Articles for the Month of December 2016

Trying to stump “Merlin”

Cassin's Sparrow - Peucaea cassinii

A Cassin’s Sparrow, a rather plain, non-descript sparrow found in parts of the southern Great Plains and Southwest. Merlin was able to easily ID all of the “little brown job” sparrow species I tried, including Cassin’s, Vesper’s, Rufous-winged, Rufous-crowned, Black-throated, Black-chinned, and other sparrow species.

I’ve been birding 15 years now, and there aren’t really many occasions any more where I’m stumped on a bird ID.  The only occasions I have any difficulty are with species that are inherently damned hard to tell apart by sight, things like the Empidonax flycatchers or others where hearing a song/call or other audio clue might be needed to make a positive ID. I rarely ever even have a field guide with me when I’m out birding.  I do love field guides in general, and they certainly were a godsend when I first started birding, I hate to say it, but they’re a bit obsolete now, when you can put the equivalent of every major field guide directly on your cell phone.  I DO nearly always have my cell phone with me, and while I don’t use it much for visual ID issues in the field, it is handy for trying to figure out what call or song I heard.

I knew Cornell’s “Merlin” app has been out a little while, but hadn’t downloaded or tested it.  Merlin is an app for IOS or Android that allows you to identify birds in two ways.  If you see a bird but are stumped on an ID, you can enter the location, size, colors and other characteristics, etc., and Merlin will spit out the likely species.  More intriguing to me is the photo ID option.  You can simply choose any photo on your device, or take a photo, and have Merlin try to identify the species.  The “Take a Photo” option isn’t very useful, as your iPhone or Android phone just aren’t going to be able to get good bird photos unless  you’re at a feeder or other setting where birds are extremely close. However, I was intrigued by the option to identify the species from an existing photo, so I gave it a spin.

I have a huge number of bird photos, but most are on my desktop computer’s hard drives. The only ones I actually had on my phone were ones I processed on my iPad that got integrated with my photostream, from a trip to Arizona.  Still, I did have photos from quite a few species.  Some were quite clear and distinctive, photos that should be easy identifications. Others weren’t so clear, and I also had photos of several species that just aren’t that common in the U.S. How would Merlin do in identifying my Arizona bird photos?

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher - Polioptila melanura

OK, I probably wasn’t being fair to Merlin with this one, but I tried photos of a female Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. Both photos are of the same bird, but different angles and postures. For the first, Merlin mis-identified it as a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, without giving the option of Black-tailed, even when I told it the photo location. The second photo it handled without problem, likely because in that photo, you can see the distinctive darker coloring on the underside of the tail. Even there though…Merlin was impressive! The tail underside is shaded and not all that distinguishable, but Merlin handled it.

In short…pretty damned good!  It took me a while before I was able to stump Merlin.  I started with some easier ID’s. I had been to Madera Canyon south of Tucson, and had a number of hummingbird species at the feeders there.  Merlin easily handled all the male hummingbird photos, and to my surprise, did a good job on identifying female and immature hummingbirds as well.  I was fortunate to see and get decent, but not great, photos of an Elegant Trogon in Florida Canyon.  Merlin handled the rarity without issue (OK, that one SHOULD be easy to identify!!).  Lawrence’s Goldfinch, partially obscured by a weed?  No problem, although it did give me “alternative” answers other than the primary choice of Lawrence’s Goldfinch.  Multiple different sparrow species with sometimes not so obvious plumage differences?  No problem.  Birds in flight?  Did just fine on White-tailed Kites, a Gyrfalcon flight shot I happened to have on my phone, and other flight shots.  I quickly went through about 35 species, and Merlin handled them all flawlessly (although like the Lawrence’s Goldfinch example, there were a some cases where “alternative” ID’s were provided in addition to the primary ID).

I was thinking Merlin was infallible!  It is awfully good, but it has trouble with some of the same species I might have trouble with in an ID.  I tried two photos of a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, one of which was at an angle that was “unfair”, in that you really couldn’t see the tail characteristics that might distinguish it from a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.  It missed the ID in that photo, but was able to correctly ID the same bird in a photo from a different angle.  Another it had trouble with is one that I myself would definitely have trouble identifying.  I had a photo of a Gray Flycatcher (one of those nasty, hard to ID Empidonax flycatchers), and Merlin whiffed. It was a clear photo, and I even entered the photo location, but that was the one case where Merlin didn’t find a single “match”.

