In the News – Week of January 1st, 2017

A new year, a new set of nature and science news pieces for the week…

Black-tailed Prairie Dog - Cynomys ludovicianus

A “varmint”, a Black-tailed Prairie Dog. I have on several occasions run into “sportsmen” in South Dakota who are lined up at the edge of a prairie dog town, picking them off one by one with rifles. Killing for the sake of killing…and doing twice the intended harm, given the lead that’s ingested by predators when they eat the carcasses.

Ammunition choice in shooting “varmints” — There have been many occasions on my birding trips to the central part of the state where I come across a sight that makes me sick to my stomach.  I’ll drive past a prairie dog town, and see multiple hunters lined up along a fence line, crouched and in a shooting position, picking off prairie dogs for “fun”.  That’s it…there’s no other purpose to it, other than killing for the sake of killing.  The prairie dogs that are killed aren’t used for anything, they’re simply left to rot.  Unfortunately, “sportsmen” who feel this sick need to kill for the sake of killing end up doing even more harm to animal communities.  By leaving the dead bodies, it provides an avenue for predators to consume the dead prairie dogs, and ingest the lead in the ammunition that was used to kill them.  Lead poisoning is a major cause of mortality for many raptor species, and is THE leading cause of California Condor mortality. A simple solution, as this article points out, would be to use ammunition that’s free of lead.  Even that common-sense approach though, one that still allows redneck hunters to kill prairie dogs and other “varmints”, is hated by hunting groups, as they claim that lead alternatives in ammunition don’t perform as well as lead shot and bullets.  Given what I have come across over the years on all my birding excursions, I’ve had a major downturn overall in my attitudes towards hunting…and particularly…hunters.  Stories like this don’t help my perceptions of hunters.

Cheetah numbers down to 7,100 worldwide — Over the last century, cheetah numbers worldwide have dropped from 100,000, to only 7,100 today.  Think about that…in a world with nearly 7 billion human beings, for an iconic, well-known predator such as the cheetah, there are only several thousand left. As with most species’ declines, habitat loss is behind the cheetah’s loss in population.  They range over huge territories, and there simply aren’t “huge territories” available in most parts of their range any more.  Throw in targeted persecution, such as the shooting of cheetahs by poachers and farmers, and this story estimates cheetahs could be extinct in the wild in 20-40 years.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle

Is this the face of Earth’s largest animal migrations? This is a Goldenrod Soldier Beetle from here in South Dakota, and I admit I have no idea if these “migrate” as with some beetles mentioned in this story. By sheer mass, however, this story points out that insect migration likely dwarfs any other migration on the planet.

Biggest migration of land animals on the planet — When you think of what creature may make up the largest migration of any land animal on the planet, in terms of sheer mass, what species do you think of? Or group of species?  When you say “migration”, most people probably think of birds first, and there certainly are mass migrations of birds that are so heavy that weather radar is being increasingly used as a tool to study those migrations. In terms of sheer mass, perhaps some people think of large caribou migrations.  However, as this study notes, one overlooked migration likely has all of these beat…insect migration.  This study notes that around 3.5 trillion arthropods migrate over southern Great Britain each year, accounting approximately 8 times the mass of bird migrations in the same area.  Some winged insects are well-known for their migratory talents, such as the Monarch Butterfly in North America.  But as this study notes, there all sorts of winged and even non-winged creatures that migrate through the atmosphere.

What the heck is a “species” anyway? — People are funny.  We have this intrinsic need to categorize things, put them in neat little bins that help our minds process realty.  Birders sometimes take that to an extreme, with “life lists” that are often incredibly detailed, with “big day” lists (how many species you see in one day), “big years”, “state lists that detail bird species seen within the confines of state boundaries, and more.  What gets bird listers in a tizzy?  Just what IS a species!  The American Ornithological Union and American Birding Association are always making tweaks to their “official” lists of species that have been found in North America.  Just watch birders heads collectively explode if the AOU or ABA does decide to split Red Crossbills into up to six distinct species…life lists will be substantially increased!!  Even with the science of DNA-based splits, it’s still not a precise science in determining what’s a unique species.  As with many things, we’re categorizing things into unique thematic categories, when the phenomena you’re measuring is actually a continuous variable with no definite boundaries.

One, maybe two new comets moving through — Speaking of birders and their lists, I have a friend at work who is a birder, and someone who has a life list.  He also has another, more unusual life list posted on his bulletin board in his office…his “comet life list”!  He’s about to get one, and maybe two new ones for his list.  Comet C/2106 U1 was recently discovered by the “NEOWISE” project, and is potentially visible with binoculars right now, through about January 14th. It would appear in the southeastern sky just before sunrise.  An object called 2016 WF9 was also discovered by NEOWISE, and it will come close to Earth’s orbit in late February.  It’s estimated to be 0.5 to 1.0 km in diameter.  Note the designation “object”, because it’s not clear whether this object is an asteroid or comet (related to the previous story, in that the categorization of what’s a “comet” and what’s an “asteroid” can be fuzzy).

Bird Dropping Moth - Caterpillar - Ponometia

A caterpillar of Ponometia…the “Bird Dropping Moth”. Should a new species of “shit moth” be discovered, I would suggest it be named after Trump, in the same manner that several creatures have been named after Obama in recent years.

Nine creatures named for President Obama — Over the last few years, no less than 9 different creatures have had scientific names that honor Barack Obama.  Multiple fish, a lizard, bird, etc…all have scientific names such as “Nystalus obamai” (A Western Striated Puffbird, in this case). Once Trump leaves office in 4 years (or in a perfect world, once he’s impeached after a year or so), I wonder what creatures will be named after him?  I have many, many classes of creatures where new discoveries should consider his name. There are the Onychophora phylum of worms known for excreting slime. There are the Annelidas…leaches…which would be a wonder creature to name after him.  There’s a moth called Ponometia, and it’s associated caterpillar, that would be good.  Their common name is the “Bug-dropping Moth”.  Naming him after shit would be a perfect way to “honor” him once he leaves office.

Where you’re most likely to get struck by lightning — We had a very unusual Christmas day in South Dakota.  I believe it was 4 years ago when we were absolutely smothered in snow, getting close to 2 feet on Christmas.  We’ve had Christmas’s where the temperature never got above zero.  And then there was this Christmas where we had…a thunderstorm?  In late December? In South Dakota?  We set a record for most rainfall on Christmas Day, getting over an inch in most areas, and the lightning and thunder was the first time that’s ever occurred here on Christmas (or late December for that matter).  I could go into global warming here, but no, the point is the story in the above link.  Standing outside on Christmas Day in South Dakota normally isn’t a high-risk endeavor, in terms of being struck by lightning.  So where are the most active areas on earth for lightning?  Thanks to a satellite called the Tropical Rainfall Monitoring Mission, we now know.  The winner…a Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela.  Over each one square kilometer in the area, one could expect over 230 lightning strikes per year.  The lake is surrounded by mountains, and nearly every night, cool airflow from the mountains hits the warm waters and air above the lake and produces thunderstorms.

Western Meadowlark - Sturna neglecta

A Western Meadowlark, taken with a temp of -10° near Presho, South Dakota, in the winter of 2003-2004. I have a billion Meadowlark photos, but specifically remember this one because it was so rare to SEE one in the heart of winter. Now? They’re everywhere.

Bird migration changing with climate — As I noted in a previous post, I went birding to the central part of the state last week, and was amazed at how many Western Meadowlarks were around.  15 years ago, it was rare to spot one in winter in that part of the state.  Now…I saw hundreds, all across the region.  Global warming? It’s hard to ignore signs like that.  As this story describes, many birds are changing their migration patterns as the climate changes. Many are arriving on the summer breeding grounds much earlier than they used to.  There are also some species where migrations have become shorter, or perhaps such as the case of the Western Meadowlarks, where they’ve simply stopped moving south for the winter.

