Monthly Archives: May 2007

What will it take?

Los Angeles tops the bad air list again. Storms and droughts continue to plague the nation and the world. Glaciers are disappearing. Coral reefs are disappearing. What will it take for the United States to change? How much destruction of the Earth is necessary to make people think this a problem that needs to be dealt with now?

The United States is a very generous country. We come to the aid of tsunami victims, earth quake victims, and remove despots from power. Yet when it comes to the threat of global warming we stick our head in the ground and do nothing. The warning signs are there. They have been showing themselves for decades. The retreating glaciers, the melting polar ice caps, the increasing severity and frequency of tornadoes and hurricanes. But there is still a reluctance to change. Is the change too costly? If we stop using fossil fuels and switch to zero emission energy sources will the initial cost be too great and our economy will crash? What is going to happen if we don’t? How many lives will need to be lost in heat waves, floods and other severe weather? The cost will be too high to pay if we don’t change.

The thing is we can make smaller changes now. But the time for gradual changes is over. Does anyone remember the gas shortages in 1970’s? Does anyone remember the public outcry for alternative fuels? Does anyone realize how much better this country would be off right now if we did this back when we should have and not wait until we have to? The President keeps spouting the evils of “foreign oil” when the problem is oil itself. This nation has the scientific know-how and potential to change. We put a man on the moon in 10 years. We could put a zero emission car on the road in the same time frame if we wanted to. Instead we are content to let Exxon make the decision for us and happily drive our Earth into oblivion.

This brings me to the news article about Los Angeles. If you don’t care about the glaciers and polar bears and the coral reefs, then what about the air in your own city? If these changes are made, could you imagine being able to see the Hollywood sign in Anaheim? Fresno State University is located about 30 miles from the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. Yet only a few days a year are they visible from the Valley because of the air pollution. This air pollution isn’t only coming from the residents of the San Joaquin Valley but it blows over from the Bay Area and Sacramento. The Bay Area has no emission regulations on their cars because they do not have an air quality problem. Their problem becomes the valley’s problem.

California has realized the problem with global warming and is setting stringent emission regulations for automobiles. How have the automakers responded? With lawsuits not wanting to change. If we don’t change, if we don’t lead the world in the technological front, we will be left behind having to get the technology from other countries which will be far costlier and the U.S. will have missed out on a growing market. If we change our air quality, health and quality of life will improve.

End Rant.

Another victim of the republican war on science

The Savanna River Ecology Laboratory of the University of Georgia is about to go under, after 56 years of ecological research, thanks to the Bush administration’s apathy if not antipathy towards science, especially in the environmental arena.

Read below the fold two messages on this issue posted to Ecolog-L this week. And visit the Save SREL website to find out if and how you might be able to help them stay open.

Howie Neufeld posted the following alert yesterday:

Dear All – Despite a concentrated letter writing campaign, it appears that the Savannah River Ecology Lab is slated to be closed by the end of this month. I received an email from the President of the University of Georgia today in which I quote:

“In recent weeks, UGA Vice President David Lee has had several conversations with the Department of Energy in hopes of breaking the impasse and obtaining continued support for SREL. Regrettably, it does not appear that this is possible. Consequently SREL will run out of funds at the end of May and the laboratory must initiate a close-out operation. We are working with the department to effect an orderly close-down of SREL, one that will minimize the human suffering and preserve as much of SREL’s research legacy as possible.” from Welch Suggs, Asst. to UGA President Michael Adams

Thus, an era in ecological research that E.P. Odum helped start comes to a close. I would hope that those still at the lab now would let others in the ecological community know what is in store for the facility, and most importantly, it’s researchers, many of whom established international reputations while working at the lab. And what of the long-term ecological research projects that are (or were) ongoing there? Much could be lost by this decision.

On a more personal note, I can’t wait until a more enlightened administration takes charge in this country, and the environment is put to the forefront where it should always be. I see this as one of the more shameful things that the Bush administration (and Republicans in general) have done with regard to environmental issues. I’m sure this is not how any of us would like to have seen this part of the legacy of E.P. Odum turn out.


