Just Talking About…A Walnut Eclipse

Walnut leaves taking a picture of the great 2017 eclipse--as only walnut leaves can do.  Photo by Jim Armstrong

Walnut leaves projecting an image of the great 2017 eclipse–as only walnut leaves can do. Photo by Jim Armstrong

August 25, 2017.  My wife took this picture last Monday in our back yard:  the naturally-occuring “pinhole camera” effect that happens when the partially-eclipsed sun shines through tiny spaces between the leaves.  For a moment, the ground was shining with crescents—a vivid reminder of our companionable star.  I was struck, reading the news of the event, by how many stories reported on the reactions of animals:  kangaroos at the Minnesota Zoo began grazing, as if twilight had begun; birds in the total eclipse zone went quiet; cows lay down in the fields.  And of course human animals stood watching in rapt awe; many of them had driven hundreds of miles to do so.

Which leads me to consider how different an eclipse is on Earth compared to lifeless places.  On the moon an eclipse is simply a passing shadow, knife-edged, and dark within its silent penumbra.  There is no atmosphere to scatter the light, no plants or animals to react to the changes.  The earth, being alive, is ever-reactive, a vast roiling membrane of kinetic impressions.  The spectacle of the shadow of the moon passing across the living face of the earth reveals how thirsty for meaning life can be—how eager it is to translate physics into beauty. – Jim

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Just Talking About…Harry Nelson and the Riffle Beetles

A riffle beetle - a creature that lives in its own bubble - of air, at a stream bottom.  Photo by Ed Engleman

A riffle beetle – a creature that lives in its own bubble – of air, at a stream bottom. Photo by Ed Engleman

August 15, 2017.  This past month I was in Chicago and had a chance to visit one of my favorite institutions, the Field Museum of Natural History.  I was especially eager to visit an exhibit entitled “Specimens,” a fascinating overview of the museum’s role in collecting, organizing and safeguarding over 30 million biological, geological, anthropological and zoological specimens.  The exhibit was designed to explain that, although fewer than 0.1 percent of these specimens are ever exhibited to the public, they play a vital role in the ongoing expansion of our scientific understanding of the natural world.

With this story, the exhibit did something unusual:  it foregrounded the lives of specimen collectors themselves—those who travel the world, often in difficult conditions, to identify and bring to the museum the bewildering variety of animals, plants, rocks and artifacts that are stored in its archives.  One collector in particular caught my attention: Harry G. Nelson, who spent his entire life collecting tiny dryopoid riffle beetles for the museum.  Five hundred and twenty-five thousand riffle beetle specimens, to be exact.

There was a full-size photo of Nelson in his lab—an elderly man with a silver beard and ponytail, wearing the Pendleton shirt and wide-wale, high-waisted corduroys of a field scientist.  Behind him was an enormous map of the Great Lakes region speckled with red paper dots; under his hands was a similar map.  In addition to the myriad of boxes and jars of dryopoid beetles, this was Nelson’s other great contribution to science:  bestickered wall maps.   Over the length of his career he visited more than 6,000 streams in the upper Midwest and Canada—making careful notes of water conditions and of the presence or absence of riffle beetles.  This care and detail would prove useful in ways he could not have predicted.

Harry Nelson at work, mapping riffle beetles across the Upper Midwest.  His data are used by the US EPA to diagnose the troubles facing streams.  Photo by the Chicago Museum of Natural History

Harry Nelson at work, mapping riffle beetles across the Upper Midwest. His data are used by the US EPA to diagnose the troubles facing streams. Photo by the Chicago Museum of Natural History

Riffle beetles are tiny beetles that live at the bottom of streams and feed on algae.  Unlike other water beetles, they do not surface to breath—they extract oxygen osmotically through an air bubble called a “plastron,” which they surround themselves with when they first enter the stream as adults and which they maintain all their lives as a kind of natural diving suit.  Because of their unusual method of respiration, riffle beetles can only live in cold, oxygen-rich, and clean water:  their presence or absence in a stream is therefore a good indicator of water quality.  The power of Nelson’s maps therefore goes beyond merely describing the population distribution of an obscure, tiny insect—they are benchmarks of stream health throughout a vast swath of the country.

I was deeply moved by the patient work of a man who, with unflagging zeal, waded through thousands of cold Midwestern brooks and streams and rivers—no doubt swatting mosquitoes and black flies as he wielded his net and collecting bottles.  When we think of science we often think of transformative figures like Darwin or Pasteur or Einstein—figures whose theories have changed the way we perceive the world.  But such scientific giants only exist because of the vast body of data collected, evaluated, and catalogued by foot soldiers like Nelson.  And whereas it is easy to see why it would be thrilling to be Darwin, we don’t perhaps quite appreciate why it would be important to be Nelson—or why it might be satisfying.

Nelson worked without knowing what good would come of his efforts.   He no doubt felt the pleasure and excitement of the process itself—the opportunity to spend his days in the field, clomping through the bush in hip waders, carefully searching the riffles of streams for a tiny beetle whose life he became so intimately entangled with.  But he also worked in the faith that the ongoing project of science was bigger than he was, something that had cumulative power.

People who cast doubt on science by and large have no idea of the actual work that goes into it—they don’t understand or appreciate the scale of this vast international human endeavor, or grasp the complexity of it.  They mostly cast their stones at a few salient results, which they disagree with for pecuniary or ideological reasons.   If they bothered to acquaint themselves with the massive accumulation of evidence those results are built on, or observe the patient, faithful labor of those who put that evidence in place, perhaps they would not so thoughtlessly seek to dismiss it. – Jim


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Just Talking About…The Illusion of Rural Character

Plenty of sparrow and grackle habitat, and a whole bunch of mowing at this suburban Twin Cities church.  Photo Kim Chapman

Plenty of sparrow and grackle habitat, and a whole bunch of mowing at this suburban Twin Cities church. Photo Kim Chapman

August 13, 2017.  A couple years before the housing market imploded, I was asked to design a residential neighborhood in a way that would protect one of the largest wildlife preserves in the Twin Cities region.  The development bumped up against the west side of Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area, home to one of biggest populations of a kind of turtle the US Fish and Wildlife Service was proposing as a threatened species.  The turtle is called Blanding’s—after Dr. William Blanding, a Philadelphia naturalist who first described it—and sports a surprising banana yellow blaze, worn like a gaudy cravat on its throat.  It’s also notable for living a very long time, at least a hundred years.  (I wrote about this in a March 19, 2016 essay.)

