Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Drilling into an active earthquake fault in New Zealand (U-Michigan News)

ANN ARBOR—Three University of Michigan geologists are participating in an international effort to drill nearly a mile beneath the surface of New Zealand this fall to bring back rock samples from an active fault known to generate major earthquakes.

An aerial view of the Alpine Fault at Gaunt Creek, where the Deep Fault Drilling Project is scheduled to begin next month. Three University of Michigan geologists are participating in the $2.5 million international project, which will drill nearly a mile beneath the surface and return rock samples from an active fault known to generate major earthquakes.  Image credit: Ben van der Pluijm
The goal of the Deep Fault Drilling Project is to better understand earthquake processes by sampling the Alpine Fault, which is expected to trigger a large event in the coming decades.

"We're trying to understand why some faults are more earthquake-prone than others, and that requires fundamental knowledge about the processes at work," said Ben van der Pluijm, the Bruce R. Clark Collegiate Professor of Geology in the U-M Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

Van der Pluijm and two of his EES colleagues—doctoral student Austin Boles and research scientist Anja Schleicher—are part of the team scheduled to start the two-month drilling project early next month. Schleicher will spend October at the site, and Boles will be there for about six weeks starting in early November.

It will be only the second science project to drill deep into an active earthquake fault and return samples. Several years ago, scientists drilled a nearly 2-mile-deep hole into California's San Andreas Fault. Van der Pluijm was a member of that team, as well.

"I hope we find something different this time, a different rock signature that contrasts with what we saw at the San Andreas," he said.

The goal is to drill 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers) into the 530-mile-long Alpine Fault, which marks the boundary between the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates, on New Zealand's South Island. Though most of the movement along the fault is lateral rather than vertical, the fault is responsible for lifting the Southern Alps, the rugged mountain range featured in the "Lord of the Rings" movies.

Earthquakes occur on the Alpine Fault every 200 to 400 years at magnitudes of 7.5 to 8.0, with an average time between successive large earthquakes of about 330 years. Though earthquakes of that size that originate at shallow depths are capable of tremendous damage, the region is sparsely populated.

The white rocks in the center of the photo are a surface outcrop of the Alpine Fault. The Pacific tectonic plate is to the left and above the fault, and the Australian plate is to the right and below the fault. Movement along the Alpine Fault generates large earthquakes every 200 to 400 years, with an average time between successive large earthquakes of about 330 years. The last Alpine Fault quake occurred in 1717.  Image credit: Ben van der Pluijm
The last Alpine Fault quake occurred in 1717, and the probability of another big one occurring there in the next 50 years has been calculated at about 28 percent. So the $2.5 million Deep Fault Drilling Project presents a rare opportunity to collect and analyze samples from a major fault before it breaks.

The task for van der Pluijm and his colleagues is to analyze the possible role of clay minerals and friction melting in the fault zone. Radiometric dating, X-ray studies and isotopic-analysis techniques will be used to determine how much clay is in the rock samples and when those clays formed, as well as the likely source of the water that helped produce them.

"The information we can extract from these clays is remarkably rich," said Boles, who will use data from the New Zealand study in his doctoral dissertation. "These clay minerals are a key tool that we can use to better understand the physical and chemical processes happening in an active fault."

Clay minerals can help reduce friction and heat generation along a fault, lubricating it so that pressure is released through steady, relatively small and nondestructive "creeping" motions rather than the periodic violent jolts known as earthquakes.

Creeping motions were observed along the portion of the San Andreas Fault drilled by scientists several years ago. Temperatures in that fault were relatively low, and clay-rich rocks from the active zone were returned to the surface.

"We think that clays are a significant player in making faults less earthquake-prone," van der Pluijm said. "We know that the section of the Alpine Fault we'll be drilling has a history of producing large earthquakes. So finding little clay and, instead, evidence for frictional melting in the rock would better fit the large-earthquake scenario. That would be a fantastic breakthrough."

