Thursday, December 24, 2009

Some Good Holiday Listening and Reading

Here's a list of holiday whiling-away's for you:

Literary and Musical Stuff:

1) The Definitive Dickens- Tom Ashbrook discusses a new biography of Charles Dickens with biographer Michael Slater

2) Alexander McCall Smith- Author of No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency talks about his work and life in Africa and Scotland.

3) Thelonius Monk - Terry Gross of Fresh Air talks with Robert D. G. Kelley  about the Jazz genius.

Sciency Stuff:

1) Is Evolution Predictable? Simon Conway Morris writes about it in the context of evolutionary convergence.

2) A Christmas Carol - Economist Steve Landsburg explains why Scrooge has been getting a bum rap from society.

3) Gene Patenting - Should your genes be patented and how the process impacts research and you.

4) U.S. Health Care - David Brooks looks at it as an ultimately values question.

Silly Stuff:

1) Nazis and GIS - Adolf Hitler is not pleased with the latest version of ArcGIS software.

I won't be posting now until early January.

Wishing everyone Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

K-12 Earth Science Education Status Report For The U.S.

Something for geology / earth science educators. The American Geological Institute has released a status report for the year 2007 titled "The Pulse of Earth Science Education" which follows earth science education trends in 50 states.

Go here to access the information.

The AGI provides information on:
  • teacher certification requirements
  • relevant middle and high school courses
  • K-12 enrollment levels
  • Earth science within state science standards
  • state assessment of students
  • textbooks adopted and relevance to Earth science
  • contact information for state education agencies

Monday, December 21, 2009

Geothermal Energy And Earthquakes

Theunis Bates at Sphere has a good write up about the link between geothermal energy projects and earthquakes.

These projects are controversial. The company that started a geothermal project in Basel, Switzerland is facing lawsuits for allegedly triggering earthquakes. Another project in California was recently canceled due to similar earthquake fears.

From the article:

Paul Younger, a professor of energy and environment at Britain's Newcastle University, says that it's not unusual for much smaller tremors to be felt on the surface when pressurized water is forced into rock deep underground. But, he adds, the process is normally only carried out in seismically stable areas, as the shakes caused by hydro-fracturing can interact with existing deep faults and cause larger trembles.

And Basel is anything but stable. The city has a long history of quakes and was all but wiped out in 1356 by an estimated magnitude 6.5 earthquake – the largest ever known to have occurred in Western Europe. "What they were doing was actually fairly conventional," Younger says. "It's where they were doing it that was unconventional. If you go drilling and stimulating near a known active fault, you're asking for trouble."

That may raise a question. Why not just drill in portions of the crust that are known to be structurally very stable and which have no active faults?

....geothermal projects will almost always be located in geologically active areas with lots of faults and which are earthquake prone because the required heat will be found at shallower depths making such locations economically more attractive than drilling deeper in colder more stable parts of the crust.

As our understanding of faults in geologically active regions increase it may be possible in the future to more carefully select sites based on how "stressed out" individual faults are....but there will always be a general overlap between geothermal sites and earthquake prone areas.

Here is the situation for India. Earthquake potential (increases in darker shaded areas) compared with geothermal potential. There is large overlap as expected.

According to a report by D. Chandrasekharam of the Indian Institute of Technology Mumbai, the geothermal provinces of India have a potential to produce around 10,600 MW of power. I haven't seen other government figures for this.  The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy website does not have the numbers for geothermal. 

In any case, if this industry is to have a future, geologists and engineers will have to grapple with the connection between attractive geothermal energy sites and potential earthquake hazards and also importantly develop strong transparent public outreach mechanisms to disseminate information for review and debate.


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Get The Beer Out: The Geologists Are Coming

Wired Science has a fun article by Betsy Mason on why geologists like beer. The fluid has been flowing freely at the recent AGU meeting in San Francisco and bartenders are swearing that geology conferences see more of that stuff being consumed than at any other science meeting.

Why do geologists love beer so much?

