Thoughts on the ocean, the environment, the universe and everything from nearly a mile high.

Panorama of The Grand Tetons From the top of Table Mountain, Wyoming © Alan Holyoak, 2011

Friday, September 28, 2012

Wehrner von Braun - "Why I Believe"

If you are like me, you have heard people imply or even state outright that you can be either a person of science or a person of faith, but not both.  I don't believe that you have to choose between science and religion.  I believe that it is not only possible, but essential to be a person of both science and faith in this modern world, because only science and religion together can help us fully answer life's questions and obtain truth.

FYI, I am a scientist (PhD Biology - UC Santa Cruz) and a person of faith (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints).  My training as a scientist together with my ongoing life-long activity in my religion has led me to conclude that I am obligated to accept only that which is true, because if something really is true it will not inherently contradict or conflict with any other real truth.

A few years ago my father sent me a newspaper article that he thought I would appreciate.  It appeared in 1965, and he clipped it and saved for over 40 years!  What a guy!  It's a true gem written by Wehrner von Braun, the rocket scientist and NASA administrator.  In it he comments on why he believes, and if you are struggling with the relationship between science and religion it may provide some insights helpful to you.  

Wehrner von Braun (Photograph:

The entire text of his article is included below: 


Why I believe: Werhner von Braun talks about science and God

Werhner von Braun, Director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, in: The National Sunday Magazine For A Better America, July 18, 1965. (An enclosure in the New Orleans, La., Times‐ Picayune Newspaper.)

Science and faith are the two dominant forces in this century. We must try to understand their nature if we are to comprehend some of the most serious problems of the era in which we live.

The mainspring of science is curiosity. Since time immemorial, there have always been men and women who desire to know what was under the rock, beyond the hills, across the oceans. This restless breed now wants to know what makes an atom work, through what process life reproduces itself, or what is on the far side of the moon.

But, also, there would not be a single great accomplishment in the history of mankind without faith. Any man who strives to accomplish something needs a degree of faith in himself. And whenever he takes on a challenge that requires more moral strength than he can muster with his own limited mental and spiritual resources, he needs faith in God.

One of the most crucial issues of our time lies in the fact that modern science, along with miracle drugs and communications satellites, has also produced nuclear bombs. It cannot be denied that science has failed to provide a practical answer on how to cope with them. As a result, science and scientists have often been blamed for the desperate dilemma in which man finds himself today.

Science, by itself, has no moral dimension. The drug which cures when taken in small doses may kill when taken in excess. The nuclear energies that produce cheap electrical power when harnessed in a nuclear reactor may kill when abruptly released in a bomb. Thus, it does not make sense to ask a scientist whether his poison or his nuclear energy is “good” or “bad” for mankind.

And, so, the realization that science is unable to control the possible abuse of the forces it has made available, has led hundreds of millions in the world to a new interest in religion. This religious revival shows that there is a widespread realization that in the nuclear age man has a desperate need for stronger ethical control of the immeasurable physical forces he has unleashed.

Our battered churches

But many people find the churches, those old ramparts of faith, badly battered by the onslaught of three hundred years of scientific skepticism. This has led many to believe that science and religion are not compatible, that “knowing” and “believing” cannot live side by side.Nothing could be farther from the truth. Science and religion are not antagonists. On the contrary, they are sisters. While science tries to learn more about the creation, religion tries to better understand the Creator. While, through science man tries to harness the forces of nature around him, through religion he tries to harness the forces of nature within him.

Science may not have a moral dimension. But I am certain that science, in its search for new insights into the nature of the creation, has produced new ethical values of its own. Most certainly science has fostered veracity and humility. Again, it is a mark of all true science that its findings are valid and objective for all times and all peoples; that these findings demand unconditional acceptance and that once proved correct, they are universally embraced. If a man has ever come close to finding an answer to Pontius Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”, science has shown the way. Personally, I believe in the ultimate victory of truth. I am confident that to the extent that we shall learn more about nature, we shall not only arrive at universally accepted scientific findings, but also at a set of universally accepted rules and standards of human behavior.

The materialists of the nineteenth century and their Marxist heirs of the twentieth, tried to tell us that, as science gives us more knowledge about creation, we could live without faith in a Creator. Yet, so far, with every new answer, we have discovered new questions. The better we understand the intricacies of the atomic structure, the nature of life, or the master plan for the galaxies, the more reason we have found to marvel at the wonder of God’s creation.
But our need for God is not based on awe alone. Man needs faith just as he needs food, water, or air.

