Thursday, December 27, 2007


The Buffalo River TN Christmas Bird Count, the first of the two CBCs I'm doing this year, was yesterday. The morning was rough, with dense fog and temperatures below freezing. My territory includes the largest lake in the circle; at dawn I could only see about 50m from shore. I did manage to find my only duck for the day, a female Common Goldeneye very close to shore. The fog lifted and the sun came out, and it was a decent day overall. Totals for some common species seemed to be low, though I'll have to look at the final tallies to tell for sure. My territory's species total was down from last year; but that was likely in part because my territory was also a bit smaller than last year as a new territory was carved out in the center of the circle from parts of several adjacent ones. When you only have 8 parties covering a CBC circle, there's ALWAYS room to insert new parties and still leave everyone with plenty to cover.

I only snapped pictures of two birds; neither is rare, they just both presented the opportunity:

This barrens plateau areas of the southern Highland Rim is one of the few remaining strongholds for Loggerhead Shrikes in Tennessee. I always enjoy seeing these handsome birds.

As seems to be true virtually everywhere, Eurasian Collared Doves continue expanding in Tennessee. This turned out to be the only one on the count this year; last year there were several tallied. My nearby BBS route (Collinwood) turned up this species for the first time in 2007. I snapped this thoroughly mediocre shot because I thought the Lawrence County birders might still be lacking a photo for a county record; turns out they already have an image of similar (poor) quality.

Next up: Savannah TN on January 4, the final weekend of the CBC period.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Anatomy of a lie

Well, perhaps not exactly a "lie," but a clear and deliberate misrepresentation of very carefully chosen partial facts intended to mislead. This is only a single example of a massive amount of mis- and dis-information circulating in the climate change debate; it is however a very represetative example.

Ol' Tom Nelson, formerly of Ivorybill Skeptic fame, writes:

"Note that according to RSS MSU satellite data, November 2007 was a whopping 0.915 °C colder than April 1998."

He provides a supporting link for his claim. If you actually go to the link and look at the data, you find several interesting things:

1. The data set for satellite temperatures runs from 1979 to the present.

2. November 2007 was all of 0.014 C below the 28-year average.

3. November 2007 was the first month in this Century to show a below average global temperature; the last month with a below average temperature was January 2000 (yes, folks, the year 2000 was in the 20th Century). So last month broke a 93 month run of above average temperatures.

4. The month chosen for comparison, April 1998, was the warmest month of the entire data set. It was in fact exceptionally, freakishly warm: its anomaly of +0.901C is 0.169 C higher than the second warmest month (February 1998). Indeed that run of hot weather in 1998 is unparalleled before or after in the dataset; every single month with an anomaly greater than +0.509C occured in 1998.

5. If you look at the data other than for 1998, you see in fact that the aughts have indeed been significantly warmer than the '80s. During the 1980s, a majority of months (79/120) had below average temperatures. I suspect anyone who applies a non-parametric test of the trend of negative versus positive anomalies will find a significant upward trend. And, as the large positive anomaly in 1998 skews the data away from a normal distribution, the non-parametric test would be more appropriate than a linear regression model which assumes normal distribution of residuals.

Conclusion: The claim as stated is grossly misleading to an extent that borders on malicious deceit.

Now, where have we seen this pattern before? Hmmm... selective data presentation deliberately chosen to bolster an a priori conclusion, ignoring or deliberately obfuscating the larger context and pattern of the data.. sounds vaguely familiar...

OK now to put all this in its own larger context:

1. (Scientific fact) Even if a 28 year dataset does show a warming trend, this is still within the range of normal long-term climate cycles so it is only consistent with, not proof of, anthropogenic global warming.

