A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Wednesday, December 24, 2003

A tale of tales.....

Christmas wreath courtesy of Animation Factory."THE WIND thumped at the door, so that the latch rattled, and cried sadly as it tried to listen to the tale. The flames licked round the bars and held their breath as the old words dropped peacefully into the room.

'And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.'

Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem on a dark night to pay their tax, and there was no room for them at the inn. How cold it was, snow everywhere, and perhaps wolves prowling round, thought Susan, as the wind howled under the kitchen door. They walked up and down, up and down, till they found a stable, and she thought of them walking across the fields stumbling against rocks and trees, in deep snow, to the stable in the cobbled yard underneath the weathercock.

There Jesus was born and put in the manger. The ox and the ass stood watching and Joseph had a lantern to look at the little Baby Boy. But afar in a field some shepherds were minding their sheep and they saw a star. Susan knew which one it was, it shone through the fir tree across the lawn.

The star moved, just as the moon moved when it brought her home through the wood in winter, and the shepherds left their sheep and followed it.

The sheep were not lonely that night because it was like day with that big bright star in the sky, and a host of angels floated in the air, singing, 'Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.' The sheep stopped eating to look up at the angels, but they were not afraid.

The shepherds followed the star till it came above the stable, and there it stopped, in the branches of the elm tree. The stable door was open, and the little horseshoe in the upper door shone in the starlight, and the brighter light from within came streaming out to meet them. It was warm inside, with hay and the animals' breath, so the Baby and Mary sat cosily in the manger. Mary's feet were tucked up so that she could get in with the Holy Child, and bits of hay and straw were sticking to her blue dress.

Susan could scarcely keep the tears from her eyes, she was so excited over the story she knew so well. If only she had been there too, a little girl with the shepherds, she would have seen the Wise Men ride up on their camels, through the gate into the yard. They carried gold and frankincense and myrrh, yellow gold as big as a lump of coal, and myrrh like leaves, smelling sweeter than lavander or mignonette, and frankincense, something, she didn't know what, something in a blue and gold box with red stones on it.

Then Mrs Gardland put a little embroidered cross in the Bible and closed its pages reverently. She took off her spectacles and laid them on the table, and they all knelt down to pray.

They prayed for the Queen and Country, for the three doves, Peace, Wisdom, and Understanding, and they thanked God for all the blessings of this life.

But Susan's head began to nod, and she rested it on the hard chair. When the others arose, she still knelt there, fast asleep."

[Christmas Eve, from Chapter 11, 'December', in Alison Uttley's magical The Country Child (first published by Faber & Faber in 1931). American readers will find The Country Child here. The lovely Christmas wreath illustration is courtesy of Animation Factory.]

May Peace, Wisdom, and Understanding be with You and All the World this Christmastide. Philip.

Tuesday, December 23, 2003

A case of Sooty and Sweep.....?

There still seems to be a desperate desire to make climate change too simple! This remains the big delusion. Soot has, of course, been fingered before, if not much by the IPCC. And the albedo - the surface reflectivity of the Earth - has long been a spectre at the 'global-warming' feeding frenzy. Now these two variables (factors) have been brought together cleverly in a new paper for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which is pretty well-reported by Alex Kirby (except for the headline): 'Soot "makes global warming worse"' (BBC Online Science News, December 23):

"It was the results of this modelling that persuaded them that soot is twice as effective as carbon in raising global surface air temperatures. The report says high soot emissions may have contributed substantially to global warming over the past century, notably to the growing trend in recent decades for ice, snow and permafrost to melt earlier in the spring."

"The authors believe there may be a second effect at work here as well - they suggest soot may cause glaciers, sea ice and ice sheets to melt at lower temperatures than they would otherwise. This could happen, they say, because the black carbon absorbs more solar energy than clean snow and ice."

Human influences on the albedo of the Earth's surface have been cruelly neglected in climate work, and I have long pointed out that, if you really want to mess up the tropics and Lois Lane's hairdo, then you should get Lex Luther to cover the Tibetan High Plateau with black plastic sheeting.

The authors conclude that: "Restoration of snow albedos to something approaching pristine pre-anthropogenic values would have the double benefit of reducing global warming and raising the global temperature threshold at which dangerous anthropogenic interference with climate occurs... "

But the trouble is that we continue to stagger from fashionable variable to fashionable variable - from carbon dioxide, to methane, to the cosmic ray flux, and now to 'Sooty and Sweep'.

When will we acknowledge that climate is the most complex, coupled, non-linear, chaotic system, which is incapable of being managed predictably by fiddling about at the margins with any one or two (politically-?) selected variables? This remains the great self-delusion at the heart of the 'global warming' myth, especially in Europe.

Nevertheless, this new research is to be warmly welcomed because, above all, it starts to re-assert the complexity of even the human effects on climate (notwithstanding, of course, the cosmic ray flux, and clouds, and all the rest!).

