Sunday, September 28, 2014

Climate change workshop, part 6.

The Climate Change workshop for educators, sponsored by Oklahomans for Excellencein Science Education, continued this morning.

Danny Mattox, Andrea Melvin, and Monica Deming showed us online resources for climate data, starting with the Oklahoma Mesonet, which has about every kind of weather data you can imagine, instantly available in graphical format. It is publication quality and I am using some of their maps in a paper that I will publish early next year. There are no comparable data in Texas, but the Office of the State Climatologist website has a fair amount of information. The NOAA National Climatic Data Center website is not as easy to navigate but has useful national-scale information and maps.

On the second half of the Sunday morning session, our first speaker was Bob Melton, who works on science curriculum for the Putnam City public schools in Oklahoma. He is also a national officer in the National Association of Biology Teachers and is a candidate for the presidency of that organization.

Bob began by explaining that teaching about climate change is a political act. For example, major textbook publishers do not have the courage to print the scientific facts about climate science because they fear that the Texas state textbook selection committee might reject their books. Texas is an overwhelmingly huge textbook market. If you teach about global warming, you place yourself squarely in the crosshairs of the infamous statements by Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who considers global warming science to be a deliberate hoax perpetrated by scientists. We watched a television interview of Inhofe in which he said this very thing. This interview made quite a number of us a little upset as we watched it. Scientists such as Lara Souza and myself know certainly that we are not hoax perpetrators, and we feel personally libeled by Inhofe. Inhofe just made up what he called scientific facts; for example, he said that scientists were just making up stories about arctic ice melting--despite that anyone can see the satellite images of this process occurring. So teachers are kind of caught between two federal sources of information: do we believe Senator Inhofe, or do we believe the satellite images provided by the federal agency NASA?

The Oklahoma educational standards regarding environmental science have nothing to say about global warming; the Texas standards call only for teaching about the effect of natural processes, rather than human activities, on global warming. Then Bob showed us the Next Generation Science Standards, which will soon be the national standards for science education, except in states like Oklahoma and Texas that declare that the laws of nature are different in our states than in the rest of the world. In Texas, we suppose, carbon dioxide does not absorb long-wave radiation. In Oklahoma, global warming cannot happen; we just ain't-a-gonna permit it. But most states will probably accept the new standards. Each state makes its own decision; and all politics are local; therefore if a majority of citizens in a state believe that global warming is equivalent to atheism, global warming will not be taught. Some interesting discussion followed but I missed it because I was busy trying to deal with a power interruption that temporarily wiped out my writing.

Bob also showed us a video of some federal politicians who are willing to investigate UFOs but will not even consider global warming.

We were joined by Dan Bewley of Tulsa, who has begun a blog about science in Oklahoma. He came to film and report about our meeting for his blog.

Kevin Kloesel, the director of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, began our final session.

Most climatologists believe that most global warming has been caused by humans. But, Kevin said, suppose that only one percent of the warming is caused by humans. But even if there is only a one percent risk that humans are causing global climate change, then we should do something about it. After all, there is only a tiny risk that your house will burn down, but you get your house insured, don't you? Why do we insure our houses--why do banks require mortgage holders to insure their houses--against a tiny risk of fire, and not "take out Earth insurance" for a much larger risk that our activities are putting the Earth at risk? Even if the risk is much lower than what most climate scientists think it actually is. And you can replace a wrecked car or burned house, but in the case of Planet Earth, there is no chance of replacement.

He noted a mismatch between what scientists know and what policy-makers are doing. The National Academies, as authorized by Congress, have published reports based on peer-reviewed research. Scientists criticize one another's work, Kloesel noted, more severely than even the climate deniers, so these reports are reliable.

The Science Panel report shows the evidence that global climate change is real and humans are causing a lot of it. And continued data gathering is essential to improve our predictions. Kloesel urged us to ask ourselves what it would take to get us to change our minds about what we believe about climate change. Everyone comes to the table with pre-set beliefs, even scientists; scientists, at least, are aware of their bias and try to compensate for it. The community of climatologists is so small, yet is the center of a worldwide controversy. Furthermore, people do not notice carbon dioxide because it is invisible. And our minds trick us into ignoring anything that blows away to some other place. In everyday life, as in science, we seldom have certainty, but that does not prevent us from taking action to manage the risk.

The Limiting Panel report recommended prompt and sustained research efforts. Their first recommendation was to set a price on carbon. Right away, their recommendations will go nowhere in the current political climate. Every recommendation has a dark side that someone will decry, which will cause the process to go nowhere.

