Race to the spice highlands: An expedition to the Cardamom Mountains

Part I: Getting There
Part II: The Impenetrable Forest

Chiang Mai, Thailand, Feb. 17, 2011 — We had arrived in the mountains by late morning, and with superb weather we set up our camp along a stream by early afternoon. We all had jungle hammocks, so the lack of flat ground was not an issue, and after a bit of “gardening” we had ourselves a fine, sheltered campsite. With little time to waste we set out to explore the area downstream of camp before day’s end.


Sarit (left) and Viboth set up camp.

On the flyover we noticed several large Dacrycarpus stems along the stream and these were our targets for the afternoon. The stream was at low water level and clear of the dense vegetation that covered the surrounding landscape, hence we were able to use it as a conduit for travel. However, the streambed was a jumble of cabin-sized sandstone boulders, often moss-covered, and was quite arduous in its own right. Travel into the adjacent forest was met with immediate scrub and rattan, necessitating machete work to travel anywhere. It was therefore quite slow going out of the streambed, but we cored our first few Dacrycarpus and took herbarium specimens from a variety of trees and shrubs, flowers and ferns, mosses and orchids. It was clear that the botanists would be hard pressed to collect much on this trip, and I would be met with similar difficulty in coring many trees.


Getting to the coring site was slow going.

One of our newly formed objectives, therefore, was to combine our efforts and work at least one of the days in the dwarf forest above our camp to collect cross sections from tree species that we could also get proper herbarium specimens from, in order to evaluate the dendrochronological potential for as many broadleaf species as possible. This has really never been properly done for tropical broadleaf species, and what we managed on this trip was a drop in the bucket, but it is a start. All told, on this trip over three days we collected such samples for 15 species of broadleaf tree, and took multiple core samples from 15 Dacrycarpus trees. Given the difficulties of access, we felt pretty good about these modest accomplishments. We made duplicates of all samples for the herbaria in Edinburgh and Phnom Penh, respectively, and for cross sectional samples for the LDEO tree ring lab and Phnom Penh.


Collecting samples: All told, on this trip over three days we collected such samples for 15 species of broadleaf tree, and took multiple core samples from 15 Dacrycarpus trees.


A makeshift lab to organize the specimens.

There were several notable things about this short visit to the Cardamoms. Each morning we were treated to flyovers by a flock of at least 30 great hornbills that seemed to have a commute over the mountain pass directly above our camp. They made a terrific noise as they buzzed overhead, their giant awkward wings filling the air with sound. We also had a full moon that lit up the forest with its eerie glow on the cold and crisp nights we experienced. In fact, we needed every bit of warm clothing we brought to sleep, and a small cooking fire that we kept going well into the night. We also ate exceptionally well, as Viboth organized a fantastic menu for our trip, complete with homemade dried beef and chicken, a case of coca cola (seriously), and even a bottle of scotch. Such comfort, made possible by the use of the helicopter, was in stark contrast to the difficulties encountered immediately beyond the boundaries of our humble encampment. During our stay Philip and I schemed of a way to use the helicopter to drop in camps at several spots that we would walk to, but after we saw the area from the air on our way out we realized this was not going to be practical.


Who brings cans of coke into the forest?

Early on Friday, the 21st of January, Volker landed the chopper in the veal next to our packed up camp, and within 15 minutes we were back in the air. Looking down through the dense canopy, there was no way to see where we had camped for the past three days, and the entire range of the area we traversed seemed pathetically inadequate. Within moments we were off in the air. I had instructed Volker to take us over the very heart of the Cardamom range, so we could see if there were any locations of Merkus pine or other conifers, and to assess the extent of the Chinese hydro and mining interests that were making their presence felt in the region. It was a remarkable flight, and the sheer magnitude of this wild place was surprising, but the hope of undisturbed conifer stands was more or less put to rest. It was also painfully clear that our idea of multiple landing spots near these high peaks was not likely, with most of the possibilities found in the rivers themselves, where the low water exposed sandstone platforms that were big enough to accommodate the chopper. In the upcoming months we will pore over the maps and photos and see what might be possible in the future.


A view from the helicopter of the impenetrable forests of the Cardamom Mountains

On our way out we flew over a hydro project work site and a titanium mining operation, both marked by gaping wounds on the landscape. The politics of these operations are noteworthy, but I don’t pretend to understand their intricacies that well. And as awful as they seem, these projects are necessary for the development of Cambodia, for the power and resources necessary to sustain this developing country. After leaving the Cardamoms, we flew over Kirirom National Park where there are Merkus pine stands, and from our aerial perspective we identified some rather old-looking stands on high ridges that would be worth a further consideration. By midday we had arrived back in Phnom Penh, 2 days earlier than planned, so we had to make hotel arrangements on the spot. We spent those days organizing gear and samples, paying our bills, and meeting with colleagues at the University. After 3 nights in the serenity of the Cardamom range, Phnom Penh was a stark contrast of sensory overload, though the beer was most welcome.

While the bounty of our sample collection was fairly anemic from this trip, I am left with a sense that we have stumbled upon something really special. This surprisingly wild area of Cambodia has scarcely been studied, and it seems promising with regards to using some new broadleaf species for dendroclimatic analyses, and it seems we have found some previously undocumented species of plants as well. It is too early to tell much now, but within a few months we will have a far better idea of what we have found, and what might be possible. It heals my heart to know that such wild places still exist, but it breaks my heart to think of it rapidly being exploited and destroyed before we have a chance to even know what we are losing. It is this battle between humanity and nature throughout our history that compels me to scour these last remaining wild places while they are still fairly intact. Beyond the science there is a part of me that needs wilderness as sustenance. Even if I cannot make it into a place, just knowing it is there is important. I think we need wild places for so many reasons, and I am encouraged that there are many who are trying hard to preserve this amazing place. The Cardamoms, I believe, will remain a wilderness area for many years to come, and I that is fine by me.

