Category Archives: AGU Fall Meeting 2016

ERL celebrates 10th anniversary at AGU Fall Meeting

Celebrations at the IOP Publishing booth at the AGU Fall Meeting for ERL's 10th anniversary

Dan Kammen makes a speech at ERL’s 10th anniversary celebrations at the AGU Fall Meeting. Image credit Leigh Jenkins.

Last week saw Environmental Research Letters – environmentalresearchweb’s sister product – celebrate its tenth anniversary with a party at the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco, US. Editor-in-chief Dan Kammen of the University of California, Berkeley made a speech thanking the environmental research community for its support, whilst ERL guests toasted the open-access publication with cake and prosecco and were able to take away copies of the journal’s 10th anniversary collection.

Earlier in the day, Kammen had participated in an AGU session on the shifting landscape for science.

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AGU Fall Meeting 2016: how should scientists respond to the US election?

By Liz Kalaugher

The mood, amongst panel members at least, at the session on the shifting landscape for science at the AGU Fall Meeting was surprisingly upbeat. Perhaps the “pep talk” from Governor of California Jerry Brown earlier in the day, as AGU president-elect Eric Davidson put it, had helped. Though that’s not to dismiss the very real worries of many Earth and space scientists following the US election.

“The landscape for science is shifting and uncertain,” said AGU CEO Chris McEntee as she introduced the panel. “Use this session as an opportunity to tell us about your concerns and what you think we should be doing.”

To kick off, AGU public affairs director Lexi Shultz said she knows there’s a great deal of anxiety about what the political landscape means for science. Lots of the areas of concern are in climate change, given that there are nominees to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy who hold views incompatible with climate science. Shultz stressed, however, that these nominees must undergo a lengthy Senate confirmation process and there will be plenty of opportunities to raise questions.

Another area of concern, Shultz said, is the questionnaire that’s been sent out to Department of Energy employees at national laboratories, including questions such as what associations they are part of. The Department of Energy has told employees not to answer these questions. (Yesterday, Greg Dalton of Climate One, chairing a panel on Shifting the Energy Mix in a Post-Paris World asked Howard Gruenspecht, deputy administrator of the US Energy Information Administration whether he felt the questionnaire was reminiscent of Hollywood in the 1950s. Gruenspecht said he wasn’t going to answer that one.)

Shultz stressed, however, that all US government science agencies are funded at existing levels through to April and “we have time to make our case”. There may also be opportunities as Trump has promised to invest in infrastructure, which is “very dependent on science”. There is bipartisan support in Congress for basic research, and the scientific community has allies in the business community and beyond, Shultz added. Although Trump originally said he wants to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate, many businesses have stated that they’d like to stay in. Since then Trump has said he has an open mind.

Shultz added that we don’t know what the administration will be able to do: “the wheels of the policy process grind very slowly.” The AGU will be a strong advocate for Earth and space science. “Your voice matters,” she said, urging scientists to make the case for their science by talking to their representatives and community, and encouraging their colleagues to do the same. Any scientists who feel less comfortable with this approach can tell their story to the AGU, she suggested.

Up next, Dan Kammen of the University of California, Berkeley took Shultz’s lead immediately and strongly argued the case for science. “Every step the US makes away from the mandate for science leaves good jobs and opportunities on the table for others,” he said. “Stepping away from that would be an incredibly foolish move.”

Although Kammen feels that Rex Tillerson is an inappropriate and incorrect choice for secretary of state as he is the CEO of a major oil company, he has in the past supported a price on carbon. “That is a door that needs to be pushed on,” Kammen said.

Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University never expected that the topic she studies – climate science – would become “more polarised than gun rights, immigration and abortion”. But science does not require belief. “If you step off a cliff, whether you believe in gravity or not, you’re going down,” she said.

Scientists’ instinct is to say we need more scientifically literate people, Hayhoe explained. But social science has shown that more science-literate people are more polarised on climate change. The real problem, she feels, is how much we prioritize climate change – it’s at or near the bottom of many people’s lists of important issues. People think it’s a long-term problem, or only matters if you’re a “bleeding-heart tree hugger”, or that somebody else, like the government, will take care of it for them.

In the last few weeks, however, Hayhoe said there’s been a huge rise in concern as “suddenly someone else is not going to fix it for us”. She’s also noticed a general rise in concern over the last five to ten years as people have realised climate change is affecting us now.

Hayhoe stressed the importance of connecting with people’s hearts as well as their heads. She used to “start with the science, continue with the science and finish with the science”. But now she begins with an issue that she and the person she’s talking to both value before talking about her concerns about it in scientific terms. Finally, Hayhoe makes sure to bring the conversation back to an inspiring solution. “There is a problem but there are amazing solutions,” she said.

