Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

Aliso Canyon methane leak

Methane Ahoy!

The Fun Physics of Aliso Canyon

The Aliso Canyon methane leak is a major disaster. It is also a showcase for some really fun physics! Including, among other things, the fun physics behind global warming.


The ongoing methane leak at the Aliso Canyon Gas Storage Field near Porter Ranch, California is without doubt a major economic, human and environmental disaster that points to the risk of similar events around the nation and the world. Google “Aliso Canyon” and read to your heart’s content.

There is a lot that I might say about Aliso Canyon. It really is a textbook example of the kinds of things that I talk about all of the time. Knowledge doesn’t come from looking for reasons to think that you are right. Knowledge comes from looking for indications that you are wrong. Investigating the roles of confirmation bias, groupthink, snake oil and wishful thinking in the lead-up and response to the Aliso Canyon leak is left as an exercise for the student.

Aliso Canyon in Visible and Infrared Light

In visible light it is just another beautiful Southern California day in Aliso Canyon. But when viewed in infrared the opaque plume of leaking methane blocks the view. This is a beautiful illustration of why methane is a powerful greenhouse gas.

But I have to admit that my first thought when I saw infrared images of the methane plume was, “cool!”

There is some cool physics at work in the pictures you’ve seen of Aliso Canyon.

Pictures of the Aliso Canyon site taken in visible light show just what you’d expect – nothing! Methane is a colorless, odorless gas. Look out across the site and everything appears perfectly normal, despite the fact that 1,200 tons of gas a day is pouring from the leak. (Look around, just don’t breathe while you are doing it…)

On the other hand, when you take a picture of the site looking at infrared radiation, the view is very different. Now instead of beautiful clear skies off into the distance, you see what looks like thick black smoke pouring from the hole. That is because methane, like carbon dioxide, absorbs infrared radiation.

If you pay attention to the news you hear lots of he-said, she-said political coverage of global warming and climate change. But if you actually want to know something about what’s going on, comparing those two pictures is a beautiful illustration of the physics behind global warming.

Visible sunlight gets in, but infared radiation has trouble getting out.

Want to know more about this stuff than 90% of the “experts” on cable news?

A lot of people have “opinions” about climate change, but I’ll let you in on a secret. The climate doesn’t care about your opinion. It is going to do what it is going to do.

Free On-line Course on Global Warming

If you would like to really know something about the science behind global warming, check out the Coursera/University of Chicago massive open online course, “Global Warming I: The Science and Modeling of Climate Change.

The science behind climate change is not that hard to wrap your head around, even if you aren’t a scientist. But listening to 30 second sound bites from talking heads on cable news isn’t going to get you there.

If you would like to take that step from having an opinion to having some knowledge and understanding about global warming and climate change, Coursera and The University of Chicago are offering a Massive Open Online Course, Global Warming I: The Science and Modeling of Climate Change. No science background is needed. Just bring your brain.

The course runs from January 25 through April 24, with enrollment through February 7. If you miss that one, the next session begins February 22. You can sign up and take the course for free, or you can sign up and receive a course certificate for $49.

I don’t have anything to do with offering the course. To be honest, the list of topics looks interesting enough that I might tune in for a lecture or two myself!

Methane Ahoy! ^ The Fun Physics of Aliso Canyon  © Dr. Jeff Hester
Content may not be copied to other sites. All Rights Reserved.

Reality Straight Up!

