Stuff I Wrote Elsewhere, Colorado River Edition

From today’s newspaper, a look at decision-making in the face of uncertainty on the Colorado River:

Trying to follow the science of climate change and the Colorado River, it would be easy to throw up your hands. Very smart scientists (Hoerling among them) have come up with very different answers about how climate change might affect the Colorado over the next half-century.

Estimates over the past few years have varied from a modest 5 percent decrease in the river’s average annual flow by 2050 to an alarming 45 percent decline.

OK, even a 5 percent drop in the Colorado’s average annual flow ought to alarm you. “With over 27 million people relying on the Colorado River for drinking water in the United States, and over 3.5 million acres of farmland in production in the basin,” U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials wrote in a recent report, “the Colorado River is the single most important natural resource in the Southwest.”

It would be easy to get frustrated by the uncertainty, even after new studies have reduced the range of uncertainty to a decline of between 5 percent and 20 percent.

Welcome to real science, where nature offers up answers only grudgingly, not like the tidy answers to settled questions you find in textbooks.

One Comment

  1. I had a comment written on this topic, hit the wrong key,and had the comment deleted never to be found again. Welcome to the world of scientific research.

    A story from the front line of research (There are millions of such stories).

    When I was a graduate student in biochemistry, I was trying to discover a new enzyme, a topoisomerase in mitochondria. I spent two years at 60 hours a week proving that no existing enzyme purification method would work for this enzyme. Then I spent more months inventing new methods, which did not work either. Finally, I figured out how to locate, purify, and characterize the enzyme.

    The problem? The original enzyme occurred at only one part in a trillion in the original sample of liver, one survived for a few hours, and was dominated in assays by other enzymes that were not the desired ones.

    In text books, the hard work and frustration disappears. All that is left is a single line describing a new protein.

    The same huge amount of work to obtain a result that no one considers ‘good enough’ occurs all the time in research whether it was with Carbon 14 in the 1940s or atomic force microscopes now.

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