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First video EVER of elephant-sized creature…it’s 2017 folks!!

I find it so fascinating how little we know about our own planet.  From a scientist’s perspective, it’s awe-inspiring.  It’s the realization that after centuries of scientific discovery, there’s still so, so much we have yet to discover.  Consider the video below (from the Washington Post):

A video of three whales swimming around…big deal, right?  Well, yeah!!  One of the largest creatures on the planet, and yet it’s a species that has only been SEEN by a handful of human beings.  Never before has video such as this been taken.  The True’s Beaked Whale is a mystery, an animal that’s thought to spend over 90% of it’s life submerged beneath the ocean’s surface. Natacha Aguilar de Soto, a marine biologist with the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, has studied beaked whales for many years, spending months at sea but yet rarely ever seeing ANY beaked whale species, much less a True’s Beaked whale.

However in 2013, a friend sent de Soto a video from the Azores that had been taken by science students on an excursion. The 46-second video above shows 3 adult or sub-adult beaked whales, casually swimming near the surface before slowly swimming out of the frame. De Soto was stunned to see the video of a creature she’d only hoped to see some day.  Using the video evidence, information from dead stranded whales that have been found, and other rare sightings, de Soto published a paper in the journal PeerJ that provides new insights on True’s Beaked Whales. A True’s beaked whale has never before been tagged, but other beaked whale species have been documented diving to over 9,800 feet below the ocean’s surface, the deepest and longest dives of any mammal on the planet. At this stage, so little is known about True’s Beaked Whales that overall population size and trends are unknown.  The article above however points out the dangers to similar beaked whales.  A Culver’s Beaked Whale, a close relative, was recently found dead with over 30 plastic bags in it’s digestive tract, and military sonar has also been implicated in the strandings of similar whales. The video was invaluable for the research, as beaked whales in general are so rare, that even general appearance and distinguishing between species is difficult. The research also hints at the possibility of True’s Beaked Whales actually being two different species, one in the northern Atlantic and one in the southern Atlantic. As deSoto states:

“We don’t know how large the populations of True’s beaked whale or any other species are,” said Aguilar de Soto. “The populations could decline and we would never know.”

An elephant-sized creature, one that’s shared the same planet as us for centuries, yet one that could potentially disappear without human beings ever knowing much about them.  At a time when political winds are telling one of our Federal science agencies, NASA, to stop observing the earth and instead focus on the stars, stories like this remind us how very little we know about our own planet.

Killing Government Science and more — Science, Nature, and Other News

Some news and views from over the last week.  For anyone interested in science, and the huge role that government plays in science in America…it’s been one damned depressing week,as details of the first Trump budget come trickling out. Overall, it’s an absolutely devastating picture for science and environmental funding. A few stories on federal science and environmental funding, followed by some other more cheery stories.

Trump's 4 Horsemen of the Environmental Apocalypse

Seen this week rampaging through the hallways of Federal science agencies were the 4 Horsemen of the Environmental Apocalypse, led by Trump, Steve Bannon, Scott Pruitt at EPA, and, well…one of the original 4 horsemen. I have to include an actual Horseman of the Apocalpyse, as clearly this administration has struck a deal with the devil himself, choosing short term greed and selfishness over the very welfare of the planet.

Trump Budget Kills NOAA Climate Science — Who needs satellites to study weather? And who needs scientists to actually do the science?  Evidently not the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  The proposed Trump budget that has trickled out this week proposes drastic cuts to NOAA, with a 17% cut overall for the program.  For programs that deal with climate change, it’s even more ominous, such as a 26% cut to the Oceanic and Atmospheric Research branch.  Observing what’s happening to our earth’s weather systems? The budget proposes a 22% cut to the satellite data division.  This is a pretty common theme across all of the Federal science agencies, with science evidently something the Nation can afford to sacrifice, so we can build more missiles that are too expensive to actually use, or build outrageously expensive planes that are $164 BILLION over budget and are lacking key functionalities. Government science in aggregate is only 3.4% of the entire budget…yet to pay for a ridiculous $54 billion increase in defense spending (with the U.S. already spending nearly 40% of ALL global military expenditures), science takes a disproportionate hit compared to many other programs.

EPA Budget set for 25% cut — It’s not just NOAA taking a hit.  The Environmental Protection Agency, LONG in the cross-hairs of conservatives who don’t appreciate trivial things like environmental regulation getting in the way of making money, is currently slated to be slashed by 25% in the Trump budget.  The budget proposes cutting 20% of EPA employees, and eliminating or sharply scaling back some major environmental programs. Great Lakes cleanup funds are proposed for a ridiculous 97% cut. Funding for restoring ecosystems in the Puget Sound would be slashed by 93%.  Environmental justice programs would be cut by 79%.  A program to help cut emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane has a proposed 70% cut. I have friends and acquaintances who work for EPA.  The mood there is nothing short of apocalyptic. Wall Street is loving it, given the salivating leaders of corporate America who envision a world without regulation, where they’re free to pollute and destroy the environment, all to squeak out a little bit more in short-term profit.  I’ve said it before…I honestly wonder if any of these people have children, and for those that do, how they can so COMPLETELY ignore their future health, safety, and well-being, all because of short-term selfishness and greed.

