Tag Archives: Arctic

Replacing nanotechnology-enabled oil spill solutions with dog fur?

Coincidentally or not, this research from Australia was announced a little more than a month after reports of a major oil spill in the Russian Arctic. A July 10, 2020 news item on phys.org announces a new technology for mopping up oil spills (Note: Links have been removed),

Oil spill disasters on land cause long-term damage for communities and the natural environment, polluting soils and sediments and contaminating groundwater.

Current methods using synthetic sorbent materials can be effective for cleaning up oil spills, but these materials are often expensive and generate large volumes of non-biodegradable plastic wastes. Now the first comparison of natural-origin sorbent materials for land-based oil spills, including peat moss, recycled human hair, and dog fur, shows that sustainable, cheaper and biodegradable options can be developed.

The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) project found that dog fur and human hair products—recycled from salon wastes and dog groomers—can be just as good as synthetic fabrics at cleaning up crude oil spills on hard land surfaces like highway roads, pavement, and sealed concrete floors. Polypropylene, a plastic, is a widely-used fabric used to clean up oil spills in aquatic environments.

A July 9, 2020 Univesity of Technology Sydney press release on EurekAlert completes the story,

“Dog fur in particular was surprisingly good at oil spill clean-up, and felted mats from human hair and fur were very easy to apply and remove from the spills.” lead author of the study, UTS Environmental Scientist Dr Megan Murray, said. Dr Murray investigates environmentally-friendly solutions for contamination and leads The Phyto Lab research group at UTS School of Life Sciences.

“This is a very exciting finding for land managers who respond to spilled oil from trucks, storage tanks, or leaking oil pipelines. All of these land scenarios can be treated effectively with sustainable-origin sorbents,” she said.

The sorbents tested included two commercially-available products, propylene and loose peat moss, as well as sustainable-origin prototypes including felted mats made of dog fur and human hair. Prototype oil-spill sorbent booms filled with dog fur and human hair were also tested. Crude oil was used to replicate an oil spill. The results of the study are published in Environments.

The research team simulated three types of land surfaces; non-porous hard surfaces, semi-porous surfaces, and sand, to recreate common oil-spill scenarios.

“We found that loose peat moss is not as effective at cleaning up oil spills on land compared to dog fur and hair products, and it is not useful at all for sandy environments.” Dr Murray said.

“Based on this research, we recommend peat moss is no longer used for this purpose. Given that peat moss is a limited resource and harvesting it requires degrading wetland ecosystems, we think this is a very important finding.” she said.

The research concluded that, for now, sandy environments like coastal beaches can still benefit from the use of polypropylene sorbents, but further exploration of sustainable-origin sorbents is planned.

The researchers say that future applications from the research include investigating felted mats of sustainable-origin sorbents for river bank stabilisation, [emphases mine] as well as the removal of pollutants from flowing polluted waters, similar to existing membrane technology.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the study,

Decontaminating Terrestrial Oil Spills: A Comparative Assessment of Dog Fur, Human Hair, Peat Moss and Polypropylene Sorbents by Megan L. Murray, Soeren M. Poulsen and Brad R. Murray. Environments 2020, 7(7), 52; DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/environments7070052 Published: 8 July 2020 (This article belongs to the Special Issue Pollution Prevention/Environmental Sustainability for Industry)

This paper is open access.

As for the Russian oil spill

A June 4, 2020 British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news online article outlines the situation regarding the oil spill and the steps being taken to deal with it,

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has declared a state of emergency after 20,000 tonnes of diesel oil leaked into a river within the Arctic Circle.

The spill happened when a fuel tank at a power plant near the Siberian city of Norilsk collapsed last Friday [May 29, 2020].

The power plant’s director Vyacheslav Starostin has been taken into custody until 31 July, but not yet charged.

The plant is owned by a subsidiary of Norilsk Nickel, which is the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer.

The Russian Investigative Committee (SK) has launched a criminal case over the pollution and alleged negligence, as there was reportedly a two-day delay in informing the Moscow authorities about the spill.

Ground subsidence beneath the fuel storage tanks is believed to have caused the spill. Arctic permafrost has been melting in exceptionally warm weather [more information about the weather towards the end of this posting] for this time of year.

Russian Minister for Emergencies Yevgeny Zinichev told Mr Putin that the Norilsk plant had spent two days trying to contain the spill, before alerting his ministry.

The leaked oil drifted some 12km (7.5 miles) from the accident site, turning long stretches of the Ambarnaya river crimson red.

The leaked diesel oil drifted some 12km (7.5 miles) from the site of the accident [downloaded from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-52915807]

Getting back to the June 4, 2020 British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news online article,

“Why did government agencies only find out about this two days [May 29, 2020?) after the fact?” he asked the subsidiary’s chief, Sergei Lipin. “Are we going to learn about emergency situations from social media?”

The region’s governor, Alexander Uss, had earlier told President Putin that he became aware of the oil spill on Sunday [May 31, 2020] after “alarming information appeared in social media”.

The spill has contaminated a 350 sq km (135 sq mile) area, state media report.

The state of emergency means extra forces are going to the area to assist with the clean-up operation.

The accident is believed to be the second largest in modern Russian history in terms of volume, an expert from the World Wildlife Fund, Alexei Knizhnikov, told the AFP [Agence France Presse] news agency.

The incident has prompted stark warnings from environmental groups, who say the scale of the spill and geography of the river mean it will be difficult to clean up.

Greenpeace has compared it to the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.

Oleg Mitvol, former deputy head of Russia’s environmental watchdog Rosprirodnadzor, said there had “never been such an accident in the Arctic zone”.

He said the clean-up could cost 100bn roubles (£1.2bn; $1.5bn) and take between five and 10 years.

Minister of Natural Resources Dmitry Kobylkin warned against trying to burn off such a vast quantity of fuel oil.

He proposed trying to dilute the oil with reagents. Only the emergencies ministry with military support could deal with the pollution, he said.

Barges with booms could not contain the slick because the Ambarnaya river was too shallow, he warned.

He suggested pumping the oil on to the adjacent tundra, although President Putin added: “The soil there is probably saturated [with oil] already.”

An update of the situation can be found in a July 8, 2020 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) article (issued by Thomson Reuters),

Russia’s environmental watchdog has asked a power subsidiary of Russian mining giant Norilsk Nickel to pay almost 148 billion rubles, or $2.8 billion Cdn, in damages over an Arctic fuel spill in Siberia.

Rosprirodnadzor, the Federal Service for Supervision of Use of Natural Resources, said in a statement on Monday [July 8, 2020] that it had already sent a request for “voluntary compensation” to the subsidiary, NTEK, after calculating the damage caused by the May 29 [2020] fuel spill.

Norilsk Nickel’s Moscow-listed shares fell by 3 per cent after the watchdog’s statement.

A fuel tank at the power plant lost pressure and released 21,000 tonnes of diesel into rivers and subsoil near the city of Norilsk, 2,900 kilometres northeast of Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin subsequently declared a state of emergency in the region, and investigators detained three staff at the power plant.

Norilsk, a remote city of 180,000 people situated 300 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle, is built around Norilsk Nickel, the world’s leading nickel and palladium producer, and has a reputation for its pollution.

Rosprirodnadzor said the damages included the cost for nearby water bodies, estimated at 147.05 billion rubles, $2.8 billion Cdn, and for subsoil, estimated at 738.62 million roubles, $14 million Cdn.

I can’t find any August 2020 updates for the oil spill situation in Russia. (Note: There is now an oil spill in a ecologically sensitive region near Mauritius; see August 13, 2020 news item on CBC news online website.)

Exceptionally warm weather

The oil spill isn’t the only problem in the Arctic.Here’s more from a June 23, 2020 article by Matt Simon for Wired magazine (Note: A link has been removed),

On Saturday [June 20, 2020], the residents of Verkhoyansk, Russia, marked the first day of summer with 100 degree Fahrenheit temperatures. Not that they could enjoy it, really, as Verkhoyansk is in Siberia, hundreds of miles from the nearest beach. That’s much, much hotter than towns inside the Arctic Circle usually get. That 100 degrees appears to be a record, well above the average June high temperature of 68 degrees. Yet it’s likely the people of Verkhoyansk will see that record broken again in their lifetimes: The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet—if not faster—creating ecological chaos for the plants and animals that populate the north.

“The events over the weekend—in the last few weeks, really—with the heatwave in Siberia, all are unprecedented in terms of the magnitude of the extremes in temperature,” says Sophie Wilkinson, a wildfire scientist at McMaster University who studies northern peat fires, which themselves have grown unusually frequent in recent years as temperatures climb.

The Arctic’s extreme warming, known as Arctic amplification or polar amplification, may be due to three factors. One, the region’s reflectivity, or albedo—how much light it bounces back into space—is changing as the world warms. “What we’ve been seeing over the last 30 years is some relatively dramatic declines in sea ice in the summertime,” says University of Edinburgh global change ecologist Isla Myers-Smith, who studies the Arctic.

Since ice is white, it reflects the sun’s energy, something you’re already probably familiar with when it comes to staying cool in the summer. If you had to pick the color of T-shirt to wear when going hiking on a hot day, she says, “most of us would pick the white T-shirt, because that’s going to reflect the sun’s heat off of our back.” Similarly, Myers-Smith says, “If the sea ice melts in the Arctic, that will remove that white surface off of the ocean, and what will be exposed is this darker ocean surface that will absorb more of the sun’s heat.”

If you’re interested in the environmental consequences of the warming of the Arctic, this is a very good article.

Finishing up, I wish the clean-up crews (in Russia and near Mauritius) all the best as they work in the midst of a pandemic, as well as, an environmental disaster (both the oil spill and the warming of the Arctic).

The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (4 of 5)

I was hoping this would be the concluding part of this series but there was much more than I dreamed. (I know that’s repetitive but I’m truly gobsmacked.)

Citizen science

Astronomy and bird watching (ornithology) are probably the only two scientific endeavours that have consistently engaged nonexperts/amateurs/citizen scientists right from the earliest days through the 21st century. Medical research, physics, chemistry, and others have, until recently and despite their origins in ‘amateur’ (or citizen) science, become the exclusive domain of professional experts.

This situation seems to be changing both here in Canada and elsewhere. One of the earliest postings about citizen science on this blog was in 2010 and, one of the most amusing to me personally, was this March 21, 2013 posting titled: Comparing techniques, citizen science to expert science. It’s about a study by scientists at the University of East Anglia (UK) comparing data collection by citizen scientists with experts. In this particular project where undersea data was being collected and people with diving skills needed, the citizen scientists did a better job than the expert scientists of collecting data. (I’m not trying to suggest that experts can be replaced by amateurs but do suggest that there are advantages to working together.)

*As for the Canadian science (from a June 15, 2018 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release),*

Take a look at your car. The bus you take to work. The smart phone you tap on during your commute. They all have one thing in common: science. Science is all around us. It shapes the way we live, the meals we grab on the go and the commute that takes us to school and work.

That is why the Government of Canada is encouraging young Canadians’ interest in science. Research and innovation lead to breakthroughs in agriculture, transit, medicine, green technology and service delivery, improving the quality of life for all Canadians. The outcomes of research also create jobs, strengthen the economy and support a growing middle class.

