27 January 2010

Atavistic or posh?

Both! I guess.
Getting out of your quite 20th century car and getting onto a horse that, logistically speaking, is more of a medieval thing, might not only mean moving back in time, but perhaps also moving up on the social ladder. This is England, you know. Anyway. Fairly out of the blue one of the PhD students, Sally, asked me if I felt like coming along for a ride on the Moors. And yes I did! So today was going to be the day. Which started early; first I had to deliver my last century vehicle at the garage for MOT. Scary. I didn't think it would pass just like that. I hope it will pass without the necessary repairs and replacements costing more than 1.5 times the entire car. But I'll find out about that later.

The view while biking back from te garage was not bad!

So in the crisp afternoon I got out of Sally's 21st century automobile, changed into riding trousers and -boots, filled in a detailed form (this is England, you know!), tried to borrow a helmet that was big enough, and eagerly awaited the horse they had picked for me. They showed up with a goodlooking, but lazy, 8 year old chap by the name of Burnfoot. They first wanted to see how skilled I was on horseback, so they let me ride around a bit. Burnfoot, a Higlander, has a nice gait, which is expected from that kind of big-bottomed stocky hairy-hoofed horse, but won't run a meter more than strictly necessary. Ah well. I somehow managed to remember how it was approximately done, and got approval!

Left Sally and Callum, and to the right Burnfoot and me! Me on horseback,  sight that had not been seen in a while....

So off we went! Onto the amazing moors. Fairly calmly; I was used to racing away. Horses that are for rent tend to be quite eager to get out of the dusty indoor hall and out onto the fields. And on the Dutch sandy beaches, for instance, they can race away. Here the canters would not last longer than a few 100m at best, but I still had a blast. Lovely people, endearing horse, good weather (even though we got blown out of our riding clothes on the hilltops and crests), beautiful surroundings... not bad. Wanna go again! And I think they'll trust me with a slightly less sluggish horse next time. The only problem is that it would be nicest to go with Sally, but she always goes during the week, and Roland is not amused a the thought of me trotting off in the middle of a working day... we'll see!

26 January 2010

Slave in a cave

I was half the country away. The roads were icy! Richard had not gotten my text message. Everything worked together to keep me above ground for weeks and weeks on end. But not anymore! This time Richard got my message that I wanted to come caving, and unhesitantly hastened to Buckfast to rescue me from nonsubterraneousness. It was just us! But that is enough for some testing of my hardly tried new slave flash. We tried Dog Hole first, but we turned out not to have the key with us to the part where we intended to go. So after some flashed pictures we went to Prid instead, and flashed away there too. I need more practice! But some pics were not bad at all.

25 January 2010


What I'm doing here on the blog, with "popular science", is almost redundant. It's all been done before, and done better! The problem is, it's just like everything else on the internet: there's so much, it can be a pain to try to find exactly what you're looking for. But Roelof came up with a brilliant link! To some sort of blog where they address the most common questions asked by climate skeptics. Amazing! I haven't had time yet to go through it all, but what I saw looked robust. Try it! Here.

24 January 2010

Escape from science

I'm spending a lot of time in the lab these days. And I'm pondering a lot of science in my spare time. But I need some fresh air too, sometimes. So I managed to escape to Dartmoor again! This time I accidentally chose a fairly boring part, but still, it freshens up your head, and you always find nice photo opportunities anyway. So here a small gallery of Margot Plays Outside!

Of course I couldn't resist water!

One could call it natural art

Dartmoor is a grim place, where Death rules!

A Norwegian-like picture is essential

Fun with the timer

Dignified locals

I found an old mining railroad!

The other CO2 problem

CO2 is a greenhouse gas. But not only that! It's the fizz in your soda as well. Leave a bottle of coke behind the window on a summer day and you may just find yourself in the position to be confronted with the fact that the coke degasses. Messily, sometimes.

The ocean is one big fizzy drink as well. There's an equilibrium with how much CO2 you have in the atmosphere, and how much in ocean water. Good riddance, perhaps? The oceans as massive carbon sink? Some people say that if you could just stir the oceans a bit faster you'd have dealt with so much of the CO2 problem. Just toss it in the deep sea. And you need the stirring, as it now takes about 1000 years to mix the whole lot, and we're exhausting so much on so much smaller time scales.

But is it gone when it's under water? Of course not. And not only because the greenhouse effect warms up the oceans, which diminishes their uptake capacity of CO2. Also because it does not stop affecting us when it’s out of sight.

