Have a tiny bit of good news about climate change; as a treat!

There’s a book I got years ago – I think it might have been a stocking stuffer – called The Miseries of Human Life. The book was originally printed in 1806, and dwells not on true horrors like war and poverty, but specifically on the minor miseries of our lives. Those things that seem to afflict us all, simply for the crime of being human. It’s things like hangnails, or food that slips out from under your knife when you try to cut it. It’s people conversing across you at a bar, or being suddenly overcome with sleepiness while listening to someone talk, even though you’re genuinely interested, and respect the speaker.

One such misery of modern life is the fact that every speck of good news about climate change seems to fall into the category of “well, it’s still bad, but it’s not as bad as we feared”. We never get unambiguously good news. I hope that will change in my lifetime, but as it stands, it’s a minor frustration, like a sock that keeps slipping down your heel as you walk.

So, there’s good news! It seems that methane emissions from melting permafrost aren’t as bad as we feared!

Permafrost runs like a frozen belt of soil and sediment around Earth’s northern arctic and sub-arctic tundra. As permafrost thaws, microorganisms are able to break down thousands of years-old accumulations of organic matter. This process releases a number of greenhouse gases. One of the most critical gasses is methane; the same gas emitted by cattle whenever they burp and fart.

Because of this, scientists and public agencies have long feared methane emissions from permafrost to rise in step with global temperatures. But, in some places, it turns out that methane emissions are lower than once presumed.

In a comprehensive new study by a collaborative from the University of Gothenburg, Ecole Polytechnique in France and the Center for Permafrost (CENPERM) at the University of Copenhagen, researchers measured the release of methane from two localities in Northern Sweden. Permafrost disappeared from one of the locations in the 1980’s, and 10-15 years later in the other.

The difference between the two areas shows what can happen as a landscape gradually adapts to the absence of permafrost. The results show that the first area to lose its permafrost now has methane emissions ten times less than in the other locality. This is due to gradual changes in drainage and the spread of new plant species. The study’s findings were recently published in the journal Global Change Biology.

“The study has shown that there isn’t necessarily a large burst of methane as might have been expected in the wake of a thaw. Indeed, in areas with sporadic permafrost, far less methane might be released than expected,” says Professor Bo Elberling of CENPERM (Center for Permafrost), at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management.

This is good news. Methane doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, but it’s much more powerful as an insulator in our atmosphere, and the reason climate change is so dangerous is the speed at which it’s happening. Anything that means it’s moving slower than it could be is good for us. It means that we have just a little bit more time to act.

What’s even better is the reason why the researchers think there’s less methane production:

According to Professor Elberling, water drainage accounts for why far less methane was released than anticipated. As layers of permafrost a few meters deep begin to disappear, water in the soil above begins to drain.

“Permafrost acts somewhat like the bottom of a bathtub. When it melts, it’s as if the plug has been pulled, which allows water to seep through the now-thawed soil. Drainage allows for new plant species to establish themselves, plants that are better adapted for drier soil conditions. This is exactly what we’re seeing at these locations in Sweden,” he explains.

Grasses typical of very wet areas with sporadic permafrost have developed a straw-like system that transports oxygen from their stems down into to their roots. These straws also act as a conduit through which methane in the soil quickly find its way to the surface and thereafter into the atmosphere.

As the water disappears, so do these grasses. Gradually, they are replaced by new plant species, which, due to the dry soil conditions, do not need transport oxygen from the surface via their roots. The combination of more oxygen in the soil and reduced methane transport means that less methane is produced and that the methane that is produced can be better converted to CO2 within the soil.

“As grasses are outcompeted by new plants like dwarf shrubs, willows and birch, the transport mechanism disappears, allowing methane to escape quickly up through soil and into the atmosphere,” explains Bo Elberling.

The combination of dry soil and new plant growth also creates more favorable conditions for soil bacteria that help break methane down.

Like I said – less methane is good even if it’s just being replaced by CO2. Ready for the even better news? There doesn’t seem to be a big increase in CO2 either.

“When methane can no longer escape through the straws, soil bacteria have more time to break it down and convert it into CO2,” Bo Elberling elaborates.

As a result, one can imagine that as microorganisms reduce methane emissions, the process will lead to more CO2 being released. Yet, no significant increase in CO2 emissions was observed by the researchers in their study. This is interpreted as being the result of the CO2 balance, which is more heavily determined by plant roots than the CO2 released from the microorganisms that break down methane. Crucially, even though methane ends up as CO2, it is considered less critical in climate change context as methane is at least 25 more potent greenhouse gas as compared to CO2.

The article goes on to talk about the role precipitation could play in affecting this – more water probably means more methane – but I find this genuinely encouraging. It’s another indication that if we can get our act together, the ecosystems around us will probably help us in our efforts to stabilize the climate. This is also information that we could put to use in trying to mitigate permafrost emissions in other areas, as we look to engaging in stewardship of a rapidly changing planet.

It’s worth remembering, sometimes, that the indifference of our universe means that sometimes things work out in our favor in ways we didn’t expect. Obviously that’s no guarantee of a good outcome, but it does give me more motivation to do what I can now, so that as those bits of good luck come our way, we’re better able to make use of them.

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New research shows climate action will save lives in the short term. Our leaders will not care.

A new study has found that decarbonizing the U.S. energy system would save tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars every year, and this will do nothing to make those in power move any faster.

A new study adds to the case for urgent decarbonization of the U.S. energy system, finding that slashing air pollution emissions from energy-related sources would bring near-term public health gains including preventing over 50,000 premature deaths and save $608 billion in associated benefits annually.

I’m going to make a brief aside here. At this point I have no faith that anyone with the power to make a difference on climate change will actually do so any time soon. Those empowered by our system have made it clear, through decades of inaction, that they have no interest in doing anything to prevent that system from destroying us all.

It’s also worth noting that the ideas of saving lives and money don’t actually hold any value to the people running our world. That number of premature deaths isn’t far off from the number killed by the US for-profit healthcare system, but because that system makes a few people very rich, it’s protected by both major parties. It doesn’t matter that a universal system would save money and lives, because that’s not the point. Likewise, the folks running the U.S. government are perfectly fine pouring trillions of dollars into endless war all over the planet. They do not care about lives lost or money wasted, as long as they get some personal benefit in the process.

