Monday Musings: Titan's ice volcanism, Merapi and the moon, Toba wasn't so bad and Shiveluch's plume

Now that AGU is behind us and that I've waded through a lot of grading (over the weekend: 4 sets of labs and one each of papers and homework), I can try to catch back up with piles of news. Oddly, a lot of this news was generated by press conferences or talks at AGU, which I suppose is what to expect when a big conference like AGU occurs. 


Before we get to the news, I do have a question for all of you. Next semester, I am teaching an introductory-level volcanoes and human culture class called "Vulcan's Forge" (points if you recognize that reference) and I am planning on having the students monitor the activity at a volcano each week. So, Eruptions readers, if you had to pick the top 5 volcanoes you'd like to read an extended weekly review on, what would they be? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

On to the news ...

Titan's volcano: One press conference I wish I could have attended at AGU was on the discovery on ice volcanoes on Titan. Dr. Randy Kirk (USGS) and the Cassini Mission team has seen evidence in radar images taken of the surface of Saturn's moon of active "cryovolcanism" - where liquid water (or possibly hydrocarbons) are erupting. The morphology of the flows (see top left) suggest a series of craters and flows that Kirk likens to Laki in Iceland or Etna in Italy. The volcano, called Sota Facula, is one of the first real evidence we've found for effusive cryovolcanism in the solar system, although it is though that the ridges on Europa might be similar. Many of the other examples of cryovolcanism observed so far have been on the explosive variety, such as the plumes on Enceladus and Neptune's Triton. All this flowing, warm water on Titan - along with the presence of Ontario Lacus ("Lake Ontario") - does make it seem like a decent place to look for life in the solar system.

Lunar eclipse: As many of you know, tonight is a lunar eclipse (visible quite well over North America) - the first lunar eclipse to coincidence with the winter solstice (in the northern hemisphere) in over 500 years. That, in itself, is pretty cool, but there is also the chance that the eclipse will be especially colorful this year thanks to the volcanic ash/aerosols put into the atmosphere by the eruption of Merapi earlier this fall. So, key your eyes on the sky tonight for the eclipse!

Toba: Another AGU-related brief keeps the debate about just how bad the Toba eruption over 74,000 years ago might have been to the global climate. There are proponents of the idea that the eruption caused a 1,000 year winter that caused a "bottleneck" in human population (although most anthropologists I know don't buy it). However, Dr. Claudia Timmreck and others at the Max Planck Institute has new climate models for the eruption that suggest that the global cooling might have only lasted 2-3 years with less than 50% of the temperature drop suggested by other researchers. Of course, a lot of this is dependent on how well we think we know the sulfur dioxide output of the Toba eruption - which we really don't - but in either scenario, the eruption did cause significant changes to the global climate, just possibly on a shorter timescale than previously thought.

Kamchatka and the Weekly Volcanic Activity Report: After being caught up with everything at the meeting, I realized I never posted a link to the GVP Weekly Volcanic Activity Report (by the way, how did the report get out when I was talking to Sally Kuhn Sennert in San Francisco maybe 20 minutes before I saw it in my email box?) Last week's report, was, as usual, filled with news from Kamchatka - there was observed activity at Kizimen, Bezymianny, Karymsky and Kliuchevskoi. We also have a report on activity at Shiveluch, which was quite impressive, at least looking at the picture provided to KVERT to M. Randolph Kruger (see below; many thanks to both). Overall, it looks like a dome collapse that generated a plume that reached as high as 5 km / 16,000 feet to go with it. Meanwhile, Kizimen did produce ash that deposited up to 5 mm of ash deposited as far as 300 km away. You can see a "before" picture of Kizimen as well (again, courtesy of KVERT).

Shiveluch erupting during December 2010. Click here to see a larger version. Image courtesy of KVERT.

Top left: Radar image acquired by the NASA Cassini orbiter of Titan's Sota Facula.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.