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AGU Fall Meeting 2011: December 2011 Archives

And no, that doesn't mean including footage of people attending exercise classes. The S Factor under scrutiny in this blog is the S Factor Workshop on how to make successful science videos, held at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in December. The event saw a panel of Hollywood professionals critique ten entries, picked from a total of 42 submissions by hopeful researchers.

On the panel were marine biologist-turned film-maker Randy Olson, author of Don't Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style, and his former film-school classmates Sean Hood, now a screenwriter with credits such as horror movie Halloween: Resurrection and Conan the Barbarian to his name, and Jason Ensler, co-producer and director of Franklin & Bash, and director of episodes of Gossip Girl, Chuck and Psych.

The trio were cheerfully disparaging of scientists' storytelling skills, saying that many of the videos took the approach "here's our lab, here's our kit, come see us some day". But story is key - "think of it as making a trailer for science".

One exception was San Jose State University's Green Ninja. The panel felt this video showed good storytelling, with a character who clearly has a problem - his oversized and ever-growing feet - that he needs to solve.

A useful technique, as detailed by Nicholas Kristof, is to follow the story of one individual and, ideally, to reach an uplifting conclusion. According to Olson, Kristof argues that an article on death is depressing but an article on people fighting a disease engages. In the same way, a story about coral deterioration could be depressing or dull, but a story about a man interested in coral can catch people's attention.

Since film is good for conveying emotion and humour but not for transmitting information, it can be useful to break your complex content down to a simple story. According to Ensler, it takes time to develop stories but they can be overdeveloped and lose some of their original spark. Hood stressed the need "to keep hold of that nugget of awe", and that scientists should "inspire the eleven-year-old in all of us".

It's also worth considering changing the order of events from a "that happened, then that happened, then this happened" type of narrative. Replacing "ands" in the storyline with "buts" and "therefores" can change the direction of the story and add tension, the film experts explained. For example, in Volcano from Space, the storyline could have been "We monitor volcanoes but they're hard to see so we need new techniques." Arguing two sides of an issue can also create a good story.

Ensler recommended that researchers set up cameras whenever they are in the field so that they have plenty of interesting footage to use in their videos.

But interesting is not enough; if somebody says interesting after Hood's latest film pitch, he knows "I've failed, because I haven't grabbed them emotionally". People are most engaged by people talking, not things, he said, so it's useful to show a person alongside a piece of scientific kit. Because watching a person speak in real-life is different to seeing them onscreen, if you're filming a talking head you need multiple cameras and different angles, as per the TED talks, to stop it from being boring.

That said, many of the films submitted began with somebody speaking to camera - the panel felt there was no need for this. According to Olson, it's good to arouse and fulfil - grab the audience's attention, make them want, then fulfil their need. For example the Mata Eruption video from JISAO (Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean) could have put its amazing video footage of an undersea volcanic eruption right at the start of the film before answering the questions the footage raises. Alternatively, Ensler said the team could have made the audience want by promising them they were going to see some great footage but first explaining why it's hard to obtain.

As film is a visual medium it can be helpful to see if you can get the gist of a short film without listening to the soundtrack, the professionals explained. Indeed, one of the most well-received videos - Perspective, which used animated graphics to indicate the relative energy release of large earthquakes throughout history - contained no sound at all, and was praised for its Hitchcockian withholding of information from the audience.

In summary? Every picture (should) tell a story...

AGU Fall Meeting: the (pH) lowdown on ocean acidification

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Ocean acidification is often overlooked as a problem in favour of its more famous parent, climate change. But it's receiving plenty of attention at the AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

Whilst most information on the effects of acidification is based on modelling or lab experiments over limited time periods, Adina Paytan of the University of California Santa Cruz has been looking at whole ecosystems - the natural submarine springs, or "ojos", that occur along Caribbean coastlines. Formed when rainwater travels through limestone caves under land and discharges into the sea via faultlines, these springs have a low pH, making them a natural laboratory for studying the effects of acidification on ocean-dwelling species over long timescales.

To her surprise, Paytan found that three coral species were able to grow under the low pH conditions near the springs, despite a scarcity of the carbonate ions that corals normally need to form their calcite shells. Near the springs the pH was around 7.6 whilst further away, where nine coral species were discovered, the pH was 8.1.

"It's encouraging that certain corals can survive," Paytan told reporters, "but it's only a few species and they're not reef-building. They tend to grow slowly in patchy colonies."

Paytan speculates that the higher nutrient concentration of the springwater may aid growth of the coral's symbiotic photosynthesizing algae, providing the coral with more energy and the ability to grow under less optimal conditions. She is currently investigating this theory further. CT scans of samples drilled from the corals revealed that the organisms formed less dense skeletons when the surrounding water contained fewer aragonite ions (a form of carbonate). Under these conditions, the corals also suffered more boring by clams and worms. As a result, the corals may be less robust and more susceptible to damage by hurricanes.

Acidification researcher Nina Keul of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, Germany had also had a surprise - her lab tests showed that a species of foraminifera found in Northern Germany actually grew faster in more acid water. This is in contrast to previous studies, although Keul's specimens were at an earlier stage of their development than those used in other work. The mechanism for the increase is not yet clear; Kent speculated that a lower pH may make it easier for the forams to expel hydrogen ions formed during their shell-making process.

Robert Riding of the University of Tennessee Knoxville, meanwhile, has been looking to the past. His analysis of cores drilled from a reef in Tahiti in 2005 indicates that natural acidification associated with past climate changes weakened the bacterial crust that glues reefs together. At some periods, these calcifying bacteria formed layers up to 20 cm thick and could make up as much as 80% of the reef framework. But acidification led to a lower abundance of the bacteria, making the reefs less strong. Riding explained that this creates a double whammy - natural acidification has weakened reefs and manmade acidification will now weaken them again.

