A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘science

[LINK] “Exxon Knew about Climate Change Almost 40 Years Ago”

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Scientific American‘s Shannon Hall reports on how Exxon, to its decided benefit, hid its knowledge of global warming.

Exxon was aware of climate change, as early as 1977, 11 years before it became a public issue, according to a recent investigation from InsideClimate News. This knowledge did not prevent the company (now ExxonMobil and the world’s largest oil and gas company) from spending decades refusing to publicly acknowledge climate change and even promoting climate misinformation—an approach many have likened to the lies spread by the tobacco industry regarding the health risks of smoking. Both industries were conscious that their products wouldn’t stay profitable once the world understood the risks, so much so that they used the same consultants to develop strategies on how to communicate with the public.

Experts, however, aren’t terribly surprised. “It’s never been remotely plausible that they did not understand the science,” says Naomi Oreskes, a history of science professor at Harvard University. But as it turns out, Exxon didn’t just understand the science, the company actively engaged with it. In the 1970s and 1980s it employed top scientists to look into the issue and launched its own ambitious research program that empirically sampled carbon dioxide and built rigorous climate models. Exxon even spent more than $1 million on a tanker project that would tackle how much CO2 is absorbed by the oceans. It was one of the biggest scientific questions of the time, meaning that Exxon was truly conducting unprecedented research.

In their eight-month-long investigation, reporters at InsideClimate News interviewed former Exxon employees, scientists and federal officials and analyzed hundreds of pages of internal documents. They found that the company’s knowledge of climate change dates back to July 1977, when its senior scientist James Black delivered a sobering message on the topic. “In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” Black told Exxon’s management committee. A year later he warned Exxon that doubling CO2 gases in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by two or three degrees—a number that is consistent with the scientific consensus today. He continued to warn that “present thinking holds that man has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.” In other words, Exxon needed to act.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 2, 2015 at 8:33 pm

[CAT] “Are Cats Domesticated?”

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At least one person forwarded me links to Ferris Jabr’s New Yorker article examining the question of whether or not housecats are a domesticated species.

At first, the cat was yet another opportunistic creature that evolved to take advantage of civilization. It was essentially a larger version of the rodents it caught. Somewhere along the line, people shifted from tolerating cats to welcoming them, providing extra food and a warm place to sleep. Why? Perhaps because of the cat’s innate predisposition to tameness and its inherent faunal charm—what the Japanese would call kawaii. Look up photos of the thirty-eight or so wildcat species and you might be surprised at how easy it is to picture one curled up on the couch. Dogs likely initiated their own domestication, too, by prowling around campfires in search of food scraps. Whereas our ancestors quickly harnessed dogs to useful tasks, breeding them to guard, hunt, and herd, they never asked much of cats. We have also been slow to diversify cat breeds. Many dog, horse, and cattle breeds are more than five hundred years old, but the first documented cat fanciers’ show didn’t take place until 1871, at the Crystal Palace, in London, and the most modern cat breeds emerged only within the past fifty years.

This relatively short and lenient period of selective breeding is manifest in the cat genome, Wesley Warren, a geneticist at Washington University in St. Louis*, said. In a study published last year, Warren and his colleagues analyzed DNA from several wildcats and breeds of domestic cat, including an Abyssinian named Cinnamon. They confirmed that, genetically, cats have diverged much less from their wildcat ancestors than dogs have from wolves, and that the cat genome has much more modest signatures of artificial selection. Because cats also retain sharper hunting skills than dogs, abandoned felines are more likely to survive without any human help. In some countries, feral cats routinely breed with their wildcat cousins. “There’s still a lot of genetic mixing,” Warren said. “You don’t have the true differentiation you see between wolf and dog. Using the dog as the best comparison, the modern cat is not what I would call fully domesticated.”