That said, I like research like this. I think this kind of thing is useful in making the case that there are far fewer downsides to climate action than some would have us believe. It’s also useful for making the case that those who claim to care about life, money, or climate change are just lying for votes, for as long as they’re not doing everything they can for real climate action. When it’s clear that the truth is not enough to move the powerful to action, we need to consider how research like this can be used.

Published Monday in the journal GeoHealth, the analysis by Mailloux and fellow UW-Madison researchers focuses on emissions of fine particulate matter, referred to as PM2.5, and of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides from the electric power, transportation, building, and industrial sectors.

Those sectors account for 90% of U.S. CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the paper notes. The bulk of the emissions from the sectors comes from fossil fuel use, though the study points to “a substantial portion” of particulate pollution stemming from wood and bark burning and “a small portion” resulting from non-combustion sources.

“Many of the same activities and processes that emit planet-warming GHGs also release health-harming air pollutant emissions; the current air quality-related health burden associated with fossil fuels is substantial,” the analysis states.

The study also notes that “the current pace of decarbonization in the U.S. is still incompatible with a world in which global warming is limited to 1.5°C or 2°C above pre-industrial levels,” and that “deep and rapid cuts in GHG emissions are needed in all energy-related sectors—including electric power, transportation, buildings, and industry—if states and the country as a whole are to achieve reductions consistent with avoiding the worst impacts of climate change.”

The researchers measured the potential benefits of the removal of the air pollution, ranging from all-cause mortality to non-fatal heart attacks and respiratory-related hospital admissions, using the Environmental Protection Agency’s CO-Benefits Risk Assessment tool.

They also looked at the impacts of both U.S.-wide and regional action on the reductions; they found that nationwide actions delivered the biggest benefits, though “all regions can prevent hundreds or thousands of deaths by eliminating energy-related emissions sources within the region, which shows the local benefits of local action to mitigate air quality issues.”

According to the analysis, the pollution reductions would save 53,200 premature deaths and provide $608 billion in annual benefits. The avoided deaths account for 98% of the monetary benefits. But apart from avoidance of human lives lost, the particulate matter reductions offer further benefits including up to 25,600 avoided non-fatal heart attacks, as well as preventing 5,000 asthma-related emergency room visits and avoiding 3.68 million days of work lost.

I know the tone of this post has been gloomy. It might be possible for me to not be consumed by frustration at the state of things, but if so, I’ve yet to figure out how. That said, it is good to know that the right choice will have benefits beyond “merely” keeping the planet hospitable to human life. As much as I’m afraid I’ll be saying this until I die of old age, it’s good that the only real obstacles to a better world are political. It means that we know we can do things differently, and make a better world in the process.

I think it’s also worth pointing out that the lives saved by taking these measures would be disproportionately poor and non-white. I’m in favor of real, targeted reparations, but the reality is that most actions we take to benefit all of humanity will benefit all humanity, if we actually do the work right. It should come as no surprise that those people most subjected to the ravages of pollution are also those with the least social and political power.

This study will do no more to move our so-called leaders than have the studies that came before it, but as with those prior studies, it makes it clear that we need to take matters into our own hands. Those who we’ve foolishly empowered to solve problems for us will not act until it is far too late. Sometimes that knowledge makes me despair, but then I remember that if we can figure out how to actually take the steps, a better world is within reach.

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Trees and grasslands are great and all, but wetlands are how the cool kids capture carbon!

I’ve made no secret of my belief that our best bet for carbon capture and storage is to use plants. They’ve got an efficient system for pulling carbon dioxide out of the air, and they turn it into cellulose, which can be used or stored in a variety of ways. It’s not that I oppose the more high-tech solutions, just that as it stands, we very much need to be using the tools we already have.

The most popular candidate for plant-based carbon capture tends to be trees, and it’s not hard to see why. With a tree, you can really believe that it’s storing a huge amount of carbon. It’s this big, heavy, solid thing that can sometimes last for centuries. It’s also not hard to believe that something that size would have a lot of mass underground to keep it upright. The runner-up in popularity is grasslands, which store pretty much all of their carbon underground, and seem to actually be a better ecosystem for carbon capture.

Now a new contestant has entered the race. Wetlands – long understood to be vitally important ecosystems, and dangerously under-valued –  appear to be even better for carbon capture than grasslands!

DURHAM, N.C. – Human activities such as marsh draining for agriculture and logging are increasingly eating away at saltwater and freshwater wetlands that cover only 1% of Earth’s surface but store more than 20% of all the climate-warming carbon dioxide absorbed by ecosystems worldwide.

A new study published May 5 in Science by a team of Dutch, American and German scientists shows that it’s not too late to reverse the losses.

The key to success, the paper’s authors say, is using innovative restoration practices — identified in the new paper — that replicate natural landscape-building processes and enhance the restored wetlands’ carbon-storing potential.

And doing it on a large scale.

“About 1 percent of the world’s wetlands are being lost each year to pollution or marsh draining for agriculture, development and other human activities,” said Brian R. Silliman, Rachel Carson Distinguished Professor of Marine Conservation Biology at Duke University, who coauthored the study.

“Once disturbed, these wetlands release enormous amounts of CO2 from their soils, accounting for about 5 percent of global CO2 emissions annually,” Silliman said. “Hundreds, even thousands of years of stored carbon are exposed to air and start to rapidly decompose and release greenhouse gases. The result is an invisible reverse waterfall of CO2  draining into the atmosphere. The wetlands switch from being carbon sinks to sources.”

“The good news is, we now know how to restore these wetlands at a scale that was never before possible and in a way that both stops this release of carbon and re-establishes the wetland’s carbon storing capacity,” he said.

What makes most wetlands so effective at carbon storage is that they are formed and held together by plants that grow close to each other, Silliman explained. Their dense above- and below-ground mats of stems and roots trap nutrient-rich debris and defend the soil against erosion or drying out — all of which helps the plants to grow better and the soil layer to build up, locking in a lot more CO2 in the process.

In the case of raised peat bogs, the process works a little differently, Silliman noted. Layers of living peat moss on the surface act as sponges, holding enormous amounts of rainwater that sustain its own growth and keeps a much thicker layer of dead peat moss below it permanently under water. This prevents the lower layer of peat, which can measure up to 10 meters thick, from drying out, decomposing, and releasing its stored carbon back into the atmosphere. As the living mosses gradually build up, the amount of carbon stored below ground continually grows.

Successful restorations must replicate these processes, he said.