  • Cassandra Smiling  Science, politics and a march in the rainPosted in For Your Consideration
  • EPA Rehash  A suddenly partisan NASA faces its futurePosted in Thoughts
  • The Hermeneutics of  Bunk  Alan Sokal and postmodernism’s black eyePosted in For Your Consideration
  • A Dunning-Kruger Universe  Everyone, it seems, has a “theory”Posted in For Your Consideration
  • Our Need to Know  We crave certainty, even when it is only an illusionPosted in CoachingThoughts
  • A Saguaro’s universe  Building a cactus starts with the Big BangPosted in For Your Consideration
  • Oklahoma Skies  To all the amateurs out there, thanks!Posted in For Your Consideration
  • Fight-or-Flight  How our Pleistocene brains (mis)handle modern threatsPosted in Coaching
  • In a Shark’s Eye  Science and the experience of wonderPosted in For Your Consideration
  • The Quandry of Unpredictability  Chaos, climate and an unpredictable futurePosted in For Your Consideration
  • Why I March for SciencePosted in Thoughts
  • Waiting for Skynet  The benefits of being a machinePosted in For Your Consideration
  • Cassandra Smiling
    Science, politics and a march in the rain

    On a cold day in April, 2017 scientists gathered in Washington DC and cities around the world for the March for Science. Their message was a single powerful idea. Truth is not a political expediency. Reality cannot be ignored. In the year that has followed the vital importance of that message has only grown.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • EPA Rehash
    A suddenly partisan NASA faces its future

    When I look at NASA’s new Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, it is his fellow Oklahoman Scott Pruitt’s EPA that jumps to mind. As politically uncomfortable science is pushed aside, NASA’s history of nonpartisanship appears headed for an abrupt end. Will a strongly partisan NASA have a target on its back?

    Read Article

  • The Hermeneutics of Bunk
    Alan Sokal and postmodernism’s black eye

    Some years ago, NYU physicist Alan Sokal wondered whether anti-science postmodernists could recognize politically-correct-sounding nonsense even if he rubbed their noses in it. The unwitting subjects of the Sokal Hoax jumped at the bait.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • A Dunning-Kruger Universe
    Everyone, it seems, has a “theory”

    Some people are sure they know more than the experts, but it can take a lot of knowledge to realize just how wrong an idea is.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Our Need to Know
    We crave certainty, even when it is only an illusion

    The human brain craves the sensation of knowing like a drug addict craves the next fix. If real knowledge is uncomfortable or not at hand, we are quite content to just make something up, then convince ourselves it’s real. In a world where knowledge matters, that’s dangerous.

    Read Article

  • A Saguaro’s universe
    Building a cactus starts with the Big Bang

    The iconic saguaro cactus gives the desert an otherwordly beauty. That beauty does not exist in isolation. It embodies the fascinating and awe-inspiring processes that have shaped the universe, going all the way back to the Big Bang itself.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Oklahoma Skies
    To all the amateurs out there, thanks!

    Looking at room full of amateur astronomers, gathered for the Okie-Tex Star Party under the spectacularly dark skies of the Oklahoma Panhandle, I am reminded of my own roots and those who helped me discover the universe.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Fight-or-Flight
    How our Pleistocene brains (mis)handle modern threats

    A strong fight-or-flight reaction served our evolutionary ancestors well. If the leopard catches you, that’s it! But today a visceral response to a not-so-mortal threat seldom improves things. If you want to get a handle on those intense, counterproductive bouts of emotion, start by understanding where fight-or-flight came from in the first place.

    Read Article

  • In a Shark’s Eye
    Science and the experience of wonder

    Alone, 100 feet underwater, with a shark in its element, I am overwhelmed by a mixture of awe, beauty, joy, and intellectual wonder at the world that brings us together. In that moment, I experience just what science is all about.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • The Quandry of Unpredictability
    Chaos, climate and an unpredictable future

    Chaos is a sticky wicket for science. There are things a correct theory like climate change cannot predict, but there are a lot of things that it can. It’s important to understand which is which.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Why I March for Science

    On Earth Day, April 22, 2017, people around the nation will March for Science. It seems strange to need to march in support of the idea that pronouncements from politicians cannot change the nature of reality, or that evidence matters when making decisions. But such are the peculiar times in which we live.

