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Poseidon sails from Vigo!

Mapping the Galicia Rift off Spain - Fri, 05/24/2013 - 08:21
On 21st May, F.S. Poseidon sailed from Vigo, Spain on the first of three expedition legs to deploy 78 ocean bottom seismometers (OBS) provided by OBIC and GEOMAR.


Seventy-two OBS will be deployed in a grid of 18 x 4 instruments across the 3-D seismic survey box. Six OBS will be deployed on a profile extending farther west, to try to locate the boundary between continental and oceanic crust.

An OBS is deployed. Photo by Dean Wilson.Gaye Bayrakci, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Southampton, sent this email update today:

"Yesterday (23/05/2013) the weather was ok. We tested 24 acoustic units first. Then, we deployed 9 OBSs along the regional profile. Before the finish of the day, we tested 24 more acoustic units. Food is good. Thursday is the seaman's day, so we had some cake at 5pm at the coffee break.

"Today (24/05/2013) the weather is darker but its normal for this period of the year in this area. We started at 06am (utm). We just finished the deployment of 8 OBSs on the southernmost profile and reach the eastern end of regional profile. We deployed a 9th OBS here and now we are heading westward along the regional profile."

The international team of scientists aboard the Poseidon includes two GEOMAR geophysicists, two University of Southampton geophysicists, and five OBIC personnel from University of Southampton and Durham University.

The internet connection on board the Poseidon is not good enough at the moment to post to this blog or send photos, so the above photo is from a separate OBS deployment in the Indian Ocean.

Stay tuned for more updates soon!

Marianne Karplus
24th May 2013

Ctene Sensations of the Arctic Ocean

Arctic Sea Ice Ecology - Thu, 05/23/2013 - 00:40

One of the goals of Andy Juhl’s and Craig Aumack’s Arctic research is to determine the role of ice algae as a source of nutrition for food webs existing in the water column and at the bottom of the Arctic ocean. During their fieldwork these Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists are deploying a plankton net, a common tool used by ocean scientists to catch tiny marine plants and animals in the water column, to collect live plankton for identification and examination in the lab. They’re hoping to determine the different kinds of organisms active in this part of the Arctic Ocean and their food web feeding connections, or who’s eating whom by testing the organisms to see if they contain algae in their guts and muscle tissues.

This information is important because it will provide a baseline understanding of the connection between the algal community in the sea ice and the underlying ecosystem, and how it functions. Once this is understood, scientists may be able to better understand and predict changes that could occur in the marine food web as Arctic snow and ice cover changes.

A few days ago we caught the comb jellies in this video near shore at a depth of about four meters. Though comb jellies have the same type of gelatinous body as a jellyfish, they belong to a completely different phylum called ctenophores. Known for being vicious carnivorous predators, ctenophores use rows of comb-like cilia to propel themselves through the top of the water column and prey on smaller organisms, such as zooplankton. Ctenophores are found throughout the world’s oceans, including Arctic waters — quite a few of appeared in the holes we’ve bored into the ice this week.

These two comb jellies were filmed under a microscope in our lab. Each one is just a few millimeters long, though they can grow to be about 10 cm, sometimes larger. You can also see small copepods, a type of zooplankton and favorite food of ctenophores, zipping around the screen. Seeing a lot of ctenophores in the upper water column is a good indicator that they are feeding extensively on copepod larvae, who in turn are feeding on ice algae. This is an example of a few of the connections that make up the foundation of the food web in this fragile, yet biologically productive ecosystem.

Click here to view the embedded video.

On Wednesday Andy and Craig answered responded to questions about their research during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session. While the event is over, the session remains on Reddit and we encourage you to check it out to learn about our research and life in Barrow, Alaska.

For even more information on our project, visit http://lifeintheice.wordpress.com or follow Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the hashtag #LDEOarctic on Twitter.

Collecting Core Data About Arctic Ecosystems

Arctic Sea Ice Ecology - Mon, 05/20/2013 - 12:53
Andy Juhl collects temperature data from a core, while Craig Aumack drills another.

Andy Juhl collects temperature data from a core, while Craig Aumack drills another.

Our team spent most of Friday on the Arctic sea ice, drilling and sampling ice cores at our main field site. For each core collected, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists Andy Juhl and Craig Aumack take a number of different physical, chemical and biological measurements that characterize the ice and the organisms living inside it. Some of these measurements are recorded right away in the field, others will be taken later using pieces of the cores that we bring back to the lab.

Two of the physical measurements Andy and Craig record are the temperature and salinity of the ice. “Temperature is a critical parameter that controls the rate of almost all biological processes in the ice — almost everything happens slower when it’s colder, and parts of the ice can be colder than others. And if you know the temperature and the bulk salinity of the ice you can calculate how much brine volume there is within a given layer in the ice,” Andy explained.

Brine volume is an important measurement because algae live in brine channels in the ice. As ice gets colder, there’s less brine volume within it, meaning there’s less room for algae to grow. Andy and Craig also measure the concentrations of plant nutrients in the ice cores, including nitrate, ammonia, phosphate and silicate – some of the same elements that plants growing on land need. And, as with terrestrial plants, nutrient availability in sea ice is a factor that controls the growth of algae inside the ice.

 the objects of our affection. The brown areas are the bottom of the cores and indicate the presence of algae in the ice.

Ice cores: the objects of our affection. The brown areas are the bottom of the cores and indicate the presence of algae in the ice.

Other measurements, such as particulate organic carbon (POC) and dissolved organic carbon (DOC), Andy and Craig take in the lab will reveal the amount of carbon, or organic material in the ice. In addition to algae, carbon found in the ice comes in the form of non-living materials, such as bits of organic detritus from the tundra that become trapped in the ice. Finally, samples are collected for microscope work so that project scientists can identify the different types of organisms found throughout the ice.

All of this information varies in any single ice core from the top to the bottom, and based on where it is drilled. By taking consistent measurements from each ice core in different locations, project scientists can develop an in-depth understanding of the dynamics of the Arctic algal ice ecosystem – and how it may be changing.

Our group spent Saturday and Sunday in the lab processing samples from last week and preparing equipment, including mounting a camera system on our small remotely operated vehicle (ROV). We’re heading back onto the ice early Monday morning with the ROV and are looking forward to working in temperatures that may reach 35F.

For more information on our project, visit http://lifeintheice.wordpress.com or follow Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the hashtag #LDEOarctic on Twitter.

What Lies Beneath Arctic Ice?

Arctic Sea Ice Ecology - Sun, 05/19/2013 - 02:38

On Thursday we lowered a camera into an ice borehole to get a look at the underside of the ice. In the following video, you can clearly see the algae living in the bottom of the ice due to their pigments, which they use to harvest light.

These organisms are not frozen into the ice; they’re living creatures that grow and thrive in tiny pockets of brine inside the ice. You might notice in the video that the underside of the ice is not flat, this is probably a reflection of variability in physical conditions in and above the ice, such as snow cover thickness.

Click here to view the embedded video.

While watching this video, Andy Juhl and I discussed how cool it is that there are vibrant communities growing in extreme environments. “One of the lessons that research in polar regions has taught us is that we need to broaden our definition of where life exists and thrives. In the Arctic, we have life growing inside ice, at below freezing temperatures. This means that we know to look in more unusual places for science of life and that’s one of the interesting things we learn by doing this kind of work,” Andy said. “Ice is not necessarily an inhospitable habitat, and on other planets where we see ice, that’s a place where we should probably look for signs of life.”

The second film shows a bit of life on the seafloor. This video was shot near shore where the water depth is about 8 meters, so it’s fairly shallow; water temperature here is -2C. The bottom consists of soft mud and it looks like there are deposits of algae that probably came from the ice on the surface of the bottom (those are the darker areas). There’s a variety of bottom dwelling organisms that live in the mud, such as the isopod that wanders across the mud in this clip. We don’t yet know how large the isopods are or what they eat; scientists on our team are trying to figure out a way to measure an isopod in situ or capture one to examine in the lab.

Click here to view the embedded video.

As our work in Barrow progresses, we’ll continue to post more videos so that you can get a sense of the life that makes up this fascinating ecosystem.

For more information on our project, visit http://lifeintheice.wordpress.com or follow Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the hashtag #LDEOarctic on Twitter.

 

Ice Capades

Arctic Sea Ice Ecology - Fri, 05/17/2013 - 05:24
Scientist Andy Juhl makes notes at our first field site about snow depth and distribution.

Scientist Andy Juhl makes notes at our first field site about snow depth and distribution.

Fieldwork is exciting and inspiring, leading scientists to new ideas, places and observations about how the world works. Spring on Alaska’s North Slope provides an especially productive environment for fieldwork. When the sun never sets, it’s easy to linger in the field and the lab long into the well-lit night.

Our team spent about six hours on the Arctic sea ice Thursday, enjoying blue skies and temperatures in the low teens, while making observations, maintaining sampling sites and taking measurements. Most of our time was spent at two different field sites Andy and Craig established near Point Barrow, a narrow spit of land that’s the northernmost point in the United States. Traveling to these sites involves loading up two sleds with all of the sampling equipment, hitching the sleds to snowmobiles and carefully traversing the sea ice on said snowmobiles, which, I discovered today, is extremely fun.

Andy, Kyle and Craig prepare to finish drilling a hole in the ice.

Andy, Kyle and Craig prepare to finish drilling a hole in the ice.

One of the research questions Andy and Craig are exploring in Barrow is how the amount of snow covering sea ice might affect the diverse species of algae living in and just below the ice. A thin snow cover allows more sunlight to reach the algae; a thicker snow cover creates a darker environment. As in any ecosystem, many different species are competing for light and nutrients. For this study, Andy and Craig want to see how changing one factor in the Arctic sea ice ecosystem – the amount of available light – might allow some organisms to grow better and become more prevalent than others.

Last week Andy and Craig set up an artificial snow gradient at our first field site, where different snow depths cover the ice in a small, isolated area. Ice cores were drilled here on their first day and Andy and Craig will repeat this same exercise later in May. Collecting data over these specific time intervals will enable them to see how snow depth and distribution affect the community of organisms living in the ice. This information will provide an idea of what might happen to the entire ecosystem if more light is introduced via less snow cover in the future.

