Monthly Archives: July 2014

California is clearly exceptional, but not in a good way: #Drought

The US Drought Monitor produces an assessment of drought conditions every week. The drought in California has taken a large jump over the last few days, with the highest category, “Exceptional,” jumping from 36.49% to 58.41%. At the start of the calendar year, that category was represented in California by 0%, so this is a continuation of an ongoing trend. The image above is the current map from US Drought Monitor.

I made a couple of other graphics that demonstrate the problem.

This is the percent area in California covered by severe to exceptional drought since the most recent time that this percentage was at zero, near the end of 2011.


And these two graphs show just the percentage of land area in California covered by Exceptional drought since the beginning of the US Drought Monitor’s data in 2000 to the present (upper graph) and the same information for the last year (lower graph).

Note the extreme uptick.

The drought monitor has a synopsis of the situation:

Increasingly, drought indicators point to the fact that conditions are not appreciably better in northern California than in central and southern sections of the state. In addition, mounting evidence from reservoir levels, river gauges, ground water observations, and socio-economic impacts warrant a further expansion of exceptional drought (D4) into northern California. For California’s 154 intrastate reservoirs, storage at the end of June stood at 60% of the historical average. Although this is not a record for this time of year—the standard remains 41% of average on June 30, 1977—storage has fallen to 17.3 million acre-feet. As a result, California is short more than one year’s worth of reservoir water, or 11.6 million acre-feet, for this time of year. The historical average warm-season drawdown of California’s 154 reservoirs totals 8.2 million acre-feet, but usage during the first 2 years of the drought, in 2012 and 2013, averaged 11.5 million acre-feet.

Given the 3-year duration of the drought, California’s topsoil moisture (80% very short to short) and subsoil moisture (85%) reserves are nearly depleted. The state’s rangeland and pastures were rated 70% very poor to poor on July 27. USDA reported that “range and non-irrigated pasture conditions continued to deteriorate” and that “supplemental feeding of hay and nutrients continued as range quality declined.” In recent days, new wildfires have collectively charred several thousand acres of vegetation in northern and central California. The destructive Sand fire, north of Plymouth, California—now largely contained—burned more than 4,000 acres and consumed 66 structures, including 19 residences.

Volcanoes, Tree Rings, and Climate Models: This is how science works.

Mark Your Cosmic Calendar: 774/775

One wonders if anyone felt it. Did Charlemagne feel it as he led his forces across Pagan Saxon Westphalia, knocking down Irminsuls and making everyone pretend to be Christian or else? Did the people of Bagdad, just becoming the world’s largest city, notice anything aside from their own metro-bigness? Did the Abbasid Caliph Muhammad ibn Mansur al-Mahdi have the impression something cosmic was going on that year, other than his own ascendancy to power? Or was it mainly some of the Nitrogen molecules in the upper atmosphere that were changed, not forever but for an average of 5,730 years, by the event?

The bent tree like object is said by some to be the, or a, Irminsul, the "pagan" sacred object, destroyed by Charlemagne much as one might destroy a hypothesis, either with, or about, trees.
The bent tree like object is said by some to be the, or a, Irminsul, the “pagan” sacred object, destroyed by Charlemagne much as one might destroy a hypothesis, either with, or about, trees.
A long time ago, probably in our galaxy but kind of far away, a cosmic event happened that caused the Earth to be bathed in Gamma rays in AD 774 or 775. No one seems to have noticed. There is a mention, in 774, of an apparition in the sky that could be related, but talk of apparitions in the sky were more common back then, before they had certified astronomers to check things out. There is chemical and physical evidence, though, of the Gamma ray burst. The best evidence is the large scale conversion of stable Nitrogen isotopes into unstable Carbon–14 isotopes in the upper atmosphere. As you know, radioactive (meaning, unstable) Carbon–14 is created continuously but at a somewhat variable rate in the upper atmosphere. Some of that Carbon is incorporated, along with regular stable Carbon, into living tissues. After the living tissue is created and further biological activity that might retrofit some of the Carbon atoms ends (i.e., the thing dies) the ratio of radioactive Carbon to stable Carbon slowly changes as the radioactive Carbon changes back into Nitrogen. By measuring the ratio now, we can estimate how many years ago, plus or minus, the originally living thing lived and died.

But it does vary. Solar activity, nuclear testing, other things, can change the amount of Carbon–14 that gets produced. And, a cosmic event that happened in 774/775 caused the production of enough Carbon–14 to throw off the chronology by hundreds of years. This is seen in the close examination of Carbon in the tissue of trees placed in a tree ring chronology. For example:

Screen Shot 2014-07-29 at 2.00.05 PM

Original Caption: High-resolution radiocarbon ages, superimposed on annually resolved radiocarbon measurements from Japan and Europe (grey lines and crosses) as well as the IntCal calibration curve based on decadal samples (blue shading), re-sampled at 5 year intervals (light blue crosses). Radiocarbon ages (that is, using 14C, 13C and 12C isotopes) were determined at ETHZ with the MICADAS system.

See the inverted spike there? That is, apparently, gamma rays messing up the Radiocarbon chronology. Hold that thought.

Climate Change Is Hard

When volcanoes erupt, they typically spew crap into the air. Some of this material stays in the atmosphere for a while (called aerosol, but not your underarm deodorant exactly) which will in turn reflect sunlight back out into space prematurely. This causes cooling. It is essential to know how much cooling of the atmosphere happens from aerosols because this is a potentially important factor in global warming. The effect of aerosols caused by volcanoes or industrial activity is an important term in the big giant equation that puts all the different factors together to produce global warming (or cooling). It is important that climate models be able to accurately and realistically incorporate the effects of aerosols. If the science isn’t right on aerosols, climate models may not run true when aerosols are included.

Caldera of Mount Tambora.  When Tambora erupted in 1815 we experienced a year without a summer (1816). Tambora was small compared to many earlier volcanoes which may have produced a few summer-less years in a row.
Caldera of Mount Tambora. When Tambora erupted in 1815 we experienced a year without a summer (1816). Tambora was small compared to many earlier volcanoes which may have produced a few summer-less years in a row.
And indeed there is an apparent problem. When climate models are run and include aerosols, and the results are compared with real life data where we have good proxyindicators of past climate, the model predictions and the real life measurements don’t line up when aerosols are involved at any significant level. A big volcano goes off, but the proxy record consisting mainly of things like tree rings doesn’t show the level of cooling models predict. This has titillated denialists, as you might imagine, because it shows how the science has it all wrong and the only way to truly understand the climate change is to spend hours in the basement with your spreadsheet and a good internet connection, like Galileo would have done.

In fact, this was an interesting problem that needed to be addressed. The modeling methods had to be wrong, or the paleodata had to be wrong, or something had to be wrong.

In 2012 Michael Mann, Jose Fuentes and Scott Rutherford published a paper in Nature Geoscience proposing a hypothesis to explain this discrepancy. The problem was that when a known volcano went off, the tree ring record in particular tended to show only an anemic result. Volcanoes that were thought to totally mess up the weather seemed to have little effect on trees. This even applied to volcanoes which were very directly observed in recent times, when we know there was an effect because people were putting on sweaters and measuring things with actual thermometers.

Mann et al proposed that rather than having little effect on tree growth, the volcanoes had a huge effect on tree growth. What was being seen by the Dendrochronologists (tree daters, like tree huggers but more serious) as a normal, average growth ring at the time of a volcanic eruption was actually the ring for the next year in line; they were missing, understandably, one or more growth rings. The volcano goes off, the trees don’t grow at all. (The masquerading ring would typically be the year before the missing ring since dendrochronology is done backwards, since we know what year it is now.)

You don’t have to imagine a year in which no tree grows ever anywhere to accept this idea. The trees being used as temperature proxies are more the sensitive type. They respond to temperature changes by growing more or less (warmer vs. cooler). Trees that don’t do this are not chosen for study. This has to do with the species and the setting the tree grows in, combining to make temperature the key limiting factor most years, so that growth ring width reflects temperature more than any other factor. So yeah, when it gets very cool because of a big-ass volcanic eruption, one of those “year with out a summer” deals, the very sensitive trees respond by not growing at all that year. They may have a growth period of a few weeks, but trees don’t simply lay down wood every day they are biologically acvite. They usually start with leaves, then many move on to reproduction, and once they have finished reproducing, have a cigarette, wash up, whatever, they may lay down wood or roots. (Different species have different patterns). So a very short growing season can mean no ring at all. If a really bad nuclear-winter-esque volcano happens this may go on for a few years. This leads to the growth ring corresponding to the year of the volcano simply not being noticed by the dendrochronologists, with a different year standing in. Over time the record can be thrown off by several years, if there are a few volcanoes and one or more of them affects growth for more than one year.

So two things happen. Years with a very strong cold signal are lost entirely, and the record is quasi-randomly offset by a few years in some but not all tree records (because some will be thrown off while others are not) so the collective record gets out of alignment. A strong uptick in the signal (the zero growth year) does not contribute to the paleoclimate squiggle of temperature at all, and the other possibly contributing years (after the worst is over) are moved around in relation to each other and average in with less cold years. It’s a mess.

Consider the following made up numbers representing temperature over time. The top table is the hypothetical raw data of tree ring growth in relation to temperature across a very strong cold anomaly as might be caused by a massive volcanic eruption. Depending on the tree, there is one or more years of zero growth. The lower table is the same set of numbers but with the earlier years (top) shifted down to cover the zeros, because that is what would happen if a dendrochronologist was looking at the rings from more recent (bottom) to oldest; there would just be this void and it would be filled with the next data in line.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 7.20.34 PM

Here are the same data graphed showing a clear anomaly in the top chart, but the very clear anomaly utterly disappears because of missing rings and shifting sequences in the lower chart. This is an existential problem for ancient climate events. I squiggle therefore I am.

