Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope everyone is having a healthy and blessed Thanksgiving today.

I have no idea where the cartoon from the right is from, otherwise I would cite it.


If you are able to, and would like to, this is a great time of the year to give to those who are lacking.

Here are a few great options for people to donate to if you are feeling moved. Please leave more suggestions in the comments, of other good alternatives.

Ossining Food Pantry
Westchester Food Bank
Long Island Cares
New York City Food Bank

Thanks for reading. Enjoy the holiday!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

South Korea threatens Madagascar's Rain Forests

The number one environmental problem is population growth. Population growth is in effect the cause of all other environmental issues. How do you know that your nation has a population growth problem? Perhaps when you have to start leasing lands in other countries to grow enough food to support your exploding population, as South Korea is presently having to do. The BBC reports that South Korea’s largest corporation is leasing huge tracts of land in Madagascar.

Madagascar is already under tremendous pressure from its own population for farmland. The rain forest there, which is home to many, many endangered species, is under tremendous pressure and is being destroyed at terrifyingly high rates. That pristine environments are now being threatened by population growth in nations thousands of miles away is a new threat.



Take a look at how ridiculous the population growth has been in the past 100 years (image taken from http://www.theoildrum.com/). At the same time the amount of land available for use on Earth has not increased at all. Leaving some nations in situations like those that are now being seen in South Korea, where people are outsourcing agriculture for their survival.


Daewoo is leasing the vast tract of land - half the size of Belgium - for 99 years and hopes to produce 5 million tonnes of corn a year by 2023.

It will use South African expertise and local labour on the plantations.
Asian countries have been trying to ensure access to food supplies after grain prices soared earlier this year.

Daewoo will also grow palm oil on another 300,000 acres of land leased in Madagascar.
The conglomerate is already developing a 50,000-acre corn farm in Indonesia in partnership with South Korea's biggest feed maker, Nonghyup Feed.

Other countries short of arable land, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have also been seeking agricultural investments in Africa or Asia.

And some African countries have expressed interest in receiving foreign investors.
Angola has offered farmland for development while Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, has said he was eager to see foreign companies take a stake in his country's agriculture.


My college roommate Kevin is in the Air Force and was stationed in Korea for a while. When last I spoke to him he had a strong impression of how very urbanized that nation is, as opposed to Germany (where he was stationed previously) and the United States. The article notes that South Korea is not alone, that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are also looking to acquire arable land by proxy. I suspect that other nations will be looking to outsource their food needs, as their population continues to explode. (My guess: Nigeria and the Philippines will soon be on this list).

The population growth issue brings up many spiritual and moral questions. It is one thing to have the communist government of China limit their subjects to one child per couple, but it is another thing for a free nation to impose such restrictions. Some faiths have come out as being strongly against birth control. How then do we deal with this great looming problem?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Microscope Images of Dust

Ever wonder what blown dust looks like under a microscope? No, you haven’t? Well then this post isn’t for you. Here we’re going to look at collected dust particles under extreme magnification, by way of the scanning electron microscope at the material science department at Stony Brook. If you’re interested in learning more about the machine check out the wikipedia page on how scanning electron microscropes work and then check out the gallery of images taken from the scanning electron microscope at Stony Brook, maintained by Jim Quinn. Some very cool shots over there.

The images we’re about to look at are taken at a very high magnification. The particles we are looking at are in actuality tiny, but here will appear to be quite large. From these images we get an idea of how big the dust is, how it is shaped, how dense it is on the filter and what the dust particles are made of (by mass spectroscopy).

The filter we are looking at is from Pensacola, Florida. We chose Florida because it is apt to be impacted by dust from North Africa (the Sahara Desert) and possibly from Asia too. This filter is from a particularly dusty period. The sample was shared with us by Atmospheric Research Inc, and we are grateful for their assistance.

The unit of length is measured in microns, or to be technical micro-meters. The human eye can detect objects down to about 40 microns in size. A grain of salt is about 60 microns in size. A human hair is 70 to 100 microns in diameter. The objects we are looking at are between 1 and 10 microns generally, so much smaller than what the naked eye can detect.

Image #1:

The spider-like dark grey strands are Teflon filbers. They interconnect in a weave to form the filter on which particles in the atmosphere are collected. I was quite surprised that the filter looked like this. I expected it to be much more solid, but as you can see it is quite porous, well at least on a particle level.

On the filter we see three flakes of dust one in the top left, one in the top right and one in the center. The dust appears to be white on the image. The brighter the color on the image the higher the atomic weight of the particle. Thus, heavier elements appear to be bright white, and light elements appear to be dark grey. The dust particles are well rounded and look to be quite physically weathered.

On the bottom of the image, on the footer, you can see the scale bar. Using the scale bar at the bottom we can estimate the dust particles to be about 2 microns in length.

From the spectral analysis, we see that this particle is composed mainly of silicon and oxygen, suggesting that this is likely sand. (Note if you are looking at the spectral analysis, that the fluorine peak is from the Teflon filter itself).

Image #7:

This is a much larger particle, coming in at about 5 microns in width and 10 microns in length. It has much sharper edges, suggesting it has not been weathered much.

Spectral analysis shows that this particle is composed of iron, nickel, chromium, calcium and aluminum; as well as silicon and oxygen. This suggests it is an iron oxide of some variety.

Image #10:

Again this is a very large particle, coming in at 7.5 microns in width and nearly 15 microns in length. The larger the particle the more likely it is from local sources. Large particles tend to be heavier and thus fall out of the atmosphere quicker. Thus we expect particles from distant sources like Africa and Asia to be small.

Spectral analysis suggests that this particle is composed of iron, chromium, calcium, and aluminum; as well as silicon and oxygen. This is likely an iron oxide as well.

Image #11:

This mammoth particle is over 20 microns in width and 15 microns in length. Note how smooth it looks, with rounded edges. There appear to be little deposits growing on top of the particle.

Spectral analysis shows that this particle is rich is calcium, oxygen, aluminum and silicon. It is likely calcium carbonate – with some sort mineral contained in the matrix.

Image #12:

Now we are looking at the type of particles that make up windblown dust, small and spherical, ready for flight. This particle weighs in at less than 1 micron in diameter.

Spectral analysis shows that it is composed of nearly pure lead!

Image #13:

Here is another small fellow (bright spot, center of image). He is composed of iron, zinc and sulphur.

Image #15:

Look in the center of the image for a small grey, box like image. The particle is about 1.5 microns by 1.5 microns. This is a crystal of pure sulphur. It has nearly perfectly squared edges.

Image #21:

Soil, dirt and sand aren’t the only particles in the atmosphere. Here we see signs of living material in the atmosphere. Take a look at the honey comb like particles in the middle of the image. I’m not a marine biologist, but those appear to be diatoms (a type of plankton from marine environments) or diatom like cells on top of a dust particle. It’s hard to tell but the strand of diatoms seem to continue downward over the dust particle, before their signal is subsumed.

I hope you enjoyed your fun science pictures of the day!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Catching up...

During the period I was away working BNL, I was looking at and archiving interesting articles to blog about when I got back. Well then came the election special, and now I’m all sorts of behind.

So here are a few articles that you might find interesting, that I just don’t have proper time to discuss here:

Scientists performing research in the Amazon have discovered a species of ancient ants, that are probably the forbearers to the common ant found today. Evolutionary ecologist have long suspected that ants descended from wasps, and that ancestor ants should look something like a hybrid between the two. The results are surprising. An image at the Times website had a really neat interactive picture of the ant, with notations about unique characteristics of the ancient ant.

The Hubbel telescope is back in operation after a data router failed in late September. NASA engineers were able to activate a backup system, which had not been used in 18 years. A mission to repair the data router has been delayed, as parts are not yet ready for the mission.

The worlds fisheries are in danger of collapsing in the next few decades, as overfishing and government mis-management puts tremendous pressure on fish populations. This recent report suggests private ownership of fish stocks can improve fish populations. There appears to be a certain “Tragedy of the Commons” feel to this story, as a public, community resource has been exploited over the past 50 years, to the point of which the shared resource is nearing the point of collapse.