Ryan Zinke - Secretary of the Interior

Ryan Zinke, newly confirmed Secretary of the Interior riding his horse to work on this first day. He’s said some of the “right” things in his first few days. He said during his confirmation hearings that he believes in climate change, and that we’re causing it. He’s said he believes science should drive policy, not the other way around. Given a 4% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, we will see if this is just rhetoric meant to placate those who would potentially criticize the direction environmental conservation is going under the Trump administration. Hopefully Zinke realizes the massive responsibility he has for managing our Nation’s lands, and is being honest when he states how important DOI’s scientific research is for supporting sustainable use of those lands.

Department of Interior head “not happy” —  If (just theoretically speaking of course) a scientist was a part of the Department of Interior, things may seem apocalyptic right now as well, but perhaps with just 2 or 3 horsemen of the apocalypse roaming Department halls instead of the full-out 4 horsemen that are set to rampage through some of the other Federal science agencies.  The new DOI secretary is Ryan Zinke, who was confirmed this week, and promptly decided to ride a horse to work for his first day. Rumor has it that Mr. Zinke also has a penchant for proudly proclaiming he’s an ex Navy SEAL, which of course as we all know has direct relevance to managing our Nation’s lands, and the science behind it.  To be fair, Zinke has SAID the right things. As this article points out, he’s “not happy” with the Trump’s proposed 11% cut to Interior.  Few details have emerged so far, but what has become apparent is the disparity in how that cut would be applied across DOI.  Fish and Wildlife is set to take a massive cut compared to other DOI components, primarily because of their role in providing the science that supports the Endangered Species Act.  You can’t enforce the ESA if you don’t have the science behind it, and evidently the strategy of the Trump administration is to simply eliminate the science!  Problem solved, just as eliminating climate science “solves” the climate change issue!  Zinke is a fisherman and hunter, and DOES value the outdoors.  That helps.  Zinke also has a 5% lifetime score form the League of Conservation Voters.  That’s what’s sad, is that someone who has been very environmentally hostile in the past is viewed as a BRIGHT spot in the Trump administration. Here’s hoping that his early rhetoric is actually translated into meaningful action to protect the function of Department of Interior science.  Here’s hoping Zinke means what he says, and he isn’t just saying what’s politically or personally convenient.

Yes, it CAN get too hot for life on Earth — Past theory was that despite the potential for massive global warming to occur, temperatures in the tropics were somehow regulated by an “internal thermostat”, feedback mechanisms that prevented tropical areas from experiencing the same kind of temperature increases found elsewhere in the globe. It was an important theory, because the implication was that the Earth could warm significantly, yet the tropics would be somewhat shielded from that warmth increase, and would still support life. New research demonstrates that this likely isn’t true. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum occurred 56 million years ago, a time of the highest global temperatures of the last 100 million years.  Evidence shows that tropical areas did indeed experience drastic temperature increases, increases that resulted in widespread die-off of tropical biomes that couldn’t handle the increased temperatures.  The most drastic temperature increases we’re currently seeing are in Arctic regions, with temperature increasing over two times as fast as the planet on average.  However, as this study shows, there’s no place on Earth that’s immune from the effects of climate change. As this study shows, it IS quite feasible for temperatures to warm up so much that some parts of the earth become inhospitable for life.

Ten million lives saved – Vaccine effectiveness — Certain Trump administration officials, including Trump himself, have expressed skepticism about vaccines, with some even perpetuating the myths about vaccines causing autism and other harmful effects. Here’s one of the BRILLIANT tweets from Trump, showering the world with his “wisdom” about vaccines:

I’m not against vaccinations for your children, I’m against them in 1 massive dose. Spread them out over a period of time & autism will drop!

There you have it, straight from “Doctor” Trump’s mouth. I’m sure he’s done a lot of research on linkages between autism, and the timing of vaccinations. He has some other gems as well regarding vaccines, and there have been some suggestions that he’s partnering with well-known vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to assess the “dangers’ of vaccines. Although there shouldn’t be any need to provide more empirical evidence to shut the anti-vaxxers up, new research from the University of Illinois-Chicago has gone to the trouble of quantifying just how many lives have been saved due to the widespread use of vaccines. It was the early 1960s when vaccines against these diseases became widespread, thanks to the development of new human cell strain that allowed for safe and rapid production of vaccines.  According to the research, from 1963 to 2015, over 200 MILLION cases of polio, measles, mumps, hepatitis A, rabies, and varicella were prevented in the United States ALONE. Over 450,000 deaths were prevented by vaccine use. Globally the numbers are staggering, with over 4.5 billion individual infections prevented, and over 10,000,000 lives saved.

Climate change…vaccination use…evolution…the science behind all of these is quite clear. I find it hard to see how any rational human being can deny actual empirical evidence such as that provided in the study above.

The cost of Volkswagen’s deception – 1,200 shorter lives — When Volkswagen installed “defeat” devices on their vehicles from 2008 to 2015 to fool pollutant measurements, it did more than increase air pollution.  A new study shows that due to the lower air quality induced by Volkswagens sold in Europe during that time, that around 1,200 people will have substantially shorter life spans, by around a decade. Volkswagens were emitting 4 times as much nitrous oxide as allowed by European law, contributing to the estimates of premature death for hundreds of Europeans. Retrofitting all remaining Volkswagens on the road is necessary to avoid 29,000 “life-years lost”, and over 4 BILLION Euros in increased health care costs. THIS is the type of world being currently pushed by the Trump administration, where regulation is greatly reduced, and companies like Volkswagen can worry more about profit and less about the health and well-being of people.