Carlos Avery is a haven for other species of turtles, the usual countless red-winged blackbirds, marsh wrens, yellowthroats and yellow warblers, exotic creatures like cranes, rails, and bitterns, and a host of other weird-voiced birds, not to mention the hordes of frogs and toads with their deafening spring din, and the numberless dragonflies, damselflies, butterflies, bees and other insects.  It is a place full of life, all oriented to the water and marshland there.

The developer owned a few hundred acres right next door.  Because it’s private property and there’s no law stopping you from putting a house at the edge of a nature preserve, the developer had every right to build a subdivision there.  My mission was to help him build it in a way that didn’t intrude on the life of the nature preserve.  Among other issues were septic systems to treat household waste—did each house get one, or should we install a community system that used natural processes to clean the waste to drinking water standards?  We also needed to deal with the rain falling on roads, parking lots, and rooftops, which pours off those hard surfaces at a ferocious rate, destroying downhill streams and ponds by eroding their banks and loading them with nutrients that algae use to build their numbers up to distasteful levels.

In our business, applied ecology and ecological design, it’s always tough, it’s always painful to participate in the willful destruction of the natural world that development precipitates, but much worse is to stand by and watch as somebody with a different sensibility unleashes worse damage on the land, water and life of a place.  So I said yes.

We did a pretty good job.  By grouping the homes on smaller lots, narrowing and shortening streets, and eliminating stormwater drains, we kept the homes six hundred feet from the refuge, gave everybody open space in front and behind, and brought the wastewater to one facility that released clean water into a created wetland.  This saved all sorts of money because we didn’t have to clear so many trees or scrape and shape the land, didn’t have to install storm sewers—except at a couple road-crossings—or build long roads.  We had a plan to restore the ecological health of the oak woods and wetlands, and the developer and home-owners would pay for it.  Frontage of all lots on open space would bump property values by 5-10 percent, generating more property tax revenue, and the attractive, wooded setting would guarantee quick sales.  We were pretty pleased with ourselves.

City staff was skeptical because this hadn’t been done this before, but also encouraged us because they’d heard of this development style and were curious.  They had an escape-hatch provision in city ordinances we could use.  It allowed “planned unit development”—a flexible way to mix and match development strategies on unique properties to do something besides the usual cookie-cutter road and lot layout.

We ran into a bit of a headwind with somebody at the planning commission, but for the most part they liked what they saw.  So far so good.  We were then summoned to a special meeting just before our city council presentation.  At that meeting the city’s lawyer raised several last-minute issues, the most important of which was that it would set a precedent (but wasn’t that the point?).  The lawyer said if the city allowed the development, the city could be sued by someone wanting to do the same thing, but at a lower level of competence and performance.  It started to dawn on me that somebody in city council, and maybe the lawyer, too, just didn’t like our development.  Sure enough, at the council meeting our proposal went down in flames.  One board member said, “We are known here for our rural character.  That’s what we want to preserve.  We don’t want houses blocking our view of the distance.  One home on one acre—that’s what we’re known for.”  And that was that.

Brand new hacienda, complete with barn, and nobody nearby--the perfect exurban homestead.  Photo Kim Chapman

Brand new hacienda, complete with barn, and nobody nearby–the perfect exurban homestead. Photo Kim Chapman

The idea that the rural environment is preserved with big lots makes no sense on so many fronts.  Let’s start with the ecological reasons.  The scientific literature is chock full of papers on the ill-conceived wisdom of “exurban development”—the most common style of development in America.  Anything from half an acre to a few dozen acres is exurban development.  This type of expansion spreads the damage we cause when expanding our living space to a much larger area than necessary.  Every house at city’s edge, in the country, north woods, or near-wilderness—every house carries with it a burden of harms to the natural world.  There are cats that roam the surrounding woods and fields gobbling up the food base of small mammals and birds.  There are the plants brought in to ornament the house, which often spread from there and overcome the larger variety of plants in nearby natural areas.  Then there’s the noise and visual disturbance of lawnmowers, bicycles, and off road vehicles, and the comings and goings of cars and delivery vans and garbage trucks.  And there’s the fact that, if you put a house in the forest, you open the forest to predatory crows, grackles, raccoons, and cowbirds—these last are sneaky parasites of songbird nests who, through evolutionary guile, have figured out how to get another species to take care of their young after laying an egg among those of the unwitting surrogate parent.  I should toss in the problems that exurban homes pose to crews trying to put out wildfires—people risking their lives and dying to protect a house in environments prone to wildfire—which is a lot of North America.

If you’re not in a firest—in grassland or savanna—cats wipe out the ground and shrub nesting birds and eat up the small mammals that hawks and owls depend on.  (Dogs have similar effects, but not as severe as cats who hunt for hours to entertain themselves.)  If you fill your grassland lot with trees, the grassland species shrink away from your new habitat.  I once studied a grassland in the north Twin Cities metro and was astounded to find no grassland or shrub-nesting birds.  Chatting with a landowner I asked, do you have cats?  He said, no, but pointed out a barn with eight cats, another with eighteen, and mentioned a neighbor who kept four cats outdoors most of the time.

Exurbia marching one 3-acre lot at a time into rural lands of the Twin Cities metro.  Photo Kim Chapman

Exurbia marching one 3-acre lot at a time into rural lands of the Twin Cities metro. Photo Kim Chapman

In the southwest metro, where I work, I’ve watched exurban development creep towards us, one big lot at a time, unfurling bluegrass and fescue lawns over vast areas with an army of rider-mowers tending them.  Over that same time I’ve seen more house sparrows.  If you pay attention in movies and radio interviews placed outdoors in cities, you always hear house sparrows cheeping in the background—they’ve been spread around the globe by people.  As their favorite habitat of grass and buildings expands, they make forays into naturally vegetated areas looking for more.  Luckily, the predators at my place are still too much for them and they disappear shortly after arriving.  As development continues, though, the sea of new lawns hereabouts will produce such a bounty of house sparrows, they will overwhelm not just their predators, but other species that use the nooks and crannies of the neighborhood—bluebirds, tree swallows, house wrens and phoebes.  (These species return every year to our property to raise a new generation of themselves, but their days are numbered, I fear.)

So exurban development unleashes a tidal force of human ecological effects, and those of our hangers-on like house cats and house sparrows.  This happens not just on a one-sixth acre lot typical of cities (where I live), but over many acres of land.  Some of these influences, called “edge effects”, penetrate thousands of feet into natural lands, shrinking what’s called the “interior habitat.”  The fragmentation of the planet’s natural fabric is one of the big causes of local extinctions landscape ecologists have studied for some decades now.  Eventually critters that need interior habitat have nowhere to go because everything is edge.  The sixth great mass extinction of species, happening now, is in no small measure due to habitat fragmentation and pervasive edge effects over the entire globe.

