Stories tagged Scientific Inquiry

Dec
11
2010

John James Audubon: portrait by John Syme, 1826
John James Audubon: portrait by John Syme, 1826Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
A rare copy of naturalist and artist John James Audubon’s epic book, Birds of America, just sold at Sotheby’s auction for more than $10 million. That’s an enormous sum considering the book is essentially a work of natural history illustration. Also known as the Double Elephant Folio because of its large size, the massive tome opens to 4 feet across and contains hundreds of plates of exquisitely drawn, life-sized paintings of birds in their natural settings. It’s considered one of the greatest collections of natural history illustrations in the world, and I have to admit, after researching the story behind this stunning collection of work, and its creator, I understand why it's so valuable.

Flamingo: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Flamingo: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
In the early 19th century, the Haitian-born Audubon (1785 - 1851) traveled across the eastern and central United States -often alone, sometimes with an assistant- to gather images of over 500 known species of bird. He would often draw them from life, but sometimes killed his avian subjects and posed them with wires in order to capture them on paper. The latter technique guaranteed the birds wouldn’t fly off. He used all sorts of media considered unconventional at the time to create his masterpiece images. Backgrounds were created sometimes by the artist himself but more often by several assistants.

Virginian Partridge: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Virginian Partridge: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
Audubon developed his deep interest in birds and natural history as a child growing up in France. At age 18 he arrived in the United States (as an illegal immigrant, mind you) where he honed his passion in ornithology in the woods surrounding the family property near Philadelphia. White Gerfalcons: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
White Gerfalcons: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
During his early days in America he worked at improving his drawing techniques, and became skilled at specimen preparation and taxidermy, even working for a time in that capacity at a museum in Cincinnati. On a return trip to France he met naturalist Charles-Marie D’Orbigny who schooled him in scientific methods of research and offered tips to improve his taxidermy skills.

Canada Goose: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Canada Goose: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
The book Birds of America was a well-planned venture long before it finally came to fruition. Audubon had the title in mind when he set about in 1820 to paint every known bird in America. His goal was to eventually produce a body of work that would far surpass any other in existence. And he did exactly that. For nearly three years he roamed down the Mississippi River and across the American frontier searching out specimens to paint, sometimes purchasing them from local hunters.

Mourning doves: from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Mourning doves: from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikipedia
At the time Alexander Wilson was considered the leading ornithologist and painter of birds. He had cataloged most known birds in the country but his renderings were somewhat stiff and lifeless. Audubon worked persistently to make the birds in his drawings come to life, placing them in their natural ecosystems, often in active and dramatic poses. A single illustration would sometimes portray several species of bird.

Natural history illustration was and remains to this day crucial in disseminating scientific knowledge about the natural world. Detailed illustrations, graphics, and photographs help convey what's being explained in the text. Sometimes all the facets come together perfectly. Such is the case with Birds of America; its high regard is based on both its level of visual artistry and scientific information.

Since American printers couldn’t accommodate the oversize plates he insisted upon using, Audubon traveled to Great Britain where his paintings (and he himself) became an overnight sensation. The Brits were eager to learn anything about the new American frontier, its people and environs. The book’s original edition was printed by engraver Robert Havell (and son) starting in 1826. The process of engraving and printing all 435 plates took a dozen years and cost Audubon $111,640, a huge sum for the time. He financed the initial printing mainly through advance subscriptions, exhibitions, and lectures (a teen-aged Charles Darwin attended one of these).

Golden Eagle: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Golden Eagle: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
Initially, four title pages were sent to subscribers (including King George IV, an admirer of Audubon). Prints were then issued in groups of five with the idea the buyers – if they chose to do so - would bind them together at their own cost. Each separate illustration was printed in black and white using etching and aquatint techniques on large copper plates 39 x 28 in dimension. They were then each hand-painted by an army of colorists, a technique common in the 19th Century. An accompanying volume of text titled Ornithological Biographies was later added for each of the four plate volumes. The biographies match the illustrations in their scope. Audubon (aided by ornithologist William MacGillivray) gives a detailed description of each bird’s features (including drawings of internal organs), their behaviors, and the environments in which they lived.