“More than half of all wetland restorations fail because the landscape-forming properties of the plants are insufficiently taken into account,” said study coauthor Tjisse van der Heide of the Royal Institute for Sea Research and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. Planting seedlings and plugs in orderly rows equidistant from each other may seem logical, but it’s counter-productive, he said.

“Restoration is much more successful when the plants are placed in large dense clumps, when their landscape-forming properties are mimicked, or simply when very large areas are restored in one go,” van der Heide said.

“Following this guidance will allow us to restore lost wetlands at a much larger scale and increase the odds that they will thrive and continue to store carbon and perform other vital ecosystem services for years to come,” Silliman said. “The plants win, the planet wins, we all win.”

Silliman and van der Heide conducted the new study with scientists from the Netherlands’ Royal Institute for Sea Research, Utrecht University, Radboud University, the University of Groningen, the University of Florida, Duke University, and Greifswald University.

By synthesizing data on carbon capture from recent scientific studies, they found that oceans and forests hold the most CO2 globally, followed by wetlands.

“But when we looked at the amount of CO2 stored per square meter, it turned out that wetlands store about five times more CO2 than forests and as much as 500 times more than oceans,” says Ralph Temmink, a researcher at Utrecht University, who was first author on the study.

Humanity has a complicated relationship with wetlands. They’re not very compatible with how we’ve been doing things recently, and they tend to produce vast amounts of biting insects. Whether or not you think it’s a good thing, filling in wetlands in the United States is part of why cities like Boston and New York City don’t have to struggle with the burdens of endemic malaria (mass insecticide use is probably a bigger reason, especially in the south).

That said, it makes sense that marshes would do well for carbon capture, since water isn’t a limitation on photosynthesis in that kind of environment. As part of reshaping how we interact with the ecosystems around us, I think we would do very well to find a better way to live with wetlands. What’s more, much of the world has access to another “natural tool” for creating wetlands!

When I put up that beaver video the other day, I mentioned on twitter that I think we should form a cooperative relationship with beavers the way we have with dogs. I was mostly joking, but the reality is that they are phenomenal at creating wetland ecosystems, when humans don’t mess with their water supply or kill them. Simply restoring them to their historic range – especially in Eurasia – would probably pay dividends in ecosystem health and carbon capture down the road.

At the same time, we can work with sea level rise to set ourselves up for better carbon capture in the decades to come. Part of re-locating low-lying coastal communities should be de-developing those areas on our way out. Pull out as much as possible in the way of reusable materials, and pollutants, and then look into reshaping the land and planting vegetation to encourage salt marshes to grow as the water rises.

As I keep saying, we have the resources and understanding to actually deal with climate change. That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy, even if we manage to overcome the political obstacles, but the possibilities presented by everything we know are vast. The odds are not in our favor, but I believe that far from settling for bare survival, we can still make a better world.

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Working to preserve biodiversity will help us deal with climate change

The current global climate shift and the related global ecological collapse are both incredibly all-consuming problems. No matter where we look, there are more ways in which what’s happening seems to be worse than we thought. There are a lot of reasons for that, but a big one is the degree to which everything on the surface of this planet is interconnected. Dust from one continent is an important source of nutrients on another, all the way across an ocean. Heat absorbed by Caribbean waters makes northern islands like Ireland balmy enough to grow palm trees. Rain in Roke may be drought in Osskil. What we’ve been doing to this planet is a bit like trying to pull just one branch out of a large brush pile. There’s no way to do it without other branches moving.

The upside to that is that as we learn how things work, we can also learn how to help the system stabilize itself, at least a little. This isn’t the kind of thing that will solve any problems by itself, but to me it’s evidence that if we can deal with the ways in which we are causing environmental collapse, we can also guide and even accelerate the recovery process. Taking action to protect biodiversity, it turns out, is also very likely to help the biosphere cope with climate change:

When the global community is expected to meet for the second part of the UN Biodiversity Conference in Kunming, China, in autumn, it must also adopt the next generation of UN biodiversity targets. These will then replace the Aichi Targets that were aimed for until 2020 – and have hardly been achieved. 21 “Post-2020 Action Targets for 2030” have already been pre-formulated. While they still have to be finally agreed, they aim to reduce potential threats to biodiversity, improve the well-being of humans, and implement tools and solutions for the conservation of biodiversity.

In a review study for Global Change Biology, the authors assessed to which extent these 21 biodiversity targets can also slow climate change. The bottom line: 14 out of 21 (i.e. two thirds) of all targets are making a positive contribution to climate protection. “It turns out that conservation measures that halt, slow, or reverse the loss of biodiversity can greatly slow human-induced climate change at the same time”, says lead author Dr. Yunne-Jai Shin of the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD). Among others, this applies to the goal of connecting protected areas via corridors or further protected areas on at least 30% of the earth’s surface. “There is growing evidence that the creation of new protected areas and the adequate management of existing ones on land and in the sea help to mitigate climate change through capture and storage of carbon”, says UFZ biodiversity researcher and co-author Prof. Josef Settele. For example, it is estimated that all terrestrial protected areas around the globe currently store 12-16% of the total global carbon stock. And, even though knowledge is still limited, deep-sea ecosystems can also contain important carbon stocks on the seabed (e.g. on remote islands, deep-sea mountains, and Arctic and Antarctic continental shelves). However, the 30% target is still far from being reached. According to current United Nations figures from 2021, the coverage of protected areas on land was 15.7%, and in the sea, 7.7%.

But climate also benefits from some of the other newly formulated global biodiversity goals. For example, one goal is also to restore at least 20% of degraded ecosystems (e.g. tropical and subtropical forests) or coastal habitats (e.g. coral reefs, sea grass beds, and mangrove forests). According to the study, global carbon capture in coastal systems is considerably lower than in terrestrial forests because of their smaller size. However, the amount of carbon captured per unit of coastal vegetation area is considerably higher. Taking biodiversity into account in laws, directives, and spatial planning processes also helps to protect the climate because, inter alia, it prevents the clearing of forests, which are an important CO2 reservoir. Other goals that are positive for both biodiversity and climate protection include the expansion of green and blue infrastructures in cities (e.g. parks, green roofs, and lakes) or better public relations work in order to encourage the general public to deal with waste in a more sustainable way and to consume less.

