Posts by: Liz Kalaugher

AGU Fall Meeting 2016: Climate communication – hated and against scientific training

By Liz Kalaugher

“Don’t talk to me about climate communication, I hate that.” Those were the words of Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol, UK, and University of Western Australia during a session on climate literacy at the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

Lewandowsky has stopped saying that The Debunking Handbook he wrote with John Cook is fantastic. “It’s still right,” he said, “but we’re no longer dealing with misinformation.” Instead, many Americans share a belief system that’s disconnected from “what we might call facts or evidence”. This goes beyond misinformation – “it’s an alternative reality”.

Lewandowsky’s research has shown that if you give people false information but then correct it, the correction has no effect on their voting intentions.

Given our post-truth and post-fact world, “it’s not a matter of climate communication, it’s about politics,” Lewandowsky explained. “There’s an ethical imperative for us to frame the issue as it really is, rather than accepting other people’s frames. And that’s politics.”

Although a social scientist himself, Lewandowsky thinks there are limits to what social scientists can do on the public rejection of science. “We can analyse it,” he said, “…but it’s ultimately all about politics and we need a political solution.” As a first step, he recommended scientists attend the “Rally to stop attack on science” in San Francisco’s Jessie Square on Tuesday at noon.

What’s the story?

Ironically, up next after Lewandowsky was science historian Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University to speak about climate communication. Oreskes detailed how a scientific training can hamper scientists’ ability to communicate to the public about their work. “Almost everything we learn to do as scientists acts against effective science communication,” she said. As she learned whilst working with film-maker Robert Kenner on the documentary about her book Merchants of Doubt, the keys to good communication are keeping it simple, telling a story and making it stick.

But scientists hate to keep it simple “because simple feels simplistic” and they’re not comfortable with stories because they feel they’re made up. On both these points, Oreskes thinks the solution is for scientists to “get over it”. It’s a narrative structure that makes something a story, not whether it’s true or not. An Inconvenient Truth, for example, was the story of Gore’s run for president.

When it comes to the last point, making a story memorable, “short of singing a song, and I’m not going to to do that”, the keys are to say something personal and evoke emotion, Oreskes explained. But scientists think science should be impersonal, unemotional and dispassionate – people believe that to make good decisions you have to separate reason from emotion. Here Oreskes was able to use science to prove her point; we now know that this is wrong scientifically. Studies have shown that emotion is an essential part of reasoning.

“It is rational to be upset about things that are upsetting and it is rational to be alarmed about things that are alarming,” Oreskes said.

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AGU Fall Meeting 2016: Polar bear numbers set to drop by one-third

by Liz Kalaugher

It’s highly likely that the world’s polar bear population, currently 26,000 strong, will decrease by a third within the next 35-40 years. That’s according to Kristin Laidre of the University of Washington, US, speaking at a press conference at the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

This finding supports the listing of polar bears as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, which requires projection of species population numbers after three generations. Laidre and colleagues found that the average age of a female polar bear with dependent cubs is 11.5 years so 35 years corresponds to roughly three generations.

Polar bears use ice for traveling, hunting, mating and, in some cases, for their maternity dens. From 1979 to 2015, Arctic sea ice shrank at an average rate of 53,100 square km per year.

“When we look forward several decades, climate models predict such profound loss of Arctic sea ice that there’s little doubt this will negatively affect polar bears throughout much of their range, because of their critical dependence on sea ice,” said Laidre in a press release.

There are 19 sub-populations of polar bears around the Arctic Circle, living in 4 eco-regions. Some of these populations have never been studied whilst the number of animals in others have only been counted one or two times. Two or three populations have been studied on an annual basis, Laidre explained.

Some regions of the Arctic, such as the Chukchi Sea, are highly ecologically productive. Even though sea ice cover here has decreased, polar bears in the area are in better condition than they were 20 years ago; there could be a time lag before the full effects of the ice loss kick in. In other areas, like western Hudson Bay, polar bear survival and reproduction have declined as sea ice availability has dropped.

