Globe and Mail: Marine scientists to use navy techniques to study whales

When Randy Musseau stood in a conference room in Halifax this week to teach the navy’s basic course in the field of passive acoustics, he had an unusual group of pupils: marine scientists who are among the first-ever civilian students to learn the military’s techniques for listening to the ocean.

The participants will use what they learn to better understand the effects of human activities on whales – information they can, in turn, share with the military to help protect the marine mammals.

“In my unit alone, we’ve been studying passive acoustics for 50 years,” said Mr. Musseau, training officer from the highly secure Trinity naval intelligence unit. “There are noises out there that we can classify immediately.”

The course is a modified version of the military’s basic passive acoustic analysis course, with classified material removed. Hansen Johnson, a marine bioacoustics researcher at Dalhousie University and one of the participants in the class, said the knowledge exchange will be a two-way street.

Read more here

Hakai Magazine: The Blob in the Northeast Pacific Ocean

For the past couple of years, researchers from California to Alaska have witnessed a warm-water phenomenon mess with the coastline’s marine food web. It’s like watching a horror B-flick unfold: suddenly, a strange miasma emerges, things get weird, and everyone starts behaving differently. Appropriately, a scientist nicknamed this tepid ocean broth The Blob.

“It’s the type of thing you might expect to happen once in a millennium,” says Richard Dewey.

Read more here

American scientists unearth lost 1960s polar satellite images worth billions

David Gallaher was eight years old in 1964, watching satellites twinkling high overhead. That year, the first American to orbit the planet left NASA, the Soviets put the first multi-person crew in orbit, and one tiny satellite, Nimbus 2, was taking grainy black-and-white images of the entire surface of the planet.

Seventeen years before the start of what we know as the “modern satellite record” of sea ice, Nimbus series satellites were snapping images that would turn up on two huge pallets in Gallaher’s office in Colorado 50 years later.

“Holy crap,” Gallaher recalls thinking when he saw the daunting stack of canisters. “We took one box and looked at it, and said, ‘Is this even doable?’”

Read more here.

Note: This story was retweeted by CBC Quirks & Quarks, Chris Hadfield and Phil Plait, scored over 2000 points on Reddit, and was picked up by IB Times, The Verge, and others. It also led to my first story in National Geographic.

New issue of the Wall Papers

New issue of the Wall Papers

I wrote four profiles of UBC-associated scientists doing some great things in materials science. I wrote about bio-batteries made of trees and soy; biodegradable, implantable prostheses that heal you as they break down; a new step in quantum computing technology; and lab-on-a-chip technology that lets diagnostic tests be done cheaply, remotely, and much more quickly.

The surprising science behind staying cool in a heat wave

This post first appeared on Canadian Geographic’s Compass blog

Emergency cooling centres are opening across Ontario and Quebec as parts of the provinces wilt under this week’s extreme heat.

Among the usual tips for staying cool are drinking cold water, using wet towels to shed heat and staying in the shade. But according to University of Ottawa professor Ollie Jay, whose research explores the body’s heat-loss mechanisms, not all advice is created equal — and drinking cold water might not be the best way to cool down.

“Obviously staying hydrated is important,” Jay says, “but it’s not going to necessarily save you.”

Jay explains that the body has a separate set of heat sensors in the stomach that, when cooled by cold water, actually signal to the body that it is cooler than it really is, inhibiting sweat production. Normally the body loses heat to the cooler outside environment by radiation, but at temperatures above 35 C, the only way the body can cool itself is by sweating — so throttling back this vital system on a hot day can be dangerous. The heat that is lost to the cool water is not enough to cause a net drop in body temperature, and the feeling of having cooled down might cause people to take fewer, more important precautions, such as seeking shade or limiting activity.

Sweating sheds heat by the endothermic (heat-requiring) process of evaporation. Water absorbs heat to turn into vapour, so when a person sweats, that heat comes from his or her skin, lowering the body temperature. If a person isn’t sweating, there is no way for heat to exit the body when it’s hot outside.

“We need to dissipate heat at the same rate that we’re producing it, otherwise we’re in what’s called a ‘heat imbalance,’” says Jay. “Our core temperature (normally about 37 C) starts going up and up and up. If we start reaching 39 C, 40 C, we start experiencing things like heat exhaustion, or eventually heatstroke if that core temperature reaches 41 C or 42 C.”

