Not-Quite-Lost Fish

August 18, 2011

I’ve always liked fishmarkets, so I was a cinch for this book when I saw it at our hotel on Shelter Island.  The illustrations are beautiful color reproductions of prints from Comte De Lacépède’s natural history of fish, and it includes a brief snippet of his writing.  The shapes of fish are fascinating to me, and measuring the discrepancy between what we suspect is the reality and the artistically arranged images on the page is part of the charm of it.

The title, however, refers to the usual grim, apocalyptic, man-is-sinful and an industrialist schtick that has become spiritual dogma among the ‘educated’.  I would not comment on it except that the text itself indicates that of the nearly 200 fishes shown in the book, about twenty are listed as endangered, threatened, or seriously threatened.  Not even extinct!  And that’s only 10% of this small sample of fish that were known in the 1830s.  Not a very strong piece of evidence for environmental catastrophe, Al Gore’s flypage quotation notwithstanding.  Being on the bandwagon sells books.

Another favorite natural history compendium here.

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Climate Change & the Whitebark Pine Apocalypse

July 28, 2011

Today’s editorial in the NYTimes, Climate Change and the Plight of the Whitebark Pine is a fine example of how a scientific fad (call it a meme if you like) gains and keeps traction.  In this case, the fad is global warming.  The editorial describes how the whitebark pine, a crucial element of high altitude mountain ecosystems, is in danger of extinction, and what will be the serious consequences for wildlife and vegetation if that comes to pass.  The editorial clearly links the situation to global warming by way of the mountain pine beetle:

Historically, the pine’s defense against the beetle is living where conditions are too cold for it — at high altitude or at high latitudes. But as the climate warms, that defense has failed catastrophically… The tragedy is the ongoing demise of an ecosystem, one for which humans are culpable.

Looking into the scientific investigations of this issue, the link to climate change, not to mention climate change caused by human activity, is not at all clear.  A study by the Canadian government quoted in the editorial concluded:

[the threats] include an invasive, foreign fungus and the suppression of forest fires, which are important in establishing pure stands of whitebark pine. But the most important threat is the spread of the native mountain pine beetle, which tunnels into the tree and lays its eggs under the bark.

The fungus is ‘blister rust,’ introduced from Europe.  Note that climate change is not directly linked to the problem, and that the threats cited are well-known, long-standing, serious, and similar to threats faced by many ecosystems today:  exotic species; human intervention in the eco-dynamics; local pests.

A Google search for whitebark pine and climate returns a lot of hits, but most of them are from the popular, environmental press.  The logic of their statements is consistent and revealing.  Warmer winter temperatures during the last decade have supported a vigorous growth in the beetle population, and that has decimated the trees.  But what caused the warming?  And how much warmer has it been?  There is no discussion of this.  Only statements such as:

So as long as temperatures keep rising and the beetles continue to be driven to higher-elevation habitats, their assault on the trees will continue. To save the species, a massive and immediate reduction in greenhouse gases is necessary.  Source 

Certainly there were outbreaks of mountain pine beetle in Whitebark in the ’30s and ’70s, but nothing like what’s happened in the last decade. Moreover, Dr. Logan’s climate models predicted this outbreak long ago. Very simply, warmer winter temperatures and longer summers have created overwhelmingly favorable conditions for a widespread pine beetle infestation in a high alpine tree species that used to be able to rely on cold temperatures to keep beetles at bay. Source

So, what do we actually know?  We know that the whitebark pine is important for western ecosystems.  We know that the trees are dying at a great rate.  We know that they are dying because of a variety of factors, several of which have nothing to do with anthropogenic climate warming (AGW), and we know that one factor, the beetles, is extremely important and that it has been encouraged by warmer winters over the last several years.  The link to AGW is assumed, as usual.

Climates, local and global, vary.  There is no evidence that this forest catastrophe is more than a conjunction of several negative factors, several of them associated with human activity (importation of fungus, suppression of forest fires) and recent weather.  Simply because the events are consistent with the hypothesis of AGW, it is automatically assumed that the proof is given, and the press goes to work.  They are totally separate issues.

Consider the abstract to this article that is linked to this topic in many online searches (my emphasis):

Forest insects and pathogens are the most pervasive and important agents of disturbance in North American forests, affecting an area almost 50 times larger than fire and with an economic impact nearly five times as great. The same attributes that result in an insect herbivore being termed a “pest” predispose it to disruption by climate change, particularly global warming. Although many pest species have co-evolved relationships with forest hosts that may or may not be harmful over the long-term, the effects on these relationships may have disastrous consequences. We consider both the data and models necessary to evaluate the impacts of climate change, as well as the assessments that have been made to date. The results indicate that all aspects of insect outbreak behavior will intensify as the climate warms. This reinforces the need for more detailed monitoring and evaluations as climatic events unfold. Luckily, we are well placed to make rapid progress, using software tools, databases, and the models that are already available.

