"Morn came and went, and came, and brought no day/ And men forgot their passions in the dread/ Of this their desolation . . ."
...Lord Byron wrote this in the aftermath of the Tambora eruption in 1815 which darkened skies over England for weeks. Apparently quite a few artists were profoundly affected by this eruption. Mary Shelley got depressed and wrote Frankenstein while others like JMW Turner painted the bright sunsets that were brought about by haze forming suspended ash all over Europe.
Simon Winchester has a good article in the Guardian on volcanic eruptions of the past and their impact on humans and on their capacity to wreck havoc on global ecosystems.
He comes out distinguishing the aftereffects of earthquakes and volcanoes. Earthquakes kill a lot more people but in terms of long lasting impacts on organisms, volcanoes are more lethal. Earthquakes don't cause extinctions unlike the ill-effects of volcanoes which can linger on for weeks or even years after, resulting in a more widespread environmental damage and extinctions of local and sometimes global reach.
The article is mostly about the impacts of volcanoes on biology but I can't help pointing out that recent massive earthquakes have had very important, potentially long lasting, social impacts of local and regional significance.
After the 2004 Sumatra earthquake, the separatist movement which was gathering strength in the island of Aceh lost steam due to the utter devastation of its population and infrastructure. A peace agreement with the Indonesian government resulted in restoring peace and stability after decades of violence.
On a more villainous note, in the aftermath of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, the social arms of the terrorist organizations Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hizbul Mujahideen rushed in to provide help to the local populations in the absence of prompt government relief and gained enormous popular support making it that much harder to uproot them.
Coming back to the article..one minor quibble I have is about his section on the rates of mass extinctions. He says that two to 5
major extinction events occur in the world every million years or so. This is in reference to "profound and world changing" mass extinctions and I
am puzzled by this statistic. Surely he means every few tens of millions of years
or so, especially since he is linking these events to flood basalt volcanism? Or does he mean flood basalts from Iceland volcanoes in the past few million years have triggered mass extinctions on a million year frequency? Extinction is occurring all the time and occasionally there will be a spike over and above the background extinction rate brought about by catastrophic events, local and regional and only rarely global ..but what does he exactly mean by "two to five major extinction events"? are these local or global events...and do we really have paleontological methods to resolve events that closely spaced?
Iceland sits atop a mantle hot spot that coincides with a mid-oceanic ridge. This underlying heat engine may be the modern representative of the hot spot responsible for past flood basalts provinces of Greenland and in the British Isles which formed during the early Cenozoic opening of the north Atlantic. Seen in this context, is the recent Iceland eruption the beginning of a more prolonged volcanic activity that might threaten our very existence?
That's off course pure speculation in an article that is otherwise full of information and interesting facts..but it does make you a bit uneasy....
This from the Daily Mail about the discovery of a sudden shift in Early Cretaceous climate and its potential impact on dinosaurs:
The temperature drop during the Cretaceous period would almost certainly have wiped out an 'abundance' of the world's dinosaurs.
The scientists behind the ground-breaking study claim this would have been the first major step dinosaurs took on their eventual road to extinction.
Hmmm...I had heard stories about lemmings committing mass suicide but didn't know that the dinosaurs too came to an agreement in the early Cretaceous to take decisive major steps towards eventual extinction.
I know..I know.. the writer didn't mean it that way...but the sentence does come out reading that odd.
More seriously Dr Gregory Price of Plymouth University, one of the scientists involved in the study suggests that climatic shifts possibly caused by a dysfunction to the nascent Gulf Stream which brings warm waters to the north Atlantic resulted in a temperature drop about several degrees beginning around 137 mya and similar events recurring throughout the Cretaceous may have caused a gradual dying out of the dinosaurs.
If that is true it should be reflected in the patterns of dinosaur diversity through the Cretaceous period. Dinosaur diversity should show a systematic decline beginning around 137 mya.
What does the paleontological record show?
I dug around for references and came across several studies that have measured and estimated dinosaur diversity through time. They show that:
1) There is no trend of a systematic gradual decline in dinosaur diversity beginning around 137 mya (Ref).
2) There seems to be an expansion of dinosaur diversity early in the history of the group in the late Triassic - mid Jurassic. After that there were periods of minor expansion and diversification - as recognized by origin of new dinosaur groups - in the later Jurassic and in the mid - late Cretaceous (Ref).
