The Resource and Reallocation Crisis

One way to understand the scope of the planetary crisis is how authors of speculative/science fiction deal with the problem of avoiding self-inflicted human extinction.  Alastair Reynolds composed a page of (fictional) historical reflection in Blue Remembered Earth (2012).



Geoffrey (the primary protagonist) is returning to his home in Africa from a space flight to the Moon. Unbeknownst to him until she speaks, he’s accompanied by a “construct” of his grandmother, Eunice (a main protagonist).

cover_BlueRememberedEarth_Reynolds_2014-06-26 at 7.43.43 PM“Look at that planet. It’s still beautiful. It’s still ours, still our home. The oceans rose, the atmosphere warmed up, the weather went ape-shit, we had stupid, needless wars. And yet we still found a way to ride it out, to stay alive. To do more than just survive. To come out of all that and still feel like we have a home.” (Eunice,  p. 167)

Geoffrey and Eunice are in “the recuperation and observation deck . . . Africa lay spread out . . . in all its astonishing variegated vastness. The Libreville anchorpoint was actually a hundred kilometers south of its namesake city and as far west again, built out into the Atlantic. Looking straight down, he could see the grey scratch of the sea-battered artificial peninsula daggering from the Gabon coastline, with the anchorpoint a circular widening at its westerly end.

To the north, beginning to be pulled out of sight by the curvature of the Earth, lay the great, barely inhabited emptiness of Saharan Africa, from Mauritania to the Sudan. Tens of millions of people had lived there, until not much more than a century ago—enough to cram the densest megacity anywhere on the planet. Clustered  around the tiny life-giving motes of oases and rivers, those millions had left the emptiness practically untouched. Daunting persistence had been required to make a living in those desert spaces, where appalling hardship was only ever a famine or drought away. But people had done so, successfully, for thousands of years. It was only the coming of the Anthropocene, the human-instigated climate shift of recent centuries, that had finally brought the Saharan depopulation. In mere lifetimes, the entire region had been subject to massive planned migration. Mali, Chad, Niger . . . these were political entities that still existed, but only in the most abstract and technical of senses., their borders still recorded, their GDPs still tracked. Almost no one actually lived in them, save a skeleton staff of AU caretakers and industrialists.

The rising sea levels of the twenty-first century had scarcely dented Africa’s coastline, and much of what would have been lost to the oceans had been conserved by thousands of kilometres of walled defenses thrown up in haste and later buttressed and secured against further inundation. But there was no sense that Africa had been spared. The shifting of the monsoon had stolen the rains from one part and redistributed them elsewhere—parching the Congo, anointing the formerly arid sub-Saharan Sahel region from Guinea to Nigeria.

Change on that kind of scale, a literal redrawing of the map, could never be painless. There had been testing times, the Resource and Reallocation years: almost the worst that people could bear. Yet these were Africans, used to that kind of thing. They had come through the grim tunnel of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and made it out the other side. And at least climate change didn’t ride into town with tanks and guns and machetes.

For the most part. It was pointless to pretend that there hadn’t been outbreaks of local stupidity, micro-atrocities. Ethnic tensions, simmering for decades, had flared up at the least provocation. But that was the case the world over; it wasn’t a uniquely African problem.

A million glints of sunlight spangled back at Geoffrey from the central Saharan energy belt. When people moved away, machines had arrived. In their wake they had left regimented arrays of solar collectors, ranks of photovoltaic cells and long, stately chains of solar towers, fed by sun-tracking mirrors as large as radio telescopes. The energy belt stretched for thousands of kilometres, from the Middle East out into the Atlantic, across the ocean to the Southern United States, and it wrapped humming, superconducting tentacles around the rest of the planet, giving power to dense new conurbations in Scandinavia, Greenland, Patagonia, and Western Antarctica. Where there had been ice a hundred and fifty years ago, much was now green or the warm bruised grey of dense urban infrastructure. Half of the world’s entire energy needs were supplied by Saharan sunlight, or had been until the fusion reactors began to shoulder the burden. By some measure, the energy belt was evidence of global calamity, the visible symptom of a debilitating planetary crisis. It was also, inarguably, something rather wonderful to behold.” (pp.165-166. Ace: New York)



the secret WAS*IS*WILLBE handshake

WAS*IS is not only about the weather: its revolutionary model is an exemplar for harnessing collective intelligence in the face of our generation’s severe and complicated societal-level challenges.

Ben surveys a mile of huge stones carried by a flood
Ben surveys a mile of huge stones carried by a flood

Boulder, CO

Connecting the Dots

Will WAS*IS live?

Touched by the Weather

The continental United States experiences more sudden, severe weather than anyplace else on the globe. This astonishing fact occurs because of geography and patterns of wind. Less surprising but still fascinating is that most of the participants attending WAS*IS (including the social scientists) experienced a major weather event when they were young. Whether or not you believe humans have anything to do with global warming – or even in global warming itself, chances are increasing that you’ve been exposed to or affected by a recent severe weather event. At least, this is an assumption that social scientists can help assess.

