Community science: A way to help

I recently touched on the concept of ecosystem services, and I wanted to expand on that a little today, and highlight an opportunity for people in Florida (and everywhere else) to help out.

To be very brief, ecosystem services are the ways in which the other forms of life that surround us help humanity simply by going about their lives. Bats eat insects that might otherwise spread disease or damage crops. Earthworms aerate the topsoil and move nutrients around. Whales literally stir the oceans by being huge and moving vertically in the water column. Insects pollinate crops. Plants produce oxygen, and so on.

Another key concept here is that of biodiversity. Biodiversity generally refers to the number of different species in a given area (species richness), as well as the health of those populations. At first glance, it may seem that a healthy ecosystem has each species in its niche, but in general if you remove one, others will adapt to take advantage of the gap.

Humans have been managing our surroundings in one way or another for many thousands of years, and as I’ve said before, we have no way to stop doing so. Our only choice is to try to do it in a way that will promote biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. Doing so would be impossible without a clear understanding of the current state of our ecosystems, how we are affecting them, and what results come from our efforts to change those effects.

Specialization has allowed humanity to achieve amazing things by using diverse skills in concert. The downside is that we rarely know a whole lot about specialties other than our own. This ignorance creates a gap that can be exploited by dishonest actors, or even honest folks who just get the wrong idea. That means that whenever there’s an article about a species going extinct, there’s always someone asking the reasonable question, “how do they know?”

The answer isn’t too hard to find, of course, but people often lack the time, energy, or interest to go looking. In brief, we know what’s happening in our ecosystems because thousands of people of all levels of expertise spend their lives catching and counting plants and animals, checking their bodies for industrial byproducts and other pollutants, and so on. It’s a painstaking, sometimes dangerous task, and also very rewarding.

In college I participated in a couple animal surveys, including one that was responsible for saving a species of Bahamian rock iguanas. Every year, conditions allowing, a team of biologists and students spends about a week trying to catch, identify, and measure every single member of the population. Often the breeding season is also monitored, using different methods. It’s hard work, but it’s how we know how the population is doing, what threats it faces, and so on.

I’ve been part of similar efforts monitoring freshwater turtle species, and grassland snake species, and I’ve worked with scientists doing the same for insects, bats, plants, and birds. In my childhood I spent many hours playing in the Middlesex Fells around Boston MA while my father counted native and invasive plants for his graduate degrees.

I also worked with groups who organized every day members of the community to help in those efforts.  Every year, millions of people of all ages help ecologists by reporting sightings of birds, flowers, insects, frog calls, and so on, as opportunity or hobbies dictate. Those reports can be part of an organized study, or they can be made directly to relevant government agencies. In the latter case, there will be someone like me who goes through the reports to determine their likely accuracy. One common example is that a “cobra sighting” in the American Midwest is almost certainly a terrified Hognose snake trying to look scary.

I’m writing this post because Tegan came across an opportunity for folks in Florida to help with such a project, and it’s something I keep forgetting to write about.

Since I wasn’t sure what was up with this dude, I did what I always do whenever I see something weird going on with a wild animal; I called my local Fish & Wildlife! This might sound like a crazy reaction to seeing a splotchy turtle but I actually learned something extremely important that I would love for my followers (especially those in Florida) to know about too. After calling F&W I spoke with the turtle specialist for quite some time, as it turns out there is an unknown pathogen killing softshell turtles in Florida, and biologists are desperate to find the cause. They need our help to do this! The biologist that I spoke with says they’re relying on civilian reports to find cases for further study, so it’s incredibly important to spread the word and make sure people know how to report any abnormal appearance or behavior in turtles that they see.

Fortunately my splotchy turtle (I call him Uncle Walter) doesn’t seem to be sick based on his presentation or behavior! The turtle experts examined his photos and at this point they agree he is probably just piebald, though they asked me to keep an eye on him and make sure his condition doesn’t change. I’m so happy that I am armed with knowledge I can use to monitor him and his friends in the face of this worrisome unknown illness.