Race to the spice highlands: An expedition to the Cardamom Mountains

Helicopter Crew

The crew gets ready for takeoff. (left to right) Viboth Ly, Brendan Buckley, Volker Grabher, Sarit and Philip Thomas

Part I: Getting There
Part II: The Impenetrable Forest

Chiang Mai, Thailand, Feb. 16, 2011 — The mass of Phnom Samkos loomed in front of us, emerging from the landscape as an impressive wall of green, with a long sandstone escarpment visible on its northern face. Nearby, the slightly lower, nipple-topped Phnom Kmoach stuck out from the ridgeline offering a great view of its fully vegetated summit. Volker spun the chopper around, seemingly a few meters above the treetops in a dizzying arc, and we saw that there was no place to land. The mountain was covered in a dense and stunted forest of angiosperms, and in all directions as far as we could see the canopy was unbroken. A wonderful report on the area by Jeremy Holden (pdf) from his 10-day expedition in early 2010 noted the dense forest cover and treacherous conditions the entire way. We were, therefore, not surprised by what we saw, but we had thought it might be worth a look anyway. From Jeremy’s pictures of the mass if I thought I could see a cover of dark green on the summit of Phnom Kmoach that may have been a dense cover of conifers, but it turned out not to be the case.

Helicopter Crew

Viboth (left) and Sarit on their first helicopter ride.

“I don’t think we can put down here.” I said through the headset, competing with the chopper’s rotors. “Volker, let’s see if we can find that veal|, popUpContents=|Cambodian term to describe high open meadows.|] on the open ridge that we saw on the map?”

“Sure thing, mate.” Volker hovered a moment, the rotors of the chopper thwup-thwupping their steady beat in the air above the trees. The downward wind parted the trees intermittently so that we could see to the forest floor in rapid glimpses, and then we veered off to the southwest by what in a straight line was no more than 5 or 6 kilometers, but would have surely been several days of hard slogging to negotiate on foot. The scale and ruggedness of this place, now that we were seeing it up close, was truly daunting. When we reached our next target location, on an unnamed ridgeline, we could see the open veals (Cambodian term to describe high open meadows.) laid out like a patchwork quilt on the upper flanks of the mountain. We would be able to put down here.

Volker did a flyover of the entire mountain, buzzing over two stream-bearing valleys on either side of the north ridgeline, before we decided to put down on the highest open space. Several great hornbills, a sure sign that this was indeed primary forest, vacated their perches in the treetops as the chopper passed over them. There were some huge trees in the valleys, a broad mix of species with the only conifers we noted being Dacrycarpus imbricatus, a southern hemisphere podocarp that is distinguished by its two forms of foliage on the same tree. As it turned out, this would be our primary target species of this trip, since it was the only conifer we found in any numbers at all. As we neared touchdown we could see thousands of the newly discovered pitcher plants carpeting the open veals, blowing wildly from the chopper’s downdraft.


Great hornbills are spotted, a sure sign that we are in primary forest.

“This is pretty spectacular!” I stated enthusiastically as we set down, trying to get a rise out of Philip who, true to his nature, was scarcely demonstrative but was clearly moved by the spectacular ride in. “Indeed” came his response, which was about as much of a verbal response as I could have hoped from him. I looked to the seats beside me, where Sarit and Viboth were grinning enthusiastically, giving simultaneous “thumbs-up” indicating their approval of the first helicopter ride of their lives. This was going to be special, I thought, as the chopper came to rest and the whine of the engines gave way to the desolate silence of this vast wilderness area.

crew helicopter

We are on our own now.

The Cardamom Mountains in southwestern Cambodia reach a maximum elevation of 1,770 meters, span an area of 4,420,000 hectares, and are home to Southeast Asia’s greatest area of virgin forest and wildlife habitats. Most of this remote range has never been fully explored nor catalogued, and little in the way of botanical survey has been conducted. In 2000, Fauna and Flora International, Conservation International, and the Cambodian Ministry of Environment and Wildlife Protection Program conducted a joint survey that covered only a small part of the vast expanse of unexplored land and identified 30 large mammal species, 30 small mammal species, more than 450 birds, 64 reptiles, 30 amphibians, and many other plants and insects. Elephants, tigers, clouded leopards, the Asian sun bear and black bear, pleated gibbons, and Siamese crocodiles, all of which are high on the endangered species list, can be found in the Cardamoms. The inaccessibility of the higher mountains, coupled with the installation of numerous land mines at the lower elevations (the Cardamoms served as one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge) helps to preserve much of the area as wilderness. However, as we saw on this trip, encroachment by mining and hydropower interests is beginning to open areas of the Cardamoms to increased threats to its level of wildness. But at least for now this is the largest expanse of remaining wilderness on mainland Southeast Asia.


Several Neolithic “jar sites” (burial jars with human skeletal remains) are found scattered around the mountains, and I visited one of these sites last year at Phnom Pel with Dr. Nancy Beavan. At the Phnom Pel site, 12 log coffins were found along with numerous ceramic jars with skeletal remains that dated back to the 15th and 16th centuries. The jars carry the bones of deceased that, local legends suggest, are the remains of Khmer royalty, though their true nature is still a mystery waiting to be unraveled. My interest was primarily in the log coffins themselves, for their potential use for tree ring analyses. I took small samples of each of them, just a few grams each, for Accelerator Mass Spectrometer (AMS) dating, to give us the date of the outermost rings from each coffin. I plan to write a future blog entry with more detail about these amazing sites, as Nancy and I plan additional research in the next year or so.

Mr. Sarit.

Our very competent and quite good natured guide, Mr. Sarit.

Few people live within the Cardamom Mountain Range, but those that do are living at a subsistence level and pose threats to the biological diversity of the region by logging, wildlife hunting, and slash-and-burn agriculture. About a third of the ecoregion has been designated as protected area, the largest being the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary where we now found ourselves, standing in a 1300-meters high veal.  We waved to Volker as he lifted off and flew back to Phnom Penh, and that was the last contact we would have with anyone for the next 3 days. We had arranged for a satellite phone that proved to be unavailable at the last minute, so we had to make a decision on the spot to shorten the trip to 3 nights, to allow us to move elsewhere if need be. As the chopper lifted over the nearby mountain ridge, the silence replaced the chopper’s whine like a switch had been flipped, and we were about as alone as we could be, the four of us, as the wildness of this place sunk in.