We can’t forget to mention the pocketbook issue of whether property taxes from homes on one, five, or ten acre lots pay for all the services that must be provided at a lower density than at city lot densities.  An analogy would be helpful here.  If you built an expressway in the country and made the adjacent farmers pay for it, each would owe nearly a million dollars because four-lane expressways cost around $5 million a mile to build.  Same problem with local services and dispersed homes.  Take a square mile, 640 acres, divide it into ten acre lots with a house on each, and you’ve got 64 families paying for the several miles of roads needed to serve them.  Of course, those families don’t pay full freight because the rest of us chip in, based on the idea we will use those roads, too, when we visit our friends in exurbia.

I don’t know if people who own property where one acre lots are the norm pay more to support the roads than people in more densely settled places, but I suspect they would without the rest of the region’s subsidy.  To keep property taxes down municipalities deliver fewer services.  It’s an interesting catch-22.  Aside from roads, fire, and police, living in exurbia doesn’t buy the services some people like—cultural venues, community events, recreation facilities.  If your life revolves around family, school, and church, and you like organizing your neighbors to do things—that’s just fine.  Communities get out from under some of the economic burden of exurbia by making homeowners install their own septic system and water well, and the power, cable and telephone companies make sure they charge what they must to make operations profitable.

Lastly, there’s the energy and pollution footprint.  Yes, it’s only one house, but if you have somebody mowing a one acre lawn once a week from June through October, there’s a lot of carbon dioxide going up and a lot of noise spreading sideways across the countryside.  There’s also the fertilizer that lawns need two or three times a year, some of which makes its way into the streams and wetlands nearby.

It doesn’t take much thought to see that compact development like the one we proposed serve so many more people at lower cost, with less environmental damage, than houses sprinkled over the countryside.

It makes no sense to preserve rural character this way.  Yet the idea persists because Americans only poorly understand economics and ecology.  The former is about managing our household—keeping a balanced ledger of our society’s workings—and the latter the study of our home—how the blue-green orb that sustains all life actually operates.  Those two realms we understand not well enough, yet they are the essential operating controls for this little bubble we call civilization. – Kim

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Just Talking About…The March For Science, Part 2

Minnesota's refurbished capitol, with lots of people petitioning the government for redress of grievances.  Photo Kim Chapman

Minnesota’s refurbished capitol, with lots of people petitioning the government for redress of grievances. Photo Kim Chapman

August 5, 2017.  It seems eons ago that I and ten thousand others walked from the St. Paul Cathedral to our state’s capital in St. Paul.  It was Earth Day, 2017, and a massive slice of the Twin Cities elite hell-bent for leather on the destruction of our society (to hear it told by right-wing talk radio hosts), decided to go against their personality type and let it be known that they were on a March for Science.

I don’t know how many of them there that day had been in a protest march before, but if they were like me, the answer would be few, if any.  Protest march is a little strong.  It was after all, a march for something, not against something.  Although as we walked down Summit Avenue to the gathering place at the cathedral, a jovial Fortune 500 type striding in jaunty, manly fashion down his mansion walk, with his voluminous family in tow, shouted to use from his front steps—“Down with science!”  Of course, we all laughed, knowing he was making a joke.  But at the same time, how did he know?  How did he know that we highly educated few had become an easy object of scorn by a substantial segment of the voting public?  Perhaps gut instinct led him to that knowledge, as with all good executives governed by their abdominal workings.

In any case, we were there to support, not offend, and one sign I think summed it up:  “When the introverts are marching, you know there’s a problem.”  My other favorite sign was, as befitting a bunch of nerdy people gathered in one place to extol their nerdiness, “This march would have been twice as big, but the control group had to stay home.”

Yes, there were the caricatures of President Trump as the enemy of reason, a climate denier, and statements like, “You can’t have opinions about facts.”  My liberal friends surrounding me pulled all the little shibboleths and stock phrases out of their kit bag to expose the foolishness of the anti-science crowd.  It was all there on display to either warm the cockles of your heart, or make you shake your head.

For me, though, I’d never been at such a thing before.  Not being an easy joiner type of person, I much preferring to be swayed by craft of argument and weight of evidence than the emotion of the moment.  All the same, an indescribable feeling kept dogging me—there above were the immaculate cirrus clouds presaging summer, the deep blue of a northern sky, the occasional puff of warm air on my face, the heads and backs of thousands spread out in a multicolored river before me, and the white dome in the distance.  The capitol, seat of our self-governance where the hopes that we, the people, have for our children, through force of political will and fairly enacted laws, will eventually become reality. – Kim

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Just Talking About…The March For Science, Part 1

The iconic Blue Marble shot of North America by Norman Kuring, courtesy of NASA and its Suomi satellite.

An iconic Blue Marble shot of North America by Norman Kuring, 2012, courtesy of NASA and its Suomi satellite.  The original Blue Marble shot was first taken in 1972 by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft.

[I wrote this a month after Earth Day, 2017, forgot I’d written it, and wrote another essay on the same topic, which follows this one.  The first is an essay, the next seems more like a poem.  Interesting, the way time shifts perspective.]

May 22, 2017.  A month ago on Earth Day, I gathered with about ten thousand other people in front of the St. Paul Cathedral and marched a mile to the state capitol.  It was the March for Science and the first time I’d publicly made my political opinion known.  Well…there were those commentaries for the Star Tribune, one on how to control zebra mussel spread with a lake quarantine program, and the other against a third ring road at the fringes of the Twin Cities suburbs which would not relieve congestion but only promote sprawl.  In both I amassed facts, made a compelling case (I thought, anyway), left the job of politicking to politicians, and stayed true to my dispassionate calling as a scientist.  Our reputation depends on not holding an unassailable point of view on a research question, but rather weighing the evidence and drawing a reasoned conclusion which the majority of one’s peers would accept as consistent with the facts.  That is the way of science.  (Ah, but…scientists have a point of view on lots of things, you say.  The difference between them and non-scientists who write about science, is that scientists are trained to draw conclusions separate from their personal opinions, and to bow to the reasoned opinion of their peers who severely critique their work.  It’s ok to hold an opinion about a theory–that’s called a hypothesis–but as a scientist you’d better be ready to change your opinion if facts don’t support it.)