At the second field site, scientists used an auger to drill a hole in the ice, which is currently about four feet thick. Then a camera was lowered into the hole, with a live feed to a computer so we could see what was happening in the sea directly below us. A thick layer of algae covered the underside of the sea ice and once lowered eight meters to the sea floor, the camera revealed isopods (small crustaceans), jellyfish and a few unrecognizable members of the Arctic marine ecosystem.

Lowering the camera into the -2F sea.

Lowering the camera into the -2C sea.

“We do the camera work because there’s no substitute for seeing the ecosystem intact. We need to get cores in order to collect samples, but you get a really different impression of the ecosystem with the camera,“ Andy explained.

Later in the afternoon we searched the ice for a sampling station Andy and Craig used last year, but were unable to find it. The area had become covered with huge pressure ridges, large fragments of ice that pile up when sheets of ice collide, which are hard to cross on a snowmobile. At one point fresh polar bear tracks meandered among the ridges, but we never caught sight of the bear who made them.

For more information on this project, visit http://lifeintheice.wordpress.com or follow Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the hashtag #LDEOarctic on Twitter.

Settling in to Work and Life in Barrow

Arctic Sea Ice Ecology - Wed, 05/15/2013 - 23:00
The Barrow Arctic Research Center, home of our lab space.

The Barrow Arctic Research Center, which houses our laboratory.

While I arrived in Barrow, Alaska on Tuesday, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory scientists Andy Juhl and Craig Aumack, and graduate student Kyle Kinzler from Arizona State University, got here one week ago. They took a few days to unpack and set up their lab (everything they need to work here must be shipped to Barrow in advance), scout locations for sampling on the ice and ensure that their tools and equipment are working properly before they begin their fieldwork.

Our team alternates days in the lab and days on the ice. The lab space we’re using is a bit north of town at the Barrow Arctic Research Center (BARC), a newly constructed facility where the National Science Foundation leases space for its researchers. Scientists wishing to work in and around Barrow can use BARC as their home base. At the moment the building is fairly quiet as the only other occupants are a group of international graduate students being trained on how to conduct sea ice research.

Today was a lab day, where recently collected samples were processed, experiments performed and preliminary data analyzed. Fieldwork is just the beginning of a research process that can take several years. The majority of the samples and data collected here won’t be examined until scientists are back at their respective institutes, where it can take months or longer to analyze all of their samples and data and then write up the results. But, to ensure that their research is on the right track, a few experiments and analyses are done while in Barrow.

Craig holds a bag containing water from a melted ice core that he drilled a few days ago. The water looks murky due to the presence of algae.

Craig holds a bag containing water from a melted ice core that he drilled a few days ago. The water looks murky due to the presence of algae.

This afternoon I spent time in a zero degree walk-in freezer talking with Craig Aumack, who’s conducting experiments to learn more about the organisms living in Arctic sea ice. Each year, as soon as any light is available, algae start growing in the ice and continue to bloom through the onset of spring and the Arctic’s long summer days. Algae prefer to live in the bottom of the ice, because, like all plants, they need light and nutrients, and these are plentiful at the sea-ice interface.

Craig’s experiments are called settling experiments, and these help him learn what happens to the organic materials and organisms living in the sea ice when they’re released into the ocean. Craig wants to determine the rate at which these particles sink down through the water column; this information reveals whether particles are more likely to be consumed while falling through the water column or once they accumulate on the seafloor. Particles that sink slowly are more likely to be eaten by zooplankton, tiny marine animals, while those that fall to the bottom will be consumed by worms, crustaceans and mollusks.

Settling experiments must be done in a freezer because organisms that call ice home would quickly die if exposed to a 70-degree temperature difference. Though extreme temperatures can also cause humans to become a bit uncomfortable, we’re able to don parkas and puffy jackets to protect us; algae don’t have this luxury. So, Craig replicates the conditions in which ice algae thrive, and bundled up, works in a frigid environment.

Andy Juhl was happy to explain this experiment and their research further, fortunately outside of the freezer. “There’s a whole ecosystem living inside the ice. Ultimately, we want to know what the dynamics of this special ecosystem are and how this is connected to the rest of Arctic ecosystem,” he said.

diatom

A diatom, one form of single celled, microscopic Arctic algae, as seen under a flourescence microscope. Photo: Kyle Kinzler

“We know the Arctic is changing very rapidly in terms of ice cover, duration of ice cover and extent of ice cover. One of the things we need to understand if we’re going to try to predict what will happen to the Arctic in the future is the ice ecosystem and its importance to the functioning of the entire Arctic,” Andy said.

Tomorrow, Thursday, we head out onto the ice to sample. This afternoon I received my land use permit from the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation, the organization that owns the land we’ll be working on, and successfully completed my snowmobile training, so I’m officially ready for fieldwork.

For more information on this project, visit http://lifeintheice.wordpress.com or follow Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the hashtag #LDEOarctic on Twitter.

Investigating Life in Arctic Sea Ice

Arctic Sea Ice Ecology - Tue, 05/14/2013 - 14:08

Andy Juhl and Craig Aumack, microbiologists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, are spending a month in Barrow, Alaska studying algae in and below sea ice, and how our warming climate may impact these important organisms. They’re investigating the factors that control the growth of algae inside of sea ice, how these algal communities are connected to other Arctic marine organisms and what happens to the organic matter that builds up inside sea ice. I’ve joined them to document and tell stories about their research, how it’s done, why and what they’re learning.

Barrow, Alaska

Barrow, Alaska

Barrow is the northernmost point in the United States and is situated where the Chukchi Sea meets the Beaufort Sea. Throughout the long winter, these waters are covered with a thick layer of ice. This ice is home to many different microscopic algae, which form the base of the polar food web.

During late winter and spring, large communities of these algae flourish, or bloom, inside and on the undersurface of the sea ice. As the ice melts, algae are released into the nutrient rich waters, feeding plankton and higher trophic levels, including fish, whales and seals.

The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on the planet, shortening winter and causing pack ice to thin and break up earlier and earlier each year. How will these changes impact the Arctic marine food web? Answering this question and understanding how the ice algae respond to our warming climate will inform resource managers and policymakers, as well as local residents, of how the larger Arctic marine ecosystem may be impacted.

Andy and Craig hope to learn how our fast-warming climate and the resulting dissipation of sea ice affect the entire marine food web. This knowledge is essential to assessing the value of the ice community in the Arctic and is paramount to predicting ecosystem-wide consequences to rapidly changing Arctic environments.

We’re based at the UMIAQ field station in Barrow, which provides logistics support for NSF-funded scientists conducting research in the area. From Barrow, we’ll travel across the sea ice by snowmobile to nearby Point Barrow, where we’ll establish sampling stations and drill and remove cores of ice. Samples will be analyzed back in the lab to investigate the flux of the algal organisms and organic matter from the sea ice to the water column during the spring melt.

Over the next few weeks we’ll share stories from the ice about our research, the role sea ice algae play in Arctic ecosystems and how that’s changing, and what’s it’s like to live at the top of the planet. And, if we’re lucky, a few pictures of whales and polar bears.

Building the Team

Peering Through Polar Ice - Tue, 05/14/2013 - 10:59
The Ice pod team in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland including science, engineering and NYANG members.

The Icepod team in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland including science, engineering and New York Air National Guard members.

The Lamont IcePod team is a blended mix of engineers and scientists learning from each other through the design and testing of this new instrument. With a range of talents and backgrounds, the project mixes seasoned field workers with those new to field work; experienced instrument developers with those newly learning this end of engineering; and scientists with countless hours spent pouring over Greenland ice sheet data with those exploring the ice sheet for the first time. It is the opportunity for mentoring and development that comes from this mix of early career with experienced personnel that has made the IcePod Instrument Development Project a good fit for its American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding.

Chris Bertinato trained as an aerospace engineer before coming to Icepod.

Engineer Chris Bertinato communicates with the flight crew while he monitors the Lidar at the equipment rack during calibration flights. Photo: R. Bell

The Lidar track of flight elevation collected during the GPS calibration.  The different colors represent changes in the surface elevation. The small black 'bites' in the track are where water blocks the return.

The Lidar track collected during the instrument calibration. The different colors represent changes in the reflectance which when matched to the GPS provide surface elevation. The small black “bites” in the track are where water blocks the return. The airstrip is the rectangular patch in the center.

So who makes up the IcePod engineering and science team?  As we work through data and examine the products collected in the first part of our field season there is an opportunity to introduce members of the team and the data and instruments they operate.

Chris Bertinato trained as an aerospace engineer before joining the IcePod team. In the air he is the team’s connection to the flight decisions made by the crew.  Like the members of the flight crew he dons a headset as soon as aircraft begins its warm up. The headsets are connected into the plane electronics through lengthy cabling that trails behind each set. The cabling necessitates a threading and weaving between the crew as they move about the aircraft, testing and checking equipment and switches. Watching them work one can imagine a class devoted to practicing safe maneuvering about the plane while tethered to the electronics system – something like a Maypole dance!

A graphic demonstrates  pitch, roll and yaw on an aircraft. (from Media Commons)

A graphic demonstrates pitch, roll and yaw on an aircraft. Image: Media Commons

Chris is a main operator of the equipment rack and has responsibility for the Laser Imaging Detection And Ranging (LIDAR) system part of the optical package in the pod taking constant  measurements to find the surface elevation, and the inertial navigation system (INS) used to locate or “georeference” the data. The INS is a critical navigation aid that employs several accelerometers (motion sensors) and gyroscopes (rotations sensors) to continuously calculate the position, orientation, direction and speed of the plane as it moves through space.  INS were first developed for rockets,  but have become essential instruments for collecting referenced data in an aircraft, since the pitch, roll and yaw of the plane (see drawing) as it moves through the air can make it difficult to correctly locate and orient the data for processing. For those of us used to flying on commercial airliners, movies and music can provide enough of a distraction that we don’t notice the regular rolling of the aircraft as it responds to buffeting by the air around it.