Panda "AnAn"

A panda munching on a cookie. Hmmm. According to research released this week, the black ears help “convey a sense of ferocity” to potential predators. I’m not quite seeing the ferocity.

Why Pandas are Black and White — Well, screw the esoteric research many scientists devote their lives to.  Here’s a basic “research “question people can relate to…why are pandas black-and-white?  I’m not exactly sure of the value of the research (I’m sure other scientists might say the same about my research), but they looked at the black and white patterns on pandas and tried to relate to other carnivore species to see if there were survival or adaptation advantages to the black-and-white pattern.  Doesn’t sound like much of a surprise in terms of results. They are largely white because it helps them hide in snowy areas. The black?  The body markings help them blend in areas of dappled light and shade, while markings on their head are thought to help them differentiate among each other and communicate with other pandas. Another supposed finding is that things like the black ears will deter predators by providing a “sense of ferocity”.  OK, it may be pretty basic research, but at least they had me interested until that last point.  I have a very hard time looking at a panda bear and having any “sense of ferocity” conveyed my way.

Seven Earth-like planets a potential hotspot for life — Trappist-1, about 39-million light-years from Earth, is very unlike our sun. It’s an “ultracool dwarf star”, with a temperature much cooler than our sun. However, scientists recently found that 7 rocky, earth-like planets orbit the star, with three of them potentially in the “Goldilocks” zone where temperatures are just right for life. They’re very different than our earth. Given that they’re much closer to their sun, they make complete orbits in as little as 1 1/2 earth-days for the innermost planet, to around 20 days for the planet furthest from Trappist-1.  They also are likely gravitationally locked, with the same side of each planet always facing the sun. The next step will be to try to take measurements of the atmospheric composition of each planet, which will give clues to the potential for each to host some form of life.

Refugee scientists on the run, scared — From Nature.org, a fascinating story of “refugee scientists”, scientist from regions of conflict like Syria who have had to adapt to keep their research alive. Not to mention their very lives. Obviously scientists are only one small segment of the populations that are affected by these conflicts, but stories like this really help put a human face on things. The article provides the stories of four different researchers and the lengths they’ve had to go to to escape their home countries and rebuild their lives.

Women feel more pain then men? — According to new research from scientists at Georgia State University, women feel more pain on average than men because cells in their brains that process pain signals are more active than those in men.  Guys, I hate to say it, but this REALLY makes us look like wimps. During cold and flu season such as right now, there are plenty of stories of men being incapacitated for days by a virus, while the women in their lives soldier on and struggle through it without stopping their normal lives. I guess I had always held out hope there was some biological driving force behind the general wimpiness of men, but no, evidently even biology favors more pain-free lives for men.  We have no more excuses guys…we truly ARE wimps.

 

The anti-science movement

The Mesentery Organ

Did you ever learn about the “mesentery” organ in anatomy? I must say that until the story a month or two ago about scientists discovering the mesentery is, in fact, an organ by definition, I’d never even HEARD of it. It’s 2017…I find it absolutely fascinating that there’s so much we still don’t know. However, in a world of tiny smartphones that are more powerful than any computer that existed on the planet when I grew up, people generally take the world around them for granted. They’ve lost their sense of wonder. They’ve lost their appreciation for discovery, and for science. As a result…we get the anti-intellectual movement that seems so pervasive right now. As a result, we get a blithering idiot for a President, a man who spats the name “scientist” as if it’s a four-letter world.

I’m addicted to the internet. I read news obsessively.  I check the same websites multiple times each day, looking for the latest news and information.  That includes basic news sites, but it also includes various science websites, such as ScienceDaily, Phys.org, or some of the big journal sites such as Science or Nature.  I’m always fascinated to read about the latest discovery, the latest experiment, the latest medical trial, or other science-related information.

Evidently not everybody gets so jazzed about science and discovery. One site I check quite a bit is TheVerge, a site focused primarily on technology. They also have interesting science stories from time to time, and I recently read this article entitled “No Thanks to the New Science Thing“.  The author clearly isn’t a scientist…that’s fine…but I do find the article, and the lack of interest in science, to be a bit distressing.  It’s a microcosm of what seems to be happening to a broad swath of Americans, where science, where discovery and awe, are no longer an important part of what makes us Americans.

I “get” some of the sentiment in the story.  The author, Elizabeth Lopatto, focuses on a few science-related stories, beginning with a story of the discovery of “Zealandia”. Zealandia is a 5-million square kilometer area in the south Pacific that includes New Zealand and New Caledonia, but the rest of the region sits under the Pacific Ocean. Because of the geological characteristics of the area, it rightfully could be called a continent.  As the scientists state, “If you could pull the plug on the world’s oceans, then Zealandia would probably long ago have been recognized as a continent.”

The author of TheVerge story is having none of it. To her, the discovery of Zealandia would only potentially be of interest to geologists.  To her, because the new potential continent only is about 1/10th land, it’s NOT a continent, and the story of its discovery isn’t very exciting.  She goes on to mention other discoveries that don’t meet her standards for “scientific discovery”, specifically, the “downgrading” of Pluto from planet status, or the discovery that mesentery is truly a “new” human organ.  To the author, each of these stories are minor discoveries, not worthy of awe, not worthy of the general public’s attention.  To her, they are stories manufactured by the scientists themselves, and aren’t major standalone news stories.