Laidre, Eric Regehr of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and colleagues made their predictions by analysing sea ice extent from satellite observations and projecting this forward by 35 years. They evaluated three different relationships of polar bear numbers to sea ice – a decline proportional to the sea ice loss, and two changes based on previous data – before taking a median value across all three scenarios.

This revealed that the probability of a more than 30% reduction in polar bear numbers in the next 35-40 years is 0.71. The probability of a decrease in headcount of more than half was just 0.07.

Laidre and colleagues reported their findings in Biology Letters and The Cryosphere.

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EGU Debate: can we have global economic growth and a habitable climate?

by Liz Kalaugher

At the EGU General Assembly debate on “Is global economic growth compatible with a habitable climate?” there was discussion whether the session was even titled with the right question. Not to mention the pre-debate issue of whether the speakers should stand up or sit down.

To Clive Spash of WU Vienna University of Economics and Business, the title was too tightly focused on climate and should have widened out to a habitable planet. Spash, who believes that the economic view of the world is unrealistic, said he disagrees that economic growth is vital and thinks it’s politically naïve to try and shut down the debate on whether we need growth. In his view a carbon tax won’t work and decoupling of growth and carbon emissions won’t save us.

Narasimha Rao of IIASA, Austria, also wanted the question to be broader. Rao called for consideration of dimensions of wellbeing beyond economic growth, since the economy doesn’t reflect phenomena such as air pollution and oil spills.

Kevin Anderson of the University of Manchester, UK, reckons the answer depends on whom we’re referring to – rich people, people in poorer nations, or other species. Some in the rich parts of the world believe we can cope with 2, 3 or even 4 degrees of temperature rise, he said, whilst many developing countries believe that the maximum habitable temperature change for them is 1 or 1.5 degrees, given that many are already feeling the effects of climate change. And significant numbers of animal species are already struggling with temperature rise today, particularly as they’re under other environmental stresses too.

Given the rates of emissions reductions we’d need, Anderson said that a 1-1.5 degree threshold is no longer viable and we’re stuck with 2 or 2.5 degrees at best. “Economic growth is not compatible with a habitable climate for people like us,” he said, arguing that since the relatively poor need economic growth to have a habitable climate, it means big emissions cuts for the rich. And for non-human species, economic growth is again not compatible with a habitable climate.

Finally, Jorgen Randers confessed that having worked in sustainable development since 1972, he has failed as the world is less sustainable now. Randers argued that economic growth is compatible with a habitable climate but human society has not been willing to implement the solutions. To him, the question is “is humanity going to be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions per unit GDP fast enough to get greenhouse gas emissions to decrease?” Whilst technically “it’s a piece of cake”, and shifting from dirty to clean production is cheap at a cost of just 1% of GDP, it has not been done and will not be done because people think too short-term. “That’s the sad story,” Randers added.

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EGU audience votes that Anthropocene began with industrial revolution

by Liz Kalaugher

Most audience members at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly session on the Anthropocene thought that we are already in this epoch. Session chair Owen Gaffney of the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden conducted a quick straw poll mimicking a show of hands conducted at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting last December. Around five people reckoned we can’t ever say as we’re too close, and one person voted that we didn’t have enough information to make a call.

As to when the epoch started (if it has), the majority of the audience thought at the time of the industrial revolution, with substantial numbers voting for the 1950s, around 15 for the onset of agriculture and just one for 1610.

It wasn’t a very scientific poll – apart from in terms of the participants’ backgrounds – but as Gaffney detailed in his introduction, the concept of the Anthropocene is politically, economically, culturally and legally loaded, as well as being of scientific significance.

Even the name has been argued over, with suggestions such as the Capitalocene, Misanthropocene, the Obscene or even the Machine Age. Speaker Andrew Revkin of Pace University and the New York Times, US, who is a member of the International Stratigraphy Commission’s Anthropocene working group, detailed how he presciently came up with the term Anthrocene in his 1992 book on Global Warming. When he wrote that sentence, however, he was thinking that the idea was hundreds of years away, rather than just 8.

The Anthropocene working group will meet in Oslo at the end of this week.

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Keeping 60 million Romans fed as climate changed

by Liz Kalaugher

Think of Romans and the first things that come to mind are probably straight roads, gladiators and togas. But the Romans had to deal with climate change too, as Brian Dermody of Utrecht University in the Netherlands detailed to a press conference at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna.

