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August 20, 2009

Your lawn: Public environmental enemy no .1?

When we talk about issues like the dead zone or fish kills, rarely do we think about our immediate backyards as being the cause.

Pauls lawn Sept 28.JPG
The green cost of a green lawn.

But scientists are now finding that they have underestimated the amount of environmental havoc wreaked by the maintenance of our lawns. A new study finds that previous estimates of pollutants from lawns, such as pesticides and fertilizers, have been too low by about 50 percent.

The problem is that we often need to add fertilizers to keep our lawns green, and pesticides to keep bugs away (as it happens, I sprayed for fire ants yesterday). Then, when we water our lawns, or it rains, these chemicals drain into rivers lakes and other bodies of water.

This study calls to mind an effort at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, where ecologists are attempting to develop native lawns that reduce the need to mow, water, weed and feeding.

The answer, says ecologist Mark Simmons, is a mixture of drought-adapted native grasses. The center's research has shown that it takes less effort to maintain a lawn of mixed native turf grasses than a non-native lawn such as bermuda grass.

Another solution, scientists say, could be a ban on phosphorous-containing lawn fertilizers.

UPDATE: Great discussion in the comments below, so be sure to check them out. Also, 3cents asks, "Could someone post some suggestions for organic fertilizer and pesticides?"

Posted by Eric Berger at 07:32 AM in | Comments (27)

August 19, 2009

The case for sending robots, not humans, to Mars

With the Augustine commission near the August 31 completion of its report on human spaceflight, I wanted to speak with a proponent of sending robotic missions to Mars instead of humans.

One of the most vigorous supporters of this approach is John Merchant, CEO of the robotics firm RPU Technology, who believes that with more sophisticated technology humans can explore Mars and other worlds almost as if they were there, through "telepresence."

A model of the Spirit rover.

Here's a partial transcript of an interview I did this week with Merchant in which he more clearly articulates his preference of robots over humans.

Why shouldn't we send humans to Mars?

Putting more money into human spaceflight is going to be extremely unproductive. There was an article in the June issue of the IEEE Spectrum called Mars is Hard, and that's a diplomatic title, where they listed all of the difficulties of going to Mars. If you read that article you would see how unbelievably difficult and expensive it is to go to Mars. My position is that we shouldn't give up on the human exploration of space, but we recognize that you can perform the human exploration of space by telepresence.

What is telepresence?

Just to give a few examples of how we're currently using telepresence: Soldiers in Afghanistan are using unmanned vehicles to remotely find and disable IEDs. Airmen in Colorado are conducting strike missions on the other side of the world. There's an FDA approved operating suite that enables surgeons to perform an operation remotely, by telepresence. And we've already sent two rovers to Mars using early-stage telepresence to dig into the surface of Mars to look for signs of water. I very strongly feel that if we devoted a fraction of the resources that we've been devoting to manned spaceflight missions to telepresence, we could develop a capability so that humans on Earth could experience and function in a distant space environment like Mars as effectively as if they were actually there.

Continue reading "The case for sending robots, not humans, to Mars"

Posted by Eric Berger at 02:27 PM in | Comments (20)

As Bill rages, Texas realistically has five weeks to closely watch the tropics

Hurricane Bill is now a most impressive tropical system with 135-mph winds. While the track models have trended westward over the last day, the highest likelihood remains that Bill will stay offshore and not substantially affect the northeast U.S. Coast.

Still, there's about a 30 percent chance of tropical storm winds affecting Massachusetts as Bill passes by, but for now at least the likelihood of hurricane-force winds remains low.

Bill now a classic-looking powerful hurricane.

The last hurricane to directly strike New England was Bob, a category 2 storm that did $2.8 billion in damage in 1991.

With three named storms as of Aug. 19, we're right on track to have 10 this season, which is fairly normal over the long run of activity but low for the recent, active period in the Atlantic basin since 1995. Bill's appearance as the season's first major hurricane is about two weeks early, based upon progress of the average Atlantic season since 1944.

Typically hurricane season peaks around Sept. 10, so we're still three weeks from that point. There's a high chance of activity in the Atlantic basin through October and the season doesn't officially end until Nov. 30.

Texas, for practical purposes, really only has to be concerned about the next five weeks. While it's certainly possible to get struck by a hurricane after Sept. 24, it's only happened to Texas three times since the 1850s.

So hang on for another month and some change, folks, and we can begin breathing a bit easier.

