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The science behind a bird fallout…there’s an app for that!!!

Birding the Sioux Falls area in April and the first half of May was…sloooooooooooooowwwww. With the late cold weather and snow, and continued wet spring precipitation, there was certainly plenty of water around (and there still is). But shorebirds were very slow all spring near Sioux Falls (perhaps just spread out?). Sparrow migration was utterly spectacular in April, but other songbirds? Once the sparrows left, it seemed like there weren’t any other songbirds filling the void. Certainly not warblers, which were few and far between for much of May. With the South Dakota Ornithologist’s Union (SDOU) meeting in Brandon on May 17-19, and with an incredibly wet forecast, the prognosis for good birding wasn’t great.

And then a funny thing happened…songbird migration ended up being utterly spectacular that weekend. The birds seemed to have arrived overnight, with warblers galore, and plenty of other songbirds as well. I personally had a 20-warbler day that Saturday (the 18th), and that’s with me whiffing on a few species that others saw in the area. It was one of the best, if not the best, warbler and songbird days I’ve had here in the 20 years I’ve been birding.

So what happened? As a scientist, I say LET’S CHECK THE SCIENCE behind it! You know how they say “There’s an app for that?” Well there’s also typically a scientific explanation behind…everything, if you look hard enough. That’s certainly true in this case.

For one, let’s check the weather radar for the overnight period from Friday, May 17th through Saturday May 18th. The weather that Friday was cloudy and rainy, driven by a low pressure system and a slowly moving front moving northeastward out of Nebraska. With the system predicted to generally stall over our area for the weekend, the forecast was bleak.

May 17th, 2019 - Weather Map
Weather map on 6:00AM (CST) on Friday, May 17th, showing a stalled to slowly moving stationary front just to our south. The forecast was for the low pressure system in Colorado to slowly move northeastward, bring showers and thunderstorms to the region for Friday night and into the weekend.

The weather system did move northeasterly through the afternoon and evening, triggering storms both along the trailing warm front to the south through Nebraska and Kansas, as well as more unsettled weather wrapping around the low pressure system. Moderate to strong northeasterly winds were found behind the low pressure system, but in front of the low were southerly and southeasterly winds…including in the area around Sioux Falls. It took until daybreak for the low pressure system to reach the Sioux Falls area, basically sitting directly over the region. But from the previous evening through daybreak on May 18th, an area from Sioux Falls, southward into extreme eastern Nebraska and all of Iowa and Minnesota were subject to south and southeasterly winds.

Surface weather map at 6:00 AM CST, showing the low sitting almost directly over Sioux Falls. But all night long, the counter-clockwise winds around the low funneled southerly and southeasterly winds through an area from far eastern South Dakota, and eastward into Iowa and Minnesota.

Given how slow the migration had been all spring long, the birds had to be…somewhere. But where? How could science have explained the fallout of warblers and other birds that weekend? The weather map and the southeasterly winds provide one clue, but the other is provided by weather radar itself. Since the 1950s, it’s been understood that weather radar could potentially identify features in the sky other than the weather…and that includes birds. There’s even a term for it now…Radar Aeroecology. A 1956 paper by Bonham and Blake discussed the radar echoes provided by both birds and flying insects. While research continued in the decades since, it’s only recently that the information has been made available for a birder’s benefit.

The animated map below shows national-scale radar returns for the night of May 17th. The advancing low and front, and associated precipitation, can be seen as it moves out of Colorado, through Nebraska and into South Dakota. But what of the radar returns in the eastern half of the country? Those are birds…birds taking flight just after sunset to resume their spring migration northward. You can identify the “bloom” around each radar location shortly after sunset, with the blooms appearing east to west as the sun sets. Where are the heaviest migration “blooms”? Look at the radars lighting up after sunset in the Midwest…St. Louis…Des Moines…other radars in Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa depicting heavy densities of birds taking flight.

Radar loop from approximately 6:00 PM (CST) Friday, May 17th, 2019 through 6:00 AM Saturday, May 18th, 2019. The areas south and east of Sioux Falls show a clear, very strong signal representing heavy migration of birds taking flight that evening.