With all the science in the world, we need faith in God, whenever faith in ourselves has reached its limit.

(Note: Italics included in the original text)

Monday, September 24, 2012

2012 Arctic Sea Ice Melt Shatters 2007 Record

Arctic sea ice extent -  A NEW RECORD MINIMUM

On 19 September the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) released a preliminary report stating that the 2012 minimum sea ice extent in the Arctic was probably reached on 16 September 2012.  On that date the sea ice extent was 3.41 million km2.  That sea ice extent smashed the previous record minimum sea ice extent from 2007 by 760,000 km2.

The map below shows the sea ice extent on 9/16/2012 when it was at its minimum (white area).  The orange lines show the 1979-2000 average for sea ice extent.

What percent of sea ice cover remained of the historical 1979-2000 average at the end of this year's melt season?  Just over 51%.  That's right, the Arctic sea ice was nearly half gone at the end of the melt season.

Again, some people might argue that the sea ice extent minimum might have been a fluke random event, but that is looking less and less likely.  When we look at the past several years' sea ice minimum data they ALL fall below the 1979-2000 average.  The graph below shows the sea ice minimum extents for all the years 2007-2012.  The likelihood of this many years of sea ice minima below the average by random chance alone is just 1.56%.

And this table shows the actual sea ice extent data:

To wrap things up, "Is the climate change house on fire?" Should we be alarmed?  Look at the data and reach your own conclusion - and these data are just the tip of the iceberg.

Even the fish are feeling the heat...

What about COD? (yeah, the fish)

Even fish are starting to feel the heat...

What about the state of cod populations off of the east coast of North America?  Fish!?  Yep, read on.

Cod fisheries hit peak landing totals in the late 1980s, but during the early 1990s catch tonnage along the entire US east coast and up into maritime Canada plummeted.  Fisheries scientists found that cod populations were extremely depleted on both the Georges and Grand Banks, as well as on other traditional east coast fishing grounds.  An unprecedented 10-year moratorium on commercial fishing was implemented in an effort to give the cod population a change to recover.  Since cod are such an important food fish, fisheries managers work consistently to assess the health of cod stocks.  This is done mainly via bottom trawl sampling.  Little did fisheries managers know at the time that these cod trawl may provide insight into effects of climate change on marine species.

Cod are bottom fish, and though they do not need especially high levels of dissolved oxygen, they prefer cold water.  So if water temperatures shift, that could affect cod distribution.

On 18 Sept 2012, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, Woods Hole, MA) released a report stating that 2012 produced the warmest seawater temperatures ever recorded off of New England.  The NEFSC also released results of the latest bottom trawl survey designed to map the location and densities of Atlantic cod.  The results were significant when compared to bottom trawl data from previous years.  Look at the following trawl results from the following time periods.

By the way, areas closer to red indicate higher concentrations of cod.  Areas closer to blue have very few to no cod present.

Here are the results from 1968-1972.  Cod were present to relatively abundant in the coastal waters of NJ, NY, CN, RI, MA, NH, and ME, as well as in waters of the continental shelf west of MA, NH, and ME, and on up into Canada.

Here is the cod distribution 1973-1977 - similar to 1968-1972.

Here is the cod distribution 1978-1982 - similar to 1973-1977, except that there are fewer fish south of Long Island.

Here are the data from 1983-1987 - there are fewer cod inshore along the coast of Maine, but otherwise no major changes.

Here are the data from 1988-1992 - fish densities south of Long Island and in coastal Maine remain low.

The data for 1993-1997 show a significant decline in fish, and there are extremely few fish south of Cape Cop, and the number of fish offshore is and down.  This suggests a lower population density of the cod, and that remaining cod appear to be moving north.

The data from 1998-2002 continue to show very few inshore cod south of Cape Cod.

These data from 2003-207 show an alarming decline in abundance, plus cod appear to be shifting northward more, with very few remaining in the Gulf of Maine.

Data from 2008-2012 confirm the data from 2003-200 with cod being found almost exclusively north of Cape Cod.  This shift northward is correlated with increases in seawater temperature off of New England, and may represent a species-level response to water temperature change.

Northeast Fisheries Science Center - NOAA - Woods Hole, MA.

What about Arctic sea ice?

Is the house on fire? Indications of climate change - 2012

I'm not an alarmist, but there are times to be alarmed - like when your house is on fire, or when you see the headlong approach of unswerving headlights.

When it comes to global climate, is the house on fire?

