Tag archive for science

ON THE BRINK: SoCal faces dire, drier future

Here’s a story I spent a month or so reporting over the summer for the Ventura County Reporter: What the science is saying about the prospects for drought this century in Southern California

ON THE BRINK: Southern California faces dire, drier future

I’d like to dedicate this story to the late great climatologist Kelly Redmond, who died of cancer yesterday. Kelly was a legend in the field for his knowledge and his ability to communicate with others. (As an example, here’s a link to his Tyndall Lecture at the AGU a couple of years ago on accelerating environmental change — not just climate change). I think it’s probably the most thoughtful talk I’ve ever heard at the AGU.

Certainly, Kelly was the nicest guy this reporter ever met on the job. He took a call from me about fifteen years ago, completely out of the blue, from a complete unknown (me) working for a not very big paper, asking a great number of very naive questions about climate, and for well over an hour gave me, impromptu, over the phone, an introduction to the science. Climate 101. Amazing. When I saw him at conferences he always would chat, and always had something interesting to say. In 2012, I think it was, I saw him at a mixer at the AGU, and when I asked what’s new in the field, he said that “We [climatologists] never expected the Arctic to go over to the dark side so soon.” Jeez. I liked to say that he had a bit of the poet in him, as well as the scientist.

Miss you already, Kelly Redmond.

Will discuss the story more in days to come: here’s the cover picture.




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NASA vs. Ted Cruz: Round One

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has been spoiling for a fight with NASA administrators every since GOP triumphed in the elections last fall. He has taken the helm of the Senate subcommittee that overseas NASA, which flies under the awkward moniker of the Space, Science, and Competiveness Subcommittee. Cruz has made clear when he took over that he wants a "more space, less earth" agency, as recounted by the National Journal. and is pressing that point in hearings. 

With NASA administrator Charles Bolden on the hot seat before the committee, Cruz pounced. 

Cruz pointed to a chart behind him titled "Focus Inward or Focus Outward? Refocusing NASA's Core Priorities" that compared NASA's budget in 2009 with the current request. He said that since 2009, funding for Earth sciences has seen a 41 percent increase, while funding for exploration and space operations, what Cruz "would consider the core function of NASA," has seen a 7.6 percent decrease.

"In my judgment, this does not represent a fair or appropriate allocation of resources, that it is shifting resources away from the core functions of NASA to other functions," Cruz said. "Do you share that assessment?"

BoldenNASA administrator Bolden thoughtfully considered the question, despite objecting to the "chartsmanship," and discussed manned missions to space in NASA plans in the near future. But it's well known that Cruz doesn't accept the reality of climate change. Cruz continued to press for his space agenda, implicitly dismissing NASA's huge and deeply considered investment in satellite technology to better understand the earth and what's happening to it. 

Eventually, it appears, Bolden snapped.  

"We can't go anywhere if the Kennedy Space Center goes underwater and we don't know it—and that's understanding our environment," Bolden said, alluding to the risk that climate change poses to the low-elevation state of Florida. "It is absolutely critical that we understand Earth environment because this is the only place that we have to live."

[well — yeah. Round One to Charles Bolden and NASA]


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Puzzles and mystery: How they differ

Sometimes the computational powers that be conspire to foil a post. That yet-to-be-posted item might have been trail inspirational: this one I found thought-inspiring. 

From a medical blogger flying under a banner headline: Embrace the Mystery

This distinction between puzzles and mysteries is described in a powerful new book by Ian Leslie: Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It As Leslie tells it, puzzles and mysteries have radically different characteristics. Puzzles are orderly and have definite answers; once we’ve solved a puzzle, we’ve reached the end of our inquiry and our curiosity. Mysteries, on the other hand, offer many possibilities for exploration and experience. They offer something richer and far more relevant to the messy reality of actually living in the world. Mysteries can’t be answered definitively; they keep us poised in ambiguity and force us to create our way forward. Mysteries offer us multiple paths to success.

Whole mini-essay makes one think about our scientific approach to medical research. Worth a look

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As trade winds strengthen, more drought for CA?

Much of climate science is settled and doesn't need repeating. We know that injecting increasing amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere leads to warming, for instance.

But how that warming will play out in atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns, although often discussed, remains to be seen.

Several past studies suggested warming could lead to a weakening of trade winds over the Pacific, but, as Richard Allan of the University of Reading discusses in a fascinating new post on a major new study from Nature Climate Change, that might be all wrong. Maybe warming will lead to a strengthening of these trade winds, as the new study argues, which could feed into exisitng ocean circulation patterns.