The March for Science on Earth Day, 2017, brought out millions of scientists around the country who have cultivated a habit of making reasoned judgments based on facts and subject to the critique of other scientists.  At this moment in our nation’s unfolding story, though, it seemed important to these millions to draw attention to something.  One sign at the event summed things up nicely.  “When the introverts are marching, something is wrong.”  That’s the truth.  Those people crowding around me, wearing t-shirts with “e=mc2” or the face of Bill Nigh the science guy, or Einstein, and carrying signs that a scientist would find amusing, like—“Empiricism now!”—these people would like nothing better than to stay in their laboratories, or walk their field plots, or take their lake sediment cores, and measure their atmospheric gas levels using a weather balloon—they’d like nothing better than to do these things, publish their papers, go to conferences, and be left alone.  At this moment, though, they all sense something seismic had shifted in the cultural landscape, and that’s why they were here.

Scientists and friends gathered at the Cathedral of St. Paul, April 22, 2017.  State capitol in the distance.  Photo Kim Chapman

Scientists and friends gathered at the Cathedral of St. Paul, April 22, 2017. State capitol in the distance. Photo Kim Chapman

What was that shift that they sensed which drew them into the sunshine of a beautiful spring morning with fellow eggheads and science geeks?  Maybe it started in the 1990s when science got caught up in the culture wars, a time when conservative think tanks and far right talk shows were changing the landscape of public discourse.  What the marchers all around me sensed happening was that a determined group of people were trying to erode the faith that people put in scientists to tell the truth, or as much truth as can be told given the world’s complexity and our meager capacity to see, hear, and understand how it all works.  Those culture wars, as many have pointed out, had their roots in opposition to the secularization and liberalization of our society, made visible in periodic skirmishes over tenets of Christianity as practiced by certain groups, and the scientific method.  The Scopes monkey trial of 1925, for example, pitting godless Darwinism against the Bible’s seven day creation, is a classic case.

Let’s just say that this long-running altercation goes back centuries, and in our country, most obviously to 1909 when fundamentalist preachers and businessmen made their case for Christianity and against Darwinism in “The Fundamentals:  A Testimony to the Truth”.  Flash forward to the 1960s and ’70s and the enactment of laws that used scientific information to address urgent environmental issues.  Those laws made rivers and lakes clean enough to swim and fish in; established sulfur dioxide emissions trading which eliminated smog that hurt the elderly, children and asthmatics; protected drinking water from dumped industrial chemicals; eliminated lead in gas and paint which effectively raised the IQs of urban children by several points; prompted an international ban on the chlorofluorocarbons damaging the ozone layer—a natural shield against cancer-causing solar radiation…I could go on, but you’d be happier if I didn’t.

Those actions affected business people who, already in the 1960s, had set their gun sights on what they believed was stultifying their earnings—high corporate income tax, personal income tax on high earners, laws favoring unions and opposing monopolies, restraints on international trade, and restraints on ingenious financial arrangements.  To this laundry list of economic burdens was added “over-regulation”.  Emboldened by the triumph in 1991 of a capitalist economic model over the Soviet’s extreme and incompetent socialist model, they mounted a full-court press in the 1990s and have pressed on vigorously to this day.  Businessmen paid scientists willing to skew or selectively use data, and supported outspoken individuals who were only too happy to bring worthy environmental laws under the umbrella of over-reach and over-regulation by a government intent on constraining liberty.

Once those elements were bound together and that story told over and over, a small but measurable part of the voting public saw scientists as biased with an agenda opposed to liberty, if not socialist in its intent.  (Despite the galvanization of opposition to science, the majority of Americans still view scientists as mostly acting in the public interest.)

Most Americans still believe scientists mostly act in the public interest, but a solidifying group of voters and the people they elect increasingly do not.  Pew Research Center poll, April 2017.

Most Americans still believe scientists mostly act in the public interest, but a solidifying group of voters and the people they elect increasingly do not. Pew Research Center poll, April 2017.

Calls for climate change action only made it worse.  Most of the oil and gas industry, and companies dependent on fossil fuels but unable to see a path forward to other energy sources, opposed investment in alternative ways to power America’s industries, electrical grid, and transportation network, and any move away from fossil fuels.  Conservative think tanks, conservative talk show hosts, and certain chambers of commerce carried the banner.  Despite the sometimes distant effects of climate change (it will be a few decades before sea level rise combined with storms bankrupts the insurance industry), it is not a bad thing to shift to renewables.  After all, they represent cutting edge technology, their future aims toward cheap and low-polluting energy production, and they will eliminate entanglements with oil-producing countries opposed to an open, democratic society, like Russia, Venezuela, and most Middle East nations.

One telling example of how science is made suspect for millions occurred in a Rush Limbaugh session where Rush questioned NASA research about a former ocean on Mars.  Evidence for water on Mars, including once vast amounts of surface water, is pretty convincing.  There remains on Mars enough frozen water to cover the planet.  Rush’s incisive rebuttal to the claim of a lost ocean was, “How do they know that!?”  He accused NASA of falsely alarming us by saying runaway climate change will eliminate water on Earth as it did on Mars.  He went on…“They’re just making up the amount of ice in the North and South Poles, they’re making up the temperatures, they’re lying and making up false charts and so forth. So what’s to stop them from making up something that happened on Mars that will help advance their left-wing agenda on this planet?”  Yes, the question is still open as to whether the hypothesis of a Mars ocean is irrefutably true, which is what separates science from belief or bluster dedicated to a single truth.  Given the weight of evidence, though, it’s reasonable to assume there was an ocean on Mars, but you’d have to read the evidence yourself to know for certain.  On the other hand, all Rush has to do to convince his millions of listeners—and everyone continuing the conversation at kitchen tables, Main Street cafés, churches and social gatherings—is to say “How do they know that!?” and all is suspect.  He and his like, including past and present authoritarian regimes, know that repeating a falsehood thousands of times can shift public opinion.

One event in particular is a textbook example of how the impartiality of the scientific process and motives of scientists are called into question.  In what some call Climategate, a hacker stole emails from the University of East Anglia, a climate change research center.  The head researcher there, Phil Jones, was trying to combine a graph of tree growth rates with temperature measured by thermometers.  Tree growth data and temperatures are correlated—warmer temperature produces wider annual growth rings because the growing season is longer and trees can lay down more cells in that period, thickening the annual growth rings.  Cooler periods produce narrower annual growth rings.  From 1880 to 1960, tree ring width largely followed temperature swings.  Since 1960, however, tree growth has slowed while temperatures have gone up.  Scientists in the field all know this—it is no secret (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divergence_problem).  Going farther back, historical tree ring data matches other temperature indicators, like ice cores, quite well, and so it is a reasonable proxy for prehistoric and modern temperatures—until 1960.

