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Why COP17 will not succeed

November 29, 2011
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As world leaders meet in Durban, South Africa for the next two weeks for the COP17 Climate Change Conference, I am struck by the overwhelming sense that nothing good will possibly come of it.

Rather than being miffed with politics in general, this is a far more measurable sense of impending doom. It is hard to expect success from a project aiming for an impossible target.

From the Washington Post today,

International climate negotiators have pledged to keep the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels.

Granted, that goal sounds wonderful, as 2 degrees C has been paraded around as the upper bounds on “safe” climate change. There is only one problem–for all intents and purposes it is not possible.

Read more…

550, 000, 000 Years of Plate Tectonics

November 19, 2011

Curse you, fluffy water!

This week marked the first snowfall of the season for my sleepy hometown of Brantford, Ontario. The advancing signs of winter, combined with the attacks by the tilted Earth axis and the purveyors of daylight savings time on the length of our day, drives pretty well everyone to become cold, cranky messes. But as I was sitting in a coffee shop, festering in my first world problems, a twitter conversation between Brian Romans and Matthew Garcia reminded me that it wasn’t always this way.

No, my friends. Brantford, it seems, used to be a lush, subtropical, coastal paradise. One where, if you were lucky, you might have seen the planet’s first tree, or the first steps of a timid tetrapod as it clawed its way to land.

Just 385, 000, 000 years ago, Brantford, Ontario was right……………………………………………………..



That white line in the centre of the image is the equator, and the happy red dot is where I could have been relaxing on the beach right now. The creator of this image, Ron Blakey of Colorado Plateau Geosystems Inc., was kind enough to leave the faint ghost of the current geography on the map, making it surprisingly fun to see where your home would have been way back in the day.

But as it turns out, that specific image, of Devonian paleogeography, was not the only such picture created by dear Dr. Blakey. Oh no, there are DOZENS of pictures of North America alone.

And what is the only reasonable course of action when presented with such beautiful scientific imagery? Why, set it to some sweet acoustic guitar, of course.

The images created by Dr. Blakey are not spaced at regular temporal intervals, but thanks to some simple math the animation should be a scientifically accurate representation of the changing face of our little blue planet.

The Pitch Cemetery: Exclusive Access and Journalistic Bias

October 19, 2011

This is where a freelancer's dreams normally end up. Credit: mugley

The following is the first of what I hope will become an ever more frequent series on this here blog. Below is a pitch I submitted to a magazine editor regarding a potential freelance story. My pitch was rejected (or, at least, it’s been a few weeks with no reply), but the most important thing to me is that I sent it in the first place. Even trying to step foot into the world of magazine writing is a daunting task, and one that I’ve for the most part avoided, largely due to timidity. I hope that by posting my rejected pitches here, I can: hang my dirty laundry out to dry, document the travails of a fledgling journalist, and maybe, just maybe, hear the critiques of other writers.

As for this pitch specifically, the story idea started as a pithy tweet. A positive response from an editor I respect turned into a brief 140-char discussion, and ended with a prompt that I send him an email. I suspect that this pitch, cobbled together in an hour or two, was both too abstract and too exhaustive. So here lies the pitch in its (almost) original form.

Read more…

The Geopocalypse is nigh: A science writing linkfest

September 27, 2011

The fight for abundant, clean, fresh water will be one of the most important arenas in coming decades. As a professor of mine once said, “The wars that will be waged over energy and water will trump anything that my generation ever had to live through. And I was born in the 1920s.” He later admitted he was trying to shock us into paying attention on the first day of the new semester, but his words rang true enough that they’ve stuck with me over the years.

How the world’s water supplies will be affected by a progressively warming climate is, understandably, a major area of investigation. Because of its importance, I’ve recently pumped out (get it? Hydrology humour) a big pile of journal summaries covering a wide swath of water science. (Or, maybe it’s the fact that the AGU happens to have a journal called Water Resources Research.)


The shrinking Swiss Morteratsch Glacier, 1985 to 2007. Credit: J. Alean.

Shrinking Alpine glaciers spell trouble for Europe’s rivers – As I live in the lap of aqueous luxury, resting my head within a tank of gas of a quarter of the world’s fresh water, it’s easy to forget that many countries’ supplies are less abundant and less stable. In western Europe, a web of well-known and important rivers—like the Danube and the Rhine—draw some of their water from glaciers nestled in the Swiss Alps. The total volume of glacier water feeding the rivers was never very high, but some new research showed that what was particularly important was when the water seeped down from the mountains. Glacier melt peaks in the summer, exactly when other sources tend to dry up. The relative importance is only amplified when drought strikes the region. While this is nice to know on its own (who needs bottled glacier water when it’s right there in the river?), it becomes sort of scary when you realise that glacier run-off will all but disappear by the end of the century.