2. (Personal opinion) The sin of selective use of data and trying to prove long-term trends from isolated events is being committed left and right by all sides in the climate debate. But such blatant and apparently malicious examples of it do seem to be coming primarily from the "global warming skeptics."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Biofuels: an extremely bad idea

The push for biofuels continues in spite of plenty of good, sound reasons why this is a massive mistake. Even greenies have fallen into this. I expect biofuels will ultimately prove to have been one of the biggest errors in energy policy of this century. The major problems with biofuels all boil down to some basic, inescapable ecological and thermodynamic realities. First, to summarize the problem:

Set aside issues of energy payback and whether you even get more energy out of the fuels than it took to make them, and assume this problem will be solved. Even so, to generate enough biofuel to begin to satisfy current levels of petroleum consumption would require converting most of the arable land on several continents to energy production. The effects of this on food supply as well as the massive clearing of land that this would (is already) lead to would probably make the biofuels industry even more environmentally destructive than, and at least as socially disruptive as, the fossil fuel industry is now.

But why? It seems like such a nifty idea on principle; why won't it work? Ecological thermodynamics, my dear Watson. Biofuel is fundamentally solar energy. But, this solar energy has been captured by an exceedingly inefficient collector (living plants) that only fixes a small percentage of solar energy as chemical energy. And of the stored chemical energy produced (i.e. biomass), only a modest fraction of this is useable for liquid fuels whether you are squeezing oil or fermenting ethanol. When your desired end product is basic, bulk energy on a massive scale, it is downright idiotic to manufacture this from such a complicated and inefficient (in terms of bulk energy transformations) mechanism as biology. Biology is unparalleled for creating biochemical complexity. If you want to create food or pharmaceuticals out of sunlight, plants and animals are the way to go. But if all you want to do is convert solar joules into mechanical or electrical joules, inserting a living system in the loop is like tying 10 tons of lead weights to the bumper of your car -- with no skids or wheels. Build a windmill. Construct solar-driven boilers and steam generators. Set up PV arrays. Develop better electrical storage systems. Sure, all these technologies have their dirty aspects and efficiency issues. But they constitute far more direct connections between raw, dispersed solar energy and the ultimate mechanical work or thermal energy derived from it.

Let's hope the biofuels fad is just that -- a fad, soon to be forgotten in the light of good judgement about what the biosphere can truly provide and endure.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Al Gore’s house, global warming, weather and climate, arrogance, and other ramblings...

I’m not actually going to specifically address the controversy about Al Gore’s domestic energy useage. But it has reminded me of a pervasive phenomenon amongst environmentalists and greenies (of which I am definitely one, make no mistake): “Our shit doesn’t stink."

I was surrounded by this in my time in various ecological institutes during my decades in Academia. In grad school I commented to my fellow students that we must have received special dispensation from E.P. Odum himself to decree that our own wasteful activities did not create any environmental harm because we were carrying them out for higher sacred purposes. Few really seemed to get my joke. The fact was, we ran through the toxic and radioactive waste, electricity, gasoline, and everything else at just as phenomenal rate as any research lab in the petroleum or pharma industries. Our building had been designed personally by EPO in a big, open plan, surrounding a glass-walled courtyard, in order to maximize interaction. Of course, it also maximized heat loss, and our energy consumption per square foot was well above average for the campus. But that was OK, because we were the Chosen Ones doing the Good Work. Green sorts also continue to have a marked fondness for carving out new homesteads beyond the end of the paved road on a lovely (formerly) undeveloped tract; which usually leads to the ultimate paving of roads, extending of phone and power lines, and the further spread of the outer tendrils of suburbia. Plus, of course, it creates long commutes.

The belief that studying the population dynamics of stream invertebrates, or the biogeochemical behavior of cesium, or even the creation of methane in wetlands is a higher, grander, more world-saving purpose which excuses liability for collateral environmental damage inflicted during this work has a very simple name: Arrogance. Just because you are flying to an environmental conference or driving to an ecological study site does not change the environmental impact of the fuel you burn. Radioisotopes and toxic chemicals released in eological studies cause cancers just the same as those released by power plants. All our shit stinks. The environmentalist is not engaged in work any more noble than the trucking company that modernizes its fleet and reduces its fuel consumption 15%; in fact my money would be on the trucking company for the marginal contribution of its action to “saving the world,” even if it was motivated by saving money rather than saving caribou.

