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Department of Geography
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Department of Geography
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UC Santa Barbara Geography / News & Events / Department News

October 20, 2014 - 2014 on Track to be Hottest Year on Record

The following is a Climate Central article by science journalist Andrea Thompson, posted September 18, 2014, with the title above:

Just days after NASA data showed that August 2014 was the warmest August on record, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed the ranking and raised the ante: There’s a good chance 2014 could become the warmest year on record. “If we continue a consistent departure from average for the rest of 2014, we will edge out 2010 as the warmest year on record,” said Jake Crouch, a climatologist with NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, during a press briefing Thursday. Specifically, if each of the remaining months of the year ranks among the top five warmest, 2014 will take the top spot, he said.

The news may come as a surprise to those living in the eastern portion of the U.S., which has seen a relatively cool year so far, with a frigid winter followed by a near-average summer (which seemed extremely mild compared to recent steamy summers). But the global picture shows that the East was “pretty much the only land area in the globe that had cooler-than-average temperatures,” Crouch said. (The western U.S., on the other hand, has been baking.)

For the year-to-date, the globe has measured 1.22°F above the 20th century average of 57.3°F, which makes January-August 2014 the third warmest such period since records began in 1880. The record-hot August marks the 38th consecutive August and the 354th consecutive month with a global average temperature above the 20th century average, according to the NCDC.

The oceans have fueled much of this year’s warmth, with parts of the Indian Ocean and central Pacific, among other spots, recording their record warmest conditions in both August and the entire January-August period. “And most of the oceans were much warmer than average” during that period, Crouch said.

The Pacific warmth is due in part to the El Nino that has been struggling to develop there for much of the year. An El Nino is defined by warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the tropical central and eastern Pacific and tends to raise global temperatures; some El Nino years rank among the warmest on record.

Of the five warmest years on record (2010, 2005, 1998, 2013, and 2003, in that order), only 2013 and 2014 didn’t start with a mature El Nino, according to NOAA. Of the top 10 warmest years on record, 1998 is the only year that didn’t occur in the 21st century, showing how much global temperatures have risen due to the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

While some argue that a weak El Nino has arrived, it has not yet been officially declared by NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, which makes such a ruling when the temperatures in a particular region of the eastern Pacific reach 0.5°C (0.9°F) above normal for more than a month and when the atmospheric patterns typically seen with an El Nino are in place. These patterns haven’t been seen yet, and the temperatures have only recently crossed the threshold, said CPC scientist Dan Collins during the briefing.

If the El Nino does officially develop, which has been given a 65 percent chance of occurring over the rest of the year, “that’s another sign that global conditions will continue to be warm for the rest of 2014,” Crouch said, bolstering the chances that 2014 will top the record books.

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Temperature departures around the world for the period from January-August 2014, which ranks as the 3rd warmest such period on record. Credit: NOAA
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The temperatures so far in 2014 compared to the top 5 warmest years on record. Credit: NOAA
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The top 10 warmest years on record globally, according to NOAA data.
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NOAA’s seasonal outlook (from the Climate Prediction Center, op. cit.)

October 20, 2014 - Only Six Northern White Rhinos Left on Earth

A 34-year-old male northern white rhino has died in a wildlife conservancy in Kenya, leaving only six northern white rhinos left in the world. Ari Phillips, writing for (“Death of Northern White Rhino Leaves Only Six Left In Existence,” October 19, 2014), goes on to say: “Suni, one of four northern white rhinos living in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, was the first-ever northern white rhino to be born in captivity. He arrived at the conservancy in 2009 from Dvůr Králové Zoo in Czech Republic as part of a breeding program along with another male and two females.

The cause of his death is yet to be determined. His father Saút died in 2006 of natural causes at the same age as Suni. No northern white rhinos are known to have survived in the wild, and Suni was one of the last two breeding males in the world leaving the future of his species in serious doubt.

‘The species now stands at the brink of complete extinction, a sorry testament to the greed of the human race,’ said the conservancy in a statement. The conservancy will continue to work towards breeding a northern white rhino calf. In 2012, Suni entered a courtship ritual and mated with another northern white rhino named Najin, however the mating did not result in a pregnancy.

The northern white rhino is the world’s rarest large mammal. While it is often considered one of two subspecies of white rhinoceros — the southern white rhino being the other — recent research has found that the northern white rhino may indeed be a distinct species. Having once ranged across Southern Africa, southern white rhinos were considered extinct in the late 19th century. Then in 1895, a small population of less than 100 individuals was discovered in South Africa. Now there are about 20,000 southern white rhinos living protected areas, making them the only non-endangered rhino.