What happened to the America that was caught up in discovery, in scientific achievement, in the simple AWE that comes with new knowledge?  The space race that captured the imagination of the world, the awe and wonder of watching Jacques Cousteau’s adventures (something I LOVED as a kid!), the excitement over the first Space Shuttle launches? What’s happened in the years since?  In a world where the combined knowledge of the entire world is just a keystroke away, have we become so completely numb to scientific achievement that we can’t appreciate discovery for the sake of discovery?

The existence of the mesentery, tissue in the intestinal area, has been known for centuries.  However, it wasn’t considered an organ by definition, until recent research on the tissue. I personally find it fascinating that there are still things we don’t know about the human body.  I find it fascinating we can find a whole new continent under the seas, in the year 2017. This author evidently doesn’t feel the same way, nor evidently do many Americans, given the anti-science mood from many of those on the right.

So here I sit on an uncharacteristically warm South Dakota winter’s evening, sitting at a desktop computer that’s a technological marvel, periodically checking my even more incredible tiny-computer-in-a-box in my iPhone, the warm glow of a LED lightbulb in the lamp by my computer, blogging about people who evidently have no appreciation for the marvels around them.  For me…PLEASE, scientists…tell me about the mesentery!  PLEASE…tell me about a new underwater continent that’s been found! PLEASE…tell me the reasons why you don’t think Pluto qualifies as a planet. I find it all quite fascinating.

And am also a little sad to see so little appreciation for science by so many of my fellow Americans.

March for Science, the “Harry Potter” crab, and more – Science, nature, and other news

Science, nature, environmental, and other news from the week.  Click on the story title for an external link.

March For Science

March for Science, coming to a city near you in a little over 2 months. Here’s hoping the march provides that “spark” that’s been missing between the American public and the scientists that serve them.

Planning continues for April 22nd March for Science — The “March for Science” is still scheduled for April 22nd, a grassroots effort to highlight the role of science within American politics and society.  The march has its roots in the backlash against the ghastly, anti-science tirades made by the Trump administration since the election, but as this story notes, the march is about the American public, and not the scientists themselves. This article from the Chronicle for Higher Education is focused on Caroline Weinberg, one of the March’s organizers. As Weinberg notes, there’s currently a disconnect between scientific research and the people in society whom that science benefits.  I couldn’t agree more with that statement, as scientists sometimes are QUITE terrible at communicating the value of their research to the public.  It’s easy for the public to understand the potential societal benefits of medical research, for example, but much more difficult for them to understand why investments in other scientific fields are societally relevant.  Personally, I am mixed on the March.  As a scientist, as a truly ANGRY scientist who is fed up with both the politicization of science, and with the anti-science attitude that has pervaded an entire major political party of the United States, I want this march to have every bit as much of an impact as the Women’s March held just after the inauguration. On the other hand, I view the March with a bit of trepidation.  We have a child as our President, an insecure, narcissistic man who must have a penis the size of a paper clip, given his tendency to angrily lash out at any entity that dares criticize himself or his actions.  Given Trump’s tendency to angrily push back when he himself is pushed, I fear that the march may end up doing more harm than good, in terms of the short-term political implications.  Despite any potential short-term impact, here’s hoping the march DOES inspire a longer-term engagement between the public and the scientists that serve the public.  Here’s hoping the march helps to reignite the PASSION Americans once held for science.

Solnova Solar Plant - Spain

The Solnova Solar Plant in Spain, an example of the massive global trend in the movement towards renewable fuel sources.

Solar power economics trump Trump — In just a few weeks after the inauguration, it’s quite clear that we already have what’s likely going to be among the most environmentally hostile administrations in history, even “besting” the dark conservation years of Ronald Reagan.  Anne Gorsuch Burford, EPA head under Reagan for nearly 2 years (and mother of conservative Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch), was famed for slashing nearly one-quarter of EPA staff, greatly reducing enforcement of Clean Air Act regulations, severely cutting legal action against environmental polluters, and populated EPA staff with big business executives from the very companies the EPA was supposed to be monitoring.  As bad as Reagan and Gorsuch Burford were…Trump’s team could very well be headed down an even darker path. On the energy front, Trump has vowed to slash Department of Energy funding, with a strong push for older, fossil-fuel energy sources as opposed to continued investment in renewables such as solar and wind power.  As this story notes, however, the very economics of solar energy may end up “trumping Trump” in the end. Costs for solar power now rival those of natural gas, and are cheaper than coal or nuclear energy.  Over two-thirds of new energy production in the U.S. in 2016 was from wind or solar, and with economics continuing to dictate the shift to renewables, even an environmentally hostile administration is unlikely to slow the trend.

Using Rabies to Kill Cancer — Brain cancers can be notoriously difficult to treat. The blood-brain barrier is protects the brain from nearly all pathogens, yet that same protective effect also restricts cancer treatments from reaching cancerous cells in the brain.  Scientists have long known that the rabies virus had the unusual capability to “hijack” nerve cells and use them as a means to bypass the blood-brain barrier.  Now they are using fragments of the rabies virus to coat cancer-fighting drugs, or even create new particles that mimic the characteristics of the rabies virus, enabling them to bypass the blood-brain barrier and reach cancerous brain cells.  The work is in its infancy and there are still many hurdles to overcome before such treatments could be used to treat persons inflicted with brain cancer, but it’s a great example both of the ingenuity of scientists, and the potential biological value of even one of our most feared pathogens.

Cactus Wren - Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus

A Cactus Wren on a blooming Saguaro cactus. A moderately sized songbird such as the Cactus Wren may be able to cope with heat and dehydration somewhat better than smaller songbird species, but they are still potentially threatened by rapidly changing climatic conditions.