3) The raw data i.e. the observed diversity from the collected fossil record shows a major expansion of diversity in the mid -late Cretaceous. That however may be an artifact of sampling. This can occur in a number of ways. Perhaps the mid-late Cretaceous has been sampled more intensively due to an interest in the late Cretaceous mass extinction. Or more Cretaceous strata is exposed and is available for study than earlier times (Ref) .
Corrected for these biases the increase in diversity in mid-late Cretaceous is more muted.
Figure below shows the patterns of dinosaur diversity through the Mesozoic.
Fig a is an estimate of the frequency of new lineages originating through time and the pattern suggests that the majority of new groups seem to have evolved in the earlier 1/3rd history of dinosaurs,
Fig b, solid line shows observed diversity with peaks in the early history of the group with a Jurassic maxima and a later increase in the mid-late Cretaceous. Dashed line shows diversity corrected for ghost ranges, which are estimates of the total geological range of the fossil. Many times the first appearance of a group in the fossil record may not coincide with the origin of that group. Therefore the earlier existence of that group is estimated based on evolutionary relationships with related groups. So for example the appearance of several new groups in the mid-late Cretaceous may not mean those groups originated then. If one applies estimates of when that group actually originated i.e. includes their basal ghost range, then the diversification peaks for mid-late Cretaceous are moderated.
Dotted lines show diversity corrected for sampling bias. The result suggests that diversification rates are heavily influenced by sampling. In other words the data corrected for sampling bias indicates neither an increase nor a decrease in dinosaur diversity throughout the Cretaceous.
Fig c shows the likelihood of shifts in diversity through time. The trend line suggests an overall decrease in diversity shifts (lineage branching events) after an early (late Triassic - early Jurassic) peak. The likelihood of lineage branching events (increases in diversity) fluctuated moderately throughout the Cretaceous (Ref).
4) Some studies show that dinosaurs did decline in diversity a few million years (10 million or so) before the K-Pg mass extinction event. Others suggest that no such pattern in discernible once you take into account not just observed diversity but estimated diversity as well. Estimated diversity is a measure of how much of the actual diversity remains to be discovered.
In summary.. the data does not seem to support Dr. Price's contention that there was a gradual decline in dinosaurs initiated by climatic changes around 137 mya over a time period of some 70 million years before the K-Pg mass extinction and certainly does not even come close to supporting the crackpot headline in the Daily Mail that Dinosaurs 'killed off by a sudden drop in temperature and NOT by a comet'
Dinosaurs were a group with a world wide distribution. There would have been throughout their history local extinction events brought about by environmental perturbations. A possible cooling of the earth about 137 mya may have harmed dinosaurs in the very northern latitudes but did not set the stage (in a non-teleological sense of the phrase) for a long term globally widespread decline of the dinosaurs through the rest of the Cretaceous. In fact, there may have been a moderate expansion of dinosaur diversity in the mid-late Cretaceous. Globally the dinosaurs seemed to be doing quite well until their rapid demise 65 mya.
I had no idea what to write for the 40th anniversary of Earth Day - April 22 - until I recalled a short note I had read in Current Science some time back about the state of geology education in India and its impacts on society.
Piyoosh Rautela of the Disaster Mitigation and Management Centre in Dehardun is critical of the state of geology education and calls for a revamp of geology syllabus and increased attention to the importance of geology in our daily lives.
He has this to say:
..The passouts of present times know how to determine their location using a global positioning system (GPS) and plot the same in maps created in the GIS environment but are unable to do the same using topomaps and compass/clinometer. To them, compass/clinometer and geological hammer are things of the bygone days...
and more on syllabus..
Geology is one such subject that has failed to keep pace with the changing scenario in most of the Indian colleges and universities. It is still being taught the same way it used to be in the 1960s. This does not imply that the courses have not been revised. There have been some additions and deletions but these have failed to make a perceptible positive impact.
I am not sure I share his perception on point one. I interact with graduate students from the local university and they all seem pretty competent in the use of the compass and in locating themselves on a map without a GPS. They were wielding the geological hammer with gusto too!
But I do think he makes an important point about geology education not keeping pace with times.
