SciTech Now Episode 437

In this episode of SciTech Now, we take a look at the data behind our changing climate; Don Melnik discusses the extinction of thousands of animals and plant species; we visit the Liberty Science Center; and how GPS and tracking technology is being used on birds.



Coming up... The data behind our changing climate...

Both ocean-sediment cores and ice cores are key to understanding the climate of the past.

...a look at the extinction crisis...

There are areas within countries where many, many species are now considered vulnerable.

...a new planetarium experience...

It's so big that the storied planetarium at the Natural History Museum can fit inside it.

...Fitbits for birds.

Every bird is a mystery.

Every bird has a story to tell.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

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.

In this segment, we visit the University of the Incarnate Word in Alamo Heights, Texas, where assistant professor of meteorology Gerald Mulvey introduces us to a variety of instruments used to survey the climates past and present.

Now, data comes from about 13 different sources, and today, we'll actually go through about four of those sources so we get an idea of where the data comes from, how it's actually processed, and then, finally, how we can actually use it.

Here we are at the Incarnate Word Headwaters.

this is a cooperative observing station for the National Weather Service.

These are a whole series of instruments which are actually read daily by both students and faculty.

This is the simplest of the instruments.

This is merely a cylinder into which we put a dipstick, and on a daily basis, we measure how much precipitation actually occurs here.

This is a weighing-bucket gauge.

The gauge actually weighs the amount of precipitation that actually falls into it, and it actually records it inside on a microprocessor.

And, of course, it's powered by this solar cell.

Now, Chris, this is the last instrument we have here at the station.

This is a temperature gauge which measures the maximum and minimum temperature, and it's recorded, and then sent off to the National Weather Service.

One other form of data that we can actually obtain to understand the climate comes from these ocean-sediment cores.

This is a core that was collected from about 300 feet below the floor of the ocean, under about 1,000 feet of water.

From the composition of this core, we can tell something about the climate, and what was going on in the ocean waters above it.

There are also chemical qualities of the water which can tell us indirectly about the temperature.

This process starts as material settles on the ocean floor and is built up over the centuries and millennia.

Ice cores are taken from the antarctic region and from the Greenland region.

From those cores, we can tell what gases are actually trapped in when the core was actually put down.

We can also look at particulates in there.

We can also get some idea of what the temperature was like, as well as the precipitation.

Also captured are dust and pollen, which can tell us what was growing and, through that, what the climate was like at the time.

These cores can reach as far back as 80,000 years, and potentially much farther.

Both ocean-sediment cores and ice cores are key to understanding the climate of the past.

These are actually tree rings, and this is an example here, a good example, of about a 15-year-old tree.

Each of those rings represent one year's growth.

Now, the tree rings start out as light in color during the early springtime, and they actually change darker as they get towards the fall.

So it becomes very obvious what a ring is, and it's an annual ring.

The width of that ring actually gives us information about the precipitation, and a little bit about the temperature during which the tree actually grew.

This tree ring is about 89 years old, and it comes right here from San Antonio.

My students and I have been actually diligently counting all of these rings, and we're actually going to look to try to trace the climate back 89 years using this particular tree cookie.

These tree rings are very important in our research about climate.

The data is used to actually join, merge together with other sources of data, like the data we collect down in the Headwaters region and other forms of data to actually get a more complete picture of what the climate was like, particularly here in Texas.

We can actually use these data to actually help calibrate our climate models, as well as understand the direction in which the climate is actually moving.

Now, Chris, what this is, is this is actually a measuring device which we use to document the sizes in photographs.

These actually break off.

These are 10 centimeters.

And each of these individual ones are 1 centimeter, for a total of 30 centimeters in length.

So, as I put this down and a picture is taken, you can actually tell and scale off of that how big the tree rings are.

All of the data that we've been seeing, the sources of this data, are really important for us to understand both what the climate is now and what it will be like in the future, and if the climate is actually changing.

And there's every indication that the climate is shifting, and it is due to human efforts, human beings and what they do.

We have an opportunity to intervene and to try to mitigate this.

Will it work?

That's a good question.

There are a lot of people we have to convince to actually change the way they are doing things, and we have to do this to preserve life for not only our children, but also for the people of the world, particularly those who live close to the ocean, because the ocean levels will begin to rise as the water actually expands because of the heat being captured by it.

All of this focuses us on what we have to do in order to sustain our lives here in the United States and around the world.

A new study is re-evaluating the extinction of thousands of animal and plant species.

