Tag Archives: climate change

View from “The Last Frontier”

Even though I like my creature comforts, Alaska has become one of my favorite spots on Earth. I’m drawn to extremes– snowy mountains next to ocean, days of endless light (or none at all), seemingly suicidal salmon hurtling up waterfalls. Bald eagles appear at every turn in the road– landing on the eaves of local shops, the Alaskan equivalent of pigeons. And the moose– who couldn’t love these massive beasts that meander from remote forests to backyards across the state.

When I visit cities, I’m awed by human civilization and culture, but in Alaska I marvel at pure nature completely separate from human beings. But despite its beauty and otherness, humans are inextricably linked to it, both by our care and our carelessness. (The Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward is an amazing facility– funded by money paid out after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989.)

In June, we went back, this time with our 7-month-old son. He won’t remember this trip, but traveling with him reminded me of my responsibilities, as a witness and a steward of the Earth he and his generation will inherit. I hope that the wild beauty of this last frontier will still be available to him when he’s old enough to appreciate it. Will Aialik glacier– receding at a quarter mile per year– be there when he goes back? Already crippled by accumulated contaminants, will the transient orcas be extinct? Will there be enough ice for walruses and polar bears?

Though no one person can wrap a protective cocoon around these natural wonders, I can focus on these pictures and hold their beauty close to my heart. And drinking in that remote wilderness reminds me that a rich, green world sits right outside my door, waiting for me to come outside and explore.

Photo credits: Sarah Webb, Feature image: Kachemak Bay and Homer, AK

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Another online project: Bracing for Impact, reported by Flux

In case you were wondering, Webb of Science hasn’t disappeared, but I have been busy with a variety of other projects. The Science Writers’ Handbook website continued to publish regularly through December, and I had a baby boy in October.

In addition,  I was part of a team of reporters (named Flux) who launched a crowdfunded reporting project (Bracing for Impact) looking at how communities are responding to and preparing for climate change. We started publishing stories in August, and we’ll be wrapping up our initial run this month. We used the brand new Beacon platform, specifically designed for journalists.

Our leader, Virginia Gewin, wrote a blog post describing “The Experiment” back in July. Crowdfunding is hard work. I have a whole new appreciation for the fund drives on public radio and television, and an awe and respect for artists, journalists, and others who are routinely supporting their work in this way.

At the same time it’s incredibly freeing to be able to create a new project and direct its path without having to make stories fit the exact specifications of an existing publication. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, and publishing with this great group of colleagues has sharpened my reporting and editing skills.

I wrote three stories for the project (Some stories may be behind Beacon’s paywall.):

Photo by Sarah Webb, reservoir in Clayton County, Georgia

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Molecule of the Week: Water

Rippling water drop, copyright iStockphoto.com/deliormanli
Rippling water drop, copyright iStockphoto.com/deliormanli

It’s been a rainy week in New York City, and my office next to our front porch and my container garden has me thinking about that ubiquitous wetness. It’s been soaking my plants, and after a quick errand on Friday afternoon, its dampness lurked for hours on the hem of my jeans.

It’s easy to take the wonder of water for granted because it’s everywhere, but its physical properties are anything but ordinary. Almost all solids of any substance are more dense than their liquid counterparts. But if ice were more dense than liquid water, ice cubes wouldn’t float in cool drinks on a summer day. Ice wouldn’t freeze at the tops of cold lakes (no ice skating), and polar ice caps would be more like suboceanic ice cushions. If water were a normal liquid, the Earth would look really weird.

Water molecule, via Wikipedia/Booyabazooka
Water molecule, via Wikipedia/Booyabazooka

The molecule itself is bent, lending hexagonal elegance to snowflakes. In a liquid the molecules glom to each other, not quite like superglue. But that watched pot (that seemingly never boils) needs lots of energy to release water into steam.

For those of us who’ve built molecules for a living, water is often our enemy, something that can get in the way and keep the right components from getting together. But Nature incorporates water beautifully, using the molecule as a structural tool and as a critical player in the reactions that make life work. Forced to take some tricks from Nature in my own graduate work (my highly charged molecules wouldn’t dissolve in any other solvent), working in water was like learning a related foreign language. I learned some basic grammar and vocabulary, but fluency of water chemistry is a challenge beyond the synthetic lab. By Nature’s standards, I was, perhaps, third rate.

I missed the AMNH’s exhibit on Water when it was in NYC (but I think it’s still touring, check your local science museum). As climates change, ice melts, sea levels rise, more intense storms brew in the oceans, water sits at the heart of the environmental challenge. According to the World Health Organization, as of 2002, nearly 20 percent of the world’s population didn’t have access to healthy, sanitized drinking water supplies.

Three atoms hooked together connect to the inner workings of life, health, the environment and public policy.

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Science, Journalism and Inform-vs-Educate

Almost 6 years ago, I attended a conference of scientists and communicators about issues of communicating global warming to the general public.  At that point I was still wearing my graduate student hat and was still learning the ropes of science writing. The issues related to global warming and the public were different– this was before An Inconvenient Truth, and folks were genuinely worried that no one was believing the growing body of science showing that the Earth’s climate was indeed changing, and probably not for the better.

Though I learned a lot that week, the discussion that sticks most vividly in my mind doesn’t specifically relate to climate, but the role that journalists play in that process. When it came down to the question of whose job it was to educate the public about climate change, many of the experienced journalists in the room had a violent, seemingly knee-jerk reaction: “My job isn’t to educate. My job is to inform.”

My scientist-turning-journalist brain did a 180. Huh? I hadn’t come across this cultural tidbit before. I listened for a while and even chimed in at a couple of points. At the time– even though I disagreed– I thought maybe I was just naive and, perhaps, I might come to the same conclusion as these veterans once I had been a working science journalist for a while. But, no, I still disagree, but my understanding of the issues is now more nuanced.

In part, I think the problem is boiling it down to the words inform and educate. In many cases, part of the friction that can sometimes come when a scientist-educator talks to a journalist-informer. A couple of years ago, A Blog Around the Clock described that divide:

The scientists want to educate.

The journalists want to inform (if not outright entertain, or at least use entertaining hooks in order to inform).

There is a difference between the two goals. The former demands accuracy. The latter demands relevance. As long as both parties are aware of the existence of two disparate goals, there is a possibility of conversation that can lead to an article that satisfies both goals, thus both participants.

That defines the divide. Journalists have to find relevance and a connection that convinces their audience to read what they’ve written. Scientists sometimes want us to write about information that, while important to their grand vision, may not be relevant to the individual story that we’re trying to tell.

But the problem is that science journalists rarely ever have the opportunity to simply inform, even if that is their stated goal. Even if we have an easy news hook of extending human life, possible life on Mars, or the newest iPhone-type gadget strapped to your thumb, we constantly have to define, explain and educate the public about the nuts and bolts of what we’re writing about. Does a sports reporter have to explain a free throw, a home run, or an ace? Do political reporters have to give a two sentence description of how the Supreme Court works every time we have a new nominee? Generally not– but I can’t write a general news story and use the word protein, DNA or cell without somehow explaining what those words mean and why they’re important.

So, I’ve always considered that part of my role is to educate. Part of that is  my scientific training. Part of that is that I worked in a hands-on science museum and watched kids explore the joy of science. The reason that I do what I do is to make science fun, interesting, useful and relevant to broader society. But to do that, I provide context and connections, the education within the relevant plot points that justify “why now?”

So, I will always embrace education in my work. But I also recognize that I’ve often done my job best when the educator is wearing an invisibility cloak.

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