If you're here, you know I'm interested in carbon cycling. Which is a nice, non-controversial way of saying I care about global climate. Carbon in the air, whether oxidized or reduced, traps solar energy. Climate change.
2018 was the fourth warmest year on record. 2016 was the warmest and 2017 the second warmest.
The science on climate change is settled, and it has been settled for a long time—maybe longer than you realize. Articles in the 1800s (the 1800s!) describe the effect of civilization on the environment. They describe how the emission of carbon dioxide into the air creates a greenhouse effect—and they did so almost 200 years ago.
"The establishment and progress of human societies, the action of natural forces, can notably change, and in vast regions, the state of the surface, the distribution of water and the great movements of the air. Such effects are able to make to vary, in the course of many centuries, the average degree of heat; because the analytic expressions contain coefficients relating to the state of the surface and which greatly influence the temperature." -Fourier, 1827.
“The highest effect of the sun’s rays I have found to be in carbonic acid gas. ... An atmosphere of that gas would give to our earth a high temperature; and if, as some suppose, at one period of its history, the air had mixed with it a larger proportion than at present, an increased temperature from its own action, as well as from increased weight, must have necessarily resulted.” -Eunice Foote, 1856.
In other words, forced warming was understood as a concept long before we grew addicted to oil. Think about that.
As a personal issue, climate change got into my head-space in the early 1990s. It’s why I returned to research—specifically, in planetary science at Caltech. Previously, I’d worked on the human genome project and taught pre-nursing majors at a local community college (these are things that matter to human health and well-being too. They are important). Once I began to understand the global threat of climate change on ecosystems and human well-being, very little else, at least in terms of issues, seemed to hold much of a candle.
And the science on climate is settled in broad and medium strokes. It was settled long ago. So why do so many people fail to act? Why do governments fail to enact sufficient policy?
I have a few ideas about this. Maybe it’s guilt, maybe it’s biological drive, or maybe denial. Maybe it’s the time span of a human experience vs. the time span of climate actually changing. We can see climate changing over, say, a decade. (That wasn't true forty years ago--the rate of change is accelerating.) But we tend to live and breathe in seasons, and holidays, and school years. We don't think in decades on a daily basis.
In biology, animals are ‘consumers.’ Every consumer generates carbon dioxide as part of their biology, and humans do this more than most because we also have... fire.
Increasing the planetary ratio of consumers (especially fire-makers) to producers (otherwise known as plants, which absorb carbon dioxide and convert it to sugars) has a spiraling effect on the mass balance of carbon in our world and air. The carbon cycle.
Maybe the reason we humans aren’t acting in ‘big enough ways’ to combat global climate change is because the information about climate is scientific, instead of emotional.
The author Ursula Le Guin has said that science fiction writers tell lies, create fictions to reveal truth, with an intent not of predicting the future but of describing how things are. By this thinking, the lies of fiction reveal the truth of being.
Maybe through fiction, authors can move hearts in a way that scientists cannot. Maybe fiction is the means through which we will decide to act on the science of climate change. Fewer gallons of gas, keeping the thermostat down, insulating homes better, smaller family size, buying local, growing our own food, recycling, voting on climate, reforesting, restructuring our economy, demanding transparency in the energy sector, developing and using carbon-free energy sources. There are so many ways to become carbon-less, or carbon negative. We are innovative. We care, all of us. With luck, writers might make a difference where, to date, science seems to have gained too little traction.
It's been a while! This is just a quick note. I plan to update the pages soon, what's been accomplished, what's no longer in our sites, new publications, current work in progress. The big item - we're finally submitting the Porter Ranch work. I'm about half way through the submission portal, crossing all the T's that are involved with this process. The Sphingobium genome is available now in Genbank as part of that work, and there's a great chance that this bioinformation will help hammer out some details of methane monooxygenase trees, connecting phylogeny and enzyme structure to function. Long term goal: Create biotechnologies to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Quick informatic nugget: it looks like ethane in environmental alkane disaster events may inhibit methane oxidizers. Thus, clean up of methane during gas leaks may first require drawdown of ethane - before methanotrophs can 'come online' and do their thing. Since natural gas normally has ethane, this changes how we think about the dynamics of natural methane bioremediation.
I've been pursuing other interests as well, this year, and may soon have a new direction in life, which is frankly thrilling. Life's not for the timid, but on the flip side it's full of opportunity.
It's a rainy day here in Southern California. Most welcome! Hopefully the rain will be gentle and soak into the ground; with luck it will not cause landslides in the burn areas. We're on flash flood watch today, but so far the rain has been soft and light, like a kiss. :-) Green mountainsides are right around the corner.
I've been meaning to put up an entry about our eclipse adventures, but have been busy with work and other projects. Better late than never, i guess!
The eclipse was fantastic! Our youngest daughter begged us to make the 800 mile trek up to the path of totality, and she finally convinced us this was a good idea. By us, I really mean me, since Mike was in the Tetons at The Enclosure during the eclipse. So, I piled both kids in the car, and we picked up Gigi on the way, and powered our way up to central Oregon.
Teslas are a great way to travel, and I thought that going north two days before the eclipse would be fine. Was I wrong! The superchargers were backed up like I have never seen - All the eco friendly folks like me wanted to see the eclipse and Tesla infrastructure isn't in place yet for this sort of load. Still, the waits at the superchargers (4 hours in Corning, !!) were a lot of fun as we got to chat with other greens. I mean, long chats. Four hour chats. Hahaha! Fun! No, it was.
We made it to our destination Sunday morning, and stayed at Crooked River Ranch. We pitched a tent. The eclipse, Monday, was *incredible.* There were fantastic telescopes everywhere, and all of us, everyone, was on the same wavelength, enjoying this amazing celestial dance. I know that sounds hokey, deal with it.
