Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Tickle Me Elmo

President Obama announced an initiative to recognize the achievements of scientists and engineers, where an annual science fair will be held at the White House. I mean that's great, finally scientists getting some recognition for their achievements. But what got me was the picture that accompanied the article. Elmo is evidently the spokesperson for science and engineering in America. Terrific. We're taking science very seriously here folks.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Get off my damn lawn!

I have a great idea for a blog that would no doubt be much more popular than this blog. The content of the blog would just be professors and teachers posting e-mails they get from students. Because frankly the e-mails that I have gotten from students are so lacking in etiquette that they are almost funny. There is almost never a salutation, no "Dear Professor X" or no "Dear Sir" or anything like that. No greeting. Then there is usually no signature, or no ending to the e-mail. The words just stop. And often there is no actual request. Just a statement or comment that its left to you as the course instructor to figure out the question. For example:

I can't find where the HW folder is located. I looked under assignments and it's empty.

[name redacted]

Awesome! But what of it? Do you want to know where the homework is? Or are you just letting me know that there is no homework in the assignment folder?

I also enjoyed this one:

the power point is saved as .pptx it need to be re saved as .ppt or it wont convert for mac computers.... please resave as.ppt

Note that there is no salutation and no proper ending to the e-mail. Who sent this? And I love the statement "it need to be re saved" so instead of the student installing the patch that converts .pptx to .ppt, the instructor needs to re-save all of the powerpoint files. What a sense of entitlement! How about you show up to class and take notes!

I think this is the first sign of me getting old and crotchety, but I really can't stand e-mails that lack any semblance of etiquette.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Open Space on Long Island

Above: New York's pre-eminent open space, the Fulton Lakes Chain in the Adirondacks.

WSHU had an interesting story about open space on Long Island, and why we should care about it:


The report mentions that Suffolk County is buying up farm land to preserve as open space. More such open space would have been persevered if the Open Space proposal hadn't been defeated by voters this past fall.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New Yankee Stadium Home Runs Not Necessarily Related to Weather

Yesterday AccuWeather via their blog put forth a hypothesis that the well documented increase in home runs at the new Yankee Stadium was due to a change in the stadium’s shape, allowing for west winds to enter and exit the stadium at a high speed and the proper angle to turn lazy fly balls into home runs. More specifically:

The wind on Saturday during the Yankees' 22-4 loss against the Cleveland Indians was mostly from the west at 15-20 mph. Given the layout of the stadium, the wind could have had an effect on fly balls in right field. Six home runs were hit by the Indians in the second inning alone.

Although the field dimensions of the new stadium are exactly that of the old stadium, the shell of the new stadium is shaped differently. AccuWeather.com meteorologists also estimate that the angle of the seating tiers in the new stadium could have a different effect on wind motion across the field.

Note the lack of scientific explanation for the statements in the article. Notice how many times words like mostly, could, estimate are used in the paragraphs. No modeling, or observational studies were used. Let me translate that for you into plain English, “hey we watched the game on Fox on Saturday and it sure looked like the wind was blowing the ball hard, maybe it’s the new stadium?” Look it seems like a reasonable hypothesis and all, especially watching some of those pop flies end up as home runs on Saturday, but it’s just a theory and the accuweather story struck me as being less science and more guessing. I was frustrated that a weather company would present this theory with only one games worth of wind data as as motivating observation.

So I wanted to test their theory with a bit of weather data to see if it holds any water. The methods are explained below and the study includes only six games the four versus the Indians this past weekend and two exhibition games versus the Cubs in early April. The chart shows the number of home runs hit each game, the mean direction of the wind and the wind speed. First note, only three of the six games hosted at Yankee Stadium so far had a west wind. So three of the games played so far had winds not out of the west, and often out of the opposite direction (east), which would by the accuweather theory suppress home runs. In each of these games where the wind was not out of the west, 3 home runs were hit.

Table 1. The above table shows the average wind direction, and speed for games at Yankee Stadium so far in 2009. See the methods section below for details.

During games with a west wind, 8, 6 and 5 home runs were hit, each a significant amount of home runs for a MLB game. But might these home runs be due to the players involved in the game and not the weather? I’m not a saberatician so excuse my clumsy attempt to convince you that there is just as good a chance that the HR’s were due to good offences hitting against struggling pitching as there is a chance that the wind was directly responsible for the home runs. Cleveland lead the American League in runs scored after the all-star break last year and is #2 in runs scored in this young season. During the west wind games this high powered offense was coupled with some exceptionally poor pitching. Of those three games with a west wind, two of them were started by Chien Ming Wang who has for a lack of a better word been awful both at Yankee Stadium and away so far this year. Other pitchers starting in these high home run games were Fausto Carmona (5.85 ERA in 2008, 7.87 ERA in 2009) served up 4 HR, Anthony Reyes (5.73 ERA in 2009, was lights out in second half of 2009) served up 3 HR while Joba Chamberlain (5.60 ERA in 2009 and 2.60 ERA in 2008 and arguably the best pitcher of the crew) only allowed 1 HR. Relievers who served up home runs include minor league pitcher Anthony Claggett who appeared to be overmatched, Jose Veras, Edward Ramirez, Zack Jackson and Jenson Lewis whos ERA’s range from 5.79 to 43.20 this year. Johan Santana, Tim Lincecum, Brandon Webb and Mariano Rivera these pitchers are not.