  • What are the costs of bad weather?
  • Do we measure this in purely economic terms, or do we need to also understand the sociocultural implications as people adapt, grow, or fail to learn lessons from surviving a natural hazard?

The water is rising

Kevin and Bob: Doing Something Technical
Kevin and Bob: Doing Something Technical

The point of the Societal Impacts Program is to bring the social into team science:

SIP serves as a focal point for developing and supporting a closer relationship between weather researchers, operational forecasters, relevant end users,
and social scientists.

According to the veterans, some amazing things have happened during this 10th “summer workshop” exploring “what WAS to what IS the future” of integrated social and physical science. The representation of stakeholders at the 2011 WAS*IS is impressive: roughly half of the participants are professors, students and/or professional researchers from social science disciplines, with the other half including four television weathermen, two employees of for-profit business companies, and several National Weather Service employees, ranging from extensively-trained meteorologists and technicians in Weather Forecast Offices to national policy advisors and top-level agency directors.

We are, however, missing representation from the largest set of end-users, the diversity of publics who care about weather news. Social science is needed to identify

Caitlin and Jay, listening carefully.
Caitlin and Jay, listening carefully.
  • the very different reasons and diversity of needs of interested consumers of weather news;
  • failures of education and training in making weather knowledge common – widely shared and collectively understood;
  • social interactions of time and the timing of warnings with both short-fuse and long-fuse weather hazards (such as flash floods or hurricanes, respectively).

Did you know that the National Weather Service warning for Hurricane Katrina was the most precise and accurate warning in history? Not only did the official warning provide a very long lead time, it also predicted in acute detail the devastation about to occur.

A new line in the sand

Brittany's Emergency Management Support Statement
Brittany's Emergency Management Support Statement

Including so many social scientists in the WAS*IS 2011 Summer Workshop raises the bar for organizers and participants too. The diversity of disciplinary backgrounds means the training model has to embrace new interaction capacities and grow. Just like people in other components of the weather enterprise, we are all responsible for keeping the relationships discovered here alive, active, and productive. Collectively, some stances need to be forged on a wider scale to support the emergence of this movement from its exclusive and cozy origins to an institutional force with considerable lateral reach. WAS*IS  is not only about the weather: its revolutionary model is an exemplar for harnessing collective intelligence in the face of our generation’s severe and complicated societal-level challenges.

Just as some of us will experience various emotions as this experience comes to a close, grief is part and parcel of the process of organizational maturity. It is like a phase shift from youth to early adulthood. The success of creating and delivering these great summer workshops leads to responsibility for nurturing the network’s potential to reach beyond scattered pairings and isolated studies. It is time for WAS*IS to become more than random motion in a chaotic system and self-organize into a system with power to lead institutional level change.

We have the technology!

(inspired by  Matt the Bionic Weatherman)

Spinney: Showing Us The Way
Spinney: Showing Us The Way

Stormchasing (Hanging with Kindred Spirits)

How is the public to be engaged in the co-communicative process of understanding the significance of weather measurements? Comprehension is mutually created – whether this is between individuals, among people with different demographic characteristics, or within hierarchical structures of policy construction, implementation, and enforcement.

Boulder, CO

Oh yea. I’m home. Not just back in Colorado, but in the company of ‘my people.’

Dan and Todd at the Weather Forecast Office, David Skaggs Research Center (NOAA), Boulder CO
Dan and Todd at the Weather Forecast Office, David Skaggs Research Center (NOAA), Boulder CO

At least at first glance, most of us appear to share an ethos that gathering in groups to work together for social change can lead to large-scale effects.

Work, by the way, is used here in the physics sense – “the amount of energy transferred by a force acting through a distance in the direction of the force.”  From my disciplinary perspective, the force at our disposal is language; the energy comes from each (and all) of our separate, specialized knowledges. Energy, in the physics sense, is an indirectly observed physical quantity.  In other words, even though energy does not have a form directly observable to human perception or technological detection, parameters can be established that allow the effect of energy to be measured.

Meteorologists are constantly grappling with the indeterminate appearance of energy in weather systems. Based on two and a half days of participant observation, the language of weather forecasting seems to mirror the chaos and uncertainties of severe storm emergence.

Mark Trail and The Weather Enterprise

What's missing?
What's missing?

Kinetic Kenny explained the marketing strategy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) to use the Mark Trail cartoon character (invented, 1946) to promote the use of weather alert radios (1997).  The ‘work’ that Kinetic Kenny and Julie the Jewel did in the opening WAS*IS presentation was to bring the social scientists in the room up to speed with the meteorologists regarding the mission of the National Weather Service. In other words, their energy was intended to transmit their intelligence through space in order to draw us all in to the weather enterprise.

Merger: physical science and social science
Merger: physical science and social science

Problematics of definition and control quickly became apparent in the formative stages of the 2011 WAS*IS group’s discourse. Weather Forecasters and Broadcast Meteorologists want people to understand risks to their safety and take proper precautions. These professionals hold themselves to high standards and agonize over fatalities – especially those that are preventable. Why don’t people heed weather warnings?

