Archive for 2016 January

“The forks in the road”: Park Williams

Happy to say I found a way to profile the adventurous young forest ecologist Park Williams for the Santa Barbara Independent. The on-line version is the complete version of what I wrote; the print version is somewhat shorter. But let me add a couple of images and notes, because this story has a lot of different angles.

First, here’s a pic (if I can find it) of the way fog characteristically forms on Santa Cruz Island:














Under those fog banks grow Bishop Pines — and nowhere else on the island.

These pics came with the help, may I add, of researcher Sara Baguskas, who presented a paper on the subject of Bishop Pines and other trees on Santa Cruz Island at the AGU science conference this past December, and passed on her slides.*

But that’s background. Here’s the story.

A sense of play and a willingness to take big chances have always been important to Park Williams.

Although he is one of the most honored young scientists to attend UC Santa Barbara in recent years, winning a Graduate School Researcher of the Year award at UCSB and an Ecological Society of America award for young scientists in 2013, as well as becoming a fixture at the prestigious Tree Ring Lab of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Williams didn’t plan to become an ecological scientist, and he didn’t have his heart set on attending UCSB.

Born in l981 and raised near Sacramento, he went to UC Irvine for his B.S. degree but had a difficult time choosing a field after graduating. He applied to Berkeley, to Davis, and to Santa Barbara, each in different fields, from atmospheric chemistry to geology to forest ecology (at UCSB).

“I applied to UCSB, but I thought I was going to Berkeley because it had a bigger name. But then I visited Santa Barbara and talked to Chris Still, who later became my graduate advisor,” he said. “After talking to him, I accepted their offer the next day.”

Still, who now leads an ecosystem research lab at Oregon State University in Corvallis, remembers working with Williams well. They bonded over a fascination with cloud forests — moist tropical or subtropical forests filled with low-level clouds.

“Park is a terrific scientist, but he’s also a person who loves life and has a great time, which is a balance not all scientists have worked out,” Still said, mentioning a wild and crazy charitable project Williams launched after Hurricane Katrina.

Amazingly, a little of that direct-from-the-time is available on line through archives kept in UCSB’s geology division. Here’s the link.

In fact, there is an on-line available picture of Park in this wild and crazy phase of his life.










And how does Park explain his outfit? From September 21, 2005:

“Thanks for noticing,” Park Williams said when I commented on his outfit. Well, it’s hard not to notice a strapping weightlifter when he’s wearing a pink tutu, pink hair curlers, and pink slippers—and sporting a new moustache. No, he’s not campaigning for gay rights or doing field research on an arcane aspect of behavioral geography. As Park, a grad student working on his PhD in Climatology, puts it, ”In an attempt to spice up my life and do my part to save the world at the same time, until November 1, 2005 I will be accepting and acting upon dares and double-dog-dares for monetary donations that will go directly to the Hurricane Katrina Red Cross relief effort.”

Here’s what happened:

After New Orleans was devastated late in the summer of 2005, Williams set out to raise money for the Red Cross. He launched a site called Daring is Caring and took on dares for contributions to the cause. “It was really a hilarious thing he did,” said Still. “Basically he enlisted a bunch of his friends to help him out and solicited dares for pledges to the Red Cross.”

Williams began by singing karaoke rap songs down on State Street but soon graduated to wilder gigs, wearing tutus, delivering pizza around campus in a Speedo, and taking “a double dog dare” from a local radio show, which included going to a high-end pet store — now defunct — on State Street dressed only in a bathing suit and covered with dog treats and allowing the dogs to lick him clean.

(A reliable source told that Williams raised considerable funds with the help of a radio station — into the thousands.)

In an interview at the enormous fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco in December, Williams admits that at first he had a little too much fun at UCSB.

“I think it is a party school, at least compared to some of the other UCs,” he said. “And I think undergraduates especially need to be careful to be sure they can succeed in an environment where there’s a party going on almost all the time. It took me a couple of years.”

Williams initially wanted to do research into the cloud forests of Costa Rica, but he couldn’t find funding and ended up working in cloud forests much closer to home — on Santa Cruz Island.

“I don’t think I appreciated at the time how beautiful it was and what an opportunity it was to be living in Southern California but isolated from the gigantic human population,” he said.

