Forward Backward Thinking: Pipelines and Deep Time

22 11 2011

A bit of a long-winded digression today, but as a physical scientist at heart I can’t help myself.  I’m riled.  (Riled to the point of considering expanding the rant to follow into an article submission to the journal Ground Water or perhaps Arid Environments…)

Allow me to explain.

Industry vs. Academia

Me - seeking an elusive industry+academic science subculture balance.

First, for those who haven’t been long-time readers, I should mention that I’m something of an enigma as a scientist: I’m an academia-industry hybrid.  In my experience, this isn’t normal; We tend to be either-or.

Often, in one corner, there are career field scientists (with often nothing more than a bachelor’s degree) who have spent their professional lives out “in the field,” dealing with practical problems, earning the kind of experience and “sixth-sense” about their specialty that can only be earned with the expenditure of time, blood, sweat, and tears.  They tend to hold in disdain the highly-credentialed-and-published academic scientist, with little comparable field experience and much effort spent on apparently esoteric pursuits, who swoops down from a perch in the ivory tower to tell the field scientists “how it really works” because of research they’ve performed, etc., etc.  (They’re un-apologetically incorrect often enough, due to a real-world complexity or oversight, to really turn off the field guys.)

In the other corner is the committed academic, (often sporting graduate or doctoral degree[s],) having spent a career researching to understand the subtleties of process in natural systems and who has worked long years to improve scientific understanding or the powers of prediction.  They tend to hold in disdain the provincial field scientist, who sports a requisite chip on his shoulder (a growth resulting from years spent in the field,) who believes he already knows everything without having even attempted the more sophisticated understanding of process that comes with years of academic work.  (They often resist changes in instrumentation or methodology that might yield better data due to a “how we’ve always done it” mentality.)

In my view, both are right, and both are wrong.  Each has something supremely valuable to offer the other, but neither side wants to hear about it.  Usually when the two collide out in the field, head-butting ensues.  Sometimes spectacularly so.

The Long Now and the Long Then

In any case, this brings me to the subject at hand: a current clash between academic and practical views of the natural world, science’s role in it, and how few seem to be able or willing to see reality through the garble.

Northern Spring Valley, NV. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Specifically, the Las Vegas Review Journal recently reported that the Long Now Foundation, an organization aimed at promoting deep-time-style thinking to current and future human planning, has come out in opposition to the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s East-Central Groundwater Development Project, a freshwater pipeline venture intended to relieve for southern Nevada communities the effects of prolonged drought on the Colorado River system.

I’m torn because I’m a long-time supporter of both endeavors.

The Long Now Foundation, among other pursuits, has designed and is planning to build a 10,000 year clock.  Why?  Designer and inventor Danny Hills puts it directly:

I cannot imagine the future, but I care about it. I know I am a part of a story that starts long before I can remember and continues long beyond when anyone will remember me. I sense that I am alive at a time of important change, and I feel a responsibility to make sure that the change comes out well. I plant my acorns knowing that I will never live to harvest the oaks.

As a geologist and planetary scientist, an awareness of the depth of time that precedes us colors my view of the future.  I’m concerned about humankind’s ultimate fate on a geologic timescale, what with broader and potentially civilization-ending threats, such as impacts from space, supervolcanoes, and proximal supernovas.  I have an affinity for, well, us, and I want to make sure we make it in the long run.  That’s one of the reasons I’m such an advocate for human space exploration.

I wholeheartedly agree that we need to plan much, much farther out, and I believe projects like the 10,000-year clock will really help people start thinking about it.  However, that doesn’t mean that human lifespan-range planning should stop – Indeed, there is some reason to believe that long-range plans are rarely feasible because they are inevitably created “by committee,” and anyone who’s worked in a highly bureaucratic environment knows how that turns out…

Precautionary Principle vs. Real-World Problems

So, why do the Long Now folks oppose the pipeline?  Well, here is where I believe the classic “industry-versus-academia” problem begins to rear its head.  You see, I spent more than two years as a front-line hydrogeologist on the pipeline project.  I helped design and implement a sprawling, 1,400-square-mile precipitation monitoring network for the project in addition to installing gaging stations, flumes, and repeatedly measuring every stream, creek, spring, and groundwater well for nearly a 300-mile stretch along the proposed pipeline’s reach.  I performed data quality assurance checking and verification for the project’s central database, analyzed precipitation/surface-water/groundwater response mechanisms, and used satellite imagery to reconstruct the historical extents of ephemeral lakes in the region to calculate their water storage.

