If water had its way, this is what California would look like:

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Think about it for a second. Every single moment, currents of air move, slowly or rapidly, across every land surface on the planet. Anything loose gets blown slowly or rapidly, to lower places. Every now and then, in some places rarely and in other places commonly, liquid water falls from the sky on almost every land surface on the planet. Now and then, in certain limited areas, frozen water builds up to great heights, thousands of feet hight, and moves along, scraping deep hollows and grooves the size of big lakes out of these land surfaces. Now and then the earth shakes and stuff falls down. Most of the earth’s surface is ocean, only a small percentage is land. With all this blowing and washing and scraping away, you would think that all the stuff on the land would eventually end up in the ocean and all of the land would look like this:

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There are several reasons this does not happen. One is that mountain building happens because continental shelves push against each other. Another is that volcanoes occasionally spew ash, lava, and stuff out onto the land surface. Also, there is another, less often known about by the average person but incredibly important reason that the land does not look like this …

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Underneath the land there is melty-squishy-hot stuff that tends to push upwards a little bit almost everywhere, and a lot in some places, though it is usually pushed back upon by the weight of the land itself. If you remove a bunch of stuff from the surface of the continent, this pushing gets a bit of traction. So, if you have a big piece of continent with erosion happening all the time on the top, this pushing will happen from below, and the continent will not disappear below the surface of the sea. The Congo basin is probably an example of this. It rains a lot, there is constant erosion. So, the land surface across most of the Congo has been eroding for something like a couple or few hundred million years, at least, like it is now. As the surface is eroded away, the underneath slowly rises. So now, much of the Congo basin has deeply eroded rivers, and all the hills between the rivers are made of stuff that is like granite, the cooled down, hardened melty-squish-hot stuff. In fact, a lot of Africa is like that.

In California, the last calendar year was the driest one on record. California has been so dry over the last few years that it is nearly dried out. The reservoirs are puddles, the groundwater is a mystery, and the state is in a state of crisis. But today, the first Pineapple Express of the rainy season arrived, and dumped huge amounts of rain in parts of the state.

California is uplifted. Unlike Louisiana, Mississippi, and nearby areas, which are all very close to sea level, California stands up high over the ocean. When you head for the ocean from inland, depending on where you start, you may have to cross significant mountain ranges or linear arrangements of tall hills, and just before getting to the sea you will have your brakes on a lot of the time because you’ll be going down hill. The shoreline of California is roughly synonymous with the continental shelf, in contrast to other coastlines in the US where the shelf edge may be hundreds of miles out to sea.

The dry conditions over the last few years have resulted in a lot of fires on the hills in this hilly, uplifted country. The geological stuff underneath the surface in much of California is not like the deep hardened magma of the Congo, or for that matter, New Hampshire, Maine and the Maritimes. It is soft, to varying degrees. The top, exposed areas on those hills is made of rocks and dirt. When torrential rains flow over the surface, this material is held in place by a combination of plant roots and luck. The force of the rains is attenuated by the upper parts of the vegetation. But with the vegetation either burned off or dead(ish) from drought, or both, the water washes away the softer smaller particles, leaving the larger stones and rocks exposed, and rivulets start to form and erosional gullies deepen and widen. Meanwhile the ground soaks up water and becomes both loose and heavy at the same time. All these factors together constitute a step in the process of making California look, eventually, like this:

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And if your house, or the road to your house, or anything, is in the way, it will get washed down stream or buried under other stuff washing down stream. For this reason, evacuations are underway in parts of the Sunshine State.

There’s good news, though. Even though the forces of nature seem intent on making California eventually look like this:

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There are other forces of nature that are intent on making California look like this:

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That’s the good news. The bad news is that those other forces are, well, earthquakes.

John Abraham has an interesting post up at the guardian called “Global warming action: good or bad for the poor?” It is a response to a post by a group of guys who tend to write annoying stuff about climate change (you can go to John’s post for that information). Here, I want to make a brief comment related to John’s excellent post.

The crux of John Abraham’s post is this, in two parts: 1) Some have argued that mitigation against climate change is bad for “the poor” (read: people in developing countries) because they have a right to go through the same phases of technological and social development we (read: The West) have done, which would presumably include building numerous dirty coal plants so everyone can have a washer and dryer and blender and other stuff. This, John argues, is wrong at several levels. 2) As John demonstrates through is own activities, described in his post, it is possible to skip the 19th and 20th centuries in developing energy technologies and go right to the mid 21st century, installing carbon-free efficient inexpensive easily maintained and sensible technology.