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 7.16.41 PM

Mann Et Al proposed adjustments to the record of proxyindicators of temperature that accounted for missing tree rings at the time of major volcanic events. They made a good case, but it was a bit complicated and relied on some fairly complicated modeling.

Since the publication of Mann et al there has been quite a bit of back and forth between the climate modelers and the dendrochronologists. I’ve assembled a list of publications and blog posts below. I’ll only very briefly summarize here.

The dendrochronologists had a bit of an academic fit over the idea that they had missed rings. Understandably so. As an archaeologist, I’m partly trained in dendrochronology. There was actually a time when I considered making it my specialty, so I had read all the literature on the topic. I can tell you that missing rings was a serious concern, and taken seriously, and seriously addressed. Seriously, there’s no way modern dendrochronologists would totally miss an entire year’s growth rings. They had ways of dealing with missing rings.

The thing is, it is actually possible to miss rings. Here’s why. The assumption in Dendrochronology is that rings can be missed (or for that matter, added) for reasons that allow for correction by cross dating growth ring sequences with other trees or even other samples in a single tree. A particular part of a tree can be missing a ring while another is not (especially vertically; the lower part of a tree grows last in many species), or some trees in an area may be missing a ring, but others have that growth ring. This assumption is probably almost always valid; missing rings can ben adjusted for by cross checking across samples. But, if all of the trees of a given species and sampling area have one or more missing rings because of a major volcanic event, that won’t work. But this is not something Dendrochronologists are used to.

2 + 2 = 774/775

Eventually Mann and his Colleagues put two and two together and realize that the Dendrochronologists had a way to test the hypothesis that would not rely on fancy dancy climate modeling techniques, and that would potentially allow a better calibration of the tree growth ring record for certain time periods. It was that Gamma ray burst.

That moment in time is a clear marker. Any system involving Carbon–14 spanning this time interval should show the spike. Well, what about tree ring records that span both a major volcano and the 774/775 event? If Mann et all are right, an uncorrected tree ring record would show a lack of correspondence of any spike at 774/775. But, if missing rings are assumed for sensitive tree records at the time of the volcano, and the tree ring sequence for those trees shifted, perhaps the records will line up. That would be a test of the hypothesis.

And this is the gist of a letter to Nature from Scott Rutherford and Michael Mann. Very simply put, Mann and his colleagues took this graph, from an earlier paper:
Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 8.11.52 PM
And changed it to this graphic which shows mainly (see caption) the tree ring sequences that span both the 1258 volcanic eruption, which was a big one, and the 774/775 event.
Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 8.11.35 PM
This is a gauntlet, being respectfully thrown down. Mann et al erected a hypothesis, that missing tree rings are virtually universal in large parts of the dendrochronological sample for some events, were not accounted for in the tree ring chronology, and have thus messed up the tree rings as a proxyindicator for temperature. Various attempts to knock it down have not worked out. Now, Mann has himself provided an excellent way to assail his own idea. It is now up to the tree ring experts to try to knock this hypothesis down. I suspect Charlemagne might have had an easier time knocking down the Irminsul.

I asked Michael Mann how he felt about this latest development in the ongoing saga of the missing (probably) growth rings. He said, “I’m very pleased that we’ve reached some level of reconciliation with our dendroclimatology colleagues: there’s an objective test that is available to determine if there are indeed missing rings in some of the regional chronologies as we have speculated to be the case. I look forward to seeing the results of those tests. We proposed a hypothesis, other scientists were skeptical of the hypothesis, and now there is a way forward for testing the hypothesis. In the end, a fair amount of good science will have been done, and we will have learned something. This is the way science is supposed to work.”

This is going to make a great Master’s thesis for someone.

As promised, a list of writings on this topic, organized by date:

2012 Mann, M.E., Fuentes, J.D., Rutherford, S., Underestimation of volcanic cooling in tree-ring- based reconstructions of hemispheric temperatures, Nature Geoscience, doi:10.1038/NGEO1394, 2012. Press release here.

2012 Mann Et Al. Global Temperatures, Volcanic Eruptions, and Trees that Didn’t Bark. Real Climate.

2012 (November) Kevin J. Anchukaitis, Petra Breitenmoser, Keith R. Briffa, Agata Buchwal, Ulf Büntgen, Edward R. Cook, Rosanne D. D’Arrigo, Jan Esper, Michael N. Evans, David Frank, Håkan Grudd, Björn E. Gunnarson, Malcolm K. Hughes, Alexander V. Kirdyanov, Christian Körner, Paul J. Krusic, Brian Luckman, Thomas M. Melvin, Matthew W. Salzer, Alexander V. Shashkin, Claudia Timmreck, Eugene A. Vaganov & Rob J. S. Wilson. Tree rings and volcanic cooling. Nature Geoscience 5, 836–837 (2012) doi:10.1038/ngeo1645

2012 (November) Mann, Fuentes and Rutherford Reply to ‘Tree rings and volcanic cooling’. Nature Geoscience. 5, 837–838 (2012) doi:10.1038/ngeo1646

2012 Gavin at RealClimate Responses to volcanoes in tree rings and models

2012 Esper et al. Testing the hypothesis of post-volcanic missing rings in temperature sensitive dendrochronological data Dendrochronologia. Volume 31, Issue 3, 2013, Pages 216–222

2012 Esper et al. European summer temperature response to annually dated volcanic eruptions over the past nine centuries. Bulletin of Volcanology. June 2013, 75:736

2013 George et al. The rarity of absent growth rings in Northern Hemisphere forests outside the American Southwest. Geophysical Research Letters. 40(14) 3727-3731.

2013 D’Arrigo et al. Volcanic cooling signal in tree ring temperature records for the past millennium Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres. Volume 118, Issue 16, pages 9000–9010, 27 August 2013

2014 Jull et al. Excursions in the 14C record at A.D. 774–775 in tree rings from Russia and America. Geophysical Research Letters. Volume 41, Issue 8, pages 3004–3010, 28 April 2014

2013 Mann, Michael, Scott Rutherford, Andrew Schurer, Simon Tett, Jose Fuentes. Discrepancies between the modeled and proxy-reconstructed response to volcanic forcing over the past millennium: Implications and possible mechanisms. J. of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, Vol 118, 7617–7627.

2014 Büntgen. Et Al. Extraterrestrial confirmation of tree-ring dating. Nature Climate Change 4: 404-405.

2014 [Rutherford, Scott and Michael Mann. Missing tree rings and the AD 774–775 radiocarbon event](–201408]. Nature Climate Change. Vol 4, August 2014.

Unhappy Anniversary World War I

But they did not call it that then.

This isn’t actually the anniversary of the war, but it is the wedding anniversary plus one month of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, and the day the two of them were assassinated by Mlada Bosna. Today, one month later one hundred years ago, the first of several declarations of war was made, by Austria-Hungary against Serbia. After that, it gets very complicated.

By the end, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, and the German Empire did not exist any more. The German colonies around the world were lost to Germany. The war was fought across Europe and Asia, in many parts of Africa, and even a little bit in the New World. Had things gone slightly differently, the US and Mexico may well have resumed hostilities, and if Mexico prevailed, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico might be Mexican states today. Over forty countries were involved on the “allied” side (or affiliates of the allies) though many on paper. The “Central Powers” (the bad guys) included a minimum of seven countries, depending on what you count exactly as a country. (The Ottoman Empire included a bunch of states.)

About ten million military personnel were killed in the war, but the number “missing” is almost as large, about 7.5 million. (over 20 million wounded). About seven million civilians were killed. It is almost certain that the Pandemic of 1918 was caused by the war. That killed between 50 and 100 million people.

Let’s assume the worst. 18 million killed in the war plus imma add 5 million untimely deaths following it from those wounded, and 100 milli0n for the flu, to come up with a total of 123 million people. That’s close to 7% of the world’s population at the time, but concentrated unevenly. The war plus the flu in France (where the war was a much much larger factor) deleted nearly 7 million out of about 40 million, or 18%. Those numbers are very rough estimates.

Verily, it was the war to end all wars. Except it didn’t.

So, Unhappy Anniversary.

Ebola Outbreak in West Africa: Some basic information (Updated)


UPDATE: The latest numbers do not indicate a weakening of the outbreak. (See list of new cases below. Several graphs have been updated as well)
UPDATE: More detailed discussion of transmission of Ebola
UPDATE: I note with sadness the death of my neighbor (though I did not know him) of Patrick Sawyer, of the Liberian Ministry of Finance, who died in Nigeria of Ebola contracted in Liberia. He was on his way home to Minnesota at the time.

There is an Ebola Outbreak currently underway in several West African countries, mainly Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. This is the most extreme known Ebola outbreak to date. The first known outbreak of this virus was in 1976, and there have been several instances since then ranging from single cases (which by definition are not outbreaks) to 425 confirmed cases (with 224 deaths in that instance, in Uganda, 2000-2001). The current outbreak is significantly larger with about double that number or more.

There is some confusion in the press (most notably in CNN) about the nature of Ebola and perhaps about some of the details of this outbreak. Here, I want to provide some basic data to help clear some of this up. CNN reported at one point that you can get Ebola only after a person is symptomatic, and (in the same story) at any time a person is infected even if they are not symptomatic. It is probably the case that as long as Ebola is in a person’s system, they can spread it. It is only spread through contact with bodily fluids, but that is not such a hard thing to do; mucus membranes can absorb the virus, as well as cuts or other injuries. It is probably sexually transmittable. It does not appear to be airborne, but bodily fluids that are in or on needles, hospital equipment, etc. can carry the disease to another person.

