The water-energy nexus, not so cut-and-dry

What is the water-energy nexus?  No, it’s not water energy voodoo.  The water-energy nexus is, basically, the way water management and energy supply and demand affect each other, their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, and the development of sustainable solutions that integrate efficient use of both.  At present we treat water management and energy generation as separate issues.  But *reality check* they are Continue reading “The water-energy nexus, not so cut-and-dry”


Climate messaging, growth/no-growth economics

This week I am reporting to you live from the National Council for Science and the Environment’s annual conference in Washington DC.  The conference’s theme this year is “Energy and Climate Change.”  This is my first time at this conference and I was invigorated by the speakers’ focus on real world problems from the local to global scale.  It was a very different feeling than an academic society conference, where mention of applied research and policy is often hard to find.  The meeting was also somewhat interdisciplinary: lots of engineers (maybe more so this year because of the energy theme), folks from many federal agencies (including NOAA, NASA, USDA, and USGS); academics; people who work for NGO’s; business leaders (e.g. a Toyota VP); and a few policy makers.

Continue reading “Climate messaging, growth/no-growth economics”

My research in two and a half minutes

It’s been a quiet few months on AGua blogua, but I have a pretty good excuse–I passed my PhD comprehensive exams in December!  To make up for the posting paucity, here’s the big debut of a video explaining what I’m working on.  A big thanks to Lucas Hamilton, who filmed and edited it!  I made the video specifically for the NSF GK-12 program at the Kellogg Biological Station, but I think it might be appealing to a wider audience.   I hope you enjoy it:

Flerds -OR- How Durham, NC shaped me into the scientist I am today

A colorful display of fresh veggies at the Durham Farmers Market.

Yes, Durham.  What used to be considered the armpit of “The Triangle” (Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and Durham) has re-gentrified and transmogrified its way into a food-centric, community-minded mecca.  I lived there for five years and fell in love with my neighbors (shout out to my Old West Durham peeps), the community (things like the Durham Literacy CenterSEEDS, and the Scrap Exchange), and the beautiful landscape.  The Durham County Library system has received attention recently for developing a seed library in addition to the stacks of those heavy, paper thingies…oh yeah, books (just kidding, I love real books).  Library patrons will be able to sign out a packet of seeds and “return” them by saving seeds from their harvest in the fall.  This epitomizes the culture of Durham that helped spark my interest in food as an ecologist and a human being.  That and I’ve been feeling a little homesick for it lately, so I decided to tell you all about why it’s so special. Continue reading “Flerds -OR- How Durham, NC shaped me into the scientist I am today”

How does “sound science” sound to you?

Endangered species: Gray wolf, Manatee, Whooping Crane, Unmuzzled Scientist
By John Klossner for the Union of Concerned Scientists newsletter.

The term “sound science” might sound like a harmless or even comforting phrase, but lurking behind it is a hidden agenda.  “Sound science” in today’s politics means research that supports big business, often with results that dismiss the need for federal regulation of products, contaminants or waste streams.  There was even a sound-science bill that nearly made it into this year’s farm bill, which would have limited federal regulators to using “sound science”–that which is “experimental, empirical, quantifiable, and reproducible”–meaning no use of climate models or results from singular events like natural disasters or qualitative studies, for example.  Science policy expert, Colin Macilwain, explains:

‘Sound science’ is…science that big business knows it can trust. In its name, businesses that sell contentious products are working night-and-day to deflect rules and regulations by exploiting a schoolboy image of science to make their case.  And whatever the issue — nuclear power, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, alcohol, oil or coal — they take the basic game plan from the lessons learned by the tobacco industry over the past twenty years.

You can read the rest of Macilwain’s recent column in the journal Nature called “Beware of back room deals in the name of ‘science'” by clicking here.



Ag news roundup: the 2014 Farm Bill, antibiotics & obesity, and sustainable livestock production

President Obama signed the 2014 Farm Bill into law at my school, Michigan State University. He is joined by Sen. & MSU alum Debbie Stabenow (third from left) and Sen. Carl Levin (far left).  Photo by Kurt Stepnitz

…My senator, Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), admirably led the charge in developing the 2014 Farm Bill, which reflects Americans’ changing taste for more sustainably raised food.  It brings new crop insurance protections to tart cherry growers (and other fruit and veggie growers) who formerly did not qualify for the insurance.  (Aside: Dried tart cherries, a Michigan specialty, have played an important role in helping me stave off the winter blues!)  Subsidies for traditional commodities were cut by almost 1/3 while support for programs to help farmers transition from conventional to organic more than doubled.  Read more about the new Farm Bill and Sen. Stabenow’s role in developing it in this New York Times article by Jennifer Steinhauer. Continue reading “Ag news roundup: the 2014 Farm Bill, antibiotics & obesity, and sustainable livestock production”

Water Hero: Margaret Palmer

Dr. Margaret Palmer.

