No, of course not. Do not suggest anything like that to Alaskans, or Europeans where hundreds have died, or Inner Mongolians, or Koreans. But, turning the clock back to December and January for the New York City region, it was not apparent that winter would arrive as it ‘normally’ does. Yes, we have had significant snowfall events. While snow in late October is not unusual, Dr. Jeff Masters had to go back to the 1804 snow hurricane to find something similar (BTW, I love the word I learned in Vermont for these events: snow’icane). And, the late January snowstorm was significant, but honestly, I did not bother to shovel. Temperatures were expected to hit the 50′s F two days later. The Sun and warmth rescued my back and melted that snow away in just a couple of days.
And, that is the thing about winter this year in the eastern US: when living with the weather and not the calendar, all the signs of spring were present in December and January. Plants were starting to bud, especially in the Deep South, and there was a warm, wetness in the air more typical of March. We opened windows in late December and early January to exchange the air in our house, which is a spring ritual for me. It has been a freakish winter – it snowed in Libya and a colleague cut a Skype session short with me because of heavy snow in Istanbul. A multitude of temperature records were broken from late December through January (including 875 record highs between late-December and January 6th, 2012). Historical climatologist, Dr. Cary Mock of the University of South Carolina, compared this winter’s warmth to the winter of 1827-1828. There was a rare tropical disturbance in early February 2012. Syracuse basketball fans tailgated prior to a late January game and Oswego, NY, at the leading edge of the Lake Ontario lake effect snowbelt, had to use ‘saved snow’ for its snow festival. I saw some red maple trees in bloom on February 5th. This species typically blooms in mid to late March in the lower Hudson Valley.
All of this gave me pause to wonder if this wasn’t an abstract picture of the future. If so, what would this mean for the trees and forests? While many folks were concerned with the exposed blooms and buds, the potential for real damage of a mild winter is actually hidden away from our senses.
The potential threat to most trees this winter in eastern North America is the one aspect of winter many people are relieved to be without: snow. Snow is important to ecosystem function. Perhaps the most temperature sensitive part of a tree is its root system. Snow is a great insulator for the ‘feet’ of trees.
A study conducted in the White Mountains of New Hampshire found that the lack of snow significantly increased the overwinter mortality of the fine roots of trees. A couple of things amazed me about this study. First, that they had enough money to pay people to shovel snow all winter in the middle of the woods. I imagine some of the conversations during the hiring process went something like this, “For reals?” or “hahahah…what? For reals?” or “I got the job? What do I have to do again? Um thanks, but no thanks.” Second, the years during which this study was conducted were not that cold. The elevated mortality during a warm winter (temperatures were generally around the freezing temperature) made me wonder what would happen during a cold, snowless winter.
I am aware of this study because I was pondering some of my own fresh research at the time the snow & fine roots study was being published. I had created a network of six southern tree species distributed throughout much of the Hudson Valley. Based upon prior work by Ed Cook, Paul Krusic and others, I expected populations of trees at the northern end of the study region, trees closer to their northern range margin, to be more sensitive to winter temperatures. I found the opposite and wasn’t sure what to make of the findings until seeing a lecture about the White Mountain Study. I could only conclude that the regular and persistent snow pack in the northern Hudson Valley made trees less sensitive to winter temperatures than trees closer to New York City and the southern Hudson Valley.
This year’s snow drought and the oncoming cold front could trigger significant damage in living trees. Research by Dr. Colin Beier indicates that yellow-cedar is particularly susceptible to decline in the Pacific Northwest due to a lack of snow and freeze-thaw cycles. Subsequent independent research supports this concept.
And, do you like real maple syrup? Research indicates that sugar maple seems to benefit more from increased snowfall than eastern hemlock of beech. This might not be a good year for maple syrup, eh?
Because we are talking about ecology, however, not all the impacts will be doom and gloom. Nature adapts. Some species in certain areas will likely benefit from warming winters. Almost all of the radial growth of the six species I studied would benefit from warmer temperatures. Like the loblolly pine study mentioned above, conifers will likely benefit more as they as more sensitive to winter temperatures. When the temperature is above freezing, conifers can take advantage of sunlight and conduct low levels of photosynthesis. Over the course of a mild winter, this can result in extra energy for the coming growing season. I suspect that trees in regions with shallow and ephemeral snowpacks will benefit from warmer winters as well since they most likely deal with substantial fine root mortality every year. Warmer temperatures for trees in these regions will likely be a relief to their annual winter stress.