Researchers at Yale University are attempting to return some now extinct turtles tortoises to existence. The tortoises, from the Galapagos Islands were decimated by whaling ships hunting them to extinction. This genetic manipulation is either exciting/scary/confusing depending on your perspective of genetics research.

Meanwhile German scientists have concluded that intermediate quantities of emitted dirt and dust enhances rainfall. Evidently there is a Goldilocks syndrome with respect to rain and earthborne particles; too little dirt and too much dirt leads to little rain. You need just the right amount of dirt to get a rainstorm. The article itself is a bit tough to read and contains a couple of misnomers (i.e. implying that humans have increased the amount of terrestrial aerosols by 5000% or 50x more), but explaining aerosols is difficult, so the author gets a pass from me.

If everyone knows the tree had fallen, and then someone finds the fallen tree, is it news? Image to the right shows the so called chemical-equator, a line which pollutants do not freely cross. Image taken from Hamilton et al, from AGU journals.



And lastly, we’ve known for quite some time that the northern and southern hemispheres exchange gasses slowly. Pollutants emitted in the Northern Hemisphere rarely enter the Southern Hemisphere because they are typically removed from the atmosphere much faster than air is transported in between the two hemispheres. Anyway, a group of Aussie scientists have evidently proven this experimentally, identifying a barrier between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. Question: if we already knew this, is it news?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Chicago's Carbon Cap and Trade


The City of Chicago is all set to launch a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions. The city is seen to the right, as viewed from a NASA satellite. Image source: NASA.

Both candidates in the presidential election supported a cap and trade system for the nation to reduce carbon emissions. As such it’s likely that we’ll see a national plan developed in the next few years. The city of Chicago is ahead of the game however, having started one in their metro region as reported by this article.


Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago on Thursday unveiled perhaps the most aggressive plan of any major American city to reduce heat-trapping gases.

The blueprint would change the city’s building codes to promote energy efficiency. It also calls for installing huge solar panels at municipal properties and building alternative fueling stations.

….

Like hundreds of other cities, Chicago has pledged by 2020 to reduce the emissions of heat-trapping gases 25 percent from the levels in 1990, the baseline established by the Kyoto Protocol, an international climate treaty. Mr. Burke said the Chicago plan offered much more specific ways than other cities’ plans to measure and cut the emissions.



The challenge facing cap and trade programs is implementation. It’s one thing to limit emissions, and a second thing to empower citizens, small businesses and industry to make the changes necessary to achieve emission reductions. For a city to succeed it must develop a multi-faceted plan, addressing private and public transportation, residential energy consumption, commercial energy consumption, government energy consumption, as well as low impact water and sanitation systems. Chicago’s proposal is a comprehensive one, addressing issues from renewable, alternative fuels, to building design and reducing water consumption.


“People think in terms of polar ice caps and rising ocean levels,” Mr. Burke said, “but this takes a look at what would happen to a Midwestern city like Chicago if nothing is done.”

By the end of the century, if no action is taken, he said, Chicago is likely to face 30 more days of 100-degree weather per year, as well as stretches of severe drought.
“The climate of Chicago,” Mr. Burke said, “would resemble what is currently East Texas.”

This was the first time a major American city has produced models to show local effects of global warming, he added.


The mayor argues why he is enacting these changes on a region scale, when climate change is truly a global problem.


“We can’t solve the world’s climate change problem in Chicago,” Mr. Daley said at a news conference at the John G. Shedd Aquarium, “but we can do our part.”


Mayor Bloomberg, who is pushing hard for a third term in spite of recent public referendums supporting term limits, has begun investigation how New York City could handle the effects of climate change, but has not yet proposed a cap and trade for the city. It is likely that he will not be willing or able to do so under the current economic conditions.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Thanks for reading!

Hello Dear Readers***,

Thanks for reading the blog. We're a bit over two months old now, and we're at about 40 posts. Last week was a highlight for the blog. In addition to our much anticipated election special we received a bit of national attention.

Joe Posnanski, a columnist for the Kansas City Star and Sports Illustrated, who has been twice cited by the Associated Press Editors as the best sports columnist of the year, wrote a blog post citing my rant railing against Bud Selig's verbal trashing of weathermen. The article was also picked up at the very popular LoHud Yankees Blog by Peter Abraham, which is probably the first stop I make on the internet every morning. Later on in the week the blog post was also picked up in an internal NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) newsletter and carried as the first topic. A friend of the blog notes that this is circulated not only at NOAA but also on capitol hill to congressional offices. So I remain quite excited about all the excitement that one innocent post generated. Hopefully we can continue to provide some interesting, and occasionally provocative material for your consumption.

So, thanks again for reading and keep commenting. If you would like to contribute to the blog or have an issue that you'd like to see discussed, please let me know and I'll be happy to address it if I can.

Yours Truly,

Owen

Monday, November 3, 2008

Election 2008: Metro Environmental Blog Endorsements

In case you missed it, we've spent the last few days discussing the presidential candiates' positions on environmental issues. We've talked about Funding Science Research, Alternative Energy, Non-Renwable Energy, and Climate Change. Today we make some endorsements for local and federal elections, based on the candidates environmental voting records and proposals.

State Senate:


Ken LaVelle (R) – District 1 (Eastern Suffolk).

Endorsed by New York Conservation League. Has a long term history of environmental stewardship.

John Flanagan (R) – District 2 (Northwestern Suffolk).

His opponent does not appear capable of handling the responsibilities of state senate. Senator Flanagan does not appear to take much interest in the environment, instead pursing other issues in Albany. We’d like to hear more from him on the environment but endorse him none the less.

Brian Foley (D) – District 3 (Southwestern Suffolk)

His opponent, 82 year old Cesar Trunzo is no longer an active legislature, having not spoken on the Senate floor in over 2 years. Brian Foley did a good job cleaning up corruption in Brookhaven Town, and will do a good job in Albany too.


Representatives:


Tim Bishop (D) - District 1 (Eastern Long Island)
Tim Biship has long been a friend to environmental causes and improving higher education. Comes endorsed by the New York League of Conservation Voters.

Jim Hall (D) - District 19 (Middle Hudson Valley, Northern Westchester)
Strong voting record on the environment, received a score of 100% from League of Conservation Voters.

Nita Lowey (D) - District 18 (Westchester County)
Strong voting record on the environment, received a score of 100% from League of Conservation Voters.

State Assembly:


Steve Engelbright (D) – District 4 (Stony Brook, Port Jefferson)
A member of the Geosciences faculty at Stony Brook University, he is one of the few science educated members of the Assembly. He comes highly endorsed for his deep seeded support of the environment and higher education. He is endorsed by the New York League of Conservation Voter.

Sandy Galef (D) – District 37 (Ossining, Yorktown)
Ms. Galef is a long time assemblywoman, and has a demonstrated long term record of supporting environmentally friendly legislation. She is endorsed by the New York League of Conservation Voter.

US President


I am endorsing and supporting Barack Obama for President of the United States of America, based on his proposed plan for energy and the environment.

I have long admired Senator John McCain, so much so in fact that I agreed to trade my vote in the Democratic Primary with the vote of a friend who was a Republican. I would pull the lever for Barack Obama for her, if she would vote for John McCain for me. So this election was, until a certain point, a relatively difficult decision for me.

Senator McCain, I believe will tackle greenhouse gas emissions comprehensively. I like his proposal to increase nuclear power, and his opposition to federal corn subsidies. I don’t quite understand his lukewarm support for wind and solar power, and wish he would commit to increasing funding for the hard sciences. I cringe at his desire to pursue offshore drilling, and find his overwhelming support for coal energy to be quite disappointing. Overall Senator McCain has a modest proposal to handle the environment, that is most likely acceptable to address the challenges we will face this century.

However, Senator Obama’s environmental policy is more than acceptable, it’s both exciting and visionary and will make the United States into a leader on environmental issues. Senator Obama receives high marks for his support for wind and solar energy, his willingness to increase funding of science research, and his support science education. I hope that he continues to qualify his support for coal and offshore drilling, and I pray that his support for corn subsidies wanes as he shifts his responsibilities to representing the people of Illinois to representing the people of America. Senator Obama could be the first president since Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter to truly advance environmental stewardship in the United States, and now more than ever that sort of leadership is needed.

