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

March 30, 2015 - Mapmaker, Matchmaker: Suchi Gopal and the Power of Maps

The following is a Boston University research article written by Barbara Moran and with the title above:

Suchi Gopal bursts into her classroom, buzzing with energy. The 11 graduate students parked behind glowing computer monitors rouse themselves from reverie. It’s late in the semester and they are preoccupied with their final projects. But Gopal has more to teach. “Aha!” she claps with delight. “Today we will do some math!”

She grabs a piece of chalk and draws a grid on the blackboard, then fills in numbers: temperature data from points across the United States. Gopal, a professor in Boston University’s earth and environment department, is a renowned expert (and devoted teacher) in the field of geographic information systems (GIS). It’s what laypeople might call “making maps with computers.” And, as Gopal teaches, maps are power. A long list of statistics on bicycle accidents at BU, for instance, is just an inscrutable jumble of numbers. But insert the data into GIS, overlay a map of campus, and the computer builds a map that makes the data instantly understandable. In that case, it becomes clear that most bike accidents don’t occur at intersections, as one might expect, but when the bike lane veers too close to parked cars and bicyclists get doored. Maps provide a deeper understanding of a problem, so people can choose the right solutions.

Over the past two decades, as computing power has increased, GIS has risen from an obscure tool for measuring Canadian farms to a powerful technique that maps everything from the eating patterns of orangutans to health care access in Zambia. And Gopal, with her expertise in statistics and geography, as well as her wide-ranging scientific interests, rides the tip of this trend. Gopal’s students in Introduction to GIS come from public health, social work, geography, neuroscience, anthropology, and myriad other fields to learn how to turn their dry data into spectacular maps. Today, Gopal is teaching them the power of computing by snatching it away.

“Who wants to go to the board and work out the math? C’mon, I’ll help you!” Smiling, cajoling, Gopal encourages two students to the board, where they begin to solve a series of tedious equations, usually crunched by computer. Finally, the students find an answer: 29.374. Gopal circles it in blue chalk. “This is the temperature of just one unknown location,” she says. “You see how much work that was? On the computer, everything is so sweet and quick.”

The exercise is Gopal’s work in a nutshell: years of research, thousands of data points, millions of calculations, all painstakingly collected, entered, checked, and finally hidden behind a beautiful, brightly colored map that anyone can understand intuitively. But Gopal’s talent goes far beyond the science of data crunching. She is gifted in the unteachable art of weaving: bringing together seemingly unrelated ideas and people to attack thorny problems. Her colleagues describe her as equal parts mapmaker and matchmaker.

“Suchi is very good at pulling in ideas from other disciplines and applying the tools of GIS. That’s one of her hallmarks and she’s very much a leader,” says Curtis Woodcock, department chair and professor of earth and environment. “Suchi is one of the more freewheeling, quick-thinking, fast-associating people I know. The ideas just bounce out of her.”

“A map is a means of communication,” says Gopal, “and it is not the God-given truth. It’s the way you design it. The mapmaker makes the map.”

Sucharita Gopal—known universally as “Suchi”—grew up in Chennai, India. With two doctors for parents, dinner conversations “were all about illness and sickness and health and wellness,” says Gopal. “That’s where the curiosity came from.” In college, Gopal became entranced with the idea of how people move through their landscape, and the power of maps to help people understand how to make decisions, including choices about public health. “Everything happens in space,” she says. “Health happens in space.” She left India in 1983 for the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), to pursue her PhD in geography.

UCSB was—and still is—a leader in GIS. Computerized mapping had sprung up in the early 1960s, as large mainframe computers became more widely available. The US Census Bureau wanted better maps, as did military spies, British botanists, and urban planners. But it was an English geographer named Roger Tomlinson who became widely known as the “father of GIS” for persuading the Canadian government to create the Canada Geographic Information System (CGIS) in 1966 to conduct a massive inventory of the country’s land. Their goal: to see how much land was farmed and which farms were productive. They operated the system until the late 1980s.

When Gopal arrived at UCSB, commercial GIS systems were entering academia, but many scientists didn’t know what to do with them. “Through the ’80s, there were just a few people around the world who recognized the significance of GIS,” says Michael Goodchild, a professor emeritus from UCSB who advised Gopal on her thesis. “We had the president of the Association of American Geographers on record as saying that GIS was a nonintellectual expertise.”

Suchi Gopal held no such notions. Even then, she saw potential uses for maps in many fields. She also understood their power. A map is only useful, she says, if someone is using her brain to make it, and analyzing the data honestly. “Maps can lie,” says Gopal. “Hitler lied to the German people by exaggerating the threat from Britain and France. A map is a means of communication, and it is not the God-given truth. It’s the way you design it. The mapmaker makes the map.”

After finishing her PhD [1988], Gopal joined BU’s geography department in 1989 and soon embarked on an unusual collaboration with neural modeler Gail Carpenter, who was studying pattern recognition. Gopal had done related work at UCSB, building an artificial intelligence model to study how people use patterns and landmarks to navigate through space. The geographer and the neuroscientist thought their combined understanding of brains and mapping might help solve a growing problem: data overload. “Back then, everyone was already saying that they were overwhelmed by data,” says Carpenter. “It’s nothing like it is today, but even then people were already overwhelmed.”

Gopal and Carpenter were looking at a particular set of data: thousands upon thousands of ground images from Landsat satellites. It was a classic case of Too Much Information: the photos were great, but it took humans months—if not years—to analyze them. The scientists wanted to make the satellites more like people: choosier about the data they collect. “One of the things that makes us different from satellites is how we pay attention,” says Carpenter. “We know what to ignore.” Take driving, for instance. “You don’t notice every single tree, but you notice the fire truck coming,” says Carpenter. “We filter out the unimportant stuff. That’s how we handle lots of data with a pretty narrow bandwidth.”

