So Long



Donald Trump: No Saving Grace?

Donald Trump’s distaste for science comes as little surprise considering that even his political rhetoric swings back and forth between contradictory positions. Trump is a man who eschews solid ground, flitting instead like a very bald eagle from one opinion to the next. As federal dollars continue to be drained from scientific endeavors, he puts the future of our knowledge at risk. On Class M, James Hrynyshyn considers NASA’s Earth-observation satellites (known as Grace) which are decaying in their orbits bit by bit and will soon burn up in the atmosphere. James writes that “replacements are getting ready, but they won’t be launched until sometime next year.” This could create a data gap that amounts to a blind spot in our attempts to understand global warming.

Meanwhile, John Dupuis updates his index of Trump’s war on science, writing “as exhausting as it seems—and this is part of the plan—amongst all of us opposed to Trump, we need to keep track of a wide range of issues.” And on Stoat, William M. Connolley pushes back at the vilification of Big Oil, saying “customers emit CO2, not producers. Don’t blame the people that sold you a thing for your using it. Hopefully that’s bleedin’ obvious.”

Harvey Floods Houston, Irma Makes History

Hurricane Harvey visited a near-biblical deluge upon Houston, dropping over 40 inches of rain on parts of the city. The situation resulted from warmer ocean waters, more moisture in the atmosphere, and Houston’s geography along with its preparedness for the disaster. Greg Laden shows hotter sea surface temperatures in the Tropics and the Gulf of Mexico allowed Harvey to gain extra strength as it formed and re-formed on its way to the United States. In another post, Greg asks if Houston’s infrastructure could have been better-prepared for this type of rainfall, suggesting that “Houston is proud of its Libertarian zoning laws” even though, as Ethan Siegel writes on Starts With a Bang, a stalled hurricane pouring down water “should be exactly what you’d expect for a city located where Houston is.”

On the other hand, while the city was swamped to the tune of perhaps $50 billion in property damage, very few people died from the catastrophe. William M. Connolley points out that global warming “made the storm stronger and pushed the rainfall up to ‘unprecedented’; but the CO2 used to make the infrastructure makes the deaths fewer.” Dozens of people are confirmed dead by Harvey’s hand, but a similar cyclone killed over 200 people in Sri Lanka and India in May.

On the heels of Harvey, Hurricane Irma swept up the Caribbean islands and on to Florida, causing more tens of billions of dollars in damage but failing to precipitate the doomsday scenario that many in the media foresaw. On Stoat, William M. Connolley asks if there’s any way to prove a relationship between global warming and these hurricanes, and offers up a wager for 2018. Meanwhile, Ethan Siegel notes that Harvey and Irma mark an historical milestone, as “two Category 4 (or stronger) hurricanes made landfall in the USA in the same year for the first time.” Ethan’s stance is unequivocal: “This is not simply a bad year or an unlucky coincidence, but is an effect of a planet that has been artificially warmed by human activity.”

Standing Tall for Vaccines

“Who fears or rejects vaccines, why do they do so, and how might we reach them to change their minds?” On Aetiology, Tara C. Smith answers these questions with a new paper written as a primer for those who want to stand up for vaccination. She says, “for many individuals on the vaccine-hesitant spectrum, it’s not only about misinformation, but also about group identity, previous experience with the health care field, and much more.” The stakes of the vaccine debate are high. On Respectful Insolence, a mathematical model from Stanford shows that slight dips in uptake of the MMR vaccine would cause the number of measles cases in the U.S. to balloon. Meanwhile, in Europe, measles has killed dozens of people in the last year amidst thousands of cases that could have been prevented with a shot (or sufficient herd immunity). Orac blames Europe’s problems squarely on Andrew Wakefield, and as for the bubbling tensions in the U.S., Orac says “antivaxers have figured out how to weaponize their views by coupling them to right wing rhetoric about ‘freedom.'”

Climate Change in the ‘Hood

On Class M, James Hrynyshyn shows us how climate change will benefit the economies of some U.S. counties while damaging many others. This mostly has to do with location; coastal areas and southern latitudes are more threatened, with Florida poised to suffer worst of all. James writes, “we’re not just talking about polar bears anymore. It’s now about jobs, wages, infrastructure, crime.” Meanwhile, William M. Connolley reports Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf is 12% smaller due to a giant iceberg splitting off and heading (presumably) toward Miami. Greg Laden says denial of global warming has shaped political discourse for decades, thanks to “deep pocketed one percenters and corporations harboring the unfortunate delusion that if we pretend climate change is not caused by the burning of fossil fuels, everything will be fine and they’ll keep getting rich.” But public awareness of the problem, like sea level, continues to rise.

Exoplanet Extravaganza

In February, exoplanet hunters announced the discovery of seven rocky planets orbiting a star called TRAPPIST-1 only forty light-years away. Compared to our sun, TRAPPIST-1 is tiny, and all its planets orbit closer than Mercury orbits Sol. But three of them are still in the Goldilocks zone that could be “just right” for life, and all seven planets could theoretically hold liquid water. While Ethan Siegel introduces the neighboring star system with spectacular illustrations from NASA and ESO, Greg Laden notes that the practice of saying these images are artistic interpretations “has largely fallen by the wayside.” Instead, scientific outreach relies more heavily on imagination and storytelling in order to capture public interest.

Pro-Science Gets Organized

Outrage at Donald Trump has coalesced around several political loci, including women’s rights, immigration, environmentalism, and scientific endeavor at large. As Trump threatens to roll back regulations and de-fund universities, Mark Hoofnagle points out that science has always been political, increasingly so in an age when politicians control huge sums of money devoted to basic research. Despite major discoveries funded by taxpayer dollars, Mark says scientists have failed “to explain the benefits of basic science to the public and to our representatives in government, and failed to defend our colleagues from misrepresentation of their work for cheap political gain.”

Meanwhile, as a veteran of the Canadian “war on science,” John Dupuis suggests how pro-science Americans can join the fray: “Don’t bring a test tube to a Bunsen burner fight. Mobilize, protest, form partnerships, wrote op-eds and blog posts and books and articles, speak about science at every public event you get a chance, run for office.” Greg Laden demands that we do our homework, writing “organized activism produces results, having a plan matters.” One plan worth making is to join the March for Science on April 22nd in Washington D.C.