During the time of the Romans, the climate moved from the Roman Warm Period (250 BC-250 AD) to the cooler Late Roman period, accompanied by precipitation changes too. By using a hydrological model and reconstructions of temperature and rainfall change, as well as population distribution and cropland estimates from nearly 15,000 archaeological sites and crop suitability maps, Dermody looked at the effects on the yield of four major crops for the Romans – millet, wheat, olives and grapes.

Overall, crop yields decreased as the climate cooled, Dermody’s models showed, particularly in the west of the Roman Empire. Surprisingly, yields of grapes, wheat and millet around the Mediterranean increased

To keep 60 million people fed, the highly civilised Romans relied on trade and irrigation. Dermody, who believes models give more of a subtle picture, will now look at trading routes and food supply using a network of routes developed by classicists.

Dermody said he responds to people questioning why he’s investigating history by replying that “as environmental scientists, we’re interested in the interactions between humans and the environment and how they played out long term”. The study could even tell us about water resource management and food redistribution today.

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Must vineyard managers choose between bees or worms?

By Liz Kalaugher

Given the option, would you help bees or worms? That’s the choice indicated by initial results presented at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna this week by Sophie Kratschmer of the University of Natural Research and Life Sciences in Vienna.

As part of the VineDivers project, Kratschmer found that, contrary to expectations, solitary bees in vineyards in eastern Austria thrived when there was less management of the vegetation between rows of vines. This higher diversity was a surprise as disturbed ground tends to contain more flowers, a food source for bees. Since solitary bees nest underground, however, they may not appreciate tillage. The team did find a link between flower coverage and the number of wild bee species.

Earthworms, in contrast, were more diverse when there was ploughing of the earth between the vines, probably, according to Kratschmer, because it boosts the carbon content and makes the soil less compact. Plant diversity and biomass weren’t affected by the management intensity.

Both bees and worms are useful for viniculture, with bees providing pollination while earthworms help form soil and cycle nutrients.

Fortunately, when it comes to selecting management regimes for vineyards, the findings may not boil down to a difficult choice between bees and worms. Next Kratschmer will investigate a “medium” management intensity, intermediate between the low and high regimes in this study, which may work for both types of animal.

The wider VineDivers project will pool results from France, Romania and Spain and also use GIS analysis to find out the role of landscape diversity.

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EGU 2015: were Dylan and the Beatles obsessed by the weather?

By Liz Kalaugher at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna

Bob Dylan is the pop artist most preoccupied by the weather, with one-quarter of his songs mentioning the phenomenon. That’s according to Karen Aplin from the University of Oxford, UK, who will report her findings at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly in Vienna on Friday.

Weather pop runners-up were the Beatles, whose “Here comes the Sun” in April 1969 was linked to the sunniest April for many years. Aplin and UK colleagues carried out the study as a follow-up to her analysis of weather and classical music with Paul Williams from the University of Reading, UK.

A grand total of more than 900 pop singers and songwriters have issued weather-related songs. Meanwhile 30 artists have weather-related names, with sun and warmth the most popular theme (KC and the Sunshine Band, Empire of the Sun…) although cold also gets a mention via the Arctic Monkeys, Vanilla Ice and Coldplay, to name just a few.

One third of the weather references in pop were to sun and rain, often to illustrate emotions. Aplin says that this depiction is more sophisticated than that of classical orchestral music, which tends to mimic weather – frequently storms and wind – through the sounds of the music.

Whilst pop music generally alludes to specific weather events, classical composers are regularly influenced by the general climate of their home country, the researchers found.

The pop research, in which scientists from Newcastle University, the University of Southampton and the University of Manchester also participated, will appear, appropriately enough, in Weather in May.

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EGU 2015: reflecting on GPS data reveals more information

By Liz Kalaugher at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna

As well as helping millions of smartphone owners and car drivers find their way around unfamiliar territory, GPS data have become vital to environmental and Earth scientists. That includes those, like Kristine Larson of the University of Colorado, Boulder, US, who monitor small ground movements in areas prone to earthquakes. (Larson, incidentally, was also the first to show that GPS can measure seismic waves during large earthquakes.)