“This is water and you will drown!”
(attribution credit requested)

Decision Support is a Communication Activity

Bill Hooke should give a TED Talk
Bill Hooke should give a TED Talk

When, how, and why people choose risk over safety is social behavior that has more to do with time than space. This is my hypothesis, anyway, and I’ll be grateful to anyone and everyone who shares research and resources on this matter!  Control is a discrete, technological phenomena usually achieved under (please correct me if I’m wrong!) strict constraints of immediacy: as soon as temporality extends beyond the limits of the Here-and-Now, prediction typically begins to weaken – especially if human beings are involved.

Even in the most tightly-circumscribed human process there are “too many factors,” as attested by Gaby Who Reads Minds. These factors are psychological and social: they multiply downstream during the inevitable unfolding of severe weather events. One must begin, therefore, with generalities – the patterns evident from aggregating the entire range of actual behaviors and correlating these directly observable phenomena with indirectly observable sources of influence.

Here’s what I see:

The primary pattern of meteorological communication with the public is confusion.

Lack of intradisciplinary agreement on meaning

The human element: Talk about uncertainty!
The human element: Talk about uncertainty!

Which is worse: a watch, a warning, or an advisory?  The definitions combine spatial and temporal criteria in ways that make your head spin. As social media and other technologies allow the evolution of codes, the infighting over ownership of words and terms is intense (so I’m told). How is the public to be engaged in the co-communicative process of understanding the significance of weather measurements? Comprehension is mutually created – whether this is between individuals, among people with different demographic characteristics, or within hierarchical structures of policy construction, implementation, and enforcement.

Opening Reception: Rainbow over Boulder
Opening Reception: Rainbow over Boulder

Culture Change Underway!

The critique I’m offering of weather service related jargon is not actually a criticism. It is possible only because of the clarity with which the WAS*IS community is engaging the known dilemmas of protecting the public with the scientific tools of weather prediction. More than any other physical science, meteorologists are embracing the work of social scientists in a way that foreshadows the best potentials of team science. The newly-coined science of team science has been established on the precedents of medical/public health and safety research but has been slower to embrace social science because of a fascination with the information-processing capabilities of social networking. It seems to me both are needed in order to address wicked problems.

WAS*IS*WILLBE heralds new intellectual terrain. Let’s keep exciting each other!

Arrival at the National Center on Atmospheric Research
Arrival at the National Center on Atmospheric Research

polar symmetry at the Equinox

UMass Sunwheel

Clouds partially obscured sunset at the UMass Sunwheel this evening, but the day was glorious and could not be damped by moisture at high altitudes. vernal equinox 2010 at the sunwheel Dr Judith Young’s astronomy lesson drew a crowd of over a hundred on this warm spring day.

I always learn something new from her “every day astronomy” as she labels the astronomical events that occur every day, 365 days a year, always and forever as long as the earth turns.  Today I was struck by the symmetry of light at the North and South Poles. If I got it right, today is the only day – just once in the entire year – when both the North Pole and the South Pole receive light from the sun. Not only do they each receive sun at the same time (once in 365 days) but they receive it for the whole day: an entire 24 hours.

Imagery came to mind as she spoke, of the earth rotating in a slow swirl of light and dark, pulsing back and forth (pendulum-like?) from this day of total light at the top and bottom to the opposition in six months, when both poles will be simultaneously in total dark for another single day. The North will swirl on, now, in permanent light, while the South twirls in darkness.  The pattern will shift a bit from day-to-day until the Fall Equinox reverses the trend, casting the North toward the dark and the South back into the light.  (There must be a good animation of this?)

Imaginational error!  Ha – I did find an animation, and it doesn’t look at all like I had visualized! The movement is an uneven rocking, not the smoothly symmetrical dance of intertwined light-and-shadow flitting about my brain. Well. Imagination is just that, right? Imaginary.

I also located Dr Young’s astronomy podcast for today, which proposes an International Unity Day in addition to including most of the information she shared on site. The proposal is premised upon the fact that for this one day only, everybody on earth is positioned relative to the sun in exactly the same way.

Coordinates (for coordinating)


During her talk at the Sunwheel, Dr Young made an off-hand comment about how Eskimos experience the sun very differently than we do. It gave me an idea about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which poses the idea that people’s experience of the world is different because of the influence of their particular language.  It isn’t that the language per se generates a different world, but that the language reflects the particular coordinates of how a culture experiences the world around them. Then I remembered Bakhtin’s heteroglossia, which theorizes that every one (each individual) has, to some extent, their own language.

Given such a vast sum of possible variations (be it with languages or experiencing the sun) it is quite amazing that there are days (infrequent, and thus perhaps special) when anyone paying attention would discover that they were oriented to the sun in exactly the same way as everyone else (with exceptions at the extreme latitudes). It is as if the earth moves in such a way as to produce a single coordinate system – just a taste, for a time, to prove it is possible?

Dr Young (in her podcast, linked above) lists the 4 characteristics of the Equinox –

  1. the Sun rising due East,
  2. the Sun setting due West,
  3. the Sun up for 12 hours, and
  4. the Sun down for 12 hours.