Another issue with reporting is the difference between suspected cases, likely cases, and confirmed cases. Even within the health community these numbers are all over the place because they are always changing as cases go from suspected to either eliminated or confirmed. Wikipedia and CNN both recently stated that there have been 1,093 human cases with 660 deaths so far. However, this includes both confirmed and suspected cases. There is a good chance that the total number of cases is in fact close to this, but the data are of lower than ideal quality. If we want to look at mortality rates and changes over time in this outbreak, it is better to look at a smaller subset of the better confirmed data. That’s what I’ll do here. But, when looking at the numbers, keep in mind that although most of the data I show in graphics below show several hundred fewer cases than being widely reported, the actual number of people affected by the disease over the last four months or so is probably not only higher than the cleaned up data set but also, likely higher than the reported 1,093. Furthermore, the data I’m using here only go up to July 24th.

One of the most egregious errors at CNN is the frequent statement that Ebola has a 90% death rate, but that the current outbreak has a much lower death rate. This is rubbish. Ebola simply does not have a 90% mortality rate, and stating that the current outbreak is much lower in mortality gives the impression that this particular form of Ebola, or this particular outbreak of the disease, is somehow not as bad as usual. In fact, this outbreak is worse than any previous outbreak for several reasons. For one, it is larger. Also, it seems to be not burning itself out like most previous outbreaks did. Ebola outbreaks in the past have tended to happen in relatively isolated areas, because the population that includes victims is in close proximity to the presumed reservoir of the disease (probably fruit bats) and interacts directly with the intermediate hosts (eg. primates or other mammals that picked up the disease from fruit bats*). But there is plenty of reservoir and intermediate reservoir in some areas near major population areas. Apparently, Ebola broke into the human population in one or more areas of high population density, and this density together with relatively high mobility is allowing the disease to persist.

The following graphs are based on data I collected from the WHO reports. For March, I use only very likely cases, for April through July, I use only confirmed cases (not available for March). And, July does not include the last week for that month (a few more days have been added to this information bringing us to July 23rd, added on July 30th).

The following charts show the total number of cumulative cases conservatively estimated, and total number of cumulative deaths. When the outbreak starts to weaken, we would see a leveling off, but that is not indicated here (UPDATED).


The last several reports from WHO (including confirmed, probable, and suspect cases) are as follows:

July 21st through July 23rd: 108 NEW
July 18th through July 20th: 45
July 15th through July 17th: 67
July 13th through July 14th: 18
July 08th through July 12th: 85
July 06th through July 08th: 44
July 03rd through July 06th: 50

The exact time spans for each of these reports may not be the same, but I believe the number of cases do not overlap; each listing is a separate set of new cases. Clearly, for the last several days of available information, there is variation in, but no let up in, the number of new cases.

Looking at the number of new cases reported (and for the most part confirmed) and the number of deaths (the same data as used to make the cumulative graphic above, but by month) we have this (Updated):


Keep in mind that the data for July are short by several days.

Another area where MSM, and for that matter, Wikipedia, could do a better job is in reporting the mortality rate for the disease. Wikipedia states that “The disease has a high death rate: often between 50% and 90%.” This is misleading because the outbreaks with 90% mortality rates are not typical, and the statement seems to be based on a set of data that includes a lot of data points one would do better to ignore. I assume CNN is taking this information (from Wikipedia or elsewhere, which perhaps repeats the Wikipedia claim) and exaggerating slightly when they say that Ebola normally has a 90% mortality rate.

The Ebola affecting people right now in Africa is one of a handful of similar viruses known over a larger geographical range. Some of the deaths found in the larger data set of all known outbreaks are from individuals who showed up in a hospital nowhere near where they got the disease, or laboratory workers. The best way to estimate mortality rates related to the present outbreak in West Africa is to take only field cases — actual outbreaks in normal populations — in Africa only, and to not count “outbreaks” that are not outbreaks because only one person is in the sample.

The following chart compares mortality rates for all of the “outbreaks” listed in Wikipedia page regardless of size of sample, geography, or circumstances, with only those that are African Ebola in the field. The latter set also excludes the present outbreak.


Notice that the clean data are bimodal; some outbreaks have mortality rates between 0 and 90%, others between 40 and 60%, and not much in between. Also, there are several in the all-data set that have a mortality rate of zero. This bimodality is not necessarily a persistent statistical characteristic of the sample; I could make it go away by changing the histogram intervals. But it is a convenient place to break the sample into “more severe” and “less severe” outbreaks.

The zero cases in the full data set are all odd cases. Seven are not in Africa and include in some cases lab workers or animal handlers, and most are not African (Zaire type) Ebola. One is a scientist who caught the disease from doing a necropsy on a chimp in the Ivory Coast, examining an outbreak among the non-human primates there. There is one case where the fatality rate is 100%, but this was only one person, and the case was discovered post hoc. We don’t know if anyone else there had the disease. A 90% mortality rate occurred in a remote part of the Congo, with 143 people affected including health care workers. It appears that several individuals contracted the disease butchering non-human primates. This occurred during suboptimal conditions during the Second Congo War. One case of 88% mortality occurred early on in the history of the disease (the second known outbreak) also under very poor conditions. Although the data are too sparse to draw firm conclusions, it seems that the more severe outbreaks in terms of mortality tend to have occurred under more difficult conditions.

Ebola probably has a very high mortality rate when an infected person gets no medical treatment, and a mortality rate closer to 50% when a person quickly gets medical attention. There is no cure, but when a patient is given IV solutions in a hospital setting the chance of survival goes way up. This might suggest that smaller outbreaks that run their course before intervention would have a higher mortality rate, or that the mortality rate would be higher near the beginning of the event. Similarly, one might expect mortality rates to be higher in the early years of Ebola than later, as treatment methods developed.

There is some, but not much, evidence for these effects.

The following chart shows mortality over size of the outbreak, using only the cleaned up data set:


There is not a relationship between size of outbreak and mortality rate.

This chart shows the mortality rate over time, for the cleaned up data:


This seems to show that lower mortality has been achieved in recent outbreaks, though the statistical significance of this is non existent. But, the data set is small. The above chart also indicates the average morality rate across all of these events, which is 64% across 18 outbreaks. Not “usually 90%” as CNN states.

The following chart shows the approximate mortality rate for the current outbreak by month.


This is calculated from confirmed or highly likely cases. This is not a true mortality rate because people who got the disease in one month may have died the next month. But it does give an approximate indication of change over time in rates. The rate at the beginning of the outbreak could be high, or this large percentage could be a function of how cases were counted. In any event, this is an indication of higher mortality rates calculated at the beginning of an outbreak, and there are likely two reasons for that high rate, either or both applying in a particular case.

<li>Early in an outbreak a number of people are affected, but live, and don't make it into the data  base because they are not identified; they got sick, got better, and went on their way. Those who died were all or almost all counted. </li>

<li>Early in an outbreak a number of infected people are not treated with the maximum available medical attention, so more of them die.</li>

The current outbreak is settling in at about 60% mortality rate. There is no indication from WHO that the epidemic is slowing down.

UPDATE: Is Ebola Only Transmitted By Symptomatic Individuals?

According to the usual sources (WHO and CDC for example) the following is probably true. When someone gets Ebola, typically, after a while they get sick. This means they show symptoms. If they did not show symptoms they would not be “sick” even if the virus was in them and even if the virus is multiplying in them. Presumably people are infected with a sufficient number of viroids that they become a host for the disease, the virus starts to multiply above some level that makes the person sick, and we can say at that point that they “have Ebola.” This is when the infected person is able to transmit the disease to others through bodily fluids that might come into contact with wounds or mucous surfaces in the downstream patient.

This is what the WHO and CDC literature on Ebola says, and this has lead bloggers and news outlets to state incorrectly that Ebola is only transmitted to others when the person shows symptoms. Unfortunately this is not true in one or possibly two ways.

It appears that people who have had Ebola, live, and get “better” (i.e., their symptoms go away) can still carry Ebola for a period of time, and in this state, they can still transmit it. What has probably happened is their immune system has started to fight the virus enough that it is attenuated in its effects, but it isn’t’ entirely gone yet. Medical personnel like to send someone home only after the virus has cleared. Even so, men who are supposedly virus free by that standard, when sent home after surviving Ebola, are told to avoid sex for several weeks because there is still the possibility of sexual transmission of the virus. Meaning, of course, that the virus is still knocking around in some individuals at this point, and still transmittable. It is not clear how likely that is to happen.

This is very important. Most people would interpret “only transmitted by people showing symptoms” (or words to that effect) when they read it in a news outlet as meaning – well, as meaning exactly what it says. But post-symptomatic patients may still transmit the disease.

Is it possible that pre-symptomatic people can transmit the disease too? Personally I think it is possible even if it is generally unlikely. In a disease that kills over half of those who get it, “unlikely” is not comforting. A small percentage of people who never seemed to have had Ebola, or to have been exposed to it, seem to have antibodies that would probably only develop if exposed to Ebola. Some studies have shown immune reactions to Ebola in those known to have been exposed but also known to not have gotten sick. This is important but not shocking. There are a number of different situations where a normally icky disease that makes you really sick seems to have infected a certain percentage of people asymptomatically. Are these people carriers at some point, i.e., people who have the virus in them, can transmit it to others, but don’t get sick themselves? There is no evidence to suggest that this is the case with Ebola, but the total number of known human cases of Ebola is very small and the conditions for study of the disease in the field very poor, so the safest thing to conclude is that we simply don’t know, but it is also reasonable to say that asymptomatic carriers don’t seem to be a problem, or this would likely be noticed.

The important point here is that there is not a perfect correspondence to being infected and having symptoms, and transmission post-treatment and survival is possible and of sufficient concern that WHO and CDC assume it, so it would be unwise to make too many assumptions about pre-symptomatic transmission.

Imagine you are a health care person addressing an Ebola epidemic. An jet liner flies over a very long flight, say 10 hours long, on Monday. On Friday five people who were on the plane come down with Ebola and you have reason to believe that they were all infected before the flight. Would you determine that it was impossible for the nearly 300 people stuck on a tube with five pre-symptomatic Ebola carriers to become infected? No. You would watch those people and test them.