In addition to sampling the fault during the two-month drilling program, researchers will install permanent pressure, temperature and seismic-monitoring sensors in the borehole.

The U-M researchers are hoping to obtain a rock sample about the volume of a baseball from deep within the Alpine Fault. That would be plenty to complete their various studies, which are funded by the National Science Foundation and the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program.

"Getting the right samples is more important than the amount," van der Pluijm said. "Returning samples to the surface from depth is always a challenge, but I'm confident that it will work."

Written by Jim Erickson, University of Michigan News

UPDATE (January 2015)
The drilling project stopped short of its goal because of equipment damage.
"Damage ends Franz Josef Glacier drill probe into quake peril - Jamie Morton (NZ Herald):

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Hello Anthropocene, Goodbye Holocene - A Commentary

The debate about the Anthropocene and the geologic boundary that, if approved, would mark its start is lively and extensive, and contentious.  In a simple Google search, three quarter million hits and many hundreds of academic papers are returned, including perspectives in this journal, Earth’s Future (e.g., Ellis and Trachtenberg, 2014).  Since its informal introduction about 15 years ago (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000), some reject a new epoch entirely, while others debate the position of its boundary in the geologic timescale.  The thrust of this commentary is a correction to the recent geologic timescale, advancing the thesis that epoch status for the Holocene is unjustified and that, instead, we should define a Pleistocene-Anthropocene epoch boundary.

The Holocene is the youngest geologic epoch of the Quaternary.  The official geologic timescale, managed by the International Commission on Stratigraphy ( ), is based on identifiable markers, or “golden spikes”, which, for the Holocene, is defined as:
“The base of the Holocene Series/Epoch is defined in the NGRIP ice-core record at a depth of 1492.45m at the horizon which shows the clearest signal of climatic warming, an event that marks the end of the last cold episode (Younger Dryas Stadial/Greenland Stadial 1) of the Pleistocene.” (; Walker et al., 2009).
Thus, a moderate atmospheric signal characterizes the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary as currently defined, with the end of the latest (last?) glacial as its primary geologic signature (yet, the process of receding ice is similar among all Quaternary interglacials).  The atmospheric/climatic trend of an interglacial that heralded the Holocene is continuing today, but the recent era of human influence on its environment, marking the Anthropocene, reflects a geologic change of greater, global proportions.
A particularly compelling perspective on the Anthropocene was produced by Will Steffen and others, sometimes referred to as “The Great Acceleration” (e.g., Steffen et al., 2004; ).  By tabulating dozens of change indicators over the past couple of decades and centuries, a picture emerges of rapid change in recent times.  Some of these changes are social constructs (such as, McDonalds restaurants), but others represent lasting geologic signatures that are global in scope.  Notably, our demands for resources and nourishment, which necessitate invasive mining and agricultural practices, have changed the surface of today’s planet almost everywhere.  These demands and associated waste products create a boundary that is readily recognizable in surface geology (e.g., Wilkinson, 2005) and by concentrations of chemical compounds (e.g., Rockström et al., 2009).  A recent class project at the University of Michigan revisited and updated the Steffen analysis, confirming and extending the key patterns established earlier.  For example, Figure 1 shows data from Law Dome ice core in Antarctica (see supplementary data), which record rapid changes in chemical compounds that reflect modern agricultural and industrial practices.  Selecting a boundary from these data would place the beginning of (accelerated) change in the window 1850-1950, which coincides with the onset of the mid-19th Century “Industrial Revolution” and early 20th Century “Transportation Revolution”.

