Second volume of The aGGiE Brickyard is published!Michael Koontz

From the editors (John Mola, Matt Williamson, Ryan Peek, & Madeline Gottlieb):

“Another quarter has come and gone, and we enter the summer chaos of field work, analysis, writing, and catching up on all that reading you planned on doing during the quarter. Or maybe none of those things. Hopefully it will at least provide a change of pace from the academic quarter that seems to speed past. For this issue we wanted to provide some different viewpoints on peer reviews, along with the usual interesting pieces on field research, community activities, and some alumni perspectives.

Since reviews and reviewing journal manuscripts are a key piece of the professional and academic responsibility we all (should) share, it seemed important to think about how the review system works (or doesn’t), what we should expect as grad students, post-docs, and potentially as editors. We received some very thoughtful insight from our own GGE Chair, Dr. Ted Grosholz, as well as Dr. Mary Cadenasso about the review process and some tips for navigating the responsibility and time commitment that reviews can require.

We’ve also gotten some great art and photography in this issue, as well as our first ecology crossword, courtesy of Allie Weill! Please enjoy this issue (and your summer) and we look forward to hearing your feedback or as future contributors. We hope The Aggie Brickyard can continue to serve as a conduit among students and faculty allowing us to bridge knowledge gaps and leverage the diversity of expertise we have here at UC Davis.”

Without further ado…

High resolution: The aGGiE Brickyard — Volume 002 — Spring 2016 (high res)

Lower resolution version: The aGGiE Brickyard — Volume 002 — Spring 2016 (low res)

Postdoc with Dr. Ryan Hechinger (and me!)Kelly Weinersmith

Cross-posted from Weinersmith. Read more and comment there!

We’re looking for a postdoc! See below!
Postdoctoral Opportunity with the Marine Biology Research Division at SIO
Postdoctoral Scholar – Employee
Academic Division: Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Academic Department/Research Unit: Marine Biology Research Division
Disciplinary Specialty of Research: parasitology, physiology, behavior, fish, birds, ecology, estuaries
Description: The position will involve taking on a 1.5 year project in the Hechinger Lab at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. The project is part of a larger, international project. Collaborators include Dr. Øyvind Øverli (Norwegian University of Life Sciences) and Dr. Kelly Weinersmith (Rice University). The overall project weds parasitology, ecology, behavior, neurobiology, and omics. This post-doc will examine the impacts on estuarine birds by Euhaplorchis californiensis, a trematode parasite. The parasite uses birds as final hosts, but effects there are countered to unknown extent by the parasites modifying the behavior of the birds’ prey, the California killifish, making them easier to catch.
The current plan is for the post-doc to be lead a laboratory study using controlled exposures of final hosts (birds, rodents) to document the parasite impacts on those hosts. Impacts will be measured at least by growth rates and, likely, metabolic rates (respirometry). The post-doc may also be involved with other aspects of the project, including a field experiment using fish in enclosures to quantify how fish infection changes bird predation rates and success.
Salary/Stipend Information: NIH standard & based on years of postdoc experience
Qualifications and preferred academic background: Candidates should possess some or all of these attributes (some of which, including parasitological skills, can be learned on the job):
1. Ability to handle, maintain, and dissect birds and rodents.
2. Ability to do respirometry on air breathing vertebrates.
3. Ability to dissect fish, birds, and rodents, and quantify parasite abundance and body size.
4. Have good communication, organizational, collaborative skills.
5. Have solid analytical skills. At least a working knowledge of general and generalized linear models. Dynamical modelling skills are a plus, but not required.
6. Proven writing/publication skills as indicated by published papers.
7. Experience or ability to deal with live, wild estuarine birds.
Appointment Length/Period: Appointment will start as early as 1 August 2016 and continue for 1.5 years.
Application procedure: Send an email with subject header “POST-DOC APPLICATION”, with an attachment of a single PDF file that includes a cover letter, CV, statement of research interests, and contact information for three references to Dr. Hechinger at
Application Closing Date: 24 Jun 2016

Tree mortality during California’s droughtDerek Young

Cross-posted from Changing Forests. Read more and comment there!