The first interaction I ever had with Dr. Palmer was at a science conference where she was the keynote speaker.  During the Q&A, I raised my hand and introduced my question by saying, “Long time listener, first time caller…”  And I suspect the first part, “long time listener”, was an apt description of most of the audience because Palmer has been an influential scientist in stream ecology for many years.  I have been particularly interested in following her recent focus on mountain top removal / valley fill (MTR/VF) coal mining and its effects on headwater streams in southern WV and eastern KY.  Not only does she carry out research quantifying stream ecosystem function responses to MTR/VF, she also testifies as an expert witness in cases involving the coal companies’ environmental impacts.  Last week Science magazine published a news feature profiling Dr. Palmer’s efforts to step beyond the bounds of a traditional academic and toward being a scientist involved in societal issues.  You can learn more about this leading lady scientist by reading the full Science article here: Palmer, Margaret – The mountaintop witness SCIENCE 2014.  You can also see Dr. Palmer’s appearance on “The Colbert Report ” in 2010 here.

Dr. Palmer is a professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and the executive director of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in Annapolis, MD.

What’s a scientist to do?

By James Balog  "Bubbles of ancient air rise from Greenland Ice Sheet as it melts, July 14, 2008. The black substance is cryoconite."
By James Balog via Mother Jones. “Bubbles of ancient air rise from Greenland Ice Sheet as it melts, July 14, 2008. The black substance is cryoconite.”

As a follow-up to the previous post, I wanted to share an excellent NYTimes article published yesterday that also asks, “What’s a scientist to do?”  but this one is regarding climate change.  Thanks to the AGua reader who passed this along.  Here’s a quote:

If scientists choose not to engage in the public debate, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by those whose agenda is one of short-term self-interest. There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation — if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks…This is hardly a radical position. Our Department of Homeland Security has urged citizens to report anything dangerous they witness: “If you see something, say something.” We scientists are citizens, too, and, in climate change, we see a clear and present danger.

And here’s the link to the full article, written by Michael Mann, a professor of meteorology and geoscience at Penn State University.  On a related note, if you haven’t seen the documentary “Chasing Ice” yet, I highly recommend it.  It’s about a scientist-turned-photographer, James Balog, who has dedicated his career and life to documenting climate change in a way that will help people understand it.  His epic and often dangerous mission brings us stunning time-lapse images of melting Arctic glaciers, which really helped me wrap my mind around the daunting scale and speed of the melting ice.  I think it’s a safe bet to say if you’re reading this blog, you want to see this movie.  Here’s the trailer:

Stuck between a rock and a tar ball

Last month Kalamazoo River watchdogs presented startling stories that the river is loaded with tar balls, resulting from the oil spill back in 2010.  As testimonial, videos, and photos emerged online, several fact-checking reporters turned to professor of ecosystem ecology and biogeochemistry, Dr. Stephen K. Hamilton of the Kellogg Biological Station, Michigan State University (and, full disclosure, he’s my graduate advisor).  Faster than I can say “biogeochemistry”, some of Steve’s comments were picked up and mis-quoted on other web sites.  While Steve explained to me how these events unfolded, I was struck by the perplexing conundrum he was in, and what I could learn from it as a young scientist interested in controversial environmental issues.  So in this post I’m going to explore that conundrum, discuss the role of science and scientists in this type of situation, and explain a little about Michigan geology.

The play-by-play

First, watch this quick video to set the stage:

These citizens also sent samples to a lab for analysis, the results of which were interpreted as evidence that Enbridge (the oil company responsible for the spill) secretly used “Corexit”, a paint-thinner-like dispersant to make the floating oil sink to the bottom.  (You may remember the controversy over BP’s use of Corexit in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill).  The thinking for the Kalamazoo River was that this might explain why millions of dollars and several years later, clean up efforts continue to uncover oil submerged in sediments.  This was reported in the Vancouver Observer and The Tyee.

When reporters (including NPR) need a second opinion on anything related to the environmental impacts of the Kalamazoo oil spill, they turn to Steve Hamilton.  He served on the EPA’s science advisory team for the Enbridge cleanup; in fact he was the only independently-funded (non-government, non-Enbridge) scientist on the team.  Additionally, one of his graduate students did work looking at the health of the macro-invertebrate food web after the oil spill, and Steve led a crew studying the re-suspension of oil from disturbed sediments.  So reporters got in touch with Steve for the tar balls story, too.  He pointed out that what the stories call “tar balls” are naturally occurring calcium carbonate rocks (see below for explanation), and that the reported presence of a dispersant chemical was inferred from the presence of 2-Butoxyethanol.  This makes for a weak inference since this substance is commonly found in many household and industrial products, which all end up washed down the drain and eventually in our rivers (along with plenty of other substances like antibiotics, synthetic hormones, and caffeine).

Aye, there’s the rub

Even though the communication with the reporter was written out in an email, the initial version of the Tyee article mis-quoted Steve, saying he was “not surprised that an Alabama lab found compounds used in the oil dispersant Corexit on the carbonate rocks.”  When what he actually wrote was that he “would be incredibly surprised if evidence for dispersant use were found because I do not believe it was ever used on the river” (Steve Hamilton, personal communication).  What he was “not surprised” about was that the analysis indicated the presence of the diluted bitumen (tar sands oil) in these porous rocks, because the spilled oil coated everything it contacted including vegetation along the flooded banks–the river was unfortunately high at the time of the spill making cleanup even more difficult.

