SciTech Now Episode 417

In this episode of SciTech Now, we get a look into why whales are showing up in NYC waterways; Professor Robin Bell speaks about her study on the melting polar caps; an annual international competition where students have fun while learning the principles of STEM; and community solutions to climate change.



Coming up, whales of New York.

We have to try to figure out how to protect these animals in light of some of these activities that are either ongoing and/or projected.

Antarctic exploration.

Some places we've gone, we haven't been able to start work till the temperature gets above minus 50.

Robo mania.

When you get to the competition, there's actually what they call an unknown, where they know it's coming, but they don't know exactly what it is.

Community solutions to climate change.

It really doesn't matter what you call it.

There will be concerns.

What it means for communities is that we have to build resilience.

We have to build an adaptation strategy.

It's all ahead.

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

Within sight of the famous New York skyline, you might see something unexpected -- whales.

Howard Rosenbaum, senior scientist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, explains why whales are showing up in New York City waterways and how researchers are tracking the phenomenon in real time.

Our partner, 'Science Friday,' begins the story.

I think it's one of these amazing wildlife spectacles when you actually see these bait balls or these large schools of menhaden.

Those are small schooling fish.

Sometimes these pods are the size of a football field.

When something ripples through the surface across the bait ball, typically there is a predator either nearby or just beneath them -- could be a shark, a large fish -- hitting, if you will, the outer portions of that school.

And then to have some of the largest animals that have ever inhabited this planet feeding on them -- I mean, that to me is an amazing marine wildlife spectacle, just miles from beaches that people enjoy on the weekend and even into other times with the New York City skyline in the background.

♪♪ I'm Dr. Howard Rosenbaum.

I direct the Ocean Giants Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

We use scientific tools and approaches to protect large whales and other marine life in the New York Bight.

The New York Bight is the body of water that lies between the tip of Montauk and Cape May, New Jersey, all the way in to the coast -- areas like Fire Island, New York Harbor, and then down the New Jersey coast to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and points along the Jersey shore.

In the New York Bight, there's a great deal of marine life that most people aren't aware of -- many species of fish and sharks and turtles.

Increasingly, we're seeing what appears to be more abundant menhaden in our waters, and with that we have increasing habitat use of some of the large whales in some of these waters.

The fin whale -- they're present during large portions of the year here to a greater extent, compared to those other baleen whale species.

Most of them are seasonally migrating here.

That includes the humpback whale, the North Atlantic right whale, the sei whale, the minke whale.

Some may spend more time here than we expected, and that's something that our research is beginning to tease out.

So we use a suite of tools to study and learn more about whales in the New York Bight.

They range from boat-based surveys, where we're out and looking for whales, to the most cutting-edge-type tools.

Right now, we have deployed in the New York Bight in collaboration with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution a near-real-time acoustic monitoring buoy.

So anytime there is a whale vocalizing, one of four species, we get a notification of those animals' being present in the New York Bight.

For example, in a nine-month period, we had vocalizations on something like 218 of those days.

So that provides extremely valuable information because we've located this buoy in an intersection between the shipping lanes but also an area that's considered potential for wind-energy development.

When we go out and do surveys, we collect a full suite of information when we come across particular whale groups.

We're logging the positions of where we detect the whales.

We'll collect individual identification photographs.

For some of the work, we'll actually collect a small tissue sample for genetic analysis.

We will use a crossbow with a hollow-tip dart that we will shoot into the epidermis of the whale.

What gives you the best target is when they arch their backs, and you're actually catching them in the middle of a fluking dive, and all of a sudden you've just kind of startled them a little bit.

And so they kind of just bring their flukes down and slap them on the water.

And truth be told, this is kind of like getting bit by a mosquito.

Most of the time, the sample will be retained into the bolt.

With that DNA, we can determine the sex of that animal, population identity or individual identity of those animals we've just sampled, so we can get amazing information from that one little bit of tissue.

20 years ago, in the waters of New York City, wow, you were really lucky if you got to see a whale.

But we're seeing now in essence from important environmental legislation, whether it was the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, good fisheries management -- all of these things at some level acting in concert with one another have certainly allowed for us to have this amazing wildlife spectacle, as we said, occur right here in the New York Bight.

There are obviously some concerns, too.

Animals getting hit by ships are of great concern.

The noise associated with shipping and other activities is of great concern.

As there are more menhaden, are those fisheries regulated and monitored well enough to make sure that those stocks don't get depleted?