While Senator Obama has a better plan, it was not so superior to Senator McCain to sway me in voting overall. But frankly, I lost my admiration for Senator McCain when he nominated Sarah Palin to be his vice president. Her environmental record as Governor of Alaska is frightening. She has routinely ignored science research, and instead has supported polices that agree with her ideology. She doesn’t believe that man has caused global warming, and will not take the decisive actions needed to curb our emissions. She has a history of being insensitive to biodiversity concerns, except when industry can be hurt by the results. Sarah Palin is not qualified to be vice-president of the United States, and should God forbid anything happen to Senator McCain, she would be an absolute disaster as a president.

So on Tuesday I will be voting for Barack Obama. Not so much as casting a vote for him, but rather casting a vote against Sarah Palin. Thanks for reading this series. Regular posting will continue on Wednesday.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Election 2008: Climate Change

Today we continue our look at the two presidential candidates' positions on environmental science issues. We’ve previously looked at the candidates’ positions on Funding Science Research, Alternative Energy, and non-Renewable Energy. Today we conclude our discussion with a look at how the candidates will tackle the looming challenge of climate change.

I’m ready to be done with this election. I’m tired of seeing attack ads on the sides of highways, hearing damning reports on the radio and having a steam of slanderous video beamed into my living room. I’m certainly tired of hearing about the latest polls from Pennsylvania, Nevada or North Carolina. And I’m definitely tired of writing these long winded research intensive posts that have seemingly generated very little interest.

Do the candidates believe that climate change is occurring?
Obama:

There can no longer be any doubt that human activities are influencing the global climate and we must react quickly and effectively.


McCain:

We know that greenhouse gas emissions, by retaining heat within the atmosphere, threaten disastrous changes in the climate. The same fossil-fuels that power our economic engine also produced greenhouse gases that retain heat and thus threaten to alter the global climate….The facts of global warming demand our urgent attention, especially in Washington.


Okay great, glad we’re all on the same page here.

What actions will you take to address the situation?
McCain:

To dramatically reduce carbon emissions, I will institute a new cap-and-trade system…


Obama:

Specifically, I will implement a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions…


Alright, everyone’s on the same page, this is going to be a short post! Both McCain and Obama state that their cap and trade program will reduce US emissions to 1990’s levels by 2020, and then to a cut 60% (McCain) or 80% (Obama) on current emissions by 2050. In essence the same thing.

McCain in his answer proposes a few additional steps:
- Increasing the penalty for not meeting CAFÉ standards. CAFÉ standards set the gas mileage standards for passenger vehicles in the United States. Senator McCain does not however indicate a desire to increase standards, which Senator Obama proposes to do.
- Senator McCain proposes to create a research and development tax credit to those businesses producing greenhouse gas friendly products.
- Senator McCain proposes a $300 million dollar prize for the creation of a battery to power hybrid-electric vehicles.

The Devil is in the details…
So Senators McCain and Obama have similar perspectives on global warming, similar goals and share a mechanism by which to address it. Both propose a cap and trade, but each would go about implementing their cap and trade in different ways.

First, let’s shed a bit of light on what a cap and trade is. A regulating body, in the form of a government sets a limit (cap) on the total amount of pollutants to be allowed. The total amount of pollutants is divided into small increments, otherwise called “credits,” and are distributed to those doing the polluting. If a polluter produces more pollution than it has credits for, it must purchase additional credits from a polluter who has not used all of theirs. Thus trading industry is developed, with fiscal incentives for companies to reduce the amount of pollution produced. The total cap is often reduced incrementally, so as to over time slowly reduce the total amount of pollution a nation is producing.

This concept is not new to the United States. There is a cap and trade system in place for sulphur and nitrogen oxides, a gas most commonly produced from coal burning.

There are two major variables in a cap and trade: the initial allocation of credits and at what level the “cap” is set. The candidates are more or less in agreement of the cap, that is to say they have a specific goal to be at by 2020. But how the candidates would initially distribute the carbon credits is different. Senator Obama would auction off carbon credits, whereas Senator McCain would give allotments to companies based on current emissions.

Conclusion:
Both Senator Obama and Senator McCain are in agreement about climate change being the fault of mankind. Both Senators agree that US needs to take a leadership role. Senator McCain supports market based, Senator Obama supports federal regulations (mandates). Both would address the situation by implementing a cap and trade. There are slight differences in how the candidates would initially distribute their carbon credits. From what I read environmentalists tend to prefer Senator Obama’s cap and trade program, but both candidates get good marks from me for their desire to tackle climate change.

Another reference that might be interesting is grist.org’s candidates factsheets about the environment. Click here for Obama’s and here for McCain’s. Actually those factsheets cover pretty much everything we discussed over the past four posts but much more succinctly.

Oh well, next we’ll hear my endorsement for President, along with a few other races in the New York Metro Region.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Election 2008: Science Funding

Today we continue our look at the two presidential candidates' positions on environmental science issues. Yesterday we talked about their alternative energy proposals, and on Wednesday we spoke of their non-renewable energy proposals. Today we're talking about how they will fund science research, and next Monday we will conclude with their positions on climate change and my endorsement.


America has prospered in the recent decades due to scientific, technological and engineering advances. Since the Second World War, America has been home to the worlds most advance science research, a situation which is expected to change within the next decade as China and Europe pass the United States.

The Case for Science
Education. America is no longer producing men and women educated in math and science in numbers necessary to run the engines of our economy and perform world class research. America is importing young scientists from foreign countries to perform research, many of whom get their education for free from America and then return to their home countries. It is important that we develop math and science programs in middle school, high school and college that produce students capable of contributing to the nation.

National Security. A strong national math and science program is needed to develop the engineers and scientists who work for national security programs, developing weapons and technology to keep American’s and America’s servicemen and women from harm.

Pride. America’s pre-eminence in the space program has been a point of pride for our nation, that has driven our technological advances and propelled many a great scientific career. Today the success of the United States space program is threatened both by government budget cuts and the rapid advances being made in China and Europe.

Recent History
While the United States debt continues to spiral out of control, research funds for science have remained flat or declined in the past 15 years. I realize that web comics are generally not a great source for data, this comic taken from PhD comics is a well researched and properly cited reference.



Although there are a lot of lines on this chart, but a couple lines tell the picture. The blue and red lines represent genetic research and health research funding. Both begin increasing in federal support in the later half of the Clinton administration and continue growing through the first half of the Bush administration. At the same time the yellow, purple and pink lines, which represent space research, environmental research and energy research begin decreasing, and continue doing so to the present. The government has increased health research at the expense of science research. Military research which had declined from 1988 to 2000, has been increasing rapidly, exceeding the total research spent during the cold war.

So in general the government has decreased research funding to hard sciences, while increasing research funding to health and military.

Candidates Positions
The candidates explained their positions on science research and innovation at Sciencedebate2008.com. Here are some highlights.

Philosophies. To those of you paying attention to the election the candidates perspective on science research follows along with the candidates economic plan. Senator McCain favors removing wasteful earmarks, and reallocating those funds to science and reducing government oversight to allow unfettered research. Senator Obama favors increasing research funds for the hard sciences, and promoting educational programs for young scientists. This is as close as you get to the stereotypical “Regan Limited Government Disciple” vs. “Liberal Tax and Spend” positions on the entire campaign.

McCain

• Appoint a Science and Technology Advisor within the White House to ensure that the role of science and technology in policies is fully recognized and leveraged, that policies will be based upon sound science, and that the scientific integrity of federal research is restored;

• Eliminate wasteful earmarks in order to allocate funds for science and technology investments;

• Fund basic and applied research in new and emerging fields such as nanotechnology and biotechnology, and in greater breakthroughs in information technology;

• Promote greater fiscal responsibility by improving the scientific and engineering management within the federal government;

• Ensure U.S. leadership in space by promoting an exploration agenda that will combine the discoveries of our unmanned probes with new technologies to take Americans to the Moon, Mars, and beyond;

• Grow public understanding and popularity of mathematics and science by reforming mathematics and science education in schools;


Senator McCain appears to continue the trend set by President Bush of funding health research. President Bush also gave NASA a mandate to increase the space exploration program, and land a manned vessel on Mars. While this is a noble goal, NASA ended up redirecting funds from Earth based environmental research into the Mars project, as no additional funds were allotted by the Predient or Congress. Senator McCain appears to support President Bush’s Mars mandate, and it is unclear if he will provided additional funds to NASA so that they can accomplish this without decreasing Earth based research.