Although he spent most nights in the field station on the western side of the island, the work often called for camping and rising at dawn to check the harp-like machine constructed to harvest fog water. By comparing the chemical composition of fog water to that inside the trees, the research group discovered how dependent the tree was on fog — about 10-15 percent it turns out.

So, it seems, Williams went from a wild and crazy party life at UCSB, to pursuing his science into beauty and isolation on Santa Cruz Island and, somewhat to his own surprise, discovering a whole new world out there.

This world includes some tough news, an example being how devastated Bishop Pines were on the islands by long (five-year) droughts, as of 1987-l991, and the most recent drought, which is also going into its fifth year. The land is changing profoundly out there, even without direct human intervention.

Here’s a slide from Sara Baguskas’ research, linked below.









Let Park explain:

Williams went on to compare tree ring growth with records of fog occurrence kept by local airports and showed that the trees do grow significantly more in years with foggy summers. The rare pine species also depend on winter rain, and droughts — such as the drought of 1987 to l991— led to mass tree mortality.

Williams went on to pore over decades of cloud records collected at airports since the 1940s to see if fog behavior has been changing, possibly as part of global warming.

“I was really surprised what a clear story came out of the data,” he said. “Out of that jumps this correlation between the urbanization of Southern California and the warming which comes with that.”

In a widely publicized study last year, Williams showed that in large urbanized areas the warming associated with the “heat island effect” means that marine moisture condenses into clouds at higher altitudes than it does in wild environments, reducing shading and fog and raising temperatures on land in cities.

“These low clouds are really important regulators of drought at the Earth’s surface,” he said. “For people, it’s not such a big deal [because they have alternate water sources], but for ecosystems the fog water is all they’ve got during summer.”

Williams has gone on to become something of a wizard at crunching vast datasets. He has worked with noted researchers in the Southwest, including Nate McDowell and Craig Allen, showing how imperiled forests in the region are by climate change. With a team led by Richard Seager, he studied global warming and drought in California, showing that about 15-20 percent of the drought’s impact can be attributed to human-caused warming.

“Global warming has significantly enhanced an existing trend towards fire weather in the Southwest,” he said. “It’s tough watching this happening, and it makes for a lot of sad stories, but maybe this work will be of benefit to western land managers and allow them to peer into the future.”

As for advice Williams would give to younger researchers, he turns contemplative. “Don’t sweat too much about the decision of what to study,” he said. “Just go and work very hard. Do something you’re interested in, and don’t worry too much about the forks in the road.”

And then, the way I would like to present the image:

And then he grinned.









[*Baguskas presented a paper at the AGU on fog and mass mortality among pines at the AGU, filling in for a colleague, but it happened not to be the paper available from the conference for linkage.]

Full Story »

Have you seen the stars tonight? (paul kantner)

Rock star Paul Kantner died yesterday, news that made the front page of the New York Times,. Over the course of a career nearly fifty years long, Kantner came up with a ton of dazzling songs, many of which became 60’s classics (Wooden Ships, Today).

At the same time he wasn’t a star likely to be recognized on the street. He had an everyman look, with dorky glasses, and didn’t put on airs, from what I can tell. Nor did he posture as a lone genius, or even often take a solo. Many of his songs had puzzling lyrics, perhaps because he ingested large amounts of psychedelic drugs, but some of them rang true.

Kantner had a rare gift for collaboration, The NYTimes: ,

With the breakup of the Jefferson Airplane in the early 1970s, Mr. Kantner began exploring his pet themes on a solo album, “Blows Against the Empire,” which had a science-fiction mini-epic on one side, as well as in the albums he recorded with Jefferson Starship, notably “Freedom at Point Zero” and “Modern Times.”

“We said what needed to be said,” Mr. Kantner told People magazine in 1981. “There was an obvious call not to turn the other cheek when we were being slapped by the system.”

But, he added, “The rock bands of the ’60s supplanted the football and military heroes, and just as all those heroes had fallen when put to the test, rock musicians proved they had no more of an answer to saving the world than anybody else.”

Hmmm. Sci-fi epic about a massive war between civilizations set in deep space. Little or no mention of earth. “Blows Against the Empire.” Reminds one of a certain movie, but never mind.