China bans ivory trade and purchase — A rare bit of good conservation news.  This last week, China announced that they will ban the sale and trade of ivory by the end of 2017. China was by far the largest market for legally sold ivory, with ivory selling for over $1,000 a kilogram.  The Great Elephant Census recently published noted that elephant populations world-wide plummeted by 30% in just the last 7 years (!!!!!), and incredible population decline for such a short time period.  With the shutting of the largest legal ivory market, it’s hoped that poaching pressures will decline.  However, it’s hard to guess what will happen with ivory trade, and if much of this will simply move to the black market.

In The News – Week of December 11th

Science, nature, environment, and related news from the week of December 11th…

U.S. Department of Energy

Not a great time for DOE officials (or other government agencies dealing with climate change). First they’re asked to turn over the names of all employees who work on climate change issues, and then they are given a new department head in Rick Perry who once stated the department should be eliminated.

Department of Energy says Fuck You to Trump — In a rather chilling story from last week, it was revealed that the Trump transition team sent a questionnaire to Department of Energy officials, asking them to provide a list of all Federal employees or contractors who attended United Nation’s meetings on climate change, or had attended meetings or worked on studies that relate to the social and economic costs of climate change mitigation.  This week, the Department of Energy refused to comply, stating “Our career workforce, including our contractors and employees at our labs, comprise the backbone of DOE (Department of Energy) and the important work our department does to benefit the American people. We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department.” We have an Exxon Mobil exec slated for Secretary of State.  We have Rick Perry slated for head of DOE, an agency he once vowed to eradicate.  We have a proposed head of EPA that is an avowed climate change denier.  We have a proposed head of Department of Interior that also is a climate change denier.  And with this DOE request, we have evidence that the Trump administration will actively discriminate against climate science in the Federal government, and those who do climate change work.  There’s plenty of evidence of the new administration’s inability to live in the same facts-based world as the rest of us, but the position being firmed up on climate change is especially frightening.

Rex Tillerson, Exxon CEO, proposed for Secretary of State — And in an obviously related story, Trump formally announced his intention to nominate Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, as Secretary of State.  An oil executive, with no government experience, picked to play the key role in international relations.  What could go wrong? This New York Times piece notes that Exxon has an immense stake in our diplomatic relationship with Russia, with literally billions of dollars at stake should economic sanctions against Russia be lifted or revised.  As noted from the previous story, from an environmental standpoint, the entire suite of proposed administration officials is a complete disaster for the environmental, including stated desires to move away from clean energy towards the old days of oil, gas, and coal.  Nothing exemplifies the forthcoming disaster more than the Tillerson pick.

Dinosaur Tail in Amber

A portion of a feathered dinosaur tail, found perfectly preserved in amber. Bits of feathers have been found in amber before, but what makes this find extraordinary is the presence of 8 complete vertebrate and perfectly preserved connection structures, enabling scientists to state beyond any doubt that the tail comes from a sparrow-sized dinosaur.

Human beings hard-wired to believe blowhards — Recent research has shown that people base their belief system on personal experience, but also place a heavy emphasis on the beliefs of “confident” people that they come into contact with.  As the story notes, people’s beliefs can be swayed by those displaying confidence in their own beliefs and opinions, even in the face of contradictory evidence.  In a world where “fake news” arguably became the biggest meme of 2016, clearly this study is on the mark.  Nowadays, it’s not what you say or whether it’s true, it’s how you say it.

Feathered dinosaur tail found preserved in amber — OK, enough of the depressing news from the week.  Scientists in China have made an incredible find, with a beautifully feathered tail from a pint-sized dinosaur found perfectly preserved in amber.  The tail section is small, less than 2 inches long, but contains 8 perfectly preserved vertebrate.  Based on the vertebrate and other structures in the tail, scientists can definitively attribute the tail section as a portion of a small dinosaur the size of a sparrow. The find has also been a boon for trying to understand the evolution of feathers themselves, as there are characteristics of the feathers that are very different from those in modern birds.

“Winds of sapphires and rubies” found on exoplanet — The story itself is very interesting.  For the first time, scientists have been able to find evidence of active weather systems on a planet outside of our solar system.  Gas giant “HAT-P-7b” (a catch name) was found to have extremely strong wind patterns, an effect that was observable due to shifting patterns of monitored light from the planet. Interesting story, but the headline that was chosen reinforces a major pet peeve of mine…trying to sensationalize science. No, the winds of the planet are filled with sapphires and rubies, as the title suggest.  The atmosphere is likely made of corundum, a mineral that is found in sapphires and rubies.  I understand the desire to capture the attention of a reader, particularly given that people generally have the attention span of your typical 2-year old.  But it’s enough that the mainstream media constantly sensationalizes stories (or focuses on sensationalist material).  We don’t need that kind of mindset in the sciences.

Icefields Parkway - Alberta, Canada

Athabaska Glacier and the Columbia Icefields, in Alberta, Canada. We were there this summer, and in the 15 years from our last visit, the glacier has obviously receded quite a bit. Scientists this week “confirmed” such events are due to climate change. Duh…

Climate changes causes melting glaciers — Scientists looked at 37 glaciers and for all but 1 of them, stated that there’s at least a 90% chance that their decline was due to climate change.  Well, duh.  I need to write this kind of paper, something that restates the obvious but is sure to gather a lot of acclaim and attention.

Reindeer declining due to climate change, human activity — An extremely well-studied group of Reindeer in Russia have suffered dramatic declines of 40% in the last 15 years.Part of the problem is industrial activity within their range, which has led to changes in the migration patterns, but another issue is undoubtedly climate change.  Warming temperatures can drastically alter the environment, but can also have other unforeseen impacts. As shown in another study on caribou in North America, warming temperatures have changed the phenology (seasonality) of Arctic regions.  Melting occurs much earlier in the spring, and open water exists for much longer periods of time compared to several decades ago.  Mosquito populations have boomed as a result, to such an extent that they are having a very detrimental impact on reindeer and caribou populations. Thank goodness though we have a new incoming administration that will categorically state that climate change isn’t real and isn’t affecting anything.  That should solve the problem.

Loligo_vulgaris

“Loligo vulgaris”, a European squid that is become much more common in waters of the North Sea. The “vulgaris” part sounds about right to me, because although I enjoy calamari, the idea of replacing tasty cod in fish-and-chips with this just seems a bit “vulgar” to me.

Do you want squid with those chips? — Alright, THIS is too much. Melting glaciers?  Whatever.  Reindeer and caribou disappearing?  Meh.  But when climate change starts to impact one of my favorite meals, fish-and-chips, THEN something has to be done!!  In the 1980s, squid were caught in 20% of surveys in the North Sea around Great Britain.  Now, squid are caught in 60% of surveys and numbers continue to increase.  As waters warm, not only are squid being found more often, but warmer water fish such as anchovies and sardines, are increasing.  The center of productivity of a fish-and-chips stable fish…cod…has continued to move north.  As the climate warms and squid become more common, you might have to replace that tasty breaded cod with some squid in your next “fish”-and-chips order.

Distracted while talking — What the hell, I’ll bring up another pet peeve of mine…cell phones and cars. I do wonder just how many accidents are directly related to distracted drivers, given how often you come across drivers weaving all over the road, people driving 15 mph below the speed limit and not even realizing it because they’re on the phone, people who sit there when the light turns green, etc.  As this new study points out, it’s not the fact that you’re using your hands that makes distracted driving such as this dangerous. Just conversing with hands-free equipment greatly reduces a driver’s perception and awareness of their surroundings.