Spring Valley, NV, near the proposed pipeline reach. (Credit: Ben McGee)

In short, I was in this data, cradle to grave.  According to everything we collected, the groundwater system and water budget for each of the pipeline’s basin and range valleys could definitely handle the proposed pumping scheme.  Further, proposed pumping rates were highly conservative, and there were an array of biological vectors that required constant monitoring so that we’d detect an unlikely change in the ecosystem as soon as it happened and shut the pipeline down for evaluation.  (And then there’s something else**, which I’ll return to at the end of this post.)

Now, while I appreciate the severity of the drought affecting the region and the need to proactively prepare to secure a backup water supply for Southern Nevada, the academic perspective on engineering projects of this scale tends to be more aloof.  In stereotypical academia, the precautionary principle, (which I support in large part,) is always given top priority (apparently irrespective of what the field data supports,) which means that any major project should essentially never be attempted without many decades of preliminary research.  I’ve worked long enough off-campus to realize that idealized scenarios like this aren’t tenable in the real world, (primarily due to cost,) and we need to do something about the drought more decisively.  Hence the root of academia-industry tug-of-war at the onset of this particular issue.

The more “traditional” opposition to the water authority’s pipeline project takes the form of emotionally-charged but completely illogical concerns about  creating “the next Owens Valley,” despite the fact that there is no body of surface water to deplete a’ la Owens Valley, or about  “destroying the ecosystem,” despite the fact that groundwater tables are far beneath the depth of even the most invasive phreatophyte, several hundred to more than a thousand feet.  (This means should the groundwater table be lowered as a result of pumping, neither surface streams nor the ecosystem would have any way of knowing about it.  It’s akin to alleging that excavating beneath a waterfall will speed up the falling water = defies laws of physics = nonsense.

By contrast, I suspect that the Long Now Foundation opposition to be different and somewhat more sophisticated in that it they will likely oppose the project by alleging that it does not represent suitably “long term” planning.  Certainly, the pipeline is subject to multi-century-scale changes in regional climate should such changes occur.  However, this caution does not award the field data or the administrative controls their due credit, and it fails to take into account the human factor – that there are communities that will rely on this project’s timely execution.

**And Another Thing

Here’s the kicker.  For reasons that mystefyingly are never considered, the water authority’s precipitation estimates, (particularly concerning snow, the source of the water for any water budget in an arid mountainous environment,) are already conservative, even without working on limiting pumping impacts.  Why?  Because the precipitation gauges maintained by them, the National Weather Service, and the United States Geological Survey  fail to catch nearly 50-80% of the falling snow!

Unlike the rest of the developed world, for some reason, the United States fails to consistently include wind shields on their rain and snow gauges, resulting in an under-reporting condition of up to 80%.

This means that all national precipitation data is being under-reported to at best an unknown extent, and (ignoring the implications for apparent measurements of climate change) the data being used to determine watershed baselines for the pipeline project is automatically conservative, for there is more water in the system than is being accounted for.

Check it out for yourself.  Visit a weather station if you can find one nearby.

This is something I have yet to see considered in print, and it is high time, in my opinion.  (Stacking that on the “to-do” manuscript pile.)  Why is it that during the course of the conversation between opposing scientific factions doesn’t anyone either independently or together appear to recognize this as a problem?!

Last Words

We simply need more thoughtful scientific engagement by academic groups when it comes to automatically opposing human engineering where natural systems are concerned.  Forward thinkers shouldn’t automatically oppose human activity or progress, while industry scientists shouldn’t be so opposed to taking a step back and considering the Long Now.

It seems as though in most cases the data obtained and presented by the “industry” side of the fence isn’t even explored by those who oppose it on ideological grounds.  In far too many cases baseless accusations of data bias, manipulation or forgery are automatically assumed, which is a gross disservice to the scientists hard at work in industry – many of whom consider themselves shielded by the data against retribution.  (One can’t get fired for obtaining unfavorable data, and I dare a project manager to try and see how loudly an irked and disenfranchised scientist can blow a whistle.)

In any case, I suppose all I’m trying to say is this:

Can’t we all come to agree that we need both the higher-level, academic understanding of natural processes in addition to the wisdom of boots-on-the-ground experience in data collection and exposure to natural systems in order to make a smart, humane, conscientious, and successful civilization possible?

Can’t the Long Now Foundation recognize the practical (and urgent) utility of the pipeline and engage the Southern Nevada Water Authority to help them to improve their modeling efforts? Can’t the Water Authority recognize the wisdom in the Long Now Foundations considerations of long-term sustainability and invite them to take part?  Can’t both sides work together to help the collective improve the understanding of the field at large(unshielded rain gauges) while simultaneously working to benefit society?

Wishful thinking, I know…  But perhaps, someday, we’ll cross the divide in scientific culture and all be better for it.