I worked for several years in South Africa, as you probably know. When I first started to work there, we had problems with communication because we were usually in remote areas where there was no phone. We did get cell phones, but there were two problems with them. First, there were two major TeleCom carriers, and we worked in areas that were serviced, if they were serviced at all, by one or the other but usually not both. So we’d get two sets of cell phones. Second, as just implied, there was no cell phone service in many areas. During one field season we worked in a remote area of the Northern Cape. We were working on a farm not far from Upington for a while. We could get brief and unreliable cell phone service if we climbed a hill and stood near a certain water tank and held the phone up really high in the air. Sometimes. Farther out in the bush, where we spent considerable time, we had no cell phone access at all. There were land lines here and there but this required traveling way out of our way to use an unreliable pay phone.

During a later year, we prepared for our return to that remote area by getting the usual two cell phones, and also, carrying out all of the communications we could prior to leaving, letting people know we’d be mostly out of touch for a few weeks at a time. We packed up the Toyota Prado and the trailer with our gear and food, piled into the vehicle, and set out across the southern African subcontinent. A few days later we came to a key stop in our journey, the entranceway to what was then known as the Kalahari Gemsbok Reserve, on the border of Namibia and Botswana. I was chatting with the students who were on the field school about how our cell phones would be useless here, but there was a land line at the park headquarters that we could use now and then with the TeleCom cards we could purchase at the gift shop. As I was saying this, my field manager, Lynn, drove the car out of the river bed we had been following, and we ascended a hill overlooking the campsite at the entrance of the park. From there we could see dozens of camp sites, occupied by South African campers with their 4X4 vehicles, their amazingly tricked-out trailers deployed to form bedrooms and kitchens. The campers were standing around cooking their braai (that’s South African for BBQ) as it was nearing dinner time, late in the afternoon.

Two sights took my breath away. Well, not really, but these two sights made me stop talking and change my story about making phone calls. First, there was the huge cell phone tower ascending from behind the camp site, the alp glow of the setting sun accentuating it’s technological glory. The other was this: About half the people standing around in the camp site, cooking their boerwors and t-bones, were chatting on their cell phones.

Remember World War II? Yeah, I don’t either. But it happened. Part of World War II involved bombing the crap out of German Industry. Japanese Industry was also bombed but there was probably less of it to begin with. The point is, at the end of the war, German and Japanese industry was toast, and those two countries were under occupation. Then there was the Marshall Plan and all that. This involved rebuilding industry in those two countries. Then, later, each in their own way, Germany (well, West Germany) proceeded to kick our industrial asses by more or less starting from scratch, combining in-place ingenuity, effective corporate culture, and brand new factories to grab several major international markets. There were a couple of decades there, overlapping with the ones I grew up in, during which it was not uncommon to hear Americans griping about that. Those guys, they started the war, we defeated them, then we gave them all this stuff, and now my commie neighbor drives a Japanese car. Dammit and get off my lawn. That sort of stuff.

I remember doing an archaeological survey in a newish exerb in the Boston area during one of those periods when Americans were especially mad at the Japanese for making great cars. In that particular neighborhood, some good ol’ boys (yes, they have the in the Greater Boston Area) had gone around the neighborhood and, using chalk, marked up the driveways of anyone who had a Japanese car. They drew nasty pictures and wrote obnoxious and racist words. So, part of Western Culture, mainly that sub-part that arises from the Allied Powers, or maybe just America (but I suspect the United Kingdom as well) developed an anti-Japanese, and to a lesser extent, anti-German thing based on post Marshall plan resentment.

John Abraham is a nice guy and I am not. Perhaps. John saw the article he critiqued in his blog post as being misinformed and stupid. Fine. I suspect, in my not-as-nice-guy way, that there is something deeper. Let me review before I reveal.

First, some climate change science denialists make the argument that mitigation against climate change by implementing new technologies will hurt poor people in third world countries.

Then, an expert on climate change and energy, John Abraham, notes that this is wrong, because we can implement the newest technologies in places like Sub Saharan Africa and go right from a sort-of-pre-industrial state to a 21st century state.

I note that not only is John right, but that it has happened before, in Japan, Germany, and with my example here South Africa, with various industries (cars, TeleCom, etc.)

And then we have this idea that people in the West have been known to resent those who have sailed past us in technology achievement because they ended up in a situation where they needed to move from the stone age (into which they had been bombed) to absolutely modern, or even next-gen, times.

