Friday, September 20, 2019

Climate Change: Testimony and the Climate Strike

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Climate Change
Edward Hessler

The Global Climate Strike is happening now. Today is the first day.

MPR reported on the strike in Minnesota this morning.  Protests are being held in more than a dozen cities: Baudette, Bemidji, Center City, Duluth, Grand Marais, Moose Lake, Morris, Northfield Rochester, St. Joseph, St. Paul, Virginia, Willmar, and Winona

Two days ago climate activist Greta Thunberg presented congressional testimony. Here is EVERYTHING she said.

The message: listen to the science and act on it.

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education
Poetry
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

There is a long tradition of poetry responding to visual art (and vice versa). In 2014 Rattle, a poetry magazine, thought it would be fun to post a challenge. Poems in this category are known as Ekphrastic poetry. This is known as Ekphrastic poetry.

And you get two poems, one chosen by the artist and one chosen by the editor including their comments.

 

Thursday, September 19, 2019

How The Distribution of Global Warming Has Changed Over Time.

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Climate Change
History of Science
Nature of Science
Edward Hessler

When you assume...well when you do this you often make a big mistake. Sometimes it is a result of intellectual laziness, something I seem to have some talent for.

Case in point. I'd always assumed that the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age were world-wide even though the only pictures I have in my mind are of things such as the frozen Thames River, England, i.e., a single data point! Why check?

Sid Perkins, writing for the journal Science, comments on a new report from Nature Geoscience in which "almost 7000 sets of natural climate records," e.g., tree rings, ice cores, and others, "from 1 C.E. to 2000 C.E." (C.E. means Christian era; here 1 C. E. is 1 A.D were analyzed. In short events did not "unfold pretty much the same everywhere."
Perkins explains. "In the central and eastern Pacific Ocean, the coldest decades of the Little Ice Age fell during the 15th century. In northwestern Europe and the southeastern United States, the deepest cold occurred during the 17th century. For the rest of the world, the strongest chill didn’t occur until the mid–19th century, almost at the very end of this colder-than-normal interval.
"The researchers found the same pattern of asynchrony when they looked at lesser-known events like the Roman Warm Period, which toasted the first few centuries C.E.; the Dark Ages Cold Period, which cast a chill from 400 to 800; and the Medieval Warm Period, which defrosted Earth from around 800 to 1200. As in the Little Ice Age, the warmest and coolest decades within those intervals didn’t occur everywhere in the world at the same time."
Perkins notes two features about the current global warming: magnitude and geography (world wide.  Paleoclimatologist at the University of Minnesota, Scott St. George, who was not involved in the work, put it this way "'No matter where you go, you can't avoid the dramatic march toward warmer temperatures.'"

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Nature's Photo Selections for August 2019

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

The Nature photography team has picked their favorite science shots for August 2019.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Making Science Possible: Technicians and Others

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Nature of Science
Art and Environment
Edward Hessler

Craft & Graft is a new, well new to me, exhibition at the Francis Crick Institute in London (1 March 2019 to 30 November 2019).  I wish I had discovered it earlier. It is about the work of the technicians, engineers and other specialists who make science possible at the Crick--from fruit-fly breeders and maintainers, to glass washers, to engineers, and microscopists.

The link takes you to a short video but below this video is as good an exhibition as I know on what these people do: who some of them are, their qualifications, career paths, and work. Find out about

--how the engineering team keeps the science running;
--the Crick's specialty fly facility;
--how the Glasswash team (750,000 washes per year) keep the Crick running
--how cell services nurtures billions of cells; and
--what the microscopy team does.

Francis Crick, with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.





Monday, September 16, 2019

Shaping Dog Brains

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Brain
Biological Evolution
Edward Hessler

Dogs are different in appearance and size, sometimes surprisingly so. As is well-known this is a result of domestication and artificial selection by humans from the time they split from wolves many thousands of years ago. As an example, dogs range in size from large, the Great Dane, New Foundland, and English Mastiff to small, the Chiuahua, Bichon Frise, and Pomeranian. 