It’s too early to draw any conclusions from the weather data presented above. But it’s clear that a number of factors not related to the weather may have resulted in the home run deluge, and we can’t say for sure if the west wind is the cause of the HR deluge:

  • The accuweather hypothesis appears to be at best an untested guess, not based on modeling studies or scientific observation.

  • Winds have been equally out of the west as other directions, thus they can’t directly explain the deluge of runs and home runs scored over the weekend.

  • More home runs have been hit when there is a west wind at Yankee Stadium than when the wind has been from the east or south.

  • In the games with west winds the pitching has been poor, pitched either by pitchers who do not have demonstrated long term records of being above league average or are who are clearly struggling so far this season.

  • Cleveland and the Yankees are amongst the two best offensive teams in the American League

  • At this point there is not sufficient data to prove whether or not wind direction is statistically tied to home runs.

As Peter Abraham pointed out in his blog today, it’s too early to rush to judgment, the Yankees and opponents hit 20 HR in a four game series last year as well! It’s a neat theory to tie wind direction to HR production, but I think it’s irresponsible for accuweather to claim that the west wind is leading to these home runs. We’ll have to see what the numbers bare out this summer, and draw conclusions after a sufficient sample size has been drawn.

Methods. I calculated the mean wind direction, wind speed and air temperature at LaGuardia Airport from raw METAR code taken from the Plymouth State Weather Data Archive. LaGuardia Aiport was chosen to represent conditions in the Bronx due to the well documented problems with the Central Park observation site. The averages were calculated for the hours of the game, based on data taken from box scores, except during the exhibition games vs. the Cubs where length was estimated to be 4 hours.

Table 2. As per table 1, but includes standard deviation and temperature data as well.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Environmentalist Pirates?

Does the current bout of piracy in the Indian Ocean have its roots in environmental activism?

In February of 2005 the United Nations announced that containers filled with radioactive materials, industrial and medical waste had washed ashore in Somalia.

A United Nations' report released this week says nuclear and hazardous wastes dumped on Somalia's shores had been scattered by the recent Asian tsunami and are now infecting Somalis in coastal areas.

A spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Nick Nuttall, told VOA that for the past 15 years or so, European companies and others have used Somalia as a dumping ground for a wide array of nuclear and hazardous wastes.

"There's uranium radioactive waste, there's leads, there's heavy metals like cadmium and mercury, there's industrial wastes, and there's hospital wastes, chemical wastes, you name it,” he said. “It's not rocket science to know why they're doing it because of the instability there."

Mr. Nuttall said, on average, it cost European companies $2.50 per ton to dump the wastes on Somalia's beaches rather than $250 a ton to dispose of the wastes in Europe.

Recently a Somali ex-patriot named K’Nann posted on the internet explaining why the Somali people did not oppose the piracy that is rampant along their coasts.

Already by this time, local fishermen in the coastline of Somalia have been complaining of illegal vessels coming to Somali waters and stealing all the fish. And since there was no government to report it to, and since the severity of the violence clumsily overshadowed every other problem, the fishermen went completely unheard.

But it was around this same time that a more sinister, a more patronizing practice was being put in motion. A Swiss firm called Achair Parterns, and an Italian waste company called Achair Parterns, made a deal with Ali Mahdi, that they were to dump containers of waste material in Somali waters. These European companies were said to be paying Warlords about $3 a ton, whereas to properly dispose of waste in Europe costs about $1000 a ton.


The UN envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, says that the practice still continues to this day. It was months after those initial reports that local fishermen mobilized themselves, along with street militias, to go into the waters and deter the Westerners from having a free pass at completely destroying Somalia's aquatic life. Now years later, the deterring has become less noble, and the ex-fishermen with their militias have begun to develop a taste for ransom at sea. This form of piracy is now a major contributor to the Somali economy, especially in the very region that private toxic waste companies first began to burry our nation's death trap.

Mr. K’Nann is suggesting that current piracy have its roots in residents who were determined to protect their fishing rights and their waters from pollution. In the years following the start of dumping the effort has gone from something justifiable, to villainous. While this is likely a major simplification of events, it’s just interesting to note that this major geopolitical problem may have its roots in environmental degradation.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Could a Long Island Offshore Windfarm Disrupt Weather Radars?

Above, A marks the spot of a wind farm in central Wisconsin that is disrupting weather radars, making forecasting all the more challenging. Image source: Google Maps.

Saw a great article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently about a large wind farm disrupting weather radar capabilities in central Wisconsin. We’ve talked a lot about the benefits of wind power, especially in rural areas, to generating clean electricity. Here is a demonstrated negative consequence of large wind farm installations.

The National Weather Service has issued a new kind of warning because of a Dodge County wind farm that is disrupting the agency's ability to monitor storms in southeastern Wisconsin.

The wind farm's giant turbines - each as wide as a football field and as tall as a 20-story building - are sending false storm signals to the government's weather radar system.

Weather service officials say they see no significant public safety threat, although they say the wind farm has caused radar interference and could confuse some storm watchers.