Desert birds at risk from climate change — A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy for Science finds that climate change may have a devastating impact on some desert bird species in the coming decades, particularly smaller species such as Lesser Goldfinch.  Higher temperatures increase water needs for birds, particularly as they pant in response to temperature stress. Climate change may make parts of some species range “thermally inhospitable”, with birds potentially succumbing to heat stress and dehydration after just a few hours of exposure at extremely high temperatures.  Geographic population shifts are likely to occur as the climate changes, with birds moving to more hospitable locations, but with human-induced climate change, we are currently embarking on a grand, global-scale experiment on the ability of habitats and their inhabitants to adjust to changing climatic conditions.

Crab named for Harry Potter, Severus Snape — A newly identified crab species off the coast of Guam has been given the honor of being named after a pair of characters from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of books.  Harryplax severus is the new scientific name for the species, in honor of Harry Potter and the much maligned, and loved, Severus Snape from the series. A great name for an enigmatic, little understood, newly discovered crab species!

Monarch Butterfly populations take a tumble — Populations of the much beloved Monarch Butterfly have taken a hit over the last year, due to the one-two punch of declining milkweed habitat on their summering grounds, and winter storms that have taken a toll on their wintering habitat in Mexico. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Mexican government measure the winter habitat area used by Monarch Butterflies, a quantitative estimate that serves as a proxy to overall population  health.  2-years ago, Monarch populations hit an all-time low, with only 0.67 hectares of habitat used for over-wintering.  Populations rebounded over the last 2 years, but the harsh conditions this year has results in a loss of over 25% of winter habitat area actively being used.

Oscar

One of our two spaniels, “Oscar”. According to science, we should have similar personalities to Oscar! He is certainly a beautiful, gentle soul, mirroring the traits of my son and wife! And yet he also has a quirky, neurotic, hard-to-understand side that perfectly mimics his troubled “father”.

Dogs mimic their owners’ personalities — New research from Austria claims that dogs and humans can pass along personality traits to each other, with human beings taking on the carefree, relaxed attitudes of dogs with those personality traits, and dogs adapting the anxiety characteristics from a stressed owner. For any dog owner, it’s not exactly a surprise that dogs are “sensitive to their owner’s emotional state”, but this study actually used measurements of cortisol, a “stress” hormone, to quantify the relationship.

Our planetary footprint shows no bounds — There’s little that frustrates me more than those with a strong religious belief who doubt that mankind even has the capability of significantly altering our planet.  You’ve complete imbeciles like Senate loser James Inhofe who seem hell-bent on ignoring every piece of science that may fall into their lap, with Inhofe doubting in climate change because he doesn’t believe man can affect change at such a massive scale. For idiots like Inhofe, only a god has the capability to have such far-reaching planetary impacts. For scientists, it’s obvious mankind has had such a massive impact on the planet as a whole that we may be in a new geologic era, the “Anthropocene”, characterized by massive environmental change as a result of anthropogenic activity.  This story notes that our effects on the planet extend even down to the deepest ocean trenches, where amphipods from 10,000 kilometers below the ocean’s surface have been found to have extremely high concentrations of PCBs and other man-made, organic pollutants.  It’s tough to deny mankind’s influence when creatures many hundreds of miles from any human settlement, at the bottom of the ocean, are poisoned by our activities.

Human’s driving climate to change at 170X the natural trend — Related to the story above, more evidence of mankind’s massive influence on our environment.  A new study by Australian National University finds that volcanic activity, changes in solar activity, and minor orbital fluctuations have influenced the Earth’s climate over the last 7,000 years, but the impact of mankind’s activities has been 170 times more pronounced than these natural forces. Climate-change deniers have tried to attribute the startling climate trends in recent decades to natural forces, but there’s little scientific evidence to back them. The Australian National University study is just one more nail in the coffin of climate-change deniers (a coffin that’s already been nailed shut for many years now).

Europa

Composite image of Jupiter’s moon Europa, from the Galileo and Voyager missions.

Searching for life on Europa — A science mission that even our science-hostile Congress is behind…searching for life in the Solar System.  NASA has preliminary plans to send a probe to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. Europa is a cold, hostile place on the surface, covered in ice, but it’s a different story under the surface.  The tidal pull of Jupiter’s gravity is thought to provide an energy source that produces a thick sub-surface liquid ocean.  Cracks on the relatively smooth surface of Europa are evidence of the sub-surface water reaching the surface.  NASA believes they can potentially detect life on the moon by landing a probe on one of these surface breaches, digging down several centimeters into the surface ice, and using multiple instruments to detect microbes or organic signs of life.  Alas, the estimate is that the actual landing is 14 years from now, in 2031, but the proposed mission could finally answer the question of whether there’s life outside of the Earth.

Biggest volcano on the planet discovered — It’s 2017.  We’ve had extensive, periodic, repeating satellite coverage of the earth’s surface for over 40 years.  We’ve seemingly visited every corner of the earth’s terrestrial surface, and have increasingly mapped vast swaths of the hidden world under our oceans. The days of exploration and geographic discovery may seem to be in our far distant past, but as this find shows, there’s a lot we still don’t understand about our home planet.  Scientists from the the U.S., U.K., and Japan have discovered what is currently the largest known volcanic system on the planet.  “Tamu Massif” is a volcanic complex in the north Pacific ocean, about 1,000 miles east of Japan.  The tallest reaches of the volcanic remnants are more than a mile below the ocean’s surface, but the volcano itself covers an area nearly the size of New Mexico.  It’s thought to have last erupted over 140 million years ago, and is a shield volcano similar to the Hawaiian Island volcanoes. Mauna Loa in Hawaii is considered the world’s largest active volcano, with an area of around 2,000 square miles, but that’s a tiny fraction of the size of Tamu Massif which comes in at over 120,000 square miles.