An additional point to underscore; it has been touched on but not emphasized. The symptoms of Ebola include vomiting and bleeding from places one normally does not bleed. Put another way, the symptoms of Ebola include spreading around bodily fluids. This is often how diseases spread. The disease results in a bodily reaction that spreads the disease (look up “virulence”). So, no matter what, the most likely transmission by far is during the period of symptomatic reaction to the disease, or for some time after death while the virus is still viable. That does not mean that there is no transmission before or after, but it does mean that the most obvious transmission will be from symptomatic patients or recently diseased symptomatic patients.

  • Fruit bats will drop fragments, or stones, of fruit they feed on, sometimes in discrete piles. It is almost impossible to imagine a ground dwelling frugivore, such as a chimp or a duiker, not stopping to munch on this detritus. Since Ebola is spread through bodily fluid contact and can be spread via mucous membranes, and fruit bat spit counts as a bodily fluid, I’m personally of the opinion that this is how Ebola may often transfer from its natural reservoir, where it seems to exist without harm, to other animals. Of course, I figured this out after having discovered and handled several such piles of fruit bad wadge.

Matt Entenza's Claim Rejected By Three Judge Panel

The 2000 election was probably won by Al Gore. But George Bush was put into office anyway. Imagine what this world would be like had Gore been ensconced in the white house? The Tea Party would probably have emerged sooner and madder, but less organized; global climate change would have become a widely accepted issue to do something about within a couple of years, instead of much later (cuz, you know, that hasn’t even happened yet). We probably wouldn’t have had this war in Iraq. If Gore had continued Clinton’s policy dealing with Al Qaida and Osama Bin Laden (no relation) there probably wouldn’t have been a 9/11. I’m sure we’d have other problems, but none of those problems.

As you know, national elections are actually handled by states, and states are charmingly diverse in how they do that. For instance, the technology of elections, and what you have to do to prove you are eligible to vote at the polling place, vary across states. But after the 2000 election there was some movement to make the system work better, to implement chad-free technologies, and to update the procedure for determining eligibility.

Eventually, of course, the changes got politicized. Everyone knew that Democratic voters and Republican voters are different, not just in their politics or who they vote for, but in how they vote. The Lockstep Party, Republican, is more homogeneous and generally privileged. You want to vote, you stop in at the voting place on the way home from work and vote. You know where it is because it is the church you go to, you have a car so transport and weather are not issues, you have access to information which is all in English and that is your native language, so you know things like when election day is and so on and so forth: Democrats have that too, but being a big tent Democrats also have other folks. Recent immigrants who don’t understand the system, older folks who don’t have a car and have a hard time getting across town, people who don’t happen to go to the well established local church so they don’t even know where it is. Also, among Democrats are people with overt labels as to how they are likely to vote. You can’t wear as button on your shirt declaring your support for a candidate, but you can, say, be black, and therefore visibly less likely to vote for the Republican. This last bit allows people who control the polls to harass or turn away certain voters.

At some point in recent history, Republicans got aggressive with strategies that would make it hard for that diverse subset of Democrats to vote. Some of those strategies are just downright dirty and illegal. When I was working on Get Out the Vote for some Democratic Candidates a few years ago I found recent African immigrants, likely Democratic voters, who had been told by Republican operatives that “Republicans vote Tuesday, Democrats vote Wednesday. So go vote Wednesday.” Seriously.

But there are other, no less unethical but potentially legal, methods of keeping a small percentage of Democrats from voting, such as requiring certain kinds of ID that not everyone, especially Democrats, has.

But these techniques, known these days as “Voter ID Laws,” did not come on the scene until after the 2004 election. While there may have been a few earlier efforts, one of the first state level attempt to restrict voter access occurred in Georgia in 2005, a push by Karl Rove to look into voter fraud by immigrants in 2007, and ACORN’s war on voting the same year.

Prior to that, there wasn’t much going on at the state level along these lines. In 2003, in Minnesota, there was nothing. The legislature did take up the issue of voting, and made attempts at upgrading and improving voting systems, but this was not an attempt to disenfranchise voters. That didn’t happen in Minnesota until later, peaking with the 2012 Voter ID constitutional amendment, which was pushed by Republicans and opposed by DFLers (Democrats), and which was clearly defeated.

Now fast forward to the 2014 Minnesota State Auditor’s race.

The incumbent, Rebecca Otto, widely recognized as one of the best Auditors the state has ever had, is being challenged in the primary by Perennial Candidate Matt Entenza, who is widely seen as making a run at the Auditor’s seat because it is a potential stepping stone to the Governor’s office, and he really wants to be Governor, and apparently will do anything to achieve that. Years ago, back in 2003, before “Voter ID” was a thing, before the Republican War on Voting had taken off, the Minnesota legislature messed around with some voting laws, in an effort to bring the states procedures in line with a national voting act, sincerely trying to modernize and update our system. It was a Democratic run legislature. There were votes on two separate bills and their amendments, and later one of the bills went to the Senate, was returned later, and passed. The exact details of what happened are rather complicated and perhaps I will write something up on that at another time. It is worth noting that Otto’s votes were in line with those of liberal democrats like Michael Paymar, Jim Davnie, and Paul Thissen. The point is, a) there was no Voter ID effort at the time so b) Rebecca Otto did not support one. When you look in detail at Otto’s votes on the various bills and amendments, there is not “supporting Voter ID” like pattern or anything, really, of note. The final bill, which I believe Otto voted in favor of, did not have the showing of identification in it.

Entenza and Otto, both in the house at the time, voted differently, Otto in favor, Entenza opposed.

This was before, remember, the Republican War on Voting, which we saw more recently.

Later, when “Voter ID” became a thing being pushed by the GOP in Minnesota, pretty much all Democrats, including Rebecca Otto, opposed it. Otto in particular campaigned vigorously against it. Her position today is that she opposes what we call “Voter ID,” which is a post 2004, or even, post 2007, effort, engineered by Republicans, to limit access to the voting booth mainly by a subset of Democrats.

In June, Matt Entenza filed a complaint with the Office of Administrative Hearings of the State of Minnesota, that Rebecca Otto had lied in official campaign information in saying she is an opponent of Voter ID. Entenza adduced her 2003 vote as evidence that she was in favor of it. That was a lie by Entenza, a lie designed to look like an accusation of someone telling a lie.

The three judge panel that reviewed the case not only rejected Entenza’s claim, but also, noted that even if they put the complaint in the light most favorable to his claim they could not come close to accepting it as valid. This finding was correct. There was no “Voter ID” thing to have voted for or against in 2003; After Entenza made the claim that Otto had supported “Voter ID” in such a way as to make people think she supported the recent 2012 Republican plan, someone asked Otto on her Facebook page about it, and she responded in this private forum. That was not an official campaign document. And, at the time, everyone who knew anything was shaking their head wondering what the heck Entenza was talking about when he referred to Voter ID back in 2003. It simply wasn’t a thing. The judges agreed that the complaint was unfounded for these several reasons.

In other words, they said that Entenza was wrong, and they implied that his intention was not entirely honorable.

In response, Entenza’s campaign manager got himself a shovel and is digging in. Entenza will still campaign on this absurd ruse.

Additional Sources:

DFL auditor spat generates complaint

Panel rejects Entenza’s voter ID claim in state auditor race

Entenza voter ID complaint against Otto dismissed

The Questionable Attacks On State Auditor Rebecca Otto

Feral Cats as Invasive Species

The ranger stood on the dirt road, facing south, and the rest of us, scattered about the parked safari truck, facing north and paying close attention to what she was saying. The sun was slipping quickly below the red sand dunes to our west, and the day’s warm breeze was rapidly changing to a chill wind. She talked about what we might see after we remounted the safari truck, which we had just driven out of the campground at the southern end of Kgalgadi Transfrontier Park, where we were staying in the South African camp, just across from the Botswana camp. This would be a night drive, cold, dark, uncomfortable seats, loud engine in the giant 26-seater truck, scanning the brush and the roadside with three or four strong spotlights wrangled by volunteers among the nature-loving tourists, and of course, the headlights of the truck. But for now the sun was still up and if anything interesting came along we’d see it just fine in the dusk.

And, of course, something interesting came along. Just as the ranger was telling us that we might see wild cats – well, not wild cats, but rather, Wildcats, the wild version of the domestic cat, Felis silvestris lybica, one of those cats popped its head out of the brush about 50 feet beyond her. As she continued her monologue about these cats, the Wildcat cautiously walked in our direction, never taking its eyes off of us, stiff-legged, ears motionless, striped like a standard “tiger” domestic cat but entirely in grays. The most interesting thing about this cat was lack of kitty-cat-ness. It was not a kitty cat, even though all of its relatives in the Americas were. It was deadly serious, intense looking, nothing like a kitty cat at all. And just as the ranger finished her monologue with “… so if we’re lucky, we’ll see one of those cats” the person standing next to me intoned, in a mimicking fake british-sounding accent to match the ranger’s South African dialect, “You mean like that one, there?” and all of us pointed simultaneously to the wildcat now about 10 feet behind her.

She turned, looked, and by the expression on her face I guessed she was thinking “Goodness, I’m glad that was not a lion.”


Global Warming’s Impact on Hockey: NHL is concerned.

The original hoser, I’m told by an unimpeachable source from way up in Canada, was the guy who went out to his front yard in the middle of the winter and hosed down the lawn in order to make some flat ice, so he and his friends could play hockey. A better way to get ice is to find a cove or embayment along a small lake that is protected from the wind; clear off the snow and you’ve got a nice flat surface. If that is not available, clear the snow off the rugged and rough ice that forms on many lakes, build a dam of hard packed snow around it … and hose that down. Even better, build a partly enclosed structure, with low walls all around and a rough and ready roof overhead, and put a naturally freezing hockey rink in there. Make sure to add a warming shack nearby because it can get mighty cold.