See a very good blog on this, and associated research on aerosols, at Crumb Trail (December 22): 'Moties'.

Philip - "Never-trust-any-idea-predicated-on-a-single-variable" - Stott.

Monday, December 22, 2003

A touch of winter......

A Winter Solstice/Christmas Essay

"But, since that cannot be, let us draw round the fire,
Munch chestnuts, tell stories, and stir the blaze higher:
We'll comfort pinched robin, with crumbs, little man,
Till he'll sing us the very best song that he can."

['Winter' by Christina Rossetti]

Have you ever wondered why the farmer, having harvested in hazy days the summer crops, plants winter wheat in mellow autumn, so that it germinates only to face the rigours of the cold? It seems a strange practice when much of the vegetable kingdom is closing down operations for the duration. But the farmer has good reason. For certain plants to flower, they need a 'touch of winter' - what we call 'vernalisation'.

A period of winter frost switches development in the plant from vegetative growth to reproduction, thus bringing into play a range of genes controlling spring flowering. The main group of plants requiring this magic touch is the biennials, those that take two years to complete their life-cycle. In the first year, the seed germinates and the plant grows green, often in the form of a rosette of leaves. When the winter frosts blow, these trigger stems and later flowering. Eventually, the plant fruits, seeds, grows old, and dies back, to rot black on the dampening soil - while new plants arise once more, in an eternal cycle, from the germinating seed.

Lots of our more common wild plants act in this special fashion, like the wild carrot of the grey-turfed Downs, with its tiny tap root, pale orange and faintly smelling of the Sunday veg. Our hedgerows are full of such plants - tall foxgloves, red campion, red dead-nettle, strong-smelling garlic mustard, and the piercing spear thistle, although some, like red dead-nettle, perform too as annuals, while others, foxglove and red campion, play the perennial game.

The biennial life-style has many advantages. The hard work of vegetative growth is accomplished first, giving the plant great vigour before it has to use much energy to produce fine flowers and seed. This allows more seeds per plant, which offers a competitive edge in the battleground of field and forest. Where, however, biennials are kept safe from winter's icy finger, say, in mildewed greenhouses or warmer spots, they often fail to flower, turning into perennial green plants, growing on for many years, without fulfillment or fruition.

Biennials, as well as many perennials, also bear another, posher name. They are called 'hemicryptophytes'. This tricky term is ascribed to those plants that survive the adverse conditions of winter by protecting sensitive growth organs at, or very near to, the surface of the soil. They are best observed as rosette plants - the common dandelion, the rough hawkbit, or the cat's ear. As many gardeners know to their cost, such a life-style choice also protects the offending 'weed' against cutting and mowing, not to mention grazing.

Other plants, by contrast, have different strategies for surviving the 'touch of winter'. Daffodils, the crocus, and our chalk grassland orchids are 'geophytes', avoiding the cold snug beneath the turf as bulbs, rhizomes, tubers or corms. Yet others are true annuals, or 'therophytes', surviving the winter in the earth as seeds. Unlike biennials, these complete their life-cycle in a single, swift, sweet year, shedding new seed in late-summer or early-autumn, which then lies dormant in the frozen ground until the nightingale and the cuckoo call once more. They are the weeds of bare ground, or of disturbed land, like the small nettle, Urtica urens (that childhood chastisement, the stinging nettle - Urtica dioica- , is, by contrast, a perennial and aptly named Urtica!).

Finally, of course, there are the woody plants, from tiny cushions and larger shrubs to the tall trees of the ancient forest. These are 'chamaephytes' - strong-scented thyme - or 'phanerophytes', like the knotted English oak, and they must protect their exposed organs in different ways, by scales or special coverings.

This fascinating way of looking at the plant kingdom, taking into account the response to the 'touch of winter', was developed in the early part of the 20th Century by a renowned Danish botanist, called Raunkiaer, and it is fondly known among ecologists as Raunkiaer's Life-Form System. Every ecosystem has its own special mix of life-forms, a mix reflecting the selective pressures in each habitat. Open, windswept, sheep- and rabbit-grazed, springy-turf Downs, for example, carry mainly 'hemicryptopytes', each well-protected against eager teeth, trampling feet, swaling fire, and winter frost.

Personally, I have a lot of the 'hemicryptophyte' and the 'geophyte' about me. The 'touch of winter', which has just swept violently across the country, is the moment to go to ground in the deep dark of the death of the sun, when the 'golden bough' pierces Balder's heart - "Fear not, Sol Invictus will be born again!" But for now, it is time to "draw round the fire, munch chestnuts, tell stories, and stir the blaze higher" (or, to huddle by the radiator, crunch crisps, watch the box, put on that gaudy sweater, and turn up the thermostat!).

With a glass of crusty port in hand, and a ripe stilton on my knee, I'll toast the wonderful adaptability of Nature in the warmth of my own hibernation - until the 'touch of winter' is past. A Merry Christmas to you all, wherever your own snug burrow.


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