But how can we translate those radar echos to where the birds are moving? In recent years, Cornell University, in partnership with multiple academic institutions, have developed “BirdCast“. They have developed algorithms that use weather radar returns to quantify the density of birds, while using short-term weather forecasts to project likely movements. The resultant “BirdCast” provides a 1- to 3-day look on likely bird migration hotspots.

The animated map below provides a depiction of estimated bird migration traffic that night. Ahead of the advancing front, southerly and southeasterly winds were favorable for migration, particularly as large densities of birds were already stacked up from the previous days and weeks. Sioux Falls was on the western edge of this migration hotspot, a beneficiary of favorable weather patterns bringing in birds from Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota.

Birdcast depiction of migration traffic rate (bird density) and directional movements, from about 6:00 pm Friday, May 17th, through 6:00 AM Saturday, May 18th. with northerly winds and lower bird densities in the western Great Plains, very little bird movement is noted. However, ahead of the advancing front, extremely high migration densities are noted from Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa radar sites, with southeasterly winds pushing them northwestward…towards Sioux Falls. The solid lines represent the advancing sunset (red) and sunrise (yellow).

The map below depicts the situation that occurred throughout much of the first half of May. Prevailing weather patterns and storms, along with the cool weather, kept birds stacked up to our south and east, with a very slow spring migration to this point in South Dakota. The week prior to the big Sioux Falls fallout, birds were so far south that the Houston area birders declared a “Lights Out” period from May 9th-12th to avoid confusing the mass of migrating birds. But they had a long ways to go to get to South Dakota.

Houston Audubon "Lights Out" for May 9-12
Image from the Houston Audubon site, calling for a “lights out” period from May 9th to 12th. Heavy migrations were predicted the week before the Sioux Falls fallout…but FAR to our south and east.

The result of the changing weather pattern…an absolutely spectacular weekend of birding in the Sioux Falls area the weekend of May 17-19, particularly as the forecast deluge mostly fizzled out. I admit that even I as a scientist was somewhat skeptical of the Cornell BirdCasts. But after the events of that weekend, count me as a firm believer!

Here are some photos of the spectacular birds of that weekend:

Scarlet Tanager - Piranga olivacea
Scarlet Tanager – May 18th, 2019 Good Earth State Park, South Dakota
Magnolia Warbler - Setophaga magnolia
Magnolia Warbler – May 18th, 2019 – Good Earth State Park, South Dakota
Henslow's Sparrow - Ammodramus henslowii
Henslow’s Sparrow – May 19th, 2019 – Newton Hills State Park, South Dakota. Great weekend of birding overall, AND a lifer? I’ll take it.
Great Crested Flycatcher - Myiarchus crinitus
Great Crested Flycatcher – May 18th, 2019 – Good Earth State Park, South Dakota. Flycatchers in general seemed almost non-existent, prior to this weekend.
Mourning Warbler May 18th, 2019 Good Earth State Park, South Dakota. Not a great photo, but Mourning Warblers are a species I see occasionally, some springs. On May 18th, I ran into probably a dozen at Good Earth State Park.

Meteors in your Gutter, Pollinating Crops with Drones, and more science news – Week of March 12, 2017

This week, let’s try something novel…science news, sans politics.  It seems that politicians in this country have decided we can live without science, so for one week, I’ll try a “news” post where science avoids politics.

Long-horned Bee - Melissodes

A Long-horned Bee, doing what bees do best…collecting nectar and in the process, distributing pollen. If one Japanese researcher has his way, we could soon be using drones to augment nature’s pollinators. A personal comment…let’s hope this never comes to pass.