In one of the hacked emails, Phil Jones told a colleague how he was going to present in a graph the recent divergence between measured temperatures and tree ring data.  If you want to read this yourself, go to https://www.skepticalscience.com/Mikes-Nature-trick-hide-the-decline.htm.  In once sentence he said he’d use a statistical “trick”—not a trick at all, just his colloquial expression for a statistical tactic—which ended in the phrase “to hide the decline,” meaning the decline in tree growth rates.  Recipients of the hacked emails revised the sentence to show nefarious intent: “a trick to hide the temperature decline”.  Those words were not what the email said, but they were picked up verbatim and spread widely.  The scientists were found blameless in subsequent investigations in the United States and Britain (see the Wikipedia entry on this, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climatic_Research_Unit_email_controversy).

Screenshot of a climate change skeptic's website--with links to topics fanning the flames of false controversy.

Screenshot of a climate change skeptic’s website–with links to topics fanning the flames of false controversy.

For many, however, this was the smoking gun which proved that climate change was a hoax concocted by scientists intent on chaining American industry and its people to a poverty-stricken and limited future.  Nobody need look at evidence, nobody need balance the evidence and reach their own conclusion.  Climate change skeptics found the evidence, disseminated it widely, and for many it is now indisputable.  Some of my relatives cite this moment to reject the entire concept of climate change.  For them Climategate is a foundational truth propping up other evidence they’ve gathered from Internet sources, many supported by some in the fossil fuel industry and by conservative funders.  That version of climate science seeks to refute the evidence that rising atmospheric carbon dioxide is paired with increases in temperature and water vapor, which is linked to certain unfortunate weather events around the globe, and that people are in part responsible and will experience economic and emotional harm that will increase over time.

The problem is that few have the time, patience or background to understand what really happened.  The science has advanced to a point where ordinary people cannot engage with it.  Just reading the Wikipedia entry about“Water on Mars” would take an ordinary person an hour.  More urgently, there’s so much technical background you’d have to accumulate over a lifetime to grasp most of the concepts, it is just hard to understand.  This is a problem for our society.  The cultural-economic-techno bubble we’ve created to insulate ourselves against the ups-and-downs of the natural world is now so complicated that it takes a legion of experts to understand, operate and maintain it.  Think of the economic system we’ve created—it’s no longer Joe trading Jane one sheep for two bags of wheat, like in the Settlers of Catan.  It’s now about derivatives and futures and mortgage-backed securities and annuities and hundreds of other financial instruments, as they are called, to make and grow money.  Medicine is becoming more complicated as we dig into the cellular, molecular, and genetic basis of biological function, and manipulate the body at the level of atoms, using tiny robots we create from atoms.  We plow our fields and apply our fertilizers and pesticides using lasers, GPS systems, and computers.  Hardly anybody can work on a car anymore—you can change tires, brake pads, oil and filters, but that’s about it.

Science is where our life-supporting technology starts.  Science is the demon and savior at the same time.  I suspect this is what my fellow Americans are unconsciously reacting to.  No one person can understand it anymore.  Leonardo da Vinci may have been the last to master all the sciences.  The lay people who practiced science regularly lived in the 1700s, holding science parties on a Saturday night, playing with nitrous oxide which dentists now give you to relax.  Fun was had with the repelling power of magnets, in extinguishing candles by pumping the air from glass bell jars, or with any number of interesting experiments done in the home.  I was just at an exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts—an 18th century Science Salon could have taken place in the room where we stood.  It looked so quaint, the various mechanisms and objects of science in an ordinary sitting room of the day.  Imagine people like you and me doing science experiments at home on a Sunday afternoon, entertaining ourselves and guests.  The closest thing to that now is the High School science fair with volcanoes made of vinegar and baking soda—no longer an award-winner , with top honors instead going to statistical tests of product performance or experiments with light refraction and wavelength detection.

On an emotional level, we have 95 percent of the country’s population who are not science people being bounced around inside this cultural-economic-techno bubble we’ve created and hardly understanding anything about it.  “Why am I getting jerked around all the time?” they ask their neighbors.  And then you have someone tell them that regulations scientists spawn with their so-called research findings are in fact in service of socialism, or crushing America’s entrepreneurial spirit, or just born of a gleeful petulance to control the world—you come to believe science is a humbug, to corrupt a phrase from Ebenezer Scrooge.

Now we have the science wars come to a head with the election in 2010 of an anti-science group in Congress and then an anti-science president in 2016 (or perhaps these groups are anti-science to the extent it benefits them politically).  Ergo…the Science March.  This and all the rest I touched on here is the seismic shift scientists sense has occurred, and they decided to march.

I’m walking on this beautiful spring morning with ten thousand of my fellow Americans, making a point.  What is that point we’re making?  I suppose it’s to tell those in power there are a lot of us out here who’d like the facts to speak for themselves.  Feel free to disregard those facts, but tell it like it is—we disregard them because we can’t afford to pay attention to them right now.  I can accept that.  Tell us that we’d rather reduce corporate taxes and expand the military because we want our economic part of the bubble propelled forward by large corporations and the military-industrial complex, because we understand how to do that.  That’s a political decision.  To urge the case that science itself is suspect, and that scientists themselves are in service of their own nefarious ends…that is ridiculous.  I marched to reassure myself that there are people out there thinking about science as I do, a source of enlightenment and a way to uncover the mysteries of the universe, and in some ways, discover the mind of God, or whatever you hold as the greater power behind it all.  – Kim

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Just Talking About…How Something Good for Coal Miners is Bad for Coal Miners

For miners, so much depends on how we think about and use this rock.  Photo Pavlo Fox 2014

For coal miners, so much depends on how we think about and use this black rock. Photo Pavlo Fox 2014

July 1, 2017.  Among the many dramatic yet predictable executive orders in the first several weeks of the Trump Administration was this one:  allow coal companies to again sidestep the intent of the 1972 Clean Water Act and let acid water from coal mining continue to damage Appalachian streams.  Something intended to help the miners—the return of jobs to an industry suffering from a long downturn—will not come to pass and, tragically, the executive order will only bring more sorrow to the mining towns of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

How is this possible?  We have to reach back into the history of coal mining to understand.  It used to be mainly an underground operation—vertical shafts going down to reach the coal seams, and horizontal shafts following the seams wherever they might lead until it was no longer economical to dig that seam.  In the 1960s coal companies also began removing the tops of mountains that had coal in them using massive earth-moving equipment, piling the mountaintops in nearby stream valleys, and digging the coal out with a front-end loader the size of a small house.  This reduced costs because you needed fewer coal miners, making it more profitable to mine coal.  Meanwhile, in mines still underground, mining continued its march toward greater efficiency through mechanization, and also dumped its rock spoil in valleys.