Last summer, after four years of extreme drought, more than 21 million trees died in California.

This figure is based on mortality surveys performed by the U.S. Forest Service, which every summer for the past 10 years has flown a small aircraft over most of the forested area of California and recorded the locations of dead trees. The mortality observed in 2015 was by far the worst ever recorded. Mortality was especially intense in the Southern Sierra Nevada, where, across many large landscapes, the majority of the conifers died.



Tree mortality in the Southern Sierra. Photos: U.S. Forest Service

I’ve been working with the U.S. Forest Service aerial mortality monitoring program and UC Davis and Yale colleagues Jens Stevens, Mason Earles, and Andrew Latimer to analyze the mortality patterns recorded by the Forest Service and to understand the factors that lead certain forests to suffer more during drought. The first step of the analysis was to take the set of polygons that the aerial observers drew around dead trees (here’s an example of those polygons from the Southern Sierra Foothills that you can view in Google Earth) and convert them into a regular grid in which each cell is assigned a value representing the number of dead trees observed inside it. Here’s the resulting grid for the mortality throughout the state in 2015, highlighting the serious situation in the southern Sierra:

View larger map

The map shows the mortality amount observed in each grid cell (adjusted proportionally for mortality patches that overlap multiple grid cells and/or only partially overlap a given grid cell). The map only includes grid cells that fell completely within the plane’s field of view (the Forest Service also reports their flight lines and approximate observation distance) in order to avoid bias in our subsequent analysis of mortality patterns–this explains the linear gaps in the mortality grid.

Our next step was to see how tree mortality rates changed with time, year after year, as the drought progressed. To do this, we converted the mortality survey data from each year into a grid the same way we did for the 2015 data. We can visualize the mortality over time as an animation:


The map makes it painfully clear that although there is always some amount of mortality each year, the mortality in 2015–particularly in the southern Sierra–is far greater than that observed during other years in recent history. It is interesting to note that 2105, the year in which mortality spiked, was the fourth year of extreme drought in the state. This observation highlights the fact that tree mortality can take several years to respond to drought. Such a delayed response is often observed in studies of drought stress, and the existence of this delayed response hints that we are likely to observe high mortality well into 2016 and potentially beyond, especially in Southern California, where the severe drought continues for a fifth year.

My colleagues and I have used the Forest Service aerial mortality survey data, combined with other sources of environmental data–including long-term climate–to evaluate the factors that predispose forests to experience high mortality during drought. Our analysis is currently in review at an academic journal–stay tuned for a description of what we found!

Fire at Fort McMurray: Talking About Fire in Real TimeAllie Weill

Cross-posted from What We Talk About When We Talk About Fire. Read more and comment there!



Fort McMurray wildfire, May 2016

The 2016 fire season is well underway, and with it lots of talk about wildfire. Dominating the news right now is the Fort McMurray wildfire, which began May 1 and has now burned more than 565,000 acres (California’s Rim Fire was only 257,000 acres, and New York City is about 300,000 acres, for perspective ). About 90,000 people have been displaced. Though the cause of the ignition is still under investigation, unusually hot and dry conditions have contributed to the fire’s spread, and the fire is early in the season. Fort McMurray is a community not far from the Alberta Oil Sands (often referred to as the “Tar Sands”) and it has grown in response to available jobs in the oil industry.

It’s not surprising that many people have brought up climate change. There’s first the question of whether climate change has contributed to this particular fire, which is starting to become a familiar discussion. But the location of this particular fire really matters to this conversation. For one thing, boreal regions are more sensitive to climate change and fires at higher latitudes are likely to contribute to feedbacks that exacerbate warming. This is also an unusual case in that the victims of the fire are closely tied to the fossil fuel industry. It can be tempting to see a cruel irony there, even to blame the residents of these communities for their fate.

I’ve been following the fire for the past week, and the discussion surrounding it seems to come down to three main topics.

1) Has climate change helped make the Fort McMurray fire?

2) Has fire suppression helped make the Fort McMurray fire?

