Age of Anthropocene: Let the Sunshine In

I learned today that there’s a chronological term (like Jurassic and Cretaceous) to mark when human activities negatively impacted (I’m a little hasty with the past tense here) the Earth’s ecosystems. The Anthropocene, to my surprise, started 8,000 years ago when humans first started clearing forests and fields to cultivate crops. Our effects were pretty stagnant until about 2,000 years ago when Romans and Chinese were running around building their empires and dynasties. But our destruction really gained speed during the Industrial Revolution when we started spitting plumes greenhouse gases, soot, and metals into the air.

We’ve messed up a lot of things. We know that. Or, at least, most of us know that.

To further prove that our actions really do have consequences, a recent publication in Nature Communications studied the effect of human influence on global tree cover. I had hoped they used Google Earth to map the tree cover, but they were more advanced than my armchair science. To get topography information they used data from Shuttle Radar Topography Mission and something called MODIS, which makes me think of TARDIS but is actually nothing like that (I’ve been watching a little too much Doctor Who lately). Both are NASA projects using satellites to map various aspects of Earth.

They found slopes “act as a refugee for trees.” The more humans came the more trees fled to the slopes, like frightened cats running up the stairs every time the front door opens and someone new struts in. With enough people around, our activities start to dictate where the trees go. Areas with low fertility rates and low projected population growth (they mentioned Switzerland by name) managed to increase tree density on slopes. Which is nice, we’re learning to cohabitate with plants… as long as they stay on the bumpy parts.

Taken from Figure 3.

Relationship between slope and tree cover, which is “strongly skewed” towards positive values.

Another interesting aspect is that they found political and economic models could predict changes in tree coverage. And they made a decent model of just how much our (not so) little human dealings affect the environment. Surprisingly they found tree coverage actually increased between 2000 and 2005 (why they studied tree coverage almost a decade ago is beyond me).

Hopeful researchers predict a transition into the Sustainoscene through renewable energy (the paper I linked was very excited about solar cells) and more environmentally friendly industrial practices. Maybe one day we’ll learn to live on this world without ripping it up. That or discover FTL space travel and a suitable world so we can keep ripping shit up.

Google Search Science

Scholarly information is mostly distributed by a Web-based system (Come on, grad students, when was the last time you read a physical article that was published after 1995?), and with this comes a complete overload of information. Adding to the overload of legitimate articles, many predatory journals have popped up solely to make a buck off of unwitting scientists who are eager to publish. These pseudo-journals claim to be peer-reviewed, so how do naive scientists know which publications to avoid? For that matter, how do we know which articles from established journals to read? The ones with the most citations, you may say, but citations take a while to rack up and the first has to come from somewhere.

Nature has a recent article surmising an upcoming shift in how we, as scientists, find worthwhile papers. Basically, they say it will all come down to a Google-style search engine.

“Its PageRank algorithm weights hyperlinks from authoritative sources more heavily. To find which sources count as authoritative, the same algorithm is applied to each of the source’s inbound links, and so on. This simple recursive algorithm has proved remarkably effective, and requires minimal manual tuning. It simply harnesses the quality judgments already being made by the community, implicit in their decisions to link to other pages. This core approach is also the future for scholarly communication.”

This is a great idea, sure. Instead of three unpaid reviewers and a single editor deciding the legitimacy of a journal article, the whole community decides. And it’s automatic!

But will this leave new PIs ranked far behind the long-running “authoritative” professors? Will successful PIs hold a monopoly over their field as their papers are weighted “more heavily?” Will this make the already aggressive world of academia even more difficult to break into?

And maybe as a secondary concern, will this allow hacking of academic journals? Would clever programmers be able to trick the search engine to display their papers first, accruing the most hits?

The Nature article does discuss some concerns, but, honestly, I can’t think of another way to deal with the never-ending supply of science coming from thousands upon thousands of graduate intuitions in the world. Nevertheless, it’s exciting to see what will happen, for better or for worse, to scientific publishing.