Many varieties of orchid grow in the Cardamom Mountains.

The first thing we noticed was the thousands of pitcher plants that inhabited these veals, along with an equal number of orchids of many species and a variety of small flowering plants. Since I work with trees I am not  used to looking at the ground and at flowers and shrubs. However, both Viboth and Philip are botanists and were along with me to help me identify exactly the species I would be finding in these mountains, and to take voucher specimens from as many plants as they could, thereby initiating the first proper botanical survey of this region of the Cardamoms. As hard it was to believe at the time, we may have been the first people ever to set foot into this valley. After bashing and slashing our way through the shockingly dense vegetation over the next three days, however, it became easier to believe. While the time we would spend in this forest was to be short, it was clear that one would be hard pressed to cover more than a few kilometers in a single day. It was seriously rough country, and a truly wild and beautiful place.

Part II: The Impenetrable Forest

The Cardamom Mountains Expedition

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 17 2011 — I was really trying to get another entry in before tomorrow, but time just got away from me, and I am still not fully packed. In about a week I will be back from a major expedition into Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains, and at that time I will endeavor to fill in the details, and it ought to be a very good story. But briefly, I spent the past week in Siem Reap conducting a workshop on our Greater Mekong Basin workshop, and it was a truly wonderful and productive meeting, thanks to a host of very inspirational participants. After the workshop ended, we had an amazing tour of the West Baray, led by Dr. Roland Fletcher of the University of Sydney’s Greater Angkor Project, and that was a fantastic way to round things out.


The Mekong is the world’s 10th-longest river and the 7th-longest in Asia.

The Mekong is the world’s 10th-longest river and the 7th-longest in Asia.

Tomorrow we will take a helicopter into the most unexplored area of the Cardamom’s, and we will get let off in the highlands for five days, where we hope to find old conifers that will tell us what the climate has been like in this region over the past several centuries.  With luck I will have a great story to tell, and some fantastic photos to go with it.  Best wishes to you all.

The Hard Reality of Soft Money

Hard Realities: Part 2

Chiang Mai Thailand, Dec. 22, 2010 — I am currently writing a research proposal that is due at the end of this month, and I am reminded of that old expression about democracy, “Democracy is the worst system of government out there …  except for all the others that have been tried.” For the past decade I have worked as a soft-money research scientist, meaning that I generate, through grant writing, all of my own salary. I have managed to do this successfully for the past decade, while some of my colleagues have done so for more than 30 years. It still amazes me that this can be done, though it does seem to be getting increasingly more difficult these past several years. Sometimes I feel like a streetwalker, going out to work the “neighborhood” (National Science Foundation, NOAA or other funding agency) to bring home some “sugar” (grant dollars and the associated overhead) to give to my “Daddy” (Columbia University). To be certain, Columbia protects me, gives me a good, respectable home and enough of the dollars back to “buy myself something pretty” (research equipment, travel to a conference). In turn I, and all the others in CU’s stable, bring home the dollars that run institutions like ours.  And CU’s stable is stacked with really top researchers that through highly skilled grant writing bring home an awful lot of sugar.

It has been this way for decades, and there are many among us who have managed to bring in full funding for an entire career, supporting not only ourselves, but lab technicians, administrative staff and a slew of other integral and highly skilled folks. In my opinion it is the worst system out there …  except for all the others that have been tried.

There are several fundamental things to be said in defense of soft-money research. First, the need to always find funding keeps us really sharp. If you don’t remain hungry and sharp, you don’t get funded. And therefore we have to always be thinking of ways of adapting what we do to various calls for proposals, in order to find ways to supply funding agencies with the kinds of data and results they are soliciting. This takes a great deal of creative thinking, and it is not a career path for the faint of heart. At times it is truly exhausting, and downright discouraging when proposals are rejected. There are fat times and lean times, but whenever it seemed that I would be donning the KFC jacket and serving up an order of chicken and potatoes with a side of gravy, I manage to get something funded. There is nothing like having your back against the wall to make one perform.

The most important element of this whole process is peer-review, where other scientists who are experts in related fields review the submitted proposals and they pass judgment on which of the hundreds of proposals submitted merits funding. This is a highly competitive process, and a small percentage of proposals are actually selected, so you have to be really highly ranked to have a shot. While I am writing this proposal, I am also reviewing one for another National Science Foundation program, and I take it very seriously to be as objective as I can and give the most fair and thorough review possible. This is perhaps the most important aspect of this job — to carefully and critically pass judgment on the work of other scientists — as they do likewise for mine. The same peer-review process is in place for published papers as well as for proposals. Again, peer-review is not without its faults, but I do think it is the best system we have, and I am a big proponent of it.

It is almost Christmas, and all of our administrative people at LDEO are going away for the holidays, and I am here, in Chiang Mai, with a dubious link to the Internet and a 12-hour difference between me and the rest of my world. The deadline for this proposal is just after the holidays, not a very easy time to get things done. Furthermore, I have co-PIs (principle investigators) in Australia and the U.S., in the Philippines and Vietnam.  Bringing this type of collaborative project together is truly daunting, and consumes a great deal of time and energy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. So to all those who take the time to read this blog, I thank you and I wish you a happy and healthy holiday season. I know what I will be doing — mostly writing — but Orawan and I will take the time to have a Christmas dinner of northern Thai food with some friends we just met. And now that the weather is cool we will go for a long walk around the old city moat, and make merit at the temple, and by taking my mother in law out to visit the market. And with a bit of luck, this proposal will come together and will be worthy of funding, and I can put the KFC jacket back in the closet for another year.