Could satellites be taught to do the same? Carpenter and Gopal developed a computer learning system—a series of algorithms that would allow a computer to look at Landsat images and discern mixtures of land cover, finding percentages of, say, wetland, conifer forest, and grass. Their system took minutes to churn through a photo that humans needed six months to analyze, with results of the same accuracy. “We developed methods that Suchi and her students still use all the time,” says Carpenter.

Gopal and Carpenter have remained friends and colleagues over the intervening decades, collaborating on research and lecturing in each other’s classes. “It takes a long time to establish interdisciplinary research, and she’s great at that,” says Carpenter. “But her best quality is generosity. Some people never learn the importance of being generous, but she just shines there.”

This generosity has given Gopal a web of connections stretching from her childhood pen pal in California (who she still keeps on speed dial) to scientists across disciplines and around the world. The range of her research is astonishing, and now it often loops back to the questions of health that originally drew her to geography. … “I want to solve real-world problems. I don’t want to write something that’s buried in a journal. I want to work with actual people to make a difference,” says Gopal. “All this data is only good if it addresses a societal problem.”

Editor's note: Read the rest of the text here. Many thanks to Professor Emeritus Michael Goodchild for suggesting this material.

Image 1 for article titled "Mapmaker, Matchmaker: Suchi Gopal and the Power of Maps"
Photo graphic for the Boston University research article "Mapmaker, Matchmaker: Suchi Gopal and the Power of Maps"
Image 2 for article titled "Mapmaker, Matchmaker: Suchi Gopal and the Power of Maps"
Mapmaking, Suchi-style. A Geographical Information System—GIS for short—captures, stores, analyzes, manages, and presents any kind of spatial data. The result is like a map on steroids. In this example, a layer of data (such as malaria hotspots) overlays a land use layer (like a levee) and a topographical map. (Source: the BU article)
Image 3 for article titled "Mapmaker, Matchmaker: Suchi Gopal and the Power of Maps"
Sucharita Gopal: “A map is a means of communication,” says Gopal, “and it is not the God-given truth. It’s the way you design it. The mapmaker makes the map.” (Ibid.)
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When BU biology professor Les Kaufman wanted to help people in Belize to examine ocean zoning projects and conservation, he turned to Gopal. Together, they developed MIDAS, an interactive map that could answer questions like what efforts worked and what could they do better. (Ibid.)

March 25, 2015 - Evidence for an Exceptional 20th-Century Slowdown in Atlantic Ocean Overturning

The following is a Public Release by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), dated March 23, 2015 and titled “Atlantic Ocean overturning found to slow down already today”:

The gradual but accelerating melting of the Greenland ice-sheet, caused by man-made global warming, is a possible major contributor to the slowdown. Further weakening could impact marine ecosystems and sea level as well as weather systems in the US and Europe.

"It is conspicuous that one specific area in the North Atlantic has been cooling in the past hundred years while the rest of the world heats up," says Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, lead author of the study to be published in Nature Climate Change. Previous research had already indicated that a slowdown of the so-called Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) might be to blame for this. "Now we have detected strong evidence that the global conveyor has indeed been weakening in the past hundred years, particularly since 1970," says Rahmstorf.

Because long-term direct ocean current measurements are lacking, the scientists mainly used sea-surface and atmospheric temperature data to derive information about the ocean currents, exploiting the fact that ocean currents are the leading cause of temperature variations in the subpolar north Atlantic. From so-called proxy data - gathered from ice-cores, tree-rings, coral, and ocean and lake sediments - temperatures can be reconstructed for more than a millennium back in time. The recent changes found by the team are unprecedented since the year 900 AD, strongly suggesting they are caused by man-made global warming.

The Atlantic overturning is driven by differences in the density of the ocean water. From the south, the warm and hence lighter water flows northwards, where the cold and thus heavier water sinks to deeper ocean layers and flows southwards. "Now freshwater coming off the melting Greenland ice sheet is likely disturbing the circulation," says Jason Box of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. The freshwater is diluting the ocean water. Less saline water is less dense and has therefore less tendency to sink into the deep. "So the human-caused mass loss of the Greenland ice sheet appears to be slowing down the Atlantic overturning - and this effect might increase if temperatures are allowed to rise further," explains Box.

The observed cooling in the North Atlantic, just south of Greenland, is stronger than what most computer simulations of the climate have predicted so far. "Common climate models are underestimating the change we're facing, either because the Atlantic overturning is too stable in the models or because they don't properly account for Greenland ice sheet melt, or both," says Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University in the US. "That is another example where observations suggest that climate model predictions are in some respects still overly conservative when it comes to the pace at which certain aspects of climate change are proceeding."

The cooling above the Northern Atlantic would only slightly reduce the continued warming of the continents. The scientists certainly do not expect a new ice age, thus the imagery of the ten-year-old Hollywood blockbuster 'The Day After Tomorrow' is far from reality. However, it is well established that a large, even gradual change in Atlantic ocean circulation could have major negative effects.

"If the slowdown of the Atlantic overturning continues, the impacts might be substantial," says Rahmstorf. "Disturbing the circulation will likely have a negative effect on the ocean ecosystem, and thereby fisheries and the associated livelihoods of many people in coastal areas. A slowdown also adds to the regional sea-level rise affecting cities like New York and Boston. Finally, temperature changes in that region can also influence weather systems on both sides of the Atlantic, in North America as well as Europe."

If the circulation weakens too much it can even break down completely - the Atlantic overturning has for long been considered a possible tipping element in the Earth System. This would mean a relatively rapid and hard-to-reverse change. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates there to be an up to one-in-ten chance that this could happen as early as within this century. However, expert surveys indicate that many researchers assess the risk to be higher. The study now published by the international team of researchers around Rahmstorf provides information on which to base a new and better risk assessment.

Editor’s note: Citation: Rahmstorf, S., Box, J., Feulner, G., Mann, M., Robinson, A., Rutherford, S., Schaffernicht, E. (2015): Evidence for an exceptional 20th-Century slowdown in Atlantic Ocean overturning. Nature Climate Change (online) [DOI:10.1038/nclimate2554]. Weblink to the article once it is published: Many thanks to Professor Leila Carvalho for suggesting this material.