Formerly found in several countries in East and Central Africa south of the Sahara, the northern white rhino was decimated by poaching, with their wild population reduced from around 500 to 15 in the 1970s and 1980s. In Asia, rhino horn was used as a traditional medicine and is often now used as a status symbol of success, especially in Vietnam. It can sell for more than gold or platinum.

According to a recent report from the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London, the Earth has lost half its vertebrate species — mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians — since 1970. The report found that the worst declines of animal populations have occurred among developing, low-income nations. About seven percent of the overall decline could be attributed to climate change, according to the report, with over one-third due to exploitation such as poaching, while most of the rest was due to habitat alteration, degradation, or loss.

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The white rhinoceros or square-lipped rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum) is the largest and most numerous species of rhinoceros that exists. It has a wide mouth used for grazing and is the most social of all rhino species. The white rhinoceros consists of two subspecies: the southern white rhinoceros, with an estimated 17,460 wild-living animals at the end of 2007 (IUCN 2008), and the much rarer northern white rhinoceros. The northern subspecies has very few remaining, with six confirmed individuals left, with only four still able to reproduce (Including those in captivity) (Wikipedia: White rhinoceros)
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Northern White Rhino cows Najin & Fatu at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Photo: African Wildlife Defence Force (AWDF) (Wikipedia: Northern white rhinoceros)
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Formerly found in several countries in East and Central Africa south of the Sahara, the Northern white rhino is considered Critically Endangered or Extinct in the Wild. Range map in orange (Ibid.)

October 20, 2014 - Joel Michaelsen: All Star Athlete, Academic, and Administrator

Geography Professor Joel Michaelsen was one of four UCSB alumnae honored at the 2014 Annual Alumni Awards Luncheon on October 11. Joel was honored with the Graver University Service Award which was presented to him by Chancellor Yang for his exemplary service as a scholar, faculty leader, and distinguished administrator.

According to the Alumni Association: "In 1991, the Alumni Service Award, named after influential Association board member Chuck Graver, was created to honor those who demonstrated exceptional leadership and service to the University through involvement with the Alumni Association. In the last 50 years, the Alumni Association has honored more than 200 individuals. As the excellence of UC Santa Barbara and its alumni has grown, these awards have highlighted the men and women who have brought distinction to their alma mater" (source).

UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang made the following announcement about Michaelsen’s appointment as Interim Executive Vice Chancellor: “Following broad consultation with our Academic Senate and administrative and faculty colleagues, I am pleased to announce that Professor Joel Michaelsen has graciously agreed to serve as our Interim Executive Vice Chancellor, effective Friday, January 17, 2014, pending Presidential approval, until the next EVC is in place.

As a UCSB alumnus and distinguished faculty member since 1982, Professor Michaelsen has lent his wisdom and expertise to help our university in countless ways over the years, including as chair of our Academic Senate from 2006 to 2010 and as department chair of Geography from 1991 to 1997. He is an exemplar of the importance and value of shared governance at UC Santa Barbara and has chaired or served on a broad range of campus committees, including the Chancellor’s Coordinating Committee on Budget Strategy, Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Faculty and Staff Housing, Campus Planning Committee, Design Review Committee, Chancellor’s Campus Sustainability Committee, and many more.

Dr. Michaelsen is a dedicated teacher and mentor and an outstanding researcher, renowned for his expertise in climatology, climate change, and statistics. Within our Department of Geography, he founded the UCSB Climate Hazard Group, which specializes in looking at the climate-related components of food-security in developing nations through the lens of geography. We greatly appreciate Professor Michaelsen’s long-standing devotion to our campus and his willingness to help ensure a smooth transition by taking on this critical interim role.”

To quote Professor David Lopez-Carr regarding the Alumni Awards Luncheon: "Representing Geography, Dan Montello, Ray Smith, and I were at the table with Joel. The others seated with us, in addition to Joel’s wife, were Henry Yang and our new EVC David Marshall, which suggests how much Joel’s contributions are valued by our campus administration. Dan noted that the bottles of wine at our table were VIP level juice.” Dan commented: "Joel gave a very charming speech that was warmly received. We all felt proud and just a little sad at the passing of time marked by this ceremony. Yes, I could see that our table had some really nice bottles of wine (a little pricey), while the othertables had only serviceable bottles. Too bad I had to return to my office afterwards - nothing but ice tea for me!"

