science

What Can I Do? Being a Climate Scientist Post-2016 Election

I felt gobsmacked on Tuesday night. I spent the day cooking for friends, excited to celebrate our first female president. As the results started to roll in, we ate carnitas and drank beer and mostly ignored the TV, confident in America's choice. Then North Carolina and Florida started to look more red than blue. We got quieter, and checked results on our phones, until one friend looked up and said “All the swing states are going for Trump.” Those swing states included Wisconsin and Michigan, states that I never thought of being up for grabs.

I moved to Minnesota this summer, and spent four months driving around the rural Upper Midwest, sampling lakes. There were a lot of Trump/Pence signs, and a lot of people that we talked to who probably voted for them. We chatted about water quality and the weird weather as we launched boats and explained our research. People care deeply about their lakes, in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Especially in rural Minnesota, everyone wanted to know about their lake health and talked about zebra mussels and marveled that we could measure algae blooms from space. I often brought up climate change, and not a single person tried to contradict me or pick a fight. I don’t know if they accepted the science of climate change, or if this was a symptom of the “Minnesota Nice” I’ve heard so much about. If they did accept climate change as real, I don’t think it swayed any votes in the rural Midwest.  I don’t think love for their lakes and forests was on anyone’s mind as they cast a ballot.  In retrospect, I wish I had tried to make that connection.

There are a lot of proximate reasons that liberals and progressives and marginalized groups are up in arms about a Trump presidency, paired with a Republican Senate and House.  There are immediate threats, easily linked to specific policies. But climate change – and many environmental issues – are background issues. Rolling back regulations on carbon emissions affects quality of life indirectly, but that effect is unequivocal. The disconnect, though, remains a key part of why communicating the threat of climate change has been so difficult. Each extra ton of carbon dioxide emitted means more sea level rise, more permafrost thaw, a greater threat to biodiversity and the services ecosystems provide. So, what can I, as a scientist studying these issues, do? What can you do?

I don’t know all the answers to that. It will be different for each person. But here are some things I will be doing and thinking about over the coming months and years.

As an educator, I will talk about climate change in every class I teach. I will talk about why climate effects how we live and the places we value.  Because, as others have said, providing students the tools to speak and act with authority will be even more important under an anti-science administration.  We will all have to be more resolute to protect our oceans and lakes, rivers and forests.  I will do my best to do this myself, and help students prepare for this struggle.

As a researcher, I will continue to explore the ways human action has influenced our aquatic systems, through climate and land use change. I will work to understand how rivers in the Arctic, lakes in the Midwest, estuaries in Texas are changed by our way of life and how those changes will feedback into the climate system and downstream ecosystems.

As an academic, I will work to make my institutions safe and welcoming for women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQgroups, and disabled people. I will contact our Diversity and Inclusion office, and advocate to create opportunities for students from marginalized communities.  I will continue to be involved in the Earth Science Women’s Network, and Association of Polar Early Career Scientists, to make all of STEM more accessible, and to work in partnership with indigenous communities who are threatened by climate change.

As a citizen, I will write letters to my legislative representatives and city council and governor’s office, and yes, even the Trump transition team. I will do my best to articulate why climate change is not a partisan issue, why it will affect everyone who wants to vacation in Florida, or escape to a quiet lake, or just spend less money pumping water out of New York’s subway system.

As a new Minnesotan, I will seek out opportunities to educate the public and K-12 students about climate change and watershed management. Admittedly, this is the most nebulous of my plans. I do not have a network, yet, of local organizations and educators who could help enable connections with non-university students. I did in Texas, though, and this is something I will try to work on in the coming months. Ultimately, this might be one of the most important things that I, or any scientist, can do. There are a lot of people who love their environment – from fishermen in Texas to hunters in New England to everyone in Minnesota with a family cabin on a lake. I hope I can help them see that their voice and votes are important. That climate change will affect them and the places they hold dear, and no matter their political persuasion, they can help enact smart climate policy.

As an individual, I will find climate action organizations that I believe in and contribute either time or money to them. Again, this is something I need to research more. But there are a lot of people out there trying to advocate for climate change prevention and better energy policy. One of them (at least) will be a good fit for me.

Finally, I will do what I always do – I will read, and try to educate myself about climate change and diversity and improving STEM. I will say yes more often. I will try to be a better person and a fiercer advocate for what I believe in.  This year has left me feeling raw and drained, but I will try to work hard and be empathetic.

I’ll be honest. This will be a difficult, uphill battle. Optimism feels out of reach. Science, specifically climate change initiatives, has been on the chopping block for a long time. The House Science Committee has been on a vendetta for years now, and some scientists and environmental groups have been targeted by state government with Freedom of Information Act requests or frivolous investigations.  I think that will get worse. A friend, from Colombia, started asking me in a panic what we could do to stop the EPA from being gutted. She was galvanized because this matters not just to the US, but on a global scale. When scientists are ignored or intimidated into silence, it is difficult to know how we can accomplish anything. I don’t know that we can. But I think it will feel worse to not try.

So, that’s what I’m doing. Some of it is a continuation of what I have already done, some of it is new, some of it is stepping up my previous efforts. I hope you’ll consider what you can do.

Take a deep breath. Remind yourself of the places and people you're fighting for. And do what you can.

Take a deep breath. Remind yourself of the places and people you're fighting for. And do what you can.

Happy Mapping!

Walking down the beach, it’s easy to lose perspective.  I live on Mustang Island – a long, skinny barrier island on the Texas coast.  When I first moved here, I’d stroll down the beach and think, “I’ll turn around when I reach that condo.”  Only for the walk to my marker stretching over two miles, rather than the half mile I’d originally thought.  The building stood out amongst the dunes, but each step – each minute – didn’t seem to bring me that much closer to my goal.

