Friday, 4 March 2011

Making Footsteps

You may recall, some time ago (news travels slowly to my cave) that a large, exciting dinosaur was identified and tag lined with the term ‘Thunder thighs’ or to people with beards ‘Brontomerus’. Dinosaurs are without doubt the most well known thing about paleontology. More people might study ammonites and microfossils but its the big things that get people interested – does new stories reporting a new discovery get people interested?
Now this is a dinosaur ‘discovery’ so it’s going to get lots of people interested, but will it sustain that interest and get people interested in geology. There is plenty of communication out there, but for this post I’m going to examine the effect of a big geosciences story on patterns of search for a variety of geological terms – and see if there is any great increase as a result.

Blue is 'thunder thighs', red is 'Brontomerus' and yellow is 'paleontology'

So the story ‘hit’ on the 20th, resulting in no change in the search volume for ‘Paleontology’ but a sharp peak (oddly a few days later) for the creatures scientific name: Brontomerus’. This seems a little odd, but what about the effect on ‘dinosaurs’. Oddly there is actually a decrease in searches for dinosaurs, with a small ‘hump’ 5 
days later.

Search volume for 'Dinosaur' note the comparison to the blue line in the above chart. 

The search volume for ‘Dinosaur’ way outstrips that of anything on the above chart – and since there is no real change it can be assumed that there is enough background demand for information on dinosaurs to lead a small story to not cause a great deal of ripples.

Search volume for 'Geology' note slight peak around the 20th, second peak around the 28th is likely related to the New Zealand Quake. 

 A similar story is present for ‘geology’ ; although there is a peak which coincides with the story, a second peak coincides with the New Zealand Quake  – whether this is simply a result of a general pattern of as a result of the story is difficult to attain .The background interest in both terms is a great sign – constant interest which for engaging people into geosciences is clearly a good thing! What does it teach us about communicating geosciences? Well that a news story is just that, its a story, it’s been a week and news has moved on – thankfully there is enough interest in this facet of geosciences to maintain a steady stream of minds looking for information allowing educators to easily plan and generate interesting topics and articles.  

The Oily Elephant in the Room

How are geological and non-geological organisations communicating peak oil? And for the former, why should they?  Why should any geosciences organisation act to educate the public in what is essentially an economical matter?

Other than the fact a lot of geologists depend on the petroleum industry for employment everyone requires oil, and recent price hikes have caused difficulties on a global scale, from pig farmers in Devon to airlines loosing money (again) the looming prospects of demand for petroleum outstripping supply is a concern. We all need oil for our lives. Also, given that geologists, when attempting to communicate geology to the public often utilise global resources in order to make our subject important (oil for fuel, steel for bridges etc....), well if we run out of oil we’ll have nothing to talk about (damn biologists might get a look in).  It seems a good idea to have a look how a couple of different organisations, with different outlooks illustrate peak oil.

The Society has a limited number of resources, mostly in the form of personal writings attacking or promoting the theory. Unlike Climate Change of which a statement is provided Peak oil is instead,  relegated to a conference (of which proceedings are not presented and anyway, would the public have an interest in reading them?) and a personal letter in the Societies Magazine; Geoscientist (available to the public). Even the Specialist petroleum group of the society has only one direct publication discussing peak oil – hardly a great result of outreach.

Virtually nothing on Peak Oil... in fact searching for ‘Peak Oil’ results in more queries on the generation of oil (i.e. Peak Oil production over geological time) and oil companies with ‘Peak’ in their name. There is none of the usual material produced by the USGS in educating the public into particular geologic processes and theories.  This is incredible irresponsible; not only does this lead people looking into peak oil  to have to slightly less reputable and balanced sites (See ‘’) it also indicates that there is no concern about resources becoming limited.

