Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Shirtfront Shennanigans


Seven years ago today, in the leadup to the G20 meeting in Brisbane, the then Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, said that he would shirtfront Russian President Vladimir Putin over the murder of 298 people, including several dozen Australians, in the skies over Ukraine. While Australians are quite familiar with the former PM, I will give a brief explanation for overseas readers.

There is nothing moderate about Tony Abbott. Not now, and not when he was in Parliament. An unrepentant, abrasive conservative Catholic, he said what he thought, wore his heart on his sleeve, and made such an effective opposition leaver that he won the election in 2013. Just as abrasive in government as he was on the cross benches, he eventually wore his own party out, and got replaced with a technocrat who could actually govern after a few years in the top job.

However, he was still in power in July 2014, when the Russian shot down the Malaysian Boeing 777 airliner MH17 as it was flying over the Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. As Malaysia was then a popular stopover point for travel between Australia and Europe, there were 27 Australians on board, and it was the worst overseas attach on Australian civilians since the 2002 terrorist bombings in Indonesia killed 88 Australians.

In the leadup to the G20 meeting, Prime Minister Abbott said in a media interview that he intended to “shirtfront” the Russian President Vladimir Putin over the MH17 murders. This raised more than a few eyebrows, not only because of the lack of diplomatic tact, but also for the use of a 1970’s era term for tacking used in AFL football, a sport mostly played in Southern and Western Australia, and not on the East Coast, where both the meeting and Abbott’s home electorate are located. However, following the suspension of Russia from the G8 earlier in the year, it was considered a potential flashpoint.

Seven years on, it is fair to look at where things now stand. Putin is still President of Russia. Tony Abbott is no longer in politics. After being replaced as Prime Minister in 2015, he retreated to the back bench, and eventually lost re-election to independent Zali Steggall in 2019. However, it’s not just about him.

All over the English-speaking world, conservative political parties have moved away from straight-talking ideological politicians like Mr Abbott and towards those more like the truth-bending, ideologically flexible, power abusing Mr Putin.

This is of course most obvious in the USA, where strongman apologist Donald Trump took over the Republican Party when he became President, and has been guiding it in a pro-Russian, anti-democratic direction ever since. To a lesser extent it is true in the UK, where Boris Johnson, the creative-tongued, ideologically nebulous anti-European populist is now Prime Minister.

Even here in Australia, where the technocratic Prime Minister who replaced Abbott was himself replaced, straight talking and ideological coherence seems to be out of fashion. While the current Prime Minister is also conservative, straight talking, above board conduct, and consistency aren’t really hallmarks of the current administration.

So all-in-all, the shirtfront seems to come up short. Not only is Mr Putin still in power, but he has ensured that Mr Abbott’s brand of politics doesn’t even have a place in the English-speaking world anymore.

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Can mining Australian coal slow sea level rise?

Disclaimer. I am stuck at home waiting for a child’s COVID test result, and desperately looking for a distraction from some personal admin. I am taking a sick day. This has nothing to do with my work, my employer, or anything else and is entirely me falling down an internet rabbit hole in order to avoid making a phone call.

Second disclaimer. I am not a climatologist, or an oceanographer, or a bulk commodity logistics manager. If I have drastically screwed up any of these fields, please correct me. Here we go:

Here on planet Earth, the surface is looking a bit grim. The recent and continuing increase in CO2 from burning carbonaceous materials has resulted in the planet warming up, and this warming is threatening to melt various ice sheets, which will raise sea level enough to inundate low lying coastal properties.

Of particular concern are the Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers, in West Antarctica, both of which discharge into the Amundsen Sea. One of the problems with these glaciers is that warmish (a few degrees C, so well above the freeing point of -2 for salty water) salty water, which circulates around the continental shelf of Antarctica, is melting these glaciers from below. During the last ice age, the glaciers were thicker, the sea level was lower, and as a result, these glaciers flowed all the way to the edge of the continental shelf. They carved enormous canyons in it was they went, and today these submarine canyons allow the warm salty water to flow inland and erode the current glaciers from underneath. Both glaciers are also prone to collapse, which would cause rapid sea level rise, as they drain a large portion of West Antarctica.

If the planet continues to warm, these glaciers could start melting from above as well as below, but even if warming were to stop tomorrow, the basal melting is happening right now, with current CO2 levels.

As a result, there have been studies (like Kimura et al.2017) of how this warm water actually interacts with the seabed and glacier, and over the past few years, several authors have proposed various technological solutions to keep the glaciers from melting. Many of these (e.g. Lockley et al. 2020) seem like science fiction. Others (Wolovick et al. 2018) imagine and model action beginning a hundred years from now.