Finishing my Ph.D. feels a little like that, sometimes.  Until recently, each step did not always seem like it advanced me towards the end goal – my dissertation.  Now I’m barreling towards the end, approaching rapidly.  But I’ve been thinking and talking and writing about one overarching project for so long, it is easy to lose sight of what makes my work exciting. 

So I really appreciated getting a reminder of how cool my job is the other day.  I’d been emailing with a colleague, who kindly supplied me with some watersheds GIS data and signed off with “Happy mapping!”

I love maps.  I have a map hanging for every wall in my apartment.  One of my labmates still gives me a hard time for how giddy I was when USGS had a $1 map sale a few years ago.  A friend just yesterday commented on my notebook, adorned with a copy of the first geological map – also featured in an excellent book by Simon Winchester called “The Map that Changed the World” (which you should read).

Organic matter in the Kolyma River in Northeast Siberia

Organic matter in the Kolyma River in Northeast Siberia

 Really, mapping is much of what I’m doing in my dissertation.  I’m mapping organic matter in the giant Arctic rivers.  These maps give us information on how tributaries of the major rivers might differ; how much the rivers’ chemistry changes over the season; even how some rivers may have changed over the past thirty years.  That is a pretty cool project.  And “happy mapping!” was a nice reminder.

Finding the fun in scientific writing

“I for one find Hennig’s polysyllabic terminology irritating.  After years, the “heterobathmy of synapmorphy” still does not trip lightly off my tongue.  But no matter: the tide of terminological change can no more be arrested by protests of those of us who are more terminologically conservative than can the flow of molten lava from an erupting volcano be stayed by prayer.  Like it or not, “unique” is coming to mean “rare” and adverbs are going extinct.” - David Hull, Science as a Process

This is the end of a footnote from David Hull’s Science as a Process, and I don’t think an academic book has ever made me laugh more.  Then stop and think about why this is actually a pretty great piece of writing.

Science as a Process chronicles the sometimes vicious battle over taxonomic methods in the second half of the 20th century.  The social interactions between the scientists – centered at Kansas State University and the American Museum of Natural History – devolve sometimes into fights, but that is Hull’s point.  Scientific progress happens because of the groups and collaboration we form and debate against.  Science itself is an evolutionary process where the fittest theories survive and spawn the next generation of ideas. 

The book explains the science and sociology well, but its dense – I’ve been reading it for about a year and am still less than 200 pages in.  But that’s precisely why this footnote was so wonderful.  After pages of trying to wrap your head around the difference between phenetics and cladistics and phylogenetics, you get a brief look at the personality behind the text.  Hull is ironic, metaphorical, and despairing.  I really wish I could see him debate William Zinsser or Stephen King over the proper and good use of adverbs.  The footnote is a relief. 

Scientific writing tends towards dryness and, as Hull says, “polysyllabic terminology”.  Little bits of humor sneak in through an arch title or snide reference to some hotly debated topic.  There may be the occasional out-and-out argument at meetings and conferences – but those are only ever witnessed by a small handful of people.  Rarely do we enliven our professional communications with anything beyond a couple of lame puns.

Yet, we get downright gleeful when talking about our science in less formal settings.  One friend will wax lyrical about kelp at the drop of the hat.  Another is making a display of snake skins that she finds.  I will talk incessantly about Arctic climate change with little to no provocation.  And, contrary to popular belief, many of us are good at communicating our science.  We talk to public audiences and teach at high schools.  We involve kids in searching through mud for bugs or tracking zooplankton as they zip across a microscope slide.  Twitter erupts periodically with content like #overlyhonestmethods, #DistractinglySexy, and #fieldworkfail.  But that enthusiasm rarely crosses over to our academic writing.

Maybe scientific writing doesn’t have to be quite such a slog.  Maybe we can use humor and metaphor the way any other author does – to make a point.  I think there’s more of that now – Jeremey Fox over at Dynamic Ecology has a couple of posts on humor in scientific writing.  It's definitely essential when talking to non-scientists.  The CDC did an entire simulation on how they would handle a zombie outbreak, as a way to show how to effectively respond to any emergency.  I’m not sure how – or even if – I will work in something to make my dissertation a little more enjoyable for the reader (and myself).  But it is something worth thinking about.

Career paths and transparency in academia

Nature News released a story this week, “How to Build a Better PhD”.  Labor economists, as explained in the piece, have long advised academics that we are over-producing doctoral students.  Too many newly-minted PhDs for too few faculty positions.  Anyone in academia knows this, we often have long discussions of it, and yet the system doesn’t change – or, if it does, the change is incremental.

Most of the Nature News story focuses on the statistics and fates of PhD students, plus some suggestions on how to fix the systems.  I wasn’t surprised that only 26% of PhD students end up in full-time academic positions, but I never would have guessed 37% of PhD biology students leave their program before finishing.  But, the career paths of many students remain unknown – or at least untracked.  Stanford made an effort to track doctoral graduates and found only 31% of recent cohorts were employed as postdocs.  Statistics following students after graduation are rarely collected by universities, however.  Advice ranges from, “stop producing PhD students” to providing training in management and budgeting applicable to jobs both inside and outside academic science.  Those management skills are sorely lacking in academia, actually – we all know faculty who could improve their time management, and even as a sixth-year PhD student I have little experience in creating a budget for an NSF proposal.  Basic job skills are learned on the fly and some more formal instruction would probably give us all a leg up.

Overall, the article lays out the problems with our current systems nicely, and offers some possible solutions.  However, one sentiment (not long dwelled upon in the article) sparked a bit of a rant on Twitter, and I’d like to expand on that here.

“Meanwhile, some experts say that the onus falls partly on prospective and current PhD students to make sure their eyes are open. They should arm themselves with as much information as possible, says Labosky, so that ‘they are aware of their alternative options and can make plans’.”