Leading this project is Columbia University professor and biologist Don Melnick.

He joins us now to explain why he believes current extinction estimates are vastly underestimated.

First of all, how do we measure, how do we get estimates now of extinction events?

So, we can do two things.

One, we can look over the historical record -- and by that, I mean, say, the last 500 or 600 years -- and look at species that were recorded in particular places, and look now and we'll see that, in fact, they're not there anymore.

So we see localized extinction.

And if those were the only places they existed, then we have complete extinction of that species.

The other thing is, we have something called the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which is sort of UN-level body which deploys scientists all over the world and asks them for information about particular species.

So, they're keeping track of what condition species are in.

And by that I mean, what the size of their range is, what the likelihood that they will suffer local extinction or complete extinction based on the size of their range and other characteristics of their range.

So, are these researchers that are out there, do they generate any kind of a map or a list of where this is happening, and what's worse?

That's a good question.

They generate both.

So, the data that they have is aggregated and based on bringing all of those data together.

They create maps for each species.

So each species has a range map.

On the basis of that range map, they get a sense of what the vulnerability might be.

And so the study that we have been doing has really been focused on, how do you create that range map in the most accurate way possible, using the latest technology possible?

And what we did was, we focused particularly on a set of species that are endemic to the mountains in the southwestern part of India.

And by endemic, we mean they're found there and nowhere else.

If they disappear there, they're gone forever.

And so we focused on those species.

But it would take thousands of scientists and many, many years to gather the information you need.

But we were lucky, because people in India are -- Birding is a big pastime.

And also because Cornell University set up something called eBird, which is a database.

So when you're out in the field, you can see a bird, you can snap a picture of it.

You have a GPS location.

You can enter it into the file.

And suddenly you have a datum.

You have something that is useful.

We took all of that for that mountain range and for these endemic species.

And we were able to look at 18 species very closely because of that.

And what we found is, using that and using satellite imagery and using GIS and using 27 different biological and geophysical parameters, that we have actually, at a very fine scale -- that is, we know exactly what's in a 100x100-foot square across that entire mountain range.

We have a value for every single one of those parameters.


And so we looked at the correlation between sighting a bird and those parameters.

That allowed us to, then, retroactively go back and say, 'Wherever we find those parameters in values of this particular type, we see a bird.'

Now, in other areas that people haven't gone birding, if we see those parameters, the birds are likely to be there.

And, basically, using all that technology, we were able to estimate the range of these species.

But what we found is, when we estimated the range of the species, they were maybe 1/5 or 1/10 the size of what had been registered 20 years ago.

So, does that mean that you can take these kinds of tools and apply it to other species in other places around the world, as well?

That's exactly right.

So, what we're doing now is we're automating this approach so that anybody can use it.

Because, obviously, we're just a small group.

We can't go everywhere in the world and do it.

But there are many scientists who are on the ground in places all over the world.

The idea is to automate this so that anyone, anywhere can use it.

Not just on birds, but on mammals and reptiles, amphibians, insects, whatever they want to use it on.

Even plants.

They can use this sort of collection of technologies as a kind of package.

What's the importance of extinction data?

How is this used in policy?


So, usually, when a species is endangered, it raises the level of concern not only among scientists, but very often among policymakers who are in that particular local area.

And then that can spread out and suddenly become a great concern even nationally.

We've seen this in many countries.

We saw it in the United States with the bald eagle.

We see it in Indonesia with the Javan gibbon, the small ape.

We just see it in many, many places -- China with the panda, whatever it is.

But our view is, there are these charismatic species.

But we would rather this be focused on the whole collection of species.

So, by automating this, you can look, and by using citizen-science data, so you don't have to have your own army of scientists on the ground, and using the certain filtering processes for that citizen-science data, 'cause not all of it is accurate, that you can then deploy it over very large landscapes.

And that should determine that there are areas within countries where many, many species are now considered vulnerable, right, and therefore the attention of policymakers should be on those areas.

Not a particular species, but on the area in general.

Because something is going on in that area which is endangering many of the species that are there.

All right.

Don Melnick, Director of the Center for Environment Economy and Society at Columbia University.

Thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.

Both ocean currents and winds influence the earth's climate, and they also influence each other.

So, when the winds blow over the ocean surface, they create the current.

And current carrying warm or cold water can influence the wind speed that's blowing over it.

Understanding this interaction allows us to better understand how the energy moves between atmosphere to the ocean, and vice versa.