If you dissolve more CO2 in water it becomes more acidic. Acids dissolve calcium carbonate, and there's lots of that in the oceans. Think plankton. Think corals. The situation would be that at the surface, the oceans were supersaturated with respect to calcite, which means that if you were a little planktic creature you could just make a calcite skeleton. No probs . If you would go deeper and deeper the pressure would at some point get so high that this was no longer the case, and calcium carbonate dissolves. In the deep sea, the sediments at the sea bottom tend to be white; just dead plankton. But not where the sea is too deep: there it would be red or brown or black; just clay and dust and other non-organic crap. How deep would be depending on things like the age of prevailing water, and the temperature of it.

Lots of califying plankton. A part of this will end up on the sea floor. Picture taken from: http://www.panda.org/what_we_do/where_we_work/arctic/what_we_do/marine/barents/biodiversity/plankton/3D1I7SKPB_en%26um%3D1

Drill a core at a strategic place in the deep sea, and you'll see white sediment for meters and meters. And then, suddenly: bam! Red. Which after a few decimeter fades back to white. What happened? For some reason we're not yet entirely sure of, climate went kabloing 55 million years ago. Probably gas hydrates played a role in it. It got hot! High CO2 levels! Much higher than now! And, of course, a mass extinction. Climate skeptics sometimes say that climate has behaved wilder than it does now. And they are right. 55 million years ago is a good example. And true, life recovered from it. Still I don’t see that as a reason to invoke a mass extinction event ourselves.

Ocean acidification in the fossil record. Notice the picture is taken from the top of the core sections. Picture taken from: www.es.ucsc.edu/~jzachos/projects.html

Anyways. The sediments abruptly turning red was caused by ocean acidification. About 50% of benthic foraminifera (these critters I study, and then specifically those living on the sea floor) got extinct. And that event took at least 10.000 years to kick in. Countless many generations of any life form. Plenty of time to adapt, you'd think. Evidently not.

I already spoke of atmospheric CO2 levels being much higher now than in the previous millions of years. For about 1 million we just know because of air bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice. For going back you need indirect measures. And for this specific topic, ocean acidification, we have, amongst other things, boron isotopes. The data is not rock hard, but so far it looks like for the last 25 million years the oceanic pH levels have not been beyond what they have been since we've had the glacial cycle. So what we're doing now is way beyond anything most marine life forms have ever seen before.

The depth at which calcium carbonate dissolves is creeping up; in the North Pacific, for example, a 150 m rise had already been found in 1981. I have to mention as well that this is much; in most areas it is not as bad as that. And at the surface any organism that so desires can still calcify away, but with pH levels dropping it's not as easy as it was. Plankton skeletons are increasingly light, and increasingly often deformed.

I found a great picture of affected algae, but I think they're copyrighted. Look for yourself:

And this is my cue to stop talking about plankton. If you want people to care you have to come up with something sexy! And here it comes. Corals are extra sensitive to ocean acidity. There’s two common types of calcium carbonate: calcite and aragonite, and the latter is 50% more soluble than the first. Corals are aragonitic. They are in trouble as it is, but it could be worse. Acidify the oceans simply by pumping the atmosphere full of CO2, or even on purpose to undo just that, and the corals are the first to go. And corals are not fluffy and don't have large moist eyes, but they are generally considered beautiful. And we in the rich west love to go diving. And preferably in areas where there's more to see under the water than sand. What is most popular? Of course. Coral reefs.

Another sexy thing is money. With higher acidity species like mussels and oysters have difficulty growing. At fairly reasonable CO2 levels you already get a 25% or 10%, respectively, growth reduction. And there are acid resistant species that will take over where the original species disappear, but that process tends not to lead to interesting ecosystems. We all know the stinging nettle forests that often pop up where man has been rooting around.

From: www.coralreefinfo.com/

And not only that. get rid of calcifying plankton, and you've ripped a large part of the base out from underneath the marine food chain. No more fish! No more whales and cute playful dolphins. Nobody wants that.

Since the glacial cycle, CO2 levels have roughly varied between 180 ppm in ice ages to 280 in interglacials. A transition between the two takes about 10.000 years. Now we've kicked it up to 385 in 100 years. And don’t assume that means we’ll need another 100 years to reach 490; the rise accelerates. In the last 10 years we’ve seen a ~20 ppm increase. And we don’t know how fast this will go… everybody knows inhabitants of countries like India and China can’t wait to go exhaust as much as we do.

And we’re still talking timescales of decades; many life cycles of dumb algae and rigid corals, but would it be enough? Modelling indicates that with any reasonable scenario, you’ll lose all aragonite in the Southern Ocean by 2100. Losing all calcification on that timescale is not very plausible. But if we keep on accelerating pollution, and not even unrealistically fast, we’ll have managed even that in only 200 years more. We will be forgotten by that time if it would come to that.

But as I said, corals are more vulnerable. In the last 16 years, a 20% growth drop has already taken place. If you just count acidity, you’d have a 40% reduction with atmospheric CO2 levels of 560ppm. But this won’t come alone; if you take the concomitant temperature rise in consideration, and such factors, you probably lose them already at 450-500 ppm. And I think I’ll live to see that! Ocean acidification, coming to a sea near YOU!