While I do think students should attempt to make an informed decision about entering graduate programs, the onus is not on them.  If universities can’t even be bothered to formally track the fate of their graduates, how can we expect new students to know how competitive academia really is?

Starry-eyed early-twentysomethings are often exhorted to “do what you love and love what you do”.  That ideal leads many to graduate school.  Certainly, that’s how I landed where I am now.  And I do love what I do.  I love debating and discussing science, and learning new things.  I love how much I travel – for conferences and field work.  What other job sends you on a month-long, all expenses paid trip to northeastern Siberia?  I’ve met amazing people and made great friends.  I’ve discovered things that no one else knew before.  Just yesterday, I annoyed my officemates as I cooed over a new figure for my dissertation, elegantly summarizing months of work in one scatterplot.  I identify as a graduate student, a scientist, and an academic.  I’m open to alternative career paths, but I think I would make a good professor.

And, yet.  Miya Tokumitsu’s article last year, “In the Name of Love” rings true.  It is a privilege that I can afford graduate school.  I do value the intellectual products of my work more so than the money. Which can be a problem, to pull a few quotes from the article:

“[O]ur faith that our work offers non-material rewards, and is more integral to our identity than a ‘regular’ job would be, makes us ideal employees when the goal of management is to extract our labor’s maximum value at minimum cost.”   

and

"Is there any way we can get our employees to swoon over their desks, murmuring “I love what I do” in response to greater workloads and smaller paychecks? How can we get our workers to be like faculty and deny that they work at all? How can we adjust our corporate culture to resemble campus culture, so that our workforce will fall in love with their work too?"

This attitude has become pervasive across other industries as well (unpaid internships are rampant in the arts and entertainment, for instance, although science also claims infamy on that front).  Academia embodies this attitude across entire careers, not just at the beginning.  No one, even the most idealistic undergraduate, expects to be making bank as a professor.  But many do expect a secure, steady income doing what they love in a university setting.  And, these days, those jobs are pretty thin on the ground.

Academia can be a bit of a closed community, for all our talk of outreach and “broader impacts”.  We discuss academic politics and problems with each other ad nauseam, but often remain tight-lipped to outsiders.  Do new students know that faculty searches often weed through one hundred applications?  Or 450 applicants, as one position (again, from Twitter) apparently had?  Do departments routinely tell undergraduates attrition rates, or placement 3 years after graduation?  5 years?  10 years?  Probably not.  Probably, most departments only know career paths of some alumni, not all.  Our department is currently constructing a complete alumni list spanning 30 – 40 years.  That’s essential information to assess our success as a department, yet only in the past two or three years has that database been created.

So, what to do about it?  I think a key problem is transparency.  Departments need to track their students after graduation, and be upfront with those statistics.  Current faculty and students, particularly senior students, need to be honest with prospective students about career prospects after graduation.  Faculty who advise undergraduates should let them know the consequences of pursuing an academic career – both the good and the bad.  And, yes, prospective students should seek out that information.  But that knowledge and data has to first be freely available.

Pleistocene Park

Wandering through taiga, tromping through thick underbrush of willow and birch in Siberia, it is easy to imagine yourself transported back to the last ice age.  Bison could be browsing over the next hill; cave lions napping across the river.  The Arctic feels wild and untamed, even though humans have left indelible marks on the landscape. 

Northeast Siberia is a historically important place - infamous during the Soviet Era, home to gold-mining industries and gulags.  Scientists now study the Kolyma because of a much more distant past, however.  During the Pleistocene, too little snow fell in the region to accumulate ice sheets.  The Kolyma remained largely unglaciated, unlike much of North America and northern Eurasia.  Instead, windblown dust deposits accumulated, burying the steppe-tundra ecosystem, and then freezing to form permafrost.  Slowly, these deposits, called yedoma, built layers of organic rich permafrost tens or even hundreds of meters thick.   They are still there today, storing carbon from 15,000 years ago and more.  However, yedoma no longer accumulates.  The ecosystem has changed drastically, from grassland to boreal forest.  A clue as to why can be found along the eroding Kolyma river bank at Duvannyi Yar.

At Duvannyi Yar, scientists have studied the exposed and thawing permafrost.  They’ve found ancient seeds, 30,000 years old, and germinated them in the lab.  And anyone can walk along the shore and find bones exposed by slumping permafrost as it degrades and falls into the river.  These bones reveal the rich ecosystem that thrived here during the Pleistocene, home to bison and musk ox.  Horses and reindeer.  Wolves and moose.  And, of course, mammoth.

Duvannyi Yar - an eroding river bank along the Kolyma where yedoma exposes ancient bones.

Duvannyi Yar - an eroding river bank along the Kolyma where yedoma exposes ancient bones.

These megafauna roamed the landscape, grazing and fertilizing grasslands.  Their high densities prevented trees from encroaching on the steppe tundra from the south by trampling any seedlings.  Much as the many grazers of the African savannah maintain that tropical ecosystem, their high-latitude counterparts performed the same function.  

Then, humans migrated north and east, eventually reaching the far corners of Eurasia.  With them, they brought a wave of localized extinctions (and some not so localized).  The great herds of bison and mammoth and horses disappeared from the Kolyma.  And with them, the steppe-tundra ecosystem. A recent paper in PNAS describes this process, globally.  The dense, diverse populations of large herbivores from yesteryear were fundamental to maintaining open woodlands and grasslands.  Remove those species, and the entire landscapes becomes more forested.

However, a few Russian scientists are trying to recreate the steppe-tundra, at a place called Pleistocene Park.   They have built fences to hem in their herds.  They traveled to the Wrangell Islands for musk ox and western Russia for bison and wapiti (a type of deer).  They lured horse herds with salt licks and captured baby moose to release into the park. 

And, of course, they have a Soviet-era transporter to knock down trees, in lieu of a mammoth.