When it’s hot, and you’ve been hiking all day carrying 50 pounds of rocks, do you want a Merlot? - Jim Metcalf of Syracuse University

It goes down a lot easier than water because a lot of the places we go, we can’t drink the water - Jonathan Gourley of Trinity College.

Science doesn’t work when people keep secrets and don’t share their data, And what could be better to help with the free flow of information? - Daniel Jaffe of the University of Washington.

More theories here:

In India you get a decent collection of lagers but not much selection in ales. Hopefully that might be changing soon. I attended a wine festival in Pune last year and there were stalls by a couple of breweries showing off their new ales which will be in shops soon.

Good stuff.

I drink mostly  Okocim Palone  a Polish  malt lager which is now being brewed in India. In my opinion it is the best of the Indian lagers. Richer, toastier and more flavorful than the rest.

....geologists in India gulp down a lot too.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Unfolding The Earth With Some Novel Map Projections

New Scientist has run a piece describing the work of Dutch computer scientist Jack van Wijk's work on novel map projections.

From the press release:

"Myriahedral projection" was developed by Jack van Wijk, a computer scientist at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

"The basic idea is surprisingly simple," says van Wijk. His algorithms divide the globe's surface into small polygons that are unfolded into a flat map, just as a cube can be unfolded into six squares.

Cartographers have tried this trick before; van Wijk's innovation is to up the number of polygons from just a few to thousands. He has coined the word "myriahedral" to describe it, a combination of "myriad" with "polyhedron", the name for polygonal 3D shapes.

Check this out: You can try to fit the earth's surface on unfolded nets of different shapes.

The new algorithms though go a step further. The nets have many more sides and are shaped more intelligently in ways that arrange continents and oceans in different configurations but with minimum distortion to their shapes where they are cut and unfolded.

For example here the oceans are one continuous expanse surrounded by coastlines

You can see the rest of the maps at this picture gallery

Jack van Wijk won the Cartographic Journal's Henry Johns award for the best map-making research paper of the year.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Weather Ain't The Same As Climate Mr. Aiyar

It's amazing how much confusion there still is between weather and climate.

Mr. S A Aiyar writes a well read and well respected economics column in the Times of India. I like his columns. He has a gift for explaining complex topics in a succinct and simple manner. He gets it right a lot. Rarely though is he so completely wrong.

Like here where he tries to explain why climate projections can't be trusted:

If new technologies cannot reduce emissions by 80% save at a huge cost that causes economic distress, governments will abandon emission targets. They will not deliberately create deep recessions just to curb emissions.

Will this lead to climate disaster? Maybe and maybe not. Scientific knowledge of the weather is very limited, and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections are just intelligent guesstimates. IPCC scientists may be the best in the world, yet they cannot predict the weather more than five days ahead.

Can they predict the next drought in India? No. The next El Nino? No. The number of hurricanes in the Caribbean next year? No. So, can they accurately predict the weather 100 years hence? Surely not. When we know very little about a problem, we tend to worry endlessly about worst-case scenarios. That does not make the worst case certain, or even probable.

He's right when he says that climate scientists cannot predict the weather 100 years hence.

But they are not trying to. That's not what climate scientists do.

Weather is the day to day or short term atmospheric conditions. Climate and climate change is about long term changes in average weather. If you want to know what the weather will be on a Sunday 100 years from now you will still have to rely on a meteorologist to tell you 3 days before that Sunday.

Climate scientists on the other hand will tell us that if you take a ten or twenty year interval 100 years from now, the average temperature of that interval will be higher than today.
That much is a near certainty and it follows from the basic greenhouse effect. If we keep emitting greenhouse gases the earth will warm up. What is uncertain is by how much and what exact regional effects will it have. That's where the climate models and IPCC projections come in. And they show a range of possibilities depending on assumptions made of starting conditions, emission trajectories for different economies and not yet well understood positive and negative feedback's in the climate system.

For drafting sensible policies to reduce emissions we don't need to know whether a series of powerful hurricanes will hit New Orleans in year 2102 or whether they will hit it in 2105 or the exact year in which India might face a crippling drought in the future.

