South Dakota State Guts Research – Polishes Turd with Statement

Replacement SDSU Staff

There IS a strategy behind the SDSU collapse of support for the GSCE program. World-renown researchers Wimberly, Roy, Hennebry, and Zhang have reportedly been replaced with these “new and improved” alternatives.

Clear not all politicians stick with politics. Some obviously branch out in other lines of work…say…working for South Dakota State University’s Division of Research and Economic Development. A few weeks ago the entire research staff of SDSU’s Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence (GSCE) quit, after being fed up with budget cuts and a seeming disinterest from SDSU in supporting the center. GSCE immediately went from being literally one of the world’s premiere research centers for remote sensing and geospatial sciences, to an empty husk with no staff.

Today, SDSU’s Divison of Research and Economic Development sent out the statement below.

University Community –

 

The purpose of this correspondence is to inform you of some changes within theGeospatial Sciences Center of Excellence (GSCE). Beginning August 22, the GSCE will move from the Division of Research and Economic Development to the Department of Geography in the College of Natural Sciences. The move will provide better alignment with the university’s research strategy, a deeper integration within our university budget process, and provide for integration of the research success strategies of the center and its host college and department.

 

Additionally, Dr. Bob Watrel will serve as the center’s acting co-director.

 

The center will continue to serve as a hub of excellence in geospatial science research and research education. The interdisciplinary research conducted provides quality education for future scientists, educators and decision-makers. We will continue our valuable partnership with the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center.

 

The GSCE move into the College of Natural Sciences will be integral to the college’s strategy for impacting society through research. To date, the university has invested more than $100 million of public and private funds into the university’s research and creative capacity. We are committed to continue to optimize investments in support of our institution’s vision of being a premier land-grant university.

 

Thank you for your commitment to South Dakota State University. We appreciate all that you do and look forward to an exciting academic year of discovery and education.

 

Division of Research and Economic Development

Office of the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs

Other than the content of the statement, one question that immediately comes to mind…why is the “Division of Research” linked with “Economic Development”? It’s not exactly a surprise to me in today’s political climate, certainly not in South Dakota. But it DOES highlight the emphasis of what SDSU seemingly wants to focus on…research related to economic gain to South Dakota itself. Hence the reported frustration from SDSU president Barry Dunn with all the GSCE work that covered areas outside of South Dakota.

But back to the statement itself…how does one interpret this jumble of alphabet soup? This collection of buzzwords and catch phrases that have an uncanny knack of using as many letters as possible to say absolutely…nothing.  In case you aren’t fluid in this language, here’s an interpretative key:

  • “The move will provide better alignment with the university’s research strategy.” – Interpretation – SDSU HAS no research strategy but we’re polishing this turd the best that we can.
  • “…a deeper integration within our university budget process” – Interpretation – Nobody is safe from our reckless budget cutting, not even world-renown research centers that are self-sustaining and bring a massive reputation boost to SDSU.
  • “…provide for integration of the research success strategies of the center...” – Interpretation – All the research success of the center has walked out the door, and thus it’s quite easy to “integrate” what remains.
  • The interdisciplinary research conducted provides quality education for future scientists.” – Interpretation – We’re encouraging “future scientists” to pursue other careers, as we no longer have any science staff to provide a quality education.
  • The GSCE move into the College of Natural Sciences will be integral to the college’s strategy for impacting society through research” – Interpretation – We were caught with our pants down here. We cut budgets and are now paying the price. We have no strategy moving forward.
  • “To date, the university has invested more than $100 million of public and private funds into the university’s research and creative capacity.” – Interpretation – HEY!  LOOK OVER HERE!  SHINY DISTRACTING OBJECT, BIG DOLLAR NUMBER!! We just lost the most visible research entity at the University but are trying to emphasize what we USED to do to support research.
  • “We are committed to continue to optimize investments in support of our institution’s vision...” – Interpretation – We are committed to continue cutting budgets despite the risk to students and the reputation of the University.
  • Thank you for your commitment to South Dakota State University. We appreciate all that you do and look forward to an exciting academic year of discovery and education.” – Interpretation – Alumni…please continue to send donations to SDSU or we’ll continue hamstringing research at the University.

Perhaps the only sign of any intelligence in this entire word salad…whoever wrote it wasn’t even willing to sign their name to this obvious turd polishing.

 

Small minds, and POOF, a S.Dakota science institution is gone

South Dakota State University - Geospatial Sciences Center of ExcellenceSmall minds, insular thinking.  It’s an infection that’s spread across the United States in the last several years, and one victim of the “disease” is the death of one of the most successful science programs of its kind in the entire world.

