Boing Boing 

Happy Spring!

It's the first day of Spring! To celebrate, here is a photo that science journalist Maryn McKenna took of her car windshield in Atlanta, Georgia, coated with a single day's worth of pollen. Please file "tree bukkake" under "Things I Do Not Miss About the South".

Interesting science side note on this: It's pretty well-documented that climate changes are affecting pollen production, pollen exposure, and allergies.

USDA scientist Lewis Ziska, among other researchers, has found that ragweed is one of the plants whose growth is most enhanced by exposure to higher concentrations of carbon dioxide. Not only does the ragweed grow faster when exposed to more CO2, it also produces more pollen. This is especially an issue in cities, which have higher concentrations of CO2 than rural areas, thanks to having a higher concentration of cars and other CO2 emitting sources. Extra bonus: There's also some evidence that allergy seasons are getting longer, as Spring starts earlier and Winter takes longer to truly set in.

You can read more about this in the report from the IPCC's Working Group II and in a paper on the effects of climate change on health written by Ziska and his collaborator, the late Paul Epstein.

New hypothesis proposes a link between obesity and carbon dioxide

Let me preface anything else in this post by clarifying something important. What we are talking about here is a hypothesis—it's not been proven. In fact, it's not even really been tested yet. The studies that will put the hypothesis to the test are currently underway. So please (please, please, please) do not walk away assuming this is a given. It's not. It could very well be completely and utterly wrong. But it's interesting. And it will be in the news. And I want you guys to hear about it in the proper context.

Make sense? Okay, then ...

There are scientists who think that there could, possibly be a connection between air pollution and obesity.

This idea is (for now) based on "what if" extrapolation rather than data. But it's not totally crazy. We know air pollution affects health in ways would not have been obvious just a few decades ago. For instance, there is a strong, well-documented connection between air pollution and heart disease. In 2009, Aruni Bhatnagar, professor of medicine at the University of Louisville, told me that studies from 250 different metropolitan areas in the United States showed that a spike in air pollution was reliably followed by a spike in cardiac deaths within next 24-48 hours. The people primarily at risk are those who already have underlying heart health problems, but it's not always clear who those people are. We don't yet know exactly how pollution affects the heart—it could well be a cascade of effects that actually starts in the lungs—but we can see that the affect is there.

This new hypothesis, proposed by Arne Astrup, head of the department of obesity and nutrition at the University of Copenhagen, does not come with that kind of supporting evidence. Instead, it's more of an extrapolation.

At Discovery News, Emily Sohn explains why this hypothesis could make sense—and why it's way too early to say whether or not it's actually right.

The idea proposes that breathing in extra CO2 makes blood more acidic, which in turn causes neurons that regulate appetite, sleep and metabolism to fire more frequently. As a result, we might be eating more, sleeping less and gaining more weight, partly as a result of the air we breathe.

...Obesity and its associated health risks have escalated dramatically in the last few decades. And even though just about everyone thinks the reason is obvious -- we are eating too many calories and exercising too little -- research has revealed that obesity is far more complex than that, with multiple genes, metabolic pathways and even gut microbes involved, said obesity researcher David Allison, director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Read the full story at Discovery News

Image: Pollution, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from akeg's photostream

Eyewitness to climate change

Numbers can be powerful things, but they don't necessarily help the average person grasp what's actually going on in science. Instead, personal stories tend to make a bigger impact. And that's understandable. Things you can see—or things that someone can show you—are going to stick in your head a bit more than a barrage of data.

This is especially a problem, I think, with climate change. Some of the largest impact of climate change, so far, have happened in places far removed from the experiences of the people who create the most anthropogenic greenhouse gases. So it's often hard to take the idea "the Earth is getting warmer" and really grok what that actually means.

That's why people like Will Steger are important. Steger is an explorer and science communicator who has won the National Geographic Society's John Oliver La Gorce Medal—an award that's also been given to Amelia Earhart, Robert Peary, Roald Amundsen and Jacques Cousteau.

He does most of his work in the Arctic and Antarctic, places where he has clearly seen the results of climate change. In a video of a presentation at the University of Minnesota, Steger shows you his experiences—and what they mean. How has climate change altered the landscape of the poles? What does that mean for the future of the Earth? Steger does a good job of making the data feel like something real.

I wish I could figure out how to embed this, but you should go watch it, nonetheless. It's a long video, but worth the time.

Image: Ice berg melting., a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from dkeats's photostream

Guess who else is part of the evil climate change conspiracy?

In a story at that socialist rag Financial Times, the radical environmental group General Electric explains why the Republican presidential candidates' refusal to accept the evidence on climate change is ridiculous. (Sadly, you have to register to read this piece.)