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Joel Michaelsen served as chair of Geography from 1991 to 1997, chair of the Academic Senate from 2006 to 2010, and Interim Executive Vice Chancellor for the past year. On top of his service to the University, he is a member of the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Use of Remote Sensing for Human Welfare applications and on the proposal review panel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Global Change
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Joel Michaelsen in his college days at UCSB. He earned his degree in geography in 1969. As a high school student, Joel was a decorated four-sport athlete and former student body president
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Joel Michaelsen during his graduate school years. He earned a master's degree and a PhD from UC Berkeley
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Joel's Climate Hazard Group, established in fall, 2002. The climate hazard group specializes in applying climatology to problems of food security: "We act as intermediaries between institutions specializing in forecasts, such as the NOAA climate prediction center (CPC ) and users of climate forecast and monitoring data, such as the agronomists and economists evaluating food security for the Famine Early Warning System Network (

October 15, 2014 - NASA Study Finds 1934 Had Worst Drought of Last Thousand Years

A new study using a reconstruction of North American drought history over the last 1,000 years found that the drought of 1934 was the driest and most widespread of the last millennium. Ellen Gray, writing for NASA’s Earth Science News Team on October 14, goes on to say:

Using a tree-ring-based drought record from the years 1000 to 2005 and modern records, scientists from NASA and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory found the 1934 drought was 30 percent more severe than the runner-up drought (in 1580) and extended across 71.6 percent of western North America. For comparison, the average extent of the 2012 drought was 59.7 percent.

"It was the worst by a large margin, falling pretty far outside the normal range of variability that we see in the record," said climate scientist Ben Cook at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. Cook is lead author of the study, which will publish in the Oct. 17 edition of Geophysical Research Letters.

Two sets of conditions led to the severity and extent of the 1934 drought. First, a high-pressure system in winter sat over the west coast of the United States and turned away wet weather – a pattern similar to that which occurred in the winter of 2013-14. Second, the spring of 1934 saw dust storms, caused by poor land management practices, suppress rainfall.

"In combination then, these two different phenomena managed to bring almost the entire nation into a drought at that time," said co-author Richard Seager, professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in New York. "The fact that it was the worst of the millennium was probably in part because of the human role."

According to the recent Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, climate change is likely to make droughts in North America worse, and the southwest in particular is expected to become significantly drier as are summers in the central plains. Looking back one thousand years in time is one way to get a handle on the natural variability of droughts so that scientists can tease out anthropogenic effects – such as the dust storms of 1934. “We want to understand droughts of the past to understand to what extent climate change might make it more or less likely that those events occur in the future," Cook said.

The abnormal high-pressure system is one lesson from the past that informs scientists' understanding of the current severe drought in California and the western United States. "What you saw during this last winter and during 1934, because of this high pressure in the atmosphere, is that all the wintertime storms that would normally come into places like California instead got steered much, much farther north,” Cook said. “It's these wintertime storms that provide most of the moisture in California. So without getting that rainfall it led to a pretty severe drought."

This type of high-pressure system is part of normal variation in the atmosphere, and whether or not it will appear in a given year is difficult to predict in computer models of the climate. Models are more attuned to droughts caused by La Niña's colder sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which likely triggered the multi-year Dust Bowl drought throughout the 1930s. In a normal La Niña year, the Pacific Northwest receives more rain than usual and the southwestern states typically dry out.

But a comparison of weather data to models looking at La Niña effects showed that the rain-blocking high-pressure system in the winter of 1933-34 overrode the effects of La Niña for the western states. This dried out areas from northern California to the Rockies that otherwise might have been wetter. As winter ended, the high-pressure system shifted eastward, interfering with spring and summer rains that typically fall on the central plains. The dry conditions were exacerbated and spread even farther east by dust storms. "We found that a lot of the drying that occurred in the spring time occurred downwind from where the dust storms originated," Cook said, "suggesting that it's actually the dust in the atmosphere that's driving at least some of the drying in the spring and really allowing this drought event to spread upwards into the central plains."

Dust clouds reflect sunlight and block solar energy from reaching the surface. That prevents evaporation that would otherwise help form rain clouds, meaning that the presence of the dust clouds themselves leads to less rain, Cook said. "Previous work and this work offers some evidence that you need this dust feedback to explain the real anomalous nature of the Dust Bowl drought in 1934," Cook said.

Dust storms like the ones in the 1930s aren't a problem in North America today. The agricultural practices that gave rise to the Dust Bowl were replaced by those that minimize erosion. Still, agricultural producers need to pay attention to the changing climate and adapt accordingly, not forgetting the lessons of the past, said Seager. "The risk of severe mid-continental droughts is expected to go up over time, not down," he said.