Who Needs Honeybees when we have Drones? — A first…TWO drone-related stories in one week! While the story above about using drones to acoustically sample birds may seem practical, I admit I don’t see much of a future for this application!  Eijiro Miyako, a chemist in Tsukuba, Japan, was trying to make an electricity-conducting gel in 2007, an endeavor that wasn’t working. His concoction was stored, until 8 years later when he dropped the jar while cleaning out a drawer. Miyako certainly thinks differently than I do, because upon cleaning up the sticky substance, he wondered, “could this be used to pollinate plants”? The decline of honeybees and other pollinators is well-noted, something of potentially devastating consequences to not only natural ecosystems, but to our very survival, given the need to pollinate crops.  Miyako started working with methodologies to pollinate crops, starting out by coating ants with his sticky gel to see if their movements would attract and distribute pollen. It kind of worked, but didn’t seem practical, so he eventually started working with drones.  The drones have a fuzzy material that collects pollen and can redistribute it when the drone brushes up against another plant.  His eventually plan? Build a fleet of 100 or so drones, use GPS and artificial intelligence, and set them loose in a field to pollinate the crops. Well…I guess we all need dreamers, and given how science works, who knows what practical application may come of Miyako’s work?  But hey, how about instead of developing drone pollinators, we instead focus on preserving the natural pollinators we have now?

Norwegian Gutters Clogged with Meteors!! — Jon Larsen, a Norwegian jazz musician, has an interesting hobby.  He’s devoted much of his free time in recent years to looking through material in gutters, downspouts, and drains, searching for extraterrestrial visitors.  Tons of material from outer space enters Earth’s atmosphere every day, much of it microscopic. Larsen has searched through debris in urban settings in search of these microscopic visitors.  His passion has been published in the journal Geology, with a paper that discusses the identification of over 500 “large micrometeorites” from rooftops and other urban settings. Larsen has learned the typical characteristics of micrometeorites, stating “Once I knew what to look for, I found them everywhere”.  Next time you’re up on the roof, cleaning leaves out of those gutters, do it with a smile and a sense of wonder, because it’s extremely likely that you’re cleaning up cosmic debris along with those leaves.

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index - Great Britain

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) for Great Britain, showing relative “greenness” of vegetation at the time. Researchers are studying linkages between NDVI, tree ring width, and volcanic activity to see if vegetation is responding to pre-eruption conditions. Potentially, such changes could be used to help predict an eruption.

Predicting Volcano Eruptions from…the greenness of trees? — I believe this is a poorly written article, but the premise behind it is VERY cool for a scientist like myself who works with satellite imagery.  The title of the story is very poor and somewhat misleading, stating “Can tree rings predict volcanic eruptions”? The story focuses on the work of scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research. In 1973, scientists noted an anomaly on satellite images along Mount Etna’s flank, a streak of trees that were greener than normal.  With satellite imagery, we can measure a “Normalized Vegetation Difference Index”, a measure of live green vegetation.  NDVI measurements in 1973 satellite observations were high along a streak on the volcanos flank, and less than a year later, a flank eruption occurred right along that very streak.  These scientists hypothesized that measuring tree rings from 1973 would also show an anomaly, and thus the title of this story that tree rings could “predict volcanic eruptions”.  However, the actual results showed no difference in tree ring width during that time frame. Given the relationship between tree ring width and how “good” a year a tree has had, I can see why continued research is warranted to try to find relationships between increased NDVI greenness, and tree ring width, and see if other areas have experienced changes prior to a volcanic eruption.  As it is, there’s not much in this initial research that proves a strong linkage.

Spying on Birds with Drones — On-site surveys of birds is a time-intensive and potentially expensive endeavor if trying to systematically survey birds across broad regions. Researchers at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania investigated the use of drones for conducting acoustical surveys of birds. They tried flying a drone and extracting acoustical information from a recorder on the drone, and found that the method was able to sample bird presence for about as large a region as a human observer performing a survey.  They have some kinks to work out, primarily related to the noise of the drone masking some of the low-frequency bird noises (think cooing of a Mourning Dove), but they believe technological innovation will soon make drones quieter and more efficient at sampling bird acoustics. I admit I do kind of roll my eyes when I hear people talking about trying to use drones for photography, and for science applications, because in many cases it seems like a stunt more than an actual practical application.  Gettysburg College may be proving me wrong, as this actually does sound like an interesting use of drone technology.

American Chestnut - Wild Survivor

One of the VERY few wild, mature American Chestnut trees left in the wild. Trees such as this may be resistant to blight, and are being used in efforts to develop a blight-resistant stock for eventual transplantation in the wild. Genetic modification is also being done to introduce Chestnut Blight resistant genes in tree stocks.

