Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Guthrie: think critically and hope for a better world

Michael Tobis of Planet3.0 has kindly handed me the Woody Guthrie Award for "thinking" earth science bloggers. In the process, he's said many nice things, all of which I wish were true.

On the spectrum of awards, the coveted Guthrie lies somewhere between Darwin "award" and the Nobel Prize. I will allow the reader to judge precisely where on that spectrum it lies.

Over the next twelve months, I will try my best to "think critically and hope for a better world through better education and an honest media", as former recipient John Nielsen-Gammon wrote.

With the award also comes the burden honour of choosing next year's recipient. Let the grovelling begin!


Monday, October 21, 2013

Coral reefs and "Extreme Adaptations" at UBC's Beaty Biodiversity Museum

If you're looking to escape the dreary weather, head to the Beaty Biodiversity Museum on UBC's campus to learn about our field work on the coral reefs of Kiribati.

As part of the Extreme Adaptations program, the museum is featuring two interactive tables about different work led by UBC researchers, Jedediah Brodie and myself, to understand organisms adapted to "extreme" environments.

Hurry up, the equipment goes back to my lab in November!


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Creating a supportive environment for female scientists and science communicators

The article Climate change prediction: Erring on the side of least drama? by Brysse et al. published earlier this year presents evidence that assessments of climate change science have leaned towards caution because of the dynamics of the scientific community.

The core argument raised predictable hackles in the blogosphere, despite the fact that several of the examples in the paper, such as estimates of sea level rise in the 2007 IPCC report and Arctic ozone depletion, are widely-known cases of scientists avoiding alarmism.

The news flooding my inbox about some of the largely male blogosphere coming to the defense of an influential male blogger who harassed a female science blogger brings to mind what I think is the most striking and important conclusion of Brysse et al: the gender implications of "erring on the side of least drama".

The risk of being accused of being overly dramatic, even hysterical, raises an additional (and worrisome) aspect of this issue: its gender dimension. Feminist scholars including Margaret Rossiter, Sandra Harding, and Donna Haraway have long discussed the strong association of science with supposedly male characteristics, such that ‘proper’ science is perceived to be “tough, rigorous, rational, impersonal, masculine, competitive, and unemotional” (Rossiter, 1982, p. xv; see also Harding, 1986 and Haraway, 1989). Scientists who come across as ‘too emotional’ or ‘too personal’ may thus be taken to be ‘unscientific’ by their peers, and a woman who exhibits these characteristics may be that much more rapidly dismissed. If this is so, then we may find either that women scientists publicizing the dangers of climate change may be more harshly judged for doing so than their male colleagues, or that women scientists may be particularly reticent to do so—to return to Hansen's phrase—for fear of losing hard-won scientific credibility. This poses another question for future research.

I don't claim to know enough about this particular case of harassment to add anything intelligent to that conversation. I do hope it gets more people thinking about women in science being exposed to overt sexual and subtle psychological harassment.

Most of my students have been women. I watch how here and elsewhere, despite some good intentions and good regulations, the atmospheres in our majority-male institutions, and many of the actual individuals in those institutions, can be unsupportive and at times threatening to female students. The same can be true of the science blogosphere. It is worth thinking about why the blogosphere  reacts so strongly and so paternalistically to the few outspoken female researchers, whether the uber-rational Tamsin Edwards, the lead authors of the Brysse et al. paper, both female science historians, or Judith Curry.

By now, I imagine some of you readers are preparing angry rebuttals. That's fine. We need to talk about these things. I ask only that you think a bit about your own gender before you write. The conversations here are, to my great dismay, largely among men. And men may not be best at judging whether men are being fair.

Brysse, K., Oreskes, N., O’Reilly, J., Oppenheimer, M. (2013). Climate change prediction: Erring on the side of least drama? Global Environmental Change. 23(1): 327–337.


Monday, October 07, 2013

Has the flood of interest in the IPCC and climate change already dissipated?

The release of the IPCC report caused a short surge in public interest about climate change, according the Google Trends search data. Like a river after a flood, the waters have receded. Ten days later, the flood wave has dissipated, and search volume is back to baseline levels for the past year, or what hydrologists would call baseflow levels.


A longer view shows that this IPCC flood was much smaller than the last one. After the 2007 report was released, search activity for "IPCC" and "climate change" spiked. The report also left a legacy; searches remained at a higher level than before the 2007 report for several years, no doubt accentuated in late 2009 by the media coverage of and web obsession with "Climategate".


This comparison, however, may be misleading. The long-term trend smooths out the dips between the release of the reports from the different IPCC working groups. There are still two more IPCC reports to be released over the next year, starting with Working Group II's report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability in January. One thing that appears to have changed since 2007 is the preferred language. Global warming used to be a far more common search term than climate change; that gap has narrowed in recent years.

What has not changed is the relative public interest in the sister problem of ocean acidification. Search volume for ocean acidification has increased from essentially zero in the mid-2000s, but still pales in comparison to the volume for climate change and global warming. The search volume is too low, even today, to register on the same graph as climate change and global warming:


Thursday, October 03, 2013

Sea level rise demonstrates continued global warming

One of the most telling little figures that I've come across in the new IPCC report is this Chapter 3 comparison (Fig. 3.21) of changes in human-derived carbon dioxide in the oceans, global mean sea level and global mean upper ocean heat content since 1950. From the report:

The consistency between the patterns of change in a number of independent ocean parameters enhances confidence in the assessment that the physical and biogeochemical state of the oceans has changed.... High agreement among multiple lines of evidence based on independent data and different methods provides high confidence in the observed increase in these global metrics of ocean change

The oceans show that global warming has continued apace. The lack of a slowdown in the rate of sea level change is of particular interest given the media coverage devoted to the perceived slowdown in the rate of surface temperature change. Since >90% of the excess heat in the climate system goes into the ocean, and a warmer ocean should expand, sea level rise is a good metric for tracking changes in the overall heat in the climate system. From a great summary by G. Bala:

Sea level rise is probably a powerful metric that integrates both the ocean heat content as well as the melt in the cryosphere as sea level rise is due to both the thermal expansion of the oceans from heating and the melt waters from glaciers and ice sheets... It is time for IPCC to recommend and encourage climate change discussions that are centred on integrated measures of climate change such as ocean heat content and sea level rise to avoid confusion.  Alternatively, if we want to continue our discussions centred on surface temperature changes, it makes scientific sense to focus on 30-yr trends.