The INS sits atop the cylindrical laser set up.

The INS is the square box sitting atop the  laser set up. Photo: R. Bell

The cylindrical housing for the laser sits snugly in one of the pod bays with the INS sitting atop in the small grey box.  The laser focuses down through a clear panel, and scans back and forth in a swath that at 3000 ft. of altitude swings approximately 3000 ft. wide collecting elevation information. The data is then fed through a processor that turns it into elevation data.

Lidar image over the airstrip.

Lidar reflectance image collected over the airstrip. IcePod data

The image above shows a swath of laser data over the airbase, and can be used to help explain the instrument.  The color in the image shows the reflectance of different surfaces to the laser. You will see three of the LC130 aircraft lined up across the front of the airfield, cleaned from snow and clearly outlined in the data.  There are two additional aircraft positioned in the middle of the image that are still surrounded by snow and therefore remain somewhat obscured. Trees, roads and other features in the adjacent area are clearly imaged.

Lidar image of a Greenland meltwater channel shown etched through the landscape. (Icepod image)

Lidar image of a refrozen Greenland meltwater channel shown etched through the landscape. IcePod image

In Greenland Lidar will be used to assist with locating features of interest in the ice sheet. The image above of meltwater channels in Greenland will be important to track during the summer season as these channels can reactivate seasonally, becoming a blue stripe on the otherwise white landscape. These darkened blue sections will absorb more heat energy from the sun due to their altered reflectivity (albedo) encouraging additional surface melt.  In an upcoming post we will discuss how the infrared camera carried in the pod will allow us to track the heat energy in the channel both in its current state, and as it begins to melt later in the season.

Meltwater Channels on the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet show how the color can darken absorbing heat energy. (Image P. Spector)

Meltwater Channels on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet show how the color can darken absorbing heat energy. Photo: P. Spector

Lidar will also be used to detect openings in the ice sheet (crevasses). Many of the crevasses are deep yet not wide, making them difficult to detect without the assistance of instruments. Detecting crevasses is important as they pose danger for pilots attempting to land and deliver support to ground crews, can be deadly for overland traverses that are carry scientists and support staff across the ice,  and can provide us with critical information on changes in the ice sheet. Lidar data collected in our IcePod flights can be used to help in all of these situations.

For more on the IcePod project: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/icepod

Out of the Woods

The Broadleaf Papers - Mon, 05/06/2013 - 19:38

By Ana Camila Gonzalez

When we walked into the Sheraton in Springfield, Massachusetts we were greeted by none other than a wall full of cross sections from trees perfectly sanded to reveal the rings.

No way” I say. “I forgot the camera!” says Neil.

We were just walking into the Northeast Natural History Conference, along with Dario and Jackie from the Tree Ring Lab. When I pictured my freshman year of college last summer, I pictured a lot of things. I did not picture getting to go to a conference to present a poster on my own research.

On the first day we listened to talks given by people who dealt with everything from conservation science to birds and berries and beetles. I’ve gone to multiple talks at Lamont, but those talks are mostly geared towards graduate students, so I’m always the slightest bit lost listening to them. This conference seemed to be geared towards a wider audience: I could actually understand the talks. I couldn’t believe it at first. After the first day I knew a little more about a wide range of topics: I can now tell you about the reproductive cycle of a lobster, what kind of fruits allow birds to fly farther during migration and even the life cycle of an Emerald Ash Borer in a tree.

I also learned more about the research process, since many people were presenting research projects that we weren’t already familiar with. I thought there was only a specific set of proxies for climate, but I found that people are continually finding more and more. I listened as someone described how they were using a mountainside as a proxy for climate change, and I realized that one of the great things about environmental science is that you can use the world as your lab, in many cases literally.

That afternoon during lunch we were told to make sure our GPS systems were safely hidden in our car. We were warned that we had to realize that we were now in a “big city.” We joked at our table—all being from New York—about how Springfield didn’t seem like a big city at all. I liked the thought, however, of a field of science where so many people are able to work in small rural towns that they do see Springfield as a big city. Want to know a secret? As much as I like school in the Big Apple, and I see myself living the city life for a while after school, I don’t see myself living anywhere with a population over five thousand after that.

Everyone in the lab was scheduled to present the next day. I was scheduled to give a poster, but Jackie, a Senior undergrad at Columbia, was scheduled to give a talk: we were both freaking out in the hotel room that night, but she probably had more justification. That night Jackie, Neil and Dario went through their talks while I made a big deal over how to cut my poster. Jackie ended up cutting it for me; my hands were too shaky. I must have asked a million questions to prepare that no one ever actually asked me, but by the end of that night I felt ready. “At least I’m not giving a talk!” That didn’t really calm Jackie’s nerves.

The next morning we had an awesome breakfast, I bought a piece of flan for no apparent reason, and we headed to the conference. I set up my poster and less than a half hour later sat to watch Jackie, Dario and Neil give their talks back to back. They were all wonderful, and some questions were asked that sparked some good conversation. Someone made a comment about baldcypress, and my ears turned up at the corners. She was mentioning how incredibly sensitive it was to drought, and I have to admit I got a little too excited. I talked to her afterwards: “That makes so much sense! I’ve been trying to cross-date this batch of baldcypress for so long, and it seems like every drought year thus far has produced either a narrow, missing or micro ring, and yeah, like you mentioned, isn’t it crazy that they’re so sensitive…” yeah, I was a little over-excited. It worked out well, because I had to go stand by my poster directly afterwards.

 

 N. Pederson

Ana paying great attention to her inquisitor. Photo: N. Pederson.

 

This is it. I’m standing by my poster. Someone comes up to me. THEY’RE GOING TO ASK ME SOMETHING I CAN’T ANSWER… THEY’RE GOING TO… Hey, so can you tell me a bit about what you did?

Wait. Really? I can do that!

The rest of the poster session went well. I was asked more than “can you tell me about your poster,” but it wasn’t half as bad as I had imagined. There were many questions I could answer, and there were many that I couldn’t. I ended up liking the questions I couldn’t answer more, however, because they told me what to do next. The same scientist who I had talked to previously about the baldcypress caught me off guard when she told me she’d look forward to reading about my findings in a paper. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I guess that’s my next step: take the unanswerables and answer them.

All in all, I learned more than I ever thought I could at the North East Natural History Conference, and walked away with much more than just natural history.  I’m more excited than ever for what’s to come.

 

 N. Pederson.

Dario, fully coming out of the woods at the Northeast Natural History Conference. Photo: N. Pederson.

 

__________________

 

Ana Camila Gonzalez is finally out of the woods. She has, essentially, completed her first-year as a student in environmental science and creative writing at the Tree Ring Laboratory of Columbia University and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She has completed her blogging on the process of tree-ring analysis, from field work to scientific presentations…for now. We are happy to announce that she will be working with us for Summer 2013.

Until We Get It Right

Peering Through Polar Ice - Sun, 04/28/2013 - 21:13
Setting up a flight plan for the day. (Image M. Turrin)

Setting up a flight plan for the day. Photo: M. Turrin

When we left Stratton Air Field almost two weeks ago, I recall smiling when a mechanical issue temporarily pulled us from the aircraft and the woman shepherding us back into the waiting area remarked, “Don’t worry, we keep doing it until we get it right!” Today we are faced with just that type of day.  Testing a new system is all about running through the same set of operations until you get it right.”  For our team, this means flying the same patterns over the same locations looking for repeat targets to test and retest our instruments. 

Kirsty Tinto, LDEO and Major Steve Slosek, NYANG review the flight plans (Image M. Turrin)

Kirsty Tinto, LDEO and Major Steve Slosek, NYANG, review the flight plans Photo: M. Turrin

The aircrew arrives each morning ready to fly the patterns and routes we have selected. They are willing to redirect if the weather changes, or if our priorities shift, but we have stayed fairly consistent in our requests. Of course, being in Greenland, we talk about varying our plan and picking some of our science team’s favorite targets. It seems almost unfair to be here and not venture off to the fast changing Jakobshavn or Petermann glaciers. But we are a disciplined group with a specific mission…we need to do it “until we get it right.” The navigator programs the plans into his system and we are ready to fly.

 

 

Sondrestrom Fjord is always breathtaking and provides a steady supply of floating ice against a warmer liquid background for testing our Infrared camera (Image M. Turrin)

Sondrestrom Fjord is always breathtaking and provides a steady supply of floating ice against a warmer background for testing our Infrared camera. Photo: M. Turrin

We are lucky.  No matter how many times we fly over the Sondrestrom Fjord, it always looks stunning: the water a deep blue, the ice pieces feathered along the edge where the floating tongue ends. Once we move over the deeper ice in the center of the glacier, we still marvel at the twisting, refrozen meltwater streams that wind across the ice face.

Quick moving ice collapses along the edges of a lake forming crevasses and ridges. (Image M. Turrin)

Quick moving ice collapses along the edges of a lake, forming crevasses and ridges. Photo: M. Turrin

Over the rocky edges of the landmass it is still fascinating to see the twisting rolls of collapsing ice that pile and swirl along the brim of the flat-topped frozen lakes.  The mountains themselves look like painted rocks with their smooth and shiny surfaces.

It is hard to believe one could ever tire of these flights. Each area we fly over is more stunning than the next. Today our flight is cut short. Engine trouble brings us back to the base, but we’re hoping that tomorrow we’ll be back up in the air trying one more time, “until we get it right.”

For more on this project: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu

You must be choking

Tree Stories - Tue, 06/26/2012 - 08:54

Every year, when the height of the dry season comes to northern Thailand, the air gets foul. The extent of the problem is dependent upon, among many factors, the weather and more specifically the temperature profile of the air.  When a temperature inversion sets in, warm air aloft “caps” the cooler air that has descended into the valleys and prevents circulation (the normal state of the atmosphere is a lapse rate of decreasing temperature with altitude). As a result of an inversion, air pollution from cars, buses, burning, cooking, construction, etc., gets trapped in the valleys and basins and develops into an increasingly toxic brew. This doesn’t occur to extreme levels every year, but I have experienced it several times in Chiang Mai over the past decade, and this past season was pretty bad (see Thailand: pollution puts Chiang Mai off the tourist trail).