In 2016, Barry Dunn became president of South Dakota State University. One thing he did when arriving was review the state of the “Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence” (GSCE)…a truly WORLD-renown science center established in 2005 to develop and apply remote sensing and other geospatial data for research and education purposes. Some of the biggest names in the field were lured to South Dakota State.  In the last 13 years, Mike Wimberly…Matt Hansen…David Roy…Geoffrey Hennebry…Mark Cochrane…all were key parts of GSCE and its development.  Over the last 13 years, they’ve had a massive impact on the field, applying remote sensing data and analysis techniques to applications that include understanding disease vectors and risks of West Nile virus…helping to establish and use the next generation of satellite sensors…mapping fire extent and severity…mapping changes in our ever-declining grassland ecosystems…and many, many more.

Students from all over the world moved to South Dakota, of all places, to work with such a wonderful collection of researchers.  The research impact has been enormous.  The reputation is sterling.  The senior scientists at GSCE brought in huge amounts of external research dollars. It has been, by all logical measures, a raging success.

It’s now decimated. During his review process, Barry Dunn in his infinite wisdom decreed SDSU GSCE wasn’t of any benefit to South Dakota, partially because 1) it didn’t do all its work IN South Dakota, and 2) it didn’t have enough South Dakota students. So, they cut $1 million in core funding. They effectively gave the research leads a 25% pay cut.  The result of the drop of support?  For the next semester that starts in a few weeks, literally NONE of the GSCE Senior Scientists will remain.  That’s right…ALL have decided enough is enough, and all are moving on to greener pastures. A science center like no other, one South Dakota could put up against ANY similar science center in the world…and it’s gone belly up, thanks to new “leadership” at South Dakota State.

Small minds, insular thinking…what the hell has happened in this country? Doing work that’s WORLD-renown and applied in all continents is deemed a NEGATIVE, because they didn’t do all their work in South Dakota? Too many foreign students is a “problem”?  It’s a problem that’s certainly not limited to SDSU, GSCE, or South Dakota.  To me it all falls under the same kind of anti-intellectualism, anti-“expert”, anti-SCIENCE paradigm that seems to have infected America.

A South Dakota institution is gone after far too short a time, all thanks to tiny little minds with a lack of vision and appreciation for the bigger picture.

Killing Science, $1 at a time

Landsat Image - Garden City, Kansas

A Landsat image near Garden City, Kansas, depicting the view of irrigated agriculture using center pivots. Monitoring agricultural change and productivity is one of but many applications of Landsat data, providing scientific and economic benefits to the Nation. The latest move by the Department of Interior to potentially begin charging a fee for Landsat data would devastate Earth science activities around the globe. (click for a larger view).

Nature today published a story about a Department of Interior committee studying the possibility of charging fees for data from the Landsat satellite program, data that are currently available for free.  The first Landsat satellite was launched in 1972, with 6 additional satellites launched since then. The latest was Landsat 8, launched in 2013, while Landsat 9 is scheduled for launch in late 2020.  Landsat satellites have provided continuous Earth observations for the last 46 years (!!!!), an invaluable and unmatched record for recording changes on the Earth’s surface. The number of applications of Landsat data is astounding, including monitoring forestry activity (forest harvest and regrowth), agricultural productivity, monitoring urban sprawl, quantifying changes in surface water extent in response to flooding or drought, assessing the impacts of natural disasters, mapping geologic landforms, and a host of other uses. As the Nature article notes, a 2013 committee commissioned to assess the economic costs and benefits of the Landsat program found that while the program costs the US government approximately $80 million a year, economic benefits for the country are staggering…well over $2 billion per year.

Management of Landsat has changed over the years, but USGS and NASA are the two Federal agencies currently managing the program. Until 2008, the data came at a cost to the user...a cost that historically could be quite high.  A disastrous attempt to semi-privatize Landsat data distribution in the 1990s led to costs for each Landsat “scene” (an area approximately 115 x 115 miles) of up to $4,000!  While highly valuable data for a number of applications, the high cost was a major roadblock for usage of the data. In 2008, the USGS made the decision to begin distributing the data free of charge…and usage of Landsat data grew exponentially. Before the policy change, USGS distributed a mere ~50 scenes per day.  Once the data were made freely available, usage jumped more than 100-fold, with thousands of Landsat scenes downloaded per day.  Having freely available data from the world’s premiere long-term observation platform of the Earth’s surface has since transformed Earth science.  Applications once hindered by data costs were now free to tap into the entire Landsat database.

The Nature story notes that under the current administration, the committee is considering again re instituting a fee for access to Landsat. Given the other actions of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, and other administration officials with roles overseeing environmental science, it’s easy to speculate as to the real purpose of the committee.  DOI, EPA, NOAA, and other scientific agencies and programs in the Federal government have been targeted for draconian reductions by the Trump industry.  Elimination of environmental science and privatization of traditional government activities has been a major focus of this administration.  My own personal interpretation…this is a move to 1) curtail the vast array of environmental monitoring and analysis that’s occurred since Landsat data were made freely available, 2) bow to the will of industry lobbyists who wish to continue the push towards privatization of Earth observations and increase corporate profits, and 3) eventually extricate the US government from running the Landsat program and other similar Earth observation systems.