Ivory-billed Woodpecker: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICA
Ivory-billed Woodpecker: plate from BIRDS OF AMERICACourtesy Wikimedia Commons
Audubon originally published about 750 copies of Birds of America of which only 219 copies are extant today. Of those, only 119 complete copies exist, most of which are in museum and library collections. Eleven copies are in private hands and this latest intact volume is one of two to be auctioned in the last decade. Over the years, many of the original editions were broken up and sold as individual illustrations. But with so few intact editions available now their value has skyrocketed against the amount single prints would attract.

After his death, Audubon’s wife sold most of the original paintings reproduced in Birds of America to the New York Historical Society for $4000! Luckily for us, the originals are occasionally put on display there, and that would be something to see. Audubon’s final project titled Vivaraporous Quadrupeds of North America was completed posthumously by his sons.

You'd be hard pressed to name a work of as monumental as Birds of America in terms of art and science, as it's considered by many to be one of the most important natural history books in existence. And Audubon was served well by it both financially and the worldwide acclaim it brought him. He was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Linnaean Society, and was only the second American to be named a fellow by London's Royal Society (Ben Franklin was the first). Charles Darwin made three mentions of Audubon’s work in his own book On the Origin of Species. The ornithological organization the National Audubon Society is named in his honor. Not a bad legacy for a backwoods kid who just loved birds.

LINKS and INFO
Complete Birds of America (with biographies) at Univ. of Pittsburgh
Book auction story
Audubon bio
The Havell Edition
Audubon Minnesota
St. Paul Audubon Society

SOME PREVIOUS BIRD STORIES ON BUZZ
Raptor Migration
Baby bird factory
Whooping cranes
Hummingbirds
Learning more about birds
Great Gray Owl

Dec
09
2010

Surveying Microbes at Sea
Surveying Microbes at SeaCourtesy C-MORE
There are microbes…and then there are micro-microbes. Oceanographers on C-MORE’s BiG RAPA oceanographic expedition are finding bacteria the size of one-one-millionth of a meter in the oligotrophic (low nutrient), open-ocean of the Southeast Pacific, far from the productive waters off the coast of Chile. But that’s not all; some scientists are looking for the even smaller marine viruses in gallons of filtered seawater. Meet some of these micro-microbes in these video reports:
Prochlorococcus
ProchlorococcusCourtesy Dr. Anne Thompson, MIT

  • Microbe Diversity, Part 1: Prochlorococcus, the most common bacterium in the world’s oceans; nitrogen-fixing bacteria that provide a usable form of nitrogen “fertilizer” for other photosynthesizers
  • Microbe Diversity, Part 2: picophytoeukaryotes with different colored pigments; viruses, which are parasites on other living things

Yes indeed, microbial oceanographers are taking home quite a collection from the South Pacific Ocean. In less than a week the good ship RV Melville will arrive at Rapa Nui (Easter Island), and scientists will step onto land for the first time in almost a month. They and their oceanographic samples will return to C-MORE laboratories around the U.S. The oceanographers are also returning with new hypotheses buzzing around in their heads. Now it’s time for them to take the next step in the Scientific Method: data analysis!

Nov
26
2010

surveying microbes at sea
surveying microbes at seaCourtesy C-MORE
Dr. Dan Repeta from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is C-MORE’s Chief Scientist on the BiG RAPA expedition, which is conducting research off the coast of Chile. Dr. Repeta and his team of scientists are sampling the underwater microbial environment using a variety of instruments, including a water collector called a CTD (see educational resource below). Two interesting results have turned up in the CTD data:

  1. chlorophyll -- The greatest amount of the green pigment, representing floating microscopic plants in the sea known as phytoplankton, was found about 30 meters below the sea surface. (That's where oceanographers expect the most chlorophyll. Perhaps phytoplankton living at that depth must produce more chlorophyll in order to capture the lower light intensities, just like leaves are usually darker green if they're growing on a land plant in the shade). However, a surprise awaited oceanographers at 60 meters. At that depth, they discovered an unusual “secondary, deeper chlorophyll max," something not seen many other places in the world.
  2. Oxygen -- This gas enters the ocean primarily at the surface, from the air and also from phytoplankton photosynthesis. Bacteria and other heterotrophs consume the O2 as they metabolize. Therefore, oxygen is expected to decrease with depth. At BiG RAPA's Station 1 oxygen not only fell; it fell all the way to near zero.

