Category Archives: global warming

O beetle, what hath thou wrought?

At Heritage Camp in the Rockies near Fraser Colorado this weekend, I’ve had my first up close and personal look at the “largest forest insect blight ever seen in North America – the ongoing plague of Mountain pine beetles that are laying waste to vast swaths of pine forests across Colorado (and neighboring states). The beetles like hot summers, with their populations expanding dramatically, resulting in outbreaks visible like an ugly red rash of dead trees across entire mountainsides. This particular outbreak we are living through is perhaps the biggest one ever, being at least 10-times bigger than previous recorded ones! Of course, this has nothing to do with global warming!

I snapped these images during our outdoor picnic lunch today, at a camp that used to be completely forested a few years ago (we are told), but is now surrounded by acres of wide open land like the aftermath of a slash-n-burn operation or a clearcut! They are replanting pines after clear felling the dead ones, so hopefully this forest will recover. But for now this melancholy forest of mostly dead trees carries a sense of dark foreboding, like the aftermath of Saruman’s assault on Fanghorn forest… but with the Ents long gone from the battlefield!

Can this forest recover from this blight? And can we actually help by clear-cutting and replanting pines, or are we making things worse in the long run? Just staring at these rusty hillsides, it seems to me rather unlikely that this forest can go back to its previous state any time soon – this is surely the cusp of a hysteresis?

Now that my talk is out of the way, I hope to have more time to take more pictures tomorrow to share here. (and isn’t it crazy/wonderful to have wifi at this mountain camp so I can share these thoughts and images?) 

Scientia Pro Publica #18: the last of the oughties edition!

028CF91C-54C2-4589-B5AF-CDD794950600.jpegWell, this carnival doesn’t really have much to do with the impending end of the oughties decade, but since everybody seems to be going on about it, compiling decadal reviews and best-of lists, I just tossed it up there. Caught your eye, didn’t it? But didn’t turn you off, I hope… 🙂

So, welcome to this (late) winter solstice edition of Scientia Pro Publica, and dig into a fair helping of hearty reading matter to keep you company by the fireside as this winter rolls you over into the double digit years of the new millennium.

Let us begin, for this is the holiday season, with some thoughts about food: about the diversity of our food sources, about how much we waste, and about how often we are hoist by our own petards in attempting to manage our precious natural – esp. food – resources. Let’s start with Jeremy Cherfas, who has over the past year taken us along on the journeys of N. I. Vavilov, that pioneering explorer and champion of agricultural biodiversity. Vaviblog makes for very interesting reading indeed, especially for someone like me who doesn’t know much about Vavilov. But here, Jeremy rather uncharacteristically lets loose with a rant about the difficulty of pinpointing the exact location of one of Vavilov’s collections in the Sahara, and takes us through the frustrations of finding information in GeneBank and other online databases that are supposed to make the life of the modern keyboard explorer much easier than that of people like Vavilov who, you know, actually went out to the frikking Sahara in pursuit of interesting plants! Without, mind you, GPS or iPhones or laptops, as one of his commenters reminds us. Still, what’s the point of all this talk about making information accessible to everyone if one can’t pinpoint and georeference where Vavilov found a particular plant a century ago? I want my data instantly, don’t you? Well, if you’re carried away by expectations of CSI like speed in modern data acquisition, let Heilochica bring you down to earth with a (hopefully) comprehensible explanation of something complicated!

But let’s stick with Jeremy a while longer and visit his another blasted weblog to read about a recent PLoS paper on how much food is wasted in America; some sobering statistics there, to be sure, plus the disquieting observation that there is no incentive in this country for anyone in the food industry to stop producing, consuming, and wasting food, environmental and human health consequences be damned! Ponder that while you tuck into the holiday treats. And if you have to bake wheat-alternative cookies because you or someone you know is allergic to gluten, Eric Olson shares a scitimes video about Celiac disease, which may be the most under-diagnosed health problem in America today (and something I’d never heard of back home in India!).

Meanwhile, we are losing the sources of biodiversity that form the basis of our food security, even as we blithely overproduce and throw away food! What’s a conservationist to do to change such odd human behavior? Well, not what they did in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati, where they encouraged coconut farming as a way to lure people away from fishing in order to relieve pressures on fish stocks! Find out what happened on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog, in another post by Jeremy about the law of unintended consequences! Which bring me to the question from one of my own recent posts: what is it with these Pacific island nations and their penchant for such tragicomedies?