Merlin is a really nice piece of software, and it’s an app I’ll keep on my phone.  In the real world though…it’s an app that’s going to be most useful to new or casual birders.  For an experienced birder, Merlin is going to have the same identification troubles that we may have. Feed it a bad photo, or a photo of species that are just difficult to visually identify, and Merlin will struggle just as a birder might struggle. There’s also the issue of actually getting a photo to the app to be identified.  As I said previously, people just aren’t likely to take good, identifiable bird photos with their cell phones, so Merlin is likely most useful for photos taken on a DSLR or other camera body.  For me and my Canon 70D, it’s always an adventure trying to get photos transferred from my camera body to my iPad or iPhone, with a wireless app that is balky even on its best days.  For that reason alone, even if I were a beginning birder, Merlin might be less useful to me (through no fault of Merlin itself).  Merlin also might be less useful for rarities, as it seems to cover most native/common birds in the U.S. and Canada, but misses some of the rarer or exotic ones.

Overall though, very cool piece of software, and one that I do wish I had when I had started birding 15+ years ago.


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”, 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…

The return of Clyde

Cooper's Hawk - Accipiter cooperii

“Clyde” the Cooper’s Hawk, giving me the evil eye for daring to question his presence in my back yard. Perhaps it’s not me, perhaps he’s upset for another reason. He had just attempted to catch a House Sparrow at my feeders, and failed. Given the remains of feathers I’m increasingly finding in my yard this winter, it’s clear that he also succeeds quite a bit.

It almost seems like a horrible nightmare, looking back on our life one year ago.  We were living a happy, blissful life in the suburbs when he appeared.   “Clyde” terrorized our back yard, suddenly appearing when you least expected him, wreaking havoc and sewing fear. We had nightmares of a lifetime of Clyde appearances, fearing the phantom menace that would dominate our very existence.  However we were lucky (or so we thought).  We thought we had escaped the horrors of Clyde when he disappeared as suddenly he initially appeared, granting us many months of Clyde-free bliss. We thought we’d never again have to worry about Clyde.

We were wrong.

Clyde.  Is.  BACK.

Clyde made his reappearance on Thanksgiving Day.  A peaceful Thanksgiving dinner was interrupted by the sudden flurry of activity in the back yard, with songbirds scattering and fleeing for their lives while Clyde came roaring through the yard, looking for an easy meal.  Clyde (so named when he first appeared in our yard last year) is a Cooper’s Hawk, and he does what Cooper’s Hawks do…chase and eat birds.  We’ve had a bumper crop of House Sparrows this year (never a good thing), as well as a large number of American Goldfinches feeding on our big thistle feeder.  Throw in the ever-present Dark-eyed Juncos, the similarly common Black-capped Chickadees, and periodic visits by Downy Woodpeckers, Hairy Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Blue Jays, and White-breasted Nuthatches, and Clyde has a veritable buffet of birds from which to choose.

On Thanksgiving day, it was a beautiful male Northern Cardinal that he appeared to key in on.  The first sighting was when a flash of red flew up from the feeders, hovered a moment by the sun room window as it desperately sought escape, and then bolted for cover in the trees in the back of the yard.  Clyde gave it a good try, darting towards the Cardinal by the window (and nearly crashing into it himself), but on that occasion, the prey was the winner.  That’s not always the case.  Clyde is a pretty damned good bird hunter.  Ever since Thanksgiving, there’s been plenty of evidence of his successes, with little piles of feathers generally all that’s left after he’s consumed his catch.

In reality, I like having Clyde around.  I know some people (my wife included) aren’t fond of attracting birds, only to see them serve as prey for predators that attracted to their presence. For me, it’s fascinating watching their interaction, and regardless of whether I have a bird feeder up or not, Clyde is going to hunt and eat birds, and the songbirds that serve as his prey are going to be hunted and eaten.  Circle of life, something which certainly adds to the birding experience in a dreadful, cold, snowy South Dakota winter.