22 January 2010

Margot's science outreach goes freestyle!

Since Durham nothing has been the same! Science communication is shadowing me. And some of it is a coincidence; last week I showed Neil my forams, which probably illustrated my geekiness more than it did the state of the art of climate science, but still, it was bringing science to a lay audience. Tuesday I got to see our local hero Iain Stewart on the TV for the first time, watching "How Earth Made Us". Brilliant! I'm fan. Not much climate, but lots of relevant geology. The guy has an amazing job. And I knew that; in my first week Roland and I bumped into him in the pub, and Roland introduced me, and within minutes he was telling me about having been in Tromso and on Svalbard just weeks before. But for this series he goes to places you really can't imagine.

Thursday I had lunch with a neuropsychologist (is that the correct term, TV-psycholoog?), who turned out to be massively interested in the climate debate. I think we'll have lunch more often. He sounded like I was the first climate scientist he'd bumped into in this town.

A completely unrelated thing that isn't the same anymore: my street got its streetlight back! It had been blown over in typical English autumn weather, but now we've got a replacement! A trifle, perhaps, but it's not easy coming up with nice decorative pictures for such theoretical postings...

And got two (2!) letters from my sister already! With lots of environmental pondering in them. It looked like I had a hand in getting her to contemplate such things. And a certain non-coincidence was Roland sending me a link to a much more scientific blog, by another Durham participant. Read it! No irrelevant bullshit about somebody's personal life. Just climate discussion. That bloke should have been on the panel instead of me.

And on wednesday (when I initially would have lunch with the psychologist, but I shoved him to the day after) there was a talk about ocean acidification. Interesting! And the lady managed to bring it well. And then I wondered if I should perhaps say something about it on the blog. I've never worked on it myself, but still, I would probably know much more about it than the average lexicologist, psychologist, or lawyer, just to name some professions. And the words of Antony and Iain, spoken during that fateful discussion in Durham, rang in my head. If lay people want to know something that's not your specialism, answer them anyway! You're a climate scientist, what they get from you is better than what they get from most. Nobody will have the patience to be redirected to the real expert, and beside that, the real expert may not have time or be willing to answer. So I should not hesitate to speak of ocean acidification! And I am aware that nobody asked anything about it, but that may just be due to unfamiliarity with the topic. Let’s do something about that!

One tiny matter is that I managed to already produce a tonne of text without even starting. I think I'll turn that into a separate blogpost, and having written this will haunt me until I've delivered! Stay tuned!

20 January 2010

Useless toys

...light, please!
Would that commercial for soda water have been international? The hot babe that says the above, upon which a dozen sharklike men immediately present her a lit lighter. Yet what she wants is a glass of low caloric beverage.

 I want neither. I wanted to be able to make beautiful pictures in foggy caverns. And how does one do that? With a slave flash. Preferrably several, but one has to start somewhere. And I got one! But to no immediate avail: this week the caving trip was cancelled due to insufficient parttakers. Crap.

The good news with that is that I got some time to test it in civilized surroundings. If you're not yet fully familiar with all the switches and settings of a new, hi-tech toy, maybe a claustrophobic, terribly muddy cave is not the place to do something about that. So I started out in my living room.

The flash is too powerful! Even at its most modest setting it blasts the whole room so full of white light there is no room for much else. So I tried outside. And at its most modest blast it lit up the whole house.Aiming it into the hedge gave a fairly charming effect.

It will be quite a challenge to get that thing safely through the muddy, squeezy tunnels of Pridhamsleigh, but if I manage that I'm certain I can blast that cave into submission! I look forward to it. Goodbye to pictures that mostly show water vapour!

18 January 2010

Geologists rock

If someone chooses you as an object of study, should you worry? Not always! Who would have thought that earth scientists are the object of cognitive studies. We apparently are so damn important that there is a whole field of science dedicated to finding out how we manage to be so downright amazing. Geocognition!

There was a talk announced about it. I looked up the subject and speaker: Heather Petcovic, Western Michigan University,which is, and I'm not joking, located in Kalamazoo. I decided that it could go either in the direction of woolly twaddle, or something really interesting. I took the chance. And it was fun! I'm still fairly confused about the existence of this discipline, but it's great to hear of the results. Especially as it's quite flattering! The lady described her research project, that aimed to figure out things like how geoscientists of various stages in their career rate regarding knowledge of earth sciences (important!), general spatial insight, memory capacity, and such. And later they let them do fieldwork, and figured out who performs how well and how they achieve that. Interesting!