Heat exhaustion can cause nausea or dizziness and is a sign that the body is getting dangerously hot. Heatstroke can result in unconsciousness or even death. For elderly people, the most serious danger from heatstroke is that the heart goes into overdrive trying to shed heat by pumping blood to the skin’s surface, and this can expose frailties within the heart. For younger people, death by heatstroke could actually mean death by septic shock as the intestines become permeable like a sieve, leaking toxins into the body.

On a sunny day, temperatures in the sun can be 8 C to 10 C warmer than the reported temperature taken in the shade, and there will likely be plenty of places across Ontario and Quebec that will see temperatures well above the body’s natural core temperature of about 37 C. So find some shade, wear breathable clothing and stay hydrated — but maybe skip the ice-cold glass of water.

Who is Gary Goodyear – and why should we fire him?

Gary Goodyear is a chiropractor, family man, and a Christian. He doesn’t believe in evolution. He is not a scientist, and has never published a scientific article. He does have some strong opinions on science, however: this week, his approach to science (as laid out in his statement last week) was elucidated when his colleague*, National Research Council president John R. McDougall said that “Scientific discovery is not valuable unless it has commercial value.”

This is not a rare opinion to hold; lots of people don’t understand the basic premises of scientific research, insofar as some of its most important discoveries, commercial and otherwise, are discovered by accident over the course of “noncommercial” research. And more importantly, some important scientific fields, like conservation biology or deep-space physics, just don’t have a commercial application. So why should we care what some chiropractor thinks about science?

Because Gary Goodyear is in charge of Canadian science – and he was appointed not by other scientists or even by the public. He is an MP, who was appointed by Stephen Harper as the Minister of State (Science and Technology.) This puts him at the head of science for Industry Canada; as you might have guessed, Industry Canada is responsible for our biggest science funding agency, NSERC. And as you might have also guessed, scientific funding in Canada is in big, big trouble.

This week’s comments are just the latest attack on science from this government. In fact, they essentially sum up what many people have been saying all along, which is that this government doesn’t know what science is, or what it does. It’s just annoying witchcraft that keeps buzzing around Harper’s head saying things like “bad idea,” and “environmental destruction,” and “responsible resource development,” and otherwise getting in the way of getting the oil out, now, for cheap. Right now.

Gary Goodyear is only now the most prominent example of why Canada needs to reform how we assign cabinet posts. Why should a chiropractor be able to drop basic science research in favour of what the Toronto Star has called, fittingly, a $900-million subsidy to business? Why should a journalist be in charge of the environment, an accident and injury lawyer in charge of finance, and career politicians be in charge of both national defence and international relations?

Aren’t these jobs better suited to people who know what the consequences of their transparent, politically-driven, shortsighted, and downright stupid actions are?

*Correction: the statement was made by John McDougall, the NRC president, not by Gary Goodyear. McDougall was, however, reiterating what Goodyear said last week, albeit in a much more quotable form. 

Snowshoe hares lose camouflage as climate warms

This is my new post on the Canadian Geographic blog. To check it out in its own natural habitat, click here


At the start of the war in Afghanistan, Canadian troops drew international ridicule when they showed up in the desert equipped with green camouflage designed for forests. Their gear, intended to make the troops blend in with their surroundings, did just the opposite, and brown camouflage uniforms were hastily procured.

According to a new study published in the Journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the Canadian army may not be alone. Some mammals’ camouflage is starting to malfunction as the snow disappears faster than it should each spring and takes longer to appear in the fall. Most notably, snowshoe hares — known for their striking white winter coats and brown summer coats — are struggling to adapt to the changing background colour of their environment.

Under the conditions in which the hares’ camouflage evolved, these animals shed their white winter coats as the snow disappears. But as the timing of seasons strays from historical trends, evolution can’t keep up, and the hares are standing out like sore thumbs. For an animal low on the food chain, this means falling prey more easily.

L. Scott Mills, the primary investigator in the recent University of Montana study, says that this study is just the beginning. Soon other animals, including weasels, foxes and even bird species such as the ptarmigan, could be studied for the same effects.

“There’s no reason that what we find in hares wouldn’t apply to other animals,” he says.

But the pressure to adapt may be higher in a “yummy” animal like a snowshoe hare than in a top predator like the Arctic fox.

“Based on an evolutionary principle called the life-dinner principle, you expect the pressure to adapt to be lower when the consequence of failure is that (the animals) miss a meal rather than die,” he explains.