2017 bird calendar done – Free, downloadable, printable

August 2017 Bird Calendar - Horned Puffin

The August representative on the free 2017 bird calendar. This is a Horned Puffin, taken off the coast of Seward Alaska at a place called “Fox Island”. He was obviously nesting and feeding young, diving down for fish, coming to the surface periodically, and repeating until it had a beak full of food. Here I captured him just after he surfaced from a dive.

As I do every year, I completed a free, downloadable and printable bird calendar for the upcoming year.  The calendar pages can be downloaded by month, and are set up for standard letter-sized paper, so they can easily be printed at home.  The calendar pages are available from here:

Free 2017 Bird Calendar

I changed things up a bit this year.  Given that I always offer the calendar through my South Dakota Birds and Birding website, in the past, I’ve always restricted myself to photos from South Dakota itself.  Not this year.  Any time I go on travel outside the state, be it for work, family vacation, or other reason, I bring my camera.  I have so, so many bird and wildlife photos from outside of South Dakota, none of which have been on my calendars before, so this year decided to use images from across the United States.  California, Alaska, Oregon, Minnesota, Florida, Maine, Arizona, Utah…several states are represented, with many birds that you’re just not going to ever see in South Dakota (or are there Horned Puffins in South Dakota?).  Below are the months, the bird that’s represented for each month, and where that photo was taken.  You can also click on the links below for direct access to the printable PDFs for each month.

A casual dinner with EPA friends…

I was in Minneapolis for a couple of days, and before driving home last night, had dinner with a couple of friends from the Environmental Protection Agency.  It was a typical, light-hearted dinner, and every one was in a good mood.  In a good mood, that is, until one of the EPA folks go a text message from a friend. “Have you seen who your new boss is!?!?!?”, was the simple and short text.

We looked online for news about the Trump administration naming a new EPA head, and our collective hearts sank.  Scott Pruitt, the Attorney General of Oklahoma, was named the new incoming EPA chief. Scott Pruitt doesn’t believe in climate change.  Perhaps that’s not a deal-killer for the EPA head, because despite all the ridiculous garbage being spewed out of Trump’s mouth about the EPA, the vast majority of their work has very little to do with climate change.

However, Scott Pruitt is also an avowed critic of the EPA, and is currently actively SUING the EPA for what he deems to be “unnecessary and burdensome” regulation that gets in way of business activity.  Or to be more direct, gets in the way of MONEY, because as the incoming administration has made painfully obvious through Trumpt’s cabinet choices and stated policiy positions is that corporate America and MONEY is the only thing that matters.

The man is a lawyer, not a scientist…that gives you a good idea of the Trump administration’s views on the role of science in Federal government.  Not only is Pruitt actively suing the EPA (the very agency he now will lead! No conflict of interest there!), but he also has been very active in suing the Obama administration’s immigration laws, as well as Obamacare.  He’s an ally of the oil and gas industry, going to the defense of companies such as Exxon Mobil when they’ve come under scrutiny for their environmental practices.  He’s fought clean water laws, trying to limit Federal authority in limiting mercury, arsenic, and other toxins from contaminating the water supply.  In 2014, he purportedly wrote an op/ed piece for the New  York Times that criticized the EPA’s stance on pollution from natural gas drilling…and later it was found that the material in “his” piece was actually written by a representative of Devon Energy, one of the largest oil and gas producers in his state of Oklahoma.

In short, it’s like giving a fox keys to the hen house.  It literally would be extremely difficult to choose a WORSE person to head the EPA.

Thousands of Snow Geese Killed in Montana

Snow Goose - Chen caerulescens

A mighty flock of swirling snow geese, looking for a place to land while migrating through South Dakota. It can be pretty spectacular when the geese are migrating through the state, but alas, these birds have to land SOMEWHERE to rest and refuel. A massive flock in Montana made the mistake of landing in a toxic mine pit, resulting in the death of thousands of birds.

