Sunday, November 24, 2013

An Important Point about Grazing-based Land Restoration

"Allan Savory's holistic resource management [was described] as a "promising option," even though there is no science to back up claims about intensive grazing schemes.  The truth is that grasslands are relatively arid environments, and livestock don't make the grass grow: rain does.  And rain doesn't follow the hoof."
--Jeff Burgess, reader response in the November/December 2013 Nature Conservancy magazine

Addendum:  read this comprehensive response to Allan Savory's claims, or this recent direct rebuttal:

The Savory Method can not green deserts or reverse climate change, Briske, David D., Bestelmeyer Brandon T., Brown Joel R.,Fuhlendorf Samuel D., and H. Polley Wayne , Rangelands, Volume 35, Issue 5, p.72-74, (2013)

and this follow-up:

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Rosemont Mine and the Scientific Method

In today's Arizona Star Opinion Section, Dr. Ostercamp discusses recent hydrologic research about whether the proposed Rosemont Mine would affect surrounding groundwater levels, and how much.

The upshot?  "More research is needed."  A classic scientific result that, in this case, sides with environmentalists' opposition to the proposed copper mine.  I was interested that this result shows how science often works differently from how most people think. Instead of generating facts to aid society's decisions, normal science (and scientists) thrive on ambiguity, controversy, and the unknowability of the world.

I believe that science, as a human institution, should work this way.  I am deeply suspicious of any scientific field with easy answers and a "97% consensus".  Scientific culture harnesses the creativity, jealousy, and competition inherent in human nature when it is most controversial, when there are a plurality of opinions and accusations.  When I hear that, for example, climate change researchers are united behind the IPCC report, I worry that the incentive structure of that field of science has become corrupted; instead of working to prove each other wrong in order to gain fame and fortune, they have all jumped on the same bandwagon to champion their cause.

In the same way that monopolies are bad for capitalism, unified "consensus statements" are bad for science.  This is not to say that I disagree with the IPCC's conclusions.  In the same way that a monopoly might act in society's interest, the IPCC may well be acting in our best interests.  But without dissent and opposing voices there is no guarantee.  Of course, one might argue that monopolies can be efficient; scientific consensus is necessary to accept what we know and move on.  I agree that arguments and democracy are very inefficient and often only result in stalemate, acrimony, and confusion.  Perhaps the "best" way of running an economy or the scientific method is ultimately a political decision?  

Politically, science (as I have described it in the first and second paragraphs) often argues for the status quo, because any change is inherently unknowable and the amount or "further research" needed is infinite; we can never comprehend everything.  So, in its current manifestation, science plays into the hands of industry when industrial processes are already ongoing: this is why Monsanto's fight for GMOs to be labelled "generally recognized as safe" and widely disseminated is so important.  Science would have argued for limitless further testing if GMOs were acknowledged to be a legitimately novel subject of study.  Conversely, science plays into the hands of environmentalists whenever new industrial projects are proposed.  In the case of the proposed Rosemont Mine, scientists would need to comprehensively understand the geology, hydrology, ecology, and meteorology of the entire Santa Rita mountains, if not the county and beyond, before being able to pass judgement on the effects of the mine.

But what about situations where environmentalists and industry would like to work together to advance some project for the good of society?  For example, thinning projects on national forests are badly needed prevent continuing damage to watersheds and ecosystems, as well as human life and property.  But what can science say about the best way to thin forests?  "Further research is needed..."

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Best Public Lands GIS

There are no perfect web viewers for ecological and public land GIS.

ProtectedPlanet is an open-source platform that has the most comprehensive map of special protected areas for the whole world.  In the US, highlights include BLM Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC), USFS Research Natural Areas, Special Botanical Areas, etc. has the best index of free online topo maps, and their database is searchable for mountain ranges and peaks (Google often can't find geographic features).

SEINet is fast becoming the most comprehensive botanical specimen map database in the world, with new collections constantly expanding their coverage.

Wundermap has many useful features, including a better display of, for example, USGS's Stream Gauge Network, as well as weather and sea surface temperature.

I'm still trying to decide if the Forest Service's ForWarn system, or their Disturbance Mapper, is a better way to view forest fire, insect infestation, and phenology data.  Both are slow and clunky as of this writing.

As reported in the Arizona Daily Star, desert Bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the Catalina Mountains yesterday after a nearly 15 year absence. The Catalina Bighorn Advisory Committee has been working on the project for a number of years and has conducted public outreach to explain and defend the program. This is one of dozens of projects conducted across the state and the southwest.  Habitat structures are built by the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society Volunteers:
   While some have questioned whether the project will be a success, there are many who think it is worth a try.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Living with Fire in Northern New Mexico: Fire, Forests, and Communities

Dr. Bob Parmenter presented data from some of our post-Las Conchas fire recovery monitoring.  Craig Allen gave two talks about culture and climate change over the last ~1,000 years.

Slides and videos from the presentations have not been posted yet.

Monday, November 11, 2013

New Yorker article fails to fact-check

A recent article in the New Yorker magazine features a profile of a the Climate Company, which offers individualized weather prediction services to farmers.  Unfortunately, the article makes a number of unfounded or vague assertions, and in some places is so boosterish of the new company that it veers into puff piece journalism.

A balanced review of the company's claims would better serve readers, and a more in-depth review of the science might help explain why.

For example, the article by Michael Specter, claims that

"If you are trying to decide whether to take an umbrella to work, the National Weather Service provides the kind of information you need. But the data, often taken from readings at local airports, are nearly useless for anyone who needs to gauge constantly changing conditions in the soil and the atmosphere."

But the NWS does offer zip-code specific weather readings and predictions.   While it would be great to have even better location-specific data, such a monitoring system is yet to be implemented.

"One of the company’s principal sources is Nexrad, or Next Generation Radar, a network of a hundred and fifty-nine Doppler radar stations operated by the National Weather Service. Using data from the system, the Climate Corporation creates moisture and precipitation maps so precise that in some cases a farmer can determine whether the field on one side of a road is wetter than the field on the other side. "

All private companies use NWS radar and satellite information, and are limited by the resolution of this data.  The highest resolution data available is 4 km grid boxes.  

According to local meteorologists, it is not possible to distinguish accumulating precipitation at smaller scales without installing individual weather stations on either side of the road.

"Soil type and quality can vary widely within a county, and even within a single farm field."

This quote is used to imply that the Climate Company has such intra-field soil data, but cannot account for every possible difference in soil texture.  It uses NRCS soil survey data compiled in the 1960's and 1970's for every county in the U.S.  

On their webpage, requests farmers fill in their specific soil type.  There is no high-tech substitute for good old-fashioned soil testing.  

The article also features such gee-whiz promotional quotes as "the algorithm divides the country into nearly half a million plots, then generates ten thousand daily weather scenarios for each of them... It matched that information with reports from two million locations that the National Weather Service scans regularly with Doppler radar."

Again, I spoke to several practicing meteorologists who were not sure how these absurdly large and contradictory numbers were computed.  Their best guess was that is counting the same location more than once, for each radar beam, or that they are counting different layers in the atmosphere as different "locations."  

Alternately, these discrepancies may be misquotes on the part of the author that were not picked up by New Yorker fact checkers.