Not all researchers agree. “I don’t think it makes sense to talk about animals as semi- or fully domesticated,” Greger Larson, a paleogeneticist and archeologist at Oxford University and an expert on domestication, said. “Any threshold you try to define will necessarily be arbitrary.” Larson tends to agree with the views of Melinda Zeder, an archeologist at the Smithsonian Institution, who has written extensively on the domestication of both plants and animals. Zeder characterized domestication as an ongoing symbiosis between humans and another species—“a sort of pact that ends up being mutually beneficial,” she said. This relationship, she argued, can follow many paths and result in somewhat different outcomes, which she has catalogued. Sometimes people gradually domesticate a prey species—sheep, goats, cattle—or deliberately remove non-prey animals from the wild and breed them for a specific purpose, as we’ve done with horses. In other cases, hunger draws a wild animal—dogs, chickens, guinea pigs, cats—to human society, where it becomes increasingly tolerant of people. Even a single domestic lineage can contain varying degrees of dependency and a range of temperaments.

I’m inclined to say that they are whatever they want to be.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 31, 2015 at 8:27 pm

[CAT] “How A Photographer Captured The Beauty of Siberian Tigers”

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Simon Worrell of National Geographic interviewed Sooyong Park, a Korean photographer whose dedicated photography in adverse conditions has produced the book Great Soul Of Siberia: Passion, Obsession And One Man’s Quest For The World’s Most Elusive Tiger.

You studied literature for 17 years, and you write like a poet. How did you end up studying Siberian tigers? What is it about these tigers that draws the muse out of you?

For a long time I have been drawn to the beauty of living things and while literature is useful for explaining humanity, it is not enough for explaining nature. Science is more useful, but science is very dry. So I always wanted to fuse science and literature. To do that, I had to immerse myself in nature and observe living things with my own eyes and become one of nature’s species.

I focused on Siberian tigers, which are endangered and elusive. It was a challenge, and the difficulty in finding them led me deep into nature. After many years of study, I could identify individual tigers and recognize their family members. Understanding tiger families allowed me to peer more deeply into their lives: how they love, how they are born, how they live and die. They are not so different from human beings. Knowing that inspired compassion.

You spent six to seven months alone in a bunker during the long Siberian winters in hopes of filming Siberian tigers. Describe your bunker and how you survived the isolation and cold.

We called our bunkers ‘hotels’ to make them seem more comfortable. But in reality they were cramped, underground spaces measuring six feet by six feet by five. I had to stoop when standing up, but I spent most of my time sitting: waiting and watching for tigers with my camera. Outside it was -20F and snowy. I was unable to shower or turn a light on, and had to remain very quiet so as not to scare off the tigers, even though sometimes I wanted to shout. I felt as though I were in solitary confinement. I would read the labels of food containers for entertainment.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 31, 2015 at 8:25 pm

[CAT] “As Tiger Numbers Dwindle, Will Smugglers Target a Different Cat?”

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National Geographic‘s Rachael Bale tells a depressingly plausible story.

Among wild cats, clouded leopards are increasingly coveted—and bred in captivity—for commercial purposes, according to a new study from University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit. They’re being sold into the pet trade, to tourist attractions offering cat encounters, and to other such profit-driven businesses.

Researchers Neil D’Cruze and David Macdonald reviewed import and export records filed with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), the body that regulates international wildlife trade, and found a 42 percent increase in the commercial trade of live clouded leopards from 1975 to 2013.

Clouded leopards are native to Southeast Asia and named for their distinctive spotted coats. They’re one of the smallest big cats, weighing up to 50 pounds and growing up to three feet long. They belong to an entirely separate taxonomic group from snow leopards and “regular” leopards, such as African and Indian leopards.

The reason for their new popularity has much to do with the decline of tigers, now estimated to number no more than 3,200, whose bones, feet and other body parts are highly prized in traditional medicine and for warding off evil.

Some 10,000 clouded leopards remain in the wild, with no single population larger than 1,000 individuals, spread from Indonesia to the foothills of the Himalayas and into China. They face a high risk of extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List, a widely accepted international list of the conservation status of species.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 31, 2015 at 8:19 pm