At the same time, action to reduce CO2 emissions here in Australia has been sluggish at best. The coal industry is large, influential, well funded, and provides thousands of well paying unionized jobs. It is also a very successful industry, which, every year, exports close to 400 million metric tons of coal, mostly to East Asia. Roughly half of this is burned to produce electricity; the other half is used in steel production. Both eventually end up being turned into heat-trapping CO2, which is released into the atmosphere.

So, in the interest of solving both of these problems together, perhaps we should consider reducing the flow of deep warm water to the Amundsen Sea glaciers by filling the submarine canyons up with coal.

Let’s start by looking at the scale of the problem. Most of the Pine Island Trough is about 50 km wide, and 500-800 meters deep, with deeper areas and more complex topography near the ice edge.

Luckily, Australia has tens of cubic kilometres of coal reserves, depending on which definition one uses. And if the trough doesn’t need to be completely filled because the warm water doesn’t reach within 250m of the surface, than there is plenty of coal- perhaps even enough to put a submarine rubble berm across the entire Amundsen sea (e.g. Gurses et al. 2019).

Furthermore, the infrastructure to dig coal up, transport it to a port, and load it onto a bulk carrier already exists, and is in use. The only difference is the direction in which the ship sails after leaving port. In fact, Pine Island Bay is several hundred km closer to the port of Newcastle than any of the major East Asian ports are- it is just in the other direction. As a result, everybody in the Australian coal industry gets to keep their job, because they are still doing the same work. In fact, it makes jobs more secure, as the risk of having an asset stranded is reduced.

 Furthermore, the coal, once dumped, isn’t going to be burned. It is effectively sequestered. There should be enough WWI shipwrecks in the North Atlantic to be able to determine the behaviour of coal on the seabed on the 100 year timescale, but the recovery of coal from the Titanic suggests that it holds up reasonably well.

Obviously, there are other potential problems. Although today’s bulk carriers traverse areas of high typhoon activity, these tropical storms are both more localized and more predictable than the huge temperate lows which spin through the Southern Ocean. There could be seaworthiness issues with the current fleet. Coal may not be a dense enough rock to stay in a pile on the bottom of the ocean without getting washed away be currents, so shipping overburden as well, or instead, may be necessary. And operating a floating unloader in the Amundsen Sea could prove to be challenging. But these are things than can be tested today, as opposed to technologies that are decades away. If someone spent the next 6 months integrating a selfunloader into a bulk coal carrier, it could potentially do a test run as soon as the pack ice melts in January. And while a phase-in from Asian exports would be the least disruptive approach, if urgent action was required, based on current export tonnages, a 250m high, 2 km deep, and 50 km long berm could potentially be dumped across the trough west of Burke Island in less than 30 years.

Global warming is happening now. So should our solutions.



Sunday, May 02, 2021

Geosonnet 68

A hickory, a dickory, a dock
Diffusion rate of mice when timing’s known
But atoms, unlike rodents, have a clock
Which contradicts the others, all alone.

“A thousand Years,” says fat man Barium.
M-g squeaks, “Nah mate, more like less than one.”
T-i says, “Where’s my honorarium?
I can’t work here, diffusion’s not begun.”
He’s right! The two plus profiles haven’t moved.
The curves are melt dilution marks instead
The timescale’s not millennia, it’s proved
It’s more like months, and barium misled.
   Basalt melts felsic crystal mush so fast
   A season’s all you get before the blast.

Geology 43 695

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64  65 66  67 68

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Geosonnet 67

 When Hansel, sister Gretel mark their way,

They leave a trail of breadcrumbs to define

The path they’ve tread, retraced at end of day.

Their wish to scamper home demands the line.

But breadcrumbs made of stone tell diff’rent tales.

Dropped from volcanic vents, they lead not home.

Broadcast when glowing edifice exhales,

When they detached from rhyolitic foam.

And as the bubbles grew, they stretched and cracked

Brittle and ductile, like a crusty bun

Rheology of glowing glass intact

They log the speed of their eruptive run.

When ashfall buries house of gingerbread

The breadcrust bubbles mark only the dead.

Geology 48 1205

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64  65 66  67

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Geosonnet 66

A Solo smuggler must hide his freight.
Hidden compartments store his shady wares.
So when a mineral conceals hydrate
There must be secret structure which ensnares
The water slipping through the MOHO line.
A fugitive from oceanic law.
How does an olivine the H confine
And store in crystal structure lattice flaw?
The brucite sidekicks are forsterite’s foils
Magnesium, low silica create
Tetragonal sites vacant, H embroils
This nominally dry mantle substrate
    Hot hydrogen won’t change the warring stars
    And yet it could distinguish us from Mars.