The reassuring thing was: earth sciences know a lot abot earth science. Pfieuw! Good start. And then. It seems we don't have special memory skills. Ah well. But the spatial skills! They had measured them using a standard test, used worldwide, and when the results came in the researchers fell of their chairs. We rock! You may worship us now. And the good thing is: it doesn't get worse with age, even though with non-geoscientists it does.

A funny thing was that they had a test where people were shown block diagrams. Some made sense as schematic representations of geological structures, and others didn't. After a few of these they had to draw them from memory. Disappointingly enough, the geoscientists did not beat the non-geoscientists there. In the geologically nonsensical ones, nor in the geological ones. But they were fast. And, admittedly, sloppy. And if they were not sure they gave up quickly. But they tended to redraw the nonsense diagrams in a more geologically sensible way. We see what we want to see! We're only human.
The fieldwork test consisted of a small geological mapping exercise, where all subjects were tracked by GPS. Their tracks were characterised by things like: how fast did they go, how often did they stop, how long did they stop, how often did they cross their own path, how much running up and down slopes did they do, how long did they stay in the field... The maps they produced were overlain by their tracks, and the researchers looked for correlations between these parameters, their level of expertise, and the quality of their maps. Brilliant! Field work studied. And there was not one best way of gong about, but there were some strategies that exclusively led to crap results. Too bad there were not many fieldwork supervising staff members in the audience!
Maybe for non-science geeks it's normal that there are other people studying who you are and how you do your job, and how, perhaps, that can be improved, but for me it's new. I like it!

17 January 2010


More blood, always more blood! Blood banks never have enough. In Amsterdam the blood bank welcomed me and sent me letters asking me to please drag along my family members. And I have more than enough, so inspired by Neil who always feels the need to tell me when he goes out to donate (would he be an undercover recruiter?) I went to the Give Blood website, to see if they would accept me as a donor, and if so; where, when and how I could go and leave half a litre of bodily fluids behind. The website is full of persuading messages ("96% of us rely on the other 4% to give blood. Please don’t leave it to someone else"), and also features a "can I give blood?" online test. Which I did. Was I between 17 and 65? Yes. Did I suffer from all kinds of horrible diseases? No. Was I, or did I maintain sexual relationships with, a dirty needle toting prostitute? No. All good. Had I been outside the UK within the last 12 months? Yes. Kablang! No, we do not want your blood. Go away. What?

I expected questions on whether I had spent months on end in areas ravaged by malaria or denggue or whatnot, or perhaps only had spent a few calm responsible days on the other side of the Channel, and that their assessment would depend on my answers to that. No such thing. Rejected! I couldn't believe my eyes, so I did it again. I actually did that test 3 times and indeed, that's just what happens: outside the UK is out. Just like that. Which is silly, as once you're a donor they don't care if you travel abroad, as long as you steer clear from certain hazardous jungles. So why this? Why discourage everyone who goes abroad at least once a year, which would, wild guess, be 90% of the population within the desired age group, if they express their wish to donate blood online? Very strange. I thought it was so strange I gave feedback on the website. We'll see! I don't think they'll change this because some belligerent Dutch girl who likes to think she's camping on the moral high ground bothered to nag about it, but we'll see if they get back to me. And it's not the blood bank's web designer who suffers if I turn my back on them, so I think I'll get back to them, but damn, why did they come up with that in the first place? I hope they respond, explaining it's just a bug in the software, or something like that...

Random late afternoon picture taken around the corner

16 January 2010

Wave of executiveness

I think I'm starting another blogpost with a non-existent word. English doesn't have enough of them! Many people try to convince me it's the language with the biggest vocabulary that there is (impossible to check, evidently, but that rarely stops people from having convictions) but whether it does or not: it needs more. Stuart was one of the few who wasn't impressed either; "doldrums and aporias around every corner", is how he described it. But this all is beside the point. I was feeling executive!

My kitchen had been a mess for a while, with only one garbage bin while Plymouth splits its waste in two, a big pile of muddy caving-related stuff, and a plethora of worn out moving boxes. My desk was completely covered by my old monitor. Is that good? No! What does one need to do? Get rid of it! And I'm a complete non-talent at trowing things away, and the size, weight and nature of the boxes and the monitor meant transport needed to be performed by car, and I don't like driving, especially on a saturday, but I managed to kick myself violently enough in the procrastinating bum. So I loaded up the car and went! Impressing myself immensely.

The recycling centre itself is not immensely impressive

Tossing things away cleared up but did not solve the issue of piles of whatnot on my kitchen floor. So I unwaveringly hastened to a second hand shop and got me a piece of furniture that looked like it was made for dangling muddy garments from, and a waste basket. And they're in place now! My kitchen is so tidy and organised. More vuxenpoang again, but I think these are to be enjoyed. Or is a cupboard especially for muddy garments not a grown-up thing to have? And know I write this post at my empty desk!