To my friends here in Florida- if you see ANY wild turtle that looks sick, weak, distressed, or abnormal please contact Fish and Wildlife immediately using the information provided below! To my non-Fl friends, if you have any contacts that enjoy herping or just outdoor activity in the state please let them know about this as well. Our turtles are very dear to us and reporting possible illness is the best way we can help find what’s killing these animals.

These projects are everywhere. While I was working for the Wisconsin DNR I was able to see some data that’s exempted from things like the Freedom of Information Act, not because of anything related to national security, but because making the exact locations of endangered species easy to find leaves them open to harm from the illegal pet trade, animal parts trade, and people whose quest for riches is blocked by laws protecting those species.

These projects are everywhere.

If you are reading this, the odds are very good that if you do a search for “citizen science” or “community science”(a term I prefer), a local species you like, and your area, you’ll be able to find something. If that doesn’t work, you can contact local nature centres, natural history museums, or universities, or look for hobbyist clubs. If you go through all of that and can’t find anything, let me know and I’m willing to bet I can find something.

Responding to climate change, and to human destruction of the ecosystems we rely on requires a massive amount of information. Science at it’s best is a collective effort, and with the ubiquity of cameras and recording equipment, helping that effort has never been easier. If you can’t see, you may be able to help with frog or bird call surveys. If you can’t do any field work, there are always data that need to be processed, or you could count animals via video, and you can always help to publicise these projects. If you have the time, energy, and interest, go see what your options are!


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

How to disguise repression for power and profit

One of the most infuriating things about healthcare in the United States is that not only is it viciously expensive, the private insurance system is a deliberately confusing labyrinth filled with tricks and traps designed to maximize profit both for the insurance companies and for healthcare providers.

Prices for care vary widely not only from place to place, but also depending on who’s actually paying. The overwhelming majority of transactions in our day to day lives deal with fixed prices. The price one person pays is the same as the one everyone else pays, and things like haggling are not even an option. You pay the asking price, or you don’t buy that product.

That means that when we get a bill for hundreds or thousands of dollars for something related to health care, we tend to assume that’s just the cost, and seeing the size of some of those bills, it’s not hard to understand why people would be willing to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars per month to avoid a bill of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for accident or illness. A good health insurance plan can make a huge difference in the life of a U.S. resident.

For example, when I spent a semester in Tanzania, I took the anti-malarial drug Malarone. It was the best option available, particularly because the alternatives had common side effects like intense, usually unpleasant dreams, or increased sensitivity to solar radiation. For a northerner visiting the tropics, it’s generally a bad idea to do things that make sunburns more likely.

The problem is that Malarone is more expensive. It’s a daily pill, and at the time I  believe it cost $5USD per pill. Nowadays the same supply would cost a little over $7USD per pill. For a four month trip, that’s around $600, on top of any other expenses. The insurance I had at the time, through my father’s work, covered it entirely.

That’s not the actual cost to make the pills though- not even close. It’s also probably not what the insurance company paid for them.

The relationship between patient and insurer is very adversarial, resulting in the aforementioned labyrinth, but beyond that, the bills patients see are almost never what insurance companies pay. They negotiate better rates and prices, and then try to push the costs they can’t negotiate away onto the patient, with the kinds of results David Pakman discusses in this clip:

I can’t help but feel that the extortionate “asking price” helps push people into paying so much for insurance, to avoid medical bankruptcy.

My own experiences include a plan in 2008 and 2009 that wouldn’t cover any emergency rooms within about 10 miles of where I lived, spending months and countless hours trying to confirm that the coverage I was paying for in 2018 and 2019 was active, and on trying to find a doctor that would even accept it, getting charged $200 out of pocket for a 10 minute consultation with a doctor when it turned out the card I had been paying $600 per month to get wasn’t working, and many other delightful experiences.

I took a fall on my bicycle in 2009 that cracked my helmet in half, and decided to hope no serious damage had been done rather than pay for the emergency room. I was hit by a car while commuting on my bike in 2013 (the driver’s fault), and had to turn down the ambulance ride and avoid getting my injuries checked out for the same reason. In both cases, I got lucky.

