Arctic summer sea ice is declining rapidly: a trend with enormous implications for global weather and climate. Now in its eighth year, the multi-year Arctic Switchyard project is tracking the Arctic seascape to distinguish the effects of natural climate variability from human-induced climate change. The University of Washington is leading the project.
- A) The Canadian Forces Station, Alert
We will fly from the Canadian military base at Alert, Ellesmere Island, land on the ice by ski plane to drill holes, deploy instruments and retrieve water samples. We will measure water temperature, salt content and levels of dissolved oxygen, and a wide variety of natural and man-made substances. Our goal is to understand how much fresh water is entering the system, where it is coming from (sea ice melt, river run-off and so on) and where it exits the arctic, altering currents in the North Atlantic Ocean.
During the next few weeks we will blog from the field; Follow our work on the Arctic Switchyard project page.
It is the middle of the night and I am wide awake thinking about the ocean, specifically the bottom of the ocean. Is it rocky? Jumbled? Smooth? I am wondering this because I want to take samples of the seafloor to study. Rocky is bad. Jumbled is bad. Smooth is good.
In one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons a woman says, “I don’t know why I don’t care about the bottom of the ocean, but I don’t.” Well, for the next four weeks our research group will care a lot about the bottom of the ocean. We are sailing to the middle of the Pacific Ocean where we hope to collect sediment to study how climate has changed in the past. Our destination is a group of atolls and seamounts collectively known as the Line Islands. They include Kingman Reef (U.S.A.), Palmyra Atoll (U.S.A.) and part of the island nation of Kiribati.
The ocean around the Line Islands is over two and a half miles deep (4 km)—too deep to preserve the climate changes we want to study. So, we are going to take sediment cores on the flanks of the islands where the sediments are better preserved. The flanks are also where a lot can happen to the sediments. Slumps can break off huge chunks of sediment, ocean currents can erode the sediment and slumps from higher up the flank can deposit thick layers of sediment. All of these happenings alter or erase the regular ordering of the sediment (the stratigraphy in geologists terms) and make them unusable for our research. So, I am thinking about the bottom of the ocean.
Our group is sailing on the research vessel (R/V) Marcus G. Langseth, an oceanographic research vessel operated by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (where I work). The ship is a floating scientific laboratory, with the ability to study and take samples of the ocean water and sediments wherever we go. The scientists on board include seventeen researchers from nine institutions. In addition, there are 34 technicians and sailors who make sure the ship and scientific instruments are functioning properly so we can collect the data we need. The moment we leave the dock in Hawaii will be the culmination of almost a year of planning, a lot of hard work by the crew of the Langseth, and financial support from the U.S. National Science Foundation.
Our goal for this cruise is to collect cores of deep ocean sediment that we can use to study the past behavior of El Niño as well as the climate of the tropical Pacific Ocean. Although our studies focus on the Pacific Ocean, the results could tell us about many different areas of the globe. El Niño weather affects regions as far apart as Indonesia and New York State. In fact, El Niño events are responsible for the largest year-to-year changes in global weather. Our goal is to learn how El Niño has varied in the past so that we can develop better forecasts for the future of El Niño into the 21st century and beyond.
Over the next four weeks I will be writing a series of articles about our cruise. Topics will include El Niño, life aboard the ship and how we actually collect water and sediment samples from the ocean. Stay tuned!
In the meantime you can track where we are online.
The charge is simple – Operation Ice Bridge will fly all 200 Greenland outlet glaciers with an end dimension of over 2 km. The reason? These outlet glaciers (fast moving ice bounded by mountains) are the major mechanism carrying ice off this mega-island and into the surrounding ocean. Greenland is surrounded by a ring of high mountains that work like fingers encircling the ice to hold it in place. Between these mountain ‘fingers’ ice slips through in streaming rivers transporting its frozen cargo to the sea. Ice sliding from the land into the surrounding waters results in a major human impact – Sea Level Rise.
Measuring the ice thickness (ATM, RaDAR), the shape and opening size of the land beneath the ice (RaDAR, gravity), and the type of geology (magnetics) will help with determining how much ice is on this northern land and to calculate how quickly it might move from land into the ocean. These 200 outlet glaciers are key to this calculation. Each flight mission covers a different group of glaciers, some repeating flights from earlier years to measure any change in ice elevation, and some new flights over glaciers never before measured in order to collect baseline data. In addition to flying the outlet glaciers each mission involves transit lines. Careful planning goes into laying out these lines in order to build a comprehensive ‘blueprint’ of Greenland’s land mass. Hidden under several kilometers of ice the land is slowly being pieced together with each line of data collected.
