Monthly Archives: April 2013

Putting the 400 ppm CO2 thing in perspective

Before the release of vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere mainly through the burning of fossil fuels, the atmospheric concentration of this gas was about 300 ppm or a bit more. Soon, that number will be 400 ppm. How soon? Let’s see … it is now Tuesday at about 7pm. Maybe mid morning tomorrow? Maybe early next week? In fact, there have been one or two readings over the last few weeks that have registered above the 400 ppm mark.

So, this is important because humans have officially increased the concentration of this key greenhouse gas by a third. That’s a big deal.

Having said that, I’d like to be the first person to say the following because you’ll be hearing this form climate science denialists sooner or later anyway.

Aside from the long term trend of increasing CO2, there is an annual variation as well. Over the course of the year, CO2 moves in and out of the atmosphere on a fairly regular schedule. Surely, you’ve seen the famous Mauna Loa graph, this one cribbed from Wikipedia:


There is a lot more land in the Northern Hemisphere that goes through a dramatic cycle in plant activity, with most plants playing (or even being) dead over the winter and springing to life in the Spring. The Southern Hemisphere has much less land. So a small amount of CO2 moves into the atmosphere over the Northern Hemisphere winter and into spring, and then moves back into newly grown plant tissue during the northern growing season.

So, right now, CO2 should be at a short term peak. The range of this variation is around 8 ppm, so if we hit, say, 401 ppm next week, expect that value to go back below 400 ppm in a few weeks. In other words, we can and should note that we are probably hitting the 400 ppm barrier, but then later when we drop slightly below, temporarily, 400ppm, the climate science denialists will be all over that claiming that there is no global warming. Cuz they’re morons.

In a few years … certainly by the end of the present decade …. the low values will be over 400 ppm unless something dramatic happens.

The National Center for Science Education and Climate Change

Published on Apr 30, 2013
Science education is under assault again. Not just evolution education, but climate change education. NCSE policy director Dr. Minda Berbeco traces the history of science denial, the links between evolution- and climate change deniers, recent legislation targeting both, the role of the Next Generation Science Standards, and more. Where: East Bay Atheists, Berkeley, CA. When: 4/21/2013

People of the Book

I rarely review fiction, but I’ve got a nice book I’d like to recommend. My friend Amy suggested it to me on facebook a while back when I was casting around for a novel to read. The novel is People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.


Although a lot of people made a wider range of suggestions on my facebook post, I knew that when I saw Amy’s suggestion it was the one I should try. She knows enough about me (we worked together for a few years) to zero in on something that I would appreciate, and she’s a person who understand literature at a level above me, so it was unlikely that I would go wrong following her suggestion.

People of the Book is about, well, a book, and the people … well, the people of that book. As you might expect. The book is a Haggadah, which is the Jewish document used in the Passover Seder. The details of what a Haggadah contains are not too important; suffice it to say that any practicing Jewish family has one (or several … you can get cheap paperback ones to pass around so everyone can follow along). There is one particularly famous one, the Sarajevo Haggadah, which is a real thing. It is odd because it is very old yet brilliantly illuminated. Many scholars think that a Haggadah of those times would not have been illuminated because the practice of drawing images would have been banned among Jews as it was among Muslims. The Sarajevo Haggadah was probably made around 1350, probably in Spain, and it has a rich history, having squeaked by various inquisitions and book burnings and having been threatened with destruction during the siege of Sarajevo.

One of these figures has African features.  I'm told.
One of these figures has African features. I’m told.
The novel, People of the Book, recounts the history of the book with a steadily decreasing level of historical accuracy as the writer takes us farther and farther back in time. The modern venue involves an Australian book restorer who gets the job of stabilizing the manuscript for display in the museum in Sarajevo. As the restorer discovers physical clues in (or on) the book itself, author Geraldine Brooks brings us back in time, regaling us with a story that would explain each particular clue, with the time trips provided in order from most recent (World War II) to oldest (the 14th century, when the book was created). The most recent historical forays are somewhat plausible and based on a reasonable interpretation of history, but the earliest forays are entirely made up because we know nothing about the history of the book in those days.