Which leads me further into thoughts about energy conservation. Something is getting lost in the tidal wave of Global-Warming-ism that is sweeping the world. There are some features of the energy sector of our global economy about which there is little controversy among reasonable people: Energy extraction and transport are often dirty industries that have significant adverse environmental impacts. Energy transformation (e.g. coal to electricity or hydroelectric generation) and consumption require costly infrastructure and create waste that have significant environmental and social costs. Global patterns of energy resource distribution contribute to sociopolitical tensions, strife and war. Most people would be willing to concede these things as givens, even if they would argue about their exact nature and magnitude. Based on this, we already know that energy conservation is a worthy goal, regardless of the facts or fictions about greenhouse-gas-based anthropogenic global warming. But we seem now to be in a situation where it's all or nothing about global warming. We don't need CAFE standards because global warming is bunk. Greenhouse gasses aren't warming the plant so there's no reason not to strip mine the Canadian tar sands. And so forth. It is rarely stated so explicitly, but the undercurrent seems to be growing.

About global warming... personally, I believe that greenhouse warming from anthropogenic increases in greenhouse gasses is likely. It may be based primarily on theory, but the theory that predicts this is our fundamental understanding of how the global heat budget functions and why we are neither a steam bath nor an iceball. So if this theory is bunk then we don't apparently know anything about global climate. This seems unlikely to me. However, I agree that there are significant problems with existing temperature records when it comes to understanding what is actually happening now. These are the inevitable issues with comparing fundamentally different data sets; there need be no conspiracy theories involved. A fallacy that is seems everyone is engaging in, from the Weather Channel and Al Gore to the Petroleum Institute and Lord Monckton is the confusion of weather and climate. Individual weather events, short term-trends, patterns of hot and cold years over a few decades, these are essentially meaningless in the context of evaluating long-term trends. One year of "record low" arctic ice or one year of "record cold" in Tasmania means NOTHING. Nor is it of any significance whether 2007 is warmer or colder than 1998. The one case in which weather events might be of long-term climatological significance is in the case of truly unprecedented events for which there is a long historical record. An increasing frequency of these would be a valid indication of climate change. Mostly, we have been seeing an unprecedented level of media coverage, climate surveillance by remote sensing, and population densities in vulnerable areas. The punishing drought and heat in the eastern US this summer is not unprecedented. The 2005 hurricane season was probably not without precedent, if you subtract out the contribution of satellite surveillance of the oceans. The only difference between Katrina and Camille was a small shift in the landfall point. Atlanta's drought is record-breaking because of Atlanta's record high population and suburban sprawl. And so on. The one event I am aware of that does meet the unprecedented test was the South Atlantic hurricane in 2004. But until this repeats, we can't know that it wasn't just an isolated, once-in-300-years extreme in the normal variation.

Time will tell, as with so many things.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Lines on Maps part 2: México

Continuing southwards from my earlier post, here's my comparable scribble for Mexico:

As before, this is a doodle, the boundaries are very rough and just suggest the general arrangement of these regions. And, unlike the ABA area, where I have actually spent time in most of my mapped regions, I've only actually set foot in a minority (10 of 22) of these Mexican regions. Mexico is an enormous country with complex geography and topography. All these regions interdigitate far, far more than I have suggested. Rainfall, elevation, and latitude determine much of these patterns: deserts to forests, tropical evergreens to subalpine conifers, cold northern winters with frost and snow to the true tropics in the south. One interesting thing to note is that the regions that extend into the US all tend to peter out around the Tropic of Cancer. This line roughly marks the divide between seasonality as rainy/dry (tropical) rather than warm/cold (temperate). Once again, I find it helpful to organize the regions in clusters:

I. Northwestern Mexico.

The far northwest of Mexico is distinct. Ecologically it resembles the southwestern US more than it does most of the rest of Mexico. If you are a vacationing Gringo you might find the terrestrial avifauna here disappointingly familiar beyond a small number of Baja endemics; but if you are working on your Mexican list this is where you will find a lot of good tickies for Yankeebirds you'd be hard pressed to find elsewhere.