AC/DC Logo

I can multitask! Air guitar while listening to Back in Black is perfectly compatible with simultaneously playing a board game.

Looking to put men in their place this Christmas?  Try some AC/DC!!! — We had family up for Thanksgiving, and one of the most enjoyable aspects was playing UNO and other games for much of the day.  Playing board or card games is something that many do over the holidays, and this study found a way for women to potentially dominate their male counterparts this Christmas.  Men were much more likely to make mistakes in playing board games while listening to music than were females.  The study noted that classical music had little effect on men, but playing something like AC/DC significantly decreased their performance. Interesting study, but I must take offense at the phrase of men being “forced to listen to AC/DC”. No one “forces” you to listen to AC/DC!  If I want play Sorry or Life or Clue or UNO this Christmas, well damn it, I also reserve the right to jam out to “Hells Bells” or “Back In Black” or “Thunderstruck” while I play!  Hmmm…maybe they’re onto something with this story…it is hard to play board games and do justice with my air guitar at the same time…

In The News – Week of November 27th

Yeah, it’s been several days. Holidays, general malaise, busy at work, yada yada yada.  There have been a number of very interesting science/nature/life stories that have come out in recent days however.

Homer, Alaska area

People have a tendency to ignore an issue, until it affects them personally. If you live in a coastal area, or in a place like Alaska (this is near Homer) where the effects of climate change are already having a big impact, then politics-be-damned, people tend to be “believers”. In no case is that more obvious than when someone’s financial interests are threatened, as in the New York Times piece about coastal real estate.

Climate Change, Coastal Real Estate, and Politics — We’ve got a new administration transitioning in who seems hell-bent on ignoring reality, ignoring science.  As a scientist who studies linkages between the landscape and climate change, of course it’s the climate change denial that is the most disgusting to me.  This is a great piece from the New York Times that focuses on the intersection of climate change, coastal real estate, and rising sea levels. People are funny…they tend not to care about an issue until it affects them personally (for another example, see Obamacare and the need for health insurance).  On the climate change side, there’s no doubt that those in coastal zones, those with a vested financial interest in coastal real estate, are taking the issue of climate change seriously. The story certainly highlights the folly of those that do try to wish away climate change or delay long-term action in favor of short-term financial gain.

Melting begetting more melting — Staying with the climate change thread, a story about feedbacks in the climate system in the Arctic, with warming temperatures causing land and water surface changes that reinforce additional warming.  This fall has certainly been an incredible and unprecedented in Arctic, with sea ice levels actually declining during a period the winter freeze is typically in full force. Temperatures have been incredibly high, in some cases nearly 40 degrees above average, with temperatures even staying near or at the freezing point at the North Pole itself.  A “standard” prediction that you see is that the Arctic is likely to be ice-free in summer by 2050, but many scientists are moving that prediction up to a far earlier date.  Part of the problem is that once melting begins, it feeds back on itself.  You’re removing bright white snow and ice, and exposing more open water and older, darker sea ice, which absorbs much more solar radiation and reinforces the warming. Throw in additional feedback loops such as the impacts of melting permafrost and resultant methane releases in to the atmosphere, and it’s a runaway train that’s going to be impossible to stop.

White-throated Sparrow

Having trouble finding your one true love? It could be worse? At least you can potentially couple with 50% of your species. For a bird like this, a “white-striped” variant of the White-throated Sparrow, only 25% of your species’ population is of any interest to you…specifically, you need a tan-striped variant of the opposite sex.

Male? Female? This sparrow has 4 different sexes — When I took up birding and photography back in 2000, it didn’t take me very long to become familiar with the birds that are found in South Dakota.  A (healthy?) obsession in a topic really facilitates some fast learning!  However, there were some species I struggled with initially, particularly those that could have multiple different plumage patterns.  White-throated Sparrows fall into that camp, with some birds having brilliantly white stripes on their heads, and others having tan stripes.  Researchers have found that the plumage patterns go well beyond just appearance, with the two color morphs displaying very different behavior and reproductive traits. Just as X and Y chromosomes drive male and female sex distinctions, they found that White-throated Sparrows have developed another pair of “sex chromosomes”.  In a “normal” reproductive system, an individual can mate with 50% of its species (males and females mating); White-throated Sparrows can only mate with 25% of other individuals of its species.  For example, if you’re a male “white-striped” color variant of the White-throated Sparrow, you will only mate with a female “tan-striped” color variant…one-fourth of the entire species population (assuming white- and tan-color morphs are equally common).  A fascinating read about evolution and the unexpected paths that it sometimes takes.

San Francisco sinking — Ah, the wonders of satellite observation. From a scientific standpoint, there are so many possibilities in what phenomena can be observed, and what scientists can do with that information.  This story focuses on the Copernicus Sentinel-1 satellites, and the use of multiple space-based radar observations to assess changes in surface height.  The 58-story Millennium Tower in San Francisco, for example, has been found to be sinking 40 millimeters (about 1 1/2 inches) every year. The “Millennium” Tower would thus theoretically be ~125 feet lower than where it is right now in a millennium, if sinking continued and the tower could survive!   Land surface subsidence due to ground water pumping, changes in forest canopies due to cutting, elevation shifts after major earthquakes…all fascinating observations that can also be made with similar satellite observations.

Rub Al Khali

Imagine if this environment were…lush! Crocodiles! Hippos! Lakes with fish, and thriving cities! That’s what you would have found in the Sahara 6,000 years ago. Disclosure…this is actually the Rub’ al Khali desert on the border of Saudi Arabia and the UAE! Never have been to the Sahara, have been here and have photos!

Lush environment of the Sahara — Scientists have long known that the region of the Sahara Desert in Africa used to be much wetter.  Archaeological finds have detailed thriving civilizations in the heart of the Sahara, and bones found in the region showed that hippos, fish, and crocodiles were once quite common.  5,000 to 6,000 years ago, a mere blink of the eye in geologic time, the Sahara was a much wetter environment, and scientists aren’t exactly sure what climate mechanism caused the shift to the extremely dry climates that are found there today.  The tropical “rain belt” that provides moisture to many equatorial regions was shifted much further north during that time, but the reasons are unclear.

Life on…Pluto!?!?? — Scientists pretty much all agree that it’s only a matter of time before we find life on another planet.  We’ve already detected many intriguing hints that life was likely once found on Mars (or even could be found there today).  Over the last 10 years though, the list of planets and moons with potential life has risen dramatically, not only with our first confirmation of potentially suitable planets being identified outside of our own solar system, but even within our own solar system.  Pluto would have been about dead last on the list of potential candidates, before the 2015 flyby of the New Horizons spacecraft.  It’s incredibly cold and distant from the sun, and was thought to be a barren, cold world.  Instead, New Horizons provided strong evidence of a massive subsurface “ocean” on Pluto.  As this story notes, that ocean is likely an incredibly harsh environment, still cold and packed with ammonia.  However, as we’ve found on earth, life can thrive in the most inhospitable environments, and any environment with water and organic compounds such as ammonia is a potential breeding ground for life.

Enceladus

Enceladus, an icy moon of Saturn that just may harbor life. Beneath the cracked, icy crust of the small moon lies a liquid water ocean, thanks to the gravity and strong tidal forces exerted by Saturn. Spacecraft observations found geysers spouting water into the thin atmosphere, providing further proof of the subsurface ocean that just might be a place to look for life.

