The opinions expressed here are well-reasoned and insightful -- needless to say they are not the opinions of my employers

29 July 2008

Not the Big One -- yet...

Magnitude 5.8, Chino fault... USGS and SCEC are getting good at updating their sites, info was up within 2-3 minutes.

No damage to the building, but I felt a pretty solid jolt when it first hit, followed by a good 10 seconds of moderate shaking (including a dull cracking as the building -- 3 stories, c. 1973 -- flexed). I got on the floor, waiting to see if the shaking would accelerate, like I remember from Loma Prieta and Sylmar (yes, I'm that old). According to the shake map it was most intense to the north of the epicenter, and I'm about 45 km to the south.

Oh, and as I'm writing this the event has been downgraded to Mo = 5.4. The mt shows it to be mostly right lateral motion on a WNW trending fault, with a component of thrust.

...and we're already up to 35 aftershocks, though I haven't felt one here yet...

17 July 2008

Temple Butte Channel

Garry at Geotripper is posting a beautiful account of the history of the Colorado Plateau, based on his recent field course. In his most recent post he discussed the formation and subsequent erosion of much of the Temple Butte Limestone, but laments that he had no good photos. I offer this one for illustration.

Exposure of Temple Butte in south-facing wall in morning light near mile 45.

The erosion that preceded the deposition of the Redwall Limestone was greater in what is now the eastern portion of the Canyon, thus in many places the Temple Butte was removed entirely and the Redwall sits directly atop the Muav Limestone. The scraps of Temple Butte that are found here exist as filled channel cuts. Fortunately in the eastern part of the park the Temple Butte Limestone has a distinctive purple tinge that makes it stand out, especially when the light conditions are right.

In 2002 I was lucky enough to spend 17 days on the Colorado on a private trip organized by some friends from graduate school. If you've never had the chance to spend two weeks floating the entire canyon with a group of geologists, my recommendation is that you drop everything you are doing right now and focus on making that happen! Of course that's my opinion, the 2-3 people we had along who were not geologists might differ (they would be wrong).

Group of (mostly) former Banana Slugs setting up camp just below Nankoweap Rapid (mile 53)

16 July 2008

29 years +1 day ago...

29 years ago yesterday, on July 15, 1979, President Jimmy Carter went on television to deliver what is commonly known as “The Malaise Speech” (though he never used this term). In this address he talked about a number of issues America was facing in the late 1970s, but this section stands out:

What I have to say to you now about energy is simple and vitally important.

Point one: I am tonight setting a clear goal for the energy policy of the United States. Beginning this moment, this nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 -- never… I am tonight setting the further goal of cutting our dependence on foreign oil by one-half by the end of the next decade -- a saving of over 4-1/2 million barrels of imported oil per day.

Point two: To ensure that we meet these targets, I will use my presidential authority to set import quotas… I will forbid the entry into this country of one drop of foreign oil more than these goals allow...

Point three: To give us energy security, I am asking for the most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in our nation's history to develop America's own alternative sources of fuel...

I propose the creation of an energy security corporation to lead this effort to replace 2-1/2 million barrels of imported oil per day by 1990. The corporation I will issue up to $5 billion in energy bonds, and I especially want them to be in small denominations so that average Americans can invest directly in America's energy security.

…I will soon submit legislation to Congress calling for the creation of this nation's first solar bank, which will help us achieve the crucial goal of 20 percent of our energy coming from solar power by the year 2000.

These efforts will cost money, a lot of money, and that is why Congress must enact the windfall profits tax without delay. It will be money well spent. Unlike the billions of dollars that we ship to foreign countries to pay for foreign oil, these funds will be paid by Americans to Americans...

Point four: I'm asking Congress to mandate, to require as a matter of law, that our nation's utility companies cut their massive use of oil by 50 percent within the next decade and switch to other fuels, especially coal, our most abundant energy source.

Point five: To make absolutely certain that nothing stands in the way of achieving these goals I will urge Congress to create an energy mobilization board which, like the War Production Board in World War II, will have the responsibility and authority to cut through the red tape, the delays, and the endless roadblocks to completing key energy projects…

Point six: I'm proposing a bold conservation program to involve every state, county, and city and every average American in our energy battle. This effort will permit you to build conservation into your homes and your lives at a cost you can afford.

…To further conserve energy, I'm proposing tonight an extra $10 billion over the next decade to strengthen our public transportation systems. And I'm asking you for your good and for your nation's security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel. Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense -- I tell you it is an act of patriotism.

Our nation must be fair to the poorest among us, so we will increase aid to needy Americans to cope with rising energy prices. We often think of conservation only in terms of sacrifice. In fact, it is the most painless and immediate way of rebuilding our nation's strength. Every gallon of oil each one of us saves is a new form of production. It gives us more freedom, more confidence, that much more control over our own lives.

So, the solution of our energy crisis can also help us to conquer the crisis of the spirit in our country. It can rekindle our sense of unity, our confidence in the future, and give our nation and all of us individually a new sense of purpose.

