Have you ever heard of the Aral Sea in Central Asia? It used to be the fourth-largest lake in the world. Now it has almost completely dried up. In the 1960s it started shrinking when the lake's waters were diverted for irrigation. The satellite photos in this link show how the lake has changed, superimposed over the lake's original boundaries, from 2001 to 2014. Now there is no more fishing to support the local communities and salt and dust are blowing from the lakebed, ruining farmland and causing respiratory issues. Temperatures and climate are even getting more extreme.
Alright, time for some comedy with our science today. This clip from The Daily Show shows clips from a climate change protest in New York City, but what is most interesting is footage from last week of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology's meeting with Presidential Science Advisor John Holdren. It is very hard to believe that some of the representatives on this SCIENCE committee have little to no scientific background or knowledge, and do not believe in climate change. The questions they asked to John Holdren sound ridiculous for anyone that knows something about how science works, and it is heartening to hear Holdren say that the committee should trust evidence published in scientific papers instead of what some members of the public believe. Watch the clip for some good laughs, and maybe some insight on why the U.S. isn't able to move faster to combat climate change due to our dysfunctional government.
Over the next 15 years, it may only cost 5% more than new transit systems, power plants, and other infrastructure already in the works would cost in order to limit emissions contributing to climate change. If we consider the health savings and fuel savings we could have that are included in this, we may actually save money. Renewable energy costs have been sharply decreasing, and some communities are trying to limit urban sprawl, reduce traffic, and use land more efficiently. These things will have to be promoted to countries around the world. Fossil fuel subsidies will have to be eliminated. Can you believe that Venezuela, a major oil-producing country, sells gasoline for 6 cents per gallon?? It is so cheap that citizens do not care about saving fuel.
"If a concerted worldwide push were made to scale up ideas that have already proved successful, the commission found, emissions of heat-trapping gases could be reduced by billions of tons per year, and the chances of limiting global warming to tolerable levels would be greatly improved."
This article is one of those stories that is interesting to read in the author's words, and describes the discovery and final determination of a new species of wildflower on the California coast. What makes this story unique, however, is that there only exists one population of this plant in a farm field. I don't want to re-describe the human interactions in the story (you should read it!), but the discovery of the species, called Ornduff's Meadowfoam, was also very surprising because botanists had combed the state for meadowfoams with tetramerous stamens (stamens in multiples of four instead of the usual multiples of five) since the 1970s to see if there was anything similar to a rare meadowfoam from British Columbia. They had concluded “that this species could not have been overlooked, if, in fact, it grew in California.” Little did they know that a brand-new species of tetramerous meadowfoam would be found in a single farm field.
What else is amazing is that this field is plowed once a year, and the meadowfoam population hasn't decreased more than 10% since 1998, when it was discovered. Botanists recommended the same management be continued because the plant has persisted with this disturbance. The plants are not protected in any way. The landowner agreed to continue plowing at the same time every year.
A glowing patch of the Indian Ocean the size of Connecticut was not known to science until 2005, even though it has been seen by sailors and even mentioned in a novel. Scientists had ignored accounts of this glowing patch because they believed it would be impossible to have bacteria at such dense concentrations over such a large area. One scientist wanted to investigate this, however, and found the record from a ship that said it crossed the milky sea in 1995. The scientist looked for satellite images taken over the area the ship described during that night, and found that a large area off Africa appeared to be glowing for three nights around that time. Scientists believe the bacteria is Vibrio harveyi, but still do not know how they survive in such a dense congregation.
It is amazing that no one ever noticed this on satellite images before!
Photo credit: Steven Miller
You may have heard about the little issue that the United States has with Russia right now because of what they are doing in Ukraine. U.S. space shuttles stopped running in 2011, so although we still have American astronauts on the International Space Station, we have been paying Russia $60 million PER PERSON to transport our astronauts to and from the space station on their Soyuz space shuttle. In May, Russia said they would not give the U.S. access to the space station, starting in 2020, in retaliation for sanctions we had imposed on the Russians for occupying Ukraine.