3) How should we talk about the Fort McMurray fire? Is it appropriate to discuss climate change at the same moment that people are losing their homes?

The first two topics are interesting, but since the title of this blog is “What We Talk About When We Talk About Fire,” I want to focus on #3, delving into the conversation about conversation about wildfire, that has been playing out between Canadian politicians, in the comment threads of online news articles, and in the Twittersphere. In the coming weeks, I hope to return to questions 1 and 2.

How should we talk about the Fort McMurray fire?

Last week, Canada’s Green Party Leader Elizabeth May stated:

“The fact that the forest fire season has arrived so early in northern Alberta is very likely a climate event – very likely related to extreme high temperatures and very low humidity, very low precipitation. . .I think our focus is always on the right now: to think for the firefighters, for first responders, for people who are losing their homes. It’s a disaster. But it’s a disaster that is very related to the global climate crisis.”

After her remarks, May faced backlash from those who felt that she was “exploiting the tragedy to advance a political agenda.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among the critics, acknowledging the link to climate change but claiming that the conversation was not helpful right now:

“One thing we know is that with climate change there will be more extreme events, but, we know very well that placing a direct link between any fire or a flood and climate change goes a step beyond what is helpful and does not benefit a conversation we must have.”

Comments on articles about this exchange and tweets about the fire overall have reflected the divided opinions of May and Trudeau. Wading into internet comments has its dangers, but it can provide an angle on the conversation that you don’t get from polished articles. Here’s a sample:

Click to view slideshow.

I tend to agree with those who argue that we should talk about climate change now. As the Earth grows warmer and the real consequences of climate change—sea level rise, drought, storms, fires—start to become real, we will need to learn how to talk about climate-related crises in real time. Many people acknowledge the reality of climate change, but as a threat to national security (and as a campaign issue) it takes a backseat to terrorism and gun violence. People still illustrate climate change with pictures of polar bears, not with wildfire evacuees (a google image search brought me as many polar bears in the top 25 hits as images that even hinted at fires and hurricanes–are these really equivalent in scope?). We need to be clear that the consequences of climate change will affect real people and their homes, and we can’t do that by sticking to abstract concepts like changes in mean temperature or predicted feet of sea level rise divorced from real events.

Still, there are tactful and useful ways to talk in real time, and ways that are neither. Articles that jump to climate change generalities without a mention of the victims of the current fire will appear distasteful, especially so to those readers who view climate change as nothing more than politics. This ensures that such articles will only get shared among the educated elite who already agree that climate change is a major issue. Being labeled as an insensitive jerk is not the best way to get people to take your writing seriously.

So, many writers understand that during a time of crisis, one must at least acknowledge the victims before launching into science talk. The Nature Conservancy tweeted an article that was mostly about fire suppression and climate change—but the text of the tweet? “Our sympathies are with the people and firefighters in Fort McMurray.” I don’t doubt the sincerity of their sympathies, but this is also tactical—if you’re going to talk about these topics, make sure to mention upfront that you recognize the suffering in the present. It’s a sort of disclaimer—if you put the people of Fort McMurray up front, people know that you care, and you can move along to the big picture. It’s surely a better strategy than sticking a “by the way, we care!” at the end of your article. Still, the article TNC linked isn’t really about those people at all. It barely mentions them.

There seems to me to be a divide in the reporting on this fire, that reflects a divide I’ve seen in wildfire reporting in general. Articles fall into one of two types:

1) Human-focused incident reporting. Here we learn the size of the fire, how many houses it has consumed, how many firefighters are on the ground, how much it costs, and how many people have been evacuated. We might learn the cause of the ignition. There may be a few lines about fire weather, but the fire largely stands alone, and climate change is rarely mentioned. The main characters are individual homeowners, firefighters, and elected officials. The publications range from local news outlets to the international papers I cite below, and the audience for these stories is broad.