What happens in a changing climate?

We have to try to figure out how to protect these animals in light of some of these activities that are either ongoing and/or projected.

And I think there's a great opportunity for the residents and denizens of the greater New York City area to take pride in this and to get behind all of this.

The most amazing, wonderful experiences that you could ever imagine -- it really never gets old.

Dr. Robin Bell, professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York City, has coordinated 10 major expeditions to Antarctica and Greenland to study the melting polar ice caps.

She joins us now to discuss her scientific travels.

Most of us are not likely to go there.

So, what's the thing that you wish people understood?

You've taken so many trips there.

What's the wow factor that's surprised you each time?

Oh, that it's just so big and so beautiful.

We think of it as being scary, but it's a part of our planet that's just so beautiful.

The sky is huge and blue.

And it's so white.

And it's not just a flat line off to the horizon.

Describe some of the geography.

When you land in Antarctica, first of all, you're landing on a plane that has skis on it and on a runway that's floating.

[ Laughs ] So it's ice.

So, there are, like, seals swimming under you, probably.

And then you look up, and there's a mountain that goes from the ocean up to about 14,000 feet on one side, and then you're going to go to your bed at the U.S. base, which is on a smoking volcano.

Nothing jaw-dropping.

[ Laughter ] And when the back of the plane opens up, the coldness of the air can just take your breath away.

Yeah. And how long are... What is the season there when scientists are studying?

Scientists first start to go in what is our fall or their spring.

So, September, October, scientists start to go, and then they leave in February when it really starts to be fall and getting cold.

And when you say cold there, describe cold.

Well, some places we've gone, we haven't been able to start work till the temperature gets above minus 50 because then planes and machinery doesn't work very well.

So, we wait till it gets to be like minus 40.

You know, when you think about just the logistics involved, you say that there's a U.S. base.

There's just... There's not like there's that many options of where to stay or how to get there and what to pack.

It's not like you can just go to the store and pick something up again.

Right. It's one of the things that when we first start working with young people who are going to go, it's like, 'Oh, remember, we can't order it.'

If you think you might need it, you really should bring it because it's way better to have it in your bag and bring it home not used than to think, 'Oh, no, if I just had that kind of screwdriver.'

Some of the stuff that you've been working on and researching is also that there are these underwater lakes.

And it's hard to imagine.

I mean, we just think, 'Oh, well, there's ice.

It must be floating on top of a giant ocean.'

But how are there lakes forming inside this environment?

In Antarctica, the ice can be up to 2 miles thick.

And even though it's minus 50 at the top, at the bottom it's actually pretty warm because you know, when you go to your cellar, it's almost always the same temperature.

That heat that's keeping your cellar about 50 degrees is warming the base of the ice.

So, the base of the ice is about zero degrees Celsius, really close to the melting point.

So, if you get it thick enough, you can make water, and there's a hole.

You can collect the water in the hole.

So there's a lake called Lake Vostok that is the size of New Jersey.

It's 1/4 mile deep.

Wow. Now, we've recently been seeing the stories of enormous chunks of ice breaking off slowly in our eyes, but in kind of much longer timelines, at the blink of an eye.


Even in just the number of times that you've been there, what have you been surprised by?

One thing I've been surprised by is to see our awareness of what's going on there -- when I first went there in the 1980s, we didn't have the framework to put in giant icebergs in.

We didn't understand that we as humans were actually changing these iceberg factories.

One iceberg doesn't worry me, but when we start losing the factories, these places that kick the icebergs out into the ocean, that's what begins to worry us as scientists.

And does it get faster?

I mean, as these things break off, does it sort of start to move the larger things that are behind it?

Well, what we worry about are these things called ice shelves, which are floating, and they make the icebergs, and they in themselves, if they go away, don't change sea level, but if we take them away, it's like taking a cork out of a bottle.

And the ice behind it flows faster into the ocean.

So, that's what we worry about, the ice shelves disappearing.

You study the Ross Ice Shelf.

What are you looking for there?

We're looking to understand how deep the water is underneath it and where warming water could get in to make it unstable.

And also the surface, to understand where water on the surface might collect and run in the future.

How do you see water that's so far down?

Well, the ice there is floating.

It's a couple of hundred meters thick, so we use a radar.

And we fly over it with an airplane, and we shoot the radar energy through the ice, and that lets us measure how thick the ice is.

But the radar kind of gets stumped at the water and can't get any further.

So we use gravity.

We measure gravity, and gravity is wonderful.