American Chestnut, Returning to a Forest Near You? — I often wonder what it would be like to travel back in time, to visit locations before they were touched by man. In the United States, the entire eastern half of the country was once dominated by forest land. While forest cutting started in earnest in the 1800s and even earlier in some locations, remaining deciduous forests by 1900 were still populated by 3 to 4 billion American Chestnut trees. It is estimated that one-quarter of trees in the Appalachians were American Chestnuts.  The American Chestnut was a prolific nut producer, with mast from the trees supporting deer, turkeys, bears, and other wildlife, including the now extinct Passenger Pigeon.  In 1904 a fungal blight was discovered, a disease that eventually wiped out nearly every wild American Chestnut. Asiatic Chestnut trees were imported into the country, but with them came an Asian bark fungus that was lethal to American Chestnuts. The disease spread rapidly, killing every American Chestnut tree in its path.  It is now estimated that fewer than 100 trees of any size are left in their former range. Root systems of surviving trees still send up shoots, but the blight infects the trees as they mature, resulting in practically no American Chestnut stems over 10-years old in the wild.  This story is focused on efforts to genetically modify the American Chestnut to include resistance to the blight. 30 years of research has resulted in the introduction of a gene from wheat that makes the trees able to withstand the blight. They hope to gain approval to publicly distribute the trees within 5 years.However, it will still be a long process to repopulate Eastern forests with American Chestnut. The researchers want to cross-pollinate the blight resistant trees with native wild tree stock. Half of the offspring will be blight resistant, and genetic diversity will be much improved over the current research tree stock.  We’re at the start of a VERY long process to restore the tree to the wild, but hopefully our great-great grandchildren will be able to enjoy the same Eastern forest trees that existed prior to 1900.

10 years until “Snowball Earth” — I admit my scientist side geeks out when I read a story like this, as it’s just so cool to think of the physical changes that have, can, and will again happen to our Earth.  Of course the absolutely catastrophic consequences for mankind put a bit of a damper on that excitement!  Harvard scientists have pinpointed the circumstances that led to “Snowball Earth”, a period about 717 million years ago where the Earth was covered in ice from pole-to-pole.  Models suggest that the climate destabilization that plunged the Earth into polar hell could have happened in a blink of an eye in geologic time. Massive volcanic eruptions back then could have ejected enough aerosols into the atmosphere in just a 10-year period to initiate the rapid freeze.  Don’t worry, it’s not a single volcanic eruption that’s capable of such a long-term change, but instead the kind of massive eruptions that mankind hasn’t experienced in our history. 717 million years ago, it was a string of volcanic eruptions across what’s now Canada and Greenland that set off the freeze.  As I said, from a scientific standpoint, fascinating to think what could happen, but it also points out the fragile balance of our climate system.  “Snowball Earth” happened because of runaway cooling and feedbacks that amplified and accelerated the cooling, primarily with increased ice increasing reflectance of solar radiation in a self-reinforcing feedback loop.  Right now we’re playing a game of “chicken” with our climate system, doing the exact opposite, and removing that ice in a self-reinforcing feedback loop that’s amplifying warming.

Snowy Bison

The Bison, invasive species that forever changed North America! Well, if we were around about 150,000 years ago, they would have been considered an invasive species, one that transformed grassland ecosystems of North America.

Bison Contributing to Mammoth Decline?  — OK, my chosen title here doesn’t reflect the purpose of this research, but after reading the story it did make me curious…did Bison contribute to the decline and eventual extinction of the Mammoth? The story used DNA analysis to establish that the ancestors of North American Bison first arrived between 130,000 and 190,000 years ago.  As the story notes, in this case, Bison were the invasive species, rapidly colonizing North America and forever changing the grassland ecosystems of the continent.  It does make me wonder…if not for the establishment of the Bison as a primary grazer in North America, would the Mammoth and other North American megafauna have been better positioned to withstand climate change and the establishment of man? Interesting story, and a story that shows that not all “invasive species” are those that are introduced by mankind.