Figure 1.  Atmospheric concentration of CH4, CO2 and N2O from Law Dome ice core (Antarctica) since 0 CE; inset shows data after 1700 CE.  After MacFarling Meure et al. (2006) and supplementary data.
The human influence has led others to define the Anthropocene boundary elsewhere.  Agricultural practices underlie Bill Ruddiman’s proposal for a boundary as long as 7,000 year ago (Ruddiman, 2003).  Others, including the original advocate for the Anthropocene, Paul Crutzen, favor the chemical anomaly from atomic explosions since 1945 CE, although related isotopic tracers have a limited lifetime.  Neither, however, reflect geologic change to the same degree since the Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century .  Finally, there is growing evidence for a modern species extinction episode (e.g., Elizabeth Kolbert’s, The Sixth Extinction).  Species extinctions have traditionally defined the boundaries between geologic eras that contain complex life, i.e. the Paleozoic-Mesozoic and the Mesozoic-Cenozoic boundaries, as well as lower-level timescale boundaries.  The nature of today’s species extinction, however, does not allow one to draw a decadal scale boundary.

As the official timescale keepers deliberate the introduction of the Anthropocene and a Holocene-Anthropocene boundary (Anthropocene Working Group of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy; Zalasiewicz, J., M. et al., 2010; ), they should consider the alternative: Remove the Holocene Epoch from the geologic timescale.  Whereas any timescale change is a contentious issue, let alone changes to an existing epoch, modern human society’s interactions with its planet and ecosystems, embodied by the Anthropocene, are sufficiently large to produce a lasting geologic marker that supports such modification.  This new boundary would remain visible in the geologic record of oceans and continents (see also Corcoran et al., 2014 on plastics), meeting the stratigraphic requirements that ultimately underlie the timescale and marking a shift from the Pleistocene’s Milankovitch forcing to the Anthropocene’s human forcing.

The Holocene is a climate-centric placeholder for change after the latest Quaternary glaciation, but does not, as defined, match the accelerated changes in land, ocean and atmosphere that mark modern times.  So, I suggest that (a) we remove the Holocene altogether in favor of a (young) Anthropocene Epoch that reflects planet-wide geologic changes since c. 1900 CE, or (b) we demote the Holocene to Stage/Age status, marking the end of the Pleistocene Epoch.  The latter, perhaps more palatable compromise, would recognize historical precedent and allow continued use of Holocene in the literature as a temporal (“Age”) marker.  Regardless, slicing the Quaternary Period in ever thinner epochs has no geologic merit.  Given the degree and impact of modern, human-induced changes on our planet, a young Pleistocene-Anthropocene boundary seems justified.

I thank Scott Miller, Will Steffen and editor Guy Brassseur for comments and thoughtful discussion, but I remain solely responsible for the contents of this commentary.

