Bell Ringer: Bermuda Triangle, Area 51, Marfa, and other cool mysteries

May 17, 2009

If a day goes by that I don’t get a question about one of these sites, it’s a very slow day.

Those questions tell me something else:  Students have genuine interests in geography, and in mysteries.  Students will pay attention to lesson plans that include one or more of these sites in them, especially if you refer to the mystery.

How about just a geography search:  How close is the closest site to you?  Can students visit these sites on their summer vacations?  What airport is closest for tourists?  What arrangements need to be made to visit the place? provides the video — your students have the questions.  Can you provide the answers, or lead them to the answers?  How about listing your answers in comments?

Answers, or more information:

Desperation in AGW denial ranks?

May 17, 2009

One might hope it is a sign of desperation, and not just one more ratcheting up on the dishonesty scale.

Anthony Watts has a post that looks at Boston Harbor, a post borrowed from a sleepy blog called Climate Sanity, by Tom Moriarty.  Watts, a leader among denialists, notes the warnings about sea level rising, and then offers maps of Boston as evidence everyone is safe.

The maps show the shoreline expanding around the peninsula where the main part of Boston sits.

Consequently, the authors claim, rising sea levels won’t do damage anyone should worry about.

Changes in Boston Harbor, from the denialist blog Climate Sanity

Changes in Boston Harbor, animation from the denialist blog Climate Sanity

It’s an odd sort of claim.  Anyone with any knowledge of the growth of harbor cities will look at the maps and notice the extension of lands from fill. Watts and Moriarty do not specifically claim that ocean levels have no effect, though some reading the headlines alone may get that idea.  They argue that humans will respond to negate the bad effects of climate change. 

That’s not what the maps show at all. The maps show that, in the absence of wetlands protection, people will use fill to expand commercial opportunities at a busy harbor.  That is true whether the fill requires the destruction of local landmarks, or whether the fill arrives accidentally from other major natural events.

The climate change denialists’ claims make an argument based in deception.  Harbor areas are always better fortified against sea and weather changes than other areas.  Boston Harbor is a comparatively small area, when contrasted with the Atlantic coastline of North America.

Do they know they’re just pulling our leg?  Or is this one more sign of the desperation denialists get over the realization the facts are against them?

At root the argument fails, and fails offensively: Watts and company argue that climate change and rising sea levels are not a problem, if we have enough concrete and fill to expand land close to the water and harden seawalls.  We also would need a lot of commercial development to make it cost effective to fill in the threatened lands.  That sort of development will involve only a very small area of any nation’s coastline.

Of course, that sort of hardening of sites is exactly what the wetlands protection under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act aimed to slow or stop, and it is part of the cause of trouble in the Mississippi Delta and other places unhardened, where the effects of hardening ports are pushed.

Watts also fails to account for the more serious immediate issues:  It’s not permanent inundation that we need to worry about with ports, but rather, the effects of stronger storms with higher sea levels.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been on that issue for years.  Boston Harbor is an example of a place that we need to protect from effects of climate change, at great expense, in order to preserve the filling done in the past and the development on that filled-in land that once was sea.

For examples, consult the white paper from EPA in July 2008, “Planning for Climate Change Impacts at U.S. Ports.  From the very first lines, you can begin to see why the denialists’s claims don’t wash:

Over the coming decades, climate change is likely to cause sea levels to rise, lake levels to drop, more frequent and severe storms, and increases in extreme high temperatures. These effects can have mild to severe impacts on port infrastructure and operations, depending on their geographical setting and design. Ports are critical to the trade and transportation networks of the United States. Specifically, ports handle 78% of all U.S. foreign trade by weight and 44% by value.1 The United States’ ports also represent billions of dollars in capital improvements and new investments. While the risk that climate change poses to ports is unclear, what is clear is that ports need to better understand climate change, how it may impact them, and what they can do to ensure reliable services for their customers.

Stakes are too high for analysis so shallow as simple map overlays.  In reality many factors mean that ports and harbors are threatened from many different problems arising from climate change.  The EPA white paper lists specifics.

Changes in water level:

The most immediate concern related to rising sea levels is the need to raise the level of infrastructure to prevent flooding. Ports will need to consider anticipated sea levels when building new infrastructure. In cases where current infrastructure may not be high enough for its useful lifespan, ports will need to increase infrastructure heights.

Higher sea levels may threaten ports’ environmental mitigation projects. Also, many ports have contaminated or potentially contaminated industrial land on their premises.17 Higher water levels may require new containment methods to prevent leeching of contaminants.

Many climate models predict that climate change will cause water levels to drop in the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River Basin, which would make shipping there more difficult. When lake levels decreased from 1997-2001, ships in the Great Lakes were forced to carry less cargo. Future decreases in water level would again require cargo restrictions or perhaps the redesign of vessels. Either one would increase the cost of shipping on interior waterways. Decreased depths could be mitigated by increased dredging, but at a financial and environmental cost.

Storm events and precipitation:

Globally, extreme precipitation events are expected to become more frequent, and severe storms are expected to become more intense. Stronger wave action and higher storm surges, especially when coupled with higher sea levels, are the primary threat to ports. These impacts can damage bridges, wharfs, and piers, terminal buildings, ships, and cargo. Harbor infrastructure may need to be raised or reinforced to withstand these impacts.

