Friday, July 24, 2015

How to Inhabit a Habitable Planet

I've really been enjoying watching the press conferences for the New Horizons Mission to Pluto. I love listening to scientists tell me things I didn't know. (Carbon monoxide ice is soluble in nitrogen ice. Well, I never!) Also I get some relief from our nonsensical society when for a whole hour people speak pragmatically about physical processes and the process of understanding them. (For a Pluto overview if you've been under a rock, check Bad Astronomy.)

The scientists in the press conferences talk about Pluto in terms of geology and compare what happens there to processes on earth, like having atmospheric pressure, heat from radioactivity in the rocky core of the planet, flowing nitrogen ice that behaves like our water ice glaciers. They can point to a crater and compare it to the crater that formed Delaware Bay. Nobody has, but they could if they wanted to. I thought of it today when a scientist compared a crater to the size of the Washington DC metro area. How many politicians in Washington know that the Delaware Bay was formed by an impact event? I bet not many. How many even know that radioactivity is what makes the inside of the planet hot? I bet not many.

And this is what made me write a blog today. This is what is bugging me. Why is it so much fun to look at planets and talk about their geology and how they got to be that way but nobody wants to talk about Earth the same way? When politicians talk about global climate change and sea level rise they never talk about the logistics of relocating Miami and converting high rise condos in to aesthetically pleasing fish habitat. They talk about how it's not their fault. They talk about changing our energy mix to stop the climate changing.

Why is that interesting? It seems like the complete wrong thing to talk about to me. I mean for politicians. That's a problem for scientists, how to slow the runaway CO2. The politicians need to work on the societal issues. Move your shit off the beach! Redesign your public water systems. Plan ahead, that's your job. This is happening. You have control of zoning, of development, of infrastructure. Why are you not planning for worst case scenarios? Japan has buildings that dance a jig and stay safe in an earthquake yet California is utterly incapable of dealing with a perfectly ordinary drought. This is idiotic. Figure out your civilization, humanities majors. If you pay them the technical people will be happy to design it for you.

When we have the luxury to look at a new planet from space and think about how to explore it we go about it very differently from how we explored Earth. (They just discovered a Goldilocks zone planet this week.) But even inhabitable planets, they don't just shoot a robot at Mars and wherever it lands is fine. They figure out where exactly they want to end up to check for evidence of flowing liquid. You can't find all the good stuff in just one spot. It's not the Stargate franchise, where every planet has one interesting part that looks like a Canadian gravel quarry and everything useful is in walking distance. Planets are not homogeneous objects. Or small. Even Pluto is big enough we can't get a good look at the whole thing from a speeding space probe. Why do people act so funny about Earth? Why can't we just admit some places aren't really a great place for a city? And then move it? The reasons you put it there have changed. It's not a failure to admit that. Is it? Why?

I guess it's because somebody owns that property. People who own things think it's their right to fuck it up. They also think it's their right to make it stay the way it was when they got it.

This is not the case when it comes to beachfront property in Florida, where I have the most experience and pent up rage. You buy some lines on a map. If what is inside those lines is sand when you buy it, fine. If a hurricane comes and then your land is under water, too bad. If the whole sea level rises, same thing. See, the problem is that the people that buy sand in a box on a map in Florida are rich people and they want what they want and fuck you too. They will pressure the government to put the sand back for them. And the government will do it. Because rich people.

But when we go to take a look a Pluto nobody owns it. Hell, even the team studying it is scattered over several universities. The data is in the public domain. And this system works. They look at the big picture, then they zoom in and study all the details. They think about the atmosphere, how much is there? Is it leaving? How much longer will there be an atmosphere?
They rushed to Pluto because they wanted to get there before the atmosphere was all gone. They almost didn't make it. The blue data points  in the graph above (from today's press conference) are measured from Earth by occultation calculations. The number they just measured shows a giant drop. They almost missed it. Atmosphere is thinning fast, washed away by solar energy.

Look how calmly they talk about the fact that the atmosphere on a planet can just ... go ... away. Yet politicians acts like the earth is a known, static system that they can bend to their economic will. It's a PLANET! Planets do what they want. Have you seen lightning?! Lightning will fuck you up! And that's just an instantaneous event! Look at geologic time! Planets don't give a shit. Planets can start out all hot and moist and next thing you know the whole thing is a big rocky desert. Just ask Curiosity. How many politicians really get that Mars is not the same as it used to be? It CHANGED. It's a PLANET. It's what they do.

So why do politicians not make plans for what to do when Earth changes? Why do they not take advantage of a global perspective and pick out some better places for cities? When Louis and Clark got to the Columbia River Estuary the first thing they did was say, "Damn, these 50 foot waves make it hard to get your boat in the mouth of the river. Build jetties!" They ruined a whole ecosystem before they'd been there long enough to even measure the baseline ecological condition. And only the baseline in that instant, let alone did they have any grasp in regard to geologic time. The reason the beach makes your compasses all screwy is because it's A VOLCANO. Maybe not the best place to settle down. (I'm simplifying. Basalt formations in that area are highly magnetized. This region has been in the news recently for it's lack of habitability. I haven't read the original article because I already knew it was tectonically active. When I saw tweets about it I just said yeah yeah and kept scrolling. But I googled it just now to include the link. I think it was this New Yorker piece that started the recent buzz. Oh, it's due for a giant earthquake. Yeah. I know.)