Any truly unbiased analysis of the Landsat program would label the 2008 move to freely available data as a smashing success, both in terms of economics and the scientific benefits. Returning to the 1990s and charging high fees for Landsat data access would result in an immediate, sharp decline in environmental and economic applications that use the data.  Given that the one overarching theme of the Trump administration is “corporate profit above all else”, it’s impossible to view this potential move with anything other than a highly cynical eye.

 

Scientists are Assholes

I’m a scientist. I’ve been in my field for over 25 years, employed at the same place for the vast majority of that time. I’ve got a many peer-reviewed journal publications, and have been around science and science publishing long enough to realize that…

Scientists are assholes.

Scientists have egos. I think for any successful venture, including scientific research, you HAVE to have a healthy ego, a confidence in your own capabilities, and a confidence in what  you’re doing. But underlying the “confident” form of ego is the seedy underbelly of scientists acting like assholes.

The New York Times posted a wonderful piece that focuses on social psychology, but the same general storyline could have played out in any of the sciences. In short, a young scientist published an article in 2010 that summarized one piece of her research. That led to notoriety, and even a 2012 TED talk that become one of the most widely viewed talks ever. After basking in the glow of the work for a short time, other researchers began to question her methodology, and question her results. Even worse, it got personal, with scientists and science bloggers taking the young woman to task, making unfounded and hurtful accusations. In short, the young woman DARED to experience success…which triggered a backlash from other scientists, a group of human beings that love NOTHING more than to tear each other down.

Scientists are assholes. At least there’s a segment of the profession that act in this manner. Many of them have built careers not on perfecting their own new, original research path, but instead by tearing apart the work of others. Even in my own field, there are scientists who I am only aware of because of their published “bakeoffs”, assessing the collective work of OTHER scientists, and meticulously picking through the work to find (perceived) flaws.

Given my cynical nature, it’s not like being an asshole is restricted to the field of science. So why devote a blog post to trashing my own profession? To make a point about climate change science. Climate change skeptics are nearly ALL politicians…talking heads…pundits…but very rarely, actual scientists. Even the majority of “scientists” who do attempt to discredit climate science are not climate scientists themselves.  Most often they are from another field. The pool of real climate scientists that are skeptical that 1) the climate is warming, and 2) mankind is at fault is TINY.

Scientists are assholes. And yet among scientists, climate change discord is remarkably absent. In a profession where ego and competitiveness are sometimes out of control, I can think of no better evidence of the sound scientific basis behind anthropogenic climate change. IF there were any speck of credible evidence that the climate isn’t warming, or that mankind’s activities aren’t the primary cause, stories such as the one provided by the New York Times would be rampant. Scientists would be eagerly ripping apart each other’s work, trying to discredit not only the research, but the researcher him/herself.

 

Eclipse Hunting, Rockhounding, and Dinos…Oh My!

What an utterly spectacular weekend with my son.  We had originally planned to head down to my hometown in Nebraska to view the eclipse Monday. A cloudy forecast for much of Nebraska led to a last-second change of plans, and our extended weekend turned into a weekend of SCIENCE!  And may I say, given how the relentless attack on science continues ever since the election of Orange Hitler, a much NEEDED weekend of science.

Our whirlwind sciency tour was planned in haste on Saturday night.  At that time, the surest bet for sunny skies for the eclipse were in eastern Wyoming, a good 7-8 hour drive from home.  We decided to make a weekend of it, stay in the Black Hills over night Sunday (the nearest hotel we could find to the eclipse path…2 hours away!), and do some agate, fossil, and petrified wood exploring on the way.  Sunday we spent some time on Buffalo Gap National Grasslands in the morning, again finding some nice geologic goodies. By Sunday afternoon we’d made it to Hill City, SD, and spent some time in the Black Hills Institute’s Museum. Wonderful place to look at dinosaur fossils, geologic wonders, and other interesting displays.

The highlight of the trip of course was the eclipse on Monday. Anticipating heavy traffic, we left Hill City by 5:30 AM, and made our way to Lusk, Wyoming.  Traffic wasn’t as bad as we thought, so we were there by 8:00 AM. We grabbed supplies, found a quiet gravel road 20 miles SW of Lusk, and waited for the show.

That “quiet” gravel road ended up being not so quiet. Despite the isolation, other eclipse watchers from all over North America paraded by us, searching out pullouts on the side of the road from which to set up camp. By the time the moon first started to creep in front of the sun, our quiet gravel road had people camped out about every 30 yards for as far as the eye can see. People continued to stream down the road, all the way up until the point of totality.