Ta-daa! A real lady's kitchen.

parallel planes

It's no surprise there's so many books and movies about portals to other worlds, and people suddenly ending up in a completely different life. Think Narnia. And it's so logical because we surf from plane to plane all the time. Live role players know all about it, for example. But on a more modest scale it works too. I live, for instance, on the science plane, and in the blogosphere, and somewhere out there in the mud. But I got somewhat stuck on the science plane.

Conferences tend to boost your enthusiasm about your work. So many interesting things being done! So many ideas of what you can do with your samples and your data! So many lovely people you turn out to work with, from a distance!

I came home, eager to continue with the Icenad samples, and eager to start with the Isle of Wight samples, and eager to spread the word much wider. The blog already bears witness to that last emotion. So into the lab I dived, and onto the blog I threw the layman's summary of my first article. That article, of course, was about my monsoon work, not all of which is published. So the spark set me on fire, and before I knew it I was working on the one last unpublished manuscript again. And I had been working on a Barents Sea manuscript just before leaving. And now all of it is rolling. I'm doing three jobs at the same time now! So not much time for other things...

So no new blogposts since the science outreach. Due to a cancelled trip no caving trip to blog about. A goodbye to Louise, but that's more for us who will miss her than for the blog. Well. With a bit of luck this wave will hit publication shore soon, and then I may be spotted again on the other available planes. I will do my best!

10 January 2010

Margot's science outreach!

A few blogposts before ("Science and the general public") I promised to translate my published articles into something my blog readers, who may well have been the taxpayers on whom this all depends, can understand. And here it is: part I of Margot Leaves Esotery! And that word doesn't exist but it should. Anyways. Enjoy the user friendly version of what otherwise is called "Saher, M. H., S. J. A. Jung, H. Elderfield, M. J. Greaves, and D. Kroon (2007), Sea surface temperatures of the western Arabian Sea during the last deglaciation, Paleoceanography, 22, PA2208, doi:10.1029/2006PA001292."

There's glacials and interglacials, and they swap positions in a regular, predictable way, all over the globe, right? Just to name something: Salle Kroonenberg needs no more than 5 pages in his book "de menselijke maat" to reach the stage where he sees the need to point such a thing out. So we're in an interglacial now, we know how that happened, and we know when and how we will enter the next ice age. Or do we?

The whole idea of ice ages and interglacials is a fairly recent thing. If you have a damn long record of something that is an indication of climate you tend to have quite a mess until roughly 2 million years ago, when a fairly regular cycle appeared. Ice ages and interglacials came and went with a roughly 40.000 year period, the same frequency with which the Earth's tilt changes. That went on for quite a while, until roughly a million years ago, when the period changed to ~100.000 years, the frequency with which the Earth's orbit's ellipticity changes. This change is not yet entirely explained. Anyway, we've now had that new cycle for a while, and it's not particularly regular. It's not expected to be, really, as the earth is quite a complex system. There's lots of positive and negative feedback systems, there's chaos, there's all sorts of stuff to complicate things. Luckily some influences are well-known and predictable, most pronounced being the astronomical cycles. Check wikipedia in case you want a bit of an elaboration on them. I mentioned two already: eccentricity (ellipticity of the orbit) and obliquity (tilt). There's precession, too, and eccentricity is actually two cycles, the other one having a period of ~400.000 years. All these cycles matter, even though the 100.000 year cycle has been dominant for a while now. But we've hardly been through two periods of the (longer) eccentricity cycle, so it's difficult to really see how cyclic this cycle really is.

The present is key to the past, and the past is key to the future, as Lyell said. (At least he said half of that.) In order to understand the cycle we have to look back at previous interglacials, and the easiest one, of course, is the previous one. You don't have to drill too deep in order to get to these sediments, and they only had ~125.000 years to suffer from all sorts of disturbing processes that blur the signal. The best interglacial, however, is one three periods before that one, 400.000 years ago, as that one had all the astronomical cycles more or less the same as they are now. The previous interglacial does not at all have that. And as said before, we can hardly claim that what happens in a previous interglacial gives a solid guarantee on what will happen now, but it's the best we've got.

Unfortunately the sediment core I worked on for my PhD project did not cover that interglacial. It did cover the last 240.000 years. And I contended myself with this interglacial and the previous one. What did I want to find out? The development of the Indian monsoon, as this is a societally very relevant climate feature. Forget India if the monsoon fails. There's quite some Indians to forget if that happens. Finding out what really drives the monsoon will give us a chance to know what it will do in these recent times of anthropogenic climatic upheaval. And just studying the last decennia or centuries will not do; the system is now shaken up beyond anything we've seen in the Holocene. And CO2 levels actually are already way beyond anything we've seen ever since we've even had the glacial-interglacial cycle. We climate scientists have to work damn hard and be damn inventive to keep up with this, actually.