The reasons modern humans settled where they did are dumb reasons. Why can't they stand back and be logical now that we have a global perspective? Prehistoric settlements made a lot more sense. They were where the food was. Then they moved. They were often on a shoreline. But they could build a hut in a couple of days and it would last a few months. Sea level rise, so what? How many politicians even understand that people used to live in places that are totally under water now? I don't understand why we can't cope with a 10 foot sea level rise. It's perfectly normal for this planet. You should have been ready for it when you planned your cities even if you didn't cause it. It's hardly even the issue WHY the planet is warming. It's a dynamic planet. Why is urban planning so locked in? They should have planned better. They shouldn't let rich people just do whatever they want.

I'm not even talking about geologic time, but in the time of human habitation. Is the problem just that nobody knows about this stuff? They don't cover it in school? Why the hell not? If people are ok with somebody saying that the Sputnik Planum on Pluto is young, and mean 100,000,000 years, then why can't they plan for climate conditions that people used to live in right here on earth 12,000 years ago? They act like that is forever ago and irrelevant. They can't see farther back than their grandparents or farther forward than their grandchildren. That seems dumb to me. All the evidence is right there.

Let me give an example. There are Apalachee Indian Villages in the middle of Apalachee Bay not far from my house. I've floated right above them in a boat and seen sonar images of them. These are people who ate oysters and venison just like modern people. Here's an excerpt from a 1998 paper by Michael Wisenbaker for the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research. (I don't know who that is, I just Googled general terms and it came up at the top of my search.)
Paleo-Indians began trickling into the Apalachee region of Florida, the area between the Ochlockonee and Aucilla rivers, about 12,000 years ago. Sites from this period, which lasted about 2,000 years, are more rare than those of later periods. The state’s climate and ecosystems were much different then, with extensive grasslands interspersed with woodland hammocks. Temperatures were more uniform throughout the year, characterized by cooler summers and warmer, non-freezing winters. Mammoths, mastodons, camels, sabercats, dire wolves, giant sloths and short-faced bears roamed the coastal plain in search of food, water and mates before widespread extinction eliminated them sometime before the end of the Pleistocene epoch about 10,000 years ago. 
Sea level was lower (from 115 feet 12,000 years ago to 40 feet 8,000 years ago) at this time. This resulted in Florida being close to twice its current size when Paleo-Indians first arrived in the state. Rainfall amounts were much less than now and fresh water was not nearly as readily available because of lower water tables due to less precipitation and reduced sea levels. Paleo-Indians, therefore, would have been more limited on the present land surface as to where they could have subsisted and settled since fresh water was crucial to their survival. Conversely, some areas now underwater provided additional areas for them to live.
There you go. Very matter of fact. Used to be different. Widespread extinction. Seems people would want more information about THAT, no? Yet people act like these tiny variations we see in our weather are some horrible catastrophe. Punish somebody for causing it! No, we should just be prepared. I'm not advocating wrecking the planet obviously. I'm just saying even before humans changed climate we should have been prepared for the natural cycles and we clearly aren't. Don't act so damn surprised. Don't BE so damn surprised. Get EDUCATED! PAY for research about EARTH. (I'm still really testy about Congress saying NASA should spend their meager money on exploring planets and stop sending up satellites that just look at the earth.)

I recognize that my education and experience is a giant privilege. I feel bad for people who would like to have this knowledge and don't have access to it. I feel less bad for people with even more privileges than me who have access to this knowledge and refuse to accept it. I have a 90 acre pond down the hill from my house that has gone from a dry field to a body of water a couple of times in my life. Being able to experience this first hand is a privilege. It makes it seem natural to me to expect change and it makes me intolerant of those who have no idea, because I have no idea they have no idea. We're all ignorant in our own way. But I'm working on understanding the implications. Since I can't fathom people who grew up in cities I turn my interest to the creatures that evolved here. How do they deal with these short term climate changes? When the pond started filling up after the last drought ended and all those Eastern Spadefoot Toads dug their way out of their hibernation and started breeding en masse, that was so cool. They can just hang out for years underground, waiting. They aren't as demanding as people. They don't try to change the world, they just cope with it. There is something to be learned from toads.

When I started typing today I didn't really know I was heading for, "You know what your problem is? You aren't enough like an Eastern Spadefoot Toad." But they never sent a probe to Pluto, so they aren't perfect.

Spadefoot Toads from Barbara Tomlinson on Vimeo.
We got 11" of rain in 4 days after a two year drought. This big puddle used to be a 90 acre pond. It's going to take more than 11" of rain to fill this up again. But to the frogs this is good enough. The Eastern Spadefoot Toads are making the most of the opportunity. Music: They Might Be Giants, Theme from Flood.