Obama

My administration will increase funding for basic research in physical and life sciences, mathematics, and engineering at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade. We will increase research grants for early-career researchers to keep young scientists entering these fields. We will increase support for high-risk, high-payoff research portfolios at our science agencies. And we will invest in the breakthrough research we need to meet our energy challenges and to transform our defense programs.

A vigorous research and development program depends on encouraging talented people to enter science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and giving them the support they need to reach their potential. My administration will work to guarantee to students access to strong science curriculum at all grade levels so they graduate knowing how science works – using hands-on, IT-enhanced education. As president, I will launch a Service Scholarship program that pays undergraduate or graduate teaching education costs for those who commit to teaching in a high-need school, and I will prioritize math and science teachers. Additionally, my proposal to create Teacher Residency Academies will also add 30,000 new teachers to high-need schools – training thousands of science and math teachers. I will also expand access to higher education, work to draw more of these students into science and engineering, and increase National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate fellowships. My proposals for providing broadband Internet connections for all Americans across the country will help ensure that more students are able to bolster their STEM achievement.


In 2005 I received an honorable mention in the NSF Graduate Fellowship program. I would have received three years of tuition and support, had the program been fully funded by the Clinton and Bush administrations. Instead I have been supported by teaching assistantships from the university, which has greatly slowed my academic progress as I have to teach in order to recieve my tuition and stipend. So, I understand first hand what the budget cuts to NSF have meant to young scientists. Hearing Senator Obama support this program, is heartening to me, although I am the first to admit that I am quite obviously biased about this issue.

Senator Obama also mentions that he would increase the support to the physical sciences, and increase support into new energy development, which is in my opinion greatly needed after years of funding cuts to these programs.

Conclusion I don’t think I can offer an objective analysis of the two positions. It will come down to voter preference of government philosophy, should the federal government step back and be a “small” government or should it increase funding of sciences and be a “large” government. Personally I feel that since if the government doesn’t fund this research, no one will, so we need to invest in science and engineering for the future of our nation. But I do respect the opinion of those who feel that the federal government is too large, and we need to cut spending and programs.

Senator Obama gives specific examples of programs that will encourage young scientists, and moreso than that also provide financial support that will ensure American Universities will continue to provide competent scientists and engineers to power our economy. As such I favor his position here, but must admit that I am badly biased. I would love to hear from you if you disagree.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Election 2008: Alternative, Renewable Energies

One of the more striking impressions I’ve gotten from the presidential candidates is what their motivation for their environmental stewardship is. Senator John McCain appears to be passionate about protecting the environment. It’s obvious that he cares deeply about the environment and protects it out of moral concern. Senator Barack Obama also takes great interest in the environment. But it appears, to me at least, that he views the environment as an economic issue. We should do what’s right for the environment because it will cost us in the long run if we don’t, and if we do it correctly it might actually help the economy. I’m not sure which is the better philosophy, nor am I sure if that even matters. Both candidates seem to have their hearts in the right place, even if how their heart got their varies greatly. It would seem that environmental advocacy has come a long way.

Alternative, Renewable Energy Policy

If you’ve been watching television ads during the election, you’ve no doubt been bombarded with pictures of windmills and solar panels on verdant rolling fields. Both candidates have come out strongly endorsing alternative energies as an important means for achieving energy independence. So our task today is to understand the nuisances of each candidates' policies, to see who has a better feel for what alternative, renewable fuels are.

First some definitions. An alternative fuel is any energy source that provides an alternative from traditional fossil fuels. Thus “clean” coal is not an alternative fuel, as it is a fossil fuel. A renewable fuel is one that is regenerated quicker than humans consume it. Solar, wind, hydro-electric, tidal power are all examples of renewable fuels.

Today we’re going to talk about a couple of alternative energies possibilities, we’ll look at ethanol, a biofuel on which the candidates differ in opinion greatly as well as solar and wind power, on which both candidates have only slightly different platforms.

Biofuels


The positions: Here a major philosophical difference between the two candidates is evident. Senator Obama is for government mandates and Senator McCain favors government incentives. John McCain supports producing biofuels from cellulosic ethanol, and cutting the massive corn subsidies from the Federal government. Barack Obama supports producing ethanol from corn, and continuing corn subsidies to ensure the price of corn stays low.

McCain

John McCain Believes Alcohol-Based Fuels Hold Great Promise As Both An Alternative To Gasoline And As A Means of Expanding Consumers' Choices. Some choices such as ethanol are on the market right now. The second generation of alcohol-based fuels like cellulosic ethanol, which won't compete with food crops, are showing great potential.

Today, Isolationist Tariffs And Wasteful Special Interest Subsidies Are Not Moving Us Toward An Energy Solution. We need to level the playing field and eliminate mandates, subsidies, tariffs and price supports that focus exclusively on corn-based ethanol and prevent the development of market-based solutions which would provide us with better options for our fuel needs.


Senator McCain supports biofuels, but not a continuation of our current policy. He would end massive corn subsidies, and place the focus on cellustic ethanol production with would reduce the impact of corn based ethanol production on food costs.

Obama
Barack Obama has little to nothing to say about ethanol on the “energy and environment” section of his website. He mentions biofuels time and time again, but leaves the specifics out of how exactly he would produce the ethanol.

Senator Obama comes from Illinois, one of the leading corn producing states in the nation, as the table shows below. One can imagine that his historical support for producing ethanol from corn is at least partly a result of his states reliance on corn for its economy. It’s unclear what he would do as president, but his voting record clearly suggests that he supports federal subsidies for corn and the production of ethanol from corn.

Table. Corn yield by state in 1,000 of bushels. Data from 2004, from the Center for Transportation Analysis at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.



This article from msnbc, scroll down from to the “fact file” and click on energy in the environment, states that Obama would:


“Expand federal requirements for ethanol from 36 million gallons to 60 million gallons a year with increase coming from non-corn sources.”


The Case for Ethanol
Portability. As a society we will likely need a liquid fuel supply to support our transportation system. Generation of alcohol from biomass is a great way of generating liquid fuel. No other alternative energy sources produce liquid fuel (others produce electricity).

Energy Independence. The Great Plains of America produce, not surprisingly, lots of grains. Biofuels represent an excellent way to reduce our dependence on foreign supplies of energy.

The Case Against Ethanol
Using Food for Fuel. Americans are used to inexpensive food. Using food products that are widely used in commercial food preparation negatively affects the average American, as reflected in increasing food costs.

Celluistic Ethanol Production. The way to go in producing fuel from biomass is likely through transformation of waste biomass, like corn husks. These are products that are not used as food, thus it would not increase food prices.

Government Subsidies The government provides massive subsidies, in the form of payments and tax breaks to corn farmers. While well intended, this policy is not helping small farmers, and has focused nearly all of our efforts on producing biofuels from corn, which may not be the best source for such fuels.

Low Energy Yields Corn based ethanol is lower in energy yield than sugar cane based ethanol. Put another way, it takes more corn to produce enough energy for your car than other potential fuels. Switchgrass and sugar cane are better materials from which to produce ethanol. The federal government needs to fund research on these other crops, and reduce corn subsidies so if these crops are superior, they can exert their economic superiority in the free market.

Producing Fertilizer. Corn requires massive quantities of fertilizer and water irrigation to grow. Fertilizer requires fossil fuels to be produced. In effect we are using fossil fuels to produce biofuels, which does not help us achieve energy independence or reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. We need to utilize crops that require less fertilizer and less water irrigation to make biofuels economically and environmentally feasible.

Over Fertilization. Massive fertilization of corn leads to fertilizer running off the surface in stream water, and ultimately to the Mississippi River. This leads to the grow of marine algae in the River, which eventually die. As they die they are respired, consuming oxygen. This oxygen is not available to marine organisms like fish and shrimp. This is known as eutrophication and is negatively affecting the fishing industry along the Gulf Coast.

