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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Just Talking About…The Climate That Was

Snowflake demonstrating that no two are the same, in Moscow, January 2013.  Photo Alexey Kljatov Snowflake demonstrating that no two are the same, in Moscow, January 2013. Photo Alexey Kljatov

Snowflake demonstrating that no two are the same, in Moscow, January 2013. Photo Alexey Kljatov

February 25, 2017.  The morning sun after a snowstorm, an iconic Minnesota sight.  The crisp air and glittering festoons of snow on every horizontal surface bring back my first memories of the state, which I saw when my family traveled from Indiana to Northfield one January in 1968.   I had never seen real winter, crystalline and vast; Southern Indiana winters are more like brief interludes, where the moist snow resembles shaved ice at carnivals and lasts a day or two, sitting heavily on the bushes and wet in the roads.  I remember, during that sojourn in the north, sleeping on a floor in a guest room under a down sleeping bag left over from our host’s army days and feeling the morning chill in the room like a palpable presence.  I remember the windows etched with frost and the impossible brilliance of sunrise (the Indiana winters were swathed in woolly clouds and plunged in monochrome).

View out my backyard this morning—snow on the garden and my neighbor’s roof catching the first light of day.  J. Armstrong

View out my backyard this morning—snow on the garden and my neighbor’s roof catching the first light of day. J. Armstrong

Years later we moved to Winona where I took a job at the university; we couldn’t have been happier.  When I went on the professorial market, my wife and I drew a line across the United States that we called the “snow line”—below which we would not go.  Winter without snow did not seem worth our trouble.  We arrived in Minnesota in 1999 in the midst of a heat wave—it was 105 degrees the day we moved in.  But my first purchase, once the boxes were all opened and decanted and the furniture put in place, was a brace of snow shovels—sturdy steel implements painted caution yellow.  I couldn’t wait for the plunge into the deep freeze.

How much climate defines us.  The outer surface of things becomes the language of our inner emotions–sunrise and sunset, the moaning of a blizzard in the house eaves, the call of a crow in the snowy top of a hackberry tree–all are embedded in our psychic and emotional life and populate our dreams.  To a great extent we become products of local weather, if we are at all alive to our senses.  Last week the temperatures rose into the 60s here; I heard robins singing their spring song and I saw open water on the lake.  To see the sights and sounds of early April in mid-February seemed sickening.  The south, which I had gladly fled, was invading the north.  And I knew why.  I knew that our profligate burning of fossil fuels was turning the climate into a chaotic pressure-cooker; I knew that even conservative predictions were saying Minnesota would fairly soon have the climate of Arkansas; that the winter I have come to love would become shorter and rarer.  I knew that the current administration in Washington was busy hastening that hellish crock-potting of the American climate.

All the more reason to rejoice in this reprieve—to revel in the glitter of the morning.  For a moment we have the Minnesota climate we fell in love with.  — Jim

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Just Talking About…Eagles–Back and Ready for Another Year

This bald eagle has something in mind--fly, chase, threaten?  Whatever it is, he's ready!  Photo USFWS Mountain-Prairie

This bald eagle has something in mind–fly, chase, threaten? Whatever it is, he’s ready! Photo USFWS Mountain-Prairie

January 29, 2017.  No matter whom you voted for in the recent election, or whether you are joyous or terrorized by our President’s first week in office, one thing remains constant–an eagle’s urge to bring the next generation into the world.  We’ve had a pair nesting down by the river for some years now–they used to live in the park at Hidden Falls, on the Mississippi River, but after the power company cleared around their high-tension wires, the eagles moved on.  They set up housekeeping on top of the bluffs, in the tony neighborhood facing the setting sun and overlooking the big river.  That sufficed for a couple of years, but something about the place didn’t suit them, and they hiked on downriver a half mile or so to a street off the main drag on the bluffline–where the houses are a little smaller but people are, presumably, a little happier because they don’t have to keep up with the Joneses so much.

Eagle at work on its nest in somebody's back yard--a very quiet construction job.  Photo K Chapman

Eagle at work on its nest in somebody’s back yard–a very quiet construction job. Photo K Chapman

This eagle pair is what wildlife biologists call “habituated.”  That means they can stand having us nearby.  A lot of other animals have learned over the years that, as long as they keep their heads down, we’ll let them live among us.  So cockroaches by the billions are largely unseen unless you step on one on your way to the bathroom late at night.  Raccoons and rats hide out in storm sewers until after dark.  We like it when the monarchs drift through on their southward flight in August.  Crows, starlings, geese, rock doves (the new name for pigeons) and the millions of other habituated birds can always fly down the block when we start to harass them for their messy ways.  And now eagles are habituated.