The key statement has been underlined.  It is key to this abstract, and countless others like it, as well as the runaway assumptions made by popular journalism about the topic.  The statement should read this way:

The results of our examination of data and models, as well as our exploratory computer runs, indicate that if climate does warm, all aspects of insect outbreak behavior will intensify.

The conclusion of the study is actually unremarkable and rather trivial.  If climate warms, bad things may happen.  If it’s hotter, more people will be uncomfortable, there will be more heat stroke, ecosystems will be disturbed and will change, etc. etc.  If, if, if…

Now, back to those statistics and models to figure out if the climate is actually changing as they assume it is, and to figure out why…


Appease the Drainage Gods!

July 22, 2011

The Gods of Drainage have not been happy, and they have visited their wrath on the city of New York.  A “catastrophic fire” in the pumping station that lefts raw sewage into the North River Treatment Plant, which purifies it, and discharges it into the Hudson River, has shut down the facility completely.  Raw, that’s untreated, sewage from half of Manhattan is now pouring into the river, and will continue to do so through the weekend.  And it’s in the middle of a remarkable heat wave.  That means stay away from that beautiful riverside park all along the Hudson – it’s not going to smell too nice!

This map shows the areas that are served by the city’s fourteen sewage treatment plants:  the one that is out of action is No. 6.  Number Six!?  You can read all about the system in this NYC DEP publication.


More climate of fear…

July 20, 2011

Another few bars in the endlessly played dirge, The End is Nigh, from the NYTimes:

ENJOYING the heat wave?

The answer is probably no if you live in Abilene, Tex., where temperatures have been at or above 100 degrees for 40 days this summer. It’s been a little cooler in Savannah, Ga., where the mercury hit 90 or more for 56 days in a row.  How does this compare to business as usual, I wonder?  Those are hot places.

Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma are coping with their driest nine-month stretch since 1895I always wonder when I hear claims like this, was it hotter in 1895?  Is this the first year since 1895 that the ’95 record is surpassed?  Why was it so hot then, global warming?  How much hotter was it?

 Yes, it has been a very hot summer after one of the most extreme-weather springs on recordJust what does that last phrase mean?  Cold springs, hot summers, it’s all global warming!  Is she referring to the flooding?  

It’s time to face the fact that the weather isn’t what it used to beAlways a safe statement.

Every 10 years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recalculates what it calls climate “normals,” … climate of the last 10 years was about 1.5 degrees warmer than the climate of the 1970s, and the warmest since the first decade of the last century. Temperatures were, on average, 0.5 degrees warmer from 1981 to 2010 than they were from 1971 to 2000, and the average annual temperatures for all of the lower 48 states have gone up.   A barrage of stats in no particular order.  “All gone up,” how much?  0.5 degrees?  Not very much!  1.5 degrees warmer than the ’70s, but what about that “first decade of the last century.”  More clarity would be nice.  Seems like throwing a lot of stuff to see what sticks.

The numbers don’t take sides or point fingers. They acknowledge both powerful natural climate fluctuations as well as the steady drumbeat of warming caused by roughly seven billion people trying to live and prosper on a small planet, emitting heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the process.  Not much talk about natural fluctuation, but quite a drumbeat about AGW!  Where’s the link?

Even this seemingly modest shift in climate can mean a big change in weather.   This is having it both ways.  It’s modest, or it’s not.  Fact is, it is modest, but that doesn’t fit with the message.

Shifting weather patterns influence energy demand, affect crop productivity and lead to weather-related disasters. In the United States, in any given year, routine weather events like a hot day or a heavy downpour can cost the economy as much as $485 billion in crop losses, construction delays and travel disruptions, a recent study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research found.  Take out the word “shifting,” and you have a statement that is both true and unremarkable.  And weather is always shifting, i.e. changing. 

In other words, that extra 1.5 degrees might be more than we can afford. And while the new normals don’t point to a cause, climate science does. Drawing from methods used in epidemiology, a field of climate research called “detection and attribution” tests how human actions like burning fossil fuels affect climate and increase the odds of extreme weather events.   “Might be more than we can afford..,” and maybe they might not be.  Just throwing it out there…Maybe we should spend and plan more for how to deal with extreme weather events regardless of whether there will be more of them.  We do a pretty bad job of that now.  Please note the lack of discussion on just how these epidemiological methods work in the field of climate studies.

Heat-trapping pollution at least doubled the likelihood of the infamous European heat wave that killed more than 30,000 people during the summer of 2003, according to a study in the journal Nature in 2004.   Let’s assume that this claim is true, and that nobody else has published different results since 2004.  Certainly, this author will not tell us if they have or not.  Just what were the chances for the hottest summer in Europe since the 16th century?  Pretty small, I imagine, and double a small number is still a small number.  That’s the nature of a rare event.  As for the horrible death toll, that was largely due to the complete lack of preparedness for such events – alerting systems, cooling centers for senior citizens, public education on how to survive a heat wave – because such an event was unprecedented.  Government health agencies should have considered the possibility, but that’s not the fault of climate change.