Managing Diabetes with your Sweat — Especially as a family that deals with the consequences of Juvenile Diabetes, we’re quite familiar with the frequent finger prick to check glucose levels in blood. Researchers in South Korea have developed a prototype glucose sensing and insulin delivery device that looks like an arm cuff.  Instead of measuring blood glucose, it measures glucose in sweat. It’s not just these guys, there are also other researchers who are looking at measuring glucose levels in tears. There certainly have been many technological advances and devices for testing and treating diabetics, innovations that are certainly welcome! I just wish there were some real advances on actually treating the disease, and not just the symptoms.
 

In The News – Week of January 8th

Science, nature, and other miscellaneous news for the week:

Binary Star Collision

An artist’s impression of a collision of the two stars in a binary star system. In an unprecedented prediction, two stars are forecast to collide in 2022, potentially lighting up the nighttime skies for several months.

Cosmic collision coming in 2022 — The two stars that are found in a binary star system called KIC9832227 have been forecast to collide in 2022, an unprecedented forecast that, if true, could provide some real celestial fireworks. Scientists are using past observations of collisions from a binary star pair to predict the 2022 collision.  In a past collision, scientists noted that the relative orbital speeds of the two stars sped up in leading to the actual collision, a phenomenon that is currently being observed in KIC9832227.  The actual collision has already occurred, but because the star system is 1,800 light years from earth, the light of the collision won’t be visible until 2022. 1,800 light years is actually relatively close in cosmic terms, which means we could be in for a bit of a show in 2022. The two stars are currently too dim to be seen by the naked eye, but it is thought that for several months, the new star created by the collision of the binary stars will be among the brightest features in the nighttime sky. Along with the total solar eclipse coming to the United States this August, there are some exciting cosmic events happening in the next few years!

Extreme tornado outbreaks increasing in recent decades — The most extreme tornado outbreaks in the United States have been on the increase in recent decades. Outbreaks, defined as 6 or more tornadoes occurring in a relatively short time span, are responsible for the most extensive property damage and loss of life.  According to the research, the largest tornado outbreak occurring in 1965 would have had around 40 tornadoes, while today, the number of expected tornadoes might double to 80.  I’m a bit skeptical of studies that deal with numbers of tornadoes.  We’re so much better at observing tornadoes now compared to several decades ago, both because we simply have a much larger population, but also because we have the technological tools to help us monitor tornado occurrence.  Any empirical record of tornado occurrence is undoubtedly biased towards the present day, in terms of the number of tornado observations.  Still fascinating research. The authors don’t make the case that the increase may be linked to climate change, stating that they found outbreaks are most strongly related to a measure called storm relative helicity, a measure that’s not been predicted to increase under climate change. However the authors have a bit of a “diss” towards climate science, stating that it’s hard to tell whether climate change plays a role “given the current state of climate science”.

Costa's Hummingbird - Calypte costae

A Costa’s Hummingbird male in flight. Scientists have found a remarkable adaptation in the visual motion part of the brain, a characteristic that may enable the rapid and precise aerial acrobatics of hummingbirds.

Seeing like a hummingbird — We’re animals…smart, sometimes amazing, sometimes incredibly annoying, but we share the same biological characteristics as most other animals on the planet.  Nearly every 4-limbed animal on the planet has a part of the brain that focuses on the processing of visual signals related to motion. The processing is focused on motion in a direction that comes from behind a creature…a very useful adaptation for detecting and responding to an attack from behind, for example.  Scientists have found that hummingbirds process motion-related visual cues much differently than other animals.This part of the brain in hummingbirds is larger than in other birds, and unlike other birds, individual neurons  are all tuned to focus on motion in different directions.  It is thought that this enables the amazing aerial acrobatics flying hummingbirds are capable of, as they can quickly process motion cues and adapt flight direction very quickly.

Media in a tizzy over giant iceberg — A check of science-news websites over the past week has shown many stories of the imminent crack-up of a part of the Larson C ice shelf in Antarctica.  It is a dramatic event, as a 60-mile long, 300-foot wide crack has split a part of the ice shelf.  Assuming the crack continues to grow, an iceberg the size of Delaware (!!) will break off.  It’s certainly a cool event, and one the media can sink its teeth into given the “cool” factor.  Of course the angle the story is written about often focuses on climate change (particularly in the mainstream media), but it really is hard to tell the role of climate change.  What IS dramatic is the continued thinning of the ice shelf overall, the incredible loss of ice mass in Greenland in the last decade, or the loss of sea ice in the Antarctic, event that are all definitely related to climate change. However, it’s tougher for the media (and people in general) to recognize the slow, inexorable march of climate change, versus dramatic events such as the Larson C crack.