Other studies have suggested that the warming expected in the atmosphere has been diverted into the ocean: this study posits a mechanism to explain that. 

It's complicated as this — no doubt simplified — diagram shows:


But especially fascinating for us on the West Coast are the implications, which Allan discusses in an offhand style near the end of his post:

The implications or these changes could be substantial. It would be surprising if these large changes in atmospheric and ocean circulation over the last 2 decades (including also apotentially long-term decline in the Atlantic ocean circulation), have not already disrupted our weather patterns. The map shows this seasons sea surface temperature departures from normal (from NOAA), with a cool East Pacific and unusual patterns over the north Pacific and north Atlantic that are associated with this seasons extreme weather, including drought in California, intense cold in eastern north America and flooding in the UK and Europe. 

"Including drought in California." Hmmm. 

Update: Michael Mann on HuffPost updates with the $64,000 question for California:

Such conditions are basically equivalent to the flip-side of El Niño, known as La Niña. In other words, the slowing of global warming may relate, at least in part, to the tendency for more frequent La Niña-like conditions in recent years. That gives us stronger trade winds in the eastern tropical Pacific, more burial of heat below the ocean surface, colder tropical Pacific sea surface temperatures, and slightly cooler global average temperatures than we might otherwise have seen.

The $64,000 question, then, is whether this increased tendency for La Niña-like conditions over the past decade is entirely natural in origin, or whether it might instead in some way be tied to climate change itself. 

For California, especially Southern California, the 64k question is whether we will be seeing more La Nina conditions, or if this apparent tendency will pass. (As opposed to the question of global temps.) More on this and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation as the news comes in. 

Why winds explain the global warming hiatus
Stronger Pacific winds explain global warming hiatus: study
Pacific winds 'pause' global warming
Patzert: The history of the world is written in droughts

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The sexiness of a stupid woman, according to science

In Slate, a science reporter specializing in sex, Jesse Bering, reports on a new study that finds that women who look drunk and/or stupid are especially attractive to straight men.  

The study has problems — for one, a lack of a good control sample. For another, the hypothesis (that men find women who appear out of it more attractive because the guy thinks he's more likely to get laid, for example) surely has limits, to which the study seems blind. 

All this Bering discusses ably. He notes the flaws, but concludes: 

All else being equal, would you really have thought that the average man would subjectively perceive such women to be physically more alluring than their sober, bright-minded peers?

Actually, yes. But that's because I remember a great quote from the sexy, brainy Hedy LeMarr:

Any girl can look glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid. 

Lamarr was an extraordinary woman: a great scientist and inventor in her maturity, a movie star and sex symbol in her youth, and a woman who knew something about men. (She married six of them.)

 Here's a pic of her in her early movie star days: 

Carrie - Lamarr, Hedy_01

I wonder if Lamarr came to this realization because she couldn't look stupid if she tried, and maybe sometimes wished she could. 

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How to “undermine” climate research with cash payments

As reported by DeSmog Blog, Climate Progress, Brad Johnson, and now the New York Times, internal strategy documents leaked from the climate change denier Heartland Institute flat-out state that:

At present we sponsor the NIPCC [Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Chnage] to undermine the official United Nation's IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports and paid a team of writers $388,000 in 2011 to work on a series of editions of Climate Change Reconsidered. 

Nearly $400,000 spent explicitly to "undermine" scientific research! Over $4 million spent last year. 

Today Heartland was apologizing to donors for the document leaks. The contributors, including one Anonymous Donor giving a $1 million or more a year, must be wondering if they're getting their money's worth. All that bank, and for what? A mock conference and a bogus report that barely pretends to be scientce and is "self-evidently nonsense," said the researchers at RealClimate. 

The docs also reveal that the Institute coldly dismissed two of its top fund-raisers for failure to bring in more than the millions they raised last year. Could the leaks have come in retaliation? 

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Reconciling religion and evolution: The Tree of life

From an unpretentious and persuasive visual essay on the most debated movie of the year, The Tree of Life, by Matt Zoller Seitz

There is this central notion in all of Malick’s films that every individual person is just one tiny part of nature. Not too much more important in the larger scheme of things than an insect, or a blade of grass. It’s really not all that radical to state, but it’s one American audiences seem to have trouble accepting, because it’s anathema to the way we are told we should live our lives. And in this [evolution] sequence Terence Malick has done something quite remarkable, which is that he has reconciled religion and evolution. He has reconciled religion and science. 

