Monday, June 29, 2009

Water Harvesting: Legal At Last In Colorado

This piece about water harvesting and conservation in NYTimes caught my eye:

“I was so willing to go to jail for catching water on my roof and watering my garden,” said Tom Bartels, a video producer here in southwestern Colorado, who has been illegally watering his vegetables and fruit trees from tanks attached to his gutters. “But now I’m not a criminal.”

I remember reading Marc Reisner's epic book Cadillac Desert which described the complex water regulations of the U.S. southwest. Every drop is owned by some state or water district or the other before it falls to the ground. But water allocation was apparently done during an unusual wet period and without anticipating the massive growth of population in the deserts. Climate change which is making the southwest drier and population pressures have increasingly made these allocations look unfair. At some point if there is just no more water then no matter how you try divvy up the pie someone is going to come up empty.

In India too damming streams and diverting water that would inhibit natural flow as defined by the local government agency used to be frowned upon and the law has always been unclear about the ownership of water harvesting structures and water. Indeed the state reserved the right to send you notice if it felt that the structures being built were unsafe or that blocking too much water would lead to a shortfall in the government canal and dam system allocations. But water harvesting is done at every level ( see this article) from recharging a well in the backyard to community efforts that have rejuvenated landscapes. The local water authorities don't always like it but don't prosecute because they really can't provide an alternative. Village communities and NGO's get massive grants for water harvesting from funding agencies for an activity that the government is finally realizing is the need of the hour. Many state governments are modifying their Command Area and Irrigation Acts to give farmers and local communities more rights to own and manage local water resources.

It usually takes a long time to change laws and regulations. Sometimes people's behavior and actions may act as a signal that times have changed and the rules must change along with it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Triggering Earthquakes From Geothermal Energy Drilling

There is a very interesting article in NYtimes by James Glanz on the nascent geothermal industry in the U.S. and recent efforts to start projects to recover this energy. The article focusses on the efforts of one company AltaRock, who is currently in the process of getting through various permission to start a project north of San Francisco. They have received permission to drill from the Bureau of Land Management but are awaiting permission to fracture the rock.

And that is what the controversy and fears are about, that hydro-fracturing of the subsurface rocks might trigger damaging earthquakes.

This has happened once before near the town of Basel, Switzerland in 2006 and the article has quite a dramatic description of the events:

The opening of each fracture is, literally, a tiny earthquake in which subterranean stresses rip apart a weak vein, crack or fault in the rock. The high-pressure water can be thought of loosely as a lubricant that makes it easier for those forces to slide the earth along the weak points, creating a web or network of fractures.

Mr. Häring planned to use that network as the ultimate teapot, circulating water through the fractures and hoping it emerged as steam. But what surprised him that afternoon was the intensity of the quakes because advocates of the method believe they can pull off a delicate balancing act, tearing the rock without creating larger earthquakes.

Alarmed, Mr. Häring and other company officials decided to release all pressure in the well to try to halt the fracturing. But as they stood a few miles from the drill site, giving the orders by speakerphone to workers atop the hole, a much bigger jolt shook the room.
“I think that was us,” said one stunned official.

Analysis of seismic data proved him correct. The quake measured 3.4 — modest in some parts of the world. But triggered quakes tend to be shallower than natural ones, and residents generally describe them as a single, explosive bang or jolt — often out of proportion to the magnitude — rather than a rumble.

Triggered quakes are also frequently accompanied by an “air shock,” a loud tearing or roaring noise.

You can just imagine the panic in the nearby community after this sequence of events. The project was shelved.

AltaRock claims it has learned from Basel and has a developed superior method that minimizes risk. They say that the area they have chosen in Lake and Sonoma counties has a history of only small earthquakes and their project will steer clear of large faults.

Its not clear though how they or any other company could stop small tremors from cascading into a larger earthquake. The situation is not at all similar to say capping a well if you want to stop production. I am not a seismologist but I don't think we know enough about stress initiation and propagation through fracture networks to be confident about thresholds. Stop hydro-fracturing if earthquakes reach say 1.5 on the Richter because anything above that is a potential trigger for a larger one. I doubt if we are confident about the science to use arbitrary thresholds to minimize earthquake risks.