Now, I wasn’t expecting much from a nice big oil company, but this was amazing.
On the home page I was greeted by a nice flash animation telling me ‘Global energy demand in 2030 will be 35 percent higher than in 2005’ and that Exxon’s tagline is: ‘Taking on the world’s toughest energy challenges’.
Upon searching the Exxon Mobile site (with the site’s search engine and Google) there are no direct results for Peak Oil (i.e. articles that feature that term). Now, given that Exxon are known for having involvement in various governmental organisations, but do not accept peak oil on their website this is a major consideration, particularly if a concerned (and savvy) member of the public  went searching for resources from an organisation you’d think might have an inclination as to the upcoming risk of resources running out! This could be an indication for a Global Warming like fight with Oil giants as the problems of Peak Oil

BP – Beyond Petroleum:

The site actually has a flashy little interactive animation that touches upon ‘resources will struggle to keep up’ but that’s about it. Shell energy scenarios to 2050 does not mention ‘peak oil’. While searching for ‘Peak Oil’ recommends that I look at lubricants responding at 'peak times of stress' in engines. Failing that articles it does generate appear to not have the two words together. What is it with Oil Companies? Almost like they don’t want to accept Peak Oil.

And in the green corner: Greenpeace:

Not a particular fan of them, but out to give them some air time. Oddly this site is not crawling in Peak Oil information, but gives an acceptable biased opinion of the economic forces behind peak oil. No results had anything related to geology (a bit on rock music and peak oil). Surely the threat of energy security is the perfect opportunity for Greenpeace to get people concerned and campaigning? Maybe not. 

On an interesting side note, the UK’s ‘All Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil & Gas’ a governmental policy group who can’t really make policies or do anything (I called to ask) but still have voices in Westminster has as its five main roles people Greenpeace members – I’m not being political or difficult. Just surely with that sort of involvement surely Greenpeace could have put together more of a show!

Having been so pleasant to this site in a previous post I now need to be a little bit mean; following in the footsteps of Exxon, USGS, and GeolSoc of London; does not have any resources for Peak Oil, various articles and news reports discuss particular oil feeds reaching ‘peak’ production, similar to that on offer with the USGS.

So, there is limited information from NGO’s and even Government Organisations.  Where can the public go to get information on Peak Oil? Well it seems that a casual reader (ie someone using Google!) will be presented by 38 million results; since I don’t have the rest of my life to ponder, I’ll choose the top 4 to analyse:
1              Wikipedia;
Really really good article; thorough, balanced (well, as balanced as Wikipedia gets on an environmental issue) with heaps of references. As I’ve already demonstrated in earlier blogs Wikipedia is often used to access quick information – and this page well deserves to be on the top of the list. I can imagine that it is a well used resource for people looking into Peak Oil. Just don’t reference it.
2              Broken link:; as the second response from Google. Fire up the alarm bells.
3          Peak Oil [note – I’m writing this in the UK, Globally different areas may generate different results – I truly hope it does]. A pretty poor site from a Sociologist with an interest in peak oil and writing websites who’s site consists of, in the majority pictures of publications and opinion.... this is at number 3 in Google searches!
4              Peak - exploring Hydrocarbon depletion. An online community, so a mixture of interested parties, knowledgeable parties and lunatics.  Looking into these boards they are utterly useless; with a variety of obscure topics which are not suitable to demonstrate peak oil to the public.

So why is there no decent, reputable (sorry Wikipedia, it's not you, its 'established science') site for information on Peak Oil? Well, unlike Climate Change its fairly difficult to prove, there is no evidence in the geological record of resource peaking, what it does have in common though is money – both issues are threatening Oil Companies, who neither governments nor their shareholders are particularly interested in educating the public and customers as to a potentially rapid alteration in lifestyle.  It seems wise then, to observe how interest in peak oil has, to excuse the pun, peaked and fallen: 

Search Volume top
News volume bottom

It can be seen that there is clearly interest in Peak Oil, with strong peaks roughly coinciding with news (middle of 2008) during 2005 there is a massive amount of interest, despite limited stories – although there has been some commentary as to that year being ‘Peak Oil’. What, from the perspective of geoscientists wanting to communicate can this tell us? Well from looking at the available resources there is a severe gap in the market for sensible discussion, potentially from a governmental viewpoint (although that is probably just dreaming) which incorporates geosciences. After all, mitigating or confirming peak oil will fall to people out there, looking for the stuff. It beggars belief that there is so little out, available for such an important topic, a topic which has 10% of the searches of ‘Global Warming’

Global Warming in Red
Peak Oil in Blue. Representing 10% all searches in comparison to 'Global Warming'

 On an ending note:
According to BP, global oil reserves were 1,333bn barrels at the end of 2009. That was 23 per cent higher than a decade earlier, despite consumption of 300bn barrels over the period. (Financial Times)