Decades Of Awareness, But Not Enough Action

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Thirty years ago, James Hansen, a scientist at nasa, issued a warning about the dangers of climate change. The predictions he and other scientists made at the time have proved spectacularly accurate. Photograph by Charles Ommanney / The Washington Post / Getty

I have always been appropriately alarmed by Elizabeth Kolbert’s articles and her comment pieces in the New Yorker. This brief comment below is alarming enough, but with a twist. Science has done its job, but we as citizens, business people, civic leaders have not acted with sufficient urgency considering the clear scientific evidence.

IMG_7014It may be true that scientists have not been the most compelling communicators, but that is no excuse for our inaction. As someone who left a scientific career developing a theoretical framework for entrepreneurial conservation in favor of opportunities to apply those ideas in the real world, I am in the same boat as a climate scientist. I look around today, after decades of best effort and I conclude that we have not accomplished enough in our practice. In our efforts to offer alternatives to messier forms of tourism, we have not accomplished enough. That is discouraging. But discouragement is not an option. We must find a better way to communicate that generates the required action for a less messy planet:

Listening to James Hansen on Climate Change, Thirty Years Ago and Now

On June 23, 1988—a blisteringly hot day in Washington, D.C.—James Hansen told a Senate committee that “the greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now.” At the time, Hansen was the head of nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and though his testimony was certainly not the first official warning about the “greenhouse effect”—a report to President Lyndon Johnson, in 1965, predicted “measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate” in the decades to follow—it was the first to receive national news coverage. The Times ran the story at the top of the front page, with a graph showing a long-term rise in average global temperatures. Continue reading

Bess, Honey & Nothing

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Not only can a honey bee count, it understands the concept of zero, according to researchers. CreditFrank Bienewald/LightRocket, via Getty Images

Thanks as always to James Gorman, one of the best illuminators of any variety of natural mysteries who we never tire of citing in these pages. He tells funny stories sometimes, about beautiful as well as awesome phenomena that we want to know. And he knows how to tell it:

Do Bees Know Nothing?

Researchers say bees understand the concept of nothing, or zero. But do we understand what that means?

What would it mean if bees could understand the concept of nothing?

That would be really something.

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Bees were rewarded when they landed on cards with more shapes.CreditScarlett R. Howard et al.

Yet that is what scientists reported Thursday in the journal Science. Bees had already demonstrated they could count. Now, the researchers wrote, bees have shown that they understand the absence of things — shapes on a display in this experiment — as a numerical quantity: none or zero.

This is a big leap. Some past civilizations had trouble with the idea of zero. And the only nonhuman animals so far to pass the kind of test bees did are primates and one bird. Not one species, one bird, the famed African gray parrot, Alex, who knew not only words, but numbers. Continue reading

Conservation Aided By Lowliest Of Creatures

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A leech, Haemadipsa zeylanica, in Thailand. Scientists have found they can survey the biodiversity of a forest with DNA analysis of leeches’ last blood meals. Credit Thailand Wildlife/Alamy

Victorious Bananas

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iStock

We are already big fans of this fruit, for all kinds of reasons, so this is like icing on the cake:

Bananas vs. Sports Drinks? Bananas Win in Study

A banana might reasonably replace sports drinks for those of us who rely on carbohydrates to fuel exercise and speed recovery, according to a new study comparing the cellular effects of carbohydrates consumed during sports.

It found that a banana, with its all-natural package, provides comparable or greater anti-inflammatory and other benefits for athletes than sports drinks. But there may be a downside, and it involves bloating.

For decades, athletes and their advisers have believed, and studies have confirmed, that eating or drinking carbohydrates during prolonged exertion can enable someone to continue for longer or at higher intensities and recover more quickly afterward than if he or she does not eat during the workout. Continue reading

Thermal Imaging For Species-Level Learning

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A thermal image of elephants, part of an effort to apply tools from astronomy to help conservationists and fight poaching. Credit Endangered Wildlife Trust/LJMU

We have noted this technology more than once in recent years, and who can resist the images? But Joanna Klein’s story here is a bit different from our earlier notes:

How Do You Count Endangered Species? Look to the Stars

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The research team has been working with a local safari park and zoo to film and photograph animals, like these chimpanzees, to build up a reference library of different animals. Credit Endangered Wildlife Trust/LJMU

The conversation started over a fence dividing two backyards. On one side, an ecologist remarked that surveying animals is a pain. His neighbor, an astronomer, said he could see objects in space billions of light years away.