Lest you think this carnival is turning into mostly a one-man-show, let me assure you that there is plenty more that came not from Jeremy’s keyboard! For instance, continuing with fishy business, here’s a post that makes this one something of a meta-carnival, a Fishy Friday roundup of fish in tanks! And if you ever found yourself agreeing with Bertie Wooster’s assessment that Jeeves’ superior intellect was a result of a diet rich in fish, you may be underestimating his (Jeeves’ not Wooster’s) neuroplasticity, the subject of a fascinating interview with Michael Merznenich at SharpBrains on the applications of neuroplasticity to keep all our minds sharp even as we age.

Then there is Mama Joules with two poisonous posts: first, a disturbing one about the dangers of lead poisoning in your home, and the still high childhood exposure rate even years after lead based paints were banned in the US. Followed by a lovely introduction to venom & vomit in Tarantulas! Gotta love them.

Given the brouhaha over the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, I’m a bit surprised at the lack of submissions about anthropogenic global warming/climate change! Perhaps we are all over-saturated with COP15 coverage? Still, there is no shortage of controversy, genuine or manufactured, when it comes to climate change, as these two posts show: a kind of curiously provocative post that suggests nuclear energy may still become part of our green energy future – safely(?) (I have a more cynical take on the subject as I think we are addicted enough to energy in our technology-dependent societies that we are near a threshold where the marginal benefit of nuclear energy will outweigh the risks regardless of the environmental consequences. But that’s me being Grinchy again). Meanwhile, challenges us to ignore the pseudo-controversy over climate-gate and consider the climate change problem in the framework of Pascal’s wager: act as if anthropogenic climate change is real because the risks of not believing it are too great! Interesting thought that – and one that James Randi might consider, having rather startlingly fallen prey to AGW denialism in a manner worrisome to his most loyal supporters.

But, enough with the controversies and bad news. Let’s celebrate the season while we still can, while there still is enough biodiversity to stimulate, delight, and challenge us. For even as we worry about losing species, we continue to discover delightful new ones, like the world’s tiniest orchid that GrrlScientist (matriarch of this carnival) writes about. At the other end of the organismal size spectrum, Kevin Zelnio wonders why we don’t have even larger whales? What keeps the blue whales, for example, from evolving to even larger body sizes? Not the fluid dynamic challenges of using a volkswagen sized heart to pump blood, or the constraints of depending on the tiny krill for food – but a recent paper suggests it may be that their mouths would have to be too big (may already be too big, proportionally) to keep that humongous body fed! That’s why I love reading about evolutionary trade-offs and constraints, and allometry!

Let me leave you with two more posts that share the physical, emotional, and intellectual excitement of studying life on this planet of ours. Over on NCF’s blog eco logic, Manish Chandi describes his unexpected delight in discovering brooding geckos and gorgeous snakes while on a short focused ethnographic research trip to Chowra island in the Nicobar archipelago. And Hielochica expresses her excitement in studying hydrothermal vents – which she considers a mysterious love-child of geology and biology! What could be more fun than that?

So have a happy and safe holiday my friends, and I wish you all a wonderful, productive new year full of many an unexpectedly delightful discovery. And don’t forget to ring in the new year with the next edition of Scientia Pro Publica: issue #19 will be curated by GrrlScientist and Bob O’hara (submit entries per instructions here) and hosted at the latter’s Deep Thoughts and Silliness,

Beautifully complex information, skepticism, and the challenge of understanding climate change

via Phil Plait of the Bad Astronomy blog, comes a link to this beautiful information graphic pitting the data and the interpretations on both sides of the global warming “debate” against each other face to face, and in a jargon free way. The original graphic is on a black background, but I find this version more readable, and have posted it here below the fold.

Apart from the visual beauty and simplicity of this poster, what really strikes me is how difficult it is to wrap our heads around the complex datasets underlying the scientific consensus on global warming, and the projections that have the “alarmists” so, well, alarmed! This poster does a really nice job presenting both sides in a point-counterpoint manner that may help clear some of the confusion – but it also illustrates the daunting task of understanding the data and discerning the patterns, which is why we need real expertise – and we need to trust the experts when most of them tell us that we have a real problem on our hands! It is therefore worth reading the accompanying notes from David McCandless, the creater of this graphic:

I researched this subject in a very particular way. I deliberately chose not speak directly to any climate experts or leading scientists in the field. I used only publicly available web sources.

Why? Because I wanted to simulate what it’s like for people trying to learn about climate change online.

