Cainozoic history of southern New Zealand: An accord between geological observations and plate-tectonic predictions

11999605_975651442499789_7475492872909350438_o “Cainozoic” is a somewhat archaic word for Cenozic. But the paper in question is from 1976, so it is allowed to be somewhat behind the times. It is, as you’ll immeadiately recognise, Robert Carter’s most cited paper, with 154 citations according to Web of Science, or 193 according to Google scholar, but that is often a touch unchoosy about who it associates with. That’s a shade under 4 citations per year since published. My best paper for citations is Recent Rapid Regional Climate Warming on the Antarctic Peninsula at 644, but I’m not lead author. My best as lead is An Antarctic assessment of IPCC AR4 coupled models with 63 citations since 2007, or somewhat over 6 per year. Really highly cited papers – for example MBH ’98 – get nearly 2000 cites.

You take the point I hope: there’s nothing obviously distinguished about Robert Carter, viewed from his publication record. Note to those who are not and have never been in the game: yes, measuring success by citation count isn’t perfect, but there’s nothing better so everyone does it.

[Update: James Annan also wonders.

Another way to measure people is to read their obituaries and tribute posts. WUWT had an eulogy; for example. But notice what isn’t there: any mention of his scientific contributions or ideas. Heartland has pages and pages of people saying how great he was. JoNova, same. Not one of them mentions any original contribution to science. What they love him for is clear enough: his denialism. But that’s all they want him for; that comes across very clearly.

If you look at his scientific contributions, it is clear that his work on climate was negligible. What hope he has of an academic record rests on his geologic-type contributions. Which are precisely the ones those slavering over his corpse have no interest in. Particularly telling is the 2015 Winner of the Lifetime Achievement in Climate Science Award that Heartland gave him. Read it; weep; it is empty.

Let’s read the abstract from his most highly cited paper:

Sea-floor spreading data from the Southwest Pacific have recently been used to predict the Cainozoic geological history along the Indo-Australian/Pacific plate boundary. Geologic and sedimentologic data pertaining to this plate boundary where it crosses southern New Zealand, as the Alpine Fault, are summarised and discussed. It is concluded that there is a close accord between the plate-tectonic predictions and South Island Cainozoic geological history. In particular, (1) no Cainozoic plate boundary traversed the New Zealand region prior to 38 m.y. B.P. (late Eocene); (2) transcurrent movement on the Alpine Fault took place largely between ca. 30 m.y. B.P. (middle Oligocene) and ca. 10 m.y. B.P. (late Miocene); and (3) the period 10 m.y. B.P. to present corresponds to a phase of oblique compression, continental collision, and mountain building along the Alpine Fault sector of the plate boundary. There is a close correlation between the sites and histories of Cainozoic sedimentation and this tectonic timetable.

There you go. Just by reading that, you and I have shown more interest in Carter’s actual work than all the “skeptics” put together. It still gets cited; I think it has attained the status of “the paper you cite if you’re talking about that bit”; but I’m guessing; it is geology, after all.

This brings me to the last few ways of measuring someone’s contribution: by the influence of their work on the field; and by actually reading their work to see how good it is. As to influence, I’m too remote from geology to say; on climate science he had no influence at all. As to reading his work, no-one in the grand kerfuffle around his death is doing him the honour of even trying to read his stuff.

Minor: Carter’s wiki article used to say ” 2005 – Outstanding Research Career Award, Geological Society of New Zealand”. I’ve removed that because I can find no source for it that isn’t a mirror of Carter’s own puff pieces.

19 thoughts on “Cainozoic history of southern New Zealand: An accord between geological observations and plate-tectonic predictions”

  1. Thanks for this post. You’re exactly right.

    I sometimes wonder if people like Bob Carter go through their entire career, doing solid but largely unrecognized work (especially from the media), but then when they write an op-ed for their local paper people come out of the woodwork to cite and applaud them. And it grows from there, so that lots of people care about what he writes about climate science, however wrong, and nothing about his geology. The attention has to be very flattering and encouraging. (This is probably also true for some people on the yes side of the AGW ledger.)


  2. In issue #138 (Nov. 2005) of the Newsletter of the Geological Society of New Zealand, in an article about the 50th Anniversary Conference (held in 2005), you can read:

    Lionel Carter, aided by Jarg Pettinga, spoke on “Uncovering the face of the eastern New Zealand margin – a view from the sea”. They described major work done by three innovative marine geologists over the last 50 years – Henry Pantin, Bob Carter, and Keith Lewis – who were afterwards given tokens of the Society´s appreciation of their work.”

