November 2010 Archives

On the relativity of climate change...

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Am I an expert in ecological modeling? Probably not to the extent I would like to...  Can I do valuable modeling work despite that? Yes.  I am knowledgeable in lots of aspects of it, in the mathematical and numerical methods I routinely employ as well as in the species I am the most familiar with.  For the rest, I rely on the published work of and the discussions with other knowledgeable people on all the aspects that I do not run into every working day.  It requires trust.  Trust in people of course, but most of them I have not even met once.  So it requires more: trust in the scientific method and trust in the peer-reviewed system.  This allows scientific work to be done correctly every day, knowledge to increase and the emergence of coherent systems of thought larger and more complex than the sum of our individual scientific endeavors.

Experts that have a clear vision of the big picture as well as of the intricate details of those large scientific systems are rare.  But not being an expert is no excuses to bluntly discredit or discard some of those large scientific theories.  And our society is not fair in its treatment of scientific theories.  For instance, on one hand no one bothers to challenge the validity of Einstein's general relativity theory.  Rather, everybody reaps the benefits of it, and the now ubiquitous car GPS have already saved countless marriages... On the other hand, theories like man-made global warming and climate change, or the associated change (mostly loss) of world biodiversity receive critics ranging from angry denial to doubtful indifference.

One explanation is that some of the most attacked scientific theories (at least in the US) confront our beliefs and way of living.  So some of us resist them.  But recently scientific issues, similar in nature about how our everyday actions and our economic system threaten the environment in ways actually harmful to us, were addressed quite efficiently from the late 80's to the early 2000's: think about acid rain and the ozone layer depletion.  So why is it that now global warming and global loss of biodiversity, among others, are so fiercely contested?

I would argue that it has a lot to do with scientific illiteracy.  Actually the number of scientifically literate Americans doubled those past 30 years to reach about 28% today.  But it is far from enough to ensure a healthy public debate on scientific issues.  A sound scientific education is not only about an accumulation of great names, important dates or mesmerizing experiments.  For sure, some scientific vocabulary helps a lot to avoid obvious pitfalls.  Take the word "theory" that I used several times already in this post.  In science a "theory" is a strong and coherent system underpinned by facts and experiments, and that can eventually be proven or falsified by testing.  It is quite the opposite of the popular meaning of the word, which equates theory to an unproven conjecture not based on objective facts!  Nobody argues about the "theory of gravitation".  But scientific literacy is essentially about forging a strong critical mind.  A mind that can find its way out between our senses, our feelings, our beliefs and the facts and arguments presented to us.  A mind that infers from all that
logically articulated intellectual constructions, and which does not surrender to fears, or to the last one speaking, especially if this one is loud and all over the place.

That's why I am excited to take part in this week's Ocean Literacy Summit organized by the New England Ocean Sciences Education Collaboratives.  People there do their best to teach properly our kids, their teachers and our neighbors the scientific method, the scientific way of thinking, and how to forge a sound opinion based on a collection of facts and fellow citizens' expertise.

Regional Ocean Modeling System

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The chilly November winds have arrived.  They fetch across the water each morning and snatch away all my warmth as I ride the boat into work.  

Some hardy marine scientists are still out there sampling, but for this ecosystem modeling lab, the darker months are a time when we turn our efforts toward knitting scarves and coding models.  A few of us even enjoy the view of the ocean from our lab in the winter.


View of the ocean from the Seascape Modeling Lab.

Our library of ecosystem models continues to grow.  One of the capabilities we're adding this winter is integration with the Regional Ocean Modeling System.  To be hip with the jargon, you should call it "ROMS".  The model basically a computation of the equations that govern the motion of the ocean.

I'm just learning this particular model now myself.  Becoming familiar with a new model is often an emotional affair.  Generally, after warming my frigid hands with a cup of coffee in the morning, I spend the subsequent hours alternately tugging my hair out and then crying out in exultation.

Below I've included a link to an animation of the first model computation that most ROMS learners start off with.  There are a few things missing from this animation, so don't worry too much if it's not clear what's happening---I've only just started using this model, after all.  What you should be seeing is a model of wind-driven upwelling.  This is a well-documented process in the ocean.  Wind effectively pushes surface water in one direction, and the deeper waters rise up to replace it.  The color scale shows temperature (C).

Yes, I acknowledge that this is a crude plot, and much is wrong with it.  But it's important through these cold, coding months to celebrate the little things.

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