Planting seeds of change in Rio

There may be 1,001 things in the news that are going wrong with the Rio Olympics, but you know what? They unleashed some blunt climate change messages and amazing geographical graphics on the big screen. So at least something is going right.

(Also, where can I get one of those crazy bikes that are being pedaled in with the procession of athletes?)

Oh, Canada!

This summer my mother, my sister, and I went on an adventure to Canada so my mom could geek out with her best friend about world-famous gardens and so Heather and I could see her family’s home province of Quebec. I was fully prepared to see those silver-steepled churches, the beautiful countryside, and elaborate gardens that looked even better than the magazines. The random volcanic hills, impact crater, beluga whales, and evidence of earthquakes were more of a surprise!

Work and classwork kept me too busy to brush up on the regional geology before the trip, and the fascinating landscape made me regret it. This post series will document my research on the geological oddities I saw, broken up into more manageable chunks by each leg of the road trip.

Coming soon: Montreal to Quebec City: The Great Meteor Hotspot Track and Monadnocks

A bientôt!



South Cumberland Hiking

Over Memorial Day Weekend I desperately needed a rocks and hiking fix, so off I went to the South Cumberland State Recreation Area near Tracy City, Tennessee, with a stop by Nashville to reunite with college friends and frolic through the Tennessee Renaissance Festival. The area that includes the South Cumberland State Recreation Area falls geographically into the southern extent of the Cumberland Plateau that I explored last summer at the Red River Gorge, with steep gorges and rocky streams. Compared with the Red River Gorge, the geological layers in the Fiery Gizzard area of the South Cumberland plateau (especially the resistant sandstone cap) are thinner and don’t encourage the formation of such massive cliffs, but still create a wonderful landscape.

The trail goes from this….


Miniature waterfalls at the Grundy Day Loop

… to this.



The view from Raven Point

I was too busy hauling my self around 10.4 miles of trails to do any serious geologizing, but would love to come back and explore in earnest. The trail wound past shale, sandstone stacks, fossils, karst formations, waterfalls, and a coal mine too!


Deformed shale layers above Sycamore Falls


Sycamore Falls, with a perfect swimming hole underneath it.


Fiery Gizzard Creek escapes from view below a limestone layer just before the trail starts to climb to Raven Point, and reappears about 200 yards later.



Archimedes bryozoans, crinoid fragments, and brachiopods on the steep climb up to Raven Point. I was definitely ready for the excuse to stop and gawk for a bit.


The mountain laurel bushes were absolutely heavenly!


The Dog Hole Mine at the junction of the Fiery Gizzard and Dog Hole trails is so small that I can’t imagine anyone wanting to go into it – the seam is barely three feet tall.


There’s nothing better than putting my feet in a creek and my nose in a book at the end of a long day of hiking! I spent a lovely half-hour exploring the history of Nepal with Jeremy Bernstein before the light started to disappear from the bottom of the gorge.

annotated trail map


Earth Day 2016

I wish all of you out there on the internet a wonder-filled Earth Day!

montana flower photo to print

This Earth Day, I wish that I could teleport back to the Tobacco Root Mountains in Montana.

This year’s celebration is particularly momentous because leaders from 171 countries have reconvened in New York City to sign the Paris Climate Accord drafted in the contentious December 2015 UN Climate Change Conference. The Accord will go into effect after at least 55 countries, accounting for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions, deposit their documentation of governmental ratification or acceptance with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. Let’s keep our fingers crossed! The USA is a key player, as we pump roughly 17% of the world’s man-made carbon into the air each year. I’m slightly more optimistic than usual that our Senate will ratify the accord after they passed the Energy Policy Modernization Act two days ago, on April 20. 82 senators voted YEA and only 12 voted NAY, which shows that the political will to thoughtfully consider the future of our energy resources is out there.

I was especially thrilled that the Land and Water Conservation Fund got reauthorized and a new fund was set up to cover much-needed maintenance at national parks- both harness a tax on fossil fuel production to support some of my favorite wild places. Maintaining recreational access to pristine public land not only recruits new generations of earth-loving environmentalists, but protects our country’s water resources and biodiversity. It’s a win-win situation.


Happy World Water Day!


I have the phenomenal good fortune to live in a city in a developed nation that has excellent and abundant groundwater, decent infrastructure, and water prices so affordable that I rarely think about them. Too many places lack one or all of those things.

The UN-Water group designates a theme for World Water Day each year; this year, it’s water and jobs. According to the UN, almost half of workers work in water-related sectors. The two are inextricably linked, especially in agriculture. For example,recent analyses suggest that the Syrian crisis was triggered in part by the pressure put on urban economies by out-of-work farmers whose land had been starved by a 4-year drought.Scientific American wrote a thought-provoking piece about that issue here. Not only farmers but well-diggers, fishermen, ranchers, and many others rely on clean, plentiful water beyond the scope of our usual day-to-day human needs.