The authors have compiled 12 case studies in order to illustrate how these biodiversity goals are already being implemented in practice (e.g. in the conservation of African peat lands, the protection of mega-fauna in the Southern Ocean, or the saving of the largest mangrove forests on earth, the Sundarbans, on the border between India and Bangladesh). However, there may also be conflicting goals between the protection of climate and biodiversity. In Central Europe, the preservation of the cultural landscape is an example that shows that not everything can be easily reconciled. On one hand, imitating traditional land use systems instead of intensifying or even abandoning land use has clear advantages for the conservation of biodiversity. “These systems reduce the extinction risk of rare species and varieties that are quite well adapted to an extensive form of agricultural use and promote the preservation of a high diversity of pollinators and natural enemies of pests”, says UFZ researcher Josef Settele. On the other hand, there are conflicts because some of the measures are, in fact, harmful to climate. “Because much of the land is used for agriculture, the proportion of forest is not as high, and less carbon is stored”, he says. In addition, the farming of cattle, sheep, and cows releases methane, which is harmful to the climate. “There is a consensus that we must stop climate change – but this must not be at the expense of nature. We therefore need to find methods to slow climate change and implement adaptation measures without losing biodiversity. This is often possible only through compromises”, says Settele. It would therefore be positive if many of the new global biodiversity targets of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity were implemented. Prof. Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-author and climate researcher at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), adds: “The climate problem is now well understood. However, the issue of biodiversity is treated in complete separation – even when it comes to possible solutions. There is also the risk that nature is discussed as a vehicle for solving the climate problem; this is quite problematic. The capacity of ecosystems to slow climate change is overestimated, and climate change is damaging this capacity”. Humans nevertheless believe that nature is capable of overcoming the climate crisis and enabling us to continue or prolong the use of fossil fuels. “But it is the other way round: only when we succeed in drastically reducing emissions from fossil fuels nature can help us to stabilise the climate”, says Pörtner.

This is the kind of thing I mean when I write about engaging in ecosystem management and support. One very small upside of our destruction of the environment has been that in studying it, we’ve gained a better understanding of how we might help damaged ecosystems recover, or even help new ecosystems develop that are more likely to continue nurturing life as the climate warms.

Nothing is guaranteed – not our success, and not our extinction. When predictions are made about climate change, they are always conditional on a variety of factors. If we stop doing the wrong things, that will buy us time, and save lives. If we start doing the right things, we can transform the world.

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The history of climate science, for a denier in my comments.

Someone apparently objects to my comment moderation policy, and seems to have that delightful conservative reflex of trying to make people they disagree with angry. I’m posting this not to put a target on the commenter, but because he serves as a useful reminder that there are still a lot of people out there who don’t know this stuff. I would say that it is partly their own fault, but not entirely. We know for a fact that the fossil fuel industry has known about this for decades, and that they responded by pouring millions of dollars into a decades-long propaganda campaign. The amount of misinformation on this issue has been staggering. In my opinion those responsible are guilty of crimes against humanity. That said, I don’t think everyday deniers are entirely blameless.

At this point, I feel that ignorance on such a big issue – and it’s big even if you’re in denial about the science – is at least partly a choice. All of this information is publicly available. Almost all of it I learned after I graduated college. Getting a bachelor’s degree in biology definitely gave me the tools to better evaluate the science for myself, but any scientist knows that that’s nowhere close to expertise in any branch of science. I’m more trained than a “layman”, but I don’t think that’s saying much.

Even without that training, the world is full of people who have explained this stuff in a myriad of different ways. For whatever reason, those explanations haven’t gotten through to this particular commenter, so I figured I’d put in my oar.

“Bigots, doomers, and trolls will have their comments edited or deleted. ”
Guess I should do my best to be considered one of those. BTW I consider YOU a ‘doomer’. It isn’t that I do not ‘believe’ in ‘climate change’. Rather I recognize no reason why it should not – unpredictably, but likely conforming to past patterns of experience in large part. It is fun to hear you refer to disbelief in anthropogenic global warming / climate change as a matter for a ‘conspiracy theory’ – although when government levies a tax it is no secret what their theft is about. Nor is it especially credible that man should be responsible for change decades hence. Such a projection is still the speculation it ever was. Not even the I.P.C.C. calls its computer emulation of the function of crystal balls factual – though if one is silly enough it can be called credible. There is no data – nor can there be. Things which have not happened remain unmeasurable..

I tend to allow a little leeway for discussion, disagreement, and so on. My problem comes when we enter the realm of advocacy, or when we start going in circles. The “doomers” in question are those who think our extinction due to climate change is inevitable and near, and therefor we shouldn’t bother doing anything about it. It’s the flip side of those who say the problem isn’t happening, so we shouldn’t do anything about it.

As to your claim that it’s “not especially credible”, I’m afraid the only two reasons why you’d say that are dishonesty or ignorance. I’ll assume – for now – that it’s ignorance, and we’ll see where that goes. To begin with, you seem to think that the field of climate science is a relatively new one.

It’s not.

We’ve known how CO2 interacts with heat in our atmosphere since 1856. When I say “known”, I mean that Eunice Foote was able to measure it then. Her work has since been confirmed countless times by countless people, and versions of it are still used as science fair projects to this day.

The first prediction that CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels would raise this planet’s temperature was in 1896, by Swedish chemist and physicist Svante Arrhenius. This wasn’t just a guess. He and many others had found evidence of past ice ages, and were studying what could cause such a thing to happen, when another scientist approached him with his evidence that carbon dioxide from burning coal was actually accumulating in the atmosphere. The prediction was made not based on random guesswork, but based on the measurable physical properties of carbon dioxide, and the measurable rate of increase in the atmosphere.

That was 126 years ago, also known as 12.6 decades.

When Arrhenius made the prediction, he calculated it would take around 3,000 years for the climate to warm enough for palm trees to grow in Sweden, and he was pretty happy about the idea. That was based on fossil fuel consumption in the 1890s, you understand. The rate of consumption has gone up a bit since then.

Already you can see that this isn’t a prediction NOW about something happening in the future, so much as a prediction from the past that we’ve checked over and over and over for over a century, and that has turned out to be accurate, no matter how many times we run the numbers.

This is what science is. It’s a method for taking information we know, and using it to make predictions, which are then tested.