Image 1 for article titled "Evidence for an Exceptional 20th-Century Slowdown in Atlantic Ocean Overturning"
This image shows the Atlantic Conveyor -- a graph of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. Credit: Stefan Rahmstorf/PIK
Image 2 for article titled "Evidence for an Exceptional 20th-Century Slowdown in Atlantic Ocean Overturning"
Topographic map of the Nordic Seas and subpolar basins with schematic circulation of surface currents (solid curves) and deep currents (dashed curves) that form a portion of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation. Colors of curves indicate approximate temperatures. From; image source: R. Curry, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution/Science/USGCRP.
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Variation in the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation from 1856–2009. Ibid.; data source: NOAA; Image Source: Wikipedia
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Monthly May ice extent for 1979 to 2011 shows a decline of 2.4% per decade. Ibid.; source: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

March 24, 2015 - Dr. Sara Baguskas Awarded USDA Postdoctoral Research Fellowship

Sara Baguskas has been awarded a USDA Postdoctoral Research Fellowship, which will fund her for two years to study the effects of coastal fog on water use in agriculture. She plans to integrate the effect of coastal fog on the physical environment and plant water use to improve estimates of evapotranspiration from farms and to inform farmer water use decisions during the summer months. She will be mentored by Michael Loik, a plant ecophysiologist at UC Santa Cruz.

Sara finished her dissertation in September 2014 (advisor: Christopher Still, co-advisor: Jennifer King). Her dissertation focused on the combined effects of coastal fog and seasonal drought on the water relations and mortality risk of Bishop pines on Santa Cruz Island. Sara found that trees are most susceptible to drought-induced mortality in less foggy areas of the stand. Based on her field observations, she also found that fog events, especially those that occur late in the summer, can reverse dehydration in pines that otherwise occurs as antecedent soil moisture declines. Moreover, the effects of fog on ameliorating water stress is stronger in sapling than adult trees. These findings have important implications for modeling population structure in a warmer and perhaps less foggy the future. Finally, through a controlled greenhouse study, Sara provides convincing evidence that foliar absorption of fog water occurs in Bishop pines, which adds a novel species to the list of plants for which this mechanisms has been tested. Sara used a variety of techniques to address her questions, including aerial photo interpretation, remote sensing, field-based plant ecophysiology, and conducted a controlled greenhouse experiment.

Over the past year, Sara has been working as a postdoc with Max Moritz (UC-Berkeley) to understand how potential conversion from a tree- to shrub-dominated watershed in the southern Sierra Nevada may impact streamflow under climate change scenarios. Sara led field trips to sites in the southern Sierra to quantify how water availability and use differed between dominant tree and shrub species. These plant ecophysiological measurements were used by a fellow postdoc on the project, Ryan Bart (Ph.D. SDSU Joint Degree Program in Geography), to parameterize an ecohydrologic model, RHESSys (developed by Naomi Tague in the Bren School) to generate improved estimates of streamflow. This project is part of a larger effort to understand controls on the water and carbon budget in the Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory (SSCZO).

Sara plans to continue work on Santa Cruz Island projects that are related to the effects of drought on population dynamics of Bishop pines. She is also working on a project with a new faculty member in EEMB, Ryoko Oono, on foliar fungal endophyte diversity in the pines and understory chaparral species. So, the island and friends will continue to bring her back to town!

She is sad to leave, but also excited about improving her surfing skills up the coast!

Editor's note: Many thanks to Dr. Baguskas for contributing this material. We'll miss her!

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Phinally Done (Sept. 2014)
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Sara taking plant water relation measurements in the field, though the majority of these measurements were collected during predawn (2-5am!)
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Field crew (Rodney Feddema, ES Major at UCSB; Josie Lesage, former ES major at UCSB, now grad student at UC-Santa Cruz)
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Sara and Nicole Molinari, who completed her Ph.D. with Carla D’Antonio (EEMB) and is now the ecologist with Los Padres Forest Service. Nicole played a key role in planning and carrying out field work for the Sierra project.
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Chris Still and team from OSU out on Santa Cruz Island helping to conduct a survey of Bishop pine population structure following drought in November 2014. Associated publication is in the works!
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Approximately 80% of the Bishop pine stands on SCI died back following this historical drought. This is a recent image (March 2015) of Doug Fischer and Sara cutting (and then hauling) dead trees off the road so they can get to the field site to disassemble a weather station.
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Sara preps for Santa Cruz :)

March 23, 2015 - Alumnus Park Williams Sings The Arboreal Blues for Rolling Stone

By the end of the century, the woodlands of the Southwest will likely be reduced to weeds and shrubs. And scientists worry that the rest of the planet may see similar effects. Jeff Tietz, in a March 12 article for Rolling Stone with the title “The Fate of Trees: How Climate Change May Alter Forests Worldwide,” goes on to summarize an interview he had with alumnus Park Williams (PhD 2009):

In May 2011, a postdoctoral student at Los Alamos National Laboratory named Park Williams set out to predict the future of the dominant iconic conifers of the American Southwest — the Douglas fir, the piñon pine and the ponderosa pine. As the planet warms, the Southwest is projected to dry out and heat up unusually fast — few places will be more punishing to trees. Williams couldn't rely on climate models, whose representations of terrestrial vegetation remain crudely unspecific. He needed a formula that could accurately weigh the variables of heat, aridity and precipitation, and translate atmospheric projections into a unified measure of forest health.

For decades, all over the planet, heat-aggravated droughts had been killing trees: mountain acacia in Zimbabwe, Mediterranean pine in Greece, Atlas cedar in Morocco, eucalyptus and corymbia in Australia, fir in Turkey and South Korea. A year earlier, a group of ecologists had published the first global overview of forest health. They described droughts whose severity was unequaled in the "last few centuries" and documented "climate-driven episodes of regional-scale forest die-off." They couldn't prove causality, but if the warming climate was responsible, they warned, "far greater chronic forest stress and mortality risk should be expected in coming decades."