Former residence of the eagle pair--slightly upscale from where they live now, but still behind somebody's house.  Photo K. Chapman

Former residence of the eagle pair–slightly upscale from where they live now, but still behind somebody’s house. Photo K. Chapman

Not all of them.  You can still spook a pair off its nest, never to return, if you cut trees or build things within several hundred feet of it.  That’s why there is still a law to protect eagles, now that they’re off the endangered species list yet still our nation’s animal totem.  On the other hand, the eagle population in the Midwest gets bigger every years, a trend that began when DDT was banned around 1972, thanks to the work of the infant Environmental Protection Agency (formed in 1970) which argued persuasively that not only were eagles losing the race to stay relevant, hundreds of bird species around the world were taking it on the chin, too.  DDT, a potent insecticide, was getting into the bodies of eagles and other birds that ate animals–fish, in the case of bald eagles–and causing egg shells to be too thin to stand the weight of the mother trying to keep it warm.  Crack.  So this is a good thing, the growing eagle population, but now there is a balancing act between allowing some eagles to be killed accidentally during otherwise lawful activities, like energy production, and knowing that an eagle that is killed will quickly be replaced by one of the burgeoning population.

Our eagles, whom I can see any time I want, are clearly unfazed by elections, revocation of past executive orders, dissolution of agency mission statements, and the general turmoil in our political landscape.  Next time I feel a little unhinged by it all, I’ll take a stroll down the river bluff road and consider the eagles–who neither reap nor sow, yet in their quiet deliberation manage to replenish the earth with their kind every single year.  — Kim

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Just Talking About…Moose and 23 Degrees

A lady moose losing her winter pelt on June 1, in Ontario.  Nutritious new leaves are a big improvement over what she had to eat over the winter.  Photo B Cameron.

A lady moose losing her winter pelt on June 1, in Ontario. Nutritious new leaves are a big improvement over what she had to eat over the winter. Photo B Cameron.

July 13, 2016.  After some years of research the wildlife biologists at the University of Minnesota and Department of Natural Resources are sketching an outline of reasons for moose declines in northeastern Minnesota.  Thirty years ago on the other side of the state, in northwest Minnesota, moose numbered 4,000, but by 2008 for all intents and purposes they had gone AWOL there.  In northeast Minnesota, where you can still find them, numbers have fallen by half since 2009, to approximately 4,000.  My wife’s dearest dream has been to get a good, long look at a moose somewhere on the Gunflint Trail…or anywhere for that matter.  We drive the Gunflint two or three times a year, never sighting moose, and hear, of course, that the very next day a friend or acquaintance of a friend spotted a moose where we had been a scant 24 hours earlier.  Likewise, in the Boundary Waters or Quetico, despite hundreds of hours portaging, paddling, and camping there…never a moose.  How is this possible?

It’s the Fates, of course, deigning that we should be at a moose sighting location always some hours before the moose is scheduled to arrive.  Whether you believe in fate or not, or adhere more to the idea of the universe as a random number generator, not sighting moose might be related to moose numbers.  Something is going on to drive moose numbers down.  Everyone knows that.  It’s been measured.  People are not arguing that point.

What they are arguing about is the cause of declines because, once a problem is known, somebody will want to do something about it.  That is our way as a species—fix the problem, hopefully without unintended consequences.

Hunters for years have said, the cause is wolves, whose numbers have increased since the 1970s after protection began.  The argument is that wolves are gobbling up all the moose.  Fair enough, and it seems like a reasonable hypothesis.  Meanwhile, conservationists have pointed to the deer population, which is ten to twenty times higher today than in the 1800s when hunting was year-round and before the industrial-scale logging of the Lake States changed the forest.  Deer numbers were quite low in the 1800s because there really wasn’t much food to eat, especially in winter, the starving time.  With the cutting and conversion of a conifer-rich forest to an aspen-birch system with grassy openings, suddenly deer found conditions much more to their liking.  Even with today’s hunting, which removes several hundred thousand deer from the north woods each year, there still remain so many deer that moose come in contact with them quite often, and in so doing, seal their doom.  This is because deer are infected by a parasitic worm which lives benignly in their brain and spinal cord, and whose larvae are spread in the deer’s feces.  The intermediate host, snails and slugs, inadvertently pick up the larvae, and if a moose happens to eat one while feeding on plants, the worm move to the moose’s brain, but with much different results.  Moose have no tolerance for this organism, and eventually the worm causes disorientation and other behavior changes, and ultimately death.

Conservationists for decades have been saying, if you want a moose population in the Lake States, you have to have less aspen-birch forest and fewer deer.  This upsets hunters and loggers because they like a lot of aspen and birch and an overabundance of deer.  That also makes it possible to earn a living as a logger, cutting pulpwood for paper, or to ensure that one’s nephew or daughter nabs that buck on their first November hunt.