Think of police-gun radar that measures the speed of moving vehicles.

So, DopplerScatt has some of the same characteristics.

That radar can measure the speed of the vehicle coming towards or away from the policeman.

So what we do is, we fly DopplerScatt over the ocean surface, and we point its antenna in 360 degrees using a spinning motor so that we can view the ocean surface from different angles.

It pings the ocean, sending the microwaves out, and waits for the return that comes back from the ocean surface.

So, the higher the return power, the higher the wind speed that blows over the ocean.

Within that signal, we also have information about the relative motion of the ocean with respect to the instrument.

Whenever possible, we actually like to trial our techniques and instruments in an airborne environment.

This allows us to tinker with them until we get them right.

And this is an allowable cost, as opposed to a space-boarding mission, which is a lot more expensive.

To literally get DopplerScatt off the ground, the JPL team collaborates with the NASA Armstrong team that own and operate the King Air B200 aircraft that DopplerScatt flies on.

♪♪ DopplerScatt is an amazing earth-science technology because it allows us to simultaneously measure ocean-surface currents and winds from this single instrument.

So it's sort of like getting a two-for-one deal.

Science lovers in New Jersey are now able to experience the cosmos in a whole new way -- on the largest planetarium in the Western Hemisphere.

Reporter Maddie Orton took a trip to the Liberty Science Center to see for herself.

We're now flying down into the heart of this cloud of gas.

When it comes to planetariums, size matters.

That's why Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey, upgraded the organization's former IMAX movie dome to an 89-foot full-dome planetarium, making it the largest in the Western Hemisphere.

I mean, it's so big that the storied planetarium at the Natural History Museum can fit inside it.

And when it comes to planetariums, size really makes a difference.

Because it simulates what it would be like being out in Montana or Big Sky Country, where there's not light pollution, where they're not built.

Thanks to $5 million in upgrades, President and CEO Paul Hoffman says the new full-dome planetarium now feels like a fully-immsersive space experience.

The dome was there, but everything else is new, including the screen that goes within the dome.

So it's 10 projectors, and the image is seamlessly digitally sewn together.

The universe is full of examples of galaxies that have collided this way in the past.

We know it's a fairly common thing.

So, when I first flipped the switch on this, it was amazing.

I just sat there for hours, enjoying the images and taking it in.

While the planetarium has the capability to run films, the new setup also allows the Science Center to provide live shows with a host who can maneuver the audience's view of the sky from a tablet.

According to Hoffman, it takes a computer-server room about the size of his office to make that magic happen.

[ Children exclaim ] But Planetarium Director Mike Shanahan says it's worth it.

We can follow the interest of the audience, for example, any direction we want to.

You can assess what they're interested in.

If they want to see a black hole, we can bring on a black hole.

If they want to hear about the recent Falcon Heavy launch, we can show that video.

And it allows you to allow for questions back and forth.

That ability to converse with the audience let's Shanahan really drive home the concepts he teaches, which is especially valuable because Liberty Science Center's planetarium shows correlate with New Jersey's student-learning standards in science.

You all are inside the actual, fabled rings of Saturn.

A planetarium really vividly brings things to life.

So if you're trying to explain the reasons for phases of the moon, for example, it's much more vivid to show how the moon changes in the planetarium sky like this than to do it just in the classroom.

And so putting all the resources of this sky overhead to help kids grasp the concepts of why eclipses happen, why the seasons change, distances in the universe.

These are all things we can demonstrate very vividly in this environment.

Hoffman says the Science Center will regularly change their planetarium shows to reflect what's happening in space research.

So, when you come here, you're gonna get the latest astronomy news, particularly when it's something visual -- a new image that's come back from an observatory somewhere in the world.

Or, right now, the death of Stephen Hawking, the great astrophysicist.

We have a presentation, what he discovered about black holes and the universe, that's part of the show.

And that means there will always be something new to pull visitors back into Liberty Science Center's orbit.

If you've ever used a step counter or a heart-rate sensor, you have used the same technology that biologists at Lenoir-Rhyne University are using to study herons.

Up next, we take a look at how the same GPS and tracking technology is being used on birds.

This is more than just a photo of a majestic Great Blue Heron.

The bird, by the way, is on Lake Norman.

It's near Charlotte.

No, this is also a picture of frustration.

It was kind of, like, aggravating that it was across the lake and not coming to the bait bin.

But it was exciting to see it, and get to see actually how big it was.

And here's what makes these photos images of feathered frustration.