I’ve never seen a total eclipse. My son has never seen a total eclipse. After this experience, I GUARANTEE that we will make plans to see another, as soon as is feasible (likely 2024).  If there’s a more spine-tingling, goosebump-raising, incredible experience to be had, I’m not sure what it is. As the light got every more dim and eerie, anticipation rose, but the moment of totality kind of sneaks up on you. There was more light than I expected, RIGHT up until totality. The awe of seeing the initial “diamond ring” effect, following by complete totality, is beyond words.

I did want to try to photograph the eclipse. I did take several photos at the start of totality, but after several photos, I HAD to put the camera down, and just revel in the moment.  Other than rather incredible traffic trying to get out of Wyoming and back to South Dakota, it was one of the best travel adventures we’ve ever had.

A few shots of the eclipse, before my jaw dropped and the camera was ignored…

Solar eclipse - 2017

Moments before totality, a few seconds of the “diamond ring” effect. I had read about the stages of the eclipse, and knew this was supposed to happen right before totality. Seeing it was still indescribable.

Solar Eclipse - 2017

The eclipse during the 2_ minutes of totality. This has a bit longer exposure than the next shot, gathering more light so you can see more of the corona. Shooting in this fashion though hides the detail you can observe around the edge of the moon’s disc (see next photo).

Solar Eclipse - 2017

Lower exposure reveals what you can see with your own eyes during totality (at least through my camera, or through our binoculars)…solar prominences flaring off the surface of the sun. This was the moment I dropped the camera and just enjoyed the show. With such a short 2+ minute window to enjoy totality, I didn’t want to miss it with my face behind a camera.

 

Takin’ a hike through active lava flows…

Just your casual, ordinary, every day hike this past Monday. We were vacationing on the Big Island of Hawai’i, and had booked a guide to take us to the active lava flows of Kilauea.  We arose before 3:00 AM, met our guide at 4:00AM, and drove as close as you can get to the active flows.  That’s a minimum of 3 to 4 miles away from either the surface flows or the lava’s entry point into the ocean, which meant a early morning hike was in order.  It’s not the easiest hike in the world! For the first 2 miles, you’re following a gravel road and it’s easy, but to get to the active surface flows, we had to hike a good 1 1/2 to 2 miles across the rough, older flows from Kilauea.

A tiring hike, particularly on the way back when the sun starts beating down on you, but SO worth it! It was the hike of a lifetime, as we were able to experience active, flowing lava from as close as we could physically tolerate.  10 feet was about the limit for me, as any closer and the heat from the lava was overwhelming. An incredible experience for our little family!  Here are some photos from the day…click on each photo for a larger view. When I have time to process video I’ll post out here as well.

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilaluea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea - Lava field sunrise

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava

Kilauea Lava - Epic Lava Dude

The guide who took us to the exact location where lava was flowing on the surface was from EpicLava. Highly recommended, once-in-a-lifetime experience!!

Finding Hidden Treasures – Fairburn Agates!

Fairburn Agate - South Dakota

The partially polished Fairburn Agate, with the black outer layers being worn away, starting to reveal the beautiful, characteristic banding pattern of a Fairburn Agate underneath. In this “profile” view, you can perhaps see why my son and I have dubbed this the “Easter Island Head” agate.

My son and I have have been bitten hard by the rock-hounding bug. We’re newly infected…we’ve only made two excursions in search of geologic wonders…but I fear a lifetime affliction may be forming. In those two trips, we went to an area of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands where you’re allowed to collect agates, jaspers, petrified wood, or other geologic finds. The variety (and beauty) of rocks and minerals you find in the area is astonishing.  While we’ve certainly had a blast and had some wonderful finds, so far we have struck out on finding the “Holy Grail” of agates…the famed Fairburn Agate.

Fairburn Agates are one of the world’s most famous, and they’re found only here in South Dakota. They have an incredible fine, even banding, often displaying an incredible array of different colors. They were originally identified near Fairburn, South Dakota, on the outskirts of the Black Hills. However, they can also occasionally be found elsewhere in southwestern South Dakota, including the area of the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands where we have been searching.

In our two trips, we hadn’t identified any Fairburn agates, but we’ve certainly found our fair share of prairie agates, bubblegum agates, rose quartz, and petrified wood.  All of these are very beautiful in their raw state, but we’ve also purchased a rotary tumbler for polishing our finds. We had our first batch going in the tumbler, and last night was the first “reveal”. It’s only the first “rough” stage of polishing, meant to round off and shape stones, so there are at least couple weeks of more polishing before this first batch is in their final, lustrous form. However, in this first batch we had a major surprise…a simply GORGEOUS Fairburn Agate!