Big changes in the north woods from the late 1800s to now.  The yellow of aspen-birch forest in the modern map has replaced the greens of the conifer-rich forests of the presettlement map.  From Cole et al. 1999 USGS "Historical Landcover Changes in the Great Lakes Region".

Big changes in the north woods from the late 1800s to now. The yellow of aspen-birch forest in the modern map has replaced the greens of the conifer-rich forests on the presettlement map. From Cole et al. 1999 USGS “Historical Landcover Changes in the Great Lakes Region”.

Now into the political mix come the scientists—confounding the stories told at the kitchen table or around a campfire.  The scientists who most recently put radio-transmitting collars on moose now have a story that is more complex, as always in the real natural world.  People’s wish to latch onto a single explanation is universal.  We can understand it, we can tackle one cause by changing a law or putting in place a change in behavior or a best practice; but when you have an ecological system with multiple forces at work causing the decline of moose…well, where do you begin?  It’s simply too much for most people to deal with.  Part of the problem is that in American society there always has been a strong undercurrent of anti-intellectualism, described eloquently and persuasively by Richard Hofstadter in the 1960s as our democratic inheritance.  In a democracy, you don’t completely trust the experts because, what do they know about real life?  They’re eggheads, they live in ivory towers, they get mired in details, and they don’t use common sense.  But, in fact, the experts in our society have been quite helpful at raising our living standards and addressing society’s pressing needs.  Despite that, political movements that take advantage of the natural distrust of experts by the American (small “d”) democrat, have a consistent place in our nation’s history and development.

Be that as it may, scientists, those experts, are now getting into the act with a lot of data.  What they tell us is that changing weather patterns, disease and parasites, and the moose’s own physiology—its way of taking in food and regulating its internal biological processes to carry on life—are intertwined and responsible for the shrinking moose population.

In a nutshell, the story begins with 23 degrees Fahrenheit.  Winter temperature is a major driver of moose decline.  It’s been known for thirty years that 23 degrees is an important threshold in moose physiology, but it hasn’t yet been brought into the conversation.  Twenty-three degrees is the temperature at which moose start panting in the winter.  This is because moose, adapted as they are to a frigid northern climate, have a remarkably well-insulating winter pelt which they shed by summer.  When temperatures get above 23 F on a winter’s day, moose have to head for the shade, lie in snow to cool down, and stop moving around—to keep their body from heating up as they use their muscles.  But if they lie still to prevent overheating, the winter food they consume cannot support them.  In winter the only things to eat are buds and small twigs.  If you’ve walked around moose country after the snow melts, you find hard oval nuggets of moose scat all over—that’s the material which moose cannot digest, having extracted a tiny amount of nitrogen and other nutrition and passed the wood along.  If you’re a thousand pound moose, you need to eat 10-20 pounds of twigs daily to keep yourself going, and even then you’ll lose weight over the winter.  But as long as the temperature stays below 23 F in the daytime, a healthy moose can eat and digest enough food to make it to spring, when better food becomes available.  If above 23 F, it has to stop moving and lie in the snow to cool off—or it overheats.  When a moose heads for the shade, though, it’s not eating, but if it keeps eating, it uses precious energy to pant and stay cool.  If there are too many hours above 23 F for too many days, a moose will starve.

A moose went to a lot of trouble to relieve itself 300 feet up on Bell Mound, at the rest stop SE of Black River Falls.  These woody pellets can be seen in moose country, after snowmelt.  Photo K Chapman.

A moose went to a lot of trouble to relieve itself 300 feet up on Bell Mound, at the rest stop SE of Black River Falls. These woody pellets can be seen in moose country, after snowmelt. Photo K Chapman.

In this weakened state, the ticks that always cover moose begin to take their toll.  They’re removing blood, which in a healthy moose wouldn’t be a problem, but in a starving moose pushes it closer to death.  In a weakened state a moose is also less likely to escape a hungry wolf.  Lastly, coming out of the winter in an unhealthy state means that moose parents are less able to bear or care for young—it takes a lot of energy to fend off a hungry wolf intent on eating your calf.

These things are all interwoven in a complicated pattern, a pattern which speaks the truth about all species on earth.  Many factors cause species to survive or disappear, and humans cannot comprehend every species’ story—there simply isn’t the time.  Look at the millions of dollars spent to understand the decline of moose in the north woods, and the thousands of gallons of hot air expended talking about it, not to mention hundreds of pounds of ink shed to report everybody’s opinion on the matter.  What about the other ten million species on Earth—can we know their story and manage them all?