Corcoran, P.L., Moore, C.J., and Jazvac, K. (2014).  An anthropogenic marker horizon in the future rock record.  GSA Today, 24, 4-8, doi: 10.1130/GSAT-G198A.1.
Crutzen, P.J., and Stoermer, E.F. (2000).  The “Anthropocene”, Global Change Newsl., 41, 17–18
Crutzen, P.J., and Steffen, W. (2003).  How Long Have We Been in the Anthropocene Era? Climatic Change, 61, 251-257.
Ellis, M.A. and Trachtenberg, Z. (2014). Which Anthropocene is it to be? Beyond geology to a moral and public discourse. Earth's Future, 2, 122–125.
Kolbert. E., (2014). The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.  Henry Holt and Co., 336p.
MacFarling Meure, C., D. Etheridge, C. Trudinger, P. Steele, R. Langenfelds, T. van Ommen, A. Smith, and J. Elkins (2006). Law Dome CO2, CH4 and N2O ice core records extended to 2000 years BP. Geophys. Res. Lett., 33, L14810, doi:10.1029/2006GL026152.
Ruddiman, W.F. (2003).  The anthropogenic greenhouse era began thousands of years ago. Clim. Change, 61, 261–293.
Rockström, J., W. Steffen, K. Noone, Å. Persson, F. S. Chapin, III, E. Lambin, T. M. Lenton, M. Scheffer, C. Folke, H. Schellnhuber, B. Nykvist, C. A. De Wit, T. Hughes, S. van der Leeuw, H. Rodhe, S. Sörlin, P. K. Snyder, R. Costanza, U. Svedin, M. Falkenmark, L. Karlberg, R. W. Corell, V. J. Fabry, J. Hansen, B. Walker, D. Liverman, K. Richardson, P. Crutzen, and J. Foley (2009).  Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society, 14, 32.
Steffen, W., Sanderson, R.A., Tyson, P.D., Jäger, J., Matson, P.A., Moore III, B., Oldfield, F., Richardson, K., Schellnhuber, H.-J., Turner, B.L., and Wasson, R.J. (2004).  Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet under Pressure. Springer (Berlin, Germany), 336 p.
Walker, M., Johnsen, S., Rasmussen, S. O., Popp, T., Steffensen, J.-P., Gibbard, P., Hoek, W., Lowe, J., Andrews, J., Björck, S., Cwynar, L. C., Hughen, K., Kershaw, P., Kromer, B., Litt, T., Lowe, D. J., Nakagawa, T., Newnham, R. and Schwander, J. (2009). Formal definition and dating of the GSSP (Global Stratotype Section and Point) for the base of the Holocene using the Greenland NGRIP ice core, and selected auxiliary records. J. Quaternary Sci., 24, 3–17. doi: 10.1002/jqs.1227
Wilkinson, B.H. (2005).  Humans as geologic agents: A deep time perspective.  Geology, 33, 161–164.
Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Steffen, W., and Crutzen, P. (2010). The new world of the Anthropocene. Environ. Sci. Technol., 44, 2228–2231.

From: Earth's Future, v.2, 2014.

Update (3/23/15):
A more detailed look at a Pleistocene-Anthropocene epoch boundary that likewise recognizes (and seems to favor) option 2, in a 2015 paper by Lewis and Maslin (Nature 519, 171-180).

Friday, August 15, 2014

vanderTrick: Annotating a PDF - Using print or post with multiple PPT slides per page.

I spend a lot of time finding a way to change the margins of a PDF file, so that there is more room for pen markup or online annotation on a handout or posted file, respectively.  In short, that functionality is not available in Acrobat Pro in any simple manner.  Only complicated, image-based work arounds or some coding demand.  But, I found another and very simple way to reach my goal of multiple slides per page that works around the default setting in PowerPoint of note lines for 3 slides/page or no vertical option for 4 slides/page.  The resolution of the slides remains good as well.

Export to PDF from PowerPoint using standard, 1 slide per page setting (using PDFmaker or included WORD converter).
Open newly created PDF in Arcrobat Pro and, using the print option window, select multiple pages.  For example, 1x4.  Then print to printer or to file, and the results is a clean looking PDF without the annoying note lines that is embedded in PowerPoint for handouts or other preset layouts.

A better solution yet is using print in the free FoxIt Reader, which allows the option to remove autocentering of the images and adds spacing to the slides.  This creates full lay-out control for annotation needs.

The result is shown below, offering lots of room for adding text and mark-ups using Acrobat Reader’s Comment Tool that is now included in the standard, free version, or for handwritten notes.  

Monday, August 11, 2014

Technology for Student Learning and Student Engagement

I have been involved in multiple educational activities at the University of Michigan, some more successful than others, but my favorites include applications of information and technologies in the student learning environment.  They also feed the gadget geek in me.  Being asked to provide a summary for an internal document, I wrote a brief narrative of several activities, which is structured around hotlinked reports by local writers. 