The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, carried that message to an audience of young students during her first citizen science Google Hangout today. The Hangout, run by Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants, a not-for-profit organization, featured frog exhibits from the Toronto Zoo and a demonstration of the FrogWatch citizen science project by Dr. Nancy Kingsbury of Environment and Climate Change Canada. Toronto Zoo frog expert Katherine Wright joined Minister Duncan at the zoo to share information about frogs that are local to Ontario.

Minister Duncan, Dr. Kingsbury and Ms. Wright then engaged with elementary school children across Canada in a live Q&A session about the frogs in their own backyards. The Minister highlighted the importance of getting young Canadians interested in science fields and talked about ways they can take part in citizen science projects in their communities. Citizen scientists can share their observations on social media using the hashtag #ScienceAroundMe.

Quotes

“Science is for everyone, and it is important that we encourage today’s youth to be curious. Young Canadians who engage in citizen science today will become the highly skilled workers—engineers, scientists, mathematicians, technology experts and entrepreneurs—of tomorrow. Through citizen science, children can nurture an interest in the natural world. These young people will then go on to discover, to innovate and to find solutions that will help us build a better Canada.”
– The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science and Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities

“The Toronto Zoo is proud to participate in and encourage citizen science programs, such as FrogWatch, within the community. The Toronto Zoo’s Adopt-A-Pond Wetland Conservation Programme works to engage citizen scientists and deliver impactful conservation-focused research, restoration and outreach that highlight the importance of saving Canada’s sensitive wetland species and their habitats.”
– Robin Hale, Interim Chief Executive Officer, Toronto Zoo

Quick facts

NatureWatch, of which FrogWatch is a component, is a community program that engages all Canadians in collecting scientific information on nature to understand our changing environment.

Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants aims to inspire the next generation of scientists, explorers and conservationists by bringing science, exploration, adventure and conservation into classrooms through virtual field trips run by programs like Google Hangout.

The Government of Canada’s Citizen Science Portal is a one-stop shop for science in the community. It showcases science programs, including NatureWatch programs, across the country.

Associated links

The portal is not nearly as Ontario-centric as the projects mentioned in the news release (in case you were wondering).

Aside: In part 2 of this series, Jesse Hildebrand, founder of Science Literacy Week was mentioned as also being the founder of Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants.

Going to the birds

While bird watching and ornithological studies are not new to the Canadian science culture scene, there were some interesting developments in the 2010-19 period.

Canadian Geographic (magazine) sponsored a contest in 2015, the National Bird Project, where almost 50,000 people submitted suggestions for a national bird. Voting online ensued and on August 31, 2016 popular voting was closed. Five birds attracted the top votes and in September 2016, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society put together an expert panel to debate and decide which would be Canada’s national bird. The choice was announced in November 2016 (Canadian Geographic National Bird Project).

The gray jay. Also known as the whiskey jack or Canada jay. Photo: Steve Phillips [downloaded from http://nationalbird.canadiangeographic.ca/]

From the National Bird Project webpage,

The gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis in Latin, Mésangeai du Canada in French) lives in all 13 provinces and territories — the friendly spirit in Canada’s wild northern boreal and mountain forests. It remains in Canada year-round, is neither hunted nor endangered, and from the Atlantic provinces to the West is an indicator of the health of the boreal and mountain forests and climate change, inspiring a conservation philosophy for all kinds of northern land uses. The gray jay has long been important to Indigenous Peoples, and will draw all Canadians to their national and provincial/territorial parks, yet unlike the loon and snowy owl, it is not already a provincial or territorial bird.

I found a more fulsome description on the What is the National Bird of Canada? webpage on the World Atlas website,

Gray jay is a passerine bird belonging to the family Corvidae. It is mostly found in the boreal forest of North America. The bird is fairly large and has pale gray underparts and dark grey upperpart. Gray jay is a friendly bird and often approach human for food. It is also popularly known as the camp robber, whisky jack, and venison-hawk. Gray jay is listed as Least Concern by the IUCN [International Union for Conservation of Nature]. However, the anthropogenic climate change in the southern range may adversely affect its population. In some Fist Nation cultures, the bird is associated with mythological figures including Wisakedjak who was anglicized to Whiskyjack.

For approximately 200 years, the gray jay was known as “Canadian Jay” to the English speakers. The bird was renamed the “gray jay” in 1957 by the American Ornithologists’ Union. However, scientifically the bird is referred to as Perisoreus Canadensis. The bird is found in almost all the provinces of territories of Canada. the preferred habitat for the species is Canada’s boreal and mountain forests. Gray jay is also one of the smartest birds in the world and has almost the same body-to-brain ratio as human beings.

Canadian Georgraphic offers more depth (and a map) in a November 16, 2016 article, by Nick Walker, titled, Canada, meet your national bird (Note: Links have been removed),

With 450 species in the country to choose from, Canadian Geographic’s decision was made neither lightly nor quickly.

This national debate has been running since January 2015, in fact. But after weighing the opinions and preferences of tens of thousands of Canadians, as well as the expertise of our National Conservation Partners at Bird Studies Canada and other ornithologists and conservationists, as well as cultural experts and Indigenous Peoples, that list was narrowed to five birds. And one finalist best met all reasonable criteria.
    
We give you the gray jay. …

Not only has the gray jay never been recorded outside of North America, the vast majority of its range is in Canada, with only a small percentage crossing into Alaska and the western mountains of the United States. The species’ preferred habitat is Canada’s boreal and mountain forests — ecozones that stretch from coast to coast and into the North, blanketing nearly two-thirds of the country.

Like the Canadian flag when it was selected in 1965, the gray jay is fresh and new and fitting. To quote David Bird, ornithologist and professor emeritus of wildlife biology at Montreal’s McGill University, we cannot think of a more Canadian bird.

Three sets of bird stamps were issued by Canada Post from 2016-2018 saluting “Canada’s avian citizens.” Here’s more from a July 12, 2016 Birds of Canada blog post on the Canada Post website announcing the first series of bird stamps,

Hatched by designer Kosta Tsetsekas and illustrator Keith Martin, these stamps are the first in a three-year series celebrating Canada’s avian citizens. Our first flock includes five official birds: the Atlantic puffin (Newfoundland and Labrador), the great horned owl (Alberta), the common raven (Yukon), the rock ptarmigan (Nunavut) and the sharp-tailed grouse (Saskatchewan).

An August 1, 2017 Canada Post blog post announced that year’s bird stamps and, finally, an August 20, 2018 Canada Post blog post announced the finale release. The 2018 series was released in time to celebrate the 27th International Ornithological Congress held in Vancouver (from the Vancouver Convention Centre congress webpage),

On behalf of the International Ornithologists’ Union, Vancouver is delighted to welcome ornithologists from around the world to the 27th International Ornithological Congress (IOCongress2018)! Considered the oldest and most prestigious of meetings for bird scientists, the Congress occurs every four years since first being held in Vienna, Austria, in 1884.

Canada has hosted only once previously, Ottawa in 1986, and Vancouver will be the first time the Congress has been on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. The Congress has broad national endorsement, including from the City of Vancouver, the province of British Columbia, Environment Canada, Simon Fraser University, Artists for Conservation, Tourism Vancouver plus an array of scientific societies and conservation organizations.

The convention centre’s webpage features an impressive list of events which were open to the public,

  • Stars of the Bird World Presentation (August 19): Dr. Rob Butler, chair of the Vancouver International Bird Festival, presents Flyways to Culture: How birds give rise to a cultural awakening, at look at how the growing interest in birds in particular and nature in general, is a foundation for a new Nature Culture in which nature becomes embedded into a west coast culture. 8:30-10 a.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Admission by donation ($10 suggested).
  • Festival Opening Ceremony – Parade of Birds and a fanfare by Vancouver Symphony Brass Quintet (August 20): The festival begins with a Parade of Birds and a fanfare by the Vancouver Symphony Brass Quintet. The fanfare “Gathering Flock” was composed by Frederick Schipizky. 3:20 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
  • Artists for Conservation Show (August 22): Artists for Conservation is the official visual arts partner for the festival and congress, showcasing some of the world’s best nature art through its annual juried exhibit, a collaborative mural, artist demo and lecture series and an artist booth expo. Official opening 6-10 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
  • Nature & Bird Expo (until August 25): The three-day Bird Expo is the showcase of birds and nature in Canada, including exhibitors, speakers, yoga, poetry, art and more. Runs until Aug. 25 at the Vancouver Convention Centre. Check out a full event listing at www.vanbirdfest.com/calendar/nature-bird-expo.
  • Migration Songs – Poetry and Ornithology (August 23): Migration Songs brings together 11 contemporary poets to consider an array of bird species. Each poet was put in conversation with a particular ornithologist or scientist to consider their chosen species collaboratively. The poets involved include well-known west-coast authors, amongst them Governor General’s Award and Griffin Poetry Prize winners. A short book of these collaborations, Migration Songs, with cover art by poet, painter, and weaver Annie Ross, will be available. 6 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
  • Unveiling of the Silent Skies Mural (August 23): A signature event of the week-long Artists for Conservation show is the unveiling of the Silent Skies mural made up of illustrations of the endangered birds of the world — 678 pieces, each depicting a different endangered bird, will make up the 100-foot-long installation that will form the artistic centrepiece for the 8th annual Artists for Conservation Festival, the 27th International Ornithological Congress and Vancouver International Bird Festival. The unveiling takes place at 6:30 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre.
  • Stewardship Roundtable 2018 (August 24): A forum and showcase of innovative practices championed in B.C. province and beyond, presented by the Stewardship Centre for BC and Bird Studies Canada, in collaboration with the 27th International Ornithological Congress and Vancouver International Bird Festival. 8:30 a.m. until 9 p.m. at the Vancouver Convention Centre. For more information or to register, visit stewardshipcentrebc.ca/programs/wildife-species-risk/stewardship-roundtable.
  • Closing Ceremony (August 26): The closing ceremony will include remarks from officials and First Nations representatives, and a Heron Dance by the New Dance Centre from Saskatchewan. 5-6:30 p.m. at Vancouver Convention Centre.

I attended the opening ceremony where they announced the final set of stamps in the Birds of Canada series by introducing people who’d dressed for the parade as the birds in question.

The Canadian birding community has continued to create interesting new projects for science outreach. A December 19, 2019 posting by Natasha Barlow for Birds Canada (also known as Bird Studies Canada) announces a new interactive story map,

The Boreal Region is a massive expanse of forests, wetlands, and waterways covering much of the Northern Hemisphere. In Canada, this vast region stretches for 5000 kilometres from Newfoundland and Labrador through the country’s central regions and northwest to the Yukon.

Over 300 bird species regularly breed here, from tiny songbirds like kinglets and warblers to comparatively giant swans and cranes. The Boreal is home to literally billions of birds, and serves as the continent’s bird “nursery” since it is such an important breeding ground.

While extensive tracts of Canada’s northern Boreal still remain largely undisturbed from major industrial development, the human footprint is expanding and much of the southern Boreal is already being exploited for its resources.

Birds Canada, in partnership with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, has created an interactive story map that details the importance of the Boreal region for birds.

Click here to explore and share this colourful online resource, which celebrates the Boreal Region and its rich bird life.

H/t Nature Conservancy Canada January 29, 2020 blog posting.

Climate change, ecology, and Indigenous knowledge (science)

There is more focus on climate change everywhere in the world and much of the latest energy and focus internationally can be traced to Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg who turned 17 in January 2020. Her influence has galvanized a number of youth climate strikes in Canada and around the world.