Just the facts, ma'am...winter temperatures are rising fastest in a region centered on Minnesota, says the US EPA.

Just the facts, ma’am…winter temperatures are rising fastest in a region centered on Minnesota, says the US EPA.

One final word from the scientists does not bode well for moose in northeast Minnesota:  they do not migrate.  You’d think moose would march north in pursuit of cooler temperatures, but they just slowly disappear, like candles burning out one by one at the front of a church.  They wink out in place.  That’s what happened in northwest Minnesota.  Now we’ve seen a decade’s decline in northeast Minnesota.  It is likely that in several decades, with a predicted temperature in the Lake Superior region of 5.5-8 degrees F higher than today, there will be no moose in Minnesota—especially since winter temperatures are increasing faster than summer ones.  This isn’t alarmist talk, it’s simply a statement of fact.  Why not know what is coming and adjust to it?  Simply acknowledge the story emerging from the data, and make a decision about what to do with that.  Do we or do we not want moose?  Or are the forces marshaled on either side of the issue so powerful and loud, that it comes down to who has the most power to force a decision?  It’s a simple decision—or rather, because it’s political, it’s more like a simple choice.  In the end it is a decision that will be made deliberately, or by default if we simply let nature take its course. – Kim

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Just Talking About…Frosted Oaks (Not Oats!)

Dead leaves on living oak trees in summer--how did that happen?  Photo K. Chapman

Dead leaves on living oak trees in summer–how did that happen? Photo K. Chapman

June 8, 2016.   Several weeks ago I drove from St. Paul to Alma, Michigan for the service of my wife Elizabeth’s step-brother who died recently.  I wrote a few words to open the service, which got me thinking about mortality and resurrection.

I was a bit surprised when, heading east on I-94 a short distance from the Twin Cities, I began seeing what I thought were dead oak trees. Not just one or two, but lots of them…dead.  What in the world was going on?  At first I wondered if there’d been a wildfire—but other trees and shrubs were leafing out so it wasn’t that.  Then I wondered if it was a disease; surely I would have heard about that from the swarm of wildlife biologists, foresters, and others managing our natural resources.  There actually is an oak blight on the West Coast, brought to us by an energetic global commerce spreading diseases and pests and helping the demise of many other tree species—chestnut, elm, hemlock, beech—but that’s a story for another day.

Then it hit me. The oaks weren’t dead, the oak leaves were dead.  There’d been a hard frost around May 13 east of my home, and the low ground I was now traversing had concentrated the cold.  I’d learned about that in an ecology course taught by Richard Brewer.  It’s always colder in a landscape’s low places than on the hilltops because cold air, being heavier than warm air, sinks to its lowest level.  It’s called “cold air drainage”—an obvious term, but one few have heard.  We actually measured it.  We walked from a hilltop in a field to a drainageway that led to trickling ditch in a thickety woods.  Sure enough the field at the top of the hill was hot, the ravine and then the woods were cooler—maybe four or five degrees Fahrenheit.  During the nights of May 12-14 the temperature across the upper Midwest plummeted and low areas got even colder because the heavy cold air rolled on down the drainageways and puddled up in the low places.  That explained the sharp lines of dead leaves on slopes—at the bottom all the leaves were brown (“and the sky was gray”), then part way up there was a sharp line with brown leaves below and green above, and on ridgetops the leaves were untouched.

The oaks below are in a low spot on the landscape.  Cold air drainage killed their leaves while leaves on higher ground kept on growing.  Photo K. Chapman

The oaks (tan area) are in a low spot on the landscape. Cold air drainage killed their leaves while leaves on higher ground kept on growing. Photo K. Chapman