Anyway. We do what we can! And I studied the Indian monsoon. The monsoon, by the way, technically speaking is not torrential rainfall, as it is used in colloquial speech, but a system of seasonally reversing winds. As these blow from the land in the one season and from the sea in the other, and these latter evidently bring all the moisture, these summer monsoon rains have pushed over the original meaning of the word. But that aside. Reconstructing the monsoon requires some preparation. My first article hardly mentioned the monsoon. I basically presented the records I first constructed by means of framework.

What I did for my first article was tossing some dead plankton into some expensive machines that, as thanks, spat out two records, one of which providing (amongst others) a time frame, which we corroborated with 14C dating, and another one that gave a record of sea water temperature. These records spanned the last 20.000 years. The older part of the record is described in later articles. We had the end of the last ice age, the deglaciation, and most of the Holocene.

What did we find? The deglaciation started earlier than on most of the rest of the northern hemisphere, and it started with two distinct warm spells. The warmest period was, actually, the time of the the Younger Dryas, which is a strong cold spell in the middle of the deglaciation, found all over the place in the northern hemisphere. Strange! We compared our records with other regional records, and we added a record that gives a measure of organic production.

A map of the Arabian Sea, with in red the location of "my" core, and in white the locations of the cores I compared my results with.

We found out that the whole of the Arabian Sea tends to have this early onset of the deglaciation, but the records did not all show the same thing regarding the Younger Dryas. In some records this was a warm period indeed, but not in all. The record had low organic productivity in the warmest periods. Nowadays, plankton growth (the bulk of productivity) is strongest during the summer monsoon, as the summer monsoon winds mix the water column, and bring nutrients to the surface that otherwise would have stayed at such high depths that all light-dependent squirmy things living in the ocean could not reach them. And these low-productivity periods were at the same time as cold spells on the higher northern latitudes, and that was in line with other records from the area that contained productivity information.

So what does that mean? The Arabian Sea warms up before the ice age is over. This may mean it's the low latitudes that start the end of an ice age, and the ice caps don't go around melting on their own initiative. There's strange warm blips at the onset of the warming, which I will come back to. If the northern hemisphere is cold, for instance during the Younger Dryas, when massive ice melting weakened the gulf stream, the Arabian Sea may well lose lots of its productivity.

I realise I'm playing a dangerous game with cause and effect here. The Arabian Sea apparently starts things before the northern hemisphere ice sheets catch on, but that does not mean the Arabian Sea drives them. It does mean it's not the other way around. But you can always get positive feedbacks. So it's difficult (but probably not impossible!) to imagine that low productivity in the Arabian Sea would cause melting of Greenland ice. What is easy to imagine is heat from the Arabian Sea (which sneaks past South Africa into the Atlantic Ocean) melting Greenland ice, the fresh water weakening the gulf stream, that causing low temperatures over Europe, the cold somehow reaching the Tibetan Plateau (NB: weak point in the argument!), that weakening the summer monsoon, and that in turn leading to low productivity in the Arabian Sea, but not to a homogeneous Arabian Sea temperature effect as the summer monsoon does not influence the water temperature in the same way over the whole region. And from that description it is already clear we're not there yet, but maybe this illustrates how complex it all is, and how many records we need. I won't have to explain how many records from how many places you need to, for instance, figure out if the path I just described would indeed work that way. And think of all the things that are not mentioned here! For instance, if some nutter would cut down all the forests in Meso-America this may well hit the gulf stream hard too. And thus the rest of the world. And so on! Once you start, there's so much to consider.

Is what I found new? Sort of. There is no consensus yet on how we actually go from a glacial to an interglacial or back. There are records that suggest all kinds of things, but the picture is still incomplete, and this record gives its two cents. Two very detailed cents: when I published this record it had many times the resolution of all the other records from around there. These other records could not resolve things like my blips, let alone see how fast these things can happen.

The production of many records also helps to show how things relate to each other.Even before we figured out how this would work, we now have a warning, for instance, that if we exhaust lots of CO2, which leads to ice melting,we may be left with a warm and inproductive Arabian Sea. I have no idea how many people depend on Arabian Sea fisheries, and I actually do have an idea how much we western white rich people care about them anyway, but it's worth knowing. And science moves on: this was already published in 2007, and by now maybe somebody has come up with an explanation. And remember: this article is only the framework for the actual monsoon research that still is to come!

I thought I could summarise this paper in a few sentences. (One guy in Durham already suggested how: "I've done a lot of measurements, and it's all very boring, but don't worry!") How wrong! And I left so, so much out already. I hope that with leaving so much out it has remained understandable. And if not: shoot! This text can still be edited.

And another thing: some people who may have the patience to read this may also have my thesis. In its introduction I try to do something similar, digging deeper into things like methods and mechanisms, while in this text I try to place more emphasis on the relevance and the context. If anybody remembers the thesis well enough to reflect on to what extent the texts do or do not complete each other I would be grateful..