In the picture below you can see lifeless, low-oxygen water pouring out of the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. A major reason for this low oxygen content is over fertilization of fields for corn harvesting. Image source: NASA.



Conclusion: Both candidates favor increasing the quantity of biofuels available for American consumption. However, Senator John McCain has the superior proposal for biofuels. Senator McCain stresses the use of cellusistic ethanol, which would not place a burden on our food system. Senator McCain would eliminate corn subsidies, which make for an uneven playing field. As a nation we need to develop a biofuel that is sustainable, and energy rich. Government subsidies are providing a massive advantage to corn, which means our nation may grow to depend on an inferior fuel source. Let the free market determine what the best biofuel source is. Here Senator Barack Obama is potentially sending our nation down a perilous path, with his continued subsidies for corn.

Wind and Solar Power


Positions:
A better discussion of the issue than I can present is presented here at factcheck.org.

Both candidates have expressed large vocal support for wind and solar power. Wind and solar power have been stressed more by Senator Obama, than Senator McCain, who prefers nuclear and coal technology in the short term. Senator Obama has voted consistently in favor of wind and solar power in the senate, whereas Senator McCain has missed a number of key votes on the subject.

Obama:

Ten-year, $150 billion fund for biofuels, wind, solar, plug-in hybrids, clean-coal technology and other "climate-friendly" measures.


Senator Obama lays out a clear plan for developing these technologies.

McCain:
Senator McCain talks a great game about wind and solar power, but his policy page doesn’t have much to say about how exactly he would implement them. He has also not supported these energy sources in the senate, missing a number of key votes on the issue. This is surprising to me given how much Arizona and their abundant sunshine would benefit from increased solar power technology.

Case for Wind & Solar
Environmentally Friendly. These options are the most environmentally friendly option of producing energy as they do not produce any greenhouse gasses.

It’s Necessary. If not today, in 10 years or 20 years we’re going to need these sources of energy as our domestic oil and gas reserves dwindle, and the global price of oil and gas increase. Whomever wins the election, the next president will sign an international agreement limiting carbon dioxide emissions, and we will need these technologies to be producing large portions of our energy.

Green Economy. As a nation we must develop solar and wind technology faster than China, India and Europe. Over the next 50 years the global energy economy will shift towards these sources, and its in our best interests to be an exporter of this technology, and be able to manufacture such components.

Case Against Wind & Solar
Technology. The technology for generating electricity from solar energy is lacking, and needs to be developed. Wind technology has improved by leaps and bounds in the past 10 years, but more improvements can be made. The government needs to invest in research on wind and solar to ensure America remains a technology leader.

Infrastructure. As previously discussed in the blog, where the greatest wind and solar power potential is, our national electric grid is unable to handle the energy generated. The next president will have to spend federal funds improving the grid if wind and solar power are to be developed.

Conclusions Senator Obama’s proposal is a good start, but does not go far enough in my opinion. Wind and solar power provide energy we can generate domestically for eternity. We need to develop these technologies. Senator McCain’s proposal is lacking in specifics. His voting record is not strong on this issue.

Okay, today the candidates split the issues, McCain has a better biofuel plan and Obama has a better alternative energy plan.

Tomorrow, we’ll check in on how the candidates plan to fund science research.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Election 2008: Non-Renewable Energy

Non-Renewable Energy Policy

It’s usually easy to identify the candidate who has sounder environmental policy, scroll to the Democratic ticket row of your voting machine, and pull the lever. But not this year. It’s a crazy political year, I daresay. Red is blue, blue is red and up is down. The Republicans have nominated a senator who proposed the first legislation to fight global warming and the Democrats have nominated a senator who has made his support of coal and nuclear power a major portion of his energy bill. In my opinion neither candidate would be an environmental disaster, which is a stark change from the past few elections. Both candidates have good environmental records, and we owe it to them to consider their policy in detail. With that in mind, let’s take a close look at the candidates environmental policy on Non-Renewable Energy. I think there are a lot of things we could talk about, but in the interest of time we’re going to focus on coal burning, nuclear energy and off-shore drilling.

I’ve already talked about the difference between alternative and renewable fuels, but here is how we define a renewable fuel.


A renewable energy source is one that the fuel or energy source is rejuvenated quicker by natural processes than we consume the fuel.


As such all fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) are non-renewable. As is nuclear power, as the fuel (uranium or plutonium) does not regenerate.

Coal Burning


The positions: Both candidates support additional development of coal fueled energy.

McCain: McCain says:


John McCain Will Commit $2 Billion Annually To Advancing Clean Coal Technologies. Coal produces the majority of our electricity today. Some believe that marketing viable clean coal technologies could be over 15 years away. John McCain believes that this is too long to wait, and we need to commit significant federal resources to the science, research and development that advance this critical technology. Once commercialized, the U.S. can then export these technologies to countries like China that are committed to using their coal - creating new American jobs and allowing the U.S. to play a greater role in the international green economy.


The McCain-Palin website mistakenly identifies coal use as a both “clean” and an “alternative” energy source. Coal energy is neither clean nor it is an alternative energy source as it is a fossil fuel.

McCain has expressed steady support for coal technology through the years. This position is fairly popular with the large American oil companies, who have strongly supported McCain this election cycle. If McCain wins the election there is no doubt that coal energy will be a major point in his energy policy.

It is unclear from his policy point if this coal energy development would be subject to McCain’s proposed market driven cap-and-trade system for carbon credits (we will discuss this in the future).

Obama:


Whereas McCain professes unwavering support of coal energy, Obama appears to be tying his support of coal into the development and deployment of clean coal technology. Coal use would also be subject to regulation from the carbon permit trading program.

Obama appears particularly interested in developing technologies that convert coal to oil or gas. This application is also strongly supported by the U.S. military.

The case for coal:
Abundance. Both candidates favor “clean coal technology” as a major part of their energy plan. A major reason for such thinking is our abundant energy reserves of coal could make coal an excellent way to achieve energy independence. At our current consumption rates, it is estimated that we have well over 100 years of coal reserves in North America, as opposed to about 15 years of oil and 50 years of natural gas.

Infrastructure. We have the infrastructure in place to utilize our coal reserves. There are many, many coal burning power plants (especially east of the Mississippi). No federal funds would be required to continue using coal, and industry has plenty of economic incentive to invest in additional coal plants because the energy is so cheap.

It’s cheap. Because it’s so abundant and we have the infrastructure in place, coal energy will produce cheap energy, which is a very important factor given today’s economy.

Swing States. The table below shows that a number of the major coal producing states are considered in play by both candidates. By my estimation West Virginia (#2), Pennsylvania (#4), Montana (#5), Colorado (#7), Indiana (#8) and North Dakota (#10) are all being actively campaigned in by both sides, and all of these states are major coal producers.

Table. Coal production by state in 2007. Coal production in thousands of short tons. Data taken from the Department of Energy. States of interest highlighted in red.



Home State Influence. Senators Biden and Obama (IL - #9) both come from states where coal is an important industry, and thus are under tremendous pressure to support it in the senate. (Little known fact, Joe Biden grew up in Scranton, PA., they really should talk about that more.) Senator McCain represents Arizona which is the #18 coal producing state, and Governor Palin hails from Alaska which is then #22 coal producing state.

The Case Against Coal:
Coal is filthy. Coal is the dirtiest form of energy available to man for consumption. Burning coal produces ash (particulate matter) which possess a major threat to human health. Burning coal produces air born mercury, which is highly toxic and accumulates in fish before humans consume it. Burning coal produces loads of sulfur dioxide, which in the presence of water vapor in the atmosphere produces acid rain. Burning coal produces nitrogen dioxide, which contributes greatly to ozone formation, which is a major air pollutant.

Coal mining is environmentally unsound. The process by which coal is removed from the Earth is terribly dangerous to coal mine workers. The process by which coal is removed from the Earth is incredibly environmentally destructive to the mountains from which it is removed, often as a product of strip mining, which can lead to acid mine drainage into local waterways.