It is truly hard to know exactly what will happen as our winters change. Winter ecology is complex and might not be as well studied as that of other seasons (although there is a textbook on this topic). For now, I am enjoying the unseasonably warm days while my mind quietly ponders if we are seeing an example of the future today.
The old mail server went down at approximately 13:18 Saturday 11, 2012 due to an expired certificate.
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.
While the New Jersey bill failed, it is going to be discussed in New Jersey’s Senate Environment Committee on Monday, January 30, 2012. The discussion is not yet over regarding New Jersey’s public forests.
The discussion about ecosystem productivity over time also continues in the forum of the Native Tree Society. Specifically, this post was picked up here. Dr. Lee Frelich, director of the Center for Forest Ecology at the University of Minnesota and active contributor to the Native Tree Society, reminded me/us that ecosystems do experience retrogression. Ecosystem retrogression is the concept that “ecosystem properties such as net primary productivity, decomposition, and rates of nutrient cycling undergo substantial declines“.
Dr. Frelich explained the concept in many ways, including:
“Returning to the issue of increasing carbon storage in older forests, inevitably, if old forests continue to accumulate C, especially in the soil, it will lead to a high C:N ratio and other effects that will stall increased production, and without rejuvenating disturbance, in many cases to ecosystem retrogression. This might take hundreds of years (especially in northern hardwoods), so for now, many forests will continue to increase carbon, an important ‘transient’ dynamic”
I have a tendency to forget about this concept. One of the first papers describing ecosystem retrogression that I recall was the work of Peter Vitousek at Hawaii. In a wonderfully designed study, it was shown that ecosystems do regress over the course of thousands of years. This time scale slips my mind when thinking about old-growth forests and forest management.
Dr. Frelich pointed out a newer study summarizing our knowledge of ecosystem retrogression that surveyed multiple ecosystems. The concept seems to apply to most ecosystems over the course of thousands of years.
I followed up Dr. Frelich’s post by asking, might ”the application of the information on ecosystem regression to forest management go something like: ecological justification for logging a forest to ‘save its health’ (prevent ecosystem regression) is on the order of every 100-150 years or less in the absence of fire in boreal systems and on the order of several hundred years to thousands of years for temperate forest types?”
Dr. Frelich responded by saying that “rejuvenating disturbance is necessary at much longer intervals to prevent retrogression. However, I am not sure that logging would be a good agent to prevent retrogression.”
So, yes, ecosystems do regress and decline in productivity. Except for boreal forests with balsam fir, this happens at time scales that are 3-6 times the typical longevity of most trees (200-300 years).
BTW, check out the discussion on the NTS board. Finer points and clarifications of the ecosystem retrogression concept are on-going.
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 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.
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.
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.
Between approximately 8:05 and 9:50 this morning, some WIND authenication became unavailable. CUIT engineers worked to resolve the issue. WIND is currently operating normally.
CHIANG 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.
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.
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.
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.
Amy Hessl is featured on National Geographic radio about our team’s discovery of ancient deadwood that suggests the rise of Chinggis Khaan was associated with increased rainfall. Listen to learn more.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the previous post, I outlined the argument lighting up parts of the New Jersey legislature and the human elements of its ecological communities. Briefly, one reason some people are using to promote logging on public lands is the perception that old trees and forests are dying of old age. While there are other arguments as a part of the bill, like the fact that because forested ecosystems are maturing, species that use younger forests are declining, this “old trees are in decline” argument has led to much logging of old forests. I would argue it doesn’t have to be that way.
I will spare you many of the details from the scientific literature. But there is a plethora of papers indicating old trees and forests are dying of anything but old age.
An early paper that cemented the age-related decline concept was put forth in the journal Science by the excellent ecologist, Eugene Odum. The main figure of the paper that sticks in many people’s mind that summarizes the concept can be found here. Google Scholar estimates this paper has been cited 3,349 times. The idea was mostly based upon a paper focusing upon short-term leaf biomass production of two coniferous plantations (~18 & 36 yrs) and a 70-year-old forest. Odum described the idea that forest respiration increased as the forest aged such that they released more carbon dioxide than what they took in. It makes sense when you think about biological aging.