Dr. Howard S. Neufeld, Professor
Department of Biology
572 Rivers Street
Appalachian State University
Boone, NC 28608

email: neufeldhs@appstate.edu
departmental webpage: http://www.biology.appstate.edu/faculty/neufeldhs.htm
personal webpage: http://www.appstate.edu/~neufeldhs/index.html

But it may not be all over yet, according to the following message, just posted on Ecolog-L from Prof. Rebecca Sharitz of the SREL:

Dear Colleagues,

Many of you have contacted me regarding the message posted yesterday by Howie Neufeld regarding the future of the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Indeed, the Department of Energy (DOE) Savannah River Operations Office has been blocked by DOE Headquarters from releasing funds (which are available at the SRS and which were promised to SREL both verbally and in writing) to support SREL research programs for the remainder of FY2007. Without additional funding, SREL will run out of money for its ecological research and environmental education programs within a few weeks.

For 56 years SREL has provided an independent scientific evaluation of SRS operations. Furthermore, as we move deeper into the 21st century, in the United States and globally there is an increasing need for vastly more (not less) credible scientific research into sensitive ecological and environmental issues. Without the continuance of the kind of objective scientific research conducted at SREL, responsible governments (federal or state) and institutions of higher learning (such as the University of Georgia) run the huge risk of losing much of their public credibility with regard to nuclear activities conducted on or near their lands.

Although the SREL budget crisis is extreme and urgent, the laboratory is not yet taking steps to close its doors as the statement from a UGA official quoted by Howie Neufeld in his message yesterday implies. Other possible options to continue SREL’s programs are being actively explored. Continued and vocal support from the public and the broad scientific community may be a key factor in keeping the laboratory viable. Please visit the website: www.savesrel.org for information about what you can do.

Sincerely,
Dr. Rebecca Sharitz, Professor
Savannah River Ecology Laboratory
University of Georgia

So tell yourself, and everyone you know who might care (and who, unlike me, might actually be a voter in this so-called great democracy!), to get on the phone, and call people on this list to register a protest. Let’s hope it is not too late…

Now this is living with nature, red in tooth and claw

I’m afraid my suburban backyard doesn’t quite offer this level of excitement of a morning:

Gary got up, expecting to see a bear in the trash or a similar scene. He saw the bear all right, but the rest of the scene was beyond imagination.

Gary and Terri wound up with front-row seats as brown bear killed a full-grown moose less than 20 feet away from their home.

“I saw this wildlife spectacle of a full-grown brown bear on a moose and the moose fighting for its life,” Gary recalled Monday, admitting he was still rattled by the incident.

The couple ran downstairs and got the dog (who was remarkably quiet) inside. Then they got their cameras out.

The bear worked the moose down the driveway and finally killed it.

“She tore apart the chest cavity, ripped out the heart and ate it,” Gary said. “It was like she knew that’s what kept it alive.”

Meanwhile, the digital cameras clicked – and rolled – as the entire incident was documented in both still and video footage. The video footage is now viewable on YouTube (type in “moose kill driveway” into the YouTube search bar.)

Or, look below the fold if you want to watch the videos right here! But pause before you click, for this video may not be for the faint of heart, or those sensitive about cartoon predation a la Bambi.

On the other hand, I know our 7-year-old Sanzari will probably rub her tummy and go, “Mmmm… meat! I want meat!! Let’s go to that all-you-can-eat Brazilian Churrascaria for dinner!!!” (And, yes, that is an actual quote from her a year ago when she was watching a snow leopard hunt mountain goats in the documentary “Silent Roar: Searching for the snow leopard”). So if you share her perspective, look below… but don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Part 1:
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElvHcaXKEgI]

Part 2:
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAC9egAHRuE]

Part 3:
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7M00aozz9A]

Oprah and the Environment

On April 20, Oprah did a show about how to go green to celebrate Earth day. The show was full of ideas that everybody can do to help the environment. Some of the ideas included not printing a receipt during ATM transactions (apparently this is big source of litter and waste of paper) and using less paper napkins.

There were a lot of simple ideas that would be good for people who don’t want to sacrifice a lot to help the environment. I am so glad Oprah did a show on this topic. This lady has serious power, especially with women. Millions of women watch her show everyday. I hope this show has a big impact. I just wanted to let you guys know because I seriously doubt any of you watch Oprah.

A website to keep your eye on…

… is the IPCC, of course – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is making the news on a regular basis these days. The US public seems to be finally catching on to the reality of global warming, with even the Fresno Bee running a front page story (from the NYT, of course) on climate change, and not including a single quote from any token global warming naysayer! How refreshing is that in the media world of he-said-she-said, and, every-story-has-two-sides, especially ones about scientific fact!