The entire world is subjected to relentless propaganda about how the United States is “the greatest country in the world”, but much of that is just incidental exposure to messaging aimed at American citizens, designed apparently to keep us from realizing the degree to which we are mistreated by our country and its ruling class.

I sometimes see people from Europe wondering why Americans don’t take to the streets over things like the healthcare situation, poor wages and inadequate safety nets, and so much more. A lot of it is things like this. Protesters risk arrest. Many companies reserve the right to fire employees who get arrested, or who miss work because they got arrested, or who miss work for a protest or a strike. Losing work isn’t just losing a paycheck, for many it’s also losing access to healthcare.

Protesting for any change in a left-wing direction can result in brutal attacks by police with kinetic and chemical weapons, which can result in massive medical bills. Rioting even more so (though police often try to turn peaceful protests into riots).

The reality of the United States is that it has found ways to repress its citizenry far beyond what you might think is happening based on what the law says. Rather than direct government control, corporations set the conditions under which people can have a stable, healthy life, and the government only has to prevent you from getting around the obstacles created by the corporations.

Health insurance companies levy heavy taxes for access to medicine, the government just ensures that there’s no better alternative than paying, and that same pattern exists throughout the system.

That’s why so much activism now includes efforts to help protesters avoid the steep penalties for exercising their right to protest, and it’s also why I ended up settling on my favoured approach to working for change.

This same dynamic exists to various extents in all capitalist countries. It is not the only form of repression, but despite all the talk about the “free” nature of capitalism, it is still a form of repression, and from what I can tell, it’s only getting worse.


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Forests for food: ecosystem management for a brighter future

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, much of the blame for the disaster that followed rightly went to neglected or inadequate infrastructure, and the structural racism that allowed known problems to linger until they brought devastation on the low-lying minority communities of that city. Most of that death and destruction could have been prevented, had those with the power to do so cared more about human life than about money.

The region’s “natural” infrastructure got a bit less focus. Salt marshes and mangrove swamps once lined far more of the Gulf Coast than they do today. Industrial and commercial activity have both steadily cut away at those ecosystems, carving channels for ships and poisoning the water with oil and gas wells. The result was that the natural breakwaters that used to protect low-lying populations like New Orleans are mostly gone, so when a storm surge rises, there’s no tangle of vegetation to slow its momentum and reduce its power to overwhelm the human structures farther inland.

In our careless destruction of the ecosystems around us, we are also robbing ourselves of the benefits we derive from so-called “ecosystem services“.

Other such services include things like the oxygen generated through photosynthesis, the food we take from wild populations, the pollination provided by bees and other insects, the parasites eaten by insectivores, the water cleaned by wetlands, and so on.

It’s pretty common for people to take these services for granted. They’ve always been there, and it can be easy to feel like they always will be.

These days, however, it’s increasingly obvious that not only are we losing them at an alarming rate, for some, like natural protections against storm surges, they’re effectively almost gone.

If we want humanity to survive, we are faced with either attempting to replace these services with human constructs, or with cultivating and protecting them, restoring at least some of what has been lost, and living in a manner that encourages those ecosystems to thrive.

This is no small task, as we’ve done a lot of damage and the rapid warming of our planet will do still more in the coming years. It may well end up costing us as much as the technological and societal changes -like ending fossil fuel use- that are already at the centre of environmental discourse.

Now that we are effectively a force of nature on the surface of this planet, our survival depends on planning for the deep future. I think this is one reason the concept of a food forest has appealed to me since I first encountered it.

Food forests are basically what they sound like. A planned and cultivated forest ecosystem filled with plants that produce food for human consumption. Nut, fruit, and sugar trees for the upper stories, berries and things like grape vines lower down, and various edible greens, roots, and mushrooms at ground level.

Done right, such an ecosystem requires little labour to maintain, and where conventional farming often depletes the soil, leaving the land less productive for future generations, a food forest can potentially feed people for centuries or more without the need for massive use of fertilizers or pesticides.