Posted by Eric Berger at 08:27 AM in , | Comments (19)

August 18, 2009

The commercial perspective on human spaceflight

With the Augustine commission rapidly nearing the completion of its report on the course of human spaceflight, due at the end of this month, one of the emerging themes has been the role of commercial transport.

In particular, members of the commission seem open to the idea of commercial companies to provide some sort of space taxi to take astronauts from Earth to the international space station after the shuttle retires, likely in 2011. The goal is to narrow the window during which the United States must rely on Soyuz vehicles to a few years.

To get the commercial vantage point on the Augustine commission I spoke with two members of the Next Step in Space coalition, Mark Sirangelo, executive vice president of Sierra Nevada Corporation and Larry Williams, vice president of strategic relations for Space X.

SpaceDev's Dream Chaser.

A partial transcript of the interview follows.

From the commercial perspective, how soon, and for how much money, could we have a low-Earth-orbit crew transport vehicle?

Sirangelo: Both of our companies are fairly well along in our programs to deliver crews to space. Our program uses a NASA-derived vehicle that has been in development by NASA for 10 years. We took it over four years ago, and are proposing to launch it on an existing launch system that has flown many hundreds of times. Our program is called Dream Chaser. We're not looking to propose something that's only on paper and hasn't been discussed, it's really about marrying two systems that have had significant amount of research into them. We think it can happen within a few years, not within a decade.

Williams: We have a contract to deliver cargo to the space station, with an eye toward eventually delivering crew. We're pretty far along. The Augustine commission seems to have come to the conclusion that commercial is the way to go for crew-to-LEO (low-Earth-orbit). Almost every viable option they're looking at includes that. If you look at the alternative, the Ares I program, their belief is that that capability couldn't be turned on until 2016 at the soonest, and the only way that could be done is if they were to retire the space station in 2015.

Continue reading "The commercial perspective on human spaceflight"

Posted by Eric Berger at 11:10 AM in | Comments (12)

August 17, 2009

My, but aren't we humans a superstitious bunch?

A survey of more than 2,000 Britons (see .pdf) found that the following percentages of them hold or endorse the following superstitions:

A broken mirror, a soul astray?

• Touching or knocking on wood - 86%

• Crossing fingers - 64%

• Walking under a ladder - 49%

• Breaking a mirror - 34%

• Worried about the number 13 - 25%

• Carrying a lucky charm - 24%

There's no scientific basis for any of these superstitions, of course. But there must be some evolutionary basis. One clue may come from the work of biologists Kevin Foster and Hanna Kokko, whose paper from last year (see .pdf) concluded that evolution may favor beliefs or strategies that lead to frequent errors in assessment as long as the occasional correct response carries a large benefit.

That is, if one of our ancestors heard something go bump in the night, and occasionally it was a bear, he or she might come to assume that bumps in the night were always bears. Even if this wasn't always the case, the rare occasion that it was might save his or her life. That's what we call an evolutionary benefit.

If this sounds something like Pascal's Wager, that's because it kind of is.

Posted by Eric Berger at 06:25 PM in | Comments (25)

Live chat: 2009 hurricane season

Posted by Eric Berger at 01:30 PM in | Comments (8)

First round of tropical activity a glancing blow

The first real action of the tropics could have been so much worse.

• Instead of choking on dry air along its path toward the Caribbean, Tropical Storm Ana could have maintained its strength and threatened to become a hurricane in warm Gulf. It did not and now will probably reach Florida as a remnant low. There's about a 30 percent chance it again becomes a tropical storm. The only potential threat is that it may come ashore near where Claudette did where the ground is already saturated.

Hurricane Bill, which more likely than not will become the season's first major hurricane at some point during the next five days, should not threaten any landmass but possibly Bermuda. That island will need to watch the storm closely.

Tropical Storm Claudette, unlike its namesake which dropped 43 inches of rainfall on Alvin in 1979, moved inland at midnight and should only drop 3 to 5 inches of rain on most areas of Florida. Panama City seems to have gotten the most, with about 2 inches of rain during the last 12 hours.

While Bill should persist for at least a week or so, it appears that elsewhere the tropics may take a breath. The image below shows how waves are still coming off Africa, but the models don't seem to want to develop them for at least the next four or five days:

U.S. Navy

With three named storms now having formed, we're right in line with the climatology for a normal hurricane season. We're still closer to the beginning than the end.

• Coming today at 1:30 p.m.: a live chat on hurricane season.