So, no tar balls and no Corexit (given the evidence).  When the mis-quoted version appeared online, Steve faced two sticky options:

Option 1 (rock): Clarify your position to set the record is straight.  But saying that there are no tar balls and that Enbridge did not use any secret chemicals (given the evidence) may be seen by some as defending the big oil company.

Option 2 (hard place): Don’t say anything, ruffle fewer feathers; but you would have to live with the face that you knew better and did not speak up.  While the record shows you were using poor judgment given the evidence.  This may come back to haunt you.

What’s a scientist to do?

Dr. Stephen K. Hamilton is a professor of ecosystem ecology and biogeochemistry at the MSU Kellogg Biological Station and a Michigan native. Photo:

As you may have already pieced together, Steve contacted the author of the Tyee story and clarified his statement–read the corrected version here.  The story was corrected within 12 hours of its initial posting, but several other websites picked up the original version and still carry it now.  Citizens’ observations and concerns are an important part of society’s conversation about environmental issues.  So scientists encourage people to keep an eye out and speak up when they notice something.  They are experts of their own lives, land, and nearby water bodies.  But in today’s age of blogs and YouTube, unsubstantiated evidence can “go viral” and be presented as fact in sloppy reporting (here is a particularly poor example of the tar ball story).  In this case, these people did send samples to a chemistry lab for analysis.  Unfortunately, not all chemistry labs were created equal, so just as we weigh a scientists’ statement by his or her apparent objectivity, the same is true for labs.

In the bigger picture, this story might make you wonder, “What is a scientists’ role in environmental controversies?”  Above I suggested that by taking Option 1, Steve might be seen as defending the big oil company.  Defending big oil companies is normally not something that an ecologist wakes up in the morning and hopes to do that day; but sometimes the truth ain’t pretty.  At the end of the day, it’s not appeal, but truth that is the golden rule for scientists.  In difficult situations that can mean putting aside both your personal views on big oil companies and your sympathies for environmentalism.

Michigan really is all it’s chalked up to be

Now let’s talk about how those (non-tar ball) rocks got to be in the Kalamazoo River–they can also be found in lots of other lakes and streams in the area.  Back in the day (that is, about 400 million years ago) before the Great Lakes, before Pangaea, when the equator crossed the Hudson Bay and bony fish were the new thing, what is now southern Ontario was marine sediment in the Panthalassic Ocean.  (Don’t worry, you won’t be quizzed on that.)  Over millions of years, these Ontario sediments built up vast quantities of calcium carbonate.  How?  Lots of marine organisms take calcium and bi-carbonate ions from sea water and form calcium carbonate, which they use to build hard structures like shells.  (We use calcium phosphate to make bones, our hard structures.)  For example:

Coccolithophore species: Emiliania huxleyi type A.  Photo:
Coccolithophore species: Emiliania huxleyi type A. Photo:

coral reefs, which would have thrived in these warm, equatorial waters,

–some mollusks (and most mollusk larvae) like the chambered nautilus and oysters,

coccolithophores–a group of super important marine phytoplankton (algae), and

tube-building marine annelid worms.

All of these calcium carbonate skeletons piled up, eventually forming limestone, and then during the last ice age (about 10,000 years ago) the glaciers moved these sediments around–delivering them to Michigan.  This is how Petoskey stones (fossil corals adored by Michigan beach combers) arrived.  So in Michigan, above our bedrock, we have a thick layer (~200 feet in places) of calcium carbonate mixed with glacial sediments (sand and gravel).  This limestone is the matrix for our groundwater and explains why groundwater is “hard”–a lot of calcium tends to build up on Michigander’s coffee pots.  This calcium carbonate gets carried into streams and rivers, where it falls out of solution, and can build up into layered, porous, chalky (literally) deposits.  Who knew those crusty rocks lying around the Kalamazoo River bed were so cool?  Oceans!  Corals!  Glaciers!  Oh my!

Below is a photo of a calcium carbonate rock found on the shore of Lake Michigan near Charlevoix.  It has been turned on it’s side and the black part was sitting in the black spot to its left.  The surprising black color is probably the indirect result of bacteria munching on organic material in the absence of oxygen, such as you might encounter underneath a rock.  As you and I breathe out CO2, some of these bacteria breathe out hydrogen sulfide.  When this gas meets reduced (ferrous) iron, iron sulfide (the black stuff) precipitates out of solution–sometimes this can be found inside water pipes.  I can’t do that, can you?  Microbes rule!

Photo by Steve Hamilton.
A naturally occurring calcium carbonate rock, with black iron sulfide precipitates resulting from microbial activity.  Photo by Steve Hamilton.

For more information on actual tar balls, check out this fact sheet from NOAA.