A River Rages Through It

Chiang Mai Thailand, Dec. 16, 2010 — I am haunted by water… lots and lots of it. We had so much rainfall in the central highlands of Vietnam last week, during a rogue dry-season deluge, that we had to leave 5 motorcycles stranded at the Bidoup Nui Ba National Park ranger station while we swam a river that is normally crossed on a small wooden bridge or by a cable-pulled raft. To add to the adventure, one of the motorbikes had a broken rear axle, necessitating our having to push it out on slippery, washed out roads for more than 6 km before leaving it with the rest at the station. Along the way we had one raging waist-deep torrent of a stream to cross, normally mid-calf deep, that we had to hand-carry each bike across on a makeshift litter. This may have been the most dangerous part of the trip, since a fall on the downstream side of the motorbike would have resulted in being washed over a small escarpment and pinned by the bike in the swirling current. After our recent trip to Laos (see prior entry) that I described as difficult, this trip set a new standard for physically demanding. And I am not ashamed to say, in spite of a complete failure of getting any of our intended work done, it was the most fun I have had in years.


The river crossing on the way into the forest. Note the bent red pole that forms one end of the cable-pulled raft that we are about to use to cross. It was bent during high water the previous week and would be completely submerged in water during our high-water period the night before our escape.


The crossing going in, during what is already somewhat high water level. The bent pole changed the angle of the raft cable which resulted in increased pressure by the river’s force on the upstream side of the raft. This would make it impossible for us to get the raft across the river in the greater flow going out. From Left to right, Mr. Nam, Guong, Hui (red jacket), Truong and Patrick Brown.

The objective for this trip was to bring my colleague, Dr. Patrick Baker, from Monash University in Australia, into a one hectare permanent plot that we had set up last year in the national park, and to visit the so-named “Praying Hands” site (named after a tree species in the Witch Hazel family whose leaves are suggestive of a pair of praying hands), where there are hundreds of stems of old-growth conifers that we have been sampling over the past year.

patrick baker

Dr. Patrick Baker of Monash University, Australia, on the way in

Patrick, a highly accomplished tropical forest ecologist, and I are working on a research proposal to study tropical forest ecology in a location where we can get temporal tree-ring information from several of the species in this location, including Fokienia hodginsii, the species that was used for our long climate reconstruction. This project is a potentially huge deal for tropical forest ecologists who usually rely upon repeated visits over several years to get the temporal data they require, meaning that the best of their sites are comprised of fewer than 2 decades of data. We offer the chance to look at the past millennium and more, to see how species diversity has been affected by droughts of varying intensity and duration.

A second Patrick, Patrick Brown, a photojournalist based in Bangkok, accompanied us on this trip. He was conscripted by Columbia Magazine to do a story on my work in Southeast Asia, and he got a lot more from this trip than he had bargained for. Luckily for us, he has a wonderful sense of the absurd and contributed greatly to the overall positive vibe on this trip, and he never hesitated to pitch in to help with the hard work. Then there was the Vietnamese contingent whose role was to guide us, and to make sure that the 3 crazy Irishmen remained alive. The incomparable Mr. Nam led this group that consisted of the ever-dependable crew of Guong, Truong and Hui along with Nam’s advisor from Dalat University, Mr. Yoong, who is a top-notch botanist and oversees Nam’s Master’s project on the ecophysiology of Pinus Dalatensis. The idea was to get Yoong to help us accurately identify the species in our hectare plot while Patrick and I developed a strategy for the analyses we propose to undertake. We planned to spend a whole day working up 10 randomly selected 10 x 10 meter boxes, and a second whole day surveying the Praying Hands site for the location of a new 25 hectare plot we will put in later this year with researchers from the Center for Biodiversity and Development (CBD) in Ho Chi Minh City.

Mr nam

The incomparable Mr Nam

On this trip, however, we would never get to either of these sites, because the local streams rose to impassable depths during our first night, and it continued to rain so hard into the next day that we were worried we would not be able to get out at all. There were already several landslides on the road which forced us to carry the motorbikes over, and we were not looking forward to it getting any worse. In addition, the men slept the first night in a standing puddle of muddy water, while those of us in our jungle hammocks remained dry, and I couldn’t in good conscience subject them to another night of such misery. Furthermore the main river by the ranger station rose so high that it completely covered the middle channel with a raging torrent that would have been impossible to cross. A small stream on the road out, in a place where we usually cross about mid calf deep, was an absolute cataract that we had to pole-carry all the bikes across, with a treacherous falls just downstream that would surely have killed anyone who fell into it (I have no pictures of this as all our cameras were put away at this time, but Patrick Brown took photos with his film camera and will send me some when they are developed).


Our camp near the edge of the primary forest at Bidoup Nui Ba National Park.


These remarkable hammocks enable one to sleep in the wettest of conditions and remain bone dry and comfortable. I won’t go into the forest without them any more.

Because the roads were so greasy from rain on the packed clay, we had to walk nearly the entire 10 km road on the way in from the station, while the bikes were pushed through mud and carried over landslides. We had to walk every step of  the way, and for good measure pushed the bike with the broken axle more than two thirds of the way, and all of this while the rain fell in a steady, river-raising downpour. It was not an easy day.


Mr. Hui carrying a 30 kg bag of food over around one of the landslides that obstructed the road.

For our second night we stayed at the ranger station while the river rose to its absolute peak level, and we resigned ourselves to hiking out to Long Lang station over the top of Bidoup Mountain, and then bushwhacking down the mountain to where we heard there was a bridge over the river. None of us was really sure if we would be able to make that trip either, but for sure it would have been at least 20 km, and no doubt treacherous. Instead, the rain stopped in the night and the river came down about a meter by morning, and stabilized at a flow too high to negotiate the usual crossing. But that didn’t stop us from trying the raft, which was nearly destroyed as the current threatened to push its upstream edge under and began a certain dismantling of the rickety raft.


The river had already dropped about a meter by morning, but was still too high to cross.