So you can stay ahead of the curve by reading the actual IPCC reports, available for download via the IPCC website mentioned above. Not all 4 volumes (form four working groups) of the latest round (AR4) of the IPCC report are online yet, but you can start with the first working group’s report on the physical science Basis of climate change.

Educating children to become environmental vandals?!

As I try to find some time, amid the thin interstices of these last weeks of the semester, to finish ID’ing the critters we saw during our bioblitz and write up my report here, I’ve been skimming the reports from our fellow blogger bioblitzers. And I just came across this rather depressing account by Karmen of her encounter with the dark-side of humanity: how some members of our species “relate” to other species, i.e., another example of how much contempt some grown men have for nature, and how these a**holes actively inculcate such attitudes among their own children! Karmen was out sketching some geese by a pond in Colorado, when this happened:

As I sat, softly sketching, watching the geese out of the corner of my eye, I noticed one of the guys who was fishing across the cove had started “exploring”. He walked right across the narrow strip of land that I was drawing, and marched right up to the goose’s nest. I watched, horrified, as he bent down and picked up an egg out of the nest. The geese went nuts, honking at him, but he ignored them, and started to walk back, egg in hand. I was pissed. I put down my pastels, and called out.

“Hey! You do realize that you are on a wildlife refuge, and that bird and its eggs are protected by the Migratory Bird Conservation Act, right?! You’re breaking the law!”

He sneered at me. “It was already broken,” he drawled, with a thick accent that seemed to match his cowboy hat.

I didn’t really know what to say. I sat there, watching and shaking with anger, as he brought his buddy and kid over to stomp around on the nest. Not only was he going to raid the poor bird’s nest, but he was going to teach his little kid how to do it, too. What a way to teach your kids to respect their environment. As they walked, the pile of sticks (one of the focal points in my painting) collapsed under them, sending debris spilling into the cove. They kept poking around the nest, while the geese shouted angrily. What could I do? I grabbed my camera, and took pictures of their despicable desecration of my bioblitz site.

She then also had the presence of mind to take pictures of the poachers’ trucks in the parking lot, including good shots of the license plates, and send all the information off to the Colorado Department of Wildlife’s Operation Game Thief. One now hopes that they haul this guy’s ass in, and that the kid learns something more positive about nature and wildlife than what his father (presumably) has been teaching him.

I guess we were luckier to only run into a sixth grade field trip where the kids were actually learning to appreciate (scientifically from what I overheard) rocks, and plants, and bugs, and birds.

We sure have a lot of work to do on our own species, don’t we? So I’m glad Jose has taken the lead to start a new sustainability club on our campus where we might begin to address some of these kinds of issues as well!

Sustainability Club at Fresno State

Creating a Sustainability Club at Fresno State, and ideas for joining (expand and read below).

Hi, everybody. I gave serious contemplation the idea of starting a sustainability club. I have decided to be a founder and go thought with it. Dr. Katti already said he would be our faculty sponsor, so that is taken care. My initial goal for this club, particularly my goal, was to plant a few trees around campus. Now, you may ask yourself, “Jose, how can this be done without making the department look like a bunch of tree hugger?” So yesterday to answer this question I went to the Plant Ops and talked to the Arboretum manger.

And well, my friends and comrades, this club is actually being formed at a good time. The reason it is a good time to start this club is that the campus as a whole is starting its own sustainability advisory board. Which I have been apparently nominated to join, all this just after a 15 minute meeting with the Arboretum manager to discuss how and where trees are planted. By working in conjunction with the advisory board we can network with other campus departments. As mention earlier my goal was to plant trees, for other people to hug, but that goal my become part of a larger goal. This larger goal is something I haven’t really thought out, plus I want some input from an array of different points of view. Therefore, I would like to extend my hand and invite you to support the idea of starting sustainability club.

Here is the reasoning why you should support and join the club. Now, each one of you is a biologist, or at least that is what you call yourselves. You see, being a biologist, regardless of specialty, it is your DUTY to aid in the productivity of sustaining life, it is the very thing you are studying. The fact that this club is geared toward helping maintain the biological values of the campus should be your strongest motivation to join.

At this point I am not asking you join Greenpeace or some other hippie cult. What I am asking you is for you to make a statement, and put in your ideas and thoughts in managing how the campus biological issues are dealt with. I know a lot of you are busy, but being in this club would not require a whole lot. It would ask that you contribute to the management issue with ideas or activities. One person can present an idea and another portion of the club could be the ones to implement it, keep this in mind. I’ll make a posting on the blog with updates about the initiation of the club. If there is any questions you should post them under the comments section.