…I do not promise you that this struggle for freedom will be easy. I do not promise a quick way out of our nation's problems, when the truth is that the only way out is an all-out effort. What I do promise you is that I will lead our fight, and I will enforce fairness in our struggle, and I will ensure honesty. And above all, I will act. …there are no short-term solutions to our long-range problems. There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice…

I guess I can see where he went wrong: Carter proposed hard work and sacrifice for long-term success. He was followed by political leaders who made a big show of denigrating any talk of sacrifice (I can still remember the celebratory mood accompanying the removal of the White House solar panels) and told Americans that consumption was the way to success and happiness. I guess we know now which one is the better electoral strategy.

For all the discussions we've had over the years about who is a flip-flopper, who is proud to have been a C student or to have finished near the bottom of their class, who we'd collectively like to have a beer with or eat barbecue with, who took honor and dignity from the White House and who brought it back, I can't help but look back wistfully to the late 1970s, the last time we had a president who wasn't afraid to talk to us like we were grown-ups with reasoning skills…

27 May 2008

Breakfast with a Geologist

Haven't posted in awhile. I plan on doing so more frequently this summer, but not until I grade these last few papers on my desk.

In the meantime, Jeff Marshall forwarded me this video: It is not the story of my life as a geologist (I hope it more closely resembles one or all of yours), but we can all dream can't we?

21 March 2008

"There... That wasn't so good now, was it?"

Accretionary Wedge #7: Geology in the Movies

The portrayal of science and scientists in popular culture is always a rich topic, as Hollywood loves stereotype and simplification almost as much as it loves money and giving itself awards (see? I can stereotype with the best of ‘em!).

When this topic was announced my first thoughts went to The Core, which is a whole dissertation topic of its own (though it was amusing watching Hilary Swank land a Space Shuttle in the LA river). I saw this film movie flick the weekend it was released, you know, because as a geology teacher it's part of my job -- like watching South Park.

In my first semester of teaching I got a call from a guy who said that he was researching what he described to me as a “disaster movie about a group of scientists trying to save the Earth when something goes wrong with the core.” He wasn’t sure at the time from what they would be saving it, and he was calling geologists to figure out the “technical stuff.” He had some ideas but wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to write a movie with some real science scattered across a fantasy landscape (Dante’s Peak, Deep Impact) or a movie whose only connection to the real world is that the cast is predominantly bipedal (Volcano, Armageddon).

We talked for about 20 minutes about angular momentum and rotation, the dynamo effect and the magnetic field, cosmic rays and the aurora, the geothermal gradient and pressure (I recall describing a diamond anvil cell and may have defined gigapascal). By the end of the call he had concluded that he would be writing a completely fantasy movie.

I never got the guy’s name, so I’ll never know if it was one of the credited writers, an uncredited writer, or if it was even someone associated with the same project. The phone call may have been entirely a coincidence and had nothing to do with the movie.

The plot is pretty simple: the military has developed an “earthquake weapon” that somehow draws energy from the rotational velocity of the Earth’s core. Since the core contains (I believe) 10-20% of Earth’s angular momentum, I can’t imagine what the quakes would be like…

If my math is right, the rotational energy in the core is ~1035 ergs. If we could draw energy from the rotation of the Earth, we could power the entire human race and have no more effect on the planet's rotation than the Voyager did on Jupiter's orbit when it stole a bit of angular velocity to boost itself into the outer solar system...

Somehow just the testing of this weapon leads to a significant loss in rotational velocity within the core, exposing the planet to laser-like beams of microwave energy from space that slice the Golden Gate Bridge in half, giant lightning bolts that destroy the Colosseum in Rome and causing a flock of pigeons in Trafalgar Square to go all Hitchcock on the tourists.

It was interesting that the lost of 10% of the planet’s angular momentum had no discernable effects on the rotation of the surface, as the people at the surface being fried by laser beams from the sun seemed to be experiencing 24 hour days. What really struck me though was that the kick-start the core needed to get spinning again came from setting off a series of nuclear bombs.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, nuclear tests and radiation served the same purpose that toxic waste did in the 70’s and 80’s and genetic engineering does today: turning animals and human beings into monsters and/or superheroes. Today, the minds that can’t imagine entertainment greater than The Hills Have Eyes II, 10,000 BC and Semi-Pro also cannot conceive of a problem that a strategically-placed nuke can’t solve.

Besides jarring the core back into motion, nukes can be used to start earthquakes (both in the 1978 version of Superman and in A View to a Kill) and stop earthquakes (10.5 – to quote Leonard Pinth-Garnell again: “Exquisitely awful”). A nuke planted 100 meters beneath the surface of an asteroid or comet will break it cleanly in two (both Deep Impact and Armageddon) and change the trajectory of the fragments enough that they miss the Earth entirely, even if the bomb is not detonated until the bolide is within a few hundred thousand kilometers of the Earth…

Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe that the only flick in which a nuclear bomb wasn’t up to the job was Independence Day (starring Bill Pullman, who I always get mixed up with Bill Paxton, the swashbuckling meteorologist from Twister) – but why send a few hundred kg of enriched uranium to do a job that can be accomplished with a virus written on a late 90’s vintage Apple Powerbook?

