What’s With the Weather Extremes?

Widespread reports of unusually severe weather persisted coast-to-coast and across much of the world throughout 2010, reconfirming for some the nonlinear impacts of a changing climate but also buttressing talking points for those inclined to be contrarian by, among other things, conflating short-term weather with long-term climate.

As fire and record heat shut down Moscow and killed tens of thousands, floods devastated Pakistan. The Arctic saw extremely warm temperatures, the Mid-Atlantic states in early 2010 recorded record snowfalls, and record heat in the oceans led to massive bleachings of coral. And, despite the cooling effects of La Niña and natural climate variability, 2010 tied with 1998 or 2005, as some experts prefer, for the warmest year on record.

Stories on extreme weather provide an opportunity for journalists to give context and deepen readers’ understanding of the kinds of severe weather events that are likely with climate change as levels of heat-trapping gases continue to rise. Since we’re approaching spring, all eyes will be on extreme flooding. In my home state of Minnesota, folks living near the Mississippi River are already on high alert. Almost half of the country will experience flooding this spring. A new story in the first issue of the journal Nature Climate Change explains that first-hand experience with extreme weather events increases concern about climate change and willingness to engage in energy-saving behaviors.

“We know that many people tend to see climate change as distant, affecting other people and places. However experiences of extreme weather events like flooding have the potential to change the way people view climate change, by making it more real and tangible, and ultimately resulting in greater intentions to act in sustainable ways,” psychologist Dr Alexa Spence, of The University of Nottingham, said in a statement.

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Rapid Response Team pairs climate scientists with media

Think of it as the climate scientists/journalists version of “eHarmony.” A volunteer website launched by scientists serves as a matchmaking venue for media outlets and government officials looking for input on climate science topics.

It’s a Friday morning and Scott Mandia is scanning the Climate Science Rapid Response Team e-mail inbox he shares with two other climate science match-makers.

Today, on Mandia’s watch, a message from a journalist arrives at 5:30 a.m. It’s the first of two or three media requests he’ll likely get this day. Mandia’s task now? Ask for a response from one of 135 scientists in his network most qualified to answer the question.

Mandia, a professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College, in New York, and his fellow Rapid Response founders, John Abraham, associate professor of thermodynamics at St. Thomas University, and Ray Weymann, a California-based retired astronomer and member of the National Academy of Sciences, take shifts. Each is a volunteer custodian of e-mail requests that flow in from their climate change match-making website connecting climate scientists with lawmakers and media outlets.

Launched in November 2010, the website tries to narrow the information gap between scientific understanding of climate change and what the public knows. Scientists involved with the group are screened and selected on an invitation-only basis. The experts come from a range of climate change science specialties, everything from climate modeling researchers and ecologists to economists and policy experts. Most are university faculty members or employees of government laboratories. It’s not a collection that most climate “contrarians” might be comfortable with.

The all-volunteer group promises to respond quickly to media requests to make sure science is portrayed accurately in the day’s news. They say turnaround time for requests is as fast as two hours for media operating on a short deadline.

“The scientists became members of our group because they understand that, as scientists, they have a responsibility to engage the public by engaging the media,” Mandia said in a phone interview. Mandia said he and his colleagues operate the service with no funding, and the website design was donated by Richard Hawkins, director of the Public Interest Research Centre in the United Kingdom.

Early on a Confusing Mix-up with AGU Media Project
Coincidentally, the Climate Science Rapid Response Team website debuted at the same time as the relaunch of the American Geophysical Unions’s Climate Q and A service, which has similarities with the Rapid Response Team but strictly limits questions to matters of science. Some confusion ensued when the Los Angeles Times erroneously reported a link between the AGU’s group and the Rapid Response volunteers, and AGU staff quickly initiated a damage-control effort in fear that some on Capitol Hill would find, based on the newspaper’s coverage, their effort overly politicized.

“When that (Los Angeles Times) story came out, it sounded like scientists were fighting back against politicians. We are not advocates about policy, but it made us look like we were the 98 pound weaklings getting sand kicked in their face,” said Mandia. But the bad press proved a boon to increase the numbers involved in the Rapid Response force.

“Scientists then realized they were being criticized unfairly and wanted to get involved,” said Mandia. The number of scientists involved with the Rapid Response Team quadrupled in number.

The AGU’s Q and A Service first formed to support media requests during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December 2009. It started again prior to the U.N. talks in Cancun. The Q and A service is open to anyone with a PhD degree willing to provide scientific expertise on a subject.

“AGU is not a partisan organization. We are here to make our science available so there is good information available to the media,” AGU Executive Director Chris McEntee said in a telephone interview.