There is a category of science fiction or speculative fiction known as Climate Fiction (cli-fi or clifi). Margaret Atwood (of course) has produced a trilogy in that subgenre of speculative fiction, from the Climate Fiction Wikipedia entry, Note: Links have been removed,

Margaret Atwood explored the subject in her dystopian trilogy Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013).[13] In Oryx and Crake Atwood presents a world where “social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change, has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event”.[14] The novel’s protagonist, Jimmy, lives in a “world split between corporate compounds”, gated communities that have grown into city-states and pleeblands, which are “unsafe, populous and polluted” urban areas where the working classes live.[15]

There is some other cli-fi literature by Canadians, notably an anthology of Canadian short stories edited by Bruce Meyer, from a March 9, 2018 review by Emilie Moorhouse published in Canada’s National Observer (review originally published in Prism magazine on March 8, 2018), Note: A link has been removed,

A woman waits in line to get her water ration. She hasn’t had a sip of water in nearly three days. Her mouth is parched; she stumbles as she waits her turn for over an hour in the hot sun. When she he finally gets to the iTap and inserts her card into the machine that controls the water flow, the light turns red and her card is rejected. Her water credits have run out.

This scenario from “The Way of Water” by Nina Munteanu is one of many contained in the recently published anthology of short stories, Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change. The seventeen stories in this book edited by Bruce Meyer examine how humankind might struggle with the potential devastation of climate change in the near or distant future. Soon after I finished reading the book, Cape Town—known in precolonial times as “the place where clouds gather”—announced that it was only a few months away from what it called “Day Zero,” the day the city would officially run out of water, making the similarities between fiction and reality more than unsettling. Munteanu’s story is set in a futuristic Canada that has been mined of all its water by thirsty corporations who have taken over control of the resource. Rain has not fallen on Canadian soil in years due to advances in geoengineering and weather manipulation preventing rain clouds from going anywhere north of the Canada-US border.

Indigenous knowledge (science)

The majority of Canada’s coastline is in the Arctic and climate change in that region is progressing at a disturbing pace. Weather, Climate Change, and Inuit Communities in the Western Canadian Arctic, a September 30, 2017 blog posting, by Dr. Laura Eerkes-Medrano at the University of Victoria (British Columbia) for Historical Climatology describes it this way (Note: A link has been removed),

Global climate change brings with it local weather that communities and cultures have difficulty anticipating. Unpredictable and socially impactful weather is having negative effects on the subsistence, cultural activities, and safety of indigenous peoples in Arctic communities. Since 2013, Professor David Atkinson and his team at the University of Victoria have been working with Inuvialuit communities in Tuktoyaktuk, Ulukhaktok, and Sachs Harbour. The main goal is to understand how impactful weather is affecting residents’ subsistence activities, particularly when they are on the water. The project involves site visits, interviews, and regular phone calls with residents.

Inuvialuit residents regularly observe the waves, winds, snow, and ice conditions that interfere with their hunting, fishing, camping, and other subsistence and cultural activities. In this project, communities identify specific weather events that impact their activities. These events are then linked to the broader atmospheric patterns that cause them. Summaries of the events will be provided to Environment Canada to hopefully assist with the forecasting process.

By taking this approach, the project links Western scientific knowledge and traditional knowledge to generate insights [emphasis mine] into how climate change is affecting Inuvialuit activities in the Canadian Arctic. An oversight committee has been established in each community to give direction to the project. This oversight committee includes representatives from each of the main community organizations, which ensures that the respective organizations provide direction to the project and advise on how to engage residents and communities.

Western science learning from and taking from traditional knowledge is not new. For example, many modern medicines are still derived from traditional remedies. Unfortunately, traditional practitioners have not benefited from sharing their knowledge.

It is to be hoped things are changing with projects like Atkinson’s and another one I mentioned in a December 2, 2019 posting featuring a discovery about ochre (a red dye used for rock art). The dye being examined was produced (in a manner that appears to be unique) in the Babine Lake region of British Columbia and the research may have applications for industrial use leading to economic benefits for the indigenous folks of that region. As important as the benefits, the science team worked closely with the indigenous communities in that area.

University in the Arctic

I was told several years ago that Canada is the only ‘arctic country’ that does not have a university in the high north. As of 2019 it seems the situation is changing, from a December 1, 2019 Global television news online item,

Canada will finally have its first Arctic university.

This past week [of December 1, 2019], the Yukon legislature passed a bill to make Yukon College a university. It will be an institution with an Indigenous flavour that will make it as unique as the region it is to serve.

“Everybody knows we’re moving toward something big and something special,” said Tom Ullyett, chairman of the board of governors.

The idea of a northern university has been kicked around since at least 2007 when a survey in all three territories found residents wanted more influence over Arctic research. Northern First Nations have been asking for one for 50 years.

Research is to centre on issues around environmental conservation and sustainable resource development. It will be conducted in a new, $26-million science building funded by Ottawa and currently being designed.

Indigenous content will be baked in.

“It’s about teaching with northern examples,” said Tosh Southwick, in charge of Indigenous engagement. “Every program will have a northern component.”

Science programs will have traditional knowledge embedded in them and talk about ravens and moose instead of, say, flamingos and giraffes. Anthropology classes will teach creation stories alongside archeological evidence.

The institution will report to Yukon’s 14 First Nations as well as to the territorial legislature. More than one-quarter of its current students are Indigenous.

“Our vision is to be that first northern university that focuses on Indigenous governance, that focuses on sustainable natural resources, that focuses on northern climate, and everything that flows from that.”

Climate adaptation and/or choices

While we have participated in a number of initiatives and projects concerned with climate change, I believe there is general agreement we should have done more. That said I would prefer to remain hopeful.

A January 23, 2020 Yukon College news release announces the appointment of a staff member to an Canadian federal government institute’s advisory committee,

A newly launched institute for climate policy research will have a Yukon connection. Brian Horton, Manager of Northern Climate ExChange at the Yukon Research Centre, has been named to the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices expert advisory panel for Climate Adaptation.   

The Institute, launched Tuesday morning, aims to bring clarity to Canada’s climate policy choices. The Institute’s initial report, Charting our Course, describes the current climate landscape in Canada and provides recommendations for policy makers and governments seeking to implement more effective policy.  

In order to remain grounded in issues of importance to Canadians, the Institute has appointed three Expert Advisory Panels (Adaptation, Mitigation and Clean Growth) to provide evidence-based research, analysis and engagement advice to support integrative policy decisions. 

“It is exciting to have a role to play in this dynamic new network,” said Horton. “The climate is rapidly changing in the North and affecting our landscapes and lives daily. I look forward to contributing a Northern voice to this impactful pan-Canadian expert collaboration.” 

At Yukon College, Horton’s research team focusses on applied research of climate impacts and adaptation in Yukon and Northwest Territories.  Northern Climate ExChange works with communities, governments, and the private sector to answer questions about permafrost, hydrology, and social factors to facilitate adaptation to climate change.

By the way, the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices was launched on January 21, 2020 (news release),

January 21, 2020 | OTTAWA — Dozens of academics and policy experts today launched the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, a new independent national research body. The Institute aims to bring clarity to the transformative challenges, opportunities and choices ahead for Canada as governments at all levels work to address climate change.

Experimental Lakes Area

This is a very special research effort originally funded and managed by the Canadian federal government. Rather controversially, Stephen Harper’s Conservative government defunded the research but that may not have been the tragedy many believed (from the Experimental Lakes Area Wikipedia entry),

IISD Experimental Lakes Area (IISD-ELA, known as ELA before 2014)[1] is an internationally unique research station encompassing 58 formerly pristine freshwater lakes in Kenora District Ontario, Canada.[2][3] Previously run by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, after being de-funded by the Canadian Federal Government, the facility is now managed and operated by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and has a mandate to investigate the aquatic effects of a wide variety of stresses on lakes and their catchments. IISD-ELA uses the whole ecosystem approach and makes long-term, whole-lake investigations of freshwater focusing on eutrophication.[4][5]

In an article[2] published in AAAS’s well-known scientific journal Science, Eric Stokstad described ELA’s “extreme science”[2] as the manipulation of whole lake ecosystem with ELA researchers collecting long-term records for climatology, hydrology, and limnology that address key issues in water management.[4] The site has influenced public policy in water management in Canada, the USA, and around the world.[2]

Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, argued that “our government has been working hard to ensure that the Experimental Lakes Area facility is transferred to a non-governmental operator better suited to conducting the type of world-class research that can be undertaken at this facility” and that “[t]he federal government has been leading negotiations in order to secure an operator with an international track record.” On April 1, 2014, the International Institute for Sustainable Development announced that it had signed three agreements to ensure that it will be the long-term operator of the research facility and that the facility would henceforth be called IISD Experimental Lakes Area.[6] Since taking over the facility, IISD has expanded the function of the site to include educational and outreach opportunities[7] and a broader research portfolio.[8]

You can find the IISD Experimental Lakes Area website here.

Part 5 is to a large extent a grab bag for everything I didn’t fit into parts 1 -4. As for what you can expect to find in Part 5: some science podcasting, eco art, a Saskatchewan lab with an artist-in-residence, and more.

For anyone who missed them:

Part 1 covers science communication, science media (mainstream and others such as blogging) and arts as exemplified by music and dance: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (1 of 5).

Part 2 covers art/science (or art/sci or sciart) efforts, science festivals both national and local, international art and technology conferences held in Canada, and various bar/pub/café events: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (2 of 5).

Part 3 covers comedy, do-it-yourself (DIY) biology, chief science advisor, science policy, mathematicians, and more: The decade that was (2010-19) and the decade to come (2020-29): Science culture in Canada (3 of 5)

* ETA April 24, 2020 at 1515 PT Added the line and link *As for the Canadian science (from a June 15, 2018 Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada news release),*

Shipwrecks being brought back to life with ‘smart nanotech’

The American Chemical Society (ACS) is holding its 256th meeting from August 19 – 22, 2018 in Boston, Massachusetts, US. This August 21, 2018 news item on Nanowerk announces a ‘shipwreck’ presentation at the meeting,

Thousands of shipwrecks litter the seafloor all over the world, preserved in sediments and cold water. But when one of these ships is brought up from the depths, the wood quickly starts deteriorating. Today, scientists report a new way to use “smart” nanocomposites to conserve a 16th-century British warship, the Mary Rose, and its artifacts. The new approach could help preserve other salvaged ships by eliminating harmful acids without damaging the wooden structures themselves.

An August 21, 2018 ACS press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the research and scientists’ after hours (?) activities,

“This project began over a glass of wine with Eleanor Schofield, Ph.D., who is head of conservation at the Mary Rose Trust,” recalls Serena Corr, Ph.D., the project’s principal investigator. “She was working on techniques to preserve the wood hull and assorted artifacts and needed a way to direct the treatment into the wood. We had been working with functional magnetic nanomaterials for applications in imaging, and we thought we might be able to apply this technology to the Mary Rose.”

The Mary Rose sank in 1545 off the south coast of England and remained under the seabed until she was salvaged in 1982, along with over 19,000 artifacts and pieces of timber. About 40 percent of the original structure survived. The ship and its artifacts give unique insights into Tudor seafaring and what it was like to live during that period. A state-of-the-art museum in Portsmouth, England, displays the ship’s hull and artifacts. A video about the ship and its artifacts can be viewed here.