Cutest video you'll see all day of penguins flying on a plane

[Video Link.] Yahoo's "Sideshow" blog has the story behind this video, and an accompanying photo gallery slideshow. On a recent Delta Flight, there were 300 or so human passengers and two foot-and-a-half tall penguins, Pete and Penny, who are 6 and 12 years old respectively. They were on their way to the New York premiere of "Frozen Planet," a new Discovery Channel documentary series narrated by Alec Baldwin. Like the narrator, the penguins fly first class. I hope they behaved better on the plane than he has been known to.

[photo: SeaWorld penguins Pete and Penny on display at the "Frozen Planet" premiere at Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center on March 8, 2012 in New York City. Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images]

How is climate change like Copernicus?

An article in the latest issue of Physics Today puts modern contrived controversies into historical perspective. After all, this isn't the first time that humans have looked at the evidence supporting a profound paradigm shift in science, realized how badly it would screw with their deeply held social and political beliefs, and, then, soundly rejected the evidence.

The decision [whether to accept the new theory] was not exclusively, or even primarily, a matter for astronomers, and as the debate spread from astronomical circles it became tumultuous in the extreme. To most of those who were not concerned with the detailed study of celestial motions, Copernicus’s innovation seemed absurd and impious. Even when understood, the vaunted harmonies seemed no evidence at all. The resulting clamor was widespread, vocal, and bitter.

Thus does science historian Thomas Kuhn describe the difficulties experienced by astronomers in convincing the public of the heliocentric theory of the solar system, which ultimately ushered in the scientific revolution. The “clamor” prevailed around the time of Galileo Galilei, more than a half century after Nicolaus Copernicus, on his deathbed, published the heliocentric model in 1543. Copernicus’s calculations surpassed all others in their ability to describe the observed courses of the planets, and they were based on a far simpler conception. Yet most people would not accept heliocentricity until two centuries after his death.

Read the rest of this at Physics Today. It's a really fascinating piece, filled with neat science history about the controversy surrounding heliocentrism. There's also some information on another "controversy" where science ended up being debated through a political lens: Einstein's theory of relativity.

Via Steve Easterbrook

Image: Geocentrism FTL, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from smailtronic's photostream

Do we need to talk about climate change, in order to talk about energy?

This is one thing that changed for me during the course of researching and writing Before the Lights Go Out, my upcoming book about the future of energy. I used to approach conversations about energy from a climate-centric perspective. First, I have to help people understand the science of climate change and get them past the misinformation and blatant lies surrounding that issue. THEN, we could talk about energy solutions.

But now I think that perspective is dead wrong.

Polls show that a majority of Americans want to change the way we make and use energy. What we disagree on is why that change needs to happen. The good news: We don't have to agree on the "whys" to reach the same solutions.

My book comes out April 10th, but you can read the introduction online now. It'll give you a better idea about why I think that climate change—important as it is—is not the only way to engage Americans on energy issues.

“Climate change is a lie.” The man leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. “Climate change is a lie,” he said again. “It’s just something made up by environmentalists to scare us.”

I heard this story a few years after it actually happened, from Eileen Horn, one of the environmentalists who watched this man’s speech from the other side of a two-way mirror. At the time, Horn and her colleagues were about to launch a new nonprofit organization called the Climate and Energy Project (CEP), an environmental activism group based in the state of Kansas. The man was a participant in one of a series of focus groups that the CEP had put together in Wichita. The idea behind the focus groups: don’t be stupid. Too often, Horn told me, environmental activism started with what the activists thought the public believed. Focus groups were a nice way to get around the sloppy art of assumptions. Instead, the Climate and Energy Project could get a bunch of Kansans together in a room, lob some ideas at them, and watch how they respond. What did the intended audience already know, and what did they not know? What did the people of Kansas think about the future of energy?

It was a nice plan, but it wasn’t too enlightening at first. The participants talked about where they got their news—NPR and CNN on one side, Fox News and a handful of radio talk shows on the other. Opinions on climate change split right along the lines of favorite news sources. You will probably not be shocked to learn that the man who declared climate change a lie fell squarely on the Fox News side. Whether or not you disagree with him, his position was fairly predictable. You and I have met any number of people with the same background and ideas.

Yet Horn remembered that man, specifically, because he changed her outlook on the world. In a way, he changed her life. Not because of his position on climate change, but because of what she learned about him—and other people like him—as the focus group continued.

“No matter how the conversation started, whether they believed in climate change or not, the discussion always, eventually, turned to energy solutions,” she told me. “And when it did, it turned out that this guy drove a hybrid car and had changed all his lightbulbs out to CFLs.”