Another point I wanted to put out is that such geothermal projects will necessarily be located in areas of high earthquake risk. Geologically active regions will be the ones with enough heat nearer the surface and it makes economic sense to take advantage of this shallow natural heat and avoid drilling too deep. Which mean that the geothermal industry if it has to grow rapidly without getting tangled in litigation and protests must have a transparent and honest dialogue with various stakeholders about the current state of the science of earthquakes and the risks hydro-fracturing entails. For the people living near these project areas, this is not just a Not In My Back Yard because it spoils my view kind of a protest situation.

In this regard AltaRock has not made a good start. At least going by the NYtimes article the company has been less than forthright about the risks involved. For example in the seismic risk report it filed it did not give due importance to the connection between the Basel earthquake and the geothermal drilling despite Swiss seismologists agreeing that the drilling and fracturing of the rock did cause the earthquake. Even senior BLM engineers involved in giving permissions were unaware of the Basel incident and acknowledged that this information should have been disclosed.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Geology Majors Have Higher Debt Than Other Science Graduates

American Geological Institute's Geoscience Currents has put up 2003 data that shows levels of debt among science majors and graduate students. Geoscience graduate students have higher debt levels that other science and engineering majors with the exception of life science. Debt levels of geoscience undergraduates are also among the highest.

Source: Geoscience Currents

There is no explanation given for the higher debt levels for aspiring geologists. Any ideas why debt levels are higher for geoscience majors? Do additional expenses like field camp for undergraduate degree requirement or field work during Master's thesis work make a difference? Or do geology majors for some reason take a little longer to graduate than other sciences?

I consider myself lucky in this regard. I received an assistantship and a tuition waiver for my graduate education in the U.S. In India the situation was different, there is usually no assistantship or tuition waiver support for most undergraduate and graduate programs in India. But science education in State Universities is considerably less financially burdensome than what unsupported students experience in the U.S. even in state colleges.

I am comparing just the fees, not other expenses which will vary depending upon an individual's circumstances.

I finished my Master's from Pune University (State supported) India and the fees for a two year Master's course were ludicrously low. I don't remember the exact amount but I paid around Rs 6000/- for the two year course as fees and spent an additional Rs 2000 or so in field work and other expenses. Geosciences stream was not offered through private universities in India in the late 1980's, but overall a science education will cost much less than what I would have paid if I had opted for a management or medical degree or an engineering degree with a private college. This was in 1989. If you want to put a dollar figure on this, using a 1990 exchange rate between Indian rupee and U.S dollar of $1 = Rs 16/-, I paid about $ 500/- for my Masters education in 1990!

Most students going in for higher education will manage to pay these fees without incurring much debt!

State Universities are highly subsidised in India as you must have guessed.

Fees are still quite low. In fact fees are probably lower than 1990 if you account for inflation and how much that money is worth today. The current course fee for a Master's degree for University of Pune is about Rs 12,000 per year for in-state students and double that for out of state students. For foreign students the fees are about Rs 60,000 or so for geosciences. Using today's exchange rates of $ 1 - Rs 48/- in- state students are paying about $500/- for a degree in 2009 and foreign students about $ 2500/- in course fees. Compare this with the fees some private colleges are charging for earth science related courses such as Geographic Information Systems. The fees are Rs 150,000 per year ( ~ $3100/-) more than 10 times that of a state college.

Want to come to India for a geosciences degree? :)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Climate Change: Who Emits And Who Will Suffer

The Economix blog on NYTimes discusses a new report on the economic impact of climate change for the United States. It comes with a cool cartogram depicting which countries have emitted most over the last 50 years and which countries will likely suffer the most from global warming effects. A cartogram resizes territories based on the variable being mapped. In the cartogram below the upper panel are the polluters and the lower panel the sufferers.