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This photo shows a farmer and his two sons during a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, 1936. The 1930s Dust Bowl drought had four drought events with no time to recover in between: 1930-31, 1934, 1936 and 1939-40. From the NASA article; image credit: Arthur Rothstein, Farm Security Administration
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Brown colors of the Palmer Drought Severity Index, or PDSI, indicate strong drought conditions across the United States in the summer of 1934. PDSI was calculated from monthly averages of precipitation, temperature and other factors from 1934, available from the Climate Research Unit. From the NASA article; image credit: GISS/Lamont-Doherty
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A "black blizzard" dust storm in South Dakota, 1934. From the NASA article; image credit: National Archives FDR Library Public Domain Photographs
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The crisis was documented by photographers, musicians, and authors, many hired during the Great Depression by the federal government. For instance, the Farm Security Administration hired numerous photographers to document the crisis. Artists such as Dorothea Lange were aided by having salaried work during the Depression. She captured what have become iconic images of the dust storms and migrant families. Among her most well-known photographs is Destitute Pea Pickers in California. Mother of Seven Children, which depicted a gaunt-looking woman, Florence Owens Thompson, holding three of her children. This picture expressed the struggles of people caught by the Dust Bowl and raised awareness in other parts of the country of its reach and human cost. The work of independent artists, such as American novelist John Steinbeck's novels Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and the music of folk singer Woody Guthrie, was also influenced by the crises of the Dust Bowl and the Depression (Wikipedia: Dust Bowl)

October 14, 2014 - Ed Keller Makes His Book about the Natural History of Santa Barbara Freely Available

In 2011, Ed Keller, a Professor in the Department of Earth Science and the Department of Environmental Studies, as well as an Affiliated Faculty Member of the Department of Geography, wrote and privately financed a book titled Santa Barbara, Land of Dynamic Beauty: A Natural History. He dedicated the book “to the people of Santa Barbara today and the next generation who will become responsible for the land we love,” and he is now making it freely available.

As Ed puts it, “Hi Everyone-- I published (with my wife Valery) a book in 2011 about the natural history of Santa Barbara with introductions about the big tectonic picture, followed by natural hazards and then a discussion in several chapters about the geography and geology of Goleta, Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, and other areas. The book sold out, and I do not plan another printing. I attach a copy, which new students and others may find informative" (the pdf is available here).

In his preface, Ed states: This book is an extension of my imagination, training, and wish to communicate the natural history of Santa Barbara where I have lived and worked for several decades. Our children were raised in Santa Barbara, and this book is dedicated to the people of Santa Barbara today and the next generation who will become responsible for the land we love.

The purpose of this book is to present the complex natural history and environment of Santa Barbara within a framework of sustainability. The book is arranged in six chapters, starting with the geologic history and natural hazards, and then arranged by locations including: Santa Barbara, Montecito, Carpinteria, La Conchita, Goleta, Ellwood, and the Santa Barbara Channel. The final chapter of the book discusses sustainability and links between Santa Barbara and the global environment.

Of particular importance are the topics of global warming, ecosystems, water supply, waste management, energy, and ecotourism. The book is written to provide a history and understanding of the Santa Barbara landscape and environment. I also discuss some of the interesting aspects of our landscape, including: the history of Mission Creek; the origin of Skofield and Rocky Nook Parks; the origin of our coastal lagoons and salt marshes; our natural hazards, especially earthquakes, landslides, and wildfire; and long-term management of land and water resources such as Goleta Beach.

Apart from his passionate dedication to community outreach, Ed is a highly respected expert in his field, often acting as a consultant or expert witness. He specializes in studies of earthquake hazards and active folding and mountain building processes, as well as the study of river processes and fish habitat in the chaparral environment in southern California. He is also a prolific writer whose works include several major textbooks (including the award-winning Environmental Science: Earth as a Living Planet, coauthored with Daniel B. Botkin), peer-reviewed scientific articles (he received the Don J. Easterbrook Distinguished Scientist award from the Geological Society of America in 2004 for one of them), and weekly articles on the subject of the “Natural History of Santa Barbara”in the Santa Barbara News Press which he has written, on and off, since 2008.

Many thanks to Ed for his generosity, and kudos and tight lines to him for making a marked difference to our appreciation of our “land of dynamic beauty,” not to mention our local trout population! Ed loves explaining the former and "educating" the latter, and he’s not about to stop. It has been an honor and a privilege to have been his editor (and gillie) for the last few years.