If we give effective, inexpensive, workable, modern non-carbon energy technology to Africa and help it get deployed, then African nations will, in the near future, show up at international climate change summits with a new message that climate change science denialists and carbon-based energy magnates will not want to hear. They will say this. “Look, we’re doing pretty well without carbon based energy technologies. We’re advancing the standard of living without destroying the planet. Why haven’t you done that, The West?”

And, when it comes to production, new ideas, technology, stuff you want to buy, the raw material of the global free market, the Africans are going to kick our asses.

And that will be great. But some are afraid because of a thing they have. It’s called racism.

I will be giving a talk in Saint Paul, at the Best Western Kelly Inn, on Evolutionary Psychology.

The original plan was to get two people to debate the topic, but it was hard to find two people in town to do that. One idea was to get PZ Myers over here, and then he and I would debate the topic. Problem with that is that we probably agree a lot more than we disagree so that would be boring. Well, I’m sure we’d make it interesting but we’d have to switch topics.

So it ended up being me. There will be a debate. I’ll handle both sides. Seriously.

I’d love to give you a working link to meetup.com for this event, but meetup.com appears to be undergoing a massive, extended DDoS attack. From some very lonely person, I assume. Here’s the link in case it works.

Anyway, this talk is sponsored by the Critical Thinking Club of Saint Paul. Details:
Sunday, March 2, 2014
10:00 AM
Best Western Kelly Inn
161 Saint Anthony Ave
Saint Paul, MN 55103

Evolutionary Psychology is a late 20th century scientific discipline created for the explicit purpose of understanding how the brain works (mechanisms) and why the brain works that way (adaptations). It assumes the adaptations we observe in the brain are to the environment in which they arose. Unfortunately, this new discipline was created in human brains (as opposed to some other really smart species) and human brains did not evolve in an environment in which understanding the workings of brains was important. Rather, human brains evolved in an environment in which outsmarting other people may have been more important than getting things right. In this talk, we will see what is right, and perhaps not right, about evolutionary psychology.

Greg Laden is a biological anthropologist who has studied key transitions in human evolution, including the ape-human split and the rise of our genus, Homo. He was present at the birth of Evolutionary Psychology, in room 14A of the Peabody Museum, at Harvard, and has been observing the field ever since. Greg writes about evolution, climate change, and other issues on his blog at National Geographic Scienceblogs, often provides public talks or interviews on these topics.

Breakfast Buffet $12.00 Coffee only $3.00. We need to plan for the room setup and meal, so if you are going to attend, please RSVP by Friday, February 28.

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Powered bikes have been around for a long time, and there are many electric bikes available now. But it seems that this new one is a significant change from prior versions.

The Faraday Bike doesn’t even look like it could possibly be powered. But apparently it is. The frame is, more or less, the battery. The motor is small because electric motors can be small. It has a computer, and apparently, LED lights.

It does not operate without human power, but it adds power to your stroke, by about 300% (but that is adjustable) according to the manufacturer.

It costs a mere $3,500. But it is coming out very slowly; 200 will be shipped by some time in March.

The famous Polar Vortex has come and gone in North America. Then, it came back. What a jerk.

NewPolarVortexMemeAs I write this the outside temperature is 13 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and tomorrow morning’s Bus Stop Temperature promises to be about –25F windchill here in central Minnesota. Meanwhile my Twitter stream is polluted with climate science denialist tweets pointing out that it is too cold outside to believe in global warming, even though the entire land area of the United States, where this cold is being experienced as a cultural and physical phenomenon, is about one and half percent of the planet Earth, and the Northern Hemisphere has just experienced its fourth warmest January during the period known as “Since Records Began” which in this case is about 1880 to the present.

Releasing the Carbon Kraken

There are multiple dimensions along which denialists either get it wrong (because they are not paying attention or don’t understand the data) or making it wrong (because they have an interest in misdirection and misleading others). One is pretending that the weather outside their window is the climate. The other is pretending that climate change only started after Al Gore said it did, or after some other recent date, ignoring the fact that we have been releasing the Carbon Kraken since the early or mid 19th century, when industrialists figured out they could make more money using coal, rather than water, to run their ever expanding acreage of dark satanic mills.