While buried in the seabed, sulfur-reducing marine bacteria migrated into the wood of the Mary Rose and produced hydrogen sulfide. This gas reacted with iron ions from corroded fixtures like cannons to form iron sulfides. Although stable in low-oxygen environments, sulfur rapidly oxidizes in regular air in the presence of iron to form destructive acids. Corr’s goal was to avoid acid production by removing the free iron ions.

Once raised from the seabed, the ship was sprayed with cold water, which stopped it from drying out and prevented further microbial activity. The conservation team then sprayed the hull with different types of polyethylene glycol (PEG), a common polymer with a wide range of applications, to replace the water in the cellular structure of the wood and strengthen its outer layer.

Corr and her postdoctoral fellow Esther Rani Aluri, Ph.D., and Ph.D. candidate Enrique Sanchez at the University of Glasgow are devising a new family of tiny magnetic nanoparticles to aid in this process, in collaboration with Schofield and Rachel O’Reilly, Ph.D., at the University of Warwick. In their initial step, the team, led by Schofield, used synchrotron techniques to probe the nature of the sulfur species before turning the PEG sprays off, and then periodically as the ship dried. This was the first real-time experiment to closely examine  the evolution of oxidized sulfur and iron species. This accomplishment has informed efforts to design new targeted treatments for the removal of these harmful species from the Mary Rose wood.

The next step will be to use a nanocomposite based on core magnetic iron oxide nanoparticles that include agents on their surfaces that can remove the ions. The nanoparticles can be directly applied to the porous wood structure and guided to particular areas of the wood using external magnetic fields, a technique previously demonstrated for drug delivery. The nanocomposite will be encompassed in a heat-responsive polymer that protects the nanoparticles and provides a way to safely deliver them to and from the wood surface. A major advantage of this approach is that it allows for the complete removal of free iron and sulfate ions from the wood, and these nanocomposites can be tuned by tweaking their surfaces.

With this understanding, Corr notes, “Conservators will have, for the first time, a state-of-the-art quantitative and restorative method for the safe and rapid treatment of wooden artifacts. We plan to then transfer this technology to other materials recovered from the Mary Rose, such as textiles and leather.”

The researchers acknowledge funding from the Mary Rose Trust and the Leverhulme Trust.

There is a video about the Mary Rose produced by Agence France Presse (AFP) and published on Youtube in May 2013,

Here’s the text from AFP Mary Rose entry on Youtube,

The relics from the Mary Rose, the flagship of England’s navy when it sank in 1545 as a heartbroken king Henry VIII watched from the shore, have finally been reunited with the famous wreck in a new museum offering a view of life in Tudor times. Duration: 02:35

One more thing: Canadian shipwrecks

We don’t have a ‘Henry VIII’ story or ‘smart nano and shipwrecks’ story but we do have a federal agency devoted to underwater archaeology, Parks Canada Underwater Archaeology webpage,

Underwater archaeology deals with archaeological sites found below the surface of oceans, rivers, and lakes and on the foreshore. In addition to shipwrecks, underwater archaeologists study submerged aboriginal sites such as fish weirs and middens; remains of historic structures such as wharves, canal locks, and marine railways; sunken aircraft; and other submerged cultural heritage resources.

Underwater archaeology shares the same methodology and principles as archaeology carried out on land sites. All archaeology involves the careful study of artefacts, structures and features to reconstruct and explain the lives of people in the past. However, because it is carried out in a more challenging environment, underwater archaeological fieldwork is more complex than land archaeology.

Specialized techniques and equipment are required to work productively underwater. Staying warm during long dives is a constant concern, so underwater archaeologists often use masks that cover their entire faces, dry suits worn over layers of warm clothing, or in cases where the water is extremely cold, such as the excavation in Red Bay (Labrador), wet suits supplied with a flow of hot water. Underwater communication systems are used to talk to people on the surface or to other divers. Removing sediments covering underwater sites requires the controlled use of specially designed equipment such as suction airlifts and small dredges. Recording information underwater presents its own challenges. Special underwater paper is used for notes and drawings, while photo and video cameras are placed in waterproof housings.

Underwater archaeological fieldwork includes remote-sensing surveys using geophysical techniques, diving surveys to locate and map sites, site monitoring, and excavation. The success of an underwater archaeological project rests on accurate documentation of all aspects of the process. Meticulous mapping and recording are particularly essential when excavation is required, as artefacts and other physical evidence are permanently removed from their original contexts. Archaeologists aim to be able to reconstruct the entire site from the records they generate during fieldwork.

Underwater archeology with Marc-André Bernier

Current position:00:00:00

Total time:00:02:27

There’s also a podcast interview with Marc-André Bernier where he discusses an important Canadian shipwreck, from the Library and Archives Canada, Underwater Canada: Investigating Shipwrecks webpage (podcast length 27:25), here’s the transcript for those who prefer reading,

Shipwrecks have stirred up interest in Canada’s maritime heritage for many decades. 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland, one of Canada’s worst maritime disasters.

In this episode, Marc-André Bernier, Chief of Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Service, joins us to discuss shipwrecks, their importance in Canadian history, and how LAC plays an important role in researching, discovering and investigating them.

Podcast Transcript

Underwater Canada: Investigating Shipwrecks

Jessica Ouvrard: Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard. Join us as we showcase the treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

Canada has a rich maritime history filled with many tragedies, from small boats [lost] in the Great Lakes, to the sinking of the Empress of Ireland in the St. Lawrence River, to Sir John Franklin’s doomed expeditions in the Arctic. The shipwrecks capture our imaginations and evoke images of tragedy, heroism, mystery and discovery. 2014 also marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland.

Marc-André Bernier, Chief of Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Service, is joining us to discuss shipwrecks and their significance in Canada’s history, and LAC’s important role in the research, discovery and investigation of these shipwrecks.

Hello, Marc-André Bernier. Thank you for coming today.

Marc-André Bernier: My pleasure. Hello to you.

JO: For those who don’t know much about underwater archaeology, can you explain what it is and the risks and challenges that it presents?

MAB: I’ll start with the challenges rather than the risks, because there are obviously risks, but we try to minimize them. Diving is inherently risky. But I’ll start with the challenges because they are, to a certain extent, what characterize underwater archaeology.

We face a series of challenges that are more complicated, that make our work much more complicated than terrestrial archaeology. We work on water and underwater, and our working conditions are dictated by what happens outside, by nature. We can’t work every day on the water, especially if our work involves the sea or the ocean, for example. And when we work underwater, we have to deal with constraints in terms of time and sometimes visibility. That means that we have to be extremely well organized. Preparation is crucial. Logistics are crucial.

In terms of preparation, we need to properly prepare our research using archives and so on, but we also have to be prepared in terms of knowing what’s going on in the field. We need to know the environmental conditions and diving conditions, even when we can’t dive. Increasingly, the work involves heading into deeper areas that can only be reached by robots, by remotely operated equipment. So we have to be able to adapt.

We have to be very precise and very organized because sometimes we have only a few minutes to access a site that will tell us many historical secrets. So we have to come very well prepared.

And when we dive, we’re working in a foreign environment. We have to be good divers, yes, but we also have to have access to tools that will give us access to information. We have to take into account currents, darkness, and so on. The work is really very challenging. But with the rapid development of new technologies in recent years, we have access to more and more tools. We do basically the same work as archaeologists on land. However, the work is done in a completely different environment.

JO: A bit hostile in fact.

MAB: A bit hostile, but with sites, objects and information that are not accessible elsewhere. So there’s an opportunity to learn about history in a different way, and in some cases on a much larger scale.

JO: With all the maritime traffic in Canada, there must have been many accidents. Can you talk about them and give us an idea of the number?

MAB: People don’t realize that we’re a maritime country. We are a country that has evolved and developed around water. This was true even before the Europeans arrived. The First Nations often travelled by water. That travel increased or developed differently, if you will, when the Europeans arrived.

The St. Lawrence River, for example, and the Atlantic provinces were the point of entry and the route. We refer to different waterways, such as the Ottawa and Richelieu rivers. They constituted the route. So, there was heavy traffic, which meant many accidents. We’re talking about probably tens of thousands of shipwrecks if we include the Great Lakes and all the coasts of Canada. Since Canada has the longest coastline in the world, there is potential for shipwrecks. Only a small number of those shipwrecks have been found, but some are very significant and extremely impressive as well.

JO: Are there also many military ships, or is it more…?

MAB: That’s another thing that people don’t realize. There have been many military confrontations in Canadian waters, dating back to the New France era, or when Phips (Sir William Phips) arrived at Quebec City in 1690 and laid siege to the city. He arrived by ship and lost ships when he returned. During the Conquest, there were naval confrontations in Louisbourg, Nova Scotia; in Chaleur Bay; and even at Quebec City. Then, in the War of 1812, the Great Lakes were an extremely important maritime theatre of war in terms of naval battles. There are a number of examples in the Richelieu River.

Then we have the Second World War, with ships and German submarines. We all know the stories of the submarines that came inside the Gulf. So there are many military shipwrecks, from the New France era onward.

JO: What were the most significant shipwrecks in Canada? Have all the shipwrecks been found or…?

MAB: No. There are still shipwrecks that remain to be found. These days at Parks Canada, we’ve been looking for two of the shipwrecks that are considered among the most significant in the country: the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, Sir John Franklin’s ships lost in the Arctic. Franklin left England in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage, and he was never heard from again. Those are examples of significant shipwrecks that haven’t been found.

However, significance is always relative. A shipwreck may be very significant, especially if there is loss of life. It’s a tragic event that is deeply affecting. There are many shipwrecks that may not be seen as having national historic significance. However, at the local level, they are tragic stories that have very deep significance and that have profoundly affected an area.

That being said, there are ships that bear witness to memorable moments in the history of our country. Among the national historic sites of shipwrecks are, if we go back, the oldest shipwrecks: the Basque wrecks at Red Bay, Labrador, where whales were hunted in the 16th century. It’s even a UNESCO world heritage site. Then, from the New France era, there’s the Corossol from 1693 and the Phips wrecks from 1690. These are very significant shipwrecks.

Also of great significance are the Louisbourg shipwrecks, the battle site, the Battle of the Restigouche historic site, as well as shipwrecks such as the Hamilton and Scourge from the War of 1812. For all practical purposes, those shipwrecks are intact at the bottom of Lake Ontario. And the Franklin shipwrecks-even if they still haven’t been found-have been declared of national historic significance.

So there’s a wide range of shipwrecks that are significant, but there are thousands and thousands of shipwrecks that have significance. A shipwreck may also be of recreational significance. Some shipwrecks may be a little less historically significant, but for divers, they are exceptional sites for appreciating history and for having direct contact with history. That significance matters.

JO: Yes, they have a bit of a magical side.

MAB: They have a very magical side. When we dive shipwrecks, we travel through history. They give us direct access to our past.

JO: Yes. I imagine that finding a shipwreck is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack?

MAB: It can sometimes be a needle in a haystack, but often it’s by chance. Divers will sometimes stumble upon remains, and it leads to the discovery of a shipwreck. But usually, when we’re looking for a shipwreck, we have to start at the beginning and go to the source. We have to begin with the archives. We have to start by doing research, trying to find every small clue because searching in water over a large area is very difficult and complicated. We face logistical and environmental obstacles in our working conditions. It’s also expensive. We need to use ships and small boats.