15 February 2008

Friday Rock-Blogging: a (chemistry) teaching moment

I haven’t rock-blogged in a while, and while putting together a lecture on stratigraphy I came across this photo from a field trip to the southwest last summer.

This was taken at the beginning of a hike along the Frying Pan trail (well-named if you walk it in late June) in Capitol Reef National Park and shows the contact between the Chinle formation and the Wingate Sandstone (above). The photo scale is Rachel, a former student who came along on the trip as a volunteer/TA. The Owl Rock member of the Chinle in this region consists mostly of slope-forming siltstones and shales representing an inland delta.

Utah, especially in the southern deserts, is known for the bright red colors of certain formations, a result of deposition in highly oxidizing terrestrial environments. The upper member of the Chinle here is no exception, and I had spent part of the previous evening explaining to several students about the oxidation states of iron. Imagine my surprise and delight when we climbed up to this contact and found these green veins extending several feet into the mudstone.

These veins represent mudcracks that formed as the shales and mudstones dried. As they opened up they were filled with organic debris that, as it decayed, created a highly localized reducing environment and turned the red clays green. Some of the cracks also contain veins of gypsum.

The image below is a view of mudcracks in the same (or a similar) surface from above. It's not as pretty or instructive as the image at the top, but it is clearly the same effect, and a student spotted it first. It's always a nice feeling when a student notices and points out the geologic features to me...

14 January 2008

Women For President Meme

To begin with, I'm a supporter of John Edwards for president. Barack Obama is my second choice. That said, I don't believe that there are serious objections to Hillary's candidacy based on sexism. I actually haven't heard anyone claim that this is true.

Those on the left of the party don't support her because she is the most conservative Democrat still in the race. I've no idea why the right dislikes her so vehemently. Ultimately her husband's greatest successes in office came from co-opting Republican ideas.

That said, I'm kind of amazed at the willingness of various commentators, male or female, to make blatantly sexist comments about Hillary. A female McCain supporter felt free to call her a Bitch on camera, and Mike Allen of the Politico commented "What voter in general hasn't thought that?" Chris Matthews has referred to her as "Nurse Ratched" and to her male supporters as eunuchs and castratos.

I don't expect that the folks in New Hampshire following her around with "Iron My Shirt" signs were supporters of any of the major Democratic candidates. Try to imagine signs with a roughly equivalent insult directed at Obama or Bill Richardson, and then imagine photos of the incident showing up on the front page of national newspapers, or TV commentators giggling and joking over a videotape of the incident.

OK, I got that off my chest. Women I would support for president if they were running:

1. Barbara Boxer
2. Christine Gregoire
3. Janet Napolitano
4. Hillary (as I said, not my first choice among present candidates but at least she hasn't suggested staying in Iraq for hundreds or thousands of years).

02 January 2008

Energy and environment in the new millenium

One of our newer geobloggers, Callan Bentley, posted recently about his new Toyota Prius. Energy use is a pretty hot topic in all of my classes, as it relates to discussions of fossil fuels and peak oil and to climate change. For what its worth, here’s my first 18 months worth of Prius ownership (I picked it up on the June solstice in 2006):

I used about 250 fewer gallons of gasoline in my first year of ownership, compared to the mileage I got in my Nissan pick-up (my average mpg over the last four years for the pick-up was 20.5). That said, on my Death Valley field trip last October we used more gas (34 students, two instructors, four Ford vans) in 3 days than my Prius used for the first year. Of course a geology field trip is infinitely more justifiable than my daily commute…

I’m personally convinced that the kind of changes we need to be making as a culture are going to require some fundamental changes in our attitudes about the energy we use. While we are encouraged to switch to more energy efficient light bulbs we are paying a couple dollars/liter to drink tap water that has been forced, at huge energy expense, through a reverse osmosis system before being recharged with the calcium and magnesium removed by the RO and then packed into PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) bottles that, per kilogram of plastic, consume about 6.5 kg of oil and release 4 kg of greenhouse gases. Or, if you prefer bottled spring water you can (usually) skip the RO process and spend the energy shipping the water from France or Fiji

One of my resolutions this year is to start commuting by bus a couple of days a week (I’ll keep you updated on how this works out…). It’s 45 minutes to an hour of additional inconvenience per day, but a partial acknowledgment that the use of the automobile for regular commuting is one of the conveniences we need to give up.

But I’ve never believed that the solutions to our problems lie in individual choices. The environment is the commons, after all. The more people use public transportation, or buy cars that get high mileage, the better. But decisions to expand public transportation, or to require that passenger cars get better gas mileage, are made collectively. The free market doesn’t respond to consumer needs, it attempts to manufacture consumer desires (see water, bottled).

I’m going to write more about this in the next few months. If we are indeed successful in lobbying for a presidential science debate this year I can’t imagine energy and environment not being the most important topics.

Contact Me

You can send me email at jrepka@saddleback.edu