline, biotite, calcite, sodalite, and zircon.  The zircons are large enough to be seen in hand specimen!  This quarry is the source of the large dump of crushed rock in the center of town (N 45° 03.432’, W 077° 51.379’), where rockhounds can pick through these rocks and take what they like.
Continuing down the trail from the G-K quarry, you'll reach the main chute, where the river pinches down at a terrific waterfall (N 45° 04.473’, W 077° 44.081’). The nepheline gneisses here also contain diopside, scapolite, hornblende, plagioclase, and at one point in time contained sapphire (but the larger samples have all been removed).
Egan Chute Falls
Heading back, across the York River from the G-K quarry mentioned above lies the York River Skarn (N 45° 04.210, W 077° 43.914’). The unaltered marble can be seen in a roadcut (N 45° 04.066’, W 077° 43.874’) just before the trail to get to the skarn, which is good to visit before seeing the skarn to truly appreciate the changes that took place in these rocks as the nepheline pegmatite intruded (and it has some spectacular sigma clasts). At the skarn, about 50 minerals have been described at this single outcrop, including garnet, diopside, wollastonite, vesuvianite, forsterite, clinohumite, spinel, clintonite (a green, Ca-mica), among many others.

2) MacDonald Mine:
This is an old uranium mine in a granite pegmatite  (N 45° 09.928', W 077° 49.189'), dominated by GIANT K-feldspar & quartz crystals. Some of the K-spar crystals are ~10' long, and some quartz grains are the size of beach balls. Much of the quartz is dark & smokey, due to the presence of the uranium ore mineral, uranian pyrochlore ("ellsworthite"). The pyrochlore grains themselves are typically round & ~4 inches in diameter. And they are HOT. They will send your Geiger counter into awesome mode. Also present are andradite (black Fe+3-rich garnet), sphene, and zircon. As an American, it is really surprising to be able to freely enter a place like this; in the U.S. this mine would be surrounded by 20' tall fences, barbed wire, and very large guards with very large dogs and guns; the size of the KEEP OUT signs would reach epic proportions. But here in Bancroft, you can just park at N 45° 09.846’, W 077° 49.160’ and hike in.

3) Orange Calcite Roadcut: 
Along Monck Road, a cut at the top of a small hill (N 45° 00.169’, W 078° 00.360’) displays some fascinating rocks with orange calcite and large grains of white tremolite.  Several grains of a highly radioactive mineral I have yet to identify are present here, which are easily found with a Geiger counter as they set it on fire.
orange calcite and large white fibers of tremolite

4) Green Mantle Farm Eco-Tour:
If you have the time, and really, you should make it, there is no substitute for taking a tour with Mark Bramham through his property and adjacent Crown land to see some truly fantastic mineral specimens in the wooded areas surrounding his home (N 45° 00.663', W 078° 14.903').  No sample collecting is allowed, but you won't regret going.  Let me just say "fluororichterite stream".  Richterite is an amphibole like tremolite, but substitute 2 Na+ for Ca+2, and the richterite here contains significant fluorine for the OH- group.  There are very few places in the world where fluororichterite is known, so your choices for viewing it are limited.
Large dark green crystals of fluororichterite
You'll also see gorgeous GIANT euhedral hornblende, orthoclase, green apatite, and museum quality red clinohumite.  The tour lasts 2.5-3 hours, and their playful dogs add to the charm of this wooded walk.  Although he's sitting on a mineralogical gold mine, Mark's passion for conservation is inspiring.  Besides the material found on his own property, He has used the mining law to stake a claim on the adjacent Crown land so that he could protect the minerals and keep them in their natural place for future generations to see.
Euhedral hornblende crystals

Euhedral orthoclase crystals

So there you have it, my take on Sexy Geology, with a virtual visit to Bancroft, Ontario.  And this is but a small slice of what is available in this area!

Friday, August 19, 2011

GeoPic: Diamond Head Crater

I readily admit I'm not a great photographer, but occasionally I get a shot worth sharing. Here's a picture I took of Diamond Head Crater while on vacation in Hawaii.