Update: Astrowright LLC’s blog now online

19 03 2011

Just a quick note – Astrowright Spaceflight Consulting LLC’s (Astrowright’s) official company blog is now online at:

Check it out for up-to-date news and the latest information on Astrowright’s services, including pre-flight fitness consulting, in-flight dosimetry and dose analyses, spacecraft habitability assessments, microgravity product/instrumentation testing and development, and charter payload specialists.

Oh, and more to come on the Japanese reactor situation soon.

Tales from a nuclear rocket station

21 02 2011

One of the great pleasures of my research into the ’60s development of nuclear rockets for space exploration are moments like the following, which I pieced together from archival records and oral history…  (If I find enough of these to write, I might collect them into a book sometime.  Feedback welcome.)

Moonrise over the Nevada desert.

Richard Nutley, a supply manager for the joint NASA-Atomic Energy Commission Nuclear Rocket Development Station (NRDS), stood with an infuriated NASA accountant next to the partially-constructed Engine Test Stand One.  The year is 1961.

The test stand was a maze of pipes connecting two giant, white, spherical hydrogen reservoirs to a towering concrete-and-steel gantry.  It appeared much like a lone launch pad in the middle of the sage-covered desert valley where the nation’s most advanced propulsion system was being developed and tested.  A network of rail lines crisscrossed the flats, connecting the test stand to several other structures where nuclear rocket reactors were assembled and prepared.

Together, the NRDS represented the nation’s attempts to build a rocket powerful enough to take bases to the Moon and astronauts to Mars, and they were meeting with great success.

Richard grinned, trying not to laugh as the accountant, who’d arrived from NASA headquarters in Washington D.C. that morning, dusted off his suit and attempted to empty gravel from his Italian leather shoes.  A mighty dust devil had swept across the construction site without warning, catching the accountant completely unprepared.  Already in a sour mood from the unexpected hour-and-a-half drive from Las Vegas to the Nevada Test Site earlier that morning, the whirlwind was the last straw.

Richard shook his head.  Anyone who’d bothered to look into the NRDS knew better than to wear nice clothes to the site.

Walking back toward the car parked at the fence-line to the test stand and stifling back laughter, Richard looked up to see that the moon had risen over Vegas, and it loomed on the horizon.  “That’s where we’re going with this thing,” he said.

“Where?” the accountant replied, annoyed.  “What are you talking about?”

“The moon,” Richard said flatly.

The NASA accountant looked at Richard and said, “You would never see the moon in the daylight back East.”

Richard drove the NASA accountant back to Vegas and never saw him again.

Foraging for Nuclear Rocket Secrets

12 10 2010

A NERVA program file at the National Archives in Chicago.

I spent this past Thursday at the National Archives in Chicago as one of the few humans in the last three decades to track down the project files for the Nuclear Engine for Rocket Vehicle Applications (NERVA) Program from the 1960s.

National Archives analysis room. Credit: Ben McGee

The experience of using the National Archive was exactly like and completely unlike what I’d imagined, and in both cases it was extraordinarily cool.  The facility was nestled next to a National Guard depot in the thick of Chicago’s South Side.  (Plenty of character there.)  -After involuntarily entering a somewhat stylized, ’60s-looking sleek structure onsite that ended up being the wrong place, (the Federal side,) I found myself through the doors of an inconspicuous red brick building not unlike an annex to any standard university library.

Once inside, the seriousness of the place was palpable.  Much paperwork and many login signatures were required prior to my being able to access any records.  A resource area lined with long tables and power stations stood ready for researchers once inside, and a set of swinging, authorized-personnel-only double doors offered glimpses of an adjacent Radiers-of-the-Lost-Ark-style warehouse filled to the ceiling and as far as the eye could see with shelves of artifacts, documents, photographs – living history.

Box SNPO60 at the National Archives.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the joint NASA-Atomic Energy Commission nuclear rocket program has become more than a passing side interest of mine, due in large part to professional decontamination and decommissioning work with which I’ve been a part.

I had only a few hours at the archive, and haven’t yet even had time to go through all of the documents I copied (photographed – no flash.)  Specifically, I was after documentation of program challenges.  NERVA accomplished so much in so little time, and I’m trying to put together what their magic recipe was.  Loose oversight?  Temporarily unlimited funding?  A transformational leadership style?

How were they able to develop nuclear rockets that outperform our best rockets today, do it in only a single decade, and have done it all half a century ago?

More importantly, what can we learn from NERVA, not only about space propulsion technology, but also about how to successfully develop and manage it?  -And can historians and industrial archaeologists serve a role in preserving partially-developed spaceflight technology until the political and social pendulum swings back to enable the work to restart once again?

I’m after the answers, and I’ll report back what I find.


The art of emergency response

24 06 2010

I spent this past weekend on a training exercise with the Nevada-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team, or NV-1 DMAT.  On a part-time, voluntary basis, I serve as a Logistics Officer for the federal emergency response team (currently under NDMS instead of FEMA), which involves monthly meetings and periodic training in preparation for deployment to the next Katrina disaster, for example.

