Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In climate, inherent complexity is the enemy of understanding

If complexity is the enemy of understanding, then it's no wonder that folks are confused by climate change.

The climate is so complex that nobody's going to make sense of it in an hour or a day or even much longer.

Take some of the human-caused things that can affect global temperatures, either pushing them hotter or dialing them cooler. This is from the 2009 Climate Change Science Compendium, produced by the United Nations Environment Programme. You can find it here.

Airliner contrails and more cirrus clouds make it warmer.

More sulphates and other reflective aerosols from coal burning make it cooler.

More black soot (can also come from coal burning) makes it warmer.

The tendency of particles from fossil fuel burning to support cloud formation makes it cooler.

Mineral dust blowing up off cleared land makes it warmer.

Reduced ozone in the upper atmosphere makes it cooler.

Increased methane, such as from cows and landfills, makes it warmer.

Making the land surface more reflective, by clearing, makes it cooler.

Increased nitrogen gas from feedlots and biomass burning makes it warmer.

Increased carbon-dioxide, of course, is a big warmer.

And so forth.

Some of these things have a bigger impact on temperature; some smaller. Some last for days in the atmosphere, some centuries.

It's really complex.

On balance, the report says, the result of human activity from the year 1750 to now promotes more warming than cooling.

There are lots of natural, non-human factors that impact climate, of course. One is the sun, whose output can be calculated.

The report estimates the sun is responsible for about a quarter of the amount of climate warming that humans are responsible for in the last 250 years.

The combined total climate forcing of all calculated human impacts during the period in question was about 1.2 watts per square meter. Solar radiation, which has recovered since there was a lower than average intensity in 1750, is calculated at .3 watts per square meter.

It is painfully easy, in the face of the immense complexity, to grasp at one or two facts and draw conclusions from them, rather than taking in the whole picture.

Easy, and commonly done by folks on both sides of the climate discussion, but wrong.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Angst and lies over climate predictions

Mojib Latif knew that the climate change skeptics wouldn't understand what he was saying, or would misrepresent it.

Sure enough.

Latif, the German ocean circulation and climate modeling expert, recently famously announced that in the long global warming trend, there might be an upcoming limited cooling period.

Climate is cyclical, after all.

In the immediate future, he said, a powerful cool phase in the North Atlantic Oscillation, could temporarily overwhelm the larger warming trend for a few years. The rest of his commentary is important: it's that while his models suggest a possible short-term cooling trend, he fully endorses the larger view that the globe is in a long-term severe warming trend.

Nobody who hates climate change seems to have bothered to read the rest of what Latif had to say. A confident response of climate skeptics has been: See, it's cooling, so we don't have to do anything about climate.

The Vancouver Sun, citing Latif, wrongly headlined: “Scientists pull an about face on global warming.” A lot of other skeptic commentators in various media have also grabbed on to just the convenient half of Latif's comments, while ignoring the rest.

The truth, again, is that Latif, looking at the wider data, continues to be convinced about the long-term warming trend and has not, as the Sun suggested, “started batting for the other side.”

Latif told the UN World Climate Conference in Geneva: "People will say this is global warming disappearing... I am not one of the sceptics,"

The clear-eyed science writer for the New York Times, Andy Revkin, reported on the issue this past week. Revkin called Latif on the phone and asked him about the issue. He suggested that many people simply can't handle the complexity of the climate story.

“People understand what I’m saying, but then basically wind up saying, ‘We don’t believe anything,’” Latif is quoted as saying.

And this post would not be complete without noting that a number of other climate scientists disagree with Latif's short term conclusion, arguing instead that we're looking at more warming in the short term as well as the longer term.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Changing climate? What's it mean to me?

Climate change, shlimate change—what does it mean to me?

Two Hawaii projects during the next couple of months will look directly at the local impacts of climate change: The Blue Line Project and a conference on Kaua'i keyed to local impacts.

(Image: The blue represents how far water extends inland at Waikiki with a three-foot rise in sea levels. Credit: Blue Planet Foundation.)

The first, backed by the Honolulu-based Blue Planet Foundation, will encourage students from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Oct. 24 to use chalk to draw a blue line at the height of the water around Hawai'i if there's a one-meter rise in sea levels.

Schools have only a week to sign up, so if your school is interested, don't waste time. Find details of the project here at

“We chose to illustrate the extent of flooding from a one meter rise in our sea level because that is one clear effect of climate change that could devastate many of our communities within our lifetime,” the project data sheet says.

Its goal, too, is to send a message to the United Nations climate change conference in December in Denmark.