Photos of Chiangmai air pollution this past season: All pictures were taken at midday, no clouds, just smog.

The levels of fine particulates became very high, and this causes major respiratory problems for many people, the very young and very old in particular. But clearly it doesn’t do anybody any good. Because I am prone to bronchial infections, when the air got bad this year I suffered for weeks with a severe hacking cough that may have led to my herniated disk injury. In a wonderful twist of irony, I traveled to Bangkok, Saigon and Taipei to get cleaner air to help me overcome my illness. It worked too, but when I returned to Chiang Mai before my return home I began to deteriorate once again. (See my blog post, That Thousandth Cut, for the backstory.)

The costs of this problem are very high, due to major health problems for a large and poor population, and flight delays in the region due to poor visibility. Since it is a very specific set of conditions that leads to these inversion events, it would be important to explore the effects of regional temperature projections and how this might effect the occurrence and duration of future events. More importantly, are there ways to mitigate the effects of these inversions?  Obviously, producing less fine particulates and reducing the primary pollution sources is paramount, but for that there needs to be the will at the highest of levels, and since the overall problem knows no borders, there isn’t the will. Much of the blame each year goes to the hill tribes who burn the surrounding mountainsides, but it seems that much of the source is more localized than that, and much of it is regional pollution that sits over the entire region. Whatever the source, however, something needs to be done. The problem is that when the rains come the awful air is cleared out, and with it any sense of urgency to act. It is then forgotten about until the next inversion comes a year later.  This short-term memory does not help.

This from a Chiang Mai based website on the problem:

Air Pollution: Key facts from the World Health Organization

  • Air pollution is a major environmental risk to health and is estimated to cause approximately 2 million premature deaths worldwide per year
  • Exposure to air pollutants is largely beyond the control of individuals and requires action by public authorities at the national, regional and even international levels.
  • The WHO Air quality guidelines represent the most widely agreed and up-to-date assessment of health effects of air pollution, recommending targets for air quality at which the health risks are significantly reduced.
  • By reducing particulate matter (PM10) pollution from 70 to 20 micrograms per cubic metre, we can cut air quality related deaths by around 15%.
  • By reducing air pollution levels, we can help countries reduce the global burden of disease from respiratory infections, heart disease, and lung cancer.
  • The WHO guidelines provide interim targets for countries that still have very high levels of air pollution to encourage the gradual cutting down of emissions. These interim targets are: a maximum of three days a year with up to 150 micrograms of PM10 per cubic metre (for short term peaks of air pollution), and 70 micrograms per cubic metre for long term exposures to PM10.

More than half of the burden from air pollution on human health is borne by people in developing countries. In many cities, the average annual levels of PM10 (the main source of which is the burning of fossil fuels) exceed 70 micrograms per cubic metre.  The guidelines say that, to prevent ill health, those levels should be lower than 20 micrograms per cubic metre.

Chiang Mai isn’t the only place that suffers from temperature inversions that create health hazards, and in fact it is a common problem for much of the basin and range country in the western USA. My colleagues at Utah State University suffer through an annual period of very poor air that gets trapped along the Wasatch Range every winter (see  NOAA, National Weather Service Forecast Office, Salt Lake City, UT). Therefore I plan to avoid going to Logan in the dead of winter. Therefore I plan to avoid going to Logan in the dead of winter.

As bad as the problem is in Chiang Mai, it is even worse in other parts of Thailand, and across much of Southeast Asia. The link between anthropogenic pollution — inclusive of greenhouse gases — and a plethora of health issues ought to be at least as compelling a reason for us to cut emissions than the far more difficult to understand link to AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming.)

As I have alluded to earlier, if people can see how these issues can impact them in more immediately pressing ways they are more likely to care about action. I always thought the AGW debate was too esoteric and too complicated to explain to a general population that is bombarded with too much information on a daily basis. Whereas the “hey, this stuff can kill you” message is one that just might get through. As for me, I plan to avoid these areas when the air gets like this, so my forays into Southeast Asia will try to avoid the February-March season, and for good measure April too because it is so bloody hot! I am lucky enough to have the freedom to choose my residence times. For most of Chiang Mai’s population they don’t have that luxury, and they just have to endure the best they can. In the meantime, if you travel to northern Thailand, Laos or Myanmar in February, you might want to bring your gas mask.

 

That thousandth cut

Tree Stories - Tue, 05/22/2012 - 08:13

PALISADES, NEW YORK — My hands floated above my head, rotating in all directions, swaying weakly like reeds rustling in a gentle breeze. At least that was the image I held in my head, clouded as it was by the anesthesia. Between my hands I saw Orawan at the foot of the bed, staring at me with great relief in her face.

“Hey baby, how are you?” I asked almost a little too cheerfully, as I dropped my arms to the bed. ”Come here, give me a hug.” I was seriously groggy, and it was difficult to stay awake. I have memories of an alarm going off next to my head and a nurse urging me to breathe, happening more than once. I am not sure if that really happened or if it was imagined, but my memories from those few hours are hazy.

“Hey, go easy there.” Orawan chided as she took my hand. ”Try not to move too much.” I could sense the massive relief she was feeling, after waiting nearly 4 hours to see me after I left her standing in the hallway as they wheeled me into the theater.

The surgery was a success, or so I was informed. At least I could still move my arms, and I didn’t see a respirator anywhere in sight. I quickly checked for a colostomy bag and was relieved not to find one. I was still dopey enough that I couldn’t feel any pain yet (that would come in time), and the intense pain I had lived with for the past five weeks appeared to be gone, as the bits of ruptured disk had been removed from my spine, relieving the pressure on my C7 nerve head.

So, what happened? The week before I returned from Asia, on March 12, I awoke with a burning agony running down my left arm that would not desist. I didn’t know the extent of my injury until I had gotten home to New York and had an MRI, after a week of unrelenting pain in my left arm and under my scapula. It was a very uncomfortable flight across the Pacific back to New York, made tolerable only because of a class upgrade and lots and lots of drugs.

The MRI showed that I had clearly ruptured the disk between my C6 and C7 vertebrae, and surgery was pretty much the only option. Though I don’t remember it, I had told Dr. Quest that I loved him, emphasizing that it was not in any manner that should elicit his alarm, but love just the same. He took care of me as promised, and now that it was over I felt a massive sense of relief. Now, six weeks after surgery I am mostly recovered, with only minor pains and numbness as reminders of those terrible 5 weeks.

So what has this to do with climate change? Well it is the reason for my absence from this blog, since I couldn’t sit at my desk for more than 20 minutes at a time, and the reason for me barely accomplishing any work for more than a month. And now that I am recovering, I face a mountain of work the likes of which I have never seen, but never have I been so thankful for being able to work.

It had surely been a run of bad luck since my last entry, starting with the infection in my scalp from hitting that doorjamb in Chiang Mai, an infection that was not even cured when I developed a terrible bronchitis from the smoke and haze of Chiang Mai’s annual February foul air festival (a phenomenon that is related to climate change). After my return from Yunnan I went to Taipei for a week of lectures and meetings, and Taipei’s far cleaner air began healing my lungs, but I was still with a very deep cough that would often wrench me from sleep. I then went to Vietnam for a week for the opening of the International Center for Tropical Highlands Ecosystems Research, with even cleaner air in Dalat, and that just about finished off the bronchitis. But scarcely two days back in Chiang Mai, back in the horrible air, and I began to cough once again. It was then, on Monday the 12th of March that I awoke in such pain. The doctors believe that it may have been the pressure from coughing that served as the final straw in rupturing my disk, but in truth the injury was probably the result of a lifetime of accumulated injuries and strains, football, hockey, basketball, coring trees and carrying a backpack. It could have been any and all of those things.

So, I am back now, ready to catch up on a few entries I have wanted to write. I apologize to Lori for the long delay and I hope she can forgive me, and welcome me back. The way I see it things can only go up from here, now that Dr. Quest delivered that thousandth cut.

A thousand cuts

Tree Stories - Thu, 02/02/2012 - 20:15

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND — The expression “death by a thousand cuts” refers to the practice in imperial China of killing someone by slicing them repeatedly, never very deep, until they die from their multiple, tiny wounds. I thought of this on Friday night when I hit my head on a door jam, cutting my scalp on the rock-solid, wooden edge. This happens to me frequently over here, since I am about 188 cm tall and the bathroom doors are always about 185 cm maximum. Just low enough that if I walk through upright I get a nice laceration on the top of my increasingly sparsely covered pate. I am pretty used to this by now, so aside from a momentary barrage of cursing, I didn’t think much more about it for the rest of the evening. However, the next morning, I awoke with a pain behind both ears and a bizarrely misshapen, triple-horned crest on the top of my head that was hot to the touch. Infection had occurred in about 5 hours. I went to Suan Dok Hospital the next day and the doctor said, “Yep, you have an abscess on your scalp, and the pain behind your ears is the swollen lymph nodes that drain the scalp.” He prescribed antibiotics and some wound dressings and told me to come see him next Saturday. After 3 days of medicine the infection is gone, and the swelling is down.

I have always heard how one needs to keep one’s wounds thoroughly cleansed in the tropics to stave off infection and sepsis, but I spend so much time here that I have gotten careless. I am reckless and clumsy, and I have had multiple wounds from a variety of things, and none has gotten infected to this stage. And it happened so rapidly that I was taken by surprise.  Death by a thousand cuts.

I leave for Xishuangbanna in southern China on Sunday. I am going there to lecture at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden hosted by my colleague Dr. Fan Zexin. Fan was one of the participants at the PAGES Asia2k workshop we just held in Chiang Mai, having been a contributor of tree ring data from the upper reaches of the Mekong River in Yunnan province. We are planning a collaborative project on studying the rare and endangered conifer Taiwania cryptomerioides that can still be found in some isolated stands. These trees are quite huge and can attain great age, but have been seldom studied for tree ring analyses and have the potential for great value in the upper Mekong. They are also being cut at an alarming rate everywhere they are found, so we are on somewhat of a salvage mission. If we are to get into the areas of Yunnan where the trees are found, it might have to be in late August after the winter cold and the worst of the monsoon rains.