On our last trip, we found a small (1 1/2″), egg-shaped stone with a very irregular outer surface.  It was entirely coal black, without a speck of color, without a trace of banding. However, it was one that we threw in with our first polish batch.  The rough shaping and polishing has started to wear away the black outer layer, revealing the gorgeous Fairburn patterns underneath!  We are going to put the agate through the rough polish stage again to wear away more black and reveal more of the inner Fairburn pattern. We also have another, very similar stone (photo below) that I suspect is also a Fairburn. SUCH FUN!  SUCH EXCITEMENT, to open the polisher for the first time and see the transformed agates and stones.

Fairburn Agate - South Dakota

A full-sized view of the “Eastern Island Head” agate.  None of the colors or banding here was visible until the agate went through the “rough” polishing stage for 8 days. 

Fairburn Agate - South Dakota

Another view of the Fairburn, on the opposite side of photo #1. Similar beautiful banding patterns, with several “eyes”.

Fairburn Agate - South Dakota

The “Back side” of the Easter Island Head agate. It’s quite evident that everywhere the black outer layer is worn down by the polisher, a gorgeous Fairburn pattern is revealed underneath.

Fairburn Agate (likely) - South Dakota

Another agate from the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, with a similar shape and size. It lacks the overall dark coloring of the “Easter Islands Head’ agate, but you can see a hint of a Fairburn pattern in the pebbly outer shell of this one as well. This one is also headed to the polisher, and my guess is that polishing will also reveal a beautiful Fairburn underneath.

Geologic Therapy – South Dakota Agates, Petrified Wood

Buffalo Gap National Grasslands - Kadoka

A typical view of our newly discovered geologic nirvana, near Kadoka, South Dakota. The eroding bluffs reveal their treasures contained within, with the surrounding ravines and flatlands literally covered with agates, petrified wood, and other geologic goodies. Click for a larger view. Photos of all the geologic goodies are at the bottom of this post.

Yeah, it’s been 4 weeks since a blog post.  It’s been a rather stressful last few weeks, thus the general lack of birding, or blogging about birding.  The stress comes from being a scientist and having all of my funding coming from federal programs that happen to have the word “climate” in their name. My work focuses on landscape change and trying to anticipate what future landscapes will look like, and while it necessarily focuses on potential impacts of climate change, that’s not the major focus.  No matter…with the word “climate” in my funding source and appearing occasionally in my published work, it’s work with a big red bullseye target in this political environment.  Hence the stressful few weeks, dealing with budget cuts, and the stress of having to re-orient staff and resources….”re-orient” being the most friendly way to say it.

In the last few weeks though, it has given me some time to think about life priorities.  I hate to say it, given how I love my job, but it has made me realize that work is pretty damned low on the totem pole of ranked priorities.  What I have done more in the last few weeks…spend time with my wonderful son, including what has been absolutely wonderful “geologic therapy”.

What’s that you say? You’ve never undergone geologic therapy to get over your troubles? I highly recommend it!  At work there’s a wonderful guy who has been there forever.  He’s a geologist by training, and is always eager to share his knowledge and enthusiasm about geology.  It was a morning a few weeks ago, literally just a couple of hours before I found out about the budget cuts, that he came into my office and the topic turned to good places to find rocks and fossils in South Dakota.  He excitedly talked about a location on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, took me back to his office, and printed out maps to show me exactly where to look.  Wonderful, I thought! It sounded like so much fun, and I imagined that perhaps at some point later this summer, I might try to visit the location!!

“Later this summer” turned out to be the very next day!  After hearing of the budget cuts, I had to get away from work. That next day I took the day off, and my son and I headed west to the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands near Kadoka, South Dakota.  It’s a bit of a jaunt from our part of South Dakota…3 1/2 hours to be exact…but the long drive was definitely worth it.  It turned into a “geologic therapy” day that helped me at least temporarily forget about everything at work.  It was SO much fun, prospecting for rocks and fossils with my son, that we again made the long drive yesterday and had another wonderful day on the Grasslands.

The location is on the northwest edge of the Grasslands.  It’s an area of eroding bluffs, softer material in which agates, jaspers, rose quartz, petrified wood, and other geologic goodies are embedded. When you first arrive at the site, it’s rather astonishing to see the landscape literally covered with a smorgasbord of rocks, ranging from pebble sized up to rocks the size of your fist (and a few larger ones).  As you walk the rocky grounds around the bluffs, the variety of materials around you is rather incredible. Agates are the major attraction here, with gorgeous Prairie Agates found strewn throughout the area, as are “bubblegum agates” and water agates.  We haven’t found one yet, but the famed Fairburn Agate also can be found here, a unique, incredibly beautiful agate for which South Dakota is famous.

Pieces of petrified wood are also found in the area, and the variety there is also rather amazing.  Pieces range from thumbnail size up to chunks up to a foot long, with a wide variety of colors and textures.