In the mid 1990’s, when websites were still relatively rare and webpage creation as part of course work was even less common, I offered a webbased project in one of my intro level classes, GS 265 "How to Build a Habitable Planet.  A 1996 write-up in the UM News describes the, then, novel use of the internet as a learning and student research tool.  Students said, "It was exciting to find out we would be incorporating the World Wide Web into our class. It was really beneficial because we learned how to use the Web to search for information while at the same time make our own home page." and, "It gave me a chance to learn more about the Internet, so I looked at the course with enthusiasm." (  Encouraged by the responses, I continued development of web-based learning in the Global Change courses that annually involved 200+ students, which was highlighted in a 2000 UM News write-up titled “Global change sequence: ‘A different type of course” (  These activities and the design of the ‘front-loaded’ Global Change Minor (UM’s first minor, I recall) were funded by grants from the Hewlett Foundation and the U-M Provost office, supporting course development for faculty and TAs over a period of several years.  Meanwhile, I used my experiences with interdisciplinary education on the committee that designed a new major, the Program in the Environment (

As the internet use quickly became more common, I started to explore the use of in-class activities to improve the large-classroom experience in collaboration with AOSS colleague Perry Samson.  Basic ‘clickers’ had just arrived on campus, but more sophisticated interactivity and image-based response systems that went beyond multiuple choice answers were nonexistent.  At the time we called our first effort “ImageQuiz”, which received funding from various university sources and major equipment gifts from Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft (hundreds of IPAQ handhelds and a couple of dozen windows-based TabletPCs, all then new form-factors that were later re-invented by Apple).  The University Record reported on our use of handhelds in 2005, as “GeoPocket: A classroom tool for the GameBoy generation” (  The greater potential of laptops was recognized and we evolved our project into “LectureTools”, which capitalizes on the larger screen real estate and computing power of modern student laptops.  In order to deploy this approach, we build (the first?) wireless classroom system in the college of LSA, using off-the-shelf components from, then,  At the time, wireless was not generally available on our campus, and not at all to LSA undergraduate students, so this was also technologically interesting on a wire-based network.  This project received grant support from the National Science Foundation and extensive LSA-IT support, culminating in a redesign of the IT infrastructure of a new, wireless-enabled classroom that favored Wi-Fi over hardwire connections.  That effort was featured in 2007 Ann Arbor News;  LectureTools became more sophisticated by adding tools such as notetaking and other capabilities.  The main development moved off campus as LectureTools was licensed under a UM start-up agreement and in 2013 it was sold to Echo360 (URecord:   I am still a user, but no longer involved in the development and design.
The potential of mobile computing to offer spatial information also motivated the application of “rugged” TabletPCs in support of geological fieldwork.  A grant from the National Science Foundation supported the acquisition of 20+ outdoor-ready, military grade Xplore units and peripherals (at a whopping cost of $3500+ each) and development support for a small team that included techie Peter Knoop and eduguy Eric Dey.  The units were used in UM’s field camp in Wyoming, where we added a wireless system to the mostly outdoor camp infrastructure and even experimented with a mobile, van-based wireless system.  The rise of today’s GPS-enabled tablets has replaced the need for expensive TabletPCs and we see field computing everywhere.  A 2003 article in the URecord offers an early description of the development and first application of the GeoPad project;

With hardware fully matured, I am now (re)turning to software applications.  I introduced the use of Prezis as a more engaging research and presentation tool for undergraduate students.  This project received TA development support from LSA-IT, following my successful experiment in a first-year-seminar; see, 2012 URecord write up, provocatively titled, “Students go beyond platitudes to examine sustainability” (  Currently underway is a pre-class experience that asks students to answer a small set of relevant questions before each lecture block, so that they are perhaps more tuned to the upcoming material and so that the instructor gets a sense of base knowledge and interests.  The answers to these questions are available to the instructor and teaching assistants, but, given the added load for 100+ student classes, the approach would benefit students from feedback using word clouds and keyword tracking.  The key words search or are linked to relevant reading materials on the web (yes, including Wikipedia) or in electronic textbooks.  This has interest from several publishers and I’ll try an in-house experiment this coming winter.