The field of climate science continued after Arrhenius’ work, of course. The term “climate change” goes back to the 1930s, if memory serves, but it was in the late 1950s when things really kicked off. That’s when Charles Keeling started making some noise about what his CO2 measurements at Mauna Loa observatory were showing. This graph is known as “Keeling Curve“:

1958 is also when the first televised warning about climate change appeared on Bell Telephone Science Hour:

I want to emphasize, again, that all of this was literal decades before that warming was measurable. This is not something scientists came up with after the fact to explain warming that was being seen, it’s something scientists successfully predicted decades before it happened. In the case of Arrhenius, he predicted it and then died of old age decades before it happened. It was also – in case I need to tell you this – decades before computer models or the IPCC existed.

The creation of the IPCC was the moment when governments realized that they should at least look like they were doing something about this problem. That’s what the “I” of that acronym is – “Intergovernmental”.

That came almost a century after the first prediction of global warming caused by human activities, and it came because the evidence had already been overwhelming for years

This is no different from Eratosthenes measuring the circumference of the earth in 276 B.C.E., literally thousands of years before we were able to actually circumnavigate it whenever we wanted, or even go into space and take a look from the outside. It’s no different from our ability to predict that a dramatic increase in the number of new smokers THIS year, will lead to a measurable increase in cases of lung cancer a few decades down the line.

Every aspect of your life involves technology that came from predictions made decades or centuries before those predictions were realized. This is not the divine revelation of prophecy, it’s just a basic understanding of the material realities of our world.

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

Well, fuck. My blog’s name is relevant to current events.

I should know better by now than to promise a blog post before it’s done. My brain has always taken that sort of thing as a challenge to its ability to be useless. Today was unexpectedly difficult, so the more in-depth post will have to wait. I don’t know why my brain will cooperate on one project and not another, but I’ve yet to figure out a reliable way to deal with that problem. Shouldn’t be long now, I’ve only been trying for two or three decades. Unfortunately, my alternative offering isn’t likely to taste much better than a piece about treatment of refugees. The biggest downside of running a climate-focused blog in this era is that the news is mostly bad.

Global heating is causing such a drastic change to the world’s oceans that it risks a mass extinction event of marine species that rivals anything that’s happened in the Earth’s history over tens of millions of years, new research has warned.
Accelerating climate change is causing a “profound” impact upon ocean ecosystems that is “driving extinction risk higher and marine biological richness lower than has been seen in Earth’s history for the past tens of millions of years”, according to the study.
The world’s seawater is steadily climbing in temperature due to the extra heat produced from the burning of fossil fuels, while oxygen levels in the ocean are plunging and the water is acidifying from the soaking up of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
This means the oceans are overheated, increasingly gasping for breath – the volume of ocean waters completely depleted of oxygen has quadrupled since the 1960s – and becoming more hostile to life. Aquatic creatures such as clams, mussels and shrimp are unable to properly form shells due to the acidification of seawater.

I’m sorry, what was that? Did you say oceanic oxygen levels are plunging? Who’d have thought? It should still be a long time before the drop in oxygen translates to major hydrogen sulfide buildup, but given that seafood makes up a good chunk of humanity’s protein intake, maybe this is something to which we should be responding? Maybe we should be taking action now for the protein shortage that we know is coming.

Just a thought.

Another thought, if you’ll indulge me: It seems like a bad thing when something called The Great Dying becomes relevant to current events:

All of this means the planet could slip into a “mass extinction rivaling those in Earth’s past”, states the new research, published in Science. The pressures of rising heat and loss of oxygen are, researchers said, uncomfortably reminiscent of the mass extinction event that occurred at the end of the Permian period about 250m years ago. This cataclysm, known as the “great dying”, led to the demise of up to 96% of the planet’s marine animals.

I think it’s worth noting here that this extinction event was not limited to the ocean. The ocean seems to have been first, but by the end of it, 70% of land-based vertebrates were also dead. That’s not because all those animals got their food from the ocean, but rather because of the ecological effects of both the same conditions that killed the oceans, and the fallout from that death.

We are quite literally terraforming our planet, in a way that will make more and more of it hostile to humanity and the species on which we depend. Our only hope is to try to take control of a train that was beginning to get out of control even as we learned how to build actual trains.

“Even if the magnitude of species loss is not the same level as this, the mechanism of the species loss would be the same,” said Justin Penn, a climate scientist at Princeton University who co-authored the new research.
“The future of life in the oceans rests strongly on what we decide to do with greenhouse gases today. There are two vastly different oceans we could be seeing, one devoid of a lot of life we see today, depending on what we see with CO2 emissions moving forward.”
Truly catastrophic extinction levels may be reached should the world emit planet-heating gases in an unrestrained way, leading to more than 4C of average warming above pre-industrial times by the end of this century, the research found. This would trigger extinctions that would reshape ocean life for several more centuries as temperatures continue to climb.
But even in the better case scenarios, the world is still set to lose a significant chunk of its marine life. At 2C of heating above the pre-industrial norm, which is forecast as likely even under current climate pledges by the world’s governments, around 4% of the roughly two million species in the oceans will be wiped out.
Fish and marine mammals that live in polar regions are most vulnerable, according to the study, as they will be unable to migrate to suitably cooler climes, unlike tropical species. “They will just have nowhere to go,” said Penn.
The threat of climate change is amplifying the other major dangers faced by aquatic life, such as over-fishing and pollution. Between 10% and 15% of marine species are already at risk of extinction because of these various threats, the study found, drawing upon International Union for Conservation of Nature data.
John Bruno, a marine ecologist at the University of North Carolina who was not involved in the study, said the new research appeared “sound” but it differed from previous studies on the topic that suggest species will mainly disperse to new areas rather than be completely snuffed out.
“It’s very different from what most prior work has developed. But that doesn’t mean they are wrong,” Bruno said. “I think this new work is challenging some of our current assumptions about the geographic patterns of looming extinction in the ocean.”
Bruno said that while mass extinctions are likely from extreme heating in the future, the current impacts from climate change and other threats should be concerning enough for policymakers and the public.
“Personally, I’m a lot more worried about the ecosystem degradation we’re already seeing after less than 1C of warming,” he said.
“We don’t need to look to a world so warmed over humanity has been wiped out – we’re already losing untold biodiversity and ecosystem functioning with even the relatively modest warming of the last 50 years.”

I think it’s worth remembering that when it comes to climate change, “truly catastrophic” means “all humans will probably die”, which comes some time after “so many people will die that the 20th century looks pleasantly peaceful by comparison”.

