Yellowstone ready to blow? Not likely

December 31, 2008

Every science nut is, and quite a few fear mongers are following the story of the swarm of small earthquakes miles beneath the waters of Yellowstone Lake.

They know Yellowstone is in the middle of a supervolcano, and they can’t help but wonder whether the Yellowstone Caldera is ready to blow.

Even Cecil Adams at the Straight Dope wonders in the headline whether Yellowston is ready blow, in what must be one of the best-timed, prepared-in-advance columns in any newspaper in the world in 2008.  (My skiepticism for Cecil Adams’ stuff increased mightily when I noticed he had gotten much wrong on Rachel Carson’s claims about DDT and birds, but I digress.)

So is Yellowstone going to blow?

Not likely.  According to me. (I’m a lawyer and teacher — what authority does my prediction have?)

Serious scientists are being more careful.  I asked Relu Burlacu at the University of Utah Seismograph Station, the group that is the front line in the monitoring of Yellowstone, whether this is The Big One.

“The short answer is,” he said, “we don’t know.”

57 quakes, at least, have been recorded for December 31 so far (15:05 UTC).  Since Saturday, there have been more than 300 quakes (conservative estimate).  Because the quakes are so tightly packed, geographically, but from depths covering several miles underground, some amateurs suggest the quakes suggest magma or water moving up a pipe toward the surface.

The professionals I spoke with today are very circumspect about saying what is going on, stopping far short of making predictions about what will happen.  Most telling, they’re taking tonight and tomorrow off, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.  Oh, someone will be on hand to make sure the machines are working, and if there’s a truly significant event, there will be alerts.  But the current swarm is not something that alarms the monitoring people, nor is it something they have not seen before.

Mr. Berlacu explained — patiently, I must add — that so far, there has been just monitoring.  With so many events, one of the problems is determining when one event ends, and the next begins.  There is a great deal of work to be done pinpointing locations of temblors, triangulating from several different recording stations.

“This is not uncommon,” Berlacu said.  He noted that 1985 had a swarm of quakes that continued for nearly three months, with the swarm just tapering off.

Charts from the earthquake monitoring station on Yellowstone Lake, showing raw data recording by the University of Utah Seismograph Stations, Earthquake Information Center, for December 31, 2008.  These data must be correlated and corroborated with data from other stations in the area to determine locations of geological events, depths, duration, start and end, before complete analysis can be done.

Charts from the earthquake monitoring station on Yellowstone Lake, showing raw data recording by the University of Utah Seismograph Stations, Earthquake Information Center, for December 31, 2008. These data must be correlated and corroborated with data from other stations in the area to determine locations of geological events, depths, duration, start and end, before complete analysis can be done.

Reality is that the scientists who study Yellowstone’s vulcanism expect eruptions in the future. But they expect smaller eruptions, not the massive supervolcano disaster usually portrayed over the last five or ten years.  Yes, a massive eruption is possible.  Yes, it could be an enormous disaster.

In a video explaining the geology of the Yellowstone caldera, Yellowstone National Park Geologist Hank Heasler explains there are three things geologists think will presage a large volcanic event in the caldera:

  1. An increase in earthquakes, or a swarm of earthquakes, plus
  2. Significantly increased ground deformation, such as a rise of several feet or several meters, plus
  3. Increased thermal activity in the thermal features of the Park.

The current swarm lacks the second two features.  Even so, experts note that all three conditions might be met, without any major eruption.

No, it’s not likely to happen in our lifetimes. Read this entertaining piece by Jake Lowenstern in Geotimes, from June 2005. Lowenstern is the director of the Yellowstone Volcanic Observatory (YVO):

Of course, the Yellowstone caldera is a volcano, and it almost certainly will erupt again someday. It’s possible, though unlikely, that future eruptions could reach the magnitude of Yellowstone’s three largest explosive eruptions, 2.1 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago. Smaller eruptions, however, are far more likely, and no eruption seems imminent on the timescale that most people truly care about — their lifetime or perhaps even the next few hundred or thousands of year

Small eruptions do not make for the grand drama desired by television executives and producers.

Instead, the technicians monitor what happens; conclusions, the explanation for what happened, will have to wait for later analysis.


DDT falsehoods, taken as an article of faith

December 31, 2008

Brown pelican egg rendered uncapable of protecting the (now dead) chick when DDT prevented the mother pelican from forming an adequate shell for the egg.

Brown pelican egg rendered uncapable of protecting the (now dead) chick when DDT prevented the mother pelican from forming an adequate shell for the egg. Pelican Media image.

Just when you start thinking the world is safe for the facts — safe for the truth — some well-meaning-but-poorly-informed person comes along to remind you that it’s a constant struggle to keep the flame of truth from being snuffed out for no good reason.

Henry I. Miller didn’t publish a screed demanding DDT be misused against West Nile virus this year, which I count as a major victory.  As you know, DDT is the wrong stuff to use to fight West Nile, so calling for DDT in that case merely means you’re an ideologue who wants to slam science, and it probably means you wish disease victims would hurry up and die.  (“More statistics to use against libruls!”)

Henry I. Miller. How many years at the Hoover Institute before he finds the library at Stanford to check his claims on DDT?