I want to be clear – this is a trade-off. I don’t know the exact numbers, but a system like this is going to produce a lower density of food per acre than a monoculture field. Machine-based harvesting wouldn’t work, or wouldn’t work as efficiently. This is not a form of agriculture designed to produce vast amounts of a single crop like wheat, corn, or soy.

I think the ideal arrangement would be a mix of unmanaged wilderness, conventional farmland, and various kinds of food forest. The concept also isn’t limited to a conventional “forest” – similar planned ecosystems are possible in a wide variety of conditions,  and may not always include things like larger trees. While food is a central part of such an ecosystem, it’s multi-purpose.  It provides habitat for wildlife, a communal place for recreation, a tool for public education, and the cultivation and maintenance of ecosystem services.

This is not a new concept. Not even close.

When I say a well-managed food forest can feed people for centuries, that’s because such forests have already done so. Perhaps the most famous example is an ancient forest in Morocco, but in reality this form of agriculture has been found in all sorts of places. European cultures, as part of their obsession with the imagined superiority of their “race”, dismissed the possibility that Native American cultures, for example, pursued their own forms of agriculture and land management, simply because they didn’t conform to how the colonists thought such activities “should” look.

What this really comes down to is this: our current global society operates largely on the assumption that humans are somehow separate from the rest of life on this planet – that because we are different in how we interact with our surroundings, we do not depend on the ecosystems we inhabit. I’ll delve more into ecosystem services and things like food forests in the future, but with the alarm about declining wild bee populations alone, I think it has become abundantly clear that that perceived separation was always as much of a lie as the white supremacist dismissal of these forms of ecosystem management.

As indicated by some of the sources I have linked, work has long been underway to both raise awareness of these practices and to expand existing food forest projects – both new, and very, very old. In ecology, diversity tends to mean strength and resilience. I think that’s a guideline we would do well to follow if we want humanity to have a future worth living in.


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my recent move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Dublin, at last

Well, where to begin?

Firstly, let me apologize for my long absence. My extended visa in the UK expired at the end of March, and so Tegan and I had arranged to move to Dublin, where her PhD began this year.

Unfortunately, her bout with Covid back in February is still showing up on tests, so she wasn’t allowed to travel. I came on ahead, with the cat and the dog to set up shop. Without going into too much detail, life got a lot more complicated than we had expected, and, I didn’t have much time or energy for anything other than moving.

Now I’m in Dublin at last, with Tegan shortly behind (I hope), and so far it has been lovely. Pretty much as soon as I got off the ferry from Holyhead, a fellow stopped to declaim at length about what a pretty dog Raksha is (which is an inarguable Truth), and to give me both his number, and the offer of help if I needed it.

That has set the tone for my time here the last couple days, with neighbors and contacts helping with boxes, groceries (since I am in quarantine) and other offers of assistance.

I couldn’t help thinking that this is very like the kind of community organizing/building work that inspired my direct action post, and after so long in the fragmented social landscape that seems so common in cities, there’s a lot for me to learn simply by trying to be a good member of this community to which I’ve moved.

It’s remarkable, for example, how a group of people going about their lives will cover enough ground in a city that if someone needs something, the odds are good that a neighbour will be able to pick it up, without needing a company like Amazon.

I suppose it comes with a loss in privacy – I’m not used to people outside my household knowing my grocery list and whatnot – but I find that it doesn’t bother me too much.

Maybe coming to terms with mass surveillance and other invasions of privacy has prepared us all to re-embrace the comparatively mild inconveniences that might come with a supportive community.

Multiple governments and corporations know, or will know as soon as they wish to, my health problems, my money problems, what I say near microphones, and what I do online.

They will never offer to pick up supplies for me, or to walk my dog.

When I get a terminal disease, they may well know it before I do, but they will not tell me or help me without a high price.

