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!

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

    Read Article

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Click on thumbnail to select post:

  • Great Deceiverism 101  Explanation or Theory? Therein lies the rub.Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • One Step at a Time  The  not-so-mysterious origin of lifePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • The Mind’s Siren Call  Being certain is a primrose pathPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Constrained Hallucinations  How the brain uses science to perceive the worldPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Entropy Redux  Why our universe isn’t boringPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Entropy’s Rainbow  The statistically likely path to complexityPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Cassandra Smiling  Science, politics and a march in the rainPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • 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 ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • A Dunning-Kruger Universe  Everyone, it seems, has a “theory”Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Our Need to Know  We crave certainty, even when it is only an illusionPosted in CoachingThoughtsUnreasonable Faith
  • A Saguaro’s universe  Building a cactus starts with the Big BangPosted in For Your Consideration
  • If someone can’t tell you how they would know that they are wrong, they don’t have a clue whether they are right.

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

  • Once seemingly incomprehensible, the origin of life no longer seems such a mystery. Most of what once appeared as roadblocks are turning out to be superhighways.

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

  • Being certain lights up our brains like a junkie’s next hit. Literally. Unfortunately, being certain and being right are two very, very different things.

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

  • The unique worlds we each consciously inhabit – the only worlds we will ever experience – are constrained hallucinations, products of hypothesis testing by our predictive brains.

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

  • A month’s worth of sunlight could pay the entropy bill for a billion years of biological evolution. Entropy is evolution’s best friend.

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

  • Entropy is often maligned as the enemy of order. In truth, without the inexorable march of entropy, the universe would be a very boring place.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, 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.

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.
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