Today’s the day to count our H2O blessings, and consider how we can make a difference. I donated to Charity: Water, which spends 100% of its donations to bring clean water to those who lack it.

I’m looking forward to writing more long-form pieces for the blog later this spring and into the summer – graduate school applications, a full time job, and classes have competed with my free time to write and research. I’m still thinking about that California groundwater blog post!


Souvenirs from India

More on the Clean Water Rule to come, I promise – I’m waiting on a reply to some questions from a contact at the EPA’s outreach division. Meanwhile…

IMG_2097I know my mom loves me when in addition to a Ganesh statuette and various lovely shiny things, she brings me back a little bottle of Himalayan water from her trip to India. It’s only partially full because of the 33 pound weight limit on her suitcase, but I can forgive her for that.

This particular water was collected by Tata Global Beverages at “Village-Dhaulakuan, Tehsil-Paontasahib, District – Sirmour, Himachal Pradesh.” Naturally I just had to know where that village is, and what glacier feeds the river.

It turns out that Dhaula Kuan, 170 miles north of Delhi, is in the foothills of Himalayas on the Yamuna river. The Yamuna is the largest tributary of the Ganges and a sacred river to Hinduism; the Temple of Yamunotri is regarded as the source and is an important pilgrimage site. The river actually starts 3 miles further upstream at the Champasar Glacier on Kalind Mountain (also called “The Banderpoonch peaks”), but the forbidding terrain causes most pilgrims to stop at the temple.

Dhaula Khan map 2

More to the point, Yamunotri is 116 miles northeast of Dhaula Khan. “Himalayan” may make great advertising, but this water is to “pristine Himalayan glacial streams” as water diverted from the Bow river in Calgary, Alberta is to “crystal clear Rocky Mountain snowmelt”.

Those technicalities aside it’s still drainage from the highest mountain range on earth, which is enough make for a very happy hydrology nerd!

What I’m reading right now…

I’m sorry that it’s been such a while since I last posted – I went to visit my sister and investigate PhD programs, and have had some great conversations with professors and students at Johns Hopkins, UPenn, and the University of Delaware. I’m working on a longer post about the history of water management between New York City and the rest of the users of the Delaware River, but for now I’ll just share some other authors’ writing that’s caught my eye lately. 150324_SCI_Himalayas-KumikCanal

Jonathan Mingle recently wrote a great piece on The Slate comparing the conflict resolution tactics of the water-stressed community of Kumik in the Indian Himalayas with the strategies used by the international leaders who are arguing about the climate change causing that community’s water stress. So often the political side of climate change adaptation can can seem hopelessly opaque and difficult to enforce, and this article’s views on how a community can enforce cooperation in high-stakes situations gave an intriguing angle on that issue. I guess that developed and developing nations alike have become so mutually invested and entangled that we end up acting like one big tribal community, sometimes reverting to old methods such as shunning to keep the peace and work towards goals. In the end, unless that happens on a the larger scale of climate talks, more communities will end up under the same kind of stress as Kumik, and enforcing cooperation over scarce resources in the same way. Anyways, now I’m really tempted to buy Mingle’s new book!

Ellie Key, an environmental scientist I used to go to church with who works out in Washington State now, sent me a series of great short videos about the volcanism and catastrophic flooding that shaped her new turf! It’s always a lot of fun to armchair-travel through “virtual field courses” like these. The massive scale of the glacial lake floods boggles the mind, as do the huge basalt fields! Someday I’ll get out there to explore the aftermath first-hand, but for now I’ll remotely explore it with the most dapper field geologist ever (really, he wears a bow tie).

Dirt. We all depend on it, and it seems so ubiquitous that many of us take it for granted. This article in The Guardian by George Monbiot, despite its slightly melodramatic tone, gives a good introduction to why we should care as well some of the risks involved in immediate policy decisions. Talking with professors and students at UDel has introduced me to the agricultural side of environmental science; I had never really considered agricultural research as a field – I’m not sure why, since we all depend on it to put the food on our plates. This topic inspired yet another book on my growing reading list – Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David Montgomery. Anyways, reading lists aside, I’ve got a back-log of writing to do and I’d better tackle it!

UC Berkeley’s Seismic Carillon

I’ve had a soft spot for carillon bells ever since my choir camp cohort got a behind-the-scenes tour at the National Cathedral’s awesome bell-tower in Washington D.C. As a joint music and geology nerd, I had never seen a phenomenon that so perfectly combined my interests until this popped up on NPR – a set of carillon bells hooked up to a seismograph in the Hayward Fault that runs near UC Berkeley.