I’ve known them for two days, but I know for a fact that my new neighbours will bring me soup if I’m ill, whether or not I ask for it. I also know that being a renter impedes my ability to give as much to this community as I otherwise could.  Repairs, improvements, and maintenance all have to go through the company that owns my home, and while the people there are perfectly nice, and I’m sure are good people, their decisions in that regard are informed more by seeking profit than by the needs of their tenants.

I cannot be certain, but I suspect that is why my new refrigerator doesn’t work, and won’t until some time after my quarantine is over, despite this flat being vacant for weeks before I got here.

What would life be like if, instead of paying €1600 per month to someone else, somewhere else, I could spend that directly on what’s needed? Even if that was just a few hundred per month, it would allow me to save, and to spend more money on things like communal agriculture projects, or an algal farming cooperative, or something like that.

Instead, we have a long chain of people, each of whom is forced by law and circumstance to pay the next link, all funneling back to a small handful whose only skill is hoarding wealth.

In training themselves to become or remain wealthy, they neglected any of the creativity or human experience that would allow them to spend that wealth in a way that provides a net benefit for their own species, or the species on which we rely.

All.of this is to say that I’m “back”, with no intention of such lapses in the foreseeable future.  My formatting will be different for a bit because I’m doing this on a phone till I can get my computer running, but it good to be able to write for y’all again.

Tomorrow’s post will be on food forests, and as always I’m eager for feedback that will help me improve this blog as a resource for those who read it.

Edit: food forest post is going up Sunday. I lost track of time unpacking. It’s easy to forget that things other than writing also take time.

COVID update: Why masks and distancing matter, and why we need to change how things are run

It’s surreal. I’ve been isolating with Tegan and the critters since March. It was pretty easy, because nobody was hiring, and neither of us was able to get wage labor until Tegan got a minimum wage gig in August almost by accident. The animals both love having us around all the time, and we humans still enjoy each other’s company. It’s not a big apartment, and given the infectiousness of this virus, and the long period of asymptomatic contagiousness, we figured that if one of us got it, both of us would. Apparently not. I got tested yesterday, and my result was negative.

Even so, the evidence at this point is pretty clear – even if a mask and distancing don’t prevent you from getting the disease, they will make it far more likely that you’ll have a light case. For those who aren’t clear on why, here’s a basic breakdown:

When the virus enters your system and begins to hijack cells for reproduction, it starts a timed contest. The “goal” of the virus is to infect every cell it can, to reproduce as much as it can, and to spread to as many other people as it can before your body either wipes it out, or dies. The “goal” of your immune system is to develop antibodies that can destroy the virus before it infects you badly enough that you die.

Let’s say you got the virus because some science-denying asshole coughed and sneezed directly in your face. You got a huge dose – your starting population of the virus is in the tens of thousands, and its starting position is in your mouth, nose, and eyes. Viruses grow exponentially in the body – one cell produces many particles of the virus, and because those are starting inside your body, the odds are that most of them will infect other cells and repeat the process. You go from a population of 20,000 to 20,000,000 very, very quickly, and from there to the hundreds of millions, and then billions. By the time your immune system has the ability to really respond, huge portions of your body are infected, and with COVID-19 that means not just your respiratory system, but your circulatory system, nervous system, and multiple organs. Billions of your cells each pumping out thousands upon thousands of new virus particles. This isn’t great for your health, because the virus population is using your resources to do all of this, and those resources are then unavailable for normal bodily functions.

The virus is not what kills you, though. The problem is that the immune system doesn’t kill the virus directly, it targets the virus’s means of reproduction – infected cells. So, your body develops the ability to detect and destroy infected cells, some time after your initial exposure, and then it sets about doing that. The question then is – how many of your cells are infected? If the number is too high, then your immune system will basically be doing the equivalent of amputating a limb that has gangrene to prevent the rot from spreading to the rest of your body. It’s probably better than dying, but it comes with its own dangers. Specifically, it’s amputating one cell at a time, and it’s doing it in your lungs, your heart, your blood vessels, your nerves, and so on. The extent of your viral infection determines the extent to which your body destroys itself to purge the infection.