If I fly along and I'm trying to measure that cup, I could actually tell whether or not there's water in that cup or not because if there was water, I'd get pulled down stronger and then bounce up.

And if there wasn't water in it, I wouldn't get pulled down quite as far.

So, we actually can see what the topography underneath the ice is, even though no ship can get there, no submarine can get there.

Professor Robin Bell, thanks so much.

Thank you very much.

Since 2000, the annual international Robofest competition in Southfield, Michigan, is a festival of autonomous robots that encourages students to have fun while learning principles of science, technology, engineering, math, and computer science.

With more than 20,000 students from all over the world, students design, construct, and program robots, giving them hands-on experience.

Here's the story.

Ro-bo-fest! Ro-bo-fest!

Robofest is a competition for young people grades 5 through college where students learn how to create and program robots that operate autonomously.

The tournament director, Dr. CJ Chung, was there from the very beginning.


So, the first year, we did three competitions.

We had 29 teams participated in.

This year, after 18 years, we have over 3,000 teams all around the world.

For 17 years, students from around the world descended on the campus of Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan, but Dr. Chung and his team decided on a change of venue.

So, that was a big challenge not only for Robofest but for us here in the Tampa Bay area.

But when they asked us to do this, all I could think of was 'Yes! Yes! We can do it!'

Emma Alaba has been coordinating regional competitions in Florida for several years.

She and her team were ready for the challenge.

We needed at least 70 judges who have at least a degree, hopefully in engineering, in science, or math, in the STEM arena.

And like 135 volunteers we had to recruit.


Out of the 3,000 teams that competed in their local communities, 225 made it to the finals this year.

Robofest is all about STEM Plus learning.

STEM Plus means STEM plus first computer science.

But the 'Plus' includes so many other skills, such as innovative ideas, creativity, problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and teamwork.

There are several types of robotic competitions going on during the three-day festival.

One of the more challenging was the Unknown challenge.

Teams would come in with their LEGO Robotics kit totally dismantled.

You would have a mission.

You would have to build a robot to accomplish the mission, and then you had to program the robot to actually do the mission.

So, it's a challenge that you come barefooted, [ Chuckles ] and you leave with shoes on.

[ Laughing ] And that's the whole idea, is that you really got to think really good, and it's all done by the students.


This is the Exhibition challenge.

It's one of the top-tier competitions of the festival.

Exhibition is one of the ideas -- how to develop creativity as well as innovative ideas.

Now, they have full freedom to create any robotics projects.


It blows my mind with some of the exhibits they have and the problems they have come up to design their project to solve these types of problems that are in the world, you know, having robots do things that you have people doing.

It's awesome, the mind-set and the creativity that these kids have, and I think the future is bright for them and for not only America, for the world.


The biggest competition of Robofest is simply called 'the Game.'

It's a baseball theme.

You have to circle the bases.

You have to find the ball, and you have to hit it over a fence.

3, 2, 1.


Although the teams have had months to build and fine-tune their robot, it's the last-minute changes that can throw them off.

And then when you get to the competition, there's actually what they call an unknown, where they know it's coming, but they don't know exactly what it is.

They have half an hour to adjust their robot and their program and make it work.

So, they have two unknowns in two rounds.

That's to ensure that the parents and the coaches didn't do the work.

And now the kids going to have to perform at their own capacity and level and skill.

It may be obvious to you by now that many of the competitors were not able to complete the task.

And yet this is another lesson learned.

Failure is the beginning of success.

And I want them to know that.

Say, 'Thank you, failure.

Welcome, failure.

Oh, yes, I look forward to failure because I know then I can go higher.'


At the end of the day, the Robofest international community gathers to celebrate the winners.

The junior division Game competition was won by an American team from Illinois.

So, this first-place Junior Game trophy awarded by the city of St. Pete Beach goes to team Jammin' Awesome Blockies.

[ Cheers and applause ]

So, it was hard because of the special rules, but Jensie helped program them.

And yeah, it was fun.

It was incredibly stressful, in my opinion.

And you had to cross your fingers every time the robot ran because if it's just a smidgen off, you're all doomed!

And the first-place winner for the senior division of the Exhibition competition went to a team from Bogotá, Colombia.

Our first-place award goes to team numbers 2796... [ Cheers and applause ]

It gives us a great chance to actually compete against other countries at an international level, to actually put our skills to the test and, well, show the world what we can do.

And we can see that this not only place that we can compete with other countries.