I had to travel to Minneapolis yesterday for a work trip.  We’re about a 4-hour drive from the Twin Cities, I HATE flying, and especially given that I’d have to tly, pick up a rental, and then drive 20 miles through town to the north part of the city where my meetings were, I decided I’d drive instead of flying.  Winter has finally hit the area after an incredibly warm and beautiful fall, with 40+ mile-per-hour winds yesterday and plummeting temperatures, but that huge weather change did trigger a massive migration of Snow Geese through the area. As I drove I often saw many very large flocks of Snow Geese, struggling a bit in that wind, but all moving south to escape the cold temperatures.

Around here in South Dakota, you’ll typically find Snow Geese in two types of locations.  During the day, you’ll often see massive flocks sitting in open agricultural fields, feeding on grain residue.  When they’re looking for safety and a place to rest, they’ll choose a lake or other water body.  Imagine a flock of 10,000 Snow Geese, heading south to escape winter.  They’re flying for many hours, are tired and are looking for a place to rest, and upon finally spotting a large patch of open water, they circle and head down and land on surface to rest.

It’s not just South Dakota and Minnesota where the migration has been in full swing. In Montana a flock of many thousands did the same thing this week, circling down to rest in a large water body.  Unfortunately, that open water body was the infamous Berkeley Pit, an EPA Superfund site, and a toxic cesspool of cadmium, copper, zinc, and a host of other dissolved minerals that result in water acidic enough to dissolve metal.  The bodies of thousands of geese were found in the lake this week, chemical burns covering their bodies, as well as the linings of their mouths and throats for birds that tried to drink or feed.  Some birds temporarily escaped the toxic hell, but the bodies of many other Snow Geese have been found scattered throughout the area as they succumbed to the chemical mix after leaving the mine pit.

There are no physical barriers to prevent waterfowl or other wildlife from accessing the toxic water in the mine pit. The story notes the company that owns the mine (Atlantic Richfield Company) uses noise and other deterrents to try to scare away wildlife from accessing the water. The company touts “official” numbers they report to the EPA, that only 14 birds died in the mine pit in the period from 2010 to 2013.  Yeah, sure.  The company may have reported finding 14 carcasses during that span, but I find it very hard to believe that open water didn’t attract more wildlife, deterrents or not, and that intentionally or unintentionally that 14 count is a woeful undercount of the true toll.

Don’t think a company would try to cover up other such incidents?  The Washington Post story notes that a similar, yet smaller scale event happened in the same pit back in 1992.  During that incident, Atlantic Richfield Company tried to pass blame of the birds death to other causes, stating that perhaps “toxic grain” or some other poison killed all the birds that were floating in their mine pit.  That defense fell apart when the University of Wyoming did postmortems on the birds and found their deaths were caused by severe burns, from water acidic enough to dissolve aluminum and other metals.

This is but one incident, in one mining pit.  There are literally thousands of such waste pits in the western U.S., relics of either past or current mining operations.  Very short-term economic gain drives the development of these mining areas, but what about the long-term impacts?  What is done with waste pits like after mining ceases?  Are there any plans to ever detoxify the waters and clean up the mining residue?  Or is this the “norm”, where seemingly the only plan to avoid environmental catastrophe is to make a little noise to try reduce how many animals die in the toxic stew?  This pit was in operation from 1955 to 1982, a 27-year run of productivity, but in the 34 years since mining ceased, what has been done to mitigate the toxic stew that’s been left behind?  It’s an EPA Superfund site, but that designation clearly hasn’t fixed the problem 34 years later.

A mining company profited for 27 years from this pit.  The environmental damage and what’s been left behind will end up taking a toll for a much longer period of time.  We’ve now got a new administration coming into office with an obvious laser-sharp focus on corporate America.  Cabinet appointments to date, stated policies that are being pushed once they take office, a desire to slash regulation and even kill off the EPA…it all typifies that “ME FIRST!”, selfish, greedy, short-term gain mindset that sadly “Trumps” any thought of long-term devastation such as this.  I’ve said it before…I always wonder if people with this kind of mindset have any children, or give a damn about their futures if they do have children.  I can’t ever imagine putting money and short-term well-being over the well-being of future generations.

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, 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.


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