About 700 scientists are registered with AGU’s service, which has provided answers to 68 media outlets. “We think it is important that policymakers, media, and the public get unbiased, nonpartisan information when making a decision,” said McEntee. “The service fits with our mission to promote scientific discovery for the benefit of humanity.”

Scientists Step Up
Mandia said scientists involved with his effort are usually tapped once or twice a month for media inquiries. No single person carries the burden of too many repeat requests because the group has selected a range of scientists, vetted for their expertise in various disciplines. The Rapid Response Team also has promised confidentiality of its scientists, who can remain anonymous if they wish. But Mandia said that, despite the offer, “none of them has ever requested anonymity.”

Andrew Dessler, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A & M University, is affiliated with both information services, but is more involved with the Climate Science Rapid Response Team. He was prompted into action because “dealing with climate change misinformation is difficult to do on your own,” Dessler wrote in an e-mail. “Effectively responding to the denial machine absolutely requires coordinated action by the climate science community. In this way, I think the CCRRT [sic] is a model of how scientists can effectively spend their limited resources on outreach.”

Dessler gives the Rapid Response service high marks, especially for institutionalizing the response process from scientists and distributing the communications workload. “You have to realize the asymmetry here. For [some] so-called skeptics, spreading misinformation is their full-time job. Scientists, on the other hand, already have a full-time job: research and teaching. Thus, we need to have mechanisms to level the playing field, and the CCRRT [sic] is one such mechanism,” said Dessler, adding that he encourages scientists to get involved in public outreach. “Because we are mainly funded by tax dollars, I think we have a responsibility to repay this by spreading the results of our research as far and wide as possible.”

A Goal of Precise Pairing
As of early February, more than 100 media organizations — newspaper, magazine, online media, television, and radio — and government officials have used the service to find climate scientists who could comment on a story. Mainstream media users have included The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), CNN International, and American Public Media’s “Marketplace,” among many others. Mandia said many of the media questions in December had to do with severe weather in the United States and in Northern Europe.

The Rapid Response website includes testimonials from such reporters as Ben Webster, of The Times in London: “I asked a difficult question about ice cores and was impressed by the efforts the team made to find the right people to respond. The response was balanced, stating clearly what was known but also the uncertainties.”

Eli Kintisch, a reporter for Science and author of Hack the Planet (Wiley, 2010), called on the service when he was looking for a scientist to serve as a color commentator of a live blog for Science he was producing during a House hearing. Facing time constraints, Kintisch relied on the matchmakers for the legwork of finding someone to fill this role.

“I have my own batch of sources on climate that I have used to comment on stories, and I have used ProfNet in the past occasionally. But I was looking for someone who had some experience with public engagement and would be available for two to four hours,” Kintisch said in a telephone interview. “The hearing was a review of the basics of climate science, and there were some prominent contrarians testifying, so I thought it would be useful to have someone available who knew the basics of climate science.”

While not all climate scientists feel comfortable engaging with the media, they are finding ways to get more involved in communications. Mandia said, “Some scientists are nervous about speaking to the press and worry they will be misquoted, but getting out of the ‘Ivory Tower’ is becoming very important.” [See complete story in The Yale Forum]

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Behavior Frontiers: Can Social Science Combat Climate Change?

Roughly 44 percent of Californians smoked tobacco in 1965. By 2010, 9.3 percent did—a shift that might have seemed impossible before it happened. Understanding exactly how such a social transformation occurred in the past may prove key to understanding how individuals might alter their behavior to help combat climate change in the future.

By studying past instances of social transformation, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) hope to predict future change in response to global warming as part of California’s Carbon Challenge—a study commissioned by the California Energy Commission to help the state cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels. LBNL energy technology scientist Jeffery Greenblatt and his colleagues are analyzing technology options as well as data records from 10 historical behavior changes—smoking cessation, seat belt use, vegetarianism, drunk driving, recycling and yoga, among others.

Scientists are removing some of the guesswork about how individuals will use energy in 2050 by looking at past campaigns to induce personal change and their effectiveness. See the complete article in Scientific American.

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Pew Center scientist Jay Gulledge tills communication and policy fields

Pew Climate Change Senior Scientist Jay Gulledge has mixed science and communicating since earning his Ph.D. in biological sciences 15 years ago.

On the research side, the biogeochemist has studied carbon cycling and the cycling fluxes of methane between ecosystems and the atmosphere, and he continues to work with colleagues in China on issues involving the country’s methane budget.