I’d seen this before, in June 2000 while collecting bird data in the north Metro. Driving around my study area, all the oaks appeared dead—immense oaks, like brown lollypops in a green world.  There had been a leaf-killing frost on May 19 that year which hit the white and bur oaks hard.  Driving to Alma sixteen years later, I put two and two together.  Like the frost in 2000, this leaf-kill also followed a very warm spring.  This time, though, it was associated with the second strongest El Niño on record.  March 2016 was hotter than normal, stimulating the oak leaves to emerge early.  By May they’d grown beyond their protective leaf bud scales and become easy marks for Jack Frost.  Minnesota sits at the north and west edge of the range of every oak species in the eastern United States.  Bur oak—a dwarfed version of the giant found in Michigan’s river floodplains—makes it the farthest, but otherwise the oaks pretty much end in eastern Minnesota.  And I see why:  Minnesota is a volatile place, weather-wise, with a single-day temperature swing of 80 degrees happening every couple years or so.  On a broader scale, the greatest temperature rises since 1980 occurring in the lower 48 are happening in Minnesota.  We have the most to lose in terms of the Arctic air conditioning we’ve enjoyed as white settlers for a couple hundred years, and in the previous several thousand years as Indian settlers.  All us settlers arrived here in a benign climate (my daughter would point to our winters and argue with that word, “benign”); but our springs and falls are gorgeous and temperate.  That’s changing.  We’re seeing greater numbers of warmer nights and more frequent northerly deflection of cold air masses.  That means fewer strong Canadian cold fronts that clear out the humidity and give us those comfortable sub-70 Fahrenheit sleeping nights.  (Minneapolis on average has only ten 90+ degree days a year, compared to 34 in St. Louis.)  That means we’ll be running our AC a lot more, adding to the carbon burden of the atmosphere, and perversely making our nights even warmer.  And though people not from here find our winters bitterly cold, that cold has done us a great service by damping down outbreaks of viruses, bacteria, and pests that plague wildlife, livestock, crops, forests, and people alike.  We will lose that protective cushion and become like places farther south—besieged by Africanized honeybees, Zika and West Nile virus, kudzu, water hyacinth, fire ants, and the like.  It’s coming our way in the next fifty years.  We’ll have a climate like Missouri, with many 90-100 degree, high humidity days—unbearable weather forcing us to live in air conditioned houses and cars most of the time, as people do throughout the South. (A carbon-free AC set-up would help.)

These thoughts came to me driving by the frost-nipped oak leaves.  The good news is, after apparent death comes the resurrection.  Oaks have a storehouse of sugar in their roots, even after the first leaf-flush, allowing them to regrow leaves, survive another summer, and replenish energy stocks in their roots (though they may not fruit as abundantly for turkey, deer, blue jay and others that eat acorns).  As for climate change, in the long run the oaks will migrate north because weather patterns will become favorable there.  Where I live, May and June frosts may be extinguished once the Arctic ice is in scant supply, and parts of the northern forests will become farmland and peppered with deciduous trees.  Oaks will be happy, I’m sure.  But for people who like relative stability in climate and ecosystems, hold on to your hat.  – Kim

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Just Talking About…All Those Other Species

June 6, 2016.  I spent a week in June tromping through the water-logged landscape of northern Minnesota in pursuit of orchids.  Orchids are elusive things, hiding out in the nooks and crannies of cedar swamps and bogs far from logging, roads, cows and corn.  While I was out there I had plenty of time to think about the plants and animals surrounding me.  I was immersed in them.  Of course, there were the mosquitoes and black flies.  After a dosing of DEET and making sure pant hems were tugged into boots, shirt sleeve buttons fastened, hat on snug, you could reasonable expect to not be eaten alive.

Small yellow lady's-slippers showing off at the beginning of June in northern Minnesota.  Photo K. Chapman.

Small yellow lady’s-slippers showing off at the beginning of June in northern Minnesota. Photo K. Chapman.

Walking the soggy, boggy north woods, I had time to think about all the species around me, embedded as I was in their world and not one of human making.  People have certainly affected that world.  I saw, for instance, the scattered stumps of 600-year old white cedar trees cut one hundred years ago.  They were still there, tokens of a natural world before the industrial age was overlaid on the fabric of nature.  Some stumps were six feet across—very impressive in a backwards-looking way.

I know it’s possible to cut timber in a fashion that not only gives us what we want, but lets the forest keep on doing what it would do—which is put on new, green matter every year, sustain a thousand species in good numbers, bring forth the young of every year (even mosquitoes which are pollinators of orchids and food for dragonflies), and do all sorts of wonderful things we don’t even notice.  But of course, one hundred years ago, we had scant understanding of these things.  The word ecology had only been invented a couple decades earlier.

Surrounded by plants which spontaneously arose from the earth without human help, I also thought about their lineage, for some of them go back millions of years.  A version of the lady’s slipper orchid I was looking for is thought to have originated over a million years ago.  That is absolutely astounding.  Our lineage, Homo sapiens subsp. sapiens, extends only 200 thousand years or so to east Africa, with a few thousand people wandering about the savannas there.  Meanwhile, this orchid group has been on earth at least five times as long.  Do we owe a little respect to lady’s-slippers for having made it this far?

I’m reminded of two quotes, the first by Charles Darwin in answer to criticism by the Christian fundamentalist movement—then coalescing in the late 1800s in large part against Darwin’s idea of “descent by means of natural selection.”  He said, “When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Cambrian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.”  By that I think he meant, he saw behind each species the planet’s inexorable life force and a genius of some kind.  We can’t forget Darwin studied to become a minister before he embarked on his fateful voyage aboard the Beagle which resulted in his insights into the nature of speciation.  A spiritual foundation was part of his mindset.  In later years, though, Darwin was largely silent on the topic of God’s role in creation.  And that’s a good thing.  The separation of science and theology is a good thing.