Despite the fact that a number of feedback loops are almost certainly adding to the momentum of this climate shift, this is not an on/off situation. We can do things to take away from that momentum, and to get people – and possibly even some ecosystems – out of the tracks of this metaphorical train. The longer we delay, the fewer options we have, but we’re by no means out of options, and anyone who says otherwise is supporting the agenda of the worst people in the world, whether they mean to or not. With everything going on, it’s not at all surprising that people turn to despair and doomsaying. The conclusions given to us by misery and pessimism always seem inescapable when we come to them. In the grips of a depressive episode, it feels certain that life will never get better. In the heart-pounding fear of a panic attack, it seems certain that our bodies will inevitably give out. In a world where despair benefits the rich and powerful, hope is both a necessary, and a revolutionary act.

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

Münecat’s video on climate change and capitalism

So first of all, fair warning – Münecat seems to be every bit as angry about climate change as I am, and has a somewhat blue sense of humor. Beyond the entertainment value, I’m also posting this because of a point she makes near the end – that the capitalist solution to climate change seems to be things like privately operated “migrant detention facilities”.

I’m working on a longer piece about some of the implications of leaving the current world order in place. I’m hoping that’ll be done tomorrow, but we shall see. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this particular bit of carefully crafted internet weirdness:

Catastrophe comes when crises collide: Heat wave in India and Pakistan has global implications

As many of you are probably already aware, India and Pakistan are facing a particularly nasty heat wave. Heat is much more difficult to escape than cold, without modern technology, and unfortunately there are a lot of people in those countries without access to air conditioning. This is one of those situations where wealthy nations have a moral obligation to the rest of the world. Instead of letting a few monsters become cartoonishly wealthy, we should be working to implement carbon-free power generation around the world, and on making sure that everyone at minimum has access to air-conditioned shelters. Heat waves should be treated as seriously as we treat things like hurricanes or tornados, especially since we know that it’s only going to get worse.

Beyond all of that, however, we also have to come back to one of the central themes of this blog: Agriculture.

A record-breaking heat wave in India exposing hundreds of millions to dangerous temperatures is damaging the country’s wheat harvest, which experts say could hit countries seeking to make up imports of the food staple from conflict-riven Ukraine.

With some states in India’s breadbasket northern and central regions seeing forecasts with highs of 120 Fahrenheit this week, observers fear a range of lasting impacts, both local and international, from the hot spell.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told U.S. President Joe Biden earlier this month that India could step in to ease the shortfall created by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The two countries account for nearly a third of all global wheat exports, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that the conflict could leave an additional 8 million to 13 million people undernourished by next year.

India’s wheat exports hit 8.7 million tons in the fiscal year ending in March, with the government predicting record production levels — some 122 million tons — in 2022.

But the country has just endured its hottest March since records began, according to the India Meteorological Department, and the heat wave is dragging well into harvest time.

The heat wave is hitting India’s main wheat-growing regions particularly hard, with temperatures this week set to hit 112 F in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh; 120 F in Chandigarh, Punjab; and 109 F in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.
Devendra Singh Chauhan, a farmer from Uttar Pradesh’s Etawah district, told NBC News that his wheat crop was down 60 percent compared to normal harvests.

“In March, when the ideal temperature should rise gradually, we saw it jump suddenly from 32 C to 40 C [90 F to 104 F],” he said in a text message. “If such unreasonable weather patterns continue year after year, farmers will suffer badly.”

Harjeet Singh, senior adviser to Climate Action Network International, said the heat wave would have a “horrific” short- and long-term impact on people in India and further afield.

“[Wheat] prices will be driven up, and if you look at what is happening in Ukraine, with many countries relying on wheat from India to compensate, the impact will be felt well beyond India,” Singh said.

Harish Damodaran, senior fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, said regions that planted earlier tended to escape the worst impacts on their harvests. In other regions, however, the hot temperatures hit during the wheat’s crucial “grain filling” stage, which is critical for producing high yields.

“Temperatures just shot up,” he said. “It was like an electric shock, and so we are talking of yields more or less everywhere coming down 15 to 20 percent.”

What worries me is that this is just a taste of what’s to come. A big part of the reason for this growing global food crisis is that a vicious asshole decided to invade a neighboring country, but the reality is that war is likely to become more common as temperatures increase,  especially if it continues to be so profitable to the ruling classes that tend to start most of the wars. The reality is that war in one region will be increasingly dangerous to everyone else, because the odds grow every year that we’ll have crises collide, as we’re seeing now.

It’s not just the war in Ukraine and the heat wave in India, either. China’s wheat crop is also doing badly right now.

A Chinese agricultural official said on March 5 that this year’s China winter wheat crop could be the “worst in history,” Reuters reported.

Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Tang Renjian told reporters at the country’s annual parliament meeting that a survey taken of the crop prior to the start of winter showed a 20% reduction in first- and second-grade winter wheat, due mainly to heavy rainfall during planting that reduced acreage by one-third.

War has never been something we could “afford”, but now more than ever, it’s something that can have a global impact even without its devastating environmental impact, and the threat of nuclear weapons. I don’t think a more democratic planet would see war eliminated altogether, but I think there would be far less of it driven by the greed or bigotry of people whose wealth and power separates them from humanity. That means doing the work of building democracy – something that was never done, despite all the lip service given to it in the past. As always, I don’t have all the answers. I’m trying to figure out some of them, and for others – like agriculture – I’m relying on the basics of what we know is coming for us.

If we want to avoid mass death on a scale never before seen in history, I think it would be a very good idea for us to invest in indoor food production. As I’ve said before, I think a lot of that effort should go into things like bacterial and algal food stocks that can serve as a staple for most people. I also think we should invest in communal greenhouses, as well as more large-scale indoor farming operations.  The more we plan ahead, and act before disaster strikes, the more we’ll be able to work on things like improving quality of life, and even reducing greenhouse gas levels.

And in case it needs to be said, I really, really don’t care whether indoor food production is profitable right now. I can’t think of a clearer indication that our concept of profit is flawed than the idea that humanity’s survival might be “unprofitable”.

This is a warning, as clear and as dire as those issued by climate scientists. At the moment, it seems that all of our “leaders” are either unwilling or unable to hear or act on these warnings, so we need a different way of managing governance. How much longer will people keep believing that our current political and economic systems are up to the needs of the moment?

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!