Article by Bill Norrington

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Professor Ed Keller: "The author who first defined the environmental geology course" (Pearson Higher Education)
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The cover of Ed’s book, “Santa Barbara, Land of Dynamic Beauty: A Natural History," which Ed dedicated to the local community.
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Ed and his wife, Valery. Professor Ed Keller is a UCSB Professor of Environmental Studies, Earth Science, and Geography, and his weekly columns about the natural history of Santa Barbara have appeared on page 2 of the Santa Barbara News Press almost every Thursday for the last 6 years. In his words, “This column is part of the public service mission of the University, without payment from the News Press. The observations and conclusions presented in these stories are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the University or the News Press.”
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Ed Keller doing some serious aquatic research on white sea bass (with Reg Golledge and Bill Norrington as backup), 2009.

October 14, 2014 - Fall BBQ: Great People, Great Event, and Great Chef!

Many thanks to Geography graduate student Yingjie Hu for contributing the following article:

The UCSB Department of Geography held its traditional Fall BBQ on Friday, October 10, 2014. Balmy weather, a beautiful beach, and delicious food conspired to make this event perfect. As always, this BBQ provided a warm welcome for our latest cohort of grad students, as well as a golden opportunity for faculty, grads, alumni, and staff to interact with each other in an informal way.

The Department provided tri-tip, sausages, Portobello caps, French bread, soda, beer, and wine. Many folks also brought appetizers, desserts, snacks, and even more beer. Thanks to our Master Chef Montello and cooking expert Mr. John Goubeaux of UCSB's School of Education, the tri-tip tasted especially good! The famous apron of Dan Montello, which says “kiss me, I’m a geographer” was praised by many customers. Many thanks to our graduate student Events Committee for arranging the details of this BBQ.

While enjoying the BBQ, folks also played sports on the beach. These sports included not only those you might expect, such as soccer and Frisbee, but also included an atypical one, "keg standing." This involves hand standing on the beer keg and drinking beers from the keg for as long as you can. Apparently, it is not exciting enough to just drink beer with a cup…

Our former graduate program assistant, Jose Saleta, has also joined our BBQ. It was really great to see him hangout with our Geography Department again. To summarize our Geography Fall BBQ: great people, great event, and, wait for it, great chef!

Editor's note: Many thanks to to Yingjie Hu and Marcia Zilli for photographing the event. All the photos are now available on our event photos page.

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Master Chef Montello and his infamous apron - John Goubeaux shown in back. Photo credit: Yingjie Hu
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L to R: Grad students Sarah Harris, Heather N.-B. Frazier, Kitty Currier, James Allen, and Antonio Medrano; Jose Saleta, ex grad advisor, at far right. Photo credit: Marcia Zilli
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L to R: Song Gao, Bonnie Bounds, and Yingjie Hu. Photo credit: Marcia Zilli
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L to R: Michelle Oyewole, Zachary Tane, Corbin Hodges, James Allen, Angela Marcela Suarez, Nina Bingham, Sarah Shivers, and Lassie (or is it Fido?). Photo credit: Marcia Zilli

October 13, 2014 - Pam Dalal and Kostas Goulias on

Alumna Pam Dalal (PhD 2014) and Geography Professor Kostas Goulias recently uploaded an article on titled “An Analysis of Jobs, Business Establishments, Housing, and Commuting Travel in the Smart Growth Centers of the Puget Sound Region.” “is a social networking website for academics. It was launched in September 2008, and the site has over 11 million registered users as of 2014. The platform can be used to share papers, monitor their impact, and follow the research in a particular field” (source).

To quote part of the article’s abstract, “Using the Puget Sound region as a case study, this paper discusses the ability for a highly diverse smart growth center to satisfy the employment and activity needs for its residents. Within the Puget Sound region, planned smart growth centers with differing levels of diversity are examined for their ability to induce reduced travel distances. The study uses two sources of data: geo-coded business data within the Puget Sound smart growth centers which includes industry type and employment totals and travel behaviors for residents, both for year 2010. Exploratory and regression analysis methods estimate relationships between industry diversity and reduced vehicle miles travelled within the smart growth centers. Diversity plays a key role in meeting the entire spectrum of activity needs for smart growth residents. Centers with a dominant industry, such as retail or health, do not provide the destination balance that allows individuals to fulfill their travel needs in smaller distances.”

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Dr. Dalal is now a Senior Transportation Planner in the Walnut Creek, CA branch of Fehr & Peers, a company that specializes in providing transportation planning and engineering services to public and private sector clients
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Dr. Goulias is a Professor of Geography and co-director of the UCSB Geography GeoTrans Laboratory which merges research and practice through collaboration of the academic, public, and private sectors in Transportation planning and operations.

