Killing Science, $1 at a time

Landsat Image - Garden City, Kansas

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

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

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

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

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


Spring Has Sprung! It’s February 22nd!

Snow Goose Migration

Snow Geese migrating through the area. We started seeing Snow Geese in small numbers over 10 days ago. Starting in the latter half of last week, huge flocks started moving through. Just a few days after Valentine’s Day, when normal HIGH temperatures should be around freezing, and we’ve got a major migration going on. That’s not the only sign of an early spring…or of global warming.

Ignore for a moment the forecast.  We’re supposed to get hammered with snow tomorrow, with a full-fledged blizzard watch.  We’re likely to get a foot, and possibly more, over a 24 hour period starting tomorrow.  It’s not supposed to get very cold though, with high temperatures of close to 30…very close to “normal” for this time of year.  Disregarding what’s likely to happen tomorrow though, it’s been anything BUT a “normal” winter in South Dakota.

Right before Valentine’s Day, people started noticing small groups of geese passing overhead.  We can get truly massive flocks of Snow Geese that move through in the spring, and we also get large flocks of migrating Canada Geese and Greater White-fronted Geese.  What’s NOT normal is to start seeing the goose migration in mid-February!  With incredibly warm weather in February (It was over 70 degrees in Sioux Falls yesterday, and nearly 65 today, more than 30 degrees above normal!!), the trickle of migrating geese has become a torrent, with truly massive flocks of birds moving through the area.  Normally at this time of year, I’m hunkered down in the cold, with my local birding restricted to the few Dark-eyed Juncos, Downy Woodpeckers, or American Goldfinches that might visit my feeders.  This year I’m already enjoying the sights and sounds of thousands upon thousands of VERY early migrants.

The warm weather and the migrating geese aren’t the only signs of an incredibly early “spring”.  Given that my livelihood is based on the use of satellite imagery for mapping, monitoring, and ultimately predicting what’s going to happen on the earth’s surface, I follow a lot of other similar work, including data provided by the National Phenology Network.  “Phenology” is “the study of cyclic and seasonal phenomenon”, and the National Phenology Network examines plant and animal phenology and how it relates to the environment.  From a vegetation standpoint, we can  use satellite imagery to assess the phenology of growing vegetation, tracking the timing of spring “green-up”, peak vegetation activity in the summer, and the senescence/browning of vegetation in the fall.

The National Phenology Network produces a data product called the “Spring Leaf Index Anomaly”.  The measure compares satellite-based measurements of spring “green-up” of vegetation compared to the historical green-up across the United States. The latest update was a map of conditions released today, as shown here:

National Phenology Network - Spring Leaf Index Anomaly

The “Spring Leaf Index Anomaly” released today. Vegetation is already greening up as far north as Kansas City, a rate that is over 3 weeks ahead of when things normally start to green up. It’s such an anomalous, warm late winter so far that the legend is going to need some revising!!

We’re SO early in terms of vegetation green-up that we’re literally off the scale!  The legend for the Spring Leaf Index Anomaly shows how early or late spring green up is compared to historical, but only goes out to a 20-day departure from normal.  We are almost a full MONTH ahead of schedule for many parts of the U.S.

Warm weather, migrating geese, vegetation green-up from satellite imagery…it doesn’t stop there!  Daffodils are coming up around Sioux Falls!  In FEBRUARY!  Talking with colleagues from the east coast, daffodils and tulips started coming up a few weeks ago already!  We’ve still got plenty of porous, honeycombed ice on many of the lakes around here, but there’s quite a bit of open water, particularly with all the rivers and streams now unfrozen.

I’m still baffled how any rational human being can choose not to believe that climate change is occurring.  Even for the right-wing nut jobs who have long denounced climate change as some kind of incredibly elaborate, world-wide hoax that evidently involves all scientists on the planet, there’s been increased recognition that something is happening.  Well…duh!! Those same climate-change deniers have increasingly accepted that climate change is occurring, but refuse to believe that human beings that are the cause.

As a scientist, at this stage…frankly I don’t CARE if people believe we’re the cause.  The ship has already sailed…we’re already FAR down the path to severe climate change, given that we’re now over 400 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  There’s just no concerted, global, political, social, or MORAL will to make the sacrifices necessary to slow down climate change, so at this stage…SCREW the cause of climate change.  It’s HERE.  It’s HAPPENING.

If I could say one thing to the politicians who don’t want to acknowledge our role in changing the climate…AT LEAST SUPPORT ACTIVITIES THAT MONITOR CLIMATE CHANGE, and HELP US TO ADAPT TO WHAT’S COMING.  REGARDLESS of what you think is causing climate change, CLEARLY IT IS HERE.  The environment around is, the creatures within that environment, are necessarily adapting to the rapidly changing conditions.

The million dollar question is now if we can do the same.

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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