Category for Science

“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.]

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Female spiders like males who can dance, sing better

From Science Friday, perhaps the most purely enjoyable science story of the year to date, about the Dance of the Peacock Spider.  

Seems we've been seeing many examples of species showing traits we think of as human lately. Using tools, like crows, or mourning the dead, like elephants, or having local dialects in languages, like songbirds. But this is the best example of a species shaking it on the dance floor I've ever seen. 

Tho' arachnid sex doesn't always have a happy ending — at least for the male. 

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Uncorking catastrophic climate change? Tom Toles

As usual, Tom Toles finds a funny way to dramatize a disaster: a methane explosion in Siberia


Which raises the question: Well, how dangerous is the methane that is emerging from the Arctic? Is it just blowing holes in the permafrost, or does it presage global atmospheric doom?

It's not a small volume of methane, after all, and we know that methane in the short term is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2– about 30x more potent, to be exact. So the concept of a "methane time bomb" that will set off the greatly feared runaway global warming seems plausible at a glance. 

But look closer, says RealClimate, with lots and lots of data. (From last week.) They conclude: 

…the future of Earth’s climate in this century and beyond will be determined mostly by the fossil fuel industry, and not by Arctic methane. We should keep our eyes on the ball. 

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Rolling the dice on El Nino: Too soon to predict?

Given that this is the worst drought on record in California, it's natural for people to hope for El Niño and all the rain that a good strong El Niño can bring. As the San Francisco Chronicle reported:

…even as hope dims for a March miracle storm, climatologists say weather conditions could change this year if an El Niño takes shape. The U.S. Climate Prediction Center issued an El Niño watch this month, citing a 52 percent chance of Pacific Ocean waters warming and creating – possibly – a wetter-than-average winter.

The possibilities were discussed more thoroughly by Bob Henson of the National Center for Atmospheric Research earlier this month. Henson hinted at an underlying excitement:

Most of the El Niño events over the last 15 years have been on the weaker side. However, some conditions in the western tropical Pacific are now strikingly similar to those that preceded the two strongest El Niño events of the last century: 1982–83 and 1997–98.

If El Niño doesn’t take shape in the next several months, we may not see it this year at all. “Once you get toward summer, the odds of getting a major El Niño certainly start to go down,” says NCAR scientist Kevin Trenberth.

Should a truly significant El Niño event develop by June or July, it would give us months of advance notice about which parts of the United States are likely to be cooler, milder, wetter, or drier than average come next winter. You still wouldn’t have a specific forecast for New Year’s Day or Groundhog Day in your hometown, but even a slight shift in seasonal odds—as long as it’s a confident shift—could mean millions of dollars for utilities, agricultural firms, insurance companies, and others in a position to hedge big bets.

Yet note the hedge: "most of the El Niño events of the last fifteen years have been on the weaker side." Ask Bill Patzert of JPL/NASA, one of the best forecasters of the phenomenon, why that might be and he will point to a larger ocean phenomena — the Pacific Decadal Oscillation — and argue that there's a reason most of these events have been weak. They've been swamped by the PDO, which turned negative fifteen years ago. It's still strongly negative, as this chart from the U of Washington shows:


It's noteworthy that the most prominent critic of NOAA's predictions has been right in the past, about El Niño, and is saying pretty much what he was saying seven years ago, when an El Niño event was predicted. From a great story by Hector Becerra in the Los Angeles Times in March 2007:

When it comes to El Niño, NOAA tends to emphasize data
from a network of buoys running across the equatorial Pacific from Asia to
the Americas. They make measurements on the upper 500 meters in the
ocean, where the major deviations in temperature take place. The weather
consequences can be dramatic depending on the size of the temperature
increase, the area of ocean involved and the duration of the phenomenon.

For NOAA, an increase of about 1 degree Fahrenheit over three months in
a defined area of the Pacific meets the threshold for El Niño.

Patzert, on the other hand, is an expert in analyzing satellite data.
The satellites measure the elevation of the sea surface as a result of the
expansion of water as temperatures increase in the upper 500 meters. The
satellites are not as hyperfocused on El Niño and look beyond to other
climate patterns.

One of those patterns is the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a slow-moving
variation of temperatures between the western and eastern sections of
the Pacific. In 1998, the western Pacific was becoming warmer than the
eastern Pacific, leading Patzert to conclude that in the long term, an "El
Niño-repellent" pattern was forming that would favor drought in Southern
California for many years.