That’s from the first part of the essay, which Seitz put together with a film editor collaborator. In the second part, which is much more beautiful, because it features the mother in the film, the most beautiful of its characters by about a country mile, he gets specific:

When we hear the mother speaking in voice-over, I think we’re hearing Jack’s projection of her internal voice, her overwhellming goodness, her unselfishness, her sunbeam warmth. Look at how she dotes on her infant child in this moment near the opening of the movie. She’s Mother Earth, much as “The Tree of Life” itself is Mother Earth. 


“The Tree of Life” is the most debated movie of the year, because critics love it, by a 40-2 margin, and ordinary people often detest it.

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Hurricane Irene disappoints jaded New Yorkers

In the aftermath of the hurricane, came complaints about hype: Was Hurricane Irene a disappointment? 

Media analyst Howard Kurtz says yes. After all, Irene wasn't even a hurricane when it made landfall in NYC. Other New Yorkers are equally dismissive: A NYC gossip site called Irene The Sudden Sex Celebrity without Much Bang. Scallywag wrote: 

she’ll more than likely be the sexy hot dame that tantalized us and left us a smidgen disappointed that we didn’t get to experience the type of rude shock that we were told to look out for.

An anonymous texter had a similarly sexualized reaction to the storm: 

Last night in my drunkenness I bought hurricane supplies which included a jug of wine and a bouquet of flowers. Apparently I'm going to woo Irene. 

Even Susan Orlean, The New Yorker writer, saw the storm as beddable (on Facebook). 

If Irene were my boyfriend, I'd say enough with the foreplay, dude. The moment has passed. 

But Orlean, who is funny, was kidding. Her coworker Elizabeth Kolbert, after surveying the science on the did global warming cause Irene question? pointed out what needed to be said

When we add all of these risk factors together, we can say with a great deal of confidence that in the future, there will be more and more events like Irene. We can comfort ourselves by saying that this particular storm was not necessarily caused by global warming. Or we can acknowledge the truth, which is that we are making the world a more dangerous place and, what’s more, that we know it.

Maybe if Kolbert was looking at the natural world through the TV screen, for entertainment. she'd react differently. 

Hurricane Irene 2011: Weather Channel Streaker Disrupts Coverage (VIDEO)

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Arctic ice not yet at point of no return, researchers say

Given the dramatic decline in summer ice coverage in the Arctic in recent years, some researchers have feared we are approaching the end of summer ice in the Arctic. But a new study, examining ancient driftwood found along the shores of Greenland, argues in Science that in fact it was much warmer 5000-8000 years ago. This means that summer ice in the Arctic may be able to survive human-caused global warming, presuming we are able to get a handle on emissions sometime this century.  

From the Vancouver Sun

While the researchers say they expect global warming will eventually make the Arctic sea ice disappear, they say the dire warnings about its imminent demise have been overstated. 

"The bad news is that there is a clear connection between temperature and the amount of sea ice," says lead author Svend Funder, at the University of Copenhagen, adding there is "no doubt" continued global warming will reduce Arctic summer sea ice. 

"The good news is that even with a reduction to less than 50 per cent of the current amount of sea ice, the ice will not reach a point of no return," says Funder, who has headed several treks to the inhospitable north coast of Greenland to get a better read on how the ice waxes and wanes. 

Satellite records showing how the ice grows and retreats only go back to early 1979 — and suggest 2011 could see another record ice loss.

It's not great news. We are continuing to lose ice rapidly in the Arctic, as this graph from the National Snow and Ice Data Center illustrates:


At first I thought this news would be helpful, because it would help keep us connected to the planet,m Now I wonder if it will simply help us ignore the whole problem.  
[Note: after extended discussion in comments below, headline corrected above]

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Journalism today: Don’t wait your turn (Robert Krulwich)

In which Robert Krulwich, of the excellent Radiolab, gives a speech to the newly-minted graduates of UC Berkeley's journalism school, and inspires even old guys like me. Here's the conclusion:

So for this age, for your time, I want you to just think about this: Think about NOT waiting your turn.

Instead, think about getting together with friends that you admire, or envy.  Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it.

And when it comes to security, to protection, your friends may take better care of you than CBS took care of Charles Kuralt in the end. In every career, your job is to make and tell stories, of course. You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back.

And maybe that’s your way into Troy.

There you are, on the beach, with the other newbies, looking up. Maybe somebody inside will throw you a key and let you in… But more likely, most of you will have to find your own Trojan Horse.



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