Dr. Angel White and the CTD
Dr. Angel White and the CTDCourtesy Eric Grabowski, C-MORE
"Sea It Live" in some BiG RAPA videos. Join Dr. Angel White from Oregon State University as she demonstrates the CTD rosette. Then join Dr. Repeta for his Chief Scientist Station 1 Update .
______________________
*Educational resource = C-MORE Science Kit Ocean Conveyor Belt's Powerpoint, "Lesson 3: Using Data to Explore Ocean Processes "

Nov
17
2010

All Abooooooard!  Microbes Set Sail
All Abooooooard! Microbes Set SailCourtesy C-MORE
Well, yeah, that’s right. Microbes don’t smile, and they sure don’t command an oceanographic ship. However, there are lots of microbes in the sea; in fact, they account for most of the total marine biomass. With that in mind, there’s no question about microbes being fundamental to the functioning and health of the oceans.

UNOLS ship, the RV Melville
UNOLS ship, the RV MelvilleCourtesy Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Scientists from C-MORE (Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education) and the Universidad de Concepción, Chile have organized an expedition to one of the most sparsely sampled oceanic regions on the planet…the southeast Pacific Ocean. The expedition’s official name is BiG RAPA (Biogeochemical Gradients: Role in Arranging Planktonic Assemblages). It departed from Chile on November 17 on the research ship Melville and will travel almost due west, ending at Rapa Nui (Easter Island) on December 14.

BiG RAPA expedition’s multi-media, interactive Sea It Live website
BiG RAPA expedition’s multi-media, interactive Sea It Live websiteCourtesy C-MORE
Oceanographers will conduct studies on a microbial community that exists in a very curious environment. The Melville will travel from the nutrient-rich coastal waters off Chile into the low-nutrient area known as the South Pacific Subtropical Gyre. The SPSG is the most oligotrophic, or nutrient-poor, of all sub-tropical gyres. What kind of microbes can live in such an impoverished area? How do they do it? Join the BiG RAPA’s Sea It Live Tracker and find out!

Nov
12
2010

a paver, or stone tile, representing ocean microbes
a paver, or stone tile, representing ocean microbesCourtesy B. Mayer
Who hasn’t heard about the very great scientific and social problems of global warming and ocean acidification? As microbiologist Louis Pasteur noted more than a century ago, “The very great is accomplished by the very small.” Part of the answer to these very great problems can be accomplished by understanding the very small: ocean microbes, living things that are less than a hundredth of the thickness of a human hair.

Our effort to understand the very small in the ocean has just taken a big step. C-MORE Hale (Hawaiian language for “house,” pronounced hah-lay) was officially dedicated in a ceremony that took place on October 25, 2010. C-MORE, or the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research & Education, is all about studying ocean microbes. Scientists at C-MORE are looking into microorganisms at the genomic, DNA level and all the way up to the biome level where microbes recycle elements in ocean ecosystems.

Headquartered at the University of Hawai`i, C-MORE’s interdisciplinary team includes scientists, engineers and educators from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Oregon State University, University of California – Santa Cruz and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. As a National Science Foundation center, C-MORE is a dynamic “think tank” community of researchers, educators and students from a variety of cultural backgrounds, including native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander.

C-MORE Hale, with stone tiles
C-MORE Hale, with stone tilesCourtesy B. Mayer
C-MORE Hale will be equipped completely and ready for scientists to put on their lab coats and get to work in January 2011. For now, e komo mai! (welcome!) Imagine yourself walking along this sidewalk leading to C-MORE Hale. Stop for a moment to look at the round pavers; they depict ocean microbes first discovered by 19th century zoologists on the worldwide HMS Challenger expedition. Step past these unique designs and take a tour of the brand-new building!