For three spans of ten minutes on February 3, a geologically-inspired symphony of sound and light entertained visitors to the lawn Outside Sather Tower, which was celebrating its 100th anniversary. The project was conceived by Berkeley professors Edmund Campion (composer), Ken Goldberg (artist and roboticist), and Greg Niemeyer (artist), who were intrigued my the idea of a new model of data visualization.

It’s a fun thought – that the unimaginable stockpiles of data collected by modern society is being put to such a whimsical, productive use.

I found that the news coverage missed something –  how the seismic data was transposed into a range audible to humans, and any nice geology info on the fault itself.

Faults and Plate motion

The fault highlighted in yellow is the section of the Hayward that slipped in the large 1868 earthquake.

Thankfully, the USGS is there to cover my late-night geologic information needs. They have an accessible and well-laid out series of pamphlets and infographics on the fault, my favorites of which can be found here. Unlike its more famous cousin the San Andreas fault, which is “locked” and only moves (In the Bay area) during major earthquakes, the Hayward fault moves along at a constant 5mm-per-year creep in between its major earthquakes, providing gentle tremors to be transposed for carillon at any given time. Statisticians are wary of the fault, which has a historical trend of producing a large quake every 140 years; the East Bay is “overdue” for a quake as of 2008.

hayward fault and belltower

Relationship between the Hayward Fault and Sather Campanile (Bell-tower) – click through for better resolution. “Up” is east; north is to the left.

Unfortunately, the how and why of earthquake tremor musicality will have to be a subject for another day, when I have the time to dig through archives and faculty pages for tidbits. To be updated!

Update: Well, that escalated quickly. Research into the exact interface between the fault and the music ended up careening through sound systems and acoustic technologies, crashed through my intermediate understanding of calculus, and soared right over my head. I knew I was lost when I found myself staring blankly at the Wikipedia page of Fourier Analysis. While I always love exploring new subjects, sometimes I just have to pick my battles. I changed tactics: instead of approaching the problem through the musical side, I turned to looking up the actual seismic patterns.

The earth’s periodic shrugs and scrapings all produce two kinds of displacement. The faster “P” compression wave moves through the ground like a slinky that’s jostled while held straight – the same manner as sound traveling through air. A moment later, the slower “S” transverse wave moves like a flicked jump-rope.Those waves show up on a seismograph as an oscillation – almost like a sine function, if you squint. I’m guessing that the Carillon’s program took those seismic oscillations and gave them the characteristics of sound waves.

The first thing that came to mind when connecting sounds with oscillations is the Sound Track segment from my childhood favorite, the 1940’s Disney Fantasia. It gives a fun introduction to the connection between a wave’s amplitude and sound’s volume, and the relationship between the frequency and the pitch.

Finding data on the Hayward Fault’s movements is easy – it has that magical combination of a high-risk setting and nearby higher education that lead to it being one of the most-studying faults in the USA. The Berkeley Digital Seismic Network includes 30 data-collection stations, including this one right below the bell-tower. The North California Earthquake Data Center has a great “create a seismogram” app (here) that allowed me to access data from that collection station for the duration of one of the performances. USC Berkeley Seismic OscillationsOh the joys of the internet, that I can just google this!

This seismogram shows a wave varying in frequency and amplitude. If this were a sound wave, it would sound something like a mild, atonal siren sliding from pitch to pitch and varying in loudness. USC composer/professor Edward Campion and Jeff Lubow at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies managed to turn this continuous oscillation into a discontinuous series of bell tones, which might as well be magic to a someone like me who knows nothing about sound engineering. However they did it, they created a wonderful performance!

In the theme of accessible data visualization, maybe they could find a way to turn some other dramatic earthquake events in the seismogram archives into musical compositions? I would totally buy a CD.

Wide World of Science

The most productive thing I’ve ever done on LinkedIn was starting a discussion with a plea about where I should consider getting a PhD in hydrology and climate. The amount of thoughtful feedback I’ve received has been overwhelmingly wonderful, and has gotten me back into the loop of the amazing science that’s being done in the wide world out there. It’s inspiring and intimidating. On the one hand, it makes me super excited to get out there and do that kind of science myself. On the other, the passion and productivity of some scientists boggles the mind.

One commenter pointed me towards this article on Katharine Hayhoe, a Texas Tech climate scientist who is now one of Time’s 100 most influential people. I first ran across her while watching a documentary on the stress climate scientists face from those who pelt them with “Freedom of Information Act” requests – a barrage of political red-tape that initially made me pessimistic about joining the fray. It’s a small victory every time climate science reaches out through a new channel, and Dr.Hayhoe’s is particularly relevant – she’s put effort into reconciling scientific reasoning and her evangelical Christian faith. That flavor of Christianity has unfortunately become closely intertwined with the more extreme parts of the Republican Party’s attack on scientific reasoning, and it’s heartening to see an effort to grapple with that issue. I really want to read her and her husbands’ new book – “A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions” now!