Its enough to know that 100 years from now these events will be more common (update: or more intense). And our current and improving understanding of climate change does provide enough confidence on that issue, more than Mr. Aiyar wants to give it credit for.

Its a shame that a person as erudite as Mr Aiyar has misrepresented climate science and misinformed the public in so blatant a manner.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Can India Cut Emission Intensity Without Carbon Sequestration?

Yes, is the answer at least according to the Indian government.

A reader left a comment on my previous post on the distribution of potential basalt and ophiolite carbon reservoirs asking:

In your original post you suggested this was probably a non-starter for India, given our unwillingness to implement cuts in emissions. Do you think recent moves by China (and now more modest ones by India) to cut emission intensity will change the equation at all?

The original post was the one on Deccan Basalts as a potential reservoir for carbon sequestration projects.

I don't know about the Chinese plan but the 5 point plan put forward by Mr. Jairam Ramesh the Minister of Environment and Forest, India, to cut carbon emission intensity does not include carbon sequestration as a strategy.

Instead the government is aiming to reduce emission intensity by 20-%-25% by 2020 using:

1) Mandatory fuel efficiency standards for vehicles by December 2011
2) Mandatory green building code
3) Amendments to energy conservation Act
4) Progress report on forest cover
5) 50% of new capacities in power plants to be based on clean coal technologies

If you think these are big concessions by the Indian government you would be wrong. There is nothing really radically new about the way India plans to achieve its voluntary target of reducing emission intensity. That process was already underway much before Mr. Jairam Ramesh's announcement.

Emission Intensity is a measure of the energy efficiency of your economy - emissions per unit GDP - and between 1990 and 2005 India reduced its emission intensity i.e. improved its energy efficiency by about 17%.

Automobile makers have been steadily improving vehicle efficiency for years. Other industries too in an effort to be competitive have been streamlining their processes and improving efficiency. The Indian government years ago has set targets for expanded forest cover. Even India's notoriously  wasteful coal power plants have been improving their efficiency over the last few years and a large fraction - as high as 60% to 70% - of  new coal plants from both the public and private sector will be built using cleaner technology, the so called supercritical coal plants which use advanced coal combustion technology. This trend is being driven not by government fiat but by the rising price of coal due to increased demand and the need to import larger quantities of the fuel.

All this implies that this new target the government has announced won't require politically difficult decisions. Instead, the government is relying along with a few nudges and pushes on the naturally growing efficiency of industry to achieve a large fraction of the target of reducing emission intensity.

On the other hand geoengineering strategies like carbon sequestration which avoid emissions altogether face several hurdles. For at least the immediate target of reducing intensity by 2020 the science and technology may not be ready. Sequestration is also expensive. This means coal plants will have to bear much higher costs than they would voluntarily agree to. And that means government regulations and tough political decisions. And there are potential land acquisition issues that may come up if the sites chosen for sequestration projects underlie agricultural or forest land.

So emission intensity riding on the back of increasing efficiency of the Indian economy is likely going to be the government mantra for some time to come.

Unfortunately increased warming is a result of the total amount of greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. And those despite a reduction in emission intensity will keep increasing, although at a slower rate.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Nice Map Of Basalt and Ophiolite Potential Carbon Reservoirs

Here is a great looking world map which shows the distribution of continental  basalts (a) and ophiolite complexes (b). Ophiolites are slices of the earth' s oceanic crust and upper mantle that have been exposed on land by tectonic forces. They are found along ancient and modern convergent plate settings i.e. regions where two plates are converging and colliding with each other.

Can these mafic igneous rocks act as reservoirs for storing carbon dioxide?

Source: Permanent storage of carbon dioxide in geological reservoirs by mineral carbonation

The article is open access. I posted about this article before but more from the perspective of the Deccan Basalts as a potential CO2 reservoir and how that might conflict with other more immediate uses of that rock body.

I thought I'd pass along the link to this map too.

Nature Geoscience Issue On Carbon Dioxide Sequestration

The December issue of Nature Geosciences has a series of articles on carbon sequestration. The editorial is behind a pay wall but the Correspondences and Commentaries are open access.