Over the next few months, Mills’s team will sort through the data to find out whether the hares’ inability to camouflage themselves is costing them their pelts or whether they are able to adapt their behaviour to find other ways of hiding.

“Animals might be able to look down at themselves, see that they aren’t camouflaged and adapt their behaviour,” says Mills. “They might move to a snowy patch or prepare to run away or hide in some bushes.”

One way or another, camouflage strategies will likely be under more and more pressure to adapt over the coming century. According to the study, the number of days of snow cover in western Montana — the location of the study — is predicted to decrease by between 40 and 69 days per year.

The Big Melt and its Global Implications

First published (with some revisions) by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies in their quarterly magazine, Wall Papers. Check it out in pretty, glossy format here.

Photo by Jimmy Thomson

The Arctic Ocean is in the midst of major climatic change, with its once robust sea-ice cover visibly retrenching more and more every year.  As that ice melts, chemistry and circulation patterns are shifting, and scientists are just beginning to understand how serious the consequences may be for the rest of the world’s oceans.

“We have a marine arctic that is not simply passive – it will kick back,” warned Eddie Carmack, Senior Research Scientist Emeritus at Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “It is to our own good to explore effects that might lead to regime changes.”

Dr. Carmack was part of a leading group of Arctic scientists taking part in a 3-day workshop titled, “An Interdisciplinary Assessment of Climate Change Impacts on the Arctic Ocean,” held at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies in May 2012.  The workshop was envisioned by UBC professors Philippe Tortell and Roger Francois as a way to discuss strategies for monitoring the Arctic Ocean that take into account the importance of both terrestrial and oceanic fields of scientific research, and the unexpected rapid pace of changes occurring in the Arctic.

Dr. Carmack described the rapid pace this way.  In 2007, he took to the sea in the “Canada’s Three Oceans” project, traveling by icebreaker along the entire coast of Canada in order to establish a baseline for future effect of climate change. This baseline would be revisited in 2050, or so went the original plan. “It’s changing so fast,” he said, “there are things they can already say.”  Climate change impacts, such as increased stratification, shifts in population structure among plankton and bacteria, and ocean acidification are already becoming apparent in the Arctic.

Dr. Carmack laid out an extremely complex set of findings presented in a series of diagrams that showed how circulations between the world’s oceans interact, and argued that more needs to be explored regarding the biogeochemical distributions in the oceans in order to be able to predict what cascade effects and unintended consequences many of these changes might have. “There is a danger in waiting too long to begin new policies,” he warned.

In addition to Dr. Carmack, researchers traveled from all over the world, covering everything from glacier melt in Greenland to trace metals in estuarine systems in Russia to warming experiments in the Canadian tundra.  Part of the impetus for the workshop was to underscore the importance and cooperation around the new GEOTraces initiative, a monitoring system set up to better understand the changes. With international participation from over 30 nations, GEOTraces collects information on trace metals in the world’s oceans, which can be limiting factors for biological productivity, sources of contamination, or indicators of past and present climate change. The collection of this data requires ship charters, international permits, and a lot of money: some working groups during the conference were therefore devoted to these difficulties facing researchers.

Many of the researchers pointed out, like Dr. Carmack did, that the Arctic is “not just about bears, pteropods, and seals, it’s about the people.” To that end, the workshop also featured a public panel, appropriately titled, “The Big Melt” at the Vancouver Aquarium. Moderated by former Yukon premier Tony Penikett, the panel discussion featured Dr. Carmack alongside UBC Professors Michael Byers from Political Science and Candis Callison from the School of Journalism. All of the panelists, each coming from a different angle, nevertheless had much in the way of common ground: the need for more international cooperation, inclusion of northern communities, and proper communication of these issues to the public were all expressed.

According to Dr. Callison, science can often only be expressed to the public by portraying it in human terms.

“Facts and information become meaningful when they intersect with ethical and moral codes,” she explained. “After listening to an Inuit person talk about changes they’ve witnessed, passing climate change as a somehow normal and natural occurrence is not possible.”

Encouraging interaction between scientists from a diversity of nations, in conferences such as this one, is a valuable part of the process of bringing the world’s northern nations together to address the multitude of changes occurring in the Arctic.

As Dr. Byers noted, “an organization is only as important as the people in the room.” Conferences like this are a vital step in continuing to bring important people into the room to advance the international dialogue regarding arctic climate change, and the international gathering was representative of the way forward in understanding its future impacts.