Plotting for the Earth. Sciences.

This was originally posted at: http://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/earthbound/plotting_for_the_earth_sciences

So a cool paper came out a while back about using plots when attempting to construct stories as a mode of communicating in Earth Science. I cannot, as always, emphasise my frustration when someone writes an article that’s supposed to be broadly educational, and sticks it behind a paywall. In this case, it might have reached the target audience of practising institutionalised Earth scientists (hello), but not the many who aren’t fortunate to have a subscription.

This is a much delayed attempt to distil the information contained within the article, which is otherwise a fab piece, so that it might actually be of additional use than stagnating in Elsevier’s draughty vaults.

I’ve written many pieces before about the importance of science communication in Earth Science/Geoscience/Rocks/whatever, largely inspired by [massive name drops] Iain Stewart and Ted Nield’s piece from a while back. While some of the time, I think a lot of people might dedicate a bit too much time to thinking about the process of communicating science rather than actually doing it, sometimes it’s nice to take a breather and perhaps pick up a few new things to refine your techniques, particularly with respect to blogging, my main communications output.

Back in one second, I need to make some pasta.

So the premise of the paper is pretty awesome. One current idea floating around the science communication realm is this concept of stories, in that you can use them to create a context that is more relevant to the average reader. In this case, it is the idea of tying specific events or situations to the principles, or foundation, of Earth science. The tying of these two together exposes the idea of ‘plots’, which are common structures that provide insight into the science, while maintaining relevance to a non-specialist audience.

Here are the 8 plots described in the article, and yes, they do mostly have awesome names.

Cause and Effect

Leepsteek? There is no leepsteek! While The Merovingian might not have been the best geoscience communicator in the world, he nailed the first theme here. Cause and effect is simple: if you disturb a system or aspects of a system in some way, then that will cause ripples and they will be felt. This is a key factor in Earth science, due to the very nature of our dynamic planet.


This plot, naturally, has two parts: the process of change, such as a climatic perturbation, and the result, such as how this affects the rate of erosion at a cliff face. The opposite of this is also possible, for example trying to determine the cause in the rate shift of sediment flow rates, or what forces were required to fold the Alps into their current shape.


In the beginning, God created rocks, and then a separate race of humans called ‘geologists’ who had an enhanced love of beer, hammers, shiny things, and beer, to study them. Genesis, as I’m sure you’re all scratching your head trying to figure out, relates to the origins of features, groups of features, or processes. Geologically speaking, this  could be anything from geomorphological features like hills and mountains, or sedimentary structures like ripple marks, to something more unusual or exotic like an impact crater.


Earth systems are complex. They’re the products of suites of processes that interact, and are variably non-dependent on each other. Where these processes, or components, interact within a system and create a pattern, this is the emergent theme. Phillips describes these plots as ‘by-products of the rules governing systems, rather than direct outcomes of those rules’. Sounding a bit Matrix-y again. Examples where this sort of plot er, emerges, are in climate change, or how landforms change through time.


One of the coolest things about geology is describing and trying to unravel the processes that create what we see preserved in the rock record. We can actually see geological processes happening in everyday life, such as erosion, or how a river shifts course or changes from a linear to braided form. The cool thing about metamorphosis is the variation in scale, both in terms of process size, and length of time; for example, the millions of years timescale to build a mountain, compared to a near-instantaneous landslip on a local beach.


One of the long-standing questions in geology is ‘do rocks feel pain’? Destruction describes the process whereby rocks may or may not feel pain, through complete or incomplete loss of structure. A classic example of this sort of story would be extinction, or degradation of an environment due to human influence. This has a clear anthropogenic impact, as many geological features act secondarily as resources, so loss of any sort can have a negative influence. An example of this might be through coastal erosion, which can lead to the destruction of property. Destruction is probably the most prominent plot to have a social and economic influence. Cooler examples might include the loss of ancient civilisations, which may be related in some way to geological processes (e.g., Atlantis).


Convergence describes the process of multiple independent factors becoming more similar through time, often towards a common state. Such processes might include how a river incises through time through erosion, in incremental developmental stages. Such plots would often terminate in a steady state or dynamic equilibrium, where factors cancel each other out, or the process stream changes; for example, when the critical threshold of hillside erosion is achieved.


Essentially the opposite of convergence. Probably the best, and most obvious, version of this would be biological evolution, and the micro- and macro-scale, whereby populations and species diverge from each other through time, becoming more dissimilar.


Cyclical patterns are commonly known in the geological record, ranging from Milankovitch cycles to the frequency of mass extinctions, plausibly driven by an external force such as solar flaring. Cycles are critical in regulating Earth systems, such as biogeochemical cycles, nutrient cycles, ocean stratification and currents, and occur in almost all environments in many different ways.

These plots are by no means completely mutually exclusive of each other, and it is entirely possible to combine hybrids as the purpose requires. They are also not exhaustive – I’m sure you can conjure up multiple plots that would suit your own line of research (comments below please!), and they are also perfectly divisible depending on how general or precise you wish to construct a piece. Anyway, I hope this extraction is adequate, and you’ve gained a little understanding of how to apply a directed narrative to writing in future.

Now to figure out how this works for dinosaurs…

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