 

How much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Ssshhhhh….it’s classified

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide

Trends in atmospheric carbon dioxide from pre-industrialization until today. We’ve gone from a baseline of 280 ppm to 404 ppm today, a level of atmospheric CO2 not seen in over 600,000 years. It’s irrefutable evidence of the impact man has had on the atmosphere and our climate. And now…evidently under the Trump administration, the level of atmospheric CO2 is classified information.

Science is in the news again!  Front page of the Washington Post, New York Times, and other major media outlets!! No, we haven’t discovered extraterrestrial life.  No, we haven’t found a cure for cancer.  In fact, there haven’t really been any earth-shaking research results published  No, the science-related stories that are capturing the front pages of major newspapers are those related to the muzzling of scientists in the federal government under the Trump Administration, after only 5 days.

It started on the 2nd day of the Trump administration.  Information on climate change was deleted from all White House website pages on Saturday, along with other issues that evidently aren’t important any more, such as civil rights.  Who needs to worry about civil rights, when we’re headed back to how it “should” be, with hairy old white men in charge of everything?  It’s all good!  In place of the climate change and LGBT information?  Melania Trump’s jewelry line. Yes, that’s right, a sales pitch for Melania’s jewelry literally is more important to the new administration than climate change or civil rights, and occupies space on the White House website.

Science and environmental research and reporting in the federal government was immediately under attack on other fronts as well.  This week Trump issued an executive order freezing all research grants and contracts at the EPA. All contract and grant awards, as well as all “task orders and work assignments”, are to be “temporarily suspended, effective immediately”.  It’s clearly the first step in dismantling regulatory activity at the EPA, with the Trump administration believing that regulation hinders business activity.  “Regulation”…you know…making sure you and your family don’t DIE or get sick just by breathing, drinking, and eating.  Minor little things like that get in the way of rich people making even more money, and we simply can’t have that.

Other federal agencies were instructed to halt “external communication”.  The Department of Health and Human Services has been instructed not to communicate “with any public officials”.  EPA was told to halt all press releases, blogs, or social media posts.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture was told to stop releasing any “public-facing documents”.  In other words, federal agencies have been instructed by the Trump administration to stop communicating with the public, to stop releasing results of the work that is done with taxpayer dollars.

Social media posts and press releases are a primary means by which federal agencies communicate with the public, and some bold renegade Feds today pushed the envelope on what’s now “allowed” in the Trump administration.  I say “push the envelope”, when in fact, all they did was do what they’ve done since social media became popular…they DARED to report scientific fact, without any inherent political message.  Badlands National Park in South Dakota sent out a series of tweets earlier today, simply providing the facts on what’s happening with our atmosphere and climate change.  Here’s a sampling of their tweets from the day:

National Park Service - Badlands Tweets

Pretty innocuous stuff, and pretty much the same kind of science information that’s tossed out on social media by many federal science agencies.  The response to DARING to state how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere? After a few hours, all climate-related tweets on the Badlands site were deleted, without explanation. Was there some violation of federal policy with the release of this mundane, extremely well-known, and well-verified data? As this story from Salon.com notes,the following rule of thumb generally applies to the disclosure of information by federal employees:

A public employee is allowed to speak publicly or share information with the media, if that information is not considered a government secret or classified information.

Evidently stating how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere is now a “government secret” or “classified information”.

The public clearly has a right to know how their tax dollars are being spent.  There were several reported cases of the Bush administration editing climate-related research results, changing phrasing or eliminating certain results to downplay the expected impact of climate change. While the Bush administration was openly criticized for their attempts to downplay climate-change impacts, those interventions were in fact relatively infrequent.  Science research in the federal government, including climate-change research, has generally been considered public domain information, and attempts to muzzle or modify research results have been few and far between.

The actions of the Trump administration in just the first 5 days are a warning shot across the bow for scientists in general, a warning that science is now subject to the same vagaries of politics as is the rest of the federal government.

Climate Change Research under Orange Hitler

Fire World

What the hell. Let’s just torch this sucker now, Might as well, with Orange Hitler completely dismissing the possibility of climate change, and appointing energy businessmen to oversee our nation’s ecosystems and resources.

I can’t even say the fucking name right now. It’s like freakin’ Voldemort in Harry Potter, “he-who-shall-not-be-named”.  So for the time being (perhaps for four years), I’ll be referring to “him” as “Orange Hitler”.

I’ve avoided the news as best I could today.  My heart just can’t take it.  First and foremost on my mind is my son, and the fate of Obamacare.  Pre-existing condition rules, carrying insurance from job to job, covering a child on your insurance until they’re 26, ENSURING you have access to health care…all pretty damned important for a father when your child has Type-1 diabetes.  I hadn’t allowed myself to think how Orange Hitler would affect the environment and climate change.