It’s all very well to try to re-establish a lost ecosystem, but why?  Sure, there is inherent value in “re-wilding”, but there are also more practical reasons.  Namely, the steppe-tundra was much better at storing carbon in the ground than the current larch forests of the Kolyma.  Forests and mossy tundra that now dominate much of northeastern Siberia insulate the ground.  Snow accumulates more easily, and the bitter cold air temperatures do not penetrate as deeply into the permafrost.  The permafrost underneath taiga or moist, mossy tundra, while still frozen, is less cold than might have been the case in a steppe-tundra ecosystem.  Thus, the permafrost – and the millions of tons of carbon stored within it – can thaw more easily in today’s modern ecosystem than might have been the case if mammoth still walked.

Baby moose at Pleistocene Park

Baby moose at Pleistocene Park

Pleistocene Park and its founder, Sergei Zimov, been featured in a number of recent articles and papers about global extinctions of ice age megafauna.  I’ve enjoyed reading journalists’ descriptions of the places I’ve been, and the people we work with, but I think my favorite discussion of Pleistocene Park was in a recent book.  Beth Shapiro’s How to Clone a Mammoth discusses the science and ethics of “de-extinction”.  We might – emphasis on might – be able to raise some sort of mammoth from the grave, but what happens then?  Will it survive?  Should it survive?  Pleistocene Park is an obvious place where new mammoths might be kept, but that doesn’t mean de-extinction is advisable.  Still, I was delighted to scratch the ears of a baby moose while there.  I can only imagine what it would have been like to, instead, give a baby mammoth a pat on the head.

A week of DOM

Well!  That was fun.  I’ve been back about a week, (mostly) caught up on things I’ve missed, and now seems like a good time to talk about my trip.

First, shortly after uploading the last post, I realized my computer charger was missing.  Unfortunately it didn’t turn up at either the conference or the hotel, so I was without a computer for over a week.  Typing up a blog post on my phone was not appealing.  Hence the lack of updates! Although, thank goodness for technology.  I was still able to keep up with email and work on a review from my tablet (How many devices do I have?  Too many).

DOM in the Ob River.

DOM in the Ob River.

Anyway, the meeting was fantastic.  I’ve been working to use satellite imagery to map the amount of organic matter in major Arctic rivers.  A sample from the Ob River in Russia is to the left.  I don’t get to hear from other folks in the remote sensing community too often, which makes meetings like these very important.  It’s a chance to hear what criticisms you might get when sending your work out for peer-review; suggestions to improve; enthusiastic questions from people interested in your work; and (hopefully!) opportunities to collaborate with anyone doing complementary research.   This meeting in particular was great for all these types of discussions.  It was intended to be a small conference, only about 80 people.  Which meant that there was plenty of time to talk about everyone’s research during breaks, at dinner, or over drinks.  Usually all three. 

I usually go to the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting – 23,000 scientists descend upon San Francisco every December.  Volcanologists and planetary scientists to atmospheric chemists and glacial hydrologists, every discipline of earth science attends.  I enjoy the scale of it, and nowhere else do you get the opportunity to hear about such diverse topics.  But I have to admit, the intimacy of one room of DOM specialists compared to the small city of all stripes of geoscientists, was a nice change. 

Sopot itself was a neat town.  I didn’t have the chance to explore the larger adjacent city of Gdansk (formerly Danzig), but we did wander around Sopot quite a bit, with a few of the local Polish researchers taking a group of us to a spot or two.  The hosts of the meeting organized a barbeque one night, that featured a whole boar.   Everyone from south Texas to Poland likes a pig roast.  Afterwards, we migrated to a bar on the beach, and watched ships move across the Baltic Sea as the sky darkened.  We had a few visitors too – the ubiquitous hooded crows and a red fox that wandered around the beach, begging for food.  All in all, a great week!

A lovely gradient of colored organic matter concentrations in a variety of local Polish beers.  We're going to make our own brewery: St. Mary's Stout to the  Lawrence River Lager, all named after famous waterways and their respective color.  

A lovely gradient of colored organic matter concentrations in a variety of local Polish beers.  We're going to make our own brewery: St. Mary's Stout to the  Lawrence River Lager, all named after famous waterways and their respective color.  

Women preferentially hired in STEM - but does that solve the problem?

Edited to add: Aradhna Tripati pointed out that the paper does not state that women are preferentially hired - that's an over-reach.  I'm going to let the original title stand, but a better title would be "Survey suggests progress on gender-biased hiring in STEM - but hiring is hardly the only obstacle."  Or something along those lines.

A new study came out about women in academic STEM.  The authors write that women are favored 2:1 across disciplines when hiring STEM tenure track positions.  Briefly, the authors sent out surveys asking for faculty from four disciplines (biology, economics, engineering, and psychology) to assess three job candidates – an inferior foil candidate (male) and two equally qualified superstars (one male, one female).  In some cases, they included information about children and marital status.  They also varied whether the candidates were described using masculine or feminine adjectives (assertive vs easy to work with, for instance).  Over 800 faculty replied, pretty much equally split between men and women. 

Now, this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart.  I am lucky, I’ve only very rarely been subjected to overt sexism myself, and it was always pretty mild (and usually in Russia).  But I have witnessed it more often, heard stories from many sources, and been called a rabble-rouser for bringing the issues up.   I’m kind of proud of that last bit.  Blame my parents, ex-60s era radicals that they are.  So, I keep an eye out for papers like this.

I should state up front that I was very skeptical of this paper from the get-go.  Yes, the premise seems off from my own experiences, and those of colleagues.  But even more than that, the authors of this paper published another article last year, with an accompanying op-ed stating “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist.”  The article and op-ed were, at best, flawed, featuring this gem:

As children, girls tend to show more interest in living things (such as people and animals), while boys tend to prefer playing with machines and building things

I won’t go into details – this post is about their new article – but Rebecca Shulman, Rachel Bernstein, Emily Willingham, Jonathan Eisen, and Kelly J. Baker all have excellent takedowns of the methods and approach.  Suffice to say, I was primed to disagree.

