Category: Environmental


The Cost of Carbon

Ars Technica is reporting that some researchers are having issues with the US’s pricing of carbon emissions. The price of carbon emissions is notoriously difficult to pin down, but these researchers are suggesting the US might have missed the mark by as much as a factor of 12. The problem centers around the discount rate, which is the cost of not spending the money on other uses, such as interest or capital investments, for instance. Apparently the researchers claim the US is setting this rate too high. They do not seem to be factoring in certain work that’s been done not just within climate change research, but also with economics and discount rates more broadly. It seems to me this shows an interesting interplay with different social and physical disciplines. Often what’s going on in one area isn’t translated or accounted for in another. Then policy makers have to come up with some sort of semi-educated guesstimate of how to integrate all of this stuff into a cohesive policy. It’s a thorny issue that’s beyond just climate change. However, I unsurprisingly believe we geographers might be a good nexus point within disciplines for just these sort of complex issues. Perhaps we should get involved more deeply with these sorts of estimates to attempt to redress such widely variant estimations. That’s not to discount the important work geographers are already doing, but just to suggest maybe we can get a little more vocal about our great work and how we can contribute.

Climate Models Ignored by Media

Ars Technica is reporting an interesting article for science, I think. Researchers at George Mason University have looked at climate reporting in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today between 1998 and 2010 to see how often climate change models are referenced. The answer? A depressingly few number of times – 100 out of 4,000. Why does it matter? Well, how can anyone really understand the conclusions without at least understanding some of the methodology that went into the conclusion? Without understanding the utility of models in general and climate change models in particular, it is all too easy to cast aside climate change as junky science.

If you ask me, irrespective of the climate change debate, I fear we don’t do enough to explain the science behind the conclusions, particularly with highly politically charged issues like climate change. It seems a bit disingenuous to me that we would present one argument without explaining the logic behind it. It is then up to the reader to decide which argument makes more sense to them. At the very least, we potentially raise scientific knowledge among the general population, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Counting the True Cost of Coal

Obviously being a native West Virginian and living in the state, this is an issue near and dear to my heart.  Ars Technica does a wonderful job of summing up a bit of research presented last month at American Association for the Advancement of Science last month.  Here are the bullet points: an estimated 20-30 atomic bombs worth of energy each year to get at the coal; 500 mountain peaks gone; 2,000 miles of streams gone; and the ‘extra’ cost including medical impacts, environmental impacts, and social impacts effectively doubles the energy cost of coal.   There are clear place in these studies to challenge assumptions that arrived at the extra cost of coal.  However, I think its an interesting geographic question to move beyond the cost of raw materials to look at the impacts of surrounding areas.  We don’t tend to think much about our electricity beyond the socket in our wall.  That’s not to say I think coal is evil, nor do I think it’s completely benign.  It’s complicated and any research that can get us to think about the messy state of electricity generation in the US is beneficial research in my book.\

Photo courtesy of DanaK~WaterPenny via Flickr

Earth Microbiome Project

An article by Alan Boyle in MSNBC’s Cosmic Log discusses How Scientist’s Map the World’s Microbes.  The Earth Microbiome Project is a project to collect and analyze microbial communities from areas around the world and map them to their region of origin. In the project website’s own words it is going to be a “massively multidisciplinary effort to analyze microbial communities across the globe”,  which requires a large scale coordinated field work effort. However, creating an atlas of the unknown and often thought uncountable microbial communities will take more than large numbers of participants and time to analyze the data. In a refrain understood well by geospatial analysts the project is going to require more computing power.

The Earth Microbiome Project provides an information page for people wanting to be involved in the project including working with samples, analyzing data, or creating new types of analytical tools.

Project Bird Feeder Watch

It’s that time of year again in North America, Project Bird Feeder Watch for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada.  It is a great opportunity for an easy to do citizen science activity.  Citizen scientists count the count the birds they see at their bird feeders. The data is used to map bird migration and bird populations.  Because it comes with a kit to do the bird count, there is a $15.00 participation fee which supports the project. Project Bird Feeder Watch has been around for more than 25 years making its data extremely important. You can explore some of the data and maps on their site.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada along with the Audubon Society are also sponsors of the Great Backyard Bird Count which starts in February and is free for participants. Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a list of other citizen science projects that people might be interested in doing such as urban bird count, pigeon count, and migratory birds. Bird Studies Canada has citizen science projects such as The Christmas Bird Count, Canadian Migration Monitoring Network, and the nocturnal owl survey. I think these would be fantastic school, family, or even team-building exercises that involve geospatial data and the local community.