Brainless sunny pics amidst all the science

Half western Europe was completely bewildered by the snow, but it took me only half an hour more than scheduled to get back from Durham to Plymouth. Not bad under any circumstance, and extra good after an exhausting conference.

View from the train on the way back

The day after was beautiful. This wouldn't last! So I took a calm and modest walk in Cornwall. And that allows me to post some calm, pretty pictures, before the scientific violence inspired by the Durham conference breaks loose...

The entrance of nothing less than the the Royal William Victualling Yard

Pretty lichen

Lonely yet decorative tower

Not so lonely boat (see its little friend!) at low tide

09 January 2010

Durham Castle

At times one can't help to think that class society is an excellent invention. Durham is a good place for such thought. It is an ancient town with a renowned university, and many of the students live, as for example also is the case in Cambridge, in colleges, some of which looking as if intended to convince their inhabitants of their position way elevated above hoi polloi. Maybe they are, actually. The dining hall in which the science communication took place was already a bit of an example as well. The castle, hoewever, houses students, and university-related activities, as well, and the castle is of course the bee's knees. And we were having a conference dinner there! I was looking forward to it. We were not allowed to blend in; one of the organisers warned that those daring to come in a tie would have to take two or three partial ties home. One rebel was observed, an eminent Aussie; things got a bit silly when some alcoholic beverages were consumed, people noticed his sartorial faux pas, and I thought aloud that I actually had a pair of scissors with me. The gentleman was allowed to continue with unscathed attire. But this aside.

Drinks in the hall. Beside Roland there's Tom from Bath Spa University

We gathered for a glass of wine in the hallway, which was already quite a venue. Then, as I happened to be talking to a Durham scholar, the gong was rang for dinner. A gong! We decided we had to enter in style, so I took his arm and we strided in. A bit like my father walking me into the room where my sister's graduation party was held! Even though I had of course accidentally picked a man more youthful and dashing than my dear old dad. The gentleman was too important to stay at my side long; he had to sit at the bigshot's table, and I ended up with the Tromsø delegates. I expected none, so when I suddenly saw two familiar arctic faces on the first day I was entranced. Anders and Henrik from Tromsø university! I was also glad to notice I could still speak Norwegian.

At the conference dinner I also sat near two scientists I had not previously met. A good choice. A Flemish lady and a German gentleman! My lucky day. I found I hardly noticed what the food actually was.

Altogether it was a lovely dinner, but I mainly write all this just to have an excuse to publish some pictures of the castle. Impressive, innit? Nothing like Uilenstede...

This is just a random decorative alley I walked through on the way back

07 January 2010

Science and the general public

If you have a room full of scientists you have a big pile of taxpayers' money. Once every while we scientists wonder how we will somehow give the taxpayer something back, as the peer-reviewed articles we write won't reach them. The sea level conference had a panel discussion scheduled on exactly that. There were editors of peer-reviewed journals in it, the chief media dealings (his official title was somewhat different) of Durham University, and our national star Iain Stewart, who makes all kinds of popular science programs with the BBC, and so on. And they would lead the discussion on how we get our expensively wrought and highly relevant results to the general public. A topic discussed before! Think, as well, of the Large Hadron Rap, for instance.

The chairman started with a statement like the one I started here with (thanks for that one), and introduced the others and the way in which they had something to do with communication to the general public. And asked "are there people in the audience who keep a blog?", as this would be an uncovered area of possible science communication. My blog is not really about science (I do not get much response when I handle that topic), but it is a blog, and I raised my hand. Immediately I was ushered to the other side of the table, representing the blogosphere. How fast things can change.

As I said, my blog appears fairly useless as a means of science communication, but I audaciously took the opportunity to vent some insights I had gained when trying to be a general nuisance to Dutch climate sceptics if they managed to get blatantly unfounded ideas published in newspapers.

Two chairs to my left Antony was solidly kicking the audience in the bum. Among other things he asked this room filled to the brim with sea level specialists: who of you has edited the wikipedia site on sea level change? No arms raised. None. We now all wonder if it was not us, then who the hell wrote these things. We are all overworked, and none of us gets any reward for public outreach, but we do have the moral obligation to share our dearly paid knowledge with whoever may be looking for it. And so many of these looking for information start right there.

Picture taken on the way back home afterwards

A good point that was raised from the floor was that scientific journals have the power to demand laymen's summaries of all the articles they publish, and make these available online at no charge. As soon as it becomes obligatory it is quite easy to defend such activities to your boss. And we had two editors on the board, and at least one of these has committed himself to this. The other one I still have to ask at some coffee break. That really would be such an enormous step. Any science journalist can keep an eye on these things! And anybody else as well. maybe I'm being naive but I think that if this gets implemented that's a giant leap for mankind.

