January 19, 2012

Simple measures could go a long way

Anyone who follows news about climate change knows that carbon dioxide is the primary cause of trapped heat in the Earth’s atmosphere which causes temperatures to rise.   But a group of our scientific colleagues have published a study which says simple, low-cost ways to cut methane and soot (a.k.a. “black carbon”) emissions could slow rising temperatures, boost crop production, and save lives.

The Washington Post covered the study, which found that

[J]ust 14 interventions — such as eliminating wood-burning stoves, dampening emissions from diesel vehicles and capturing methane released from coal mines — would offer big benefits.

This is, of course, easier said than done, considering that three billion people — nearly half the world’s population relies on stoves that send soot into the air. (We’ve seen these kinds of stoves all over Central and Latin America in our studies; a New York Times article several years ago reported that soot in developing countries is responsible for up to 18% of global warming.

This solar cooker is an inexpensive and wood-saving alternative for preparing food.

Solar cookers, such as the one pictured above, are a great alternative, but are occasionally slow to catch on with traditonally-minded villagers who prefer the familiarity of a fire.

Other practices touted by the study include plowing agricultural waste under in developing nations, instead of burning it, as is customary practice, which would cost next to nothing.

Our colleagues (an international team of 24) ran computer simulations that showed cutting methane and soot in the air would slow global warming by almost one degree Fahrenheit by the mid-2100s.  And better air quality would help prevent lung and cardiovascular diseases, saving “anywhere from 700,000 to 4.7 million lives annually.”  Not to mention ocean, plant, and animal life (ahem).

Even if all these practices were immediately implemented, CO2 would still be the world’s biggest problem, and the majority of greenhouse gas emissions come from China, the U.S., India, and the European Union.

And that may be the most difficult change of all to implement.


January 10, 2012

A seedbank for the future

Saludos, my friends, it’s been quite a while. But of course in the grand scheme of things, barely any time at all.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot lately about the things that scientists are trying to preserve for the future.  I’ve been thinking about how during Stalin’s reign, there were botanists who secretly stored seeds and different kinds of plants as the agricultural landscape of the huge country was being radically altered as the country was being unified.  It was in the name of crop diversity.  Crops are “genetic resources.” They can go extinct just like animals.

The varieties of wheat, corn and rice grown all over the world today may survive, but may not thrive, in a future threatened by climate change. A “biodiversity warrior” named Cary Fowler did an excellent TED Talk (yes, I know, they are so great, my friends!) in which he takes us inside a gigantic global seed bank, buried inside a frozen mountain in Norway, that stores a diverse group of food crops for whatever tomorrow may bring.  It is quite fascinating.  (There are quite a few all over the world.)

The entrance to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. Muy dramatico, no?

Burying seeds inside an icy Norwegian mountain may seem like something from a James Bond movie, but this is very serious business.  We really don’t know what will happen one hundred years from now.  Let alone one thousand  Or ten thousand.

It heartens me to know someone is thinking about protecting the future of food.

The grim iciness of the seedbank’s entrance is making me crave papaya, so I will leave you to ponder Mr. Fowler’s talk while I appreciate the fleeting deliciousness of that exquisite fruit.



December 14, 2011

Whale FM: Calling all Citizen Scientists

Pilot whales. You can hear their newest singles on Whale FM.

We’re professional scientists, ooh aah.  But do you know about “Citizen Science”?

Citizen Science falls into many categories, and usually involves harnessing the power of the Internet.  Laypeople can work on projects like SETI@Home, the groundbreaking project that had millions of participants (with time to kill) helping in the search for extraterrestrial life. Citizen scientists also  volunteer to classify heavenly objects, like in Galaxy Zoo,  observe the natural world, as in The Great Sunflower Project, and even solve puzzles to design proteins, as in the project called FoldIt.

Scientific American keeps tabs on such projects, and has co-sponsored this one with the Citizen Science Alliance (CSA).

The Whale Song Project (also known as Whale FM), invites citizen scientists to help study whale communications and pass along their observations. The Whale Song Project, which is also available as part of the CSA’s suite of Zooniverse projects, was created to help with  killer (Orca) and pilot whale research being conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and the Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

This orca duo's about to go platinum.

(You can tell the Scottish whales because of their charming brogues.  Sorry, we couldn’t resist.  Ahem.  Moving on…

Here’s how it works. You’re presented with a whale call and shown where it was recorded on a map of the world’s oceans and seas. After listening to it —represented on screen as a spectrogram which shows how the pitch of the sound changes over time—you’re asked to listen to a number of potential matching calls from the project’s database. If there’s a match, the citizen scientist clicks on that sound’s spectrogram to store the results.

The data set generated by this project should help the researchers to answer a number of questions about how whales communicate. For example, the (professional) scientists want to know the size of the pilot whales’ call repertoire, and whether repertoire size is a sign of intelligence. They’re also trying to understand whether the two different types of pilot whales (long fin and short fin) have different call repertoires, and, if so, whether this “signifies a distinct dialect.”

We think it’s extraordinary and hope you’ll give it a look — or rather, a listen.

As Steely Dan says, “no static at all.”

November 28, 2011

Naomi Oreskes and Merchants of Doubt

Historian and author Dr. Naomi Oreskes is someone who believes scientists need to be communicating with the world at large, not just in a lab or field.  She was named a 2011 Climate Change Communicator of the Year by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication.  She was the lead author of the multiple award-winning Merchants of Doubt, published earlier this year.

The book exposes how a small number of scientists worked (at the behest of industrial partners) to delay social action on smoking, acid rain, stratospheric ozone depletion, and climate change.

Her peer nominators wrote:

In a fascinating detective story, she was able to identify a common “playbook” of messaging – and messengers – that resurfaced continuously in the U.S. as these four issues received political and public attention. Through her work, she has made clear to a wide audience that a relatively small organization of powerful individuals and corporations has effectively disseminated doubt (rather than knowledge) in pursuit of their own ideological agenda. The impact of Dr. Oreskes’s work cannot be overestimated.

She has also (critically) defended her colleagues in the face of fierce opposition from non-academic sources [...] In summary, working climate scientists have come to view Dr. Oreskes as their champion. Her fearless work – often performed in the face of threats of legal action – has helped to expose the non-scientific pressures climate scientists have encountered during the course of their research. Her courage and persistence in communicating climate science to the wider public have made her a living legend amongst her colleagues.

She’s talking the talk, and walking the walk.

November 27, 2011

Field Notes on Science and Nature

We love taking notes.  And we love to sketch and muse upon what we see in the field.

So when we heard about this beautiful book featuring the observations, artistry, and notes of scientists out in the field, we were thrilled:

The publisher, Harvard University Press, says:

Field Notes on Science and Nature allows readers to peer over the shoulders and into the notebooks of a dozen eminent field workers, to study firsthand their observational methods, materials, and fleeting impressions [...] Covering disciplines as diverse as ornithology, entomology, ecology, paleontology, anthropology, botany, and animal behavior, Field Notes offers specific examples that professional naturalists can emulate to fine-tune their own field methods, along with practical advice that amateur naturalists and students can use to document their adventures.

Hear, hear!  And to this we add: One doesn’t need to be a scientist or naturalist in order to record thoughts, objects, images, and learnings from life.  All you have to be is curious.

And do have pen and paper handy…

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