From a tree's perspective, excessive heat may be as deadly as lack of water. To photosynthesize, a tree opens pores in its leaves called stomata and inhales CO2. Solar-charged chemical reactions then transform the CO2 into carbohydrates — the raw stuff of leaves and wood. During this process, a fraction of the tree's internal water supply evaporates through its stomata, creating the negative pressure that pulls water from the soil into the tree's roots, through its trunk and up to its canopy. But heat juices the rate at which trees lose moisture, and that rate escalates exponentially with temperature — so small temperature increases can cause a photosynthesizing tree to lose dangerous amounts of water. "Forests notice even a one-degree increase in temperature," says Williams.

In the death scenario, the sky sucks water from the leaves faster than it can be replaced by water in the soil, and the resulting partial vacuum fatally fractures the tree's water column. If a tree closes its stomata to avoid this, shutting down photosynthesis, it risks starvation. Ultimately, the tree's cellular chemistry will fail, but it will often die before that, as its defenses fall; the complexly toxic sap that repels predatory insects dries up. Many insects can detect diminished sap levels within tree bark by scent — they smell drought stress and pheromonally broadcast news of deteriorating tree health. Other defenses – against microbes, for example — may also be compromised. A hotter climate generally means more insects. It also means more, and more intense, wildfires.

Williams amalgamated a millennium's worth of data — the most comprehensive record of forest health ever assembled. Documenting the lives of 10,000 trees, the record spanned the years 1000 to 2007. From it, Williams derived a "forest-drought stress index" (FDSI), the first-ever holistic metric of atmospheric hostility to trees. In a 2013 paper titled "Temperature as a Potent Driver of Regional Forest Drought Stress and Tree Mortality," Williams predicted that by the 2050s, the climate would turn deadly for many of the Southwest's conifers. By then, he wrote, "the mean forest drought stress will exceed that of the most severe droughts in the past 1,000 years."

The current climate was testing his conclusion even as Williams was reaching it. In 2000, the Southwest had entered an extreme, ongoing drought — the worst since a 20-year-long drought in the middle of the last century. Conditioned by near-record temperatures, dry soils and a lack of rain, the atmosphere stripped trees of moisture with exceptional force. "That extreme evaporative demand was a hint of what you'd see if you increased temperatures by a couple of degrees, as the models predict for the 2050s," Williams told me. In terms of precipitation levels, the mid-century drought was worse, but humans had spent the intervening 50 years heating up the planet, and the drought of the 2000s has consequently killed many more trees.

"It was like looking through a telescope into the future to see how forests would respond, and it felt awful," Williams says. "The result was totally unimaginable: wildfires, bark beetles, a huge reduction in forest growth, massive mortality. In the afternoons, I'd go on jogs on the trails outside my office and take mental inventory of who was dying and who was living. All over New Mexico, trees keeled over. It was like they'd been transported onto a new planet where climate is entirely different than what they were evolved for" (see the complete article here).

Editor’s note: Many thanks to Geography graduate student Elizabeth Garcia for suggesting this material. The article featuring Park as Elvis can be found here (and you might get a giggle out of his most famous costume as a grad student).

Image 1 for article titled "Alumnus Park Williams Sings The Arboreal Blues for Rolling Stone"
Scientists warn that, due to climate change, "far greater chronic forest stress and mortality risk" – including from fire – "should be expected in coming decades." Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post (cited in the Rolling Stone article)
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Global warming is already wreaking havoc on human civilization. Henrik Egede Lassen/Alpha Film/Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (Ibid.)
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Park Williams goes rock-n-roll – here, alongside Professor Keith Clarke, Geography grad student Park dressed up as Elvis at the 2005 Fall barbecue (from the September 30, 2005 article – “Good Vibrations at the Fall BBQ”)

March 23, 2015 - Alumnus Landon Romano Uses Drones to Aid South African Exotic Game Farmers

Alumnus Landon Romano (BA 1999) leads an exciting and exotic life. After graduating from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a BA in Geography in 1999, he travelled extensively and then settled in the Bay area where he worked for Veritas Software for over 4 years. He then moved to Waco, Texas in 2006 and enrolled at Baylor University in order to earn an MBA which he completed in 2008, and he has since settled in Pretoria, South Africa, where he now runs a private investment company. Private investment certainly can be exciting, but Landon has expanded that side of his career into more exotic fields, literally and figuratively. For one thing, he farms African game animals in South Africa, and that enterprise has led to the establishment of Drone Safaris, a business that uses drones to aid the thousands of fellow exotic game farmers in the area. It makes perfect business sense, as Landon explains:

“In July 2014, we had a runaway kudu bull. We hunted 3.5 hours for him by air using a Robinson 44 helicopter. A veterinary doctor helped in the process. We did not find our bull or a substitute bull for that matter. The total cost of the exercise was approximately R20,000 (about $1,680) for the chopper, pilot, vet, and all! That's an expensive exercise of about R5,700 ($480) per hour for not finding an animal. Later, using a Robinson 22 helicopter, my farming partner saw the kudu bull standing motionless under a tree 30 meters away. Thank God the kudu bull was finally spotted so we knew where he was on the farm. But The Grey Ghost had hidden motionless under the trees due to the loudness of the chopper [note: Greater Kudus are referred to as “Grey Ghosts” in Africa because of their ability to blend in with their surroundings]. These expensive and extensive hide and go seek exercises got us thinking, ‘Surely there's a better way to scout, survey, and view animals?’ This is when we realized that there is!’” (source).