Arctic ice cap melting faster than previously forecast!

What was it we heard at the climate project presentation yesterday about Arctic sea ice? That it was going to disappear by 2050? Well, believe it or not, that forecast may have been too optimistic! A new analysis, in the latest issue of Geophysical Research Letters, compares empirical observations of sea ice extent over 53 years with predictions from 13 climate models used by the IPCC for their recent report to conclude that the Arctic ice cap may in fact be melting 30 years ahead of the IPCC forecast. Look below the fold for the abstract, and a couple of key (scary) figures:

Stroeve, J., Holland, M. M., Meier, W., Scambos, T., and Serreze, M. 2007. Arctic sea ice decline: Faster than forecast, Geophys. Res. Lett., Vol. 34, No. 9, L09501

From 1953 to 2006, Arctic sea ice extent at the end of the melt season in September has declined sharply. All models participating in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report (IPCC AR4) show declining Arctic ice cover over this period. However, depending on the time window for analysis, none or very few individual model simulations show trends comparable to observations. If the multi-model ensemble mean time series provides a true representation of forced change by greenhouse gas (GHG) loading, 33–38% of the observed September trend from 1953–2006 is externally forced, growing to 47–57% from 1979–2006. Given evidence that as a group, the models underestimate the GHG response, the externally forced component may be larger. While both observed and modeled Antarctic winter trends are small, comparisons for summer are confounded by generally poor model performance.

Keep your eye on the scary red lines in the following information dense (which is how I rather like them) figures – and click on them to open larger, more readable versions:

Figure 1. Arctic September sea ice extent (× 106 km2) from observations (thick red line) and 13 IPCC AR4 climate models, together with the multi-model ensemble mean (solid black line) and standard deviation (dotted black line). Models with more than one ensemble member are indicated with an asterisk. Inset shows 9-year running means.

Figure 2. Arctic March sea ice extent (× 106 km2) from observations (thick red line) and 18 IPCC AR4 climate models together with the multi-model ensemble mean (solid black line) and standard deviation (dotted black line). Models with more than one ensemble member are indicated with an asterisk. Inset shows 9-year running means.

There are two interpretations for why the red line (squiggly with yearly data in the main figure; smoothed out with 9-yr averages in the inset) lies in some contrast to the 13 model predictions, or the multi-model mean trend which were the basis of IPCC’s cautious predictions of when summer sea ice will disappear:

  1. The observed trend is a statistically rare natural event (i.e., still a part of the range of natural variation), which happens to fall outside the limited domain sampled by all the model simulations; i.e., the models are not truly representative of the natural variation, or
  2. The models are essentially right about the natural range of variation, but fail to grasp the true magnitude of external forcing through greenhouse gases (GHGs); i.e., the GHGs are having a bigger impact than even the IPCC models have appreciated (and people think this cautious IPCC is an alarmist conspiracy??!!).

Either way, the conclusion is that the Arctic summer is likely to be ice-free well within our lifetimes, perhaps as early as 2020! So how soon can we move to bring those GHG emissions under control? Not soon enough…

Our blog has spawned!!

Yes! Even though we are barely 4 months and 70-odd posts old, our blog has had a baby!

Conrad, our very own Conrad from this class, has gone and gotten himself his very own soapbox blog!! Participating in this blog apparently whetted his appetite, or something. And he’s made an excellent start by biting off on a rather big topic too – go check out his thoughts on Why Science?

On peer review, and scientific publishing

This is a tangential follow-up to yesterday’s Global Warming presentations – specifically to the comment James Wilson made about his experience at the Climate Project training workshop where someone in his group completely misunderstood/misrepresented the peer-review process.

To paraphrase James, this person (who apparently thought him/herself an expert on the matter) described peer-review as the process whereby when a scientist submits their research for publication, other scientists (the peers) actually re-do all of the work, to replicate every experiment and observation, to be sure it works, before the paper passes peer-review! What a caricature of real peer-review that is. As James put it, it is hard enough to get the funding and the resources to do the original research in the first place! Imagine if we had to keep reproducing work that has already been done for “peer-review”! Science would grind to a halt, indeed.

On the other hand, later last night, I came across another take on peer-review by John Dennehy, the Evilutionary Biologist, writing about a recent proposal in PLoS Biology to incentivise peer-review in order increase the efficiency of the process – primarily turnaround time.