Around 8 years ago, Larson realised that there was more to GPS data than reached the eye, or rather than reached the antenna directly. The GPS antennas installed in field sites around the world could, as well as detecting beams straight from the satellite, also gain data from signals that bounce off the ground and reach the detector fractionally later. These reflected signals reveal information about the Earth’s surface, such as snow height, vegetation water content, moisture in the top 5 cm of soil, or sea level.

The system works like an interferometer, Larson explained at a press conference at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly in Vienna. Since the reflected signals take longer to reach the antenna, they’re out of phase with the beams that get there directly, which sets up an interference pattern. And because the satellites sending out the signals are moving, the interference pattern changes continually. Unsurprisingly enough, the technique is called GPS Interferometric Reflectometry. In a nutshell, the amplitude, phase and frequency of the reflected signals provide plenty of information about the ground that’s bouncing them back. Sea-level rise or the addition of snow changes the height at which the reflection takes place, altering the distance the beam travels. If there’s wet vegetation on the ground, it attenuates the signal, whilst beams will penetrate moist soil further.

The resulting measurements, which can cover roughly 1000 square metres of ground around the antenna, are valuable for climate scientists, weather forecasters, water managers, and engineers that validate satellites (SMOS). Since most GPS networks were installed with taxpayers’ money, they provide data without charge; Larson says that “essentially you have a measurement network for free”.

Larson’s pilot in the western US is using data mainly from the EarthScope Plate Boundary Observatory – you can see daily results for around 500 sites at The technique is applicable to any GPS network; Larson now plans to use it for monitoring worldwide.

  • The EGU has awarded Larson this year’s EGU Huygens medal in recognition of her work.
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EGU 2015: will fishermen wade in to help hydrologists?

Rolf Hut models his temperature-sensing waders in the EGU poster halls.

Rolf Hut models his temperature-sensing waders in the EGU poster halls.

by Liz Kalaugher at the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna

Many fly fishing enthusiasts will happily spend a couple of hundred dollars on a long-handled sensor to help them measure a river’s temperature and water depth and find the best spots to fish. But Rolf Hut of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands reckoned he could do better than this. How? By modifying a piece of kit the fisherpeople already own – waders. Hut attached a simple thermocouple to the boot of a pair of waders (it’s just about visible in the photo as the thin blue wire to the right of his left foot) along with a water height sensor; the associated electronics can transmit data to a mobile phone app, potentially passing on information to hydrologists, as well as fishermen and women.

Hut reported on his proof-of-concept sensor-waders in the “Innovative techniques and unintended use of measurement equipment” session at the European Geosciences Union meeting in Vienna.

At the time of environmentalresearchweb’s visit to the poster hall, the temperature near Hut’s boot was 23.1°C, although he said that the inside of his boot was much hotter.

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EGU 2015: Twitter reveals flood extent

By Liz Kalaugher at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna

To many people, Twitter is vital for keeping up with the news, topical opinion and cat videos. But it could also help save your life. Scientists from the Netherlands have used tweets to map the extent and depth of floodwaters, an approach that could help emergency services plan their rescue operations.

As Dirk Eilander from Deltares explained in a press conference at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna, he and his team analysed tweets sent during flooding in Jakarta, Indonesia, in February of this year. At the height of the floods, residents sent nearly 900 tweets a minute; many of these messages were extremely detailed, including photos, locations and water depths.

To create the maps, Eilander and colleagues mined tweets that contained the phrase “banjir”, which means flood, removed spam and retweets, and used the location and estimated water depth data in the remaining tweets. A cross-check with a digital elevation map ensured the map made sense; the team removed outliers where flood depth did not tally with the surrounding tweets and terrain.

Photos from the ground showed that the Twitter method correctly modelled flooding in 76% of districts and for 68% of photo points.

The technique can map floods in almost real-time and would work in any area with enough Twitter activity to provide the data.

As well as helping emergency services during floods, the method could also be useful after the event to calibrate hydrodynamic flood models, investigate flood prevention, and provide information to insurance companies.

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