And, boy-howdy, do I ever.

The first sentence, “Women considering careers in academic science confront stark portrayals of the treacherous journey to becoming professors.”  And you know what?  Men do too.  This is not a good time to consider becoming a professor.  NSF has a 4-8% funding rate, depending on program (anecdotal, from what people have told me).  NIH is worse.  Tenure depends on getting big, nationally-competitive grants, and usually you need multiple.  Hours may be flexible, but they are long.  Pay is crappy until you get a tenure-track position, but even then it is not great.  You will move, and move often, before you land a tenure-track job.  Every tenure-track job has dozens, if not hundreds, of applicants.  Academic science right now is tough.

Data is not the plural of anecdote, but I will say I was not warned about the “treacherous  journey” while being explicitly female.  Yes, I knew funding was terrible.  People were encouraging.  They wanted more women to participate.  My cohort only had one guy in it, out of nine.  I’m more aware of the structural obstacles that women and POC and other under-represented minorities face now, five years in.  I think that’s true for most of my friends, too.  But, if you are interested in STEM, I do not think many people will tell you not to do it because of sexism.  Most conversations are positive – “How can we fix this?” – rather than negative – “God, this sucks.”

Williams and Ceci repeatedly state that the message “hiring is sexist” discourages women from applying for tenure track positions.  Their previous work had a similar point, about citation, publishing, promotion and retention.  Perhaps that single message is driving women away from STEM.  But there are far more factors driving the divergence between rates of graduating women doctorates in STEM, and the hiring of women assistant professors.  I’d like to think we, by and large, won’t be deterred because we hear hiring practices are sexist.  Personally, I’m more deterred by the low funding rates and moving every two years until I get that magical tenure-track position. 

I don’t particularly like this message-driven justification for these experiments, but you know what?  The experiments themselves are important. 

First, though, a little umbrage about how they designate the disciplines.  Biology and psychology are called “non-math-intensive.”  I cannot say anything about psychology, but biology?  There’s a lot of math.  Biostatistics and bioinformatics are growing disciplines because biologists are now dealing with huge datasets and complicated modelling to describe everything from fish populations to environmental metagenomics.  Ecologists are way better at math than I am. 

What’s more, the presence of math is probably not a good predictor for whether a field tends to more preferentially exclude women.  Otherwise, as Meg Urry states in this great lecture, there would not be a disparity in representation between astronomy and physics.  They do the same work, need the same skillset.  Yet astronomy has better representation of women.  Separating biology and psychology from engineering and economics makes sense – women representation differs strongly between the two groups.  But setting them up in contrast based on how “math-intensive” the disciplines are is silly, and leads the reader to equate the non-math-intensive disciplines as feminine and math a deterrent to women.  This is mostly semantics, but I think if you’re publishing a paper on gender biases you need to be careful about such details.

The authors also include in their design the marital status of the applicants, whether the spouses had a job, and whether the applicants had children.  Certainly, these are the types of things that can influence hiring decisions.  But they aren’t supposed to be.  A job applicant is protected from answering these questions.  Faculty, hiring committees, even graduate students are not allowed, at all, to ask about marital status or children. That doesn’t mean the hiring committee doesn’t know, or that someone won’t break the rules.   It is still against most university guidelines for faculty to ask.  And such information would not be provided in a job application.  Even if that information was volunteered in conversation, I absolutely do not think it would be included in any official documents presented to faculty for assessment. Seriously.  I cannot emphasize enough how shady that seems to me. 

The faculty surveyed knew that these were not actual job candidates.  They knew it was part of a study.  From the supplemental material, an excerpt from what was sent to faculty in the survey,

“Imagine you are on your department’s personnel/search committee. Your department plans to hire one person at the entry assistant-professor level. Your committee has struggled to narrow the applicant pool to three short-listed candidates (below), each of whom works in a hot area with an eminent advisor. The search committee evaluated each candidate’s research record, and the entire faculty rated each candidate’s job talk and interview on a 1-to-10 scale; average ratings are reported below. Now you must rank the candidates in order of hiring preference. Please read the search committee chair’s notes below and rate each candidate. The notes include comments made by some candidates regarding partner-hire and family issues, including the need for guaranteed slots at university daycare. If the candidate did not mention family issues, the chair did not discuss them.”

Reaching way back to my undergraduate years, when I took “Qualitative Methods in Geography”, we learned about surveys.  Bias blindspot.  People think that they are less biased than they actually are, less swayed by those biases than the average American.  They are more objective than their colleagues.  Everyone wants to think well of themselves, so they think they aren’t racist, sexism, bigoted.  Everyone wants to think themselves resistant to the implicit biases that have been instilled by the cultural landscape.

Imagine a colleague receives a survey about hiring practices in academia.  The exact questions motivating this survey aren’t known, but you know that surveyors are assessing something about hiring decisions.  Your colleague, she’s pretty fair.  But you know she’s said something about single parents not having time to really devote themselves to their job at an R1 university.  How could they?  There aren’t enough hours in the day!  She has a bias.  Do you think, though, that she’s going to admit to that in a survey?  Do you think she is going to do anything but try to be as absolutely, unimpeachably “fair” as she can be?

Do you think she would come to the same conclusion if this were a hiring decision in your department?  Maybe. Maybe not.  I’m skeptical. 

Note: I’ve used “she” here because half of the respondents were women and I try not to default to “he”, but I’m not trying to imply that this effect is any more or less pronounced in men or women.  Implicit bias influences women and men roughly equally.