There are different ways to find shipwrecks. At one extreme is a method that is technologically very simple. We dive and systematically search an area, if it’s not too deep. At the other extreme, we use the most sophisticated equipment. Today we have what we call robotic research vehicles. It is as sophisticated as launching the device, which is a bit like a self-guided torpedo. We launch it and recover it a few hours later. It carries out a sonar sweep of the bottom along a pre-programmed path. Between the two, we have a range of methods.

Basically, we have to properly define the boundaries of the area. It’s detective work. We have to try to recreate the events and define our search area, then use the proper equipment. The side-scan sonar gives us an image, and magnetometers detect metal. We have to decide which of the tools we’ll use. If we don’t do the research beforehand, we’ll lose a great deal of time.

JO: Have you used the LAC collections in your research, and what types of documents have you found?

MAB: Yes, as often as possible. We try to use the off-site archives, but it’s important to have access to the sources. Our research always starts with the archives. As for the types of documents, I mentioned the Basque documents that were collected through Library and Archives Canada. I’ve personally used colonial archives a lot. For the Corossol sinking in 1693, I remember looking at documents and correspondence that talked about the French recovery from the shipwreck the year after 1693, and the entire Phips epic.

At LAC, there’s a copy of the paintings of Creswell [Samuel Gurney Cresswell], who was an illustrator, painter, and also a lieutenant, in charge of doing illustrations during the HMS Investigator’s journey through the Arctic. So there’s a wide variety of documents, and sometimes we are surprised by the personal correspondence, which gives us details that official documents can’t provide.

JO: How do these documents help you in your research?

MAB: The archival records are always surprising. They help us in every respect. You have to see archaeology as detective work. Every detail is significant. It can be the change in topographical names on old maps that refer to events. There are many “Wreck Points” or “Pointe à la barque,” “Anse à la barque,” and so on. They refer to events. People named places after events. So we can always be surprised by bits of information that seem trivial at first.

It ranges from information on the sites and on the events that led to a shipwreck, to what happened after the sinking and what happened overall. What we want is not only to understand an event, but also to understand the event in the larger context of history, such as the history of navigation. Sometimes, the records provide that broader information.

It ranges from the research information to the analysis afterward: what we have, what we found, what it means and what it says about our history. That’s where the records offer limitless possibilities. We always have surprises. That’s why we enjoy coming to the archives, because we never know what we’ll discover.

JO: Yes, it’s always great to open a box.

MAB: It’s like Christmas. It’s like Christmas when we start delving into archival records, and it’s a sort of prelude to what happens in archaeology. When we reach a site, we’re always excited by what the site has to offer. But we have to be prepared to understand it. That’s why preparation using archives is extremely important to our work.

JO: In terms of LAC sources, do you often look at historical maps? Do you look at the different ones, because we have quite a large collection…

MAB: Quite exceptional, yes.

JO: … from the beginning until now?

MAB: Yes. They provide a lot of information, and we use them, like all sources, as much as possible. We look for different things on the maps. Obviously, we look for places that may show shipwreck locations. These maps may also show the navigation corridors or charts. The old charts show anchorages and routes. They help us recreate navigation habits, which helps us understand the navigation and maritime mindset of the era and gives us clues as to where the ships went and where they were lost.

These maps give us that type of information. They also give us information on the topography and the names of places that have changed over the years. Take the example of the Corossol in the Sept-Îles bay. One of the islands in that bay is called Corossol. For years, people looked for the French ship, the Corossol, near that island. However, Manowin Island was also called Corossol at that time and its name changed. So in the old maps, we traced the origin, and the ship lies much closer to that island. Those are some of the clues.

We also have magnificent maps. One in particular comes to mind. It was created in the 19th century on the Îles-de-la-Madeleine by an insurance company agent who made a wreck map of all the shipwrecks that he knew of. To us, that’s like candy. It’s one of the opportunities that maps provide. Maps are magnificent even if we don’t find clues. Just to admire them-they’re absolutely magnificent.

JO: From a historical point of view, why is it important to study shipwrecks?

MAB: Shipwrecks are in fact a microcosm. They represent a small world. During the time of the voyage, there was a world of its own inside the ship. That in itself is interesting. How did people live on board? What were they carrying? These are clues. The advantage of a shipwreck is that it’s like a Polaroid, a fixed image of a specific point in time. When we study a city such as Quebec City that has been continuously occupied, sometimes it’s difficult to see the separation between eras, or even between events. A shipwreck shows a specific time and specific place.

JO: And it’s frozen in time.

MAB: And it’s frozen in time. So here’s an image, in 1740, what did we have? Of course, we find objects made in other eras that were still in use in that time period. But it really gives us a fixed image, a capsule. We often have an image of a time capsule. It’s very useful, because it’s very rare to have these mini Pompeiis, and we have them underwater. It’s absolutely fascinating and interesting. It’s one of the contributions of underwater archaeology.

The other thing is that we don’t necessarily find the same type of material underwater as on land. The preservation conditions are completely different. On land, we find a great deal of metal. Iron stays fairly well preserved. But there’s not much organic material, unless the environment is extremely humid or extremely dry. Underwater, organic materials are very well preserved, especially if the sedimentation is fairly quick. I remember finding cartouches from 1690 that still had paper around them. So the preservation conditions are absolutely exceptional.

That’s why it’s important. The shipwrecks give us unique information that complements what we find on land, but they also offer something that can’t be found elsewhere.

JO: I imagine that there are preservation problems once it’s…

MAB: And that’s the other challenge.

JO: Yes, certainly.

MAB: If an object is brought up, we have to be ready to take action because it starts to degrade the moment we move it…

JO: It comes into contact with oxygen.

MAB: … Yes, but even when we move it, we expose it to a new corrosion, a new degradation. If we bring it to the surface right away, the process accelerates very quickly. We have to keep the object damp. We always have to be ready to take action. For example, if the water heats up too fast, micro-organisms may develop that accelerate the degradation. We then have to be ready to start preservation treatments, which can take years depending on the object. It’s an enormous responsibility and we have to be ready to handle it, if not, we destroy…

JO: … the heritage.

MAB: … what we are trying to save, and that’s to everyone’s detriment.

JO: Why do you think that people are so fascinated by archaeology, and more specifically by shipwrecks?

MAB: That’s also a paradox. We say that people aren’t interested in history. I am firmly convinced that people enjoy history and are interested in it. It must be well narrated, but people are interested in history. There’s already an interest in our past and in our links with the past. If people feel directly affected by the past, they’ll be fascinated by it. If we add on top of that the element of discovery, and archaeology is discovery, and all the myths surrounding artefact hunters…

JO: … treasure hunters.

MAB: … treasures, and so on. It’s an image that people have. Yes, we hunt treasure, but historical treasure. That image applies even more strongly to shipwrecks. There’s always that myth of the Spanish galleon filled with gold. Everyone thinks that all shipwrecks contain a treasure. That being said, there’s a fascination with discovery and with the past, and add on top of that the notion of the bottom of the sea: it’s the final frontier, where we can be surprised by what we discover. Since these discoveries are often remarkably well preserved, people are absolutely fascinated.

We grow up with stories of pirates, shipwrecks and lost ships. These are powerful images. A shipwreck is an image that captures the imagination. But a shipwreck, when we dive a shipwreck, we have direct contact with the past. People are fascinated by that.

JO: Are shipwreck sites accessible to divers?

MAB: Shipwreck sites are very accessible to divers. For us, it’s a basic principle. We want people to be able to visit these sites. Very rarely do we limit access to a site. We do, for example, in Louisbourg, Nova Scotia. The site is accessible, but with a guide. The site must be visited with a guide because the wrecks are unique and very fragile.

However, the basic principle is that, as I was saying, we should try to allow people to savour and absorb the spirit of the site. The best way is to visit the site. So there are sites that are accessible, and we try to make them accessible. We not only make them accessible, but we also promote them. We’re developing tools to provide information to people.

It’s also important to raise awareness. We have the opportunity and privilege to visit the sites. We have to ensure that our children and grandchildren have the same opportunity. So we have to protect and respect [the sites]. In that spirit, the sites have to be accessible because these experiences are absolutely incredible. With technology, we can now make them accessible not only to divers but also virtually, which is interesting and stimulating. Nowadays there are opportunities to make all these wonders available to as many people as possible, even if they don’t have the chance to dive.

JO: How long has Parks Canada been involved in underwater archaeology?

MAB: 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the first dives at Fort Lennox in 1964 by Sean Gilmore and Walter Zacharchuk. That’s where it began. We’re going back there in August of this year, to the birthplace of underwater archaeology at Parks Canada.

We’re one of the oldest teams in the world, if we can say that. The first time an archaeologist dived a site was in 1960, so we were there basically at the beginning. Parks Canada joined the adventure very early on and it continues to be a part of it to this day. I believe that we’ve studied 225 sites across Canada, in the three oceans, the Great Lakes, rivers, truly across the entire country. We have a wealth of experience, and we’ll celebrate that this year by returning to Fort Lennox where it all began.

JO: Congratulations!

MAB: Thank you very much.

JO: 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Empress of Ireland. What can you tell us about this maritime accident?

MAB: The story of the Empress begins on May 28, 1914. The Empress of Ireland left Quebec City for England with first, second and third class passengers on board. The Empress left Quebec in the late afternoon, with more than 1,400 passengers and crew on board. The ship headed down the St. Lawrence to Pointe au Père, a pilot station, because pilots were needed to navigate the St. Lawrence, given the reefs and hazards.

The pilot left the Empress at the Pointe au Père pilot station, and the ship resumed her journey. At the same time, the Storstad, a cargo ship, was heading in the opposite direction. In the fog, the two ships collided. The Storstad rammed the Empress of Ireland, creating a hole that immediately filled with water.

At that moment, it was after 1:30 a.m., so almost 2:00 a.m. It was night and foggy. The ship sank within 14 minutes, with a loss of 1,012 lives. Over 400 people survived, but over 1,000 people [died]. Many survivors were pulled from the water either by the ship that collided with the Empress or by other ships that were immediately dispatched.

JO: 14 minutes…

MAB: … In 14 minutes, the ship sank. The water rushed in and the ship sank extremely fast, leaving very little opportunity for people, especially those deeper inside the ship, to save themselves.

JO: So a disaster.

MAB: The greatest maritime tragedy in the history of the country.

JO: What’s your most unforgettable experience at an underwater archaeology site?

MAB :I’ve been doing this job for 24 years now, and I can tell you that I have had extraordinary experiences! There are two that stand out.

One was a Second World War plane in Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan that sank after takeoff. Five of the nine crew members drowned in the plane. In 2009, the plane was found intact at a depth of 40 metres. We knew that five of the crew members were still inside. What was absolutely fascinating, apart from the sense of contact and the very touching story, was that we had the opportunity, chance and privilege to have people who were on the beach when the event occurred, who saw the accident and who saw the soldiers board right beforehand. They told us how it happened and they are a direct link. They are part of the history and they experienced that history.

That was an absolutely incredible human experience. We worked with the American forces to recover the remains of the soldiers. Seeing people who had witnessed the event and who could participate 70 years later was a very powerful moment. Diving the wreck of that plane was truly a journey through time.