Meteorologist Marc Kavinsky said the approaching summer storm season will be the federal agency's first opportunity to gauge the wind farm's full impact.
"It'll be interesting," he said. "I'm hoping the effects will be minimal."
Located just outside the Dodge County community of Iron Ridge, the wind farm includes 36 turbines that began operating over the past few months, generating electricity for several surrounding communities.

The farm is about 30 miles north of the National Weather Service office in Sullivan, which provides radar coverage and severe weather alerts across a 125-mile radius that includes all of southeastern Wisconsin.

The meteorologist, Marc Kavinsky, who was quoted in the article has a great website demonstrating the effects of these tremendous blades on Doppler radar returns.

His key implications of the wind farms on radar returns were:

• Thunderstorm or winter storm characteristics could be masked or misinterpreted, reducing warning effectiveness in the vicinity of the wind farm.

• False signatures contaminating Doppler velocity data in the vicinity of the wind energy facility could reduce forecaster's situational awareness, particularly
during hazardous/severe weather events.

• False precipitation estimates could negatively impact flash-flood warning effectiveness.

To summarize the above, the false returns negatively affect the weather services’ ability to forecast for severe events, like thunderstorms, tornadoes and flooding rains. While this would be a major concern in the Midwest where severe weather associated with thunderstorms is common, how important would it be here in the New York region? Let’s try to anticipate the effects of a wind farm 10 miles off of the south coast of Long Island, as has previously been proposed.

The figure above shows how topography coupled with an extremely high wind farm affects weather radards. Source: National Weather Service.

The figure above shows why the wind farm in Wisconsin is so effective in disrupting the radar signals. The radar beam is tilted up, generally in the neighborhood of 0.5 to 3.5 degrees, and in this case the beam intersects the windfarm because the terrain is sloping upward along the beam path. If the ground was flat, the windfarm would go undetected by radar. How would this work in the New York region?

The NWS Doppler radar that serves the New York region is sited on Brookhaven National Lab on Long Island. A conservative estimate of the height of the Doppler radar is 250 feet above mean sea level. Using Google earth software I calculated the distance from the radar to Fire Island on the south shore of Long Island to be about 8.6 miles. Plan for the windfarm had it to be placed about 12 miles off shore, so let’s estimate the closest possible distance between windfarms and the Doppler radar to be 20 miles (even though in the planning stage the windfarm was located futher west, increasing the distance between radar and windfarm). Next step, figure out the height of the proposed windfarm. Taking the extreme of a 20 story windfarm at 15 feet a story, we come up with a height of 300 feet. With the lowest angle (0.5) of the radar, 20 miles away the beam would be about 528’ above where it started and with the highest angle (3.5) it would be 3696’ above the ground where it started. If you ignore radar beam broadening and throw in a ground elevation of somewhere near 250’ the beam would be 775’ to 4000’ above sea level by the time it reached the windfarm.

Bottom line, a wind farm 20 miles away from the Doppler Radar would require a height of at least 775’ to interfere with Doppler radars offshore in the New York region. While wind farm interference is a problem given the complicated topography of central Wisconsin, it will likely be not be an issue with an offshore farm in the New York region.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Science in the Media

I study mineral dust that is blown by the wind from continent to continent. There was an episode of CSI or Law & Order in which a suspect was caught by matching dust found on their boot to dust found at a crime scene. I found myself thinking, "wow it's taken me a year and a half to come up with a method to source dust, and they pulled it off in 3 hours!" The technology and science used on those shows is humorous to those of us actually trying to perform it. I think the sentiment was caught nicely by this cartoon from Jorge Cham of phdcomics.com:

Above Image Credit: "Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham. www.phdcomics.com.

Anyone have any similar stories to tell about tv shows solving their research topic in three hours?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Will MTA Hike Rates Affect Commuter Behavior?

A train pulling into the Ossining, NY Metro North Train Station. Photo credit: USA Today.

Yesterday I mentioned that it is the Golden Age for mass transit use in the United States today, as 2008 set a record for the most people using mass transit. At present in the New York Metro region there is a proposal by the MTA to increase fares on commuter train lines by up to 33%. Every day the governor and state legislature play political hardball with the MTA, it becomes more and more likely that the proposed fare hikes will become reality. The question is how will these fare hikes affect the behavior of commuters? Will air quality suffer as a result of these fare hikes?

To answer this it’s useful to know, how does New York’s commuter train lines compare to other Metropolitan train lines in terms of expense? To calculate this I looked at how expensive it would be to ride the train from the central station to the terminal station on each line during rush hour and then divided this number by the total number of miles traveled by rail. The distance travel was estimated by google maps on a few train lines, numbers in red in the tables below represent estimated quantities. One could alternatively calculate the ratio at the first station serviced, midpoint or an average of all the stations serviced, but in this analysis the terminal station for each line was used.

Table 1. Comparison of New York Metro region train line cost per mile. The top group is the Long Island Railroad, the second ground is Metro North and the last group represents New Jersey Transit.

The Long Island Railroad cost an average of 22 cents per mile traveled, or 25 cents per mile traveled if you exclude the Montauk Branch. New Jersey Transit also averaged 22 cents per mile traveled, including the two branches that serve Rockland and Orange Counties in New York. Metro North, which serves the Hudson Valley and Connecticut averaged 27 cents per mile, the highest rate in the Metropolitan Region.