Eileen Carey pretty much put the first, evidenced-based blow into the aging forest concept. She strapped monitors onto young and old trees and found that increased respiration might not be the case in old trees. In a wonderfully titled article published in 2001, “Are old forests underestimated as global carbon sinks?,” she put forth the idea that the concept of ecosystem decline with time in the Odum paper might be flawed. Unfortunately, Carey’s article has only been cited 100 times, according to Google Scholar.
Testing the concept at the ecosystem level, which is an important consideration for the argument here, is that there is growing evidence that: 1) ecosystems accumulate carbon as they age, especially temperate forests, and 2) old-growth forests actively take up more carbon every year. Sebastiaan Luyssaert noted in the journal Nature, “Old-growth forests therefore serve as a global carbon dioxide sink, but they are not protected by international treaties, because it is generally thought that aging forests cease to accumulate carbon.” His 2008 article was a part of a small groundswell indicating that old-growth forests are much more important to the carbon cycle than previously presumed. Want more proof? Try here and most of the chapters in this 2009 book. There is more out there.
Better, if you live near Black Rock Forest (a consortium including Columbia University) in the southern Hudson Valley, you can see physical proof that age does not slow carbon uptake. By studying almost every facet of the trees and forest, Cheng-Yuan Xu and others found that, contrary to the long-standing belief that growth (productivity) was the cause of the age-related decline in forest biomass accumulation, it might be increased tree mortality that reduced ecosystem productivity, especially with the mortality of big trees. It might be the ecology, not the physiology of trees, silly.
Of course, there were hints to the idea that old trees might not age as people expect.
Tree rings, for quite some time, have shown that old trees are capable of “good” growth rates. Val Lamarche and others found evidence of increased growth rates in old bristlecone pine and speculated in a 1984 Science magazine article that the cause was the result of carbon dioxide (I will not get into the CO2 fertilization controversy here). This was followed up in 1989 by Lisa Graumlich and others that showed a trend of increased ecosystem-level productivity in the Cascade Mountains. Soon the floodgates opened here, here, here, here, pgs. 143-156 here, here, here, here, here, here. Most recently, a paper by Matthew Salzer indicates that bristlecone pine 1,000 yrs old or older are growing faster than perhaps ever in their entire life and that this is likely the result of warming. These are but a few papers showing this pattern.
Complementing these studies is an ecophysiological study that indicates there is no difference between the physiological processes in young vs old bristlecone pines. In a study in Experimental Gerontology by Ronald Lanner and Kristina Connor, the question is asked, “Does bristlecone pine senesce?” They “conclude that the concept of senescence does not apply to these trees,” which is very different than us humans.
One new finding in plant ecophysiology that makes trees more like humans is that size matters. It seems that it might be difficult for bigger trees to maintain physiological processes. In a nice series of papers, Maurizio Mencuccini provides some evidence that size mediates tree vigor and that “after the first few years of a tree’s life, size-mediated factors largely prevail over age-mediated factors in determining tree growth rates.” Bigger trees, in this way, do not grow as well as smaller trees.
We find that in nature as well. Bryan Black reviewed of hundreds of trees of various types in North America and found that the oldest trees currently in the landscape were smaller at 100 years of age than younger trees currently in the landscape. A brand new study in Italy by Alfredo Di Filippo finds that lifespan in beech is greater in trees with slower growth and for trees living in areas with shorter growing seasons. They go on to suggest that global warming might reduce longevity of trees. I’m not ready to go there, but if caloric intake is related to biological longevity, perhaps that is correct. Size matters.
Why might size matter for trees? Large, heavy limbs catch much snow, ice and rain. The tallest trees literally become lightening rods. There are advantages to being a large tree, but there are disadvantages when tough times arrive. ________ You get the point, correct? There is much evidence here against the claim that old trees die of old age. Big trees have some longevity-related issues. Old trees do not seem to be threatened by their great ages. Why trees die is a complex, perplexing and a very active field of research.