It is hard to say exactly when Anthropogenic Global Warming began because at the start any signal from this effect may have been swamped by non anthropogenic (sometimes called “natural”) variation. The available data suggest that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million (ppm) in the 18th century, and started to rise during the last half of the 19th century. After World War II, the rate of rise increased significantly. We know added CO2 increases the global surface temperature and the temperature of the oceans, and melts glacial (and sea) ice through the greenhouse effect. This graph, from here, combines various data sources to show the increase in CO2 emissions over time:


When we look at temperatures over time, we see a close relationship between CO2 and temperature, and we see a slow rise prior to World War II with a more rapid increase after. Another graph, from here:


The increase in temperatures are slow and steady but measurable prior to World War II, and much steeper thereafter. It would be nice to see a graph like this that goes back a little farther in time to match the CO2 graph, but the “instrumental record” mostly post dates the Civil War, and really, the better quality record post dates about 1880. There are records that go way back, tens of millions of years, but they are “proxy” records of a different scale and it is hard to get them on the same graph.

People who (unbelievably) deny that global warming is a real thing will often point to climate events earlier in the 20th century that may resemble modern day events that we think could be related to warming, and say “see, it happened then, so there is no global warming now.” There are several reasons that is wrong. First, often, older records of spectacular weather events may be wrong, incomplete, or not measured like we would like them to have been measured, so going back to old newspaper accounts and such is highly unreliable. So this means that people are criticizing a carefully assembled and verified set of data (recent changes in CO2 and temperature) and complaining that it is no good because of cherry picked observation from “data” that is not controlled or verified. The second reason this is wrong is that there have been very few weather events that could not, really, have happened any time. This does not apply so much to sea level enhanced weather events. If sea level rises then sea or estuary flooding can happen in places it could never have happened before, so that is a qualitative, or base-line, difference. But for the most part, a major cold snap, a high precipitation event, drought, or other event can happen at any time. Climate scientists do not think that there are very many weather events that happen now that could never, ever have happened in the past. Rather, there is concern that some of these classes of events are happening with significantly greater frequency now than in the past.

Was Kansas Not In Kansas Any More For A Decade Or Two?

A third reason this is wrong, which is rarely pointed to but I think important, is that we really don’t know what the association is between two important factors and weather events. First, just how much new CO2 added to the atmosphere does it take to change the weather? Since CO2 records show an increase that started prior to the better quality instrumental record, the entire instrumental record is potentially affected by higher CO2, though of course, this effect would be much less prior to World War II than during more recent times. Second, and related, is this: There may be weather related effects that come not from the specific amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, but from changes in the CO2. The warming effect of added CO2 is not instantaneous, but rather, takes a long time during which time climate or weather related things may change. Adding a specific amount of CO2 to the atmosphere is like turning the stove on under a pot of tap water. The water starts out cool, and over time heats, then it eventually reaches boiling. After that, the temperature does not change; due to the boiling point, the pot of water has reached a new equilibrium and has stopped increasing in heat. But before equilibrium is reached there are constant changes in the heat level of the water inside the pot as well as other things the water is doing, such as pushing out various gasses, forming bubbles, and circulating thermally in the pot. That is a very simple analogy; there may be either simple or complex changes that happen in the Earth’s heat circulation system that occur as a result of added CO2, that involve changes over time, then reach an equilibrium of some sort and stop happening. Perhaps this occurred during the early days of increased CO2.

I have a hypothesis that I’m not aware has been examined. During the 1920s and 1930s, in the US at least, there seems to have been a handful of extreme weather events, including some major tornadoes, big hurricanes, an historic and history changing drought, and a few other things. The Wizard of Oz, the writings of John Steinbeck, and other cultural phenomena are a very interesting proxy for those climate events, in a way. I’m afraid that at the moment the data required to examine this period are not sufficient. But I wonder, looking at the above graphs, if the earlier part of the 20th century saw a metastable shift – changing from one equilibrium to a new and different equilibrium – in weather patterns, caused by CO2 induced warming, the effects of which arose for a while then faded away.

The possibility that extreme events may have happened during some period of a couple of decades early in the 20th century due to anthropogenic global warming does not explain all, or even a majority, of the denialist claims. Most of those claims are probably references to incorrect data or cherry picking of events. The largest and most frequent weather related effects of global warming probably date to the last 20 years. Weather events are known of over many decades before that, and to some extent, even centuries into the past. Therefore, the historical bowl of cherries from which denialists may choose is large. That ratio, between the expanse of historical information and the more limited recent past, is large enough that there are dozens of past events that can be cited, as misrepresentations of reality.

Bicycles Going Backwards

You wouldn’t think it easy to ride a bicycle backwards but it turns out it is. Climate science denialists are good at it, and they can use multiple bicycles at once.