Although it was a solo project, much of his old band and several major rock stars in their own right (Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, Graham Nash) joined Kantner in this project, which became known as Jefferson Starship.

Rolling Stone today released a list of 12 essential Jefferson Airplane songs. It’s good, but doesn’t mention what is arguably Paul Kantner’s and company’s single best song (because it’s an early Jefferson Starship song — back in the days when the “starship” meant something).

Have you seen the stars tonight?

(Here’s a surprisingly good YouTube version of the recording — worth seeing and hearing.)

Back in the day, when I had a record player, and this on vinyl, I would play just this single song — and ignore the rest of the record. But I did love this song…

Full Story »

Buzzfeed takes on Trump

The most successful of the so-called “new media” is probably Buzzfeed, but the truth is, they have more to offer than cute cat antics. This week in two separate stories they called out Donald Trump for hypocrisy.

In Florida, in a story called Donald Trump vs Sea Level Rise, reporter Peter Aldous points out that Trump is putting millions and millions of dollars of his property at risk by pretending that global warming isn’t happening.

“Located on 240 feet of pristine beach, Trump Hollywood offers spectacular views of the ocean,” boasts the Trump Organization on its website. Three-bedroom units in this 41-story luxury development are currently on sale for around $3 million apiece.

But by the end of this century, the ocean could be way too close for comfort. According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 3 feet of sea level rise could turn the building into an island at the highest tides. Six feet would submerge most of the surrounding neighborhood.

But Donald Trump doesn’t buy any of that. Global warming, he has said, is “a total hoax” and “bullshit.”

And in Las Vegas, in a story called Trump’s Effect on the Latino Vote Has Began, reporter Adrian Carrasquillo finds an effort underway to register Latino voters in Nevada. He writes:

How high the ultimate number of newly naturalized citizens will go is unclear, but there is a precedent for immigration rhetoric driving large numbers of people to naturalize — and likely affecting decisions at the ballot box in a presidential year.

In 1994, former California Gov. Pete Wilson, his restrictionist immigration policies, and his controversial ads about illegal immigration became a high-profile campaign issue in a state home to millions of Hispanic voters.

During his re-election campaign, Wilson championed a ballot measure called Prop 187, which denied undocumented immigrants and their children access to public education and health care. The proposition passed (it was later found unconstitutional by a federal district court), but California’s Latino voter registration went up 50%.

The reporter includes a memorable quote:

“We have a new boogeyman,” said 20-year Nevada veteran Democratic strategist Andres Ramirez, referring to Trump. “We’ve had boogeymen in past years but now we have one at unprecedented levels.”

Go Donald (w/Sarah).








Full Story »

Woody Guthrie on Trump: “Racial Hate”

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor and excellent Facebooker, quotes the fierce American folk singer, poet, and labor activist Woody Guthrie on an important man from the past who is still with us today.

Donald Trump and his father Fred.

Quote of the day:

“I suppose
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
Racial Hate
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed
That color line
Here at his
Eighteen hundred family project.”

— Folksinger Woody Guthrie, 1953 (in a song about Fred Trump, Donald’s father, who, according to Guthrie, wouldn’t rent to African-Americans).

It’s an incredible story, best heard I think on radio, as in Ari Shapiro’s terrific piece last Friday on NPR: “Ain’t Got No Home”: Why Woody Guthrie Despised Donald Trump’s Father

But Woody’s words on the racism of Trump need seeing, too:

“Beach Haven ain’t my home!
I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain!
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven looks like heaven
Where no black ones come to roam!
No, no, no! Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home.”

— Woody Guthrie, 1959 (in another song referring to Fred Trump)

Robert Reich's photo.

Full Story »

The birds of the Americas, passing thru

From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a map of the migration of 118 species of birds in the Western hemisphere:


[On this map none of these species have reached Southern California yet; actually, a few have reached Ventura County, I think. Saw some chickadee like birds on a walk. Though I read that this has been a difficult year for migratory birds in California, because in the drought farmers have cut back from soaking their fields.]

Full Story »

David Foster Wallace, loneliness, and the confusions of Eros

A poet named Nate Klug strikes to the heart in a recent Poetry Daily entry called Aporia:


Not little by little,

as concerto strings
or doctrines like

to disappear,

leaving time
to think. No—skin

pulled taut around

jaw and fierce cheek,
seen from the side

in the sea of the bed:

none now
that was her is there.

