March 2010 Archives

Plainspoken Scientist

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The American Geophysical Union just started a blog on science communication called "the Plainspoken Scientist".  For their first guest post, they asked me to comment on my experience doing a press conference.  Should be a fun blog to watch.

Review of climate change book

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I've been looking for a good book on climate change, and may finally have found one.  No, it's not Al Gore's new book (pretty, but pricey), it's the latest in the Magic School Bus adventures: The Magic School Bus And The Climate Challenge.  Sure, Joanna Cole writes at a fourth grade level and Bruce Degen's drawings, while fun and whimsical, would not be acceptable in a peer-reviewed article.  However, the book does a really great job explaining some of the key concepts behind climate change.  Some highlights:

  • Good discussion of the difference between climate and weather
  • Accurate description of how greenhouse gases allow sunlight in, but make it hard for heat to get out
  • Great presentation of how less Arctic ice means warmer water and even less ice (my favorite).
  • Description of how fossil fuels are used and why they contribute to climate change.

While the book isn't the best Magic School Bus (that would have to be the Electric Field Trip), it's definitely near the top.  It would make a great gift for a young person, school, or climate skeptic in your life.  Also, judging from Miss Frizzle's dress on the final page, I think Coale and Degen will soon be weighing in on another controversial-but-shouldn't-be topic.  Can't wait to review that one!

Thank you!

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A quick thank-you to our readers.  We've been online for just over a year now, and our readership has been steadily increasing.  We hope you continue to visit us and make comments (now that we finally have that feature turned on). 

I'm happy to see our international readership increasing as well.  We're getting regular, non-robotic hits from 20-30 countries now.  While our focus is often local, we are an eclectic group, and we are very interested in what's going on around the world. 

If there is something you'd like to hear more about, please let us know.

We will be listening, using our listening devices:

Pete's poster

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Here's a look at the poster I put together for the Ocean Sciences conference:

stetson_OceanSciences2010_vFinalJPG.jpgI tried to keep it consise since so many posters look like the researcher barfed text all over them.
Also, the pictures allow a passerby to quickly get a sense of what's going on, and then, if they're interested, they can ask questions.

Feel free to post questions in the comments!

Below is a link to a pdf of the poster, but you should also be able to click on the image above to see a larger version.

The Eco-cast

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This post is a follow-up to my ecological forecasting post last month.  The work that I presented at the Ocean Sciences meeting was built around the idea of producing forecasts of ecosystems.  Much of what I presented was discussed in that post, so I'd just like to take a little space here to build on the vision.

I think about ecosystem forecasts as close analogues to weather forecasts.  There are, of course, important differences, but I'll save that discussion for a later post.  Here I'll focus on the analogy.

Early weather predictions were based on signs and signals from the immediate surroundings, and on past observations.  These observations were interwoven with ecological ones as well.  People have probably been making these sorts of predictions since the first homo sapiens scratched their heads and gazed upon a bold red sunset.  Unfortunately, these first people left nothing to cite, so we'll have to do what we usually do, and refer to Aristotle on the matter.

Aristotle included many guidelines for weather prediction in Meteorologica, but actually my favorite work on the matter is Theophrastus' The Book of Signs.  For centuries, predictions were made by following signs like this one, taken from The Book of Signs:

Thumbnail image for 161Theophrastus_161_frontespizio.jpg"It is a sign of rain when a tame duck gets under the eaves and flaps its wings."

In the 20th century, scientists began using computers to make forecasts.  In the 1950s, the first computational forecasts were inferior to the more subjective, duck-watching methods.  Computer models would suddenly predict an army of cyclones marching across the country.  You would probably produce a better forecast by just saying, "Tomorrow's weather will be pretty much like today's."

Yet there was intense optimism regarding the potential of computational prediction.  John von Neumann, one of the great scientists of the century, stated:  

JohnvonNeumann-LosAlamos.gif"All stable processes we shall predict.  All unstable processes we shall control."

This was followed by decades of steady improvement.  Computational weather forecasts are now the norm.  While we do complain when meteorologists get it wrong, I think it's clear that today's forecasts have immense value and are a crucial part of how our society operates.

Von Neumann's vision, however, has not been realized.  One contributing factor was the discovery of what is termed "chaos".  Without going into too much detail, I'll just say that mathematicians discovered fundamental limits on the predictability of certain mathematical systems, including weather and ecosystems.  As the founder, Edward Lorenz, phrased it:

"Predictability: Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?"

Nevertheless, with better and better computers and techniques, scientists continue to improve weather prediction.  A testament to their utility is the ubiquity of weather forecasts in our day to day lives.  This history provides good context for the development of ecosystem forecasting.  With steadily improving models and increasing monitoring, we are poised to transition from the more subjective and sign-based forecasts to more precise computational forecasts.  Naturally, it will be some time before we're forecasting at the level of meteorologists, but one day in the future, you might be watching a broadcaster like this on your daily news:


OSM Day 7--Press Coverage (late update)

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The coolest part of the media experience has been watching the story spread around the world.  This is a testament to the global reach of the BBC as well as the global interest in carbon issues, especially in Europe.  As of 8:30 EST on 3/1, stories based on the BBC report have appeared in 


The Norwegian story is definitely my personal favorite.  It includes a statement by Rasmus Hansson, the Secretary General of WWF Norway that the ideas are "Interessant og tankevekkende" (interesting and thought provoking).  Like most online news, the NRK site has a comments section.  They introduce the comments with "Synes du de høye CO2-utslippene er godt nok argument for å stanse hvalfangsten? Si din mening!"  (Do you think high CO2 emissions are a good reason to stop the whale hunt?  Say what you mean!). 

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