And that is what makes the novel (and it is a novel, not a documentary) most interesting. The original book, and the fictionalized book in the novel, depict a woman with African features sitting at the seder table. Geraldine Brooks comes up with a very interesting fictionalized story to account for this.

Forensic book restoration, centuries of history, really bad bad guys and some pretty good good guys, epic twists and turns as well as highly unlikely coincidences that apparently really did happen, and a thoughtful perspective on the dynamic and complex history of Jews in a Muslim and Christian world, as well as a bit of modern mystery and suspense spiced up with a nice mixture of family, professional, and academic angst, combine to make for a very good read.

Thanks for suggesting it, Amy!

Photo Credit: Ivana Vasilj via Compfight cc

EU will ban neonicotinoid pesticides to save the honey bees

Being a bee is hard. I’m speaking specifically of the honey bee, Apis mellifera, the one that produces the honey you buy in the store. Many insects, and other critters, eat by finding food and then eating it, and then they do that for a while and now and then reproduce by finding a mate, laying eggs that they perhaps put in a good location but thereafter leave alone, etc. etc. But honey bees do all of these thing in a way that makes it seem like they are trying to make it harder for them than it is for everyone else. Much of the food that honey bees eat is gathered at rare and hard to find sites (flowers), carried back to a central place that may be quite far away, then processed. Offspring are produced by a very small subset of a large colony, using a system involving several individuals who make places for the queen to lay the eggs around. Larvae are then taken good care of and fed. This whole thing takes place in a hive which can only be effectively placed in one of a limited number of locations. Since there is processed food (honey) and larvae (also good to eat) all in one place, the bee colony must have multiple ways of protecting itself, including picking a good location, making the hive hard to get into, and having a hoard of suicidal stingers ready to die in defense of the nest. Beyond this, sneaky invaders, other insects that might try to sneak into the hive, must be identified by guards.

Navigation over long distances, communicating with other bees about newly found hard to get and far away sources of food, mechanisms of controlling reproduction within the colony, thermoregulation of the hive, building and maintaining architecture, species recognition, a mechanism of changing behavior among a number of different tasks (thermoregulation, foraging, building the hive, attacking selected invaders, swarming) … Yeah, being a honey bee is hard.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a thing where the colonies of bees in a given area are affected by something that causes the number of bees to reduce in population over time … the worker bees seem to disappear … so the colony dies. Think about all the things I mentioned above. Any small subset of these things could be disrupted to cause something like CCD. The transfer of information about where to go to find food, and the process of foraging and navigating to food sources and back involves a lot of different mechanisms; the disruption of any one or two of those mechanisms might cause worker bees to fly off and not come back. The process of foraging at distance and carrying back food requires a great deal of energy. Any part of the process of maintenance and distribution of food to worker bees could cause them to starve or reduce in energy level, causing them to not return to the hive. Leaving most of these tasks and mechanisms untouched and operational but adding a pathogen that demands more energy from individual bees could have a similar effect. In other words, in the absence of any good information about what causes CCD, it would be very hard to come up with a simple explanation for that phenomenon on the basis of what bees do normally. The phenomenon can also be caused by any two or three of a dozen things, such that the cause in any given case could be very different from the cause in a different case.