Okay — but what does it mean? Ask Wikipedia, and we learn the word Aporia is all but “untranslatable”: derived from two Greek words seemingly in opposition (“without” and “a passage”) and with an astonishingly complex mythological history.

This is the myth from which the word derives, according to an excerpted essay by post-structuralist Sarah Kofman:

Penia, the “child of poverty,” decides to forcefully impregnate herself with the inebriated Poros, the personification of plenty, who is always in opposition with aporia and thus defining aporia. The result of this union is Eros, who inherits the disparate characteristics of his parents (25). The perplexing aspect of the myth is revealed as one realizes that Penia is acting out of resourcefulness, a quality normally attributed to Poros, and Poros’ inaction reveals his own passivity, a poverty of agency or poros. Such a relationship intensely affects not only the context of aporia but its meaning as well.


The idea of aporia, the entry argues, a kind of divided self; an opposition to one’s own progress. No wonder the word leaves one at a loss — that’s it’s point!

And no wonder that Eros itself is confusing, with that heritage.

I think of a striking movie about the writer David Foster Wallace, called End of the Tour, and a discussion after a screening featuring actor Jason Segal (who played Wallace). Segal, who clearly had spent months and maybe years thinking about Wallace, said simply that Wallace had to live with the awareness that he was always the smartest guy in the room. Unlike the rest of us, he added, Wallace had the vocabulary to express the loneliness of that, and yet the sensitivity to understand how it felt to others. He knew that his fruitless attempts to heal his own loneliness reached others as well, and yet that wasn’t enough to help him much.






Have to say, the portrayal, the writer, and the movie, which is essentially one long interview, touched me far far more than I expected it would — but in a good and powerful way.





[image from Bright Wall, Dark Room]


Full Story »

painting the desert at night: Eric Merrell

The Los Angeles Review of Books has been an absolute cornucopia of good essay writing as of late: so much so I can’t keep up. But still they outdid themselves last week with a gorgeous portriat of a young artist who likes to paint the desert at night, named Eric Merrell. Great stuff. Picture quality is superb, extraordinary. Can’t recommend it enough, and I don’t much like web videos.

Yet and somehow this is a film, not a video, and it’s cinematically gorgeous. Note: the words and voice come first:


“When night falls in the desert, it becomes almost an entirely new world. A lot of the shapes lose their definition, and the edges become blurred together. It becomes a lot more abstract. Sound becomes much more prevalent, and you can hear little things stirred around in the sand. It’s hard to tell where the fact ends and the fiction begins.”

–Eric Merrell

Full Story »

Waiting for El Nino in SoCal in January 2015

Although we have had a reported 69% of normal rainfall in Los Angeles, to date in this year of an alleged El Nino has been on the dry side in Ventura County: with a modest 4.74 inches to date in Upper Ojai area.

But not to worry, say the experts, speaking in this case about the San Diego area, in Rob Krier’s story today:

After a super stormy stretch last week, San Diego County has warmed up and dried out. And the forecast for the coming week calls for a few spritzes locally, but that’s about it.

Has El Niño, the periodic phenomenon that shifts the storm track and holds promise of drought relief for parched California, left us in the lurch?

Nope. It has merely shifted its focus for the time being.

“Things are proceeding as we would anticipate,” said Mike Halpert, deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center in Maryland. “Looking at our (computer) models, everything is consistent with what we’ve been saying.”


The Climate Prediction Center’s Halpert said the current El Niño remains strong, which should lead to “general storminess most of the winter” over much of the West Coast. Sometimes the jet stream, which steers storms around the globe, will be pointed at Southern California, and sometimes it will be aimed farther north.

In the typical winter without El Niño, ridges of high pressure in the North Pacific grow and shrink, and may shift east or west. During the past few winters, what forecasters came to describe as a “ridiculously resilient ridge” of high pressure set itself up in the region, blocking many storms from reaching California.

There’s no ridge to speak of in the North Pacific this year, Halpert said, so the storm-bearing jet stream has no major barriers to avoid.