The Adapting panel report dealt with what we can do to adapt to whatever amount of global warming will prove to be inevitable. We already have is a warning system for tornadoes, but we have nothing like this for long-term climate events. One panel recommendation is "movement of people and facilities away from vulnerable areas." But what would people do if the government said, "You can't build your house on a floodplain"? Instead we wait until it happens then react, at seven times the cost. We know how to make contingency plans, we just aren't doing it for climate change. The report called for a new level of planetary governance--something that frightens the x out of most lawmakers, even progressive ones. Some politicians, especially from cowboy states, would rather take any chance at global catastrophe rather than to take advice from the United Nations.

The Informing panel report dealt with how to make masses of information available in a useful form.

There is no getting around the fact that rich Americans will have to reduce our carbon emissions, rather than encouraging the poor of the world to increase, in order to achieve fairness and sustainability. Right now, the carbon footprint of people in developing nations is increasing. For example, we cannot tell the people of India, "We will keep using air conditioning but you should not." Before long, the entire challenge will depend on what the developing world does.

Prospicience is the art of looking ahead, said Kloesel. We have, he said, barely begun to ask what we are on Earth to do. Why should we send missions to Mars while ignoring the monitoring of our own planet? How can we leave a good world for our grandchildren? In his book Senator Inhofe talks a lot about the world his grandchildren will live in, despite the fact that he ignores the truth about global warming which will make the world a disrupted and chaotic world for those grandchildren. What can we do when our leaders only pretend to care about their grandchildren's world?

We will see the impacts first in water, such as water conflicts among states. Even the cost of water litigation is adding to the economic burden of some states such as Oklahoma and Texas. Also, water-intensive crops have already had a massive price increase at the supermarket. Climate change is not an abstract concept.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Climate Change Workshop, part 5.

The climate change workshop for teachers, sponsored by Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE) and the Oklahoma Climatological Survey continued this afternoon and evening.

The first two presentations were about phenology. Phenology is the seasonal pattern of biological processes: the time of year that trees burst their buds, that animals hibernate or migrate, etc. Phenological data are particularly valuable to a study of global warming because the organisms integrate many physical factors. How do you measure temperature? Average maximum temperature? Average minimum temperature? Threshold temperatures? But you can let the organisms themselves do the measuring. If global warming causes winter to be shorter and warmer, and spring to come earlier, perhaps the best way to measure this is to quantify the budburst date of deciduous trees or the flowering date of herbaceous plants.

The first presenter was Dr. Lara Souza of the University of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Biological Survey. What happens when species experience global warming? They could either stay where they are and adapt (either through natural selection or acclimatization); go extinct; or migrate to other locations with cooler temperatures.

Consider some examples. Camille Parmesan and associates showed that some British butterflies moved north during the twentieth century. They gathered their data from insect collections, in which the date and location are recorded. Another study, by Lenoir and associates, showed that most but not all species of mountain plant species shifted their distributional range to higher elevations. You can download the Lenoir data from Science (these data are open access, unlike many of the articles in Science) and have students compare the average elevation in the early vs. the late twentieth century for each species, either by making a graph or by doing a simple statistical analysis (paired-t test). The Rocky Mountain BiologicalLaboratory, at about 10,000 feet elevation in the Rockies, also has an excellent data set about the first day in spring at which many species of birds and mammals became active; this data set stretches back to 1974. Some, but not all species, have become active much earlier in the spring in the past forty years. The RMBL website is being reconstructed, but the link should lead you to the data at a later time. Another study, led by Laura Burkle, revisited some nineteenth-century pollination study plots to see how much changes has occurred in phenology. She found that, in many cases, the plants were flowering earlier but the pollinators were arriving at the same time compared to 150 years earlier.

Lara then told us how students can contribute their own data to, or work with data sets made available by, the National Phenological Network. There are also some citizen-science projects being done, including common garden experiments where people in different places plant the same plants, and keep track of their phenological responses. With the example of lilacs, people all over the country have planted not just lilacs but exactly the same breed of lilacs so that they can make direct comparisons of the same breed of plant in very different geographic locations. (There are some limitations. For example, lilacs do not grow well in Oklahoma.) Students can participate in these citizen-science projects and contribute their data to a national database.

The Saturday evening presentation was by me. Now think about this. A group of energetic teachers who have been in a workshop for a day and a half. Should I just give them a scientific seminar? Uh, no. Especially since there is no place else for them to go except to my presentation! There used to be a bar down the highway but it closed. So it behooved me to present a standup comedy routine before getting into the science.