The other quote I think of is from an editorial in the Detroit News.  The editorial from around 1974 or so was about the U.S. Endangered Species Act passed the year before.  Of course, it spoke in opposition to the law.  The argument it made was that no species cares about the demise of other species, and so why should we?  The quote went something like, “In a dog-eat-dog world, paying attention to the welfare of other species is not an evolutionarily successful strategy for species survival.”  Implicit here is that people will go extinct if they worry about and promote the persistence of other species.  It seems to me that many people either still speak that sentiment out loud or unconsciously believe it.  People generally don’t think we need other species—or rather, we only need some of them—our cows and chickens, our pigs to grow insulin and antibiotics, and one or two species of algae for those cutting-edge folks seeking to gasify high-fat algae into fuel.  We also need, of course, trees to build things and aspen for wood pulp to make paper, and corn and soybeans, and fish in the oceans whose stocks we’re depleting at an alarming rate.  We need all of those things, but they represent maybe a tenth of one percent of all the species out there—current count around ten million species.  The estimated rate of loss over the next 50 to 100 years is that a quarter to one half of those will disappear.  That’s a remarkable percentage of all living species—a change equivalent to the other five great extinction events over the last five hundred million years, including the most recent one that took out the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago.  A mini-spasm occurred most recently when humans dispersed across the globe, beginning about 45 thousand years ago.  This was the Pleistocene die-off, with American camels, giant ground sloths, massive birds, mammoths and mastodons among its victims.

So…as I walked through alder swamps, black spruce bogs, aspen woodlands, filled with yellow orchids—the lady’s-slippers with the little bowls, each like a ridged goblet—and I chanced upon one of those ancient orchids, these thoughts occurred.  I don’t know what to do with them—how do you bring into popular culture and everyday consciousness the idea of keeping all the species?  Some say that economics is part of the answer:  building an economic system around retaining species, rather than plowing ahead devil-may-care and consequences-be-damned, to use some old expressions.  Alternately, we could simply agree to co-exist with the other ten million species on the planet.  Are we big enough for that?  Is the human family smart and generous enough to start thinking about other species, all of them?

Which takes me to a third quote, this one from Aldo Leopold, the patron saint of ecological restoration (and inventor of wildlife biology, more or less) who used a watch-makers analogy:  “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”  Without every cog and wheel, the watch doesn’t run.  We know that ecosystems can and do unravel, leaving us with…deserts, dead zones, low-productivity forest, topsoil depleted of organic matter, and the rest of the litany of ills we know so well.  If ecologists ruled the world, we’d have a different economic system, I suspect.  Ecologists do speak frequently with our friends, the economists, and increasingly so.  We have, after all, the same root word naming our disciplines—“eco”, from the Greek oikos, meaning house or household.  Economists seek to manage it (nomos) and ecologists seek to know it (logos).  Both disciplines seem to me to be necessarily married so as to shepherd our planetary home through the bottleneck we will face. – Kim

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Just Talking About…Viennese Wasser Brunnen (Water Fountains)

One of hundreds of public drinking fountains, fed by alpine glacial meltwater, slaking the thirst of Vienna's citizenry and visitors.  Photo P. Armstrong.

One of hundreds of public drinking fountains, fed by alpine glacial meltwater, slaking the thirst of Vienna’s citizenry and visitors. Photo P. Armstrong.

July 13, 2016.  I just got back from a trip to Austria and the Czech Republic (my daughter was on tour with a youth choir and my wife and I were her groupies).  One of the most memorable moments along the way was standing in line to drink from one of Vienna’s civic fountains.  I am used to cities having fountains, but usually you are not encouraged to drink from them—in fact you are often told to stay out of them.  But Vienna, unique among the cities of the world, enshrines the right to pure water in its civic constitution.  The city receives 400,000 cubic meters of fresh spring water every day from two pipelines that lead up into the Austrian Alps.  There are 900 permanent fountains in the city and a number of portable ones that are put on line if the weather is hot and the city is crowded.  The Viennese are excessively proud of this:  they tell tourists constantly “remember, you can drink our water!  You don’t need to buy water!”

The roots of this go a long way back.  I visited the Roman Museum by the city center where you are treated to animated engineering diagrams of the Roman aqueducts that once fed Vindobona, the Roman border fort that preceded the modern city of Vienna.  The Romans were splendid plumbers (in fact the word plumber comes from Latin) and their military barracks had running water, as well as plumbed bathrooms and of course a Roman steam bath.  Modern Vienna simply repeats the strategy of piping in mountain water on a much vaster scale.

