I’m nursing a cold. Laying about on the couch has given me some time to think, and I’ve been thinking about aerosols. The recent eruption of an Icelandic volcano has brought air traffic over Europe to a grinding halt. When this same thing happened after the 9/11 attacks in the U.S.,  local climate was slightly altered as jet contrails disappeared from the atmosphere. Albedo, the reflectivity of the atmosphere, kicks sunlight back into space and reduced energy input to our global greenhouse. The water vapor in contrails also serves to trap heat once it’s in the atmosphere. As a result, the range of high and low temperatures INCREASED markedly in the U.S. during the days after the attacks [1]. Whether a long term lack of contrails causes more warming (by allowing more sunlight into the atmosphere) or cooling (by preventing the trapping of radiation in the atmosphere) is unclear.

Volcanoes, on the other hand, seem to have a more clear impact on climate. The fine particulates in volcanic ash increase the albedo of the earth’s atmosphere and cause more sunlight to be reflected back into space. Less sunlight then gets trapped as heat in the atmosphere, and cooling results [2]. In fact, perhaps not coincidentally, “Ben Franklin noted that volcanic aerosols reflect sunlight to space, and therefore argued that the eruption of a large volcano on Iceland may have been responsible for unusual cold in 1783-4.” [2]. Franklin was even in Paris in 1783 [3], working on a peace treaty, so again the prevailing westerly winds brought the ash over Europe.

So I make a prediction, as a very amateur climate science armchair guy. I predict that Europe will experience unusually cold temperatures in the next year. In the next days, this will likely be a combination of the lack of contrails and the ash, but once air travel is restored I’ll wager that local temperatures in the European continent will still go unusually cold this coming year due to the ash. As a result, global warming detractors will seize on this as “more evidence” that global warming is a myth, making the same mistake they make when arguing that “global cooling” happened in the 1970s – neglecting aerosols.

[1] Travis, D.J.; A. Carleton and R.G. Lauritsen (8 2002). “Contrails reduce daily temperature range.”. Nature 418: 601. doi:10.1038/418601a

[2] JE Hansen, AA Lacis – Nature, 1990


No Malfeasance, Learn Statistics

An independent review of the climate research at East Anglia University has turned up no malfeasance [1]. The center of the Climate-gate controversy, I’ve been waiting patiently to see how this review went. Importantly, the report concludes that researchers need to spend more time working closely with statisticians to make sense of messy data. Amen to that.

Climate-gate taught the public a lot about just how messy science can be, and how opinionated scientists can be. While I am glad than an independent review found no wrongdoing,  I still encourage scientists not to be jerks.


The Lawn as an Evolutionary Playground

Ever since moving to Texas, we’ve had a lawn. I had spent months looking forward to the opportunity to take care of the lawn, even though we’re renting the house. Lawncare seems silly – a caricature of suburban American life. It’s important to me for two reasons. The first is the peace of mind a little sweat and toil can bring. The second is that the American lawn is a micr0cosm of the problem with America: soaked in chemicals, the lawn is a monoculture sustained not by the health of the grass but by the brutality of the agents brought to bear against invaders.

A lawn consists primarily of a single type of grass. After some careful study and comparison, I’ve determined our lawn is Bermuda grass. It’s a species capable of withstanding the brutal summers of the American Southwest [1], growing best when in direct sunlight and temperatures between 75-99 degrees Fahrenheit and faring poorly in shade. It can put down deep roots, giving it access to water many inches below where standard weeds can put down roots.

Accepting for a moment that the preservation of the monoculture is the highest good in lawncare, there are right and wrong ways to promote the Bermuda grass. First and foremost is the simple evolutionary rule that the dominant species will maintain dominance through traits best suited to the situation.

I didn’t do my homework on my lawn before the spring came. I did do a few right things – I put down some fertilizer to enrich the nitrogen content of the soil. However, not realizing that deep roots (and thus resilience against dry conditions) were one of the traits of Bermuda grass, I started watering my lawn several weeks ago. Instead of promoting the growth of the lawn – temperatures have only very recently entered the 70s and 80s – this promoted the growth of broadleaf weeds such as dandelions and chickweed. Bermuda grass needs SOIL temperatures between 75-99, and clearly I had jumped the gun. The grass was still brown because it was dormant, not because it was thirsty. My rookie move got me a bad dandelion and chickweed infestation.