The shot was taken from an aircraft (obviously); we were on a commercial flight from Honolulu to Hilo. I had a window seat and was looking north. The clouds parted just perfectly for a moment and I was able to get this shot. My wife and I had just climbed Diamond Head a day or two before, but seeing it from the air was really stunning.

Diamond Head crater is interesting geologically because the volcanic eruptions from this crater, and a number of others like it on Oahu, are much younger than the rest of the island. Most people are aware, I hope anyway, that the Hawaiian Islands were formed as the Pacific plate moved across the top of a hot spot. The hot spot is still active today, producing volcanism on the Big Island. Most of the volcanic rocks of Oahu are between 2-4 million years old. Oahu is now over 200 miles from Kilauea, and the age of the island is consistent with the modern tectonic rate of movement of the Pacific plate at around 9 cm/year. But Diamond Head and a number of other volcanic craters are much younger, less than 500 thousand years old. By this point, Oahu was well beyond the hot spot, and most of Oahu had been undergoing erosion for over a million and a half years! So based on all of this, these young volcanic craters on Oahu are very strange - if Oahu was not over the top of the hot spot anymore, why were these volcanoes erupting? This is a point of current research & debate among geoscientists.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Geo Culture Snapshot I

There's no secret that geologists have some common ways of going about life and our business.  Although the culture of geoscientists is yet to form the basis for any dissertations yet, there are nonetheless millions of pictures out there showing us at our best... and sometimes not so best I suppose...

For instance, we geologists love our geo-T-shirts. Here's one I spotted this last week at the SERC Teaching MPG workshop.

And here's another pic showing geoscientists putting thermodynamics to good use.

Friday, August 5, 2011

GPS to fail with solar flares?

I just read an article on CNN talking about how solar flares might cause problems for GPS users.  I was pretty excited to read the article because GPS technology is something I'm very interested in.

But I guess I have to admit that the article left with with a "wait, what??" feeling.  I didn't get enough information from the article to really understand what was going on, only a vague feeling of "GPS might go kaputz sometime".  It boils down to a general warning that GPS may, or may not, fail for some unknown period of time, sometime in the future... I'm really hoping for more detail - when will these events occur?  How intense will they be, how long will they last, and what capabilities should I expect to lose?  Airlines, rescue squads, surveyors, and websites like could certainly benefit from these details.

Apparently a solar flare recently left the sun - the article gives a couple of links to some videos that are kind of interesting to view - and this flare may cause problems for all kinds of GPS devices.  The reason for this comes from research at Cornell University, where researchers detected a significant loss of signal (40-50%) during a solar flare in 2005.  The signal loss consisted of two events, one that lasted one minute, 10 seconds, and a second 40 minutes later that lasted 15 minutes.  The solar flare affected, apparently, all GPS units on the sunlit side of the Earth.  But even this article isn't clear on the implications of a 50% drop in signal for GPS users.  The CNN article also doesn't give any information about when this latest solar burp might reach Earth.

A loss of signal would certainly cause your GPS device to have a harder time calculating where you are, but what's not clear from these articles is how much of a problem this would be for ordinary GPS users.  Who needs to be concerned, and who doesn't, and when?  At one point, the author says to "have a backup navigation system handy, such as a printed map", which obviously suggests that us normal folks driving around might suddenly not be able to use our GPS units to get where we want to go.  Yet the Cornell Univ. research  quoted from 2006 states that "if you're driving to the beach using your car's navigation system, you'll be OK."  So should folks expect that they will need a map, or should they expect that their car GPS will be just fine?

Obviously it will also depend on the size of the solar flare; another point of the articles is that 2011 and 2012 are years where we expect some long, intense solar flares, due to the solar maximum.  These flares, according to the Cornell Univ. researchers, could be expected to result in a 90% loss of signal that could last for a couple of hours.  Now that sounds pretty serious and an event like that deserves some further investigation.  If that kind of signal loss is really to be expected, then specific warnings for certain time periods when such flares are expected to strike Earth are needed - now who's in charge of that one?  People rely on GPS a lot these days, for good reason - it's amazing tech!  I would hope for specific warnings when such signal loss should be reasonably expected; a generic one is somewhat useful but not as empowering to users.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Earth's lost 2nd moon?