“We’ve got 21/2 more months of winter,” he said. “We expect a continuation of periods that are quite wet along the West Coast.”

It’s just a case of where the firehose points: this week, it’s Northern California.




Full Story »

Obama: Hated by the GOP, taken for granted by Dems

On the eve of the last State of the Union address to be delivered by President Obama, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine points out how little love he gets from those who elected him.

Here is one of the oddities of the last seven years. Barack Obama won a clear majority in both his election and his reelection, fulfilled most of his policy goals as president, is presiding over a solid economic recovery, and has avoided any real scandal (i.e., one that exists outside the opposition fever swamps). Yet his approval ratings have consistently trailed his vote percentages. More than half of the electorate voted for him twice, but well under half approves of his job performance. Despite the fact that he accomplished what he said he would, Obama quickly lost a chunk of the public that voted for him, and has never won them back.

It’s genuinely puzzling. In Politico, a middle-of-the-road D.C. publication that works hard to avoid being captured by either side, Michael Grunwald argues that the Obama administration has been far more successful in implementing its agenda that people realize — even the right.

Over the past seven years, Americans have heard an awful lot about Barack Obama and his presidency, but the actual substance of his domestic policies and their impact on the country remain poorly understood. He has engineered quite a few quiet revolutions—and some of his louder revolutions are shaking up the status quo in quiet ways. Obama is often dinged for failing to deliver on the hope-and-change rhetoric that inspired so many voters during his ascent to the presidency. But a review of his record shows that the Obama era has produced much more sweeping change than most of his supporters or detractors realize.

Grunwald cites a half-dozen administrative measures — for example, regarding washing machines and air conditioners — of huge consequence, as well as some obscure laws that he says really are BFDs.

Here’s what struck me: the elegance of Obama’s rhetoric. It goes down so easy, we forget how rare this gift.

Last night, Obama took on climate change denial, and opened the topic so adeptly that even though he never mentioned the word climate, people knew exactly what he meant. You could hear Congress “get it,” and you could hear people digging it, the metaphorical power of the idea.


We’re going to miss Barack when he’s gone, folks. Especially if it’s Donald Trump giving one of his YUGE speeches. (Courtesy of Hanah Ho, a funny volunteer with the Clinton campaign.)

Full Story » Comment (1)

El Niño to come late to SoCal, experts say

Here’s a story that ran almost two weeks ago in the Ojai Valley News, but remains relevant, says me.

A team of scientists from Columbia University presenting climate research last week estimated that the El Niño warming event currently building in the Pacific Ocean will bring above-average rainfall to Southern California but later in the year than has been previously reported, likely from February to April.

“El Niño’s impacts are likely to be stronger in late winter than in early winter,” said Bor-Ting Jong, of the university’s Lamont-Dougherty Earth Observatory, presenting a climatological and oceanographic paper at the American Geophysical Union’s annual fall meeting in San Francisco.

Richard Seager, who leads a research team which includes Jong at Columbia University’s Earth Observatory, estimated that sea surface temperature conditions observed in the equatorial Pacific to date as part of the El Niño would result in a water year of about 160 percent of normal rainfall for Southern California.

El Niños alter storm tracks around the globe: strong events usually bring substantial rain to Southern California.

“There’s a good chance of substantial drought relief in the later half of this winter,” Seager said.

The Ojai area has received one good storm, which caused much excitement, and which has revived a gazillion local plants, but we’re still well short of enough saturation to get the streams running.

What’s interesting to me is that although the mechanics involved are complex, the essential idea — to look at a correlation between sea surface temperatures in a certain region of the Pacific, and correlate those with the intensity of precipitation in Southern California — is actually rather straightforward.

Which is why this take on the still-developing El Niño is news, arguably.

“To get California really wet you need a strong El Niño event late in the winter,” Seager noted. He pointed out that although Southern California hasn’t had a great deal of rain as of yet, that fits the pattern established by the only two El Niño events comparable in oceanic strength to this year’s, which are l982-l983 and l997-l998.

Also greatly enjoyed the chance to speak with the eminent Richard Seager. In the press room at the AGU. I admitted to him that I could only admire his ability to keep all these complex factors of climatology in his head and he said (words to this effect) that it was a lot more interesting than the household budget. Like that.

Full Story »