Clean Coal Technology. First of a definition. Clean coal technology is any technology that reduces the quantity of pollution produced from coal burning. The most common form of "clean" coal technology is scrubbers, which remove fly ash from coal plants. Clean coal technology isn’t actually clean. Today, clean coal technology reduces the amount of fly ash (and other particulate), mercury (and other toxic metals), and to a lesser extent reduces the amount of sulfur dioxide (leads to acid rain) and nitrogen oxides (leads to ozone formation) produced from coal burning. However, today these “clean” coal technologies do not remove these pollutants from the emission process, just reduce them. Most of the time, even with “clean” coal technology coal burning plants still produce tremendous quantities of air pollutants, greatly exceeding that produced from natural gas.

Greenhouse Gasses. Coal burning produces prodigious quantities of carbon dioxide. As such coal burning is a major contributor to global warming, increasing especially quickly in China. Both McCain and Obama support investing in carbon sequestration, a process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the coal driven pollution, and returned to the ground. These technology has not yet been produced, and the environmental impacts of the sequestration is poorly known.

Portability. Coal burning produces energy for electricity, but is not used to produce fuels for transportation so it’s utility is somewhat limited at the current time.

Conclusion. I support neither candidates platform on this issue as both candidates support this environmentally unfriendly process. Obama attaches more conditions to the development of this energy source, but both would feature clean coal technology in their energy plan.

Nuclear Energy


The positions: Both candidates support additional development of nuclear energy.
Obama:




Obama supports development of nuclear power, but only after we have developed a system for handing the waste process. This position puts Obama at odds with his more liberal supporters, who in general strongly oppose the development of nuclear energy. He opposes the use of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a repository.

Illinois is home to many nuclear reactors, six plants with a total of 11 reactors. This no doubt impacts Senator Obama’s position on the issue.

McCain:

John McCain Will Put His Administration On Track To Construct 45 New Nuclear Power Plants By 2030 With The Ultimate Goal Of Eventually Constructing 100 New Plants. Nuclear power is a proven, zero-emission source of energy, and it is time we recommit to advancing our use of nuclear power. Currently, nuclear power produces 20% of our power, but the U.S. has not started construction on a new nuclear power plant in over 30 years. China, India and Russia have goals of building a combined total of over 100 new plants and we should be able to do the same. It is also critical that the U.S. be able to build the components for these plants and reactors within our country so that we are not dependent on foreign suppliers with long wait times to move forward with our nuclear plans.


McCain expresses unwavering support for nuclear energy. He proposes constructing 45 new nuclear plants by 2030. This number is thought by engineers to be unreasonable, as there are no industrial facilities in the United States presently capable of constructing commercial nuclear power facilities. Also, at present the United States does not have sufficient nuclear engineers needed to run 45 additional nuclear power plants. Senator McCain supports use of Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a repository of spent fuel.

Arizona is home to a nuclear plant, with three reactors. Arizona has a large portion of our nation’s uranium ore. Development of nuclear power would likely provide a boost to the Arizona economy.

The Case for Nuclear:
The Only Alternative. Nuclear power at the present time represents the only alternative fuel capable of meeting America’s electric power consumption at the present time. It may be a viable short term solution between now, and when alternative, renewable energy sources (i.e. wind, solar, tides, geothermal…) are available and technically feasible.

It’s safer. Technological developments have made nuclear energy safer than ever. Reactors used at Chernobyl or Three Mile Island are now obsolete and have been replaced with much safer designs.

The Case Against Nuclear Energy:
Cost. Nuclear energy is significantly more expensive than energy produced from fossil fuels, and even some alternatives.

NIMBY. Not in my backyard. It is very difficult to find a location for a nuclear power plant, since no communities want to take on the risk of nuclear incidence.

Nuclear Waste. Upon use, nuclear fuel produces a radioactive waste stream. At the current time, the United States has no central location to handle nuclear waste. Instead it is stored at the site of the nuclear power plant. This represents a security and health risk. It would be advisable to store all nuclear waste in a central location that could be monitored, and the nuclear waste health impacts limited to a small location.

Lacking Infrastructure. When fuel is used in a nuclear power plant, a percentage of the fuel that is produced as waste is recoverable and could be used as reprocessed fuel in the future. At present, this excess fuel is dumped in with the waste fuel and not recovered. The United States needs to develop a central re-processing plan to handle this nuclear fuel, and recover as much usable fuel as possible, if we are to develop nuclear energy on a federal level.

Transport of Waste. Even if the United States develops a central repository and reprocessing center, many states have regulations forbidding the transportation of nuclear waste through their borders. A safe transportation system would have to be developed.

Nuclear Proliferation. Even though the threat of global nuclear winter has been reduced, regional nuclear wars are still possible (i.e. India-Pakistan). Increasing the number of nuclear plants increases our countries ability to produces new nuclear weapons, which may be an obstacle to the bi-lateral weapon reduction program we are entered in with Russia.

Yucca Mountain. The United States has spent a tremendous amount of money developing Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository. There is some debate as to whether or not Yucca Mountain is a safe place to store nuclear waste, due to the possibilities of earthquakes in the region.

Conclusion: Despite the risk, I am personally strongly in favor of additional utilization of nuclear energy. I realize this is not the popular environmental sentiment, but I believe the risk can be minimized, and positive from the reduction in greenhouse gasses outweighs the negative. Both candidates agree with my position. I prefer Senator Obama’s proposal because it includes a comprehensive discussion of the need to develop a repository and reprocessing plant, which would be vital if our nation moves in that direction.

Off Shore Drilling


The positions: Unlike the previous two energy possibilities, the two candidates differ strongly on this issue. Senator McCain has expressed strong support for off-shore drilling. Senator Obama has tepid support for it, and appears to intend to use it as leverage to get his energy legislation advanced.

McCain: “Drill, baby, drill.”


John McCain Will Commit Our Country To Expanding Domestic Oil Exploration. The current federal moratorium on drilling in the Outer Continental Shelf stands in the way of energy exploration and production. John McCain believes it is time for the federal government to lift these restrictions and to put our own reserves to use. There is no easier or more direct way to prove to the world that we will no longer be subject to the whims of others than to expand our production capabilities. We have trillions of dollars worth of oil and gas reserves in the U.S. at a time we are exporting hundreds of billions of dollars a year overseas to buy energy. This is the largest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind. We should keep more of our dollars here in the U.S., lessen our foreign dependency, increase our domestic supplies, and reduce our trade deficit - 41% of which is due to oil imports. John McCain proposes to cooperate with the states and the Department of Defense in the decisions to develop these resources.


Senator McCain strongly supports the exploitation of marine resources for the production of domestic oil. This is in strong contrast to his senatorial voting record where he has voted against his party on the exploitation of ANWAR.

Governor Palin is in strong favor of development of oil reserves off-shore and in Alaska.

Obama:


Obama appears to be pandering to public support of offshore oil development. His written policy supports development of these oil reserves in a limited capacity and only as part of a larger energy plan that includes alternative fuels.

Both Senator Obama and Senator Biden have voted against drilling in ANWAR.

The Case for Offshore Drilling:
None. There is no good reason to increase offshore drilling.

The Case Against for Offshore Drilling:
It won’t help soon. Oil from offshore drilling won’t arrive for 7 to 10 years, and will represent only a fraction of our oil consumption.

It won’t appreciably reduce the cost of fuel. The economic impacts of this additional oil income would be on the order of cents per gallon of gasoline.

False promises. A number of proponents of offshore drilling are suggesting that there is more oil present than what government studies performed in the 1970’s estimated was present. Likely the amount of oil reserves lies somewhere in between the two ranges of numbers.

The figure below shows proven oil reserves off the coast. The additional oil that will be tapped is a very small fraction of that which we are already drilling for. It would represent a drop in the bucket. The data for this figure is from the Department of the Interior, but I'm not sure exactly where this figure is taken. Please advise if you know the proper citation.



Addition Feeding. The U.S. reserves represent somewhere between 2% and 3% of the worlds oil supply. We consume 25% of the world’s oil use. Spending federal money to develop these supply only feeds our addiction, and will prolong our use of petroleum. We will not move towards producing alternative energies. This will prolong our addition to foreign oil, not sever it.

Environmental Impacts. Governor Palin’s famous quote about offshore oil drilling been clean and safe is untrue and unfounded. During both Hurricane Ike and Katrina large quantities of oil were released, entering the marine environment, causing extensive damage.

