Category: Geoscience

Free and Open Communication of Scientific Findings

Posted by – September 24, 2011

On September 13, the governing council of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) published its newly adopted position statement in support of free and open communication of scientific findings. In this statement, AGU, a professional society of over 50,000 earth scientists from more than 135 countries, exhorted scientists, policy makers, and supporting institutions to guard and promote unfettered communication of scientific data, debates, and findings as a component of scientific expression. Although this statement and others like it are in response to the heated debate over global climate change and subsequent harassment of climatologists, attacking scientists for honest research that led to unpopular conclusions is not new.

The statement also notes that scientists have a responsibility to :

…communicate their findings in ways that portray their results and the results of others, objectively, professionally, and without sensationalizing or politicizing the associated impacts.

and to this I would add my belief that we scientists have a duty to communicate our results clearly to the society that supports our work.

Water: It turns out, it’s not everywhere

Posted by – August 1, 2011

Who knew? Well, Fred Pearce, for one, and in his Washington Post review of three new books on water, he writes:

“Water is the ultimate renewable resource — which is why we are running out. Because it falls from the sky, constantly replenished and cleansed in a cycle of evaporation and precipitation, we regard it as free, a gift from God. It is never truly owned or consumed, only borrowed from nature. And so we squander it and defile it. Until, as we are increasingly finding, it is not there when we want it.”

Front cover: The Big Thirst
Regarding The Big Thirst: the Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water, by Charles Fishman, Pearce quotes the author and observes that:

“we have taken [water] so much for granted that “we don’t have a good language for talking about water, we don’t have a politics of water, or an economics of water.” We can’t work out whether to treat it as a commodity, as a human right or simply as a force of nature, like the air we breathe.”

The Ripple Effect

For The Ripple Effect:the Fate of Fresh Water in the Twenty-First Century, by Alex Prud’homme, Pearce notes that the book is true to its title, following the use and abuse of water from a brutal drowning at a waterworks to the link between water and energy.

The third of and final of these reviews is for Brian Fagan’s Elixer: A History of Water and Humankind, which Pearce praises as the most eye-opening of the three, relating a fine history that shines a light on today. And for that comment alone, it’ll probably be what I’ll read on my next transatlantic flight. Pearce finishes his reviews by stating:
Front Cover: Elixer

“Water permeates our culture and language. It is the most universal symbol in the world’s religions, from the sacred rivers of Hindus to the baptismal waters of Christianity to the purification rituals of Islam.”

“The bad news is that we manage the planet’s most abundant and renewable resource so poorly that we sometimes run out of water when and where we need it. The flip side of our profligacy is that we have so much room for managing it better. And the best news of all is that every day, around 240 cubic miles of the stuff, purged of pollutants, falls to the Earth. That’s more than 37,000 gallons for each of us.”

Front Cover: When the Well Runs Dry

Pearce neglects to note that he is a hydroscribe himself, having authored When the Rivers Dry: Water–The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century, a book that warns of a dire future for water resources and for mankind. I’ve read Pearce’s book, and can vouch that it is worth your time, but be forewarned: his view of the future is not a rosy one.

Whichever you pick, any of these would be a fine addition to your summer reading list.


Many Bills

Posted by – July 24, 2011

IBM has created Many Bills, an interactive visualization of legislators and legislation in the US Senate and House. IBM says Many Bills is:

…a web based visualization that aims to make congressional legislation easier to digest. It presents bills from the House and Senate organized into collections and split into sections which are color coded and labelled to indicate what topic each section is about. It also provides a set of features designed to make it easier to find interesting or unusual parts of bills and communicate your findings to others.

For example, I entered “water” into the search, and found a number of water-relevant bills, each with color-coded highlights to show what sections of the bill effect spending, infrastructure, foreign affairs, natural resources, etc. There is a library of examples, Featured Collections, including collections like American Housing Bills.

This struck me not just as a useful tool for exploring legislation, but also as a great example of what is possible with current Web technology: highly interactive, user-customizable, and allows drilling down into each link. It also employs crowdsourcing, in that users can help assess misfits – sections of bills that seem to be a mismatch for the bill they are in. The design is cleanly done, with a minimum of chartjunk and a maximum of information for each element on the page. Oh, and it runs best in GoogleChrome (sorry IE fans…both of you).

P.S. My thanks to my fellow Fellow, Meadow Anderson, for the tip!

One more reason to like beer

Posted by – June 25, 2011

Foreign Policy is reporting that research economists have found that a developing nation’s beer consumption increases with its economic growth. Liesbeth Colen and Johan Swinnen of the University of Leuven suggest that breweries – and the jobs that come with them – are a source economic growth.

Just one more reason to like beer, even if its water footprint is large

Winning Graphic: What’s Your Water Footprint?

Posted by – May 21, 2011

Harvard graduate students Joseph Bergen and Nicki Huang earned top honors in the Urban Water Design Challenge, sponsored by Circle of Blue and, with the above interactive presentation of comparative water use.

Though I would argue that the use of bottles as symbols is what Tufte would call chartjunk, this is still a wonderful tool for exploring water supply and water use by country.

Kudos to Joseph and Nicki!


P.S. Circle of Blue, one of the sponsors of the contest, is a great blog/information source for water wonks. Similarly, is a great site for graphical approaches to exploratory data analysis.