All these things were done to make places to skate, and in particular, to skate with sticks in the game of hockey. Later, and more expensively and more rarely, were built buildings with central heating and an ice rink in the middle, which is a bit of a technological challenge requiring expensive machinery. But this approach can be done anywhere in the world. Hockey is a Winter Olympic game you can play anywhere, no matter what the geography or the weather, because of this technology

But to produce a plethora of players who someday might be pro hockey, you have to hose down the yard or have a local community outdoor rink, affordable, accessible, to serve as the starting point for so many so that so few can be so good. This is why Hockey is more of a northern sport; it is played widely all across Canada and the northern tier of US states, because that is where the natural ice, on small ponds and lakes, and the nearly natural ice of the outdoor rink, is to be found reliably.

Until now.

Sustainability is one of those hippie words, like recycling and om. But sustainability is also a real thing that even those who distain the culture of thoughtful treatment of the earth must pay attention to, if they want to be, well, sustained, in their pursuit of important things like hockey. The National Hockey League understands this, and recently issued their “2014 NHL Sustainability Report” in which they note that hockey is in trouble because of global warming. Simply put, those ponds and lakes and hosed-down yards have become increasingly unreliable as many winters are just too warm to allow their development and maintenance. In many areas, it was once the case that all a young person needed to play hockey was a good pair of skates, a big stick, and a love of pain (apparently). Nature provided the ice. But now nature, messed with by humans, has become an unreliable partner. The report faces off with a letter from Gary Bettman, NHL Commissioner, who states:

But before many of our players ever took their first stride on NHL ice, they honed their skills on the frozen lakes and ponds of North America and Europe. Our sport can trace its roots to frozen freshwater ponds, to cold climates. Major environmental challenges, such as climate change and freshwater scarcity, affect opportunities for hockey players of all ages to learn and play the game outdoors…

As a business, we rely on freshwater to make our ice, on energy to fuel our operations and on healthy communities for our athletes, employees and fans to live, work and play. Moreover, to continue to stage world class outdoor hockey events like the NHL Winter Classic, NHL Heritage Classic or NHL Stadium Series, we need winter weather….

This is all part of NHL Green, an effort to document the leagues environmental impact, and possibly, to do something about it. Currently, it seems that the league is mainly focused on documenting that they have a tiny impact on the environment compared to the entire world put together, but the are also working to offset impacts and raise awareness of related issues.

Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, also has a cover letter for the report:

You are about to read the single most important document about the environment ever produced by a professional sports organization.

The 2014 NHL SUSTAINABILITY REPORT is the first ever such report produced by a professional sports league…

… No league has ever produced a sustainability report that is so thoughtfully crafted, honest about its limits and emphatic about the urgent need to protect our planet. And no league has ever been so frank about the risks to its very existence posed by climate change.

This document is an important reminder to all sports fans, leagues, teams and businesses that while natural hockey ice might be the “canary in the coal mine” when it comes to the effects of climate change on sports, the effects of climate disruption are a challenge to all leagues and businesses, and we must take meaningful action to reverse course.

… this report underscores the fact that there is no action too small to undertake when it comes to addressing our ecological problems. After all, there is no single law or single business undertaking that by itself can remedy the problems posed by climate disruption, biodiversity loss, water scarcity, ocean acidification and so many other ecological pressures. We have no choice but to implement many small steps that will collectively add up to meaningful ecological progress.

This, in my view, is part of the shift in the cultural landscape we need to see in order to more effectively address climate change. The acceptance of climate science and the will do to something about global warming tends to distribute along a left-right political axis, with the left being more understanding and demanding, understanding of the importance of climate change and demanding that we do something about it. But this axis also sorts out other features of society, and team sports (especially some team sports), farming, and the military, to name just three examples, tend to more or less be distributed right of center. Lately we’ve seen a dramatic increase in concern over climate change by farmers; the military has been addressing climate change vigorously, despite efforts in the Tea Party Congress to thwart that, and now, hockey, the rightest and whitest, if you will, of the team sports, is chiming in. Because ice melts when it gets warm. Global warming. Its a thing.

How warm will 2014 be?

We just experienced the warmest two months (May and June) on record, meaning, essentially, in well over 100 years. This is because of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Does this mean that 2014 will be the warmest year on record? Probably not, in part because February was pretty cold and that lowers the score for the year. But it will be a warm year.

There is a strong correlation between the temperature in June and what turns out to be the global mean for the year. This can be shown empirically by calculating a simple correlation coefficient for each month of the year and the year’s average. For this I used the GISS anomaly data.

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 11.03.39 AM

Clearly, the ability of a month to predict the year follows a seasonal march, with June and its sibling months performing the best. I asked Michael Mann about this and he told me, “I think it is simply a consequence of signal-to-noise. Boreal summer has a large signal-to-noise ratio because the effects of radiative forcing are relatively large compared to those of internal atmospheric dynamics. Winter on the other hand tends to be dominated by synoptic and planetary-scale dynamics, meaning the signal of forcing is buried in more noise.”

Makes sense and the data shows this.

So let’s use June to predict 2014. Running all the data from GIS through a simple regression model, we get this:

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 1.16.45 PM

Yeah, I know, no axes lables. This is just a quick and dirty exercise in Science by Spreadsheet! This is June temperature anomaloy on the X axis and annual on the Y. The black regression line has the indicated R-squared and model formula. I added a second order polynomial regression line (in red) to check to see if the ability to predict goes haywire for the higher temperature values (which are also the more recent years). I’m going to say it doesn’t, though if we do a similar model regressing the second half of the year on the first, there is a skew with the higher (and thus later) values:

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 1.14.53 PM

So, I’m reasonably confident that June is a good predictor of the year, though I’m also sure that this method won’t predict the exact ranking for a given year. But we can try it anyway. Here is a list of all of recent years sorted by how hot it got (using the same data) with 2014 added in as a prediction (the rest of the GAT numbers are observations).

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 11.43.13 AM

Using this table we can see two things. First, it would take only a small difference from the prediction to move 2014 up or down. The average amount the predictions for these years are off is actually large enough to move 2014 up to the third slot, or down to the tenth slot or so, very easily. But given only this prediction, we might expect 2014 to tie as the fifth warmest year (if we round it off) or to be the sixth warmest year, more or less.

This assumes we don’t have warming effects of an El Niño this year. If we don’t I’m going to guess that 2014 will be about in the middle of the top ten years ever. If we do have an El Niño that affects temperatures during the last few months of the year, we could see a 2014 that is closer to the top of the pile.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Until more data comes along and then I’ll revise as needed, of course.

Here’s a video from Paul Douglas discussing June’s temperature record:

Is Matt Entenza really from outstate Minnesota? No, he is not.

[Updated: Letter to the Editor, Worthington Daily Globe.]

This is a followup on my earlier post (see “How do you say “Surprise” in Norwegian? The word is “Entenza.” I am not making that up” also reposted here) on Matt Entenza’s bid for the DFL (Democratic Party) Primary candidacy for Minnesota State Auditor.

Entenza claims he is from Greater Minnesota, and thus, would do a better job representing the interests of Greater Minnesotans. This implies that highly acclaimed sitting State Auditor and candidate for re-election Rebecca Otto is not doing well in this area. In fact, she is doing very well. She is recognized for her fair and non-partisan treatment of people and local governments across the state. The previous State Auditor used the position in a more political way, implying bias, and voters rejected that approach by the largest upset of an incumbent in 112 years when Otto was first elected. It is now well-understood, here and nationally, that Otto is doing it right.

This is similar to the misleading language Entenza is using on pensions and social security. "Too often these days, we hear stories about how folks who worked hard and played by the rules their whole lives have their retirement at risk by poorly managed pension funds and Wall Street middle-men that charge exorbitant fees. Privatization of pensions is unacceptable. Minnesotans’ pensions should not be privatized and that Wall-Street middle men have no business near our pension plans.” This, again, implies that Otto has somehow been involved in privatizing pensions. She has not. In fact, a review of Otto’s website shows that she has been leading the charge against the move to privatize public pensions, and that the Public Employee Retirement Association is stronger than ever on her watch.

A similar thing happened in a recent news article about Otto leading a national conference of State Auditors, bringing the State Auditors from around the country to Saint Paul. A few accounting firms that work with local governments were some of the conference sponsors. Entenza said of this, via his campaign mouthpiece, that "The people being regulated should not be paying for lavish events for those doing the regulating. Attending parties and events thrown by firms the auditor is supposed to be watchdogging is not how Matt Entenza will run the office.” Again, this is a blatant attempt to mislead voters. The State Auditor does not watchdog or regulate private CPA firms in any way, and there were no lavish events at the conference. In fact, the conference was part of required continuing education classes that help auditors keep up with the latest laws, regulations and trends. So here, Entenza would have readers believe that all State Auditors from around the country are somehow having a conflict of interest. Really? He says he wouldn’t attend such conferences if elected. How then, one wonders, would his staff be able to do their jobs?

But let’s get back to the Greater Minnesota claim. While Entenza is making a cultural and geographical claim about himself (that he grew up in Greater Minnesota), Rebecca Otto is not. Her personal growing-up history is not part of her campaign, though her education and experience as an adult is, and her background is impressive. But when I looked into it further, I found out that Rebecca Otto and Matt Entenza are roughly similar in their geographical background, and that Entenza’s claim is apparently – surprise – (or, as Wikipedia would have it, "Entenza!”) bogus.