Nov
05
2010

Aiding and abetting science: Prison inmates have been enlisted to help forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni in her research.
Aiding and abetting science: Prison inmates have been enlisted to help forest ecologist Nalini Nadkarni in her research.Courtesy Nalini Nadkarni
Since 2004, scientist Nalini Nadkarni has enlisted prisoners to aid in her scientific research.

Don’t worry, it’s not cruel and usual punishment. The inmates aren’t being used as guinea pigs to test new drugs or try out some new method of electroshock therapy. Instead, the incarcerated offenders are part of Nadkarni’s research team. Nadkarni holds a PhD in Forest Ecology and is on the faculty at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded some of her inmate-aided research.

For one of Dr. Nadkarni'sDr. Nalini Nadkarni
Dr. Nalini NadkarniCourtesy Nalini Nadkarni
research projects, offenders at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Washington, helped plant seeds of rare prairie plants then recorded data during the plants growth stages. The prisoners actually enjoyed helping out with the research. Not only did it give them a sense of doing something worthwhile, it connects them to something that’s sorely lacking in the old Graybar Hotel: nature.

For another project called Moss-in-Prisons (no Thor, your hero Randy has been picked up by the Tennessee Titans), Nadkarni recruited inmates at the Cedar Creek Corrections Center in Littlerock, Washington, to help discover improved ways of cultivating slow-growing mosses.

"I need help from people who have long periods of time available to observe and measure the growing mosses; access to extensive space to lay out flats of plants; and fresh minds to put forward innovative solutions," Nadkarni said.

If successful, the research could help replace ecologically important mosses that have been stripped from old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, a sometimes illegal tactic that seems to be a favorite among some horticulturists.

In many cases, helping with the research isn’t just a way for inmates to pass time behind the brick walls and barbed wire of their confinement. It’s also a way to inspire them. One former inmate, who had worked with Nadkarni, enrolled in a Ph.D. program in microbiology after his release from Cedar Creek, and went on to give a presentation of the research he had done there at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America.

Apparently, Dr. Nadkarni is on to something, and its importance is not lost on those still behind bars.

"It teaches me something," said one prisoner involved with Nadkarni’s prairie plant study. "It makes me work with people and it's just a new skill that I've learned."

Both science and prisoners benefit from this natural symbiosis taking place in such an unnatural setting. And other prisons have expressed interest in getting their inmates involved in Nadkarni’s research programs,

"Everyone can be a scientist,” Nadkarni says. “Everyone can relate to nature, everyone can contribute to the scientific enterprise, even those who are shut away from nature.”

SOURCES
NSF story and video
NSF press release

Oct
19
2010

Mrs. Spink
Mrs. SpinkCourtesy Dana Spink
On September 2, Dana Spink, grade 6 science teacher from Toledo, OR, became a star when she stepped aboard the oceanographic research vessel, the R/V Kilo Moana (Hawaiian for “oceanographer”) for a week of discovery. She was part of the STARS program (Science Teachers Aboard Research Ships) operated by C-MORE (Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education) at the University of Hawai`i's School of Ocean, Earth Science & Technology.

Decreasing Ocean pH (meaning Increasing Acidity) Correlates with Increasing Carbon Dioxide
Decreasing Ocean pH (meaning Increasing Acidity) Correlates with Increasing Carbon DioxideCourtesy C-MORE
Ever since 1988 scientists from UH’s HOT program (Hawai`i Ocean Time-series) have been gathering monthly baseline data from station ALOHA, a deep-water site about 60 miles north of Honolulu. This data lead to the discoveries about rising sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification. Dana and two other teachers were part of this continued ocean chemistry and physics data collection, as they worked alongside shipboard scientists at station ALOHA.

The marine engineer is getting ready to deploy the plankton net off the stern of the ship.
The marine engineer is getting ready to deploy the plankton net off the stern of the ship.Courtesy Dana Spink
Copepods, Members of the Zooplankton
Copepods, Members of the ZooplanktonCourtesy C-MORE
Dana also came face-to-face with Pacific Ocean micro-critters that were captured in a plankton net. What a variety there were! Some were phytoplankton, the microscopic floating plants of the open ocean, and others were tiny animals belonging to the zooplankton. As a whole, plankton are extremely important to the oceanic ecosystems because they form the base of most food webs. Dana used dichotomous keys from C-MORE's Plankton science kit to identify the open-ocean specimens.

