Of Carbon, Coal, Climate, and Clarity

Coal Plant
Coal is a far bigger reservoir of carbon than oil or natural gas, but we need to stop using all three. Photo: stockxchange

Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria is one of Canada’s more outspoken scientists, and in the past two weeks he’s done even more speaking out than usual. First, it was the federal government’s alleged muzzling of scientists. Then on Sunday Weaver, along with PhD candidate Neil Swart, published a commentary in Nature Climate Change which showed that the potential global warming from Alberta’s oil sands is actually quite small compared to that from other fossil fuel sources, such as coal and natural gas. That may sound surprising, but it shouldn’t. The numbers weren’t exactly new; it’s the way Weaver and Swart presented them that made all the difference. And despite what some may argue, this study in no way provides a green light for oil sands development. Weaver is obviously a busy guy, but I did manage to talk to Neil Swart earlier this week. Here’s the story behind the latest paper.
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Come Talk to Me: Un-Muzzling Government Scientists

Sometimes I feel like I'm standing outside a broken phonebooth with money in my hand...Photo:StockXchange

Besides the rare and welcome chance to reference Peter Gabriel in a blog post title, today’s topic allows me to address an important issue that had been bugging me and all members of the Canadian science journalism community for quite a while: why is it so hard to talk to federal government scientists about their research?

The problem is not new. One of the first to sound the alarm was Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at the University of Victoria and, as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. As early as 2008, he was alleging that Canadian government scientists were not free to speak to the media as they saw fit. Since then, a string open letters and editorials has flowed forth from all quarters: Kathryn O’Hara, then president of the Canadian Science Writers Association (CSWA) wrote a major piece in Nature in September 2010. CSWA issued its own open letter during last spring’s federal election. Last fall Bob MacDonald joined in the fray, and parliamentarians like Ted Hsu and Elizabeth May have weighed in as well.

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The Speed of Size – Evolutionary Rates in Mammals

Paraceratherium, also known as Baluchtherium, is generally considered the largest land mammal ever to have lived. It appeared just 30 million years after the dinosaurs went extinct. Photo: Public Domain, via Wikipedia

About 65 million years ago, our nearest ancestor was probably something small, scuffling and more rat-like than you may be comfortable with. But after a giant asteroid wiped out practically all of the dinosaurs (excepting those which became birds) mammals were suddenly free to take up new lifestyles. 30 million years later, they had produced Baluchitherium, a rhinoceros-like creature twice the size of a modern elephant. Just how fast can an evolutionary group increase in size, and how fast could they do the reverse? Jessica Theodor has an answer. She’s an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary, and one of about 20 authors on a major paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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