In addition to contributing to storm surge, wind can also have its own damaging impacts. High winds particularly threaten unreinforced terminal structures. For example, Hurricane Katrina tore roofs and doors off warehouses at the Port of New Orleans. One possible response to these threats is to change design standards for terminals, cranes, lighting systems, and other infrastructure to incorporate the risk of stronger storms.

Higher temperatures:

Higher incidences of extreme high temperatures could also affect some auxiliary port infrastructure. For example, paved surfaces may deteriorate more quickly in hotter conditions. Cranes and warehouses made of metal may require design changes to withstand higher temperatures. Higher temperatures may also require more energy for cooling of goods stored at ports.

Higher temperatures could impact the human and natural environments associated with ports as well. Many employees at ports work primarily outdoors. Operational changes may be required to protect workers from extreme heat. Warmer temperatures may also increase the risk of transferring invasive species from region to region on cargo vessels.

For ports in northern states, including Alaska, higher temperatures could provide some benefits. Operating conditions may improve as ice accumulation on port infrastructure decreases. Shipping seasons would lengthen as more ports and waterways become ice free for more of the year. These effects could increase volume and reduce costs for northern shipping.

Indirect impacts, including insurance:

Ports are also likely to face changes in insurance coverage and possible higher insurance premiums because of climate change. The insurance industry is one of the leading commercial sectors expressing concern about and exploring adaptive responses to climate change. Several large companies that provide business insurance services are incorporating risk from climate change into insurance offerings. Strategies include shifting a greater share of risk onto customers and providing technical support and pricing incentives for customers to reduce their exposure to climate-related risks.

Denialist arguments frequently come with unintended irony.  Part of Boston Harbor was filled in by a the New England hurricane of 1938.  Castle Island, one of the areas the animation highlights as being filled out, ostensibly by humans, is connected to the mainland now as a testament, a warning of the potential for nature to change the place quickly, contrary to the plans of humans.  One day in 1938 a hurricane converted the place from an island to a peninsula.  Is this really the best the denialists have to persuade us that we shouldn’t be concerned about the power of nature now?

Climate warming is real.  The effects of warming are real and quite problematic already.  Filling in wetlands around busy harbors, even just to raise elevation, is not a viable solution to the problems, regardless their cause.


Using evolutionary science to fight fire ants

May 17, 2009

No real Texan would ever entertain the slightest doubt about the accuracy of evolution theory, once that Texan understood how evolution helps fight the imported Argentine fire ant, Solenopsis invictaAnd, who could invent flies that turn the tiny ants into zombies as their larva eat the brains of the ants?

Evolution theory suggests that predators, or at least a parasite, exists for almost every species on Earth.  Fire ants, though seemingly invincible (hence the species name, invicta), also have predators and parasites.  Control of the ants may be a function of finding the right natural enemy of the ant.

Caption from TAES:  As the eggs of a new type of phorid fly develops inside the heads of red imported fire ants, it takes over the control of the host, said Dr. Scott Ludwig, Texas AgriLife Extension Service integrated pest management specialist. Ludwig released fire ants infested with the parasite at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Overton on April 29. (Texas AgriLife Extension photo by Robert Burns)

Caption from TAES: As the egg of a new type of phorid fly develops inside the heads of red imported fire ants, it takes over the control of the host, said Dr. Scott Ludwig, Texas AgriLife Extension Service integrated pest management specialist. Ludwig released fire ants infested with the parasite at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Overton on April 29. (Texas AgriLife Extension photo by Robert Burns)

Bill Hannah reduces the science to a good lay explanation in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

It sounds like something out of science fiction: zombie fire ants. But it’s all too real.

Fire ants wander aimlessly away from the mound.

Eventually their heads fall off, and they die.

The strange part is that researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension Service say making “zombies” out of fire ants is a good thing.

“It’s a tool — they’re not going to completely wipe out the fire ant, but it’s a way to control their population,” said Scott Ludwig, an integrated pest management specialist with the AgriLife Extension Service in Overton, in East Texas.

The tool is the tiny phorid fly, native to a region of South America where the fire ants in Texas originated. Researchers have learned that there are as many as 23 phorid species along with pathogens that attack fire ants to keep their population and movements under control.


Kerouac played fantasy baseball – four decades early

May 17, 2009

Who knew?

Three of Jack Kerouac’s fantasy baseball team cards, circa 1953-56. New York Public Library, Berg Collection, Jack Kerouac Archive

Three of Jack Kerouac’s fantasy baseball team cards, circa 1953-56. New York Public Library, Berg Collection, Jack Kerouac Archive

Kerouac fans, and anyone who participates in a rotisserie league sport, and anyone who just wants a moment of merriment, should read this New York Times story:

Almost all his life Jack Kerouac had a hobby that even close friends and fellow Beats like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs never knew about. He obsessively played a fantasy baseball game of his own invention, charting the exploits of made-up players like Wino Love, Warby Pepper, Heinie Twiett, Phegus Cody and Zagg Parker, who toiled on imaginary teams named either for cars (the Pittsburgh Plymouths and New York Chevvies, for example) or for colors (the Boston Grays and Cincinnati Blacks).

At least one more book Kerouac had inside, unwritten.  Now we just see the outline of what could have been a superb, and funny, work of fiction, in a book by New York Public Library curator Isaac Gewirtz.  The Kerouac items are in the Berg Collection at the Library.

No historian could make this stuff up.

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