    A few issues later (#141 – Nov. 2006) we find this:

    As is now traditional, the society’s major awards were presented at the conference dinner. In 2005 these were:
    McKay Hammer: awarded to Chris Hollis for papers on the environmental changes in the SW Pacific associated with the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary catastrophe.
    Hochstetter Lecturer: The winner of this award, Bruce Hayward presented his lecture on
    “Deciphering New Zealand’s geological and environmental history using foraminifera” at all the main (and most minor) centres in July and August this year. His support lecture, “The last global extinction in the deep sea, during the mid-Pleistocene climate transition” was given at University centres.
    Kingma Award: awarded to Steve Wilcox for years of selflessly operating complex electronic equipment in extremely hostile conditions at sea.
    Wellman Research Award: to Katherine Holt to support research on soils and terrestrial climate change in the Chatham Islands.
    Hastie Scholarships: Katy Ward (Auckland), Jeremy Titjens (Waikato), Leila Chrysall (Massey), Hunnu Seebeck (Victoria), Rose Turnbull (Canterbury), Emilie Guegan (Otago)
    Wellman Prize: Jane Hill (Whangarei) for discovery of a fossil turtle of the genus Cheloniidae.

    The student awards for conference presentations, made at the closing ceremony, were:
    Oral papers: Best paper: Ruth Wightman (Victoria), Merit Awards: Rachael Crimp (Massey),
    Samual Marx (Queensland), Cathy Joannes (Nice, France).
    Poster papers: Best paper: Jeremy Cole-Baker (Waikato), Merit Awards: Tariq Rahiman (Canterbury), Tracy Bear (Waikato).

    Special Society Awards: On behalf of the Society, Jarg Pettinga and Lionel Carter made special presentations to Henry Pantin, Bob Carter and Keith Lewis in recognition of their individual contributions to understanding of east coast geology over their long careers. Henry Pantin’s first paper on the Hikurangi Margin was published in 1957 and his most recent in 2003.

    Other Awards
    In June, Bruce Hayward (our Hochstetter lecturer for the year) was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in the 2006 Queen’s Birthday Honour’s List. The award was a popular acknowledgement of Bruce’s services to Earth Sciences and Conservation”

    Those are the only two mentions of Carter with regards to awards that I could find in the GSNZ’s Newsletter in 2004 – 2006; and both refer to the same “Special Society Award.”


  3. I’m in overall agreement here though I don’t want to talk about Carter (de mortuis nihil nisi bonum), but you piqued my curiosity about the “Outstanding Research Career Award”. The GSNZ does not have a major award in that name, nor one under another name that fits that particular description. Bob Carter *was* selected as the Hochstetter Lecturer in 1975 but that’s not the same thing at all.

    However the GSNZ’s March 2006 newsletter has a report of the society’s 50th anniversary meeting in 2005 in which is stated:

    “Lionel Carter, aided by Jarg Pettinga, spoke on “Uncovering the face of the eastern New Zealand margin – a view from the sea”. They described major work done by three innovative marine geologists over the last 50 years – Henry Pantin, Bob Carter, and Keith Lewis – who were afterwards given tokens of the Society´s appreciation of their work.”

    So perhaps a presentation of a career recognition plaque or certificate and a round of applause and drinks later?

    [Thanks to you to, and for that link. I think that explains why there is no ref to “Outstanding Research Career Award” except in RC’s bios, but I can also understand how he might have “translated” what he did get -W]


  4. And so we are unsurprised to find out that as a stratigrapher Carter was merely marginal. 😉 Seriously, while it does seem he was a legitimate stratigrapher, where does he actually rank in the field? I’m guessing pretty far down the totem pole (yes, yes, wrong margin entirely), but it would be nice to hear from someone familiar enough with the field to know. That he engaged in resume puffery is unsurprising, but by itself not evidence of anything beyond an ego problem.


  5. OT: William, you will of course have already seen the deets regarding the yuuuuge AI breakthrough relating to go. Nothing actually amazing about that other than how quickly it happened and (for non-aficionados) the vanity-inducing fact that go really did turn out to be the key AI benchmark we always knew it would be. 😉 But I was very interested to see the claim that climate modeling may be a major application (yes, obvs, but still). Hmm, said I, do I know anyone who’s a go player, climate modeler (albeit inactive re both of those), a programmer and a science blogger who might be able to say something informative on the subject? My thoughts turn weaselward.

    [I’ve played Go against Demis Hassabis, I’ll have you know. Years ago. As to climate modelling, that seems an unlikely application of this stuff; GCMs are heavily optimised and deterministic, almost the opposite of (my image of) a neural network -W]


  6. Steve – I’m not expecting the home version anytime soon …per Wired:

    “…or the match against Fan Hui, the researchers used a larger network of computers that spanned about 170 GPU cards and 1,200 standard processors, or CPUs.”


  7. Right, Kevin, but note that not all that many years elapsed (~15?) between Deep Blue and the availability of world-beating chess programs that can run on single-processor PCs. Hopefully the same will be true for go.

    As it stands I have to advise the players in my little club to avoid playing even the best go programs too much lest they be trained to replicate the programs’ errors.


  8. Bob Carter reminds me a bit of my impression of George W Bush – he would have been a happy and successful assistant manager of the sports and recreation department in a medium sized town. I wouldn’t give Bush the manager position – too much responsibility – but I think his enthusiasm and nickname-giving would’ve motivated kids and his field staff. He’d also inspire locals with his personal record of moderate amount of amateur achievements in various sports.

    Too bad it didn’t work out like that, or that Bob Carter hadn’t stuck to moderate levels of real achievement.


  9. WC writes: “…GCMs are heavily optimised and deterministic, almost the opposite of (my image of) a neural network.”

    I think that’s the point – this is a totally different way of looking at the problem. Using the machine-learning approach, I assume the AI would have to teach itself meteorology, determine which metrics it finds important, what the general rules are for weather, then — with reams of historical data to peruse — begin making weather predictions.

    It can be trained on historical data using pattern matching of highs, lows, temperatures, pressures, winds, etc., it will begin building ‘rules’ for weather. The physics should be ‘discovered’ – without ever having to explicitly lay down physical formulas.

    With Go the AI eventually had to play itself to learn new strategies, but with weather it always has a ‘new’ game to analyze and learn from — i.e., yesterday’s prediction, or last week’s prediction, or last months’s prediction of *today’s* weather.

    Hell, you could even use a GCM as one of its ‘opponents’ where the game is predicting next week’s (month’s) weather.


  10. That’s more or less what I thought, Kevin, although wouldn’t that imply a major computational resource issue? OTOH, I suppose Google has the money to mitigate that should they choose to. Hard to tell if the reference to climate modeling was casual or serious.


  11. Steve – “…Google has the money…”

    No doubt they have the money, do they have the interest, the will, and would it really be a helpful project? I’m not sure it would as a practical matter. It might be as a theoretical AI challenge, but the tangible impacts might be rather minimal.

    We already know from a scientific POV what the likely trajectories and boundaries are for future warming. How many years (decades?) would it take the AI to surpass current systems? And current systems aren’t static; they’s also be improving during that time.

    So tomorrow we read: HEADLINE – Google ‘solves’ climate sensitivity problem: 3.141 °C is the answer

    Does that suddenly give us the collective will to do what we already knew we needed to do? “All I know is that my happiness is built on the misery of others, so that I eat because others go hungry, that I am clothed when other people go almost naked through the frozen cities in winter; and that fact poisons me, disturbs my serenity, makes me write propaganda when I would rather play…

    Others will still go hungry, almost naked, disturbing our serenity. We change slowly, at times change doesn’t even seem detectable. Science isn’t the only thing that advances one funeral at a time. Cultural mores seem to advance one generation’s worth of funerals at a time.

    I think Google’s AI working on weather/climate would be an interesting project, but I don’t think it would spur any great change.

    [I don’t think climate modelling – as currently done by AOGCMs – is an AI problem. At least, running the models isn’t. Writing the code might be. A more likely AI input would be some kind of verify-this-code-against-these-equations type thing; or even “given these equations, autogenerate some code to run”. It always somewhat amazed me that human being did the error prone task of turning equations into code, and getting edge cases wrong -W]


  12. Yes, exactly, the AI could be a self-improving model, noting that for go it doesn’t have a joseki dictionary incorporated (IOW that information is derived from first principles, game reviews and playing itself). But for climate modeling purposes that seems to me to imply many more resources than just running one. In principle I suppose that for weather models it wouldn’t take much of an improvement to make even a very large investment pay off (not that monetiizng it would be straightforward). But if Google is interested in proving its social value so as to minimize future government interference, I can’t think of a better way.

    Re sensitivity, I can think of dozens of more interesting and useful problems the AI might help resolve, or perhaps it’s better to say that it’s the solutions to the problems the AI would have to solve on the way to deriving sensitivity that will be of greatest value. Ice sheet modeling e.g. could use a lot of help, as could the related problem of transitioning to a mid-Pliocene-like climate. Would the AI be less likely to miss unanticipated consequences like the recent freshening around south Greenland? As it’s looking at the whole system all the time (h/t Go Seigen), perhaps.


  13. The problem with AI systems and climate is the lack of detailed training data – we basically have one instance with a few decades worth of detailed data. We need lots for machine learning to work.

    You could use GCM output, but the end result would not add and new information.

    Weather might work better, given the amount of data available for training. Even if the results are no more accurate, they may be obtained much faster, since running a trained NN is pretty fast. All the effort goes into training.

    (Oh, and the lignin-coal thing.. Did people seriously believe that?)


    1. Is there even a few decades worth of data? We don’t have much data on deep ocean heating or changes in currents. We don’t have much aerosol data at all, which one really needs as a function of longitude and latitude (and perhaps altitude) because those determine how well they reflect sunlight. These are the same reasons why we can’t calculate climate sensitivity from the existing historical data.


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