Do the students learn more with these approaches?  Hard to measure quantitatively, but the feedback is always positive.  Nearly all students bring their laptops for notetaking and most participate in pre-class and in-class activities (not for points).  During lecture, they seem more engaged and connected with the material, which addresses some of the greatest criticisms of the “sage-on-stage” lecture model.  The instances where metrics were applied (e.g., ), the students did as well and often better with the material, which provides added motivation to continue the quest.  Wearables anyone ?

Monday, July 14, 2014

On Clays and Fault Creep (video clip)

Having posted a recent version of my Anthropocene talk (at AGU), I might as well share my Spring 2014 Earthscope Speaker Series "Smart Clays" lecture clip on the San Andreas Fault (this one at UALR), which highlights my geology research on the role of clays in promoting fault creep (or aseismic slip).  Colloquially, I sometimes call this my "Kaopectate for an upset Earth" talk.
The 1:30 clip is a little snappier than the full 40+ minutes version.

van der Pluijm, B., 2011. Natural fault lubricants. Nature Geoscience, 4, 217-218.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

On "What is the Anthropocene about?" (lecture)

AGU posted my recent (May 2014) presentation, "What is the Anthropocene about?", as part of their Science Speaker Series. Might as well post it on my own blog too, although it is always awkward seeing and hearing oneself.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

AGU’s 2014 Science Policy Conference (Washington DC) - Day 2

AGU’s Science Policy Conference brings together scientists, local, state and national policymakers, and community and industry leaders.  Day2 follows the structure of Day1 (, except (early) opening with a plenary address.

I was looking forward to hearing Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and was not disappointed.  Following the usual “about me” segment that described her youth, education and career before appointed office in the Obama administration, she emphasized the centrality of science in decision-making.  That was good to hear.  She also emphasized the need for better handshaking between natural science and social science to bring key messages to a broad audience.  She touched on the poor budget environment, but also that there is money in the government to move forward, perhaps in small steps.  I was glad that she included hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") as an example of poor communication and insufficient planning, both by government and industry.  She clearly embraces the connection between business and government, and that universities should continue to share discoveries for the greater good of human society, but that research independence should always be protected from the political debate.  Besides an engaging presence, her message sounded genuine and, frankly, inspiring.  Great start of the day.

The keynote offered a good segue into a panel on the Business of Science with a group of panelists representing industry and non-government organizations.  Industry is taking over some government activities, as money has too big a voice in federal support for research and development.  Today’s politisation of research is a disturbing, perhaps damaging development that breaks with our past tradition.  This disconnect is also reflected in a memorable statistic from the moderator that more congressional hearings were held on asteroids than on climate change (I didn't check this).  The consensus was that the development of national policies on both energy and climate are necessary.

Then session breakouts followed.  In Resources: Going to Extremes I was enthralled by the asteroid mining guy and the description of “urban mining” (high-end recycling for precious materials).  They, respectively, emphasize increasing the pie and reusing the pie, both of which are strategies we can all support.  I didn't know that a modern recycling plant is as clean as a food processing factory and that asteroid mining smallest problem is getting material back to earth (such as, platinum foam balls that float).  The development of asteroid mining benefits from being a rich guy’s playground (Google, Oracle and Virgin guys are among the supporters), but also crowdfunding through Kickstarter (

I must confess that I skipped lunch and one breakout session for “personal development.”  The Holland brigade had to defeat the Aussies to advance to the Final 16, and eventual WC14 championship, which they did (not pretty, but a win nonetheless).  Obviously, I have my priorities straight.

I returned for the final breakouts of the day and selected Flood Risk Communication.  Each of the panelists described with passion their program to reach the general public.  Clearly, if one wants to be informed, there are dedicated teams to make this possible.  Taking prompts from unusual events, such as a zombie outbreak (see,, offers valuable lessons for less exotic, but more likely and damaging events that include floods, storms and other geohazards.  As mentioned in my Day1 write-up, the message is clear.  Trust media folks to develop the message, while letting science shape the message.