So, I promised I’d take you on the way-back machine and show that the concept that old trees decline with age is not even supported by “ancient” forestry literature. Whenever I get on this subject, I always let the late, great Bob Marshall have the last words (not only did they name a wilderness after him, he was a Stumpy, dendrochronologist and A1 scientist with ideas that were decades ahead of his time). After conducting some pretty radical tree-ring analysis for his times, he created the following figure:
Towards the end of his 1927 paper in the Journal of Forestry, Vol 25 (yes! it is finally online!!), he wrote:
It does not take long to see from this picture that the good old growth curve is a delusion.
Academic vessels operate throughout the year, and research cruises are scheduled during seasons when the weather is good enough for scientific operations. I am lucky to have research targets in tropical latitudes; the downside is that cruises to these regions are often scheduled when the weather is poor at higher latitude – in this case, smack during the holidays.
With round-the-clock shifts, there are precious opportunities for Santa to slip onto a research ship unseen. But slip in he did, leaving treats and gifts around the R.V. Langseth to brighten our day. In the main science lab, the midnight shift’s usual stash of Starbursts and Sour-Patch Kids expanded into a orgy of Pringles, summer sausage and pepperjack cheese, chocolate-covered Pretzels, and a six-pound bag of Gummy Bears. My Charlie-Brown Christmas tree suddenly blossomed with ornaments, from simple paper snowflake cut-outs to handmade fish spun from copper wire snagged from the electrician’s shop. Beautiful paper wreathes appeared on several cabin doors. Over in the OBS lab, Santa delivered a set of pop guns with rubber darts; after briefly considering storming the bridge, the boys entertained themselves with target practice while retrieving the last instrument.
Christmas dawn broke slightly cloudy as we steamed into our last task of the experiment, checking on the status of one of the instruments that we will leave in place for a year. As we finished this task, the sun burst through into a brilliant blue sky — certainly not a white Christmas, but welcome nonetheless. The scientific party and crew mustered outside for the requisite cruise photo, bedecked in holiday cheer. It was time to turn for home.
The festivities of the day were tempered by a degree of melancholy at the thought of loved ones back at home, enjoying their own holidays in our absence. The Lamont Marine Office opened up the satellite phone lines, giving everyone a 15-min phone call, and the chatter from those calls resonated through the ship. As scientists, we have been given a remarkable opportunity to explore our planet and unravel its mysteries. Making that happen requires hard work and sacrifice – from the talented crew around us, from our families back home, and from ourselves. We are truly thankful for that opportunity.
Over the first 22 days aboard the R/V Marcus G. Langseth, we’ve zigged and zagged our way over a 360×240 mile region of the Pacific plate, first dropping instruments to the seafloor, and then shooting airguns to them (see previous posts). The final step is to recover a subset of the instruments: 34 ocean-bottom seismometers (OBS) that recorded the shooting, and three of the MT instruments. Excitement abounds – we will see our new data for the first time when we pick up the instruments, and get enticing first peeks that may confirm our ideas about plate structure. But there is plenty of apprehension as well; many potential obstacles are associated with recovering our instruments from the seafloor, and it is possible that some of them (and the data that they contain) could be lost permanently to the deep.
Much of the apprehension is stimulated by uncertainty in the communication with the instrument. As we arrive at each site, we send acoustic “pings” from a transmitter on the ship, asking the instrument to wake up; if the instrument is alive, it will ping back. A second set of pings instructs the instrument to release its anchor, a process that typically takes several minutes. Subsequent pings to the instrument allow us to estimate the distance to it and thus whether or not it is rising to the surface. In shallow water, this system works great. But at 5 km water depth, transmitting acoustic signals is akin to operating a TV remote with a weak battery from across a large crowded room. Signals are faint, and echoes from the ship and other noise sources mask the instrument signals, such that we were often unsure if the instrument was responding or not. The uncertainty was maddening.
Despite these uncertainties, the instruments did indeed hear our distant acoustic calls. The first several recoveries went well, and the data look excellent. However, we then encountered a string of three consecutive instruments that refused to budge from the seafloor. All responded to our pings, but they could not lift off the bottom. Stuck in the mud? Flooded? After spending several hours attempting to recover them, we sadly moved on. Forensic analysis of some of the recovered instruments revealed a likely cause: bad AA battery cells in the release systems, such that they have power to communicate, but not quite enough to complete the release process. Recognizing this, we devised a power-saving routine for the remainder of the recoveries; sending release commands in brief bursts that used minimal power, and then waiting in near-silence until the OBS appeared at the surface. This proved successful, and in the end, we recovered 30 of 34 OBS, and 2 of 3 MT instruments. We are frustrated by the losses, but thankful for the data in hand. Next year we will return to recover the broadband OBS that are recording the earthquake data – in the meantime, we hope to engineer a new plan to coax the four missing OBS back to the surface.