Read the rest at BeforeLightsOut.com. Just scroll down the page and you'll see the link.

Image: #431 Global warming get warmer houses, sweet, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from mikaelmiettinen's photostream

Leaked climate-change denial lobby docs came from water scientist

Water scientist Peter Gleick admitted that he was the source for the anonymous leak of documents from the climate-change-denying Heartland Institute. The documents -- obtained under a false name, and then leaked -- showed Heartland's budget, corporate donors (Koch Industries and Philip Morris featured heavily), and a plan to produce deliberately confusing materials about climate change for use in middle school curriculum.

It is clear from the documents that Heartland advocates against responsible climate mitigation and then uses that advocacy to raise money from oil companies and "other corporations whose interests are threatened by climate policies." Heartland particularly celebrates the funding that it receives from the fossil fuel fortune being the Charles G. Koch Foundation.

Heartland also continues to collect money from Philip Morris parent company Altria as well as from the tobacco giant Reynolds American, while maintaining ongoing advocacy against policies related to smoking and health.

Heartland's policy positions, strategies and budget distinguish it clear as a lobby firm that is misrepresenting itself as a "think tank" - it budgets $4.1 million of its $6.4 million in projected expenditures for Editorial, Government Relations, Communications, Fundraising, and Publications, and the only activity it plans that could vaguely be considered policy development is the writing of a curriculum package for use in confusing high schoolers about climate change.

Leaked Heartland documents

Heartland Insider Exposes Institute's Budget and Strategy (notes on the leaked documents)

The Guardian on Gleick's admission

The oldest thing in the world

The oldest living thing on Earth is a massive "meadow" of sea grass growing in the Mediterranean between Spain and Cyprus. It's somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 years old and reproduces by cloning itself. Also, it's being killed by climate change.

Via Beth Buczynski

What's causing Europe's cold snap?

One of the things that makes it difficult to understand weather, climate, and long-term climate changes is the fact that, when something noticeable happens, there's a good chance it's being caused by more than one thing. So, when you look at a weather phenomenon and ask, "Is this being caused by anthropogenic climate change?", there's several (technically correct) ways that question could be answered.

Take, for instance, the recent cold snap in Europe that's killed more than 300 people and dropped snow as far south as Libya. As Andrew Freedman explains on Climate Central, this particular bit of weather weirdness is being caused by natural variations in the air currents over the Arctic:

The Arctic Oscillation, or AO, is is a climate index that describes the characteristics of the atmospheric circulation over the Arctic, and a related index describes the circulation over the North Atlantic. Depending on whether it's in a "positive" or "negative" phase, the Arctic Oscillation can bring warmer or cooler than average wintertime conditions to the U.S. and Europe.

Right now the Arctic Oscillation is in a negative phase, which tends to favor colder than average weather in Europe and the U.S. Scientists don't fully understand what causes the Arctic Oscillation to switch from one phase to the other, which limits their ability to forecast these changes ahead of time beyond a week in advance.

But (and, ladies and gentlemen, this is a great big but) scientists have noted that the Arctic Oscillation has been behaving more strangely than usual for the last decade. In fact, Freedman points out that several record-breaking positive and negative oscillations have coincided with extreme weather events you probably took note of: December 2009's Snowpocalypse, February 2010's Snowmageddon, and April 2011's massive outbreak of tornadoes (which, thankfully, doesn't have a cutesy name associated with it).

And this is where the lines between "naturally occurring" and "anthropogenically caused" get blurred. Because this record-breaking decade of Arctic Oscillations has coincided with a record-breaking decade in loss of Arctic sea ice and there's good reason to suspect that the two might be related.

... in recent years there have been studies examining how the global warming-related loss of Arctic sea ice might affect winter weather patterns in the northern hemisphere. Some of this research shows that sea ice loss may favor winters with predominately negative phases of the Arctic Oscillation. One potential result of global warming, referred to as the "Arctic Paradox," is that sea ice loss can help warm the Arctic during the winter, while setting in motion a chain reaction of events that make winters colder than they otherwise would be in Europe and the U.S.

This actually gets even more complicated, because it also appears that AO can affect the amount of sea ice that melts in a given year, which can, in turn, affect what happens with the AO. For more information, check out:
An explainer from The National Snow and Ice Data Center
— A NASA explainer from a couple of years ago that talks about the relationships between climate change, AO, and cold weather.

Also, just so we're clear, the AO is not the same thing as the climate systems that could drive "abrupt climate change"—a possible scenario that served as the basis for the highly fictional movie "The Day After Tomorrow". You can read more on that at the Weather Underground blog.