Standup comedy is not something entirely new to me. In June 2012, when I was staying with my sister in La Jolla, I walked past the San Diego Comedy Club, and it was open mike night. Why not? I signed my name on the list and went to get my Darwin hat. It was a pretty big audience, or so I thought. The only problem is that the real audience was only about six people, and everyone else was on the list for performing. Each person did his or her little thing, then left, so when they got to me (number 28) the room was pretty empty. Most of the routines were pretty lame, and most of them for the same reason: they talked only about themselves. I might have been the only comedian to talk about something other than himself. I didn't tell them my real name. I talked to them, instead, about hagfishes. Anyone who knows about hagfishes knows that you can get a lot of truly disgusting comedy material out of them. At the end, the emcee took a vote for best performance. I was one of two nominees. The emcee chose as the winner a third person who was not nominated. If I were a budding young comedian, I would have been bent out of shape, but I have a day job, so whatever. The audience was in the parking lot as I walked to the supermarket, and they said, "Hey, Darwin!" and told me they liked it. I told them I was a professor and I did things like this in my classes.

Then I gave my scientific presentation, which I briefly summarize here. I have nine years of data about budburst times of deciduous trees in Durant, Oklahoma, and the results clearly show that budburst has occurred earlier during the course of those nine years--not consistently every year, but clearly overall. But not in all species.

Then, I wanted to know what might happen in the future. Suppose that Oklahoma gets so warm that winter disappears altogether? Would that mean that the deciduous trees would grow new leaves as soon as they drop their old ones? (They will still drop their leaves, a process controlled by daylength.) That is, can I extrapolate my budburst data? The answer is not always. The answer is yes for sweetgum trees, whose buds are fully formed in the fall, but the answer is no for sycamores and pecans, whose buds require a period of cold temperatures in order to complete their development. This conclusion is based on research I conducted with my student Sonya Ross. Therefore, if global warming occurs so much that winter disappears, the budburst of some tree species will actually be delayed.

I let them go, but they all stayed to hear me perform my Evolution rap (which is on YouTube here) and my cowboy version of Wrangham's cooking hypothesis (which is on YouTube here). I then shared some refreshments with them. For workshop participants, as for students, they learn more when they are having fun--to an extent, anyway.

Climate Change Workshop, part 4.

I continue to report from the Climate Change Workshop sponsored by Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE) and the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, helping about 20 middle and high school teachers figure out how to teach about global warming.

As the afternoon session began, Dr. Julie Angle, an education professor at Oklahoma State University, led a discussion called "Decontextualized nature of science: Activities to help students understand climate change concepts." She asked us to think about what science actually is. But also, what is the "nature of science"? We need to think about how we know what we know. When we teach students about global warming, we do not want to preach the environmental gospel to them, but to use global climate change as an example of a topic that we can explore by the methods of scientific inquiry. Let the global warming denialists do the preaching.

Julie, who was chosen by the Oklahoma legislature to be on the school textbook selection committee, pointed out that science is both reliable and tentative. These two terms sound like they contradict one another, but actually it is the tentative nature of science that makes it reliable. Because science is tentative, its mistakes can be corrected by new evidence, and that's why it is reliable. Science also requires creative thinking; a computer (such as they are now) cannot do science. Julie led us through discussions about numerous other characteristics of science. Science is creative and imaginative.

Julie walked around the room with what appeared to be a lit candle. She had the participants describe whatever they could about what they saw. Of course everyone assumed that it was a wax candle--until she ate it. It was actually a piece of potato with a sliver of almond stuck in it. Without being told, some participants figured out that the sliver had to be a nut, in order to provide fuel to the flame. As soon as you assume that it is a candle, then all of your observations get crammed into the framework you have constructed.

Then Julie led the participants in an activity to interpret some drawings of dinosaur trackways. From this evidence, could they figure out how many dinosaurs there were, and which way they were going? Then, when they got more evidence, they had to alter their explanations.

One of the activities that Julie led was for the participants to look at (fake) cancelled checks and make hypotheses about the story behind the checks. No group looked at all of the checks. Because no single group had all the information, they came up with, and debated, contradictory explanations for the story line, and even debated whether some of the checks were related to the story or not.

Then Monica Deming, a researcher at the Climatological Survey, took us outside to get tree cores. We got a core from a box elder tree, which had relatively soft wood. From a tree core, we can observe tree rings without severely damaging the tree.

Then, back indoors, Monica told us how to interpret tree ring data from cores. It would seem to be simple to determine a tree's age--just count the rings. But sometimes there is a "false ring" where a tree starts to produce wood in the spring, then it experiences a late frost, after which it begins to grow again, and early spring wood growth is faster than late summer growth.

Then Danny Mattox showed us how he uses imitation tree cores in his class. This activity is valuable for all levels of students, including those who have trouble simply measuring something in millimeters. To engage the students, he has them write significant events in their lives on a paper image of tree rings: write a one-paragraph narrative of their lives on the rings.