And if we don’t ease our grip on the climate, summers like that one will likely happen every other year by 2040, the study warned.   People make warnings all the time.  The world was supposed to end in May 2011…

Using climate models, we can project what future Julys might look like.  Time to dust off my collection of crystal balls for sale…


How I Learned to Stop Worrying…

March 15, 2011

and Love the Bomb!  Also known as Dr. Strangelove.

That’s Hannah Dundee gazing at Fat Man, one of the A-bombs dropped on Japan.   Hannah inhabits Xenozoic Tales, comic book adventure series written and drawn by Mark Schultz, who carries on the tradition of Hal Foster (Prince Valiant), E.R. Borroughs (Tarzan) and other old-fashioned comic-pulp storytellers.  The macho hero is Jack Terenc, a shaman of sorts who tries to keep civilization in balance with nature so that The Great Cataclysm is not repeated.  Meanwhile, he and Hannah have multiple adventures in a world that mixes dinosaurs and nitro-fueled 1950s Cadillacs. 

It’s fun, and more clever than it may sound to you.  The back-cover image at top is a perfect example of the mélange of styles and influences in the artwork:  fashion photography; cheesecake; academic life studies; art deco; Hollywood movies;  Decadent/Symbolist art; adventure comics; Gothic horror… some call it kitsch.

And while we are musing over Japan, atomic desolation, meltdowns, and general human evil, you may enjoy this riff on bombs, bombing, and movies.  You can follow all the links – have fun.

Here’s the front cover:


Surburban expletive deleted

July 25, 2010

When Nixon’s secret tapes of his White House conversations were released under duress as part of the machinations of Watergate, the phrase, “expletive deleted” from the typwritten transcripts entered the language.  Nixon’s chat was not always of an elevated nature.

There is a blog on the NYTimes Opinionator page about a contest to redesign (yet again) the suburbs, this time of Long Island.  What struck me most about this post was the comments:  they are vehement, often violent, and I have never seen so many editorial deletions of inappropriate comments.  Apparently, feelings about urban design run pretty high.  And I am a frequent reader of climate-change blogs, where emotions are not exactly, shall we say, cool.

One line of thought was that the entire idea was a crock.  The suburbs are hell.  They should be razed completely.  Tax auto use to the skies and force those jerks to take mass transit.

Another was that NYC life has become impossible for middle-class people with families, so why do you hate us so much?

Plans of all sorts abound, from utopian to totalitarian.  Everyone has the solution. Everyone should be happy to live in the suburbs that I design.

Confusion over the very nature of terms is fundamental.  Manhattan is an American anomaly.  Many local suburbs are as dense as cities elsewhere in the USA.  Most people who live in American cities live in regions that would at least look suburban to New Yorkers.

Sprawl is evil.  Suburbs are evil.  Cities are virtuous.  People in the suburbs live soulless, isolated lives.  As if you can’t be terribly lonely and bored in the midst of a crowd in Bryant Park.

For another post on the topic of urbanist-ideological ranting, visit here:  Facing the Reality of Sprawl.


How big and little?

June 4, 2010

~not to scale

I was listening to a talk on sustainability today, and the speaker showed a graphic depicting the Earth and a much smaller sphere that represented the amount of water on the Earth.  I don’t know if he meant it to be just freshwater or not, but that’s what is usually talked about.  Nobody cares how much saltwater there is to drink!

The point of his image was to impress upon us the relative scarcity of water as a resource for human life.  He did the same thing for the Earth’s atmosphere, presumably to show how small its total volume is so we take care about polluting it.  But, I wondered, how significant is this?  The fact that potable water is small in volume in comparison to the volume of the Earth should come as no surprise at all.  Is this just some enviro-sustainability scare story?  I did a few calculations:

Radius of the Earth ~ 6,400 km

Radius of the a sphere containing the Earth’s freshwater ~ 202 km

Radius of the liquid ‘biomass’ of the Earth’s human population ~ 0.4 km

That last one may have you puzzled, but I was just wondering how this hypothetical drinkable sphere compared to the mass of those that drink it.  I took the population of the globe, assumed an average weight of 60 kg (probably conservative, considering how many children and malnourished people there are in the world today) and assumed that 60% of their weight is water – estimates vary depending on age:  it seems to decline as we get older.  That’s how I determined our liquid biomass.

What does it mean?  Well, it’s very small compared to the water-sphere.  Of course, the water is not uniformly distributed, nor is it necessarily found where we need it.  For instance, a good proportion of it is locked into glaciers and the polar ice sheets.  But what does telling us that the water makes a sphere much smaller than the Earth tell us?  Not much there either.

Scale and perspective are key, and they are always in short supply.