These rates are less than what the IRS considers to be the rate to operate a motor vehicle of 55 cents per mile, thus offering an economic incentive to use mass transit. However trains are often less convenient than an automobile it terms of scheduling and comfort, so the economic incentives must outweigh the comfort costs of using a personal vehicle to remain competitive. Assuming the MTA raises fares the projected 33%, the regional trains would now cost 29 cents per mile (LIRR or 33 cents excluding the Montauk line), 29 cents per mile (NJ Transit) and 36 cents per mile (Metro North). Given the falling cost of operating a vehicle due to declines in gasoline prices, will taking mass transit still be an attractive choice for commuters?

How would these rates compare to other metropolitan regions? The commuter lines in Boston average 20 cents per mile and in the Baltimore – DC – Northern VA corridor the average cost is 23 cents per mile (see the table below). As it stands the New York Metro regions cost of 24 cents per mile places it as the most expensive, but very close in cost to its neighbors. Given a 33% increase in fares across the board, New York would cost on average about 33 cents per mile, which is nearly 50% more expensive as other metropolitan regions.

Table 2. As per table 1, but here the top group are the commuter lines in Boston and the bottom group are the commuter lines in the DC-Baltimore-VA Metro Region.

This large increase in fares, coupled with declining gas prices will lead to additional motorists using the roadways to get to work each day. These additional drivers will congest an already taxed roadway system, leading to increased emissions of carbon dioxide as well as ozone forming pollutants. The increases in commuter fares are a direct threat to air quality in the New York Metropolitan region.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Good News for Mass Transit

Record high gas prices coupled with a struggling economy caused a surge in mass transit in 2008 Rueters reports.

Americans took 10.7 billion trips on public transit last year, up 4 percent from 2007, the American Public Transportation Association said. This is the highest level of ridership in 52 years.
"Where many of the other indicators in our economy are down, public transit is up," APTA Vice President Rosemary Sheridan told Reuters.
U.S. gasoline prices set records in 2008, rising above $4 a gallon in July. Gasoline costs began to cool off in the fall, however, as the effects of a global economic downturn began to curb oil demand.
Although gasoline prices are down, Sheridan said that many people are sticking with public transportation to save money.
Public transit trips were up 4.12 percent in December to 842 million. Ridership on public transportation rose 1.68 percent to 2.7 billion trips in the fourth quarter of 2008, compared to the same period a year earlier.
This is the fifth consecutive year the association has reported record ridership. Sheridan said the economic slowdown might dent public transportation use in 2009, though, as increased unemployment may lead to fewer commuters.
As Americans rode public transit more last year, they drove less. The U.S. Transportation Department reported last month that highway travel fell 3.6 percent, or almost 108 billion miles, in 2008 from 2007.

Due to the global recession, gas prices have declined markedly since their peak. Wise city planners would begin expanding mass transit options at the present, as gas prices can only rise as global demand increases and supply dwindles. Money for civic projects will be tight in the next few years, but investing in mass transit will provide major benefits for urban areas. Mass transit, when run well, reduce carbon emissions, reduce traffic congestion and allow for inexpensive easy transportation options for local residents. The time is now to invest in public infrastructure, not later when gas prices edge back up.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Scary, scary stuff

The Republican War on Science is one of the more evocative book titles in recent memory, but it seems like a bit an exaggeration. Sure the Bush Administration did not fund science research, or put a priority on addressing climate change – but the idea of a crusade against science seemed a bit extreme. But, perhaps it does have a bit of validity to it. Recently the Christian Science Monitor reported that the Chair of the Republican National Committee has denied that Global Warming is occurring.

Speaking on a nationally syndicated radio program, Michael Steele, whose official job title is Embattled Chairman of the Republican National Committee, placed himself in opposition to empirically observed reality earlier this month when he denied the existence of global warming.

Mr. Steele who was filling in for conservative pundit Bill Bennett on Mr. Bennett’s drive-time “Morning in America” call-in show on March 6, responded to a caller who mocked the concept of global warming. Here is Steele’s response, as transcribed by the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein:

“Thank you, thank you,” he said. “We are cooling. We are not warming. The warming you see out there, the supposed warming, and I am using my finger quotation marks here, is part of the cooling process. Greenland, which is now covered in ice, it was once called Greenland for a reason, right? Iceland, which is now green. Oh I love this. Like we know what this planet is all about. How long have we been here? How long? No[t] very long.”

Steele managed to pack many factual inaccuracies into this statement. The notion that the planet has entered a cooling phase is a common – but highly misleading – trope among climate change deniers, who often cite temperature readings that show that the hottest year on record was 1998, implying that the planet has been steadily cooling since then.

Those statements belie the ignorance that is currently gripping the Republican Party. That’s some scary stuff right there. For a long time I’ve tried to judge individual politicians on their own personal views and their voting record. But given that the voice of the Republican Party is denying the existence of Global Warming that gives me pause. How can I support any candidate from a party who’s views are so counter to scientific evidence, logic and reason? It makes me wonder for the future of the country.

Imagine a president who doesn’t trust scientists. What if a meteor was detected flying rapidly towards Earth? Does the president say, “wow I don’t see a meteor, I’m sure it’s okay.” What if scientists reported that flounder were going extinct and needed to be protected? Does the president say, “gee I saw flounder in the supermarket, I’m sure it’s fine.” The sort of disregard for scientific thought that Mr. Steele is portraying is terrifying and makes me pause at the thought of his reasoning towards the economy or foreign affairs. A person who cannot take the advice of world experts is not qualified to lead.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Solar power at home?