Six most likely places to find life in the Solar System — Related to the Pluto story…where else in the solar system might we find life?  This piece highlights six potential candidates.  Enceladus is a small moon of Saturn where the Cassini spacecraft detected geysers spouting ice and water into the atmosphere from cracks in the moon’s surface.  Strong tidal forces from Saturn likely keep a subsurface ocean liquid, and where’s there’s liquid water, life is a possibility.  Titan, another moon of Saturn, is extremely cold, but has liquid lakes of methane and ethane on its surface, organic compounds that could harbor life.  Europa, a moon of Jupiter, likely has much more water in subsurface oceans than the earth has in its oceans.  That water lies below a 10-mile thick crust of ice, but with the discovery of “black smokers” on earth, it’s been shown that light and photosynthesis isn’t necessarily needed as an ingredient for life.  A subsurface ocean with similar heat sources could easily support life.  Mars, and even the atmosphere of Venus, are also discussed as potential reservoirs of life in the solar system.

Einstein wrong? — Einstein’s theory of relativity depends on the assumption of the speed of light being a constant, no matter the situation.  Scientists are now assessing the possibility that the speed of light may not be a constant, that it was once much higher in the early universe.  Such a finding would cause major upheaval in the world of physics. Science never ceases to surprise, and this story is a great example of why we need to keep challenging even our most cherished and “known” scientific beliefs.

Gatlinburg fires the “new normal” — The tragic fires in and around Gatlinburg were something of a surprise, given that massive, destructive fires just aren’t all that common in the southeastern U.S.  That may be changing, thanks to climate change, drought, and increased climate variability.  The southeastern U.S. is a pretty moist location, but major droughts can occur there.  Climate change may be increasing extreme events, including drought, and may make larger fires a much more common occurrence in the southeast.  Note the story also has a number of quotes from Mark Svoboda, a friend of mine who now leads the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Four new element names on the periodic table! — We’ve known about elements 113, 115, 117, and 118, but as newly discovered elements over the last few years, they hadn’t been assigned new names. The new names are  nihonium (Nh), moscovium (Mc), tennessine (Ts) and oganesson (Og).  Don’t expect to find a chunk of “Moscovium” or any of the others while out taking a hike.  All were discovered through the use of particle accelerators, and all are extremely unstable, decaying to more basic elements within a miniscule fraction of a second after they are created.

 

In The News – Week of November 13th

A return to normality, at least as much normality as I can summon up in a post-apocalyptic, Orange-Hitler-as-President kind of world.  Some news stories of interest from over the past week:

Deer Mouse

A Deer Mouse…cute little suckers, but not when they try to enter your home! New research reveals they have the same genes that control speech in humans, so perhaps when one tries to get into the house, he’s just looking for a little camaraderie and conversation.

Other animals have genes for speech — I, of course, love birds.  I love attracting birds to my yard, with a small feeder complex outside of our sun room, and trees and bushes to attract birds.  Unfortunately, the feeders also attract other critters.  Some…Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels…are cute and I don’t mind.  Others…Deer Mice…are not wanted guests, particularly if they try to occasionally get into your home!  We’ve taken measures to get rid of them, but after reading this study, perhaps I overlooked one method…a simple conversation!  According to this research, many mammal species have been found to have the same kind of genes that regulate speech in humans.  This includes mice, the focus of this study.  Next time a wayward Deer Mouse decides he wants to investigate our house, perhaps a stern discussion will be all that’s needed to convince him to head back outside where he belongs.

Scientists react to election — From Nature, a summary of opinions from a number of scientists on what Trump’s election means for science in the U.S.  Some pretty high-minded statements about what Trump should consider as the government science agenda likely becomes realigned.  To the ten or so scientists offering their opinions and advice?  You’re giving the Trump administration FAR too much credit if you think there’s this much thought that’s going to be placed into their science agenda.  Look for far simpler motives (corporate profit, political motivations) than what these experts have outlined.

2016 set to break climate records — 2015 was the hottest year on record.  2016 is almost certainly going to break that record.  Perhaps this is why climate change doesn’t get anywhere close to the amount of attention it should be getting?  Is it pure boredom?  The same old same old story?  Indeed, at this stage you can take the title of this paragraph, leave the “2016” blank, and just fill in the current year from her on out, and there’s a good chance you’ll be correct.  Despite the lack of “novelty” in stories like this, perhaps the media should focus on how frighteningly commonplace such headlines have now become and what that means for our future.

Beer Pong

Science, used to explain the sanitary filth that occurs when playing beer pong.

Beer Pong Bacteria — I wasn’t ever a huge drinker in college. Perhaps I was just being smart.  In what has to rank as one of the most “fun” science experiments ever, scientists studied what happens from a sanitary standpoint when people play beer pong. It’s not pretty!  As you can imagine, if you bounce a ping-pong ball on a table, it hits the floor on occasion, it’s bouncing from cup to cup after people have been drinking from them…the biodiversity that starts to build up in the cups gets to be a little disgusting.  Perhaps that morning-after feeling isn’t all just from the alcohol…

Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya all in one bite — Our vacation in 2015 was to the U.S. Virgin Islands. We’d never been in the Caribbean, and had a lovely cottage that we rented, with our own private beach and ocean access.  It was wonderful, and we really enjoyed the privacy, the snorkeling, and the beautiful weather.  One thing that was NOT enjoyed…the mosquitoes.  OH MY GOD, the mosquitoes.  Upon arriving, the Virgin Islands were in a very bad drought, to the point they were shipping in fresh water.  We were told that because of the drought, mosquito populations were very low.  Somebody forgot to tell the mosquitoes that!  I’ve never had so many mosquito bites in my life. In one way we were fortunate…”Chikungunya” disease had swept through the Caribbean the previous year, a new mosquito-borne virus that infected a very high percent of inhabitants across the region. It had largely burned itself out by our vacation, and despite the dozens of bites, none of us were ill.  As this story notes, scientists have now found that mosquitoes in North America have the ability to carry THREE tropical viruses…Zika, Dengue Fever, and Chikungunya.  For you lucky folks in the southern U.S., central America, or the Caribbean, you could strike the lottery and get sick from all three illnesses, all from a single mosquito bite.

The Onion

Facebook and Google are joining forces to reduce the influence of “fake” news online. I just hope they implement the new rules judiciously, and recognize the brilliant satire of The Onion! We NEED this kind of humor right now!

Facebook and Google cutting revenue to “fake” news sites — For anyone on Facebook, it can be rather annoying to see sensationalist “news” stories, often which include propaganda and other material that is anything BUT “news”.  During the campaign and after the election, stories were coming out that revealed a shockingly high proportion of the American Public relies on social media as their primary news source.  Given the preponderance of fake news (aka, “bullshit”) on Facebook, this week both Google and Facebook have cracked down on fake news sites, greatly reducing advertising revenue to sites that attempt to titillate or serve as click-bait for fake news.  Fake news didn’t decide the election (no, I’ll blame an ignorant, hateful electorate), but this is a nice move on the part of both Facebook and Google.  Both entities have such a massive influence over the distribution of information…it’s good to see them recognize the harm that can come from misleading information.

Skim Scum Stops Sickness — Is it possible we are just TOO focused on cleanliness, and that it is making us sick? Our skin is home to a bacteria-filled mini-ecosystem, one that we simply do not understand very well.  This research highlights the beneficial role one kind of bacteria plays in protecting the skin from diseases such as psoriasis, dermatitis, or even skin cancer.  With allergies and other select other diseases exploding over the last several decades, scientists are finding several similar situations, where our very cleanliness and focus on sanitation may have a negative impact on immune response and the progression of disease.