I suspect that the preference for women is at least partially owing to over compensation in order to appear unbiased.  I also think including anything about “lifestyle” – marital status, children, etc – probably leads people towards the idea that the study is about gender, or something related.  I also just saw someone on Twitter say that the email with the survey explicitly stated the study was about biases in hiring.  I’d also point out that the lifestyle description was, as far as I can tell, the biggest concrete detail provided in the summaries passed out to faculty.  Otherwise, they are described in adjectives such as “likeable”, “powerhouse” and “imaginative”.  I do not think that this effect alone could account for the staggering difference between male and female applicants in the results.  But I do think it is important to consider. 

All that said, the results are encouraging.  Women do not appear to be discriminated against, with the possible exception of economics.  The details are interesting – female faculty prefer divorced-with-kids women to married-with-kids men, male faculty the opposite, as an example.  Overall, this is great!  I’m really happy to see this.  My knowledge of social science best-practices is limited, but the statistical analyses seem fairly robust.  Systematic hiring biases are not as important as we thought! 

And then.  Then.  The opening sentence of the discussion.

“Our experimental findings do not support omnipresent societal messages regarding the current inhospitability of the STEM professoriate for women at the point of applying for assistant professorships.”

No one, to my knowledge, has recently claimed that hiring bias is The One Big Obstacle for women.  Calling this “omnipresent” is just weird.  There is no single barrier like that.  In fact, a much larger topic is not hiring women, but simply to make sure they are included in your hiring pool.  Encouraging women to send in applications in the first place. That’s certainly been the discussion in our department, and supported by several different initiatives.

This study used applicants with identical qualifications.  They did not use actual CVs, except for a small subset, but the CV summaries used made the male and female applicants appear to have the same expertise.  All the CV summaries were for extraordinary people.  And that is where things get hairy.

Women are cited less.  Women are nominated for (and win) fewer awardsRecommendation letters are weakerWomen apply to fewer positions than men, and men apply for a wider variety of positions that they do not necessarily qualify forAcademic women hold fewer patentsWomen are more likely to hold adjunct positionsFields that perceive themselves as requiring “genius” are far more male-dominated.  Women consistently report less mentoring.  Fewer women hold tenured positions at universities.  An even smaller number are in administrative positionsMuch of this has been the case for decades, despite an increasing percentage of female graduate students

Some of these are driven by women’s decisions, yes.  Those that do, I think, are tied to societal expectations that women are “nurturing” and “good teachers” rather than “brilliant” (see interactive based on RateMyProfessor).  There’s a reason that women are more successful than men once hired – probably because they had to be pretty extraordinary to overcome those obstacles and get hired in the first place.  The candidates in this study were all very strong – results might have been different if the candidates were a little less superstar, and a little more typical.

Many of these hindrances are not based on “supply-side” decisions, as the paper calls the problem.  Rather, they are a result of structural obstacles and biases within academia and society at large.  The authors belaboring that “messages to the contrary [that it is a precipitous time to be a woman in STEM] may discourage women from applying” is misleading.  I do not think that the scientific literature attributes the lack of women in STEM as driven by unfair hiring.  I think the scientific literature is pretty explicit that there are a lot of things going on preventing women (or any under-represented group) from succeeding on the tenure track, possibly including unfair hiring.  And, despite their previous claims (cited heavily in the new paper) that academic culture isn’t sexist, it’s pretty clear that gender biases and hostile workplaces are still a problem (evidence of which can be found in their own data).

Look, the experiments they did were valuable.  And the results were encouraging, wonderful to hear.  Everyone should know about them.  But the simplistic, overly broad take-away – that this whole thing would be fixed if women applied to more jobs – jumps way beyond the scope of those results.

 

The Permafrost Climate Feedback

A synthesis paper of the Permafrost Climate Feedback just came out in Nature this week (paywalled, but it’s here).  Field buddy Jorien is a co-author, so congrats to her!  I’m going to take this opportunity, then, to wax eloquent about permafrost and climate.  Plus the paper has some cool figures that I think everyone should see.

Permafrost is any ground that is below freezing (0°C) for two or more years.  Permafrost can be icy – some yedoma soils contain up to 80% ice – but often it is just cold.  The easiest way to piss off an Arctic scientist – say permafrost is melting.  Permafrost thaws, it doesn’t melt (see the update at the bottom of the article.  We get testy). 

Permafrost soil carbon, from Schuur et al 2015.  Permafrost covers about 25% of the northern hemisphere land surface.

Permafrost soil carbon, from Schuur et al 2015.  Permafrost covers about 25% of the northern hemisphere land surface.

Often, permafrost has been frozen not just for two years, but for thousands or tens of thousands of years.  Some permafrost has survived as much as 740,000 years.  It acts like a giant freezer, storing animal bones and mammoth mummies.  But, even more importantly, permafrost regions store as much as 1670 billion tons of organic carbon.  To put this in perspective, that is more than twice as much carbon currently in the atmosphere or in terrestrial vegetation.  That carbon has been locked away for millennia, but the freezer is beginning to thaw.  As permafrost warms, the preserved soil carbon can be decomposed, releasing carbon dioxide and methane – both powerful greenhouse gases.

We, as a scientific community, have been trying to quantify this process.  How much carbon, exactly, is stored in permafrost?  What portion of the frozen organic carbon can be decomposed into greenhouse gases? How much of the permafrost will actually thaw over the next century?  What timescale will this process occur over – abruptly or over decades?  Where will the carbon decompose – in the soils, or in streams, lakes, rivers or estuaries?  We still don’t know all of this, but we have some pretty good estimates.

