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

July 31, 2015 - Alumnus Park Williams Discusses California Climate with KQED Science Editor

“Fog season is with us once again. And whether it’s the ground-level “pea soup” of legend or the looming overcast known as the marine layer, there’s a reason it’s called California’s natural air-conditioning: fog and clouds are vital cogs in keeping the coastal thermostat turned down. But that advantage could be disappearing” (source).

KQED Science Editor Craig Miller talks with climate scientist Park Williams [PhD 2009] about his recently published work on California’s vanishing clouds. Williams is an assistant research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, but the gray mantle of the California’s summer coastline keeps drawing him back here — and it’s not just the romance of it. It turns out that fog — any kind of cloud, actually — is a great regulator not just of heat, but of drought.

Park Williams: Yeah, fog regulates drought. It does it in a couple of ways. In ecosystems, fog drops water directly on plants. And when the water collects on the plants, it then drops into the soil and is available for the plants to use. Fog, and clouds that are higher than fog, also shade the sun, and that allows plants more time to use the water they’ve collected from the fog. In cities, fog and clouds that are higher than fog — overcast clouds — are important as well, because they regulate surface temps.

Craig Miller: And it seems like cities are where the problem is.

PW: We looked at Southern California and found that in large cities — L.A. and San Diego — the heights of low clouds during summertime have been increasing; they’ve been rising away from the city.

CM: Why would that be?

PW: Cities have been warming, and essentially you need to go higher into the atmosphere before you finally get to where it’s cool enough to have water droplets condense and clouds can form.

CM: This is sounding like the “urban heat island” effect at work here. Is there a smoking gun for that?

PW: The minimum temperature at night has been rising rapidly. During the daytime we’ve seen slow warming, but not nearly at the pace that nighttime warming is. That’s the fingerprint of the urban heat island that we expect. The urban heat island effect really is a nighttime phenomenon because cement takes a long time to get rid of its heat, and that causes nighttime temperatures to rise.

CM: And where urbanization reaches inland, like, say, the Inland Empire region east of L.A., this phenomenon seems to follow. For example, looking at readings from airports, you found there’s 87 percent less fog in Ontario since 1950, and that overall cloud cover — technically the “frequency” of clouds — has been reduced by about half. That’s stunning.

PW: That means Ontario is getting a lot more sunlight in the morning hours, which is then feeding back to heat up Ontario and make clouds less likely in the future.

CM: You’re describing a kind of vicious cycle.

PW: Clouds will become thinner over Los Angeles. That allows more sunlight to be absorbed by the ground, which causes more surface heat, which causes clouds to have to form higher up, which causes clouds to be thinner, which perpetuates this process of more sunlight, higher clouds — and eventually more sunlight, no clouds.

CM: But you don’t foresee fog and overcast vanishing everywhere along the coast, only in the most urbanized areas?

PW: It depends on where you are. Since these fog and low marine clouds during the summer are regulators of drought, and since global warming is projected to enhance drought in much of California, these clouds could be very nice moderators of the global warming process and increased drought in coastal California.

CM: But in the cities …

PW: Then we see basically the moderating effect of these clouds probably getting canceled out, and rapid increases of drought in the mountain ecosystems surrounding the cities of Southern California.

CM: It sounds like when you get north into the coast redwoods, which are so dependent on the fog, the prognosis isn’t so bad.

PW: I think it’s not so bad. We’ll have to wait and see. Certainly these clouds are complicated and there are aspects to them we still don’t understand so well. We’ve had a tough time getting computers to actually model the behavior of these clouds.

CM: It makes you wonder if we might come to miss the June Gloom.

PW: I think the ways it’ll be missed are — energy bills rise because everything’s warmer, heat waves will be warmer and that’ll have some public health implications. But there’ll be benefits, too. People like going to beach when it’s sunny and not cloudy, so June Gloom gets in the way of family vacations. It’ll be nice to have better beach weather.

CM: I’d call that a silver lining except I think you need a cloud for that.

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Sunlight through Marin fog. (From the KQED article; Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia Commons)
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Fog settles over San Francisco Bay, with the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower and Bay Bridge visible in the distance. Ibid.
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“Fog Finger” by Susan Baumgart, Senior Artist, Web Master, and Photographer for the Department until her untimely death in 2005. “Fog Slakes Redwoods’ Thirst: Fog blanketed the ocean. A robust wind packed the shoreward edge to the Santa Lucia Mountains, which dove steeply into the Pacific. Big Creek, which eroded the mountains faster than they rose, cut a narrow passage to the sea. The fog blasted through the gap, poking a finger of fog upstream. The moisture in the fog slaked the thirst of the redwoods. Without the fog, the redwoods would not survive the summer drought. With the fog, Big Creek was the trees’ southernmost stand.”
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Park Williams received his PhD in 2009 (Christopher Still, Chair); dissertation title: “Tree Rings, Climate Variability, and Coastal Summer Stratus Clouds in the Western United States.” Currently, Park is a Lamont Assistant Research Professor at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.

