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Submitted by jdp on Sat, 08/30/2014 - 08:43 pm


I am off to a meeting today, where I will meet with an old professional friend who teaches at an Ivy League university. Also today, the first bill arrived for my daughter’s tuition at a prestigious Midwestern private university. My colleague has lots of time for travel, as he teaches, over the course of a year, about half of what those of us in state universities teach. But what struck me today was not sour grapes about teaching loads (I actually think teaching is important, and usually enjoy it—it’s the administrative BS of the state university that drives me up the wall). It was wondering how much of the outrageous sum I’m about to shell out is actually funding my daughter’s education, vs. paying professors at that university not to teach very much.

One thing I can say about my university—and many other state universities—is that while we do not have as many big-name academic superstars as some of the prestigious private schools, we do have some. And if your kid comes here, she or he has a reasonable shot of actually encountering them in the classroom. I wonder to what extent that is true in the Ivies and their peer institutions. I hope, for the sake of my daughter and my own consumer self-esteem, that my cynicism is misplaced. 


Submitted by jdp on Wed, 08/20/2014 - 02:49 pm

"In each human coupling, a thousand million sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive, meeting, siring this precise son; that exact daughter...until your mother loves a man ...and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you...(it's) like turning air to gold... a thermodynamic miracle."

Those words, from Alan Moore’s “Watchmen,” indicate that despite the common features of all members of our species, the biological laws and relationships that apply to us all, each of us is unique in some way. I am reminded on this on the occasion of the birth of my first grandchild, Caroline Harper Phillips, yesterday.


Caroline Harper Phillips, age <1 day



Submitted by jdp on Fri, 08/01/2014 - 01:09 pm


Topophilia is the affective bond between people and places, and also the title of an influential 1990 book by human geographer Yi Fu Tuan. I was thinking about this yesterday as my wife and I drove across the North Carolina coastal plain to visit relatives. Highway 70 from Raleigh east toward the coast is not a scenic drive by any objective standard. The topography is flat and monotonous, and the road corridor is infested with strip malls, billboards, convenience stores, and tourist traps.

Yet, as it does every year when I make the trek east from Kentucky, this crappy stretch of highway triggered fond associations with eastern North Carolina—topophilia, I reckon. I am a native of the region, taught for nine years at East Carolina University, and my wife’s family lives there. My post-dissertation field research sites were there, and there are some sites I still monitor during my family visits.



Submitted by jdp on Tue, 07/29/2014 - 09:21 am


A big problem with predicting responses to global climate change (or other environmental changes) is that they are nonlinear and thus disproportionate. Sometimes large changes can have relatively small responses, while in other cases small changes can have disproportionately large impacts.

Responses to environmental change are sometimes characterized by amplifiers—phenomena that reinforce or exaggerate the effects of the change. For example, if coastal land is subsiding, this amplifies the effects of sea level rise. Or, when warming results in permafrost thawing, this releases methane, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas, this leads to further warming. However, there are also filters—phenomena that resist, offset, or diminish the effects of the change. For instance, if coastal land is tectonically or isostatically uplifting, this can offset or even eliminate effects of sea level rise with respect to coastal submergence. Or, if warming results in increased cloud cover, which reflects more radiation, this counteracts the warming.


Submitted by jdp on Tue, 07/01/2014 - 06:48 am


I recently stumbled upon the OCBIL theory. In the words of Hopper (2009): “OCBIL theory aims to develop an integrated series of hypotheses explaining the evolution and ecology of, and best conservation practices for, biota on very old, climatically buffered, infertile landscapes (OCBILs). Conventional theory for ecology and evolu- tionary and conservation biology has developed primarily from data on species and communities from young, often disturbed, fertile landscapes (YODFELs), mainly in the Northern Hemisphere.” As a geomorphologist, and in particular a biogeomorphologist interested in coevolution of landscapes, biota, and soils, the OCBIL-YODFEL contrast is extremely interesting—mainly because it implies a key role for landscape age, stability, and geomorphic disturbance regimes in the development of ecosystems and evolution of biodiversity patterns.


Submitted by jdp on Mon, 06/30/2014 - 04:13 pm


One of my major research interests is the coevolution of soils, landforms, and biota. I’ve been working in this area pretty steadily since about 2000, but until 2013 I was completely unaware of some work being done along the same lines, over about the same time period. This is the work of W.H. Verboom and J.S. Pate from Western Australia, who among other things developed the “phytotarium concept.” Phytotarium defines the specific plants and microbial associates driving specific pedological changes during niche construction. This concept, and a wealth of work on biogenic origins of pedological and geomorphological features such as clay pavements, texture-contrast (duplex, as they call them in Australia) soils, and laterites, was highly relevant to my own thinking (e.g., Phillips, 2009a; 2009b), but though I consider myself familiar with the biogeomorphology and pedogenesis literature, then and now, I had somehow missed it.

Deep sandy duplex (vertical texture contrast) soils, Western Australia. Photo credit: Dept. of Agriculture & Food, Western Australia.

Sycamores and Hillslopes

Submitted by jdp on Wed, 06/04/2014 - 01:59 pm

Below are some recent photographs of sycamore trees (Platanus occidentalis) in limestone bedrock at Herrington Lake, Kentucky (about37.78o N, 84.71o W). As you can see, the tree roots and trunks exploit joints in the rock, and accelerate weathering both by physically displacing limestone slabs and widening joints by root growth, and by facilitating biochemical weathering along both live and dead roots.

Sycamores rock

These are some nice examples of root/bedrock interaction, and the general phenomena are not uncommon, though usually much more difficult to see. The Herrington Lake shores also appear to illustrate a process by which the sycamores accelerate weathering and mass movements (other trees are also involved, but Platanus occidentalis seems to be the most common and effective):

1. Plants colonize the exposed bedrock, with roots exploiting bedrock joints.

2. Tree roots accelerate weathering and loosen joint blocks.

3. While the tree is still alive, root growth envelopes rock fragments and the trees provide a physical barrier to downslope transport.


Submitted by jdp on Mon, 05/19/2014 - 11:27 am


Science fiction and popular science writer Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Riffing on that theme, I once gave a talk in which I proclaimed that "any sufficiently improbable event is distinguishable from the miraculous." Some definitions of "miracle" invoke the divine or supernatural, but I have in mind the definition (in this case from the Merriam-Webster dictionary) as: "an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment." The point of the argument is that, due to the inescapable, irreducible role of geographical and historical contingency in Earth surface systems, all such systems (landscapes, ecosystems, soils, etc.) are unique in some respects (a formal argument along these lines is presented in this article: Phillips, J.D.  2007.  The perfect landscape.  Geomorphology 84: 159-169.). Thus the probability of existence of any given state of any given system at a given point in time is infinitesimally low. This exceedingly low probability makes nearly any environment in some senses extremely outstanding and unusual, and thus a miracle.

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