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?
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.
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:
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?’ ”
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.
Early results look promising:
GROVER’s radar emits a signal that bounces off the different layers of the ice sheet, allowing scientists to study how snow and ice accumulates in Greenland. The team wanted to check whether the robot could see a layer in the ice sheet that formed after an extreme melt event in the summer of 2012. Marshall said a first analysis of GROVER’s radar data revealed it was sufficient to detect the melt layer and potentially estimate its thickness.
Gotta love the look of the Arctic vehicle.
Researchers dream of many more such robots, capable of surviving Greenland's brutal conditions.
"When you work at the poles, on the ice, it's cold, it's tiring, it's expensive and there's a limit to how much ground you can cover on snowmobiles," said Lora Koenig, a glaciologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "It would be great if autonomous robotic platforms could do part of this work -- especially the part where high winds and blowing snow try to freeze your skin.”
“An army of polar robots – that would be neat,” Koenig said.
This story by a writing mentor, Wendee Nicole, just won a best science story of the year award from the Society of Journalists and Authors. It's horrifying (but fascinating too) to think that a bacteria could be paralyzing people, or giving them Alzheimer's, and the revelation of that story; well, it's jaw-dropping.
A small sample:
Although frequently called blue-green algae, cyanos are actually bacteria that photosynthesize, or create food from light, which is why early scientists classified them as algae. Modern genetics shows they share no evolutionary lineage with algae; the classification is as scientifically accurate as calling a dog a plant.
Cyanobacteria produce a host of nasty compounds, including neurotoxins that derail nervous systems, hepatotoxins that damage liver function, and tumor promoters. Their blooms have poisoned wildlife and caused massive fish kills. In humans they can cause rashes, numbness, vomiting, and sometimes long-term liver or nerve damage. While “death by pond scum” has never appeared in an obituary, that could change: not only are blooms increasing worldwide, but scientists predict they will worsen as the climate warms and nutrient levels rise, when, for example, fertilizers from America’s breadbasket run into the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico. Recently, burgeoning cyano blooms in the Great Lakes have garnered attention.
Based on the work of this man, Paul Cox, the story developed over many years, and ran into a lot of resistance, but now the tap water/ALS idea is being studied at twenty schools around the country.
As they say, read the whole thing.
A few years back the science writer Chris Moody suggested we need to see scientists less as nerds and more as rock stars.
Yes, and by the same token, great science reporters too.
In that vein, here's a lovely look at David Perlman, who has been reporting on science for the San Francisco Chronicle for longer than I have been alive.
SAN FRANCISCO — David Perlman had two deadlines on his mind as he elbowed his way through the Exploratorium, cane in one hand, notebook in the other.
As the San Francisco Chronicle's veteran science writer, Perlman has been covering the granddaddy of hands-on science museums since it was just a glimmer of an idea in the fertile mind of physicist Frank Oppenheimer, the "uncle of the atom bomb."
Now, after 43 years in the elegant but drafty Palace of Fine Arts, the museum was getting ready to close before moving to new digs on the Embarcadero, and it was Perlman's job to chronicle the last day in its original home.
So the first deadline was his own — 6 p.m. to make the next day's paper with a front-page story. The second belonged to the woman tagging along behind him.
She's "doing a story about the oldest living reporter — me," Perlman told the amused museum staff. "She has to be done before I die."
Science and journalism have come a long way since Perlman picked up a fountain pen and began to write.
For more of the Los Angeles Times story by Maria L. La Ganga, go here. Here's Perlman:
Overheard him pitching a story to his editors from the AGU last December. They weren't any more welcoming to his version than my editors were welcoming to me. Life in the big city.
Great excerpt from a book on the fate of polar bears, including a super-thoughtful discussion of why even highly reputable scientists turn to melodrama, in the under-appreciated Pacific Standard.
Called: The Fuzzy Face of Climate Change. Highly recommended.
Speaking of excerpts, here's a couple. The set-up question: Are polar bears threatened with extinction?
Actual data is hard to come by—polar bears live in cold places with bad access to cozy university towns—and surveying them is time-consuming and expensive. Subpopulation by subpopulation, the numbers are all over the place. Near Greenland, one subpopulation grew to nearly two and a half times the size it had been in the 1970s; one group in the extreme north of Hudson Bay had been stable or moderately improving since the early 2000s; and in the Beaufort Sea of Alaska, Amstrup was suggesting that the polar bears could be entirely gone by 2050. About half of the subpopulations hadn’t even been studied enough for anybody to make any predictions at all. In western Hudson Bay, near Churchill, a bitter fight was being waged in the media between rival camps, one who said the subpopulation had declined by 22 percent over the course of 17 years, and another who said the population had grown enough to allow for a big increase in trophy hunting.
Introducing an awe-inspiring scientist:
Whenever anybody needed a prediction about the future of polar bears, [Steven] Amstrup was the crystal ball into which they gazed. One minute he’d be publishing papers dense with statistics, and the next he’d be chatting with a television host, detailing the crisis in calm, measured tones. He was never hysterical and always struck the right balance between jargon and a heartfelt appeal to humanity’s better impulses. It didn’t hurt that he was tall and better-looking than anybody with a PhD has a right to be. With sandy-blond hair, a square jaw, and broad shoulders, no wonder the cameras loved Amstrup. To this day, he remains the only person I’ve ever met who can look suave while wearing thermal underwear and a hat with chinstraps.
So this was [skeptic] Rocky’s [Robert Rockwell's] grand theory, I thought: as the Arctic warmed and the sea ice shrank, the bears might somehow manage to adapt. Rocky’s ideas were engaging, and he was a good salesman, but I wasn’t entirely buying it. Compared to a blubber-laden seal carcass, the occasional bony goose was hardly an adequate meal. Probably not quite enough to launch a wholesale revolution in the conventional wisdom regarding polar bears and global warming.
Later I found Rocky sitting heavily on his bunk in a room that was redolent of graduate students with limited access to shower facilities. “Look,” he said, “I don’t want you to come away from your time here thinking that we’re against these people. But there are things going on that affect polar bears that are not getting a full hearing. The polar bear is really special to me, but the Endangered Species Act and the commission of proper science are more important.”
I wanted the polar-bear story to be simple and stark. But the more I learned, the more melodramatic it became, with everyone slipping into roles that were far too easy to caricature.
The story is drawn from Zac Unger's forthcoming book Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye. If the excerpt is any guide, the book will be terrific, with reviews to match. Here's your chance to get ahead of the curve when it comes to putting polar bear research in context. A great long read.