July 30, 2015 - Fossil Fuels May Bring Major Changes to Carbon Dating

The following Climate Central article was written by Alison Kanski and posted July 28, 2015, with the title above:

Radiocarbon dating has been helping put the planet’s history in the right order since it was first invented in the 1940s, giving scientists a key way to determine the age of artifacts like the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Shroud of Turin. Thanks to fossil fuel emissions, though, the method used to date these famous artifacts may be in for a change.

The burning of fossil fuels is altering the ratio of carbon in the atmosphere, which may cause objects tested in the coming decades to seem hundreds or thousands of years older than they actually are, according a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A cotton T-shirt manufactured and tested in 2050 may appear to be the same age as an artifact from the 11th century when dated using the radiocarbon method. A new shirt made in 2100, if emissions continue unabated, could appear to come from the year 100, alongside something worn by a Roman soldier. In short, future human emissions may alter one of the most reliable methods for learning about the past.

Radiocarbon dating relies on the amount of radiocarbon, or carbon-14, remaining in an object to determine its approximate age. Radiocarbon is a radioactive form of carbon that’s created when nitrogen reacts with cosmic rays in the upper atmosphere. It occurs only in trace amounts, but it is present in every living thing.

Carbon-14 can combine with oxygen in the atmosphere to create carbon dioxide, which is then absorbed by plants and makes its way through the food chain. The amount of carbon-14 in living plants and animals matches the amount in the atmosphere, but when plants and animals die, they no longer absorb carbon-14. Because radiocarbon has a known rate of decay, scientists can determine about how long it has been since the plant or animal was alive. The lower the amount of radiocarbon, the older the object.

But big changes in the atmosphere can throw off this method, like releasing tons of extra carbon dioxide into the air from burning fossil fuels. Because fossil fuels like coal and oil are so old, they have no radiocarbon left. When burned, they increase the amount of carbon dioxide, which dilutes the radiocarbon in the atmosphere and the amount that can be absorbed by organic material. “Fossil fuels have lost all of their radiocarbon over millions of years of radioactive decay,” said Heather Graven, author of the study published last week. “This makes the atmosphere appear as though it has ‘aged.’”

Scientists are used to a bit of wiggle with carbon-14 dating; it can vary as much as 30 to 100 years from the actual age. But the changes from emissions will require some extra adjustment, even in the study’s best-case-scenario emissions projection. “If emissions are rapidly reduced, then the decrease in the fraction of radiocarbon in the atmosphere will be equivalent to only about a hundred years of radioactive decay,” said Graven.

For those who use carbon dating, like archaeologists, physicists, forensic scientists, and even art historians, the change in radiocarbon will complicate their work, according to Timothy Jull, a radiocarbon scientist. “There are all these complicated effects,” said Jull, also a professor of geosciences at University of Arizona, who was not involved in the study. “There will be some ambiguities about whether it’s 300 years old or relatively recent. We’re going to need more information.”

Scientists could begin seeing the effects on radiocarbon as soon as 2020, when the ratio is expected to drop below pre-industrial levels, according to Graven. But she hopes the projections in her study could also help scientists prepare for the changes to come. And, hopefully, they will keep scientists from mistaking a T-shirt from 2050 for William the Conqueror's blouse.

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Part of the Great Isaiah Scroll, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The development of radiocarbon dating has had a profound impact on archaeology; it is often described as the "radiocarbon revolution." In the words of anthropologist R. E. Taylor, "14C data made a world prehistory possible by contributing a time scale that transcends local, regional, and continental boundaries." It provides more accurate dating within sites than previous methods, which were usually derived from either stratigraphy or typologies (e.g., of stone tools or pottery); it also allows comparison and synchronization of events across great distances. The advent of radiocarbon dating may even have led to better field methods in archaeology, since better data recording leads to firmer association of objects with the samples to be tested. These improved field methods were sometimes motivated by attempts to prove that a 14C date was incorrect. Taylor also suggests that the availability of definite date information freed archaeologists from the need to focus so much of their energy on determining the dates of their finds, and led to an expansion of the questions archaeologists were willing to research. For example, questions about the evolution of human behavior were much more frequently seen in archaeology, beginning in the 1970s. Wikipedia: Radiocarbon dating
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A mammoth molar that has been cored for a radiocarbon sample. From the Climate Central article; photo credit: Travis/flickr

July 30, 2015 - Tammy Elwell Mentors Outstanding High School Students

The following material was taken from an article in The UCSB Current, written by Shelly Leachman and posted on July 28, 2015, with the title “Seizing Opportunity: Standout Santa Maria High School students earn scholarships to prestigious Research Mentorship Program at UCSB” (read the entire article here):

Seventy-seven high school students are spending part of their summer at UCSB, participating in the highly competitive Research Mentorship Program (RMP). Top-achieving teens from across the country and around the world apply for RMP’s intensive course in graduate-level research, which puts them in labs and in the field alongside UCSB faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and advanced graduate students.

Santa Maria High School student Justin Suarez is one of 26 students on a RMP scholarship, and Geography graduate student Tammy Elwell is his mentor. RMP seeks to provide financial support each year for some 30 kids who are from underserved communities and/or are first-generation students, and who might not otherwise be able to participate.