To this we can add another feature of honey bees. For the most part, we are talking about bees that are not living in their native habitats. Our honey comes from a subset of honey bees that have been to varying degrees domesticated, and that are living in a climate that is not where they originally evolved. Imagine going to a region where chickens are grown but that is environmentally very different from the region where a chicken like bird lives normally, and deleting one or two of the key things we do to keep those chickens alive. I.e, leave all the chickens out for the winter in Montana. Not feed them. Etc. There would be “Coop collapse disorder” in no time. The fact that honey bees exist in a sort of liminal state of wildness (they forage in the wild, although the “wild” may be human maintained farm fields and orchards) and domestication (their hives are generally built and maintained by humans who may also provide heat and protection from predators) together with the fact that honey bees have undergone some degree of selection (to make them a bit less fierce, for instance) may mean that the complex web of physiological and behavioral adaptations that make bees “work” properly is somewhat more delicate than it might be for wild bees living in their native tropics.

I don’t mean to give the impression that bee experts have no idea what causes CCD. They do have ideas, evidence, and there has been a fair amount of research done (below are links to a few key blog posts that summarize much of this). The point I’m making here is that the complexity of CCD and the difficulty in understanding this phenomenon should not be a surprise.

Just now, the European Union has decided to implement a regulation that bans a certain kind of insecticide, neonicotinoid, from use in their purview, because it is possible that this insecticide has a negative impact (perhaps multiple negative impacts) on bees, contributing to CCD. This may be a good idea, even if the insecticide in question is not “the” primary cause of CCD, if the chemical simply makes CCD a much more likely thing to happen. Banning it may be like giving a patient with some horrid infection an IV of fluids. The IV is not directly treating the infection, but the patient may require the support provided by the IV (and other things they do for you in a hospital, like the great food and a TV strapped to the ceiling) may be what it takes to allow other treatments, or the patient’s own immune system, to bring the individual to a state of better health.

The ban was not universally supported. Voting against the bad were the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Austria and Portugal; voting for the bad were Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Estonia, Spain, France, Cyprus, Germany, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovenia and Sweden. Ireland, Lithuania, Finland and Greece abstained. This resulted in a vote that would not automatically institute the ban, but a decision by the controlling commission to move forward with the ban was made possible, and that is what has happened. The ban will run for two years and apply to flowering crops that normally attract bees. In a way, this is more of a giant experiment than an actual ban.

The Guardian reports:

Europe will enforce the world’s first continent-wide ban on widely used insecticides linked to serious harm in bees, after a European commission vote on Monday.

The landmark suspension is a victory for millions of environment campaigners concerned about dramatic declines in bees who were backed by experts at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). But it is a serious defeat for the chemical companies who make billions a year from the products and also UK ministers – who voted against the ban. Both had argued the ban will harm food production.

Tonio Borg, health and consumer commissioner, said: “Our proposal is based on a number of risks to bee health identified by the EFSA, [so] the European commission will go ahead with its plan in coming weeks. I pledge to do my utmost to ensure that our bees, which are so vital to our ecosystem and contribute over €22bn annually to European agriculture, are protected.”

It is almost certainly not the case that bee researchers unanimously agree that neonicotinoid is the most important cause of CCD or that banning it will work. Neonicotinoid is actually a good kind of insecticide because it works by being taken up by plants, and thus, targets invading insects selectively, and also, affects insects that are not bothered much by other insecticides because the insects bore into the plant. So, there may be some serious consequences to agriculture in Europe caused by this ban.

It will be interesting to see what happens over time. I’m not sure how long it will take for the ban to fully take effect. Since it is added to soil, neonicotinoid will remain “in use” for a while after it is no longer applied. And, even if neonicotinoid was a key cause of problems in bees, it is quite possible that other causes were exacerbated by neonicotinoid use, and the effects of those causes may take longer to go away or become less important.

One interesting aspect of this ban is the way in which environmental groups and the chemical companies that make the insecticide have bifurcated into two distinct ways of thinking. Again, from the Guardian:

Greenpeace’s chief scientist, Doug Parr, said [of a dissenting vote by the UK]: “By not supporting the ban, environment secretary, Owen Paterson, has exposed the UK government as being in the pocket of big chemical companies and the industrial farming lobby.”…

But a spokesman for Syngenta, which makes one of the three neonicotinoids that have been suspended, said: “The proposal is based on poor science and ignores a wealth of evidence from the field that these pesticides do not damage the health of bees. The EC should [instead] address the real reasons for bee health decline: disease, viruses and loss of habitat.”