And the amazing thing is that everyone on Earth sees this on the Equinox… So you may be located in Australia, or Ireland, or Ecuador, or Amherst, Massachusetts (where I am) and whether you are in the Southern hemisphere or the Northern hemisphere or at the equator, on the Equinox you will see the Sun rise due East and set due West, with 12 hours of Sun up and 12 hours of Sun down.

Just think about it – on the day of the Equinox, all creatures inhabiting the Earth will experience the same thing with regard to the direction of sunrise and sunset, and with regard to the length of time the Sun is up and the length of time the Sun is down.

Most days it is pretty hard to imagine umbrellas large enough to encompass all differences.  Personally, I’m eager to help create them.  I’ve joined this organization Four Years. Go. Perhaps it will keep me out of trouble (one hopes) when I’ve nothing else to do!

A Massive Leap of Imagination: Beyond Coal

If we had not argued so vigorously, I would not have thought so much about the potentials of pursuing this conversation…to set the planet on the path to climate recovery requires unprecedented cooperation across borders and among peoples. My friends’ critique was targeted at U.S. unilateralism. Is Beyond Coal simply a(nother) movement by the (mainly white) middle-class so we can feel good about ourselves without giving regard to the consequences of our good deeds upon others? (Disclosure: I am white and middle-class.)

“We need

an unprecedented outpouring of human generosity,

a massive leap of imagination,

a kind of creativity that the world has never seen.”

beyond coal

Drew Grande, the State Coordinator for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Massachusetts, had some trouble fielding my question. He was saved by Mark Kresowic, the Northeast Regional Director, whose answer – while not completely satisfactory – at least suggests there is thought and movement concerning the international workforce implications of the US eliminating our use of coal by 2030.

Their talk at the UMass Labor Center was more of a mini-rally, aimed at the people who are already on board. Most of the questions and comments covered familiar ground: the organization has a mission and a proven strategy for success. In fact, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign is already documented in the academic literature – an amazing feat given customary scholarly drag. My question stemmed from an important critique arising from a presentation of that article by its author Professor Robert Cox, a communication scholar who celebrates the Beyond Coal campaign as an exemplar of environmental activism.

Climate Recovery: Managing the Forest and the Trees

The problem of global warming and the urgency of infrastructural change are both real. Carbon emissions from the US must be reduced by 80% by 2050. To achieve this all coal-powered energy production in the US needs to be stopped by 2030. What the Sierra Club has accomplished is a trend that makes this incredible shift in the energy economy possible. The job is not finished yet; we are all truly needed to demonstrate the hard economic fact:

Coal cannot compete with clean energy sources without

  • federal subsidies – our tax dollars! and
  • non-enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

Increasing public pressure will build enough momentum for the domestic transition away from coal. This is good and necessary: it must be done!  However, to set the planet on the path to climate recovery requires unprecedented cooperation across borders and among peoples. My friends’ critique was targeted at U.S. unilateralism.  Is Beyond Coal simply a(nother) movement by the (mainly white) middle-class so we can feel good about ourselves without giving regard to the consequences of our good deeds upon others?  (Disclosure: I am white and middle-class.)

Ninety percent of the coal burned in Massachuseetts’ three coal plants is imported from Colombia. These plants employ workers in MA and run because of the labor of Colombian miners (and shippers and other workers along the procurement, production and distribution chain). Of course their working conditions are appalling and they are underpaid.  I am not saying we should keep coal because of the livelihood these jobs afford to real human beings and their families. However, climate recovery is not going to be achieved if we do not also, simultaneously, create new ways for these workers and others like them to live in health and security.

Opening Ceremony
Communication for Sustainable Social Change
UMass Amherst
10 September 2009

Communication for Sustainable Social Change

Two years ago, Professor Cox delivered the inaugural lecture at the opening of a new Center of Excellence within the School of Behavioral and Social Science at UMass Amherst called Communication for Sustainable Social Change.  The following comments reflect two sources of critique that I participated in at the time: one involves the narrow audience drawn by the Center’s Opening Event and the second involves the content and style of Cox’s theoretical analysis.

Cox contrasted two different campaigns, a massive nationally-coordinated protest event called Step It Up (designed by environmental activist Bill McKibben and his students), and the Sierra Club’s ongoing lobbying effort, Beyond Coal. In a nutshell, Cox argues that Step It Up failed to generate meaningful change due to magical thinking, whereas Beyond Coal is having success because they are finding the means to exercise strategic leverage, rather than investing all hope in tactics. In short, Cox argued that an exclusive reliance on tactics is non-adaptive at levels of scale and time. Cox compared these two public will campaigns through a popular theoretical frame in order to criticize “our ways of talking about change in the Academy.”