Breathing option in Beijing — Air quality has been so bad in Beijing in recent years that officials recently established an “environmental police squad” to crack down on illegal burning and other contributors to the poor air quality. Additional measures announced this week include cutting coal-fired power production by 30% this year, revamping the most highly polluting factories in the region, and restriction pollution levels from vehicles in and around Beijing.  Air you can’t breathe, water you can’t drink…that’s what happens when you put economic growth over the environment, over human health. Keep that in mind when Trump and the environmentally hostile Congress start putting in “business-friendly” policies in the coming months.

You have a new body organ! — Have you had your doctor check your mesentery lately?  Have you even VISITED your local mesentery specialist? Well, probably not.  Medicine knew of the these structures in the digestive system, but they didn’t fit the definition of an organ because it was thought they were distinct separate fragments and not one continuous unit.  What bothers me about this article? This statement…from J Calvin Coffey, who “discovered” its an organ, stating this discovery “opens up a whole new area of science”.  Just because they discovered it’s one piece, not several pieces? Just because it fits the definition of an organ, it’s a new science?  The categorization doesn’t affect actual function of the organ.  This all goes with my “in the news” from last week, and how much of the human existence is defined by how we categorize the world around us.

Hagfish

A hagfish, a creature that evidently has the capability to evade shark attacks thanks to its loose saggy skin. Perhaps being ugly and slimy has its advantages.

Escaping a shark attack with “loose skin” — Ever wonder how a hagfish escapes a shark attack?  Well, neither have I. Hagfish are kind of disgusting looking things, akin to a lamprey or slimy eel.  Scientists (well, these scientists) wondered how hagfish escape when sharks attack.  They have a “slime defense”, emitting a cloud of slime that repels an attack, but that’s usually after a shark gets in a bite.  Scientists found it’s their very loose skin that makes it difficult for a shark’s tooth to actually penetrate into flesh, allowing them to react to attack without a fatal wound.  You DO have to give these guys points for creativity though, with their creation of an “indoor guillotine” that they developed to drop shark teeth into hagfish carcasses.

Chicken intelligence — Not a lot of bird-related science news this week, but there was this piece about the intelligence of chickens.  They’re not a bird you generally think of as being that intelligent, although when my son and I visited Reptile Gardens near Rapid City last summer, they had a trained chicken that came roaring out on cue and stole dollar bills from an unsuspecting audience member.  Evidently this research group felt the need to come to the defense of the poor, intellectually maligned chicken.  They determined that chickens are smarter than  you think that they have distinct social structures (a sign of intelligence) and even an ability to deductively reason.  A quote from the study lead:

“A shift in how we ask questions about chicken psychology and behavior will, undoubtedly, lead to even more accurate and richer data and a more authentic understanding of who they really are,” says Marino.

I can’t say as I’ve ever thought about chicken psychology.  But I am thankful that soon I’ll be able to get “a more authentic understanding of who they really are”.  🙂

 

Temperature at freezing point. At the North Pole. On the Winter Solstice.

It’s the winter solstice.  The day when the Northern Hemisphere receives the least light of the year.  And yet tomorrow, temperatures at the North Pole itself are forecast to hover around 32° Fahrenheit, the freezing mark.  That’s 50 degrees…FIFTY DEGREES…above normal for the date.

Not much to say on the matter, other than a direct challenge to climate-change denying losers…EXPLAIN THIS, without referencing overall climate change. (Crickets…)

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.

Science MATTERS – A lesson from Joaquin

Graphic of potential paths for Hurricane Joaquin

September 30th, just a couple of days away from Hurricane Joaquin potentially impacting the U.S. coastline, and nearly all U.S.-based models had the hurricane directly striking the U.S. coast. The outlier? The (well-funded) European model that ended up correctly predicting the path far out to sea. A repeat of Hurricane Sandy, which U.S. models also struggled with, but the European model nailed.