WSJ publishes actual climate scientists' letter on climate science

Andys sez, "The WSJ just published a letter to the editor in response to their No Need to Panic About Global Warming editorial from last week. The response is signed by (GASP!), actual climate scientists. Who'd have thought that we should maybe ask them? Alas, it doesn't get the same editor's note at the top that the original article received mentioning that it is signed by real climate scientists. I guess readers will have to scroll all the way to the bottom for proof that this is, in fact, true expert testimony for a change."

Here's our previous note on this.

Do you consult your dentist about your heart condition? In science, as in any area, reputations are based on knowledge and expertise in a field and on published, peer-reviewed work. If you need surgery, you want a highly experienced expert in the field who has done a large number of the proposed operations.

You published "No Need to Panic About Global Warming" (op-ed, Jan. 27) on climate change by the climate-science equivalent of dentists practicing cardiology. While accomplished in their own fields, most of these authors have no expertise in climate science. The few authors who have such expertise are known to have extreme views that are out of step with nearly every other climate expert. This happens in nearly every field of science. For example, there is a retrovirus expert who does not accept that HIV causes AIDS. And it is instructive to recall that a few scientists continued to state that smoking did not cause cancer, long after that was settled science.

Check With Climate Scientists for Views on Climate (Thanks, Andys!)

Local snow does not disprove global climate change

Even with all those Snowpocalypseses(?), NASA says that 2011 was still the ninth warmest year on record since 1880—and all but one of the top 10 warmest years have happened in the last 11 years. 1998 is third-hottest, although it's worth noting that the top six years are all close enough that they may as well be fundamentally tied for first.

How the effects of climate change can create more climate change

One of the interesting things about the global carbon dioxide and climate systems is the concept of feedback loops. You already know that as atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide go up (and with them, the global average temperature) you get lots of different kinds of changes all over the place. For instance, mountain pine forests start experiencing warmer winters and smaller snowpacks. But, as those changes happen, they can actually trigger secondary effects that contribute to, and increase the rate of, climate change.

In this video, you'll learn about how warmer temperatures and lower snowpacks are contributing to the spread of massive pine beetle infestations across the western United States. This is more than just inconvenient. The pine beetles can quickly kill huge amounts of trees, raising the risk of property-destroying forest fires and razing whole ecosystems. And, as the trees die en masse, forests that were once carbon sinks (absorbing more carbon dioxide than they released) become emitters—adding more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Thanks to Barfman for Submitterating!

Video Link

How To: Debunk a myth

I'm going to bookmark The Debunking Handbook, a quick-read pdf with all sorts of great advice for effectively countering misinformation. It's put together by the same people behind Skeptical Science, my go-to source for detailed, easy-to-understand debunkings of pretty much every climate-science-related myth you can rattle off.

A tour of McMurdo Station, Antarctica

This video was made by Henry Kaiser, a musician and research diver who guest blogged here yesterday about the problems caused by thinning sea ice in Antarctica. The film takes you on a tour of McMurdo Station and the research being done there by Gretchen Hoffman of the University of California Santa Barbara.

Kaiser dives for different researchers every year. This year, he's working with Hoffman's team, helping them study the effects of climate change on ocean life. Specifically, Hoffman has Kaiser out collecting Antarctic sea urchins so that her team can extract the animals' sperm and eggs to test the development of sea urchin zygotes in differing conditions of PH and temperature.

There's great footage in here of human life above the ice, and animal life below. It's a bit long, but I recommend taking the time to watch the whole thing.

Video Link

Words matter

In an answer to a reader question, NPR explains why it uses both "climate change" and "global warming" to refer to the concept of rising anthropogenic greenhouse gasses forcing a corresponding rise in global average temperature. Personally, I try to use "climate change" in all cases, for the same reason NPR likes that name—it doesn't confuse people who might otherwise not realize that a rising global average temperature can cause diverse local effects that aren't limited to higher temperatures.

A new system for studying the effects of climate change

I've talked here before about how difficult it is to attribute any individual climactic catastrophe to climate change, particularly in the short term. Patterns and trends can be said to link to a rise in global temperature, which is linked to a rise in greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. But a heatwave, or a tornado, or a flood? How can you say which would have happened without a rising global temperature, and which wouldn't?

Some German researchers are trying to make that process a little easier, using a computer model and a whole lot of probability power. They published a paper about this method recently, using their system to estimate an 80% likelihood that the 2010 Russian heatwave was the result of climate change. Wired's Brandon Keim explains how the system works:

The new method, described by Rahmstorf and Potsdam geophysicist Dim Coumou in an Oct. 25 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, relies on a computational approach called Monte Carlo modeling. Named for that city’s famous casinos, it’s a tool for investigating tricky, probabilistic processes involving both defined and random influences: Make a model, run it enough times, and trends emerge.