Geology 46 571

Other geosonnets: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64  65 66

Friday, December 04, 2020

Manhattanhenge, Milankovitch, and Mystical Miscalculations

 Last weekend was the reverse Manhattanhenge in New York City. In order to explain what this is, I must first explain the Manhattanhenge, and in order to explain that, we need to start with the Stonehenge, in England.

Stonehenge is a Neolithic-to-Bronze age stone construction in Southwest England, It’s key feature, for the purposes of this article, is that part of it, the heel stone, is astronomically aligned such that at the summer solstice, the sun rises over it (as seen from the middle of Stonehenge.)

Manhattanhenge, then, is when the sun sets in alignment with the cross streets of Manhattan. This does not happen on the solstice, however; it generally happens about a month before and after the summer solstice. A reverse Manhattanhenge, then, is when the sunRISE is aligned with the cross streets in Manhattan. This generally happens a month before and after the winter solstice. For example, last Monday.

The reason for this is that the streets of Manhattan are aligned 29 degrees north of west, and the sun doesn’t set that far north at New York’s latitude until it reaches a declination of 22 degrees. That is, the sun is straight overhead at noon at a latitude of 22 degrees north. The maximum declination reached by the sun is about 23.2 degrees, which is the axial tilt of the Earth at the present time

Of course, as geologists, we are not bound to the present time. We can, and do explore deep geologic time routinely. And one of the things that changes over geologic time is the magnitude of the Earth’s axial tilt.

Milankovitch cycles are regular changes in the Earth’s orbit that are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon and other planets. One of the parameters which changes is the Earth’s axial tilt. When the tilt is larger, the seasons are more extreme, and when it is smaller, they are less extreme. For most of the Quaternary, from about 2.6 million years ago to about 1 million years ago, this cycle was the dominant influence on the Earth’s ice ages.

In terms of its influence on Manhattanhenge, that is easier to explain. A larger axial tilt would move both the normal and reverse events away from each other, so that the May and July events would both be farther from the Solstice. A smaller axial tile would move these events closer together, and nearer to the solstice. In fact, when the Earth’s axial tilt drops to 22 degrees, then, just like at Stonehenge today, the sunrise and sunset alignment will coincide with the winter and summer solstices.

A common theme in 20th century speculative fiction, which is still sometimes repeated today, is that Earth’s Neolithic to early bronze age edifice-building civilizations worshipped the sky because they had alien patrons which would come to Earth and assist them with the otherwise implausibly large edifices which they built. While this theory has previously been used in science fiction to explain the Egyptian Pyramids or the Stonehenge, I do not know that it has been applied to Manhattan. However, as geologists, we have the tools to do seen if and when this happened.

First, we need a Milankovitch calculator. These can be found on the web, via either NASA or Colorado State University. Then, we can use the Milankovitch cycles to date *when* the aliens came to set up the urban street grid, based on when the Milankovitch cycles last dropped the Earth’s tilt to 22.0 degrees.

Unfortunately, like many science fiction ideas, this one gets less brilliant the longer we look at the numbers.  Any date for the alien founding of Manhattan needs to be less than about 17000 years ago, since before that the island was buried under a glacial ice sheet. This is a problem, because Axial tilt is currently declining; it reached a maximum about 9000 years ago, and hasn’t been lower than the current level for 19,000 years, a time when Manhattan was in the deep freeze. So it seems unlikely that the streets were laid out to align with the solstice. But there’s a more fundamental problem.

The last tilt minimum was 29,000 years ago. But the tilt at that time was 22.2 degrees- in otherwords, the tilt never got low enough to put Manhattanhenge on the Solstice. Now, as it happens, the magnitude of the tilt cycle varies a fair bit from cycle to cycle. The previous minimum, 70,000 years ago, had a tilt of 22.3 degrees (according to the Colorado State University model linked above). In fact, at no time on the past 5 million years does the tilt drop to 22.0 degrees to put Manhattanhenge on the Solstice.

A responsible researcher would give up at this point and conclude that the streets were laid out on the angle decided in 1811, just like all supporting documents state. But because I’m blogging after midnight, I’m going to double down on the crazy:

What if TIME TRAVELLING aliens sent a message back in time to set New York up on this angle to align with a future solstice? After all, it turns out that in 4.77 million years, if New York is still around, the Earth’s tilt will drop to 22.0 degrees, and whoever is still left in the Tri State Area will be able to head into The City and watch the sunset between the skyscrapers on the longest day of the year. I hope they aren’t still in lockdown when that happens.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

A Crisis of Accountability

“With great power comes great responsibility”


In 2002, when this was the tag line for a superhero movie, it was an obvious to everyone. Literal popcorn stuff. How times have changed. Over the past decade, in particular, the world has been suffering from an increasing accountability crisis, where instead of coming with great responsibility, power is increasingly used to avoid responsibility.