Before joining the Arlington, Va.-based Pew Center on Global Climate Change in 2005, Gulledge had taught at the University of Louisville and at Tulane University. Now much of his work involves helping scientists and scientific organizations improve their ability to make research accessible and meaningful to the public, says Gulledge, a self-described “pure-bred scientist” now actively tilling the communications and policy fields.

Gulledge spoke with me recently for an interview that appears in the Yale Forum. So what’s the big takeaway? My guess is that standards for data transparency will move into greater focus in the coming years. Gulledge says, “Industry professionals in fields like engineering have long ago set standards for how they archive their work and so on. That has not been a practice in the basic fields of science, such as earth sciences, because they are not closely tied to contract law. Now they need to start doing it because the need is becoming apparent. The point would be to protect earth scientists from unwarranted accusations of conflict of interest.”

You can read the complete interview here.

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Sea Glass Prized for Oddities, Bits of History, Chemistry

At low tide in a secluded cove on Narragansett Bay in Newport, Rhode Island, Suegray Fitzpatrick begins her quest. She beaches her kayak onto the sand, walks to the water’s edge, and pulls out a Ziploc baggie she hopes to fill with bits of rare blue or turquoise, but more likely white, green and brown.

Fitzpatrick is a sea glass collector and jewelry maker, who frequently explores the region’s little known rocky beaches for frosted glass shards nature has formed into precious gems. These glass bits sooner or later wind up as jewelry or decorative objects that she crafts in her Newport home.

The hobby of sea glass collecting is equal parts history, archeology, and chemistry, as I reported in Fortune Small Business. Collector Louise Rogers seeks uncommon colors such as orange and red, which are her Holy Grail. She also favors glass embossed with identifiable patterns or labels, such as the word “Hood” from the Charlestown, Mass., dairy’s milk bottles. All sea glass is becoming less common as more glass is recycled and plastic bottles become the norm.

While sea glass is widely available for purchase – a turquoise piece fetched more than $250 on eBay – Rogers prefers finding her own. Vacations to shoreline destinations feed her collection. A few years ago she traveled to Peaks Island in Maine’s Casco Bay, where she found a china doll’s arm. “My first body part!” she says.

So, why all the fuss over fragments? “People know that sea glass is becoming a rare commodity,” says Richard LaMotte, author of  Pure Sea Glass, a collectors’ guide. The colorful baubles are actually rubbish–glass shards that have been polished smooth by waves, sand, and stone.

I met LaMotte when I reported on the first meeting of the North America Sea Glass Association in Santa Cruz, California, for Coastal Living Magazine in 2006. I regularly found sea glass on my daily beach walks when I lived in Rhode Island, but noticed it was hard to come by in recent years. LaMotte explained that improved waste management practices as well as a marked increase in the use of plastic for drink containers was making sea glass more rare.

Cornelia Dean featured such sea glass collectors in the New York Times Science section recently. In her story about the 5th annual sea glass competition, she quoted LaMotte, who is dead against the rising practice of seeding beaches with broken glass:

If the association is firm against manufacturing sea glass, there is less agreement on “seeding” beaches with glass. Though some collectors already engage in the practice, Mr. LaMotte sees obvious safety and environmental problems with putting broken glass on the beach. Anyway, Ms. Lambert said, it might take 50 or 100 years for a piece of broken glass seeded on a beach to achieve the patina of sea glass. “Until then, it’s just trash.”

Two years ago I searched for sea glass on a trip to Eleuthera, Bahamas. Like Rogers, I was looking for a surprise. I expected to find one or two collectible bits of red, blue or aqua glass–formed by the unique properties of degradation due to a different salt content in those waters, from unusual polishing due to the pink sand beach, or from a different culture of waste disposal. What I found, instead, was a million little pieces of plastic–orange, blue, white, and red confetti from laundry soap bottles and other cartons. This was my surprise.

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Books I’ve Read in 2010

As a book reviewer for the Providence Journal from 2006-2009, my reading list expanded with books I didn’t manage to read during that time. The book review gig ended when I moved to the Washington, D.C. area. So, in 2010 I played catch-up. Here are the books I’ve read so far. What should I read in 2011?

January
Strength in What Remains
Tracy Kidder

Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Joan DIdion

A Moveable Feast
Ernest Hemingway

February
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot

Science as a Contact Sport
Stephen Schneider

Hack the Planet
Eli Kintisch (review copy)

March
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
David Wroblewski

Bobke
Bob Roll (reread)

April
Eat, Pray, Love
Elizabeth Gilbert

Julie and Julia
Julie Powell

May
The Namesake
Jhumpa Lahiri

June
Interpreter of Maladies
Jhumpa Lahiri

July
Pillars of Hercules
Paul Theroux

Dark Star Safari
Paul Theroux

Fresh Air Fiend
Paul Theroux

August
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
Ishmael Beah

What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Acheck Deng
Dave Eggers

September
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker
David Remnick (Ed.)
*Do not miss Travels in Georgia (Carol Ruckdeshel) by John McPhee. It’s brilliant.