It is also well-known that dog breeds differ in temperament and behavior. There are herders (Border Collie), hunters (Springer Spaniel), companions (Japanese Chin). A recent study reported in the Journal of Neuroscience, led by Erin Hecht, a neuroscientist at Harvard University, and her colleagues "examined whether and how selective breeding by humans has altered the gross organization of the brain in dogs." The team did MRI studies of 62 male and female dogs of 33 breeds. "Notably," the authors report, "neuroanatomical variation is plainly visible across breeds." The team concluded that the "results establish that brain anatomy varies significantly in dogs, likely due to human-applied selection for behavior."

The full paper is protected by a paywall but the abstract, the significance of the study, and how the research was distributed across team members may be read.

Eva Frederick, reporting for Science, writes that "Hecht and her team identified six networks of brain regions...and that "each of the six brain networks correlated with at least one behavioral trait." According to Frederick, Hecht notes "one drawback to her study, is that all dogs examined were pet dogs, not working dogs."

At caninebrains.org you may learn more about research to "understand the minds and brains of our best friends."  It describes a linked study at Harvard University and the University of Georgia-Athens. There are several ways to participate if you are interested.

And for more information about Professor Erin Hecht, her research group and their work this will link you to the Evolutionary Neuroscience Laboratory at Harvard which she leads.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Ynes Mexica

Environmental & Science Education
Biodiversity
History of Science
Nature
Edward Hessler

Thanks to today's Google Doodle I was introduced to a scientist new to me: Mexican-American botanist and explorerYnes Mexica (May 24 1870 to July 12 1938). 

According to Bryce J. Williams, TheNewsCrunch, " The life of Ynes Mexia is a prime example of how it’s never too late to find one’s calling,” wrote Latino Natural History. Her full name was Ynes Enriquetta Julietta Mexica. Mexíca didn’t even start collecting specimens until she was in her 50s, and she didn’t live very long after that point."

Mexica started college when she was 51 (University of California-Berkeley). Upon graduation she started an ambitious collecting career-- ~ 150,000 specimens, ~ 500 of which were new to botany. Harmeet Kaur, writing for CNN, notes that "The Sierra Club Bulletin credits her with discovering two genera, or groups of species."

Today, September 15, is the first day of National Hispanic Heritage Month.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

On the Power of a Movement

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Climate Change
Edward Hessler

Greta Thunberg is sixteen years old. Each time I hear her speak about climate change I find her articulate, clear, thoughtful, and knowledgable. She has critics, some nasty, who disagree that she is any of these. Others that she is merely a child. Others that she doesn't express their preferred policy prescriptions. So what?! She is serious and asking us to take seriously climate change which her generation will feel in ways we can only imagine.

PBS News Hour's William Brangham interviewed Thunberg September 14, 2019. Consider this as you listen to their conversation: "Although more Americans than ever are worried about climate change, less than 40 percent expect to make “major sacrifices” to tackle the problem."

Friday, September 13, 2019

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education
Poetry
Art and Education
Edward Hessler

Today's poem is by Emily Dickinson

[You'll know her - by her foot -] aka #634 is about a common bird, that "quintessential early bird," as the Cornell eebsite notes, the American Robin. .

Nautilus recently published # 634 in an article about the poem by Adam Kosan. There you will find a discussion and a video of a conversation between Elisa New, a professor of literature at Harvard, and Scott Edwards, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard.

Art meeting science; science meeting art.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Dinosaur Fossils: Minerals or Surface Features?

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Earth Science
Geology
Paleontology
Society
Edward Hessler

Jeremy P. Jacobs reported in E&E News, via Science, July 10 2019 on a lawsuit involving fossils, an angle I'd never considered.

Later this year the Montana Supreme Court will take up a case to decide whether dinosaur fossils are minerals. You may wonder how this became a legal question.