Good news for those of you living in Palm Desert, CA your city government has a great program that allows home owners to get financing to install solar panels. Bad news is that the program is so popular that if you’re looking to get in, it’s too late.

The program works like this:

  • Home owner applies for a loan from the city

  • The city approves the loan, allowing the home owner to have solar panels installed

  • The home owner then pays back a portion the cost of the instillation when they pay their annual property taxes

The program is a win-win for both the city and residents. Residents are saving upwards of $500 on their electric bills, and the cost of the instillation can be passed onto future owners of the home should they chose to sell the residence. The city benefits from the program by reducing their carbon emission footprint (as is mandated by California law) without having to build a large scale, expensive municipal solar energy plant.

Palm Springs is a unique location in terms of energy consumption and production. It sits in the middle of a large desert, and extensive energy consumption from widespread and long-season air conditioning make the city something of an energy hog. It is also well suited for solar energy generation, as the city receives on average 350 days of sunshine and is at a relatively low latitude.

The program is not without detractors:

But public financing of solar power also has critics, who say government is essentially subsidizing and encouraging a form of energy production that would otherwise not be cost effective. Severin Borenstein, director of the University of California Energy Institute in Berkeley, who is concerned about the proliferation of the programs, said, “It would be better for local governments to do energy efficiency and skip the solar panels.

“If you count the full-interest cost without the tax subsidy, residential solar panels never pay for themselves,” he said. “We shouldn’t be making it a major public priority.”

Perhaps there would be more energy savings per dollar by improving energy efficiency, but if there ever was a place to try this solar experiment it is Palm Desert, CA. Furthermore this experiment seems to be uniquely American. Instead of undergoing a massive government program, it is driven by individuals and is voluntary. Such programs can be successful for people who don’t “think green” but rather are only concerned with the bottom line (of their energy bill).

Would such a program work in the New York Metro region? Absolutely not. There is too little sunshine on an annual basis to make the program manageable. The New York Metro region has tons of wind energy that could be harnessed, but at the present time wind energy cannot be feasibly generated in someone’s backyard. One could imagine municipal level initiatives being successful in terms of increasing home heating efficiency by improving oil/gas burners and home insulation. But home level alternative energy generation remains unlikely in the New York Metro region for the next few years.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Bottle Bill Blues

If you’ve been into a supermarket you’ve no doubt seen signs prominently displayed in some way or shape disparaging the so called “Bottle Bill.” At present soda and beer cans and bottles are covered under the bottle bill, each container requires a $0.05 deposit, which is paid back to the consumer when he or she returns it. The new bottle bill would expand redemption to cover water bottles, energy drinks, iced teas and sports drinks which were not popular when the previous legislation was passed in 1982. The change that is driving such disdain for the bill in supermarkets is that instead of unredeemed deposits being pocketed by beverage distributors, the unredeemed deposits would go to the New York’s Environmental Protection Fund.

The origin of the bill was driven by a desire for a reduction of discarded waste along roads and waterways.

Ten other states also have container deposit programs, despite lobbying efforts against them by the beverage industry. According to the Container Recycling Institute, an environmental advocacy group, these measures have promoted recycling and reduced litter — 66 percent of deposit containers are returned nationwide, compared with 40 percent without deposits.

The current bill seeks to reduce the quantity of bottles currently not included in the deposit program, by providing financial incentive to residents to clean them up. This is important because 2.5 billion bottles of water are sold in New York State each year. As the New York Times reports:

The legislation is also of interest for those concerned about Long Island’s waterways and 400 miles of beaches. Thomas R. Suozzi, the Nassau County executive, said he finally understood the issue after wading waist deep into a bottle-clogged stream at the Roosevelt Preserve alongside the Meadowbrook Parkway during a cleanup effort last summer.

“It was like a light going on in my head,” he said. “There were literally thousands of bottles down there washed in from storm drains and creeks, and all of them were water bottles or nondeposit bottles.”

Ultimately however, the decision to push ahead with the Bottle Bill comes from a need for adding money to the state coffers.

A proposal by Gov. David A. Paterson in his 2009-10 budget plan would expand the bottle law and change who receives unclaimed deposit money. Currently, the state’s bottle law covers carbonated drinks like beer or soda and lets beverage distributors keep the 5-cent deposits not turned in — $93 million a year, according to state estimates. The governor’s proposal would add the nickel deposit to noncarbonated drinks and send unclaimed deposits to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.

Depending on who you listen to the amount collected by these distributors, but not redeemed would increase to $118 to $218 million if the redemption program expands to include additional bottles. You can see why supermarkets have been plastering all sorts of notes lobbying against the bottle bill. Don’t feel too bad for the distributors however, as they stand to see an increase from $0.02 to $0.035 on each bottle returned to help provide compensation for the increased quantity of bottles returned.

This proposition seems like a major win-win for New York State tax payers, who will see additional revenue at not real cost and the environment will prosper too. For more information on the bottle bill check out: http://www.bottlebill.org/legislation/campaigns/newyorkc.htm.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Snow, snow go away?