Conclusion: Neither candidate professes an environmentally friendly perspective on offshore oil development. Senator McCain’s policy represents a much greater threat to the environment than Senator Obama’s policy, however neither is ideal.

Tomorrow, we will move onto the candidates positions on alternative energies.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Election Special

So as promised, we’re about to begin our Election 2008 coverage here. We’re going to discuss the candidates stance on four issues, partly as decided by your votes:

Wednesday: Non-Renewable Energy
Thursday: Renewable Energy
Friday: Funding of Science and Science Research
Monday: Climate Change

Also on Monday, I’ll conclude with my endorsement of a candidate, based on their environmental policy.

So please check back over the next couple of days!

MLB Drops the Ball, Blames Meteorologists

Don’t like the result of your decision? Blame science!

Major league baseball made a very poor decision and attempted to play a baseball game during a strengthening coastal storm and is now blaming faulty forecasts from weathermen for their poor decision.

(Last night at the World Series, Jason Werth couldn't quite make this catch at the wall, and Bud Selig couldn't quite read a radar. Image to right from yahoo, Photo by Brad Mangin/MLB via Getty Images)



Last night Game 5 of the World Series between the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Philadelphia Phillies was suspended in the sixth inning due to rain. This was a noteworthy moment as never before in the history of major league baseball had a world series baseball game been suspended in progress. Rapidly strengthening nor’easters are not to be trifled with, so it’s not surprise that the game wasn’t completed. Except to perhaps running major league baseball, who blamed the game suspension on poor weather forecasting. (Aside: Now you can see that I’ll take any excuse to write about baseball, as in realitly, I spend the majority of my days checking various excellent baseball blogs.)


Though Monday opened as an overcast but dry day in Philadelphia, the forecast grew progressively worse. The three meteorological agencies used by Major League Baseball all recommended to Selig at approximately 7:45 p.m. ET that there would be 1/10th of an inch of precipitation until midnight, and all parties involved voted to play.

"Given the weather forecast we had, and we had monitored it over and over again, it was a decision that we made," Selig said. "And obviously I made it with some significant trepidation, but had the forecast held, we would have been OK."

Rain began falling significantly in the fourth inning, and Selig met with the groundskeeper in the fifth inning. The sand-based field of Citizens Bank Park absorbs water well, but the condition deteriorated over the next 1 1/2 innings, prompting Welke to wave the teams off after the top of the sixth.


The only problem with mlb’s position is that the forecast was actually RIGHT, as reported by national weather online:


Commissioner, Bud Selig, cited faulty forecasts for the unfortunate premature halt of the game. He mentioned that the clearly erroneous forecasts had only called for a tenth of an inch of rain between 8 PM and midnight. For most who won't check their facts, this sounds like an atrocious error by meteorologists! But, a check of the numbers yields .13" of rain by the time the game was called. Though this means there was an error of three hundredths of an inch of rain at that time - and ten hundredths of an inch of rain by midnight when the official amount was .23" of rain, many would agree that's a pretty darn good precipitation forecast.


The weather forecast for last night called for a strengthening nor’easter to start blowing up the East Coast. Anyone who lives along the Atlantic knows that when a nor’easter is getting going, it’s a good night to stay inside with a warm drink and a nice book. Needless to say I was shocked when the game started last night. I was actually tuned into Monday night football instead of the world series because I assumed that the game was canceled. And so did Joe Posnanski:


They never should have started the game. That was obvious from early Monday evening, when a light rain began to mist in Philadelphia. The weather radars, at least according to a local weatherman who was on television in the press box, showed that a hard and cold rain was gonna fall. The TV meteorologist said that rain would start falling right around 10 p.m. Eastern time. That figured to be right around the fourth or fifth inning.


Let’s take a look at those radar images to see if we can notice anything ominous looming.



Here is the radar at 7pm, when Bud and crew were sitting around chatting about whether or not to play the game. An expansive region of light to moderate rain sits just off to the west moving slowly towards the east. Only 5 to 10 miles west of Philadelphia, a narrow filament of moderate rain appears to be building. And according to surface observations, it’s already raining in Philadelphia.



Now it’s 8pm. It’s raining lightly. Just about time for the game to start. The narrow filament of moderate rain sits just to the west of Philadephia. This filament continues to grow slowly. The large swath of light rain has moved a bit further east, now almost connecting with the narrow filament. It’s clear now that this rain will reach Philadelphia in the next hour or so. The area of rain is large, and slowly growing more intense. There is no reason to expect the rain will end anytime soon. Why start the baseball game?



Now it’s 9pm. It’s raining lightly, with a temperature of 45 F. The heavier filament of rain has pulled off to the north, which is good news. However, now the entire Philadelphia region is encompassed in the light rain shield that has moved in from the west, with heavier rain off to the southwest, slowly moving towards the ballpark. It’s not going to get any better from this point out.



Now it’s 10pm. The rain has picked up a bit in intensity, and the temperature is down to 43. The metro region is encompassed in a band of moderate rain, with more off to the southwest to come. Shortly after this Bud and company cancel the game.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing, and you don’t need three weather forecasting firms to tell you that it was going to rain more and more in Philadelphia last night. It was obvious to anyone paying attention that it was a lousy night in Philadelphia for baseball. Give us a break here. The game should not have been played.

The talking heads, baseball’s apologists on ESPN, had a slightly different take on the events:


“There’s nothing they could have done any different.” – Peter Gammons

“Are we going to see some snow on Tuesday?” – Karl Ravech
“We might!” – Tim Kurkjian


Is there hope for the rest of the world series? Here’s what mlb has to say about today (Tuesday’s forecast):


Bob DuPuy, Major League Baseball's chief operating officer, made comments after tonight's game: "The weather tomorrow is supposed to be worse."


Where are you getting that from Bob? As of 9am this morning the worst was over in Philadelphia and all that remained was a bit of light rain on the west side of the storm, that should pull out by noon or so.

Sorry Bud! This one is on you Bud, just like with the '94 strike, and the '02 all star game. You made a poor decision, accept it and don't blame weathermen.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Happy Yom Kippur!


Not sure what that horn thing is on the right, but I think it has something to do with Yom Kippur. The Jews for Jesus website wouldn't sue me for using their picture, would they?

I hope that you are enjoying Yom Kippur, which translated from Hebrew to English reads (from right to left) as the period during which every year Owen goes camping. While you are reading this, I am either on my way to or in the Catskills with some friends, hiking up and down mountains, and probably being rained on, since it always rains when I’m camping. If you are an academic advisor and you are reading this, please don’t think I’m lazy, Friday will be my 7th day taken off from work all year.

One thing that anyone who cares about the environment should appreciate about New York is the amazing amount of land that is in preserves and parkland in our great state. The Catskills and the Adirondack Park are massive reserves of land (the Adirondack Park is comparable in size to the entire State of Vermont and Catskill Park is about ½ the size of the State of Delaware for comparison), much of which is open to hiking and camping.

On this trip, some friends and I are hoping to climb two more firetowers in the Catskills. The Catskill’s are old mountains, and as such the summits have been rounded by erosion over the years. As such many mountains lack scenic vistas, taking away somewhat of the splendor of the mountains. Luckily on five mountains in the Catskills there are firetowers that extend high above the treeline, which have recently been restored and are open for climbers to use.

So far my friends and I have conquered Basalm Lake and Red Hill. This trip I am hoping to climb both Hunter (the highest) and Mt. Tremper. We’ll see if there is enough time for both.

For those who can dedicate more time to hiking and climbing there is a climbers challenge put on by the Adirondack Club to climb 18 fire towers in the Adirondacks and all 5 in the Catskills. So far, I’ve done 2 of 5 in the Catskills and only Bald Moutain (aka Roundaxe) in the Adirondacks.

I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, enjoy pictures from last years trip where we climbed Red Hill.


The "ranger station" on Red Hill


The Red Hill fire tower


View from atop the tower!



It was a real humid day so visibility was limited. Otherwise you could see for 50 miles or further.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Why Write a Science Blog?