There are over 10,000 exotic game animal farmers in South Africa alone, and Drone Safaris has become a profitable enterprise by providing lower costs and higher value benefits in game census and infrastructure maintenance: “We know that if we can help serve this farming community, then we will hit a vein of profitability for our team and the farmers by way of substantial cost-savings,” Landon says. He adds: “As exotic game farmers ourselves, we want and need to know the whereabouts of our animals. We want to ensure best of breed practices with regard to both animals and farm infrastructure. Being farmers without a constant eye in the sky makes it difficult to know exactly what is happening on the farm. Although we could potentially justify the ownership and use of a chopper on our farm, the cost-benefit analysis makes no sense. Yet, with a drone, pilot, and ranger to assist, we could have eyes from above with a lower cost and significant returns on investment” (Ibid.).

Landon is also a firm believer in charitable works. As he succinctly puts it, “There is an injustice in this world called poverty.” In 2011, he established The Apollos Ministries Foundation for the Gospel of Christ Jesus which made it possible for him to organize a successful water drilling project for Tekatako Daycare in White River, South Africa in 2014 (see the April 29 2014 article, “Landon Romano: An Alumnus Who Makes a Difference” for more on this subject).

Landon also has the distinction of being the youngest alumnus of our Department to ever fund a Geography scholarship. He did so by establishing a textbook scholarship fund in 2005 as a thank you to the department that made a positive difference in his career. The Landon Romano Textbook Scholarship is given out at the beginning of each quarter to undergraduate students enrolled in our lower division courses to assist in the purchase of their textbooks. Landon is, indeed, “an alumnus who makes a difference.”

Article by Bill Norrington

Image 1 for article titled "Alumnus Landon Romano Uses Drones to Aid South African Exotic Game Farmers"
Alumnus Landon Romano farms African game animals between Vaalwater and Ellisras in South Africa. Romano earned his two-year, full-time Masters of Business Administration from Baylor University, Waco, Texas in 2008 and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1999. He owns listed stocks on the United States and South African markets. He is an aviator by hobby. Romano, a United States citizen, is married to Karien, who is an Afrikaner. The couple resides in Pretoria and is expecting their first child in April 2015.
Image 2 for article titled "Alumnus Landon Romano Uses Drones to Aid South African Exotic Game Farmers"
The Drone Safaris team. From left: Jandre Germishuys, Sales & Marketing Director; Corne Blignaut, Operations Director; Carl Nicholl, Technical Director; Wiehan Brown, Support Coordinator; Heinrich Brown, Support Coordinator; and Landon Romano, Managing Director of Drone Safaris
Image 3 for article titled "Alumnus Landon Romano Uses Drones to Aid South African Exotic Game Farmers"
One of Landon’s drones in action. The drones utilize live feed video footage streaming to a monitor managed by the Drone Safari pilot and ranger, so a farmer can see the animals and environment in real-time. The use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) further enhances the drone usage and video footage.
Image 4 for article titled "Alumnus Landon Romano Uses Drones to Aid South African Exotic Game Farmers"
Safari sunset. Unlike helicopters or small aircraft, drones produce a relatively low volume of noise, on par with the sound of a "swarm of bees," which is less likely to spook the animals. Due to their relatively small size, drones are also much less likely to cause significant damage to life or infrastructure in the event of a major malfunction.

March 21, 2015 - Climate Hazard Group Releases New Version of CHIRPS

The Climate Hazards Group (CHG) is pleased to announce version 2.0 of their Climate Hazards Group InfraRed Precipitation with Stations (CHIRPS) dataset. CHIRPS, a blend of rainfall station observations, satellite temperature data, and climatology fields, first began several years ago as an internal CHG/USGS data product used to place droughts in a historical context. Beginning in May of 2014, the CHG began to release the CHIRPS dataset as an external data product. CHIRPS is now available from daily to 3-monthly time scales, from 1981 to near-present at 0.05 degree spatial resolution.

CHIRPS is helping decision makers and climate scientists around the world gain a better understanding of global climate shifts, mitigate the devastation of famines, identify food insecurity hot spots, and guide policy for agricultural development. CHIRPS is especially useful for those specializing in drought early warning and drought monitoring, as they can use the high resolution CHIRPS data to monitor rainfall in near-real time. The dataset covers nearly the entire globe, spanning from 50° South to 50° North at all longitudes, which makes it useful for people looking at the big picture of global climate change as well as for individuals who are more interested in tracking the trends of their local area.

CHIRPS enables climate scientists to more accurately assess regional variations in climate conditions. With the development of the GeoCLIM tool, even less experienced users can make use of the dataset to illustrate and review climate conditions and trends. In addition to the GeoCLIM, CHIRPS is also available via Early Warning eXplorer (EWX), a joint project with the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center.

CHIRPS version 2.0 is available via the CHG’s FTP site here.

More details are available on the CHIRPS page of the CHG website. Information regarding newly developed/refined diagnostic tools to help analyze station data is available there. The CHIRPS development team is currently working on making CHIRPS version 2.0 available through Google Earth Engine (, as well as CHIRPS Snippets, a “snippet” of code that will allow users to dynamically embed CHIRPS data on their web server via EWX (

CHIRPS development has been funded by USGS, USAID, NOAA, and the NASA Applied Sciences Program. Pete Peterson and Marty Landsfeld curate the satellite and station datasets used to build the CHIRPS. If you know of or have access to a local Met Service or other source of historic precipitation station data, they would very much like to add it to their processing stream, as the quality of CHIRPS is improved by adding good station data to the process. Long term data sets are preferred, and anything near-real time is ideal.

Editor’s note: If you would like to be added to the mailing list for CHIRPS releases and updates, please email Feedback on the dataset is welcome and encouraged! Many thanks to Research Support Staffer Libby White for contributing this article.

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Map of the various IPs downloading CHIRPS from around the world (as of three weeks after release).
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Group photo of CHG personnel. Top row, starting on the left: Marty Landsfeld, Laura Harrison, Libby White, Chris Funk, and Shrad Shukla. The bottom row, starting from the left: Greg Husak, Colin Kelley, Joel Michaelsen, Diego Pedreros, Frank Davenport, and Pete Peterson.