In a recent twitter conversation, an Australian MP challenged John Cook with the false assertion that several studies confirmed that global temperatures have stayed steady or gone down over the last decade or so. When Cook asked for the studies, the MP replied not with any studies, but with a comment about climate models. When pressed further for the studies, the MP claimed he had not promised any such studies and when pressed further changed the conversation to the last 150 years of data. When that did not work he shifted to mention of work that he claimed defied the nearly perfect consensus among both scientists and their peer reviewed papers about climate science. When that did not work he shifted to references in a non-peer reviewed anonymous blog, and then to perceived problems in the peer reviewed process. About that time another climate science denialist attempted to shift the conversation to the alleged (and non-existent) inability of alternative energy sources to work when it is really cold out.

If you have one thing to say that is wrong, it is hard to sustain argument. If you have ten things to say that are wrong, you can sustain the argument by shifting among them as each falsehood is effectively challenged. That form of argument does not advance understanding, but it does sustain the argument, but in a rather vacuous form. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum. Science denialism thrives in a vacuum.

Fighting With Words

Another dimension along which climate science denialists operate is linguistic. The terms “global warming” and “climate change” mean different things. The former is part of the latter, and in fact, “global warming” is not exactly the same as “anthropogenic global warming.” Within science, we sometimes see extended discussions of the meanings of specific terms. What is a gene? What exactly is the relationship between “founder effect” and “genetic drift?” When is an “adaptation” really an “aptation” or an “exaptation?” These conversations have three characteristics. First, they reflect changes in understanding, or sometimes, conflict between perceptions of natural phenomena that arose independently and then crashed into each other in the literature or at conferences. Second, they are useful conversations because they can expose uncertainties or ambiguities in our actual understanding of nature. Third, despite their short term utility, they eventually become boring and misleading and scientists move beyond them and get back to the actual science, eventually.

But terminology has another use, and that is obfuscation. It is often said by denialists that scientists changed from using the term “global warming” to “climate change” for one or another nefarious reasons. We also see denialists claiming that scientists used to study “climate change” and that included both global warming and global cooling, but then changed to global warming because they could make more money on it. (I wish I knew how that worked!) Recently, Rush Limbaugh, the intellectual leader of the American right wing, claimed that scientists made up the term “Polar Vortex” in order to advance tax and spend liberal ideas. The famous NBC weatherman, Al Roker, and others, noted that the term “Polar Vortex” was already there, as a term referring to a real thing, and Roker even showed the term in use in his meteorology textbook from the mid 20th century. Indeed, here is a Google Ngram Viewer result of a search for the term “Polar Vortex” in all the books Google has indexed:


Note that the term is way old, predating 1950, and had a peak in usage druing the late 80s and through the early 90s, probably related to an increased rate of study of this phenomenon that happened because of concern over the Ozone Hole.

Fighting with words was codified by, if not invented by, the Ancient Greeks. It is called sophistry, or at least, is a subset of that practice, whereby arguments are made in large part on the basis of rhetorical style or method. You see people do this all the time. If someone you know is in a grumpy mood, or does not want to admit they’ve made a mistake, they may resort to a sophistic argument.

“Sorry I’m late, I got lost because they changed what’s on the corner of your street and it confused me.”

“They never changed what’s on the corner of my street.”

“Yes they did, there used to be a coffee shop, now it’s a pet grooming place.”

“Yeah, but it’s still the same building, they never changed what’s on the corner. You got lost because you don’t like me any more.”

That sort of thing.

Science denialists look silly when they do this sort of thing, but apparently they don’t know that. And, the method is related to the backpedalling bicycles. You can always shift the conversation to the apocryphal shift between the terms “global warming” and “climate change,” implying a conspiracy among scientists, when the going gets tough.

This seems to happen a lot with hurricanes. When the Bush Administration wanted to avoid taking responsibility for a poor response to Katrina, someone actually said that the major damage done to New Orleans was not due to Katrina, but rather, to flooding. This idea was bolstered by noting that the hurricane had made landfall at a different time and place than the flooding. That, in turn, was based on the idea of “landfall” being related to the location of the eye of the storm; but the eye of a hurricane is tiny compared to the entire storm, which may be hundreds of miles across. We saw this again with Sandy. Sandy was a pretty bad hurricane, but it lost its hurricane status just before making “landfall” (though the leading edge of the storm had been on land for a long time already). Just before hitting land, Sandy integrated with another storm system, which actually made the thing a super storm with much more impact than just a hurricane, but in so morphing changed enough that it no longer fit the definition of a hurricane. Then it hit New Jersey and New York. So, those who wish to deny the importance of hurricanes simply claim that when Sandy flooded Manhattan and the New Jersey shore, and caused widespread damage, loss of life, and injury in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey, that did not count as a hurricane related event. Sophistry.