Prof Simon Potts, a bee expert at the University of Reading, said: “The ban is excellent news for pollinators. The weight of evidence from researchers clearly points to the need to have a phased ban of neonicotinoids….


“Bayer remains convinced neonicotinoids are safe for bees, when used responsibly and properly,” said a spokesman for Bayer Cropscience. “As a science-based company, Bayer is disappointed that clear scientific evidence has taken a back-seat in the decision making process.”

Both Bug Girl and Carl Zimmer have written a fair amount on this topic, and their posts include links to a great deal of additional information.

Photo Credit: Chalkie_CC via Compfight cc

UFO’s, Climate Change, Child Abuse

What do UFO’s, the belief that magnetism causes climate change but atmospheric gasses are not related, child molestation, and academic sock puppeting have in common with sea level rise? To find out, set aside some time to carefully read this: UFOs, Sea Level Rise And The Magnetism Of Climate Science Denial and then click on this.

Photo Credit: Jofre Ferrer via Compfight cc

Bangladesh and Sea Level Rise

You’ve all heard about the horrible tragedy in Bangladesh, still unfolding. Not to distract from that event, or diminish its importance, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at that low lying country in relation to long term sea level rise caused by climate change. I am making no claim here about the maximum rate of sea level rise or about the timing of sea level rise. But the truth is, there have been times in the past when there was virtually no year round ice (glaciers) anywhere on this planet, and sea levels were much higher than they are now. During a time period not too different from the present (probably not as warm, or just about the same) sea levels were several meters (maybe about 6 meters) higher than they are now, suggesting that even under current conditions a lot of the ice in Greenland and Antarctica could melt. In other words, there is an argument that even if we curtail global warming now and keep things at their current somewhat warmed up level ice may continue to melt enough to raise the sea by meters. If we continue to warm the atmosphere and the oceans, the total sea level rise could be much, much higher.

Using the interactive map here, let’s look at Dhaka, the site of the recent and ongoing tragedy in Bangladesh. This is appropriate because it is the first world thirst for goods and luxury that produces both sweat shops like the one that just collapsed, killing hundreds of workers, and that produces global warming that will also produce catastrophic sea level rise.

Here’s a map of the area now, showing the local terrain:

Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Dhaka, Bangladesh.

If the entire Greenland Ice Sheet melted (but nothing else), or if a bunch of Greenland and a bunch of Antarctica melted, to produce about 7 meters of sea level rise, this is what the map would look like:

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 8.42.56 AM

This is not what the region would look like, actually. The sediment here is all soft delta material what would be eroded away horizontally in no time. Another way to think about this is that if the sea went up just a meter or two, this entire region would probably be eaten away by horizontal erosion very quickly. Anyway, let’s add some more water and see what this first approximation would look like. Imagine if the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets both contributed maximally to sea level rise. This would be the minimal result:

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 8.43.17 AM

If all the glacial ice in the world melted, and sea levels rose to the maximum height they’ve ever been, our closeup look of the region would look like this:

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 8.43.32 AM

As you probably know, Bangladesh is one of the lowest elevation larger countries in the world. In fact, it seems like Bangladesh is defined almost entirely by its topography; Bangladesh is the delta. If we take the same maximal sea level rise as in the last graph, and step back a ways to see the effect at large scale, this is what we get:

They would have to call Bangladesh something else.
They would have to call Bangladesh something else.

By the way, there’s a cool book coming out on the topic, Rising Seas: Past, Present, Future.

