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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.

 

Birds Under Systemic Attack in the U.S. Under Trump

Young Whooping Crane - Grus americana

A researcher at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, dressed in white garb designed to emulate an adult Whooping Crane, and a young, 2-month old Whooping Crane “colt”.  Researchers only interact with the young while wearing such outfits, to avoid any human imprinting on the young.  Patuxent has played a vital role in conserving Whooping Cranes and bringing them back from the edge of extinction. Thanks to the GOP and this administration, the entire Whooping Crane program and its minuscule $1.5 million cost is being eliminated.

There are around 600 Whooping Cranes in the world, with about 30% of those in captivity. Of the few hundred birds in the wild, most breed near Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta, while a smaller and more recently established breeding population is found in central Wisconsin. The species has become reestablished in the wild only due to strong conservation measures and to the diligent and long-term efforts of captive breeding and reintroduction programs such as the 51-year year effort at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. When the program started in 1966, only 42 Whooping Cranes were left. The dedicated efforts of Patuxent scientists were vital for bringing the species back from the edge of extinction.

In 2016, Patuxent scientists developed a plan that would wind down their captive breeding program, with a plan to end the program in another 10 to 15 years.  Thanks to the Trump administration, that program is now in the process of being disbanded immediately.  In a multi-TRILLION dollar federal budget, the $1.5 million U.S. Geological Survey budget for the Whooping Crane program was a minuscule drop in the bucket.  But with a GOP political ideology that’s focused on corporate profit and short-term financial gain over ANY environmental concern, the death of the USGS’s Whooping Crane program is just one small part of a sinister, death-by-a-thousand-cuts to wildlife conservation in the United States.

The proposed cuts in both the proposed fiscal year 2018 and 2019 Trump budgets are more a declaration of war on the environment than they are a sound, fiscally responsible means of streamlining federal programs. The Ecosystems mission area of the USGS is responsible for an array of wildlife research and management programs: The Trump budget proposes a 30% cut in those programs for the coming fiscal year.  Many programs are slated for complete elimination, including the popular Cooperative Research Units, a network of an onsite USGS presence on academic campuses across the US.  Designed to foster local cooperative research on wildlife issues, the entire $25 million budget for the Coop units for 2019 is likely to be eliminated. The Climate and Land Use program is being forced to change its name to “Land Resources”, with nearly ALL climate-related research eliminated (as well as much of the landscape research).  Eliminating even the WORD “climate” is a common theme in proposed budgets across ALL Federal agencies. The “Energy and Minerals” Mission Area is the one USGS mission that maintains most of its funding, but the proposed changes are startling in scope.  While funding would remain stable or even increase for mineral resource exploitation, the entire “Environmental Health” program, designed to assess potential environmental consequences of resource extraction on Federal lands, is slated to be eliminated.  In other words…we want to exploit the Federal lands that YOU AND I own, but we don’t want to even look at the environmental consequences of that exploitation.

Other agencies in the Department of Interior are also slated for severe cuts, including cuts to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service. The GOP goal is to transition the primary focus of DOI to the exploitation of our natural resources, with environmental concern and conservation efforts being severely curtailed.  The Endangered Species Act, originally championed under the GOP and the Nixon Administration, is similarly under attack, with multiple efforts in Congress underway to undermine the law.

600 Whooping Cranes on the planet.  600 birds, found in only two concentrated breeding areas, and thus extremely susceptible to some disturbance or disease event, yet while the GOP attempts to raise our military spending by a ridiculous $70-80 BILLION a year, they have the gall to point to the $1.5 million Whooping Crane cost as a “luxury” that our Nation can’t afford.  Not to mention a trillion-dollar tax cut for corporations and the rich at a time when corporate profits are at record levels.