Totality was not completely dark, but Venus came out clear as a bell. Sunset on the horizon. Clear skies. Rivers and cliffs. Nature. Beautiful! The eclipse pictures don't do it justice - we had the wrong kind of camera I guess. But other non-sun pictures are fun. Here's one of me and the girls. Mike is in the Tetons, you'll have to imagine him doing the same thing hundreds of miles east.
And i think my favorite picture is the girls making an eclipse heart with their hands, here. See? It's about 85% total at this point!
So, then we powered back down, to get our older daughter to the airport for her junior year at GWU. 1600 miles in four days - Whew! But awesome. Then back to work - and that's for another blog post on another day.
I’ve been working to get the gas leak manuscript out the door over the past month, and what a great process this has been. This project is my first dive into soil methane oxidation – there’s so much literature about this (= lots of reading) and we’re seeing tons of complementary data coming from our experiments at Porter Ranch (= lots of contextualizing!). Most exciting to me, are the very obvious parallels in microbial meta-community dynamics that are becoming evident, when comparing marine oil spills with soil gas leaks. This starts to get back to what my mom always said – that chemistry is the central science! Chemistry appears to be driving the microbiology, regardless of environment. It’s so cool. Tangentially – there’s a new paper in PNAS describing a bench-based simulation of the gulf oil spill – these guys successfully replicated a lot of the same dynamics documented in situ. I recommend having a look.
I’ve also been taking time off to backpack, and this has been fantastic. This was my first trip camping in the eastern Sierras. Normally I am a Yosemite kind of girl, but the eastern range has its own (skyscraping!) charm. We were able to get up to 10,400 feet before the snow was too deep to go further. Most years the snow would not be so deep in July, but our wet winter left an incredible snowpack. I think our group got further than any other backpackers so far this year (we did not see any tents or obvious tracks past our own.) This was pretty cool, though I am sure someone will make it further yet, by this weekend.
The whole area around Blue Lake was stunning. The water in the lake was clear and cold and tasted incredible. And, not needing to pack in our own water was a great bonus. The only down side to all the water was the mosquitoes. There were thousands upon thousands (upon thousands) of mosquitoes. They were concentrated in Blue Lake Basin because of all the pools, and they were active a full 24 hours a day. We would see upwards of thirty on us at any given moment. But, if we kept moving we could pretend that they weren't too bad.
We almost made it to Evolution basin, which includes mounts Darwin, Haeckel, and Lamarck. The snow was too deep this time around and we didn't make it. But having ‘almost made it’ we know we’ll go back. I mean come on who doesn’t want to go to Evolution Basin?
What a fantastic spring this has been! The spring semester at Channel Islands was a great success - lots of student involvement and great peer discussions in all my classes. Grades are now submitted (hurray!) and I've shifted back to manuscript mode.
The hiking trails have been great too. Thanks to a very wet winter the wildflowers have been in full bloom for months, and are just now beginning to fade. We've seen new (ephemeral) waterfalls in the Santa Monica Mountains, again thanks to the rain. Our kids finally believe that Sycamore Creek really does have water flowing in it, at least when we have a wet winter! And, there's a hummingbird nesting in our back yard. This was a delight to discover, such a little nest - it's just about the size of a 50 cent coin.
I've been to a few political marches this spring too, and this has been a great way to connect with like-minded folks. The March for Science in DC was incredibly positive - just so many people who hope that we can keep reason-based policies, and prioritize funding to that end (EPA, NIH, NSF). I also Marched for Climate in Los Angeles, to raise awareness of pipeline expansions in some of LA's less affluent communities. The idea of climate inequality was huge at this event. Echoes of Standing Rock issues! There was also great commentary and insight from Robert Kennedy Jr. who has spent a good amount of time thinking through what it means to deconstruct political systems in favor of corporations (i.e. 'drain the swamp'). If you get a chance to hear him speak, grab it!
The upcoming summer looks like it will be full of writing and submitting manuscripts, and also getting back out to Porter Ranch for more soil sampling and analysis. And barbecues, and a few more marches... :) happy spring!
I'm incredibly thrilled to be going to Washington DC soon, to march for Science! It's so great to see all the grassroots energy and excitement about science during a time when its funding and future are uncertain. Go Science! :) Find a science march near you!
George Washington University, in Foggy Bottom, is hosting a symposium on April 21st in conjunction with the march. The afternoon symposium (Biological Sciences on a changing planet) will look at everything from marine sanctuaries to pests to forest health. I'll be discussing how to use microbes to remediate methane! There will also be a fantastic panel discussion including speakers from the Socio-Environmental Synthesis center (think: science advancement where ecology and humans intersect), from GW's school of international affairs, and from NPR's Marketplace. And also - Student research posters! :) I am so stoked, can't wait to meet all these folks. The march should also be fantastic. I'll put up some photos in a couple weeks. :)
Talking at the Field in March 2017 was fantastic! IDT (Integrated DNA Technologies) hosted an evening event to celebrate diversity research, and winners from last year (that's me!) and this year (Dr.'s Matthew Niemiller, Patrick Brown, and Shannon Hackett) gave short updates on our diversity and sustainability research.
Dr. Neimiller studies the role of karst as an ecological niche. Who knew ... protists in caves have not been catalogued, at all! As a protozoa-phile I find this shocking. Dr. Brown is working on selective and creative tree breeding, as a means of addressing the many stresses our forests face from climate change. Dr. Hackett utilizes the expansive and massive bird collection at the Field (more than 500,000 specimens from over 100 years!) to ask how diseases like West Nile may be driving the evolution of the crow immune system.
The Field Museum is opening a new exhibit "Specimens." It will open your eyes to all the resources and work that goes into understanding the natural world around us. If you have a chance, be sure to see it!