I have promised myself to summarise all I have published myself in words my metaphoric grandmother would understand, and post that on my blog. Maybe people will fall asleep. But I think I owe doing this to the Dutch, Norwegian and British taxpayers that have allowed me to fill up my brain with esoteric knowledge. And who knows, maybe these two cents are picked up by some passer-by...

06 January 2010

Sea level up to your ears

A few years ago, I was applying for a job. During the interview I got the question what type of scientist I considered myself. My answer was: palaeoclimatologist. The response: "I was afraid you would say that". The gentleman hoped I would label myself a micropalaeontologist, but I didn't. With a degree in hardrock geology, followed by an ad-hocced PhD in purely applied micropalaeontology, I would not dare. I had learned to recognise only a few foraminifera species, and my data resulted from dissolving them and tossing them in an expensive machine.

The college where I stayed

Things changed. In Norway I was almost a biologist. The microfossils were not just the hapless bearers of a chemical or physical signal with palaeoenvironmental implications; they mattered in themselves! I had to learn how to recognise hundreds of species.

Now I have returned to environmental reconstruction, but again based on the forams themselves. I am slowly becoming a foram specialist. A micropalaeontologist! And just as I am becoming used to that I have to face being a sea level scientist. But I have quite some catching up to do. It was very good to listen to sea level science seen from all sorts of angles all day. People doing sea level reconstructions in nameless lakes in Finnmark, using jellyfish skeletons, for example. What? People looking for glacial erratics in West Antarctica. People poking around in subtropical dripstone caves, seeing sea level rise in tube worms audaciously growing on stalagmites.

Close up of the campus. Un-English!

And then the poster sessions. Where you meet every caveat in the field, to the extent that you almost lose faith. Do we properly take into account seasonal variations? Pollution? Lateral variability? The difference between infill and subsidence? Noone said it was going to be easy. At about 5 my head was spinning and I wanted a pint. But it had been a good day! And it wasn’t over yet...

Project meeting

You'd think the scientific community knows exactly what sea level has done over the past several hundred years. It doesn't. That's what we're trying to find out, at least for the North Atlantic realm. Who's we? Antony and Tasha in Durham; Phil, Miguel and Vassil in Liverpool; and Roland and me in Plymouth. And why so many? I've elaborated on it before, but it boils down to that our salt marsh formas are sensitive to how often they are above the water, which makes them good sea level indicators. The Durham crew does similar things on other microfossils, and combining the two methods improves the robustness and accuracy of the method. The Liverpudlians do the modelling; they juggle around with isostasy, atmospheric pressure, gravitational pull, and whatnot, in order to clean up our records. And now we got together.

We now showed each other what we had done so far, and what our plans were, and I can hardly wait to get back to my microscope and carry on. Such meetings matter! If you see it all together it makes so much more sense. The diatoms do indeed improve what we can do with only forams. The modellers can do amazing tricks that will help us find the interesting parts of the record. There is still so much to do, but let's do it, and it will be great! Stay tuned!

Tourist in Durham

It seems to be a tradition, having a Quaternary meeting the first week of January. Not sure if that's an excuse, but anyway; there was one this year as well, ad not just any meeting on quaternary science; no! A meeting dedicated to sea level science. I had to be there, of course. Coming straight from the Netherlands would have been too stressful, and that's why I came back to the UK straight after Christmas. Less than a week later I would take the train to Durham, where all this would take place.

And so I did. I bought a newspaper and a large cappucino and got in, for a 7 hour journey (it turned out as 7.5 but that's a trifle) in which I got down to many of these things that had been dangling on the lower end of my to do list. Hair maintenance, clothing repair, some emails, some looking out of the window at the changing landscapes that rolled past. Nice!

The journey started before the sun was up

Durham had already been snow covered for 2.5 weeks, which is highly unusual, so I was not at my most elegant when I slithered down the slope from the railway station to town with my backpack on. But elegance is hardly a requirement for getting somewhere, so after an impressive little walk through the snowy trees underneath the majestic cathedral I met Tasha, and she showed me the university, and received the samples I had brought for her. An hour later we already walked right back to the station: she would take me home, and that's where the bus left from.

This is how Durham greeted me at the end of my trip

The next day we would have a pre-conference project meeting at 13.00, which left me the morning for indulging in touristic behaviour. A somewhat short morning, as due to the snow it took us two hours to get back to Durham, but luckily it's not big. I finally saw the cathedral! Ever since I saw Dan Cruickshank prance around in it on BBC television I had wanted to see it. And it is indeed impressive. And one is not allowed to take pictures in it, but maybe some pics from the outside are convincing enough... I will provide them later! Now it really is bedtime... (it is again, but here they are!)