Morganza Opens

Posted by – May 14, 2011

USACE projected inundation

USACE projected inundation to result from the May 14, 2011 opening of the Morganza Floodway near Morgan, Louisiana

On Saturday, May 14, at 3:00 pm Central Daylight time, a hydro-historic event occurred: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) opened the Morganza Floodway to control flooding on the Lower Mississippi River for the first time since 1973 (See a picture of the first rush of water). The Morganza is part of a complex of floodgates, weirs, levees, and diversions built and operated by USACE to keep the Mississippi River in its current channel – preserving trillions of dollars of industries and infrastructure – rather than doing what it has tried to do since the 1860’s and follow the Atchafalaya to the Gulf.

Flow on the Mississippi this year is reaching rates that are being compared to those that caused the Great Mississippi Floods of 1927, which inundated 27,000 square miles, fueled a wave of migration, and spurred Congress to order USACE to construct the world’s largest system of levees. Opening the Morganza will divert flow from the Mississippi to the Atchafalaya River, adding to flow already being diverted from the Mississippi to the Atchafalaya through the Old River Control Structure. If all goes according to plan, this will reduce flow through Baton Rouge and New Orleans to manageable levels. Unfortunately, it will also displace thousands of people residing along the Atchafalaya, but it is better than Plan B.

There has been much debate over the control of the Mississippi. On the one hand, USACE’s efforts to control the natural migration of the river have been called arrogant and ultimately futile. On the other, this engineering achievement has been hailed as a marvel that protects cities and industry along the American Ruhr Valley. Regardless of your position, I highly recommend the essay by John McPhee as background reading.

– ddw
2011.05.14.2025 EDT: edited to include Plan B

EPA Submits Draft Fracking Study Plan

Posted by – February 14, 2011

On Feb 8, the U.S. EPA submitted a draft of its plan for studying the effects of hydraulic fracturing for the recovery of natural gas. The plan is to be reviewed by the agency’s Science Advisory Board, with initial research results and study findings expected to be made public by the end of 2012. Fracking is a practice borrowed from petroleum engineering, where water, sand, and chemicals are injected into a formation to create and prop open fractures, allowing natural gas or oil to be recovered from an otherwise impermeable rock formation.


2011.3.5.1255: The NY Times published a fairly comprehensive article on hydrofracking


Posted by – January 14, 2011

From John Cox, of Discovery News: California is in the path of a winter rainfall phenomenon that one of these days could swamp the Golden State from the northern redwoods to the southern beaches, a trillion-dollar storm, a deluge more ruinous than a major earthquake, the U.S Geological Survey warned this week.

The agency unveiled the “ARkstorm Scenario,” an extensive study by 117 scientists, engineers and other experts of meteorological circumstances that could bring about such a natural disaster and the economic and social consequences that could ensue.

’cause earthquakes and wildfires weren’t enough…


…shoulda turned left at Albuquerque

Posted by – November 21, 2010

My AAAS Fellowship assignment was originally at the India Desk of the US State Department, so one might well ask how I wound up in the Offices of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I am still not quite sure how that happened…but when the position was described, it occurred to me that I have relevant expertise in many of the issues associated with this region: water resources infrastructure and management, energy, flood recovery, irrigation and hydropower systems, mining, … planned or not, the Offices of Afghanistan and Pakistan are a good Fellowship posting for me.

Approximately 80% of my time is spent monitoring, assessing, and reporting on water, energy, mining, agriculture, health, education, and science/technology policy in Afghanistan. For the remaining 20%, I support the Water Working Group within the US-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue and help monitor the Secretary’s Signature Program for water in Pakistan. Other duties include helping coordinate and reporting on the visits of Ministers to the US Government, and providing expert advice to, e.g., the State Department Special Coordinator for Water.

And learn a LOT of acronyms.

Note: to see other entries associated with this Fellowship, select the category ‘AAAS Fellowship’.


Why Lou Needs an iPhone

Posted by – November 14, 2010

FloodMap Mobile screen shot

Lou is a good friend of mine with whom I have volunteered on several Red Cross disaster relief operations. Although he and I have responded to tornados, hurricanes, and fires in various capacities, our longest shared assignments have been doing Disaster Assessment for floods, estimating the extent of the impacted area as well as helping evaluate potential shelter sites, identifying driving hazards, etc. We have often relied on FEMA flood insurance rate maps that show the 100 and 500-yr floodplains that are useful initial estimates of the impacted area. However, doing this is a cumbersome process of wrestling airphotos, highlighters, and topographic maps of mismatched scales, taped together and somehow transferred to a GoogleMap.

Well, for years I’ve been telling Lou how someday we’d be able to put all this data into one place, and map it all using our smarty phones…and now that day is here: PBS&J has created FloodMap Mobile, an iPhone app that displays your current location, elevation, and the nearest stream gage on a FEMA floodzone map, and then lets you email that information. If it works as well as the ads say, this puts a LOT of data on an iPhone that would be useful in assessing a flood-related disaster.

The usefulness of FloodMap for a particular location will depend on whether or not FEMA has created/updated the digital Flood Insurance Rate Map (DFIRM) for your location. I would also want to see this work with the overloaded cell phone network of the average post-disaster setting. However, I’m betting that Lou will not be able to say no to an iPhone for long…