There’s so many disgusting things happening in Washington right now that it’s hard to stay on top of all the latest headlines.  Russia-gate, potential impeachment, obvious racism and bigotry emanating from the president himself (no, this president doesn’t get a capital “p”), mass killings and gun control issues…it’s overwhelming.  Conservation stories such as these are having a hard time getting any play in the mainstream press.  With the damage that’s being done RIGHT NOW, it will likely take decades for us to recover, after what’s shaping up to be four years of continuous and widespread attacks on our Nation’s wild resources, and the long-established programs designed to protect and manage them.

I just hope birds like the Whooping Crane can weather the storm until Americans come to their damned senses.

Tracking Fed Science Agency Websites (hint…NOAA…you’re screwed)

This week social media outrage briefly focused it’s attention on the Bureau of Land Management, from within the Department of the Interior.  BLM manages a variety of Federal lands, mostly in 12 western states, including over 200 wilderness areas, 23 national monuments, and many lands for the management of grazing and mineral access. A “minor” change on the front page of the BLM’s website was noticed and publicized on social media.  Previously, the banner image was a pair of young people, backpacks on, gazing out across an open, wild landscape at sunset. A beautiful image, representative of some of the wild lands managed by BLM in the West. The replacement image?  A photo of a strip of a coal seam in a coal mine.  Woo-hoo…energy!! Money!  Environmental destruction!  Everything a Bureau of “land management” should be focusing on.

BLM isn’t alone in terms of having their website presence scrutinized since the Trump takeover in January.  The Environmental Protection Agency didn’t beat around the bush on their webpages...they simply eliminated any actual references to the word “science” on the page for the EPA Office of Science and Technology.  The USDA removed materials from their website that identified animal welfare threats. Much of the information on the Department of Energy’s website simply disappeared a couple of days after the inauguration.  It’s not paranoia that has had science-interests frantically copying over science data from Federal websites, given the possibility of that information simply disappearing.

Given the frantic activity and radical changes on Federal websites…Who will prosper and thrive? Who will wither and die?  Current website layouts offer some clues on who will likely be the winners and losers under the Trump administration:

WINNER — U.S. Geological Survey

WELL played, USGS, well played. USGS is a non-regulatory science agency within the Department of the Interior. Given the lack of regulatory responsibilities, they perhaps are less of a target than a group like the Environmental Protection Agency, but those wise souls aren’t taking any chances. Leadership and web gurus from the USGS are doing their best to ensure USGS survives…nay…THRIVES…under a Trump administration. The USGS has perhaps the widest range of scientific research in the Federal Government, including not only geologic research, but also research in hydrology, biodiversity, energy resources, ecosystems, and (gulp!)…climate.  Yes…they have a “Climate and Land Use” Mission Area that partially assesses the impacts of climate change.  How does a science agency that deals in climate change distract a Trump administration that has a laser-like focus on eliminating ANYTHING with the word “climate in it?

PUT A FREAKIN’ FIGHTER JET ON THE FRONT PAGE OF YOUR WEBSITE!!

Brilliant, USGS, brilliant. You may not have a DAMN thing to do with the military, or fighter jets, but by placing a completely irrelevant piece of military hardware on your front page, on the very day we’re bombing the hell out of Syria, you’ve secured your future under a testosterone-driven Trump administration.

USGS Website - Front Page

LOSER — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

To whoever is manning the controls of the NOAA website…what the hell were you thinking?!?!? Have you not been paying attention to the rhetoric over the last several months? NOAA falls under the umbrella of the Department of Commerce, now led by billionaire (of course) Wilbur Ross.  Ross claimed during his confirmation hearings that he’d let “science be left to the scientists”.  However, he also is someone who has refused to attribute climate change to human beings.