Big machines make mining safer and more efficient, but you don't need as many miners--50,000 are working today, down from a peak of 860,000 in 1920.  Photo Peabody Energy Inc. 2015

Big machines make mining safer and more efficient, but you don’t need as many miners–50,000 are working today, down from a peak of 860,000 in 1920. Photo Peabody Energy Inc. 2015

Aside from the wholesale removal of mountaintops, which, as you can imagine has a few unattractive aspects, the rock around many coal seams is laced with pyrite, a sulfur-bearing rock.  When rain hits that rock, the pyrite transforms the rain from a neutral liquid, like tap water, to an acid able to damage living tissue.  This shouldn’t be a surprise since we all were cautioned about sulfuric acid in our high school chemistry class.  Underground mining has its own drawbacks, too—undermining foundations and affecting water flow in streams.  Both mountaintop and underground mining can damage streams by making them acid with the rock rubble they place in valleys.

You can see the effect of stream acidification on aerial photographs from the mining districts.  Orange streaks in valleys are acidified streams.  There aren’t too many species on the planet that can survive in acid water…bacteria like those in Yellowstone’s hot springs, maybe…but no snails, no clams, no dragonfly or mayfly larvae, few if any fish—none of that.  All those things disappear and you are left with a largely lifeless orange slash on the landscape.  The orange coating on stream bottoms and banks is a side effect, when iron dissolved in a stream coalesces, settles, and attaches to stream banks and rocks.  Bottom-dwelling insects, the base of stream food chains, can’t tolerate the conditions.  Having such a stream in one’s backyard can’t be a good thing.

Orange-tinted Shamokin Creek, Pennsylvania.  Upstream mining acidified the water, causing dissolved iron to coalesce and coat the rocks and stream bottom.  Photo   Jake C 2014.

Orange-tinted Shamokin Creek, Pennsylvania. Upstream mining acidified the water, causing dissolved iron to coalesce and coat the rocks and stream bottom. Photo Jake C 2014.

Since its inception the Environmental Protection Agency, as part of its charge to enforce the Clean Water Act, has developed rules to explain how the law was going apply to specific situations, like mining.  These rules would direct mining companies, for instance, to stop dumping acid-creating rock rubble into streams and to prevent acid runoff leaching into them.  To do that one has to build a containment pond, or tailings basin, and treat the water to reduce its acidity.  Of course the mining companies hated that because it cost money, and mining, like landfills and any industry done in bulk, deals in profits of pennies per ton.  Many, many tons must be sold to pay for a tailings basin that won’t acidify a stream.

Despite having the legal authority to do so, the Environmental Protection Agency never got around to finalizing the rules until the Obama administration, and did so in the last moments of his second term.  One of the Trump administration’s first acts was to retract that EPA rule so coal companies could continue to pile acidic rock in streams or discharge acid water directly into them.

A mountaintop coal mine near Rawl, West Virginia.  Photo Kent Kessinger 2006

A mountaintop coal mine near Rawl, West Virginia. Photo Kent Kessinger 2006

The damage to the environment is, yes, something to be upset about, but what seems more tragic to me is the human drama playing out.   Some coal miners must suspect that allowing coal companies to acidify streams in their own back yards won’t bring the jobs back.  But for the moment that straw of eliminating regulations is the only thing within their grasp.  They know that coal is up against stiff competition from other ways of getting energy.  Coal’s biggest enemy, natural gas, emits far less carbon per megawatt hour generated, requires cheaper pollution control devices at the smokestack, is easier to transport, requires no large storage areas, and at the moment is about the same price per megawatt hour as coal.

Power companies across the country are tearing down their coal-fired power plants and installing natural gas energy production facilities.  I watched the demolition of one of them several years ago in St. Paul.  The massive facility, towering black piles of coal, and a 250 foot tall smokestack are all gone.  Instead there is a compact, low-slung building with two squat smokestacks.  All the extra ground has been turned into a park with a bike path.  Meanwhile, solar and wind powered energy continue to be produced at ever-lower costs, predicted to be cheaper than coal in the next several years.

The idea that coal companies will share with workers the small savings they get from not having to properly manage their acid runoff is a pipe dream.  Likewise, coal companies will do their best to avoid hiring new workers if they can increase production by increasing efficiency.  No company in America, except ones owned by employees, would turn a windfall back to workers.  That windfall will go to dividends for shareholders, bonuses for top managers, investment in automation (because labor is the biggest cost in every business), and cash reserves to bolster the stock price.  That is the natural way of capitalism, as Thomas Piketty pointed out with his equation, r > g.  (The rate of capital growth is always greater than the rate of growth of the economy—in other words, owners of invested capital get ahead much faster than those who earn their living by wages.)  The income gap grows because the owners reward themselves first, and everybody else, if there’s anything left, gets what’s left.

In 1946 when this photo was taken at the Frick coke mine in Pennsylvania, there were 75,000 miners in the state.  Photo Edwin Morgan (Bettmann/Corbis) 1946

In 1946 when this photo was taken at the Frick coke mine in Pennsylvania, there were 75,000 miners in the state, and 550,000 nationwide. Photo Edwin Morgan (Bettmann/Corbis) 1946

So President Trump threw the coal miners a meatless bone as a reward for their vote, despite no real turn-around likely in the decades-long decline of the industry.  But I imagine that as great a tragedy for coal miners and their families as losing their livelihood, is to live daily with cut-off mountains, spindly trees struggling on poor soils, orange streams, cracked basements, and the permanent environmental ailments of the coal industry.  Surely there is a better way.  Surely the nation can help its fellow citizens in Appalachia transition from coal to a new economic basis without sacrificing the quality of the land and water.  – Kim


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Just Talking About…Climate Change Dithering and the Lesson of World War II

In Army-speak, this is a Landing Ship, Tank (LST) which helped win World War II, disgorging a tank.  This one landed in Sicily in 1943.  Photographer unknown.

In Army-speak, this is a Landing Ship, Tank (LST) which helped win World War II, disgorging a tank. This one landed in Sicily in 1943. Photographer unknown.

June 7, 2017 (Winona Daily News).  Over Memorial Day weekend I watched “The Longest Day,” the 1962 film about the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II. I was interested in seeing it because I have recently been revisiting my grandfather’s role in the event.

He was not a soldier: he was a crane operator at the Evansville Shipyard on the Ohio River, which was put in place in just a few months in 1942 specifically to make Landing Ship Tank (LST) transports. LSTs were crucial to the war because they were able to land troops and vehicles on beaches, thanks to their innovative bow design.