My conclusion is “what a nightmare”. I was generally shocked and appalled by how difficult it was to source counter arguments. The data was often tucked away on extremely ancient or byzantine websites. The key counter arguments I often found, 16 scrolls down, on comment 342 on a far flung post from three years ago. And even when I found an answer, the answers were excessively jargonized or technical.

Most of the info for this image is sourced from It’s an amazing blog staffed tirelessly by some of the world’s leading climatologists.

Unfortunately, the majority of the writing on there is so scientific and so technical, it makes the website nigh on useless to the casual, curious reader.

The scientists (my people) clearly need to make a better effort at communicating what they know and find in as jargon free a manner as possible! If it is a nightmare for someone as motivated as the creator of this infographic to find and make sense of the data, I can only sympathize with the journalists and more casual readers (even reasonably informed ones, let alone those under the sway of Faux news) who find the arguments confusing. If even a public communication portal like is too technical for a motivated reader, it shouldn’t surprise us that so many fall prey to the much simpler spin from the “skeptics” who deny any human role in exacerbating global warming.

Heck, even a professional skeptic like James Randi put his foot in his mouth about this a couple of days ago when he wrote (finally, after having avoided the topic for years) that he was skeptical not about global warming itself, but about our species’ role in accelerating it. Considering he is a leading professional skeptic who has always wielded Occam’s razor most skillfully in debunking all manner of pseudoscience (with complicated explanations), perhaps it is not surprising that he felt the climate models were too complex to point to humans as a primary cause. Although, while acknowledging that our measurements of climate had become much more accurate with modern technology, Randi should have realized that our methods of analysis of complex data have also come a long way, lending much greater confidence to the assertion that much of the recent rise in global temperatures is, indeed, anthropogenic. Of course, many including his closest supporters immediately jumped on him to set him straight – read in particular these blog posts by James Hrynshyn, PZ Myers, and Phil Plait [UPDATE: also, Orac, whose post I’d missed earlier]. Randi has, appropriately enough for a skeptic, acknowledged his error in a new posting yesterday making it clear that he is emphatically not a “denialist”. But as PZ points out (a bit too harshly), Randi’s stance as a “skeptic” still leaves him open to exploitation by professional denialists who routinely twist the meaning of “skepticism” by cherrypicking words and data to raise dust clouds of doubt around the real science which overwhelmingly indicates strong anthropogenic forcing of recent climate change. Which brings us back to the challenge of communicating that science more effectively and dispelling those doubts.

Look below for the beautiful information graphic – and spend some time with it – for it is a great start towards understanding this complex issue. And I also hope it spurs more climate scientists to make a better effort at communicating the complex data and how they go about making sense of it. McCandless has also made the datasets he used to produce the graphs in his poster and their sources available for download so you can play with them yourself if so inclined. Then head on over to for an archive of all the data that they are now making available to the public!

And of course, click on the image for the much larger version!


[From Climate Change Deniers vs The Consensus | Information Is Beautiful]

Is that Antarctica’s delegate to the Copenhagen negotiations?

If so, I’m afraid they may be a bit too late, as they are moving rather slowly, and are also apparently lacking in GPS technology, being headed towards Australia rather than Denmark!! And that’s a real pity. Because the world’s leaders gathered in Copenhagen this week to collectively twiddle their thumbs about global warming could really use a frakking 115 square kilometer (that’s 44 sq. miles for you Americans) iceberg shoved into their midst just about now! Don’t you think?

What a way to crash a party that would be, eh? A real ice-breaker, even, perhaps, between the global warming activists and the denialists! Much more effective than poor old Al Gore. Quite the message from the ice continent, indeed the planet itself, that would be, to its human children gone astray!

But as so often happens with politicians (and indeed the rest of us), this ‘berg too seem to have lost its enthusiasm for the cause. deciding instead to head for the beaches of Australia! I can hear its growing murmur, “Aw… fuck it, I’ve been freezing my ass off here for centuries, stuck between the penguins and the krill, so why shouldn’t I make a break for it? Why can’t I just spend one last glorious summer on the beach? I hear the surfing can be quite something around Australia this time of year… so watch out: SURF’S UP!!!”

Hat-tip to the Bad Astronomer, who has more on the incredible voyage of freedom for this little iceberg!

Are the arguments more important than the solutions?