During this hilarious display we almost lost Mr. Guong, who dove for the cable to see if he could pull the raft across, and lost his shorts in the process. He was laughing so hard when his pants came off that Mr. Truong had to grab his arm or he would have gone downriver into the awaiting cataract, no doubt still laughing while being swept away. In the meantime, we had a crew upstream about 1.5 km trying to fell a tree across a narrow part of the river (i.e., cataract) but when the tree fell in, after more than an hour of very difficult machete work, it got swept away in the current and became an obstacle for our subsequent swim.


The great pants episode


Mr. Guong still laughing, tries to pull up his pants, while Mr. Truong comes to the rescue.

For the swim, we decided upon a wide section of the river, with swirling eddies, using an inner tube that we had found wedged in the tree tops near the original crossing. One hilarious moment came when, after we got our most important gear across the river, the inner tube began hissing as air escaped. Convinced we were about to lose this lifesaver, we erupted with laughter at the thought of it. Luckily it turned out we were inadvertently pressing the valve, and there was no hole in the tube. In pairs we swam with the inner tube, with all of our gear tied to its top, and we finally made it with no mishaps. After the big swim, we had to walk the next 10 km stretch out the main gravel road to the highway where Mr. Nam had arranged a “taxi” to get the 8 of our wet, muddy selves and all of our gear, and bring us back to Dalat. It was a crazy trip from start to finish, but as I said, it was perhaps the most fun I have had in years!


Ferrying the gear and keeping it all dry was quite an accomplishment.

Of Rice and Men

international rice research institute

The International Rice Research Institute

Chiang Mai Thailand, Nov. 18, 2010 — Imagine taking a rice plant, an organism with a C3 pathway, and converting it into a C4 pathway plant. Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “That’s just crazy talk!” and you may be correct. But tell that to Dr. Jacque Dionora at theInternational Institute for Rice Research (IRRI) in Los Baños, Philippines. Jacque is a member of IRRI’s C4 Rice Project that is funded to do just that. “Why is this important?” you might ask. Well, the difference in the efficiency between C3 and C4 plants is huge, and such a conversion, were it to prove possible to achieve, may be the difference between feeding 6 billion people and feeding the more than 9 billion projected in the upcoming decades to centuries. Here is a definition of the difference between C3 and C4 plants that I lifted off of Answers.Yahoo.com:

In C4 plants, carbon dioxide is drawn out of malate and into this reaction rather than directly from the air. Since every CO2 molecule has to be fixed twice, the C4 pathway is more energy consuming than the C3 pathway. The C3 pathway requires 18 ATP for the synthesis of one molecule of glucose while the C4 pathway requires 30 ATP. But since otherwise tropical plants lose more than half of photosynthetic carbon in photorespiration, the C4 pathway is an adaptive mechanism for minimizing the loss.”

In case you are like me, and have no idea what any of that means, Jacque’s description (and the IRRI poster we were shown) was far more useful. In essence, by changing rice from a C3 to a C4 plant carbon fixation would be far more efficient with regard to grain production, and plants would be potentially far less susceptible to droughts and other external stresses. This is because of significant increases in water use efficiency, nitrogen efficiency and radiation use efficiency for C4 plants. The bottom line is that more food can be grown to feed more people, on land of decreasing quality. And quite frankly, the way things are going, feeding the people we already have is going to be a problem. Land use changes and sea level inundations threaten some of the best land we have for agriculture, and that may be the biggest reason we will need to grow more food on less land, particularly in Asia. And rice feeds more people, especially those at the poverty level, than any other food source.


dr jacque

Dr. Jacque explains the research being done at the IRRI.

To be certain, the challenges are great for this project, and by Dr. Jacque’s own admission they haven’t a clue if they can succeed with this task or not. She figures it is a 20 year project with Phase 1 (just begun) being to reverse engineer certain C4 grasses (they are using sorghum) to see if there is a specific gene (or genes) that “turns on” the C4 pathway, and see if they can find the same genes in rice. The researchers believe that at some point in the evolution of C4 plants, some natural selection parameters caused previously C3 pathway plants to adapt to different environments, and perhaps there is a chance they can find out which vestigial plant parts might be responsible.

a second green revolution

It is a huge task indeed, and to hear Jacque describe it, almost like finding a barley grain in a rice silo. The first step involves a series of chamber studies growing mutated sorghum plants under a variety of CO2 levels to look for signs that they have “turned off” the C4 pathway, which will help them to find out which gene or genes are responsible. We got to tour these experimental chambers at the end of a long day of meetings, and I am very thankful that they took the time to show us.

rice plants

Dr. Jacque Dionora (left) , Dr. Nestor Baguinon and Dr. Andrew Bell

So why is a tree ring scientist interested in rice? Actually, the interest lies mostly with our post-doctoral fellow, Dr. Andrew Bell, who is working on the vulnerability modeling side of our Greater Mekong Basin grant. Andrew is using the long-term climate data provided by our tree ring network to analyze how the stresses of climate can manifest themselves into societal response. From the way we wrote the grant, we are primarily focused on the “megadroughts”, those periods of drought on the multi-decadal scale. In the near term, however, Andrew is working on developing simple models that may be of use to local small-scale farmers for decision-making on what to plant in any given year, using probabilities based on the past several centuries of tree-ring derived climate. The idea is to help farmers answer questions like, “If it was dry this year, what are the odds it’s going to stay dry next year? How about the year after?” So, we have been setting up meetings with folks like those at IRRI, and it was well worth the visit.