October 11, 2014 - Huge Methane Emissions Hot Spot Found in U.S.

“The largest concentration of methane emissions seen in the U.S. over the past decade has been detected by satellite over the most active coal-bed methane production area in the country — the Four Corners area of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona," according to a new study published Thursday. The following is an October 9, 2014 Climate Central report by science journalist, Bobby Magill, with the title above:

The hotspot, which predates the current hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, boom in the region, is over the San Juan Basin, where energy companies have been drilling and producing natural gas from methane deposits found in underground coal seams for many years. The natural gas is composed of more than 95 percent methane.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Environmental Research Letters, shows that methane emissions from traditional oil and gas development are significantly underestimated over large scales, its authors say. Over the span of a century, methane is 35 times as strong as carbon dioxide as a climate change-driving greenhouse gas and has a significant effect on exacerbating global warming in the short term.

Led by researchers from the University of Michigan and Caltech, the study analyzes seven years of emissions data — from 2003 to 2009 — captured by a now-decommissioned European Space Agency satellite that measured global greenhouse gases between 2002 and 2012. It’s the same satellite a recent Harvard University study used to determine that livestock digestion released more methane than the oil and gas industry did in 2004.

The hot spot the researchers found, which was validated by ground instruments, covers about 2,500 square miles over the Four Corners area, where coal-bed methane development in the area released about 650,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere annually for each of the seven years. That amounts to 10 percent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s official estimate of methane emissions for all of the U.S. during those years. No higher rate of methane emissions was found anywhere else in the U.S. during that period.

The research follows numerous new studies that show that natural gas production and distribution leak an amount of methane that scientists have yet to fully quantify. The studies also suggest leaking methane is not figured into official government estimates of total U.S. methane emissions.

In another study published this week in the journal Earth’s Future, researchers from the University of Bremen, Germany, and the University of Maryland used satellite data to estimate that methane emissions from oil and gas fields in North Dakota and Texas are increasing and may be leaking into the atmosphere as much as 10 percent of the gas produced in those areas. The Michigan and Caltech researchers had noticed the Four Corners hot spot while analyzing satellite data years ago, but considered it erroneous. When they realized the data predated the current fracking boom, which began in the West in 2009, they took a closer look and realized that the emissions hot spot they found is unrelated to fracking.

“The results are indicative that emissions from established fossil fuel harvesting techniques are greater than inventoried,” the study’s lead author, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor atmospheric scientist Eric Kort, said in a statement. “There’s been so much attention on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, but we need to consider the industry as a whole,” he said.

Kort told Climate Central that it’s very likely the methane hotspot exists even though energy development in the Four Corners has involved more hydraulic fracturing than during the previous decade. He said he is involved in another study that will use aircraft to measure emissions over the Four Corners in 2015.

The authors conclude that the study is an example for how satellites can be used to measure greenhouse gas emissions from space. No satellite currently operating can provide the same kind of emissions data, but a European satellite slated for launch in 2015 will be able to measure methane. NASA recently launched a satellite designed to measure CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, but it cannot measure methane. “Their conclusion is certainly important and consistent with a lot of other science coming along,” said Cornell University biogeochemist Robert Howarth, whose research has focused on methane emissions from natural gas operations in the Northeast.

Using satellite data to quantify methane emissions from fossil fuels production is important, Howarth said, because it and other “top down” studies using air quality measurements taken over oil and gas fields are proving to be more accurate than “bottom up” emissions estimates used by the EPA. Bottom-up studies estimate based on expected emissions from oil and gas equipment as reported by the energy industry itself or by scientists taking measurements near the equipment itself. “The satellite data are the best data yet on it,” Howarth said. “It doesn’t surprise me at all the numbers are higher than what the EPA has traditionally said. The traditional bottom-up approach is inherently going to miss things.”

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This map, from the study published Oct. 9 in Geophysical Research Letters, shows anomalous U.S. methane emissions averaged from 2003 to 2009 as detected by a European Space Agency satellite. Credit: American Geophysical Union. From the Climate Central article
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A coal bed methane field in northwest New Mexico. Credit: John Amos/flickr. From the Climate Central article
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A Cessna plane, making continuous observations of emissions, flies over an Atmospheric Radiation Measurement tower used by the Department of Energy near the town of Lamont, Okla. Pat Dowell, a research technician at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is collecting flask samples from the tower. Credit: Roy Kaltschmidt, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
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Methane emissions tied to oil and gas production in Texas and Oklahoma were up to 4.9 times higher than EPA estimates. Credit: Wikipedia
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NASA's rendering of its Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2. Credit: NASA

October 10, 2014 - Hubble Maps the Temperature and Water Vapor on an Extreme Exoplanet

A team of scientists using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have made the most detailed global map yet of the glow from a planet orbiting another star, revealing secrets of air temperatures and water. The following news release by was posted on October 9, 2014, with the title above:

The map provides information about temperatures at different layers of the world's atmosphere and traces the amount and distribution of water vapor on the planet. The findings have ramifications for the understanding of atmospheric dynamics and the formation of giant planets like Jupiter.