Having a few days between the last conference day and a write-up is useful for reflection.  I made some AGU staff unhappy with my assessment of the politicians panel on Day1, but was taken by Sally Jewell’s inspiring address.  For me, the need for a mix of appointed and elected officials in D.C. is clear.  There is time for debate and time for action, with the latter our ultimate goal.  The value of science policy conferences like this one (and many others in the US and elsewhere), is bringing together different audiences.  However, the effective reach of science into politics and policy remains uncertain, and demands impact assessment by conference organizers.  For example, did Hill staffers stay after their bosses left?  Are white papers or policy briefs developed and used?  Lastly, I wish that climate change would not be the primary focus in most science policy discussions, as other, more imminent threats are also facing society.  In all, a good experience with opportunity to learn from many interesting and dedicated folks.

Note: You can see opening panels and keynote on

Ben van der Pluijm
Professor at the University of Michigan, EiC of AGU’s Earth’s Future

Day 1:

---The opinions in this blog are the author’s, and do not represent the AGU, the journal Earth’s Future or the University of Michigan.

Friday, June 20, 2014

AGU’s 2014 Science Policy Conference (Washington DC) - Day 1

AGU’s Science Policy Conferences brings together scientists, local, state and national policymakers, and community and industry leaders.  The third SPC, Finding Solutions to Urgent Challenges, focuses on natural hazards, climate change and natural resource challenges.  The program and other material is on the website, at  

Day 1 started with a panel of three US representatives, after AGU's Chris McEntee’s opening words.  The opinions of the three science-supporting, Democratic politicians sounded good to the audience.  Few, if anything they said raised eyebrows as the panelists all agreed that science needs more support, that science issues such as climate change are unquestionable realities, and that we need to prepare for major societal challenges.  However, little action can be expected from today’s divided congress, we were told, so one is left with the sensation of a custard-filled donut: comfort food.  This panel did little for me to understand today’s political gridlock, solutions, or the reservation among so many on the Hill about science (especially climate science).  My notes have the usual items, such as competitive edge, national security, global lead, etc.  I was glad to hear that the panel agreed with audience/twitter comments about the long-term value of greater research funding, in real dollars.  It is maddening to hear perfectly sound views from elected officials, but realizing that progress is not in our immediate future. Sometimes the trivial offers some surprising moments, such as one reps lead in the Algae Caucus (yes, algae: and another’s reps urging to use more “serious” project titles.  Not yet sure how to get national security into my fault rock research, but working on it.  

The conference is structured around three themes, mentioned above, each of which has a parallel breakout session.  The sessions use the familiar theme of brief presentations by engaging panelists, sometimes coordinated, sometimes not, followed by a Q/A session.  I picked one of each, with disaster monitoring and risk prediction as my first.  I much enjoyed the presentations on earthquakes and extreme weather, which would be useful parts of a college curriculum on these topics.  The earthquake early warning presentation stood out for me, both in its execution and realizing that warning means seconds to a few minutes response time.  Enough time to take cover and to shut down sensitive systems (such as trains), so an obvious target for implementation in the US.  We’d be following several other countries in doing so, illustrating our lack of preparedness for imminent hazards.  As before, lack of funding is the catch.

I had the opportunity to speak about the open-access journal Earth’s Future ( to the conference attendees during lunch, following AGU President Carol Finn’s introduction.  After only 6 months we already have a rich and diverse slate of 30+ publications and opinion pieces that are widely downloaded.  Interest is high, so the journal’s future is looking good.