I first heard about IRRI as an undergraduate in the late 1970s at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire. My professor, Dr. Maynard Westin Dow (one of the most inspirational people I have ever known) invited the late Dartmouth Professor Robert Huke to speak to our class about his time at IRRI. It was there that the Green Revolution is credited with taking root, as new strains of high-yield rice were being developed that literally fed the world. I was captivated by Professor Huke’s presentation and I hoped that someday I would have the opportunity to visit this world-class institute. I am glad I finally did, and I urge anybody who is in the Philippines to visit IRRI (you can check out their web site here). It seems that rather than becoming an obsolete institution, the role of IRRI is as relevant as ever as we approach a set of new challenges under a changing climate in an increasingly degraded world.

irri grounds

The grounds of the International Rice Research Institute

It takes bold ideas to change the status quo. I think that this C4 Rice Project, whether it actually accomplishes its primary task or not, has the potential to lead to some really significant findings with regard to food production and plant sciences. We need equally bold thinking on a number of the problems we face, and that includes finding the funds to support primary research. Everything great that mankind has managed has come from these kinds of brash, almost arrogant sorts of approaches to tackling our problems. Whether or not one believes in anthropogenic global warming (AGW ), it should be clear that we face a boatload of problems with the environment we have inherited that are all somehow related to over population and to fossil fuel dependence of the billions of people we share this increasingly small planet with. We simply cannot conduct business as usual and expect the hammer not to fall at some point down the road.

So, with that in mind, I wish you all a Happy and safe Thanksgiving holiday if you are in the US, and a Happy and safe Loy Krathong if you are here in Thailand, and equal happiness and safety wherever you may be. It is with sadness that I note yet another tragic event that hit this region just last night, in Cambodia, where more than 300 people were killed while celebrating the Water Festival. The details are still sketchy, and the death toll rises, but it occurred on a bridge that connects an island in the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap Rivers. It seems these types of tragedies occur all too frequently in this part of the world.

The Best Laid Plans ...

Chiang Mai Thailand, Nov. 18, 2010 — Sometimes things work, and other times even the best-laid plans go awry. We just got back from a failed venture into the remote corners of the Lao province of Bourikhamsay, along the border with Vietnam. In fact we had to cut short our trip, after spending far too much money shepherding an ill-prepared and disinterested team into the forest to get core samples from a few heavily disturbed Fokienia trees. We just weren’t able to convey our objectives properly at the outset, and we went into the forest with a troop of 7 government office workers who had no discernible interest, nor expertise, in anything related to our work. And more to the point, they failed to see the value of what we are doing and that is where I have failed, in making it clear why this work is relevant to them. We lacked control from the outset, costs were added at every turn, we were paying for a “phantom” participant that we only found out about on the last night, and the two four wheel drive vehicles we hired were completely unnecessary for the well maintained roads we followed. Only the last 2 km of the trip were on even slightly rutted roads, and the drivers nearly refused to proceed. I had to shame them into driving this last little bit, and after two days of agonizing delays it felt like an odd victory of sorts in an otherwise losing endeavor.


Rugged karst* landscape in Bourihkamsay province.

Things are never entirely negative, however, and on the plus side we got some really great exercise climbing up one of the steepest mountain trails I have ever been on, and the scenery was spectacular.  The four of us, myself, Kevin, Andrew and Nam carried all of our field gear up the relentless slope, and my quadriceps hurt for the better part of 4 days after the descent.  But it felt great to be out walking in the mountains, and to camp in the highlands on a crisp, star-filled night.  As is typical for this region we exercised maximum impact camping, with at least 4 campfires blazing around us, some entirely unattended, and a pile of our garbage left in the forest that Andrew cleaned up and carried out.  The Lao decided to forego sleeping bags, blankets or other camping gear, instead electing to sew together rice bags to make crude tube tents.  Consequently they were so cold in the night that they wanted to depart as soon as first light, and one can hardly blame them.  But after all we had invested in getting this far, we felt the need to at least attempt to core some trees for our work, so we had a bit of a standoff until we forced them to stay to help us work for the day.  But it was a half-hearted effort we received, and we essentially wasted the day in the highly degraded forest.

mountain climbing


We split into two groups with Mr. Nam and Kevin taking one team, and Andrew and I taking the other.  After a difficult march through the jungle on treacherous footing across large sandstone blocks, and finding nothing but highly disturbed forest, we pulled the plug and decided to cut our losses.  We had spent about 6 hours in the forest and cored only about 16 trees, most of which were young and very disturbed.  There were cattle and buffalo all over this high plateau, and Hmong tribesmen hunting and foraging.  It was clearly not an ideal site for our work, and we were faced with the prospect of having worked this hard and spent so dearly for essentially nothing.  It was not a happy moment for us.

mountain hike

The trail up the mountain to the tree site.

On the other hand, the moment we declared that we were heading back to town, the Lao were gone like they were shot from a cannon.  While they were lethargic on the way up and in the forest, they just about ran back to the cars, clearly elated at the news of a night in the nearby town.  However, after we met up at the trailhead we decided to drive all the way back to Vientiane that night, just to avoid having to spend one more night on this disastrous trip.  We reached Vientiane at midnight, and since we hadn’t made reservations for a hotel, we drove around town for nearly an hour before we found a place to stay.  We woke up the next morning and limped to the Thai and Vietnam Airlines offices to change our tickets, and we left 3 days earlier than we had planned, discouraged and defeated.

tree core

Andrew Bell taking a core from a Fokienia tree.

It seems that Laos is a country we may not be able to consistently work in, and that is a shame for many reasons.  For one, I can actually speak enough of the language to get by.  On this trip, however, we relied most heavily on the translation from English to Vietnamese to Lao back to Vietnamese and then English, owing to Mr. Nam and one of the Lao who had lived in Vietnam for several years.  If it weren’t for this linkage, and Mr. Nam’s natural skill as a leader of men, we would have fared far worse on this trip.  Second, there are reportedly still some old-growthFokienia trees growing in the mountains of Laos.  And third, the tree sites we are targeting in this country are actually within the drainage of the Greater Mekong Basin and are therefore directly relevant to our desire to reconstruct stream flow for this important river.  I am not entirely defeated, and I do hope I can someday get it right in Laos, but for now things are not looking too promising.


One way of dealing with the stress.