"These measurements have opened the door for a new kind of comparative planetology," said team leader Jacob Bean of the University of Chicago. "Our observations are the first of their kind in terms of providing a two-dimensional map of the planet's thermal structure that can be used to constrain atmospheric circulation and dynamical models for hot exoplanets," said team member Kevin Stevenson of the University of Chicago.

The Hubble observations show that the planet, called WASP-43b, is no place to call home. It's a world of extremes, where seething winds howl at the speed of sound from a 3,000-degree-Fahrenheit day side that is hot enough to melt steel to a pitch-black night side that sees temperatures plunge below a relatively cool 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

As a hot ball of predominantly hydrogen gas, there are no surface features on the planet, such as oceans or continents that can be used to track its rotation. Only the severe temperature difference between the day and night sides can be used by a remote observer to mark the passage of a day on this world.

WASP-43b is located 260 light-years away and was first discovered in 2011. WASP-43b is too distant to be photographed, but because its orbit is observed edge-on to Earth, astronomers detected it by observing regular dips in the light of its parent star as the planet passes in front of it. The planet is about the same size as Jupiter, but is nearly twice as massive. The planet is so close to its orange dwarf host star that it completes an orbit in just 19 hours. The planet is also gravitationally locked so that it keeps one hemisphere facing the star, just as our moon keeps one face toward Earth.

The scientists combined two previous methods of analyzing exoplanets and put them together in one for the first time to study the atmosphere of WASP-43b. Spectroscopy allowed them to determine the water abundance and temperature structure of the atmosphere. By observing the planet's rotation, the astronomers were also able to measure the water abundances and temperatures at different longitudes.

Because there's no planet with these tortured conditions in our solar system, characterizing the atmosphere of such a bizarre world provides a unique laboratory for better understanding planet formation and planetary physics. "The planet is so hot that all the water in its atmosphere is vaporized, rather than condensed into icy clouds like on Jupiter," said team member Laura Kreidberg of the University of Chicago. "Water is thought to play an important role in the formation of giant planets, since comet-like bodies bombard young planets, delivering most of the water and other molecules that we can observe," said Jonathan Fortney, a member of the team from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

However, the water abundances in the giant planets of our solar system are poorly known because water is locked away as ice that has precipitated out of their upper atmospheres. But on "hot Jupiters" — that is, large planets like Jupiter that have high surface temperatures because they orbit very close to their stars — water is in a vapor that can be readily traced. Kreidberg also emphasized that the team didn't simply detect water in the atmosphere of WASP-43b, but also precisely measured how much of it there is and how it is distributed with longitude.

In order to understand how giant planets form, astronomers want to know how enriched they are in different elements. The team found that WASP-43b has about the same amount of water as we would expect for an object with the same chemical composition as the Sun. Kreidberg said that this tells something fundamental about how the planet formed. For the first time astronomers were able to observe three complete rotations of a planet, which occurred during a span of four days. This was essential to making such a precise measurement according to Jean-Michel Désert of the University of Colorado, Boulder.

The team next aims to make water-abundance measurements for different planets to explore their chemical abundances. Hubble's planned successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, will be able to not only measure water abundances, but also the abundances of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, ammonia, and methane, depending on the planet's temperature. The results are presented in two new papers, one published online in Science Express on Oct. 9, and the other published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters on Sept. 12.

Editor’s note: Many thanks to Geography Professor Leila Carvalho for bringing this material to our attention.