Now I hear all the time that the syllabus at post graduate (M.S) level is too "academic" and does not prepare students for industry. I am not too sympathetic to this point of view for a practical reason. I don't see how courses in most geology graduate programs in India can be really "industry oriented" when the faculty have no industry experience themselves.
The education to job pathway followed by a vast majority of academics is an uninterrupted B.S. to M.S. to Ph.D to faculty without any breaks to work in industry. No wonder their teaching methods and contents will reflect their own academic experience. That will be hard to change given this preferred route to professorship.
That doesn't mean that syllabus and teaching cannot be made more effective in preparing students for life outside academia. I think that is what Piyoosh Rautela is getting at. Individual faculty no doubt revise syllabus and teach principles and concepts well. But how do you go from knowing a principle to using it to solve a problem. I think that element is lacking in many geology programs. The habit of critical thinking and problem solving is not being inculcated as rigorously as it should.
I am more worried about this aspect of geology education than a perceived lacuna of "industry oriented" education. A student coming out, sound in principles and a critical thinker will adapt to any industry, which in any case takes up the slack and retrains the new entrant to suit their particular needs.
What will be lacking though if we persist with dull exam oriented syllabus is our ability to produce the next generation of top quality scientists and thinkers. This is worrying because knowledge of earth sciences and geology will be playing an increasingly important role in how we manage our planet in the future.
How should the academic geology community in India contribute to Earth Day?
I do support the usual measures that many people are writing about... take personal responsibility.. live a less consumerist lifestyle and so on.
But if we want to create a sustainable way of life on this planet we need a sustainable stream of skilled human resources. Scientists and intellectuals with the ability to think deeply about today's and tomorrow's problems and propose realistic solutions to them...people with the ability to assume stewardship of the country's development and environmental policies and guide them in the direction of a more responsible and less destructive way of achieving a better life.
And it all begins with how we train our students.
That is the best and most long lasting contribution that the Indian academic geology community can make towards Earth Day. Energize your syllabus, inspire your students and mold them into critical confident thinkers. Create a sustainable source of skilled people who can contribute towards building a sustainable planet.
On Point Radio's Tom Ashbrook conducts a lively interview with writer John McPhee.
McPhee has written on an astonishing range of topics but holds special interest for me for his books on geology.... part field manual...part conversations with a geologist....part literature.. The first one I read was Assembling California which I think was his last detailed book on geology.
Mussel Rock is a horse. As any geologist will tell you, a horse is displaced rock mass that has been caught between the walls of a fault. This one appeared to have got away. It seemed to have strained successfully to jump out of the continent. Or so I thought the first time I was there. It loomed in the fog. Green seas slammed against it and turned white. It was not a small rock. It was like a three-story building, standing in the Pacific, with brown pelicans on the roof. You could walk out on a ledge and look up through the fog at the pelicans. When you looked around and faced inland, you saw you were at the base of a fifty foot cliff, its lithology shattered beyond identification. A huge crack split the cliff from top to bottom and ran on out through the ledge and under the waves. After a five-hundred-mile northwesterly drift through southern and central California, this was where the San Andreas Fault intersected the sea.
I was hooked...
You get a sense of the effort it takes to write one of these geology books as Mc Phee describes the entire process from initial interviews to field trips to the numerous drafts to the vetting from a specialist to make sure he has got the science right.
It's been quite a while since Assembling California...1993 I think.. I hope he writes another one...
Meanwhile, the interview is terrific listening. Its not just about the geology books but more about his wider involvement in the art of writing and what makes him tick.
Over at Nobel Intent John Timmer talks to Dr. Jeff Karson of Syracuse University who explains the conditions that produce the ash rich explosive eruptions generally associated with subduction zones and not the mid-oceanic ridge setting of Iceland.
He identifies two factors:
1) Unlike most mid-ocean ridge settings the magma underneath Iceland have a silica rich rhyolitic component along with the copious basalt. Silicic magmas which form rhyolites contains more dissolved volatiles that fizz out of solution as the magma ascends and the pressure on it is released. Hence rhyolitic volcanism tends to be explosive.
2) The ice cover over Iceland. As hot magma comes in contact with ice, it vaporizes it and produces explosive steam, contributing along with other volatiles to a violent eruption.
Why is there rhyolite at a mid-oceanic setting which is usually dominated by basalts?