Gulp.  Now I know.  ONE FUCKING DAY IN as president-elect (throwing up in mouth right now), and announced likely Cabinet members include:

  • Newt Gingrcih – Secretary of State.  We’ll see if he’s as “diplomatic” (aka, an asshole) as he was as Speaker of the  House
  • Rudy Guiliani – Attorney General. Good.  Fucking; God.  This man, among all others in the campaign, distinguished himself for his bullshit rhetoric.  Given how much of that we got during the campaign, that’s saying something.
  • Chris Christie – Commerce Secretary — Are you fucking kidding me?  Is he just picking EVERY scandal-ridden scumbag on the planet to fill his cabinet?
  • Reince Priebus – Chief of Staff — Ah, so THAT’S why this piece of crap stuck with Trump throughout the campaign, as RNC head. Now he gets his reward.  And it was Hillary that was getting accused of “pay-for-play”, all for the Clinton Foundation that did incredible charity work, and all without a shred of evidence.

 

It’s already so sad that climate science in the U.S. is looked down upon by so many. Half of America (and our president elect) are so vociferously anti-science. 1-day in as president-elect, and we have the following:

1) The head of Lucas Oil is the guy likely to lead the Dept of Interior, which manages federal lands, and is where USGS and other agencies are. A 74-year old business man with a focus on oil extraction…he’ll be in charge of national parks and other lands.

2) The head of the EPA is another business person, someone who is best known for leading climate-change denying work.

3) 1 day in, and a Trump administration has announced they are going to implement a hiring freeze on all Federal employees. The goal…squeeze down size of government by just letting employees get old, wither, and die, without replacing them. That is a huge impact, as without young scientists continually brought into the fold, you lose innovation and new perspectives.

4) A “de-emphasis” of climate-related science. What else can you say here?  Let’s just stick our heads in the sand and IGNORE the greatest human-caused environmental catastrophe on the planet.

Under Bush, it was a dark period in that not only was climate change work “de-emphasized”, but for all those scientists working in the federal government, their work was often subject to ‘review’ by political appointees, with edits or publication restrictions if the results of the work didn’t agree with the anti-climate-change politics.

 

It’s the entire planet that suffers.  Climate change advances under Obama are going out the door.  And those who suffer the most will be future generations.

In the News – Week of October 23rd

Snowball

This snowball brought to you by the effects of climate change?

A collection of bird, science, photography, and news links from the past week.  Not many bird stories this week, but some good science stories.  Click on the links for the actual stories.

“Global Warming” causing cold winters — James Inhofe, jackass senator from Oklahoma (pardon my value judgement, but the man IS indeed a jackass from the standpoint of any scientist), famously strolled onto the Senate Floor a few years ago and presented a snowball.  PROOF, he said, that global warming was a hoax! A sham! A deception, set up by evil scientists like myself!!  How can global warming be real, if snow was falling in the DC area?  Sigh. In the last decade, the term”climate change” has been used much more frequently than “global warming”, and with good reason.  Yes, temperatures are warming overall, but the impacts also impact precipitation patterns, storm severity, and atmospheric flows, meaning “warming” is just one component of climate change.  As this story point out, severe warming in the Arctic is affecting the position of the jet stream, making it more likely that “wavy” jet stream patterns will occur in winter.  As a result, winters become more variable, with cold snaps become more common as a wavy jet stream brings colder air down from the Arctic. Sorry Senator Inhofe!  That snowball you used as a prop may have been an example of the effects of climate change!!

Heading to California for a long nap — I’ve only been fortunate enough to come across bats on a  handful of occasions.  If we take a walk in the late evening, just after sunset, we’ve occasionally seen individual bats flying about. Growing up, I remember seeing them flying around streetlights at night, scooping up the insects that the lights attract. The most memorable encounter?  Moving the portable air conditioner out of my wife’s grandmother’s kitchen window in the fall…only to have a live bat plop down on the kitchen counter. We interrupted his daytime roost!! Cool creatures, that I wish I’d had more chances to see. This is a neat story about Hoary Bats, one of the bigger species in North America.  Some bats will hibernate, some will migrate when weather gets cold, but the Hoary Bat is unique in that it first migrates to California, and then settles in for hibernation.  When I read stories like this, it always makes you realize how very little we know about the world around us…

Lesser Meadow Katydid - Conocephalus

Coming soon to a dinner plate near you? No thanks!

Edible Bugs — Can they replace beef?  NO. THEY CANNOT. I have nothing further to say on the matter.

Yo Dude…Surf’s Up!! — From the realm of “pure” science that doesn’t seem to have any practical application, some research on Mute Swans, with a finding that they will sometimes “windsurf” as they move on the surface of the water.  This researcher on 3 occasions observed Mute Swans sitting on the surface of the water, then opening their wings to catch the wind and “windsurf” across the water’s surface.  The REAL story here for me, from the perspective of a scientist?  That this dude was able to get an actual journal publication about this!  Publish-or-perish, the  mantra for many scientists, and this dude was able to publish something based on what he saw during his lunch hour!  Bravo…

And you think your life sucks? — I believe I’ve seen this before, in a David Attenborough-narrated nature documentary.  The Pearlfish is a species of fish often found in sandy shallows where there’s not a lot of protective cover.  It’s solution to not getting eaten? 1) Find a Sea Cucumber 2) Enter it’s anus and crawl inside.  Lovely!  Something to think about the next time you think your life sucks…it could always be worse.