That’s the question, really, isn’t it, that we should be asking ourselves and our so-called leaders as they continue to talk in Copenhagen on our behalf. Regardless of how much you believe human activities have contributed or not to global warming (and regardless of the empirical evidence supporting said warming which is still questioned by denialists), why would you not want to take the precautionary principle and make some changes in the way we do business? Just so we can at least try reduce our ecological footprints, breathe easier, and generally make life more amenable to our own future generations and those of many other species sharing our world? Al Gore challenged the world leaders in Copenhagen yesterday on behalf of said future generations, who might wonder why our generation is putting the arguments ahead of the solutions right now!

While raising the questions our grandkids might well ask, it seems Gore was also channeling (and I’m not helping his cred with the denialist crowd any by bringing this name up!) Karl Marx, who famously wrote, The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it. You can sit around all day arguing about your interpretations of climate data, or you can go out and do something to address the real problems we all face. What’ll it be, world leaders?

World of Warmcraft

Amid all the media coverage and hot air (from all sides) surrounding the COP15 negotiations ongoing in Copenhagen this week, where the world’s leaders are converging right now to dither collectively about what they will or will not do about global warming, even as icebergs melt and activists ratchet up the rhetoric – on both sides – we should all be thankful for the sanity-restoring coverage provided by Jon Stewart and his minions at The Daily Show! So if you want to clear your head a bit, look below the fold for a couple of samples of their recent coverage:

Last night, they had World of Warmcraft:

<td style='padding:2px 1px 0px 5px;' colspan='2'World of Warmcraft
The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Crisis

And last week, they addressed the so-called climate-gate email leak scandal, pointedly and concisely capturing my own ambivalent frustration with the incident.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Scientists Hide Global Warming Data
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political Humor Health Care Crisis

We love you too!

A short and sweet exhortation from Oscar Fernandez (Biol 110, Human Ecology) for all of us!


What you and I do to each other is fair game because we belong to the same gene pool. But did you ever think at some point that all of our infighting is effecting everything else? CO2 emissions are endangering species such as the Emperor penguin, koalas, arctic foxes, and many other not so well known organisms stowed away in the Arctic and Antarctic. Emperor penguins, like the adorable ones pictured above, have less space to, uhm, procreate because global warming is melting away ice platforms that act as their habitat. Arctic foxes are being out-competed by the warm climate adapted Red foxes. Lets not forget about the Koalas either. Global warming is reducing the availability of the euphoric and very intoxicating Eucalyptus leaf that keeps them dizzy and feeling o.k.! Come on people, we need to become better managers of this planet.

Facing up to tough questions on climate change? Hopefully today on CNN!

I hadn’t caught this either, so I’m glad Shannon Patrick found this just in time – at least to watch and see if someone else has asked a question burning in your mind even if you didn’t get to ask it yourself. Something to look for this evening on CNN.

This is very interesting and I’m sorry that I came across it so late. Youtube and CNN have joined forces to let everybody’s voice be heard, or at least have a chance. People were asked to submit questions for world leaders regarding climate change to a specific Copenhagen Summit YouTube page that is run by CNN. The news organization is going to take the most compelling questions and present them to world leaders at the conference. This conference will be broadcast live on CNN and streamed live on YouTube. If you followed the presedential election last fall you may have seen the YouTube debates done by CNN then. I, for one, enjoyed those debates very much, so I hope this is just as well done. While this may not get immediate action, from my experience watching the YouTube debates, the questions are commonly the tough questions that reporters don’t seem to ask, but that the public wants to know. These questions definitely give a feeling of relief of frustration, in the form of “Finally, somebody asked it!”. It’s live on December 15th at 5 a.m. PST, but I’m sure they will replay it throughout the day, and of course YouTube will have it full length for watching on-demand.

Can China have it both ways?

So asks Shannon Patrick (Biol 110, Human Ecology) as he shares this news report:

This a funny satirical video of China’s attitude toward climate. What makes it funny is that there seems to be almost some truth to it [then again, isn’t all good satire centered around a solid kernel of truth?]. If you look into China’s views on climate from the recent Copenhagen Summit you’ll see that they seem to be agreeing with some steps that will reduce pollution just as long as they don’t take the lead on it. At Kyoto: Signed as a developing country so they were not obliged to cut emissions. It really seems like they want to be viewed two ways: a developing country when it comes to climate, but in any other format of international politics they want to viewed as developed. Their GDP is 4.3 trillion dollars, and they say they should only pay 1% of their GDP to help. There president is quoted on the topic as saying, “Developed countries should support developing countries in tackling climate change”. It really seems they are willing to cut pollution up to the point that it does not affect their respective industries. So the Onion takes the issue and paints China as country proud of their accomplishments, just as they are of their other accomplishments in other areas.