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COVID-19 — ENOUGH of the anti-science bullshit

COVID-19 - Testing vs. Political Lean

I said a while back that I was going to try to avoid blogging about anything not related to birds and birding. There’s enough crap going on in the world since, oh, January 2017 to keep me occupied with multiple daily blogs if I wanted to, but I’ve been trying to, you know…stay sane.

Well, I’m about to break that oath, and talk something that’s definitely not bird related. We’re a good month into the worst of the COVID pandemic, and people are shell-shocked, and some are increasingly desperate. I get it. I understand the massive, Depression-level impact on the economy. I know there are a lot of people hurting, and I’m extremely sympathetic. I’d do whatever I could to help these people. But what I also know is that this has brought out a WORLD o’ ugly. Many Americans are soldiering on, pitching in to help where they can. Others are literally willing to sacrifice the lives of their fellow Americans, all for the sake of a paycheck.

As a human being…that’s damned tough to deal with. One thing that’s absolutely killing me right now though…the damned STUPIDITY and anti-expert, anti-science reaction to what’s happening. It all came to a culmination today with some idiot (on Facebook) who started bashing scientists and “stats men” for the (perceived) inability to perfectly predict the spread of COVID, and the trends over the coming days and months. This person made fun of weather men first, with a dig that COVID “stats men” make even weathermen’s predictions look good.

Yeah buddy…FUCK YOU. I’ve had it with the anti-science attitude in this country. There’s a fucking reason the US has by FAR the most cases in the entire world, and the most deaths. It’s the anti-intellectualism, anti-science, anti-expert attitude that’s fucked up the country, not just in the last 3+ years, but going back at least a couple of decades now.

People like this DO KNOW that the only way we’re getting out of this is THROUGH SCIENCE!!?!?? FINDING A CURE and/or TREATMENT!??!?! Anyway…here’s my response. I’ve just had enough of this kind of person.

The weather is a physical phenomenon. A lot of variables, but there are immutable, physical laws you can model. As hard as it is to model the weather, modeling this is orders of magnitude more difficult. COVID may be caused by a virus, but the spread and control is controlled by the actions of people. Blaming a “stats man” is ridiculous, as every scenario from every model has been just that…a scenario IF people behave as expected, or as they should. There are low scenarios, and high scenarios. And surprise…when people act according to the assumptions in the scenario…the models are pretty damned good.

Hint…People don’t do that. They don’t act as expected. They act in ways that are impossible to model (people ignoring the science, for one). So blame 1) a government (at many levels) that twiddled it’s thumbs and still hasn’t done a consistent job in reacting, and hasn’t done what they would be expected to do, 2) idiots like Governor Kristi Noem who play politics and ignore the scientists, despite hosting the biggest individual hot spot in the country, 3) people who are perfectly happy sacrificing other people for the sake of a paycheck.

Even a cynic like myself wouldn’t have foreseen so many Americans being so willing to allow the death of their fellow countrymen. Sorry, but blaming “stats men” and their models is BS. The whole anti-science spin is especially ridiculous given the ONLY thing that’s going to save our ass are the scientists working on treatments and a cure.

NOTE ABOUT GRAPHIC ABOVE: The graphic depicts Coronavirus testing frequency by state, vs. how that state voted in the 2016 election. In short…if you live in a blue state, consider yourself fortunate because you’re statistically much more likely to be tested. 10 of 13 top-testing states are Blue. 10 of 13 bottom-testing states are Red.

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.

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”.  🙂

 

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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