Because of these two visits, both my son and I have become smitten with “rock-hounding”! In the past few weeks, we’ve also bought a tumbler and the necessary materials for polishing our finds. It’s a process that definitely tests the patience of a young teenage boy, given that there are four individual steps for polishing, each of which takes about a week as you progress to ever-finer grits in the tumbler.  The polishing part itself is a fascinating process, as many of the agates and petrified wood pieces REALLY start to come alive in the polishing process, with a dull outer coating giving way to some incredibly beautiful patterns underneath.  We still haven’t completed the polishing process on a batch, but hope to have some finished rocks shortly.

It’s a wonderful area to visit if you have any interest in geology or science in general. Unlike most places in the state, it’s also 100% legal to take what you find!  Badlands National Park is right next to the location we were searching, an area known for its geologic “goodies”, but also an area where collecting of rocks, minerals, or fossils is illegal.  On these locations in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, however, collecting is allowed. The Buffalo Gap visitors center will be able to direct you to multiple locations where agates, petrified wood, and other minerals may be found.

Some photos of the goodies!!

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

One of the most beautiful Prairie Agates we’ve found in our two trips there so far. The “holly-leaf” look at the bottom had me excited at first that we found a Fairburn agate, but no, I think it’s just a very beautiful Prairie Agate. Note this is wet to give it a bit of a look of what it might look like polished.

Prairie Agates -South Dakota

Several Prairie Agates from yesterday on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

Bubblegum Agates - South Dakota

(Mostly) Bubblegum agates, a cool form of agate that really stand out from the banded prairie agates. When you first see some of them lying on the ground, they truly do look like pieces of chewed up bubblegum.

Petrified Wood - South Dakota

A number of different varieties of petrified wood from yesterday. The range of colors and textures is amazing.

Prairie Agates - South Dakota

Closer view of some of the prairie agates

Petrified Wood - South Dakota

There were a few really big chunks of petrified wood we found, but this is the biggest that we kept (about 6-7 inches long).

Petrified Wood - South Dakota

Another piece of petrified wood, this one with a grayish tone that is much different than some of the others. The detail and wood patterns are so incredibly detailed on many of these.

Prairie Agate - South Dakota

Another beautifully banded prairie agate

 

Tracking Fed Science Agency Websites (hint…NOAA…you’re screwed)

This week social media outrage briefly focused it’s attention on the Bureau of Land Management, from within the Department of the Interior.  BLM manages a variety of Federal lands, mostly in 12 western states, including over 200 wilderness areas, 23 national monuments, and many lands for the management of grazing and mineral access. A “minor” change on the front page of the BLM’s website was noticed and publicized on social media.  Previously, the banner image was a pair of young people, backpacks on, gazing out across an open, wild landscape at sunset. A beautiful image, representative of some of the wild lands managed by BLM in the West. The replacement image?  A photo of a strip of a coal seam in a coal mine.  Woo-hoo…energy!! Money!  Environmental destruction!  Everything a Bureau of “land management” should be focusing on.

BLM isn’t alone in terms of having their website presence scrutinized since the Trump takeover in January.  The Environmental Protection Agency didn’t beat around the bush on their webpages...they simply eliminated any actual references to the word “science” on the page for the EPA Office of Science and Technology.  The USDA removed materials from their website that identified animal welfare threats. Much of the information on the Department of Energy’s website simply disappeared a couple of days after the inauguration.  It’s not paranoia that has had science-interests frantically copying over science data from Federal websites, given the possibility of that information simply disappearing.

Given the frantic activity and radical changes on Federal websites…Who will prosper and thrive? Who will wither and die?  Current website layouts offer some clues on who will likely be the winners and losers under the Trump administration:

WINNER — U.S. Geological Survey

WELL played, USGS, well played. USGS is a non-regulatory science agency within the Department of the Interior. Given the lack of regulatory responsibilities, they perhaps are less of a target than a group like the Environmental Protection Agency, but those wise souls aren’t taking any chances. Leadership and web gurus from the USGS are doing their best to ensure USGS survives…nay…THRIVES…under a Trump administration. The USGS has perhaps the widest range of scientific research in the Federal Government, including not only geologic research, but also research in hydrology, biodiversity, energy resources, ecosystems, and (gulp!)…climate.  Yes…they have a “Climate and Land Use” Mission Area that partially assesses the impacts of climate change.  How does a science agency that deals in climate change distract a Trump administration that has a laser-like focus on eliminating ANYTHING with the word “climate in it?

PUT A FREAKIN’ FIGHTER JET ON THE FRONT PAGE OF YOUR WEBSITE!!

Brilliant, USGS, brilliant. You may not have a DAMN thing to do with the military, or fighter jets, but by placing a completely irrelevant piece of military hardware on your front page, on the very day we’re bombing the hell out of Syria, you’ve secured your future under a testosterone-driven Trump administration.