The other experience was with the HMS Investigator in the Arctic. That’s the ship that was credited with discovering the Northwest Passage. Actually, the crew found it, since the ship remained trapped in the ice and the crew continued on foot and were saved by another ship. The ship is practically intact up to the upper deck in ten metres of water. When you go down there, the area is completely isolated. The crew spent two winters there. On land we can see the remains of the equipment that they left on the ground. Three graves are also visible. So we can absorb the fact that they were in this environment, which was completely hostile, for two years, with the hope of being rescued.

And the ship: we then dive this amazing exploration machine that’s still upright, with its iron-clad prow to break the ice. It’s an icebreaker from the 1850s. We dive on the deck, with the debris left by the ice, the pieces of the ship completely sheared off by the ice. But underneath that is a complete ship, and on the inside, everything that the people left on board.

I often say that it’s like a time travel machine. We are transported and we can absorb the spirit of the site. That’s what I believe is important, and what we at Parks [Canada] try to impart, the spirit of the site. There was a historic moment, but it occurred at a site. That site must be seen and experienced for maximum appreciation. That’s part of the essence of the historic event and the site. On that site, we truly felt it.

JO: Thank you very much for coming to speak with us today. We greatly appreciate your knowledge of underwater Canada. Thank you.

MAB: Thank you very much.

JO: To learn more about shipwrecks, visit our website Shipwreck Investigations at lac-bac.gc.ca/sos/shipwrecks or read our articles on shipwrecks on thediscoverblog.com [I found other subjects but not shipwrecks in my admittedly brief search of the blog].

Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard, and you’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada-where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thanks to our guest today, Marc-André Bernier.

A couple of comments. (1) It seems that neither Mr. Bernier nor his team have ever dived on the West Coast or west of Ottawa for that matter. (2) Given Bernier’s comments about oxygen and the degradation of artefacts once exposed to the air, I imagine there’s a fair of amount of excitement and interest in Corr’s work on ‘smart nanotech’ for shipwrecks.

After the April 22, 2017 US March for Science

Since last Saturday’s (April 22, 2017) US March for Science, I’ve stumbled across three interesting perspectives on the ‘movement’. As I noted in my April 14, 2017 posting, the ‘march’ has reached out beyond US borders to become international in scope. (On the day, at least 18 marches were held in Canada alone.)

Canada

John Dupuis wrote about his experience as a featured speaker at the Toronto (Ontario) march in an April 24, 2017 posting on his Confessions of a Science Librarian blog (Note: Links have been removed),

My fellow presenters were Master of Ceremonies Rupinder Brar and speakers Dawn Martin-Hill, Josh Matlow, Tanya Harrison, Chelsea Rochman, Aadita Chaudhury, Eden Hennessey and Cody Looking Horse.

Here’s what I had to say:

Hi, my name is John and I’m a librarian. My librarian superpower is making lists, checking them twice and seeing who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. The nice ones are all of you out here marching for science. And the naughty ones are the ones out there that are attacking science and the environment.

Now I’ve been in the list-making business for quite a few years, making an awful lot of lists of how governments have attacked or ignored science. I did a lot of work making lists about the Harper government and their war on science. The nicest thing I’ve ever seen written about my strange little obsession was in The Guardian.

Here’s what they said, in an article titled, How science helped to swing the Canadian election.

“Things got so bad that scientists and their supporters took to the streets. They demonstrated in Ottawa. They formed an organization, Evidence for Democracy, to bring push back on political interference in science. Awareness-raising forums were held at campuses throughout Canada. And the onslaught on science was painstakingly documented, which tends to happen when you go after librarians.”

Yeah, watch out. Don’t go after libraries and librarians. The Harper govt learned its lesson. And we learned a lesson too. And that lesson was that keeping track of things, that painstakingly documenting all the apparently disconnected little bits and pieces of policies here, regulations changed there and a budget snipped somewhere else, it all adds up.

What before had seemed random and disconnected is suddenly a coherent story. All the dots are connected and everybody can see what’s happened. By telling the whole story, by laying it all out there for everyone to see, it’s suddenly easier for all of us to point to the list and to hold the government of the day accountable. That’s the lesson learned from making lists.

But back in 2013 what I saw the government doing wasn’t the run of the mill anti-science that we’d seen before. Prime Minister Harper’s long standing stated desire to make Canada a global energy superpower revealed the underlying motivation but it was the endless litany of program cuts, census cancellation, science library closures, regulatory changes and muzzling of government scientists that made up the action plan. But was it really a concerted action plan or was it a disconnected series of small changes that were really no big deal or just a little different from normal?

That’s where making lists comes in handy. If you’re keeping track, then, yeah, you see the plan. You see the mission, you see the goals, you see the strategy, you see the tactics. You see that the government was trying to be sneaky and stealthy and incremental and “normal” but that there was a revolution in the making. An anti-science revolution.

Fast forward to now, April 2017, and what do we see? The same game plan repeated, the same anti-science revolution under way [in the US]. Only this time not so stealthy. Instead of a steady drip, it’s a fire hose. Message control at the National Parks Service, climate change denial, slashing budgets and shutting down programs at the EPA and other vital agencies. Incompetent agency directors that don’t understand the mission of their agencies or who even want to destroy them completely.

Once again, we are called to document, document, document. Tell the stories, mobilize science supporters and hold the governments accountable at the ballot box. Hey, like the Guardian said, if we did it in Canada, maybe that game plan can be repeated too.

I invited my three government reps here to the march today, Rob Oliphant, Josh Matlow and Eric Hoskins and I invited them to march with me so we could talk about how evidence should inform public policy. Josh, of course, is up here on the podium with me. As for Rob Oliphant from the Federal Liberals and Eric Hoskins from the Ontario Liberals, well, let’s just say they never answered my tweets.

Keep track, tell the story, hold all of them from every party accountable. The lesson we learned here in Canada was that science can be a decisive issue. Real facts can mobilise people to vote against alternative facts.

Thank you.

I’m not as sure as Dupuis that science was a decisive issue in our 2015 federal election; I’d say it was a factor. More importantly, I think the 2015 election showed Canadian scientists and those who feel science is important that it is possible to give it a voice and more prominence in the political discourse.

Rwanda

Eric Leeuwerck in an April 24, 2017 posting on one of the Agence Science-Press blogs describes his participation from Rwanda (I have provided a very rough translation after),

Un peu partout dans le monde, samedi 22 avril 2017, des milliers de personnes se sont mobilisées pour la « march for science », #sciencemarch, « une marche citoyenne pour les sciences, contre l’obscurantisme ». Et chez moi, au Rwanda ?

J’aurais bien voulu y aller moi à une « march for science », j’aurais bien voulu me joindre aux autres voix, me réconforter dans un esprit de franche camaraderie, à marcher comme un seul homme dans les rues, à dire que oui, nous sommes là ! La science vaincra, « No science, no futur ! » En Arctique, en Antarctique, en Amérique latine, en Asie, en Europe, sur la terre, sous l’eau…. Partout, des centaines de milliers de personnes ont marché ensemble. L’Afrique s’est mobilisée aussi, il y a eu des “march for science” au Kenya, Nigeria, Ouganda…

Et au Rwanda ? Eh bien, rien… Pourquoi suivre la masse, hein ? Pourquoi est-ce que je ne me suis pas bougé le cul pour faire une « march for science » au Rwanda ? Euh… et bien… Je vous avoue que je me vois mal organiser une manif au Rwanda en fait… Une collègue m’a même suggéré l’idée mais voilà, j’ai laissé tomber au moment même où l’idée m’a traversé l’esprit… Cependant, j’avais quand même cette envie d’exprimer ma sympathie et mon appartenance à ce mouvement mondial, à titre personnel, sans vouloir parler pour les autres, avec un GIF tout simple.

March for science RWanda

” March for science ” Rwanda

Je dois dire que je me sens bien souvent seul ici… Les cours de biologie de beaucoup d’écoles sont créationnistes, même au KICS (pour Kigali International Community School), une école internationale américaine (je tiens ça d’amis qui ont eu leurs enfants dans cette école). Sur son site, cette école de grande renommée ici ne cache pas ses penchants chrétiens : “KICS is a fully accredited member of the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) (…)” et, de plus, est reconnue par le ministère de l’éducation rwandais : “(KICS) is endorsed by the Rwandan Ministry of Education as a sound educational institution“. Et puis, il y a cette phrase sur leur page d’accueil : « Join the KICS family and impact the world for christ ».

Je réalise régulièrement des formations en pédagogie des sciences pour des profs locaux du primaire et du secondaire. Lors de ma formation sur la théorie de l’Evolution, qui a eu pas mal de succès, les enseignants de biologie m’ont confié que c’était la première fois, avec moi, qu’ils avaient eu de vrais cours sur la théorie de l’Evolution… (Je passe les débats sur l’athéisme, sur la « création » qui n’est pas un fait, sur ce qu’est un fait, qu’il ne faut pas faire « acte de foi » pour faire de la science et que donc on ne peut pas « croire » en la science, mais la comprendre…). Un thème délicat à aborder a été celui de la « construction des identités meurtrières » pour reprendre le titre du livre d’Amin Maalouf, au Rwanda comment est-ce qu’une pseudoscience, subjective, orientée politiquement et religieusement a pu mener au racisme et au génocide. On m’avait aussi formellement interdit d’en parler à l’époque, ma directrice de l’époque disait « ne te mêle pas de ça, ce n’est pas notre histoire », mais voilà, maintenant, ce thème est devenu un thème incontournable, même à l’Ecole Belge de Kigali !

Une autre formation sur l’éducation sexuelle a été très bien reçue aussi ! J’ai mis en place cette formation, aussi contre l’avis de ma directrice de l’époque (une autre) : des thèmes comme le planning familial, la contraception, l’homosexualité, gérer un débat houleux, les hormones… ont été abordées ! Première fois aussi, m’ont confié les enseignants, qu’ils ont reçu une formation objective sur ces sujets tabous.

Chaque année, je réunis un peu d’argent avec l’aide de l’École Belge de Kigali pour faire ces formations (même si mes directions ne sont pas toujours d’accord avec les thèmes ), je suis totalement indépendant et à part l’École Belge de Kigali, aucune autre institution dont j’ai sollicité le soutien n’a voulu me répondre. Mais je continue, ça relève parfois du militantisme, je l’avoue.

C’est comme mon blog, un des seuls blogs francophones de sciences en Afrique (en fait, je n’en ai jamais trouvé aucun en cherchant sur le net) dans un pays à la connexion Internet catastrophique, je me demande parfois pourquoi je continue… Je perds tellement de temps à attendre que mes pages chargent, à me reconnecter je ne sais pas combien de fois toutes les 5 minutes … En particulier lors de la saison des pluies ! Heureusement que je peux compter sur le soutien inconditionnel de mes communautés de blogueurs : le café des sciences , les Mondoblogueurs de RFI , l’Agence Science-Presse. Sans eux, j’aurais arrêté depuis longtemps ! Six ans de blogging scientifique quand même…

Alors, ce n’est pas que virtuel, vous savez ! Chaque jour, quand je vais au boulot pour donner mes cours de bio et chimie, quand j’organise mes formations, quand j’arrive à me connecter à mon blog, je « marche pour la science ».

Yeah. (De la route, de la science et du rock’n’roll : Rock’n’Science !)

(Un commentaire de soutien ça fait toujours plaisir !)