One thing about developing tree ring reconstructions of streamflow, it has been shown that temperature from the upper headwaters regions can be as important a factor as rainfall for predicting baseline streamflow because of the importance of meltwater in keeping up base flow (i.e., flow in the dry season in the case of the Mekong, rather than the sizeable contribution of the annual monsoon rainfall that contributes to peak flow). This work is part of the overall goals of my Greater Mekong Basin project, and will give us the very important record of how the Mekong streamflow may have varied back in key periods of the past millennia. I will send an update from Xishuangbanna when I am there, and try to include some good pictures of the place. I have never been there so I don’t know what to expect.

It has been pointed out to me more than once that I have a tendency to talk about food a lot in my blogs. With this in mind, I will be sure to report on the great meals I am bound to have in Yunnan, and send some pictures as well.

 

My dinner with Usama

Tree Stories - Sun, 01/29/2012 - 14:03
The PAGES Asia2k Workshop participants

The PAGES Asia2k Workshop participants at EFEO, Chiang Mai.

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND — There was one table available, just being vacated, and Orawan and I hurried to grab it. The place was filled with foreign visitors — Australians, Israelis, Americans and Dutch — and they were talking loudly, drinking beer and wine, clinking forks and spoons noisily on plates filled with hummus, tabouleh and falafel. We fought our way through the tight crowd and made it to the table before the previous diners plates had been cleared. Andrew and Piyawit were both running late. This was it, the very end of the PAGES Asia2k workshop for us, and Andrew was the last participant to leave Chiang Mai. It was an exhausting week for us, and now it was over, the dust beginning to settle on a meeting whose objectives were not entirely met. In the midst of the noise and confusion a hand touched my shoulder and I turned to see the owner of Jerusalem Falafel, Zahavit, with a perplexed look on her face.

“What are you trying to do to me?” she said, looking serious. I realized I was smiling at her, in anticipation of our usually warm greeting, so I quickly sobered my expression to match hers.

“Im sorry?” I said. I had no idea what she was talking about. I watched as Orawan secured our table and then I turned to face Zahavit and give her my full attention.

“Why did you bring an Afghani into my restaurant the other night?” she was clearly distraught. “Didn’t you read the news this week? In Bangkok they arrested Al Qaeda members sneaking explosives into Thailand and some of them got away. I nearly had a heart attack when I saw him, but then I realized he was with you.”

“Oh, you mean Usama!” I blurted out, and quickly realized that saying his name likely didn’t help matters. “He’s not Afghan, he’s Pakistani.”I offered, perhaps helping even less. “He’s a great kid, a PhD student from Karachi studying with a colleague of mine. Really, he is a very sweet young man, and very bright.”

“I know now he is okay.” She said, more relaxed. “But at the time I nearly fainted. You should have told me you were bringing him when you made the reservation!” She scolded, and slapped my shoulder lightly to emphasize her concern.

The truth is, it never occurred to me that Zahavit, an Israeli expat living in Thailand, married to a local Chiang Mai man, and running this hugely popular restaurant since 1991, might be alarmed at my bringing Usama to her restaurant. I hadn’t seen any news all week, as I had been too busy with the workshop, but I also hadn’t planned to invite people to dinner here until the end of the day, choosing to come here primarily because we had three vegetarians in tow, and the food has never disappointed us. Zahavit and her husband, Chiang, are very friendly and most gracious, their food is excellent and it is one of my very favorite restaurants in Chiang Mai. Funny enough, when I asked Usama to join us, it occurred to me to ask if it bothered him that the place was Israeli. He looked at me, puzzled, and replied, “If the food is good and it is vegetarian, why would I mind?” Fair enough, I thought, and that was the end of it. But I can only imagine the alarm felt by Zahavit, at the sight of a young Pakistani man, decked out in full local garb and sporting the thickest black beard I have ever seen, walk into her restaurant and take a seat. It has apparently never happened before.

**********************

Usama and I

Usama and I take a coffee break.

“Usama Zafer Muhammed” I read his name out loud from the workshop participant list. He had joined me on the long teakwood bench outside of the conference room at the Ecole Francaise D’Extreme Orient, the beautiful location along the banks of the River Ping that was hosting our workshop (EFEO). It was during a coffee break, and Usama and I had been discussing the software I had just demonstrated that allows us to create point-by-point regression (PPR) reconstructions of climate from tree rings (while the folks who developed it were busy in another room attempting to reconstruct temperature over Asia — more on that in a minute), or other proxy sources that can be calibrated with climate data.

“Well, your name will almost surely cause you to be delayed at U.S. customs, but other than that I don’t believe you would have any problems”. Usama had asked me, with real concern on his face, if he would be in danger if he came to visit the U.S. The question really threw me, because as Americans we don’t think of our country as being unsafe to others, but it goes without saying that we all think of Pakistan as being a certain death for us to visit. Usama is a devout Muslim, and several times during the workshop he would go into a separate room to pray before returning to our group. He had told me earlier, when talking about sampling in the remote mountains of his country, that even he wasn’t safe in some areas because his religious and political views were far too moderate. However, he added, that if I were to travel with him to some of the areas where he is known, that I too would be safe, and in these other areas, we would both be in danger. I thought about it and realized that there are places in America that I don’t feel safe either, and places where I am pretty certain he might be hassled for being a Muslim. We surely have our share of violence and bigotry in America, though it is a very small minority that would engage in such behavior. Usama was making the point that it was the same in Pakistan, though the constant war and instability in that region, coupled with poverty and lack of real education for many, certainly exacerbate things.

In 2007 I had cancelled my trip to visit Usamas research institute in Karachi due to an attack at the airport in the hour before my plane was to leave Bangkok. Just as we were queuing at the gate, an announcement was made that the flight had been cancelled and they were putting us up at the Novotel for the night. In the ensuing confusion and while we all milled around at the gate the story came out that it was an act of terrorism in Karachi that was responsible for our cancellation. Early reports told of more than 40 people killed, and that the Karachi airport was unsafe. They would put us up for the night and see how things looked in the morning. Among the people on this flight were several Pakistanis, a few Australians, and one American marine on the security team at the Consulate in Karachi, and I had time to talk with many of them. The Pakistanis were all very sad to hear the news of the flight cancellation, and seemed distraught that I was now leaning toward not going. They seemed intent on convincing me that it was not as unsafe as I was hearing and that I should really go. I was headed there at the request of my colleague, Dr. Moinuddin Ahmed, to help him conduct a dendrochronology symposium and training session that was going to introduce tree ring analyses into their University system for the first time. It seemed quite exciting at the time I agreed, but now it seemed a little too exciting. I called Orawan from the airport and as soon as I told her what was happening she said, “I really don’t think you should go. Is it really worth the risk? I would feel better if you came back to Chiang Mai.” As far as I was concerned that was the last word, but I still was tempted to go until the marine took me aside, out of earshot of the others.

“How important is it for you to be in Karachi for this meeting?” he asked.

“Well, I promised my colleague that I would be there, I really ought to try.”

“Listen, you should know that the U.S. considers Karachi to be the most dangerous city for Americans in Asia, less safe even than Kabul and Baghdad. Dude, there is no green zone there and the Consulate is far from the airport. There’s nothing we can do for you if you get into trouble, so unless you absolutely have to go, I wouldn’t.” That was all he said, and that was all I needed to hear. The next morning they had resumed the flight to Karachi as the situation had stabilized, but I was on the first plane to Chiang Mai, to the great relief of my wife.

**********************

Paul Krusic, from Sweden, speaking with Usama

Paul Krusic, from Sweden, speaking with Usama at the workshop.

Usama presented his tree ring records from the high mountains of Pakistan, collected and processed over the past several years with Dr. Ahmed and other colleagues (see 500 years of Indus River flow modeling with tree rings), and he was here in Chiang Mai because he was among several other Asian researchers who were contributing their data to the overall PAGES Asia2k initiative that is charged with developing temperature reconstructions from Asia that ideally will cover the past 2 thousand years (hence, Asia2k). There are 2k initiatives for North and South America, Europe, Africa, Australia and even the Oceans. In all cases there are challenges of many kinds in producing the desired product (i.e., annual temperature — which will be used for the next AR5 model runs for the next IPCC assessment), but for Africa and Asia there are certainly greater obstacles than for other regions. Many of these difficulties are related to the fact that multiple, and often unstable, political entities comprise these continents, while many others are related to the culture of science in many of these countries where data sharing is simply not the norm. But one of the biggest obstacles is really that the proxy data are mostly precipitation sensitive more than they are temperature sensitive. As I have said previously, I believe that temperature (i.e., AGW related temperature) is only important because of its effects on the distribution of water on the planet, and it seems far more important to me that we understand the variability in precipitation around the globe, and to figure out how this might change in the future.

dr edward cook

Dr. Edward Cook addressing the workshop.

The director of my laboratory, Dr. Edward Cook, and I are both on the Asia2k committee, and at a meeting in Nagoya 2 years ago we worried how far behind our group was compared to others from the Americas, Australia and Europe, with regard to getting the necessary data from the research community. It was then that we hatched the idea (mainly it was Dr. Olga Solominas idea, and a great idea at that) to entice folks to submit their data in exchange for training in analyses that might speed up the process for some non-native English speakers to get their results published in top-tier international journals. The idea was to hold the meeting somewhere in Asia that was convenient for all participants, and not too expensive since our budget was quite limited. Since I was residing in Chiang Mai for several months each year, I offered to be a one-man local organizing committee (really two, to be fair, because of how much assistance I got from Orawan), and arranged to hold the meeting at the EFEO Chiang Mai center, just outside of Chiang Mais inner city wall and along the banks of the River Ping.