Calibrating Theory and Time

Professor Cox’s presentation, “Communicating Social Change: Challenges of Scale and the Strategic,” presents a challenge to environmental activists and academics about the ways we use theories of communication to stimulate and intervene in processes of social change, particularly regarding the need for climate recovery. I was enthralled by Cox’s application of de Certeau’s distinction between tactics and strategy. Cox deploys de Certeau’s, “practice of everyday life”  to teach activists how to think about mobilizing the civilian populace to push government and business for real, deep, significant restructuring of the energy grid.

During the Q&A after his talk, most questions came from people with direct involvement regarding environmental activism. Theoretical questions were less common, such as the one my Chair wanted to ask, about the importance of place (literal, physical location). Cox had mentioned the need for a movement to create a space from which to exert leverage, but this question about “place”  came from another angle. Can theory generated from a basis in one geographic place, with a specific population and particular sociocultural & political conditions, be legitimately transported to another place, where the population and conditions are different?

If we had not argued so vigorously, I would not have thought so much about the potentials of pursuing this conversation. Other colleagues were critical of Cox’ move to generalize de Certeau’s theoretical explanation of a situated context bound by specific parameters to a generalized application that implies a form of universality across human experience. By choosing de Certeau’s frame, Cox is calibrating social activism with the emergent phenomena of transmedia storytelling. Transmedia storytelling is made possible by digital communication technologies and enables practices of collective intelligence. de Certeau argues that “in the activity of re-use lies an abundance of opportunities for ordinary people to subvert the rituals and representations that institutions seek to impose upon them.”

My friends heard Cox reifying the power hierarchy between the powerful and the weak by valorizing “strategy” as a force firmly in the hands of the powerful, with an accompanying diminishment of power in the potential of “tactics” which are “the only thing” some people have. While I agree that poor and disenfranchised people(s) have less access and resources to generate strategy, I disagree that this lack necessitates an absence of power. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate that tactics can accumulate into unstoppable force. In “History: Science and Fiction,” de Certeau writes of a “dogmatizing tendency” that he calls “‘the institution of the real.’ It consists,” he explains, “of the construction of representations into laws imposed by what is supposed to be the expression of reality” (p. 200, Social Science as Moral Inquiry, 1983).

Choosing “Realities”

Without getting too deep into theoretical nuances, de Certeau describes an “obscure center around which revolve a number of considerations” that combine into “historiography…as something of a mix of science and fiction or as a field of knowledge where questions of time and tense regain a central importance” (emphasis added, p. 203).

In other words, understandings change. Histories are re-written. While those of us alive today (participating and even trying to influence history) are limited by range of perception and and scope of awareness, we can know that relationships exist between what we do now (or fail to do) and what can come to be (or not) in the future. Cox asserts de Certeau’s challenge not to lose touch with ethics:

“It is therefore necessary today to ‘repoliticize’ the sciences, that is to focus their technical apparatus on the fields of force within which they operate and produce their discourse.” (p. 215)

Interconnecting Forests

Cox’s move with de Certeau’s theory is to politicize academics who are all too comfortable sticking within our own trees, even to the point of residing fully along a single thin branch. However, there are serious problems with Cox’s move if it motivates middle-class activists in America to engage in social change campaigns without regard for destroying established labor pools in developing countries.

If coal production for energy is halted, what of the coal worker whose single livelihood feeds dozens?  What is needed is a broader-based effort to win the alliance of coal workers around the world: what industry will be created to replace the one they’ll lose? This is the kind of resiliency-based thinking that our times and the challenges of climate recovery demand: not essentializing one-level solutions focused exclusively on selfish fear, greed, or the desire to retain comfort (motivating or even reasonable as these may be). What industry, indeed? One friend asserted,

“We need

an unprecedented outpouring of human generosity,

a massive leap of imagination,

a kind of creativity that the world has never seen.”

Resilient Creativity

Communication technology may or may not save us. It depends upon how we decide to use it.

I was disappointed at the  Center’s Opening because of a lack of diversity in the audience: it seemed to represent no particular break with contemporary hyper-specialization and narrow discipline-based segregation. It is exciting, now, to see how much the network is growing.

During his introductory remarks to Professor Cox’s talk, UMass Chancellor Holub cast back in UMass’s landgrant history to The Agitation Committee, a group that worked to broaden the University’s original agricultural focus to include larger social concerns. The latent potential of the CSSC to serve as a hub of intellectual activity for generating public will exists, but conversations must be engaged across the institutional complex of differing ideologies and disciplinary knowledges. UMass has a unique mix of traditional, radical and intellectual competence which endows it with an amazing potential to lead in designing and facilitating the implementation of solutions to today’s wicked problems.

Cultivating Public Will

In his introductory remarks, UMass Dean Mullin said he would have loved to have been present when the Center’s name was chosen, noting that each term is “value-laden.” My position is that the most important word is the preposition: Communication for Sustainable Social Change.

Let’s do it.

If you are not yet convinced of the seriousness or the urgency of climate recovery, try this sixty second video on the evolution of life by Claire L. Evans. She describes it as “a video experiment in scale, condensing 4.6 billion years of history into a minute.” Then watch Home by Yann Arthus-Bertrand (sixty minutes you will not regret).