You may ask, “Owen why are writing a blog on environmental issues?” Easily, you could also not ask that question. I don’t really care if you ask the question or not, I’m going to tell you either way why I’m doing this.

First, it seems like most people who inform the public about the environment are biased. A majority of reporting comes from non-profit organizations with stated environmental objectives. Even governmental organizations report of what they’ve done or hope to do, not what’s important. A minority of reporting on the environment comes from objective media outlets, like newspapers.

Secondly, science and environmental blogs are rare, compared with other academic and societal disciplines. Here is what I wrote in my Schubel Fellowship application about the need for science blogs.


According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in 2006, 39% of Internet users or 57 million Americans read blogs regularly, a number that is growing rapidly. However, Americans looking for a scientific perspective on topical environmental issues may be out of luck. While blogs about politics, business and sports are abundant, blogs about science are exceedingly rare, and blogs about environmental science even rarer. Furthermore, in a preliminary search for environmental blogs I found that the majority of environmental blogs had a strong geopolitical bias in one direction or another and were authored either by individuals or non-government organizations with well documented biases. At present there are no blogs focusing on Long Island’s environment. There is a need for a subjective scientific discussion of key environmental issues that the public can trust, especially one that discusses environmental issues on a local level.

I would like to create such a blog, with the intentions of updating it about three times a week. The blog would focus on environmental issues affecting the New York metropolitan region, but many of the blog articles would be general as to attract a much larger crowd. I would like to keep a healthy mix of environmental theory (e.g. population growth, global energy needs and sources), discussion of basic scientific facts about topical environmental issues, local environmental issues (e.g. Broadwater, The Long Island Wind Farm) and major research findings that have environmental impacts (highlighting in particular work done by SoMAS personnel). As is traditional in the world of blogging, the created blog would link to a number of outside blogs, journalistic articles and academic articles, thus not only connecting the general populous with my take on the issues, but encompassing the broad scientific consensus.


Third, it seems like the people reporting on science, aren’t necessarily the experts on the issues they are writing about. While I’m far from an expert, a bachelor and masters degree along with a few years of graduate school does give me a bit of insight into a lot of issues, that I’d like to share.

Fourth, most scientists communicate poorly with the public. I am hoping to have a career in science at some point in the near future, and I’d like to be able to successfully communicate my research results with the public. While my writing so far has been relatively poor, with most subjects poorly described (wait what valley? There’s a city in the valley?!?), full of grammatical errors and poorly constructed metaphors, I am hoping to get better an improve my written communication. To that effect, consider yourself guinea pigs.



Fifthly, sometimes the public needs a translator from “science research talk” to “plain English.” Often with good intentions many authors can do good research that is completely incomprehensible to the public. (See as an example the image to the right, which is a figure in a scientific journal article summarizing how science blogs work). I’d like to do my part in translating good work from “science” to “English” so the public can use the research (because what are we doing science research for if not for improving the quality of life for everyone).

Lastly, I think the general public really wants to understand science. I truly believe it. Many people have a negative perspective on science research because they feel like scientists are talking down to them or that scientists are coming up with nonsense because they don’t understand how scientists could do the research they perform. Or perhaps the public doesn’t have a good grasp of basic environmental science theory, and misinterprets results.

I bring up this point because of a scientific paper that Lee forwarded to me sometime last month. The article entitled “The roles, reasons and restrictions of science blogs” by Dr. John S. Wilkins, a philosopher from the University of Queensland in Australia, discusses the role of science blogs in society and in science academia today. (It should be noted here that Dr. Wilkins himself is a blogger, so his views may come from his own personal experiences.) It’s a very interesting read and I encourage all you loyal readers out there to download it and take a gander.

Dr. Wilkins, first describes what a science blog is and who typically does this blogging:

A blog is fundamentally a continuously updated web page, with entries (‘posts’) that have date, time and, if many authors contribute to the blog, author-name stamps (Figure 1). Each post may be commented upon by the readership, and the discussions can range from a few humorous one-liners to complex and well-written rebuttals or contributions, and everything in between. Blogs typically have a general theme, and most blogs are personal diaries organized around these. Many are focused on single issues, such as politics, religion or scientific topics. Science blogs are blogs whose main focus or intent is disseminating or commenting upon science.

Many science bloggers are graduate students, but a number are practicing teachers and researchers. It is unclear so far how the scientific and educational communities regard blogging. Some graduate students and early career researchers have complained that they are being told by advisors and supervisors to stop blogging and concentrate on ‘real’ work, whereas others have drafted up later-published papers on their blogs, and taken advantage of an informed and enthusiastic readership for critique and suggestions. At times, readers offer references the author might not have found otherwise, especially from cross-disciplinary fields. In this article, I argue that there are also many other reasons for scientists to enter the blogosphere.


Here is a short list of motivation Dr. Wilkins gives for scientists having personal science blogs:
• Blogs are “intimate and responsive,” often addressing recent publications nearly immediately, offering a response very different than hyped up press releases.
• Science blogs are a mechanism by which to “demythologize science”. If those writing about science are the ones performing it, they are best able to discuss the manner by which research was done and what the limitations of the work are.
• Bloggers are able to identify science politics, and make clear to readers why some research is covered by traditional media in the way that it is covered.

Dr. Wilkins also notes that there are certain benefits to blogging, that I greatly appreciated reading:
• That blogs, if archived can represent a history of the evolution of scientific thoughts and knowledge on a particular issue.
• That bloggers can bridge the ever growing gap between science and humanities, and in some cases lead to policy changes by making clear to those outside of science (i.e. politicians) what the practical results of government spending on research may be.


Blogging also has personal benefits for the blogger. A blog that represents a scientific community or subdiscipline will become a community in itself. Through back-channel forums, personal contacts, and commenting, an isolated researcher can become part of a wider social network. Occasionally, conferences result, such as the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference (http://www.scienceblogging.com) that has now been held twice. And science bloggers can even find jobs via their blogging. At least three members of the blog community at the Seed Magazine Science Blogs (http://scienceblogs.com) have reported that they have been offered or gained positions partly on the basis of their science blogging.

Not all things blogging are a positive to Dr. Wilkins he notes:

There are also downsides to blogging. Quality control, rewriting and editing are usually lacking, and some blogs that purport to be science based are often merely apologetics for pseudoscience or quack medicine, especially when issues are politically charged (e.g. anti-global warming, anti vaccination, creationism, homeopathy and so on). Many blogs also act as ‘vanity publishing,’ that is, self-serving outlets for ideas the author is unable to get past peer review. Blogs fall prey to the same failures as websites in general, with much of the ‘information’ being false or one-sided. For example, if you google ‘evolution,’ most of the top hits are creationist sites such as the Discovery Institute.


This blog was recently a victim of such “fake science” when someone put a link in the comments to an anonymous web-blog that seemed to evoke an extremely anti-scientific tone.

Dr. Wilkins concludes with:

In conclusion, blogging remains an individualistic, sometimes anarchistic and convention-breaking form of communication. There are gems in the rough, but there will always be a lot of rough. Sites that continue to deliver interesting reports will tend to survive, but ultimately it is up to each blog reader to find the blogs they like and trust. The academic research and teaching communities for science and related fields need to see blogging as more than a casual hobby, as core outreach for their science. It is an effective way for scientists to counter the misunderstandings, deliberate and otherwise, of popular culture. Not only graduate students, but more tenured professionals, need to engage in this to ensure that their science, and the science of others, is in the public eye (for an example, see Massimo Pigliucci’s blog at http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com). In this way, we can ensure that the quality of the science that is communicated to the public is high, while the personality of working scientists humanizes science.


There is a certain irony to Dr. Wilkins journal article, that I find most humorous. While describing how and why science blogs should exist, he relies on antiquated science article clichés, including a flow chart (see image above, and an aside box in which he describes how to start a blog like a physicist describes the methodology of their experiment).

No matter how you look at it, we need young scientists to get out on the web and write about science in ways that their peers could understand. If anyone out there wants to write an “editorial” or “letter to the editor” on this blog, we’d love to share your thoughts. If anyone out there wants to start your own blog, we’d love to give you a link and a shoutout to get people reading your stuff. Those articulate folks in the shadows, step out and share your knowledge and love of science with the rest of us!