Eastern Fox Squirrel

Cute? Cuddly? How about EVIL SLAYER OF HUMANITY!?!?! Scientists have unexpectedly found that squirrels in Great Britain are serving as a host population for the same strains of leprosy that devastated Europe in the Middle Ages.

Gun Control Laws Work, Says Science — Americans seem hell-bent on ignoring fact and logic, despite the best efforts of scientists and other “truth-based” occupations.  While I’m sure this will be ignored by the vast majority of gun-loving, weapon-toting Americans, here’s yet another study that shows how incredibly effective gun control laws are at preventing violent crime. Americans, this is now your cue to 1) start screaming about the 2nd amendment, 2) start screaming at the people behind this study as liberal nincompoop, and 3) go out and purchase more guns and ammo for your in-home arsenal.

Leper Squirrels Invading Great Britain!! — There’s nothing to immediately panic about, my British friends.  Not yet, anyway.  But alas…those cute, cuddly Red Squirrels running around your yard could very well be infected with the same leprosy bacteria that caused such misery for humans in past centuries.  Leprosy dramatically declined in Europe after the Middle Ages, and is almost completely absent in today’s world.  However, scientists unexpectedly found that two different strains of leprosy bacteria have been found in Red Squirrels, strains that are remarkably similar to centuries-old versions that caused disease in humans.  Scientists are now working to understand how the bacteria has survived for so long in another host, and whether squirrels or other mammals may serve as a reservoir of the bacteria that could someday re-emerge and start infecting human beings again.

 

In The News – Week of October 30th

Common Swift - Apus apus

A Common Swift as normally seen…in flight. Photo by Stefan Berndtsson.

No posts since last week’s “In the News”.  There’s a good reason…I’m being cured of my internet news addiction!!  With the election coming up, I’m sick to my stomach thinking a man like Donald Trump is a heartbeat away from the most powerful position on the planet.  No news is good news, right?  Hence my attempts over the past week to kick the internet news habit!  With that…some more science/nature/miscellaneous news for the week:

Common Swifts airborne for 10 months — Common Swifts seem to be in a league of their own in terms of length of time staying aloft.  Scientists recently attached tiny trackers to 13 Common Swifts, a Eurasian species similar in appearance to some of the North American swifts.  In sum, the 13 swifts were airborne for ~99% of their time outside of the breeding season.  A few would land briefly during the winter months, but 3 of the birds didn’t land at all for 10 months straight.

Frankenspinach — Who thinks of things like this? Scientists have used a solution containing carbon nanotubes,and applied it to the leaves of growing spinach plants.  The spinach plants absorb the carbon nanotubes, and when the plants are in the presence of soil containing trace elements associated with landmines and other explosives, the nanotubes emit a fluorescent signal that can be picked up by nearby sensors, alerting monitoring stations of danger.

There’s gotta be life out there — One constant about the earth’s ecosystems is that if there’s just the tiniest bit of suitability to support life, life is found there.  Single-cell organisms can be found in the most hostile of environments, while even more complex life is continually found in new and surprising places. In this recent study, scientists looked at glacial landscapes that had been covered with ice for many thousands of years, but had the landscape recently uncovered as glaciers melt in response to climate change.  These incredibly hostile environments are largely devoid of life when glaciated, but the scientists found that very complex biomes are established very quickly after the ice retreats.  “Life finds a way” (Jurassic Park quote, I believe), which makes it pretty much a slam dunk that it’s not just Earth where life has established itself in hostile environments.  It’s yet another example of why many scientists expect we will find evidence of alien life in the next few decades.

"Classy" sticker

I’ve always thought these kinds of stickers on cars were tacky and crass. In reality, perhaps they are just a graphical depiction of our future of pee-powered cars!

Poop-powered cars — “Hydrothermal liquefaction” may be coming to a sewage treatment plant near you, turning human waste into a viable fuel source. The process converts human waste into a product very similar to oil products pumped out of the ground, a product that similarly can be refined into fuel.  People produce 34 billion gallons of waste every day in the U.S., enough to make 30 million barrels of oil per year. You yourself have the capability to produce a few gallons of fuel per year!  Thus, those classy folks who have stickers on their car showing a little boy peeing on a brand name they don’t like?  The producers of those stickers may have been prescient, and it’s really a symbol of a boy “fueling” his car!!

Ozone hole will still be around for decades — The ozone hole over the south pole grew achieved a maximum area of about 9 million square miles this year.  That still very, very large, but a touch smaller than the average over the last few decades.  It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that scientists even knew there was an ozone hole, which developed due to ozone-depleting chemicals used by humanity.  The ban on those chemicals has set us on the path to restoring normal atmospheric conditions, but as this story notes, it’s going to be a slow process. They estimate things won’t return to “normal” until about 2070.

Roller-coaster therapy for kidney stones — Passing a kidney stone can be some of the worst pain a human being can experience, with some stating it’s even worse than child-birth.  Options are sometimes limited for taking care of kidney stones, but researchers at Michigan State may have a new solution…roller coasters!  The researchers noted several patients of theirs had recently visited theme parks, and had passed kidney stones soon after riding roller coasters.  It’s thought the combination of the vibration and motion helps the body to move a kidney stone through the system.

We’re screwed — Count me as a major cynic about our feeble attempts to limit carbon emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change. As this story notes, the United Nations agrees, finding that our current efforts to curb carbon are woefully, painfully, ridiculously short of what’s needed to actually mitigate negative impacts of climate change.  Given that Americans in particular seem to prefer sticking their heads in the sand, rather than face scientifically verified reality, it’s not a surprise. We’re just too short-sighted as a species, focused on our own short-term welfare (aka, greed and selfishness), to do a good job planning for long-term catastrophe like this.

Avocado

The world’s most perfect food, but alas, it seemingly has a big environmental cost.

Everything has a cost — Damn. I LOVE avocados.  They may just be the world’s perfect food.  I of course use them in the traditional ways, but guacamole or just plain avocado is SO good on so many other “non-traditional” foods.  But alas, as with most things in life, there is a cost.  As this story notes, avocados are having a much more severe impact in Mexico than once thought, with deforestation and increased water use affecting ecosystems in many areas.  With an explosion in demand for avocados, the story is quite similar to the story of almonds in California, notorious water-suckers that demand a huge amount of resources to produce.  “Niche” products like avocados or almonds clearly can have devastating environmental impacts, just as do some major staple crops.

 

 

 

In the News – Week of October 23rd

Snowball

This snowball brought to you by the effects of climate change?

A collection of bird, science, photography, and news links from the past week.  Not many bird stories this week, but some good science stories.  Click on the links for the actual stories.

“Global Warming” causing cold winters — James Inhofe, jackass senator from Oklahoma (pardon my value judgement, but the man IS indeed a jackass from the standpoint of any scientist), famously strolled onto the Senate Floor a few years ago and presented a snowball.  PROOF, he said, that global warming was a hoax! A sham! A deception, set up by evil scientists like myself!!  How can global warming be real, if snow was falling in the DC area?  Sigh. In the last decade, the term”climate change” has been used much more frequently than “global warming”, and with good reason.  Yes, temperatures are warming overall, but the impacts also impact precipitation patterns, storm severity, and atmospheric flows, meaning “warming” is just one component of climate change.  As this story point out, severe warming in the Arctic is affecting the position of the jet stream, making it more likely that “wavy” jet stream patterns will occur in winter.  As a result, winters become more variable, with cold snaps become more common as a wavy jet stream brings colder air down from the Arctic. Sorry Senator Inhofe!  That snowball you used as a prop may have been an example of the effects of climate change!!