Patzert still sees an  El Niño-repellant pattern in place, and has scoffed at "the great WET hope" before, and may scoff again. Even the chart the forecasters put up as evidence of  El Niño looks a little thin:


How many chips do you want to put on a 52% probability? 

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A little bit of good news for thirsty California


Yes, an atmospheric river. Discussion here from Climate Central

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El Nino will not save you — sorry SoCal: Patzert

Must say it's been a lovely warm weekend…even if dry as heck. Perhaps we should get used to that. Last week William Patzert, the well-known oceanographer and climate expert, dropped some knowledge on on reporter Melinda Burns re: an upcoming "rainy" season in California.

Her story is called Dry with a Chance of Drier, and it's a warning especially for Southern Californians.  

    “There’s definitely no El Niño going to gallop over the horizon and save you,” Patzert says, referring to the climatic conditions in the Pacific Ocean that favor biblical rains. “A dry decade every once in awhile is good, because it makes you rethink your water usage and your future.”

We've all heard of biblical rains, but how often in comparison biblical droughts? 

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“An orange river of sunlight”: migration of the Monarchs

Was driving through the warm little town of Ojai California when a monarch butterfly flew helplessly in front of my windshield and then shot up past the little car and out into the open air with a single flap of his wings. Fly on!

Delightful sight. Made me wish for an instant to get out of the car and give chase. That passed, but today I come across an utterly amazing story about monarchs except that well…to call this a story gives it too little credit.

The next voice you hear will be a familiar one: Ari Shapiro of National Public Radio, a wonderfully familiar name in science reporting, and deservedly so. Yet no matter how solid his work, that's not what makes this one special.

In this one, Atlanta Public radio takes nature/science reporting/writing to a new level.

In fact, they raise the bar two or three times, by telling the mind-expanding story of the migration of the Monarch Butterly, smoothly blending radio journalism, the visual geography of Google Earth, delightful, almost Disney-esque nature/science graphics, and citizen science.

Willie Schubert and his colleagues are pursuing similar geojournalism ideas on on an even bigger scale at Climate Commons, I learned at a recent conference of environmental journalists, but what Shapiro et al manage in the below is to tell an old story — the migration of the Monarch — in a complete new way.

It's jaw-dropping.

It's one flaw, as a commentator mentioned, is that it ignores the Western Monarch butterfly, which winters along the Southern California coast, and migrates northward along the West Coast far into Canada.

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Quakes strike fracked oil reserve in Ireland, Gov Says

Here's some news about fracking and earthquakes in Ireland:

The largest earthquakes since 1843 have been confirmed by the British Geological Survey in the same area of the Irish Sea that suffered tremors directly linked to shale gas fracking.

The two quakes occurred on Sunday morning with a magnitude 3.2 ML earthquake recorded at 10.58am, preceded by a magnitude 2.4 ML foreshock at 6.37am in the same location off the Fylde Coast, 25km west of Fleetwood, Lancashire.

Seismologists at the British Geological Survey confirmed today that both earthquakes were the largest to have occurred in the Irish Sea since a series of three tremors, with magnitudes ranging from 3.8 to 5, were recorded in March 1843.

To translate from the scientific/newspaperese: This is an area that almost never had earthquakes, and now after fracking they're happening frequently. 

To be fair, these aren't big quakes: 

One report described how the largest earthquake “felt as a low frequency swaying. Very short duration, no more than a second or two”, and another added: “sat at the computer, and the desk shook, an my stomach moved (a mild feeling like you get on a roller coaster just before a drop)”. 

Another report received by the British Geological Survey described: “it felt like the whole house moved south to north for a second and then I looked around and saw a large artificial tree shaking”, and another added: “sofa shook and keys were swinging in the door was sitting on chair which had vibrations going through it as well”.

But here's the really amazing part. The government found a link between the practice of fracking and the occurence of earthquakes, and ordered the company to stop fracking. (Well, almost.) 

In November 2011, the UK Government threatened to call a halt to controversial gas drilling in the area after independent geology reports confirmed a series of earthquakes the previous summer were linked to shale gas extraction.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) had warned gas company Cuadrilla Resources to follow the report recommendations, which connected fracking to two earth tremors that shook the Lancashire coastline in May.