One of my favorite tales from Lake Wobegon, Garrison Keillor’s fictional-but-realish small town in Minnesota, is the one about the family that moved to California then returned later for the wedding of their daughter. The wandering Lake Wobegonites had changed from having lived for years in the Sunshine State. They wore sunglasses, even inside. They spoke of their lovely garden, but admitted they had a gardener. The good people of Lake Wobegon said nothing in response to this, but we know they were thinking “Gardener? Who has a gardener? That would be like having someone cut your food for you.” The joke here is based on the idea that Minnesotan life and culture, especially Greater Minnesota life and culture, is as different from California culture as any two samples of American life can be. These characterizations are, of course, humorously exaggerated imitations of American life, and to humorous effect. But it gets the point across; outsiders, represented by people from California, are suspicious. Never mind that Minnesota is a place of immigration. During the time that our Euro-American culture was forming, with the Minnesota Nice and the Upper Plains sensibility thing and all that – around the beginning of the 20th century – the vast majority of Minnesotans were not born here, or one or both parents who were not born here. The explosive economic growth just before the Bush Recession included a large number of people who moved here from the coastal regions, though we seem to focus on those who moved here from other countries. The point is, there may be a real but low level xenophobia in our state, which is a little quaint but often annoying, and not justified. I’m from New York State (which I know annoys a lot of you). In New York it is not uncommon to be represented in the US Senate by people who had to move there to run for office. This annoys some, but for most it is regarded as a good thing. New York State sometimes gets to be represented by very powerful people who have to work very little to get their voices heard. Robert Kennedy and Hillary Clinton are examples of this. Minnesota has its own history of people not born here still being claimed as strong, good looking, or above average. Elmer Anderson, the most beloved of governors, was not born here. One of our two most famous Charlies, Lindbergh, was born in Detroit. There are others. My point is this: As an outsider (though I’ve lived here as long as I lived in New York) I have noticed that “Candidate X is from this community s/he bids to represent” is a standard line in politics. Just so you know: Not everybody, across this country, does that. That’s a Minnesota thing. (And a few other places.)

Putting all this aside, one could still argue that the people of Minnesota are so provincial, especially those who live in Greater Minnesota, that they would prefer to be represented by someone exactly like themselves, historically and demographically. Matt Entenza is making the claim that he is “one of them” apparently for this reason. This seems a bit paternalistic.

And, paternalistic or not, he isn’t. From here.

Matt Entenza claims he is from Worthington, a small town in Out State Minnesota. In fact, he was born in … wait for it … California. He grew up not in Minnesota at all, but in Santa Monica, and his family moved to Worthington when he was 15. He attended and completed high school there. He then moved out of state again, having lived in Greater Minnesota until he was about 18, we assume, so about three years. He did a year or so at Augustana College in South Dakota, which is not in Minnesota, an Evangelical Lutheran private college. He then transferred to a private college in Saint Paul, Macalester. After graduating from Macalaster he moved out of state again, actually out of the country, to follow Lois Quam during her Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford. The one in England. Later, he went to law school in Minneapolis. After that, he clerked for a Minneapolis-based judge. (Details from here.) He now lives in Saint Paul.

By Entenza’s standards I’m Congolese because I lived in the Congo for more time than he lived in Greater Minnesota.

I don’t think it matters that Matt Entenza is from California, but it does matter that he claims that he is from Greater Minnesota and that being from Greater Minnesota is important. Even more importantly, perhaps, is that he seems to assume that people from Greater Minnesota would buy this.

I respect Entenza’s background. Personally I think everybody who is in charge of anything in Minnesota should go live in coastal states for a couple of years. Being from New York, I am forever seeing things done here in Minnesota that I feel very strongly would be done differently if only people knew how the decisions they are making would play out with increase in population size and density. Boston, where I lived for several years, spent more money than has ever been spent ever anywhere at any time on a public works project to rebuild their main urban highway system, because the original system was put in place and evolved with insufficient forethought. We should be learning those lessons and avoiding those mistakes. Want proof of that? Spaghetti Junction, Crosstown X I35W and the KMart on Nicollet Avenue. On. Nicollet. Avenue. Say no more. Having people in important positions who have experience living elsewhere, and good educations (which you can get here but you can also get elsewhere) is a good thing. Good for you, Matt Entenza, for being a man of the world, who still respects and likes Minnesota. I’d vote for you in part for that reason if your other ducks were in the proverbial row.

But no, the ducks, they are askew. Entenza had to, essentially, alter his resume to say, or at least strongly imply, that he is is from Greater Minnesota, and thus, will relate to people from Greater Minnesota. He isn’t, he won’t, and making this claim is itself the kind of misleading, pandering that one would think is subject to audit.

The Expansion of Antarctic Sea Ice and Self Correcting Science

One of the things climate change science deniers say, to throw you off, is that Antarctic sea ice is expanding. They even claim that the amount of expansion of Antarctic sea ice offsets the dramatic retreat of Arctic sea ice (see this for the latest on the Arctic). I’ve even seen it argued, in that famous peer-reviewed publication Twitter, that there is an inter-polar teleconnection that guarnatees that when the ice on one end of the earth expands the ice on the other end of the earth contracts, and visa versa, so everything is fine.

That Antarctic Sea ice is expanding has become standard knowledge. (See “Why is Antarctic Sea Ice Growing” for more.) It is a simple fact of nature that needs to be explained and addressed. The expansion of Antarctic Sea ice is one of the very few apparent reversals in climate change related trends across the world. And, there have been many explanations for it.

Or is it?

It turns out that we don’t know if Antarctic sea ice is expanding. A new study just released looked at Antarctic sea ice to examine the idea, which has been batted around for a while now, that there is something wrong with the data. The study, by Eisenman, Meier, and Norris, published in The Cryosphere, found this:

Recent estimates indicate that the Antarctic sea ice cover is expanding at a statistically significant rate with a magnitude one-third as large as the rapid rate of sea ice retreat in the Arctic. However, during the mid-2000s, with several fewer years in the observational record, the trend in Antarctic sea ice extent was reported to be considerably smaller and statistically indistinguishable from zero. Here, we show that much of the increase in the reported trend occurred due to the previously undocumented effect of a change in the way the satellite sea ice observations are processed for the widely used Bootstrap algorithm data set, rather than a physical increase in the rate of ice advance. Specifically, we find that a change in the intercalibration across a 1991 sensor transition when the data set was reprocessed in 2007 caused a substantial change in the long-term trend. Although our analysis does not definitively identify whether this change introduced an error or removed one, the resulting difference in the trends suggests that a substantial error exists in either the current data set or the version that was used prior to the mid-2000s, and numerous studies that have relied on these observations should be reexamined to determine the sensitivity of their results to this change in the data set. Furthermore, a number of recent studies have investigated physical mechanisms for the observed expansion of the Antarctic sea ice cover. The results of this analysis raise the possibility that much of this expansion may be a spurious artifact of an error in the processing of the satellite observations.

It looks like, for sure, you can’t say that Antarctic sea ice is expanding or contracting in its annual cycle. It also looks like the evidence suggests it is probably not expanding at all.

So, science, in its self correcting way, has thrown a wet blanket … a warm and wet blanket perhaps … on the idea that the Antarctic sea ice expansion disproves everything else we know about global warming. The Antarctic sea ice is not Galileo!

Current Status of Arctic Sea Ice Extent

As it does every summer, the Arctic Sea ice is melting off. Over the last several years, the amount of sea ice that melts by the time it hits minimum in September has generally been increasing. So, how’s it doing now?

The graph above shows the 1981-2010 average plus or minus two standard deviations. Before going into more detail than that, you should look at the following graphic.

The top chart shows the march of Arctic Sea ice melt for first ten years of the baseline data set only, and the bottom chart shows the last ten years of the same data set. This tells us that the two Standard Deviations for the period 1981-2010 hides an important fact. Since Arctic Sea ice is melting more and more every year, a proper baseline might be the first several years of this period, not the entire period.

Now refer to the graphic at the top of the post. This is the current year’s ice extent. Notice that it is tracking right along the lower edge of the 2 Standard Deviation zone. In other words, the present year is exhibiting what we have been seeing all along: An Arctic with much less ice.

Now look at the years that post date the baseline period, 2011 through the present, including the wildy extreme year of 2012 when a record melt was set.

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 12.04.56 PM

Here we see that collectively, the last three full years and the present partially documented year exist at the lower end of, or lower than, the 2 Standard Deviation zone. This suggests that the current trend is an extension of the previous couple of decades. More melting on average over time. One would hope this would level off, and maybe it will. But we certainly can not make that claim at this point.

Note that it is very hard to predict the ultimate minimum for a given year, even at this point. (Even so, I did it here way at the beginning of the season). We’ll have to wait and see.

Humans accepting climate change vs. Jell-O: The Coastal Effect

There is an old theory in psychology that characterizes humans as a bowl of Jell-O (Jelly for some of you). Life pokes at the Jell-O, the Jell-O jiggles. Eventually the jiggles begin to change the Jell-O, so certain kinds of pokes result in certain kinds of responses. The Jell-O gurgles, babbles, notices things, learns, develops, and eventually becomes self aware.

That is a great oversimplification of a theory that was, in turn, a great oversimplification of human development, yet it does seem to apply in many ways to human behavior. When it comes to climate change, people seem more accepting of the reality of Anthropogenic Global Warming when it is hot out, less so when it is cool. Nature pokes, or fails to poke, and the Jell-O responds. Sadly, this seems to be how our Big Brains work.

Climate Change has had, and will have, a very wide range of effects across the entire planet, and most of them have had or will have significant impacts on humans. Imagine a world that is warmed by an average of 3.0 degrees C. This is likely given our current and expected release of fossil Carbon into the atmosphere. That is a warming significantly more than we have experienced so far. One could take the effects that have already occurred and simply extrapolate into the future, and that may work for some effects. But other effects may be fundamental qualitative changes in climate systems that will be more difficult to characterize or predict. For example, 30 years ago it may have been difficult to predict changes in the jet stream that would cause widespread changes in weather patterns, threatening agriculture, water supplies, and causing frequent floods or other disasters. But that seems to have happened. Maybe in a couple of more decades, that effect will go away and something else will happen.