Total snowfall from 8pm March 2nd to 8pm March 3rd. Image from /www.nohrsc.nws.gov/.

Is Suffolk County one major snow storm away from being in serious budget trouble? Since January 1st, Suffolk County has received 25.7” of snow (12” of which fell in one day in early March). This amount is slightly above average for the region, but is not an unprecedented quantity. As the New York Times reports, despite only receiving moderately more snow than a typical season, towns across the county are reeling from the costs of snow removal on town roads and county highways.

In Suffolk County, which was hit hardest by the storm, officials said $2.2 million of their $3 million annual snow budget had now been spent. “We’ve used it on other snowstorms we’ve had, but this one will take the lion’s share,” Mr. Levy said.

A large storm like this one can be worrisome because in most places the snow budget has to last all year — that means not just March, but also November and December.

The timing of snowfall is partly to blame for the high expenses associated with this year’s snow removal, snow storms that hit late at night or on weekends result in increased labor costs due to overtime pay.

Before the storm, Hempstead had already exceeded its annual snow-removal budget of $1.75 million for this year, spending $3.3 million.

Mike Deery, a town spokesman, said this was the first time in five years that Hempstead had exceeded its snow budget. He attributed the spending to the rising cost of salt and the cost of employee overtime when a weekend storm hit earlier this year. Money for snow removal will come from other areas, he said.

It’s hard to imagine blowing a budget by that amount in a winter season, which has been snowier than average but not harsh by any stretches. What would have happened had we had a truly heavy snowfall, say approaching 40” as we did for a number of seasons at the beginning of the 2000’s? Some of the costs no doubt lie in inappropriate use of salt. Is salt needed during snow events or should it be saved for ice storms? Other costs may be inappropriate deployment of labor, perhaps to much effort was paid during some of the smaller snow storms earlier in the season?

All of this leads one to wonder, would more accurate seasonal weather forecasts save towns and counties money? If a prediction could made when budgets were being crafted as to the projected seasonal snowfall, towns and counties would not need to borrow funds to pay snow removal costs. Additionally the National Weather Service has missed a few snow forecasts this season, over predicting snowfall*. No doubt highway superintendents heeding the advice of the meteorologists, and over deploying precious resources for busted snowstorms. This is an interesting example of the value of accurate weather and climate predictions.

* - Interestingly the National Weather Service has been changing the official snow totals at Islip and JFK airports this season, increasing the snow totals, despite the presence of trained weather observers making hourly measurements. Perhaps they are doing this to make their missed forecasts seem less bad?

Chemistry Puns (answers)

Glad to announce we have two winners: Dr. Aaron Beck and Mr. Fabian Batista. You can claim your prize next Monday.
We also had one loser: Santiago Salinas

Here are the answers:
1. Policeman: Copper
2. Have went (very poor grammar): Argon
3. A motto for a well digging company: Boron
4. Holmium X 0.5 = Halfnium
5. To press a shirt: Iron
6. A kitchen work area with a drain: Zinc
7. A ship's kitchen: Gallium
8. The leg joint above the calf: Neon
9. An amusing prisoner: Silicon
10. Ruler of Davy Jones' locker: Neptunium (also accepted Arrrrrrgon)
11. Large building used to store automobiles: Carbon
12. The Lone Ranger's horse: Silver
13. Opposite of hot: Beryllium
14. The name applied to a blond person from Sweden, Norway or Finland: Scandium
15. What do you do before you brand a steer?: Europium
16. Mickey mouse's dog: Plutonium
17. A 2000 pound casket: Krypton
18. A description of beautiful mountains: Arsenic
19. What you do to steak when you barbecue it: Cerium
20. The name of a red flower: Germanium

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Chemistry Puns

Dug this "punny activity" out of my high school chemistry notes. It's pretty terrible and explains why I don't know much about chemistry today. Anyone who e-mails me at odieoss@yahoo.com with at least 10 correct answers by Friday March 6, 2009 will win a delicious prize. Winners will be able to pick up a home baked treat on Wednesday March 11th in Stony Brook.

With some imagination and a pun now and then, it is possible to use the names of elements as synonyms or substitutes for some phrases. So cesium your pen and name the element!

1. Policeman
2. Have went (very poor grammar)
3. A motto for a well digging company
4. Holmium X 0.5 =
5. To press a shirt
6. A kitchen work area with a drain
7. A ship's kitchen
8. The leg joint above the calf
9. An amusing prisoner
10. Ruler of Davy Jones' locker
11. Large building used to store automobiles
12. The Lone Ranger's horse
13. Opposite of hot
14. The name applied to a blond person from Sweden, Norway or Finland
15. What do you do before you brand a steer?
16. Mickey mouse's dog
17. A 2000 pound casket
18. A description of beautiful mountains
19. What you do to steak when you barbecue it
20. The name of a red flower

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Need for Science Education

The Importance of Science Literacy

It’s not what we know but rather how we think that is important.

Perhaps the expression most oft uttered in high school science classes across the country is, “why do I need to know this, I will never use this.” And it’s true to a large degree. I am guessing that 90% of Americans don’t need to know how ionic bonding works in metals, what microchondria do in a cell or how harmonic oscillations function. But as science literacy in American’s decreases it is affecting our ability to think critically about issues in not only science but also society. (A lack of science literacy has also hurt the American economy directly, but that is not central to this argument.)