Geologists reported the epicentre of one 1.5 magnitude quake on May 27 was within 500 yards of the well of the fracking operation and the second 2.3 tremor on April 1 originated less than two miles away.

The report “The Geo-mechanical Study of Bowland Shale Seismicity” claimed that there was little risk of future seismic events reoccurring in the Bowland Basin but proposed a series of mitigation measures in case of any future seismic activity.

This report was released after Cuadrilla was ordered to be fully open with the community about all the report findings.

Then the government ordered the oil company to be completely transparent in its operations! Given that the great state of California does not currently regulate fracking on its lands, it's kind of jaw-dropping. 

Here's a pic from a story about fracking on the North Coast of Ireland from veteran environmental reporter Geoffrey Lean:  


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The plan to set off earthquakes on the San Andreas Fault

Published this week a story in the VCReporter on fracking and earthquakes. Much of this story is specific to Ventura County, but the opening I think is pretty darn universal. (Certainly for Californians it's memorable.) Think it's almost a "once upon a time" story, although of a scientific sort. 

From the days when we thought engineering, and geoengineering, could solve all our problems. 

The U.S. Army had a problem, a big problem: 165,000 gallons of some of the deadliest war materials known to man, including napalm, chlorine gas, mustard gas and sarin, a nerve gas developed by the Nazis, tiny doses of which can kill in minutes. After stockpiling these weapons of destruction for decades in its Rocky Mountain Arsenal near Denver, the government decided the time had come to dispose of the hazardous wastes but didn’t know how.

The solution? In l961, authorities drilled a well 12,000 feet deep, far below any aquifer, and over the next five years pumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic wastes into a cavity in the rock miles beneath the surface.

One problem: Not long after the pumping began, Denver and nearby suburbs began to experience swarms of earthquakes. Most of them were quite small, less than 3 in magnitude, but in a region that rarely experiences earthquakes, 1,300 earthquakes in four years raised questions. Then, in August 1967, a significant earthquake — magnitude 5.3 — shook the city of Denver and the nearby suburb of Commerce, with damages that totaled over $1 million.

The Army stopped pumping the toxic wastes into the injection well. Geologists discovered the liquids had been pumped into an existing fault deep in the “basement” rock. The fault had begun to lose strength and slip, even after the pumping stopped. 

For city officials, this was alarming, but geologists were intrigued to discover it was possible to trigger earthquakes along existing fault lines, and a team of scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey soon launched into an experiment in an oil field with known earthquake faults in Rangely, Colo. The goal? To learn what volume of fluid pressures were required to trigger earthquakes, and to see if seismic activity could be stimulated and then brought to a halt. The experiment worked, on a small scale, and encouraging results were reported in the journal Science in March of 1976.

“We may ultimately be able to control the timing and size of major earthquakes,” the team, led by C.B. Raleigh and J.H. Healy, speculated. They suggested drilling wells along the San Andreas Fault, and injecting water to release seismic pressures with little earthquakes. They hoped in this way to prevent the legendary “Big One,” an earthquake comparable to the massive and ruinous l906 San Francisco earthquake, which has a 3 percent to 30 percent chance of occurring in the next 30 years in California.

 “They actually proposed this idea, to drill wells and pump in water and trigger small earthquakes along the San Andreas,” said William Bilodeau, who chairs the geology department at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks. “And they got fairly far along in the planning process and then people began to say, ‘Wait a minute — what happens if we set off a really big earthquake? What’s the [legal] liability?’ ”


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NASA: Stellar womb gives birth to monster star


From an ALMA (ESO/NRAJ/NRAO)/NASA press release:
Observations of the dark cloud SDC 335.579-0.292 using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter array (ALMA) have given astronomers the best view yet of a monster star in the process of forming. A stellar womb with over 500 times the mass than the Sun has been found and appears as the yellow blob near the centre of this picture. This is the largest ever seen in the Milky Way — and it is still growing. The embryonic star within is hungrily feeding on the material that is racing inwards. It is expected to give birth to a very brilliant star with up to 100 times the mass of the Sun. This image combines data from ALMA and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.
ALMA is a radio telescope put together by an international consortium and installed on a high plain in Chile. Do I understand how it rendered this image? Not really. But it's worth it for "stellar womb."

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