But Galileo!

The final dimension of argument I want to mention is perhaps the silliest of all, and we see it in widespread use far beyond the area of climate science denialism. The idea is simple. All major advances in science have come about when almost everyone thinks a certain thing but they are all wrong, but a small number of individuals know the truth, like Galileo’s attack on a geocentric universe.

While it is true that such things have happened, in history, they have not happened that often in science. For example, Einstein’s revision of several areas of science fit with existing science but modified it, though significantly. Subatomic theory did not replace the atom, but rather, entered the atom. The discovery and characterization of DNA was a major moment in biology, but the particulate nature of inheritance had long been established. Darwin did not change the existing science of nature, but rather, verified long held ideas about evolution and, dramatically, proposed a set of mechanisms not widely understood in his day. Science hardly ever gets Galileoed, and even Galileo did not Galileo science; he Galileoed religion. Even his insightful contribution was accretive.

There is a demented logic behind the Galileo claim. If every one thinks one thing, and one person thinks something different, that high ratio of differential is itself proof that the small minority is correct. But the truth is that consensus, or what we sometimes call “established science,” is usually coeval with alternative beliefs the vast majority of which are wrong, most of which do not even come from the science itself, but rather, from sellers of snake oil, individuals or entities that would benefit from the science being questioned, or from individuals with delusional ideas. Even if there is now and then a view held by a small minority that is actually more correct than the majority view, we can’t establish veracity by measuring rarity. Chances are, a view of nature held by only a few is wrong. This simple numbers game is not how we should be seeking truth, but if one does engage in the numbers game, then dissenting views of established science can be assumed to be wrong, if you were going to place a bet.

Climate Science Denialism along Multiple Dimensions

It seems to me, and others have noted this, that there is an uptick in the activity levels of climate science denialism. This seems to have started just prior to the release of the first draft documents of the IPCC report on climate change last year. Perhaps it is also being fueled by efforts linked to approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Denialists have recently used the fact that about one or two percent of the Earth’s surface is experiencing a dramatic cold wave, which is quite possibly an effect of climate change, to question global warming, even in a winter where the Earth is exceptionally warm. Sophistry abounds. There is so much cherry picking going on that I fear for a shortage of cherries, which really should be reserved for making pies and jam. Backwards pedaled bicycles are whizzing about. But the denialists do not seem to have increased in number or even reach. Last November, there was a project called #ClimateThanks in which people were asked to tweet thanks, using the #ClimateThanks hashtag for those individuals and organizations who have been doing or promoting the results of good climate science. The denialists jumped on that bandwagon, producing numerious anti-science tweets and retweets. But if you look at the tweets and the tweeters from the denialist gaggle, while they were many most had few followers, and some of the tweeting entities even seemed to have been made up or brought out of mothballs for the purpose. They amounted to little more than a large collection of small wanna-be-Galileos.

It is probably true that the biggest problem we have in advancing a productive conversation about climate change is the tenacious insistence on false balance in the media. It isn’t just FOX News that thinks it is OK to place real science and politically motivated propaganda on the same stage, as though they had equal merit. False balance, which may be spreading as a phenomenon in major media at a time it should be diminishing, is probably the best friend of the denialist community.

Meanwhile, the denialsts have repeatedly shown themselves to be wrong, along many and diverse dimensions.

There’s this new thing. Quarterly.co has this thing that when I first heard described I didn’t quite understand, and was not sure if I liked it or not, so I dug a bit deeper and it turns out I think it is cool. Here’s the idea. Quarterly has assembled a bunch of people they call “Curators.” These are famous people among whom you are likely to find someone you admire or respect or perhaps stalk in your own Internety way. The curators then work with Quarterly to assemble a box of stuff. Then, you, as Quarterly’s customer, arrange to have the box sent. There are four a year (quarterly!). You only pay for them one at a time, so you can extend or cancel your subscription depending on your likes.

Cool Compass
Cool Compass
Quarterly contacted me to let me know about their service because I had been writing about Bill Nye, the Science Guy. Bill is one of the curators. They sent me one of the boxes arranged by him so I could get an idea of what it was all about. It turns out it was pretty cool.