It has to do with rights, surface and mineral. If you own the land you own what is on its surface. Mineral rights, on the other hand, can be sold and managed separately. A property owner may own a piece of land but not necessarily rights to what's underground known as minerals whether they are gas, liquid or solids.

The case centers around a famous find, the so-called "Dueling Dinosaurs." One was a meat-eater; the other a plant eater. They appear to have been in combat and died together.  Few people have been allowed to see the fossils since their recovery. They have been offered on sale.

Land deals are deeply involved in this lawsuit. Renters purchased the surface rights but not the mineral rights. Soon after the surface owners found the two fossils and the owners of the mineral rights claimed the fossils. This led to a lawsuit and courts have made two decisions. A lower court sided with surface-rights owners while a higher court sided with the minderal-rights owner.  On top of this, the Montana State Legislature "enacted a law...that states 'fossils are not minerals and that fossils belong to the surface estate,'" but "the law...does not apply to existing disputes. 

So, why is this important? According to the report,if fossils are declared minerals "it would make searching for fossils extremely complicated, said David Polly, a former president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, based in Bethesda, Maryland, paleontologists would need to navigate both surface ownership--to get to the dig location of a parcel. Often, mineral rights are hard to find and frequently change hands between hands between large corporations. More alarmingly, he said, it could raise questions about the ownership of fossils currently in museums."

The original article which I recommend you read, traces the court cases and the details of the decisions. Jacobs includes a few sentences from the circuit court opinion deciding in favor of he mineral rights owners, part of "a colorful opinion", as he puts it. I think you will agree.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Anthropocene Now?!

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Earth Science
Earth Systems
Geology
Society
Sustainability

You may have seen reports that the 34-member Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) voted "to designate a new geological epoch," the Anthropocene (29 members supported the designation). 

The Anthropocene designation has been discussed by both professionals and non-scientists for at least a decade. It would mark the time when earth system change is being shaped by human activity.

A formal proposal will be submitted for the designation of this new slice of geological time to the International Commission on Stratigraphy in 2021. If adopted it would mark the end of the Holocene epoch. See here for a chart of the geological time scale and names.

In a short report in Nature,  Meera Subramanian, discusses the boundary issue, "a definitive geologic marker or 'golden spike,'" essentially an indelible.  Under consideration are "the radionuclides that came from atomic bomb detonations from 1945 until the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1965."  Ten candidate sites are under consideration, from which one will be chosen that provide evidence, both sufficient and compelling enough, to withstand scientific scrutiny.

Those dissenting from voting for designation, call attention to "the progressive impacts of humans on the world, starting with agriculture in prehistoric times," i.e., "multiple beginnings rather than a single moment of origin."

Jonathnan Lambert and Rebecca Ellis reporting on NPR's Goats and Soda note that three Canadian artists--photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Penciier--"inspired by this ongoing discussion of the debate over this new geological era...traveled to 22 countries to research and document 'places of obvious, physical human incursions on the landscape,' says filmmaker de Pencier."

This resulted in more than 50 images and a film (to be released this fall). Several of these images may be seen in Lambert's and Ellis's report.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

A School Science Project: Canada

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Science Fairs
Nature of Science
Edward Hessler

The CBC posted an article recently about a young Calgary student, Nora Keegan, who has pursued a question--on the use of electric hand driers and hurting ears, since she was 9 years old.

Now at the advanced age of 13, she has a paper (single author) in Paediatics & Child Health, Canada's top peer-reviewed pediatric journal which includes new information on an air/sound filter she has developed. 

How did she get interested? "In grade 4, I kind of noticed that my ears hurt after the hand dryer." Ditto grade 5 so then she began investigating it. 
Keegan tested 44 different dryers in Calgary in locations where kids might use them (or have no choice). Quite a few exceeded the noise level allowed for children's toys. She was very smart about this for she made measurements where children would likely stand, NOT adults. Keegan has also invented a prototype air diverters for kid-sized users.