And I liked this depiction of the likely tipping points in climate systems from place to place.
Source: The Lancet
More Cartogram sites:

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Sad Example Of Cultural Relativism

An article in the New York Times reports on census data that shows a bias for the male child in Chinese, Korean and Indian communities settled in the United States.

In general, more boys than girls are born in the United States, by a ratio of 1.05 to 1. But among American families of Chinese, Korean and Indian descent, the likelihood of having a boy increased to 1.17 to 1 if the first child was a girl, according to the Columbia economists. If the first two children were girls, the ratio for a third child was 1.51 to 1 — or about 50 percent greater — in favor of boys.

Here is what Dr. Jeffrey Steinberg, medical director of the Fertility Institutes, a clinic that offers sex selection procedures had to say:

“The patients come in and they all think they owe me an excuse, but the bottom line is it’s cultural”

“Culturally, there are a lot of strange things that go on in the world,” ..Whether we agree with it, it’s not harming anyone.”

Not harming anyone? Sex ratios are lopsided in favor of males in China and India and the reasons are selective abortions and higher rates of infant female mortality possibly due to neglect of the female child. That's your view of not harming anyone? Some cultural practices like placing a lower value on the girl child are just wrong Dr. Steinberg. And they are causing great damage to societies in India and China. These practices need to be unequivocally condemned and actively discouraged whereever they occur.

Don't hide behind the "every culture has its own we should just accept and not interfere" argument.

Here are a couple of articles I found on India's skewed sex ratio

The Daughter Deficit — Exploring Declining Sex Ratios in India
India's Missing Daughters

FSU Geology Program Suspended

It's really happened. The Florida State University President's office have announced budget cuts and major restructuring of programs. College of Arts and Sciences has suffered a budget reduction of more than 6 million dollars.

And the Geology degree program has been suspended. It will likely be merged with Meteorology and Oceanography into a new Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Program. My Ph.D advisor reckons maybe about half the faculty on the geology department are likely to be rehired to teach in the new program.

Here is the draft Budget.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

My Article In Pragati On Vedic Sarasvati and River Ghaggar

One of the more unexpected outcomes of starting this blog has been my writing on the intersection of geology, culture and religion. I was asked by the online magazine Pragati to summarize the geological evidence for the claim that the Ghaggar River which flows through Haryana and Rajasthan is really the river Sarasvati described in the Rig-Veda.

Why is this so important? The claim is that the identity of River Ghaggar is crucial evidence speaking to the controversial issue of whether the Vedic civilization was built by "alien" Arya-speakers who migrated into India from Central Asia beginning around 1500 B.C. after the Harappan civilization collapsed or whether it represents a wholly "indigenous" construction, continuous with the Harappan complex.

Obviously the thought that Hindu civilization was the creation of outsiders makes this a very touchy topic. The terms "alien" and "indigenous" refers to historically documented human migrations. No one doubts Pleistocene and early Holocene human migrations into India.

I find that this controvery about people coming from outside is puzzling to many. Assuming the migration scenario is true, Hindu or more precisely Vedic civilization did not spring into existence the day Indo-Aryan speakers entered India. Civilization, culture and Hindu philosophical thought evolved through hundreds of years of settlement within what is now India. That makes it indigenous regardless of whether the ancestors of some of these people came from outside India.

But right wing Hindu religious groups have their own take on what makes a Hindu. A Hindu is someone whose "pitrubhoomi" or fatherland or land of ancestors has always been India, and also one whose "punyabhoomi" or holy land or land of religion has always been India. That through eternity.

Migrant ancestors need not apply..

Oh well.... here are some interesting applications of geology....