It’s more than a bit depressing at times lately, being a U.S. government scientist.  Funding is a big part of that, as funding profiles for science in the U.S. government have definitely been on the downswing.  For my own project, I’ve had to cut quite a few very good people over the last few years, as the funding I receive to do land-use and land-cover modeling (future and past) has declined precipitously.  There are few things more maddening than working on a project, producing something the world has never seen, something that has tremendous value in helping science and society in general cope and plan for coming climate and land-use changes…and seeing your “reward” come in the form of massive budget cuts, forcing the release of great scientists (and friends).

While the budget declines have been disappointing, what’s even worse is the public attitude towards science in general.  Science and scientists used to be revered in this country.  They were representative of progress, of leadership, of the United States’ leading global role.  During the Cold War, scientific progress itself was as busy an arena for West vs. East competition as was geopolitical competition, with the space race captivating the world.

However, in the past decade or so, science has seemingly become the enemy for many.  As the conservative movement politicized what are inherently science issues, not political issues, the public’s opinion of science, and scientists themselves, has taken a hit.  Instead of admiration, there’s a broad sector of the public that now views scientists with skepticism and mistrust.  The politicization of climate change has certainly played a big role, as political talking heads push a pro-business, anti-environment message by attacking not only the science of climate change, but the integrity of the scientists themselves.  Suddenly scientists are being portrayed as liars and swindlers, pushing climate change research only to support some mysterious hidden liberal agenda (SO hidden that even as as a bleeding heart liberal I can’t see it), or to ensure the big research dollars keep flowing (I myself would LOVE to know where conservatives think all these “big liberal research dollars” are coming from….I could use them!!!).

In the meantime, science is suffering in the U.S.  Environmental protection?  Research for clean energy sources?  Spending on environmental monitoring and assessment?  All irrelevant, as they potentially impact short-term profit margins.   It’s not just “fringe” science that’s being impacted, it’s core research and scientific monitoring that’s crucial to keeping Americans safe.

If you followed Hurricane Joaquin last week, there was tremendous uncertainty in the path of the hurricane as it lingered in the Bahamas.  Scientists use “ensemble modeling” to better characterize uncertainty in difficult to predict events, with a wide variety of models used to assess the same phenomena.  Such an approach helps to form a “consensus” of multiple models.  For Hurricane Joaquin, ensemble modeling was used to help identify a variety of potential tracks.  In theory, the most likely path is something that the majority of models agree upon.

Last week, the models were all over the map.  Even by mid-week last week, the vast majority of U.S. based models were predicting Joaquin would track northward from the Bahamas, making a direct strike on the U.S. mainland, somewhere between the Carolinas and the New York area.  Mid week, there was one model, the primary European model, that was an outlier.  The European model predicted a Joaquin would jog to the northeast, missing the U.S. coast completely.  The European model, although the outlier in mid-week predictions, was the closest to the actual hurricane path.  U.S. models performed quite poorly in comparison.

For Hurricane Sandy, there was similar uncertainty.  For Sandy, the European model (correctly) predicted the hook into the New York area, while most U.S. models predicted Sandy would curve northeastward and miss the U.S. coastline.  Again…it was the European model that was correct, with U.S. models performing poorly.

There’s a great story on the New York times on how far behind NOAA and the U.S. Weather Service have fallen in terms of hurricane forecasting.  Raw computing power is an order of magnitude lower for U.S. models than for the systems being used in Europe.  Input data is lacking, as are other aspects of model parameterization.  In short, the U.S. simply has not invested as much in basic weather forecasting and research as has Europe.

As Sandy showed, and now as Joaquin has showed….the lack of adequate research funding for science in the United States has a VERY real impact on the everyday lives of Americans.  Clearly it’s not just weather research that’s an issue. Science funding profiles are declining for nearly all fields. Keeping Americans safe from weather events, natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanoes, research on treating or curing disease, protection of our air, water, and food resources…all are suffering from lack of investment.

It’s a very curious disconnect right now, with technology-loving Americans seemingly often at war with science in general.  As Joaquin and Sandy showed, and as countless other examples have shown…there’s a real price to be paid for an inadequate investment in science.

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