One of the things I like about the CBC article is that it describes how the study began, evolved and eventually resulted in a scientific paper in a peer-reviewed journal. It is another example of the nature of science and engineering, too.

I think it a lovely piece of work.

Monday, September 9, 2019

A Blue Spot on a Warming Earth

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Climate Change
Earth Systems
Earth Science
Edward Hessler

The North Atlantic Current (NAC, also known as the North Atlantic Drift) is one of the great currents in the circulation of the global oceans. It extends the Gulf Stream (aka the thermohaline circulation) northeastward toward Europe. 

The future of the NAC has been the subject of considerable concern since serves as a conveyor belt in distributing the ocean's waters, heat and nutrients. According to Stefan Rahmstorf (University of Potsdam) the NAC "keeps Northern Europe several degrees warmer than it would otherwise be at this latitude."

A Yale Climate Connections video reviews the concerns. Climatologist Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University notes that a "stubborn blue spot of cool ocean temperatures stands out like the proverbial sore thumb in a recent NASA image of the warming world--a circle of cool blue on a planet increasingly shaded in hot red."

Is this blue spot "an indication that the NAC ...is slowing down?" 
The current is driven by a salt water pump. How it works is explained by Jorgan Peder Steffenson of the University of Copenhagen. "As the Greenland ice sheet melts large volumes of fresh water enter the North Atlantic and freshen the very salty sea water slowing the 'pump'."

Ominously, Mann states,“We are 50 to a hundred years ahead of schedule with the slowdown of this ocean circulation pattern, relative to the models.”

Saturday, September 7, 2019

UFOs: Getting The Science Right

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Nature of Science
Edward Hessler

In her reporting on science for Bloomberg ViewFaye Flam covers a lot of territory, e.g., the archeology of Apollo landings, medicine, nature of the universe, big data. She is known for doing it very well.

In a recent report on the reporting of UFO's Flam used the column to talk about the nature of science.

First, what about the reports of Navy pilots moving faster than our physics allows.  She cites James Oberg who was a former NASA engineer and is now a space journalist. "'The bizarre events exported by Navy pilots are not 'observations'; they are interpretations of what the raw observations might mean." (emphasis added). There is a difference between an observation and an interpretation.

Second, is one very familiar to evolutionary biologists where any gap say in the fossil record or a biochemical process or...(you get the idea) that science has no current explanation or evidence for, means the cause is obvious: supernatural. Flam reminds us that "theologians sometimes use the term 'god of the gaps' to describe the erroneous of supernatural explanations for natural phenomena that aren't yet explained." 

The next step after a UFO observation is to equate it with extraterrestrial life, the filling in of a knowledge/evidence gap. If a ship is seen, the ships must have pilots. 
Flam points out that many UFO observations have been explained scientifically. Others remain open. Len Feingold, now retired (Drexel University), worked on some of these cases and Flam asked him "whether the lack of explanations for some cases worried him. There are plenty of unexplained phenomena left in physics, 'so we're used to that.'"

Flam closes with some advice about such mysteries and others in science. These "may or may not be solved, but in the meantime, let's get comfortable with the gaps."

Friday, September 6, 2019

Thursday, September 5, 2019

From Togo To Greenland

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Society
Culture
Edward Hessler

The BBC has a remarkable series called Witness History: The Stories of Our Times Told by the People Who Were There

I don't look for it purposely but should. This gift from that series appeared on my screen today. Some information about the film (~4m 25s) follows.

Tété-Michel Kpomassie, grew up in West Africa but he was obsessed with the Arctic.
When he was 16 years old he ran away from his village in Togo determined to reach Greenland.
It took him eight years but in 1965, he finally arrived. He then went north to fulfil his dream of living among the indigenous people.
Years later, he wrote an award-winning account of his odyssey, An African in Greenland, which has been translated into eight languages.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Mongolia and Climate Change

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Sustainability
Climate Change
Pollution
Society
Edward Hessler

NPR produced a program on the effects of climate change on a nation: Mongolia. NPR introduces their report in the these words.