Research team develops new theory for studying mountain stream inhabitants

If we’re to have any chance of re-designing our society to exist in some form of stewardship of the ecosystems of this planet, we need as thorough and understanding of those systems as possible. I’ve written about bioindicators before, and I continue to like that perspective on studying climate change ecology. I also think it’s really neat when research comes along that tests how well theory applies to a particular set of circumstances. It’s moments like this that not only teach us new things, but give us hints about how to improve our search for knowledge.

A new tool can better assess an important but overlooked indicator of global warming: the variety of bugs, worms, and snails living in high mountain streams.

Water-based invertebrates are especially vulnerable when the climate swings from historic droughts to massive floods. Because they serve as food for other forms of alpine life, such as birds, bats, frogs and fish, ecologists worry about the insects’ ability to thrive.

Understanding how these small creatures are affected by climate change requires understanding where we ought to find them. Yet, classic ecological theories did not account for what a team of UC Riverside ecologists and their UC collaborators found on a recent survey of aquatic life in California’s Sierra Nevada.

As a step toward protecting them, the team applied a new theory for predicting biodiversity to high mountain streams. That theory, and the results of the field survey that gave rise to it, are now detailed in an article in the journal Ecological Monographs.

“We’ve come up with new ways of thinking about biodiversity in high mountain Sierra streams, because the old ways weren’t successful for us,” said Kurt Anderson, associate professor of evolution and ecology, and article co-author.

“Classic theories of stream ecology weren’t developed in the Sierras, so we are adapting a new set of ideas to better explain what we’re seeing up there,” Anderson said.

One such classic theory is the River Continuum Concept, which discusses how stream ecosystems function as they move from the stream sources down to bigger, more open rivers. According to the continuum concept, there should be a smooth gradient of change from high to low elevations. The team surveyed for stream biodiversity along a gradient, to test concepts like this one.

“We saw a change, but only partially and not for the reasons the theory said we should,” Anderson said. “For example, we found that lakes tended to interrupt the smooth change we were supposed to have seen.”

The UCR team observed that diversity of invertebrates generally increased in waters headed down and was lowest in steams situated immediately below lakes.

“We believe the lakes may have a disconnecting effect and are causing the downstream waterways to have to start over again in building diversity,” said Matthew Green, UCR ecologist and first author on the new paper.

The team also found a great variety of life forms in cold, isolated streams high up in the headwaters. Despite the general trend toward an increase of diversity moving downstream, sometimes, differences in species among isolated headwaters could be as great as those between upstream and downstream.

“These are the aquatic life forms that are at the edge of the precipice of climate change,” said Dave Herbst, a researcher from the Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory, a UC Natural Reserve, and co-author on the paper.

The areas just below lakes were dominated by only a few species of invertebrates and insects with the ability to filter food particles. Other sites with mixed food sources had more species present.

The team recommends that interconnected systems of flowing water be protected from diversions, and from habitat damage caused by unrestrained land development. When waters are allowed to flow as they should, the number of resources available to creatures that live in them support higher diversity.

“That is what will permit these small, but crucially important life forms to thrive,” Anderson said. “Where intact habitats have been compromised, restoration efforts may be key to providing the entire ecosystem with resilience to the coming adversities of climate change.”

Also, for sentimental reasons, I like hearing about benthic macroinvertebrate research.

When you count the fish, the fish may be counting you…

Once Upon A Time, in a land far, far away from where I’m writing this, I worked for a non-profit science education research corporation called TERC. I did a number of different kinds of work there, but my favorite was designing lesson plans and activities to help people learn about ecology and climate science. One of teams I was on did a lot of outreach to schools, museums, nature centers, aquaria, and other organizations that dealt with science education in New England, with the goal of building connections between schools and “informal” educational institutions, so that kids could do actual research activities as part of their science education.

Climate change ecology is a field that spends a lot of time on phenology – the study of seasonal behavioral patterns. The first lessons in our Climate Lab project involved spring leaf-out, and bird migration, for example, and some of the first research I dug up for a list of recorded changes due to climate change was fish moving north earlier in the season, because the water was getting too warm. It makes sense, right? With the temperature rising, and the weather getting more unpredictable, plants and animals have been getting mixed signals from their environment, and it’s been throwing everything into chaos for at least a couple decades now. Insects and plants come out early because it’s warmer. That’s fine for the insects, but it’s terrible for the plants and the birds. A lot of migratory birds rely on things like day length or some evolved internal clock or sense of Earth’s orbit. That means that they can’t change their timing in response to changes in weather – climate change doesn’t affect that.

So the birds arrive late, because the bugs were out early, and their offspring either starve, or don’t get as good a start on life. More than that, the annual horde of caterpillars are no longer kept in check by birds, so they do a lot more damage to the plants they eat, which in turn makes them less resilient.

And that’s just one set of relationships. It doesn’t touch on how mammals fit in, the effects on things like pollination, or how the damage to the migratory bird population affects the ecosystems in South or Central America where they spend their winters. As I studied this stuff, I got a distinct feeling that although I couldn’t see it, the entire surface of the planet was seething around us, like the ripples on the surface of a pot of water just about to boil. Plants and animals are evolving – changing their shapes and sizes in response to their changing environment. The birds I mentioned before are changing their migratory timing, but they’re doing it the hard way; the individuals who migrate too late often can’t keep their young alive, and those that migrate earlier do a little better. Generation by generation, death by death, everything around us is changing; but it’s not changing fast enough.

If we ever get our act together, politically, and start trying to actually clean up our mess, we’re going to want to know what’s been happening in the ecosystems around us. That will give us the tools we need to help shore up their weaknesses, and help rebuild the ecosystems on which we depend. That’s why it’s essential that the sciences continue to be a priority as we deal with this chaotic new world, and why I was so proud to be part of a project that was teaching people how to participate in that research, even without any actual training in science.

The activities I helped design were often based on the specialties and resources of the nature center in question, be it fish or fowl, and at the tail end of my time at TERC, I started working on materials connected to the Mystic River Watershed Association (MRWA. In particular, we were focused on fish migration. Salmon are probably the most famous (and in my opinion best-tasting) anadromous fish, but the waters of the world are teeming with fish that live most of their lives in the ocean, but swim up streams and rivers to breed. Probably the second most famous, at least in the Boston area where I used to live, is the Alewife. The Alewife is an anadromous herring that historically ran in streams along the northern Atlantic coast of North America. It’s the name of the northernmost station on the MBTA’s Red Line, and the name of a nearby brook. Alewife brook used to be filled with the fish every year, but in living memory, it has been a polluted roadside canal inhabited by algae and invasive carp.

