geoscience

NO NORMAL

As climate change and its many impacts unfold, many worse than we had forecasted or feared, many observers have indicated that Earth is entering a “new normal.” This is not wrong. However, with respect to our ability to understand, adapt to, and predict environmental change from here on out, it is probably more accurate to say there is no normal. The climate and environment that we will contend with will be unlike any our species—much less our infrastructures, institutions, and cultures—has ever encountered. I agree with those who say, sometimes circumspectly and sometimes directly, that it is time to panic. Not in the sense of panic as uncontrollable fear or anxiety that can cause wildly unthinking behavior, but in the sense of another definition: a frenzied hurry to do something. Scientists hate to be called alarmist, but when the house is on fire, you sound the alarm.

New York Times, February, 2019

 

OH S#*T

Every day, it seems, there is another news story or reports of yet more evidence that the global climate is changing, either as we have predicted for years—or worse and faster. The climate system is incredibly complex, and climatologists, climate modelers and paleoclimatologists are furiously working to reduce the uncertainty. Despite the uncertainties and complexities, at this point it is clear that:

•Global mean temperatures are rising.

•Ocean heat content is increasing.

•Sea ice cover is, on average, decreasing (both in areal extent and thickness).

Arctic sea ice cover is in serious long-term decline (photo: Huffpost Canada)

•Ice sheets and glaciers are shrinking.

•Permafrost is thawing.

•Sea level is rising. 

•Changes in climate-sensitive biota, ecosystems, and landforms are all consistent with a warming climate. 

•The major driving force is a dramatic increase in heat-trapping greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

AXIOMS FOR READING THE LANDSCAPE

Just published in Progress in Physical Geography: Place Formation and Axioms for Reading the Natural LandscapeThis work is an attempt to develop some formalisms for analyzing the biophysical landscape from the perspective of place formation--how landscapes, environments, and places evolve and become different from each other. My original efforts were in the form of conceptual model, but (thanks in large measure to reviewers and critiques of earlier versions) I realized that (A) the critical principles could be reduced to axioms, and (B) a set of guidelines or axioms is a more effective (and honest) way to present the approach. The abstract is below:

A copy of the full text is attached.

 

 

EIGHT IS ENOUGH

Eight Simple Techniques for Critiquing Academic Publications

Stuck reviewing an article manuscript, or preparing for yet another graduate seminar? Need to diminish the accomplishments of an annoying colleague or hated rival? Want to appear superior to the others in your roundtable discussion? Want to do these things without having to actually read the whole damn thing? Here are eight simple, effective techniques for providing negative critiques of academic papers, articles, and books.

1. The analysis is oversimplified; the problem is more complex than that.

Of course it is—it’s always more complex. The real world is infinitely complex, and no representation—words, pictures, equations, numbers, diagrams, or otherwise—can capture all of its richness and variety. Thus you can always find something potentially significant the author has omitted, and you can always correctly observe that reality is far more complicated.

2. Deconstructing the binary.

TRYING TO REASON WITH HURRICANE SEASON

As I write, river flooding and cleanup from Hurricane Florence in North and  South Carolina are ongoing. The storm was not a major one in terms of maximum sustained winds--only a Category 1 on the Saffir-Simpson scale when it made landfall at Wrightsville Beach, near Cape Fear, NC.  But the storm approached the coast very slowly, and moved only very slowly once it made landfall. That, and the areal extent of of the storm, resulted in quite a beating for the eastern Carolinas. 

Satellite image of Florence approaching the Carolina coast. 

SELECTION REDUX

A couple of years ago I blogged about generalized Darwinism in a post called Occam’s SelectionThis is the idea that principles of variation, selection, and preservation or retention are applicable to development and evolution of many different phenomena. The GD label is most common in evolutionary economics, but the notion is constantly being reinvented in many different fields. 

A recent example is Selection for Gaia Across Multiple Scales, published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution. The issue is how biological natural selection, which operates at the level of individuals, could result in evolutionary trends at ecosystems and broader scales, including the self-regulating biotic/abiotic coupling of the global Earth system. 

BIOGEOMORPHIC EQUIVALENTS & FUNCTIONAL GROUPS

During some recent fieldwork doing forest biogeomorphology with colleagues in the Czech Republic, the idea of biogeomorphic equivalents came up. A biogeomorphic ecosystem engineer organism has a biogeomorphic equivalent if another species can potentially do the same biogeomorphic job. For example, bacteria that consume iron are important agents of weathering. There exist numerous species of iron-eating microbes, so if one is eliminated for whatever reason, another takes its place. Thus these Fe-processing bacteria have biogeomorphic equivalents.

Acidophilous iron-oxidizing bacteria (USGS photo).

On the other hand, there exists no biogeomorphic equivalent for the stream-damming effects of beavers. The disappearance of Castor canadensis from a landscape means the loss of their biogeomorphic effects, as no other organism (save humans, of course), dams up streams.

Wyoming beaver dam (photo: Wildlife Conservation Society).

RIVERS & TIPPING POINTS

Some have argued that in geomorphology and physical geography the term "tipping point" does not describe any concepts or phenomena not long recognized by the fields. The tipping point concept does not (it is argued) have any conceptual or analytical value added. I agree. Here is a previous post on tipping point metaphors.

Blanco River, Texas.

Notwithstanding that, tipping point terminology is au courantin both public discourse and science, particularly as it relates to global and broad scale environmental change. Thus--perhaps analogously to buzzwords such as "sustainability" and "resilience"-- if you want to be a part of broader scientific conversations, it pays to employ the trendy term.

SELF-LIMITED BIOGEOMORPHIC ECOSYSTEM ENGINEERING

Where forests grow on thin soils over bedrock, the effects of individual trees (as well as the effects of forest cover and litter) may work to deepen or thicken the soil. This occurs due to root penetration of bedrock joints and fractures. This in turn facilitates weathering and funnels moisture into the rock. Uprooting of trees may “mine” bedrock encircled by roots, and leave a locally thicker mound as rootwads deteriorate. If trees do not uproot, as stumps rot away the depressions—often extending deeper than surrounding soil—fill with soil, sediment, and organic matter. This thickening of the soil is a form of direct, positive ecosystem engineering in that it increases habitat suitability for the engineer organisms (the trees). 

Chinquapin Oak growing in limestone, Mercer County, Kentucky.

Eventually, however, the average soil or regolith thickness may increase such that tree roots no longer contact bedrock. Then the biogeomorphic ecosystem engineering effects of the trees on soil thickness ceases. In effect, you have self-limited biogeomorphic ecosystem engineering. 

RISING SEAS & COASTAL RESPONSES

As sea level rises--and it is rising!--it is causing geomorphological, hydrological, and ecological changes in coastal environments. Though "bathtub" models, which show where the shoreline would be with sea level increased by a certain amount, are useful in showing areas of potential impact, that's not how actual responses to sea level work. Not only does the ocean level change, but also the base level for rivers and terrestrial processes, salinity, ecological habitats, hydroperiods, and any number of other factors. 

Sand and mud flats along the eroding Neuse River estuary shoreline, NC. 

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