Two possible answers: One is that it forms through fractional crystallization of a tholeiitic magma. Some geochemical work on the Iceland igneous province suggest though that this might not be the dominant mechanism at work. Instead, partial melting of older crust may be at work. Iceland differs in this respect with Hawai where fractional crystallization of basalts do not produce rhyolite. In Iceland tectonics keeps bringing to depth earlier extrusives. Ascending magmas interact with this earlier formed crust which is heterogenous in character being made up of basalt and containing silicic segregations from earlier cycles of solidification and this interaction likely generates rhyolitic composition magmas.
Technological hubris..playing God with climate..mad science... in between these extremes are a range of intermediate options and views on geoengineering.
On NPR's Fresh Air writer Jeff Goodell talks about his book How to Cool the Planet. It is an informative restrained talk, not quite endorsing geoengineering.. only suggesting that since there seems to be no signs of serious global efforts to reduce emissions in any significant way... it may be time to start thinking seriously about geoengineering.
That won't come without its own problems. There will be geopolitical issues to be dealt with along with ethical issues of who can and should act as the earth's thermostat.
Speaking of geopolitical issues and international co-operation on geoengineering..at Energy Outlook Geoffrey Styles is skeptical that international treaties will work:,
Imagine having tried to get the delegates at Copenhagen to
agree to let someone put finely-divided salt particles into the
atmosphere over, say, the Arctic, to make clouds more reflective. Might
as well have tried to sell them the Brooklyn Bridge at the same time.
the core of the problem as I see it: If we do end up needing to deploy
geoengineering, it's likely to be precisely because we were unable to
get every country on earth--or even just the small subset of large emitters--on
the same page with regard to climate change, let alone establish a
universally-trusted body to oversee their mitigation efforts. If we
yoke geoengineering to the same UNFCCC/IPCC process that brought us the
Copenhagen Climate Conference and the Kyoto Protocol, then we might as
well forget it and try to figure out where to invest in the likely new
beachfront property of the 2050s.
He has some interesting thoughts too on the set up of small scale geoengineering experiments.
After experimenting with the new Template Designer on offer with Draft Blogger I am back to the old minima template on regular Blogger.
I liked the look of the new template I had tried. It was the simple style by Josh Peterson. But for some reason the page was slower to download and also broke up while scrolling. I have noticed that on few other blogs which are using the Designer Template.
I've tinkered with old minima template though. My pet peeve was that it was too narrow and I didn't want the stretch version.
In Layout- Edit Html I changed the width of the Header as well as the Wrapper. These two elements control the width of your blog title and the width of the banner image you want to insert and the width of the main post text and the sidebar.
I'm happy with the results. The page is wide enough to insert larger figures than before and the wider banner image looks good too.
That is science...seismologist style. The explosions that demolished the famous Dallas football stadium on April 11 were being monitored by a team of seismologists from Baylor University who hope to image the crust below to get a better picture of the subsurface geology.
Of interest is the story of the complicated Ouachita deformation created when South America collided with North America in the late Paleozoic.
Doing science is as much about opportunism as any other attribute and the Texas seismologists grabbed this chance to learn more about the geology beneath their feet.
The recently named new hominid species from S. Africa Australopithecus sediba has generated a lot of articles and blog posts. Many of them are very informative and content rich. But going through them I found them to be text heavy and lacking in diagrammatic representations.
Its confusing trying to wade through all the possible scenarios of the relationship between Au. sediba and Homo that are being discussed. I found thinking of the relationships with diagrams eased some of that confusion.
So this post is relatively light on text and diagram rich. Here are evolutionary scenarios depicted in simple diagrams that I created:
1) Au. Africanus evolved into Au. sediba which then later evolved into Homo.
This scenario envisages evolution of a new species via phyletic gradualism in which the entire species transforms into a new species. Although new species could arise this way, in this case the fossils of Au. sediba are younger (1.7 - 1.9 mya) than the oldest representatives of Homo ( 2.3 mya) negating the possibility that Au. sediba transformed into Homo. John Hawks though outlines a situation where this model could still hold and that would be if the oldest representatives of Homo have been misclassified as Homo and are really australopithecines.
The next two scenarios are the ones favored by the authors of the paper.
