Wednesday, February 10, 2010

UPDATE: Climate and Haiti

My friend Francesco Fiondella at IRI (International Research Institute for Climate and Society, see below) just posted this Q&A with several of the experts there about Haiti's exposure to climate risk over the coming months.

Also, the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN--no relation to IRI) has a story up about the quake's potential effect on domestic food supply in Haiti.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

El Nino and Haiti

Haiti has, of course, been in the news of late for the 7.0-magnitude earthquake it experienced on January 12. Nevertheless, some scientists had been making predictions that Haiti was primed for just such an event for years. Those likely went unheeded because many people don't often associate the region with seismic activity.

The natural hazards more commonly connected with Haiti are tropical storms and, with much of the western end of the island of Hispaniola denuded by decades of clear-cut forestry, landslides caused by heavy rain. Fortunately, tropical storms lend themselves to somewhat better prediction than earthquakes—but only just. And with a moderate-to-strong El Niño dominating weather patterns around the globe, perhaps those predictions stand a better chance of playing out this year and of helping the rescue response community prepare for a potential double (or triple) whammy of major storm followed by widespread landslides in a country already reeling from natural disaster.

El Niño is half of a back-and-forth sloshing of warm surface water across the equatorial Pacific Ocean between Indonesia and South America (the other phase of the phenomenon being a La Niña). Collectively, these two are known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation, or ENSO. During an El Niño year, the easterly trade winds of the southern Pacific die down, allowing warm water near Indonesia to spread across the surface of the ocean toward the coast of Peru, pumping moisture into the atmosphere and causing relatively predictable patterns of extreme weather around much of the globe. When La Niña predominates, cold water covers much of the same area of the Pacific and a different pattern appears.

The current El Niño, which began developing last fall, has been behind some of the severe winter storms in North America over recent months. It's also behind some of the nervousness that Olympic planners in Vancouver are undoubtedly feeling right now.

Haiti generally experiences a long rainy season from April to November with two distinct peaks—one around May and the other in September or October. In between, and extending into the tail end of rainy season, is when hurricanes typically make their way across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean basin. With the current El Nino phase expected to continue until March and possibly May, the Haitian people just might be able to breathe a little easier during hurricane season. That's because strong high-altitude winds caused by the Pacific warm water tend to cause something called wind shear, which prevent tropical storms from organizing into the large, deadly systems that have decimated the Caribbean in the past.

The effects of El Niño on the Caribbean rainy season, however, are a little less certain. NOAA is keeping up a weekly forecast for the region that looks two weeks into the future, but the most important period is May, when the potential for heavy rain is already high and even heavier downpours might threaten Haiti's denuded hillsides. Unfortunately, that is also the period when the state of ENSO becomes uncertain.

Forecasters are also keeping their eye on the equatorial Pacific for the signs that a La Niña might form because that would wipe out any protection that atmospheric conditions associated with El Niño might offer. "The worst scenario for Haiti would be for the development of a La Niña during the summer, for it would not only imply a wet 2nd half of their rainy season but also the chances for a tropical cyclone in their vicinity, or even a cyclone hit," Tony Barnston of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society wrote in an email.

So while things remain uncertain in a very vulnerable region, scientists and people on the ground will continue to look to the other side of the world for answers.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Oil Spill on the Bronx River

Scenes from a recent oil spill on the Bronx River in a short video I produced.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Crunching Data

Behind the scenes and insulated from the wilds of the city streets and parks by the thick walls of the museum, things are far less glamorous than the reports we're fielding. No naked men or werewolves here. The volunteers have been our eyes and (mostly) our ears tonight, and it's been a blast.

It's late, but things here at Cricket Central are barely slowing down. I'm about to sign off for the evening, but the rest of the team is still processing and posting data.

We have finished with the reports that were phoned into the IO dropbox--including at least one great impersonation of a fall field cricket by a volunteer who sounded like she needed some sleep. Now we are diving into reports emailed in from the field. We just went over 100 records and still haven't scratched the surface of the emailed data. After that, we have to cull through the blogs to make sure we didn't miss anything.

It's too preliminary at this point to make any meaningful assessment, but we've all been amazed by the dedication and enthusiasm of the volunteers. We also have several new, interesting records for the common true katydid. It will be interesting to see what will show up as we wade through all the data. For now, quoting Kevin Matteson from the Matteson-Clark Expedition, I doubt the night will ever sound quite the same again.

Birds Do It

Eat insects, that is. So do many mammals--including humans.

It's called entomophagy and in many parts of the world, it's a common part of many people's diet. Put a tray of roasted crickets out at a party in the U.S., though, and you're more than likely to clear out a room. If entomophagy is practiced here at all, it is more than likely a novelty.

There are, however, groups devoted to promoting the practice. Tonight, I had the opportunity to sample cricket cookies--chocolate chirpies, admittedly something of a novelty.

Still, it got me thinking that perhaps in some places it might be a viable way for under-nourished people to get protein and calories. According to Insects Are Food, quoting the Entomological Society of America, insects generally contain more protein and are lower in fat than traditional meats. In addition they have about 20 times higher food conversion efficiency than traditional meats. In other words they have a better feed-to-meat ratio than beef, pork, lamb or chicken.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Common True Katydid Pretty Common Afterall

In 1920, a naturalist by the name of William T. Davis published a paper (pdf) in the Journal of the New York Entomological Society in which he described what appeared at the time to be the disappearance of the common true katydid (Pterophylla camellifolia) from the forests of New York City. He noted in particular a 1908 publication that described the insect "quite numerous and very noisy in the tall trees in the Egbertville [Staten Island] ravine," but lamented the fact that by the time he was writing they were completely gone from the island.

His assumption was that increasingly poor air quality, caused by the factories that were cropping up along Arthur Kill had driven them away. All he had was 1919 report from S. Harmsted Chubb of the American Museum of Natural Hostory, who heard some singing in some tall trees near Van Cortland Park on the evening of October 6. After that, and until the present day, there were no reports of P. camellifolia anywhere in the City.

Of course, the Cricket Crawl took that as a challenge and almost immediately some teams set out to find it. Advance teams in the Bronx Forest and Manhattan's West Village reported songs on September 1 and later on the far western edge of Manhattan, on Staten Island, and in New Jersey.

Tonight, the air seems to be almost alive with the calls of this once-elusive insect and we are getting reports from teams in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens of common true katydids singing from trees.

New York is Alive with the Sound of Crickets (and Katydids and Naked Men)

Lou Sorkin (above), entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, and Sam Droege from the USGS took a couple of radio reporters out into Central Park across from the museum for a quick survey of singing insects. The fall field crickets were calling almost constantly, with a few greater and lesser anglewings chirping through.

We are getting dozens of calls to the Cricket Crawl phone-in message system (646-462-4073 ext. 10220). After a brief period where we were scrambling to figure out some of the fine details of how to get the data mapped accurately (who knew that the Google Earth conversion for decimal degrees would be in the 3-D display perference screen?) things are moving much more smoothly. Lots of expeditions and individuals calling in, Tweeting, and blogging (see the blog roll to the right for the latest news from all 5 boroughs).

The Runfola Expedition in the Bronx Forest has retired for the evening with 5 species recorded and are headed for a pub. Color me jealous. Gowanus is still going hot and heavy with a Common True Katydid under their belt almost immediately. NYBG has almost run the board of all 7, but the sighting of the night has to go to the Sweet Expedition, which went hunting for a cricket they heard calling from a bush and found a naked man instead.