Posted by Eric Berger at 07:27 AM in | Comments (20)

August 16, 2009

Ana, Bill, T.D. 4 and the future of our coast

Here's a look at what's up with the tropics, and an invitation to an important public forum on hurricanes Wednesday night.


Ana is having a difficult time strengthening due to its fast forward motion and dry air nearby and in its path.

Drier air is indicated by the reddish, brown tint.

As a result the hurricane center now forecasts a very moderate tropical storm or even a depression coming across Cuba and into the Gulf of Mexico late next week. We'll have to see what the storm does once it reaches the Gulf, if anything is left of it.

For now, let the dry air do its thing.

(7 p.m. UPDATE: Ana has weakened into a depression, and it is still aimed at the Gulf of Mexico. What will happen when it reaches the Gulf? Hopefully there will be nothing left after it crosses Cuba and Hispaniola.)


Unlike Ana, Bill is now strengthening and will probably become the season's first hurricane within the next day or so. It looks impressive in satellite images. The hurricane center, in fact, gives Bill a 50 percent chance of becoming a major hurricane by Thursday.

It's therefore good news that the latest track models for Bill indicate that the storm is likely to avoid the Caribbean, and likely Florida and the U.S. East coast as well. In this likely scenario Bill re-curves into the Atlantic and becomes a "fish storm."

It looks like the European model might be right again.

(7 p.m. UPDATE: Bill is nearing hurricane strength, but happily the models continue to trend toward turning this potentially powerful storm back out to sea before reaching significant landmasses.)


Not much to say about this storm as it moves inland during the next day or so. The big question is whether it becomes a tropical storm before doing so, and at this point it's about a 50-50 proposition. It shouldn't matter a whole lot anyway.

Too bad it's not coming to Texas because this is the kind of tropical weather the state desperately needs to break its historic drought.

(7 p.m. UPDATE: This system became Tropical Storm Claudette today, a name many in Houston remember well. The storm put on an impressive burst earlier, but it looks like Claudette will come ashore over the Florida panhandle with the winds of a moderate tropical storm.)



In today's Chronicle I have a story that updates the status of the Ike Dike, a plan to extend Galveston's sea wall and protect Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula. The heart of the issue is whether we should harden our coasts against storm surge or retreat from the coast.

The story serves to highlight the second of three Rice Design Alliance forums on post-Ike planning. This meeting will feature both William Merrell, originator of the Ike Dike, and Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer, presenting options for protecting coastal communities and Houston's industrial base from hurricanes.

This forum begins at 7 p.m. Wednesday, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in the Brown Auditorium. It is free and open to the public. I plan to be there so please say hello.

Finally, as you may recall, in July I participated in the initial forum that served to highlight some of the risks Houston faces from hurricanes. You can now find the presentations from that forum online.

Posted by Eric Berger at 10:27 AM in , | Comments (24)

August 15, 2009

The tropics have gone boom: On Ana and Bill

6 a.m. SUNDAY UPDATE: Ana seems to be dying, at least for the moment, and Bill has the look of a fish storm. Good thing too as it looks likely to become a major hurricane. And Tropical Depression Four will bring the southeast U.S. some rain. Too bad it's not coming to Texas. I'll have a full update later this morning.

ORIGINAL ENTRY: For 75 days during this year's hurricane season we heard barely more than a peep from the tropics and now, poof, two named storms in a single day. Let's start with Ana.


On Tuesday, when Ana first became a tropical depression, this looked like a system that would re-curve harmlessly into the Atlantic Ocean and become a "fish" storm. Now, four days later, with the system becoming a full-fledged tropical storm, it's looking more like Ana will threaten land.

The official forecast brings Ana into the Gulf of Mexico next Thursday as a strong tropical storm with 70 mph winds, This afternoon's models are in reasonably good agreement over five days:


We can reasonably say, then, that Puerto Rico and Cuba can expect rainfall from this system at the least, and that probably goes for Florida as well. After that? Who knows. The Gulf of Mexico is definitely in play.

The key question is how strong Ana will become. The official forecast is lower than most of the intensity forecast models (under "Early-cycle intensity guidance," click frame2). This is because of dry air around the storm and the fact that the official forecast brings Ana over Hispaniola, which forecaster Jack Beven notes is, "an occurrence that has destroyed storms much stronger than Ana."