The meeting was three days long, and our primary objective was to use the newly contributed data (mostly tree rings, but some historical documentation-derived indices from Japan and China, some ice core data, and some lake sediment data as well) to produce a new temperature reconstruction from the Asian continent. Without going into too much detail here (stay tuned for that), we were not able to get a fully calibrated and verified reconstruction in the short time we had, and with the data set we ended up with, but we are a work in progress. There are a lot of difficulties associated with doing these kinds of reconstructions, not least of which is data quality control. At the end of the day, we are going to have about a 500-year temperature reconstruction for Asia, a far cry from the 2,000-year target, but better than a kebab skewer in the eye.

**********************

Usama grinned broadly and extended his hand to me and I shook it. He was genuinely grateful for the hospitality he was shown while in Chiang Mai, and his presence was one of the pleasant surprises for me. He and our Nepali participant, Narayan Gaire, were leaving the guesthouse together in a red sawng taew (the two-benched pickup trucks that are used in Chiang Mai as public transportation) to go to the airport. They had become good friends over the past few years having met at several regional workshops. These are fledgling dendrochronology programs in both of these countries, and it is remarkable to see the enthusiasm with which these two young men embrace learning this field of study. It will be because of the efforts of people like this that we are to have any chance of improving living standards across the globe, through education and engagement in the work the rest of us are doing — as equals and not perpetually as aid projects.

I was most impressed with these two fine young men, and I wished them both well on their journeys home. It saddens me terribly that our world is so unstable, and that we have the kinds of hatred that leads us to war with peoples in far flung lands, who have so little in material wealth, and yet strive to have the kind of enriched life that we take for granted. It is for that reason that I will think fondly of our little workshop, flawed as it was, and on my dinner with Usama, as a reminder of what is truly important.

And then the rains came …

Tree Stories - Fri, 01/20/2012 - 09:52

malee-nature-lovers-bungalowCHIANG MAI, THAILAND —  ”Rain never come in January.”  Malee had overheard me predicting heavy rain for the night, as the black clouds swirled around the steep limestone cliffs at the base of Doi Luang. The clouds tore off in little wisps of vapor, black and menacing, and rose upward, obscuring the jagged, orange-stained, overhanging wall that was visible from Malee’s Nature Lover’s Bungalows in Chiang Dao. She brought 4 cups of home-roasted coffee, a basket of home made spring rolls, and two plates of coarsely cut French fries, stacked high, to the table and set these down in front of us.

“Not big rain, like you say now” she continued, “sometime small rain only.”  She pronounced the word “small” as suh-mawn. As spelled in Thai based on its Sanskrit origins, words that end with the equivalent of the letter “L” are pronounced as we pronounce “N”, which is one of the more endearing things about Thai speaking English, to my ear.

Malee, always cheerful, has been a friend of ours for more than a decade. Orawan and I stumbled upon this amazing place in 1998 while looking for field sites. I was in search of the two Thai pine species that were reported to grow in the area, and we drove up the narrow road that dead-ended at an amazing cliff side Buddhist temple about 1 km past her rustic sign. At that time hers was the only guesthouse in this entire area, surrounded by empty fields and jungle, and local villagers foraged the nearby forests for bamboo, edible plants, and anything else of use. We stayed there one night and it seemed within hours we were friends, and we stayed with her numerous times until about 5 years ago when we stopped working in the region. Malee came to our wedding in Chiang Mai in October 2001, one month after the terrible 9/11 attacks. Coming back here now was like visiting family again after a long absence. In the years that have passed much has changed, and now there are guesthouses everywhere on this road, in the true Thai fashion of mimicking what has proven successful. But still, in spite of the oversupply of copycat businesses, Malee’s is an oasis of peace and quiet, and her business is very successful.

buddhist temple

Cliffside buddhist wat near Malee's guest house.

It is true that it is highly unusual for heavy rain to fall between December and April in northern Thailand, the months that comprise the driest part of the annual dry season. In the two decades that Malee has run her business, neither she nor any of her staff can remember heavy January rains like that which we were about to get. In most years it remains virtually rain free from late November until late April, when the heat reaches unbearable heights and the humidity boils up from the Gulf of Thailand. That is when the rains come, in May and June, not now.

The rhythm of the Asian Monsoon, as reliable as your own heartbeat, tracks the movement of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), which follows the migration of the sun’s most vertical ray from the Tropic of Capricorn in the Austral summer, to the Tropic of Cancer in Boreal summer — 23.5 degrees latitude in both hemispheres, respectively.  This is the stuff of Physical Geography 101, and I can still hear the booming voice of the late Dr. Dow, my undergraduate advisor and mentor:

“The ITCZ moves north and south with the seasons, and this means… What?… Brendan! What does it mean when the ITCZ moves north to 23.5 degrees latitude?” The fear that accompanied students in Dr. Dow’s classes was ubiquitous across the room, particularly for those inclined not to pay attention. I thought of Dr. Dow now, and how I am glad that I was one of the students who actually did pay attention.

“I don’t know, Malee, it sure looks like heavy rain to me.” I said.

“Not possible” she replied, “it not rain in January”.

Hours later, as the rain pounded the metal roof of our bungalow with hellish force for two straight hours I thought about how one of the lessons of the prior week’s workshop in Chiang Mai applied to the anomalous weather we were experiencing today. Dr. Andrew Bell, a post-doctoral fellow working with me for the past year, presented work we have been doing for our Greater Mekong Basin project that uses our long tree ring records to inform climate predictions with extremely simple models that even small-scale farmers might be able to use. There are predictions made by local religious leaders from nearly all countries in Southeast Asia, for example in Thai from the Nung Seu Bee Mai Mueng “Book of the Northern New Year” which gives some kind of guidance to farmers. What Andrew has found is that these predictions have some degree of predictive skill simply because climate has a tendency to show persistence from one year to the next, and to statisticians this can be modeled as autocorrelation.

brendan

Not only was it raining hard, it was cold too.

This feature of climate data is obvious when thinking about the seasonal shifts that we know well, for example, New York’s winter is cold, so there is a degree of correlation between January of one year and January of the next (i.e., both will be cold). The same is true for the dry season of Thailand — January will be dry in each year, hence the autocorrelation. The anomalous years, however, also tend towards persistence, such that if it is wetter or drier than usual (or colder or warmer, if you will) in a given season, the tendency to remain the same for the next year is slightly better odds than flipping a coin. So, if we assume persistence in the climate we can do a reasonably good job of predicting climate for the following season only. However, if we want to make informed 5-year or longer predictions, so that farmers might make more bold decisions about how and what to plant, and increase their profit margins, we need a better predictive tool than just guessing at persistence.

Andrew demonstrates that by using centuries or more of background data (e.g., long tree ring reconstructions of drought indices) one can do a pretty good job, far better than merely assuming persistence, at deciding what the next 5 years are going to be like, and the longer the record leading up to a given period, the better we do at predicting those next 5 years. The offshoot is more than just deciding what to plant, however. The real prize is in being able to use this information to give some form of blanket insurance to small-scale farmers, known as index insurance, which allows for coverage in case of drought or some other climate index value that is determined to be important. Interestingly, it is not the failure of the crops that is being insured, but the failure in the climate. Whether or not the climate adversely affects the crops is not relevant, as payout is made solely on the basis of climate. And by having lots and lots of small farmers buy into such a scheme, the greedy insurance companies can still make their profits and keep the costs low. For the GMB project, we are tasked with trying to find out how climate and its impacts can lead to conflict, what the parameters are for the conflict, and what factors are necessary to mitigate conflicts when they occur. We always believe that the past can help inform us of our present and our future, so using proxy records in these ways is done with this in mind.

doi luang after the rain

After the rain

The rain had ceased long enough for Orawan and me to walk out to meet our friends Paul and Anna, and their two children, Jonas and Amarita, who had gone out for a late lunch, and we joined them at the Chiang Dao Cave, about 2 km downhill from Malee’s. They sat out the rain in a small roadside restaurant, ordering food by pointing at things that looked appealing and hoping for good results. Paul and Anna are both seasoned travelers, and are no strangers to off-the-beaten-path locations, so they were enjoying their time in the village. We met them and strolled around the neighborhood, finding giant spiders and dead snakes, and an assortment of other horrible things the kids were fascinated with.

By the time we walked back to Malee’s it was near time for dinner, and the rain was beginning again. We had scarcely finished eating around 8:00 p.m. and walked back to our bungalow when the rain began in earnest. Broad sheets of water pounded the roof with a deafening roar until the morning light began to infiltrate our room. It was clear, that for today at least, the rains had come.

When it rains it pours. That phrase entered my mind, as I lay awake, eyes wide open, my wife breathing deeply beside me in the depths of slumber. Malee’s has always been one of the darkest places I have ever been at night, but on this night it was blacker than usual and I had a difficult time making out any features in the room through the impenetrable darkness. I had been having an inordinate number of interpersonal breakdowns with people lately, colleagues in particular, and I considered the notion that often things, negative things, come in groups or clusters, like rain falling. When it rains it pours.  I agonized over the role I may have played, either indirectly or perhaps through callous indifference, in developing these rifts with other people, and I wonder sometimes about karma, and about biorhythms or other phenomenon that can lead to such things. Or maybe it is just the way of the world that sometimes we enter anomalous periods and lots of shit goes wrong. My Vietnamese friends tell me that my age, 53, is a very unlucky year, as is 49.  I don’t remember much about 49, but in truth my 53rd year has been an outstanding year on many fronts. However, whatever is wrong with the cosmos lately that has me offside of so many people could be just a passing anomaly that will wash away, run off or be absorbed like the heavy January rains on the limestone flanks of Doi Luang.

The message of the day resonated with me.

Surviving doomsday, bat poop and deniers

Tree Stories - Tue, 01/03/2012 - 13:07

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — 2012 arrived in Phnom Penh with a splashy display of fireworks, and raging bands of celebrating Khmer youth who beckoned me to join their celebrations as I walked past them on my way back to my hotel. But conspicuously absent was the promised 2012 doom-and-end-of-the-world business that I was so looking forward to (although, it is still 2011 in the other half of the world, so I suppose there is time yet for Armageddon).