March 19, 2015 - Our Staff Mascot Reports From Bali

Cagney the rubber rat, our department’s staff mascot and icon of sustainability, has travelled extensively since he made his debut in 2007 (source). He accompanied grad student Laura Harrison to New Zealand that year and information technologist Jon Hall to the US Virgin Islands in 2008, and his latest geographical jaunt has been to Bali where he’s accompanying Mo Lovegreen, our Executive Officer, and her husband Jeff and daughter Piper on a vacation at the moment.

Rats are the most successful animal species in Java and Bali, although only 4 of the 21 species present significant problems to humans (source). These problems include crop losses (especially rice), the spread of disease, and a negative impact on tourism: “Did no one else have issues with rats? We must have seen hundreds of the beaches, in the restaurants, shops, hotels, everywhere! Granted, we were there a few years ago, but if anyone even says "Bali", I just think of a giant rat. I've been to beaches in Thailand, Cuba, Guatemala, and other 3rd world paradises where stray dogs and cats are common, but never have seen anything like the rats in Bali” (source).

With a daughter named Piper, it’s somewhat ironic that the Lovegreens would take a rat into Bali rather than leading the pests out of the place (think The Pied Piper of Hamelin)! Mo explains it this way: “About a week before my trip, Cagney appeared in my room. First he was on my lamp, then he was by the sink. Next he appeared in one of my shoes, and I got the message: he was ready for another adventure” (email from Mo on March 19, 2015). And he’s having one, as you can see by the photos that Mo has sent from Ubud, Bali’s cultural center.

By the way, the Monkey Forest that Mo refers to in the first caption is “the Ubud Monkey Forest, a nature reserve and Hindu temple complex in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. Its official name is the Mandala Suci Wenara Wana (Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary), and its name as written on its welcome sign is the Padangtegal Mandala Wisata Wanara Wana Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary. The Ubud Monkey Forest is a popular tourist attraction and is often visited by over 10,000 tourists a month.

[…]In 2011, approximately 605 crab-eating macaques (Macaca fascicularis) – 39 adult males, 38 male sub-adults, 194 adult females, 243 juveniles, and 91 infants – lived in the Ubud Monkey Forest. They are known locally as the Balinese long-tailed monkey. The park staff feeds the monkeys sweet potato three times a day, providing them with their main source of food in the park, although bananas are for sale in the park for tourists wishing to feed the monkeys, and the monkeys also feed on papaya leaf, corn, cucumber, coconut, and other local fruit. For the sake of the monkeys' health, visitors are prohibited from feeding them snacks such as peanuts, cookies, biscuits, and bread.

[…]If a human does not provide the food the monkeys demand or does not provide it quickly enough, the monkeys occasionally will bite the human; in fact, monkeys bite tourists daily and videos of many of these attacks can be found on YouTube. Monkey bites are a very serious medical event given the variety of viruses monkeys carry that can be transferred to humans” (Wikipedia: Ubud Monkey Forest). Cagney isn’t the only one that should be worried about “those crazy monkeys”!

Editor's note: Cagney is also the mascot of the UCSB Laboratory Research and Technical Staff (LabRATS) which promotes the evaluation of laboratory procedures and implementation of performance standards to assist laboratories in becoming more sustainable. LabRATS began in 2004 and has evolved from an informal group into a major program which enlists a multitude of interns and undergraduate volunteers to connect researchers campus-wide.

In 2006, the program received a grant from the Lawson Valentine Foundation which enabled it to hire undergrad interns, and it completed its first UCSB laboratory assessment in July 2006. In 2007, the journal Science focused on sustainable science and featured UCSB’s LabRATS program in an article titled “This Man Wants to Green your Lab” (Science, 318, [5847], 39-42), and in 2008, it was honored by the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories and R&D Magazine with an Organization Award at the first-ever Go Beyond Awards which honors individuals, organizations, projects, and laboratory manufacturers that "go beyond" the status quo to minimize the environmental impacts of laboratory and other high-technology facilities and laboratory equipment (see the July 25, 2012 article, UCSB LabRATS in the News).

Article by Bill Norrington

Image 1 for article titled "Our Staff Mascot Reports From Bali"
Cagney and Jeff at a rice terrace (they're actually at a coffee plantation overlooking the rice terrace). Mo: “I noticed he has a preference for coming out of my backpack at meal time. He wanted nothing to do with all those crazy monkeys at Monkey Forest (I think he was afraid of being carried off and eaten!)”
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Cagney on a coconut shell planter
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Cagney checking out the coffee and tea varieties
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Cagney contemplating a coconut milk tasting
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Cagney at dinner with Piper in Ubud
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Cagney helps Jeff pay the dinner bill ($1 US = 13 Rupiahs)
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Cagney on Gili Air (with the volcano on Bali in the background). Gili Air is a small island off of Lombok, Bali's neighboring island.

March 17, 2015 - Hundreds of Sick, Dying Sea Lion Pups Are Washing Up on California's Shores

The following is a Climate Progress report written by Emily Atkin and posted on March 13, 2015 with the title above:

Dr. Andrew Trites has been studying marine mammals in the North Pacific for 30 years, and he’s never seen anything like what’s happening in California. “This will probably be the highest number of stranded sea lion pups on record,” he told ThinkProgress on Friday. “The last three years have been particularly high, and it looks as though that this year, 2015, will the highest ever recorded.”

More than 1,450 baby sea lions have washed up on California beaches this year, a huge number that’s been putting animal rescue centers in a frenzy. The phenomenon has been reported widely, but was particularly magnified in a Thursday New York Times story that delved into specifics about the animals’ plight.

“Many are sick with pneumonia, their throaty barks muted to rasping coughs,” the story, written by Times correspondent Jack Healy, reads. “Parasites have swarmed their digestive systems. Some are so tired that they cannot scamper away when rescuers approach them with nets and towels and heft them into large pet carriers.”

