President’s Column – November 2010

Title: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” – Yogi Berra
Author: Jerry Cuzella
Publication: The Outcrop, November 2010, p. 4, 6

In ancient Greece on the slopes of Mount Parnassas there was a temple where the Oracle of Delphi presided, she was also called the Pythia, and during the warmest nine months of the year, pilgrims would seek prophecies and advice from the Pythia. With its origins steeped in Greek mythology, the Oracle was for centuries, a popular place often visited by scholars of the time, Plutach, Herodotus, and Aristotle to name a few. The Pythia was a woman selected to be a priestess that would preside over the temple, some were knowledgeable about philosophy, mathematics and other subjects whereas others were not. Supplicants would approach the Oracle, a goat would be sacrificed, the entrails “read,” and the Oracle would give an answer or prophesy, sometimes it was in poetic verse, and at other times depending on whom the priestess might be, it was unintelligible gibberish. In this situation an interpreter would be required to give the petitioner some sort of answer. Arguments over the correct interpretations were common, but for more gold, the Oracle would provide another answer. From these early centuries in ancient Greece, people were looking for some vision of the future, whether it was for advice on when to plant crops, when to go to war, or some other crucial decision.

Future projections and forward looking statements are common in modern business as potential earnings, and production estimates, but they are always enveloped with caveats on risk and uncertainties. The petroleum industry is no exception. Data are analyzed and compared to historical performances and future projections and estimates are made for expected oil and gas prices, reserve projections, and well production rates. These are just a few of the forecasts familiar to petroleum geoscientists. Estimates and future projections based on analytical methods are necessary for budgeting, capital commitments, and expected income. These forecasts are basic facets of modern business; they rely on historic data and are made without consulting a modern incarnation of the Pythia.

The principal of “Uniformitarianism” summarized as “the present is the key to the past” is a fundamental tenet to the science of geology. The underlying assumption is that the same natural laws and processes that operate now, have always operated in the past. A corollary to this is that these same physical laws will operate in the future as they do now. It is reasonable to assume that earthquakes that occurred in the past in certain tectonically active areas will likely occur in the future in these same areas. Wave action that produces certain sedimentation patterns is responsible for the same features observable in the rock record, and these causes will likely produce those same types of features in the future. So, like the Pythia of ancient Greece, future projections are still being made, but in science and business these projections are based on scientific observations and analytical methods. To some there is similarity to the Oracle’s utterances, forecasts and projections may be unintelligible and require an interpreter. One unfamiliar with technical terms and a lack of understanding that future projections are based on the analysis of historical data might be skeptical of the interpretation.

In a recent article by Robert Laughlin “What the Earth Knows” (American Scholar Quarterly, Summer 2010) and commented on by George Will (“The Earth Doesn’t Care” Newsweek, September 20, 2010), George Will paraphrases “What humans do to, and ostensibly for, the earth does not matter in the long run, and the long run is what matters to the earth.” Well understood by earth scientists is the fact that the earth operates in geologic time and human time is only but a small blip on that clock, a mere frame in a two hour movie. From the standpoint of the entire geologic record, the earth’s climate has been a lot colder and a lot warmer, long before the appearance of humans. Climate change Laughlin states, is something the earth has done “on its own without asking anyone permission.” The earth has suffered its share of extraterrestrial bombardments from meteors and created its very own air pollution in the form of volcanic effusive gases yet, the planet continues to spin and revolve around the sun in its own geologic time, and people were not involved in any way.

It is estimated that approximately 99% of all the species that ever lived are now extinct. Since the close of the Cretaceous, it is estimated that almost 50% of plant species and 75% of animal species then living on earth are now extinct. There have been at least 5 mass extinctions in the history of the earth: at the end of the Ordovician, the Late Devonian, the end of the Permian (the really big one), the end of the Triassic, and at the end of the Cretaceous. Extinction of species is a natural phenomenon. Human pressure by way of over-harvesting fisheries, habitat destruction, overuse of pesticides and fertilizers are problems that are affecting the earth’s biodiversity, resulting in the loss of species. It is estimated that human activity has increased the extinction rate by a thousand fold. Looking back at the geological record, even after the mass extinctions, a new biodiversity eventually develops and a new cycle starts. Is activity of the human species just another part of this cycle?

Ever since humans discovered fire, they have used it in beneficial ways for warmth, cooking, and light eventually using it for manufacturing tools and goods, and transportation by steam powered engines to internal combustion engines, and rockets. We humans have been burning some sort of fuel be it wood, coal, or petroleum products for some time, and along with it, our society has advanced and humans have prospered. Crutzen (2002) reports that during the past 300 years, the human population has increased 10 times to more than 6 billion people, and is expected to increase to 10 billion in the 21st century. He further states that human influence has affected 30-50% of earth’s surface, some obviously for good and some not so. With human activity being so pervasive, and impacting the earth’s geology and ecology on a global scale, it has been proposed that we are living in a human-dominated geological epoch named the “Anthropocene” (Crutzen 2002). The beginning is marked in the latter half of the 18th century with James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1784 and the inauguration of the industrial revolution. Analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane around this time. Coincidentally, the late 18th century was also the “Age of Enlightenment” marked by great accomplishments in music (Mozart), literature (Goethe), and science (Lavoisier, father of modern chemistry). One might conclude that concomitant with an increase in green house gases came timeless music, great books, and better living through chemistry.

With earth’s historic, pre-instrumental temperatures being estimated from proxy data using techniques such as tree ring data, timing of the Burgundy grape harvest, and ice core isotopic measurements, compilation, analysis and interpretation of these data is a daunting task. And, using these records to reconstruct the earth’s paleo-climate and make projections about future climate conditions is indeed overwhelming.

So it is, with a historical past of ever proliferating human activity, forecasts made concerning the fate of planet earth, could be quite dire or just another one of earth’s mysteries occurring in geologic time, yet to be fully understood. Back in the Holocene of the ancient Greeks, researchers sought out future projections from the Oracle of Delphi, today in the Anthropocene, we seek out and interpret the data.


REFERENCE

Crutzen, P. 2002, Geology of mankind: Nature, Vol. 415, Issue 6867, p. 23.

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