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Recent climate change in perspective

Much as people who advocate multiculturalism do so because they neither know anything about nor care to learn anything about cultural difference, the people who are most strident about anthropogenic climate change neither know nothing about nor care to learn anything about climate science. “Caring” they can manage; the work of learning, not so much.

— “Settled science.” Ghost of a Flea, 14 December 2009.

The Flea’s post links to another site’s video, which is itself a compilation of graphs by Anthony Watt (of Watts Up With That?), created from Greenland ice core data collected by NOAA in 2000.  Here is an animated GIF showing the crux of the matter.

noaa_gisp2_icecore_anim3

Click on the image to see a higher-resolution version of the GIF, if desired.

This is why climate science needs more hard science, and less agenda-tinged argumentation from authority.

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Double Exposure

Writer/photographer David Arnold has launched himself on a one-man crusade to revisit and photograph glaciers in Alaska and Switzerland that were previously photographed from the air by legendary explorer Bradford Washburn some seventy years ago.  These photographs are part of a travelling exhibit (and website) called Double Exposure, aimed at providing a visual record of AGW-induced climate change.

I include these photos not as any endorsement for or against AGW theory, but simply because the visual record of our evolving planet is striking in its own right.

The Matternhorn on August 16th, 1960, 0900 CEST (left) and August 18th, 2005, 0910 CEST (right). Source: Double Exposure

The Matternhorn on August 16th, 1960, 0900 CEST (left) and August 18th, 2005, 0910 CEST (right). Source: Double Exposure

Twenty Mile Glacier on August 8th, 1938, noon AKDT (left) and on August 10th, 2007, 1106 AKDT (right). Source: Double Explosure

Twenty Mile Glacier on August 8th, 1938, noon AKDT (left) and on August 10th, 2007, 1106 AKDT (right). Source: Double Explosure

Hugh Miller Glacier on August 12th, 1940, 1517 AKDT (left) and on June 12th, 2005, 1117 AKDT (right). Source: Double Exposure

Hugh Miller Glacier on August 12th, 1940, 1517 AKDT (left) and on June 12th, 2005, 1117 AKDT (right). Source: Double Exposure

I try to avoid wading into the unwinnable theological arguments of climate change because it often seems as if there are only two positions:  1) it’s all our fault and unless you give up everything and live in a yurt on the outskirts of Ulan Bator, Earth will be transformed into a toxic, hostile mess; or 2) nothing is warming up except for the knots in the knickers of filthy hippies, now cut down another acre of rainforest so we can rotisserie this polar bear cub the old-fashioned way.

My sense is that certainly, some parts of the planet are warming; but whether or not humans are the primary causal factor is something science can not yet answer definitively.  It is safe to say that we have a long way to go before we can, with any certainty, isolate from our calculations the effects of other influential factors—not least of which is that enormous fusion reactor eight light-minutes away, producing the energy equivalent of 90 billion megatons of TNT exploding every single second.

Humans have a very mixed record at trying to craft “natural” solutions to problems with the local flora and fauna (think intentionally-introduced invasive species), so I am naturally wary of anyone at this imperfectly understood stage of the game who thinks they’ve got a bulletproof plan that needs to be implemented worldwide.

So while I would hesitate to endorse all of the “solutions” espoused by Mr. Arnold, I do nonetheless find something admirable in the effort to track the changes to the landscape.  Our landscape is changing, and preserving some of it virtually (for posterity) is something I can approve of, even if I’m not 100% on board with the motivating premise.

Somebody who is a lot more motivated than me could attempt to do the same, from a non-aerial perspective, with the mountain and glacier photographs of Byron Harmon.

Crowfoot Glacier c1906-1924 by Byron Harmon (top) and in Sept. 2006 by Flickr user purplou78.

Crowfoot Glacier c1906-1934 by Byron Harmon (top) and in Sept. 2006 by Flickr user purplou78.

Robson Glacier c1906-1924 by Byron Harmon (top), and c2006 by Flickr user brilang (bottom).

Robson Glacier c1906-1934 by Byron Harmon (top), and c2006 by Flickr user brilang (bottom).

I wonder if this is how pandas got stupid…

Everyone loves the cuddly panda, despite the fact that it is one of the world’s dumbest animals.  Pandas eat something their digestive systems are not built to handle—they have the GI tract of a carnivore, but eat mostly bamboo—which has only 2% of the daily nutrition they need to survive.  They are also one of the few mammals that tends to forget how to reproduce (hint: Tab A goes into Slot B), both in the wild and in captivity.

Now we learn that some rare white tigers are experiencing a similar endumbening.

Zookeepers in China say their tigers have grown so tame that they’re frightened of the chickens they’re supposed to eat,” Ananova.com reports. “The Chongqing Wild Animal Park has five rare adult white tigers which were originally trained to perform tricks for visitors, reports the Chongqing Morning Post.” Keepers have been throwing them live chickens to encourage the cats to follow their natural instincts, but without success. They’re now forcing the tigers to stay outside 12 hours a day to toughen them up. And they are planning to introduce a wild tiger to show the domesticated big cats the ropes.