The climate preparedness session offered practical and compelling examples of the impact of environmental change and our need to mitigate more aggressively.  Instead of returning damaged infrastructure to its original state, we should adjust and modify when rebuilding.  Yet, this is often not possible under existing regulations and insurance policies.  Also, in many cases local willingness to do thing differently would violate state or federal law.  Perhaps the federal response on a disaster by disaster basis is a mistake.  Instead. let local governments and communities take more responsibility, as the willingness and urgency lie there.
The resource session I attended focused on water and, specifically, our interaction with stakeholders.  Panelists offered practical advice about dealing with the media, about being on message, and about content.  The presentations highlighted different approaches, illustrating that best practices are not the same.  One speaker urged no more than three items per presentation, followed by a speaker describing 10 bullets.  The third speaker noticed the irony and mentioned that she will be in the middle, with 5 take-home items.  Each one made good points.  The discomfort that many scientists feel with the media was recognized, so the advice that let media folks do what they do best makes sense.  The challenge is to present key information and not get bogged down in detail and uncertainty arguments.  Distinguish noise from signal and go with the latter for media interactions; leave the noise to the scientific paper.  Lastly, an important distinction was raised between influencing people’s attitude and changing people’s behavior.  Make sure you decide on the goal of your interaction with the media and general audiences.

Meanwhile, August came early this year to DC, with city temperatures at 100F.  Looking forward to Day 2, which will start with remarks by interior secretary Jewell.  Stay tuned.

Ben van der Pluijm
Professor at the University of Michigan, EiC of AGU’s Earth’s Future

Day 2:

---The opinions in this blog are the author’s, and do not represent the AGU, the journal Earth’s Future or the University of Michigan.

Friday, January 03, 2014

vanderTrick: Real-time Webpages in PowerPoint (2013)

One of the most annoying issues with PowerPoint (and there are many others) is the inability to insert a real-time webpage.  I assume there are security issues involved, but the convenience of direct access to a webpage within a PPT slide is huge.  Opening a browser on top of an active presentation is always a struggle, as you will quickly see when people try to do so.

So, for years I have installed a PowerPoint add-in called LiveWeb by Shyam Pillai; you can find it at  For the recent Office version you have to use the .ppam extension instead of the .ppa; see details on version downloads on the page.  However, it won't work with Windows 8, 8.1 or 10.  Changes in security and macro setting in Office2013 don't help.  The answer is a registry setting.

The instructions are on the FAQ of LiveWeb, but obliquely at best.
A - PowerPoint 2013 blocks the webbrowser control from being inserted which prevents LiveWeb from functioning normally. Please visit this microsoft page to resolve this issue: Cannot insert certain scriptable ActiveX controls into Office 2013 documents
The last link holds the key, but the alerts sound scary.  Yet, it is the only way I found to make it work.  Run Regedit.exe with administrator privileges.  Follow the exact steps to the ClassID, listed below:

For the Click-to-Run installation of Office 2013, locate the following registry subkey:
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Office\15.0\ClickToRun\REGISTRY\MACHINE\Software\Wow6432Node\Microsoft\Office\15.0\Common\COM Compatibility\<ClassID>

For the MSI installation of Office 2013, locate the following registry subkey:
HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Wow6432Node\Microsoft\Office\15.0\Common\COM Compatibility\<ClassID>
The relevant ClassID for Web Browser Control is {8856F961-340A-11D0-A96B-00C04FD705A2}; see table on that page.  Follow the instruction above with the correct ClassID and you reach a panel shown in the picture below.  The number is variable (in my case 400), which you change to 0, and exit the Regedit program.

Then, reboot the system from shutdown so the new registry is read.  Reloading LiveWeb.ppam by clicking on that file opens PowerPoint directly and inserts the desired functionality.  You'll be asked to approve ActiveX control in PPT ... and voila.  Took me hours to figure, but it's worth it.

Minor update: If your computer is managed/updated by a central system than the variable reset may default to the original windows setting.  Just open regedit (with admin privileges) and change back to zero (as above), and exit.

Note: You may find other functions in Shyam's PowerPoint toolbox useful, at  This has not been updated in several years, so some registry and macro settings may need to be changed and functionality across PowerPoint installs may be affected.  Use with care.