Record-settting number of high temperature records

The most recent data I could find on daily temperature records in the USA was from July 2012.  According to the National Climate Data Center, there were 23,283 new record high temperatures set across the United States from Jan-July 2012.

There are also some other troubling data and scenarios out there.

In mid-July a compelling article on climate change and current weather and climate patterns by Bill McKibben appeared in Rolling Stone Magazine.  You can read it in its entirety by clicking the link below.

Building on data presented in that article we are now entering the 329th consecutive month with average temperatures above the 20th century average.  Yes, you read that right...329th month...that's nearly 27.5 years where EVERY month's average was above the 1900-1999 average temperature.  Now it is expected that any set of data from a natural system would include variability - year to year rainfall totals, temperature fluctuations, your heart rate, your annual body mass fluctuations, etc.  But when we see over 27 years of monthly average temperature data above the average of that for an entire century of temperature readings, we should probably sit up and think about what's going on.

If temperature fluctuations were behaving completely randomly, with no long-term temperature increase or decrease, we would predict that a given month's average temperature has a 50% chance (probability = 0.5) of being above average.  The chances of two consecutive months being above average would be 0.5 x 0.5 = 0.25 (= a 25% chance of happening by random chance alone).  So, what are the odds of observing 329 consecutive months with average temperatures above the 1900-1999 average temperature by random chance alone?  to get the answer to this question you need to multiply 0.5 by itself 329 times.  The answer is, according to the Rolling Stone article 3.7 x 10^-99.  That means that there is a 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000037% chance of that happening by random chance alone.  That's such a small likelihood of happening that it's time to look for things that could be driving that other than random chance.

The prime suspect?  A trend of global climate change, i.e., global warming.

The total global average temperature hasn't increased all that much so far in the past 100 years or so...only 0.8oC.  And if we are seeing significant changes with only this small change in global temperature, what could happen when we reach 2oC?  - the projected limit that we could reach without incurring MAJOR global environmental and ecological effects?

BTW, climate models suggest that the atmosphere-ocean-earth system may be able to accommodate the emission of another 595 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere before we reach the 2oC mark.  But guess what?  The cumulative proven reserves of fossil fuels currently controlled by energy companies and countries with nationalized mining and extraction = 2,795 gigatons of fossil fuel.  That's just the fossil fuel that we know about.  That's 5x the total we can emit before hitting the 2oC mark.

Are there other indicators are there that climate is shifting?  Check out some of my other postings.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Summer of the Smokey Haze

When you look outside and see air quality like this you might think, yeah, that's pretty typical...for Mexico City, or Los Angeles, or sometimes even Salt Lake City, but this summer terrible air quality and low visibility have been common in the Upper Snake River Valley, Idaho.  It's been what I call "The Summer of the Smokey Haze."

These shots were taken during the early evening on 17 September 2012, from the SE corner of the BYU-Idaho campus, Rexburg, Idaho looking toward the north, northwest, and west. As you can see, the entire valley is filled with smoke. 

Normally the Upper Snake River Valley has excellent air quality anywhere from 20-50 miles of visibility.  We can usually see the mountains to the north and west of town with great clarity.  This summer though, it's been a rare day when we've been able to see them.

Fortunately we haven't had much in the way of wildfires in our area - aside from one west of Salmon, ID, but because of the topography of Idaho, wind sweeps toward our part of the state from the southwest as wind blows along the lower Snake River Plain, hits hills and mountains to the east of Pocatello and Idaho Falls, and channels the wind our way.  This year there have been large and persistent wild fires throughout much of the mountain west.  This smoke reportedly is making its way to us all the way from fires in Nevada!

Only occasionally can you actually smell the smoke in the air, but the visibility and air quality has been especially poor, all summer long.

We have had some windy days, and even a little rain, and we keep hoping that it will either blow the smoke out of here or drop it to the ground (in the case of rain).  But so far all wind does is bring more smoke.  I guess the only relief we are likely to see anytime soon is going to be connected to seasonal changes.  Maybe once temperatures start to drop and the fires south of us get under control things will get better.

Here's hoping!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Toilet 2.0 - Huh!? Oh!

If you live in an economically developed country you probably use a flush toilet, and the only notable changes I've seen in that technology during the past several decades is the low-flow toilet. You know, one that uses less water than its predecessors. What else could you do to improve it?