Well, NASA decided not to let Russia stop Americans from reaching the space station. Today, they announced that they would make contracts with Boeing and SpaceX to transport American astronauts to and from the space shuttle by 2017. The contracts require that each company conducts a test flight with an astronaut on it to prove their spacecraft can reach and dock with the space station successfully. Then, each company will run two to six missions to the space station.
NASA says under this new partnership, they can now focus more of their resources on research to allow humans to land on Mars!
On the Seychelles Islands in the Indian Ocean, the Aldabra Banded Snail, which was thought to be extinct for the past seven years, was found by researchers. The terrestrial snails are quite pretty, with a spiral shell and pink and purple stripes. Scientists don't know how they originally got to these isolated islands. The snail was thought to be the first species in the world that went extinct from climate change (due to declining rainfall on the islands). Seven of them were found on a recent expedition.
At least right now in Michigan, the monarch butterflies are out and about, and I see one or more pretty much daily! This is very good news compared to last summer, where I only saw a few of them the entire summer, and I did not see any in September preparing for their flight to Mexico. In the past two weeks, every time I go to the horticulture annual gardens behind my building at Michigan State University, I am seeing monarchs nectaring from the butterfly bushes (they also love goldenrod). They are very intent on feeding right now so they can build up lipids to fuel their flight to Mexico. The adults I am seeing right now are what we call fresh, meaning they are very brightly colored and have perfect, complete wings with no rips because they are only a few days old. They just emerged from chrysalids that came from eggs from the last summer breeding generation. I can tell they are the migrating generation because they are concentrating so hard on feeding that I was able to pick the one up off the goldenrod pictured below without it even trying to escape! (Don't worry, if you know how to properly hold one, it won't hurt them because they have much thicker, sturdier wings than most butterflies so they can last that long migration!)
A newly eclosed (just came out of its chrysalis) male monarch feeding on goldenrod. Photo taken by me - please email me (stelzner at msu.edu) to get permission to use this image.
Listen to this great podcast from On Point for reasons why you should care about monarchs.
Also, I encourage you to participate in citizen science! If you are seeing adult monarchs where you are right now, submit your observations to Journey North (I started doing this myself this year). This includes if you see a single one flying around (adult observation), or if you see large numbers of monarchs flying or roosting in trees at night (peak migration and fall roost). Just click on "Sightings" and create an account.
You can also submit observations in the spring of the first milkweed plants, eggs, caterpillars, and adults. This organization tracks the timing and numbers of butterflies in the monarch migration each year, which is very important for understanding how their numbers are declining.
For those of you east of the Rockies (where you will see monarchs that migrate to Mexico), I wish you happy monarch sightings now if you are in the Upper Midwest or New England, and over the next month if you live further south!
See my past monarch posts here and here.
I feel very behind on my posts, but have a lot to share, so hopefully I'll be updating close to daily for a while! In the hills around Altamont Pass on the edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, a new type of wind turbine used for producing wind energy will be tested for at least a year. A county board unanimously approved a permit for Ogin Inc. because it plants to use a new turbine design that will hopefully be less lethal to birds and bats flying through the area. Altamont Pass is a very windy area that has had wind turbines for energy since the 1970s - in fact, it was one of the earliest wind farms in the U.S. and has the largest concentration of wind turbines in the world (4930 turbines). It produces about 125 megawatts of energy per year on average.
The traditional 3-blade wind turbines there have been shown to be very lethal to raptors, including the federally protected golden eagle, because they fly over the hills hunting ground squirrels and don't see the turbine blades spinning until it is too late. In the Altamont Pass, 4700 birds are killed annually. This makes this wind farm an ideal spot to test a new wind turbine design to reduce bird deaths.
The study of the shrouded wind turbines will examine effects on golden eagle, burrowing owl, American kestrel and red-tailed hawk. The shroud should be easier for birds to see, and also help prevent them from physically hitting the edge of the blades. Construction may have started this summer, and the project should be finished by 2015. Ogin will replace 73 of the traditional turbines with the shrouded turbines. Audubon California, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Defenders of Wildlife all support the project. If scientists find that the new turbines do reduce bird deaths, more shrouded turbines will be installed in the future.
I'm an ecologist in Michigan, but I'm interested in lots of other types of science, too. I'll share what I find interesting in this blog.