For many years supporters of this view were using a combination of the Rig Veda and archaeology as evidence that the Ghaggar is the Vedic Sarasvati. Lately though a different kind of evidence has been brought to bear on this problem— the geological history of the Ghaggar. If geological evidence shows that the Ghaggar was in the past a mighty river and one that had a glacial source, it would fit descriptions in the Rig Veda of a large Sarasvati flowing from the mountains to the sea. More importantly it would allow Hindu religious groups to claim that the Vedic people were present in Northwest India much before the Ghaggar dried up about 1800 B.C. That would strengthen their claim that the Harappan civilisation represents the beginning of Vedic civilisation in India. To that end a lot of effort has been undertaken to generate and collect geological data that supports this view. This data comes in three flavours: geomorphologic, petrologic and geochemical.

Supporters claim that taken together these three types of data show beyond doubt that the Ghaggar is the Vedic Sarasvati. A more critical viewing of the data does not inspire such confidence..........continued..

Download Pragati and read the rest of the article here....

Pragati has got together a bunch of articles stressing that historical analysis and debates should be carried out using good science and not ideology. There are several other articles and book reviews worth reading on various aspects of the history of India.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

This Summer's Reading List Meme

Consider this a geoblogosphere (and anyone else who wants to participate) meme. What are you reading or planning to read this summer? You can stretch it to the rest of the year if you wish.

Me ? ...Not in any particular order-

Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America - David Hackett Fischer
A Farewell To Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World - Gregory Clark
Sand: The Never Ending Story - Michael Welland
The Horse, The Wheel and Language - David Anthony
Why Evolution Is True - Jerry Coyne
The Logic of Life - Tim Harford
The Mountains Of St. Francis - Walter Alvarez

Way too ambitious, but let's see how far I go with this.

Leave a link in my comments and I'll be crawling through the geoblogosphere also to post a link list in a few days.

Megaflood Made Britain An Island

This is old news but Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science has a repost with a nice map showing the effects of the Pleistocene flooding event which made Britain into an island. The North Sea breached the Weald-Artois anticline , a chalk ridge separating the North Sea from the English Channel. A bathymetric map of the English Channel derived from high-resolution sonar shows clearly the deep valleys scoured out by the rush of water flowing westwards.

A dramatic example of landscape evolution and one with consequences for Britain's subsequent cultural and social evolution.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Banded Iron Formations

Geological Processes and Evolution - 3

Science News has a well written and informative summary on the origins of Banded Iron Formations (BIF). I thought the writer Sid Perkins has done a good job describing the various theories of BIF genesis and early atmosphere and sea water chemical evolution and how that may have constrained biological evolution.

The long causal chain centers around the levels of atmospheric oxygen. Early photosynthesizers released oxygen but that could not escape into the atmosphere in appreciable amounts because it was being used up by the precipitation of dissolved iron. When that leveled off, meaning when the bulk of BIF's had formed by early Proterozoic (2.4 - 2.0 billion years ago) the level of atmospheric oxygen increased. This was likely aided by a decrease in methane production. Nickel fixing microbes release methane and levels of nickel show a decrease in BIF's over time as source processes like volcanism declined in activity reducing the supply of nickel. Methane reacts with oxygen (forming CO2) preventing its buildup in the atmosphere. With less methane, atmospheric oxygen increased leading to the formation of a protective ozone shell in the atmosphere (and cooling the earth as CO2 levels decreased). This enabled photosynthesizers to inhabit the shallower more sunlight part of the sea column boosting their numbers and therefore enabling more oxygen production. Higher oxygen levels then may have played a role in the evolution of eukaryotes who consume oxygen in several metabolic reactions.

Its good to see such a comprehensive review article about geology from the media.

In India BIF's occur in the Archaean and Early Proterozoic terrains of south India and eastern India.

The article is worth reading.

See: Geological Processes and Evolution

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Not Quite Wikipedia But Should There Be a Geosciences Scitable?

Sometime back Brian at Clastic Detritus expressed his unwillingness for contributing geology articles to Wikipedia. He was concerned of getting trapped in endless edit wars where materials written by genuine experts are edited by people with no real expertise in the topic leading to corrections and re-corrections and so on..