As it turns out, a toilet is something that people living in economically developed countries take largely for granted, but about 1/4 of the world's population does not have access to a sanitary toilet, and that translates into a big, big public health problem. It's such a big problem that the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has established a program promoting the development of toilet technologies that can be deployed anywhere that can not only provide access to sanitary toilet facilities, but also provide added benefits like energy, fertilizer, and even drinkable freshwater.
I was flipping through the 10 August 2012 issue of the journal "Science" when I came across an article that made me double-take.  The article's title is "Finding a New Way to Go".  The article summary states that "The flush toilet was a transformative invention, but experts say its time may be past..."


I try my best to stay generally aware of what's going on in the world of science, but "Toilet Science" has never really been on my radar...well, except when I need one.  :-)

Anyway, I was intrigued so I dug into the article, so to speak.

Just in case you don't know, "Science" is the most prestigious science journal published in the United States, and is published by the AAAS - The American Association for the Advancement of Science" the most prestigious scientific community in the country, and perhaps in the world, though I'm sure the Royal Society in Great Britain would certainly take issue with that claim, but that's fodder for another posting.

So here's the most prestigious scientific publication in the world including work from the field of, um "toilet science(?)" in it's main portal to the world.  Curious?  OK...I'll go on.  This is a video posted in the "Science" magazine article I referred to above.  It addresses the problem:

Science - Video Portal

If you live in If you live in an economically developed country you probably use a flush toilet, and the only notable changes I've seen in that technology during the past several decades is the low-flow toilet.  You know, one that uses less water than its predecessors.  What else could you do to improve it?

As it turns out, a toilet is something that people living in economically developed countries take largely for granted, but about 1/5 of the world's population does not have access to a sanitary toilet, and that translates into a big, big public health problem.  It's such a big problem that the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has established a program promoting the development of toilet technologies that can be deployed anywhere that can not only provide access to sanitary toilet facilities, but also provide added benefits like energy, fertilizer, and even drinkable freshwater.

Here's a video from their site.
Yep, The Gates Foundation and scientists around the world are on a quest to discover Toilet 2.0.  A toilet that will do much more than just flush our, um, you know, away.

If you want to learn more about this effort you can visit the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation "Reinventing the Toilet" page by following this link:

Keep your eyes open, there's no telling what science will do its best to do for you next!

Friday, September 14, 2012

The flowers are still growing like mad - odd for this time of year in Rexburg, Idaho

I walked through the Ricks Gardens at BYU-Idaho in my way to work this morning, and as I walked through I thought to it just me, or are the flowers looking especially good for this time of year?  During my lunch break I took another stroll through the gardens, and this is what I saw - flowers in full bloom and still blooming all over the place!

As I walked along I ran into one of our horticulture faculty and our greenhouse manager, so I asked them if it's just me, or are the flowers in particularly good shape for this time of year.  In response they said, "The magic ingredient is heat."  Flowers love the heat. 

Frankly, it's not that unusual any more for our first hard fall frost to hold of now until sometime in October, and we have flirted with the low 30soF only once or twice so far this fall.  As you can see, the flowers are doing great! They are growing, are in full flower, and some are even still putting out new buds.  

I asked if this was unusual, and they both confirmed that even without a hard frost, the flowers don't usually look anywhere near this good most years.

The secret ingredient?  "Heat."  

While it's difficult to link any weather event, like a warmer than average late summer, to global warming, it is fair to say that the current trend in global climate change makes it more likely for summer-like conditions to extend longer than historically normal.  

The gardens look more like mid-July to me than mid- September...

Now I'm long the warm days will last.  I guess the only thing to do is to enjoy it while we have it.  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Record sea ice melt season reduces sea ice extent to only about 50% of its historical average

It's nearly the middle of September, the traditional end of the sea ice melt season in the Arctic Ocean.  The rate of sea ice melt has slowed over the past few days, perhaps signaling the beginning of the end of the Arctic Ocean sea ice melt season for 2012, but it's not completely done yet, and it's been a crazy summer in the Arctic!

Do you see what I see?  The extent of sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean is WAY smaller now than the 1979-2000 average (orange lines) with only ~51% of the 1979-2000 average sea ice cover remaining today.

Consider this...

The average sea ice cover (extent) in the Arctic from 1979-2000 was about 6.7 million square kilometers.  Right now there is only about 3.45 million square kilometers of sea ice in the Arctic (as shown above).  The area of ice that is MISSING is shown on the map below.  Sea ice extent has NEVER been this low.