As I noted, this will be a very rough translation and anything in square brackets [] means that I’m even less sure about the translation in that bit,

Pretty much around the world, thousands will march for science against anti-knowledge/anti-science.

I would have liked to join in and to march with other kindred spirits as one in the streets. We are here! Science will triumph! No science .No future. In the Arctic, in the Antarctic, in Latin America, in Asia, in Europe,  on land, on water … Everywhere hundreds of thousands of people are marching together. Africa, too, has mobilized with marches in Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda ..

And in Rwanda? Well, no, nothing. Why follow everyone else? Why didn’t I get my butt in gear and organize a march? [I’m not good at organizing these kinds of things] A colleague even suggested I arrange something . I had an impulse to do it and then it left. Still, I want to express my solidarity with the March for Science without attempting to talk for or represent anyone other than myself. So, here’s a simple gif,

I have to say I often feel myself to be alone here. The biology courses taught in many of the schools here are creationist biology even at the KICS (Kigali International Community School), an international American school (I have friends whose children attend the school). On the school’s site there’s a sign that does nothing to hide its mission: “KICS is a fully accredited member of the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) (…)” and, further, it is recognized as such by the Rwandan Ministry of Education : “(KICS) is endorsed by the Rwandan Ministry of Education as a sound educational institution”. Finally, there’s this on their welcome page : « Join the KICS family and impact the world for christ ».

I regularly give science education prgorammes for local primary and secondary teachers. With regard to my teaching on the theory of evolution some have confided that this is the first time they’ve truly been exposed to a theory of evolution.  (I avoid the debates about atheism and the creation story. Science is not about faith it’s about understanding …). One theme that must be skirted with some delicacy in Rwanda is the notion of constructing a murderous/violent identity to borrow from Amin Maalouf’s book title, ‘Les Identités meurtrières’; in English: In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong) as it has elements of a pseudoscience, subjectivity, political and religious connotations and has been used to justify racism and genocide. [Not sure here if he’s saying that the theory of evolution has been appropriated and juxtaposed with notions of violence and identify leading to racism and genocide. For anyone not familiar with the Rwandan genocide of 1994, see this Wikipedia entry.] Ihave been formally forbidden to discuss this period and my director said “Don’t meddle in this. It’s not our history.” But this theme/history has become essential/unavoidable even at the l’Ecole Belge de Kigali (Belgian School of Kigali).

A programme on sex education was well received and that subject too was forbidden to me (by a different director). I included topics such as  family planning, contraception, homosexuality, hormones and inspired a spirited debate. Many times my students have confided that they received good factual information on these taboo topics.

Each year with help from the Belgian School at Kigali, I raise money for these programmes (even if my directors don’t approve of the topics). I’m totally independent and other than the Belgian School at Kigali no other institution that I’ve appraoched has responded. But I continue as I hope that it can help lower milittancy.

My blog is one of the few French language science blogs in Africa (I rarely find any other such blogs when I search). In a country where the internet connection is catastrophically poor, I ask myself why I go on. I lose a lot of time waiting for pages to load or to re-establish a connection, especially in the rainy season. Happily I can depend on the communities of bloggers such as: café des sciences , les Mondoblogueurs de RFI , l’Agence Science-Presse. Without them I would have stopped long ago. It has been six years of blogging science …

It is virtual, you know. Each day when I deliver my courses in biology and chemistry, when I organize my programmes, when I post on my blog, ‘I march for science’.

Comments are gladly accepted. [http://www.sciencepresse.qc.ca/blogue/2017/04/24/march-science-rwanda]

All mistakes are mine.

US

My last bit is from an April 24, 2017 article by Jeremy Samuel Faust for Slate.com, (Note: Links have been removed),

Hundreds of thousands of self-professed science supporters turned out to over 600 iterations of the March for Science around the world this weekend. Thanks to the app Periscope, I attended half a dozen of them from the comfort of my apartment, thereby assiduously minimizing my carbon footprint.

Mainly, these marches appeared to be a pleasant excuse for liberals to write some really bad (and, OK, some truly superb) puns, and put them on cardboard signs. There were also some nicely stated slogans that roused support for important concepts such as reason and data and many that decried the defunding of scientific research and ignorance-driven policy.

But here’s the problem: Little of what I observed dissuades me from my baseline belief that, even among the sanctimonious elite who want to own science (and pwn [sic] anyone who questions it), most people have no idea how science actually works. The scientific method itself is already under constant attack from within the scientific community itself and is ceaselessly undermined by its so-called supporters, including during marches like those on Saturday. [April 22, 2017] In the long run, such demonstrations will do little to resolve the myriad problems science faces and instead could continue to undermine our efforts to use science accurately and productively.

Indeed much of the sentiment of the March for Science seemed to fall firmly in the camp of people espousing a gee-whiz attitude in which science is just great and beyond reproach. They feel that way because, so often, the science they’re exposed to feels that way—it’s cherry-picked. Cherry-picking scientific findings that support an already cherished and firmly held belief (while often ignoring equally if not more compelling data that contradicts it) is epidemic—in scientific journals and in the media.

Let’s face it: People like science when it supports their views. I see this every day. When patients ask me for antibiotics to treat their common colds, I tell them that decades of science and research, let alone a basic understanding of microbiology, shows that antibiotics don’t work for cold viruses. Trust me, people don’t care. They have gotten antibiotics for their colds in the past, and, lo, they got better. (The human immune system, while a bit slower and clunkier than we’d like it to be, never seems to get the credit it deserves in these little anecdotal stories.) Who needs science when you have something mightier—personal experience?

Another example is the vocal wing of environmentalists who got up one day and decided that genetically modified organisms were bad for you. They had not one shred of evidence for this, but it just kind of felt true. As a result, responsible scientists will be fighting against these zealots for years to come. While the leaders of March for Science events are on the right side of this issue, many of its supporters are not. I’m looking at you, Bernie Sanders; the intellectual rigor behind your stance requiring GMO labelling reflects a level of scientific understanding that would likely lead for calls for self-defenestration from your own supporters if it were applied to, say, something like climate change.

But it does not stop there. Perhaps as irritating as people who know nothing about science are those who know just a little bit—just enough to think they have any idea as to what is going on. Take for example the clever cheer (and unparalleled public declaration of nerdiness):

What do we want?

Science!

When do we want it?

After peer review!

Of course, the quality of most peer-review research is somewhere between bad and unfair to the pixels that gave their lives to display it. Just this past week, a study published by the world’s most prestigious stroke research journal (Stroke), made headlines and achieved media virality by claiming a correlation between increased diet soda consumption and strokes and dementia. Oh, by the way, the authors didn’t control for body mass index [*], even though, unsurprisingly, people who have the highest BMIs had the most strokes. An earlier study that no one seems to remember showed a correlation of around the same magnitude between obesity and strokes alone. But, who cares, right? Ban diet sodas now! Science says they’re linked to strokes and dementia! By the way, Science used to say that diet sodas cause cancer. But Science was, perish the thought, wrong.

If you can get past the writer’s great disdain for just about everyone, he makes very good points.

To add some clarity with regard to “controlling for body mass index,” there’s a concept in research known as a confounding variable. In this case, people who have a higher body mass index (or are more obese) will tend to have more strokes according to previous research which qualifies as a confounding variable when studying the effect of diet soda on strokes. To control for obesity means you set up the research project in such a way you can compare (oranges to oranges) the stroke rates of obese people who drink x amount of diet soda with obese people who do not drink x amount of diet soda and compare stroke rates of standard weight people who drink x amount of diet soda with other standard weight people who do not drink x amount of diet soda. There are other aspects of the research that would also have be considered but to control for body mass index that’s the way I’d set it up.

One point that Faust makes that isn’t made often enough and certainly not within the context of the ‘evidence-based policy movement’ and ‘marches for science’ is the great upheaval taking place within the scientific endeavour (Note: Links have been removed),

… . There are a dozen other statistical games that researchers can play to get statistical significance. Such ruses do not rise to anything approaching clinical relevance. Nevertheless, fun truthy ones like the diet soda study grab headlines and often end up changing human behaviors.

The reason this problem, what one of my friends delightfully calls statistical chicanery, is so rampant is twofold. First, academics need to “publish or perish.” If researchers don’t publish in peer-reviewed journals, their careers will be short and undistinguished. Second, large pharmaceutical companies have learned how to game the science system so that their patented designer molecules can earn them billions of dollars, often treating made-up diseases (I won’t risk public opprobrium naming those) as well as other that we, the medical establishment, literally helped create (opioid-induced constipation being a recent flagrancy).

Of course, the journals themselves have suffered because their contributors know the game. There are now dozens of stories of phony research passing muster in peer-review journals, despite being intentionally badly written. These somewhat cynical, though hilarious, exposés have largely focused on outing predatory journals that charge authors money in exchange for publication (assuming the article is “accepted” by the rigorous peer-review process; the word rigorous, by the way, now means “the credit card payment went through and your email address didn’t bounce”). But even prestigious journals have been bamboozled. The Lancet famously published fabrications linking vaccines and autism in 1998. and it took it 12 years to retract the studies. Meanwhile, the United States Congress took only three years for its own inquiry to debunk any link. You know it’s bad when the U.S. Congress is running circles around the editorial board of one of the world’s most illustrious medical journals. Over the last couple of decades, multiple attempts to improve the quality of peer-review adjudication have disappointingly and largely failed to improve the situation.

While the scientific research community is in desperate need of an overhaul, the mainstream media (and social media influencers) could in the meantime play a tremendously helpful role in alleviating the situation. Rather than indiscriminately repeating the results of the latest headline-grabbing scientific journal article and quoting the authors who wrote the paper, journalists should also reach out to skeptics and use their comments not just to provide (false) balance in their articles but to assess whether the finding really warrants an entire article of coverage in the first place. Headlines should be vetted not for impact and virality but for honesty. As a reader, be wary of any headline that includes the phrase “Science says,” as well as anything that states that a particular study “proves” that a particular exposure “causes” a particular disease. Smoking causes cancer, heart disease, and emphysema, and that’s about as close to a causal statement as actual scientists will make, when it comes to health. Most of what you read and hear about turns out to be mere associations, and mostly fairly weak ones, at that.

Faust refers mostly to medical research but many of his comments are applicable to other science research as well. By the way, Faust has written an excellent description of p-values for which, if for no other reason, you should read his piece in its entirety.

One last comment about Faust’s piece, he exhorts journalists to take more care in their writing but fails to recognize the pressures on journalists and those who participate in social media. Briefly, journalists are under pressure to produce. Many of the journalists who write about science don’t know much about it and even the ones who have a science background may be quite ignorant about the particular piece of science they are covering, i.e., a physicist might have some problems covering medical research and vice versa. Also, mainstream media are in trouble as they struggle to find revenue models.

As for those of us who blog and others in the social media environment; we are a mixed bag in much the same way that mainstream media is. If you get your science from gossip rags such as the National Enquirer, it’s not likely to be as reliable as what you’d expect from The Guardian or the The New York Times. Still, those prestigious publications have gotten quite wrong on occasion.

In the end, readers (scientists, journalists, bloggers, etc.) need to be skeptical. It’s also helpful to be humble or at least willing to admit you’ve made a mistake (confession: I have my share on this blog, which are noted when I’ve found or when they’ve been pointed out to me).