Why is this happening? The Times story cites a rapidly changing environment driven by “unusually warm waters,” which are driving away food sources for sea lion moms. Because the moms can’t find food, they’re either abandoning the pups, or not getting back to them in time to feed them.

Trites, for the most part, agrees with that assessment. When you get warm ocean surface waters that replace cool nutrient rich waters, animals do starve,” said Trites, the director of the Marine Mammal Unit at the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre. That’s because the fish sea lions like to eat — anchovies and sardines, to name a few — tend to prefer cool, nutrient-rich water. If the surface waters are warm, the anchovies swim deeper, making it harder for sea lions to dive and find them. “Unfortunately, the young animals pay the price,” Trites said. “If the food is short, mothers can prove enough to keep themselves going, but can’t eat enough to produce the extra energy to make milk.”

It is certainly true that sea surface temperatures have been on the rise in the last hundred years. In fact, more than 90 percent of human-caused warming goes into the oceans, while only 2 percent goes into the atmosphere. Those increases have manifested in sea surface temperatures, as the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change graphic at right shows.

The rising sea surface temperatures themselves aren’t the only side effect of human-caused climate change that could be contributing to these unusual sea lion strandings. Increased extreme weather events driven by a weaker jet stream could also be increasing the likelihood of warm ocean waters, Trites said. That’s because during storms, wind drags on the ocean surface, pulling together and concentrating large bodies of warm water together.

That, however, is just a theory. It would be difficult to prove that this particular stranding was the result of a climate-driven weather event. But still, Trites said, it’s suspicious. “Weather patterns have an element of randomness, but what’s so clear is that we’re seeing more extreme storms,” he said, noting the risk of concentrated warm waters is increasing with climate change. “This could well be that, just like a homeowner is dealing with [increased risk] on a daily basis, sea lions and other marine life also have to deal with that as well.”

Trites said more research is needed to figure out exactly what’s causing the strandings. In the meantime, people need to figure out their own responsibilities to the struggling animals. Do they save them? Or do we sit by and let nature take charge? Trites, himself, isn’t sure. “No one likes to see any animal suffer,” he said. “But it’s quite a predicament. This may well be just the start.”

Editor’s note: Many thanks to alumnus Jeffrey A. Onsted (PhD 2007) for suggesting this material. Jeff is currently an Associate Professor of Geography in the Department of Earth & Environment and the Department of Global and Sociocultural Studies at Florida International University.

Image 1 for article titled "Hundreds of Sick, Dying Sea Lion Pups Are Washing Up on California's Shores"
This undated image provided by the Pacific Marine Mammal Center shows rescued sea lion pups in Laguna Beach, Calif. (from the ThinkProgress article; AP Photo/Pacific Marine Mammal Center)
Image 2 for article titled "Hundreds of Sick, Dying Sea Lion Pups Are Washing Up on California's Shores"
Sea surface temperatures have been on the rise in the last hundred years. In fact, more than 90 percent of human-caused warming goes into the oceans, while only 2 percent goes into the atmosphere. Those increases have manifested in sea surface temperatures (Ibid.; graphic credit: 2013 IPCC)

March 17, 2015 - Alumnus Uses Cartographic Skills to Prevent Contamination of Drinking Water

Alumnus Alex Samarin (BA 2008) recently wrote to say: “I think it'd be great if you could feature a current environmental issue that I've been a part of: groundwater contamination by oil extraction. It's an important issue in California that was just heard by the CA Senate Natural Resources committee on Tuesday [March 10]. My dad and I have been involved at the local level by pursuing a particular case of legal infraction in Tulare County near my family's home. My father approached the Natural Resource Defense Council for legal counsel, and I made maps to prove the case. This blog post by a Natural Resources Defense Council geologist highlights our case (“Hundreds of Active Oil Waste Injection Wells Still Threaten Drinking Water across California,” March 9, 2015):

California regulators shut down 12 injection wells last week that were improperly permitted to pump potentially toxic oil and gas waste water into drinking water aquifers. One of the 12 shutdown wells is in the Deer Creek Oil Field, near the town of Terra Bella, CA. Active since 2002, that well has injected almost 80 million gallons of waste into federally protected, very high-quality drinking water. The field also contains six more active disposal wells, still injecting into the same formation. Houses and farms surround the oil field.

Last fall NRDC was contacted by Bill Samarin, a resident of Terra Bella, who was concerned that the waste injection wells at the Deer Creek field could be contaminating groundwater. He noted that these injection wells are very shallow and explained that people near the oil field get water from private wells - wells that he feared could be pulling up water contaminated by oil waste.

At the time, one of the operators of the Deer Creek field was applying for a Special Use Permit (SUP) that could increase the amount of waste being pumped into six of the seven existing injection wells. Mr. Samarin sent us a detailed timeline of all the state and local officials he'd met with to express his concern about these wells and the proposal to increase the amount of waste pumped into them. According to Mr. Samarin, he was told that the field was operating in compliance with regulations. Not convinced, he filed an appeal of the SUP with the Tulare County Board of Supervisors (BOS) and reached out to NRDC for help.

For months, Mr. Samarin had been collecting all the data he could get his hands on about the oil field. Among other things, he learned that the drinking water these wells were pumping waste into had been granted an "aquifer exemption," which essentially turned this high-quality drinking water aquifer into a sacrifice zone, legally allowing oil and gas waste to be injected into it. He enlisted the help of his son Alex Samarin, a geographer, to make a map displaying some of the information he had gathered. They discovered something shocking: the map showed that one of the injection wells was located outside the boundary of the aquifer exemption and was therefore injecting waste directly into protected drinking water.

Based on the available data, there was also concern that the injected waste could be migrating upwards into shallower drinking water and that the injection wells weren't constructed properly and could be another pathway for oil waste to contaminate drinking water.