The Evansville Shipyard was an example of the industrial organization that stood behind the Allied victory: as soon as America entered the war, virtually the entire economy was converted to the single purpose of defeating the Axis powers by turning out arms and materiel for the battlefield. The Evansville Shipyard converted a heretofore rather sleepy Indiana town into a major naval facility that, at its height, turned out two 300-foot ocean-going vessels per week. It employed 20,000 people, both men and women.

Nor was that the only production facility in Evansville: my grandmother worked in a factory that had been converted to make P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes, and my great-grandfather worked in the Chrysler plant that had retooled to make 45 caliber ammunition. The overall population of Evansville swelled from 21,000 to 64,000 people almost overnight as people from all over the region flooded into the city for war work.

The effect on my family was immediate as well: many of them were finally able to buy houses (and in my grandfather’s case, a farm) and thus were pulled out of the cycle of poverty that afflicted so many working people in the first half of the 20th century. It is an oft-cited fact that the coordinated industrial efforts of World War II ended the Great Depression, and this was certainly true for my relatives.

I mention all this because on June 1 Donald Trump announced he would withdraw America from the Paris Climate Accord, claiming it was a “bad deal” for American workers. He cited questionable statistics (derived from highly disputed reports) that claimed any effort to fight global warming by decarbonizing the economy would put Americans out of work and transfer wealth from the U.S. to the rest of the world. This decision was in line with his “America First” agenda.

A clever graphic designer slipped the iconic tower into a leaf shape as the logo for the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris.  It appears a leaf-eating insect has embellished the design, but what the divot means is unclear.

A clever graphic designer slipped the iconic tower into a leaf shape as the logo for the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. It appears a leaf-eating insect has embellished the design, but what the divot means is unclear.

Many of the same arguments were of course made against entering World War II — in fact, Trump’s slogan “America First” is derived (via Pat Buchanan) from the anti-war movement of that time. But Pearl Harbor changed all that, and the net result of America’s militarization was the material prosperity that characterized the 1950s and 1960s—nostalgia for which obsesses Trump and his voters. As the sole standing industrial power after the war, America was bound to prosper; but the sense of shared sacrifice that characterized the “Greatest Generation” was also a factor. That shared sacrifice is exactly what is missing in our recent wars, which are fought by a tiny minority of Americans and are paid for by debt. It is important to remember that the tax rate on upper incomes during World War II was 94 percent.

Trump ran on a populist economic platform and then quickly betrayed it as soon as he entered the White House — bringing in the same Wall Street financiers who helped ruin the economy in 2008, and advocating the same tax policies that the Republican neoliberal elites have been trying to achieve for decades. His plans complete the redistribution of income upwards that has been going on since 1980, as the programs and tax policies that built the middle class mid-century are abandoned in favor of the laissez-faire economics that prevailed before the Depression. His claims that he wants to reclaim the prosperity of the postwar era are ersatz nonsense, of course. His plans for infrastructure investment are basically giveaways to private capital; these will not slow the decline of the American working class but will instead benefit wealthy communities and continue to privatize public roads and bridges.

By contrast, as Kate Aronoff recently reported in The Guardian, “… any reasonable solution to climate change will require massive amounts of job creation, putting people to work doing everything from installing solar panels to insulating houses to updating the country’s electric grid to nursing and teaching, jobs in two of the country’s already low-carbon sectors.” She quotes climate scientist Kevin Anderson as saying, “If you are genuinely serious about shifting to a low-carbon society within the timeframe we have, then it is an absolute agenda for jobs… You are guaranteeing full employment for 30 years if we think climate change is a serious issue. If we don’t, we can carry on with structural unemployment.”

The biggest lie Trump told in the Rose Garden, just a few days before the 73rd anniversary of D-Day, is that Americans are not threatened by climate change. Like the America Firsters before him, he wants us to believe that America can be great by ignoring the moral and existential imperatives of our time. Every nation in the world — excepting Syria and Nicaragua — is in the Paris Accord, and this is because the dire effects of climate change do not respect national boundaries. A risk to all is shared by all, and the solution must be collective as well. Trump’s isolationism is essentially a denial of this shared vulnerability, and shared responsibility. It is a pose he shares with most Republicans but with nobody else (no other political party in the world denies the imminent peril of global climate change).

Everyone but us is now in the fight. The imperative is real, so are the benefits. We stand at the crossroads of history, and the hour is late. – Jim

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Just Talking About…’Potemkin Science’ and the Real Thing

Summer ice cover on the Arctic Ocean in 2013.  Image Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

Summer ice cover on the Arctic Ocean in 2013. Image Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

May 9, 2017 (Winona Daily News).  On a recent Saturday a two hundred people walked in the rain to remind fellow Winonans that climate change is a clear and present danger. They did so because they trust scientific evidence. In this sense their march was merely a continuation of the March for Science the weekend before. How did we get to the point where belief in scientific data has to be the subject of a march?

The answer is that we live in a moment when science — long the driver of our industrial civilization — has become an impediment to the financial interests of that civilization. Paradoxically, while it was science that gave birth to the industrial age, many scientists are now trying to tell the industrial world to slow down, to put on the brakes, take heed. Business leaders who profit from the industries implicated don’t like that one bit. And their response has been to cast doubt on science.

The reason that science is vulnerable to such an attack is the obscurity of its process. At its core, the mission of science is to make visible what is usually invisible, due to scale or distance. Using instruments and experiments, scientists try to make the opaqueness of nature less so by extending human perception. This extension promises greater security for human life. But the process involves a complex network of instruments, data, mathematics, technicians; it requires experimental protocols that become lab reports and then have to be verified by publication in peer-reviewed journals. Science is above all a massive organization of humans united by a respect for a specific mode of inquiry and stringent standards of proof.

You benefit from this organization every day:  the devices and systems you depend on for your livelihood and your daily comfort — even your survival — would not be possible without the ability of science to go beyond “common sense” into realms that are only penetrable with their laboratories, personnel and equipment. Most of the time we let science do this complicated work and we simply enjoy the results. When we do question scientists, it is because we find their results disturbing or inconvenient. Suddenly we take an interest in the process —what is going on in those labs? Whose side is science on? The complexity of their world can make us frightened and even paranoid.

Just one indicator of changes in the planet's climate--summer cover of ice in the Arctic Ocean.  Predicted change is the black line and blue area, and actual measured cover is the red line. Data from Stroeve et al. 2007 (based on IPCC report).

Just one indicator of changes in the planet’s climate–summer cover of ice in the Arctic Ocean. Predicted change is the black line and blue area, and actual measured cover is the red line. Data from Stroeve et al. 2007 (based on IPCC report).