Photo Credit: joiseyshowaa via Compfight cc

James Hansen’s Legacy

James Hansen, author of “Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About The Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity“, recently announced his retirement from his position as director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. My friend John Abraham write’s about Hansen’s retirement in his inaugural* post in the new blog “Climate Consensus – The 97%” …

What does this mean for climate science and the future of the Earth? It is impossible to know now but instead of looking forward, I want to shine a light on what Jim has done for climate science, what he signifies to the larger public, and how he is viewed by current and upcoming scientists.

John’s post is here: What’s climate scientist James Hansen’s legacy? As the scientist ‘retires’ from his duties at Nasa, John Abraham assesses the impact of a climate change leader. Ho have a look.

*An earlier post at the Guardian by John has been prepended to this new blog, but this is the first post by him since the blog came into existence last week.

Photo from the Guardian story.

Scott Lohman Interviews Edwina Rogers

Almost a year ago, Edwina Rogers took over as the executive director of the Secular Coalition for America. It’s been an ambitious, busy year for the Secular Coalition. This Sunday, Rogers joins us to talk with Scott Lohman about what they’ve accomplished and where they’re going in the next year. They’ll also discuss the formation of the Minnesota chapter of the Secular Coalition.

Listen to AM 950 KTNF on Sunday at 9 a.m. Central to hear Atheists Talk, produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call in to the studio: 952-946-6205, or send an e-mail to during the live show.

Does Your Genealogy Reveal Amazing Anthropological Stories?

I gave a talk at the Brookdale Public Library last night as part of the celebration of DNA day. DNA Day, or DNAD for short, was created about the time of the “completion” (more or less) of the Human Genome in 2003, and is set to be on the date of the publication of the famous research on the structure of DNA.

The point of the talk was to link behavioral biology and the anthropological study of kinship with the practice of conducting personal genealogy. There was a time when I did a fair amount of genealogical research, in connection with historic archaeology, which in turn was part of writing environmental impact assessments for publicly funded projects such as sewer systems, power plants, road improvements, and such. It is useful to know something about the people who lived on affected properties (or in affected buildings) back in the 18th or 19th century when assessing the potential significance of cultural resources, and genealogical research is part of that. Also, property research and genealogical research often go hand in hand.

At the time, I noticed a few interesting possible patterns emerging in the genealogical data, though I was never able to devote enough time to any of the projects to really narrow them down. For instance, one pair of families that lived mostly on or near Cape Cod, Massachusetts seemed to intermarry more than one might expect, almost resembling the time honored practice of “sister exchange” in some cases. Also, the two parallel families, who frequently engaged in property related ventures together, seemed to mainly follow two distinct geographically based economic strategies; one family lived mainly in the interior and farmed (among these farms was the first commercial cranberry operation in the US) while the other family lived mainly on the coast and engaged in shipping. Among the latter, one individual held the record for a time in the number of days to leave a Massachusetts port in a clipper ship, sail to Canton to load up with stuff, and return.

For decades, cultural anthropologists fixated on kinship (and associated marriage patterns and inheritance rules) as a central organizing principle in culture. This made sense for a lot of reasons. It seemed that any given culture had a sterotypical system of specifying relationships between people. These systems were not random or even that diverse; all the kinship systems studied across the world could be categorized into a few standard patterns. Perhaps one of the most striking things to European and American (Western) anthropologists was the frequent reference to kinship. In some societies, many individuals were referred to almost exclusively by kinship terms, with individuals’ given names rarely uttered. Social relations beyond just marriage or inheritance seemed to be determined by kin relations. And so on.

Over time, however, a couple of things happened. Three, probably. For one, even though all societies seemed to have a kinship system and all kinship systems could be classified into a short list of patterns, it also seemed that the kinship system observed by different anthropologists visiting a given “culture” at different times and places was sometimes different. Either kinship systems were more diverse or dynamic than previously thought, or their role in organizing society was weaker than imagined, as a system that is in flux would seem a poor starting point for a culture’s organization. Also, anthropologists were confused and confounded by the apparent fact that only some kinship systems mirrored an underlying biological reality very well. Many societies had and “underdetermined” system where, for instance, all the women and men in the generation above “ego” were called mother and father, respectively, even though they could not all be mothers and fathers. Other systems were “overdetermined” whereby individuals seemed to be classified into categories that broke atomistic biological systems down to smaller parts. Finally, it became a pattern in cultural anthropology to build up a way of thinking about culture and then, no matter how useful that way of thinking became, to toss it out and replace it with another. Models of culture among anthropologists were, it turns out, more dynamic than kinship systems within cultures!

