Coming up on this week's show

The Climate Lounge with Tom Di Liberto.

Science News:

  • Tree rings reveal increased fire risk for southwestern US
  • Cheddar Man: DNA shows early Briton had dark skin
  • Wikipedia has become a science reference source even though scientists don’t cite it
  • Elon Musk's Falcon Heavy rocket launches successfully

Science News with Nevena Hristozova and JD Goodwin

Tree rings reveal increased fire risk for southwestern US

So this article is about predicting the future. But in this case instead of using crystal orbs or magical stones the fortune teller is using tree rings to predict the potential for future wildfires. And his name is Dr Margolis and while with somewhat magical name, he's based in the South West of the United States, where we only know of muggles existing so far. Actually not far from where our host is. 🙂

Basically, since the 1970s researchers have found out that they can predict the chances of having uncontrollable wildfires during the year based on the width of the tree rings from previous years. The idea is that the wider the tree ring, the more the tree had access to water during that year. And respectively, the more narrow the tree ring, the dryer the year was. In combination with the width of the tree rings researchers collected data on the scorching marks on the tree barks of those trees. This way they could basically triangulate in place and time how humid years of history were with the how and where wildfires were spreading. Based on the patterns they've established they are concerned about the coming year. The fact that the current snow cover in the area is very thin does not bode well for the total amount of humidity expected during the year. And the dryer the forest is the higher the chances of it bursting into flames when the heat comes.

Expanding further on this research, Margolis and his team could even cross check the spread of wildfires in the history of states like Arizona New Mexico and Texas with various ocean circulation Cycles in the Pacific.
The hope of the researchers is if they have enough data on the frequency of wildfires in combination of the frequency of occurring circulation in the Pacific they would be able to predict when and where are the next wildfires going to strike and hopefully be able to act on it.

Well wildfires are natural and necessary for ecosystems to survive, the increasing frequency of extreme Weather caused by global warming makes wildfires become uncontrollable forces which spread much wider than ever before threatening lives and causing billions of dollars of damage.

Based on the most frequent predictions of the team, this year might be the turn for a big fire in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. According to  statistics the forest hasn't burned in more than 100 years which is unnaturally long dormancy for this type of system.
And is if fire wasn't bad enough, a further concern is that the area with destroyed vegetation would be also vulnerable to flooding that will only increase the threat to the inhabitants of these areas, as we already saw in 2017.

Nature

 

Cheddar Man: DNA shows early Briton had dark skin

Have you heard about the Cheddar Man?

If you’re expecting a story about cheese I’m sorry to disappoint. This is about Britain’s oldest complete skeleton, which was discovered in 1903 in the Cheddar Gorge of Somerset. And yes, he’s known as Cheddar Man. So researchers at London’s Natural History Museum extracted DNA from the skull of Cheddar Man.

Researchers from University College London analyzed Cheddar Man’s genome for a facial reconstruction. By the way, no Briton of this age has had their genome analyzed like this. And research over the last century shows that Cheddar Man was about 1.65m tall, and likely died in his early 20’s

This new research found that Cheddar Man had dark hair, possibly curly. He had blue eyes and skin that was dark brown or black. There are pictures in the BBC article and I must say, this is one good looking, rakishly handsome guy! He looks like the front man in a rock band.

Cheddar Man's genome shows he was closely related to other Mesolithic individuals, Fred Flintstone, Barney Rubble. No, he was related to the so-called Western Hunter-Gatherers – who’ve been analysed from Spain, Luxembourg and Hungary. The genomic results also suggest Cheddar Man could not drink milk as an adult. This is a trait that only spread much later, after the onset of the Bronze Age.

Short, dark, handsome, with Paul Newman blue eyes, lactose intolerant…and pure British.

The Cheddar Man!

BBC News: Science and Environment, The Guardian, Washington Post

 

Wikipedia has become a science reference source even though scientists don’t cite it

This is an article from Science News, talking about Wikipedia as a science reference source which is severely undecided in the scientific literature.

The peace talks about the fact that many people, including plenty of scientists, consult this particular information source and even include knowledge from it in their scientific works and publications, but never include citations to Wikipedia directly is a primary source of information.

Some language experts head gone through incredible lengths to be able to establish the Frequency with which language from Wikipedia find its way almost entirely unedited into scientific publications. And while in science formal education we have always been thought that Wikipedia is not a citable source, their argument is that if someone uses the online encyclopaedia as a source they should cite it as one as well.

From High School through graduate School students are actively advised against using Wikipedia. But we all know that we all do and even the teachers who taught us not to use Wikipedia. It is a good place to start with an unfamiliar or little familiar topic.

Well, I agree that a lot of the information on the website is well referenced ( much like in a scientific publication) and based on that merit only, it should be included in references. But, I believe that the authors of the peace in Science News omit an important detail in this discussion. And that is – wikipedia while more and more trustworthy and exhaustive, is not a primary source of information. Even the more creative editors and the ones who are specialists on certain topics they develop, include published scientific articles, books and textbooks as references for different information on the website. That's the whole beauty and usefulness of it – that you can for the most part check the information published on a wiki page and if there's no citation, be at least skeptical about its value. In scientific writing one of the first rules is that you should always reference the original source of the information which you include in your work. This means that according to the dogmas of scientific publication process, scientists who had referred to Wikipedia at any point of their writing process should source the references used in the Wiki article they read rather than the wikipage itself.

