Quote of the Week: Inez Fung

By Meghan Beamish

“Uncertainty does not challenge my certainty about the fact the planet will warm.”

Last week the Royal Society and the US Academy of Sciences published an overview of Climate Change Evidence and Causes. It is a short, approachable, and comprehensive publication that addresses key questions about climate change. John Roach pulled out this pithy quote from Inez Fung (one of the co-lead authors of the report and atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Berkley) in his NBC News coverage of the report. If you have an hour and a half to spare, you can check out the published webcast of a discussion with the authors here. Also, some good commentary can be found over at Rabbet Run.

Thermostats in the mountain forests of Peru

by Meghan Beamish

Trees are amazing, in so many ways. We know that they play an integral role in the carbon cycle, where they help regulate atmospheric CO2 levels. But we don’t really know all that much about how exactly they act in the carbon cycle. Luckily, many scientists are studying just this. And the results of these studies are pretty cool. Take, for example, our recent post about how older trees actually accumulate more carbon than younger trees. And a recent study shows that tree roots help regulate earth’s temperature as well!

Christopher Doughty and colleagues’ paper in Geophysical Research Letters explores  how tree roots, along with their symbiotic fungal partners, can regulate the long-term global climate.

They studied how biotic weathering (the breakdown of rocks, soil, and minerals by organisms — in this case tree roots and fungi) rates change with soil temperature. Their analyses in the Peruvian mountains shows that with cooler temperatures, fine root growth decreases and organic layer depth increases, which means less weathering. The authors concluded that the opposite is also true: as temperatures rise, the soil organic layers shrink, and more roots grow in the mineral layers, thus increasing weathering. And with increased weathering comes an increase in atmospheric CO2 drawdown. The paper posits that this negative feedback between global temperature and biotic weathering has contributed to long-term climate stabilization during periods of CO2 changes in the Cenozoic era (the time period spanning 66 million years ago-present), such as in volcanic degassing events.


What is the fate of future Winter Games?

by Meghan Beamish

The Winter Olympics have started again. Four years ago, we hosted them here in Vancouver, and it was one of the mildest winters on record. They had to helicopter in snow for many of the events. This week in Sochi, the forecast is warm, but they have been making and storing snow to prepare for the event.

Which begs the question: with a warming climate, what is the fate of future Winter Olympics?  Nature just published an article with this awesome graphic showing the “Downhill forecast” for future winter games. Click on the image for more details!


Tips on Science Communication, from CBC Meteorologist Claire Martin

by Meghan Beamish

Science communication is like sex: at first, when you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be pretty terrible for both parties. But, as you do it more and more, you get better and better at it.

This was the slightly risque, but fairly apt metaphor that Claire Martin left us with at a seminar organized by TerreWEB, a program here at UBC that trains graduate students in communicating their studies to a wider audience. Claire is an on-air meteorologist for CBC, but she is no ordinary meteorologist. She has won numerous awards and recognition for her engaging and successful exploits in the world of science communication. Last Friday, she shared with us “How to communicate science and not bore your audience to death.”

Bore us she did not. Claire presented some very useful things to think about when we are communicating science — to any audience.

Something that really stood out to me from the beginning was that “really good communication doesn’t come perfectly packaged.” That is to say, there is no one best way to communicate. It varies from person to person and audience to audience. But there are key components to successful science communication.

Throughout the talk, Claire referred to an imaginary mind map which shows the key components of science communication. It looked a little like this:

The science component is self-explanatory, but absolutely essential. You must know your stuff. She opened with this phrase,  so that if any of us fell asleep or walked out, we still knew that we need to know our science. If you stop reading this post here, remember: know what you are talking about, and know it well! And for those times that you are wrong (and we all have them) own up to it. It makes you personable and keeps you reputable.

The second most important thing that Claire emphasized is to know your audience. This falls under that Social Science bubble. How we engage with an audience – the way we talk, the questions that we ask, the angle from which we approach the topic – should vary from audience to audience. Claire “profiled” us as she was presenting, and from the number of smiles and nods, I’d say that she was pretty dead on. Whenever you are preparing to present, take a minute and think about your audience. Where are they coming from?  Start with a broad sketch and then narrow it down.

And, like Claire emphasized in her closing metaphor, the more thoughtfully you profile, the better and easier engaging with different audiences will become. She talked about the importance of talking to challenging audiences, including places where you and your views may not be wanted.  This really resonated with me.  If we keep communicating within our comfort zones, then it will be impossible to share important messages about science outside our tribe. It is often those people outside your tribe who are most important to reach.

Along those lines, Claire provided some good advice for talking to people who don’t really want to listen to you: Listen to them. Tell them that you understand where they are coming from and engage in a real two-way conversation. And, most importantly, know the arguments that you are – and are not – going to win. I hesitate to even use the word argument here, for arguing is not a sign of effective and constructive communication. So, I’ll rephrase: know which subject can be communicated effectively in that situation, and which ones cannot.

Going back to the idea that there is no one style of effective science communication, Claire ended her presentation by showing us two videos. The first was produced by The Weather Network and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science (now the Canadian Climate Forum). The vignette was about climate and the Arctic, and it seamlessly jumped from researcher interview clip to panning across the Arctic tundra. It was sleek, carefully edited, polished, engaging and effective. I couldn’t find the video online, which may be a comment on how well it actually engaged people.

I’ll leave you with the other video, from school teacher Greg Craven. It is not sleek, carefully edited, or polished, but it is brilliantly engaging and effective.



Older, wiser and better at accumulating carbon?

by Meghan Beamish

The other morning, while listening to NPR, I came across this story: “An Old Tree Doesn’t Get Taller, But Bulks Up Like a Bodybuilder.” It highlights a recent Nature paper that was published last week by U.S. Geologic Survey forest ecologist Nate Stephenson. The paper addresses some blank spots in our knowledge of how tree growth rates change with age, and it concludes (after a global analysis of about 400 temperate and tropical tree species) that a tree’s growth rate actually increases with age. This means that large trees increase the amount of carbon they store each year; in an extreme case, a single large tree can add as much carbon into the forest in a single year as is contained in an entire mid-sized tree, trunk, branches and all!

This new study has some pretty interesting implications for how we think about the forest carbon cycle, and how we use trees as resources (for wood and carbon sequestration).