About the same time that cultural anthropologists were both figuring out kinship and beginning to discard it as intractable or uninteresting, biologists were busy linking genetic relationships to behavior, a form of study that would eventually take shape in Sociobiology, Behavioral Biology, and Darwinian Anthropology, and Evolutionary Psychology (and no, none of those terms are really interchangeable, though there is overlap). Eventually it would become apparent to many of us that the “overdetermined” kinship systems actually do reflect an underlying biological reality, and we could understand why a patrilineal system with female exogamy and prescribed cross cousin marriage made sense from a behavioral biological point of view. Too bad the biologists and the cultural anthropologists were not more in sync, because we might have had some interesting conversations.

When a married man dies, his wife may become the wife (maybe the second or third wife) of his brother. When a man is married to more than one woman, it is more convenient for many involved in that relationship if at least two of the women are sisters. Under some conditions, more than one man will reside with and father the children of one woman, and in some cultures that is openly acknowledged, while in most, it is not. As mentioned earlier, women are often exchanged between patrilines over time, sometimes in the practice of sister exchange. Cousins, in some cases a particular kind of cousin, are often preferred marriage partners. And so on and so forth. These are all practices that have been identified in a number of societies. These practices are often explicitly defined, even given a name. There is probably a reasonable correspondence between a society’s economic base (or other factors) and whether or not any one of these practices is found. These things are seen all around the world.

However, most of these practices are explicitly or implicitly either prohibited or frowned upon, or simply ignored and unacknowledged, in Western society. Western society is one place where a fair number of people engage in systematic genealogical research. What this means is that when people do this genealogical research, they may be missing something, missing patterns, revealed by the relationships in their ever growing and ever more detailed family trees.

The other day, Amanda, Julia and I watched a film made by my sister, set in a geologically complex, active, and interesting part of the world. As someone with more than a passing knowledge of geology, I was enjoying the background as much as the foreground in that film. I especially appreciated the amazing thrust fault that showed up in many of the scenes, not to mention the broken ancient peneplains raised up by mountain building. At one point I stopped the film, rewound, and made everyone else notice these details! (I know, that must have been annoying.)

This is how I feel about Americans doing genealogy. As an anthropologist and behavioral biologist, I want those folks to at least have a chance to notice some of the interesting things they must be seeing here and there in their research.

After my talk audience members shared their observations. In fact, each of them could point to things in their genealogies that at first perplexed them, but that now they suddenly felt a better understanding of.

And, as individuals, they will never look at their cousins in the same way again.

Image from Wikipedia Entry on Kinship

The Truth About Global Warming’s Famous Slowdown

Dana Nuccitelli writes:

The rate of heat building up on Earth over the past decade is equivalent to detonating about 4 Hiroshima atomic bombs per second. Take a moment to visualize 4 atomic bomb detonations happening every single second. That’s the global warming that we’re frequently told isn’t happening.

That’s Dana’s opening paragraph in the inaugural blog post in a new two-person blog called Climate Consensus – The 97% which started up today at The Guardian. The other blogger is my friend John Abraham.

Both of these authors are climate scientists. Dan is famous for his work at Sketpical Science Blog, and John is famous for his wrangling with Lord Viscount Fakir Christopher Mockable-ton of the United Kingdom. This is going to be a good blog.

Click here to see the first post and learn about how global warming is really, honestly, truely continuing despite all this crap you may hear about a hiatus.