14 January 2011

#scio11 day one: Krulwich to climate change

In the Duke University research forest, towers like these dosed experimental plots with carbon dioxide to simulate the effects of climate change. Photo by jby.
I arrived last evening at ScienceOnline 2011 barely coherent after thirteen hours of travel from Moscow, Idaho (2 a.m. Pacific time) to Durham, North Carolina (about 6 p.m. Eastern time). Robert Krulwich's keynote address woke me back up. Krulwich explained his approach to science journalism and illustrated it with clips from his work, including the transcendently good Radiolab. How do you get your audience excited about science, according to Krulwich? Talk about what excites you, and lead them to discover it with you.

I spent this morning touring the Duke University research forest outside Durham, where scientists from Duke and many other institutions are conduction some amazingly ambitious ecological experiments. Biogeochemist Ben Coleman presented studies of nanoparticle movement through terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems using mesocosms—semi-contained natural communities.

View inside an experimental warming plot. Photo by jby.
Carl Salk, a Ph.D. candidate in biology, walked us through plots that are being heated to simulate a changed climate. The plots are enclosed on four sides by plastic, with warm air pumped in via ductwork and electric lines warming the soil to bring them up to 3 or 5 degrees Celsius warmer than the outside. It doesn't sound like much, but it makes a difference. Salk says plants in the warmed plots are developing leaves days and, in some cases, weeks earlier in the spring than plants in control plots.

The final stop was the biggest experimental setup, Duke's Free Atmospheric Carbon Enrichment site, which has been testing how forests will grow in an atmosphere containing more carbon dioxide by pumping more carbon dioxide into forest plots. This is achieved with rings of towers like the ones pictured at the top of this post spraying carbon dioxide into experimental plots. The gas is reclaimed from fertilizer production, and into the air anyway; the experiment simply boosts it locally. The sheer volume of research done within these plots is amazing, but the site is now shutting down after 15 years.

The tour was over by noon, and the afternoon devoted to workshops. I attended a talk on how to develop course websites—with forums and online quizzes and integrated chat!—using Drupal, and another on the logistics of moving between blogging platforms. Once I'm done with this post, it's off to a book-themed happy hour and dinner in Durham. Until tomorrow, here's a slideshow of the other photos I've taken so far:

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