When we think scientifically we observe a phenomina then based on our observations we make a hypothesis. Next we test the hypothesis objectively. We then determine if our test verified or discredited the hypothesis. If the tests supports our hypothesis it becomes a valid theory. This is thinking scientifically, and it can be used by people in many fields, not just scientists. Bankers thinking through an economic problem, a mechanic working through a mysterious car problem and a plumber working through an unpleasant clog to be successful all must think this way, whether they realize it or not. But it’s puzzling how our society does not think scientifically or critically about all topics.

For the past two weeks the sports world has been ablaze, roasting Alex Rodriquez for allegedly testing positive for using steroids from 2001-2003 when he played with the Texas Rangers. Fans our outraged that Alex Rodriquez “cheated” and illegally or unethically increased his home run total by using chemical enhancers. The only problem with this line of thought is that no one has objectively proved that using steroids increases the number of home runs that a player hits.

Let’s think about it scientifically for a minute. We have observed that from the mid 1990’s until about 2003 the number of home runs hit by players increased. We also observed that during this period of times players appeared to increase in size, particularly in muscle mass. Recently we learned that many players from this era were using steroids to increase their muscle mass. Thus we hypothesize that players used steroids to increase their strength and hit more home runs. This is what hundreds of sports columnists and reporters have done in the past few weeks. The only problem is, no one bothered to prove their hypothesis.

In order to be sure that steroids increase home runs we need to test this objectively. We need a control group that did not use steroids, and we need a test group that did. We then need to statistically compare the two groups and determine if the steroids did increase home run totals. (Remember that during the 1990’s baseball expanded rapidly and 48 minor league pitchers became major league pitchers, baseball started playing at stadiums with incredible altitude and ballparks became much, much smaller – there are alternative hypothesis that need testing.)

The tests that have been performed so far suggest that using steroids does not necessarily increase the amount of home runs that you hit. Meanwhile scientifically illiterate announcers, players and columnists continue to report that steroids certainly caused A-Rod to become a great home run hitter. It’s too bad they failed science class, or otherwise they might understand the truth.

We need to work ideas through the scientific method fully to understand the truth. A hypothesis is not a proven theory and it's dangerous to think so (see also risky mortgages). So the next time that someone tells you that a little intelligent design never hurt anyone consider that maybe thinking critically all the way through issues is not optional, it's necessary to know the truth.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Neptune's Pasture

I just got back from a special seminar presented by Paul Greenberg about his upcoming book “Neptune’s Pasture.” Greenberg presented the audience with two readings, one from the autobiographical portion of his book and the second focusing on the introduction of the book and its central thesis. Afterwards he ended with a lively question and answer session in which the audience presented a number of terrific ideas. The prose presented was lyrical, I am greatly looking forward to ordering the book on Amazon, but alas it is not yet near publication (I will make a note here when it becomes available). I didn’t take notes so what follows is a generalization of the key points and themes to his book.

Greenberg’s central “thesis” as he called it was that humans now stand at the precipice of making critical decisions involving the future of the world’s fisheries. He pointed out that hunter gatherers narrowed down the many, many mammals that used to range our ancestral lands to four that are considered somewhat common now, sheep, goats, pigs and cattle. He then notes that humankind then turned its attention to the skies, narrowing those down to four key species chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese. He then proposes that we will likely do the same to fish, pick four that are manageable species that meet certain taste/textures requirements, and cultivate them while slowly driving other species to extinction. The factors that make this push are varied, from human kind’s desire for choice but “not too much choice” to industrial efficiency favoring only a few profitable options.

He noted that while for our ancestors the culling was not a decision but a necessity. For us, given our improved understanding of ecosystems, what we do to fisheries in the future is a decision and one that we need to consider presently.

The format of the book seems to be an autobiographical introduction, an introduction of the thesis then a discussion of four fish species within context of the thesis including sea bass, cod, something else and tuna.

The discussion that followed the reading was lively and topics ranged along the following:

  • Categorizing fish as food or wildlife and how public perception of this divide drives choices.

  • That human taste changes with time, and that has allowed us to move from one fish species to another very quickly, with devastating effects on the “fish of the year.”

  • Is sustainable fishing really a good premise to move towards. Once a fishery is declared “sustainable” society will move towards it rapidly, making it immediately unsuistainable.

  • A question was asked where shell fish fit into his thesis, and Greenburg seemed to think that it was a different issue, one that affected developing nations more than developed nations.

The idea is pretty interesting and a I thought a solid one. My fisheries friends told me that there were a lot of holes in the principle of the idea, but in my ignorance I missed them. Anyone want to cast some doubt on the theory?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

How Now Brown Cloud?

Brown clouds are not the sinister creation of a science fiction writer, but rather the name that atmospheric scientists have given to smog, soot and dirt clouds that obscure the Earth’s surface from space. Smog originates mainly from the burning of fossil fuels for transportation, but can also form naturally in some locations. Soot is found in the atmosphere as a result of wood or coal burning, or natural occurring forest fires. Some people explain these clouds to “pollution clouds,” but in truth these clouds are more complicated than that, sometimes being a result of man’s activities, but other times being wholly natural.

