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Archive for February, 2011

A changing climate changes the environment. We know that. But it also may change culture. In a lesson that could have some relevance to human societies today, geographers at the University of Ottawa examined the overlap between climatic change and the changes in tool technology and other artifacts by Native American tribes during three ancient time periods.
Humans have lived on the North American continent long enough to have experienced dramatic shifts in climate caused by ice sheet expansion and retraction that altered patterns in temperature and precipitation. Plant and animal communities changed with these shifts, resulting in new ecosystems by which humans would have relied on.

In a comprehensive look at these shifts beginning 11,250 years ago, the researchers matched pollen and charcoal records with archaeological remains along the Eastern seaboard. They found with every major shift in climate and ecosystem, a corresponding alteration occurred in human cultures.

In the Paleoindian period, characterized by a tundra landscape and a coniferous forest environment during a cold snap called the Younger Dryas, humans were living in nomadic bands and hunted big game like caribou.

The lifestyle changed with the advent of the warmer Archaic period, about 11,600 years ago. Oak and pine came to predominate forests, followed by hemlock and beech as the climate became moister. These nut and fruit producing trees would have been an important source of nutrients, and humans settlements show the rise of semi-permanent base camps, fishing, and the hunting of smaller game.

The transition from Archaic to Woodland periods, 3,000 years ago, shows a dip in temperatures and deeper snowpacks; human population declined during this shift. But humans recovered and well into the Woodland they period began experimenting with maize agriculture, pottery, and permanent settlements.The authors write:

“… our work shows a close correspondence between periods of change in ecosystems and the archaeological record, and highlights the complex and multidirectional nature of human-climate relationships.”

Humans have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to new climate and environmental conditions. In today’s era of climate change, adapt or die is no different, no matter how much we can better buffer ourselves from the weather.

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BEIJING — China will spend $1 billion to alleviate its worst drought in six decades — a long dry spell in the world’s largest wheat-growing region that threatens further jumps in the commodity’s global price.

The funding announced late Wednesday is part of a government plan to boost grain production, divert water, build emergency wells and take other steps in the affected areas in central and northern China.
Snow fell Thursday in some of the driest areas, but it was minimal and has not eased worries about the winter wheat crop. The main wheat belt, including Shandong, Henan, Hebei, Anhui, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Gansu and Jiangsu provinces, has gotten virtually no precipitation since October.
CORN PRICES UP: Expect higher food prices as corn reserves lowest in 15 years

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The natural gas cartel, a dream of Russia’s just a few years ago, is dead. It died when a natural gas revolution broke out and Gazprom lost. Energy importing nations around the world are evaluating their own geology, currently, to see if they have shale reserves that can be tapped. Nations like Argentina, Germany, Poland, France, and Sweden are looking into their national shale reserves.
The shale gas revolution is changing the world we live in, and the power structures of the past. It is also quickly changing the politics of future energy relationships. Nations that had to be nice to an exporter, due to energy supplies, will be freed of their need for discretion.

Shale gas is quite simply changing the whole energy paradigm in real time.  The unlocking of source rock, has altered the future history of mankind.  The world has discovered and unlocked its newest true world changing source of stored energy.

  • In the 1700’s, the world used wood for its energy source. The great mansions were heated with wood.
  • In the 1800’s, coal provided the go-to source of transportable fuel.   It allowed railroads to rapidly move people at a pace faster than a horse. Coal powered the Industrial Revolution.
  • In the 1900’s, crude oil became the primary fuel.  It was refined into fuel for aircraft, for ships at sea and into gasoline and diesel.  Crude oil provided the necessary cheap energy to fuel the rapid expansion of civilization to the rest of the world.
  • The 2000’s arrived with the onset of peak light sweet crude oil.  The US had peaked in overall oil production decades before, and as the new century started its reserves in both oil and conventional natural gas where shrinking.

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From Blind Copying (bcc) to Basics (abc) in Science

Ilan Kelman, CICERO, Norway

Science has become mired in blindness: it is dominated by bcc representing “blind copying”. That is, blindly copying what has gone before without innovative thought. In science today, bcc means Bureaucracy, Corporatism, and Conservatism.

Bureaucracy. Science is being bogged down in interminable reporting, complicated paperwork systems, and paperwork for paperwork’s sake. Rather than scientists, senior researchers are morphing into bureaucrats. That does not mean reducing accountability or project management. Those are feasible without snowing people under with paper and checklists. Science is becoming increasingly bureaucratic without any increase in accountability.

Corporatism. Political leaders are heard today claiming that all money invested in science must have a business payback. Scientists are pummelled with corporatespeak such as visions, stretch goals, identities, and objectives. Those are useful approaches for structuring thoughts in certain contexts. They cannot apply to all contexts, especially exploratory research where the pathways and outcomes are not known–cannot be known–beforehand. If all research pathways and outcomes were known in advance, then we would not need research.

Conservatism. Increasing expectations from science focus on outputs, such as counting the number of peer reviewed papers and ticking off the list of deliverables. Any attempt to take a risk is discouraged because, heaven forbid, results might not be publishable. New case studies can be nixed because it is not known what is there–which is precisely why those case studies should be researched. A culture of fear prevails that we might actually learn something different from what we expected in the first place.

How could the bcc situation improve? We must move from the bcc of blind copying to the “back to basics” of abc. What is the basic purpose of science? To search for explanations and to gain knowledge. abc achieves that through Action, Boldness, and Curiosity.

Action. Much of science plods along, week to week, hoping for a breakthrough or to find something publishable. That should not preclude excitement, dynamism, and acting on desires to know and learn more. No punishment should exist for taking action to pursue a query where potential exists for important results, even if that means deviating from the original plan or using the assigned budget for other activities. Note that action does not necessarily mean activism. The action can be along the lines of simple scientific enquiry, following a lead that appeared even if not listed in the initial project plan.

Boldness. Science should not be afraid to take risks. Risking a project or part of a budget on a daring move, an odd case study, or a unique situation has the potential for immense gains. Even if 99% of bold decisions to strike out in new directions fail, the 1% success rate will pay back dividends that are orders of magnitude greater than the expense. The evidence? The transistor. The discovery of pulsars. The proof of the CFC-induced ozone hole. Amongst many others.

Curiosity. Scientists these days frequently seem scared to ask deep questions. For example, challenge a leading scientist in climate change to prove assertions made and the consequence can be ostracism from the clique along with personal attacks. Dare to pursue a topic because it interests you and the consequence is being hauled before bureaucratic superiors to justify your use of time and budget. Try to shift a budget line to take advantage of recent developments and the consequence is being labelled a troublemaker by the granting agency who must use time (and hence money) to determine whether or not to approve such a small change. Investigation for “sheer curiosity”–just because it is there–is frowned upon. What is the point of research if we cannot follow the tendrils of our minds?

Science is being killed by blind copying. We are losing creativity and innovation. Society loses in the long-run by having fewer explanations and less knowledge to apply for a better world. Where are the scientific visionaries and leaders today who can bring science back to life–back to basics?