Heading to California for a long nap — I’ve only been fortunate enough to come across bats on a  handful of occasions.  If we take a walk in the late evening, just after sunset, we’ve occasionally seen individual bats flying about. Growing up, I remember seeing them flying around streetlights at night, scooping up the insects that the lights attract. The most memorable encounter?  Moving the portable air conditioner out of my wife’s grandmother’s kitchen window in the fall…only to have a live bat plop down on the kitchen counter. We interrupted his daytime roost!! Cool creatures, that I wish I’d had more chances to see. This is a neat story about Hoary Bats, one of the bigger species in North America.  Some bats will hibernate, some will migrate when weather gets cold, but the Hoary Bat is unique in that it first migrates to California, and then settles in for hibernation.  When I read stories like this, it always makes you realize how very little we know about the world around us…

Lesser Meadow Katydid - Conocephalus

Coming soon to a dinner plate near you? No thanks!

Edible Bugs — Can they replace beef?  NO. THEY CANNOT. I have nothing further to say on the matter.

Yo Dude…Surf’s Up!! — From the realm of “pure” science that doesn’t seem to have any practical application, some research on Mute Swans, with a finding that they will sometimes “windsurf” as they move on the surface of the water.  This researcher on 3 occasions observed Mute Swans sitting on the surface of the water, then opening their wings to catch the wind and “windsurf” across the water’s surface.  The REAL story here for me, from the perspective of a scientist?  That this dude was able to get an actual journal publication about this!  Publish-or-perish, the  mantra for many scientists, and this dude was able to publish something based on what he saw during his lunch hour!  Bravo…

And you think your life sucks? — I believe I’ve seen this before, in a David Attenborough-narrated nature documentary.  The Pearlfish is a species of fish often found in sandy shallows where there’s not a lot of protective cover.  It’s solution to not getting eaten? 1) Find a Sea Cucumber 2) Enter it’s anus and crawl inside.  Lovely!  Something to think about the next time you think your life sucks…it could always be worse.

Unseen moons may be circling Uranus — My son would have some crude jokes to say about this story…

Donald Trump

Brain activity declines as lying becomes more frequent? Why am I showing a picture of Donald Trump next to this story? Must be coincidence…

Brain reacts less as lies become more frequent — Scientific proof of why this election cycle has been so god-awful!  Fact checkers have certainly been kept busy over the last several months.  As this story notes, your brain gets conditioned to frequent lying, where it reacts less as lie after lie pile up.  Less brain activity with more lying…that certainly explains Donald Trump!!  He’s been at it so long during this campaign that you can hardly blame him for his many slip-ups.

ET Phoning Earth — I hate the mainstream media at times. I understand the competitive nature of journalists and the desire to be the one to break a big story.  From an economic perspective, I get the focus on the trivial by places like CNN, as unfortunately, they’re much more likely to get a lot of “clicks” on a story about Kim Kardashian’s latest hair-do than they are to get clicks on some boring science story.  But what I REALLY HATE is how everything is sensationalized, how a story always has to be “sexed up” to make it more controversial and eye-catching.  Hence this story, with the provocative headline of “Strange messages coming from the stars are probably aliens“.  The scientists involved here also deserve some of the blame, as it’s incredibly, ridiculously premature to assign these “strange messages” to an alien source, but it’s the story in the Independent that really plays that aspect of the work.  Interesting work, but I’ll need a hell of a lot more proof of the source of this signals before donning my tinfoil hat.  There are just far, far too many things we don’t know about the universe to unequivocally associate the unknown to some alien source.

Carolina Parakeet - Drawing

Carolina Parakeets were once occasionally found here in South Dakota, so why not parrots in Siberia? This is one of the first bird drawing I did when I started several years ago.

Parrot fossil from…Siberia?  — A parrot fossil dating from around 16 million years ago was unearthed near Lake Baikal in Siberia.  This marks the furthest north a fossil from a parrot-like species has been found.  It was warmer in the Milocene when this bird was living in the region, but not as tropical as the climate where most parrot species are found.  It’s not exactly unprecedented though. In North America, our own Carolina Parakeet was found over a good chunk of the eastern United States, and there are even reports that it had occasionally been found up here in South Dakota.

Got the sniffles? Go milk a Tasmanian Devil — I believe this is sound medical advice, based on this story!  Researchers have found that the milk from a Tasmanian Devil contains peptides that are able to kill hard-to-kill “superbugs”, bacteria that are becoming immune to our most commonly used antibiotics.  I envision a world where everybody keeps their own small herd of Tasmanian Devils, faithfully milking them every morning and use Devil Milk on their morning cereal to keep sickness at bay.

Two-thirds of Earth’s wildlife gone in last 40 years — Well this is a depressing story.  A study by the World Wildlife Fund has found that almost 60% of vertebrate populations have disappeared from the wild since 1970. Numbers a dire across all ecosystems, but are particularly bad for freshwater ecosystems, with over 80% population declines.  Good. Lord.  It’s not exactly surprising, particularly the fresh-water habitat finding.  I’m a fisherman, and have been since I was a boy.  We rarely bother going fishing in eastern South Dakota any more.  The rivers are E.Coli-filled cess pools of ag runoff and animal waste, and every year more and more lakes in the region are being assigned as mercury threats, with fishermen warned to either not eat the fish or to severely limit how much is consumed.  And yet there are groups out there that want to ABOLISH the Environmental Protection Agency…something that even our Republican presidential candidate has promised to do.  It sickens me to think what we’re leaving behind for our children…

Luke Perry AARP eligible —  I’m of an age where I definitely remember 90210 and Melrose Place.  I wasn’t a big fan and didn’t watch, but my wife did, as did many other people I knew back then. Well, evidently being “of an age” where I remember 90210 means I AM FREAKING OLD!! The reason this story caught my attention? Luke Perry from 90210 turned 50 and became AARP eligible…as have I recently.  Sigh.  With that, I’ll sign off from another week’s worth of news.  Now where are my damned glasses? And cane.  And prescriptions…sigh….

 

 

In the News – October 9 – 15

A collection of bird, science, photography, and news links from the past week. Click on the links for the actual stories.

Eastern Screech Owl - Megascops asio

I think I’ve actually been pretty lucky, in that I’ve run across Eastern Screech Owls relatively often over the years, and have many good photos. What I can NOT do is attract one to my yard.

  • Attract Screech Owls to Your Yard!! — HAH!  I’ll believe it when I see it!  This piece from Birdwatching Magazine touts how easy it is to attract Screech Owls to your yard, by building and putting up a nest box.  Three years ago, I bought a box built specifically for Screech Owls.  Over three summers, many a young bird has fledged from that box!  Of course all of them have been House Sparrows, the one thing I do NOT need more of.  Hopefully some day an actual Eastern Screech Owl finds it, evicts the House Sparrows within, and justifies my purchase.
  • Coal Declines in the U.S. — One of the things that bugs me great is lying.  In the world of politics, it’s an art form.  This week, fact got in the way of rhetoric, with a study coming out that refutes those who try to pin the decline of coal, and mining jobs in the U.S., to government policy.  Coal started to decline in 2008, right when Obama was elected.  It’s his fault!! Well…no.  As this study notes, it’s basic economics and the rise of cheap natural gas.  People love to complain about cheap energy prices, but now that we have it?  They’ll find something else to complain about…
  • Get ready to add new species to your life list! — There’s been speculation for a while now that Crossbill species in North America may be split into as many as 6 or more new, distinct species.  This study provides more support for that move, using genomics to look at the rapid evolution of Crossbills that feed on pine seeds. It’s always handy when you can add a new species to your life list, without ever leaving your living room.
  • Hotter than Hell — Which, evidently must be around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit, given 1) where people believe hell is likely located (think ‘down’), and 2) the estimated temperature at the center of the earth.
  • Caspian Terns Breeding near Arctic Circle — If you’re one of those that doesn’t believe in climate change, you might as well stop reading my blog altogether. As yet more evidence that strange things are afoot, scientists confirmed breeding of Caspian Terns north of the Arctic Circle…1,000 MILES further north than they’ve been found before. If it were just thing one piece of evidence…sure…could be a fluke.  Where there’s smoke, there’s fire though, and it’s getting damned hard to breath with so much “smoke” around.
  • Fires of Hell