Final comments

Hopefully, this has given you a taste for the wide ranges of experiences and perspectives on the April 22, 2017 March for Science.

Oil company sponsorships: Science Museum (London, UK) and Canada’s Museum of Science and Technology

Wonderlab: The Statoil Gallery opened in London’s (UK) Science Museum on Oct. 12, 2016 and it seems there are a couple of controversies. An Oct. 17, 2016 article by Chris Garrard outlines the issues (Note: Links have been removed),

What do you wonder?” That is the question the Science Museum has been asking for many months now, in posters, celebrity videos and in online images. It’s been part of the museum’s strategy to ramp up excitement around its new “Wonderlab” gallery, a space full of interactive science exhibits designed to inspire children. But what many have been wondering is how Statoil, a major oil and gas company with plans to drill up to seven new wells in the Arctic [emphasis mine], was allowed to become the gallery’s title sponsor? Welcome to Wonderlab – the Science Museum’s latest ethical contradiction.

In Australia, Statoil is still considering plans to drill a series of ultra deepwater wells in the Great Australian Bight – an internationally recognised whale sanctuary – despite the decision this week of its strategic partner, BP, to pull out. …

The company’s sponsorship of Wonderlab may look like a generous gesture from outside but in reality, Statoil is buying a social legitimacy it does not deserve – and it is particularly sinister to purchase that legitimacy at the expense of young people who will inherit a world with an unstable climate. This is an attempt to associate the future of science and technology with fossil fuels at a time when society and policy makers have finally accepted that that it is not compatible with a sustainable future and a stable climate. As the impacts of climate change intensify and the world shifts away from fossil fuels, the Science Museum will look ever more out of touch with the words “the Statoil gallery” emblazoned upon its walls.

The Science Museum has previously had sponsorship deals with a range of unethical sponsors, from arms companies such as Airbus, to other fossil fuel companies such as BP and Shell. When Shell’s influence over the Science Museum’s climate science gallery was unearthed last year following Freedom of Information requests, the museum’s director, Ian Blatchford, sought to defend the museum’s engagement with fossil fuel funders. He wrote “When it comes to the major challenges facing our society, from climate change to inspiring the next generation of engineers, we need to be engaging with all the key players including governments, industry and the public, not hiding away in a comfortable ivory tower.”

In reality, Blatchford is the one in the ivory tower – and not just because of the museum’s ties to Statoil. Wonderlab replaces the museum’s Launchpad gallery, a hub of interactive science exhibits designed to engage and inspire children. But unlike its predecessor, Wonderlab comes with an entry charge. Earlier this year, the science communication academic Dr Emily Dawson noted that “charging for the museum’s most popular children’s gallery sends a clear message that science is for some families, but not for all”. Thus Wonderlab represents a science communication mess as well as an ethical one.

While the museum’s decision to offer free school visits will allow some children from disadvantaged backgrounds the opportunity to experience Wonderlab, Dawson argues that “it is not enough to use school visits as a panacea for exclusive practice”. Research recently undertaken by the Wellcome Trust showed that likelihood of visiting a science museum or centre is related to social class. Entry charges are not the only obstacle in the way of public access to science, but perhaps the most symbolic for a major cultural institution – particularly where the primary audience is children.

Garrard does note that museums have challenges, especially when they are dealing with funding cuts as they are at the Science Museum.

The sponsorship issue may sound familiar to Canadians as we had our own controversy in 2012 with Imperial Oil and its sponsorship of the Canada Science and Technology Museum’s show currently named, ‘Let’s Talk Energy‘ still sponsored by Imperial Oil. Here’s more from my June 13, 2012 posting,

They’ve been going hot and heavy at Canada’s national museums in Ottawa this last few months. First, there was a brouhaha over corporate patronage and energy in January 2012 and, again, in April 2012 and now, it’s all about sex. While I’m dying to get started on the sex, this piece is going to follow the chronology.

The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) website has a Jan. 23, 2012 posting which notes the active role Imperial Oil played in a November 2011  energy exhibit (part of a multi-year, interactive national initiative, Let’s Talk Energy)  at the Canada Science and Technology Museum (from the CBC Jan. 23, 2012 posting),

Imperial Oil, a sponsor of the Museum of Science and Technology’s exhibition “Energy: Power to Choose,” was actively involved in the message presented to the public, according to emails obtained by CBC News.

The Ottawa museum unveiled the exhibition last year despite criticism from environmental groups like the Sierra Club, which questioned why it was partly funded by the Imperial Oil Foundation, which contributed $600,000 over six years.

Apparently, CBC reporters got their hands on some emails where the Imperial Oil Foundation president, Susan Swan, made a number of suggestions,

In an Oct. 3 [2011] interview on CBC Ottawa’s All in a Day, host Alan Neal asked exhibit curator Anna Adamek whose idea it was to include in the exhibit a reference that says oilsands account for one-tenth of one percent of global emissions.

“This fact comes from research reports that are available at the museum, that were commissioned by the museum,” Adamek told Neal.

But earlier emails from Imperial Oil Foundation president Susan Swan obtained by Radio-Canada through an Access to Information request show she had recommended that information be included back in May [2011?].

Swan, who also served as chair of the advisory committee to the project, also asked that information be included that the oilsands are expected to add $1.7 trillion to the Canadian economy over the next 25 years.

Not all of Swan’s requests made it into the final exhibit: in one point, she asked that an illustration for Polar Oil and Gas Reserves be changed from red to blue, arguing red “has a negative connotation” bringing to mind “blood oil.” The change was not made.

Personally, I love Swan’s semiotic analysis of the colour ‘red’. I wonder how many graphic designers have been driven mad by someone who sat through a lecture or part of a television programme on colour and/or semiotics and is now an expert.

If you’re curious, you can see the emails from the Imperial Oil Foundation in the CBC Jan. 23, 2012 posting.

A few months later, Barrick Gold (a mining corporation) donated $1M to have a room at the Canadian Museum of Nature renamed, from the April 24, 2012 posting on the CBC website,

Environmental groups are upset over a decision to rename a room at the Canadian Museum of Nature after corporate mining giant Barrick Gold.

Barrick Gold Corp., based out of Toronto, purchased the room’s naming rights for about $1 million. The new “Barrick Salon” is the museum’s premier rental space featuring a circular room with glass windows from floor to ceiling.

The decision had activists protest at the museum Tuesday, a few hours before the official naming reception that includes Barrick Gold executives.

“It’s definitely not a partnership, it’s a sponsorship,” said Elizabeth McCrea, the museum’s director of communications. “We’re always looking at increasing self-generated revenue and this is one way that we’re doing it.” [emphasis mine]

Monarchs and wealthy people have been funding and attempting to influence cultural institutions for millenia. These days, we get to include corporations on that list but it’s nothing new. People or institutions with power and money always want history or facts * presented in ways that further or flatter their interests (“history is written by the victors”). They aren’t always successful but they will keep trying.

It’s hard to be high-minded when you need money but it doesn’t mean you should give up on the effort.

WHALE of a concert on the edge of Hudson Bay (northern Canada) and sounds of icebergs from Oregon State University

Both charming and confusing (to me), the WHALE project features two artists (or is it musicians?) singing to and with beluga whales using a homemade underwater sound system while they all float on or in Hudson Bay. There’s a July 10, 2013 news item about the project on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) news website,

What began as an interest in aquatic culture for Laura Magnusson and Kaoru Ryan Klatt has turned into a multi-year experimental project that brings art to the marine mammals.

Since 2011, Magnusson and Klatt have been taking a boat onto the Churchill River, which flows into Hudson Bay, with a home-made underwater sound system.

….

Last week, the pair began a 75-day expedition that involves travelling aboard a special “sculptural sea vessel” to “build a sustained but non-invasive presence to foster bonds between humans and whales,” according to the project’s website.

Ten other musicians and interdisciplinary artists are joining Klatt and Magnusson to perform new works they’ve created specifically for the whales.

The latest expedition will be the focus of Becoming Beluga, a feature film that Klatt is directing.

Magnusson and Klatt are also testing a high-tech “bionic whale suit” that would enable the wearer to swim and communicate like a beluga whale.

Klatt has produced a number of WHALE videos including this one (Note: This not a slick production nor were any of the others I viewed on YouTube),

In addition to not being slick, there’s a quirky quality to this project video that I find charming and interesting.

My curiosity aroused, I also visited Magnusson’s and Klatt’s WHALE website and found this project description,

WHALE is an interdisciplinary art group comprised of Winnipeg-based artists Kaoru Ryan Klatt and Laura Magnusson. Their vision is to expand art and culture beyond human boundaries to non-human beings. Since 2011, they have been traveling to the northern edge of Manitoba, Canada to forge connections with thousands of beluga whales. From a canoe on the Churchill River, they have collaborated with these whales through sound, movement, and performative action. Now, aboard the SSV Cetus – a specially crafted sculptural sea vessel – they will embark on a 75-day art expedition throughout the Churchill River estuary, working to build a sustained but non-invasive presence to foster bonds between humans and whales. This undertaking – Becoming Beluga – is the culmination of a three-year integrated arts project with the belugas of this region, taking place between July 2 and September 14, 2013.

While the word ‘artist’ suggests visual arts rather than musical arts what I find a little more confounding is that this is not being described an art/science or art/technology project as these artists are clearly developing technology with their underwater sound system, sculptural sea vessel, and bionic whale suit. In any event, I wish them good luck with WHALE and their Becoming Beluga film.

In a somewhat related matter and for those interested in soundscapes and the ocean (in Antarctica), there is some research from Oregon State University which claims that melting icebergs make a huge din. From a July 11, 2013 news item on phys.org,

There is growing concern about how much noise humans generate in marine environments through shipping, oil exploration and other developments, but a new study has found that naturally occurring phenomena could potentially affect some ocean dwellers.

Nowhere is this concern greater than in the polar regions, where the effects of global warming often first manifest themselves. The breakup of ice sheets and the calving and grounding of icebergs can create enormous sound energy, scientists say. Now a new study has found that the mere drifting of an iceberg from near Antarctica to warmer ocean waters produces startling levels of noise.

The Oregon State University July 10, 2013 news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail (Note: A link has been removed),

A team led by Oregon State University (OSU) researchers used an array of hydrophones to track the sound produced by an iceberg through its life cycle, from its origin in the Weddell Sea to its eventual demise in the open ocean. The goal of the project was to measure baseline levels of this kind of naturally occurring sound in the ocean, so it can be compared to anthropogenic noises.

“During one hour-long period, we documented that the sound energy released by the iceberg disintegrating was equivalent to the sound that would be created by a few hundred supertankers over the same period,” said Robert Dziak, a marine geologist at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore., and lead author on the study. [emphasis mine]

“This wasn’t from the iceberg scraping the bottom,” he added. “It was from its rapid disintegration as the berg melted and broke apart. We call the sounds ‘icequakes’ because the process and ensuing sounds are much like those produced by earthquakes.”

I encourage anyone who’s interested to read the entire news release (apparently the researchers were getting images of their iceberg from the International Space Station) and/or the team’s published research paper,

Robert P. Dziak, Matthew J. Fowler, Haruyoshi Matsumoto, DelWayne R. Bohnenstiehl, Minkyu Park, Kyle Warren, and Won Sang Lee. 2013. Life and death sounds of Iceberg A53a. Oceanography 26(2), http://dx.doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2013.20.