That being said, I couldn't agree more that in general Wikipedia should be recognised is a valuable and trustworthy source of information for both young and advanced scholars. A way around that could be including the reference to the web encyclopaedia in the acknowledgement section of theses and scientific articles. And as with all other sources used in someone's research we should recognise the value of an open source encyclopedia, especially when it's so obvious and easy to establish whether an article is of high quality information or not (based on the citations included and some other factors).

And here I would like to put a shameless plug the Guerilla Skeptics Group which takes on educating systemically people interested in editing Wikipedia how to improve on or write from scratch entries, so that they are regarded as high quality information sources which readers know they can trust.]

Science News

 

Elon Musk's Falcon Heavy rocket launches successfully

In case you were on another planet last week you probably heard about the launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket by SpaceX.

It happened about 3:50 PM local time at launchpad 39A last Tuesday.

The Falcon Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9 rocket boosters strapped together, and was the most powerful rocket launched since the Saturn V

The goal is to use the Falcon Heavy to send humans into space. SpaceX is also developing another rocket, called the BFR, that may be the ticket to Mars.

Did you see the two boosters land back at the Cape?

The center core booster wasn’t as fortunate. It ran out of fuel and slammed into the ocean at about 300mph. A small setback, all considered.

Of course, the other awesome part of this story is the cargo. It was carrying Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster.

Don’t Panic. Space Oddity.

Oh, and the next launch of the Falcon Heavy will be in about 3 to 6 months

BBC News: Science and Environment, The New York Times, Science News


The Climate Lounge

Wait, there is WHAT in permafrost?

Thanks JD, And before I go into another crazy horrible thing lurking in the Arctic. Let me first talk about an absolutely horrible and crazy thing going on right now. A quarter of Puerto Rico is STILL without power. STILL!  Now the US Government finally passed somewhat of a budget deal that included billions in relief for hard hit areas in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico but still! It’s over 140 days since hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. It’s a disgrace. And don’t get me started on that other story about how FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, gave a contract for 30 million meals to be delivered to Puerto Rico to a 1-person company with a history of failed contracts who was nowhere near up to the job.  And now I’m all riled up again. The lounge has been a rowdy place of late.

Ok, ok, back to this story. Now whenever we talk about the Arctic and climate change, we make an effort to remind folks that the Arctic is one of the fastest warming places on the planet due to climate change. And that’s one reason why I dislike talking about climate change as if it’s a future problem. It’s here now and no place knows that more than people who live in the higher latitudes.

And one thing we know with arctic warming is that due to climate change, permafrost–ground that remains below freezing for at least two consecutive years-is melting all across the arctic. This can have major impacts on infrastructure as roads and buildings can often be built upon permafrost. Once that soil melts, the land beneath highways and buildings can become much less sturdy leading to collapse.

Another major issue with melting permafrost is what that melting releases. Dragons…..Just kidding. Permafrost is made of up carbon rich soil. By melting it, you risk increasing microbial activity to break down that plant material, releasing a huge store of carbon dioxide right into the atmosphere… which would increase warming…which would melt more permafrost….which will release more carbon dioxide…. You get it.

But an article in the Washington Post by Chris Mooney, highlights a brand new worry hiding away in permafrost… mercury. Not the planet, but the highly toxic element. According to the study published in the Geophysical Research Letters, there is twice as much mercury in permafrost as” the rest of all soils, the atmosphere and the ocean combined.” In total there is 32 million gallons worth of mercury trapped within the permafrost according to the study led by Dr. Paul Schuster a scientist with the US Geological Survey along with 16 other colleagues.

The scientists took cores through the permafrost in Alaska and then extrapolated their findings to include the rest of the permafrost across the globe. In normal circumstances, mercury naturally binds to plant materials. As the plants die that mercury is released into the atmosphere. However, in colder environments, the plants don’t fully decompose, trapping the mercury under layers of soil.  As the permafrost melts, this mercury can finally be released.

And then what happens? Good question. Scientists don’t exactly know. Some may wash out into streams, some may go into the atmosphere to eventually be rained or snowed out.

The issue with this much mercury entering the natural ecosystem is that once it’s there, it can enter the food chain by micro-organisms before reaching larger predators like fish and animals that eat those fish, including us or other large predators like Polar Bears or Narwhals.

But this study is just the first step, because frankly, the scientists don’t know what the impacts are going to be.. As stated in the article by one of the scientists “We expect a bunch of it to be released, but we don’t know exactly how much, and when, and where it will be released,” Schaefer said.

Basically, we don’t know the magnitude of the risk. And that’s not a comforting place to be.

Washington Post


In Closing

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This episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast comes to you from San Francisco, California; Washington, D.C.; and Brussels, Belgium.

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