Then he handed out simulated wood cores (real ones would have been too fragile). A thick ring means that the growing season was good, for example a lot of rain, so that the tree produced a lot of wood; a thin ring indicates a bad year. The pattern of thick and thin wood layers is therefore a record of growing conditions over decades or even centuries. But not every tree is equally valuable as a climatic record. A tree whose roots grow in a spring may produce thick rings every year, regardless of whether or not droughts have occurred. Just by visual inspection, without measurement, the students can tell which years were better than others for growth.

First, you have to calculate a correlation between ring width and rainfall for years in which rainfall was measured. Participants constructed their own graphs of ring width as a function of rainfall, from which they could calculate a slope. Once you have the slope, you can calculate rainfall for years too far in the past for any rainfall records to exist. Sometimes you can go pretty far into the past; the oldest tree known, a bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California, just recently discovered, is 5,062 years old. On many levels, this is a new and eye-opening experience for students.

Climate Change Workshop, part 3.

Monica Deming of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey was our next presenter at the Climate Change workshop. We notice extreme events, such as Oklahoma having a winter temperature of 27 F below zero in winter 2011 (near Nowata) but the next summer, 20121, was the hottest summer on record in Oklahoma or for any state ever. We can be fairly confident that global warming will bring more extreme events. As I wrote in my book Green Planet: How Plants Keep the Earth Alive (still available!), global warming is "stirring the climate pot more vigorously." I'm no expert but I hope this metaphor is useful.

Then Monica explained the basics of global warming and the Milankovitch cycle. Danny Mattox then acted it out--the first time I have ever seen anyone attempt this! He played the Earth, revolving around Monica (the sun) at various tilts and distances.

Monica summarized the latest conclusions of the IPCC, including their most current projections. There are about 25,000 indicators that Earth is becoming warmer, everything from thermal expansion of ocean waters to melting ice to direct temperature measurements. She gave us more information about these measurements, e.g. that Arctic sea ice as melted much faster even than scientists had recently predicted. Unfortunately, the world is continuing on the path of the maximum predicted warming. At this rate, the heat wave of 2012 will not just seem normal, but seem cool, by 2090. Yes, it got up to 120 F in parts of Oklahoma in 1936, but the scientific projections are that the number of summer days exceeding 100 F each year will increase, to perhaps 120 days a year by the end of the century.

And now for something different. Instead of listening to talking heads, no matter how interesting they are, the participants will get on computers and actually work with climatological data, under the guidance of Brad Illston, a research associate at Oklahoma Mesonet, a service provided by the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. This is one of the finest repositories of meteorological information in the country. No other state, as far as I know, has as much data so easily accessible in such a visual format.

Mark Twain referred to "lies, damned lies, and statistics." Statistics can be abused. Brad explained how to use them honestly. But even when used honestly, statistics can be misleading. Averages can be misleading, even if honest. I recall hearing of an old Kansas farmer who said, "In fifty years of farming, I've only seen two average years." So it helps to use not just averages but also some estimate of variability as the standard deviation. If most of the years had been close to average, that Kansas farmer would have seen a small standard deviation. Oklahoma City and San Diego have the same average annual temperature, but the temperatures in OKC are much more variable, a fact constantly confirmed by exchanges of text messages between me and my La Jolla sister. A storm passed through San Diego last week, and my sister texted me, the storm uprooted a tree! But this sounds like an ordinary summer day in Oklahoma.

Another example of being confused by statistics is, what do we mean by a hundred-year flood? It means that, every year, there is a one percent chance of it occurring. It does not mean such floods occur every hundred years, on the dot. As it turns out, the odds of at least one such flood occurring in 100 years is not 100 percent, but 63.4 percent.

The participants then went to the computers to access and use some real Mesonet data. The data are very user-friendly. You can easily graph annual changes in temperature for any year, or for many years on the same graph. Just by looking at the graph, you can see that winter is the season that has the most year-to-year variability (or even day-to-day variability) in Oklahoma. Also, you can access a beautiful color map that indicates soil moisture in August 2011, during a severe drought. Not all of Oklahoma was experiencing a drought; you can see which areas were very dry compared to a long-term average (in red) or wetter than normal (in green). The map is mostly red, but there are green spots. The Oklahoma Mesonet therefore not only makes available a great deal of data in a very organized fashion, but you can construct almost any graph that you might want.

It occurred to me that weather disasters can also test our altruism. If every community along a river builds levees, in an understandable desire to protect their own properties, then there will be a much greater volume of water running downstream, vastly increasing the risk that downstream levees will be overtopped or destroyed.

I would like to end with the same book recommendation I made last year. The Control of Nature by John McPhee documents three examples of hubris, in which we humans think we can control nature. One of the examples is how we are trying to force the Mississippi River to stay in its present channel, even while we are creating conditions that will ultimately cause it to jump its banks and create a new delta.