For this reason there's considerable uncertainty over how strong Ana will become. It could enter the Gulf as a hurricane or Hispaniola could tear it apart. This storm has made quite a comeback since Thursday afternoon, when it had weakened from a tropical depression into a remnant low. So it definitely bears watching.


T.S. Bill finally formed this afternoon after being a darling of the computer models since at least last Monday, when the GFS model was developing it into a large hurricane and bringing it toward Puerto Rico.

Where will Bill go? The official forecast brings the storm westward along a track just to the north of Ana's path. On such a trajectory it certainly threatens Florida or the eastern U.S. coast.

But I hold out some hope that Bill will curve northward into the Atlantic before reaching land. The European model, which handled Hurricane Ike nicely last year, has been consistently producing such a solution. Even the GFS is now edging slightly northward in its track, having Bill well north of Hispaniola in six days time.

Alas it's far too early to know for sure, and anywhere from the Gulf of Mexico to the open Atlantic remain possibilities.

Bill is also clearly worth watching because it has potential to become a major hurricane. The intensity models (018z) run Saturday evening show a clear upward trajectory in the storm's intensity as it moves west-northwestward this week:

Colo. State

That's what warm seas and light shear will do for you.

Finally, it's worth noting that the tropical waves are lining up behind Bill as they come across Africa (see an impressive image), and there's no question there will be more storms developing in the deep tropics during the next few waves. It's that time of year, folks.

Posted by Eric Berger at 05:51 PM in | Comments (31)

Ana forms. What does it mean?

With the formation of Tropical Storm Ana in the Atlantic today I thought it might be a good time to assess both what Ana might do, and the bigger picture of what it means for the rest of the season. So here goes...

Q. What's Tropical Storm Ana going to do?

A. At this time the track models for Ana are in good agreement about bringing the system toward Florida over the next five days. This seems most likely, but it's still entirely possible the system could slip into the Gulf of Mexico or travel up the U.S. East Coast.

The intensity forecast is less certain with some models developing it into a hurricane and others dissipating the storm. The National Hurricane Center forecast is relatively conservative in calling for a powerful tropical storm as Ana heads toward Florida.

There's no question NASA will be watching this storm closely with space shuttle Discovery sitting on the pad at Cape Canaveral, poised for a launch in nine days time. NASA's rules call for the shuttle to rolled off the launch pad if peak winds are predicted to hit 79 mph or greater.

Q. Is Ana's development a sign that more storms are on the way?

A. Probably. As I mentioned last week, forecasters are anticipating a spike in activity during the second half of August and into September, so I suspect that we will probably see at least half a dozen storms during the next six weeks or so.

For several days we've been talking about a tropical wave that the models are bullish on development, and the National Hurricane says this wave, 90L, is on the brink of developing into Tropical Storm Bill. At this time the models bring this system along a path similar to Ana, but a couple days behind.

(10:30 a.m. UPDATE: 90L has become Tropical Depression Three, and the reason for the concern we've had this week appears justified. The hurricane center has the storm just north of Puerto Rico by Thursday morning as a category 2 hurricane. More on this storm later, when it becomes Bill.)

In any case, this is the time of year when tropical waves move off Africa and develop into hurricanes. That's why we're now approaching the peak of the season, and as the water vapor image below shows, they're coming one after the other.

U.S. Navy

Q. When's the last time the Atlantic hurricane basin stayed this quiet, this long?

A. That would be 1992, when Andrew formed on August 17. As you probably recall, Hurricane Andrew is the most recent of the three Category 5 hurricanes to ever strike the United States. Before that? Tropical Storm Arthur, on August 28, in 1984. In short it's rare to go this late into a season without a named storm, but not unprecedented.

Q. Has there ever been an Atlantic season without a single tropical storm?

A. Not in recorded history. The 1914 Atlantic season comes closest, with just one tropical storm that formed on September 14 and dissipated five days later near where Hurricane Rita made landfall in 2005.

Q. Why has this season started so slowly?

A. During the first two months of the season the deep tropics, that is tropical waves moving off Africa and spinning up into tropical storms and hurricanes, just aren't very active. This typically happens in early August, and it's what we're now seeing. Rather, activity during the early part of the Atlantic season more commonly develops in June and July. The image below shows the general pattern for hurricane development in July.


This year, in addition to a developing El Niño, a stronger Azores-Bermuda High has caused greater amounts of wind shear in the Caribbean Sea, and there are a number of other meteorological factors as well that have contributed to the slow start. Chris Hebert of ImpactWeather does a fine job of summarizing them here.