It's a place that we learn.

And we learned about their cultures, their projects.

Many awards were given out today, but more importantly, thousands of young people have grown and are being prepared to become future scientists.

If you enjoy, you learn how to apply what you have learned.

So, I believe in Robofest.

All the students are enjoying this program, and I know they'll apply what they have learned.

I will not sleep an hour if it had to do with making these kids see -- this is what your future looks like, and this is what I want you to do, but I know you can do it.

You got the knowledge.

You got the willpower.

You got whatever it takes to make this future and this world a better place.

♪♪ ♪♪

In San Antonio, Texas, climate change has made summers hotter and thunderstorms stronger.

City and cultural leaders are taking a progressive stance in addressing the issue despite being in the middle of a state where climate change can be a difficult subject to broach.

This segment is part of an ongoing public media reporting initiative called 'Peril and Promise,' telling the human stories and solutions of climate change.

Reporter Chris Duel explains how the city is crafting its message to engage its residents.

June 27, 2017 -- just days after being elected mayor of San Antonio, Ron Nirenberg took his first action as mayor, signing a resolution in support of the Paris climate agreement...

But this is not just talk for San Antonio.

We're getting started.

...a big deal, considering San Antonio is a largely conservative city with many skeptics of climate change.

But San Antonio leaders have had to address the local effects of climate change -- hotter temperatures and increased storm events that have resulted in record flooding.

The city started a conversation with a survey of residents, called 'Resilient SA.'

Note, the phrase 'climate change' is not there.

So, when we go into the community and start talking with folks about climate, we're not necessarily going to lead with climate.

We want to talk to them about what their quality of life is.

We want them to talk about 'Have you noticed changes in your neighborhood in terms of weather patterns, in terms of heat?'

But the mayor holds fast to his feeling that for San Antonio, the wording isn't what matters here.

It's about the plans the city needs to make moving forward.

It really doesn't matter what you call it, you know.

There will be concerns.

We've called it sustainability.

We've called it resiliency.

We've called it global warming.

We've called it climate change.

Whatever you call it, what it means for communities is that we have to build resilience.

We have to build an adaptation strategy.

San Antonio has the largest city-owned utility in the country.

City Public Service Energy is fully onboard with progressive policies.

We've actually been on a plan to reduce our own emissions, and we would like to be working much more intensely with the rest of the community just for the benefit of the people who live here.

So much so, CPS Energy has given the University of Texas at San Antonio half a million dollars to come up with a climate action plan for the city.

Dr. Hazem Rashed-Ali with UTSA is the lead researcher for the project.

The climate action adaptation plan that we're developing will consist of two parts.

So, the first part is the climate action, which is essentially us developing a baseline of what's called the greenhouse gases inventory in San Antonio, which is a process of quantifying all the environmental impacts of different community activities -- so, like transportation, like energy use, water use, waste.

Then the adaptation part will start with doing what's called a climate projection.

So that's looking ahead into the future through 2050 and deciding what the climate of San Antonio is likely to be at that point of time.

So you have the city, a prestigious university, and a progressive utility company coming together to work on a plan to address the changing climate.

That's great, but what about the most important element -- the people?

Selling the idea of climate change means changing attitudes.

It helps when one of the city's biggest proponents is a well-known and beloved Catholic priest.

The official teaching of the Catholic Church is that climate change is real, it's happening, and we have a moral obligation to care for it, that God created us, and He gave us the Earth, and He said, 'Take care of it.'

And that's what we're trying to become more aware of in the Church, is that everything we touch potentially has an effect on our climate and on our planet, and so we have to really be aware of that and help our people to be aware of that.

One of the things we want to frame the discussion around is something around the idea of the good life.

What is the good life in San Antonio?

♪♪ And then frame it around 'Well, what happens when you get two weeks of 100-plus-degree temperature?

How does that affect your ability to enjoy the good life?'

The climate change conversation is already strong in San Antonio's architectural community, where new developments downtown, like the Pearl, create a community in itself where people can do almost everything without a car.

It is a hard sell, especially in Texas.

We love our cars, right?

So, San Antonio's work to address climate change is underway with citizens in the driver's seat with an eye to the future.

We have an absolute fundamental responsibility and obligation to the future generations.

And whenever I baptize a child nowadays, I always think, 'What kind of world is this child going to inherit?

Are they going to be constantly fighting to just stay alive because we have pretty much destroyed the Earth?'


Ready? 4, 3, 2...

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.