In the bigger picture, even as head of Commerce and defacto head of NOAA, Ross’s opinions on climate change mean very little.  Cabinet members under the Trump administration haven’t exactly had a lot of sway with the boss, a man who prefers to go by his own “expertise” and gut instinct rather than listen to the people who actually are the experts. Even should Ross see the light and acknowledge the dire threat of climate change, NOAA…you’re completely screwed.  Brush up on your interview skills and start polishing that resume, NOAA personnel. With a front page like this, one that DARES to highlight recent climatic extremes…you’ll all be gone by the end of the year.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric (NOAA) Website Front Page

LOSER – U.S. Fish and Wildlife

Is the web guru at NOAA also running the US Fish and Wildlife website?  It’s pretty.  It has some birds…who doesn’t like birds?  They do get a FEW “Trump points” by having a screaming Bald Eagle on the right side of the image.  DAMN…that’s American patriotism right there!  But look at the rest of the USFWS front page.  A big banner on the top saying “Conserving the Nature of America”?  What the fuck?  USFWS, why don’t you just take the more direct route and all directly send in your resignation letters right now?

And having the first tab be “endangered species”?  If you’re going that route, you might as well take all the bird photos away from the banner and instead pop up a picture of Jim Kurth, the (acting) head of U.S. Fish and Wildlife. He’s the only thing “endangered” with a web page like this. I’d recommend a few changes to your website if ya’ all hope to survive, USFWS.  Keep the Eagle, but photoshop in a “Make America Great” hat.  Get rid of most of the birds, but keep the photo of the endangered Whooping Crane.  Then, on the left side of the banner, put in a photo of the hunting-happy Trump sons, showing them taking aim at the Whooping Crane. Better yet, make it an animated GIF, showing the Trump brothers killing the last Whooping Crane on the face of the planet, and thus freeing up the U.S. budget for more important things, like cruise missiles, border patrol guards, or hair tonic for Trump. Make those changes, and you MIGHT survive what is now a disaster of a website.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife - Website Front Page

WINNER – Environmental Protection Agency

The EPA, a winner under the Trump administration? Hear me out here.  Yes, there’s little doubt that environmental regulation is enemy number one for Trump, and with the EPA currently slated for at least a 25% cut and the loss of thousands of jobs.  There’s hope, EPA.  Keep on doing what you’re doing with your website, and I’d expect that cut to shrink substantially.

Yes, there’s no doubt Trump and environmental villain Scott Pruitt hate the environment with the same vehemence that the GOP hates Obama or Hillary.  But there’s one personality trait that “trumps” even that environmental hatred for Trump and Pruitt…pure ego and narcissism.   Touting Trump’s executive order on Energy Independence, right at the top of your home page? Sure, EPA, energy independence has NOTHING to do with your mission, but it’s a brilliant move, highlight a Trump action and playing to his ego.  Even better…placing a PICTURE of Scott Pruitt right at the top, along with a (admittedly completely bullshit) quote from the man.  Keep stroking their egos, EPA. For tiny-penis, insecure little men like Trump and Pruitt, it’s the best path to getting what you want.

EPA Website - Front Page

LOSER – Bureau of Land Management

NO!!  NO, BLM…what the hell!??! Why did you do it?!!?  You had it MADE!! Changing your banner to a photo of a giant band of coal?  The Trump administration’s obsession with the promotion of coal may be akin to a doctor giving a baby aspirin to a patient with Stage IV pancreatic cancer, but you RAN with that obsession and turned it into a social media headline.  The anger it generated from snowflake liberals (ahem…like myself)?  TOTALLY worth the angst, knowing that pissed off liberals means a happy Trump.

And…then you blew it.  Just this afternoon, I see you’ve replaced this god-awful, ugly photo of a hunk of coal with the second banner below, with a gorgeous photo of a guy enjoying  fly-fishing on a pristine mountain stream.  What…the…HELL!?!?!?  Those budget cuts in the original Trump budget? The cuts were COMPLETELY off the book once the coal photo was posted. Posting this crap, of a happy outdoorsman in nature?  Both you and your NOAA friends will have a lot of free time on your hands in the near future.