"Meet a changing Mongolia. Rivers are dry. Pastureland is giving way to mines. And wintertime smog obscures the famed blue sky. Hod did the country get here? It's a story of internal migration and economic transformation in an era of climate change."

The story of changes is told in stunning photographs, video, maps, graphs/data and text. It is viewed by scrolling. Losing The Eternal Blue Sky "is part of an NPR series which reports foreign reporting in undercovered parts of the world."

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Forests: A Natural Ally Against Global Climate Change + Response

Environmental & Science Education
STEM
Climate Change
Sustainability
Edward Hessler

In addition to wood products, the world's forests provide many benefits, e.g., aesthetic, recreation,  maintaining and enhancing biological diversity, improving water quality, and reducing erosion.

A research report in the journal Science notes "that adding nearly 1 billion additional hectares (~24,710,538,114 acres) of forest could remove two-thirds of the roughly 300 gigatons (~330,693,393,277 tons) of carbon have added to the atmosphere since the 1800s." These numbers are almost without meaning to those of us who don't use them routinely but I hope they help you understand scale for a part of the cure for global warming.

The research was stimulated by the most recent report from the United Nations's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which recommended "adding 1 billion hectares of forests to help limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C by 2050." A recommendation is one thing; room on the planet is another.  So ecologists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich decided "to figure out whether today's Earth could support that many trees, and where they might all go." The good news is that there is room.

The authors also addressed another issue: cost. It is $300 billion based on an estimate of $0.30 per tree. That cost comes with the benefits listed above.

There is sure to be disagreement about the analysis but this paper is a reference point for future research. In the general summary from Science, Laura Duncanson, a carbon storage researcher at the University of Maryland not involved in the original research, notes that just how much carbon future forests could store is not known but NASA instruments already in space can be used to "add much-needed precision to existing estimates of above ground carbon storage."

Science's Alex Fox provides a short summary of the scientific paper for general readers which includes as a masthead, a map of where the world could support these new forested areas. The scientific paper is behind a membership and pay wall, but you can read the abstract and read the names of the authors. 

So I waited for an informed response.

It was not too long that over at RealClimate, "a commentary site on climate science by working climate scientists for the interested public and journalists," Stefan Rahmstorf (Potsdam University) raises a number of technical considerations, fact checking, and as importantly, provides context for several of the points made in the report.  Rahmstorf also includes links to several popular articles that resulted from the publication. This is his conclusion:

"The massive planting of trees worldwide is therefore a project that we should tackle quickly. We should not do that with monocultures but carefully, close to nature and sustainably, in order to reap various additional benefits of forests on local climate, biodiversity, water cycle and even as a food source. But we must not fall for illusions about how many billions of tons of COthis will take out of the atmosphere. And certainly not for the illusion that this will buy us time before abandoning fossil fuel use. On the contrary, we need a rapid end to fossil energy use precisely because we want to preserve the world’s existing forests."

Rahmstorf's commentary prompted a response from Claude Garcia, one of the co-authors of the original report (Scroll to response #33). Garcia makes this point: "What you are describing are likely story arcs (high probability scenarios) – and we agree with all the points you are making. What we outlined with our paper is the extreme limit of what a story arc involving forest restoration can look like – an almost zero probability of occurrence. We measured a potential – and we all know a potential never gets to be fully realized. Beyond that, there no way through."

In response Rahmstorf notes the usefulness of estimating a potential but the "main point here is that the claim by your first author – as quoted by National Geographic – that “reforestation can buy us time to cut our carbon emissions” is the wrong conclusion. We need to cut our carbon emissions right now, and giving politicians the message that in the light of your study we now have more time is dangerous. It was tweeted enthusiastically here in Germany by those that resist emissions reductions."

Finally, I want to add that a forest is more than trees. Monocultures of trees are not a forest. The forests to be saved and restored must be as close to natural as possible.