I see his point. He has been through battling fringe views on geology before. So have I. Maybe that experience has colored his views on Wiki. I saw in his comments thread a somewhat rancorous debate on this topic. What I did get a sense was that ...well what is the alternative to Wiki? Now I do make it a point to link to as much primary literature as possible through my posts. But let's face it. Most primary literature is behind pay walls and secondly it is not much use if you want to refer to general concepts. Which means I end up linking to Wiki articles as well.

I agree with a lot of commentators who stress that Wiki articles should be considered good starting points and not necessarily the most authoritative view on the subject of interest. But much of the general public scanning the web may not see it that way or even realize that Wiki may not have the best content. There are scientists and faculty who do maintain web pages explaining geology general concepts. But these are scattered and may miss out being placed high on Google search index. Wiki dominates so much that invariably that is the first link you go to from search results.

So, my question to the geoblogosphere, is it time for a Geoscience Scitable?

Recently I came across this resource by Nature Education. It is a free science library which currently has only topics on Genetics and Evolution. But I like the concept very much. Articles on various subtopics are written by subject experts and there is a editor for each broad area. The authors and editors are clearly named along with their affiliation. And the Nature brand name is well respected and lends a certain credibility to the content.

You cannot edit the articles.... do I hear a sigh of relief?!!! ..But you can join a group - which could be either private or public - that matches your interest or you can start a discussion on that article if you feel like expanding on the topic or criticizing it. This ensures that your involvement need not be just a static reading experience but a more participatory one. You can post a question to an expert and there are faculty who are part of the discussion groups to mentor and guide discussions along.

Do check out this resource. Do you think this would be a useful platform for hosting geology content? Would you be willing to contribute to a Geosciences Scitable? I feel even without additional resources like virtual classrooms, just a well written article explaining general concepts by a named expert alongside a functionality to start a parallel discussion on it would be a boon.

There is a lot of potential in Scitable but I am not suggesting that it will replace Wikipedia in the short term as the prominent place to go to for reference. Even if a geosciences initiative takes off - and Nature Education will have to be persuaded to start a geology project - building content will take time. Early adopters of Scitable are likely to be educational institutions who could recommend it to students and that kind of a captive audience would give it a reasonable membership and a launching pad. But as a open resource for the general public there will be challenges to overcome .....even with the best written articles how do we get it be indexed higher than Wiki on your search results :)

Take a look though. It may just be the future alternative platform to Wiki that people are looking for in terms of reliable science content for general concepts and reference.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Cheap Indian GIS

GIS (Geographic Information Systems) markets have not grown as fast as it should have in India but is picking up as private companies and government start recognizing the importance of geography embedded information. The main reason has been the slow response of government agencies to the potential of GIS. Add to that are restrictions on data availability which are now being removed through the development of government supported data warehouses like the Environment Information Centre (site is down as I write this). Additionally the National Spatial Data Infrastructure is being built and that eventually will be a gateway to various national spatial data repositories.

That's great news but there is good news on the capital costs side too. The second major reason for the slow adoption of GIS in India has been the exorbitant cost of software. Software from the main GIS players like ESRI and Intergraph costs a bundle and makes it difficult for smaller organizations, NGO's, individual consultants to afford it. That's changing too. There are now in the market some excellent affordable GIS. The one I use a lot - Manifold - costs a few hundred dollars, an easier investment for small companies.

Now the latest of these low cost GIS is the one developed by the Centre of Studies in Resource Engineering IIT Bombay and distributed through Bhugol GIS Pvt Ltd, a front company (Bhugol means geography in Hindi). Its called GRAM++ and it includes a full range of GIS capabilities. Its costs about Rs 30,000 ($ 625/-) for a commercial licence and Rs 10,000/- ($ 200) for an academic licence. They have also released a web based application called the Web Gram Server. GRAM ++ also includes an image processing module, a utility most standard GIS packages lack.

At $ 625/- the commercial licence is more expensive than Manifold GIS (range $295 -$575) but still much less than the thousands of dollars you would spend on ESRI or Intergraph or MapInfo. I haven't had a chance to use and assess this software but the pricing and the advertised capabilities will be attractive to small companies and consultants.