Bureau of Land Management - Website Front Page

Bureau of Land Management - Website Front Page

Science endangered. America endangered.

Endangered ScientistsGiven the news of the day, if I were to truly do justice to the scope of the threat to our society and way of life, this would be the longest blog post I’ve ever written.  If you’re a scientist or have any interest in science, today is one hell of a dark, depressing day.  There’s absolutely no way to sugar coat it. The Trump 2018 budget outline that came out today is worse than anybody could have imagined for science, even worse than the leaks that have been coming out over the past month. The numbers would completely cripple federal science agencies, but the bad news certainly doesn’t stop there. Academic research in the United States is critically dependent upon Federal research money.  This budget strikes a double-blow, against both government science, and the academic and private-sector science that depends upon Federal grants and funding.

If the word “climate” appears ANYWHERE in your federal program’s mission statement, chances are your proposed budget is completed gone, or severely crippled. Here’s the language in the budget outline for the EPA, regarding climate-related work:

Discontinues funding for the Clean Power Plan, international climate change programs, climate change research and partnership programs, and related efforts—saving over $100 million for the American taxpayer compared to 2017 annualized CR levels. Consistent with the President’s America First Energy Plan, the Budget reorients EPA’s air program to protect the air we breathe without unduly burdening the American economy.

“Climate research programs”, any “related efforts”, any cooperative international work on climate…COMPLETELY DISCONTINUED.  It’s certainly not just EPA.  USGS research that’s NOT related to energy extraction or hazards would take a severe hit…that includes climate work, Fish & Wildlife work, hydrologic monitoring, and more.  NOAA’s Oceanic and Atmospheric Branch…over HALF of their budget would disappear, and other climate-related programs would take a major hit or be eliminated in their entirety. NASA’s budget is spared…IF it’s the part of the NASA budget that looks up towards the skies.  Monitoring our own earth? Blah…who needs it…the proposed budget whacks NASA Earth Science and cuts four satellite programs linked to atmospheric and climate monitoring. The National Institutes of Health, heretofore generally immune to partisan bickering, would suffer an 18% in funding. Given NIH grants are typically multi-year, that literally means there would be no new federal NIH grants for medical research in 2018.

This doesn’t even touch on the truly cruel, pointless parts of the budget proposal, cutting nearly all Federal arts and humanities funding, removing all funding for PBS, and even eliminating the Meals on Wheels program to help feed the sick and elderly.

This is just a budget blueprint, staking out the Trump ideology. It’s up to Congress to pass actual funding for 2018. Surely Congress is more practical about measures that could destroy America’s place as a world leader in technology, science, and research, right? Well, do YOU have confidence in THIS Congress to do any better than the Trump budget? A Congress that introduced the disaster of a replacement for Obamacare that would give $600 billion in tax cuts for the rich, while forcing 24 million Americans to lose health insurance?  A Congress where the vast majority of House and Senate GOP members vote with Trump on nearly every issue?

Do you think they’ll stand up to Trump cruel, pointless budget, and protect the innovation and technological programs that made America great? I can’t say as I’m optimistic. I don’t think it will be as bad as the Trump budget outline suggests.  But it will be bad.

What’s laughable? There are already economists coming out stating this budget will have the OPPOSITE effect of what Trump intends. Wall Street has certainly applauded a forthcoming reduction in regulation, both environmental and economic. In the long-term. Innovation, technological and scientific, plays a massive role in the American economy. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) states flatly that the budget would “severely harm U.S. innovation, productivity, and competitiveness“.  The wind industry could generate a quarter of a million jobs by 2020, but wind and other energy sources NOT related to fossil fuels take a huge hit in this budget. Rather than spurring economic growth, the only thing the Trump administration seems to care about, it’s likely that the budget blueprint will devastate the long-term economy.

In short, the Trump budget, focused totally on his ideology, will end up not only destroying science and innovation in this country, it will destroy our long-term economy.  Ironic.

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.

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