Each instrument on the plane collects valuable information for the project, but with four types of RaDAR being collected this season most of the flights include at least one of these as a ‘priority instrument’. RaDAR, an acronym for radio detection and ranging, has been a part of our vocabulary and has enhanced our understanding of the world since the Second World War. Sending out radio waves and capturing their return has provided us information on ships, aircraft, missiles, weather formations, speeding motor vehicles and – the focus of this project – the terrain. Each of the RaDAR used in Ice Bridge has been designed by CReSIS (Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets) with a unique frequency and penetration for a specific use, yet all have overlap or redundancy.
For detecting the very freshest snow the Ku band is important. Ku uses the highest frequency, 12-18 GHz, providing high-resolution information on the top 15 meters of snow cover, and has been used this season to separate the snow layer thickness on top of the sea ice when trying to determine overall ice thickness. The Snow RaDAR operates at 2-8 GHz and focuses on the top 30 meters of snow cover, often an area of unconsolidated ice (the firn layer), and an interim stage between snow and glacially compressed ice. Accumulation RaDAR operates at a lower resolution of 600-900 Mhz penetrating down a full km into the ice providing data on the internal layers of ice as they collect and move over the landforms. Lastly, the MCoRDS RaDAR is the priority for information on the bed shape beneath the ice sheet. MCoRDS uses a low frequency or 180-210 Mhz to penetrate down to 4 km beneath the ice surface giving us the depth and shape of land below, and any constrictions to ice flow.
The RaDAR can provide information on the shape of the land surface but not on the geology, and if there is water it can’t image through to see what lies below. This is where Lamont’s gravity and magnetics teams work to fill in the missing information. Matching the bed shape to the gravity/magnetics information on the ‘bed’ material is important in developing our understanding of how the glacier may move in the future.
Measuring Greenland’s ice sheet and the land that holds it in check is a first step in a long walk that will take us to predicting the future of that ice sheet and its impacts on sea level rise. Every line of Ice Bridge data collected fills a blank that moves us closer.
Special thanks to Aqsa Patel & Kevin Player for their willingness to answer all my questions on the CReSIS radar systems, and Beth Burton and Kirsty Tinto on the magnetics and gravity systems.
For more blogs on this project: http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/tag/greenland-ice-sheet/
For more on this project at LDEO: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/icebridge
For more about NASA Ice Bridge: http://www.nasa.gov/icebridge/
Columbia University IT group is investigating intermittent problems with the myUNI services for password changes and resets. Some users are experiencing long wait times and a <
To Norse mythology Midgard is a place that is impassable, surrounded by a world of ocean. Thor, the hammer-wielding warrior god often traveled across to Midgard, and one imagines evidence of his fiery power remains in the highly charged rocks that are left behind. Magnetized rocks containing Thor’s energy and the fiery touch of his lightning bolts.
We are soaring today 1500 ft. over the surface of the twisting branches of the Midgard glaciers. Patches of low lying clouds drape around the tops of the mountains, like smoke from Thor’s lightning singes, but as the sky opens we see row upon row of majestic peaks. It is hard to balance the icy cold of the Greenland exterior with the molten heat of Thor’s lightning. Midgard, is cold and impassable, yet it is evident why Thor was attracted to this land.
Greenland’s geology is diverse. Some of the oldest rocks on Earth are found in southwestern Greenland in the Isua Greenstone Belt, an Archean belt between 3.7 and 3.8 billion years of age. Today, however, we are flying over the opposite side of the country.
The Midgard glaciers hug the southeast of Greenland where the main rock is Archean gneiss, later reworked and cut through with a mafic, or iron rich, intrusion. Perhaps this occurred when Thor was traveling these peaks. We see the changes as spikes in our magnetic data, and visual features that appear as well.
Magnetic measurements are some of the many measurements being collected by Operation Ice Bridge. Rocks have different magnetic properties, so collecting magnetic data can tell us something about the type of rocks that are under the ice, assisting in refining our understanding of how the overlying ice will interact with what is below.
Measuring the magnetic field can be challenging from a metal plane, however the P3 is designed for magnetic surveys so the data requires only a minimal ~10nT (nanoTeslas) adjustment to remove the interference. Originally used by the Navy for locating submarines the P3 has a tail stinger or boom designed to hold the instrument while minimizing magnetic interference from the plane. The Ice Bridge P3 holds two magnetometers. One measures the total magnetic field, the other is a flux gate, with three orthogonal sensors to record plane directional maneuvers, information that is needed for later data corrections.
The Earth’s magnetic field is not constant so collecting data at a magnetic ground station is important in order to gather daily background levels. The magnetic anomaly that we report is the change from this background or anticipated levels. This means that a series of corrections must be applied to all the data collected including removing the Earth’s total magnetic field, daily diurnal fluctuations, and small spikes from the plane radio. What remains is the anomaly, any representation of a magnetic signal from the geology in the area.
