I wish I could remember all the things I've forgotten

by Megan Sever
Thursday, October 30, 2014

Credit: Kathleen Cantner, AGI.

Editor’s Note: We asked our staff and some frequent contributors to write a short commentary on something that they had been thinking about in 2014. We gave everyone carte blanche. What follows is a collection of extremely varied, often very personal insights into how the planet impacted each individual.

Not long ago, my husband and I were in the car when a story came on the radio about a big geomagnetic storm that was going to make the Northern Lights visible at much lower latitudes than normal. He turned to me and asked, “Why are the Northern Lights only visible at certain latitudes?” I opened my mouth to answer and nothing came to me. I had to admit that, although at one time I had known the answer, I couldn’t remember. It got me thinking about all the things I once knew but have forgotten — as well as about all the things I feel like I should know as a good geoscience-minded individual. Have you ever had that experience?

Based on conversations with colleagues, it appears most of us have had a nongeoscientist friend or family member ask an innocuous, seemingly easy-to-answer question to which we suddenly can’t summon an answer. It’s a little embarrassing when it happens, but what’s worse is that what could be a great teachable moment — in which to share our science — instead becomes a lost conversation.

In these pages last year, I wrote about the importance of learning about your local geology so you can share as much information as possible with your friends and family, thus “geo-educating” the world one person at a time. The key is not only to learn this information, but to remember it so you can share it! Today, of course, one can simply look up answers to many scientific queries on a smartphone, but by then, the moment may have passed. What we all need it seems is a set of miscellaneous facts hovering in an easy-to-access folder in our brains — things that we can quickly summon when asked questions like, “What’s the difference between a hurricane, cyclone and typhoon?”

Seeing as it’s the season for ubiquitous “year-end” lists, here are a couple of lists of questions I have personally collected this past year, largely because of stories we’ve covered or events in the news: things I should’ve learned in school, things I wish I could remember, and things I wish I could explain more succinctly.

Scientific questions I think I should be able to answer, but haven’t been able to when asked:

Are Yellowstone, Mauna Loa and Mount Hood considered active volcanoes?

Could the Cascadia Megathrust Fault produce smaller damaging earthquakes like the San Andreas Fault or just a big catastrophic one?

Could pathogens actually thaw out of Arctic permafrost or glaciers and cause global pandemics?

How does this year’s drought (or fill in the hazard of your choosing) fit into the historical picture?

What kind of rock is that?

Scientific questions I once knew the answer to, but have forgotten:

When was Yellowstone’s last super-eruption?

When did the Big Bang happen?

When did the Columbia River Basalts last erupt and could it happen again?

When did modern humans — Homo sapiens — evolve and when did they leave Africa?

What makes a volcano active versus dormant versus extinct?

Scientific questions I have been asked that I can answer, but not succinctly enough to keep the questioner’s attention:

Is hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, bad?

How do the Polar Vortex and other cold-weather patterns fit into the concept of climate change?

Can earthquakes trigger other earthquakes?

Why can’t we predict earthquakes?

Is natural gas inherently better for the environment than coal, oil or other forms of energy?

What have you forgotten recently? Or what do you think you should know but don’t? Send us your lists! Tweet us at @earthmagazine, email us at earth@earthmagazine.org, and Facebook us www.facebook.com/earthmagazine.

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