Like Shultz, Hayhoe acknowledged that scientists are all different. “There is a spectrum of engagement,” she said, “where we fall on it is a personal choice.” Hayhoe suggested the Climate Voices network for those willing to speak in public, Climate Feedback for those who prefer to write, and the Union of Concerned Scientists and AGU for those who’d like to participate in civic engagement. Those scientists needing a support group could turn to AGU, Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN) or the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund.

Up last, Davidson highlighted that the AGU is in a position of resilience, having built up its public affairs programme and created a geosciences caucus on Capitol Hill. The AGU has members form every single congressional district. Immediately after the election the AGU co-ordinated with 28 other societies on a statement about the importance of science and the need for a science adviser. There’s also a petition on the change.org site for Trump to appoint a science adviser. Next the AGU will step up its Thriving Earth Exchange programme that links scientists to communities to show how science can improve lives. And there are plans to build a storybook (name to be decided) containing examples of traditional storytelling, and perhaps using other media, to show the importance of Earth and space sciences.

Davidson finished by mentioning the open letter from one president-elect to another that he posted to the AGU’s From the Prow blog the previous evening. “I’d love to have your opinion on that,” he said.

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AGU Fall Meeting 2016: Norwegian research on thin Arctic ice

By Liz Kalaugher

The Arctic in winter is cold, dark and dangerous. So it’s no surprise that it’s not seen too much research. But in January 2015 the Norwegian Young Sea Ice Cruise embedded a research ship in the ice, in only the second expedition of its type. The first was 20 years ago when the SHEBA expedition monitored multi-year sea ice in the Pacific sector. The N-ICE expedition, in contrast, moored in the Atlantic sector north of Spitsbergen, where the ice was first- or second-year and thin.

“Lots of the things we experienced took us by surprise,” said Mats Granskog of the Norwegian Polar Institute, who was chief scientist for N-ICE, at a press conference. “We saw a new Arctic, with ice 3-4 feet thick that behaves differently.”

This ice moves more quickly, breaks up more easily and is more vulnerable to storms and winds, Granskog explained. Learning about it should improve weather forecasts in North America and Asia. This is one of the reasons the team went, Granskog said – to find out how well we know the Arctic and to determine the validity of the ice data in our climate models.

During the trip the researchers had to “battle the dark, the cold” and cope when the ice broke up under their feet and they had to rescue their equipment. “It was no simple ordeal,” Granskog said of the six-month long expedition.
Amelie Meyer of the Norwegian Polar Institute was a member of the kit rescue team. The equipment had been installed on an ice floe a few miles wide next to the ship. On the morning of the 19th June, the floe cracked. Fortunately no researchers were out on the ice at the time. Within a few hours, the floe had broken up into hundreds of pieces. “It was a bit epic,” Meyer said, describing her trips in a Zodiac boat to retrieve the instruments, many of which contained data.

As well as the unplanned rescue, the researchers also saw way more snow than expected, Granskog said. In places, the snow was so heavy that it caused the sea ice to float below the surface of the sea, inundating the bottom layer of the snow with salt-water. This phenomenon has been seen in Antarctica, where the sea ice is generally thinner and there’s more snow, but this was the first sighting in the Arctic.

Von Walden of Washington State University joined the trip to characterise atmospheric conditions. In winter, the Arctic atmosphere tends to be either clear or overcast. When clear, he found, atmospheric conditions were similar to those discovered by the SHEBA expedition.

But N-ICE also saw significant storms, carried from the south by an unusual jet stream. These storms brought large amounts of warmth and moisture to the Arctic, restricting sea ice growth, whilst the winds pushed the ice out. Early February 2015 saw the lowest ever winter sea ice extent. One storm brought a temperature rise from -40 F to 32 F in less than 48 hours, and winds of more than 50 miles per hour, as well as increasing moisture levels ten-fold.

Whilst von Walden examined the atmosphere, Meyer was there to examine conditions below the ice. The Arctic Ocean is relatively warm, she explained, with temperatures of 32 F below the ice and 40 F a few hundred feet below the surface. It’s generally calm beneath the ice, which isolates the water from the atmosphere. But the winter storms, Meyer discovered, made the ice drift so fast that it mixed the water beneath, bringing warm water up from the depths and melting the ice from below.

Algae bloomed early beneath the thin ice, the trip revealed. You might think that would absorb more carbon, Meyer said, but these algae didn’t sink well, so didn’t export carbon to the ocean depths.

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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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