Unseen moons may be circling Uranus — My son would have some crude jokes to say about this story…

Donald Trump

Brain activity declines as lying becomes more frequent? Why am I showing a picture of Donald Trump next to this story? Must be coincidence…

Brain reacts less as lies become more frequent — Scientific proof of why this election cycle has been so god-awful!  Fact checkers have certainly been kept busy over the last several months.  As this story notes, your brain gets conditioned to frequent lying, where it reacts less as lie after lie pile up.  Less brain activity with more lying…that certainly explains Donald Trump!!  He’s been at it so long during this campaign that you can hardly blame him for his many slip-ups.

ET Phoning Earth — I hate the mainstream media at times. I understand the competitive nature of journalists and the desire to be the one to break a big story.  From an economic perspective, I get the focus on the trivial by places like CNN, as unfortunately, they’re much more likely to get a lot of “clicks” on a story about Kim Kardashian’s latest hair-do than they are to get clicks on some boring science story.  But what I REALLY HATE is how everything is sensationalized, how a story always has to be “sexed up” to make it more controversial and eye-catching.  Hence this story, with the provocative headline of “Strange messages coming from the stars are probably aliens“.  The scientists involved here also deserve some of the blame, as it’s incredibly, ridiculously premature to assign these “strange messages” to an alien source, but it’s the story in the Independent that really plays that aspect of the work.  Interesting work, but I’ll need a hell of a lot more proof of the source of this signals before donning my tinfoil hat.  There are just far, far too many things we don’t know about the universe to unequivocally associate the unknown to some alien source.

Carolina Parakeet - Drawing

Carolina Parakeets were once occasionally found here in South Dakota, so why not parrots in Siberia? This is one of the first bird drawing I did when I started several years ago.

Parrot fossil from…Siberia?  — A parrot fossil dating from around 16 million years ago was unearthed near Lake Baikal in Siberia.  This marks the furthest north a fossil from a parrot-like species has been found.  It was warmer in the Milocene when this bird was living in the region, but not as tropical as the climate where most parrot species are found.  It’s not exactly unprecedented though. In North America, our own Carolina Parakeet was found over a good chunk of the eastern United States, and there are even reports that it had occasionally been found up here in South Dakota.

Got the sniffles? Go milk a Tasmanian Devil — I believe this is sound medical advice, based on this story!  Researchers have found that the milk from a Tasmanian Devil contains peptides that are able to kill hard-to-kill “superbugs”, bacteria that are becoming immune to our most commonly used antibiotics.  I envision a world where everybody keeps their own small herd of Tasmanian Devils, faithfully milking them every morning and use Devil Milk on their morning cereal to keep sickness at bay.

Two-thirds of Earth’s wildlife gone in last 40 years — Well this is a depressing story.  A study by the World Wildlife Fund has found that almost 60% of vertebrate populations have disappeared from the wild since 1970. Numbers a dire across all ecosystems, but are particularly bad for freshwater ecosystems, with over 80% population declines.  Good. Lord.  It’s not exactly surprising, particularly the fresh-water habitat finding.  I’m a fisherman, and have been since I was a boy.  We rarely bother going fishing in eastern South Dakota any more.  The rivers are E.Coli-filled cess pools of ag runoff and animal waste, and every year more and more lakes in the region are being assigned as mercury threats, with fishermen warned to either not eat the fish or to severely limit how much is consumed.  And yet there are groups out there that want to ABOLISH the Environmental Protection Agency…something that even our Republican presidential candidate has promised to do.  It sickens me to think what we’re leaving behind for our children…

Luke Perry AARP eligible —  I’m of an age where I definitely remember 90210 and Melrose Place.  I wasn’t a big fan and didn’t watch, but my wife did, as did many other people I knew back then. Well, evidently being “of an age” where I remember 90210 means I AM FREAKING OLD!! The reason this story caught my attention? Luke Perry from 90210 turned 50 and became AARP eligible…as have I recently.  Sigh.  With that, I’ll sign off from another week’s worth of news.  Now where are my damned glasses? And cane.  And prescriptions…sigh….

 

 

A scientific explanation for men being assholes…

Asshole Men - Trump, Putin, Kim Jung-Un

Biologically, humans aren’t the only species where men are assholes. Kim Jung-un, Trump, Putin…it’s in your genes to aggressive, maniacal assholes. 🙂

A new study came out this week on Chimpanzees, examining dominance and social pecking order of female Chimpanzees, and comparing dominance strategies against males.  Social dominance for Chimpanzees is established in males by conflict.  Male Chimpanzees will actively challenge other males, with successful challenges leading to a rise in the social pecking order.  Aggressiveness and conflict…that’s what establishes your “rank”.

Females on the other hand were found to literally never establish dominance through conflict.  Instead, the study found female Chimpanzees have social pecking orders established right as they mature. After that, their pecking order is set, with the only moves up in the pecking order occurring when older or more dominant females die.  In short, females “wait their turn”, and dominance is established with time and experience, without conflict.

There certainly appears to be a lesson here! I can’t read the news any more without an eye-rolling moment, and quite often it’s related to chest-thumping and conflict that, frankly, usually just seems like it’s conflict-for-the-sake-of-conflict.  And 99% of the time, it’s my own sex that’s responsible.  As this study shows, it’s not just humans!  There’s a biologic component to aggressiveness (and may I say, stupidity) among men! (and hey, this is all coming FROM a guy…)

As is ALWAYS the case, science explains everything.  The Chimpanzee study is a great example of why we end up with men like Trump, Putin, Kim Jung-un, etc.  🙂

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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