The NoMelt experiment aims to image the structure of an oceanic plate, including its deepest reaches up to 70 km beneath the seafloor. One of our primary means to do so is to create sound (acoustic) waves in the ocean from the ship, and record those waves at receivers on the seafloor, after they have traveled 10’s-100’s of miles through the rocks that underlie the ocean basin. The R/V Langseth is equipped with a large airgun array, which is capable of producing such sounds.
Each airgun consists of a steel cylinder that can hold a large volume of compressed air. When fired, the gun forces the air into a bubble in the water, which quickly pops and collapses under the water pressure. The “bang” associated with the collapsing bubble travels efficiently through the water, and when it reaches the seafloor, much of the sound energy converts to seismic waves that travel through the crust and mantle. With a single airgun, the sound is loud enough to penetrate only into the upper layers of sediment beneath the ship. We can crank up the volume by firing multiple guns at once, allowing the energy to travel deeper into the Earth and to greater distances. During NoMelt, the Langseth tows an array of 36 airguns that produce sufficient energy to probe well into the oceanic plate and travel back up to receivers deployed several hundred km away on the seafloor (see my previous post).
But just being loud is not sufficient. Simply shooting all the guns at once will produce a loud but “ringy” sound, in much the same way that turning a stereo up to maximum volume (11!) will distort the music. The Langseth’s airgun array is “tuned” to produce the ideal sound for our purpose. In practice, this means firing the guns microseconds apart, such that they interfere to produce a sharp, clean sonic pulse, rich in the low frequencies (think bass, rather than treble) that penetrate most effectively into the Earth. The array is also oriented to direct these pulses downward into the seafloor, rather than in all directions into the surrounding ocean. Finally, we fire the guns only once every 4 to 5 minutes, much more slowly than most seismic surveys. This allows the noisy echoes within the water column to die away, even out at the most distant instruments. This is critical for detecting the subtle lower amplitude arrivals returning from deep in the plate.
Over 11 days, we traversed 1000 miles of the ocean floor, traveling at 4 mph, shooting every 4 to 5 minutes, 24 hours a day. Student watchstanders and technicians continuously monitored the computers controlling the shooting. Protected species observers also worked around the clock, searching for nearby marine mammals (whales, dolphins) and protected sea turtles that may be sensitive to the noise. This is only a concern within ~1000 meters of the ship, but to be safe we monitor and report any activity up to four times this distance. In 11 days, we only encountered one small pod of sperm whales; when they meandered too close, we shut down our operation until they left the area, and then circled around and restarted the survey.
If all goes well, the recordings of these shots on the ocean bottom seismometers (OBS) will provide a truly unique portrait of the deeper (mantle) portion of the oceanic plate. This structure has not been comprehensively explored since the pre-airgun 1970’s, when large explosives tossed off the ship (essentially scientific depth charges) served as the sound source. Instrumentation and analysis tools have improved immeasurably since then. We now need to retrieve our OBS…
“There is unrest in the forest, there is trouble with the trees“…I will mostly spare you one of the more ecologically correct, forest ecology rock tunes (the next two lines, however, “For the maples want more sunlight, and the oaks ignore their pleas,” written in 1978, seem incredibly prescient given that one of the first oak-to-maple succession papers was published in 1984. Of course, Rush is that awesome. Why they aren’t in the rock & roll hall of fame…). But, recent developments in the management of public forests in neighboring New Jersey push me to unexpectedly blog again. Oddly, there is a new bill being considered that is pitting forest ecologists against the Audubon Society. There is no unusual unrest in the forest–it is among the people.
The bill being considered would allow forest management, specifically logging, in some of New Jersey’s public forests. One of the main thrusts of this bill is that the older public forests in N.J. need management. I’ll state here that I have no problem with forestry, especially long-minded forestry that considers the entire ecosystem for generations (of trees, animals and people); I marked trees for logging for nearly a year. There are places where you could take most people and they would never know that the forest had been logged for more than 50 years. Of course, Leon Neel is an exceptional human and the forest he manages reflects his soul. (Don’t let “art” in the book title fool you. Neel is an exceptional naturalist with the patience of Job and a highly scientific mind).