It’s a bit like doing a controlled burn to eradicate an invasive species like honeysuckle (in the US) – if it’s just in a small area, that method might well work, but if – as is the case in much of the United States – there’s honeysuckle throughout the forest understory, then you’re likely to destroy not just the invasive species, but the rest of the forest as well.

Now let’s say you contract the virus from your significant other or room mate, but you’ve had windows open and kitchen and bathroom vents running, you wear masks most of the time, you stay in separate rooms, and you never interact directly (can you tell I’m bitter about my current situation?). Now, instead of 20,000, your starting virus population is 1. Or more likely 100. Now your body has a better chance of developing and carrying out its response before the virus has infected too many of your cells. Now, instead of hundreds of billions of cells that need to be destroyed, there are just billions, or a few hundred million (out of hundreds of trillions in your body). Your body can take that hit pretty easily. It’s not good, and it’s not fun, but neither is it lethal, and depending on what cells are infected, it might not even have lasting effects.

By taking all those precautions, you’ve gone from your body melting down your lungs and veins, and killing you to eradicate your viral population, to doing pretty minor damage that you may not even notice, in an asymptomatic case.

So, back to my situation if I do catch the disease from Tegan, does that mean I get to interact with her again? No. Not while she’s still sick. See – you don’t stop being vulnerable to infection once you’re infected. It’s not an on/off situation. Let’s say I tested positive, but I don’t have any symptoms. Good. All of my caution has paid off, and my viral load is in the hundreds of thousands. I might get a bit of a cough or a fever, and if I’m unlucky I could have lasting damage to some parts of my body, but I’m not going to be in danger for my life.

And then, since I’m “already infected”, I go to take care of my wife, who’s worse off than I am. And every time I go into the bedroom, my viral population gets a boost. It might even get virus particles that have evolved to be better at invading cells (like the new variants now spreading across the globe). Now I’m going from a manageable, or even asymptomatic viral load, to a dangerous one, and at the same time, I’m adding to Tegan’s viral load, and increasing the odds that her immune system will do serious damage. I might even introduce a new variant to her.

And so I sit in a chilly room with wind blowing through the open door, and a vent running in the kitchen. I don’t go to comfort her, even though we could both use a hug. If I need to give her something, I leave it in the hall, and go back into my part of the apartment. If someone delivers a package, I tell them to set it outside the door, and wait till they’re long gone before I open it to get what they left.

Infectious disease is a numbers game, and knowing that, we can adjust our behavior to cut off the viral supply lines.

As I was writing this, I noticed that a great deal of what I was saying also applies to how countries deal with a pandemic. Fortunately, we’re not just killing everyone who tests positive, but the more people test positive, the more there are to infect others, and the greater the total amount of viral particles there are in any given location. A park on a breezy day may seem safe – and it is safer than an enclosed space – but if everyone in that park is infected, they’re giving off a cloud of viral particles, like cigarette smoke, that is more or less likely to reach other people, depending on how many are producing that cloud.

The lack of response in the US and the UK (probably other countries too, but I haven’t paid as close attention to them) has done just that. It has increased the viral loads of those countries, and consequently increased the viral load of infected individuals. Even now, isolation and masking are still saving lives, and helping to control the pandemic and many other infectious diseases. This basic math is the same for every infectious disease. COVID-19 is worse than most because, like with the honeysuckle I mentioned earlier, it’s an invasive species. It has no “natural predators” in our bodies to slow it down, and it has no “natural habitat” in our bodies that it will focus on and stay in. It’s in new territory, in every human it encounters right now, and so it’s going where it can, to the greatest extent that it can, and it turns out that it can go just about everywhere inside us. Eventually, the global population will have some level of resting immunity to this kind of coronavirus. I think it’s unlikely that it will ever go away completely – it’s going to be more like the common cold or influenza – but it will get less lethal, because it will be harder for the new variants to grow out of control as they do now, because we’ll have at least some defenses against things that look similar.