By creating conditions favorable to weeds before the grass could naturally awake, green, and grow, I gave weeds the evolutionary advantage. They certainly took advantage; half my front lawn is chickweed, and half my back yard is dandelions.

In order to restore balance, I then had to do the very thing I wanted to avoid in the first place. This weekend, I was forced to put down post-emergent weed killer to prevent the chickweed from hoarding all the sun in the front yard and thus starving the Bermuda grass. Similarly, I had to stunt the growth of the dandelions in the back yard before their thick, broad leaves blocked all the sunlight. Since the dandelions were spraying seeds like crazy, I also had to put down a pre-emergent weed killer – something normally reserved for the fall. Instead of creating a healthy lawn with the dominant species being the grass, I gave weeds the advantage by watering too early.

So now I am in damage control mode, and I can only look to next year to get onto a more healthy cycle. Weed killer is a short-term solution that allows you to behave badly and still have a good-looking lawn.

I was encouraged, however, as I paid closer attention to the lawn. I pulled a number of weeds myself. In doing so, I got a look at the soil “under the hood.” There are a lot of worms  – a good sign for the soil. I also paid attention to where the soil seemed rich and where it seemed poor. I grabbed bags of cedar mulch and put that down on the poor earth, in the hopes of stifling weed growth while improving the quality of that soil. In addition, I planted some grass seed in good soil that was otherwise bare.

This is a learning experience for me, and the health of my lawn hangs in the balance. I have a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the Bermuda grass, and except to water-in the pre-emergent weed killer I’ve switched off lawn watering. When the tips of the grass start to curl, then they need water. I’ve got to plant other things in the shady parts of the lawn, where the Bermuda grass is less likely to thrive. Weeds have typically shallow roots (the dandelion tap root aside), and less watering will help choke their growth.

In the end, the lesson of the lawn will be the same as the lessons of industrial agriculture. If I substitute a love and understanding of the lawn for the power of chemical prowess, I will create a lawn unable to sustain itself, fight invaders, and fight infection. I will create a lawn that is a living tipping point. If, instead, I use the strengths of the lawn against the weaknesses of the invaders, I will create a dominant species capable of supporting and sustaining itself.


So long, Songbird

The music player Songbird has been a project I’ve been excited about for a long time [1]. When Songbird first appeared, it wasn’t great on Linux but it brought a promising feature into the music player mix: a built-in web browser, allowing you to surf to music blogs and grab free MP3s from the site. This integrated free music on the web with all the amenities of a modern music player: integrated for-pay music stores, a well-organized music library system, streaming content, and dynamic playlists. Since then, it’s become a reliable and beautiful project.

Alas, today, the project that was born from open-source, designed as a multi-platform player, is abandoning the Linux operating system [2]. And so, in symmetry, I am abandoning Songbird. The player that held such promise as a truly open-source, multi-platform project integrating music and the web has decided to go and compete against iTunes only on the platforms supported by iTunes (nicely pointed out by many comment posters on the Songbird Blog announcement of their decision). So long, good luck, and see ya later.

This comes at a bad time. As part of a streaming media integration project in my own home, Songbird played a central role. Jodi wanted to be able to listen to streaming radio when she’s working on bills in her office; Songbird let me marry streaming audio with our extensive digital music collection, and with an interface similar to iTunes it was familiar to Jodi. Instead, as of today, I have removed Songbird from all of our systems and instead have gone for Rhythmbox.

Rhythmbox is a great GNU/Linux project [3], but I abandoned it because of Songbird’s web integration. If Rhythmbox had a plugin that integrated a browser with this player, I wouldn’t even bat an eye. Rhythmbox has everything else I need except web integration.

Songbird said goodbye to Linux. So I can’t really respect them, and I can’t mourn the loss too long. It is refreshing to come back to Rhythmbox, and I look forward to seeing it evolve in Ubuntu 10.04 and beyond.