Usually we put something over his head, also, which seems to calm them down, if they can't really see.

And so it's a multi-person job.

Somebody has to be holding the bird, and somebody else has to be taking the measurements.

Like that.

The students in the Environmental Club at Maiden High School want to catch, measure, tag, and release the heron.

It's part of a nationwide study of the great birds.

They've been learning how to do it safely -- for the bird and for themselves.

The tarsus is gonna be this part of his foot.

So it's gonna be from down here at his foot up to kind of that first joint.

So we're gonna take that measurement of the left and the right side of him.

We're also gonna measure his wing chord -- basically from here all the way to the tip of his wing.

And this is also what we would use whenever we do the culmen.

We would come up here and we would measure from the feathers all the way to the very tip end.

When we have done the ones in the past, we've gotten it within 30 to 45 minutes.

More on the study in a moment.

That box in the water behind the bird is filled with tiny fish.

There are 47 small and large traps underwater around the bait box.

The traps are designed to simply hold the bird, not injure it.

The plan calls for the bird to step in a trap on its way to the box.

The students would swoop in, quickly do their work, and release the bird.

The heron has other ideas.

It was cool to see it.

I mean, we all got up out of chairs, we started running down.

We saw him in the trap.

And he was stuck there pretty good when we got down there.

And when the doctor was, like, 15 feet away, he just took off into the air.

[ Sighs ] It was disappointing.

It was really disappointing.

Catching and studying the large birds hasn't always been disappointing for students in the Environmental Club.

These photos are from 2014.

The students helped capture and study a heron they named Big Blue.

It was also on Lake Norman.

And that takes us to that study of the great birds.

And then, of course, every bird is a mystery.

Every bird has a story to tell.

And they all tell different stories.

We have to learn to speak the birds' language.

And they don't speak in our language.

So we have to use this technology so they can tell us their story.

So, besides measuring the birds and taking a blood sample, each bird is fitted with a high-tech tracking device.

So, this is a mash-up from the GPS system of a smartphone with a Fitbit, all being solar powered.

We can measure, basically, the location of the bird in 'X,Y.'

So we can locate it on the globe.

We can also see how high it is above the surface.

And we also know what the bird is doing -- so whether it's flapping, going up and down, going side to side.

And it operates just like a Fitbit that people are wearing now.

So we actually have an annual fingerprint of how active the bird is.

130 Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets across the country have been outfitted with the devices over the past five years.

So, these things will communicate with the cellphone network, okay?

So, three times a day, it connects to the nearest cellphone tower and sends all the GPS coordinates of the bird to that cellphone tower.

And here's why that's important.

The data shows that heron, Big Blue, never leaves the Lake Norman area.

Based upon the GPS coordinates, we know that this bird, during the months of March and April, was using 65 acres of shoreline territory in order to catch enough fish to feed itself and its chicks.

And then, when we go to the non-breeding season, you can see that the amount of area has dropped quite a bit.

Now we're down to 27 acres.

And notice, no more visits to the colony.

And also, no more visits to some of these outlying places.

The bird can meet all of its needs in just 27 acres along this little piece of shoreline right here.

Other herons and egrets have ranges of hundreds, even thousands of miles to meet their needs.

They're not making distinctions with what country they're in.

A bird in Maine is going there, and it's breeding, and then it goes to Haiti for the wintertime.

It's important to know that Maine and Haiti are connected.

The study provides a unique insight into how the birds live, and how they survive.

This is when this bird arrived at the breeding colony.

And at that point, it doesn't have to travel very much because it's courting, it doesn't have any chicks yet.

But then, as time goes on, the chicks hatch, you can see the distance flown per day increases 'cause the demands of his family are increasing.

But then the chicks fledge, and the amount of flight drops off precipitously, and now the bird is just taking care of itself, and perhaps saying, 'Whew!'

[ Chuckles ] 'That was a hard breeding season.'

Every organism is like a lightbulb.

It has a certain rate at which it uses energy, whether you're talking about an oak tree or a bacteria or a bird.

So, based upon the wattage that the animal has intrinsically is going to determine how much territory it's going to have to use.

This technology has actually allowed us to estimate or calculate an ecological footprint for an animal.

We know how many acres these birds need of shoreline.

This is an opportunity to get close to an animal that you haven't been able to get close to before, and learn something about it.

Birds, it's very hard to know where a bird goes.

And so a tracking device on the back of a bird can teach you so much that we haven't known before.


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.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by...