Thoughts on checking out from a hotel in Austin.

One of NOAA’s most innovative and intriguing programs? RISA. The acronym stands for Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments. Imagine a handful of these efforts, distributed across the country, working with folks in climate-sensitive economic sectors. These latter might range from water resources management to agriculture to ranching to forestry. Some RISA programs have been around a while. Others, like the Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program (SCIPP), which covers Oklahoma, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee, are relatively new.

Once a year, SCIPP gets together with a small stakeholder group. We had a great session this time around. SCIPP looks particularly at the link between extremes and climate, especially cycles of drought and flood. They’ve made a lot of progress in their first couple of years, and the future is filled with a lot of work: linking environmental extremes to ecosystem dynamics. Contributing to the National Climate Assessment. And more.

That SCIPP stakeholder meeting is just winding down in Austin, TX, and I’m checking out of my hotel and heading back to DC this morning.

One familiar feature of hotel life is a daily look at an important technical journal, USA TODAY.

Don’t think of this as a technical journal? See it instead as a wonderfully breezy, enticing summary of the day’s news?  

Both views are correct. Maybe you too read this issue and need no convincing. But if you’re skeptical, allow me to walk you through some of the headlines from this morning’s news coverage, just a  sampling from the first three pages of the front section:

Shade: the great kids coverup. This article, the featured article for the day, points out that shade in children’s recreational areas, by reducing temperatures and keeping those climbing domes from heating up, can not only encourage kids to exercise and reduce obesity, but also protect against sunburn. The article points out that even one sunburn increases the risk of melanoma down the road. Good to know.

Cancer drug Avastin again criticized by federal panel. Want more medical news? There you have it.

For those who survived fires, erosion, flood threats are next. This article reminds readers that 1.5 million acres have burned just in Arizona and New Mexico so far…and that in the wake of these fires, the vegetation loss increases the risk that future rains will flood homes and/or destroy habitat. A great insight showing how on the real world – world that accomplishes much of its business through extreme events – hazards are linked, interconnected.

Make some noise for one of Earth’s loudest creatures. Remember that Russian song of the Volga boatmen? Turns out there’s an insect less than a tenth of an inch long, called the water boatman, which can produce sound underwater up to 99.2 decibels. Compare that with your lawnmower. The bugs apparently live in slow-moving European waters. People walking streamside can hear them. The incentive for such noise? The mechanism they use? Still a bit of a puzzle.

And how about this last one (I am not making this up):

Turtles cause flight delays at Kennedy. According to the article, some 150 turtles crawled out on the Kennedy Airport tarmac looking for beach nesting sites to lay eggs. The “stampede” began in the early morning and in three hours their numbers forced a runway switch. Workers from the Port Authority and a USDA removed the turtles (sounds like a “taking” to me), but in the meantime flight delays averaged 30 minutes.

We knew about birds at airports, and the dangers they pose to flight. Think Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and that famous Hudson river jet aircraft landing. But perhaps ecologists will soon be telling us that bird predation kept the turtle migrations undercover…and that all that chasing birds away from airports has now encouraged/allowed the turtles to be more daring. Aviation meteorologists – prepare to add this dimension to your forecasts.  [By the way, where I hail from, in the DC area, Maryland football fans encourage us to “fear the turtle.” This buttresses their case.]

USA Today a science journal? Are you convinced? And why take time to consider all this?

Here’s why, in a nutshell. Americans don’t hate science. We love it. All people do, everywhere. We’re curious. News like this fascinates us. We groove on knowing how and why things work the way they do. Science sells.

Scolding doesn’t sell.

And somehow, those of us in the Earth sciences, and especially those of us in the climate world, have allowed ourselves to be seen and cast not as scientists, but as scolds. Note that our formal education only covered the science part. Somehow we picked up the scold part on our own. When it comes to scolding, we’re amateurs. We’re misfit in this role. It’s taking effort to maintain this pose.

Let’s give it up.

Let’s go back to all that basic research that makes us so fascinating: learning how greenhouse gases work, to be sure, but also learning about all those intricacies of Earth’s seasonal and inter-annual climate variability, about the roots causes of drought and flood, and how they link with ecosystems to lead to wildfire, and how wildfire actually helps many species of plant germinate, and how those plant species interact with the animal life, and on and on.

As Vannevar Bush said, science is an endless frontier. And an unending source of material for USA Today. And an unending cornucopia, a treasure, for the world’s peoples struggling to live successfully on the real world, a world of bounty; a delicate, fragile victim; and an ever-present threat.

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3 Responses to Thoughts on checking out from a hotel in Austin.

  1. Dear Dr. Hooke,
    Thanks for your great blog post about USA Today. I’m one of two science writers at the paper and I wrote the story about the water boatman (and wasn’t that a neat bit of acoustical recording? I did a science blog post on “runaway sexual selection” to go with it at

    You’re right about science. Americans love to learn about how the world works. My fellow science writer Dan Vergano and I, along with the rest of the USA Today staff, know this deeply. Not that every story screams SCIENCE in the headline (if you put SOCIAL STUDIES in the Blagojevich stories, or HISTORY in the royal wedding ones, no one would read them either.)

    But they carry that great sense of wonder that all good scientists, and reporters, have – the desire to follow up “Wow, that’s weird…” with “Hm, what’s going on here?”

    Thanks for giving us a read, and passing on your insights to others.


  2. Mary Glackin says:

    A great blog and a great reminder. Too often we fail to emphasize the good news and the possibilities.

  3. Pingback: In(ter)dependence Day | Living on the Real World

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