“She serves on the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s What We Know panel. This initiative communicates the “Three Rs” of climate change: Reality, Risk and Response. She also serves as a scientific advisor to Citizen’s Climate Lobby, the EcoAmerica MomentUS project, the Energy and Enterprise Initiative, the Evangelical Environmental Network, and the International Women’s Earth and Climate Initiative. ….Hayhoe also serves on the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion; the American Geophysical Union’s Hydrology Committee on Uncertainty; the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climate Predictions and Projections Team and their advisory team; and has contributed her research to and served as an expert reviewer for the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”

WOW. I have nothing but respect for her insane powers of productivity; it must be exhilarating to engage with such a high level of scientists and make that kind of difference in the dialogue! Now I just need to figure out how to get there… the hunt for grad programs continues…

Other fantastic programs:
University of Arizona – Of all the places to study drought and climate assessment, Arizona is one of the best.
University of Delaware – It looks like this program covers exactly what I want – they’ve already created a plan for students combining hydrology and policy!
UNESCO-IHE Groundwater Masters – Who wouldn’t want to study groundwater & policy in Delft, Dresden, and Lisbon?
MIT’s Program in Oceans, Atmospheres, and Climate – I might be flattering myself thinking that I’m smart enough for MIT, but it can’t hurt to try?

2015: The year when businesses finally wake up to rising temperatures?

One of my favorite things on Facebook is a new post from NASA Earth Observatory. I know. Sorry, friends and your adorable selfies and kids, but hard science backed up with beautiful spatially resolved data gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling. One of their latest posts combined the data from four independently conducted studies (NASA, NOAA, Japan’s Meteorological Agency, and the UK’s Hadley Centre) to show that they all agree, and all four show that 2014 was the warmest year on since records began in 1880. It looks like our decade-long pause in warming, which had politicians and warming deniers alike breathing a sigh of relief, might be over. One the one hand, I wish that the pause could have been some magical development in our planet’s ability to self-regulate excess carbon. On the other, though, I’m glad that the deniers no longer have that particular piece of “evidence” to use to shut down dialogue on warming. There’s is also a thoughtfully conceived graphic that makes sense of the noisy El Nino/La Nina fluctuations that can confuse attempts to get a clear trend out of climate data. I was content to just have that post open in a tab for a week to admire every now and then, until I found out that Forbes Magazine had written an article about how 2014’s hot weather was bad for business. I did a double take and then a small seated dance of victory. Climate science was really taken out of politicized debate and mainstreamed into business contexts! I feel that, at the moment, too many decision-makers (I’m talking about you, Ted Cruz) maintain that climate change can be ignored if only they call for more and more scientific evidence. I had to wonder – at what point will businesses stop waiting for political cues to change their business models towards adaptability and sustainability, and go ahead and make the plunge for their bottom lines’ sake anyway?

“The investment community – along with regulators – has woken up to this threat. It is demanding more information from companies about their exposure to climate events, as well as the prospective cost of their carbon emissions.” ~“Neeraj Sahai, president of Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services, Fortune magazine

But wait, what kind of effects are we talking about? I delved a bit deeper into the sources mentioned in the article to compile a short list, in no particular order:

  1. Rising energy costs of cooling buildings in hotter climate
  2. Increase in storm damage, especially along southern coastline. For example, according to, Florida could see a 5% to 9% increase in storm related costs in the next 30 years.
  3. In areas such as Florida, between 15 billion and 23 billion dollars worth of existing property will be underwater in the next 50 years. New York City, having the advantage of non-porous bedrock that can be protected with seawalls, would “only” have 7 billion to 19 billion dollars of property underwater.
  4. More days of extreme heat in the summer, resulting in more heat-related mortality and also lower worker productivity.
  5. As extreme heat spreads across the middle of the country, some states in the Southeast, lower Great Plains, and Midwest risk up to a 50% to 70% loss in average annual crop yields by the end of the century, if adaptations for changing circumstances are not made. Increased heat speeds up the water cycle, resulting in wetter wet areas (more susceptible to floods) and drier dry areas (more drought-prone) on the planet.

Resources gleaned from the Forbes Article: (because there’s nothing like a well-researched article to give me a whole new reading list)

The New Climate Economy – Organized by Felipe Calderon and backed by Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Norway, South Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom, this Global Climate Commission promises to show some interesting perspectives from the developing world.

The WRI’s “Adapting for a Green Economy” report – a global focus on sustainable business, compiled by the independent World Resources Institute

Risky Business – a relatively new detailed, graphic-rich site focusing on climate risks in the United States, spearheaded by Michael Bloomberg and researched by an all-star cast of climate scientists, a risk management firm, and a consulting group.