And so began an unusual partnership to adapt tools originally developed to detect stars in the sky to monitor animals on the ground. Continue reading

Respecting Our Oceans, And Our Fellow Beings

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A humpback whale calf that washed ashore in Wantagh, New York. A series of “unusual mortality events” among whales has scientists worried that the ocean is more dangerous than ever. Photograph by Mario Tama / Getty

Thanks to Marguerite Holloway, who we have appreciated a couple times earlier, for this:

One foggy morning last April, a dead humpback whale washed up on New York’s Rockaway Beach. It was a young male, thirty-one feet long, and had extensive bruising—the result of contact with “something very large,” according to Kimberly Durham, of the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, who performed the necropsy. The Rockaway whale was one of sixty-eight humpbacks that have died between North Carolina and Maine since 2016, casualties in what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is calling an “unusual mortality event.” And humpbacks, it turns out, are not the only species suffering. Continue reading

Why Did The Robot Swim Like A Fish?

Thanks to for this story about how a Robotic Fish Moves Like The Real Thing — So It Can Observe The Real Thing:

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SoFi, the robotic fish, swims in for its close-up. MIT computer scientists hope SoFi will help marine biologists get a closer (and less obtrusive) look at their subjects than ever before. MIT CSAIL

Scientific advancement: It’s all in the wiggle.

OK, it’s a lot more complicated than that. But when a team of researchers at MIT unveiled their robotic fish Wednesday, one of the keys they emphasized was the graceful undulation of the prototype’s tail — which, besides being rather eye-catching, serves a crucial role in the robot’s ultimate mission: giving scientists the ability to unobtrusively observe marine wildlife remotely.

robot-fish.gif“Because the fish moves through undulating movement rather than thrusters, the impact it has on how the water moves around it is much more like what is expected of physical fish,” Daniela Rus, director of the school’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, tells NPR. Continue reading

Spying on Birds

“So, like, what do you do every day?”

I get asked this often and I’m not always sure how to explain it to people without pictures at hand or infinite patience for follow-up questions. So, in this blog post, with the benefit of time to pick the right words and theoretically infinite space to write them out, I figured I would try to provide an adequate answer.

View from the field, a week or so ago

Why fieldwork?

This, I feel, is the question at the crux of the what-do-you-do-every-day question. Why do you have to go to Kenya to do your work? Right, the bird you study is only found there, but why do you have to be out on the savanna everyday – can’t you just bring the birds back to the lab or study them in a zoo?

Of course, you can (nowadays, only with the right permits) and that is precisely what early zoologists did, collecting specimens – alive or dead – from around the world and bringing them back to examine them under microscopes or in aviaries in a rainy British country garden. While this may be convenient, it inevitably renders your conclusions about a bird’s diet or the adaptive nature of its plumage coloration suspect, because they are arrived at out of context. Without the bird having been examined in the environment it’s found in, with different factors that might affect its behavior and morphology in play, it is impossible to understand why it acts the way it does and why it is the way it is. Hence, fieldwork: observing and sampling critters in the wild. Continue reading

Enlightenment & Optimism

9780525427575.jpegSteven Pinker has featured in these pages plenty of times for the quality of his writing. Recently he was featured in a joint interview with Bill Gates that we meant to link to, but never did. And meanwhile we linked to this story about optimism; now this:

…If you think the world is coming to an end, think again: people are living longer, healthier, freer, and happier lives, and while our problems are formidable, the solutions lie in the Enlightenment ideal of using reason and science.

Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? In this elegant assessment of the human condition in the third millennium, cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, which play to our psychological biases…[continue reading on the book’s website]

The book came to our attention thanks to a smart op-ed:

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Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard, calls himself an Enlightenment man. Credit Chona Kasinger for The New York Times

…Pinker’s philosophical lens prevents him from seeing where the real problems lie. He calls himself an Enlightenment man, but he’s really a scientific rationalist. He puts tremendous emphasis on the value of individual reason. The key to progress is information — making ourselves better informed. The key sin in the world is a result either of entropy, the randomness that is built into any system, or faith — dogma clouding reason. Continue reading

Interpreting Climate News

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The temperature difference from normal over the Arctic averaged over the next five days in the GFS model forecast. (University of Maine Climate Reanalyzer)

Is it cataclysm or is it a rendering of what we already thought we knew? In case you missed it, there was some startling news that came with this image to the left, that does not look like anything we have ever seen. And the article starts like this:

While the Eastern United States simmers in some of its warmest February weather ever recorded, the Arctic is also stewing in temperatures more than 45 degrees above normal. This latest huge temperature spike in the Arctic is another striking indicator of its rapidly transforming climate.

On Monday and Tuesday, the northernmost weather station in the world, Cape Morris Jesup at the northern tip of Greenland, experienced more than 24 hours of temperatures above freezing according to the Danish Meteorological Institute. “How weird is that?” tweeted Robert Rohde, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley. “Well it’s Arctic winter. The sun set in October and won’t be seen again until March. Perpetual night, but still above freezing.”