Image 1 for article titled "Hubble Maps the Temperature and Water Vapor on an Extreme Exoplanet"
This is a temperature map of exoplanet WASP-43b. The gas giant planet orbits very close to its parent star with a period of 19.5 hours. Because the planet keeps one side facing its star, there are huge temperature extremes between the day and night sides. The white-colored region on the daytime side is 2,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The nighttime-side temperatures drop below 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This steep gradient is in stark contrast to the predominantly uniform temperatures of the solar system's giant planets. Infrared observations with the Hubble Space Telescope measured how temperatures change with both altitude and longitude on the planet. Illustration from the Hubble news release; credit: NASA, ESA, and K. Stevenson, L. Kreidberg, and J. Bean (University of Chicago)
Image 2 for article titled "Hubble Maps the Temperature and Water Vapor on an Extreme Exoplanet"
Artist's Illustration of WASP-43b (Annotated). From the Hubble news release; credit: NASA, ESA, K. Stevenson, L. Kreidberg, and J. Bean (University of Chicago), and Z. Levay (STScI)
Image 3 for article titled "Hubble Maps the Temperature and Water Vapor on an Extreme Exoplanet"
Figure 1 from the article in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. Emission and transmission spectra for WASP-43b. (a) The emission spectrum measurements from HST/WFC3 (white circles) and Spitzer/IRAC (white squares; inset). (b) The transmission spectrum from WFC3 (white circles). For both panels, the uncertainties correspond to 1σ errors from a Markov chain fit. The error bars for the Spitzer measurements are smaller than the symbols. We show the best-fit models from our retrieval analysis (dark blue lines) with 1σ and 2σ confidence regions denoted by blue and cyan shading. The blue circles indicate the best-fit model averaged over the bandpass of each spectroscopic channel. The fits to both the emission and transmission spectra have chi-squared values nearly equal to the number of data points n (χ2/n = 1.2 for both).

October 10, 2014 - Geographers Are Pirates

Many Western explorers and navigators were pirates, in one form or another - Sir Francis Drake, who managed the second circumnavigation of the world, is a blatant example. Christopher Columbus gets a lot of credit for his explorations, even though he was a seriously flawed human being (see “The truth about Christopher Columbus”). And we all know about The Pirates of the Caribbean and its supernatural pirates and geography.

Today’s discipline of Geography goes way beyond the literal (or supernatural) exploration of the Earth, but it still lays claims to piracy. You heard me – piracy. Another term for it is being “interdisciplinary.” “Geography includes specialists in all of the major processes that influence the Earth system at human timescales, and who are committed to integrating their knowledge with others to solve problems. To maximize the value of our studies and to minimize duplication of effort, geographers are firmly committed to an interdisciplinary collaboration with process specialists in other departments” (see the UCSB Department of Geography's Vision Statement).

Yep, Geography “steals” from every discipline that deals with Earth systems at human timescales, and geographers are proud of it. The results of such “piracy” have not only exploded the clichéd definition of geography as something to do with memorization, but they have taken Geography to the forefront of education by giving it a spatial dimension as well.

What’s this spatial stuff, you ask. Well, it comes down to the ways in which geographers visualize the world and manipulate the space around us and deal with problem solving by the development of technologies and infrastructures that allow information to be found and accessed across distributed networks (vision statement, op. cit.). In other words, geographers are data pirates whose aim is to capture and structure information about anything in time and space in order to give it meaning in terms of human-environment relations (see Welcome aboard, you interdisciplinary maties. Arrgh!

Article by Bill Norrington

Editor’s note: Distinguished alumna Dawn Wright (UCSB Interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Physical Geography and Marine Geology, 1994) just provided a delightfully appropriate link to a ‘story map’ of “The Real Pirates of the Caribbean”: “Explore the travels and exploits of five real pirates of the Caribbean. Click through the tabs to track the adventures of each pirate overlaid on Spanish ports and pirate strongholds in the area. Zoom into the map to see additional detail.”

Image 1 for article titled "Geographers Are Pirates"
WE THREE CHAIRS OF GEOGRAPHY ARE – yep, those are ex-Chairs Dar Roberts and Oliver Chadwick on the left and new Chair Dan Montello on the right at Geography’s 2007 fall pirate-themed barbecue. Geographers that play together stay together! Arrgh! (Photo by Bill Norrington)
Image 2 for article titled "Geographers Are Pirates"
Sir Francis Drake in Buckland Abbey, 16th century, oil on canvas, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Sir Francis Drake, vice admiral (c. 1540 – 27 January 1596) was an English sea captain, privateer, navigator, slaver, and politician of the Elizabethan era. Drake carried out the second circumnavigation of the world, from 1577 to 1580. Elizabeth I of England awarded Drake a knighthood in 1581. He was second-in-command of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada in 1588. He died of dysentery in January 1596 after unsuccessfully attacking San Juan, Puerto Rico. His exploits were legendary, making him a hero to the English but a pirate to the Spaniards to whom he was known as El Draque (The Dragon). King Philip II was said to have offered a reward of 20,000 ducats, about £4 million (US$6.5M) by modern standards, for his life. (Wikipedia: Francis Drake)
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