There is an interesting article on the geopolitics of geoengineering in which the author Philip Boyd raises the concern that the benefits and unintended detriments of geoengineering strategies would be spatially non-uniform and might lead to conflict between nations:

....A key concern is the scale on which geoengineering strategies, both for solar radiation management and carbon removal proposals, are used. Stratospheric sulphur injection and ocean fertilization would need to be adopted on a large scale and sustained over long periods of time if they are to have any globally significant effects. But it is the very scale and longevity of these schemes that makes regionally heterogeneous side effects more likely, and the potential for discord between nations more real. The unintended dispersal of geoengineering agents will only exacerbate the problem. For instance, ocean circulation will rapidly disperse modified surface and subsurface waters, which may be depleted in both nutrients and oxygen owing to fertilization-driven increases in productivity and carbon export. Such low-quality waters could infiltrate marine exclusive economic zones....

Getting global or regional political consensus on anything is damn difficult and geoengineering too will face that test. Overall the articles lean towards implementing some sort of geoengineering for controlling atmospheric CO2 levels and climate change.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Why Didn't Darwin Come To India?

Mauritius is the closest he got but he did use examples from India's biodiversity to bolster his case for evolution. Vikram Doctor writes an excellent article in the Times of India on Darwin's India connection.

That connection was Edward Blyth - self taught zoologist and curator of the museum of the Royal Asiatic Society Calcutta - who maintained a long and fruitful correspondence with Darwin about the animals and plants native to India.

Darwin acknowledges this contribution as

"his large and varied stores of knowledge , I should value more than that of almost any one."

This is the second impressive intellectual conversation about evolution I have come across in India via outreach and media over the last few weeks. Earlier in November at the British Library in Pune, biologist Madhav Gadgil talked about early evolutionary thinking, Darwin's contributions and recent advances in evolutionary theory.

Doctor's article too covers a lot of ground. He gives us a sense of the work and social environment struggling scientists had to face in India. I read and posted on David Gilmour's The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj recently. It describes the day to day lives of British civil servants in 1800's India. Their lives were hard but Blyth faced an additional problem. He stood outside the administrative hierarchy and was on a weaker social standing than other officers of the civil services. Self taught scientists from poor backgrounds were looked down upon by the Raj officers who during the mid 1800's mostly came from Britain's upper classes. There is a lot packed in the article on the difficulties and tribulations Blyth faced during his career in India.

Doctor's article also clarifies the controversy on whether Darwin really deserved the credit for his work or whether as some say he plagiarized Alfred Russel Wallace's ideas who had coincidentally discovered natural selection around the same time. That Wallace proposed a theory of evolution through natural selection is undeniable,  but both Wallace and Blyth recognized that just presenting an idea is half the work in science. Backing it up with evidence is harder. Darwin besides proposing a theory also did the hard work of compiling the evidence for evolution through natural selection. He can rightly claim most of the credit.

As an aside and something Doctor does not get into is that Wallace too has been painted in extremes. For some, he should be placed on a higher pedestal than Darwin. Others say - unkindly - that his only real contribution was that he hastened Darwin into publishing a shorter, streamlined and more accessible version of his theory. Darwin's earlier plan to publish a tome running into several thousand pages was shelved in fear of being scooped upon receipt of Wallace's theory. Still others point to the latter part of Wallace's career when he doubted that the human brain could be a product of evolution and use that to discredit him.

That is in my opinion just...well unkind. Wallace did discover natural selection independently and contributed valuable insights into other fields like biodiversity, natural variability of populations and bio-geography. That he could not compile evidence like Darwin did or that he leaned towards mysticism later in his life does not diminish the originality and importance of his earlier work.

Having said that, convincing people that evolution had occurred required evidence. And there is no doubt that Darwin made a better case for it than anyone else in his times with a little help from friends and colleagues like Edward Blyth.

Vikram Doctor's article is a pleasure to read. And...yes he does offer an answer to why Darwin didn't come to India.  Don't miss it.