The box contained two kinds of items. There were some commercially available items selected by Bill Nye, and a few other items that were home made or printed up just for this box, including some documents written by Bill, one with a personal autograph.

The retail items were a salt water fuel cell car kit, a solar powered robotic bug, some zany color changing beads, a nice pen, and a carabiner compass. The home made items included the parts and instructions for making a sun dial.

Screen Shot 2014-02-25 at 10.59.23 AMThis particular package costs $50. When I calculate the retail costs of the items available for purchase, it comes to over $50. When I search around for the best price I can get it down to just below $50 not counting shipping. So, it seems to be the case that you get pretty close to what you pay for, with respect to just those items alone. The additional things, the personalized stuff from Bill Nye and the sundial kit obviously add more value. And, the idea is that this collection of stuff was put together by someone you admire (or stalk).

The sundial kit comes with all the parts and things you need to make it work, but every one of those parts is a common classroom item. It comes with instructions to use the sundial in a teaching setting, either with your family or in a classroom, and since the items are commonly available, the project is extensible and can be redone again and again. Also, the sundial kit comes with a well thought out list of links between specific national educational standards and the things learned by using the kit, which covers several items in science and a bit of history.

I’m not sure if I would personally subscribe to this, because I’m more of a curator type than a curatee type. But I can think of several people to whom I would like to give at least one box as a gift. Considering the range of curators, there is actually quite a range of possibilities. Bill Nye is The Science Guy of course, so that’s for sciencey people and science teachers.

Do you know Ted Vadakan, Angie Myung, Jon Shook, Kristian Bush, Sean Bonner, Viny Dotolo, Q-Tip, Amanda Hesser, Merril Stubbs, Book Riot, Megan Collins, Brandon Long, Pharrell Williams, Andy Dalton, Siobhan O’Conner, Alexandra Spunt, Charles Tillman, or Coco? Those are some of the other curators representing design, art, style, cooking, sports, entertainment, and other things many of which I know virtually nothing. There’s also technology stuff and a home organizing box. But I have friends and relatives who so, and some of them might be getting Quarterly boxes as birthday presents this year. (Too bad most of my extended family breeds seasonally and most of the birthdays have just passed!) There’s also technology stuff (e.g. Mark Frauenfelder of Boing Boing and MAKE) and a home organizing box. There’s even a blogger that is not me (Jason Kottke) and a Viking (Brian Robison). A full list of curators is HERE. Most of the boxes are $50, but a couple are $100, shipping included in the US.

Here’s a video that Bill Nye made to go with this kit (If it does not load properly here, you can watch it HERE.):

#NYE01 Video from Quarterly Co. on Vimeo.

This is an interesting idea and I hope it does well. If you get any boxes, let us know how it goes!

I first interviewed Dr. Alun Hubbard on the edge of the Watson River in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland last summer. His vivid language and lucid storytelling made that video on of the most popular in the Yale Series. (see below)

Both Dr. Hubbard, and my Dark Snow Project cohort, Sara Penrhyn Jones, live in the tiny village of Aberystwyth, on the coast of Wales, and teach at the local university. I skyped with Alun a week or so ago in the midst of the storms hammering the area. Shortly after that he wrote me to explain that his roof had just blown off in hurricane force winds….

Read the rest HERE, and this is one of two videos on Peter’s post:

I generally ignore climate change denialists on Twitter. I use The Zapper to do that, and it works great, better than blocking. But sometimes I check my Twitter feed on something other than Chrome on my own desktop or laptop and then I see them, and occasionally engage. When I do, I often see troubling or annoying visual tropes that seem to go along with this breed. Guns, exploitative photos of women, flag-draped symbols, and Nazis. That sort of thing.

So, this morning I put together a collage of images off the Twitter home pages of just the last handful of Denialists who were obsessively tweeting and retweeting to or about me this morning. For your enjoyment:


Scared? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Are the scared? Given how well armed they are, it would seem so. Trying to push the world in to climate apocalypse so they can do the survivalism thing? Interesting idea.

How do birds survive the cold weather, especially during really cold winters like the one we are having now in much of the United States?

One part of this answer has to be, sadly perhaps, that the sometimes don’t. But I’ll get to that later.