[BLOG] Some Thursday links

  • blogTO explains why there is no Terminal 2 at Pearson.
  • Crooked Timber notes the very strong case against coal and new coal mines.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze links to a paper speculating that the solar system had five large planets.
  • The Dragon’s Tales notes the Russian war in Syria, updates readers on the Ukrainian war, and suggests Russia is starting to run out of money.
  • Joe. My. God. notes Wil Wheaton’s refusal to let the Huffington Post use his material for free.
  • Language Log notes the complexities of Chinese language stop signs in Hong Kong.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money notes how elements of climate change like water shortages can make things worse.
  • Personal Reflections’ Jim Belshaw, among other things, notes that Australia’s approach to asylum cannot work in Europe.
  • The Planetary Society Blog notes new proposals for exploring the Jovian system.
  • Spacing Toronto looks at an old murder on the Toronto Islands in the Second World War.
  • Supernova Condensate shares a Tumblr image set noting the need to not discourage women from being interested in science.
  • Window on Eurasia notes the awkward position of Crimean Tatar institutions and notes some Belarusians want a Russian military base because they want the income.

[BLOG] Some Canada and #elxn42 links, before and after

  • Former Globe and Mail editor William Thorsell’s essay throwout, a scathing criticism of the Conservative government by a right-leaning critic, got widely syndicated, first on the Medium account of MacLean’s journalist Paul Wells then at MacLean’s itself. Scott Gilmore’s similar MacLean’s essay is also worth reading in this light.
  • The publicity received by Thorsell also relates, in part, to the Globe and Mail‘s nonsensical endorsement of the Conservative Party but not Harper. Over at the National Post, Andrew Coyne resigned as an editor on account of interference from above. Torontoist, meanwhile, noted the history of newspaper endorsements in Toronto.
  • The fate of the NDP, never breaking through and in fact losing more than half of the seats won in 2011, was also discussed. MacLean’s before the vote noted many of the challenges, while the Toronto Star after the vote noted the disaster. NOW Toronto examined the contest in Spadina-Fort York between Olivia Chow and Adam Vaughan. Jacobin Magazine mourned the NDP defeat.
  • MacLean’s and the Toronto Star celebrated the high voter turnout, 68.5%, the highest in two decades.
  • Toronto was a major battlefield. MacLean’s looked at the desperate attempt of Harper to cultivate the Ford brothers, while right-leaning mayor John Tory congratulated the Liberals on the scale of their win. Steve Munro looked forward to the impact of the election on mass transit, blogTO looked at the city’s recent voting pattern and noted surprising outcomes, and re-elected Adam Vaughan promised an end to the controversial Toronto Islands airport expansion.
  • Much is expected of the new government. Suburban ethnic voters are looking to the Liberals to fulfill promises, while on the world stage much is expected of a Canada apparently returned to its progressive promise. Meanwhile, much policy change is expected, everything from science to urban policy.
  • The blogosphere took note of the election. Lawyers, Guns and Money started a discussion before the election about what might happen, while Crooked Timber celebrated afterwards. Joe. My. God. and Towleroad were among the sites to note the Trudeau victory briefly, Torontoist shared a cute election-day photo, and The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer celebrated the fact that this election proved Duverger’s law.

[LINK] “The Paleo Recipe for Complex Life on Earth”

At The Dragon’s Tales, Will Baird has a thought-provoking essay noting the evidence that complex life might have first evolved on Earth in Paleoproterozoic era, more than two billion years before the present and one billion years before commonly thought.

The Earth is racked by global glaciations. Ones which have been called the Snowball Earth. They stretch over the entire planet from the poles through the equator. There is some dispute whether or not the oceans were completely frozen over (a slushball earth vs snowball), but the glaciations are acknowledged as real.

The monstrous glaciation is understood to have been triggered by a sudden drop in the atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. This, in turn, is believed to have been caused by photosynthetic organisms drawing down the CO2 levels while spiking the oxygen levels (relatively speaking). Yes, the snowball earth events are, like in the Eocene’s Azolla Event, examples of biogenic climate change.

Within 100 million years of the end of the Snowball Earth complex life arose. Except it would vanish from the fossil record, probably having gone extinct and changing the biological fate of the Earth.

Wait. You thought I was talking about the Cryogenian and Ediacaran?

After all, the Cryogenian’s Marinoan Glaciation (or maybe Sturtian or Kaigas), NeoProterozoic Oxygenation Event, Ediacaran with its biota and then Cambrian do parallel all of the above. Except that complex life is obviously still around and the Phanerozoic is quite biologically diverse, to say the least.

Written by Randy McDonald

October 27, 2015 at 9:17 pm


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