Want to find out more about gadgets and shipboard procedures that the STARS used, like CTDs, fluorometers, flow cytometers and other shipboard procedures? Visit Mrs. Spink's blog!

Oct
13
2010

Fossils in hand: A small six-inch square area of ground at a site near Cannon Falls, MN contains a handful of fossils.
Fossils in hand: A small six-inch square area of ground at a site near Cannon Falls, MN contains a handful of fossils.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Today is National Fossil Day! It’s a day set aside to raise and promote public awareness of the educational and scientific value of fossils found on public lands and elsewhere - and the importance of preserving them for future study. The day is co-sponsored by the National Park Service and the American Geological Institute, and is the first of what organizers hope will be an annual day of fossil appreciation.

Several national parks, museums, and professional organizations throughout the country are celebrating by hosting special events. Check here for national park activities, or check your favorite local museum’s website for NFD events in your area.

The Science Museum of Minnesota will have a slightly belated celebration of the day this coming Saturday (October 16) from 1pm-4pm with special fossil activities taking place in several galleries, including a first glimpse at the new mammoth skull that’s been under preparation in the paleo lab. The skull will be out on the floor in the Dinosaur and Fossils gallery.

Since the weather’s been so nice here in the Twin Cities area, I celebrated the day the best way I know how: by going fossil hunting. One of my favorite spots to collect is near the town of Cannon Falls, located about a forty-minute drive from my house in Minneapolis. I tossed my rock hammer, bags and other collecting implements (i.e. something to kneel on) into the backseat of my car and headed southeast.

There's fossils in that there ditch: as unlikely as it looks, the exposure of Decorah shale along CR 25 near Cannon Falls, MN is a prime fossil collecting site.
There's fossils in that there ditch: as unlikely as it looks, the exposure of Decorah shale along CR 25 near Cannon Falls, MN is a prime fossil collecting site.Courtesy Mark Ryan
There are three or four locations in the Cannon Falls area where I like to collect. One of them is quite well known, and has been used by students of all ages for fossil field trips (I first visited it in the 1970s as part of a paleontology class I took at the University of Minnesota). The site outcrops along Goodhue county road 25 at the crest of a hill just a couple miles out of town. It looks like any other road ditch, but it’s one of the best fossil sites in the state. Fossil motherlode: New fossils seem to come out of nowhere no matter how many times you scan the same patch of ground.
Fossil motherlode: New fossils seem to come out of nowhere no matter how many times you scan the same patch of ground.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The fossils found there are the remains of ancient marine life that lived on the bottom of a shallow sea that covered much of southern Minnesota during the Ordovician period about 450 million years ago. The fauna includes bryozoans (both branches and gumdrop-shaped prasopora), gastropods, horn coral, brachiopods, Cheerio-shaped crinoid stem segments, trilobites and cephalopods. In the Twin Cities the same fossil-bearing strata, known as the Decorah shale, can be found all along the upper banks of the Mississippi river. Ninety feet of the fossiliferous Decorah is exposed in the quarries at Lilydale Regional Park across from downtown St. Paul. Lilydale has been a popular collecting site for many years but access to it involves buying a permit, strenuous climbing, and sometimes precarious perching to get at the fossils. (The St. Paul parks department has closed Lilydale for the rest of the 2010 season due to flooding).

In Cannon Falls collecting couldn’t be easier. The topography is essentially flat and the fossils are mostly weathered out of their matrix, making for easy pickings.

All in a National Fossil Day's work: This represents about half of what I collected in a few hours.
All in a National Fossil Day's work: This represents about half of what I collected in a few hours.Courtesy Mark Ryan
I split a couple hours of collecting between two different locations: the roadside along CR25, and another site my brother and I learned about on a previous collecting trip from a curious local farmer who had stopped to ask what the heck we were doing in the ditch. I’m not ready to disclose the location of this other site just yet. But I will say it has yielded some very fine specimens in the two years I’ve been collecting there. As you can see by the photos, those few hours spent at Cannon Falls paid off well. Recent heavy rains had brought forth a whole new crop of fossils, making it one of the better field excursions I’ve made to the area in several months. It was a great way to celebrate National Fossil Day.