Armed with this and some help from NRDC, Mr. Samarin presented his case to the Tulare County BOS. Despite the damning evidence he provided, his appeal was denied and the oil company's plan to stuff even more waste into the drinking water aquifer was upheld.

Mr. Samarin worked for months to bring this issue to light, only to be told that he was wrong, or crazy, or worse. He was finally vindicated last week when the State decided to shut down the injection well outside the aquifer exemption boundary, but the victory is far from complete. This is because the other worrying thing that Alex Samarin's simple yet powerful map shows is that, while the other six wells are located within the exemption boundary, the fluids those wells are injecting may be migrating beyond it.

The map shows ¼-mile radius circles drawn around the injection wells, referred to as the "Area of Review" (AoR). Generally speaking, the AoR is the area around an injection well where drinking water may be endangered by injection activity. The use of a fixed, ¼-mile radius to represent the AoR has been heavily criticized as not being sufficiently protective of ground water, including criticism by the independent auditors who reviewed California's injection well program in 2011 and by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's own scientists. The map shows that, even using this weak standard, the AoRs of the six remaining active injection wells at the Deer Creek oil field extend beyond the boundary of the exempt portion of the aquifer. Given how close the injection wells are to the exemption boundary, it's a reasonable hypothesis that the fluids being injected are migrating into and potentially contaminating protected drinking water.

It's also likely that Deer Creek Oil Field isn't the only place in the state where this is happening. So, in addition to the 2,553 wells that DOGGR has identified as being located outside the boundaries of exempt aquifers, there could be hundreds or thousands more that are within the exemption boundaries, but where injected fluids could be migrating out. To be clear, that's a violation of the rules too.

The scale and number of problems with California's injection well program is overwhelming. We commend the State for taking the steps it has to begin fixing this mess, and for the additional steps to which it has committed itself. But a problem of this magnitude and severity demands an equally large and serious response, and in that we think the State is falling short. That is why we and others are continuing to call on the State to immediately shut down all 2,553 wells located outside the boundaries of exempt aquifers and to keep them shut down until full investigations of any water contamination - including that which may be caused by wells within the boundaries of exempt aquifers - is complete.

The primary mission of the injection well program is simple: to ensure that underground injection does not endanger drinking water. By nearly any imaginable measure, California has failed that goal.

Image 1 for article titled "Alumnus Uses Cartographic Skills to Prevent Contamination of Drinking Water"
Map Credit: California Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources Well Finder; annotations added by NRDC.
Image 2 for article titled "Alumnus Uses Cartographic Skills to Prevent Contamination of Drinking Water"
Deer Creek oil field. Image Credit: Alex Samarin - the shape labeled "1973 Oil-Producing Zones" shows the boundary of the aquifer exemption; the wells are labeled with their respective API numbers.
Image 3 for article titled "Alumnus Uses Cartographic Skills to Prevent Contamination of Drinking Water"
Regulators in California ordered operators to shut down 12 wells injecting potentially toxic oil and gas wastewater into federally protected drinking water - bringing the total number of wells ordered to halt injection to 23. There are more than 2,500 wells in California currently permitted to inject oil and gas waste and other fluids into federally protected aquifers. (; image credit: Lance Larson.)

March 16, 2015 - "Hollywood" Husak Brings Home the Gold in Ultimate Frisbee

Dr. Greg Husak, a UCSB Researcher in UCSB Geography’s Climate Hazard Group, comes across as a fortyish, quiet, and soft spoken guy, but there’s a more flamboyant side to him. “Hollywood” Husak has won three national championships playing ultimate frisbee with the UC Santa Barbara Black Tide and the San Francisco Jam, a world championship with the Santa Barbara Condors, and, just recently, a gold medal with the U.S. Open Master team in this year’s World Championships of Beach Ultimate in Dubai.

As for the nickname “Hollywood,” Greg got that in college because he was a "hunk" from southern California, was (and remains) a star in ultimate frisbee, and had a personality some described as “flamboyant and a bit overconfident” in his early days.

What’s ultimate frisbee, you ask? Often simply referred to as “ultimate,” it’s a five-against-five game with unlimited substitutions, sort of a cross between basketball and water polo, that is played on a 75-metre by 25-metre field. The object is to move the frisbee to a teammate in the end zone - when a player takes possession of the frisbee he/she cannot run with it but can pivot on one leg to throw it on, and there are no restrictions on how many passes a team can make or in what direction. The team that reaches 13 points, or is leading after 45 minutes, wins the match.

The activities of the other Husak, “Humanitarian Husak,” “center on the remote monitoring of rainfall and cropped area to estimate food production in the developing world. As part of this, I administer a large grant supporting graduate students, researchers, and field scientists performing activities related to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. As principal investigator for this project, I have been in charge of writing proposals, designing and managing budgets, and setting scientific agendas. This work is based on my PhD, which was a statistical analysis of African rainfall, and my Masters research which analyzed the spatial accuracy of a global land cover map” (source).

Editor’s note: Much of material above was taken from and; also see photos for pictures of the 2015 U.S. Open Masters Team and Wikipedia for more about the sport. Many thanks to Research Support staffer Pete Peterson for providing these links and updates during the tournament.

Image 1 for article titled ""Hollywood" Husak Brings Home the Gold in Ultimate Frisbee"
Greg in the 2015 USA Ultimate Club Championships in Dubai. WCBU 2015 Day 6, Open Master, Canada vs USA. “Dubai is incredible. Playing ultimate on the beach in the Persian Gulf, with 40 story high rises lined along the beach, is just surreal” (email from Greg on March 11).
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The U.S. Open Masters team (, op. cit.) - Greg is in the front row, far left. The U.S. entered 7 national teams, one in each division, and the U.S. took home six gold medals and one bronze. The U.S. ultimate teams finished with a combined 65 wins and 1 loss.
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Dr. Greg Husak comes from an athletic family. One brother was a college surfing champion and another was an NFL quarterback.
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