“When I came here, I thought I was prepared, but then I realized… it’s a huge journey right now, consisting of a lot of work,” Suarez said of his project on the effect of people’s opinions on coastal usage in Chile, with geography Ph.D. candidate Tammy Elwell. “Working with my mentor has been amazing. Whenever I get stuck or have a problem, I can go to her and she’ll help me work through it but also encourage me to try to find out for myself, to see if I can solve it, because she said that’s a major, important part of research — to work your way through problems yourself. This is a huge and different experience that most people won’t get.”

The RMP mentors may know their way around research, but for those who are moving toward potential careers as academics and professors — and most are — what they’re learning about teaching, and about themselves, in the program is invaluable. That’s according to Elwell, who is mentoring this summer for the second time.

“It’s a learning exchange where I probably learn even more as a mentor than what Justin might experience,” Elwell said of working with Suarez. “It involves patience and kindness, learning how to communicate, learning how to listen. This has really been a reflection for me of how much mentors have helped me. I’m just speechless thinking how much people have invested in me to be where I am. Now I’m in that position of mentoring and it feels great. I’m very grateful.”

Editor’s note: Many thanks to Geography graduate student Kitty Currier for bringing this material to our attention.

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Tammy Elwell, left, is a UCSB doctoral student in geography and a mentor in the campus-hosted Research Mentorship Program for high-achieving high school students. Justin Suarez, right, a senior at Santa Maria High School and RMP participant for 2015, is her mentee. Source: The UCSB Current; photo credit: Spencer Bruttig.
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Santa Maria High School students Justin Suarez, left, and Esmeralda Cruz, right, flank Juan Gallardo, a staff adviser with UCSB's Early Academic Outreach Program based on their campus. The students credit Gallardo with encouraging them to apply to the Research Mentorship Program; they were admitted and awarded full scholarships to attend. Ibid.; photo credit: George Foulsham.

July 29, 2015 - Susan Cassels Lands $213,589 Development Research Grant

Geography Professor Susan Cassels, in collaboration with Prof. Eli Rosenberg at Emory University and Prof. Steven Goodreau at the University of Washington, has received an NIH R21 Exploratory/Developmental Research grant award. The 2-year joint research effort, “Mathematical models to inform effective home-use HIV testing strategies for MSM,” will identify how rapid home-use HIV testing strategies may impact HIV incidence in diverse populations of men who have sex with men (MSM).

Abstract: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first over-the-counter home-use HIV test in 2012. Public health departments have started to implement programs to increase their use; however, the potential impact of these tests on the HIV epidemic among men who have sex with men (MSM) is unknown. The aim of this research is to inform public health approaches to promote safe and effective home-use HIV testing strategies for diverse populations of MSM. Home-use HIV tests may reduce HIV incidence if used by MSM who would otherwise not test or if they increase rates of testing, diagnosis and treatment. However, home-use tests may increase transmission if men replace clinic-based tests with home-use tests because the relatively long window period of available tests can result in false-negative tests during acute infection when HIV-infected persons are most infectious. Home-use tests may also negatively impact the infected individual’s health and pose a challenge for HIV prevention if men who test positive at home do not seek care and initiate antiretroviral therapy (ART) in a timely manner. Men may use home-use tests with sex partners prior to sex to make decisions about whether and how to have sex. Such point-of-sex testing may be beneficial if partners test more often and seroadapt based on more accurate information but may increase HIV risk if men forgo condoms based on incorrect information about serostatus.

Using data from two different epidemiologic settings in the U.S., Seattle and Atlanta, we will use mathematical models to estimate how different strategies of home-use HIV testing at the individual and partnership levels affects HIV incidence. First, we will develop a set of parameters to represent novel and heterogeneous HIV testing strategies for MSM, and adapt, expand, and validate a stochastic network-based HIV transmission model to account for home-use testing strategies and seroadaptive behavior for MSM in Seattle, WA and Atlanta, GA. Second, we will use the models to identify the most effective individual home-use HIV testing strategies to increase awareness of HIV infection and reduce HIV incidence among MSM in the two settings. Third, we will predict the impact of home-use point-of-sex HIV testing strategies on dyadic-level awareness of HIV infection and HIV incidence among MSM in Seattle versus Atlanta. In this proposal, our models are akin to a virtual laboratory: a practical and cost-effective way to examine the scenarios under which home-use testing can effectively reduce HIV incidence in diverse high-risk populations. Moreover, our models can support the design of clinical trials to test the effectiveness of home-use HIV testing interventions if such an initiative is warranted.

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The NIH grant is Assistant Professor Susan (“Susie”) Cassels’ first award since joining UCSB Geography in 2014. Dr. Cassels received a BS in Mathematical Sciences from UCSB in 1998, a PhD in Demography from Princeton University in 2005 and an MPH (Master of Public Health) in Epidemiology from the University of Washington in 2010.