First, as you might have guessed, we are becoming more confident about how much carbon is actually in the permafrost soils.  Some of the more remote areas in Siberia and the High Canadian Arctic still need more measurements, but the Permafrost Carbon Network database now contains many soil cores from all over the Arctic, including deeper soil samples that used to be rarely collected.   Subsea permafrost is the biggest unknown.  This is permafrost that formed during the last ice age, when sea levels were much lower, and has since been inundated by rising oceans.  Still, estimates for permafrost carbon are converging around 1300 – 1700 Pg C (units are petagrams, or billions of tons). 

If permafrost does thaw, what percentage of the carbon contained can actually be mineralized, turned into CO2 or CH4?  This is a complicated question, and one of the most important ones.  Elberling et al. (2013, paywalled) did a great experiment where they incubated permafrost soil for 12 years to see how much carbon was lost.  Twelve years!  I was nine when they started that project (it also took them, like, 5 years to publish after completing the experiment because writing/publishing is ridiculous – another rant for another time). 

Anyway, as much as 75% of the carbon was mineralized – turned, by microbes, into CO2.  Not all soils are created equal, though.  A friend did some experiments in Cherskii, Siberia and only a small percentage of the carbon was lost.  Joanne was limited by her time in the field, so a longer incubation could have different results.  Other factors matter too – exposure to sunlight can break down organic molecules, releasing CO2 even faster.  The ratio of nitrogen to carbon (it’s juiciness, as one of my committee members would say) matters.  All in all, the decomposability or lability of organic carbon varies widely. 

Still, we can combine what we do know of the lability with warming projections, to try and estimate how much carbon will be released from permafrost over the next century.  These models still need work, but there seems to be some convergence between multiple methods.  Or, we’re not sure, but people using the different data and different methods seem to be coming to about the same answer, so let’s go with that for now.  Until we can get better data and better methods.

From Schuur et al 2015 again.  Different models predicting how much carbon will be released from permafrost by 2100, 2200, and 2300.  The dotted line is the average C released by 2100 for all models.

From Schuur et al 2015 again.  Different models predicting how much carbon will be released from permafrost by 2100, 2200, and 2300.  The dotted line is the average C released by 2100 for all models.

Including just gradual permafrost thaw (there’s also abrupt thaw, but I’ll save that for a different post), we seem to be facing 5 – 15 % of permafrost carbon loss during this century.  Again, putting this in perspective: land use change (deforestation, etc) released about 0.9 Pg C per year from 2003 to 2012 (as said in Schuur et al).  If that held constant over the century (unlikely, but just for arguments sake), that means human-driven land use change would emit about 90 Pg C by 2100.  Loosing 10% of permafrost carbon would be about 130-160 Pg over a century.

Of course, that is a VERY back of the envelope calculation, and permafrost carbon would only be a fraction of the fossil fuel emissions (9.9 Pg in 2013, and it increases every year unless policies change drastically soon).  Still, it is useful to think about just how important the permafrost climate feedback could be.  And none of the current climate projection models include the permafrost climate feedback – yet they all include land use change. 

What does this all mean?  The permafrost climate feedback will exacerbate climate change.  Warming climate thaws permafrost.  Permafrost releases additional greenhouse gases.  Greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere more.  More permafrost thaws.  This loop, or positive climate feedback, needs to be included in our decision making.  There are still unanswered questions about permafrost.  But we know that this carbon pool is vulnerable.  And we know that it will contribute to global climate change.

 

Ice wedges - the science of frozen cracks in the ground

There aren’t that many memorable papers.

I mean, there are thousands of decent or even good papers published every week.  But they all sort of blend together after a while.  I have a hard time keeping them straight sometimes.  Just today, I told my advisor the wrong thing about a paper I included in a literature review I’m writing.  It was not a good paper, and I had confused the methods from the not-so-great paper with those of a much better paper.  My point is that most papers are forgettable to an extent. 

Occasionally, however, you’ll read something that’s like a bolt through the sky.  You’ll sit up and say, “I want to do THAT.”  This week, that paper presented data from ice wedges in Siberia, then reconstructed winter temperatures.  Esoteric, yes.  But also really cool. 

Ice wedge formation

Ice wedge formation

First, what are ice wedges?  As much as a quarter of land in the northern hemisphere is underlain by permafrost, ground that is below freezing temperatures for two or more years in a row.  During winter, the extreme cold temperatures cause the ground itself to contract, forming fissures and cracks.  Once temperatures rise in spring, snowmelt fills those cracks.  The water re-freezes – after all, the soils around it are well below freezing!  Freezing actually causes water to expand, and the new ice wedge widens the gap slightly, and pushing surrounding frozen soils upwards.  Think a tube of toothpaste – you squeeze the sides together, and the toothpaste comes out the top.  The following winter, the permafrost contracts again, opening a crack in the ice and starting the process over again. See the little diagram I made to get a better idea.

These can get massive, and very, very old.  Meyer et al. (2015) just published a paper taking advantage of the age and sequential way ice wedges are formed.  They went to the Lena River delta (right), one of the largest deltas in the world.  Permafrost abounds, and previous work established the age of different parts of the delta fairly well.  Ice wedges are also common.

Figure S2 from Meyer et al. (2015).

Figure S2 from Meyer et al. (2015).

So, Meyer et al. went out a few times, to quote the study, “ice wedges have been sampled by chain saw.”

Yeah, science!  And chain saws.  When we sampled ice wedges on the Kolyma River, we used an axe.

Anyway, they cut out sections of the wedges, melted them and preserved the water.  Later, they ran isotopic analyses which told them a) the approximate age of the water using radiocarbon and b) the relative temperature using oxygen isotopes.  I’ll spare you the details of how the isotopes work – don’t worry, I’ll go into excruciating detail on that some other time.  For now, just know that higher oxygen isotopes mean warmer temperatures.  Using this, Meyer and his colleagues re-constructed 8,000 years of winter-spring temperatures. 

