Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Why do dalmations have spots?

This was from Son's Highlight's magazine, but it's an interesting question to me because it involves evolution, though not exactly as Darwin imagined it nor exactly as it works over eons to produce humans from mice. As you read this, remember that I am not a biologist.

Basically, because people like the genetic mutation that make some dalmations spotted, people breed spotted dalmations more than dalmations with splotches. Aside: Of course, such inbreeding eventually leads to excessive genetic problems. In the case of dalmations, "purebreds" are very likely to experience the dog equivalent of kidney stones.

So, what does this have to do with evolution. This is basically microevolution.

In this case, we have a particular genetic mutation (spots vs. splotchs) and a particular desire for spots by would-be purchasers, the "environmental stress" is effected by the breeders choosing to breed only those dogs with desirable spot patterns. Over time, in the population of dalmations that are bred in this way, there will be fewer and fewer dalmations born with splotchs rather than spots.

This is a very simplified example of evolution, with a million problems. Get over it. Evolution is fact.

I've been somewhat combative in my recent posts, including this one. I should (and do) apologize to you few loyal readers.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Paper Money

This is a rant.

The conversation went something like this:

Son: "Dad, we should stop buying things because they cut down trees to make money."

Dad (thinking): "Damn straight. We should stop buying things for that and many, many other reasons."

Dad (saying): "Well, we usually spend money through computers, so we don't use very much paper money. But, you're right, we should not buy as much as we do."

The point is that my six-year-old son is more concerned about the future of his planet that the morons who are ruining it. And, while I usually directly relate childishness with big businesses and their cronies in DC, this time it seems even a child has more forethought. "Go shopping" indeed.

So, now that we allowed eight years of obstructionism by the big energy lobby and short-sightedness by the rest of the Senate during Clinton's administration and eight years of head-in-the-sand myopia by the Bush administration, we've got less than ten years to decrease our CO2 production by 80%. Ten years, and we haven't even begun to agree on its necessity.

"I'm sorry, son. We thought it was more important that people be able to continue shopping like they always have."

I want to end this post on a higher note, so I'm linking to a blogger who is doing her little bit by writing to her congresscritters.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Livestock as Industry: No Way To Make it Work

I've been reading a lot about various global climate change causes and implications recently because I've been asked to talk to a local high school chemistry class about energy and sustainability. Most of what I want to talk about I can't because of time limitations. I'm going to rant here instead.

In looking at dust storm activity in the US Southwest, I came across this paper (PDF).

It discusses the impacts of multi-decadal grazing on soil properties in southeast Utah. Basically, the point is that over-grazing does a few things to the soil:
  1. It destroys the cyanobacteria, lichens, and mosses in the upper part of the soil. This causes loss of nitrogen in the soil. As you all know, nitrogen fixing is necessary for the generation of proteins and DNA, and is therefore necessary for life. When the nitrogen fixing stops, the soil loses its life-sustaining capabilities. Nitrogen levels in the grazed soils vs. the ungrazed soils was 60-70% less.
  2. Carbon, another essential ingredient for life is decreased by 60-70% as well.
  3. The loss of life on these soils allows wind erosion to increase dramatically, which reduces the amount of Mg, Na, P, and Mn by 14-51% (different for the different elements).
  4. Silts are decreased by 38-43%.
Basically, nutrients of all kinds are lost from these grazed lands. It's been 30 years since the last cow was grazed there, and the lands have not recovered; cyanobacteria takes at least 100 years to recover.

What does this mean for climate change? Well, for one, the loss of nutrients to erosion makes the drylands of Utah more sensitive to small variations in moisture variability. What was once considered a dry spell will be a drought. Higher sensitivity to rainfall will also quickly cause decreases in plant life. Plants, bacteria, mosses, lichen, etc. are what keep the nutrients available to...feed life. A decrease in one causes a positive feedback loop that eventually causes a loss of both.

What happens once the plant life is mostly gone? Winds remove the nutrients. You get massive dust storms as seen here. So, what? It's just a little wind, it's not like that has ever hurt anyone.

So what happens is you get this:

Aww... The poor skiiers have to ski on dirty snow. So, what?

Dirty snow is darker snow. Darker snow absorbs more sunlight and melts earlier. Early melting of snow can have many affects, but most importantly, it changes the timing of when meltwater is available to downstream plants and animals. If the plants are not yet ready to receive the water, they'll die off.

Here's a great article on how changing climate and specifically changing of timing in the climate affects creatures in differing ways. Go read it now. I'll wait. Seriously. Go!

Basically, it turns out that some plants and animals time their various activities based on temperature while others time their activities on available sunlight. So, some creatures/plants will peak earlier than they used to while their migratory predators show up late to the party because their sunlight- or other time-based clocks are out of sync with the climate.

Early meltwater running (and necessarily less on-time meltwater) will dramatically affect the creatures that depend on it and the creatures that depend on them, and the creatures that depend on... ad nauseum.

So, can't they just evolve to deal with it? Sure, if they have several tens of thousands of years.

This is the entire problem with human-induced climate change. Things are changing too quickly for most life to adapt. Sure, eventually it'll figure itself out, with likely only a few surviving species and a few new, unrecognizable species, but it's going to be a bleak, bleak place if we don't get our heads out of our asses soon.

2 degrees C of warming is going to push us to the tipping point with no room for error after that; we have less than a decade to figure that out and to do something about it.

What does all of this have to do with livestock? They're unsustainable. The only way eating beef makes sense is if you own 80 or 100 acres of grassland (that's nowhere in the southwest--those are not grasslands, they're drylands.) and have a single cow and calf. Then, it still doesn't make sense to eat the cow when you can get dairy from it. Eating beef from large (in number of head) ranches doesn't make sense at all, whether they're grassfed or cornfed. Grazing livestock (beef) in the way we've been doing for the last 100 years or so is simply not sustainable and it is killing the drylands of the mid- and southwest.

Monday, May 4, 2009

How far can a Dandelion Spore Travel?

When I arrived home from work, my son was raiding the dandelions in the back yard. He was doing what we all did at six: blowing the spores off and making a wish when he cleared the stem. Of course I joined him. After watching the spores float around the yard, he asked me how far can one of them go.

Happily, the intertubes were not too clogged that evening and I managed to find a few research articles on this very subject (yay, Google Scholar!). I have the sneaking suspicion that the scientists who do this work are just looking for excuses to lay on the grass making wishes with their children. Here's a likely manuscript title (Tackenberg et al): "Dandelion Seed Dispersal: The Horizontal Wind Speed Does Not Matter for Long-Distance Dispersal - it is Updraft!" The conclusion in this paper is that for a dandelion seed to go 100 meters or more (long distance by their definition), updraft is the dominant factor. In slight contrast, some (PDF, Stephenson et al.) other (Greene) authors report that the wind speed required to remove similar seeds from the stalk is an important factor. The Stephenson article also considers 100 meters to be a long distance for seeds to travel, so while I suspect that some 4- or 5-sigma seeds can travel into the upper troposphere and thus very long distances it seems that most seeds of this type only travel 100 meters or so.

I had expected that the seeds would make it further than that.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Merck, Elsevier and Dishonesty in Science

The drug giant Merck and the publishing giant Elsevier apparently colluded to defraud the public by publishing a fake journal that only contained "articles" that were summaries of or full "papers" that cast Merck in a positive light.

I don't think there's much that can be said that hasn't already.

I'll be doing my best not to publish in any Elsevier journal from now on; I don't know if I can avoid it (they're everywhere), but...ugh. What disgusting behavior.