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Nit-picking science reporting

August 29, 2007

Kim’s post about the misleading headline that reads “Two Years Later, New Orleans Still Sinking” was enough to pull me off of the paper I’ve been working on constantly, and actually read the article.

It’s an okay article…clearly the headline was written to connect the findings of a particular study on delta subsidence to the 2nd anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

So, I figured I would post about it…and maybe pick a few nits.

The subsidence of the Mississippi Delta has never been a surprise to most geologists. It is, in fact, the traditional way large river deltas are thought to behave all over the world.

I am glad the author states this. Given the headline (as Kim points out) you’d think Katrina caused the subsidence in the first place. For me, putting the word ‘subsidence’ and ‘delta’ in the same sentence is almost redundant. I’m being cheeky, of course….but this is another example of how disconnected the general public is from knowing about the landscape they live on. By saying that this is no surprise to geologists, they are leaving out everybody else. This should be no surprise to EVERYBODY. It is a cop-out….another way for the general public to say ‘hey, I’m no scientist…I don’t care about that’. Malarkey.

On a side note…I can’t resist…I’ve been in a world of text, grammar, and word-smithing for weeks…the last sentence should be “It is, in fact, the way large rivers are traditionally thought to behave all over the world”. Our thinking is what’s traditional, not the delta’s behavior. Like I said….there’s a nit. I picked it. No big deal.


Then I thought a bit…and it seems like they are reporting about a study that was published last year. When I saw this image (above) associated with this Discovery Channel article, I knew I had seen it. Click here to go to a related abstract for a 2006 Geophysical Research Letters paper.

But, this article from today states:

Dokka, along with Caltech’s Erik Ivins and Ronald Blom, published their results in the August issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

When I went to the list of papers in Geophysical Research Letters for August 2007 I could not find this paper or any paper by those authors. But you’ll notice that the quote doesn’t specify the August 2007 issue of GRL. Hmmm….and I still can’t find a paper by those three authors (if someone does, link to it in the comments). This is really not that big of a deal. The fact that they are re-reporting something that is very important is fine with me. But, I’m an anal-retentive scientist and if they are going to cite a paper in the article, I want the correct info.

Let’s move on.

Dokka and many other geologists argue…that rebuilding many parts of New Orleans is folly in light of the geologically doomed location.

The physics of the situation are a “no-brainer,” Dokka told Discovery News. The mouth of a large river is where giga-tons of muddy sediment drop to the bottom and pile up.

The pile-ups can even temporarily build land into the sea, as is the case in southern Louisiana. As this happens the river periodically switches the route of its main channel to get around the muddy dams it creates.

The southern and most seaward part of the delta, or the “birds foot”, is the most recent “pile-up” (delta lobe). This makes me want to draft a post about the fundamentals of deltas. The modern delta lobe south of New Orleans is only a part of the entire Mississippi River delta. Yes, this system is extremely muddy but the author is painting a picture that there is no sand. The distribution of sand and mud is a very important (and interesting to dorks like me) part of what makes a delta a delta.


This image above is one of my favorite images of all time! I can’t believe I haven’t shown it on this blog yet. You can get it from NASA’s Earth Observatory website here. I’ve cropped it and tweaked the levels/colors a bit to bring out those gorgeous sediment plumes. Gorgeous!

Anyway, my original point (if I had one) was that although the information in this article is extremely important to report (even again and again), I don’t think it only has to be on the anniversary of Katrina. Don’t get me wrong, it’s better than nothing, but I think we can do better when it comes to informing and educating the masses about the landscapes they live on.


6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 30, 2007 10:53 am

    Thanks for the detailed analysis of this. I can’t believe they picked out a 2006 paper – that makes the headline even more absurd. And that’s a great picture of the delta and the sediment plumes. I love how the Atchafalaya stands out. If you want to know why some parts of the Louisiana coastline are disappearing, that’s a great illustration.

    It’s particularly embarrassing that the public doesn’t know the story of the sinking delta, because it’s been the subject of some of the best geology writing and science reporting I’ve seen. The Control of Nature by John McPhee. A National Geographic story about the dangers faced by New Orleans. Reporting by the New Orleans Times-Picayune. If Americans don’t know about the delta, well… they probably don’t know that the river in their back yard is capable of flooding, or that Mt Rainier is a volcano, or that the mountain front beside Salt Lake City is an active fault.

    But the real reason I’m commenting is… I think that the Mississippi Delta needs some other publicity. For a place that has given us such great music, I think… I think we need a “Subsiding Delta Blues.”

    The sediment is compacting
    and I don’t know what to do.
    Oh, the sediment is compacting
    and I don’t know what to do.
    Eighteen feet below sea level
    and the subsiding isn’t through.

    Oh, they built up all the levees
    so the river wouldn’t flood.
    They built up all the levees
    so the river wouldn’t flood.
    But when the levees break
    the whole city fills with mud.

    And it could go on and on.

  2. August 30, 2007 12:27 pm

    nice lyrics…

    Control of Nature should be required reading for all Earthlings.

    Did you notice who was quoted towards the end of that article?

  3. August 31, 2007 9:22 am

    ! I completely missed that Norm was quoted.

    Norm Sleep is on my list of people to take seriously, regardless of what geologic problem he’s discussing. Every so often I’ll read about some big revelation, and read it, and think: “This is a big deal? Norm Sleep mentioned it offhand in my geophysics class!” (The most recent example was the GSA Today discussion of Lord Kelvin’s miscalculation of the age of the earth.)

    Good guy to have on a committee, regardless of the topic.

  4. August 31, 2007 12:22 pm

    Norm isn’t on my committee…but I love hearing his questions/comments at the end of a visiting speaker’s talk.

    A recent graduate, who did an astrogeo dissertation on Europa, correctly labeled Norm as a “supernova of non sequiturs”

    Every department needs a Norm Sleep


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