This thaw occurred as a pulse of extremely mild air shot through the Greenland Sea.

Warm air is spilling into the Arctic from all sides. On the opposite end of North America, abnormally mild air also poured over northern Alaska on Tuesday, where the temperature in Utqiaġvik, previously known as Barrow, soared to a record high of 31 degrees (minus-1 Celsius), 40 degrees (22 Celsius) above normal. [continue to the article]

Alarming? We think so. Clear? We do not think so. Eric Lach, Deputy News Editor at The New Yorker, has this brief helpful interpretation, with a much easier to understand illustration:

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Many media outlets now regularly cover instances of extreme weather in remote corners of the world. How should readers understand these reports? Photograph by Esther Horvath / Redux

How to Read Today’s Big Climate-Change Headline

This week brought news from the Arctic. “Arctic temperatures soar 45 degrees above normal, flooded by extremely mild air on all sides,” the Washington Post declared, in a headline. The article below that headline detailed how, on Monday and Tuesday, at the northern tip of Greenland, temperatures rose above freezing for a full twenty-four-hour period—extremely unusual for this time of year—while temperatures across “the entire Arctic north of 80 degrees latitude have averaged about 10 degrees (6 Celsius) above normal since the beginning of the calendar year.”

All sorts of media outlets now regularly cover instances of extreme weather in remote corners of the world. And yet how should readers understand these reports? Are the ups and downs of climate change something to follow in the newspaper, like the Mets or the Yankees? [continue to the post]

Animalism, Eel Episode

 

Thanks to the Atlantic’s Ed Yong for this four minutes of wonder:

It’s a remote control.
 It’s a tracking device.
 It can deliver shocks of up to 600 volts. You think the electric eel is shocking? You haven’t seen anything yet. In this episode of Animalism hosted by The Atlantic science writer Ed Yong, we investigate the subtle and sinister ways of the electric eel.

The Custom Proteins In Your Future

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John Hersey

Lepidopterist’s Treasure

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Heterosphecia tawonoides puddling on a dry leaf washed out by the river. Photograph: Courtesy of Marta A. Skowron Volponi

Thanks to the Guardian for sharing this bit of good news:

Lost species of bee-mimicking moth rediscovered after 130 years

The rare oriental blue clearwing, that disguises itself as a bee, was spotted in the Malaysian rainforest

A moth that disguises itself as a bee and was previously only identified by a single damaged specimen collected in 1887 has been rediscovered in the Malaysian rainforest by a lepidopterist from Poland.

The oriental blue clearwing (Heterosphecia tawonoides) was seen “mud-puddling” – collecting salts and minerals from damp areas with its tongue-like proboscis – on the banks of a river in Malaysia’s lowland rainforest, one of the most wildlife-rich – and threatened – regions on Earth. Continue reading

“Birds & the Bees”: More Than a Metaphor

Scientists say that studying bee behavior could help them understand hummingbird behavior, too. Credit DansPhotoArt on flickr, via Getty Images

Members of our team have long been fans of bees and all bird species, with a particular soft spot for hummingbirds in particular. With their gemlike plumage and engaging personality, what’s not to love?

You Should Think of Hummingbirds as Bees With Feathers

What’s small, buzzes here and there and visits flowers?

If you said bees or hummingbirds, you got it. And you wouldn’t be the first if you mixed the two up. In Medieval Europe, some called bees the smallest birds. In Chinese and Japanese, the words for hummingbird translate into “bee bird.” Today we call the smallest hummingbird — weighing less than a penny and only a bit larger than the biggest bee — the bee hummingbird.

And now a group of researchers say we should embrace our history of lumping the two together. The way scientists study bees could help them study hummingbird behavior, too, they argue in a review published Tuesday in Biology Letters. Continue reading

Hidden Numbers, Brought Into Daylight

FlatironThe mission of the Flatiron Institute is to advance scientific research through computational methods, including data analysis, modeling and simulation.

The institute, an internal research division of the Simons Foundation, is a community of scientists who are working to use modern computational tools to advance our understanding of science, both through the analysis of large, rich datasets and through the simulations of physical process.

If you are seeing the name above for the first time, so are we. It has come to our attention through this profile below. The questions raised are important. The answers, to the degree there are any, are fascinating. Thanks to longform journalism, which we need now more than ever, we have profiles like this:

Jim Simons, the Numbers King

Algorithms made him a Wall Street billionaire. His new research center helps scientists mine data for the common good.