July 29, 2015 - Alumna Elisa Frank Interviewed by BBC about Coffee Crisis

UCSB Geography alumna Elisa Frank (MA 2009) was recently interviewed by David Robson, a feature writer for BBC.com’s Future series. “Coffee in crisis: The bitter end of our favourite drink?” was posted on July 29, 2015:

As we sip our lattes and espressos and read the daily headlines, climate change can seem like a distant threat. But travel a few thousand miles to the source of your caffeine fix, and the turbulence is all too real. Consider the coffee farmers in Chiapas, Mexico, recently interviewed by researcher Elisa Frank from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Compared to the gentler showers they were used to, they are now seeing violent downpours that waterlog the plants in their care. “When we were growing up, the rains didn’t fall this much,” one interviewee told Frank. “The plants produce less. The leaves and fruit fall because of the wetness.”

Where farmers once enjoyed stable, mild conditions, the temperature now seesaws between cold that stunts growth, and heat that dries the berries before they can be harvested. Then there are the hurricanes and landslides; sometimes, the mud can swallow up plantations. As one farmer put it: “The weather is very strange. Strange things come that we didn’t see before.”

These problems are by no means confined to Mexico. Farmers across South America, Asia and Africa are watching coffee plants dwindle as droughts, downpours, and plagues of pests attack their crops, as a result of global warming. The consequences of this unrest could soon work their way through the pipeline to your local coffee shop. The world currently enjoys a two-billion-cup-a-day habit. How can we ensure that the coffee still flows, when the crops are being ravaged by extreme weather? And if the farmers can’t meet that demand, will we soon reach “peak coffee”?

Some worry that our efforts to combat these challenges will only create further environmental devastation. Others suggest that the only solution is to change the beloved flavour of the drink itself. Whatever the answers, savour your espresso while you can: we may be facing the end of coffee as we know it.

The problem arises, in part, from the refinement of our palette. There are two main breeds of commercial coffee: the more aromatic Coffea Arabica, and the more bitter Coffea Robusta variety. Thanks to its complex flavours, Arabica is by far the world’s favourite, accounting for about 70% of the coffee we drink.

Those genteel qualities that we favour come at the price of the plant’s physical strength, however: it is far more sensitive to stress than its more robust cousin. As BBC Magazine recently explained, almost all the commercial Arabica plants have been bred from a very small stock taken from the mountains of Ethiopia – giving it very little genetic diversity and making it particularly vulnerable to climate change. The plant grows best between a very narrow range of relatively mild temperatures – 18 to 22C – and needs gentle, regular rainfall. “It needs a very particular climate that you can only find in a few locations around the globe,” says Christian Bunn at the Humboldt University in Berlin. That makes it very different from other crops, like corn – plants bred for thousands of years to adapt to many different environments.

The delicate Arabica plants just can’t cope with the new and unpredictable conditions that come with global warming. In Mexico, for instance, the rising temperature seems to have brought heavier rainfall, which is battering the plants before they have time to seed. “The coffee plant only flowers for 48 hours, so if something happens during flowering – if there’s a big storm – then the whole crop is destroyed,” explains Ainhoa Magrach at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecosystems, ETH Zurich.

Other places have the exact opposite problem: drought. When Oxfam questioned coffee producers in the Rwenzori Mountains of Uganda, they complained that hotter, drier seasons were causing the plants to drop their flowers before they had turned to fruit. Even when the plants blossomed, the beans were shrivelled and small. Further stresses come from the fact that the coffee plant’s enemies can thrive in hotter weather – including pests such as leaf miners, coffee berry borers, mealy bugs and diseases like leaf rust, all of which ravage crops. During one of the most recent epidemics, Central America saw its harvests drop by 20% in 2013, after an onset of leaf rust – and such events may be more common as the climate warms even more.

Calculating the long-term costs isn’t straightforward - it can be difficult to separate single, freak events from broader trends - but looking at coffee yields in Tanzania since the 1960s, one team has found that the crops fell from a high of 500kg per hectare to just over 300kg today. Importantly, the drop seems to closely follow a temperature rise of about 0.3C per decade, and an associated reduction in rainfall.

Given the money on offer, others will almost certainly move to fill our empty cups – and that could come at a huge cost to the environment. Magrach recently mapped out the areas suitable for Arabica farming and compared it to areas of natural interest. In the worst case scenario, she found that we will need to encroach on 2.2 million hectares of rainforest to meet the predicted demand – an area about the size of Wales. The result would be a significant loss of biodiversity.

There may be better solutions. Given its hardiness, Robusta will be better able to weather the changes; Magrach’s models even suggest that its preferred habitat may grow as a result of the rising temperatures. If so, a simple change in taste may offset the coffee crash – provided we can grow to love its bitterness. “It would definitely be better for the forests,” says Magrach. At the very least, she hopes that food labelling will make it clear in future whether the beans were farmed from vulnerable areas, so that consumers are aware of the environmental cost and can shop more ethically.

Others hope that improved farming techniques will instead keep the coffee flowing. Along these lines, the Coffee and Climate initiative is helping more than a dozen different coffee producers to join forces and share notes on the best ways to deal with the oncoming challenges. One option, for instance, is to graft Arabica strains to the roots of Robusta plants, making a hybrid that is more resistant to drought while retaining the preferred aromatic flavour. Alternatively, selective breeding could help produce a variety that combines the best of both Robusta and Arabica. “It’s something people are working on, but we’re not sure when the new strains will be available,” adds Magrach.