Henry I. Miller. How many years at the Hoover Institute before he finds the library at Stanford to check his claims on DDT?

And even Oklahoma’s reigning Senate fool Tom Coburn lifted his hold on the bill naming for Rachel Carson the post office in her hometown.

But, on the second to last day of the year, comes Bob Mattes at Reformed Musings, to claim that climate change is a hoax, and say he knows it’s so because DDT is safe and Rachel Carson was wrong. Mattes is a deacon in a Presbyterian church in Virginia; the name of his site is a reference to reformed theology, I gather.

When someone claims as a matter of faith, things that are well known to be wrong and easily debunked, that someone is unlikely to be swayed by the facts. In fact, Mattes allows no criticism of his post at his blog — he’s turned off comments on that post.

Will he drop by here to read his errors?  Not likely.  Would he correct the errors if he knew?  It’s not good to gamble when the odds are long against you.

Reformed Musings said:

Want a concrete example of the impact of eco-socialism? Three letters – DDT.

Well, no, I don’t want an alleged example of eco-socialism from an eco-fascist, one whose mind is made up, incorrectly, and who will not let the facts sway him.  Notice that the authority he cites is that well-known purveyor of junk science, Junk Science, the ethically-challenged website run by the industry campaign in favor of DDT.  If one dances to the devil’s tune, one should not claim not to be doing the devil’s work.

If this be eco-socialism, it’s God-blessed, and we should revel in it and make the most of it.

In the 60’s, there was the big DDT scare, with activists claiming that the pesticide was killing off our birds and bees.

Right.  And it was true, DDT was killing our birds and bees.  It took more than 30 years of not using DDT to rescue our national symbol, the bald eagle, from DDT’s killer effects.  Is it fair to call it a “scare” if it’s true?

Rachel Carson sold the big lie in her famous book Silent Spring, which was full of misrepresentations.

See, here’s how we know Mattes doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and probably hasn’t read the book.  Carson was very careful in her book.  She offered more than 50 pages of citations to science papers and hard research to support what she wrote — a “don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself” kind of honesty.

Discover magazine carried an article about DDT and Carson’s book in November 2007Discover said that, since 1962, more than 1,000 peer-reviewed publications support Carson’s conclusions, a record remarkable in any branch of science.

In fact, Carson may have underestimated the impact of DDT on birds, says Michael Fry, an avian toxicologist and director of the American Bird Conservancy’s pesticides and birds program. She was not aware that DDT—or rather its metabolite, DDE—causes eggshell thinning because the data were not published until the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was eggshell thinning that devastated fish-eating birds and birds of prey, says Fry, and this effect is well documented in a report (pdf) on DDT published in 2002 by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The report, which cites over 1,000 references, also describes how DDT and its breakdown products accumulate in the tissues of animals high up on terrestrial and aquatic food chains—a process that induced reproductive and neurological defects in birds and fish.

Had Mattes been paying attention (was he even alive then?), he’d have noted that President John F. Kennedy tasked the President’s Science Advisory Council to check out Carson’s book, to see whether it was accurate, and whether the government should start down the path of careful study and careful regulation of pesticides as she suggested.  In May 1963 the PSAC reported back that Carson was dead right on every issue, except, maybe for one.  PSAC said Carson wasn’t alarmist enough, that immediate action against pesticides was justified, rather than waiting for later studies or delaying for any other reason.

So, here I issue a challenge to Bob Mattes:  Tell us where Rachel Carson was wrong.  Cite for us a page in Silent Spring where she made a significant error in science, a point that has not been borne out as correct in later studies.

I’ve been making this challenge for a year and half now, and not even Stephen Milloy has been able to offer a single error Carson made.  A few have said they “heard” Carson erred in one thing or another, but upon checking, we’ve always found that the claimed errors were nowhere to be found, or the errors alleged were misstated, or, more often, what was claimed as error simply was not.

It’s a very odd situation:  We have a deacon of the Presbyterians assaulting the honor of a distinguished scientist, using false claims as his ammunition.

As usual, the ignorant entertainment industry frothed at the mouth for the new fad cause. Joni Mitchell sang: “Hey, farmer, farmer, put away that DDT now. Give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees.” Cute, huh?

As a result, DDT was banned world-wide. Problem was, not only were the zealots wrong, but nothing killed deadly malaria-carrying mosquitoes better than DDT.

DDT has never been banned worldwide.  It’s still manufactured in several places — it’s still a deadly hazard in India.  It’s been in constant use in many nations, such as Mexico and South Africa.  Limitations on DDT use have always included a loophole allowing DDT to be used to protect against malaria — even the 2001 Persistant Organic Pesticides Treaty has a special clause allowing DDT to be used against malaria.

So it’s false to claim that DDT was banned worldwide, ever.  We might be much better to get to that position because it would keep nuts from claiming that all we have to do is poison Africa to make Aricans healthy — but in any case, there is no ban on DDT to fight malaria.

