November 2009 Archives

Geography is Destiny

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Modern human civilization has been defined by the geology/geography of our planet.

We lived through a consistently paced human history until the time of the industrial revolution - then our civilization really took off.   The biggest factor was cheap and easy-to-find oil that literally gushed from the ground.

This highly efficient form of energy nurtured the heavy industries of steel, railroads, energy and enabled huge, leap-frog changes, wars, conquest, skyscrapers, ships, automotive etc.


And humans managed to conquer the vast oceans too — but not until we could navigate over the forbidden horizons of water.  Navigation away from safe shorelines required accurate timekeeping to navigate using the sun and moon to calculate precise locations.  Whereas, land-based navigation requires only a view of any landmark - any map will suffice.  Without the geography of oceans covering most of our planet, where was our need to innovate?

The same applies to the pressure to invent the radio.  Land based transit and communications had been doing quite well with telegraph wires and telephones.  But the oceanic barriers were well-tamed by wireless communication.  Radios were first used as wireless telegraphs to communicate with shipping.

Our planet geography has determined, directed, and demanded technical innovation.  The transoceanic underwater cable is still used today - but it is very expensive to lay thousand of miles of cable.  That cost and risk pushed for the launch of communication satellites that more than replaced undersea cable functionality.

The very geography of our planet has directed civilization.


“What if” is a great exercise in understanding history.  Imagine our civilization without any oil - we would have seen a very limited, slower industrial revolution - more evolutionary.  And of course, plentiful liquid fuel is key to our wide dependence on aviation.

Or imagine a history in a world without such vast oceans.  If our seas were small (like the Mediterranean or smaller), then land-based transit might still dominate - no need for as many ships.  We would have no need for navigation, no need for accurate timepieces, no pressing need for radio.  Geology is destiny.

I look forward to reading Geodestinies by Dr Walter Youngquist - called “the classic text on global resources and their depletion”.

A new edition for this 12 year old book is due out soon… good thing, as this is out-of-print (1997), with used copies going for around $80 and up…

The future of less will arrive for citizens of industrial and developing countries by small increments of change, but which, in retrospect will combine to be seen as a century of profound changes to a degree of rapidity and consequence as never before.  We now live moment by moment, only moderately aware of these incremental changes.  It is unlikely, although not impossible, that there will be catastrophic changes in lifestyles and economies.  But slowly and inevitably the related problems of resource depletion and population growth will become increasingly apparent.  We have the opportunity in various ways to modify the impact of these events, but so far there is little evidence this is being done. The industrial world and its political framework seems committed to the road of increased consumption and more people to consume, for that is what keeps the game going - for the moment, but is unsustainable very far into the future.

Walter Youngquist, November 2009 from


Amazon book reviewers had nothing but great comments.

Worth checking this blog since it attracts some very wise comments.

Al Gore presents Our Choice

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Now we begin to know just how serious is our problem with global warming.   

Al Gore is getting out a ruthlessly realistic message: civilization needs to choose - although he does not own this message.   Gore is just a vehicle for connecting with millions of viewers.  On the Late Show with David Letterman he was promoting his book - Our Choice.  He speaks directly about the extent of the problem to a serious and respectful Letterman; later too with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Gore on David Letterman
alternate link

And Jon Stewart also had Gore on his show

This is a sea change, a paradigm shift.   The issue is now mainstreamed.   And in the coming months, in Copenhagen and in unfolding climate events - the issue will saturate the public.

Climate Progress calls it a must read book.

We are getting the sense that governments are unable to solve our really big problems - and the very biggest, climate destabilization cannot be solved, it can only be mitigated and adapted to.   We can no longer squander carbon for transitory comfort because it robs from the future.   Facing a painful future of our own making, we now must reshape our social/psychological lives.   The destabilzation of climate extends to civilization itself.

The debate on the realities of both climate change and Peak Oil has moved from ‘are they real?’ to questions concerning timing, magnitude and impact.  At the same time, expanding research in ‘temporal discounting’ in economics (called ‘impulsivity’ in psychology), is shedding light on how steeply we value the present over the future, a trait with ancient origins.  Knowing this tendency, how can we expect factual updates on peak oil and climate change to behaviorally compete with Starbucks, sex, slot machines, and ski trips? Science is rapidly increasing our knowledge about the planet.  To affect change however, we might have to become equally knowledgeable about ourselves. Living for the Moment while Devaluing the Future   From the 2007

We should act without fear and move forward.   And we want to avoid the irrational narcotic effect of hope because it allows us to ignore and delay.   Too much hope fosters inaction and inattention.  We hope for yet uninvented technology, hope for unrealized political and superhuman industrial solutions and most of all we hope for a leap in human evolution that might enable it all.   Last year, William Prust delivered a simpatico idea in his popular message “Our Time” at the site   Gore is just saying it is Our Choice to make.   William Prust is just saying right now is the time.   Meanwhile, Gore is trying to lighten up just a bit when appearing on The Colbert Report:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Formidable Opponent - Global Warming With Al Gore
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

Global warming will increase seismic activity

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Finally, human civilization is starting to get global warming events that it can FEEL.  

Earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes.   Something real, something hard, fast, and impossible to ignore.   Increasing evidence and statistical analysis links increased seismic activity to global warming.

This alarming notion was first discussed in 1998 and is now more widely mentioned in recent publications - from the Journal of Geodynamics to National Geographic, to blogs reporting opinions of scientists (below).   

Some intuitive calculation may help understanding:   A cubic yard of ice weighs nearly a ton.   The Antarctic ice sheet is a few miles thick.  Earth adjusted to that immense weight over the millennia - now, as ice caps melt, this weight is slowly lifting..   

Today the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica is quickly melting downward from the surface - dropping in altitude at nearly 16 meters per year.   With an area over 5 thousand square kilometers, this glacier holds a lot of cubic meters of ice and means that a lot of weight is now getting shifted into the ocean.   Similarly, the melting of glaciers in Greenland and elsewhere will trigger seismically elastic reactions that should be noted for their frequency, intensity and novel locations.


This idea is consistent for our age:  The Anthropocene Epoch - a geological age where humans make a significant impact.   Who knew that human industrial CO2 emissions warming the atmosphere then melting the ice and then the shifting weight would  provoke such a rapid and palpable reaction.  Such a sudden, fast impact of global warming has so far been missing from this crisis. 

It is worth watching carefully and keeping score. 


  ————————- News, Sources and Links:

University of London conference on Climate Forcing of Geological and Geomorphological hazards, Oct 2, 2009

Dr Margaret Lillian is an independent science journalist specializing in global trends.

As reported only this year, Harvard seismologist Göran Ekström has found a striking increase in the frequency of glacial quakes, particularly in Greenland, but also in Alaska and Antarctica.
Greenland quakes have risen from 6 to 15 a year between 1993 and 2002, to 30 in 2003, 23 in 2004 and 32 in the first 10 months of 2005, closely matching the rise in Greenland’s temperatures over the same period.   Their source was traced to surges and slips within ice sheets, where rapid melting is causing water to collect under glaciers, making them glide faster into the sea, triggering quakes…   

The science suggests that as redistribution of the Earth’s mass induced by global warming disturbs the relative equilibrium of its crust, monumental forces in the form of increasing earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity could be unleashed.  And the forecasts from some quarters are dramatic - - not only will the earth shake, it will spit fire

Impact of Global Warming On Seismic Activity

Article by Preetam Kaushik   published Apr 13, 2009 
Read more:
…opinion that is endorsed by geologists around the world is that glacial melting caused by global warming is causing a rise in water levels beyond the bearing limit of the Earth’s crust.   This, they believe, is causing the spate of devastating geological events that have struck nations in recent times.

WorldWatch Institute

Global Warming May Trigger Greater Seismic Activity

by Michael Renner on July 31, 2006

The melting of glaciers driven by global warming portends a seismically turbulent future.  When glaciers melt, the massive weight on the Earth’s crust is reduced, and the crust “bounces” back in what scientists call an “isostatic rebound.”  This process can reactivate faults, increase seismic activity, and lift pressure on magma chambers that feed volcanoes.

More links:
Sharon Begley, “How Melting Glaciers Alter Earth’s Surface, Spur Quakes, Volcanoes,” Wall Street Journal Online, 9 June 2006.
Link:; and
Bill McGuire, “Climate Change: Tearing the Earth Apart?,” New Scientist, 26 May 2006,


American Scientist 1998

The Guardian

Writing in New Scientist magazine, Bill McGuire, professor of geological hazards at University College in London, said: “All over the world evidence is stacking up that changes in global climate can and do affect the frequencies of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and catastrophic sea-floor landslides.  Not only has this happened several times throughout Earth’s history, the evidence suggests it is happening again.”

Melting Ice Sheets Can Cause Earthquakes, Study Finds

Thinning of Ice Sheets

Pine Island Glacier

This is not a new notion.   Called Isostatic rebound.   It is just that the inevitable evidence may be starting to be seen now