Put it this way: you never question your doctor after a good checkup. You assume the doctor is competent. But when the doctor brings you bad news you have several choices. You can believe the doctor and work with her to develop a strategy (say, losing weight, exercising, taking statins). Or you can find a different doctor. There are always doctors willing to give you a second opinion. But not all opinions are equal. The internet is jammed with ads for miracle cures and alternative therapies. In like fashion, the internet is full of sources—credentialed, pseudo-credentialed, or just opinionated people— willing to spin, twist or outright deny the frightening data of climate science. They all share the same defect in their arguments: they don’t take into account the preponderance of evidence. They cherry pick data, or misquote sources, or blur conclusions. Some actually believe their own fabrications (as there are fraudulent doctors who take their own medicine). Others are paid quite handsomely to deceive by the fossil fuel industry and by the conservative think tanks whose ideological aversion to government action makes climate action a non-starter. In fact, the latter have constructed entire networks of “Potemkin science” — papers which mimic those produced by actual researchers but prove, when interrogated, to be flimsy facades.

One example of this kind of “Potemkin science” is the column that appeared in the Daily News on Monday, May 8. It was written by William Balgord, who claims to head “Environmental & Resources Technology Inc.” in Middleton WI, and makes an argument against the Paris Climate Accord. Balgord is a member of the Cornwall Alliance, a right-wing Christian group funded, in part, by “dark money” from folks like the Koch Brothers. A quick search of businesses in Middleton shows no reference Balgord’s purported company, and he has no credible publications I could find — other than a lot of letters to local newspapers.

Within the institution of science, there is no significant doubt about climate change or its risks. Global warming is the best-documented phenomenon in the history of scientific research. It has passed every test, surmounted every objection so far. If you doubt the diagnosis —and it is a dark one — I understand your instinct to reach for the snake oil or the internet faith healer. But ask yourself who benefits from such nostrums? And whom should you really trust? The one willing to give you the straight news, no matter how bad, or the one willing to flatter your naiveté (for a price)?

It will take more than a march to restore this country’s belief in science. It will take the courage to face facts — all of them, in all their complexity — and the discernment to know who is worth believing. – Jim


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Just Talking About…Being Right & Wrong at the Same Time

A Nashville warbler considers his next move.  Photo Francesco Veronesi.

A Nashville warbler considers his next move. Photo Francesco Veronesi.

May 12, 2017.  Last weekend I predicted a warbler wave would arrive Tuesday morning.  It did.  All around when I stepped outside were the flitting forms of tiny songbirds who had traveled hundreds of miles in the night, taking advantage of a brief uptick in wind speed at their backs as they surged northward.  They’d arrived on the Gulf Coast a week before, to rest and fatten up a bit, then took the next big jump to their breeding grounds…and landed here for the moment.  Within earshot were a least flycatcher (a deep forest-dweller), the ethereal-voiced Swainson’s thrush of the boreal forest, and lots of Nashville warblers, pictured above.  It lives nowhere near Nashville.  It just happened to be first described and named by Alexander Wilson, the less-well-known bird-artist competitor of John James Audubon, while he was in Nashville.  I’d read the tea leaves–pages of my phenology journals, actually–and correctly predicted the date when the first wave of migrating birds from the tropics would arrive.

But I was also quite wrong!  For years I’ve used Tennessee warblers as my indicator of their arrival, and said so.  Because they have such a big voice, they’re easy to notice–so I’ve always pegged the warbler wave to first hearing their voice.  But this year and also last they’ve not been among the warblers, vireos, flycatcher, and others whose arrival I wait for all winter.  Last year, and it seems this year, too, they are laggards, showing up a few days to a week later.  In fact, they’re not here yet.  Several years ago I rarely heard a Nashville, and filling the trees then were mostly Tennessee warblers.  Now the weaker-voiced, but showier Nashvilles have to serve.  Their territorial call goes sippit-sippit-sippit-sippit-ts-ts-ts-ts-ts.  Not exactly a rallying cry.  I was half-right, anyway. – Kim

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Just Talking About…Warblers Arriving!

A male Tennessee warbler in his winter haunts--Costa Rica!--waiting for the signal to head north.  (It's sex, by the way.)  Photo Jerry Oldenettel.

A male Tennessee warbler in his winter haunts–Costa Rica!–waiting for the signal to head north. (The signal is sex, by the way.) Photo Jerry Oldenettel.

May 7, 2017.  In a couple of days the first big warbler wave will arrive at the 45th parallel–halfway between the equator and north pole, and the place where I live.  I’ve been watching this event for over 30 years.  In the fall it seems years away.  In winter it seems impossible that such a thing could exist.  And then suddenly, here it is.  Treetops full of tiny, flitting forms, edging out to branch tips, darting forward to nab an insect, dropping to a lower limb, then dashing to another tree.  They sing as they eat–every species, its own song.  The song I gauge the whole phenomenon by is the ticka-ticka-ticka, swit-swit-swit, chew-chew-chew-chew of the Tennessee warbler.  It’s not from Tennessee–it was just first shot and described by a naturalist there–and it doesn’t sport the usual flashy colors of most warblers of the Americas, but it is certainly among the loudest.  You can’t miss it.  I hear them shouting from nearly a block away and, for that reason, use them as the bellwether of the first warbler wave’s arrival.

These birds are landing here after several weeks of journeying from South and Central America.  Imagine–less than an ounce of hollow bone, flesh and feathers, coming so far, hundreds of miles, to set up housekeeping in the temperate and boreal forests of North America.  Now that is some feat.  I assume they’ve been doing it every year, faithfully, full of faith that what they need will be here, since at least 11,000 B.C. when the glaciers began retreating north from the Upper Midwest.

Lilacs in full bloom in St. Paul, May 15, some days after the first warbler wave in 2015.  Photo K. Chapman

Lilacs in full bloom in St. Paul, May 15, some days after the first warbler wave in 2015. Photo K. Chapman

You can tell they are almost here when oak leaves–one of their favorite trees for the moth larvae and insects they harbor–are 1-2 inches long, and when lilacs are in bud or just beginning to bloom in my neighborhood.  Which is now.  They usually come when they can hitch a ride on a tailwind with a southerly component–which is usually an approaching low pressure system that generates southeast winds for a couple days.  We have southeast winds, we have oaks and lilacs at the right stage, and I am sticking my neck out to say that I will wake up Tuesday morning and hear them yelling from the treetops around my house.  I’m going to leave my windows open Monday night, even though rain is predicted. – Kim

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