Yesterday, news suggesting that the Earth once had a second, smaller moon, erupted onto the interwebs. The model is based on the fact that the moon has two sides - a dark, basalt covered side that faces Earth, and a lighter, more mountainous side made of anorthosite. How the moon obtained its dual sides is unknown, and a number of hypotheses have been put forth. This latest model is the result of computer simulations of the moon's formation.

Based on available data, it is very likely that the moon originated when a Mars-sized body collided with Earth. This collision would have happened very early on in Earth's history; it can be thought of as the final major coalescence of planetesimals that built up the Earth. During that collision, which is sometimes referred to as the Big Whack, the moon would have formed from the debris ejected out into space. Some models of this collision result in additional, smaller satellites forming along with the moon. If a second, smaller moon were to have formed, it would have only been gravitationally stable for a short period of time, geologically speaking. If it were to have slowly collided with the moon, that collision could potentially explain why the moon has its two different sides.  It will be interesting to see how this hypothesis stands up to testing in the coming years.

And now to a related question:  how would two moons have affected Archean Werewolves?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

wikiproject geology

I feel a bit responsible to join the WikiProject Geology, but so far I've stopped short of taking the plunge. It means setting up another account on another website and trying, somehow, to find some time to make some meaningful contributions. It's that latter part that has held me back - time. However, I've love to hear from someone who contributes to it - the process, the contributors, the needs, etc.

good times...

"and suddenly it was as clear as a walk on the beach... they were ripple marks... GIANT ripple marks."

Monday, April 18, 2011

World's most dangerous nuclear reactor?

An article today in National Geographic Daily News discusses a nuclear reactor located in Armenia, which may be the most dangerous nuclear reactor in the world.

Two facts come together to raise the risk of this power plant. One is the design - unlike most nuclear power plants, this one has no primary containment structure. The second is the proximity to geologic active faults, an area of high seismic activity that could potentially shake the reactor to the point of breaking.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

2010 tied 2005 & 1998 for hottest year on record

2010 was a hot one.

The World Meteorological Organization released their analysis today that the average global temperature on Earth in 2010 tied 2005 and 1998 as the hottest year on record. BBC News ran a story today hitting the highlights.

Human induced climate change is a topic that stirs up lots of emotion and debate. I think there should be lots of debate - but not on the topics where it usually is found. The debate is usually framed as "pro" or "con", "for" or "against" the science itself. The debate about whether the Earth's average annual temperature is actually rising, however, is not the place for it. The data are abundantly clear that it's getting hotter out there.

Where the debate should lie is not with whether the science is right or wrong - the numbers are what they are, and arguing against them is a poor position to take. The science of climate changing is solid evidence, and the answers are pretty clear. Rather, the debate should lie entirely with what should be done about it. This is where the question leaves science and enters the world of economics, public policy, cost-benefit analysis, and ultimately values. And the answer to this question is not straight-forward. It is complex & mind bogglingly detailed, and needs many engaged, thinking minds to work on it. Unfortunately, a sober, intelligent debate on the "what should be done" is not where our society is yet, and instead it is the science that is vilified or twisted.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

GIANT snow cones & slushie machine at Yosemite

I think every kid loves snow cones & slushies.  I still remember the Snoopy Snow Cone maker from when I was a kid!  That was a fun toy.  Nowadays, of course, a Snoopy Snow Cone maker has lost some of its charm that it held when I was a kid.  But I've just today come across a video made by Yosemite Natl. Park that highlights what can only be described as Nature's Giant Slushie Machine.  It is really impressive & interesting footage here, bringing out a sense of wonder - kind of the same feeling of excitement and amazement I had as a kid when seeing Snoopy pump out that delicious treat, only this time it's a deeper level of awe.  Check it out, from Yosemite Natl. Park's YouTube channel.