1. Southern California.

The southward extension of the grassy/brushy/woodlands familiar to millions.

2. "Sierra Nevada."

See, here's the problem with this name. These mountains are far from the Sierra, but their jeffery pines, incense cedars, and birdlife are far more like what you'd find in Yosemite than in the rest of Mexico. Maybe I should call this region "Montane California" to go with Northern, Interior, and Southern California.

3. Sonora/Mojave Deserts

Another continuation south from the U.S. And just to make this large agglomerated region even more so, I have included the deserts of the Baja peninsula in it. This is a tough call; there is a lot of botanical endemism on the peninsula, but there is even more overlap with the Sonora region. Bird-wise, there's only one endemic here (Gray Thrasher), and it is actually also common farther south towards Cabo. Plus this Sonora-Mojave region already has a pattern of endemic thrashers of limited and discontinuous distribution (Bendire's, LeConte's), so Gray can just be added to that list.

4. Cape Lowlands.

A dry subtropical thornscrub type of environment resembling the much more extensive forests of the Pacific coast of the "mainland," but distinctive enough to earn a split.

5. Cape Highlands.

Another problematic region. Birdwise, it looks mostly like just an impoverished "island" version of the vast Sierra Madre pine-oak forests, with its Northern Pygmy Owls, American Robins, and Yellow-eyed Juncos. But botanically it has many endemics, including some of the dominant canopy tree species. And, other taxonomic treatments that are currently out-of-favor with the AOU would reclassify those birds as Cape Pygmy Owls, San Lucas Robins, and Baird's Juncos. So drink a toast to the splitters and map this as unique region, even if you can't count those tickies officially. This makes the Cabo area into its own biogeographic island, with lowland and montane phases.

II. Pacific slope

Coastal plains, hills, and lower mountains from central Sonora southwards. Many distinctive species are found in these drought-deciduous subtropical and tropical scrubs and forests.

6. Northern Pacific Slope.

Sonora to Nayarit, a frequent destination for birding tourists.

7. South Pacific Slope.

Quite similar in overall structure to the preceeding, but enough changes in species composition to justify a split. The divide seems to happen somewhere in Jalisco where the chachalacas and magpie-jays change species. I've also included the dry scrublands extending well inland up the Río Balsas valley.

8. Central American Dry Lowlands.

Here I've lumped together the dry pacific lowlands from the Soconusco to Guanacaste with the dry interior valleys from Sumidero Canyon to Matagalpa. These dry woods, brushlands, and farmlands from Chiapas to Costa Rica are a mixed bunch, but there's enough similarity overall to take the simple approach and lump them all.

III. Western and Central Mountains.

From cloud forests to alpine meadows, and from Arizona to Central America.

9. Northern Sierra Madre.

The northern portions of the oak-conifer zone of the Sierra Madre from Arizona to Chihuahua, plus the higher mountains of Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, and Big Bend. This includes the "Madrean Sky Islands" of Arizona and New Mexico, the Chisos, Copper Canyon, and Los Cumbres de Monterrey, all well-known birding hotspots. This northern and interior phase of the Sierra Madre forests is set apart by its relatively low diversity and high seasonality. Warblers and hummingbirds leave for the winter, and some species prominent just a bit farther south (e.g. Red Warbler, Mountain Trogon) are hard to find. On the plus side, this is the place to go to get your Arizona Woodpecker or Maroon-fronted Parrot.