According to the science in Arthus-Bertrand’s film, human institutions have less than ten years to make the deep and substantive changes that are necessary if we are to keep the earth’s atmosphere within the known parameters for supporting life. Watch Evan’s one-minute video, and you should get a feel for the requisite response time. As in now. Research about social change is not adequate – by itself – to accomplish all we need to gain.

this century – a wish for us all

celebration timespace

My buddy Chris Boulton wrote and produced this short film as a birthday gift for a friend’s son.  Described by the dad as, “A little Dr. Seuss, a little Shel Silverstein, and a lot of the good old unselfconscious love,” the sentiments compose an anthem for current and future generations.

I’m pretty happy to have been included in it!  I render the third stanza in American Sign Language. (Click the title to watch and listen to the video.) Hale is obviously one lucky kid; I bet he’ll grow up to be okay sharing the wish with all the other children in the world – including us grown-ups with bits of “kid” still in us.  Come on ya’all – let’s really make this our century!  Do well for people you don’t even know!






[Cuando escuche las noticias
Sabia justo lo que significaban
Estaban listos para ti
Eras justo lo que esperaban!]




[Con cameras y microfonos
Investigan un poquito
En desiertos y selvas
O hasta en la cocina de Fulanito!]







“slower, deeper, softer”

With unfailing precision, solar observatories around the globe and through the history of humankind offer tribute to this primal source of existence. If life as we know it depends upon the parameters determined by earth’s orbit, then “what,” my friend asked, “does the orbit of the earth depend upon?” “Gravity,” I offered, “which they’re still trying to figure out.” Later, a voice out of memory nudged me to add, “and electromagnetic forces.” These are two different categories of what the physicists call “fundamental forces.”

Winter Solstice

“Winter after winter
I never cease to wonder
at the way primitive man arranged, in hewn stone,
such powerful symbolism.”

~ George Mackay Brown (about Maeshow)

sun sets south of eastA handful of friends humored me in the middle of the longest night of the year, ‘toasting’ the earth with our lit candles.  Earlier in the day, one of them accompanied me to the Sunwheel, where UMass astronomer Dr Judith Young explained the placement of stones marking the rising and setting of the sun at the furthest edges of its annual arc across the earth’s sky. The setting of the Winter Solstice sun occurs at its most southern position on the western horizon (for those of us in the Northern hemisphere), visibly marking the physical point in the earth’s orbit when our angle to the sun shifts away from the slow gathering of longer and longer nights to the gradual return of lengthier days. Although the coldest days of the year still lay ahead, they are just the tail of the momentum generated at the other end of the earth’s orbit, when the Summer Solstice marks the peak of daytime. These moments of transition are ancient and inexorable. They representative the constituting limits of life on earth.

With unfailing precision, solar observatories around the globe and through the history of humankind offer tribute to this primal source of existence. If life as we know it depends upon the parameters determined by earth’s orbit, then “what,” my friend asked, “does the orbit of the earth depend upon?” “Gravity,” I offered, “which they’re still trying to figure out.” Later, a voice out of memory nudged me to add, “and electromagnetic forces.” These are two different categories of what the physicists call “fundamental forces.” Perhaps, I mused to myself later, my friend wanted to know if I would say God? It could be that “god” is a name referring to the same thing, being a word created by people using various languages to label a recognizable (if inexplicable) phenomena.

Solstice observatories are ancient and evident on most continents, including Newgrange (in Ireland), right stone marking winter solstice sunsetwhich is older than Stonehenge by some 1200 years, and Maeshow (Orkney Islands, Scotland). The oldest one in the Americas was confirmed within the last decade at  Chankillo (Peru, a Zapotec site), and another one exists at Building J (Mexico). Chaco Canyon’s famous sun dagger (United States) is another type of solar observation mechanism. The Inca built Rumicucho (Ecuador – which boasts some incredible equinox sites, see “Where No Shadow Falls“) and Machu Picchu (Peru, see this virtual tour of the Sun Temple).

There are also ancient solar observatories in Asia. The Uglugbek Observatory in Kazakhstan may be the inspiration for a Sun Plaza apparently under construction in Astana City.  This beautifully-laid website by candlegrove, Ancient Origins: Solstice, lays out a panorama of solstice celebrations from around the globe, supplemented by visitors’ comments about Dong Zhi (Chinese), Soyal (Hopi), and Yalda or Sada (Iranian). The site includes borrowings of contemporary religious holidays (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) from earlier pagan rituals and (very exciting!) a lead to information about the analemma (watch the animations!) which explains the Equation of Time and provides great visual diagrams and definitions of ecliptic, true & mean sun, the celestial sphere & equator, and the vernal equinox (which heralds spring).

Our Celebration (Talents, Appreciations, Environmental Goals)

meThis year’s talent pool was tiny but special. Impromptu performances included a fried vegetable and egg dish (Albanian), creative wine pouring (where?! courtesy of South Africa), and cake made exclusively from dry mix and seltzer (Sikh). Quasi-rehearsed performances included ASL interpretations of Power to the Meek (Eurythmics), Hammer and  a Nail (Indigo Girls), and I Gotta Feelin’ (Blackeyed Peas). [Note: The first two came off alright but I failed to make the last song’s crucial rhythm change visible. (Signs of middle-age?!)]  The Mexican contribution (“I’m f*ckin’ brilliant”) was a poem by Pablo Neruda, read first in English then in the original Spanish.

