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

20 October 2009

GSA -- Tuesday October 20

About 15 years ago at AGU, a friend agreed to present a poster for an acquaintance who could not get a flight to San Francisco. This was before large format printers, when posters were printed on standard paper and mounted on poster board, when men were men and things we learned in arts and crafts in kindergarten were directly applicable to grad school.

My friend's friend e-mailed the text of the poster, minus figures, and he dutifully printed it out at the last minute, cut off the unix headers, and tacked the pages to the board. As I recall, the science was pretty good, but it was the saddest little poster I'd ever seen in my life... until today...

Seriously though, Ron is advocating that we help/encourage Google to create nothing less than the hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy. In your ideal version of GE, what geological information would you like to be included in the layers? Field photos, filterable by rock type, structure, etc? links to publications, raw data? The mind boggles...

Lucy Jones gave the noontime lecture, talking about the success of last year's Great Southern California Shake Out. The success was due in part to creating a believable scenario (a M7.8 quake on the southernmost section of the San Andreas fault) focusing the media and public on the probable outcomes within that scenario (deaths, destruction, fires, lack of water, collapse of transportation and communications) and keeping the message simple (store water; have a post-quake plan; drop, cover, and hold on).

We've reached a point in earthquake awareness where the majority of our college students don't have a memory of a strong earthquake. As a culture, we tend to lose focus quickly (look, a UFO! driven by a drunk celebrity!).

The indians of the pacific northwest had a ceremony that amounted to periodically putting people into a basket and shaking them violently to remind them what it felt like -- that's probably not an ideal solution, but people who've lived through a significant quake are the ones who really understand that moment of despair when you realize that all of the things you imagined yourself doing in response are impossible, as it is all you can do to keep yourself under that table as your stuff literally flies across the room. Or when you realize that the one thing you expected you could trust to stay put -- the Earth -- steadfastly refuses to do so...

The Shake Out was a great teaching moment for me, and I still use some of the videos. My favorite is this one, which shows the basin effect -- look how long the shaking persists in Coachella Valley, the LA basin, and Ventura.

October 19 -- Geobloggers

Geoblogger meet-up at the tug boat brewing company tonight. Didn't get enough sleep last night and compensated by consuming 3-4 depth charges today (large coffee with a double shot), and of course there was free (good) beer at the end of the afternoon session, so if Max and Darren hadn't dragged me out for a meal before the brewery, I would be -- well it just seems wrong to call it drunk since I've clearly achieved that state (yet I can still spell "achieved")...

Oh well, thanks to Callan for setting the whole thing up, it was great to be able to associate faces with blog names, and scary how few the actual degrees of separation end up being...

18 October 2009

GSA -- Sunday October 18

I went to the lunchtime seminar by Patricia Woertz on Carbon Sequestration. I don't have a general problem with geo-engineering, as pretty much every part of our lives has been geo-engineered (ok, sometimes just engineered). But I admit that I'm concerned at the degree to which major players have declared that the solution to climate change need not involve any kind of behavioral change on our part. This talk was about a project being undertaken by Archer-Daniels-Midland (lately of "The Informant" fame) in partnership with Monsanto and some coal companies and largely funded, of course, by the Department of Energy. My understanding is that ADM plans to ultimately capture up to 50% of the CO2 from one of their ethanol plants and inject it into a deep sandstone aquifer of saline water (can you say, "salty Perrier"?) and hope it stays there. Their project geologist suggested that it could be viable for several centuries (what happens after that I'm not sure). There are nine of these pilot projects around the country, and Stephen Chu apparently believes that the process could be "viable" within 5-8 years.

There were questions about hydrofracturing and migration of deep saline groundwater into adjacent basins, which the ADM people handled deftly by saying "trust our science" and that if pollution were a problem that they could have the laws changed to favor their position (well, they didn't literally say that but that's what I heard). They also went on about how great these "public-private partnerships" are, which always seems to be the attitude of the private partner when the public pays the bills and doesn't ask for anything in return.

OK, enough ranting. The Geoinformatics session this afternoon was good, even before we got to watch Ron test (and apparently find) Google Earth's limits. I'm ready to start gigapanning (whenever CA gets out of the red -- don't wait up...). I am ready to start geotagging all of my photos and sharing all of my data with the world. Maybe I'll start by posting two days in a row.

Actually, Lee Allison's talk about social networking made me think again about the Loma Prieta quake. Phone lines became completely jammed within the first 20 minutes after the quake, making it almost impossible to get through to family. Radio stations became bulletin boards for messages between family members, but you had to be listening when the host read your message. Today, text messaging clears a significant amount of space on the data lines (except for the part where everyone sends photo and video attachments)... A standard part of my earthquake safety lecture now is on the benefits of contacting loved ones only by text after a disaster.

Now in the Philippines and Indonesia we have people using mobiles and social networking to stay in contact and to keep one another updated about escape routes, relief supplies, evacuation centers, etc... This is of course on the heels of the Twitter protests in Iran.

I spoke with Callan and Silver Fox about this a bit today, and though the Iranian protesters were not successful in reforming their government, I see hope: in '82 there were anti-apartheid protests and strikes in South Africa. They were a lead story on the news around the world night after night -- until the government banned photos and video by foreign news organizations. With no visuals the story dropped off the table overnight. The pro-democracy demonstrations in China presented a similar problem, as reporters were swept off of the streets when the real crack-downs began. It was one cameraman who happened to have a good view from his hotel who shot the video of the man standing down the tank. And he then had to smuggle the video out of the country, or it would never have been seen.