10. Sierra Madre Montane.

The well-named heart of the Mexican montane with all its distinctive biota. Much of the pine/oak biota is widespread from Sonora to Chiapas (on both sides of the Balsas Basin), so I have pooled them all in one great region. Below the pine zone you will variously enter semiarid plains, pacific thorn forest, or tropical cloud forest, depending on where you are. But within and above the pine zone there's a remarkable consistency in the species lists.

11. Interior Montane.

Away from the Pacific crest, the sierras and volcanos rising from the plateaus of central Mexico have a somewhat different aspect to their biota. I've drawn this as one big blob but it is really a collection of many smaller blobs on the highlands of Durango, Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Hidalgo, México, DF, Morelos, Tlaxcala, and Puebla. This includes the pine zone up through the firs to the alpine summits (birdwise, Mexico has no alpine specialists; volcanic eruptions may have a little to to with this...).

12. Pacific Cloud Forests.

On the Pacific slope of the Sierra Madre del Sur from Guerrero southwards a belt of cloud forest occurs above the dry pacific forests and seaward of the oak/pine zone. Many species occur in this belt that are scarce elsewhere in Mexico. I think this probably can be pooled with cloud forests farther south in Central America on both the Atlantic and Pacific slopes; but I've never been there myself and birding reports from these areas are spotty.

IV. Central Plateau.

The Altiplanice and other high plains and valleys from New Mexico and Texas to Oaxaca. Diverse deserts, grasslands, and shrublands that are wintering grounds for vast numbers of waterfowl and grassland birds from the north; home as well to the world's largest city.

13. Chihuahuan Desert.

Continuation from the U.S border to around the Tropic of Cancer, most of Chihuahua and Coahuila

14. Central Plateau.

Differs from the Chihuahuan portion by milder winters and fewer wintering grassland birds from the great plains. Still sees a large influx of waterfowl.

15. Southern Plateau.

Distinct in its species lists, this area includes interior Oaxaca and parts of surrounding states. It grades into the pacific lowlands down the Río Balsas basin.

V. Atlantic Slope.

Mountain slopes and plains of the east.

16. Tamaulipas Brushlands.

Distinctive brushlands and riparian woods over south Texas, most of Tamaulipas and much of Nuevo Leon.

17. Gulf Lowland.

A belt of diverse lowland forests from southern Tamaulipas to Tabasco, this is the closest approach of tropical moist lowland forests to the U.S. border.

18. Sierra Madre Oriental.

Separating the Altiplanice from the coastal lowlands is this band of mountains that supports a rich cloud forest. It spans the borders of San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Hidalgo, Querétaro, and Oaxaca. El Cielo Biosphere Reserve in southern Tamaulipas is a well-known birding hotspot at the northern end of this region; this is the closest approach of cloud forest to the U.S. border.

19. Yucatan.

Covering most of Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo, this is a drier, more seasonal tropical lowland. Endemic species combine with outlier populations of widespread species of the dry tropics to make this a region distinct from its neighbors.

20. Cozumel.

Considering how small and flat it is and how close it is to the mainland, the island of Cozumel has an amazingly distinct biota and large number of endemic species.

21. Caribbean Lowland.

Extending southwards over much of Central America, in Mexico this region is seen by birding tourists most often around Palenque in Chiapas. It has higher diversity and a more fully "tropical" gestalt than the Gulf Lowland. A must-see region if you are working on your Mexico list, of course.

22. Central American Atlantic Cloud Forests.

Found on the mountain slopes of northern Chiapas, this is the western extension of an extensive belt of cloud forests along the wet slopes from Guatemala to Nicaragua. I suspect this can be pooled with the "Pacific Cloud Forest" above to make one great big "Southern" or "Central American" cloud forest region (which would of course be confusing with the two additional quite distinct but equally "Central American" cloud forest zones of the Talamanca and of Darién in Costa Rica and Panama... "Western Central American Cloud Forest???" Names, names).

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