So, imagine this world with 3.0 degrees greater average heat, and try to estimate what the worst effects will be. Clearly, this is a complicated question. One change in climate may strongly affect people in one part of the world and a different change may strongly affect people in another part of the world, and those different groups of people may have different levels of adaptability owing to economic or infrastructure differences. It is really hard to say what will happen. In a warmer world, high-humidity super-heat waves may happen in which large populations will find themselves experiencing temperatures well above body temperature for several days in a row. People in those areas, not all of them but a noticeable number, will simply die of the heat. Severe continental storms could become more common, so the chances of a community being wiped out by tornadoes or derechos may become extraordinarily high. Perhaps people will truly consider the costs and benefits of living in a “tornado ally” rather than simply knowing that tornado alley is a thing and otherwise more or less ignoring it. Arid regions may become hyper-arid for the long term, so water management simply becomes impossible. Even if California is inundated every few years with repeated pineapples express, if extreme drought becomes the norm a significant breadbasket may simply be a place we no longer grow food. And so on.

One change that is inevitable is the rise of sea level. The current level of CO2 in the atmosphere has been associated in the past with sea levels significantly higher than they are now. The sea hasn’t risen to that level yet simply because it takes time, though we really don’t know how much time it takes. If we stopped adding fossil Carbon to the atmosphere today, the sea will still rise, significantly, perhaps several meters. We have accomplished this and we can’t un-accomplish it. But we are very likely to not stop using fossil fuels tomorrow, or any time soon, so it is likely that the maximum amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will will eventually achieve will be associated with even higher sea levels. Coastal cities will be inundated. Small Pacific nations will cease to exist. All of that is going to happen, pretty much no matter what. When you imagine all of the different bad things that may happen in the future, sea level rise may or many not be on the top of your list, and it may in fact not be the worst thing that occurs. But at present, sea level rise is probably the biggest single effect that can be easily identified, won’t not happen no matter what, and can be understood the best; how heat waves, drought, flash floods, etc. work, and what their effects will be is hard to grasp. Losing land to the ocean is not hard to grasp. (Though I quickly add most people still don’t get the level of magnitude of sea level rise that we will experience, eventually.)

So, where does the bowl of Jell-O fit in to all of this? A recent study, in PLOS One, examines attitudes about climate change in relation to distance from the sea. The study takes place in New Zealand, but references other studies that look at similar things elsewhere. The bottom line is this: The farther a human lives from the sea, the less likely the human is to accept the reality of climate change science. Putting this another way, the father a bowl of Jell-O is from that which may poke it, the less poked it is, and thus, the less it develops, learns, evolves, gets smart.

Psychologists have examined the many psychological barriers to both climate change belief and concern. One barrier is the belief that climate change is too uncertain, and likely to happen in distant places and times, to people unlike oneself. Related to this perceived psychological distance of climate change, studies have shown that direct experience of the effects of climate change increases climate change concern. The present study examined the relationship between physical proximity to the coastline and climate change belief, as proximity may be related to experiencing or anticipating the effects of climate change such as sea-level rise. We show, in a national probability sample of 5,815 New Zealanders, that people living in closer proximity to the shoreline expressed greater belief that climate change is real and greater support for government regulation of carbon emissions. This proximity effect held when adjusting for height above sea level and regional poverty. The model also included individual differences in respondents’ sex, age, education, political orientation, and wealth. The results indicate that physical place plays a role in the psychological acceptance of climate change, perhaps because the effects of climate change become more concrete and local.

Another study done in 2011 indicated that Americans are more willing to alter their behavior related to climate change depending on an number of factors. In that study, distance to coast was a significant factor predicting willingness to change, but only one of several factors. Interestingly, knowledge of climate change science and distance to coast had similar levels of effect in that case. Another study done in 2013 “showed in [the] U.S. … that risk from climate change is perceived to be significantly lower for respondents located farther away from the coastline. Indeed, among the other geo-physical variables considered in this study (e.g., relative elevation, sea-level rise/inundation risk, temperature trend), distance to the coast had the strongest association with climate change risk perception.” cited here.

I live and work in the Upper Midwest. There are no coasts nearby. I imagine the people around me as bowls of Jell-O that are unlikely to be poked by concern over sea level rise, and thus unlikely to accept climate change as real.

Or are they?

I frequently give talks on climate change, in the Upper Midwest, and I always talk about sea level rise, partly because I think it is very important and partly because I think there is more certainty about sea level rise (aside from the timing, we are not very certain about that) compared to many other effects of climate change. People get this. Even though we live far from the coast, it is possible to show people how important sea level rise is.

Do you like rice? Do you have any idea how much of the global supply of rice is grown in regions that will be inundated by even a couple of meters of sea level rise? Do you ever go to Mexico during the winter? Did you ever notice how close to the sea, vertically, the Maya Riviera is? The region is built on coral, essentially, a vast “inland sea” risen temporarily out of the ocean for your pleasure. Temporarily. Are you, or is anyone important to you, in the agricultural business? (Many are around here.) Did you notice that New Orleans is the most important sea port for bringing fertilizer into the region, and bringing produce out? NOLA will not survive even a very modest, not too far in the future, rise in sea level. Were you thinking that a few meters of sea level rise will not happen for centuries, so who cares? Well, first, you don’t know how long it will take any more than anyone else does. Scientists who study these things have been shortening the time scale with almost every study. But forget about that. Are you a patriotic American? Did the founding fathers work out a Constitution that would only apply in their lifetimes, or during the lifetimes of their children? Did god tell Moses that the 10 commandments have an expiration date? Did Jesus die for the sins of people who he knew, AND NOT YOU???? I should mention that a lot of people around here are religious, though frankly, half the talks I give are to groups of godless heathens of which I am a member. But the point still stands. Timing is not everything. Timing is just an excuse.

I don’t think the goal of climate activists should necessarily be to convince everyone to get on board and stop being dumb about global warming. For one thing, that will never happen. Rather, the goal of climate activists should be to make addressing climate change – which primarily means keeping the fossil Carbon in the ground – normal, part of our social and governmental responsibility, and to do so soon. Most people these days are pretty ignorant about the Ozone Layer, yet somehow we are mostly taking care of the ozone layer, not because we got everyone on board, but because we made taking care of the ozone layer national and international law and set up systems to do that. Climate change is a much bigger challenge, or really, a large number of individual challenges many of which are very big. But we have to meet those challenges with methods and approaches that work and changing human psychology – making humans be something other than bowls of Jell-O – is not going to work in time to matter, if at all. But, getting some more people on board by addressing the psychology of belief, as it were, in the science, needs to happen to bring certain communities and factions to a tipping point.

Maybe everyone should move to the coast for a few years. Get their feet wet.

Sins of Our Fathers by Shawn Otto

JW, protagonist, is a flawed hero. He is not exactly an anti-hero because he is not a bad guy, though one does become annoyed at where he places his values. As his character unfolds in the first several chapters of Shawn Otto’s novel, Sins of Our Fathers, we like him, we are worried about him, we wonder what he is thinking, we sit on the edge of our proverbial seats as he takes risk after risk and we are sitting thusly because we learn that he does not have a rational concept of risk. We learn that his inner confusion about life arises from two main sources: the dramatic difference between his temperament and upbringing on one hand and the life he ended up with on the other, and from unthinkable tragedy he has suffered. And so it goes as well with the other hero of the book, Johnny Eagle, who is a flawed, almost Byronic antagonist. Flawed because he is not the bad guy yet is an antagonist, Byronic because of his pride. There is also a troubled young man, a full blown antagonist we never come close to liking, and a horse.

SinsOfOurFathersWhen I moved to Minnesota from the East, I quickly encountered “The Indian Problem.” Not my words; that is what people called it. Very rarely major news, but still always a problem, the concept includes the expected litany. Poverty, fights over spear fishing rights, casinos and fights over off-reservation gambling, and the usual racism. I lived near the “Urban Res” but was told never to call it that. Doing some historic archaeology in Minneapolis I came across a hostess, of the first hotel built in the city, who had written elaborate stories of Indian attacks in South Minneapolis, part of the Indian Problem, after which she and her hotel gave refuge to the victims. None of which ever actually happened. I read about trophy hunting by the farmers in the southern part of the state, who took body parts from the Native Americans executed as part of the Sioux Uprising, and heard rumors that some of those parts were still in shoe boxes in some people’s closets.

Later I married into a family with a cabin up north. I remember passing Lake Hole-In-The-Day on the way up to the cabin, and wondering what that meant — was a “Hole in the day” like a nap, or break, one takes on a hot lazy afternoon? And the cabin was an hour or so drive past that lake. Many months later, I did some research and discovered two amazing facts. First, Hole-In-The-Day was the name of two major Ojibway Chiefs, father and son, both of whom were major players in the pre-state and early-state histories of the region, of stature and importance equalling or exceeding any of the white guys, like Snelling, Cass, Ramsey, after which counties, cities, roads, and other things had been named. But no one seemed to know Hole-In-The-Day. It was just a lake with a funny sounding name like most of the other lakes. The other thing I learned was downright shocking: The cabin to which we have driven many summer weekends is actually on an Indian reservation, as is the nearby town with the grocery store, ice cream shop, and Internet. On the reservation, yes, but not near any actual Indians. So, I could tell you that I spend many weeks every summer on an Indian Reservation up north, and it would not be a lie. Except the part about it being a lie.

Otto’s book pits the white, established and powerful, Twin Cities based banking industry against an incipient Native bank and the rest of the reservation. The story is a page turner, but I don’t want to say how so, because I don’t want to spoil any of it for you. I am not a page-turner kind of guy. I am a professional writer, so therefore I’m a professional reader. I can put a book down at any point no matter what is happening in order to shift gears to some other task awaiting my attention. But I certainly turned the pages in Sins of Our Fathers. The most positive comment one can make about a piece of writing is probably “this made me want more.” That happens at the end of every chapter in Otto’s novel.