This is not a partisan thing- it happens from the most left wing countries to the most reactionary ones. Nor is it restricted to government. Many of the post-financial crisis business models, such as the gig economy and many debt repackaging schemes, involve taking profit while evading the associated risk.


I’m not entirely sure why this is happening now. In government, it may be related to the rise of strongmen in the wake of the Arab Spring failure and the alienation of Putin by the G7 in the earl-to-mid teens. Strongmen, almost by definition, use their power to repress criticism and avoid responsibility, and try to minimize their accountability. If they had actual accomplishments, then they wouldn’t have to use threats and lies to distract from their records.


The transformation of the internet into a disinformation superhighway probably plays a role as well, But disinformation is only a tool, not a payoff. However, it can distract from the rapid movement of ideas and capital, which allow grift to mutiply like never before.


But these aren’t the main problem. The main problem is the mindset that somehow, some one somewhere will clean up the mess left behind. Grifters assume that they can just move on to somewhere they can spend their ill gotten wealth. But even though we live on a big old planet, technology has shrunk it to the point where they can trash and loot all of it before they realize that there is nowhere left to go.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Henry VI, part one: The Joan of Arc cut

William Shakespeare’s history plays Henry V and Richard III are two of his, and English-speaking Theatre's, greatest plays. They are also among his best known works. Less famous, however, are the three Henry VI plays- these are basically the historical filler between the death of Henry V and the famous Winter of Discontent. 

The second two Henry VI plays are about the civil strife that hurled England into the War of the Roses; part one is about the loss of French territories, and is rarely performed except in conjunction with the other two parts. In fact, it may only partially be Shakespeare’s work; recent scholarship has suggested that it was co-written by Christopher Marlowe.

The play starts with the funeral of Henry V, and follows the feuding between various English factions as Joan of Arc cuts a swath through the English holdings in France. In fact, Joan is the most interesting character in the play. 

Shakespeare didn’t write a lot of great women roles. Women weren’t even allowed to perform during his career, so there probably wasn’t much demand. Still, his Joan is not too different to a modern heroine. As most Shakespeare plays these days are cut for length anyway, I tried to cut it in a way that highlighted Joan’s story, and not that of the hapless English.

In the full play, the one sympathetic Englishman of substance is Talbot. He’s a bit of a Mary Sue, and is actually quite dull, so most of the cuts relate to other people praising him. This makes him seem more vainglorious (he still praises himself), and heightens the tragedy of his son believing everything he says about his greatness.

The other cuts are extraneous sideplots and foreshadowing of the subsequent plays. This is Joan’s story, not the setup for the War of the Roses. When the Henry IV plays get combined, often those scenes are the only ones kept, so I can lose them. Aside from that, just a few of the more vitriolic jabs at Joan towards the end had to go to make her story consistent and compelling.

Of course, editing a Shakespeare play to highlight the French over their pathetic English adversaries might feel treacherous to the denizens of that island where, as Joan says, “May the glorious sun never reflex his beams.” So I decided to twist the knife by using as my reference the Folger Shakespeare Library version; an American edition of the text. 

So, in their entirety, the cuts to the Folger Shakespeare Library version of Henry VI, part 1, are as follows:

Act 1, scene 1: 

Cut lines 25-27

Cut lines 122-136 (Joan, not Talbot, is the focus of this edit)

Cut lines 141-142

Act 1 scene 2

Cut lines 13-24 

Cut lines 35-36

Act 2, scene 1:

Cut everything (including directions) after line 81

Act 2 scene 2:

Cut entire scene (Not Talbot’s play)

Act 2 scene 3

Cut entire scene (Not Talbot’s play)

Act 2 scene 5

Cut entire scene (setup for sequel plays)

Act 3 scene 3

Cut lines 58-59

Cut lines 78-80

Cut line 85

Act 3 scene 4

Cut entire scene

Act 4 scene 1

Cut everything (including directions) after line 78

Act 4 scene 2

Cut lines 31-34

Act 4 scene 7

Cut lines 40-44

Cut lines 48-51

Act 5 scene 3

Cut lines 10-11

Cut lines 14-22

Cut line 28

Cut “But Suffolk Stay” from line 192

Cut lines 193 to end of scene

Act 5 scene 4

Cut lines 7-8

Cut lines 10-16

Cut lines 18-19

Cut “Now cursed be the time” from line 26

Cut lines 27-34

Cut lines 38-39

Cut “Hath been” from line 50

Cut lines 51-53

Cut lines 61-85

Act 5 scene 5

Cut entire scene (this sets up the next play)