I’ll end by saying – not for the last time – that a pandemic like this is why it’s so important to have societies that understand and accept science, and that value the lives and wellbeing of the general population over, say, profit for the ruling class. Say what you will about Vietnam, but the evidence is clear – quarantining infected villages, and ensuring that those under quarantine had all the food, shelter, and entertainment they needed was effective. The leaders of the Communist Party of Vietnam may be wealthier than the general population, but that gap is (a) not as big as it is in capitalist countries, and (b) did not lead them to put their own wealth ahead of the lives of their population. Doing the right thing in a pandemic is not profitable for the ruling class. It’s an investment in the population at large. It costs money to inform people they’re under quarantine, and to provide them with meals, and to ensure that they’re able to quarantine without losing their homes, healthcare, or food.

This is not likely to be the last pandemic in my lifetime (assuming I die of old age). This will come up again, and if most of the world is run by and for capitalists, we’ll go through all of this again, even though we know how to stop it. The same is true for climate change. We know what we need to do to both slow the warming of the climate, and to adapt our societies to survive the warming we cannot avoid, but doing so will not be as profitable for the ruling class as the status quo. As long as the profit motive is the primary guiding principle of our society, we will fail to adequately address climate change, and we will fail in our responses to every pandemic that comes along.

Stay the course. Wear a mask. Keep your distance. Listen to the scientific and medical communities, and organize so that we can actually deal with the problems that face us.


If you want to help pay for the content of this blog, cover the costs of my upcoming move, and feed my pets, please head over to the Oceanoxia Collective on Patreon. My patrons are a wonderful group of people who give according to their abilities that I might live and work according to my needs. I’m grateful for every one of them, and you could join their ranks for as little as one U.S. dollar per month!

Proxy measurements can provide warnings of what’s to come

What does “sea level” mean? How do you go about measuring it? Those with any experience in large bodies of water know that “level” is rarely a realistic description. Even without the moon distorting the Earth and driving the tides as it orbits us, swells and waves mean that most ocean surfaces are constantly moving up and down. Beyond that, areas with a large amount of dense matter – like mountains and ice sheets – will pull water towards themselves, causing higher sea levels in their gravity wells, and lower sea levels in other areas.

Measuring sea level requires taking thousands of different sorts of measurements all over the world, and for all that complexity, sea level represents just a tiny fraction of what’s happening in the oceans, let alone global climate change as a whole.

So how can we measure the rate of climate change? What does that even mean? Calculating the rate at which heat is being trapped, based on greenhouse gas levels, is pretty straightforward. We’ve known the basics of that for over a century, and it’s how we have headlines like “Earth is heating at a rate equivalent to five atomic bombs per second“. The problem is that that heat doesn’t necessarily stay as heat. There are a myriad of ways in which thermal energy can be converted to kinetic or chemical energy, on top of things that are hard to measure like deep ocean temperature changes.

Most of the heat the planet has been absorbing has gone into the oceans, but even so, scientists have been detecting biological and physical changes all over the planet that are driven by the rise in temperature.

And that brings up another question – how much does a given change in temperature actually matter? For humanity’s purposes, there are two main lines of inquiry to look at. The one that tends to get the most focus, for obvious reasons, is the effect on day to day and year to year temperatures. Will heat waves get worse? Will rainfall change? These are important questions to answer, but they might be less important than questions about the non-human parts of the biosphere.

How will a given change in temperature affect the wildlife where you live? Some of that will be a matter of precipitation or heat tolerance – same as with humans – but some will be increased pressure from new species moving into areas that used to be too cold, or too wet for them to survive. The temperature change we’ve seen thus far has already been affecting ecosystems all over the planet. Figuring out what those changes are, and what, precisely, has been driving them, can help us understand what is likely to happen as the planet continues to warm.  These “proxy” measurements won’t tell us what temperature the planet is, but they will help us draw a connection between the heat we know has been trapped by rising greenhouse gas levels, and the changes we’re seeing on the ground. That’s how you begin to build a projection of “if CO2 levels rise to Xppm, it will probably have Y result”. We can’t see or feel the change in atmospheric gas levels, but we can see and feel follow-on results of that change.