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Simons is donating billions of dollars to science. But much of his fortune, long stashed offshore, has never been taxed. Illustration by Oliver Munday; photograph by Tim Sloan / AFP / Getty

By D. T. Max

A visit to a scientific-research center usually begins at a star professor’s laboratory that is abuzz with a dozen postdocs collaborating on various experiments. But when I recently toured the Flatiron Institute, which formally opened in September, in lower Manhattan, I was taken straight to a computer room. The only sound came from a susurrating climate-control system. I was surrounded by rows of black metal cages outfitted, from floor to ceiling, with black metal shelves filled with black server nodes: boxes with small, twinkling lights and protruding multicolored wires. Tags dangled from some of the wires, notes that the tech staff had written to themselves. I realized that I’d seen a facility like this only in movies. Nick Carriero, one of the directors of what the institute calls its “scientific-computing core,” walked me around the space. He pointed to a cage with empty shelves. “We’re waiting for the quantum-physics people to start showing up,” he said. Continue reading

Oregon’s Underground Economy

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A forest floor dark honey fungus, or Armillaria ostoyae. The “Humongous Fungus,” living beneath the soil in Oregon sends these fruiting bodies, or mushrooms, above ground to disperse spores. Credit Arterra/UIG, via Getty Images

The Science section of the New York Times is a dependable source of occasionally brilliant ecological findings (amidst the more common overdoses of dark and dreary news) and this one helps start a new week on solid ground:

The Humongous Fungus and the Genes That Made It That Way

A new genetic analysis reveals the tactics that helped fungi in the Armillaria genus get so good at expanding and killing host plants.

Thousands of years ago, two microscopic spores spawned and created a monster. It grew — up to three feet a year — sending out dark, gnarly, threadlike organs called rhizomorphs that explored the subterranean darkness, foraging for food. Now it’s a nebulous body, a tangled mat beneath the Oregon soil that occupies an area the size of three Central Parks and may weigh as much as 5,000 African elephants.

Its scientific name is Armillaria ostoyae, but you can call it The Humongous Fungus. It’s the largest known terrestrial organism on the planet, according to the United States Forest Service.

Continue reading

Environmental Progress Seen Through Bird Specimen Collections

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Grasshopper sparrow specimens from 1907, top, and 1996. Credit Carl Fuldner and Shane DuBay

A fascinating story appears in the Science section of the New York Times this week. It is a reminder of the progress made over the last century in cleaning up the air in North America. Birds are key to the evidential trail in telling the story. The title is one of the most unappealing we have seen in ages, but science is not all sweetness and light:

The Dirty Secrets Saved in Dead Birds’ Feathers

Tucked away in the drawers of natural history museums across America’s Rust Belt, thousands of dead birds carry dirty secrets from America’s polluted past.

The specimens that were put away around the start of the 20th century are far grimier than the ones from more recent decades. And now, climate scientists and historians can thank museum curators for not having tidied them up before storing them. Continue reading

Beans, Beef & Key Questions Related To Our Planet

James Hamblin is the perfect messenger for complicated messages, like the ones he usually delivers on scientific and especially medical topics. It is difficult to say why, but taking him too seriously is difficult. So even with challenging questions like the one in the three minute video above, and the one in the article he published on the same topic a couple months ago, his approach is the opposite of intimidation:

If Everyone Ate Beans Instead of Beef

With one dietary change, the U.S. could almost meet greenhouse-gas emission goals.

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Soybeans in a silo at a cattle feed in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil

Ecoanxiety is an emerging condition. Named in 2011, the American Psychological Association recently described it as the dread and helplessness that come with “watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations.”

It’s not a formal diagnosis. Anxiety is traditionally defined by an outsized stress response to a given stimulus. In this case, the stimulus is real, as are the deleterious effects of stress on the body. Continue reading

Respect For The Praying Mantis

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A praying mantis outfitted with 3-D glasses during an experiment to determine whether the insects see in three dimensions. The conclusion: absolutely. Credit Newcastle University

Meals as Message

A barbecued vegetable platter, top, with kale rib and carrot “brisket.” Beluga lentils, black rice and chimichurri broth, left, and a side of crisped smoked beef from Stemple Creek Ranch. Credit Preston Gannaway for The New York Times

Although not quite an example of “Model Mad“, this culinary entrepreneurial activism sends a message to both consumers and food industry colleagues alike.

San Francisco Chefs Serve Up a Message About Climate Change

Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint opened the Perennial in San Francisco last year with a clear mission in mind: Run an environmentally friendly restaurant with a minimal carbon footprint, and inspire other restaurateurs to do the same.

As [the current administration] has questioned the existence of climate change, Ms. Leibowitz and Mr. Myint have emerged as activists, at the forefront of a growing movement of chefs who not only recognize and measure the impact of their industry on the planet, but also look for new ways to undo the damage.

Mr. Myint and Ms. Leibowitz, who are married, have been immersed for the last few years in the research that directs every decision at the restaurant, like choosing the kitchen’s energy-efficient equipment and its raw ingredients, many of which are grown in ways that can regenerate the soil. Continue reading