The livelihoods of farmers and others in the coffee business – at least 25 million people according to one estimate – depend on us finding an answer, fast. For the time being, the farmers face daily uncertainty, as Elisa Frank found during her interviews in Mexico. It can be hard to weather. Although many of the farmers listen to the TV forecasts, and try to prepare for the oncoming downpours, they can’t help but feel helpless, swept away by forces beyond their control.

Some of the farmers feel that the subject has almost become a taboo. “We talk very little about climate,” one told Frank. “We already know how it is here – and there is nothing we can do.”

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Coffee is a brewed drink prepared from roasted coffee beans, which are the seeds of "berries" from the Coffea plant. Coffee plants are cultivated in over 70 countries, primarily in the equatorial regions of the Americas, Southeast Asia, India and Africa. The two most commonly grown are the highly regarded arabica, and the less sophisticated but stronger and more hardy robusta. The latter is resistant to the coffee leaf rust, Hemileia vastatrix, but has a more bitter taste. Once ripe, coffee beans are picked, processed, and dried. Green (unroasted) coffee beans are one of the most traded agricultural commodities in the world. Once traded, the beans are roasted to varying degrees, depending on the desired flavor, before being ground and brewed to create coffee (Wikipedia: Coffee)
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Plagues of coffee rust devastated farms in Nicaragua last year - perhaps a foreboding sign of things to come (from the BBC article; photo credit: Getty Images)
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A whole year's coffee harvest can depend on just a few days of blossom, during which the plants are vulnerable to the extreme weather (Ibid.; photo credit: Science Photo Library)
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The livelihood of 25 million people may depend on scientists finding a way to protect vulnerable coffee plants and their ripening berries (Ibid.; Getty Images)
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Elisa Frank is now a Human Ecologist and Sustainability Specialist, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her 2009 MA thesis was titled “Social Identity, Perception and Motivation in Adaptation to Climate Risk in the Coffee Sector of Chiapas, Mexico,” and Hallie Eakin and David Lopez-Carr were her co-chairs.

July 24, 2015 - 'Snotbot' Drones Study Whales by Collecting their Boogers

The following NatureWorldReport.com article posted on July 24 by Ian Lang and with the title above is one of many regarding an innovative method of collecting data about whales:

Whales – why study them? Well, for starters they’re among the largest creatures to ever live on Earth, and most species happen to be threatened or endangered. The problem is, as smart as they are, whales lack the capacity to understand that the men in the noisy boats firing darts at them are trying to be helpful. A less-invasive method would be nice, but how? Enter Snotbot, the drone that collects the “blow” whales expel from their lungs.

The product of a partnership between Ocean Alliance and the Olin College of Engineering, Snotbots are something of a technological marvel. They’re waterproof and capable of collecting whale snot, yet still able to fly the one mile round-trip from a research vessel and back.

Mucous, seemingly an odd choice for whale research, is actually quite valuable. After collection by the Snotbot, researchers can analyze bacteria levels, DNA, and any toxins that may have infiltrated the whale’s system. It also allows them to check hormone levels, which will offer valuable insight into whales’ reproduction cycles and stress levels.

Now, Ocean Alliance has launched a Kickstarter campaign, where they’re aiming to crowdfund $225,000 to support three expeditions to sites Ocean Alliance calls “vital to the future survival of whales on our planet.” The three planned sites are Peninsular Valdez Patagonia, the Sea of Cortez and southeast Alaska’s Frederick Sound.

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Snotbot logo: “Custom made, field tested, whale approved” (from the NatureWorldReport)
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In the “BS” era of data collection (Before Snotbot), the standard way of getting a data sample of a whale (living outside captivity) involved chasing an extremely acoustically sensitive mammal with a loud motorboat and subsequently shooting it with a sampling dart from a crossbow. Imagine if everything your doctor knew about your health came from chasing you around the room with a large needle while blowing an air-horn.The chart would say something like, “elevated stress levels, prone to shrieking.” It's inaccurate. This is what we believe is going on with some of the current whale data due to the invasive nature of previous sampling methods, and with Snotbot we mean to correct it with a clearer picture of whales that are undisturbed (from the Kickstarter campaign page, op. cit.)

July 24, 2015 - Have Scientists Found A Way To Feed The World Without Warming The Planet?

The following is a ThinkProgress.org article by Natasha Geiling, posted July 23, 2015, with the above title:

Aside from corn, rice might be the single most important staple crop on Earth. According to the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, more than 3.5 billion people around the world depend on rice for at least 20 percent of their daily caloric intake. But rice is also a major source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that’s more effective, at least in the short term, at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Now, scientists at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences think they’ve found a solution: a high-yielding, low-methane type of rice that can cut methane emissions from rice cultivation by up to 90 percent.

To create the starchy, climate-friendly rice, the scientists transferred a single gene from barley to rice that stimulates the production of starch in grain and stems. According to the study, published this week in Nature, previous research has shown that rice plants with smaller root systems tended to expel less methane than plants with larger roots, and the scientists hoped that by emphasizing starch growth in the stems and grains, the rice plants would naturally grow smaller root systems. Root systems in rice secrete the carbohydrates created by photosynthesis — when rice paddies are flooded, the oxygen-devoid environment provides the perfect breeding ground for methane-producing bacteria that feed on these carbohydrates. By reducing the size of the rice plants’ roots, the scientists hoped that they could curb the amount of methane produced in the fields.

