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$how me the Money

This rant, lament, or diatribe will not be unfamiliar to those who know me, or to most academics, as there’s scarcely a unique complaint here. I reprise it in response to a couple of recent conversations. One concerned a very good geoscientist at another university who was recently promoted and tenured, but told by her dean that she would never make full professor if she didn’t start bringing in some grant money, regardless of the quantity and quality of her research output. The attitude and policy reflected by this is not only not atypical, it is standard in research universities. For a long time academic success (at least in material terms of money and status) in the sciences has depended more on how many external dollars you bring in than how much research you produce, and how good that research is.


The second conversation involved a young scientist venting a bit about what a royal pain in the ass it is putting together a joint proposal. I know from experience that many will agree with me when I say that the administrative details, budget, chain of internal and external approvals, and other miscellaneous hoop jumping is invariably a lot more work than the actual scientific part of a proposal.

Quo vadis, Physical Geography? Part 2

First part is here. 

An oversimplified, drive-by version of the changing role of physical geography includes these overlapping and not mutually exclusive stages:

1. Discovery and exploration—collecting basic data and observations on topography, geology, biota, meteorology, oceanography, etc., often in conjunction with surveying, mapping, and collection of anthropological and economic data. In this stage physical geographers are simply, but not exclusively, Geographers. They are also, in various cases, anthropologists, biologists, ethnographers, geologists, meteorologists, oceanographers, and surveyors.

2. Holding up the Earth and environmental sciences end of the integrated geographical analysis of places, regions, and various geographical systems (e.g., transportation and settlement patterns, trade networks, cultural landscapes, climate zones, biomes, agricultural systems, etc.). Physical geographers in this stage were either specialists in the physical side of the discipline, or broadly trained geographers with substantive physical expertise.

Trees Behaving Badly

I recently submitted a manuscript to Catena, entitled Hillslope Degradation by Trees in Central Kentucky. The reviews came back generally positive, and requesting minor to moderate revisions. I took care of those revisions, and resubmitted. The paper was then sent to a third referee, who pretty thoroughly trashed it. Catena's editor then rejected it (with option to resubmit). However, I am at an age & stage where I have to pick my battles, and this is not one I choose to fight. But I still think the paper has some worthwhile stuff in it, so I have posted it online. You can get it here

The abstract is below, but be forwarned that the third reviewer deemed it "quite poorly written", "hard to follow," and a "mishmash of various statements." I don't think it's that bad . . . .      




Quo Vadis Physical Geography?

The Canadian Association of Geographers recently held a special session on Changing Priorities in Physical Geography (I did not attend or participate; I was made aware of it by a Canadian colleague). The session description is given here. It got me to thinking about a piece I wrote more than a decade ago in response to a similar mandate, called Laws, Contingencies, and Irreversible Divergence in Physical Geography. I thought I would revisit what I published back in 2004 to see how it holds up. The paper focused on physical geography as science and scholarship, as opposed to the institutional politics of physical geography within geography as a whole, and relative to other disciplines. However, I did predict that physical geography—as geomorphology, climatology, biogeography, soil geography, and geospatial approaches to Earth & environmental sciences—would grow and thrive. However, I also expressed doubt that this work would continue to be called physical geography, and the extent to which it would be conducted under the institutional auspices of geography.

Geomorphology and Graph Theory


Tobias Heckmann, Wolfgang Schwanghart and I recently published the second of our two articles on applications of graph theory in physical geography & geosciences: Graph Theory—Recent Developments of Its Applications in Geomorphology (Geomorphology, v. 243, p. 130-146).  The other paper, an overview of graph theory in geosciences, was promoted in this post.

Example of a structural graph, from the article. 

Climate and History: Geography Matters


Just finished John Brooke’s Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey (Cambridge University Press, 2014). If nothing else, the book is a remarkable achievement with respect to the breadth and depth of literature and ideas brought to bear, including history, geography, geology, anthropology, economics, climatology, ecology, and archaeology. Brooke also makes a compelling case for a significant role for environmental change in general, and climate change in particular, in influencing human affairs and history (and, of course, vice-versa).

The Perfect Floods of Texas


As I write, there is flooding in central Texas, and more to come. The focus is rivers and creeks in the San Antonio and Guadalupe River systems in the Balcones Escarpment area along the San Antonio-Austin Corridor, with effects beginning to felt downstream.

Destroyed trees along banks of the Blanco River, Wimberly, TX, after the flood of 24 May, 2015 (photo by Jay Janner, Associated Press).

Plenty of Peneplains?


In the late 19th and early 20th century, William Morris Davis popularized the concept of the peneplain, an extensive low-relief erosion surface graded to sea level. Peneplains were strongly associated with Davis’ cyclical model of landscape evolution, which fell out of favor with most geomorphologists decades ago. By association, the discussion and study of peneplains also fell out of favor.

But peneplains are making a comeback. This is best illustrated by a report from the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (Green et al., 2013), though the ideas and evidence are also laid out in a number of journal articles by the various co-authors. The report is concerned with development of elevated passive continental margins (think of, e.g., the Great Escarpment of Africa, the eastern Australian highlands, or the main subject of the report, west Greenland). The arguments are strongly dependent on the identification and interpretation of planation surfaces. As these planation surfaces are low-relief, regionally extensive, and are eroded across geological materials of varying resistance, and because the authors present evidence that they were originally graded to sea-level (they were subsequently uplifted), they can be legitimately referred to as peneplains.

Froude for Thought

The Froude number is a hydraulic parameter often used to relate aquatic habitats and biotopes to flow intensity. Independently of some trenchant critiques (see, e.g., Clifford et al. 2006), there seems to be no inherent hydrological, geomorphological, or ecological reason that the Froude number (Fr) should be the best indicator of habitat or ecological niches.

Fr is a dimensionless number that describes flow regimes in open channels and is unquestionably useful in many aspects of hydrology, geomorphology, and engineering. It is the ratio of inertial and gravitational forces:

Fr = V/(g d)0.5

Fr < 1 indicates subcritical or tranquil, and Fr > 1 supercritical or rapid flow. But variations in Fr within the subcritical range (where it typically falls) can be significantly related to, e.g., geomorphic units and habitats within channels.

Shawnee Run, Kentucky

Geoscience Metanarratives -- Part 2


This is a continuation of a previous post, and this one will be even less intelligible unless you read that one first.

So, even though we rarely use the term, geoscientists have our metanarratives. Metanarrative is something of a perjorative for postmodern (pomo) critical social theorists, but just because because a metanarrative doesn’t really explain everything, even within its domain, doesn’t make it wrong, useless, or even hubris-y. As long we don’t make claims or insinuations, or have expectations, of a “theory of everything,” overarching theories or explanatory frameworks can be evaluated on their own merits or lack thereof—that is, whether a construct can be considered a metanarrative or not is independent of its utility and value.


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