    Ever wonder how toasty it will be when your tortured, evil soul rots for an eternity in hell? Evidently it will be around 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Before you die, perhaps you should change into shorts…

    Getting away from it all (Noise, that is) — My son and I usually go fishing in the Black Hills of South Dakota once a year.  You wouldn’t want to be in the area in late summer, when the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is going on, and there are certainly tourist hotspots scattered throughout the area.  But what’s always nice about the Black Hills is that if you want solitude, you can find it. Think of the soundtrack of your daily life.  Think how rare it is to NOT have some background noise, be it street noise, a barking dog, etc.  That what struck me at one point this summer while fishing in the hills…how we were hearing…NOTHING. And it was fabulous.  As this story notes, it’s been darn hard to find a noise-free environment going back at least 50 years.

  • Hurricane Matthew Punches Above its Weight — Hurricane Matthew’s story was fascinating, because of the unusual path, its immense power as it tore through the Caribbean, and because it became an afterthought for many Americans once it avoided a direct hit on Florida. Of course, certain political stories overshadowed Matthew when it raged across the Carolinas, but more than that, it was the feeling of relief, the feeling that the U.S. had dodged a bullet.  Instead of Category 4 hurricane striking Florida, it stayed offshore of Florida and was downgraded to a Category 1 by the time it struck the Carolinas. As this story notes, perhaps we need a new rating system for Hurricanes.  Sandy too wasn’t the most powerful hurricane, but it certainly did some damage, and so did Matthew, with 18 inches of rain in parts of North Carolina.
  • Hummingbirds should listen to their parents!! — It’s rough out there for a lil’ wild critter!  Not only do they have to deal with other critters that may want to eat them, but sometimes they just don’t KNOW what they’re supposed to do to survive. That’s one takeaway from this story, that notes different individual hummingbirds use different feeding and migration strategies.  Hummingbirds that have made the migration before?  They are more strategic, Adding up to 40% onto their body weight right before making a long migratory flight.  First-time migrants? They are less strategic, tending to NOT pack on the pounds, but instead migrate south in short bursts and feeding in between.  The lesson overall…LISTEN TO YOUR PARENTS.  They know best.
  • Climate Change Doubles Western U.S. Fires — According to this study, fires overall have likely doubled in the western U.S. since 1984, due to climate change.  Overall fire increase has been even more than that, but due to other issues like fuel build up, beetle kill, ignition sources, and other risk factors.  I believe that fire risk overall has gone up.  As a scientist though, I do find it extremely, extremely difficult to attribute a certain percentage increase in fire due to just one factor, however.  There’s so many factors that drive fire risk, with complicated feedbacks among them, that I’d have a hard time stating “twice” as many fires are due just to climate change.  Good article though for highlighting the issue.
  • Dumbledore - Harry Potter

    Coming back to a movie theater near you…Dumbledore!! I’d certainly welcome it, but alas, for Michael Gambon, the actor who played Dumbledore in the last 5 Harry Potter movies, this will undoubtedly be Dumbledore when he was much younger.

    Captain Kirk was Brain Damaged — OK, maybe that’s not what this story is saying. But it IS saying that there’s a high risk of cognitive issues for astronauts spending time in space, due to cosmic rays and radiation.  Interesting study, given that this week, Obama said a government and private partnership would help us reach Mars by the 2030s.  That’s certainly a very ambitious goal, one that may be doable, but there are a lot of technical challenges to be solved.

  • Dumbledore Returning!! — Not exactly science.  Or birds.  Or really news for that matter.  But with JK Rowling’s “Fantastical Beasts” coming out as a movie in a month, it was announced that she’s working on at least 4 more scripts, for at least 5 movies in total.  There’s also talk of Dumbledore coming back to play some role in these movies!  My cynical side can’t help but scream out “MONEY GRAB!!!” with the announcement that they’re going to make 5 movies.  But my Harry Potter fandom side is loving it.

 

 

Hurricane Matthew and U.S. Science Bashing…

Hurricane Matthew - Model Predictions

Ensemble model predictions for Hurricane Matthew over the next 7-10 days. The models all predict the path up the east coast of Florida, with some very minor variation in exact track. After about 5 days, the modeled tracks start to vary, with uncertainty in the hurricane’s path increasing as you move further and further into the future.

It’s early October. Winter is coming.  From a scientific perspective, we know why.  Given the tilt of the earth in relationship to the sun, the Northern Hemisphere is about to receive far less incoming solar radiation than in the summer months.  The obvious result…cooler temps than in summer.  The depths of winter may be a few months out, but we KNOW what’s going to happen based on some very basic, easily measured scientific information.

If we KNOW it’s going to get colder several  months in advance…why can’t a weatherman tell me if it’s going to rain or snow on Halloween?  That’s much closer, after all.  If a meteorologist can’t tell me what the weather will be like in 3 weeks, how can they possibly know that winter is going to be colder?  Clearly meteorologists and climatologists have no idea what they’re talking about.

THAT is the basic argument that was making the rounds on social media over the last day or two. Climate change skeptics are trying to link uncertainty in hurricane tracks to uncertainty in climate change, stating that if we can’t perfectly predict a hurricane’s track several days in advance, how can we possibly know what the climate will do over the next several decades?  Hurricane Matthew wreaked havoc in the Caribbean, and is about to strike Florida.  As always, National Weather Service continues to monitor the storm, and issue forecasts on the likely future track.  There are uncertainties, of course.  Scientists use “ensemble modeling” to try to account for uncertainties in models.  Any ONE model may or may not have biases and error, but running many different models helps a scientist to visualize overall patterns and describe the most LIKELY outcome.

Fake Hurricane Model Graphic

A graphic circulating widely on social media, giving a false impression of hurricane forecasting.

For hurricane modeling, a common graphic is a hurricane forecast map that shows individual predictions of many different models.  These graphics also typically include an “average” track, created by basically averaging all the different model runs.  Typically an ensemble model graph looks like the image at the top, showing where Hurricane Matthew is likely to go over the next 7-10 days.  Uncertainty is much lower closer to the present time, so model tracks tend to be close to each other at first, and then become more uncertainty as the prediction period lengthens.  In the real Hurricane Matthew example above, the models are all quite consistent in predicting Matthew will hug the Florida coast  They all predict Matthew will take a right turn off the coast of South Carolina, Model paths then diverge some, although in updated predictions from the graphic above, models are mostly predicting a strong clockwise turn that may bring the hurricane back to Florida for a 2nd round.

On social media over the last few days, the 2nd graphic has been circulating.  It gives a very false impression of hurricane predictions, with many more modeled tracks than there are actual hurricane models, winding all over the map like a bowl of spaghetti.  The “punch line” with this graphic on social media?  That meteorologists have no idea where a hurricane is going in a few days, and thus they can’t possibly know that climate change is going to occur in the coming decades.