To test how the modified rice plants fared in the real world, the scientists planted the rice in two different fields in China, alongside conventional rice, which served as a benchmark. Over three years, they measured the methane emitted by the plants in the fall and summer, near the end of the growing season. They also took measurements of starch content in the plants’ stems, roots, and seeds.

They found the modified rice plants extremely effective at producing starch and curbing methane emissions. In the summer, when temperatures were highest, the modified rice cut methane emissions to 0.3 percent of conventional rice. On average, the modified rice produced less than 10 percent the methane of conventional rice, while providing 43 percent more grain per plant.

In an essay in Nature that accompanied the study’s publication, Paul Bodelier, a researcher at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology who was not directly involved with the study, called the findings “a tremendous opportunity for more-sustainable rice cultivation,” but cautioned that large-scale trials are necessary before moving forward with full-scale commerical use. Without more trials, Bodelier wrote, it’s difficult to know how the genetic modification impacts the rice cultivar’s long-term chances for survival. It’s also important to study how the plant’s root system impacts microbes in the soil — microbes that themselves contribute to the production and consumption of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Bruce Linquist, a plant scientist at the University of California at Davis, echoed Bodelier’s sentiment. The research is too preliminary to know for sure how the genetic modification impacts methane production, Linquist said, and there is some concern that smaller root systems might impact the plants’ ability to take up nutrients.

Even if further trials prove the efficacy of the modified rice, it faces huge hurdles in order to become commercially viable. Largely in response to public distrust of genetically modified foods, no genetically modified rice has ever been successfully used in commercial production. Golden rice — a genetically modified strain of rice that contains beta carotene to combat malnutrition in developing countries — was ready for full-scale use in 2002, but has faced staunch opposition that has kept it from market for over a decade.

Despite public distrust — a January poll conducted by Pew found that 57 percent of Americans think genetically modified foods are generally unsafe to eat — nearly all scientific evidence suggests that genetically modified foods pose no threat to human health. There is some concern, however, about the environmental impact of genetically modified foods. Crops like Roundup-resistant soy or corn have led to a marked increase in the use of herbicides in the United States, though some studies have also shown that genetically modified crops have led to a decrease in the use of some pesticides. Since the low-methane strain of rice isn’t bred to be herbicide or pesticide resistant, this most likely won’t be an issue with this particular strain — though the way that its root-system interacts with microbes in the soil is something to watch.

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Shuttercock image of rice from the ThinkProgress article
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SUSIBA2 rice reduces methane emissions from rice paddies. a, Methane emissions from four rice plants (n 5 4) for 2013 and three (n 5 3) for 2012. b, Fluorescent microscopy of Nipp and SUSIBA2-77 roots. Scale bar, 1mm.c, Quantification of methanogens in soil and root samples from three rhizospheric positions (n 5 3) of three plants (n 5 3). Technical triplicates per position were applied. Quantification was performed for total archaea (ARC) and methanogens (MET), and the orders Methanobacteriales (MBT), Methanomicrobiales (MMB) and Methanocellales and two families, Methanosaetaceae (Mst) and Methanosarcinaceae (Msc), of the order Methanosarcinales, respectively. Typical results from soil sample 1 of plant 1 are shown. Differences between Nipp and SUSIBA2-77 were statistically significant (one-way ANOVA, *P # 0.05 or **P # 0.01, error bars show s.d.). daf, days after flowering; DW, dry weight. From the Nature article.
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Phenotypic profiling of SUSIBA2 rice and Nipponbare (Nipp). a, Panicles (left), aboveground plants (middle) and roots (right). b, For SUSIBA2-77 we observed significantly increased dry weight of aboveground biomass and filled grains, increased number of filled grains, and significantly decreased root dry weight. Plant height, thousand-grain weight, number of panicles and tillers were not significantly altered in SUSIBA2-77. Four plants were used (n 5 4). c, For SUSIBA2-77 starch content in mature seeds, developing seeds and stems at 14 daf changed significantly, but did not change in leaves and roots. Three plants (n 5 3) were used. d, Starch granules from mature seeds. Scale bar, 10 mm. One-way ANOVA was used for statistical analysis (*P # 0.05 or **P # 0.01, error bars show s.d.). DW, dry weight; FW, fresh weight. Ibid.
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Model depicting high-starch low-methane-emission SUSIBA2 rice. Sugar-inducible HvSUSIBA2 expression generates a snowball effect that ultimately leads to a rice plant with enhanced starch accumulation in seeds and stems and decreased carbon allocation to roots, which reduces methanogenic growth and methane emissions. Red dots represent methanogens. Ibid.

July 24, 2015 - Alumna Julie Dillemuth Publishes Her First Picture Book

Back in November 2012, Alumna Julie Dillemuth (PhD 2008) wrote to say that she had left academia to become a full time mother and writer (see “Julie Dillemuth Finds Her Way as a Writer”). At the time, she stated: “Wouldn't it be neat to help promote spatial thinking in kids through fun, engaging books? Not straight-up educational books, but fiction stories with spatial themes and lots of spatial language.”