2) Au. sediba is derived via cladogenesis from Au. africanus at an early date possibly as early as 3 million years or so. Homo then evolves in a later speciation event from Au. sediba. The recently found fossils of Au. sediba represent a relict population. This is the punctuated equilibrium model of speciation wherein one population of a species becomes reproductively isolated from other populations and evolves into a new species. The ancestor and descendant species may then co-exist for a time period.
3) Au. sediba and Homo share a common ancestor..either Au. africanus or a close cousin.
In both the above scenarios (2,3) the similarities between Au. sediba and Homo are due to a shared ancestry.
Au. sediba evolved either via phyletic gradualism or via cladogenesis from Au. Africanus in S. Africa. Homo evolved from some other lineage of bipedal hominid elsewhere. I have shown Au. afarensis as an ancestor of Homo but only as an example. There may have been several lineages of bipedal hominids and Homo could have been derived from within any one of them.
In this case the similarities between Au. sediba and Homo are a result of convergent evolution in response to similar locomotary and dietary pressures.
Au. sediba has been misclassified as an australopithecine. It is really a representative of Homo. But Homo likely evolved somewhere in eastern Africa about 2.3 million years ago and the fossils found recently in S. Africa which are 1.7. to 1.9 my old is a migrant Homo population, descendants of east African Homo.
A high powered committee created by the Prime Minister of India reviewed the social and environmental aspects of two planned dams on the Bhagirathi river, a Himalayan tributary of the Ganga and recommended that the projects be shelved.
Respect for social and religious sentiments of the people along with environmental concerns was the reason given.
Mr. Jairam Ramesh the Minister for Forest and Environment was one member of the committee along with Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Power Minister Sushil Shinde.
This good news though hides a more ubiquitous failure and that is that the system put in place to review large infrastructure projects did not object to these projects. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which should have raised a red flag instead waved a green one. Its only a higher level intervention by the Prime Minister that has saved a stretch of this river from being reined in.
In fact this high powered committee reassessed the EIA and found violations in the environmental clearance process.
The EIA needs to be fixed from the bottom up and that means fixing some of its the structural problems. As I have written before the EIA is becoming a rubber stamp for getting clearances for projects. The Terms of Reference are deliberately kept restricted. Not enough time is given for comprehensive studies. And it does not have the authority to make the project conditional to the findings of the study.
This is what Mr. Jairam Ramesh needs to fix.
If he has to run to the Prime Minister, let it not be for creating another high level committee to specially look into one project ...but to plead to the PM that the ground level process set in place to review all big projects have real teeth and muscle to delay, redesign or need be cancel projects. He should ensure that fly by night consultants who do incredible shoddy science are fired and permanently blacklisted and projects not started until a serious scientific assessment of the project is complete.
There seems to some movement on that front. Mr Ramesh has ordered that the cumulative impact of a cascading series of hydroelectric dam projects on the river Alaknanda in Uttarakhand and the river Teesta in Sikkim be studied. Previously the EIA were restricted to studing each dam in isolation as if nothing was happening upstream and downstream of that one project.
The river Bhagirathi falls in the Ganga basin. The Ganga is a pretty special river and so complaints about damage to religious sentiments and the ecosystem have plenty of sympathetic ears. There is a special Ganga River Basin Authority set up to restore and clean up the river.
Other rivers and projects are not that lucky and overall the system put in place to evaluate projects is failing.
That's what needs to be corrected pronto if India want to develop while still protecting critical, sensitive and bio-diverse ecosystems.
Yeah..yeah...chimps are hairier and while in heat the bare skin of a female chimp's bottom gets all red and swollen..I haven't noticed that in humans...but really deep down the question most people want to ask is why is there so much cognitive difference between chimps and humans.
Almost As Brainy
What is the genetic basis of the brain differences between chimps and humans and how did they come about through evolution?
On NPR's Cosmos and Culture blog, Ursula Goodenough has a terrific post on gene regulation and brain development and research that is beginning to tease out the reasons for the differences between chimps and us.
...brains build themselves. Bottom up. When A happens, that allows B and C to happen; B allows D and E to happen; and so on.