On the reverse side, for people who speak English, Vienna's public fountains urge you to stay well hydrated.  Photo P. Armstrong.

On the reverse side, for people who speak English, Vienna’s public fountains urge you to stay well hydrated. Photo P. Armstrong.

What moved me most about this was the assumption that this was a civic right—and a matter of civic pride.  In America we seem to have become incapable of taking pride in our infrastructure, in large part because infrastructure requires a communal effort—and after two or more decades of anti-governmental rhetoric we seem to have plunged ourselves into a spiral of anomie.  The ultimate result of this, of course, is the water crisis in Flint, Michigan (which Kim has written about).  In that shameful incident bureaucrats endangered the health of thousands to save some dollars.  The city of Flint essentially became a sacrifice zone for the neoliberal economics that informs Michigan’s governance.  But lesser examples of the same kind of thinking are everywhere, in every state:  Americans don’t want to pay for their cities, their roads, their schools, or their parks.  The American Society of Civil Engineers report card (http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org) gives our nation a “D” for drinking water—and in the wake of the Flint crisis new contaminated water systems are being discovered every day.

Vienna is not plagued by neoliberalism or fantasies of libertarianism—despite the fact that a lot of neoliberalism’s founding thinkers are from Vienna.  Vienna has always been part of one or another empire, so it has gloried in what can be accomplished by concerted human action.  The Viennese view their city as worth protecting and enjoying—and they also view it as connected to its natural surroundings.  The Viennese have mastered the art of urban living in a way that combines the pleasures of the natural world and the pleasures of human culture.  For instance, the famed Vienna Woods west of the city provide fresh air and plenty of space for outdoor recreation.  Organic and local farming is all the rage (the city runs the largest organic farm in Austria). Well-funded public transportation means that Viennese are able to go on foot, saving energy and improving health.  Vienna has been voted the best city in the world to live in several times—Americans could benefit from taking a look at their accomplishments. – Jim

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Just Talking About…Fire & Smoke

Fort McMurray residents evacuating via Highway 63 as the fire approaches.  Photo RD Darren

Fort McMurray residents evacuating via Highway 63 as the fire approaches. Photo RD Darren

June 9, 2016. The Fort McMurray wildfire in Saskatchewan, north of Calgary, the provincial capital and an oil producing mecca for decades—most recently using sand impregnated with bitumen and called “tar sands”—is the biggest disaster in Canadian history. It burned some 2,400 homes to cinders, caused the temporary shutdown of an oil production facility and burned up its housing complex, and sent 80,000 people scrambling for safety. This all happened in early May after a very warm, dry March and cool April. At the time of the fire, temperatures in the area hit 90 and humidity was extraordinarily low. The fall and winter meanwhile had been dry because this was an El Niño year—the second strongest on record. We had a similar set-up in 1988-1989, which I remember well because it gave us one of the best tomato crops we’d ever raised in our little garden in St. Paul, thanks to hot temperatures at the peak of the growing season—though we did have to water frequently. Our tomato bonus was the bane of many others—the ‘88-‘89 drought was among the worst natural disasters in the United States, ranking up there with Hurricane Katrina and the Dust Bowl era.

The Saskatchewan fire burned out of control for several days. It’s still burning because it’s so big that the fire fighters haven’t fully caged it, which will allow it to burn out on its own inside a safe ring of forest pre-ignited by the fire fighters. Of course, a fire of this size has happened before: think of the Yellowstone fires of 1988 which burned about half of the park and some adjacent landscape. Casting our thoughts back further, forgotten by most, we recall the terrible, city-devouring fires of the 1870-1910 logging era. At that time the practice of good forestry was to clear-cut an area of all merchantable timber, the results of which you can still see across the upper Midwest—immense stumps in pastures that haven’t grown up into thickets. Good management was also to pile and burn the slash from the tops of trees, the thought being that the plow followed the axe, despite the land’s poor soils and a growing season so short that few crops could support a farming industry. Somehow it would all work out, went the common wisdom. This idea extended back to the early forest-clearing days in New England and points east—and was exported to the Midwest and practiced by loggers and farmers alike.

The practice of burning slash, though, had its downside. First, it deprived the forest of nutrients. After taking the large logs away and sending the tops up in smoke, there wasn’t a lot of nutrition left in the soil to support a new crop of trees. Second, the fires often killed all the young pines that were waiting in the wings to grow up after the big pines had been taken away. Of course, the worst thing it did was to set the stage for catastrophic wildfires. Where these slash fires smoldered, all it took was weather conditions like those in Saskatchewan to ignite a firestorm.