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The Mangled Web of Scientific Misinformation

August 9, 2011

Admit it. It *is* a sexy turtleneck.

I’ve done it. As an educated guess, I’d reckon you’ve done it too. Most recently, David DiSalvo at Forbes did it with his story,

Why Scientists and Journalists Don’t Always Play Well Together.”

Next to lusting after Carl Sagan and pining for the Space Race, lamenting the woeful state of science writing is a favourite past time of science writers and scientists alike.

DiSalvo’s tale has been told many times, and the key ideas can be filtered out as,

Scientists mistrust journalists because the popular market for news can, and very often does, affect how stories are told.


[T]he ambiguity surrounding many scientific findings doesn’t translate well to popular messaging.

In other words, through their act of converting complex science into broadsheet coverage science writers sometimes slip, over-dramatizing and over-simplifying. Or, in even more other words, bad science journalism is science journalists’ fault. As the last wall standing between the outside world and the edited page, this stance makes sense. But here’s a line you’ll never expect:

It’s not so simple.

Now don’t get me wrong I’m all for pointing fingers, particularly those extra-waggly self-deprecating ones. I just think that, sometimes, it can be nice to spread that blame around. Science journalists do not work in isolation, and sometimes errors start further—much further—up the chain. But this is no exploration of the extreme, villifying that lone, over-hyping researcher who bursts onto the scene in a blaze of press conference-induced glory. Rather, this is an investigation of the mundane; of the modest, common ways mistakes that make their way into the news.

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Holy schist! That’s a lot of Earth science

July 27, 2011

You can actually buy these. Credit: CafePress

Sitting alone, headphones blocking out the world in a booth at my local coffee shop, the above popped into my head. Representing far more than a desire to sneak lightly-masked political incorrectness into my daily affairs, the title of this post is a testament to one unwavering truth–my descent into geophysics dorkitude is reaching critical levels.

In the few months since I last updated this site, through my daily routine of drinking more coffee than can possibly be healthy and reading scientific research off a screen far too small, I have been repeatedly struck by one unassailable conclusion: the world is complicated, my ability to understand it declines daily, and I relish every moment of this descent into uncertainty.

It’s obviously hopefully not the case that I’m actually getting dumber with time (the effects of caffeine on memory are mixed.) Rather, the more I read about the nuances of the physical world, the more I realize my superficial grasp ain’t worth schist.

So what is it that has led me to be so self-degrading? The following stories (along with a video, magazine article, and an interview with a textbook author) represent the most important geophysical science research as selected by the editors of a handful of American Geophysical Union journals (where I am now a staff writer, yay!). The links lead to short journal summaries which, though brief, hopefully give the gist of the research.

Scientific research covered by the popular media usually falls into one of two camps, either: “This might kill you!” or, “This isn’t really that important, but it certainly is cool!” There is plenty of that below, but it’s also sprinkled with a dose of, “This is scientifically important!” You know, if you’re into that sort of thing. Read more…

The Geophysical Explorations Continue

March 1, 2011

I'm a bit of a hoarder....

I’ve always been captivated by science.

In my teens, I watched Daily Planet (a daily science news television show) after school nearly every day at my one of my friend’s houses. I read a lot of science magazines – my first subscription was Discover. I took every science class offered in highschool, and went to university for chemistry.

Half way through my undergraduate years, I started to lose interest as my education got ever more focused on methods and niche topics, training me to be a working scientist. The depth and specialization of modern science is incredibly important, but the narrow scope just wasn’t for me. I wanted to know everything (or almost everything), about everything.

My guidance counsellor at the University of Guelph suggested that a career in science journalism would better fit my style; forever learning, thinking, and questioning on a broad number of topics. She pulled some strings (thanks Linda!) and let me build a choose-your-own adventure degree: Honours Physical Science with a minor in Philosophy. I could take whatever science courses I wanted as long as they fell under the banner of physical science. My goal was to get the basics in every field, so that I could walk in to nearly any lab in the world and at least have a grasp of the basics.

Obviously my education wasn’t as far reaching as I’d planned (I still know next to nothing about psychology, for instance, and am happy to leave that to minds more suited), but I got a pretty good primer in ecology, chemistry, toxicology,  meteorology, hydrology, energy issues… and on it goes.

Whether my plan really worked out has yet to be determined, but I’m incredibly happy with my choice. Every day I get to learn about something completely new, and totally different from the day before. The stories I worked on this month are a testament to the quest for diversity that led me to switch programs.

As with the last time I did this, almost all of the stories were written for the American Geophysical Union and are either summaries/teasers for interesting studies selected by the journal editors, or Q&As with the authors of scientific books:

Read more…