I had arrived in Phnom Penh just in time to join three fascinating women for dinner, Nancy Beavan and Sian Halcrow who I met in early 2010 when we worked together on a log coffin/jar burial site in southern Cambodia, and Kelly Fitzpatrick, the personal assistant to the Head of Administration for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, whom I was meeting for the first time. Kelly was the PA to Andrew Cayly, the Co-Prosecutor for the Tribunal, before she recently switched jobs. Unfortunately I didn’t get to talk to her too much about her work, because it sounded truly fascinating. Nancy is an ex-Lamonter and a radiocarbon specialist who has been working and living in New Zealand for years, and is one of the more colorful people I have met in academia. By way of example, she worked for 8 days on the above-mentioned field trip to Phnom Pel with a rather obviously broken arm, and kept insisting “it really isn’t that bad, I don’t think it’s broken” while refusing to leave the field site early for treatment. However the moment I arrived at the field site I could see that her arm was broken, even after having been transported by taxi, rivercraft and motorcycle in the stifling, searing heat of the Cambodian lowlands, my brains still scrambled from the heat … the first words from my mouth were “How did you break your arm?”

Always cheerful and talkative, Nancy is a rare person with a remarkable path to academia and science. Among the more interesting aspects of her juvenile delinquency was running with motorcycle gangs, being a horse thief (okay, that sounds worse than it was!) and being an all around wild child before being brought into Columbia University under some sort of special program for at-risk youth, and that is how she ended up at Lamont-Doherty and met legendary Earth scientists like Wally Broecker and Lynn Sykes, among many others. She moved to New Zealand with her husband John Beavan, whom she met at Lamont, where she worked for years as a radiocarbon specialist before pursuing, rather later in life like me, her Ph.D. She is not one to shy away from controversy and a good scientific battle, a trait she attributes to her time with Wally and the other heavy hitters of the science world at Lamont. She is in the middle of a rather interesting row regarding the timing of the arrival of the first rats in New Zealand, and in true American fashion, exhibited little cultural sensitivity to the NZ scientific community’s consensus on such matters. I listened, riveted, to this story around a campfire in Cambodia, with rogue elephants crashing through the forest, and it was one of the highlights of this amazing trip which is captured by this wonderful radio piece by the freelance journalist and all-around nice guy, Brian Calvert, who joined us in Phnom Pel. The link is here. While you are at it, you might visit Brian’s website for some samples of his excellent writing, and truly ballsy journalism.

Sian Halcrow is a professor at Otago University in the lovely South Island city of Dunedin, New Zealand, and she spends much of her time each year working on archaeological sites in Thailand’s Isaan Province on the Cambodian border. Sian and Nancy have worked together for years, and have developed a really fun rapport that is great to be around. It was good fortune, therefore, that I was able to join them last night, since today Nancy is driving to the southern Cardamoms with a huge payload of food and supplies to be helicoptered into a new and very exciting jar site that they are just beginning to work on, and Sian seemed like some serious jetlag was coming on (she had just arrived from New Zealand).

Nancy just recently wrote a manuscript on the work so far on these coffins, based in large part on the series of Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS) dates we managed from the little bits of wood I cut off the ends of each of the coffins. (When it makes it through the review process I will include more information, because it is quite fascinating). I tried to core the coffins with a micro-corer by crawling on my belly on narrow ledges, in the oppressively humid heat, where they were left by unknown people centuries ago (and I have the bat shit-impregnated clothing to prove it!) so I had to abandon that idea as it made the locals very nervous to think I might split the coffins in half. There is still much belief in ghosts and spirits in this part of the world, and they were not too happy with the possibility of pissing off the evil spirits! This continuing work in the Cardamoms is truly interesting, so I will try to keep things updated as the exciting bits begin to emerge. (For more on my attempt to core the coffins read, Race to the spice highlands: An expedition to Cardamom Mountains.)

After a long time without doing so, I finally logged onto my blog page the other day, and I saw there was a recent message from Paul B. who wrote in response to last year’s entry on Debating Global Warming: Lines in the sand.

“Believer?” “Denier?” These words are the realm of religion, not science.

Regarding AGW (anthropogenic global warming), I defy anyone to define the FALSIFIABLE HYPOTHESIS.

No one will. Because there isn’t one.

AGW is Lysenkoism at its finest: science-by-consensus … mob science.

The Consensus said Galileo was wrong. But The Consensus is a logical fallacy just waiting to happen.

Earth to REAL scientists … wake up!

First I want to thank Paul B. for getting me to look up Lysenkoism on Wikipedia, which describes, among other things:

Lysenkoism, or Lysenko-Michurinism, also denotes the biological inheritance principle which Trofim Lysenko subscribed to and which derive from theories of the heritability of acquired characteristics, a body of biological inheritance theory which departs from Mendelism and that Lysenko named “Michurinism”.

The word is derived from the centralized political control exercised over the fields of genetics and agriculture by the director of the Soviet Lenin All-Union Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko and his followers, which began in the late 1920s and formally ended in 1964.

Lysenkoism is used colloquially to describe the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, often related to social or political objectives.

Well, I admit I hadn’t heard of Lysenkoism, and I am thankful for the chance to add that to my increasingly overflowing brain storage area.  As I interpret it, Paul B. is clearly implying that the side that is manipulating and distorting the facts is the one that claims there is a human component to warming temperatures (i.e., AGW — and incidentally, nice touch equating climate scientists and Leninism in the same sentence — well played, sir), and this manipulation was conducted for purely political reasons. To this end, presumably, there is no political reasoning on the other side of the debate — the side that states humans can’t possibly be influencing the climate, which is the view pushed by the energy sector and other industry-friendly groups — you know the groups with political reasons for pushing a no-AGW agenda. Hmmm … now, if only I could find a way to link them to Nazis …

To be totally fair, there is politics on both sides of any debate, and I thought I was clear that I believe that very thing in my Debating entry. I am not sure that Paul B. read carefully what I wrote, but be that as it may, I would like to think that, as scientists, we avoid “picking sides” of a debate and instead concentrate on doing the best analyses of data that we can do in order to prove or disprove hypotheses … when possible. I know that is not always true, of course, but in my experience I have met very few individuals, inclusive of the main Climategate players, who didn’t seem completely above board when it came to their science. We may have an informed opinion on the matter, but we ought to strive for letting the data speak for itself, and being able to admit when we were wrong. (Is it so wrong to gloat a little when we are proven right?)  When someone questions an interpretation we make, it is an opportunity to look for corroboration or refutation of that interpretation. That is our job, in fact.

This was the idea behind the BEST project (please go to Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature for full details on this fascinating attempt to take the politics out of the AGW debate). This really was an independently funded initiative, and was in large part driven by Paul B.’s “deniers” including the much-vilified Koch Brothers and other industry friendly groups, who I can only imagine were hoping for an entirely different outcome from the one that emerged. The lead PI (principal investigator) was Dr. Richard Muller, himself quite skeptical of the AGW alarmists (another incendiary term — I plan to use a lot of those this year). In short the BEST study does not prove or disprove that AGW is real, but it does do something equally as important. It really does show that, some of the more embarrassing emails from some of our scientific community aside, that the climate scientists were not falsifying data as Paul B. and others would like us to believe, and there were more things correct than incorrect in the way data have been analyzed to this point (climate data in particular). In short, there is no sinister motivation in play by climate scientists to keep our highly lucrative jobs going.

The real story here then, with regard to BEST, is that there almost was no story. I am willing to bet that if a poll were taken in America that it would be a very small minority that has even heard of it, while that same poll with regard to Climategate (there I go, incendiary yet again!) would show a very high awareness, in direct proportion to the amount of media coverage they respectively received. Where did this story go?

I don’t mean to be disrespectful of Paul B. and others who have a viewpoint that I may or may not agree with. I for one actually do leave myself open to being convinced one way or the other on any matter. It is the tone of Paul B.’s message that I find objectionable. It isn’t debate, but just name-calling (though, admittedly creative name-calling) and does little to advance real answers to anything. It solidifies a base, nothing more. I wonder what Paul B. and others have to say about the BEST study? I welcome more comments on the matter, I really do.

And by the way, to all the Nazis, Commies, and other unsavory types out there, Happy New Year, and be safe and prosperous in 2012. I don’t believe our world will end this year, and that bias will color everything I do or say for the remainder of 2012. Lysenkoism, it seems, is alive and well.

The road to hell

Tree Stories - Sat, 12/31/2011 - 10:09

The Writers Club and Wine Bar on Ratchadomnoen Road, Chiang Mai

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND — The Writer’s Club is a small bar and restaurant on Ratchadomneon Road in central Chiang Mai, and I sat facing the street, sipping contemplatively on a glass of the house red wine, inexpensive but surprisingly good. Orawan sat across the table from me, and we were discussing my inability to launch my first blog entry of the new season abroad, after my last entry about 9 months ago. I had been going on about this in my mind for the past few days, agonizing on what I was going to write, and how many other more important things I had to write first — a pre-proposal that is due in a week, 2 paper reviews and a review for an NSF proposal still not finished. It all bothered me, this pile of impending work, and yet I was having a difficult time getting stuck into any of it. Still, it nagged at me most that I hadn’t gotten around to writing a simple entry for this blog, just to jump start things for the new season. I realize it has to take a back seat to my real work, but I had promised Lori that I would have something written on the long flight across the Pacific. And here I was, empty-handed.

“I intended to have at least 2 entries by now.” I said, more to myself than to my glassy-eyed wife, who was becoming bored with my whining about my unfulfilled intentions. “Seriously, I have a plan.  I will get this done.” I didn’t sound all that convincing.

“You know …” she began slowly, looking at the red wine that she twirled in her glass distractedly “that the road to hell is quite literally paved with such good intentions.”  This last part dripped with no small amount of sarcasm. “No, really …” she continued, “I have it on good authority — the late Mrs. Buckley (God rest her soul) who told me as much.”  My mother was fond of these kinds of expressions, and my own wife’s love of wordplay drew them to each other in the short time they had together before my mother’s passing. Orawan has been writing every day since we got here last week, short stories mostly for various Thai publications. Her diligence has impressed me, and quite frankly I thought she was being a bit smug about it now, in the face of my own losing battle with internal demons.