If You Forget Me

Finally, English translations of works by two Romanian poets, Nichita Stanescu (in keeping with Neruda’s relational mirror) and Marin Sorescu: Asking Too Much and (for me, smile) Translation.

A Poem

by Nichita Stanescu

Tell me, if I caught you one day
and kissed the sole of your foot,
wouldn’t you limp a little then,
afraid to crush my kiss?…

by Marin Sorescu

I was sitting an exam
In a dead language
And I had to translate myself
From man into ape.

I played it cool,
First translating a text
From a forest.

But the translation got harder
As I drew nearer to myself.
With some effort
I found, however, satisfactory equivalents
For nails and the hair on the feet.

Around the knees
I started to stammer.
Towards the heart my hand began to shake
And blotted the paper with light.

Still, I tried to patch it up
With the hair or the chest,
But utterly failed
At the soul.

“Lentius, Profundis, Suavis”

These words in Latin were often spoken by an inspiring Italian leader of the European Greens, Alexander Langer. They seem appropriate to me as descriptions of the institutional effects required globally in order to stem the worsening of climate change and create decent living conditions for people in all societies.

Life in the Boundary Layer

Dr. Ambarish Karmalkar was careful not to be alarmist as he reported findings on experiments forecasting regional climate changes in Costa Rica and its neighbors. Dr. Karmalkar explains: “The frequency of temperatures in the future is something we have not experienced in the modern period.” In the case of Central America in general, and Costa Rica in particular, he was referring to a probable future increase in the average temperature of 3-4 degrees Celsius (roughly 5-7 degrees Fahrenheit) before the end of this century.

Geosciences (Climatology)
159 Morrill South, UMass

“I just want to congratulate Ambarish on a very nice thesis; I enjoyed reading it.”

~ Dissertation Committee Member Dr. Henry Diaz

I enjoyed the extremely detailed presentation too, but I must confess that chills ran up and down my spine on a few occasions. Dr. Ambarish Karmalkar was careful not to be alarmist as he reported findings on experiments forecasting regional climate changes in Costa Rica and its neighbors. Dr. Karmalkar explains: “The frequency of temperatures in the future is something we have not experienced in the modern period.” In the case of Central America in general, and Costa Rica in particular, he was referring to a probable future increase in the average temperature of 3-4 degrees Celsius (roughly 5-7 degrees Fahrenheit) before the end of this century. If this does not seem like a big deal, compare it to the temperature fluctuation that accompanies El Nino – a mere one degree – and all the weather we (US Americans) blame on that. Then imagine that already species are becoming extinct in the subtropical rain forests. The suddenly extinct (since 1989) Golden Toad, for instance, was once abundant in the Monte Verde Cloud Forest of Costa Rica.

Climate Change Predictions for Central America:

A Regional Climate Model Study

by Ambarish Karmalkar

Specifically, Dr Karmalkar’s dissertation research involved testing the reliability of the general circulation model that is used for regional climate modeling: PRECIS. He chose the region of Central America for a few specific reasons:

  1. more studies on biodiversity and climate change have been done in Costa Rica than anywhere else (so he has lots of material to compare and contrast in terms of results already collected)
  2. there is severe impact from changes in precipitation in the Yucatan (the ‘top’ or northern edge of Central America, dividing it from North America)
  3. Costa Rica meets the criteria for being a biodiversity hotspot: meaning it has a large number of endemic (local/native) plant species , and has “lost at least 70 percent of its original habitat.”

Dr Karmalkar’s paper will be published soon enough, I trust, and will give much more detail to those with deep knowledge about this kind of predictive mapping. For now I can only summarize, from a layperson’s perspective, the major points that I gleaned from his analysis. The PRECIS model works at two levels (atmospheric and on-the-ground) to try and predict the impact of climate changes on the selected global region.

Because PRECIS is measuring a part of the whole (a region of the earth, not the entire planet), it is a limited area model. This means a lot of the work of calculation has to occur at the boundaries – basically, at the edges or sides of the area. This involves figuring out the lateral boundary conditions (air and ground) and also the sea surface boundary conditions (especially its temperature). Dr Karmalkar ran two experiments (each one requiring seven months!) to confirm or deny the validity of PRECIS.  Basically, do its results match up with reality?  First, the baseline test involved validating whether the model could take information from the past and run through its algorithms to turn out a prediction matching what is actually happening now, in the present.  He plugged in 31 years worth of observed data from ongoing measurements made in real time from 1960-1990. Given these values, the PRECIS model successfully generated a ‘prediction’ that accurately described current conditions of temperature and precipitation.