Examples: This one by the NYT, this one by the Guardian, this one by the BBC

2) Bigger picture science section reporting. The articles usually start with a particular fire in a particular place, but the article quickly moves on. We get a briefing on how hot temperatures and dry conditions created conditions that contributed to fire spread. Quotes from researchers abound. We probably hear about fire suppression, bark beetles, or drought. We hear about how this will be the new normal. The main characters in these stories are scientists, not evacuees of burned towns. Indeed, most of the characters are scientists in the United States who do not actually study the Canadian boreal forest at all–I think I’ve seen more fire scientists from Arizona quoted than those from Alberta. They broaden the scope so far that the story becomes about fire in the Western US, not Alberta. These articles tend to be published in major news outlets or environment-related blogs (like this one!), and I suspect the audience is much narrower and more highly educated than the one for type 1 articles.

Examples: This article by the NYT, this one from Time, this one from Climate Central, this one by the Christian Science Monitor

Some articles are in between categories, like this article about Justin Trudeau’s remarksthis blog post by Christopher Lyon, or this nice essay by The New Yorker. But these still tend toward one of the categories. For the most part, it’s very easy to sort articles into the two categories, and I don’t think I saw a single article that interviewed an evacuee and also mentioned climate change.

Often, these two kinds of articles are separated both in space and time. But for the biggest fires, ones that attract international attention, we sometimes see both articles at the same time, leading to the claims of insensitivity cited above.

Why do we see such a divide? Is there another way? Should there be?

I suspect we see this divide because newspapers have sections and journalists have their specialties, where science writing is separated from incident reports. News outlets cater to their audiences as well. But I do think there could be another way and that there should be. Here are just a few ways I suggest to bridge the divide.

  1. Try to interview locals affected by the incident AND scientists for the same story.
  2. Keep the science local–find someone who actually studies fire in Alberta to comment on a fire in Alberta, rather than resorting to a fire ecologist who studies a totally different system.
  3. If your story is people-focused, actually use the words “climate change” rather than alluding to hot and dry conditions.

Any ideas from the audience?

It may be difficult to put this into practice–journalism has its conventions and readers have their biases. But it’s time for science to escape the Science Section if we want people to truly understand its relevance to their lives.



Science…sort of Episode 240: Moon Rocks Don’t GlowKelly Weinersmith

Cross-posted from Weinersmith. Read more and comment there!

I co-hosted an episode of Science…sort of recently. I pasted the show notes below, but you’ll have to head over to the Science…sort of page if you want to listen to it!

Show Notes

00:00:00 – Kelly is back and she’s got an update on some scientists that seem to have found a way to stem the spread of the chytrid fungus affecting all those poor froggies. Hope on the horizon? Maybe, but it’ll be a hard technique to apply large scale. We also spend some time talking about a Civil War story involving glowing wounds the help soldiers survive. A science fair project may have found the answer, but Ryan still thinks a body farm experiment needs to be done.

Sso_White00:28:10 – A stiff drink used to be the only painkiller you might get. Kelly’s drink isn’t stiff but it still provokes a strong reaction: water kefir. After painstakingly explaining what is and how she made it, Abe and Ryan have nothing good to say. Abe tries to salvage the conversation with some Romantic Chemistry, but alas it falls a bit short. Ryan tries to avoid Kelly’s wrath when talking about the Pinchgut Hollow Buckwheat Moonshine his Dad gave him.

00:40:50 – Did you know China has a rover on the moon? Turns out China has a rover on the moon. And it did some science! Researchers have announced that they’ve found a new type of lunar basalt. Sounds straightforward enough but Abe explains the complexities.

01:01:58 – PaleoPOWs are a lot like Chinese lunar rovers; most Americans don’t even know they exist. Kelly has an e-mail from former guest of the show Zeka Kuspa, who wants to know if the now extinct Condor louse makes her list of eradicated parasites. Abe reads an e-mail from Steven who’s asking for some help tracking down a particular SoCal beer. We don’t have a specific answer, but it sounds like he just needs to keep trying Imperial Pilsners. Ryan rounds out the show with a new recurring donationfrom Leong all the way in Taiwan. Thanks, Leong! Ryan, of course, plugs his ongoing crowdfunding campaign, go watch the video and consider donating here!

Thanks for listening and be sure to check out the Brachiolope Media Network for more great science podcasts!