“By having Hawaii's youth take part in the Blue Line Project, our goal is to have Hawaii's message of hope be heard all the way in Copenhagen. Hawai'i will be doing just that as an island community and in its own unique way contribute to making a difference,” said Blue Planet's Francois Rogers, Blue Line Project coordinator.

The second project , a conference from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 21, will specifically look at climate impacts on the island of Kauai. “Global Climate Change as it will affect Kauai” is sponsored by the Surfrider Foundation, Kauai, UH Sea Grant Program and Kauai Community College.

“We will attempt to get an understanding of the cumulative effects of various aspects of climate change on the future of Kauai. Immediately after the presentations we will have a forum and speakers will answer questions from the audience and will be able to address 'What can we do about it.' Another workshop, specifically focused on mitigating climate change effects and actually slowing the rate of change, is planned for next year,” said organizer Carl Berg.

Speakers from across Hawai'i will review rainfall and drought, stream flow and groundwater, sea level rise, reef changes, and other issues. There is no fee, but registration is required. For information reach Berg at 639-2968 or

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Mosquitoes, urban man and disease: a new look

Humans are a peripatetic bunch, and that creates real problems for controlling diseases--particularly mosquito-borne diseases like dengue.

When an infected person travels, say, from home to a workplace on the other side of the island, a mosquito feeding at the new location suddenly introduces the disease there.

(Image: The mosquito Aedes aegypti feeding. This mosquito, sometimes called the Yellow Fever Mosquito is implicated in dengue fever as well. It is a day-biting mosquito present in Hawai'i, but other mosquito species can also spread such diseases. Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Even a short visit to an infected patch of mosquitos, say at a lunch venue or open market, may be enough to keep the virus circulating,” said University of Hawai'i researcher Durrell D. Kapan.

And when another worker gets bit, and goes to home to a different part of the island, the disease leapfrogs once more.

Researchers from the University of Hawai'i and elsewhere reviewed these problems in a paper, Man Bites Mosquito: Understanding the Contribution of Human Movement to Vector-Borne Disease Dynamics.

The authors are Kapan, of the Center for Conservation and Research Training, Pacific Biosciences Research Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa, and mathematician Ben Adams, of the Department of Biology, Kyushu University, in Fukuoka, Japan, and the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. The paper is available at

Dengue, also known as break-bone fever for the kind of pain it inflicts, has been a problem in Hawai'i, and is even more prevalent elsewhere in the Pacific. Between 50 million and 100 million people are infected each year.

Even a small number of infected people who remain active can move a virus such as dengue between different parts of the community, where it will be picked up by mosquitos and, after an incubation period, be passed on to another unsuspecting passerby,” Kapan said in a University of Hawai'i news release.

So how do you deal with a leapfrogging virus in a modern commuting population?

Our research examined whether the standard practice of eliminating mosquito vectors at residences would be sufficient to control dengue if other areas in the community still had several large patches of mosquitos that could become infected by commuters,” Kapan said.

The authors sought out the support of UH Mānoa’s Pacific Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Research Center of Biomedical Research Excellence program (, and UH Mānoa’s National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Research Traineeship (IGERT) in Ecology, Conservation and Pathogen Biology (

Their conclusion was that traditional vector control programs may not be sufficient, and new approaches are needed.

Our primary objective with this paper is to prompt researchers, public health practitioners and others concerned with vector control to ...consider novel ways to control community transmission of vector-borne diseases that account for great morbidity and mortality worldwide,” says Kapan.

An example of the problem: “Singapore, for example, has for many years implemented a vigorous program of domestic vector source reduction and insecticide spraying in a full GIS-enabled public health protection effort. Nevertheless dengue continues to circulate and, after a brief period of respite, outbreaks are becoming increasingly severe,” their paper says.

In someways, the authors suggest, it is the humans who are the vectors, hauling the disease from one mosquito population to another.

When someone gets infected we need to look at their recent travel patterns to figure out from which group of mosquitoes they got the disease, and to which groups they may have passed it on,” Adams said.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Friday, September 18, 2009

A hot August, on average, but not everywhere

This summer's global temperatures were warm, in spite of what you may hear on the news.

“The world’s ocean surface temperature was the warmest for any August on record, and the warmest on record averaged for any June-August,” NOAA reported this week.

(Image: Global climate anomalies for August 2009, compared to a baseline average global temperature for August from 1961-1990. Where it's blue, temperatures were cooler than normal; where red, warmer. Source: NOAA)

It's not what you may have heard, because climate isn't consistent around the globe, and in fact, this summer, it was pretty cool in a few places. Notably, central North America, Eastern Europe and the Japan area.