If you ever get to Hinckley, Minnesota, there’s a museum dedicated to the devastating fires of 1894, which destroyed not only Hinckley but, in separate incidents, many other towns—Peshtigo, Wisconsin, and in Michigan, Holland, Manistee and Port Huron, to name a few—along with hundreds of thousands of acres of young timber. This set the region on a path to growing mostly aspen and birch, with scattered spruce and fir. Thus the original conifer-rich forest—full of pines, cedars, and hemlocks—was transformed in a couple decades to something very different. Hinckley’s survivors who fled north on a burning train and jumped into Skunk Lake—a shallow mudhole really—to escape the fire, spoke of three waves of flame passing overhead in the next several hours. The first was a true firestorm creating its own weather, with lightning, thunder, and a huge vacuuming of air to feed the flames—actually depriving people in the vicinity the oxygen to stay alive—many suffocated. This type of fire behavior was reported from Dresden, Germany, in the famous fire-bombing of that city, as well as above Fort McMurray in May. Picture this—massive cumulonimbus clouds towering over the fire, packed with energy due to the immense amount of heat being released, with thunder, lightning, and fast winds. Strange.

Cloud able to make its own weather, rising from the Birch Lake Complex Fires, NW Territories, Canada.  Smoke from these fires covered Minnesota in July 2014.  Photo Mike Gravel (from P. Huttner's Updraft Blog)

Cloud able to make its own weather, rising from the Birch Lake Complex Fires, NW Territories, Canada. Smoke from these fires covered Minnesota in July 2014. Photo Mike Gravel (from P. Huttner’s Updraft Blog)

The second and third fire waves the Hinckley survivors talked about swept through in the next few hours, perhaps using for fuel the tree trunks still standing, and perhaps also the humus of the forest floor, which would have been dried by the previous fire waves. People in our region have noted the low-productivity of many burned-over areas in the north woods, and perhaps this is part of the reason. In those days the forest floor was packed with material from partly decomposed fallen leaves, branches, and tree trunks, which, when dried out, make pretty good kindling. Think of dried peat, nothing but partly-decomposed plant parts, used as a fuel source for millennia in places with big peat bogs. The surface layer of peat is cut into bricks and dried for later burning. I saw it being done in Ireland years ago, using a tool called a “slawn”.

The Fort McMurray fire didn’t appear to have waves of flames—though there are stories of weird fire behavior. But it touched us personally. When it gets warm enough, we leave our windows open, especially when a big mass of Arctic air sweeps in, pushing far south into the Midwest. About a week after the Fort McMurray fire started, I woke up at three in the morning smelling smoke. We first thought something in the house was on fire. Then we thought something was burning outside—wood smoke from a chimney, somebody’s garage (which actually happened a few doors down!). Then it dawned on me—there was something familiar about the smell, something of the north woods in it, burning. I told Elizabeth, I think it’s just trees from somewhere far away. Sadly, we had to shut the windows because, with all that smoke swirling around the bedroom, we couldn’t sleep.

Smoke from the Fort McMurray fire covered Minnesota and points east in early May, 2016.  Image from NOAA.

Smoke from the Fort McMurray fire covered Minnesota and points east in early May, 2016. Image from NOAA.

I’d smelled this before, in August 2014, when our region was also blanketed with smoke from Canadian wildfires. It gave the world a strange look in the daytime. You couldn’t see clearly beyond half a mile—objects at that distance were oddly indistinct—and all surfaces, especially white ones, were tinged with pink because smoke scatters the sunlight in a certain way, letting mostly red hues show while the blues are muted. In any case, it’s a strange thing to live in a smoke-pallored place—the smell so pervasive it makes you feel a little claustrophobic until it clears out.

Some people want to directly connect the fires to global climate change, but truth be told, this thing has happened before due to many factors—suppression of wildfire and spraying for pest insects create the conditions that fuel megafires, for one. Maybe you can say that the record-setting El Niño set things up nicely for a catastrophic fire, which may be related to climate change. We won’t know for sure until a couple more decades of data have been gathered, parsed, and embedded in a computer model that matches what we see in the real world. What can be said is that the picture of regional drought being drawn by climate change models suggests that the number of fires will increase over time. If that turns out to be the future, we’ll have more firestorms and smoke-filled bedrooms. Beyond that, as a thoughtful scientist, I hesitate to speculate, but the poets among us could take it further in metaphor. My son-in-law, for instance, said to me, “Maybe you can think of it as the forest’s act of protest—self-immolation, like Buddhist monks protesting the Vietnam War.” That is an interesting idea—the planet itself rebelling against an authority it did not elect, one that is—intentionally or not—imposing its will on everything. – Kim

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