Other than the misrepresentation in the 2nd graphic of real hurricane model uncertainty, this attack on climate science makes a fundamental error in the difference between short-term weather, and longer-term climate.  It’s similar to the pathetic attack on climate science by James Inhofe on the U.S. Senate floor, where he brought a snowball onto the floor and thereby declared that since it was snowing, climate change clearly wasn’t occurring.  The analogy to the coming winter is quite fitting though. For seasonal change, we KNOW the physical characteristics of the earth/sun system that drive the changes between seasons.  For long-term climate change, we KNOW the physical impact of increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  Just as seasonal change occurs because of solar radiation differences between seasons, we KNOW the climate is going to warm given greenhouse gas influences on the balance between how much solar radiation is maintained in the earth/atmosphere system, versus how much radiates back out to space.

In effect, we’re putting a blanket on the atmosphere, trapping more heat.  It’s a known, physically measurable and quantifiable characteristic of the earth/sun/climate system, just as is the changing of the seasons.Just as it’s much harder to predict short-term variability in weather (including hurricane tracks over the next 7-10 days) versus long-term seasonal trends (hotter in summer, colder in winter), it’s much easier to predict long-term trends in climate, based on how we’re altering the atmosphere.

As a scientist the most frustrating thing about the 2nd graphic and the social media’s false attack on climate science is that it fits a general pattern of “science bashing” in the United States.  Be it evolution, climate change, or a host of other KNOWN scientific processes, there’s an odd anti-science pushback that’s grounded more in religion and politics than actual science.  It’s not a uniquely American phenomenon, but it certainly is much more amplified and prevalent in the U.S. than in most countries.  The politicization of science, the blatant disregard for scientific theory and even real, measurable empirical evidence, turns even something as obvious as evolution or climate change into a faux controversy.

All for the sake of advancing a political or religious agenda.

Don’t fall for the social media bullshit.  Scientists and modelers have done a wonderful job tracking and predicting Matthew’s path, giving millions in its potential path time to prepare or evacuate.  Weather is weather, and modeling an exact path over a week out is still an inexact (but rapidly improving) science.  That uncertainty in NO way relates to our certainty about long-term warming trends in relationship to climate change.

Mesmerizing Migration Map

Cornell - Migration Map

The mesmerizing migration map, from Cornell University. Each dot represents the typical migration movement and timing for an individual species.

I’m not nearly clever enough for such use of alliteration in a post title…this is straight from the source!  But it’s such a great name and title for the material, I had to use it.  Using eBird data that provides millions of bird sightings submitted by everyday citizens, Cornell University put together animated maps that depict bird migrations in the Western Hemisphere (click to see the animated maps).  118 species are represented, showing typical migration routes over the course of a year.

It’s fascinating to view.  The animation starts at the start of a year, and there’s not much movement at first, as birds are settled into their winter range.  A few oddballs start migrating quite early, but by March there’s widespread movement which crescendos in April and May before most birds are in their summer ranges.  Some species already start moving back south during the month of June, and by September there’s a mass south-bound flux of birds.

The long established monitoring programs of the Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count are great, providing relatively consistent observations of birds for well established routes and locations over several decades. This animated map, however, helps to show the power of eBird.  As someone who has used eBird both as a birder for the recording of my sightings, and as a scientist for the use of the data in bird species distribution modeling, I’m well aware of some of the difficulties with the data.  Given that anyone can enter sightings, there’s no systematic sampling design, there’s definite bias in sightings towards both heavily populated areas and for more “charismatic” species, and there are issues with reliability of sightings with bird ID skills ranging from novice to expert.  But given that eBird data aren’t limited to a specific season or geography, they offer an opportunity that BBS and CBC cannot…the ability to track bird movement, and also track how those movements change in the face of climate change or other stress factors.

Very cool map…it’s very interesting to try and follow one dot over the course of the year!  Only thing I wish it had were some kind of label (or clickable dots) so you knew what species each dot represents.

Hurricane Alex, and what it all means for birds.

Photo of Western Meadowlark - Sturnella neglecta

I clearly remember the day I took this photo of a Western Meadowlark. It was in the winter of 2003, and it was damned cold at the time (10 below). It was a lone bird, huddling in a hay bale, and it was about the only Western Meadowlark I saw on that day. Just a dozen years later, during a day of birding the same location, I came across many hundreds of Western Meadowlarks.

It’s 17 below (F) this morning in the great white hell we call South Dakota..so of course global warming is on my mind!  We’ve got our own Hurricane Alex, in the form of a boy that can be a handful at times.  In the meantime, out in the Atlantic, a real Hurricane Alex formed this past week.  A hurricane?  Forming in January?  Since records were kept there have only been 4 hurricanes that have ever existed in the Atlantic in January, with only 2 that actually formed during that month.

It’s a year with a very strong El Nino, so some weather strangeness is to be expected, but Hurricane Alex certainly caught folks by surprise. There’s been plenty of other climate and weather abnormalities in the last several months.  On the East Coast, Christmas Eve brought temperatures up into the 70s, with Washington D.C. and New York City both hitting 71 for a high, while Norfolk, Virginia saw a downright balmy 82.  Overall, December was the warmest and wettest on record for the U.S.  The December strangeness wasn’t isolated to the U.S.  In Great Britain, records were shattered for precipitation for the month, while temperatures were nearly 7 degrees (F) above normal.  Daffodils were blooming Great Britain in December, a phenomenon that was also occurring across the U.S. East Coast.

Globally, 2015 provided a number of remarkable weather extremes.  Right before the new year, the temperature at the North Pole rose above freezing. Late December…North Pole…a place that hadn’t even seen the SUN for months…yet the temperature rose above freezing in an unprecedented event.  The year started with record breaking snows in the eastern U.S.  Record heat killed thousands in India and Pakistan.  Two tropical cyclones hit Yemen within one week..Yemen had never before been hit by a tropical cyclone of the magnitude of the first to hit. Seabirds in Alaska and elsewhere in the Pacific were dying in massive numbers due to hunger, most likely caused by El Nino and the climate weirdness.  Heat waves have been baking Australia recently after a year punctuated with both droughts and floods.

In any given year, there will always be weather extremes.  There will always be droughts, floods, severe storms, and heat waves.  However, weather and climate models are unequivocal in predicting a strong increase in weather extremes due to climate change.  Droughts will become longer and more severe.  Heavy precipitation events will increase, along with subsequent flooding.  Storm intensity will increase.  The models that predict these changes are now clearly being reinforced by actual empirical evidence.

Over the coarse of a human lifetime, simple observation can also reinforce the impacts of climate change, including from the aspect of being a birder.  There are already well known range expansions and contractions of species that are almost certainly tied to climate change in part, such as Northern Cardinal, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, and Red-bellied Woodpecker all shift in range to the north in recent decades.  Just from an observational standpoint, one trend I notice are more and more Western Meadowlarks staying in South Dakota to overwinter.  When I started birding over 15 years ago (just a heartbeat in terms of the climate change timeline), I would occasionally run across a single Western Meadowlark or perhaps a handful as I birded the grasslands in the central part of the state in winter.  It seems like every winter, that number rises.  On a recent birding trip to the Fort Pierre National Grasslands and areas just to the south, I came across hundreds of Western Meadowlarks over the course of the day.

Climate change?  It’s tough to attribute one short-duration phenomenon to climate change.  As I said, up until this point, it had been a relatively mild winter in terms of temperature, so perhaps you’d expect more Western Meadowlarks to hang around.  But it hasn’t just been a one-year event, it’s been a longer term, visible trend that I’ve noticed just through casual observation.

As a scientist, I admit I do find it fascinating to live through this particular period in time.  It’s amazing to watch these kinds of changes, and realize the incredible impact human beings have on the planet.  Fascinating…amazing…and also damned terrifying and outright depressing at times as well, know that what you’re observing is completely unnatural.

 

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