National Fossil Day art contest entry: and Third Place winner.
National Fossil Day art contest entry: and Third Place winner.Courtesy Mark Ryan
I also celebrated another way by entering a piece in the National Fossil Day art contest. I’m happy to report that I won Third Place in my age bracket (19 & above) with my Digging Fossils graphic (see photo). You can view all the winning entries at the National Fossil Day website.

MORE INFO
Previous Buzz story on Minnesota fossil collecting
Minnesota PaleoWeb

Sep
22
2010

Last night, bkennedy, a couple other SMM staff members, and I attended the Bell Museum's Cafe Scientifique at Bryant-Lake Bowl in Minneapolis. Robert Twilley, a principal investigator with the National Center for Earth-Surface Dynamics, came to speak about the endangered environment of the Mississippi Delta and the BP Deep Horizon Oil Spill. I didn't expect to get a history lesson, but it's just this kind of broad-ranging perspective that will help us understand what is happening to our environment.

It was frustrating to hear Dr. Twilley recount how, as a result of the 1928 Flood Control Act, civil engineers literally remade the Mississippi River and its delta in response to severe flooding events. While this had the temporary effect of protecting area residents from flooding, the plan neglected an important quality of all coastlines: they're dynamic. As sea level has risen over the last century, diverted sediments no longer replenish key areas of the delta and vast stretches of wetland are drowning--the same stretches of wetland that would protect people in the event of a strong hurricane. As a result of the levees, regular floods no longer wash sediments into the area. To complicate matters, projects such as dams farther upstream have cut the overall sediment supply to the Mississippi by about 50 percent in the last couple centuries.

Dynamic Mississippi River Delta: The shaded areas of this image show how the river delta has shifted around over the last 4600 years.
Dynamic Mississippi River Delta: The shaded areas of this image show how the river delta has shifted around over the last 4600 years.Courtesy Urban

Twilley emphasized that it wasn't as if people didn't know the problems these strategies would cause; engineers who opposed flood control tried to call attention to the associated risks. But in the wake of disastrous floods, the public demanded visible public works projects and politicians wanted to please them. Engineers who supported flood control saw it as a noble enterprise to control nature and protect people. And so today we have a tricky situation in the delta area. Disasters increase in intensity, and with them, peoples' insistence on solutions grow. But Twilley cautioned that it is imprudent to act on impulse, especially due to a widespread lack of understanding about how coastal systems work, and to our tendency to favor human safety without consideration for the environment that supports our safety. In short, we undermine ourselves.

"Since 1932, the basin has lost approximately 70% of its total land area."
-lacoast.gov

When Hurricane Katrina hit, the same channel intended to give port access to ships funneled the storm surge farther inland. Twilley described how this perfect storm of civil engineering amplified the devastation brought by the Category 3 hurricane. The response to this devastation, rather than stepping back to reevaluate the situation and consider new ways to accommodate both the delta's needs and humans' needs, was to build a surge barrier that does nothing to restore the natural systems that once built and sustained that landscape over centuries. Contrary to engineers' intentions, Twilley asserted that these strategies will only exacerbate rising sea level and storm surge in the future as the wetlands drown further and the coastline moves inland.

Twilley also explained how, more recently, a lack of recognition of the complex systems in the river delta and along the Gulf Coast exacerbated BP's Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. BP's front end study on the potential impacts of a spill found no cause for concern that the oil would reach the shore. And yet, in spite of booms placed along the coast, the oil did reach the shore, infiltrating wetlands already threatened by rising sea levels and weakened by lack of sedimentation. Thanks to the use of dispersants, the oil is difficult to find and we may not know the full impact of the spill for some time.