But just as important as Sins of Our Fathers being a very very good book, which it is, it also addresses the Indian Problem. It does not matter if you are in, of, or familiar with Minnesota. The theme is American, and I use that word in reference to geography and not nationality, through and through. Everybody has an Indian Problem, especially Indians. Tension, distrust, solace and inspiration in modernized tradition, internal and external, are real life themes and Otto addresses them fairly, clearly, and engagingly. “Fathers” is plural for a reason, a reason you can guess.

It is important that you know that Sins of our Fathers is not Minnesota Genre though it is set here; it is not Native American Relations and Culture Genre though that is in the book. It is action, mystery, adventure, white knuckle, engaging, well-paced, and extremely well written. There are aspects of this writing that recommend this book as an exemplar in plot development, character construction, dialog and inner dialog, narrative distance, and descriptive technique.

Sins of Our Fathers is Shawn Otto’s first novel (but not his first book); it is due out in November but available for pre-order.

Shawn Otto is the founder of Science Debate. He is a science communicator and advocate. He is also a film maker, and among other things wrote the screenplay for the award winning movie “House of Sand and Fog.”

Global Warming Is Warm, Especially Lately

June 2014 was the hottest June on record, and records go back to 1880, by which time Global Warming may have started already but wasn’t nearly as intense as the last half of the 20th century, according to data NOAA has released and highlighted. The previous month, May, was the hottest May on record.

Global Warming June Graphic
June Global Land and Ocean plot
NOAA notes that this was the 38th consecutive June and the 352nd consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average, which was already elevated due to global warming. Also, the last time June was below average for the century was in 1976. The last below-average temperature for any month was in 1985, and it was a February.

It has been especially warm over southeastern Greenland, so that’s not so nice for the glaciers there. Central and East Africa have also bee extra warm, whcih they don’t need. Also, there are big huge warm blobs here and there across the world’s oceans.

For the ocean, the June global sea surface temperature was 0.64°C (1.15°F) above the 20th century average of 16.4°C (61.5°F), the highest for June on record and the highest departure from average for any month.

Large parts of North America were relatively cold, and dumb people live there, so they will think that the entire Earth is cool even though they are only observing a teeny tiny fraction of it.

NOAA also provided these additional bullet points of interest:

<li>New Zealand observed its warmest June since national records began in 1909. The warmth was notable for both its intensity and coverage, according to NIWA, with above-average temperatures from the northernmost of the North Island to the southernmost of the South Island.</li>

<li>The average monthly temperature for Australia during June 2014 was above average, with variations across the country. Most of the states were warmer than average, with Victoria and Tasmania observing their seventh and tenth warmest June, respectively. However, both Western Australia and the Northern Territory had below-average monthly temperatures, marking the first below-average statewide temperatures for any state since February.</li>

<li>The June temperature for the United Kingdom tied with 2010 as the ninth warmest June since records began in 1910, at 1.2°C (2.2°F) above the 1981–2010 average. In Scotland, the June minimum temperature was record high for the month.</li>

<li>June in Latvia was 0.9°C (1.6°F) cooler than average, marking the second coolest June of the 21st century, behind 2004.</li>

<li>Austria observed a June temperature that was 1.0°C (1.8°F) higher than the 1981–2010 average. The warmth was driven by a heat wave during June 7–13, when many regions broke daily maximum temperature records.</li>

<li>France observed its fifth warmest June in the country's 115-year period of record, at 1.3°C (2.3°F) above the 1981–2010 average. The week-long heat wave that impacted Austria also extended to France from the 7th to the 14th, contributing to the overall warmth for the month.</li>

<li>Spain had a June temperature that was 1.3°C (2.3°F) higher than the 1971–2000 average. However, this June ranks as the fifth coolest (11th warmest) in the past 15 years, according to AEMet, Spain's national meteorological agency.</li>

<li>Parts of Greenland were record warm during June. According to the Danish Meteorological Institute (DMI), Kangerlussuaq in southwestern Greenland recorded its record highest maximum June temperature of 23.2°C (73.8°F) on June 15, surpassing the previous record of 23.1°C (73.6°F) set in 1988 and tied in 2002. Records at this station date back to 1958.</li>

<li>It was also warmer-than-average in Iceland. Stykkishòlmur in western Iceland recorded its warmest June since local records began in 1845, while the capital of Reykjavìk had its fourth warmest June since records began there in 1871. Every station, as reported by the Icelandic Met Office, had a June temperature among their seven highest for their respective periods of records (the periods of record vary by station).</li>

Having experienced a significant anomaly here at home, with respect to participation, it was interesting to see this graphic:

201406 (2)

Notice the dry over California and the wet over Minnesota.

In India, the monsoon was late and has been weak:

The onset of the Southwest Asian Monsoon officially occurs when the monsoon crosses Kerala in southern India, according to the India Meteorological Department (IMD). The monsoon typically reaches Kerala around June 1. This year the onset was nearly a week late, arriving on June 6. Through the month of June, the cumulative rainfall was just 57 percent of average for the country as a whole. Every region experienced rainfall deficits during this period, ranging from 39 percent of average in Central India to 74 percent of average in East and Northeast India. The monsoon season lasts from early June through late September.

That’s gonna leave a mark.

California's Drought and California's Response

Last month, listening to NPR, I learned that Sacramento, California is struggling with the installation of water meters on homes. There were two things I learned, both ungood: 1) Sacramento was installing water meters on homes, meaning, that they hadn’t been there all along. I found that astounding because water meters are the first line of defense in controlling water use. Charge people for the water and they’ll pay attention to the drippy faucet, they’ll be more likely to remember to turn off the sprinkler, maybe they’ll think about investing in more efficient water-using appliances. Or maybe they’ll just throw a brick in the back of the toilet. 2) The way they were installing the water meters seemed to guarantee that it would take the longest possible time to complete the job. I wondered if this was a deal, tacit or otherwise, between the contractors and the city, because the way they are doing it involved a lot more work for the contractors. Seemed to me that getting the water meters in place would be urgent, and dealing with other aspects of the infrastructure could be handled later.

In January, Governor Jerry Brown asked Californians to use less water. They didn’t. That is surprising because I thought everybody in California was a tree-hugging ex-hippie liberal, the sort of person who would come up to the plate to save the earth any day of the week, not just on Earth Day. Turns out, that’s only the people I know in California. Now, California is imposing mandatory water restrictions, which include fines. Now the Libertarians will have to pay if they want to be all Libertarian about using water.

In the meantime I’ve had a few conversations, on Twitter and Facebook mainly, but also here, about this. My friends and I found ourselves grumbling about California. Hey, I live a few miles from the Mississippi River on a glacial lake covered with a sand sheet. Couldn’t get much better aquifer than that; the rain falls, goes straight underground with minimal evaporation or runoff, and sits there ready to pump into the ubiquitous water towers that define most upper Midwestern and Plains cities. But we have mandatory water restrictions, usually for several weeks starting in mid summer, every year. Also, I’ve lived in several sates and there were always water meters. Always. How is it that California, suffering a severe to extreme drought statewide, has entire cities (at least a couple) without water meters, and only now has considered serious water restrictions? What gives, we grumbled? Why should we feel sorry for California when they seem to have brought at least part of this water shortage problem on themselves?

The whole thing made so little sense that I guessed that there was more to it. There must be context I’m unaware of, nuance I’m missing. And, a colleague of mine, it turns out, is one of the world’s leading experts on water in California. So, I sent him, Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, a note asking him if he could ‘spain all this. (Peter also blogs here at Scienceblogs.) He wrote back that I had just ruined his weekend by adding the last straw to the camels’ back; this is an issue he’d been thinking about writing a blog post on, and now he was going to have to do it.

So he did: Why Has the Response to the California Drought Been so Weak?

I couldn't find the image I remember from the museum, which showed a broad landscape with many wells like this one, in what was to later be developed as Las Vegas.
I couldn’t find the image I remember from the museum, which showed a broad landscape with many wells like this one, in what was to later be developed as Las Vegas.
Peter’s post contextualizes and adds nuance to most of my questions. I still think we have an open question that applies generally, not just to California: Why is it that we humans are so bad at doing what we already know is the right thing? Or, in some cases, don’t know but would if we only looked around a bit. As a New Yorker (who also lived in Boston for quite a while) this question has troubled me since the day I moved to Minnesota. I see so many problems here that are developing (or in some cases well developed) with the undirected evolution of our infrastructure, cityscape, sub- and ex-urb layout, and other things that, I think, could be avoided if only those in charge of planning, and local political and economic leaders, would spend a year or so living in the East Coast Metropolis. Apparently, California isn’t as coastal as often claimed. It is a former frontier, a frontier not so long ago, settled by people who forgot their roots the moment they pulled them up.

Years ago I visited the Las Vegas History Museum at the University of Nevada. Among the many displays there was a post card that blew my mind. The post card sported a photograph of dozens, possibly hundreds of artesian wells that had been tapped and let blow. It was a large, very gently sloped plain (the part of the city that today slopes down towards Lake Mead, east of the main core of the city) and each of the wells was sending up what looked like a geyser but was really just water spewing out of the ground. The point of the photograph, said to have been widely distributed back east, was to show that there is unlimited water here in the middle of the desert. Don’t let thoughts of aridity dry up your plans to come here and build! The water spews out of the ground!

The think is, not long (weeks?) after the artesian wells were tapped, tapped entirely for one purpose, to make this photograph of unlimited water, the wells ran dry. The marketing effort caused the demise of the local aquifer, right then and there. And Las Vegas, with its fountains, golf courses, extensive unchecked development, is as stupid today as it was then. This poignantly exemplifies the true frontier spirit that facilitated the settling of the west. That and a lot of guns.

Go read Peter’s post before you get mad at California for the reasons cited above, for only now metering and only now restricting water. Don’t worry, you can still be mad at California, but with the additional context supplied by Peter, your annoyance will be appropriately nuanced and informed. They are still doing it wrong. They are just doing it wrong in ways more complex and, in some cases, depressing, than you may have been thinking.