There has been a fair amount of press on the comparatively cool summer in much of the U.S. Mainland.

But trying to assert global conditions from regional patterns is as difficult as a blind man trying to describe an elephant when he can only touch the tail.

Other areas of the world were way hotter than usual. Australia is the prime example. But also west Greenland, Peru, western Europe.

Hawai'i did not appear to have either exceedingly hot nor exceedingly cold temperature anomalies.

But ocean temperatures globally were a full degree Fahrenheit warmer than the 20th century average for the same time of the year, NOAA said.

And the summer warming is part of a warm trend that appears to be ready to cover the whole year, the NOAA report said: “For the year to date, the combined global land and ocean surface temperature of 58.3 degrees F tied with 2003 for the fifth-warmest January-August period on record. This value is 0.99 degree F above the 20th century average.”

Do these data points prove anything with regard to the larger issue of climate change? No. It's a warm year. Doesn't prove anything by itself, although as part of a larger trend, it can suggest things. But that's another story for another time.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Monday, September 14, 2009

Black rats: the bad, and, oddly, the good.

Tree climbing, omniverous and fast-reproducing black rats are among the scourges of the Hawaiian natural landscape.

They destroy nesting native birds and their eggs, they eat native plant seedlings, they can eat a native loulu palm's entire season's production of seeds—and there's evidence that when they are removed, much of the native habitat can recover.

(Image: We couldn't quickly put our hands on a black rat photo. This is Hawai'i's first rat, the Pacific or Polynesian rat, which arrived with Polynesian settlers. Credit: New Zealand government.)

But there's another side to this story. Rats, though invasive themselves, can also keep invasive species at bay—and in some conditions, removing rats can create new problems.

University of Hawai'i zoologist Wallace M. Meyer III and University of Hawai'i botanist Aaron B. Shiels review some of the complicated issues in a new paper in Pacific Science, “Black Rat (Rattus rattus) Predation on Nonindigenous Snails in Hawai‘i: Complex Management Implications.” (Pacific Science (2009), vol. 63, no. 3:339–347: 2009 by University of Hawai‘i Press)

The paper, as its title suggests, is focused on snails.

Black rats are considered a major threat to Hawai'i's gorgeous native tree snails, which were once common but are now fadingly rare, and many species are extinct.

But rats also eat the cannibal snail, Euglandina rosea, which also preys on the tree snails. Furthermore, they eat the common garden and forest pest, the giant African snail, Achatina fulica. In tests conducted by the authors, black rats chowed down aggressively on both species. Even quite large snails have their shells readily crushed by rats.

What does this mean for rat control as a conservation tool? It means it ain't simple.

“We hypothesize that reduction or eradication of R. rattus populations may cause an ecological release of some nonindigenous snail species where these groups coexist. As such, effective restoration for native snails and plants may not be realized after R. rattus removal in forest ecosystems as a consequence of the complex interactions that currently exist among rats, nonindigenous snails, and the remaining food web,” the authors write

What remains clear is that rats—not only the black rat, but also the Pacific or Polynesian rat and the Norwegian rat—have had significant impacts on the Hawaiian natural environment.

“Introductions of rats and terrestrial snails have been implicated in the decline of native Hawaiian flora and fauna. All three rat species were introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by people and are among the most noxious invasive species on islands worldwide,” the authors write.

But at this point, in the case of native tree snails, it is not clear whether the rat or the cannibal snail is the greater threat.

“It is unknown if E. rosea predation on other mollusk species would equal or exceed that of R. rattus,” the authors write.

So the research isn't saying rat control is a bad thing. It's urging caution, and as so many scientific papers do, it argues for more research.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Adventurers! Discovery is still out there.

There was a time when discovery was the hallmark of great science.

Discovering continents, lost islands, and new species.

Today, with the the world pretty well mapped and a dwindling of new species to find, great science has moved on to less Indiana Jones-like fields such as gene expression and conservation.

But there are still finds to be made.

(Image: A new species of butterfly fish, found during deep dives in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. Credit: Yannis Papastamatiou/NOAA .)

Simply find a place where nobody's looked, and you're likely to find wonderful things.

In a remote New Guinea jungle recently, scientists found several new species of animals, including a giant long-haired rat. It was found at Mount Bosavi, and is temporarily being called the Bosavi Woolly Rat. More here.