USGS Website - Front Page

LOSER — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

To whoever is manning the controls of the NOAA website…what the hell were you thinking?!?!? Have you not been paying attention to the rhetoric over the last several months? NOAA falls under the umbrella of the Department of Commerce, now led by billionaire (of course) Wilbur Ross.  Ross claimed during his confirmation hearings that he’d let “science be left to the scientists”.  However, he also is someone who has refused to attribute climate change to human beings.

In the bigger picture, even as head of Commerce and defacto head of NOAA, Ross’s opinions on climate change mean very little.  Cabinet members under the Trump administration haven’t exactly had a lot of sway with the boss, a man who prefers to go by his own “expertise” and gut instinct rather than listen to the people who actually are the experts. Even should Ross see the light and acknowledge the dire threat of climate change, NOAA…you’re completely screwed.  Brush up on your interview skills and start polishing that resume, NOAA personnel. With a front page like this, one that DARES to highlight recent climatic extremes…you’ll all be gone by the end of the year.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) Website Front Page

LOSER – U.S. Fish and Wildlife

Is the web guru at NOAA also running the US Fish and Wildlife website?  It’s pretty.  It has some birds…who doesn’t like birds?  They do get a FEW “Trump points” by having a screaming Bald Eagle on the right side of the image.  DAMN…that’s American patriotism right there!  But look at the rest of the USFWS front page.  A big banner on the top saying “Conserving the Nature of America”?  What the fuck?  USFWS, why don’t you just take the more direct route and all directly send in your resignation letters right now?

And having the first tab be “endangered species”?  If you’re going that route, you might as well take all the bird photos away from the banner and instead pop up a picture of Jim Kurth, the (acting) head of U.S. Fish and Wildlife. He’s the only thing “endangered” with a web page like this. I’d recommend a few changes to your website if ya’ all hope to survive, USFWS.  Keep the Eagle, but photoshop in a “Make America Great” hat.  Get rid of most of the birds, but keep the photo of the endangered Whooping Crane.  Then, on the left side of the banner, put in a photo of the hunting-happy Trump sons, showing them taking aim at the Whooping Crane. Better yet, make it an animated GIF, showing the Trump brothers killing the last Whooping Crane on the face of the planet, and thus freeing up the U.S. budget for more important things, like cruise missiles, border patrol guards, or hair tonic for Trump. Make those changes, and you MIGHT survive what is now a disaster of a website.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife - Website Front Page

WINNER – Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA, a winner under the Trump administration? Hear me out here.  Yes, there’s little doubt that environmental regulation is enemy number one for Trump, and with the EPA currently slated for at least a 25% cut and the loss of thousands of jobs.  There’s hope, EPA.  Keep on doing what you’re doing with your website, and I’d expect that cut to shrink substantially.

Yes, there’s no doubt Trump and environmental villain Scott Pruitt hate the environment with the same vehemence that the GOP hates Obama or Hillary.  But there’s one personality trait that “trumps” even that environmental hatred for Trump and Pruitt…pure ego and narcissism.   Touting Trump’s executive order on Energy Independence, right at the top of your home page? Sure, EPA, energy independence has NOTHING to do with your mission, but it’s a brilliant move, highlight a Trump action and playing to his ego.  Even better…placing a PICTURE of Scott Pruitt right at the top, along with a (admittedly completely bullshit) quote from the man.  Keep stroking their egos, EPA. For tiny-penis, insecure little men like Trump and Pruitt, it’s the best path to getting what you want.

EPA Website - Front Page

LOSER – Bureau of Land Management

NO!!  NO, BLM…what the hell!??! Why did you do it?!!?  You had it MADE!! Changing your banner to a photo of a giant band of coal?  The Trump administration’s obsession with the promotion of coal may be akin to a doctor giving a baby aspirin to a patient with Stage IV pancreatic cancer, but you RAN with that obsession and turned it into a social media headline.  The anger it generated from snowflake liberals (ahem…like myself)?  TOTALLY worth the angst, knowing that pissed off liberals means a happy Trump.

And…then you blew it.  Just this afternoon, I see you’ve replaced this god-awful, ugly photo of a hunk of coal with the second banner below, with a gorgeous photo of a guy enjoying  fly-fishing on a pristine mountain stream.  What…the…HELL!?!?!?  Those budget cuts in the original Trump budget? The cuts were COMPLETELY off the book once the coal photo was posted. Posting this crap, of a happy outdoorsman in nature?  Both you and your NOAA friends will have a lot of free time on your hands in the near future.

Bureau of Land Management - Website Front Page

Bureau of Land Management - Website Front Page

Evolution in the blink of an eye…

Prairie Deer Mouse - Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii

The cool thing about science and nature is that interesting stories are all around us. The tiny Deer Mouse, shown here, has overcome long odds, with the vast majority of its historical habitat gone. However, through some remarkable, fast-track evolutionary adaptation, they’re now able to cope with their new world. Photo by Gregory Smith.