Continue reading "Ana forms. What does it mean?"

Posted by Eric Berger at 08:30 AM in | Comments (30)

August 14, 2009

New study filled with remarkable insights

Here's the study overview:

Jeffrey R. Brown and Scott Weisbenner say the unique study shows that unexpected inheritances hasten retirement, lending new credence to widely held economic theory that people value leisure time and will parlay newfound wealth into less work.

Got that? People value leisure time. Now prepare to have your mind blown by this:

"This study shows that at least some people approaching retirement work just for the money, not for love of the job," Brown said.

Now let's qualify that -- note the "at least some people." Some people do work for the love of their job. But at least "some people" are working just to make ends meet. That's important. So is this:

Weisbenner says retirement plans in households that were heavily invested in the stock market will be most affected by the economic crisis, which he says underscores the importance of maintaining a well-diversified portfolio.

This is critical. Apparently this thing called the stock market fell pretty badly during the economic downturn. And if you were invested in it, I think the authors are trying to say you lost money. At least some people. And this is going to have very important economic consequences, the authors say:

"A negative shock to wealth has just the opposite effect of what we have in this study, so I expect that those losses are going to lead some people to work longer than they expected," said Brown.

Now I want to be clear. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. This is still theoretical, ground-breaking work that may or may not be valid in the real world. We're still not going to make any definitive statements, but apparently all of this work supports a long-held notion:

"This supports the notion long held by labor economists that, all things equal, people prefer leisure over working," said Brown, the director of the Center on Business and Public Policy in the U. of I. College of Business.


Yet frankly, and I feel pretty smart for knowing this, I guess I've always intuitively grasped that people tend to work to get to the weekend, based upon earlier research. See, for example, Loverboy et. al.

Let me summarize this important study with the following insight about economics that I hadn't grasped. Did you know that when people retire they no longer are producers? Stay with me, I know this is complicated, but try to wrap your mind around this retirement fact:

"One of the effects it could have is driving people to retire earlier, which has implications ranging from tax revenue to the solvency of Social Security," he said. "Retirement is an important economic phenomenon because as people exit the work force they go from being producers and savers to drawing down both their own assets and the government's resources."

Posted by Eric Berger at 07:33 AM in | Comments (27)

August 13, 2009

Or maybe hurricane activity hasn't changed much in 1,000 years

I want to follow up to yesterday's post on a hockey-stick for hurricanes. Not surprisingly, the study has come under a firestorm of criticism from hurricane scientists, as I suspected it would.

I felt the study was important to write about because it made such a fantastic claim (Is hurricane activity right now really at a 1,000-year high?), and the journal Nature gave it such prominent play (it was the lead item in an embargoed e-mail sent to reporters that highlights upcoming articles).

Other scientists have since weighed in on the article, among them Roger Pielke Jr., who notes that Mann has apparently relied on inconsistent assumptions in this and past research papers.

Roger also crunched through some of the data produced by Mann's statistical model that estimated storm counts from between AD 500 to AD 1850. The model's output (see the data) range from a minimum of 9 to a maximum of 14 storms in any given year, with an average of 11.6 storms, and a standard deviation of 1.0 storms.

Mann then compared this model output to the historical record from 1850 onward, in which the average was 9.6 storms. During the last decade or so, the total has been closer to 15 named storms, showing a sharp upward tick. Thus, the hockey stick.

One of the big criticisms of Mann's paper is that it ignores new, peer-reviewed work by Chris Landsea and others (see abstract) that adjusts the historical record of tropical storm counts due to the lack of satellites and other advanced measurement systems in the past. Landsea says historical storm counts before the 1970s miss the short-lived storms caught by satellites.

Pielke Jr. says Landsea's adjusted observational record (1850-2006) ranges a minimum of 4 storms and a maximum of 28, with an average of 11.7 and a standard deviation of 3.75. Below is a graphic showing Mann's model combined with Landsea's new data:

Roger Pielke, Jr.

Notice anything? There's no hockey stick. Moreover, if you compare the averages above, according to Mann's model there were an average of 11.6 storms before the historical record. According to Landsea there have been 11.7 storms since 1850. Hmm...

The conclusion is that, if you believe the modern storm count is inflated due to newer technology, there's little or no trend during the last 1,500 years of Atlantic hurricanes, and the hurricane activity of the last decade isn't particularly notable.

Would Nature publish that paper?

Posted by Eric Berger at 03:35 PM in | Comments (30)

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