The Control of Nature
John McPhee (reread)

October
The Help
Kathryn Stockett

Seasick
Alanna Mitchell

Smile
Raina Telgemeier

November
My Story As Told By Water
David James Duncan

The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mt. Everest
Conrad Anker and David Roberts

December

A stack of Stieg Larsson books sits on my table. Which one should I read first?

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Earth’s vitals signs go unmeasured

Satellites are eyes and ears for many professions, but their observations give scientists who study climate change the only means to precisely monitor Earth systems worldwide. The New York Times’ recent cover story on glaciers touched on this point. But satellites aren’t built to last forever. So when there’s a gap in observations, one scientist told me that “we basically close our eyes for awhile.”

NASA image: ICESat

The third and last laser on NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation ICESat (ICESat) quit working a year ago, outlasting its designed mission length by three and a half years. Problem is, its successor, ICESat II, won’t go aloft for several more years. The Times article failed to fully express problems scientists have when Earth’s vital signs go unmeasured, especially in the case of climate change. Last December I wrote an article for Scientific American that spells out how NASA’s fleet of Earth Observing System orbiters is on borrowed time due to a lack of planning and underfunding.

I talked with senior scientist Thorsten Markus, head of the Cyropheric Sciences Branch at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. He said, “It is critical that we continue those time-series observations. For climate change, the satellite provides the only means to truly monitor the Earth on a global basis. There is simply no other way.” When satellites “go dark,” they rob scientists of critical data needed for monitoring climate change and verifying international agreements, just as a critical mass of global players is agreeing that such agreements are essential to the future health of the world’s people and economies.

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Cap and trade: How big an issue?

The Republican election victory last week was fueled by a dramatic tangle of interests, but mostly economic ones. Still, in the days following the election, climate change took a starring role in several major newspapers’ reporting. My analysis shows the number of stories of climate in major dailies increased in the days after the election, with only spotty pre-election treatment and commentary. Once the magnitude of GOP gains sunk in, news articles emerged that highlighted growing climate skepticism and climate illiteracy among current and newly elected Republicans. What happened? Should media be held accountable? You can read the complete story and weigh-in on the subject in this week’s The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media.

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Artists can scream. Scientists can’t.

Of all the ways the media has tried to communicate the need to adapt to the consequences of climate change, two points stand out. One is adequately addressing the nuances of science. The other is how to make climate change adaptation and mitigation issues tangible to the public. Now, artists have begun to address both. And, increasingly, they are getting their inspiration from scientists and researchers.

My Yale Forum article, “Artists can scream…Scientists can’t,” was recently featured at the Institute for Sustainable Communities’ Climate Leadership Academy on Adaptation Resilience. The event drew 16 teams from cities around the country to learn about promising practices in climate adaptation at the urban scale. The intensive peer-learning workshop focused on ways to engage citizens more effectively on adaptation. My Yale Forum article explains how scientists realize that pie charts and graphs don’t tell the whole climate change story.


Last week at Boston University (my alma mater), scientists, filmmakers, artists, writers and cartoonists assembled to discuss the public perception of climate change, which is strongly influenced by the media and the arts. I’ve been writing about the public perception of climate change for over three years. I’m always looking for new examples of ways that visual media advances pubic understanding of climate change and its causes, and of the science-based solutions. If you see an art exhibit, cartoon, or film about climate change that’s based on science, share your ideas below. [That’s Simon Faithfull’s self-portrait in Antarctica, featured in “Ice Blink.”]

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With Federal, Global Regs at Standstill … Courts Become Front Line on Climate Change

Climate change litigation is in its infancy, but experts predict growth in number of battles fought within the legal system.

Seven years ago, the United States court system became involved with making decisions on climate change. Today, in the absence of federal legislation, courts more and more are expected to play a key role on greenhouse gas regulation and on issues arising from claims of liability linked to alleged climate-related damages.

An especially notable case arose in 2003 when the Bush administration’s Environmental Protection Agency determined it lacked authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions as pollutants. Massachusetts and 11 other states challenged that decision. The Supreme Court eventually heard the case, Mass. v. EPA, and in 2007 ruled in favor of the states (see Yale Forum article) .

The Supreme Court may address climate change again this term, potentially deciding whether climate cases can proceed as courts become front lines for the climate fight. [See Yale Forum for my complete article]

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