You need to know two things as context. First, there are a lot of different kinds of birds, and the adaptations I’ll mention below are not found in all of them, and probably all of these adaptations are not found in very many species. Second, many birds are actually at great risk during cold periods because birds generally live on the edge when it comes to energetics. It takes energy (from food) to keep warm. Birds are endothermic, meaning that they produce their own heat (mostly) via blood flow in their bodies, but unlike mammals, birds change their body temperature a fair amount, so the amount of heat they need to produce to fly is a little bit flexible. The thing is, temperate and sub-Arctic birds have to survive not only the cold of winter, but even the chill of a non-winter night. Since they don’t store a lot of energy in fat (that is hard to do for a flying animal) it is quite possible for a bird to run out of heat-producing energy overnight even when it isn’t winter. That would amount to, essentially, starving to death. So, some of the adaptations for surviving the cold apply year round, depending on conditions and the species.

There are several things birds do (or avoid doing) to help them survive the winter.

First, they can leave. Migration is a great strategy to avoid winter. I highly recommend it. Migration is costly, though. One has to spend a lot of time flying instead of feeding, and a bird is probably more susceptible to predation while flying through the territories of various predators and spending time in areas it is not familiar with. Most migratory birds that die during migration probably do it on their first migration, and thereafter have the advantage of knowing the territory a bit better. So, migration is one way to handle winter. Note, however, that there are birds that live in the Arctic or sub-Arctic that migrate south to regions where it is still winter. (Some of these are referred to as snowbirds because they show up during the snowy season).

See Also: Feeding Wild Birds

Birds wear down coats. All their feathers help them to keep warm, but especially the downy under feathers (called, of course, “down”) act like tiny little North Face down coats. Some birds probably grow extra down during the cold season.

When you are trying to stay warm, water is your enemy. Air makes a good insulator but water transmits heat, so wet feathers are bad. So, birds have oil producing glands that allow them to preen a coating of waterproof onto their feathers to avoid the down coats getting wet.

Birds have legs and parts of their faces that are exposed. But they can sit in a position that covers, or partly covers, their legs and feet with their down coat. They can also hunker down in a protected area, with less wind-chill causing wind, in the canopy of an evergreen or some other place. Gregarious over-wintering birds like Chickadees will roost together in little bird-lumps to give each other protection and warmth.

Birds shiver. That helps get added heat from circulation and muscle movement.

Bird feet are covered with scales and have very little cold-damagable tissue in them. They are mostly bone and sinew.

Some birds have a special adaptation in the circulatory system of their feet (and maybe elsewhere) whereby blood is circulated between colder outer areas and warmer inner areas more efficiently than might otherwise be the case, to avoid frostbite.

Check out: Books on birds and nature.

Birds can not only tuck their feet in under their down, but they may also switch which foot is holding them on a branch. Also, as you probably know, bird feet are generally grabbing at rest, so it takes very little energy to stay attached to a branch. The default is “hang on.” Sort of like the safety feature of an Otis elevator, where the default position for the machinery is “don’t drop” so when the power goes off the elevator gets stuck instead of plummeting to the bottom.

Birds may find a place in the sun and use a bit of solar energy. This, of course, depends on the wind. It also puts them out there for predators to find them, but it can work.

Birds may eat more, or selectively eat higher energy food during the winter. For small birds this may include storing up food during the warmer season. They are adapted to find, store, and remember where the food is so they can find it quickly. This makes winter foraging super efficient.

Some birds store some fat, but really, that is not a great strategy for birds that fly.

One of the most effective strategies for having enough energy from food to stay warm is to not do highly energetic things during the cold season. I already mentioned the increase in foraging efficiency for birds that store food. Another obvious strategy is to not do energetically costly things during this season such as defend territories, spend a lot of time singing (singing is very costly in terms of energy), don’t build or maintain nests, don’t produce eggs or have hungry chicks around. This may seem self evident but it is actually very important. Indeed, the reproductive success of a pair of birds in a given year may be significantly hampered by late cold weather or forage-covering snow storms in the spring.

Finally, birds use another strategy that also works against the cost of predation and other forms of death: Reproduce more. Most pairs of birds produce one or a few offspring that become adults a year for five or more years. If all of those adult or subadult birds survive and reproduce, we’d be covered in birds in a few decades. But lots of things kill birds, including predators, disease, starvation, and cold.

Here is a pretty good video that covers some of these things:

The photo of a Dark Eyed Junco is from HERE, where you will also find a bit more discussion on birds in winter.

I also write about birds here.

Also of interest: In Search of Sungudogo: A novel of adventure and mystery, which also explains the link between Bigfoot, Aliens and Sex.

Other posts of interest: