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The ICE-D x OCTOPUS collabo

January 7, 2019

The point of this blog post is to highlight that cosmogenic-nuclide geochemists will not be outdone by Nigerian rappers. A little late — Vogue has just declared that fashion/hip-hop collaborations denoted by “x” are completely 2018 — but not bad for a field whose conceptualization of success and promotion is still defined by the pre-industrial concept of literature citations. Sadly, online mash-ups are not peer-reviewed (which is probably a good thing, based on the results of the interactive review process linked below) and have zero h-factor impact.

Seriously, this is a follow-up to a blog posting and an interactive paper review on the subject of the “OCTOPUS” database of cosmogenic-nuclide basin-scale erosion rate measurements. In these, I expressed, at length, bafflement as to why the existing “OCTOPUS” website did not allow direct, anonymous, granular access to the data in the database, instead providing data via an asynchronous and inconvenient email download scheme. I argued that not only was this very strange — why not just serve the raw data via the website — but also damaging to the overall credibility of the project, because it made it unnecessarily difficult for the casual user to examine the source data used for erosion rate calculations. I even quoted Ronald Reagan (who was quoting a Russian proverb at the time) to the effect that the project would not be credible unless researchers interested in using these data for synoptic erosion rate analyses could “trust, but verify.” Of course, it’s easy to quote Ronald Reagan — in fact, it’s terrifyingly easy to worship Reagan in the present American political environment — but not as easy to fix the problem. So here is the ICE-D x OCTOPUS collabo, which is an effort to fix the problem.

The effort to fix the problem is a mash-up of the ICE-D and OCTOPUS databases at

What it is is a text-based, non-graphical, browser interface to the OCTOPUS cosmogenic-nuclide databases, that makes it possible to (i) examine the source data recorded for each sample in that database, and (ii) recalculate erosion rates from these source data using other calculation methods.

Technically, what is happening is that this web server is interrogating the WFS server that serves the OCTOPUS data as if it were GIS software, but then is parsing the resulting XML feed and displaying the data directly in human-readable form instead of showing it in map form or using it for geographic analysis. You could do the same thing with some scripting and a local copy of ArcGIS or QGIS configured to talk to the WFS server, but this web server provides a simple browse interface. So (as long as the OCTOPUS providers continue to let me do this), this solves the problem of providing casual, anonymous, granular examination of the source data. It makes it easy to, for example, quickly check the OCTOPUS database to make sure that data from a particular paper are accurately recorded. Of course, it is not clear that authors of published erosion-rate studies have the same relationship to the OCTOPUS compilers as the US and Russian strategic nuclear forces had to each other in 1987, but the idea of “trust, but verify” is still not a bad thing. So now you can do this.

The second thing that this project enables is the ability to use the source data in the OCTOPUS database to compute basin-scale erosion rates with a different calculation framework than the one (CAIRN) used to compute the apparent erosion rates that are stored in the OCTOPUS database. The present ICE-D x OCTOPUS implementation, for example, recalculates apparent erosion rates via a highly simplified method that uses a single-point approximation of each basin and the version 3 online erosion rate calculator. It is not clear whether this method is more or less accurate than CAIRN — each involves different simplifications and approximations — but the comparison is useful in evaluating how sensitive an erosion rate estimate is to the choice of scaling method, production rate calibration data, and numerical calculation scheme. If one were to find that erosion rates are correlated with some landscape metric using one erosion-rate calculation method, but not with another, it would be time to figure out why. The current implementation doesn’t include bulk download of OCTOPUS data in v3 input form — at the moment it happens at the individual sample level — but it’s potentially feasible in future. If this is a problem, take heart from Reagan and “never let the things you can’t do stop you from doing what you can.”

Reagan also said that “if you’re explaining, you’re losing.” So that’s it for the explanation. Thanks to the OCTOPUS developers for not blocking the WFS feed to this server, and remember that “there is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you don’t care who gets the credit*.”



* Yup, Ronald Reagan again. If only we could go back.


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