Magnetic surveys normally begin with an assessment or compensation flight in a magnetically quiet area, at a high elevation to minimize the effects of high magnetic gradients caused by the geology. This provides the reference points needed for final corrections and processing of the data. This season Ice Bridge has had the opportunity to fly almost continuous missions so the compensation flight has been put on temporary hold. Once that flight is completed, the data will receive a final adjustment.
Today our screens are busy with magnetic shifts tracking on the screen. Seeing the data jump onto the screen is always exciting. The instruments take a reading approximately every meter as we fly above at a rate of close to120 meters a second. The data appears as a wrapping stream of plotted points. When a line travels from one side of the left hand column to the other it shows that the magnetic field has changed by 100 nT. The second column shows greater detail in the measured field with one line showing a change of 10 nT. Peak values of magnetic anomalies appear as a mid-column direction change on the wrapping plot. When the magnetic gradients are high, indicating a distinct geologic boundary, it can appear as a dark block.
What we see on the screen tells us about what happened in the geologic formation of this country millions of years ago. Understanding how the changing rock types affect the flow of ice can help us to predict what might happen in the future.
For more on this project at LDEO: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/icebridge
For more about NASA Ice Bridge: http://www.nasa.gov/icebridge/
Even in idyllic Greenland some days start to feel like the movie “Groundhog Day”, however the turn of events today broke that thread. Over our two weeks in Kangerlussuaq we have ended our evenings with a science and weather report, and the hope of flying the program over both coasts. Each morning we wake up, head to the plane and look to see what the weather has dealt us. So far with incredible consistency clouds have dictated a series of flights on the east coast of Greenland. Today started exactly the same with clouds on the west coast driving a plan to fly the centerlines of several large southeast glaciers – Helheim, Kangerdlugssuaq, and Midgard.
But today would not be like every other. We lifted into the air and immediately loud rattling emerged from under the plane. The belly of the P3 has been outfitted for science equipment and directly in the line of the rattle lie a series of elevation survey instruments – two Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM) lasers, that send and receive a steady series of laser pulses, and two Digital Mapping System (DMS) cameras, that take high resolution surface images every 1.2 seconds. Both of these instruments are used to develop elevation maps of the area surveyed.
Three floor plates were quickly removed and a member of the aircrew is tethered for safety and dropped below. Looking down I could see straight through to the land and a surface dotted with small melt ponds. It seems you could put your hand straight through the bottom of the plane, but there is a surface – clear glass in two portholes and clear acrylic in the third. Each morning I have watched the ATM and DMS teams carefully clean these lenses to the outside world.
After a quick review of the situation the decision is to return to the airstrip and attempt a repair, but first we must lighten the plane. Physics tells us that a fully fueled plane ready for a day of science work is not safe to land. Working with the air tower a place is selected to drop some fuel, we rise in elevation to minimize the impact of the drop, and then we are ready to cycle back to the base for a quick check.
The windows below the ATM and DMS are checked. They must be perfectly clear and there is spatter to be wiped away. A safety inspection and refueling puts us back on the runway taxiing in just over an hour. A warning light appears as we taxi and we aborted again. This time it is a quick fix and we are off and flying within thirty minutes – all in all a 2.5 hour delay which requires an amended mission. Helheim-Kangerdlugssuaq-The Sequel!
We will fly over water and glacial ice today giving both ATMs a work out. The primary system has a wider swath (700-800 ft.) working best over glacial ice. The secondary system has a narrower swath width with a smaller angle of incidence, the preferred system for sea ice. Sea ice has a mix of open water leads and thin sheets of ice making it difficult for the primary system to collect wide-angle measurements over both the ice and open water leads.
As we begin the flight the secondary ATM needs adjustment. The laser pulse is sent out through a series of mirrors and collected back through a telescope that needs to be able to ‘see’ the laser return to measure the surface elevation. Once again the floor panel comes up, but the adjustment is a quick fix. The cold weather can be one cause of this drifting.
As we reach the coastline it becomes apparent there is sea fog and wispy clouds laying low over the glacier and waterfront. The trouble with clouds or fog is they will block out both lasers unless we can get under them. In some places we can fly beneath the clouds, but in other areas it is not possible so we will lose some of the ATM data. It can’t be helped. Sea fog is extremely difficult to pick up on the synoptic charts used to assess the weather each day. We are lucky, however, and at the end of the day the ATM team reports 40 gigabytes of data collected. Little was lost to the clouds and fog.
Tomorrow we will need to wait and see if the cycle is broken, sending us to the west coast.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.