In Iran the government couldn't shut down the networks because many of the servers were outside the borders. Video was released to the world by everyone with a cell phone and a view. We can't stop tanks or guns but they can't operate in secret either. Coups and revolutions used to begin with the takeover of the radio or TV station -- propaganda is important and useful, but information is no longer a monopoly item. This can be positive (@persiankiwi and the Iranian protesters) or negative (Jenny McCarthy and the anti-vaxers), it can be direct democracy or mob rule -- but it's never again going to be like it was.

16 October 2009

What I remember about October 17

I was halfway through my third semester at Cal and on my way home from my geomorphology lab on Tuesday afternoon. I was trying to talk myself into spending more of the evening on my lab write-up for geomorphology than on the ball game. I was waiting for the campus shuttle bus by the Hearst Building at about 5 in the afternoon when it started, but I wouldn't feel it for several moments later, since I was standing 100 km NNW of the epicenter. The first wave hit just as the bus was pulling up to the stop, and the first thought through my head was, "damn, that guy hit the curb pretty hard!" When the Love waves hit and I heard the bells in the Campanile ringing randomly I finally realized what was happening -- someone on the bus asked how big I thought it was and I said that depended upon how far away it was, and I hoped it was right underneath us...

When we got downtown every burglar alarm in every building along Shattuck seemed to be ringing, and though there was still little obvious damage it seemed a bit more serious. I thought about walking back up to the Earth Sciences Building (they wouldn't rename it McCone Hall until a few years later) to check out the seismographs, but I realized: 1- I would probably just be in the way; and 2- I was a little concerned about whether there was damage at home. The BART was shut down already, confirming that things were getting uglier than my first instincts allowed for, so I called one of my housemates from a payphone (was it only 20 years ago that no one was permanently connected to a wireless network?) and hitched a ride from a friend to El Cerrito. By the time we got to Solano we could see the fires across the bay, and learned on the radio that the Bay Bridge had collapsed. We later learned that it was one section of the upper roadway that had collapsed onto the lower roadway, but a driver was killed when he drove into the gap (a video that would be shown on the news incessantly for the next week).

As bad as it was for many in the area, we had lights and utilities at home (though we were afraid to turn the gas on). I went to Picante's to pick up some burritos for dinner, only to find that they were shutting down and giving away the prepped food they had.

As I was leaving my brother John pulled up (he had been living with us for a couple of months at the time). At the time he was working as a dispatcher for a courier service near Oakland Airport. He had been standing in the parking at work when the quake hit. On his way home, driving north on highway 880, the traffic had just stopped. He managed to back down the on ramp at 6th Avenue, and while he was working his way north on Cypress Street he came upon one of the sections of the collapsed roadway, black smoke billowing from beneath. I've never seen him so ashen (though he later moved back down to LA in time for the Northridge earthquake).

We spent the rest of the evening watching the news with the other residents of our fourplex. One of our upstairs neighbors was beside herself most of the night, as her husband worked in the city and had not called (the phone lines were jammed all evening) and no way home; he finally called just after nine that night.

After a few hours I managed to get hold of my sister in Tucson to let her know we were OK, as my parents were on vacation on the east coast and I knew that my dad would have been watching the pre-game show -- and I knew that, from the perspective of everywhere else in the country, the entire bay area was now nothing but a pile of smoking rubble. I was way more at ease when I knew that my sis would be able to tell the folks we were all right.

When looking at the video of the collapsed and burning 880 freeway, I remember going through the calculations in my head (number of lanes, length of the collapsed sections, number of cars per mile during rush hour, one person per car average) and coming up with at least 500 casualties. That was confirmed in the special section of the Chronicle that came out the next morning, but I guess they went through the same math that I had because we were proven wrong over the next few weeks when the death toll there never exceeded 40 or so. Still, this was out of 65 deaths in the whole bay area.

I still mention in all of my classes that while the three biggest urban California earthquakes of the past half century (Sylmar in '71, Loma Prieta, and Northridge in '94) all killed about 60-65 people, 2/3 of the deaths in each quake occurred in a single structure (Veteran's hospital in Sylmar, the Cypress structure, and an apartment building in Northridge).

I was glad that I had not gone back to the Earth Science Building, because it was a staging area for several local news teams looking for seismologists to interview. I figured that I would have managed to say something pretty stupid on TV if given the chance. A year later I had a job in the seismographic station, changing paper on the drums, developing the photo paper records, and running the digital data through a compression program. Talking to the professionals I heard a few of the stories from that night...

The Berkeley team was having problems because all of their local instruments had gone off scale during the shaking. The digital instruments were further afield, working well and were connected to the lab by modem. The computer stored this remote data on removable cartridges that could hold up to 8 hours of seismic information. The computer had slots for four cartridges and changed to a fresh cartridge every 8 hours. Unfortunately the Loma Prieta quake popped at 5:04 local time (0004 UTC) and so was recorded to a cartridge that had only come in to use four minuted previous. No access to the digital information until the computer kicked that cartridge out at 1 am. For eight hours the only record they had access to was a single analog recording from a drum in the building's basement that was hooked up to an instrument that only magnified its signal by a factor of 100x. Of course this was a laser drum that recorded on photo paper that had to be developed and dried before it could be read...

Contact Me

You can send me email at jrepka@saddleback.edu