    Read Article

  • Waiting for Skynet
    The benefits of being a machine

    For biological organisms, interstellar travel is hopelessly difficult, and probably pointless. For sentient machines, however, home is the environment you were built for.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

Click on thumbnail to select post:

Recent Article Mobile

  • Cassandra Smiling  Science, politics and a march in the rainPosted in For Your Consideration
  • EPA Rehash  A suddenly partisan NASA faces its futurePosted in Thoughts
  • The Hermeneutics of  Bunk  Alan Sokal and postmodernism’s black eyePosted in For Your Consideration
  • A Dunning-Kruger Universe  Everyone, it seems, has a “theory”Posted in For Your Consideration
  • Our Need to Know  We crave certainty, even when it is only an illusionPosted in CoachingThoughts
  • A Saguaro’s universe  Building a cactus starts with the Big BangPosted in For Your Consideration
  • Oklahoma Skies  To all the amateurs out there, thanks!Posted in For Your Consideration
  • Fight-or-Flight  How our Pleistocene brains (mis)handle modern threatsPosted in Coaching
  • In a Shark’s Eye  Science and the experience of wonderPosted in For Your Consideration
  • The Quandry of Unpredictability  Chaos, climate and an unpredictable futurePosted in For Your Consideration
  • Why I March for SciencePosted in Thoughts
  • Waiting for Skynet  The benefits of being a machinePosted in For Your Consideration
  • On a cold day in April, 2017 scientists gathered in Washington DC and cities around the world for the March for Science. Their message was a single powerful idea. Truth is not a political expediency. Reality cannot be ignored. In the year that has followed the vital importance of that message has only grown.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • When I look at NASA’s new Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, it is his fellow Oklahoman Scott Pruitt’s EPA that jumps to mind. As politically uncomfortable science is pushed aside, NASA’s history of nonpartisanship appears headed for an abrupt end. Will a strongly partisan NASA have a target on its back?

  • Some years ago, NYU physicist Alan Sokal wondered whether anti-science postmodernists could recognize politically-correct-sounding nonsense even if he rubbed their noses in it. The unwitting subjects of the Sokal Hoax jumped at the bait.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Some people are sure they know more than the experts, but it can take a lot of knowledge to realize just how wrong an idea is.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • The human brain craves the sensation of knowing like a drug addict craves the next fix. If real knowledge is uncomfortable or not at hand, we are quite content to just make something up, then convince ourselves it’s real. In a world where knowledge matters, that’s dangerous.

  • The iconic saguaro cactus gives the desert an otherwordly beauty. That beauty does not exist in isolation. It embodies the fascinating and awe-inspiring processes that have shaped the universe, going all the way back to the Big Bang itself.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Looking at room full of amateur astronomers, gathered for the Okie-Tex Star Party under the spectacularly dark skies of the Oklahoma Panhandle, I am reminded of my own roots and those who helped me discover the universe.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • A strong fight-or-flight reaction served our evolutionary ancestors well. If the leopard catches you, that’s it! But today a visceral response to a not-so-mortal threat seldom improves things. If you want to get a handle on those intense, counterproductive bouts of emotion, start by understanding where fight-or-flight came from in the first place.

  • Alone, 100 feet underwater, with a shark in its element, I am overwhelmed by a mixture of awe, beauty, joy, and intellectual wonder at the world that brings us together. In that moment, I experience just what science is all about.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Chaos is a sticky wicket for science. There are things a correct theory like climate change cannot predict, but there are a lot of things that it can. It’s important to understand which is which.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • On Earth Day, April 22, 2017, people around the nation will March for Science. It seems strange to need to march in support of the idea that pronouncements from politicians cannot change the nature of reality, or that evidence matters when making decisions. But such are the peculiar times in which we live.

  • For biological organisms, interstellar travel is hopelessly difficult, and probably pointless. For sentient machines, however, home is the environment you were built for.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
©Dr. Jeff Hester LLC, 5301 S. Superstition Mountain Dr., Suite 104 #171, Gold Canyon, AZ 85118