“If you roll dice only once, it doesn’t tell you anything about probabilities,” said Rahmstorf. “Roll them 100,000 times, and afterwards I can say, on average, how many times I’ll roll a six.”

Rahmstorf and Comou’s “dice” were a simulation made from a century of average July temperatures in Moscow. These provided a baseline temperature trend. Parameters for random variability came from the extent to which each individual July was warmer or cooler than usual.

After running the simulation 100,000 times, “we could see how many times we got an extreme temperature like the one in 2010,” said Rahmstorf. After that, the researchers ran a simulation that didn’t include the warming trend, then compared the results.

“For every five new records observed in the last few years, one would happen without climate change. An additional four happen with climate change,” said Rahmstorf. “There’s an 80 percent probability” that climate change produced the Russian heat wave.

S#*@ scientists say

How do you define "aerosol", or "manipulation"? What about "organic", "mutant" and "confidence"?

The truth is that scientists often say words that do not mean what the general public thinks they mean. And that's a problem. If you're not speaking the same language, miscommunication is inevitable. There's a new paper up in Physics Today, which argues that it's the responsibility of all scientists to think about the colloquial meanings of words and talk in a way the public can understand.

But here's the first step: Making it clear to scientists which words cause communication problems. You can see the list from the Physics Today paper above. Meanwhile, the Southern Fried Science blog has added to the collection, and Southern Fried Science blogger Andrew Thaler is looking for more suggestions. You can add words that you think scientists and public use differently to Thaler's Google Docs spreadsheet. If you've got a good alternative for a confusing word, add that, too.

Via Mountain Beltway

Texas officials edited climate change out of environmental report

Texas scientists wrote a report detailing the state of the environment in Galveston Bay. Rick Perry-appointed officials from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality went through the report and systematically deleted every mention of changes to Bay ecology that could be attributed to climate change. Now the scientists are rebelling. All the authors have asked for their names to be removed from the published, censored version of the report, and they've shared the original paper with the press. You can see how the report was censored, page-by-page, at Mother Jones.

Your morning dose of Feynman

Richard Feynman, God of Perfect Analogies, explains why it's not a failure or a scandal when scientists adapt and change their understanding of the world. This is a really important point, applicable in a lot of public debates over science, especially those focused on evolution and climate change. Science isn't about writing things on tablets of stone. It's about taking a theory and constantly digging deeper into it—adding layers of nuance, finding stuff that doesn't make sense, and using both to build a more complete picture. Even if the big idea is right, the details will change. That's how science is supposed to work.

Via W. Younes

Video Link

Science Saturday: Nuclear energy, melting ice caps, and human adaptation

I was on Bloggingheads.tv Science Saturday this week, talking with Jessa Gamble, a science journalist and the author of Siesta and the Midnight Sun, a book about how culture and biology effect the way we experience time.

Jessa was in Japan in 1999, when an accident at a nuclear fuel processing facility in the prefecture just south of Fukushima killed two workers. We started off our conversation talking about the industry lapses that led to that accident, and how government and the media responded to it.

Climate change and earthquakes: It's complicated

In the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami last March, I started seeing a lot of headlines like this:

"Does climate change mean more tsunamis?"

"Did climate change cause the Japanese earthquake?

Read the rest

Bill Nye explains to Fox News why lunar volcanoes don't disprove anthropogenic global warming

Here's a great clip of Bill Nye the Science Guy gently, but firmly, explaining to Fox News's Jon Scott that the potential existence of extinct lunar volcanoes doesn't disprove global warming. Scott believes that "...if the moon erupting volcanoes a few million years ago, you know, it's not like we've been up there burning fossil fuels." Whatever that means.

NYE: Uh, no, volcanoes are not connected to the burning of fossil fuels, it's connected to mining, but the big thing for us, on my side of this thing, is the science is true, and so when you discover -- the people who got really got involved in climate change, got involved in it often by studying Venus, the planet Venus. So the physics, the science that happens on Venus, is the same as the science that happens on the earth, the science that happens on the moon, in this case the geology the study of rocks, that happens on the moon, is the same science that happens on the earth. So when you say to yourself, well, I'm going to ignore all the evidence of climate change, you're saying, I'm going to ignore the best ideas anybody's ever had, that's science. And so this is quite troubling to those of us on our side of it.

Fox Anchor Wonders If Moon Volcanoes Mean Global Warming Isn't Happening