— Kesterton, Michael.  “Stop loafing, kids, your inner hamster and starry-eyed men.” Globe & Mail, Social Studies, 20 November 2009.

The wild tiger will probably die of embarrassment once it sees what its captive brethren have become.  If a carnivore forgets how to be a carnivore, perhaps it’s better for the species if we don’t try to save that particular animal.

Palaeontology News

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  • Palaeontologists have discovered a “missing link” between early and late pterosaurs; an animal which combines some of the notable features of each.  Dubbed darwinopterus (or “Darwin’s wing”), it features “a tail and hind legs like the older pterosaurs, but pointy teeth and a head/neck shape both almost identical to later species.”  It bolsters support for the theory of modular evolution—that the evolutionary process assembles new genes from copies of pieces of various older genes, rapidly building new features and functions from a new arrangement of already reliable parts.  Abstract from the Proceedings of the Royal Society (Biological Sciences) available here.
  • Generally regarded as the archetypal early bird, archaeopteryx (Greek for “ancient wing”) has been found to be much more like its slow-growing land-bound cousins, lacking the rapid bone growth common to all current-day birds (who grow and mature in a matter of weeks).  Microscopic analysis of fossilised archaeopteryx cells and blood vessels indicate that it took several years to grow from juvenile to adult.  In the words of lead paleobiologist Greg Erickson, “We learned that the adult would have been raven-sized and taken about 970 days to mature.  Some same-size birds today can do likewise in eight or nine weeks. In contrast, maximal growth rates for Archaeopteryx resemble dinosaur rates, which are three times slower than living birds and four times faster than living reptiles.”  Abstract from the Public Library of Science (PLoS ONE) available here.
  • One-third of the dinosaur species currently identified may not have existed, because they are actually juvenile forms of other species and not a separate species in their own right.
  • In 1863, a family of Virginia palaeontologists discovered a hidden valley of living dinosaurs; the Union Army attempted to weaponise them into tools of mass mayhem and destruction against the secessionist South.  Hollywood’s latest summer blockbuster?  Nope.  The premise of a Civil War theme park in Natural Bridge, Virginia.

Ardipithecus ramidus

Illustration by J.H. Matternes; graphic by The Washington Post (Oct. 1, 2009)

Illustration by J.H. Matternes; graphic by The Washington Post (Oct. 1, 2009)

Ethiopian paleoanthropologist Yohannes Haile-Selassie has discovered an interesting biological clue about our hominid ancestors.  They lacked a few of the traits that we associate with modern day ape-ness:

The story of Ardi takes us back 4.4 million years to a corner of northeast Ethiopia that today is a desert where erosion constantly exposes fossils from the dawn of humankind.

In all, scientists have discovered fossilized bones and teeth in the area representing three dozen individual Ardipithecus specimens, including much of Ardi’s skull, pelvis, lower arms and feet. Until now, Haile-Selassie says, much of what we knew about our ancient past derived from comparisons with the other apes, and especially chimps, and from Ardi’s younger ‘sister’ — Lucy, the 3.2-million-year-old specimen of another hominid species, Australopithecus afarensis, discovered in 1974, also in Ethiopia. Lucy’s discovery showed that human forebears walked upright that long ago.

But Ardi, Haile-Selassie says, shows our first erect steps took place more than a million years earlier and that is much closer to the last common ancestor (or LCA) that the human line shares with the ape line after the two split some six million years ago.

Until now, it has been assumed chimps and gorillas have retained many of the supposed traits of that last common ancestor, among them knuckle-walking and climbing ability.

Now, Haile-Selassie says, we know that isn’t true.

Ardi shows that unlike modern apes, which are knuckle-walkers, her species — and by extension all the ancestors of all apes and humans — descended from a common ancestor that in turn was not a knuckle-walker, he says.

…The researchers say the surprising findings mean chimps and gorillas have specialized greatly since then and are poor models for a common ancestor and for understanding human abilities such as walking.

— Meaney, Ken.  “Evolution: Discovery may change the way we think about evolution, ourselves.” Canwest News Service, 3 October 2009.  [Emphasis mine]

This further underlines the somewhat little-understood distinction that humanity is not descended from “monkeys”, but that apes and humans shared a common ancestor. It’s a big difference, and it’s important to remember that a lot of the ape traits that we see today actually evolved long after our developmental paths began to diverge.  So while we can learn something from our modern simian relatives, they offer limited utility in understanding how we developed the unique capabilities that make us Homo sapiens.  For that we have to go to the fossil record and continue to mine our own history.

Antarctica

Our planet’s most southerly continent is notionally one of those awe-inspiring places I would like to visit.  At least for a couple of hours.  Ideally it would be as one of those C17 aircrews that flies in a load of gear and people, then jets right back out an hour later.

Of course there is the incredible visual poetry of the place, which is no doubt part of the enchantment that drove such as Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton to hazard their lives in exploration of it.

But it’s not all sweetness and light. The weather has rough days.

And so does the sea, too.