There are many theories as to why the ancient Central American civilisations of the Mayans, Aztecs and Toltecs died out. It could be that drought, perhaps due to solar forcing or random climate variability, was a factor. And in 2010 Robert Oglesby of the University of Nebraska, US, suggested that deforestation may have contributed to drought and the Mayan collapse. Now Ben Cook of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University has confirmed that past deforestation in Central America may indeed have cut precipitation.

"Pre-Columbian central American contained 19 million people in sedentary agricultural societies," Cook told reporters at the AGU Fall Meeting. The resulting landscape probably consisted of cropland interspersed with patches of rainforest. But after the Spanish conquest, population crashed by 90%, enabling reforestation to occur.

Cook used land cover reconstruction data based on population numbers (obtained from colonial records) and a climate model to examine the effect of forest cover on climate before and after 1492. He found that pre-Columbian deforestation suppressed precipitation by roughly 10-20% in the region and led to half a degree of warming.

"Grass and croplands absorb slightly less energy from the sun than the rainforest because their surface tends to be more reflective," said Cook. "This means that there's less energy available for convection and precipitation."

The temperature rise is explained by the lower soil moisture - energy that isn't being spent evaporating water goes into warming the ground instead.

Lake and cave records from the area indicate that there was a 14% decline in water balance - the difference between precipitation and evaporation. Cook says his simulations can account for about half this drying.

Today the region is more extensively deforested than in pre-Columbian times, except for the Yucatán Peninsula, which has more forest cover. Cook believes that future deforestation in the Yucatán could lead to similar drying.

AGU Meeting: Dead Sea almost extinct 120,000 years ago

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The Dead Sea region is long on history but short on water. To cast a more detailed eye on both, researchers have drilled a nearly 500m-long core from the middle of the Dead Sea to reveal more about its fluctuating water levels over the last 200,000 years.

Presented at the AGU Fall Meeting, the initial findings indicate that around 120,000 years ago, the lake almost dried up as a result of natural variation in climate. That doesn't bode well for today's scenario, in which extraction of water from the Jordan River for irrigation has almost entirely stopped the flow of water into the lake, and climate is projected to become warmer and drier. According to the UN, water shortage has the potential to cause conflict in the region.

"The Dead Sea is already drying up because humans are using so much water," said Steven Goldstein of Columbia University. "The evidence it has actually gone away without any human intervention, under conditions that might return soon, is something people should think hard about."

It was the discovery of a layer of pebbles around 235 m deep that revealed the drying of the Sea - such pebbles are typically found on the shoreline so their presence in the centre of the lake shows that the water level was extremely low. Below the pebbles was a 45 m thick layer rich in salt, which also indicates extreme drying. In fact Goldstein said calculations show that producing a layer of salt this thick would require evaporation of virtually all the water that's in the lake today.

The Dead Sea, which currently lies 425 m below sea level, is the deepest place on Earth. But its water level has fluctuated massively as climate and other factors have changed. Around 25,000 years ago, for example, its surface was just 160 m below sea level, while 6000 years ago it was 370 m below. In 1997 the surface was 413 m below sea level. When it came to the start of the drilling project in November 2010, the lake level had dropped so much that the team had to build a new road to access the lake, Emi Ito of the University of Minnesota told assembled reporters.

As well as beach pebbles, the core contains layers of sediment, explained Goldstein. White layers were laid down in summer due to the precipitation of calcium carbonate whilst darker layers of mud and silt were deposited in winter by floods and sand storms. In warmer times salt was also precipitated due to shrinkage of the Sea but the team found that these layers were not visible during Ice Ages. In several regions of the core the layers are jumbled, indicating an earthquake.

So far the researchers have dated the core, which they only finished drilling in March, by comparing it with stalagmites found in caves in the region. Now they plan to use radioactive dating to provide a more accurate picture. Finding out how quickly the lake dried is a priority; Goldstein believes it could be anywhere from a few hundreds of years up to thousands.

The project brought together researchers from Israel, the US, Germany, Japan, Switzerland and Norway, using a rig from the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program.

AGU Meeting: Michael Mann heads for the zoo

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As luck might have it, when he spoke at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco this morning on communicating climate change, Michael Mann of Penn State University, US, was able to reveal that the Wall Street Journal today published his letter contesting attacks on climate scientists. "As Nature put it in an editorial a couple of years ago, climate scientists are in a street fight," he said.

Mann stressed that climate change is a reality. "The recent study in Nature Geoscience [which found that at least three-quarters of the current warming is due to manmade factors] came to an even stronger conclusion than the IPCC report," he said. But Mann would like to contest the paper's conclusion - he believes that more than 100% of today's warming is caused by man, as natural factors should on average have led to cooling over the last few decades.

Mann detailed his current involvement with the Climate Literacy Zoo Education Network (CliZEN), a collaboration between nine US zoos and Polar Bears International. "Zoos provide a unique opportunity for trying to communicate the threats to the natural world," he said.

It seems that zoo visitors are more concerned about climate change than the general public. A survey of visitors to zoos and aquaria in the summer found that nearly two-thirds were alarmed or concerned about climate change; in contrast, only 39% of the public surveyed as part of the Six Americas project showed the same levels of concern.

"[Zoo visitors'] primary impediment in becoming more engaged is actually knowledge - they don't feel well enough informed on what they can do," said Mann. Given that nearly 50 million people in the US visit a zoo each year, he feels that's a tremendous opportunity to educate.

• Mann will be talking about his book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines, which is due out in January 2012, at 4 pm on Tuesday. If you're at the AGU meeting, head to Room 3001 in Moscone West to hear more.

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