That said, there have been conservation efforts along the coast, in contrast to the control efforts further west, where canals and shipping have turned them into an invasive species. The MRWA is responsible for one of the conservation successes, and they oversee a fish ladder to allow Alewife and their cousin species the blueback herring to get over a dam and into the Mystic Lakes, where they spawn. In this case, “oversee” is literal, as they’ve got a camera to record the fish during their seasonal runs, to help track the population.

The problem is, the only way to be sure of their numbers is to literally count them. It’s a monumental task, and one that’s ripe for counting errors. They’ve found a brilliant solution, and it gets back to the kinds of educational activities I mentioned at the beginning. There’s a website where anyone in the world can look at sections of video, count how many fish they see, and enter that number. The video presented is random, and your count is considered along with everyone else who entered a count for that same video. That means that if I count a leaf as a fish, your more accurate count basically cancels out my error. When you have a dozen different people looking at each video, the odds are pretty good that an accurate consensus will emerge. There’s no need for a supercomputer or for someone to spend countless hours watching blurry fish go by a window, and trying to stay focused enough to get an accurate count.

Some poor intern, or maybe a graduate student, working late into the night for far too little money, running on cheap coffee and food from the vending machine down the hall. Everyone else is in bed by now, but he has to count the endless stream of fish, and every time he loses track, he has to restart the video, until time seems to blur together and his Sisyphean task becomes a surreal daydream. And now the fish aren’t just swimming by. They’re looking at him through the window. No. It’s a video. He’s in the computer lab but… They see him. He’s certain of it. Are they- could they be counting him?

The image shows Ancient Aliens producer Giorgio Tsoukalos saying,

This brings us to the reason I wrote this post.

Suppose there are some coins on the table in front of you. If the number is small, you can tell right away exactly how many there are. You don’t even have to count them – a single glance is enough. Cichlids and stingrays are astonishingly similar to us in this respect: they can detect small quantities precisely – and presumably without counting. For example, they can be trained to reliably distinguish quantities of three from quantities of four.

This fact has been known for some time. However, the research group led by Prof. Dr. Vera Schluessel from the Institute of Zoology at the University of Bonn has now shown that both species can even calculate. “We trained the animals to perform simple additions and subtractions,” Schluessel explains. “In doing so, they had to increase or decrease an initial value by one.”

Blue means “add one,” yellow means “subtract one”

But how do you ask a cichlid for the result of “2+1” or “5-1”? The researchers used a method that other research groups had already successfully used to test the mathematical abilities of bees: They showed the fish a collection of geometric shapes – for example, four squares. If these objects were colored blue, this meant “add one” for the following discrimination. Yellow, on the other hand, meant “subtract one.”

After showing the original stimulus (e.g. four squares), the animals were shown two new pictures – one with five and one with three squares. If they swam to the correct picture (i.e. to the five squares in the “blue” arithmetic task), they were rewarded with food. If they gave the wrong answer, they went away empty-handed. Over time, they learned to associate the blue color with an increase of one in the amount shown at the beginning, and the yellow number with a decrease.

But can the fish apply this knowledge to new tasks? Had they actually internalized the mathematical rule behind the colors? “To check this, we deliberately omitted some calculations during training,” Schluessel explains. “Namely, 3+1 and 3-1. After the learning phase, the animals got to see these two tasks for the first time. But even in those tests, they significantly often chose the correct answer.” This was true even when they had to decide between choosing four or five objects after being shown a blue 3 – that is, two outcomes that were both greater than the initial value. In this case, the fish chose four over five, indicating they had not learned the rule ‘chose the largest (or smallest) amount presented’ but the rule ‘always add or subtract one’.

Computing without a cerebral cortex

This achievement surprised the researchers themselves – especially since the tasks were even more difficult in reality than just described. The fish were not shown objects of the same shape (e.g. four squares), but a combination of different shapes. A “four”, for example, could be represented by a small and a larger circle, a square and a triangle, whereas in another calculation it could be represented by three triangles of different sizes and a square.

“So the animals had to recognize the number of objects depicted and at the same time infer the calculation rule from their color,” Schluessel says. “They had to keep both in working memory when the original picture was exchanged for the two result pictures. And they had to decide on the correct result afterwards. Overall, it’s a feat that requires complex thinking skills.”

To some it may be surprising because fish don’t have a neocortex – the part of the brain also known as the “cerebral cortex” that’s responsible for complex cognitive tasks in mammals. Moreover, neither species of fish is known to require particularly good numerical abilities in the wild. Other species might pay attention to the strip count of their sexual partners or the amount of eggs in their clutches. “However, this is not known from stingrays and cichlids,” emphasizes the zoology professor at the University of Bonn.

She also sees the result of the experiments as confirmation that humans tend to underestimate other species – especially those that do not belong to our immediate family or mammals in general. Moreover, fish are not particularly cute and do not have cuddly fur or plumage. “Accordingly, they are quite far down in our favor – and of little concern when dying in the brutal practices of the commercial fishing industry”, says Vera Schluessel.

I’m afraid it’s true; the whole science education and alewife thing was just a red herring.

Aside from all the other ways this kind of research is useful and interesting, I think it makes a good reminder of how evolution actually works. Contrary to popular mythology, no species on this planet is more or less “evolved” than any other. We’ve all been here the same amount of time, and we all evolved as conditions guided us. When being able to do just a little math helps something survive and reproduce, then that ability will stick around. It’s the same as light-sensitive cells evolving into eyes. Natural selection isn’t random, but the fact that we ended up where we are as a species is random.

As sapient animals, we’re in this weird position where we survive by killing and consuming other life forms, but we can also recognize that those life forms are literally our relatives. I have yet to square this feeling with the fact that I’m not a vegetarian, but when I learn something like this about a fellow animal, I just want to cheer on my “cousin” for being smarter than we realized.

If you like the content of this blog, please share it around. If you like the blog and you have the means, please consider joining my lovely patrons in paying for the work that goes into it. Due to my immigration status, I’m currently prohibited from conventional wage labor, so for the next couple years at least this is going to be my only source of income. You can sign up for as little as $1 per month (though more is obviously welcome), to help us make ends meet – every little bit counts!