And in Hawaiian waters, intrepid divers using mixed-gas tanks dove to previously unexplored depths in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and found, surprise!, a bunch of new species of fish.

Their project, Deep Reef 2009, took scientists more than 200 feet down—places deeper than divers normally go, yet shallower than submersibles are normally tasked.

And, of course, there was cool stuff. Here is the blog produced during that trip last month.

In addition to several species of fish that were new to science, the researchers found beds of algae filled with numerous young fishes, and they concluded that the deep water habitats may serve as nurseries that replenish shallower water fish populations.

Neat stuff. New stuff.

For the adventurers among us, discoveries are still out there.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Black holes in pre-school days: Discovery surprises

Deep in space, and so far away that our view of it is 12.8 billion years old, there is a hole, a black hole, within a distant galaxy.

That's back when the universe was just a youngster. In human years, if the universe were 60 now, looking at that galaxy is like looking at it when it was still in pre-school.

(Image: False-color image of the QSO (CFHQSJ2329-0301), the most distant black hole currently known. In addition to the bright central black hole (white), the image shows the surrounding host galaxy (red). Credit: Tomotsugu Goto, University of Hawaii)

The black hole and its galaxy were discovered by University of Hawai'i astronomer Tomotsugu Goto

It's a big black hole, and the most distant black holes ever seen. It is classified as a supermassive black hole—you'd need to stuff a billion of our suns into it to match the amount of matter it contains.

And it's in a galaxy about the size of our own Milky Way.

Both the black hole's size and the galaxy's size—at a time when the universe was so young, are notable, Goto said.

“It is surprising that such a giant galaxy existed when the Universe was only one-sixteenth of its present age, and that it hosted a black hole one billion times more massive than the sun. The galaxy and black hole must have formed very rapidly in the early universe,” he said.

What's also surprising is that Goto was able to see the galaxy at all.

If someone shines a spotlight on you on a dark night, you see the light but you normally can't see the person behind it. Same problem with galaxies and black holes. While the black hole doesn't emit light, there's a lot of light around it, emitted as light by matter that is accelerating as it is sucked into the black hole. It can be so bright that the galaxy disappears from view.

Goto and his team used sophisticated charge-coupled device (CCD) electronic technology, attached to the Subprime-Cam camera on Mauna Kea's Subaru telescope, to separate the black hole from the galaxy.

“The improved sensitivity of the new CCDs has brought an exciting discovery as its very first result,” said Satoshi Miyazaki of the National Astronomy Observatory of Japan, who led the team developing the new CCDs.

This research will be published in the online version of the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society this month. The paper is available at /QSOhost/QSOhost_v7.pdf.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Recycling electronics: (keep it) Out Of Africa.

Folks on Kaua'i will be dropping off their old electronics for recycling during this Friday and Saturday, and the good news is that none of it will end up on some village in Africa.

There is, of course, a vast difference between simply collecting stuff for recycling and actually recycling it.

One of the open secrets about the whole recycling ethic is that large amounts of stuff never is recycled.

Some “recyclables” are simply stockpiled awaiting some deus ex machina miracle to make their recycling possible or profitable.

And large other amounts are simply dumped, often, as with some electronics, in third-world countries that reap the toxic benefits of our feel-good recycling efforts.

See this article on the e-waste trade in Africa. And this.

The African paradigm describes a system in which a little of the material is indeed recycled, but much is left to create toxic dumps.

This has gotten to be such a scandal, that some recyclers use it as a sales tool. They specifically advertise that they don't ship stuff to Africa. Like this.

That said, much of Hawai'i's unwanted electronics does appear to be properly recycled. The next major electronics recycling program in the Islands is at the Vidinha Stadium parking lot on Kauai from 8 to 4 p.m. Friday (Sept. 4, 2009) for business and Saturday (Sept. 5) for residents.

It is being run for the county by Recycle Hawai'i, a Big Island-based non-profit. Recycle Hawai'i, in turn, ships its electronic recyclables to a California firm, E-World Recyclers .

E-World says nothing but compostable material like wood goes into landfills.

Here's the list of stuff the Kauai electronics recyling program will take: Computer towers, tvs, copiers, monitors, hubs, fax machines, combination units, cell phones, keyboards, phones, scanners, CD-ROM drives, laptops, mice, stereo components, DVD drives, printers, backup batteries, plasma screens, typewriters, speakers, VCR players, electronic gaming units, cameras, radios, camcorders.

They don't want packing supplies, toner cartridges or appliances. For more information on the Kauai program call County Recycling Office for further information at 241-4841.

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009