Jerusalem’s 3,700 year old wall

A section of a 3,700-year-old wall uncovered in Jerusalem is a small part of a far larger structure. (Associated Press/SFGate)

A section of a 3,700-year-old wall uncovered in Jerusalem is a small part of a far larger structure. (Associated Press/SFGate)

Archaeologists digging in Jerusalem have uncovered a 3,700-year-old wall that is the oldest example of massive fortifications ever found in the city, the Israel Antiquities Authority said Wednesday.

The 26-foot-high wall is believed to have been part of a protected passage built by ancient Canaanites from a hilltop fortress to a nearby spring that was the city’s only water source and vulnerable to marauders.

— Thomas, Jen.  “Archaeologists find 3,700-year-old wall in Jerusalem.” Associated Press (via Jerusalem Post), 02 September 2009.

While the longevity of the structure is incredible enough, when I read of these discoveries I am always reminded of The Source, James A. Michener’s epic fictionalised retelling of Jewish history from 10,000 B.C. to the mid-1960s A.D.

Altinum

Digitally enhanced false-colour composite image (near-IR, red green) of the area of Altinum (Source: Andrea Ninfo, Alessandro Fontana, Paolo Mozzi, Francesco Ferrarese via Science magazine online supplement)

Digitally enhanced false-colour composite image (near-IR, red green) of the area of Altinum. (Source: Andrea Ninfo, Alessandro Fontana, Paolo Mozzi, Francesco Ferrarese via Science magazine online supplement)

Map of the whole Roman city of Altinum; inset: geographic setting.  (Source: Andrea Ninfo, Alessandro Fontana, Paolo Mozzi, Francesco Ferrarese via Science magazine online supplement)

Map of the whole Roman city of Altinum; inset: geographic setting. (Source: Andrea Ninfo, Alessandro Fontana, Paolo Mozzi, Francesco Ferrarese via Science magazine online supplement)

Aerial imaging has many uses in this day and age, but one I would not have expected was the identification of abandoned Roman towns from the air.

A team of scientists from Padua University were able to reconstruct the streetplan of an abandoned Roman town, Altium, and published the findings in Science magazine back at the end of July. The city was sacked and burned by Attila the Hun in A.D.  452, beginning a low, slow decline.  Over the centuries its inhabitants began to move down the coast and set up shop on the tactically superior islands of Venice, which is one reason we can still detect these detailed traces of Altinum today—no medieval town grew up on top of it.  A serendipitous drought back in 2007 made it possible for aerial imaging to spot long-buried stones, bricks and other solid structures beneath the soil.

But all traces of Altinum’s buildings have long since disappeared, either stolen as building material or swamped by rising water levels in the surrounding lagoon. So how to map a city with no visible ruins? In July 2007, during a severe drought, Paolo Mozzi, a geomorphologist at the University of Padua in Italy, and his team took aerial photos of the site in several wavelengths of visible light and in near-infrared, with a resolution of half a meter.

When the images were processed to tease out subtle variations in plant water stress, a buried metropolis emerged. The researchers discovered that the crops planted on the land were in different stages of ripening, thanks to differences in the amount of water in the soil. Lighter crops traced the outlines of buildings–including a basilica, an amphitheater, a forum, and what may have been temples–buried at least 40 centimeters below the surface. To the south of the city center runs a wide strip of riper crops. They were growing above what clearly used to be a canal, an indication that Venice’s Roman forebears were already incorporating waterways into their urban fabric.

In fact, Altinum’s end may have been Venice’s beginning. The first century Roman historian Strabo mentions Altinum’s importance: Its location near both heavily traveled sea routes and along roads running north to the edges of the Roman Empire made it a critical mercantile center. But as waves of barbarians invaded, Altinum was a ripe target. Finally, in the 7th century C.E., a Lombard invasion pushed the city’s beleaguered residents onto the defensible islands of the Venice lagoon.

— Curry, Andrew.  “Ancient Roman City Rises Again.”  ScienceNOW, 30 July 2009.

For an even better look at the city’s geography, see the indispensable Ogle Earth blog, which has overlaid the false-colour and streetplan views in Google Earth (and provides a downloadable KML file so you can see it yourself).

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AFOSR and NASA develop eco-friendly rocket fuel

ARLINGTON, Va. — The Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) and NASA recently announced the launch of an environmentally-friendly, safe propellant comprised of aluminum powder and water ice (ALICE)…[Dr. Steven F.] Son noted, “The ALICE propellant can be improved with the addition of oxidizers and become a potential solid rocket propellant on Earth. Away from this planet, on the Moon or Mars, ALICE can be manufactured in those locations instead of being transported at a large cost.”

— Callier, Maria.  “AFOSR and NASA Launch First-Ever Test Rocket Fueled by Environmentally-Friendly, Safe Aluminum-Ice Propellant.Air Force Office of Scientific Research, 20 August 2009.

Given the tiny number of rocket/shuttle launches the planet has to endure every year, I am not worried about them causing polar bears to drown, or starve, or get minimum-wage jobs.  But the fact that this propellant’s key components can be found on other worlds, thereby making it possible to manufacture fuel somewhere other than Earth, is kind of exciting.  Certainly it will make space exploration cheaper in the long run, as spacecraft will not always have to tanker every last drop of their required fuel from Earth.

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