It’s been a busy last week, without any time for birding or photography.  Or blogging, for that matter. I was down in Nebraska for a few days, mixing work and pleasure. The “pleasure” part was my fantasy baseball draft in Omaha Saturday.  Our fantasy league is likely one of the longest running leagues in the country, going back to 1985 during our freshman year in college, when fantasy baseball was still very new.  What’s great about it is that many of the original league members are still participating! It’s great fun, not only the draft itself, but catching up with old college friends.

The “work” part of my Nebraska trip was participation in the 2017 Great Plains Symposium, on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Much like the baseball draft, the symposium too was like stepping back in time, as I reconnected with some of my old college professors who were participating in the symposium. The focus of the symposium was “Flat Places, Deep Identities: Mapping Nebraska and the Great Plains”.  I gave a talk one some of the work I’ve been doing, mapping past, present, and potential future landscapes in the Great Plains.  It was a great symposium, a little different kind of crowd than I’m used to.  Given the work I do, most of the conferences and symposiums I attend deal with the physical sciences. This conference melded mapping, history, socioeconomics, and other social sciences that I’m not exposed to as much.  It was quite fascinating, particularly hearing about the history of Nebraska, using maps to help tell the “story” of change over time.

As part of the symposium “goodies”, participants were given a copy of The New Territory, a quarterly magazine that focuses on Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.  I admit I’d never heard of the publication before. The content fits quite well with the focus of the symposium itself, with many human interest stories about the geography and people of the region. As a physical scientist, one piece caught my eye though. entitled “Evolution in the Cornbelt“, by Conor Gearin. The story focuses on the Prairie Deer Mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus bairdii), a common little fellow from the Great Plains that feeds on the tiny seeds of grasses and weeds in the prairies.

Researchers at Iowa State and Purdue University were curious how a species so adapted to life in the Great Plains has been able to thrive, given that >99% of the original tallgrass prairie in the region has been plowed under, converted to agriculture, urban land, or other man-made land uses. The grass and weed seeds the Prairie Deer Mouse had historically fed on were much more sparsely distributed than they were 200 years ago, yet the species is still quite common.  They started field work to assess the distribution of the nice, including setting up artificial nest boxes that the mice could use for habitation and food storage.  The results astounded the scientists.

Prior to beginning the work, it was assumed that deer mice populations would be the highest in “edge” habitat, areas such as grassy ditches, fencelines, or other “boundary” conditions where remnants of their traditional food sources may still be found.  However, they quickly found that the highest populations of deer mice were often right in the middle of very large corn and soybean fields, far from any traditional food source.  Clearly, Prairie Deer Mice had adapted to an agricultural setting, and were feeding on man-raised grains and pulses. The question was, how could a tiny mouse that was so well adapted to eating tiny grass and weed seeds shift gears and start feeding on corn and soybeans?

The researchers found historical deer mice in historical museums, creatures that had been preserved with taxidermy. Anatomical comparisons with Prairie Deer Mice from today found some stark differences.  The older specimens were well adapted to feeding on tiny seeds, with small mandibles and jaws that didn’t open very far.  The modern specimens had 1) significantly longer lower mandibles, 2) structural changes that allowed their mouths to open wider, and 3) larger upper mandibles. Accompanying the larger mandibles were more robust “hardware” for linking bone to muscle, with beefed up jaw muscles that enabled the tiny mice to feed on much larger food items than they had historically.

In the blink of an eye, geologically speaking, Prairie Deer Mice had shown measurable, obvious evolutionary adaptation in response to their new environment and food sources.  The researchers found high densities of deer mice in the middle of corn and soybean fields.  Some inevitably will succumb to the mechanical tools humans use to turn and manipulate the soil, but with such a rich, dense, bountiful food source, the mice had quickly evolved to fill the new ecological niche and feed on corn and soybean waste.

For a scientist like myself, I’m completely dumbfounded by the sheer ignorance of those who doubt science…who doubt climate change is real…who doubt in evolution.  The actual empirical evidence is overwhelming, conclusive, and “in-your-face”, for those who bother to open their eyes to the world around them. It’s a fascinating story, and the writer (Conor Gearin) did a great job not only summarizing the research, but telling it in a true story-teller’s fashion.  To me, this is exactly the kind of story, and writing style, that could perhaps help to turn the tide against the anti-science wave that seems to be cresting in the U.S. right now. Great story, and The New Territory really looks like a publication that’s worth subscribing to or picking up if you get a chance.

Grand River National Grasslands, Harding County, South Dakota

Expansive grasslands of the Grand River National Grasslands, in Harding County, in far northwestern South Dakota. Grassland habitat like this is greatly reduced in the Great Plains. However, that doesn’t seem to be a problem for one species, the Prairie Deer Mouse, who evidently can do quite well without an actual “prairie”.

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