March 03, 2006

Earth Monitoring System - Gravity & Ice

In a paper published in Science, Velicogna and Wahr report that 'the ice sheet mass decreased significantly, at a rate of 152 ± 80cubic km/year of ice, equivalent to 0.4 ± 0.2 mm/year of global sea level rise. Most of this mass loss came from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.' The result was also reported by the BBC.

This calculation is based on repeated gravity measurerments made from the the GRACE satellite and is an example of kinds of systems we might use in developing a compreshensive Earth Monitoring System.

February 27, 2006

The Future

At once I am trying to pull the notion of sustainability into the present and to shift attention to the deep future. So let me take a moment for the future.

The future is a theme that has turned up in any number of posts here before. And the future that I am referring to is not tomorrow or next year, but the future when your kid or your grandkid, or their kid is the age you are now. What are the NYT editorial page and the Economist leaders going to be writing about, what will Science and Nature be puzzling over? How will democracy be fairing? How many people will there be and how healthy will they be?

One of the most striking visual events in my life was my first view of the "New" Croton Dam. I was on an early date with a great woman and she guided me through Westchester County, down a rutted asphalt road and around a corner when suddenly there was an architecual wonder and planning miracle seemingly in the middle of nowhere. While the architecture is worthy of its own disucssion, it is the planning that stands out in this post.

The Croton Dam was part of a much larger project to provide water to New York City. Land for the New Croton Dam was being acquired in 1880 (the old Croton Dam was finished in 1842); the Sand Hogs are stillworking on the third of three main tunnels.

There was something about mid-19th century imaginations that allowed them to think about New York City without clean water or Central Park and then set out to avoid those futures. (The subway is a different story.)

We need that imagination and hubris now (and this is where the present meets the future). What is the infrastructure we need for such creativity?

February 22, 2006

Fragmentation of the (political) landscape

The New York Times reports this morning that South Dakota is on the verge off outlawing (nearly) all abortions. In an editorial earlier in the week the Times also noted that the Supreme Court will hear a case that could severely constrain the EPA's ability to regulate natural services such as clean water.

So what does this have to do with Earth Management? It has occurred to me that the US is on a trajectory toward fragmentation of our political landscape through the introduction of (perhaps strong) heterogeneity across our country with regard to the quality of the environment and of health care. With these developments, it is not hard to imagine a future where the US is split into three regions with the NorthEast and WestCoast developing stronger knowledge based economies that might provide better natural services and health care. With WalMart based economies, the FlyOvers would be the third region.

Fragmentation in natural landscapes severely weakens an ecosystem's resilience. I can't help but make the jump here and see the rejection of the future by large parts of our country as a huge blow to our National resilience. What are the parallels here with the arguments in the US in the early to mid-19th Century?

This dystopic vision is clearly fueled by too much late 20th century cyberpunk. Open questions include: What of the Congress? Can natural services be managed regionally? (consider the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the NorthEast, could that be a precursor to a regional government?).

As dystopic as it is, this vision may also represent a failure of my pessimism (with a nod to Sarah Vowell).

February 09, 2006

A Ray of Hope?

Yesterday 86 evangelical Christian leaders issued a statement to the effect that climate change is a problem and we must take action now. An article in the New York Times indicates that the group that has signed on to the Evangelical Climate Initiative includes some heavy hitters in the community. A colleague of mine who has worked behind the scenes to get this statement drafted, signed and released, also noted that the group includes a significant number of college presidents. There is not unaniminty in the evangelical community, but a signifiant call has been raised.

The statement they have prepared is pretty good. In particular it is explicit about the generational aspects of our impacts on the climate system, about its impacts on the poor, and about the fact that we have already committed ourselves to significant impacts over the coming decades and centuries. The statement endorses a manditory market-based cap and trade approach to decreasing our society's carbon emissions.

The ray of hope enters in that this is the group that Bush and the Republican party have leaned heavily on for support. James Dobson apparently is still not convinced, but according to my collegue, Dobson is engaged and may yet see the light. And there is at least one signatory who speaks regularly with W.

Maybe, just maybe...

January 05, 2006


One of the themes that (hopefully) runs through this blog is that context is vitally important to knowledge. This notion of context has important implications with respect to our notion of Truth.

Classical academic knowledge production is organized around the pursuit of Truth. In the sciences that truth is unique and fairly immutable. Popper's falsification and Kuhn's paradigms dealt blows to the notions that we can know that Truth and to its immutability. And while Science marchs on in reasonable health, concerns remain regarding exactly what priviledge we should affort to "the physics way of knowing."

As a very minor participant in discussions along these lines over the years, I have noticed that a few of my colleages and myself have developed a test that allows us to escape from the nihilist postmodern spiral that is so tempting in this debate.


At the moment, I can blame Descarte for this mess. His escape was "cogito ergo sum". Perhaps the ultimate relativistic framework?...

That escape hatch is the notion of pragmatism. This follows from considerations of why we pursue knowledge. In my view, we pursue knowledge because we believe, and to some extent experience suggests, that knowing more about our world and our place in it will allow us to improve our lot and the lot of generations to come. That is we pursue knowledge because it is useful. It allows us to predict the weather (sort of), it helps us to be more healthy, and it provides for a strong defense.

If knowledge is going to improve our lot, at some point it has to be put into action. At some point we have to be willing to accept something as true, or at least true enough, and make a decision or implement a policy. Engineers do this all of the time; problems related to the aeronautics of bees did not prevent us from building airplanes. Similarly corporate actors who are taking action with respect to greenhouse gasses are not terribly worried about the nuances. In my experience, they are acting on the first order picture (more GHG -> more uncertainty) and to the extent they worry about the detail they are making strongly hedged bets.

I think that it is important that we continue to fund and encourage our brightest minds to expand the knowledge frontiers. The leading edge of our current understanding of our world will always be confusing and, at times, things we have known for decades will turn out to be only partially correct. But at any given time, we must act on what we think we know and "Does it Work" can prove to be a more powerful discriminator in that regard than "Is it True".