Julie went on to say, “So I started writing, and I discovered that I absolutely love writing for children. I do just the text (picture book publishers prefer to find their own illustrators), and while I'm working hard at my spatial goal, not all of my stories end up with a spatial theme. I also discovered how crazy hard it is to get published, and how no children's writer does this for the money. But I am determined, and I hope to publish my first picture book while my daughter can still appreciate it (she's 21 months, so I have several years)!” (source: email to the editor, 11/15/12).”

Fast forward 2 3/4 years: Julie just contacted UCSB Geography to say: “Well, I'm thrilled to tell you that my first picture book is coming out next month! It's called "Lucy in the City: A Story about Developing Spatial Thinking Skills," and the publisher is Magination Press. Check it out at the American Psychological Association’s Magination Press site and on Amazon. It's a fun story for 4-8 year olds about a raccoon who finds her way, and at the end there is an extensive Note to Parents, Caregivers, and Professionals that details what spatial thinking is and offers several activity and game ideas for building spatial skills with kids.”

Julie is planning a book launch party and signing sometime in the Fall. Kudos to Julie for such an outstanding feat, especially considering the fact that, according to one published author, only 0.03% of submitted manuscripts are accepted for publication - roughly one in every 10,000 - not to mention the fact that Julie is one of only 1.68% of the US population that has a PhD!

Editor's note: According to U.S. Census 2013 data, 1.68 percent of Americans over the age of 25 have a PhD. This equates to approximately 2.5 million people. People with professional degrees such as MD or DDS make up 1.48 percent of the U.S. population, making the total percent of Americans referred to as doctors equal to 3.16 percent.

Article by Bill Norrington

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Reading this book with your children will help them develop their own spatial thinking skills — how we think about and understand the world around us and use concepts of space for problem solving. Early exposure to spatial concepts can help foster this type of cognitive development in children and boost their math and science learning as they progress through school. Includes a Note to Parents, Caregivers, and Professionals with more information about spatial concepts, as well as questions, games, and activities designed to encourage children's spatial thinking skills (from the Magination Press blurb)
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Alumna Julie Dillemuth: Doctor of Philosophy, mother, and writer

July 24, 2015 - Leila Carvalho Discusses El Nino with Noozhawk Reporter

Strong rainfall could help drought-plagued Santa Barbara County and the rest of Southern California, UCSB and NOAA experts say. In a Noozhawk article published on July 22 titled “El Niño Could Bring Winter Storms and Much Needed Rain,” Staff Writer Lara Cooper goes on to elaborate:

Weather experts say that an El Niño condition forming in equatorial waters could mean significant rain for the parched Southern California region later this year. The phenomenon itself often leads to winter storms in the region and occurs when a warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean waters occurs with the weakening of the trade winds, according to Leila Carvalho, a geography professor and climate expert at UC Santa Barbara.

El Niños can cause detrimental effects, such as off the coast of Peru, where fishermen frequently suffer from warming waters that can kill off fish. Storms that result from the system can also cause weather events, like flooding and landslides. Carvalho said the waters off the Santa Barbara Coast have already been warming, even before the El Niño phenomenon was recorded this year. She referenced the sea lion deaths that are likely a result of food shortages due to warming waters.

Carvalho's research focuses on tropical climates and why extremes happen in those regions, and why and how precipitation occurs in regions like the Himalayas and the Andes. Extremes can also happen in Southern California, when "we get very few days with rain but really extreme precipitation," she said. "In Santa Barbara, when it rains, it pours."

Carvalho said that the storms are likely to happen later this year and "we should be prepared," she said. "The authorities should be prepared for the rain; even a minimum of rain can cause landslides." Carvalho said that though winter storms won't be a cure-all for the drought, it could help. Last weekend's storm that brought short bursts of rain and rare thunder and lightning to the region was a result of Hurricane Delores, which formed off of the Gulf of Mexico and weakened off the Baja Peninsula, said Stuart Seto, a weather specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. For showers to reach the valleys and coastal regions is unusual, he said.

Rainfall totals have been dismal since the beginning of the drought, with historic lows for Santa Barbara County and elsewhere in California. From July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2015, Santa Barbara received 37 inches of rain, and Santa Maria recorded 28 inches. Both are at about 50 percent of normal rainfall, which would have been 71 inches for Santa Barbara and 56 inches for Santa Maria, Seto said.

In the meantime, the chance of El Niño is continuing to strengthen around the equator, and the modeling indicates that the storms California could see this winter will be "moderate to strong," Seto said. If that trend continues, the region could see above-average rainfall this winter. "One above-normal rain year could make a big dent in the drought," he said. The strength of the system is still to be determined, however, and experts should have a better grasp on what to expect by August. "It looks like it has been increasing over this past week," he said.

Editor's note: Many thanks to Geography staffer Alex Feldwinn for bringing this material to our attention.