The winter-spring temperature reconstructions are almost unique in high-latitudes.  Most of our long-term temperature proxies – tree rings, for instance – are based on annual growing seasons.  Great, we need to know this.  But much of the recent anthropogenic climate warming in the Arctic has been during winter and spring.  We need to know – is this different than in previous natural climate changes?  What impact will winter warming have on carbon sequestration in permafrost?  How will winter warming impact hydrology, weather, the length of the growing season?  These reconstructions are a first stab at answering those types of questions.

The reconstructed climate from ice wedges reveals winter warming, opposite of other summer-biased climate records.  Again, I won’t delve too deeply into these mechanisms right now, but this was likely driven by changes in orbital forcing.  The shape of Earth’s orbit changes through time, on cycles of ~20,000 – 100,000 years.  These changes impact how much energy we receive from the sun, and its distribution.  Meyer and colleagues used models of past climate to show that winter warming was likely driven by these changes in our orbit around the sun.  At the same time, there was a significant increase in carbon dioxide concentrations during the 8,000 year record.  Reconciling this increase in greenhouse gases with a cooling in summer temperatures is accomplished by including these warming winter temperatures.

Figure 1F from Meyer et al. 2015.  The take-away: winter temperatures have a long-term warming trend, that has jumped up dramatically in the past 50 - 100 years.

Figure 1F from Meyer et al. 2015.  The take-away: winter temperatures have a long-term warming trend, that has jumped up dramatically in the past 50 - 100 years.

Alaskan ice wedges received similar analyses a couple years ago, but we have much less data of any sort from Russia compared to the North American Arctic.  I originally got involved in Arctic research as an undergraduate on a project aiming to correct this.  We went to the Kolyma River in northeast Siberia, and conducted all sorts of research on carbon cycling (see www.thepolarisproject.org).  I returned in 2013, and would love to go back again.  I work mostly on modern carbon cycling, these days.  But I’ve always found paleoclimate fascinating – reading about ancient climate and cultures launched me towards my present career when I was a sophomore in high school.  I want to do paleoclimate, and I want to get back to northeast Siberia.

The Kolyma River is home to a great science station, lots of good researchers spend their summers there.  And guess what else it has?

Ice wedges.

 

 

 

 

Meyer et al., 2015.  Long-term winter warming trend in the Siberian Arctic during the mid –to-late Holocene.  Nature Geoscience, 8, 122-125.  doi:10.1038/ngeo2349

"That's too many syllables!"

I can’t remember who told me this, but it’s emblematic of the responses I get when I tell people I’m a biogeochemist.  So, what do I actually do?  What is biogeochemistry?

The Global Carbon Cycle, from the IPCC 2013 Working Group I ( http://www.climatechange2013.org/ )

The Global Carbon Cycle, from the IPCC 2013 Working Group I (http://www.climatechange2013.org/)

Biogeochemists study how elements cycle through different parts of the Earth system.  Carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and many other elements are essential for life.  Of course, they aren’t just important because of how they’re used by life forms, but also what role they might play in the physical-chemical environment.  Carbon, for instance, can be energy for organisms as part of a sugar molecule; a greenhouse gas when in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide; it influences the acidity of waters when dissolved at bicarbonate; or might be stored away for eons as calcium carbonate in limestone rocks.  We study how that one element moves through different systems, and interacts with the biology, chemistry and physics of its environment.  We do the same for other elements – nitrogen, calcium, oxygen, iron, and plenty of others.

As you might guess from my example, I mostly am interested in carbon.  It’s in the food we eat, and the air we breathe.  It’s in our water, it’s the energy source for most of our electricity, and the structure for many of the rocks we stand on.  It’s important.

Humans are also changing where carbon is found.  Hundreds of millions of years ago, during the Carboniferous Period (get it?), wetlands and lowland swamp forests covered vast regions of the continents.  Temperatures were warm, oxygen was high, and life was big: this was the age of giant dragonflies and towering tree ferns.  The carbon that formed the tree ferns and other plants in these swamps was eventually buried and preserved in sediments.  Add time, heat, and pressure – the result is coal.  Coal is largely 300 million year old dead plants.

And, as you know, we’re burning that coal.  Other fossil fuels – methane/natural gas and oil – have similar histories.  Stored away for millions and millions of year, now combusted and turned into CO2. 

For now, I won’t get into the science of climate change beyond this: it’s real.  It’s not a hoax.  And humans are driving it.

The really interesting bit, to me, is that these fossil fuels are not the only potential sources of carbon to the atmosphere.  Look at the tropics – how much carbon do you think is stored in the Amazon forests?  And how much of that is released when you slash-and-burn it, or during a drought?  How much carbon do you think is released when the Indonesian rainforests are replaced by palm oil plantations?  Hint: it’s a lot.

Yedoma soils in NE Siberia, with ~30,000 year old plant roots exposed.  Photo courtesy of Chris Linder.

Yedoma soils in NE Siberia, with ~30,000 year old plant roots exposed.  Photo courtesy of Chris Linder.

Or, go to the poles.  Look at the soils.  That soil has been frozen for thousands, tens of thousands of years.  Since the last ice age, in some cases.  Some places, you can look at the soil and see roots and plants that have been preserved for 30,000 years.  Many of those soils are peats, sphagnum moss piling on top of each other and compressing and degrading for thousands of years.  Maybe you’ve heard of how in Ireland or Scotland, people would burn peat to heat their homes when firewood or coal was scarce.  It’s the same idea – compress peat for a few million years, and you’d end up with something very like coal.  In fact, the UN classifies peat as a fossil fuel.

Frozen northern soils – permafrost – hold about twice as much carbon as is currently in the atmosphere.  Thaw those soils, free them up so that the plants and moss and roots and all the little bits of organic matter can start to rot, and what starts to happen?  Where does all that carbon go?

That’s what I want to know.

And I’ll let you know how I’m trying to answer part of that next time!