How does this compare to the previous sea ice melt record?  The previous sea ice melt record was in 2007.  The dark gray line on the graph below shows the 1979-2000 average sea ice cover.  The dashed green line shows the sea ice cover during 2007, and the blue line shows sea ice cover during 2012.  The 2012 ice melt smashed the 2007 record, with over 750,000 km2 more sea ice melting than in 2007.

Interestingly, the high amount of sea ice melt in 2007 was largely the result of an unusual Arctic weather year.  It had huge high pressure regions over large areas of the polar north, and lots and lots of sunshine, which meant lots of sea ice melting.  In 2012 however weather conditions did not appear to be set up to produce lots of sea ice melt.  There was a major cyclonic low pressure system that produced lots of cloud cover.  And that combined with associated winds normally slows sea ice melt.  But not this year.  It has just apparently gotten too warm overall in the Arctic for that kind of weather system to slow sea ice melt as much as it used to.

Maybe the sea ice melt in 2007 and 2012 were just statistical outliers.  I would have considered that as a possibility...until I saw the data for sea ice in the Arctic for the years between 2007 and 2012.

The graph below shows the sea ice cover data for the years 2007-2012 plus the 1979-2000 average.  An outlier is an observation that falls well outside of the observed long term trend.  What we see when we look at the data is that every year since 2007, and others not shown here, all fall well outside the 1979-2000 average.  But because there are getting to be so many years outside that average they collectively no longer can really be considered outliers.  Instead, they are possibly representing a new trend.
I just read an extremely interesting paper on what is and has been going on in the Arctic with respect to sea ice.  I recommend it highly if you are seriously interested in this topic.

  • Stroeve, J. C., et al. 2012. The Arctic's rapidly shrinking sea ice cover: a research synthesis. Climate Change 110:1005-1027 DOI 10:1007/s10585-011-0101-1

Here is a link to a PDF file containing that paper: 

One of the things I found most compelling in Stroeve's article was the analysis of sea ice extent over the last 30+ years.  The conclusion is that the rate of sea ice loss is no longer linear.  Annual sea ice extents are dropping faster over the past decade than during previous decades.  The upper graph shows the rate of sea ice loss 1979-1998 in blue, and the rate of sea ice loss 1999-2010 in red.  The significant difference in these rates of sea ice loss is worth noting.  Stroeve's paper refers to models that suggest that the Arctic could become ice free in the summer as soon as 30 years from now.    

On the heels of this year's record sea ice melt, however, some climatologists are starting to suggest the possibility of a summer free of ice in the Arctic as soon as 10 years from now.  Yow!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Great Blue Heron - Now THAT'S fishing!

My dissertation advisor at UC Santa Cruz was Todd Newberry.  He is a marine biologist, and he is  also an avid birder.  He enjoys leading bird walks and loves it when people have what he calls "Audubon Moments".  This is when someone takes the time to be still and observe nature.

Last week I had a fantastic Audubon moment, well, actually nearly an hour, of watching and photographing a great blue heron as it worked its way along a river bank, fishing as it went.

Great Blue Herons (Ardea herodius) are among the largest birds in North America, often standing over four feet tall.  They are wading birds that eat fish, frogs, or whatever else can fit down their craw.

Anyway, my wife, daughter, and I went to Warm River, ID - one of our favorite day outings.  As we sat and relaxed, snacked and read at the Warm River Campground, I noticed a blue heron among the vegetation and rocks on the other side of the river.  It was slowly picking its way along the river's edge, standing, looking, fishing, and moving on.

Luckily (OK, it wasn't luck), I had my camera in hand and was able to grab some great shots of it fishing.

Here we it came around the back side of a boulder it stopped and looked...Whep!?  Is that a fish?

I better take a second look.  Yep, fish!  I'm going for it!

Yeah, baby!  Got it, but can I hang onto it?

It's a pretty big one...the dang thing could come back on me...I better give it a good shake!

That's enough shaking!  Now I've got shift it around and get this thing headed head-first down the old gullet.

That's better...

Hey, check it out...I really nailed this fish...put my lower bill right through its head!  Now THAT'S fishing!

Now to swallow this slippery if I can just flip it just the right way around...

Awesome!  First try!  Just like I planned it...

Hack, gnaw, whthreawght...

Check out this pose...and some people out there don't think I'm really a dinosaur!?

Big, that's a long way to swallow.

And I'm off...

This was a fantastic time.  I actually saw it catch a couple more fish, and a corn cob!?  Well at least it let the corn cob go.  Good call.  Now if it were a seagull it'd probably still be trying to hack down the corn cob just so another gull couldn't have it.

So there's one of my latest Audubon moments.