Because brain development is so contingent on what has gone on before, it's pretty easy to alter what happens. For example, if the pioneer neurons in our example carried a switch mutation that prevented them from secreting the nerve growth hormone at the appropriate time, the next phalanx of neurons wouldn't move towards them and might, instead, pick up on a more distant hormonal signal from another brain region and move in that direction, forming synapses with a new set of neurons altogether. A brain is still constructed, but it will have different kinds of neural pathways and connections and hence, perhaps, different ways of doing things.
So now we can return to the chimp-human question. If the chimp and human protein-encoding genes are virtually all the same, then are there any interesting differences in their switch regions? Given the bottom-up nature of development, mutant switches could have large-scale consequences.
The answers that is emerging is ..yes..there seems to be differences in switch regions between chimps and humans.
The post is a quick lesson in the genetic innovations that occured through the transition from unicellular to multicellular life and fast-forwards to brain development and the role of genetic switches in evolving human-specific patterns of regional differentiation of the brain.
The question of when these changes in the brain occurred is not dealt with but a reasonable answer would be.. beginning with the Homo lineage about 2 million years or so and continuing ..even today? It was about 2 mya when we begin to see in the hominid fossil record a noticeable departure (increase) in brain size compared to the earlier fossil hominids and modern chimps ..accompanied by a more varied tool.
I suspect these kind of discoveries will provide fodder for the many controversies about the emergence of "modern humans". Did the sudden emergence of a new genetic switch enable symbolic behavior or ...language?
This post by Ursula Goodenough deals with the developmental aspects of brain differences. An evolutionary narrative awaits.
It illustrates quite well the problems and conflicts arising out of budget cuts and program streamlining initiatives many U.S. Universities are being forced to undertake.
Administrators and faculty are at times working together to limit the damage and at other times the two are at loggerheads, often decisions are being taken by Administration without involving faculty. The Faculty especially worry that programs are being evaluated using only one measure like enrollment number that might lead to programs considered by faculty as essential for a well rounded education to be eliminated.Or by completion rate which might put pressure on academic programs to lower standards to push up graduation rates.
Here is a nice glimpse into the different priorities of those involved:
The 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (which does not include the Pennsylvania State University system) have been ordered this spring to review all of their "low completion" programs—that is, those with fewer than 30 graduates during a five-year period. The campuses are being encouraged to consider consolidating or suspending those programs.
"With the limited resources we have, we want to be sure that our academic programs are appropriate to our universities' needs and to the needs of the commonwealth," says Kenn Marshall, a spokesperson for the system. "We are looking long-term, to make sure that we can operate within a balanced budget."
And the faculty view:
Several of the small departments that have come under scrutiny are philosophy programs. Wendy Lynne Lee, a professor of philosophy at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, has been leading a campaign to protect those departments.
"A university without a robust philosophy major ... is simply anathema to the mission of a university," she wrote on Leiter Reports, a philosophy blog, in March. "This is not about enrollment; it is about what distinguishes a trade/professional/technical school from a university. Every single minute we are willing to play ball according to the chancellor's rules, which fallaciously link enrollment to program quality, we are in point of fact conceding to play by these rules."
At my Alma Mater Florida State University the geology program has been eliminated as an individual graduate degree program and has been merged with Oceanography and Meteorology. Several of the faculty I knew have had their contracts canceled.
Its a painful situation. Some feel that involving faculty in the program evaluation process might help mitigate the sense of marginalization faculty feel..there have been small success stories where faculty persuaded administration to retain a program..that however is no consolation for those who do get sacked. And often the manner in which lay-offs have occurred rankles. Prof. Froelich Jr. of Florida State University points to oceanography in which he has been tenured since 1978. The University recently encouraged the department to hire two new tenure-track appointments and then fired them 6 months later.
Meanwhile Robert C. Dickeson, a higher-education consultant and a former president of the University of Northern Colorado has come up with a list of factors to consider when evaluating programs:
History, expectations, enrollment demographics. (For instance, does the program cater to part-time, older students to help them complete degrees?)
Demand from incoming students
Demand for program's courses to fulfill distributional requirements
"Inputs," such as quality of faculty members, students, and curriculum
"Outcomes," such as test scores and scholarly research Size, breadth, and depth
Overall impact and "essentiality" to college's strategic plan
Opportunity for saving or growing the program
Overall the message being sent out by faculty members is - we understand the Universities are in a crisis..but involve us in the restructuring process.