Changes in Seasonal Rainfall a Serious Concern

central america wet and dry regions

I highlight preciptation because I realized that I have been thinking naively about climate change in terms of temperature alone, but it is the combined effect of increasing temperature with changes in amounts of precipitation that is of serious concern. PRECIS simulates surface air temperature correctly, although there was a long discussion about differing warm- and cold-biases of the comparison data sets – CRU and NARR – at low and high elevations. The PRECIS results seem to highlight these biases. Perhaps this information will help designers improve the modeling. Nonetheless, Dr Karmalkar and his advisors agreed, “despite the challenges of a topographically complex region, PRECIS is not doing a bad job simulating temperature.” However, it is the annual cycle of precipitation that most defines the climate of Central America. Historically, there have been two rainy seasons generating peaks of rainfall in June, and again in September-October, with a bit of a dip in-between (July-August).

PRECIS is underestimating the wet season by 40-50%. A higher resolution model will help improve the simulation, and there may be a problem with how the model simulates storms.  There are many interacting variables in this dynamic system, including mean annual sea level pressure, the subtropical high pressure systems (Atlantic and Pacific), low pressure in the eastern Atlantic NASH (North Atlantic Subtropical High) which defines the direction and speed of trade winds that carry the precipitation, effects from the Borealis force, sea surface temperature, and low level circulation of the atmosphere modified by the topography (mountains, valleys and such).

Comparing the Baseline and a Future Scenario

Once the baseline is established as accurate, its trajectory is run out to a point in the future without changing anything.  If things were to continue only along the path that has already been created (nothing added, nothing taken away), then a certain climate can be projected to the end of the 21st century. To actually get at prediction, that extension of the baseline has to be compared with a possible projected future which includes changes we can anticipate (such as percent increase in greenhouse gasses – increasing at a rate of 3% a year since 2000 – more than double the rate in the 1990s).

There is an official Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that created four different possible scenarios. Dr Karmalkar picked the scenario called A2, which comes with an associated “storyline” – the context of human activity that makes the numbers used in the scenario plausible. The A2 storyline is conservative: of the four choices it is the one that seems the most “like” the way our world really is, now:

…a very heterogeneous world with continuously increasing global population and regionally oriented economic growth that is more fragmented and slower than in other storylines.

In this story about our possible future, economic values outweigh environmental values, and regional development is pursued more than global strategies.

“There’s a cockroach.”

It is the difference between the two tests – the baseline and the potential scenario – that generates the actual prediction. The finding shows temperature becoming higher and the distribution narrower: the future “lies well outside the present day” and “that,” says Dr Karmalkar, “is a significant result.” Remember that long discussion about bias?  The results for all regions show a cold bias – which means (if I understood this correctly), that the prediction itself is conservative, i.e., that the reality could well be worse than these particular results predict. Warming in Central America is higher than the global average. Not only this, but the wet and dry seasons in Central America are going to be seriously effected. The model isn’t doing as well with precipitation as it is with temperature, but – even limping – what it suggests is grim.  Basically, amounts of rainfall during the wet season are going to decrease, some areas might even lose one of the rainy seasons entirely. In other areas, perhaps the second wet season will be extended and last longer, enabling a small increase in precipitation, but the overall loss of rainfall over the sea will trigger other effects, shifting pressure systems, decreasing sea level pressure and strengthening trade winds – all of which will decrease precipitation.

Horizontal precipitation

It gets worse.  Dr Karmalkar did not say that. He would not.  He represented the science calmly, engaging an impressive display of slide jujitsu by answering every question posed during the defense with a quick scroll through his hundred (or more) back-up slides, pulling up the exact one to respond with precision to every query.

One of the most important sources of precipitation in Central America comes from clouds. The landscape orographic cloud formationincludes tall mountains that touch the clouds: moisture condenses directly onto the vegetation. (This is where the Golden Toad used to live.) Twenty to 22% of the total annual precipitation in Costa Rica comes from this direct source of moisture. Clouds form as a function of relative humidity, which is a function of temperature and pressure. Can you guess?  The temperature goes up, which draws the ‘ceiling’ of relative humidity up too.  Clouds no longer form at the usual altitude, but higher up.  Bye bye horizontal precipitation.  What killed the Golden Toad?  Possibly a phenomenon called moisture stress.

No Time to Lose

Again, this is my voice, not Dr Karmalkar’s.  When pressed by his committee whether “it is appropriate at this point to press the alarm and get the word out to conservation organizations and such?” Dr Karmalkar responded:

“Yes, we do have enough information to, maybe not press the alarm, but enough to say that something needs to be done…the Golden Toad disappeared in 1989, its population dramatically declined after the El Nino phase of 1986-87. If you look at the temperature anomalies of El Nino, they are only of a degree or so. If one degree of change is effecting the species in the area, then certainly four degrees warming is definitely large.

One of the other important things is that species do adapt to changes in climate. There are cases where plant species have migrated upslope, but that’s constrained by topography. In some cases, I talked of the cloud base heights going up, but another problem is deforestation, which has led to an increase in surface sensitive heat flux. Land surface use alone can drive cloud bases even higher than the highest mountain peak.

We do have information to make the case that climate change of this magnitude might be serious.”