This was our sixth attempt to work in Lao PDR, and save for the 2006 trip to Phu Khao Kouay we have never fared particularly well.  Being an eternal optimist, however, I still hold out hope that someday we will find the right colleagues with an interest in our work, who see the benefit in conducting primary research in their country, and having some of their fellow countrymen receive academic training in a novel field of relevant study.  This is still a very poor country, and the things we see value in are often of no use in such a place.  If it doesn’t put rice on the table it isn’t of much use to them.  There are many things I love about Laos.  The local people have always been friendly and helpful.  The children are beautiful and flash those wonderful, sincere smiles at the sight of us, often carrying handfuls of sticky rice on their way to school.  The hilltribes have a certain authentic quality about them that lends the exotic feel to travel here.  I love the food and the culture, and the scenery is among the finest in Southeast Asia.  But it is a maddening place to try to conduct our research, and I truly hope this changes in the future.

lao chool children

Lao schoolchildren returning home in a village near Laksao


*Karst is a landscape shaped by the dissolution of a layer or layers of soluble bedrock, usually carbonate rock such as limestone or dolomite.


karst cave

Diagram courtesy of Malaspina University College

Rough Road to the Trees

Vientiane, Laos, Nov. 8, 2010 — I have been a bit too busy, and therefore too tired, to write this past week or so. Tomorrow morning we will leave Vientiane in a jam-packed convoy and head for the mountains of Bourikhamsai province for this entire week. Once there, after an excruciating all-day drive on in an overcrowded vehicle, we will walk the 4 hours into the forest to where we will camp. It is there that we will (hopefully) get to core old-growth Lao cypress trees, the same species that we used from Vietnam to develop our drought reconstructions mentioned in my earlier blog. This is the third attempt to get this trip under way, and for one reason or another it has failed in past attempts. This time, however, things are different. We have been in Vientiane for a bit more than a day, getting ourselves ready for a trip we know too little about, but we are dependent on our Lao colleagues for the logistics, and we hope that things will go well.



I first visited Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) in 2005, with my colleague Methee Wongnak from the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden in Mae Rim, Thailand. On that trip we traveled all over the north of the country on public transport, and things were really rough. I came back early the next year with my wife, and we sampled pine trees north of Vientiane in Phou Khao Khouay National Park, and that led to the first Lao tree ring paper (Buckley et al., 2007 in Forest Ecology and Management). Since then things have been less than smooth in Lao PDR, and several trips have fallen through. But here we are, packing last minute things for this journey into the more remote forests to the east of here. I am joined by two other members of our laboratory, Dr. Kevin Anchukaitis, a veteran of several trips into Vietnam with me, and Dr. Andrew Bell, a recent post-doctoral fellow who is working on the Greater Mekong Basin grant, and our colleague Le Canh Nam from Vietnam, who has become my right hand man in the region over the past 2 years.

I have much to catch up on, from the visit to the Philippines and from this trip to Laos. Unfortunately it will have to wait until my return at the end of this week.

It Takes a Village

Chiang Mai, Thailand, Oct. 28, 2010 — I awoke with a start, as the village radio blared out its tinny opening anthem before the sun breached the horizon. The nearest loudspeaker is mounted on the cement power pole on the street directly beside our house, and its sound quality, quite frankly, sucks. Even if I could speak more than a few words of Kamueng (the Chiang Mai local dialect) I would barely follow the garbled announcements, worse than on the New York City Subway. It was Sunday morning and I had just returned from my trip to Vietnam the night before, and I was so tired that I was in bed by 8 p.m. The heat and humidity remained high but the nights cool down enough now that we turn off the fan sometime in the night. And once the whirring of the fan is removed, the rhythmic humming from thousands of cicadas, the odd belching of canal frogs, the howling of community dogs and the countless chickens clucking all conspire to lull me to sleep. And then, like a kick in the ribs, the village radio comes on.

A long, drawn-out “Sawasdee kraaaap!” is about the only thing I will actually understand. The rest, announcements about garbage collection, water bills, and sundry other mundane village agenda items, is lost in the screechy static.

Because it is Sunday there will be cock fighting across the street at Loong Wang’s yard. The betting will be fast and furious, the drinking will start early, and it will be raucous. Now, in the waning days of the rainy season, the nights also bring beetle fighting (I am not making this up) where the Burmese migrants fight their prized horned beetles for additional wages. Such is life in Goo Seua (Shrine of the Tiger) Village.

cock fighting

Loong Wang (literally “Uncle Split Lip”) with one of his fighting cocks. The bouts are every Sunday in the yard behind the curtain in the background.

Where is kuhn Mai this morning?” I asked Orawan over the radio’s distorted blare. Her brother, Mai, was supposed to come by to take us to inspect his garden.

Oh, I forgot to tell you that he was called away to Lob Buri, to help fight the floods.” Orawan replied.

I had forgotten about the flooding to the south, near Bangkok, as the Chao Praya River overflowed its banks during the week I was away. Many of the policemen of the northern provinces, of which my brother-in-law is one, were called away to help with the rescue efforts. In fact these have been some of the worst floods in years, and I keep hearing from locals about how global warming is causing the increased rains that are bringing the big floods. Much of this rainfall is the result of a strong monsoon convection, possibly with some influence from the remnants of Typhoon Megi that swept over Taiwan, the Philippines and into southern China. It may or may not have anything to do with global warming, but it strikes me how nobody here even questions humanity’s impact on the climate. It is a simple statement of fact for them. While the rains fell hard and heavy over here, I was essentially without rain in Saigon and in Dalat, but I got daily updates by email from Orawan about Chiang Mai’s heavy rains.