Me training with the Nevada-1 Disaster Medical Assistance Team. June 19. Credit: NV-1 DMAT

This particular Saturday, we partnered up with the FEMA’s Urban Search and Rescue (US&R) Nevada Task Force One (NV-TF1) and spent time practicing the rapid set-up of emergency shelters (and associated electrical and communications equipment) that will be used as portable hospital rooms, triage areas, command posts, sleeping quarters for the responders, etc.

The take home message for me is that emergency response is an art, and one that must be practiced.  Familiarity with equipment is key.  It’s hard enough to set these things up in a warehouse, and it was immediately obvious that every second more proficient we became was one fewer future second spent standing in the sweltering humidity of a tropical depression in a cloud of blood-sucking insects.

In short: Be prepared.

Leaving Hydrology, back to Spectroscopy

31 03 2010

On my way out of the central Nevada project area for the last time. 03.30.10

Well, this is again a tactical time of transition for me.  I’ve worked the last two years as a geohydrologist with Parsons in the deep Neavda wilderness performing hydrologic and meteorological measurements and analyses for the Southern Neavda Water Authority.  Tomorrow, due to budget cuts, is my last day.

I’ve been lucky enough to use this unfortunate (and terrifying) turn of events as an opportunity to shift back to the Nevada Test Site, this time leaning on my gamma spectroscopy experience.  I think a foray into Health Physics can only be beneficial to someone interested in working in an environment where high-energy radiation is one of the greatest threats:  Orbit. 

We’ll see.  I’m thinking of also taking this opportunity to engage in masters work, specifically using resourced-asteroid material as radiation shielding, which seems like a clever health physics/planetary geology crossover…

In any event, one can’t help but be retrospective at a time like this, and I’m hoping time will prove that having worked on the East-Central Nevada Groundwater Development Project, a project both so unbelievably vast (can swallow Rhode Island) and remote (far fewer than one person per square mile,) can only been seen as uniquely advantageous experience for a hopeful future field planetary scientist.

Wheeler Peak from Bastian Creek during a fairly substantial dust storm, 03.30.10.

Thus closes one chapter, and thus another begins.

Contingency Plans

26 02 2010

A short note, today, on something that struck me while out in the east-central Nevada project area for work:  Remote fieldwork = contingency planning.  That’s really all there is to it.  Take my latest trip this week, for example.  In our project area, we’re really off the grid.  What we call a road can at times barely qualify as a four-wheel drive trail, and most wouldn’t attempt some of our routes with a helicopter, much less a truck:

Northern Spring Valley, NV.

Chaining up to head up a mountain.

Because we’re so far from people or supplies, even more than on other projects, priority one is getting the data, plain and simple.  It’s such a high priority not only because data is valuable from a scientific perspective, but largely because it’s very expensive to obtain when you consider the cost of our time (four of us, two per vehicle), vehicle wear-and-tear, hotel rooms for the week, etc.  All of that expense is for nothing if we don’t get to our sites for the opportunity to make our measurements, download data from the instruments we have installed, and perform much-needed maintenance.

Making measurements fom a mountainside.

So, we push the envelope – that’s what we’re paid for.  It’s rough enough to reach our measurement sites on a good day with dry roads, and in winter time it takes even more finesse.  Weighing against pushing too hard, however, is the fact that the only thing more expensive than not getting the data is if you break a truck trying.  Then you’ve not only incurred the expense of lost time, (which equals lost data,) and vehicle and/or equipment repair, but now you’re paying for whoever has to come to bail you out.  If it’s the other team, then they’re not getting data, either.

We sank our 10,000lb truck up to the axles, spent an extra hour digging out, but made it.

Bearing all of this in mind, the punchline is that when we’re out there, we need to go for it.  But, we also need to have thought out our contingencies ahead of time.  If you get in trouble, help is hours away – assuming you can get word out that you need it.  You need to make sure you have what you need to tackle the unexpected.  Sometimes this amounts to little more than an extra shovel or ice-pick, (which are surprisingly versatile), and some ol’-fashioned grit and determination.  Experience to know what to expect helps, but imagination is also really handy when you get a curve ball from Mother Nature.

That’s all.  Knowing how to dance around the line between being gung-ho and being foolhardy really means knowing your capabilities and knowing how to sense when you’ve gotten yourself in farther than you can get yourself out.

That’s something I’m glad to have experienced firsthand and something I feel (and hope NASA will as well) is absolutely necessary for anyone contemplating leaving boot tracks off-world.

The prize: An instrument station. -Punchline: Know thyself, thy truck, & thy shovel.

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