Zebra Stripe App

A  short article in this month’s National Geographic magazine gives me a chance to tell a funny kid’s joke about zebras.  “There were two chickens standing at crosswalk. One says to the other: Should we cross the road?  The other one says: No Way! Look what happened to the zebra!”  According to the National Geographic article,”Scanning Zebras“,  zebra stripes are like a fortuitous blend of fingerprints and bar codes. This means that each black and white stripe pattern is unique to that zebra  and is patterned in a way that makes it possible to be scanned like a bar code.  McDermott reports that scientists and citizen scientists can use an app called Stripe Spotter created by the University of Illinois at Chicago and Princeton University to upload the zebra’s identity into a database.  Researchers involved in the project have recently written a paper, ” Biometric Animal Databases From Field Photographs: Identification of Individual Zebra in the Wild“. They think that in the future it could be used to identify other animals with strong patters such as tigers, giraffe, and kudu. This is another great example of how ingenuity in geospatial technologies can make it easier for citizen scientists to get involved in research, lessen the workload on scientists in the field, and improve the scientific process.

Tweets of a Different Kind

I have subscribed to the wonderfully informative eNature website and email list for years because of the kid in me loves that it is a grown up Ranger Rick. They provide Zip Guides that map animals and plants in your area by zip code. I like when they post information on native bird species because even though I’m not a birder, I participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count every February. This month eNature has a Bird Call Challenge,which would be a great activity for a geography or science classroom or fun home activity.

Always… Never Forget To Check With The Experts

Thanks to Real Genius for the title. Climate scientists are engaged in a little damage control after Britain’s Time Comprehensive Atlas of the World mistakenly claimed Greeland’s glaciers are melting at a breakneck rate. If you compare the ice cover from 1999 and 2011, the Atlas reports a 15% loss in ice coverage. Climate scientists report the real number is closer to one-tenth of 1%. That’s a healthy difference! Scientists have been quick to point out the error and the publishers are attempting to address the issue (although they go through great pains to keep from acknowledging the Atlas is wrong). Nobody’s really sure why the error was made, however one scientist attempted a little ‘cartographic forensics’ and claims someone has confused a thickness for an extent. The publishers deny this happened, but have offered no alternative theory.

Tracking Happy Feet

National Public Radio (NPR) has been closely following the story of Happy Feet, the penguin who got off course and ended up in New Zealand. They recently posted a heart warming story about the NZEmperor website created by SIRTRACK, the makers of the Sirtrack KiwiSat 202 Satellite Transmitter donated to keep tabs and map Happy Feet’s location. Dr Gareth Morgan, a scientist raising New Zealanders’ awareness of the importance of the area between Stewart Island and the South Pole, is sponsoring the satellite costs. He has a Happy Feet tracking page on his Our Far South website. Everyone interested in the story is waiting with baited breath to see if Happy Feet’s tracking system starts working or why it might have stopped. No matter what happens this was a great news story that might get many citizen scientists involved in learning more about the issues and technology involved in a part of the world they might not normally think about. Dr. Gareth Morgan’s website also discusses his upcoming trip to raise awareness of the region and features a very diverse crew of researchers, conservationists, and others, who are going to be on the trip as well.

Storm Tracks Move Toward The Poles

Climate models have predicted this for years, but it’s never been observed… until now. Ars Technica discusses the issue in brief. For the non-physical geographers out there (of which I count myself), storm tracks are the mid-latitude storm patterns that bring most of the precipitation to the heavy population centers in the world. As the climate changes, these storm tracks should gravitate to the poles. Scientists have been using data from The International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project to attempt to track the movement of storm tracks. They note lots of issues with the data, but repeated sampling and analysis methods have shown a clear trend – the tracks are moving as predicted. On top of that, apparently we’ve lost 2-3% of our total cloud cover worldwide!

So what’s the takeaway from all of this? It seems to me that the issues with the data combined with the need to track this stuff in a more comprehensive and accessible way point to one major conclusion – we need more satellites to get more accurate and timelier data. It really doesn’t matter where you fall on the climate change issue. Better information can only lead to a more informed scientific community and public, which is always a good thing.

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