When you spend a lot of time looking at satellite images of the Earth as I do, you get used to certain features of the Earth looking a certain way. Sometimes, these features become obscured by a grey haze. Occasionally this grey haze becomes thicker and darker in color. This is what is referred to generally as a brown cloud. Brown clouds are common over India and Southeast Asia, especially in the late fall through early spring, where rapid industrialization has increased emissions from human activities.

The above figure, taken from NASA’s MODIS website, features Southeastern Asia. To the north of the image is Nepal and China, the mountainous terrain there is crisp and clearly brown in color. As you move south into India and Bengladesh, the surface becomes obscured by a grayish obscuration. The green of India and Bengladesh’s forests is barely visible. This is due to the presence of a so-called brown cloud, a cloud made of soot, smog and dust, most of which are due to human activities.

However these brown clouds are not only native to Asia, but can be found in the United States as well, as the image below shoes.

This satellite photograph, taken from NASA’s MODIS website, shows the Southeastern United States. Here a brown cloud is seen over Louisiana and Texas. The origin of this cloud, seen in the summer of 2004, were extensive forest fires in Southern Canada.

Scientists recently have been examining what exactly causes these brown clouds over Asia to form so regularly each year. Understanding this is important because these brown clouds can affect how much sunlight reaches the surface in these regions, affecting not only climate but crop growth. These clouds are also thought to interact with regular water clouds, changing the way the normal clouds reflect sunlight and how they produce rainfall.

The results of the scientists research are quite shocking, at least to me. The expectation was that a large portion of these brown clouds would come from fossil fuel combustion. The team of scientists report that around 2/3rds of the source material for the brown clouds come from biomass burning. In this region, biomass is used for home heating and cooking, along with burning of residual crops to produce fertilizer. This is an important finding, because it would allow for regional governments to address the issue of unclean home cooking and heating fuels, if they wanted to improve air quality.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Golden Opportunity for Conservation on the East End

If you’ve ever taken the picturesque ferry across Long Island Sound from New London, CT to Orient Point, NY then you’ve seen Plum Island up close. Plum Island sits only a mile or so to the north and east of Orient Point, which is the easternmost point on Long Island’s North Fork. Chances are however that you’ve never been to Plum Island as the island has been closed off to the public since before World War II.

Plum Island, its location highlighted with a red square, sits between Orient Point and Fishers Island at the eastern terminus of Long Island Sound. It is currently home to the Department of Homeland Security’s Plum Island Animal Disease Laboratory, but is set to be decommissioned starting in 2014.

Perhaps that will change in the next decade or so, as the island’s current occupants are set to move out. Since the end of World War II the island has been home to the United States Animal Disease Laboratory, run by the Agriculture Department until its transfer to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. Now however DHS has plans to replace the Plum Island facility with a larger, state of the art facility in Kansas.

Above is a view of Plum Island, courtesy of the US Department of Agriculture’s website.

While state and federal politicians are campaigning to keep Plum Island functioning as a animal disease research laboratory even after the new laboratory in Kansas opens, it’s worth considering what to do the island in the case that is decommissioned.

According to the Times article, local residents are already salivating at the prospect of turning the island into another suite of expensive homes, in the traditional Hampton’s style.

Enzo Morabito, the director of real estate development for Prudential Douglas Elliman Real Estate in Bridgehampton, which deals exclusively in luxury property, said a two-acre lot of bare waterfront property on the south side of Plum Island would likely go for about $2 million.

He also said the entire island would be suitable for a golf course and luxury homes.

“That’s what I would do with it,” Mr. Morabito said. “That’s the highest and best use.”

With all due respect to Mr. Morabito, perhaps there is a more egalitarian approach to the land that could be taken. Why not consider opening the island up as a national or state park? The island fits the criteria that many set for designation as national park, it is both strikingly beautiful terrain and also of a historic value.

It is thought that Plum Island is the location of the first confrontation between British soldiers and members of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. The British Army and Navy had taken to raiding coastal Long Island for provisions and supplies at the onset of the conflict. So it is told, the first organized confrontation between the two armies occurred as American soldiers attempted to evacuate livestock from Plum Island to more secure locations on the mainland.

Additionally, Plum Island is a green haven in an increasingly developed region. Fishers Island to the northeast is an island which has been developed extensively for residential use. Plum Island could be developed only modestly, and still provide the infrastructure necessary for an exceptional national park.

As Long Island steadily looses its remaining open space to sub-division after sub-division, turning Plum Island into a national park represents a tangible opportunity to protect the environment, increase parkland and preserve local heritage.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

More NASA Images

Well yesterdays images seemed to be quite a hit. So I thought I'd share some more resources.

You can check out more NASA pictures every day. Here is the daily gallery from MODIS, an Earth orbiting satellite with many geophysical research instruments:

Here is the image gallery from NASA proper, which offers a much larger spread of images and photos:

Monday, January 26, 2009

Great link...

Hi All,

The blog will be back up to full speed next week, but for now check out this great collection of NASA images. Some truly amazing shots showing the absolute beauty of many features of the Earth. The picture shown here is my favorite of all the images shown. Check them out yourself!


Hat tip to Santiago, for the link.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Return of the Blog

On Monday February 2nd, the Metro Environmental Blog will return in full force! A two month extended break was taken as a result of a stressful semester coming to a close, a proposal defense and two major holidays. I can't wait to get back in the saddle and start writing regularly again!