Use of DDT began to decline in the mid 1960s when mosquitoes began to exhibit resistance and even immunity to the stuff.  Genetic studies now find that almost all mosquitoes in the world have multiple copies of a gene that allows the bug to digest DDT more as a nutrient, rendering it ineffective as a pesticide.  The World Health Organization had begun an ambitious campaign to knock down mosquito populations long enough that malaria would die out; but by the mid 1960s, the burgeoning resistance to DDT rendered that campaign untenable.  DDT use against mosquitoes, which was never undertaken in much of Africa because some local governments were not stable enough to manage an anti-mosquito campaign, declined, and stopped in places where DDT simply did not work.

In fact it was gross overuse of DDT by agricultural interests that drove the resistance among insects.  Had that overuse been controlled earlier, we might have been able to kill of malaria.  It was not a ban on DDT that caused its use to decline.  It was that DDT stopped working.  No one in their right mind will spend money on a pesticide that doesn’t work, no matter how cheap the stuff is.

But it wasn’t popular culture that got DDT banned.  In the late 1960s litigation on DDT spraying worked through the courts.  By 1972, two federal courts ruled in separate cases that the federal government had failed to carry out its obligations to control the use of DDT as required by law, based on evidence presented in court that demonstrated clear harm.  Both courts ordered the government to promptly hold the administrative hearings necessary to alter the registration for DDT.  The hearings started in the Department of Agriculture, which moved slowly.  When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created, it got the authority to regulate pesticides from Ag.  The courts ordered EPA to get off its duff and speed the process.

In the midst of a nine-month-long hearing process that accumulated thousands of pages of scientific documentation of the harms of DDT, manufacturers of the pesticide voluntarily changed their labels to limit use of DDT essentially to emergency situations, not general broadcast applications. Judge Edmund Sweeney, the EPA administrative law judge, thought that change, which was what was pending, meant that EPA did not need to act, and he so ruled at the end of the process.  EPA Administrator William Ruckleshaus, a veteran of more recent environmental litigation, understood the courts had ordered a more ironclad change, and he imposed tighter registration standards on DDT that prohibited its use on agricultural crops, except in emergencies.  There was also a loophole built in to protect public health.

DDT manufacturers sued EPA to overturn the rule.  The courts ruled that the scientific evidence was overwhelming, and that EPA’s rule was firmly grounded.  The manufacturers did not appeal further.  So, DDT use in the U.S. was severely restricted by the end of 1972, following earlier restrictiosn in Sweden.

Can Mattes read a calendar?  How does a ban on DDT in Sweden in 1970, in the U.S. in 1972, make Africa stop using DDT in 1965?

Literally millions of poor have needlessly died from malaria in Third World countries as a result of the ban. Malaria is the 4th leading cause of death in the world. Drug-resistant strains are starting to dominate. Eradication is the real answer. Only recently have countries like South Africa defied the ban and started spraying DDT again to fight malaria. Ideas have consequences – eco-socialism routinely kills, just not in the comfy apartments of the self-serving eco-socialists.

What ban is he talking about? South Africa suspended DDT use only briefly at the end of the 20th century — but South Africa’s problems are not caused because South African mosquitoes roared back when they were not sprayed wholesale with DDT.  Malaria in South Africa rose when the disease came over the border from other nations where the disease was less controlled.  South Africa brought back DDT use, though in a more limited fashion.  There was no ban to defy.  Mattes is telling a whopper here.

Mattes cites the Centers for Disease Control when he says malaria is the fourth leading killer in the world.  He either fails to notice or fails to say that CDC does not ask for DDT to be brought back to fight malaria.  CDC calls for bednets, for draining of breeding areas, for better medical care and better diagnosis, but not for more DDT.  Why?  When the leading disease fighting organization in the world does not ask for DDT, we might assume it puts DDT way down on its list of priorities (as it does).  Remember, CDC’s origins were in the fight against mosquito-borne diseases.  CDC speaks with authority on mosquito eradication.  CDC does not ask for more DDT, anywhere.  His own authority — he should listen to them.

Health care professionals note that malaria made a serious resurgence when the malaria parasites themselves became resistant to the pharmaceuticals used to treat them.  This has nothing to do with DDT, because DDT is not given as a drug to humans (it’s a poison, mildly carcinogenic, and there is no demonstrated effectiveness against the parasite).

Can Bob Mattes read a map?  How do restrictions on spraying DDT on cotton fields in Texas, cause malaria to increase in Africa?

Mattes closes his post:

History shows that the eco-socialists have NEVER been right. EVERY scare prediction they’ve ever tried fails to materialize. Unfortunately, history starts today for most folks. We don’t teach logic or real science in public schools anymore, just the religion of political correctness. Ignorance breeds disaster, especially for those in developing countries who can’t speak for themselves and don’t have a George Soros funding their latest fad cause. Remember DDT. Remember global cooling. Remember the limitations of computer modeling. Don’t be duped.

Except, the “eco-socialists” as Mattes mislabels them were right about DDT, they were right about malaria, they were right on the science about wildlife damage from DDT, and they were right on the history.

Ignorance does indeed breed disaster, which is where Mattes’s views will take us.  He should carefully consider his closing trio of words, and follow them religiously.

If Mattes is so wrong on every claim about DDT, do you think we should trust anything he says about climate change?


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