“Is that so?” I inquired with mock indignity. “Well I have it on equally good authority, the late Uthai Tong-Jeeeeeet (I said this last part exaggerating the way Orawan’s father would pronounce their family name, Tongjit, by drawing out the last syllable because in Thai the name ends with two “t” consonants — incorrectly so on his part, I should add) that Gum kee dee qua gum dot!”  I sat back, satisfied that I had won this round of witty repartee.

“That doesn’t even make any sense.” She threw back at me. “I would rather have a handful of feces than a handful of flatulence? How is that relevant to this discussion?”

“I don’t know.” I mumbled, looking around now for some new distraction. “Hey look, Michael Vickery is here.”  I got up and walked toward a shiny-pated, white mustached man sitting at the bar, drinking a glass of white wine.

writers-club

Sitting in the Writers Club, with proprietor the lovely Mrs. Thong, in the background.

Michael Vickery, the famous and colorful Southeast Asian and Khmer historian whose 1977 Ph.D. dissertation at Yale University was titled “Cambodia After Angkor, the Chronicular Evidence for the Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries”, is a long-time resident of Southeast Asia, most recently residing in Chiang Mai. He is a prolific writer of history, and still regularly visits his beloved Cambodia for months at a time, and in fact I met him a couple of years back at the EFEO in Siem Reap, where he and I were both keynote speakers at a workshop on the University of Sydney’s Greater Angkor Project. The beautiful thing about Michael, I discovered quickly enough, is that whatever is in his head usually comes out from his mouth, unfiltered. He can say the most wonderfully inappropriate things in mixed company, and usually of a prurient nature.  Here is my chance, I thought, to get something juicy and politically incorrect that I can use in my blog.

“Michael Vickery, how are you doing?” I asked, extending my hand.

“I can’t see your face. Who is that?” came the reply, his hand shading his eyes as he squinted in my direction. It was already evening and the bar was dimly lit. I noticed that his large, Mr. Magoo-like glasses were sitting beside him on the bar, so of course he couldn’t see a thing. He wore his usual local garb, the loose-fitting cotton seua puen mueng that he sported exclusively. Michael is a regular visitor to the Writer’s Club and other Chiang Mai haunts, and he usually has some rather hysterically candid things to say about the “wannabe writers” who inhabit the place.  As acerbic as he can sometimes seem, I have grown quite fond of the man, from the few meetings we have had, and the stories I hear from others who have met him. And he is really a brilliant mind with regard to the history of the region.

“Brendan Buckley,” I said.”It’s me, Brendan Buckley.”

“Oh yes, tree rings. How are your tree rings, Brendan Buckley?”

“They’re fine, Michael. My tree rings are all fine.”

We chatted for a few minutes, but he had to run off so I ended up with nothing juicy to quote from him. I returned to our table after but a few moments, slightly deflated, as our food came — a delicious Thai ginger soup and a few other dishes that we had ordered.

“Micheal is a pretty interesting guy,” I said to Orawan who was savoring the first spoonful of Tom Kaa Gai. “Maybe I can work him into my blog entry?  I don’t know, like something about Angkor and climate change, something like that. What do you think?”

“I thought you planned to write about that BEST study from Berkeley that you were going on about the other day.” Orawan responded. “You kept saying how it was an independent vindication of the integrity of the climate scientists but hardly got a word of press, while the so-called Climategate business got covered to death and blah, blah blah… something about that. Weren’t you chomping at the bit to write about that?”

“Well, yes, I had intended to write about that but I couldn’t find the right title,” I offered weakly.

soup

Delicious Tom Ka Gai, with galangal and chicken, very good for health

The truth is, that I have about 10 different subjects I want to write about, and the BEST study is surely there at the top. I have been trying to think about the angle I want to take on it, aside from just the obvious lack of attention it has gotten. I also plan to write about all the stuff I got up to this past spring and summer, including several conference presentations; a pilgrimage to what may arguably be the very birthplace of modern dendroclimatology as we know it, at Mesa Verde National Park; working with Utah State University scientists to reconstruct streamflow along the Wasatch Range; my 3 week backpacking trip with my brother, our childhood best friend and his early 20s son to the John Muir Trail in the Sierras, more than 3 decades after I had done it as an 18 year old; the proposals written and rejected over the summer; the trials and tribulations of a soft-money dendrochronologist. These are all things I intend to write about this season, along with covering the several trips I will be taking to Cambodia, Vietnam, China and Taiwan. I intend to write about all of these things, and I intend to write another proposal, even a paper or two, while I am here.  Of course, it is a possibility that I may just be paving a few more kilometers of road on that journey to hell. That remains to be seen.

On the road again

Tree Stories - Fri, 12/30/2011 - 09:31

Brendan Buckley’s research on tree rings is creating a record of climate spanning 700 years.

Brendan is off to Asia again. If you missed last year’s adventures catch up with previous Tree Stories. While we wait for this year’s blogs, take a  look at the images sent in by Brendan as he made his way to Asia.

airport

Sitting at the airport in Newark waiting to fly off to Asia on Dec 17, 2011

brendan-soup

First breakfast in Chiang Mai at Phyom Market, my favorite blood soup and the first thing I like to eat when i am jetlagged and wake up before light.

soup

A close up of Blood and spare rib soup. very delicious.

Hard Realities, Part 2

Tree Stories - Mon, 04/25/2011 - 08:59

The Hard Reality of Soft Money: Part 1

It is a love-hate relationship I have with the National Science Foundation (NSF). I love them when they accept my grant proposals and I hate them when they don’t. In fairness, the majority of the time my proposals have been rejected (and it is the majority of my proposals that have been rejected) I can clearly see the reasoning behind it, because for the most part the system works as it is supposed to. As I noted before it is a competitive business, and some really brilliant people are competing against me, and this number increases every year (in direct proportion to my decreasing success rate). There are times when I have gotten reviews back that make me think the reviewers had no idea what they were talking about and I completely disagree with their assessments, and other times where I felt I was personally attacked. I have also been mystified when I got funded for a proposal I was convinced was not my best effort, so it really works both ways. Most of the time I feel the system is fair and I accept when I haven’t been good enough to make the grade. That is the nature of the beast that is the world of science funding and I am happy to play by the rules of the game.

Recently I had two perplexing exchanges with NSF. In the first instance, we got reviews back on a proposal I was included on (not as the lead principal investigator (PI))  that got the highest recommendation from the panel for funding. The peer reviews were mostly excellent and our proposal landed in the top 15 percent of the proposals based on the panel rankings. Then the program director, having decided to fund the top 20 percent of proposals in that batch, rejected ours from the chosen few, in spite of the recommendation of the panel to fund our proposal based on peer review. I am sure he had his reasons for doing so, but these weren’t explained to us in any way that I am aware of. If I had been lead PI, I would have been spitting fire, but the lead PI calmly allowed the issue to die a quiet death, which was the correct and adult decision (“live to fight another day” and all of that), though I would have at least asked for an explanation.

The second issue was more perplexing, involving a proposal that I am the lead PI on. In this case the program director decided not to even send our proposal out for review because we didn’t format the biosketch for one of my foreign co-PIs exactly right (we omitted a section heading). To be fair there are clear guidelines for such formatting, but we weren’t terribly far off from what is required. It seemed patently unfair to be rejected for a very minor infraction, and not at all in keeping with the spirit of the rules. I worked so hard to get this proposal submitted on time that I felt compelled to complain and lobby the program to reconsider. To my utter surprise they did reconsider (the squeaky wheel and all of that), and my proposal is now at the mercy of the peer review process, but at least it has a fighting chance to sink or swim on its merits. I believe that this is a really solid proposal, cutting edge even, and I would hate to see it not even get into the ring, as it were, regardless of its fate once it gets there. I think this example illustrates that the spirit of the review system is alive and well, when you can make your case on a matter such as this, and the very overtaxed “powers that be” at NSF can actually be persuaded. The love end of my relationship was, at least until the next rejection, restored.

One of the comments to my last entry regarding this matter was by another blogger, Eli Rabbet, who wrote:

As a hard money person who reviews soft money grants over the last 20 years I have noticed an increase in the number of proposals and a decrease in proposal quality as the soft money folk chip themselves up into smaller and smaller pieces (seriously 3 percent on one proposal).  I have seen people chew themselves up as funding shrinks. Because you have to write more proposals, less time is spent doing science. I have remarked on this in my usual quiet way to a number of program managers.

Eli makes a good point, and I agree with him to a large extent. We do have to spread ourselves very thin, taking too few months per project and having to juggle several projects at a time, each with their own suite of administrative duties (and these duties increase in number every year). We spend less time “doing our science” than we would like to, and more time fulfilling an increasingly long list of administrative requirements attached to less money per project. But I still defend this system of science as perhaps the best terrible system we can come up with. If we received full support we might find the creative energy needed out of stark necessity, but few of us would complain about the increase in freedom to research without the constant anxiety about funding. As I said before, the system is by no means perfect. But it is the system we’ve got, and so far (knock wood) I have kept the lights on and the heat cranking.

More worrying to me than the system we are using, however, is the increasing anti-science clamor that is permeating our society. That is the biggest threat to getting good science results per dollar invested. We have always used our NSF to encourage the freest of thinking to take place. Instead of putting out strongly mission-driven calls for proposals, the NSF has always given miles of latitude for free thinking scientists to push the envelope of their respective fields. That is what put U.S. science at the forefront of global research, and it makes a compelling argument for increasing our commitment to science rather than decreasing it. Time will tell how far this trend continues, but we are all watching it closely. Soft money institutes like ours are finding it increasingly difficult to retain the brightest young scientists who understandably are going where the hard money is.

I have been terribly busy since my return from Asia two months ago, and this blog has been nearly mothballed during that time. But I have a few things I do want to write about, so for those who haven’t lost faith stay tuned.

How Volcanoes Can Change the World - CNN

TRL Featured News - Fri, 04/16/2010 - 09:24
Lamont scientist Rosanne D'Arrigo discusses the global impact on climate from Iceland's Laki volcano eruption in 1783-84.
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