What pushes me to write is one of the reasons being used to justify the cutting of trees. It is this, “Supporters of the estimated $2.7 million program say it would help the state nurse its 800,000 acres of land back to health by removing trees and allowing sunlight to feed new growth, creating new habitats and reducing the risk of fires.” The risk of fire is a bit of a red herring given overall forest composition and the recent trend to wetter conditions.
Another provocative passage supporting this bill comes from the N.J. Forestry Association in its spring 2011 newsletter:
“The New Jersey Forestry Association and other professional groups with practical experience need to keep showing that trees need to be managed and harvested to make the most of what nature has provided. A well managed forest will go on forever, while a forest left to its own devices will die and become useless to anyone, as are the pines in Atlantic County where they have lost their needles and are now rotting from the infiltration of pine bark beetles.”
It is true that conifers are highly susceptible to insects, especially in low-diversity ecosystems, and the loss of the pitch pine is a loss of economic output. But, it is unlikely that all the pitch pine are dead. If they are, how did this species survive for centuries in N.J. prior to the arrival of modern forest management?
The line preceding the above quote, beginning on page 3 of the newsletter, states, “Fortunately, there is a potential answer to the anger shown by the public toward the subject of forest management. The remedy is education. Many of the opponents were obviously educated in school and were probably well-meaning, although sometimes intemperate, but they evidenced no schooling in forest management or the overall state of our natural ecosystem.”
Sadly, this is a very true statement.
Education is the answer, but perhaps not in the direction the author implies. It is not the opposition’s lack of “schooling in forest management” that is the source of pushback to the bill. If I could bring Neel to the podium to speak on the issue of natural resource education, he might say something he once said to me, “Do you know what the problem is with forestry in schools these days? They don’t teach forestry!” By this, Mr. Neel meant that what dominates education in modern forestry schools is centered on economic timber production and that there is not enough emphasis on the ecology of ecosystems. He should have this insight. Neel obtained a BS in forestry from the University of Georgia in 1951. By the end of this two part post, ironically, I will show you that, while most of the scientific evidence that old trees and forests do not die of old age, the first publication I can find suggesting that old age is not the source of tree decline is an article published in the Journal of Forestry in 1927. The conflict here is partly a straying from what foresters learned and knew during the first half of the 20th century and partly what forest ecologists have learned during the most recent decades.
Sure. Why not? Why would trees be different than elephants, pandas, whales or humans for that matter. I mean, trees are charismatic megaflora. Why wouldn’t the laws of biology or the laws of life apply to them? For example, Jonny Flynn or Michael Jordan will not be able to replicate their athletic dunks when they are 80 (btw, did you see Michael’s first dunk over Tree Rollins?). Shoot, they will not be able to replicate these feats when they are half that age! So, why wouldn’t trees die simply of old age?
This human perception is understandable. When you go into a true old-growth forest you will notice many dead trees on the forest floor. This is a classic characteristic of an old-growth forest. You might notice several rotten trees, too, including living trees with cubicle butt rot (look to your right and scan the image at the end of this post). To the untrained eye, it might not look pretty. Even to the trained eye it might not look pretty, especially when compared to neatly managed plantations of straight and tall conifers.
So, this human observation is relayed early and often in many classical forestry classrooms, making it feel legitimate (Confession, I attended two forestry schools. I heard this concept frequently). It is so deeply embedded in the fabric of forestry education that the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) espoused this belief as recently as 2001. An IPCC publication stated “Overmature forest stands take up carbon from the atmosphere at slower rates, but even as the growth increment of the trees approaches zero,….”….sigh….If folks read this post, I expect some pushback along the lines of, “We don’t really think that anymore…that is an old idea,” which I know is true. The idea is fading. It is overmature. Unfortunately, where the rubber hits the road, where forest management decisions are made, it is a concept very much still in play. This is where things are in New Jersey (and many other places, honestly. Not picking on N.J. here).
In part two of this post, I will lay out the evidence countering the perception that age matters in terms of tree and ecosystem productivity.
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.