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Water rushes out of Goleta Slough and into the ocean at Goleta Beach in Feb. 2014 after winter storms brought much needed rain to the area. Experts say an El Niño could bring strong storms this winter if conditions are right (from the Noozhawk article; photo credit: Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)
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Associate Professor Leila Carvalho focuses on regional and large-scale climate variability and modeling, global climate change, and scaling processes in geophysics. Leila heads Geography’s Climate Variations and Change research group (CLIVAC) which is dedicated to furthering understanding of the Earth's present and future climates on different temporal and spatial scales by developing observational and modeling analyses in atmospheric sciences.

July 21, 2015 - A New Blue Marble

The following Whitehouse.gov article was written by Scott Kelly, a NASA astronaut currently spending a year on the International Space Station, and posted on July 20, 2015 with the title above:

No one on this planet had ever seen a whole picture of the Earth until 1972. We knew we lived on it, and had a vast amount of useful information about its makeup, its processes, and its place in the solar system. At the time, some of the most insightful individuals had begun to understand that we, the people who live on Earth, actually had the ability to influence the processes taking place on our planet.

But it was hard for many people to grasp this concept. It seemed abstract, distant, hard to visualize. Enter “Blue Marble.” It was the first full photo of the Earth, taken on December 7, 1972, by the American crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft. The original Blue Marble is thought by many to be the most-reproduced image of all time.

What made the Blue Marble so special? Sure, it might have been the first full photo of the Earth that we took, but we’ve taken a bunch more since then. So why is the “Blue Marble” a bigger deal than these? Turns out, it’s quite tricky to take a good photo of the entire Earth. The first challenge is that our planet is big. The only way to view all of it at once is to get much farther away from the Earth than we do for many of our activities in outer space. The International Space Station, for instance, orbits at a height of just 400 kilometers, or about 249 miles away from Earth.

The second problem is a familiar one that plagues many photographers who are Earthbound: lighting. In order to view the Earth as a fully illuminated globe, a person (or camera) must be situated in front of it, with the sun directly at his or her back. Not surprisingly, it can be difficult to arrange this specific lighting scheme for a camera-set up that’s orbiting in space at speeds approaching thousands of miles per hour. As a result of these challenges, NASA, NOAA, and other science agencies most often rely on composite images to depict our planet. These images stitch together multiple high-resolution snapshots taken by satellites already in orbit to produce one seamless portrait of the Earth.

Composite imaging is an extremely useful tool for helping people understand the Earth — they allow researchers to capture certain features at higher resolution; reduce the obscuring effect of cloud coverage in certain areas; and overlay various data layers to help identify patterns and trends. Composites can result in some truly remarkable images, like the “Black Marble,” which, by stitching together multiple views of the planet, shows a full global view of the Earth’s city lights.

But there’s something remarkable about a single snapshot of the Earth — an intact view of our planet in its entirety, hanging in space. Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan explained: “…you’re looking at the most beautiful star in the heavens — the most beautiful because it’s the one we understand and we know, it’s home, it’s people, family, love, life — and besides that it is beautiful. You can see from pole to pole and across oceans and continents and you can watch it turn and there’s no strings holding it up, and it’s moving in a blackness that is almost beyond conception.”

That’s why today, I am excited to see that NASA has released its new Blue Marble, the first of many more to come later this year. This Blue Marble is the first fully illuminated snapshot of the Earth captured by the DSCOVR satellite, a joint NASA, NOAA, and U.S. Air Force mission. After launching in February 2015, DSCOVR spent months rocketing away from Earth before reaching its final orbit position in June 2015 at Lagrange point 1 (L1), about one million miles away from Earth. (A Lagrange point, in case you were wondering, is “a position where the gravitational pull of two large masses precisely equals the centripetal force required for a small object to move with them.” For our purposes, that means that a Lagrange point is a spot at which a satellite can maintain a fixed position relative to the Earth.)

The DSCOVR mission serves several important purposes, including providing scientific data on heat and radiation fluxes across the Earth’s atmosphere, and maintaining the nation’s ability to provide timely alerts and forecasts for space weather events, which can disrupt telecommunications capabilities, power grids, GPS applications, and other systems vital to our daily lives and national and local economies.

And with its Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (which has an epic acronym. Seriously. It’s EPIC), DSCOVR will capture and transmit full images of the Earth every few hours! The information gathered by EPIC will help us examine a range of Earth properties, such as ozone and aerosol levels, cloud coverage, and vegetation density, supporting a number of climate science applications.

One of the best parts of this mission is that NASA will make all of the data, data products, and images collected by DSCOVR freely available to the public, including the new “Blue Marble” images. Later this year, you’ll be able to view and download new “Blue Marble” images taken by DSCOVR every day.

In addition to providing useful data to scientists and researchers, these images will remind all of us that we live on a planet, in a solar system, in a universe. And that we are not just Americans, but citizens of Earth.

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1972 Blue Marble, the first full photo of the Earth, taken on December 7, 1972, by the American crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft. From Scott Kelly’s article.
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2002: a later composite image produced by NASA. Ibid.
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2007: a more recent composite. Ibid.
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2012: Ibid.
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“Black Marble,” taken in 2012, was created by stitching together multiple views of the planet in order to show a full global view of the Earth’s city lights. Ibid.
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The new Blue Marble
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