This paints a pretty grim picture of the future, but Twilley left us with cause for hope. In one of the areas to which a significant portion of sediment was diverted, the wetlands are actually growing (Atchafalaya). Twilley and his colleagues hope that this and other examples will demonstrate the importance of these natural wetland-building systems and garner support for their plain to mitigate the wetland loss. They want to add river outlets in strategically important places throughout the delta to rebuild the wetlands and help stabilize the landscape. These outlets would only operate during flooding episodes--an approach called controlled flooding (as opposed to the current strategy of flood control), siphoning off extra water and sediment to starved wetlands AND preventing flooding into human settlements. Currently, they're also involved in a project to pipe sediment to areas that need it.

Of course, the new outlet plan won't be without some compromise on the part of humans--some may have to relocate. But given projections of the area for 2100, relocation isn't far off anyway. And the long-term protective benefits of restoring the wetlands might just be worth it.

Sep
03
2010

WHY?: Clouds are hard to model, so let's show them who's boss.
WHY?: Clouds are hard to model, so let's show them who's boss.Courtesy Paige Shoemaker

Next time you look at the clouds, shake your fist and yell at those jerks for making our lives difficult. You might look crazy, but somebody needs to tell those fools.

While it's relatively easy to model temperature changes over the last century thanks to detailed records, clouds are more tricky to understand because we don't have a similar history of cloud observations, and also because they are ornery. So in order to understand how clouds work, scientists are building a body of evidence to model cloud behavior and help show how clouds will impact our weather as well as our climate in the future. I believe they also plan to show those clouds who is the boss of them.

Hurricane help!
Like a child running loose in a toy store, hurricanes have always been difficult to predict because they can unexpectedly change direction. This confounds plans for evacuation, leading some people to leave areas that are never hit, leading others to stay put and potentially face nasty weather because they don't trust the meteorologist, and leading meteorologists to keep Advil in business. But since the 90s, our ability to predict where hurricanes will make landfall has become twice as accurate. This new prescience is due to the development and use of more accurate models of how clouds work, which is in turn due to better understanding of cloud dynamics and faster computers. How about that, punk clouds?

Intensity, however, remains elusive to model. (Shh, don't let them know we have a weakness!)

Go home, son: If wily Earl thought he could outsmart the meteorologists, then he's in for a schoolin'.
Go home, son: If wily Earl thought he could outsmart the meteorologists, then he's in for a schoolin'.Courtesy NASA

"While we pride ourselves that the track forecast is getting better and better, we remain humbled by the uncertainties of the science we don't yet understand," Schott said. "This is not an algebra question where there's only one right answer."

-Timothy Schott, tropical cyclone program leader for the National Weather Service in Silver Spring, Md.

Hurricane Earl
Despite being a "forecasting nightmare," Earl ended up hitting about where it was predicted to go. This means that the right people have been evacuated to avoid injury and fatality. That's right, stick your tail between your legs, Earl.

Connecting to climate
Short-term events such as hurricanes and other storms are difficult to predict, but climate change is a whole other world of uncertainty--again, thanks to those uncouth clouds. Climate scientists are developing new tools, such as satellite technologies that show how much light different cloud types reflect and models that demonstrate localized cloud processes. These approaches look specifically at certain groups of clouds and their patterns of change to add detail to older, larger models that look at climate over larger scales.

Booyah!: Climate computer nerds prevail.
Booyah!: Climate computer nerds prevail.Courtesy Nic McPhee

The problem with the older models is that they have a low resolution that doesn't accurately represent clouds because the clouds are smaller than they can show. Think of it like Google maps--at the beginning, you're looking at the entire planet, or a whole continent--this is similar to older, low-res climate models. The new models are like zooming in on a city--you can see bus stops, restaurants, and highways. But you have to zoom out to see how these small pieces relate to the larger surroundings. In a similar way, the new high-res models are helping to inform older models--this type of work is called multiscale modeling.

Researchers at the Center for Multiscale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes (CMMAP) are developing this exact type of model. You can read about their advances here. This work is important because it brings insight into questions about whether clouds will reflect or trap more sunlight, which can have a big impact on the rate of global warming. It also helps us understand whether geoengineering projects that alter clouds will really have the intended effect. Plus it's just one more way we can pwn clouds.