Every time a research team runs a model to try to calculate how all these lines of data will interact, they tend to run a pretty wide set, allowing for different scenarios. The “worst-case” and “best-case” models bracket the most likely outcome, based on the data currently available, and the current understanding of those data. The problem here is that the current global changes are unlike anything that has ever happened in recorded history. Every year we enter new territory, which means that historical data are always going to be less reliable.

That’s why proxy measurements are so important. “Bio-indicators” like migrating birds and flowering plants give us insight into what climate change is doing right now to those species whose lives are most closely attuned to climate conditions.

Ice melt is another such proxy – it lets us see how fast energy is being absorbed and “spent” on converting solid water into liquid. Even if our historical data continues to point to the planet being on a “middle of the road” trajectory, if the ice is melting in line with a worse trajectory, then we need to check our numbers, and think hard about what’s headed our way.

Melting on the ice sheets has accelerated so much over the past three decades that it’s now in line with the worst-case climate warming scenarios outlined by scientists.

A total of 28 trillion metric tons of ice was lost between 1994 and 2017, according to a research paper published in The Cryosphere on Monday. The research team led by the University of Leeds in the U.K. was the first to carry out a global survey of global ice loss using satellite data.

“The ice sheets are now following the worst-case climate warming scenarios set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” lead author Thomas Slater said in a statement. “Although every region we studied lost ice, losses from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets have accelerated the most.”

Ice melt from sheets and glaciers contributes to global warming and indirectly influences sea level rise, which in turn increases the risk of flooding in coastal communities. Earth’s northern and southern poles are warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet. In 2020, a year of record heatArctic sea ice extent hovered around the lowest ever for most of the year.

As I’ve mentioned before, I think it’s reasonable to feel badly about news like this. The world on which most of us were born no longer exists, and beyond finding ways to take direct action, I think we also need to be thinking hard about what human life on Earth looks like, and how it will have to change. Food production is one obvious area of focus, but so is basic habitation. Science fiction as a field has spent decades imagining how humanity might survive on a variety of alien planets. Temperature extremes, toxic atmospheres, hostile wildlife – a lot of it involves putting ourselves in a situation where, despite all of our advanced technology, we’re required to once again struggle for survival against a lethal and indifferent world. Keeping homes cool is already shifting from a matter of comfort to one of survival, and that change is likely to accelerate. Higher temperatures are going to mean more dangerous air pollution, even without things like increasing wildfires or even crematorium smoke as new diseases cause mass death.

I’ve believed for about a decade now that the planet is almost certainly going to keep warming for the rest of my life, even if I manage to have a very long life.

That melting ice released CO2 into the atmosphere. The thawing permafrost is doing the same. The tiny amount of warming we’ve already seen has been enough to cause measurable changes across the entire surface of this planet, and many of those changes are going to make the warming speed up, or at least continue even if humanity stops adding to the problem.

So, we need changes, not just to how we interact with our atmosphere, but also to how we conduct our lives day to day. The floating neighborhoods of The Netherlands are a good example of this – they know sea level rise is going to be an escalating problem, especially with so much of their population already living below sea level. They could have just responded by building up their dikes, or moving people to higher ground, and while those options are definitely still on the table, having residential areas designed to simply float up as the water rises is one way to literally stay on top of the problem.

This is one of the reasons I keep leaning on local organizing as a catch-all starting point for dealing with climate change and political problems (insofar as the two can be said to be separate). The lifestyle changes needed for the Netherlands will be useless in most of California. The changes needed for California won’t help people in Alaska. The changes needed in Alaska won’t help people in Vietnam. What changes are coming to where you live? Should you be thinking about how to deal with killer heat waves as a community, or is air pollution a more pressing issue? Has there been an increasing problem with flooding from the ocean? If so, should you be focusing on how to keep your homes dry, or on how to ensure that there’s safe food and water available when the flooding happens?

At best, we can be sure that the worst-case scenarios are still a very real possibility, and that means that regional differences – and regional organizing – are going to matter a whole lot more going forward.


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