What is most surprising to me is that many scientists shirk peer review when asked to perform it. I recall one colleague who suggested the following strategy: after acquiescing to a request for peer review, ignore it until after the deadline, until the editor writes asking where it is. Only then should you perform the task and submit your comments. The colleague reasoned, perhaps then the editors would leave you alone and not request future reviews from you. The strategy, in addition to being appalling and uncollegial, is particularly shortsighted. If the strategy spread, it eventually would be applied to your own submissions as well.

In a letter to PLoS Biology, Marc Hauser and Ernst Fehr propose to incentivise the peer review process by punishing transgressors. Here editors would keep databases on when papers were sent to reviewers and when the reviews were returned. The late reviews would be punished accordingly: “For every day since receipt of the manuscript for review plus the number of days past the deadline, the reviewer’s next personal submission to the journal will be held in editorial limbo for twice as long before it is sent for review.”

Sound like it might work? Perhaps, but there are pitfalls:

Naturally the system is not without bugs. Who is punished when multi-authored papers are submitted? What happens if one of the authors is a timely reviewer and another is a slacker? Hauser and Fehr suggest penalizing only the primary corresponding author, but I think that might easily be gamed by making the least penalized author the correspondent. Also slackers could avoid penalties by refusing requests for reviews. Hauser and Fehr suggest penalizing them by adding a one-week delay their own next submission. However, this also penalizes those who turn down reviews because of time constraints and or because they feel unqualified to do the service.

In addition, I would particularly like to emphasize and elaborate upon that last point, about time constraints, because that really hits close to home for me, especially this semester! At a place like CSU-Fresno (non-Ph.D.-granting; lower-tier in terms of research universities), you always hear us complain about the workload, given how many classes we have to teach, and the increasing desire (which I wholeheartedly support) to increase our research activities and output. As a still-green faculty at such an institution, I am struggling to come to grips not only with balancing the teaching/research workload, but also a number of subtler constraints that don’t often get recognized. While it is hard enough for us to compete with the big-boys of research universities in terms of attracting grants, one of the challenges is to even remain in circulation/contention among the big-boys at all, especially when transitioning from a strong research postdoc background. To me, participation in peer-reviews is one way to remain on the radar, so to speak, even as I try to keep up my research productivity while teaching 3-4 classes a semester. Which is why I have found it difficult to say no when an editor solicits a peer-review, even though I probably should decline more often. As a result I am guilty (even right now) of slow turnaround on some peer-reviews. And this is also tempering my own previous impatient reactions to prolonged peer-reviews.

So what would be my options under Hauser & Fehr’s proposal, even with Dennehy’s caveats? Of course, the first thing I have to try and do is to manage my limited time better, and meet deadlines (and likely sleep even less than I already do!). But if, given the multiple demands on us CSU-type faculty, the many hats we have to wear, I slip the deadline – I will get punished by encumbering a hold on my own future papers. If, on the other hand, I decline to review at all, I will also get whacked with a similar hold. Either way, my already slowing productivity will plummet further down the spiral, pushing me farther out of the orbit of higher-level research! Great – yet another constraint; just what we need. I don’t want to shirk peer-review, nor deliberately push past deadlines as strategy to avoid being called upon. But given everything else we have to deal with, please don’t make it any harder for us to participate in the scientific research community!

As Daniel Ebbole of Texas A&M wrote in a comment on the PLoS Biology site:

The time demands on potential reviewers have become enormous. The love of science is really the only motivation for agreeing to review. The funding situation is testing that love. No serious scientist has much time for reviewing, and certainly no time to respond to such a silly suggestion as punishing people who are too busy to turn in reviews on time. Of course, unless you are from Harvard, you have no time to write such a silly suggestion in the first place…

But then Ebbole goes on to suggest a monetary incentive – paying reviewers (or rather, their institutions) for timely reviews – in addition to punishment. I don’t like that idea either. As Dennehy points out in another posting today, we scientists and our students are already paying three-times over for publishing/reading our own work, so adding to these publishing costs is not a smart idea. Instead, I’m inclined towards more open peer review, an experiment Nature tried out last year, but which apparently did not quite catch on.

As for faculty workloads at institutions other than Harvard and its ilk, how about changing the tenure-evaluation criteria so that the time spent on peer-review is not completely discounted when evaluating our job performance?!

Enough venting, I guess – I better get back to finishing up that review now!

Alternatively, I could always add endlessly to my CV through this golden opportunity for publishing in a different kind of “peer-reviewed journal”!