Natural disasters like this always make me wonder if they are truly “natural” or to what extent they may actually be man-made. And I don’t mean man-made in the “global warming” way, but in that “we’ve got too many people living in areas that are prone to flooding” kind of way. How much has land use (logging, water diversion, paving of large areas, etc.) affected the amount of flooding experienced? After the big floods in Chiang Mai a couple of years back, where the waters came nearly up to our house in Goo Seua, I was impressed that nobody could recall floods of this magnitude in their memories. Bangkok, as well as all of the low-lying areas of Southeast Asia, has experienced increased flooding from heavy rains in recent years, but also from inundations from high tides. I experienced tidal flooding in November 2007 in Saigon, when we returned from a visit to the mangrove forests to find the roads all the way into central Saigon to be under more than a meter of seawater in places. This was in the total absence of rain, and the flooding was solely the result of the neap tidal surge. In my discussions with scientists at the Southern Regional Hydrometeorological Station in Saigon, they revealed that flood levels have been setting new records with each passing year as this problem gets worse. Nearly all sea level rise prediction scenarios have the Mekong Delta mostly submerged with the first meter of sea level rise, and some predictions exceed 4 meters in potential rise, possibly as much as 6 meters above current levels. This is one of the more worrying aspects of climate change for this region, since a great deal of the food productivity for the millions of Southeast Asia’s inhabitants comes from the agriculture and aquiculture of the lower Mekong Delta. With inundation from the sea all of it is in jeopardy. And the millions of people who inhabit these low-lying areas will have to go somewhere. I can only imagine the chaos that such an exodus will bring.

The village of Goo Seua, and the surrounding Amphoe of Saraphi, is no stranger to flooding, even far into its past. Located on the site of Wieng Kum Kam, the original city built by King Mengrai more than 700 years ago (the fictional King Mengrai, according to legendary and cantankerous Southeast Asian Historian Michael Vickery, a resident of Chiang Mai). Regardless of the existence of King Mengrai, there was a city that preceded Chiang Mai, called Wieng Kum Kam, and it was built along the banks of the River Ping. At some point during the medieval period, the city was moved to the current location of Chiang Mai. According to the ancient chronicles the move was due to repeated seasonal flooding that inundated the entire city several years in succession. My wife grew up along the banks of the Ping, on top of parts of Wieng Kum Kam in Ban Ba Gluey (Wild Banana Village), and artifacts of old city walls and ceramics were constantly unearthed with little understanding of their significance. From the memories of all of Orawan’s relatives and friends, nobody can recall flooding in this region to the extent of what is described in the chronicles for Wieng Kum Kam, nor to rival the floods of 2008. To this day there remains uncertainty as to the exact sequence of events at Wieng Kum Kam, but it is clear that flooding did take place, and the city was moved. A masters thesis by a Thai geomorphology student at Chiang Mai University mapped the paleo channel history of the River Ping, and it can be clearly seen on the landscape where channel configurations changed in the past. Some of these changes appear to be related to changes in river flow, while others appear to be from alterations to the river by canal cutting. Again, I weigh the roles of the natural versus man-made in the disaster scenario.

wieng kum kam

Part of the excavated ruins of Wieng Kum Kam, buried by repeated flooding in Medieval times.

Part of the excavated ruins of Wieng Kum Kam, buried by repeated flooding in Medieval times.

A paper was just published entitled “Drought Under Global Warming: A Review”, by Aiguo Dai in the journal Climate Change. It reminds me how water is the most important element in the entire debate about climate change. No matter how much temperature changes, it is mostly important because of the incumbent changes that are expected to occur with regard to the distribution and abundance of water on the planet. Too much or too little, choose your poison. This is, in essence, what my work has been about in Southeast Asia, and why I am here on this trip. The records my colleagues and I have produced over these past few years, tell a story that ought to give us pause, a story where water has been lacking in the past, often for decades, and there have been consequences. Entire civilizations have been severely disrupted in the midst of the worst droughts of the past millennium. We are searching the historical texts for corroborative references to the droughts we see in the tree ring records, and we are finding them. The fact that many of the climate models disagree with future rainfall distribution scenarios is of great concern to us, particularly for regions in the tropics where the annual periods of extreme wet and extreme dry have managed a delicate balance that the inhabitants have adapted to, and not just human inhabitants either. The recent biodiversity finds across Indochina, for both plants and animals, remind us that there is much we still don’t know about these vibrant ecosystems. How they may be affected by changes to the overall climate is a mystery to us all. These are the areas most vulnerable to climate shifts at the decadal scale, like those we have seen in the past, and with consequence equally as serious.

precipitation map

Understanding regional climate variability, especially for long term precipitation, is essential for preparing for future climate change. However model results for precipitation show considerable differences, and do not always agree.

It is our ninth wedding anniversary tomorrow, and Orawan’s birthday as well. We will spend the day by climbing the long stairway to the temple on Doi Suthep to meet the sun’s first rays, and to pray for a blessing for us all in a world that is at best indifferent, and at times downright hostile to our collective existence. In Indonesia a tsunami killed hundreds of people just this week while a volcanic eruption threatens even more, and hundreds are dead in the aftermath of typhoon Megi in the Philippines and Taiwan. But we will return to Goo Suea for the night, to a humble birthday cake that we will share with my mother-in-law and our niece, and the four mangy dogs that inhabit our yard. And all will be as it should be, as the tropical night rapidly descends upon us like a curtain, and the chorus of noises bring sleep to the village. And then that goddamned radio will come on again, but this time I will be a little more ready for it. And a new day will dawn in the Shrine of the Tiger.Tuesday morning we attended a ceremony called Sueb Chata. Based on Sanskrit the word suebmeans to extend or continue, while chata refers to birth or being. The ceremony was prompted by Orawan’s aunt who is elderly and was recently ill. The idea is that after recovery one needs to be reborn and to ensure that all the bad luck and obstacles are gone, while good health, successes and prosperity are reinforced. Your family and friends serve as witnesses to this sort of rebirth, and a monk administers blessing to all who attend. We received the blessing along with the others, and we are thankful for whatever protection this blessing may give us.

Debating Global Warming: Lines in the Sand

Chiang Mai, Thailand, Oct. 25, 2010, — I don’t think we are having the right discussion about climate change. I didn’t want to go there, but here I go — “global warming”. There, I said it.

Can there be a more divisive political issue than this? It’s right up there with Obama-care, deep-water drilling, baby seal clubbing, gay marriage, admitting you like Dancing With the Stars and immigration reform. It is, to some, “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on mankind” to talk about our impact on the global climate. Others emotionally defend the premise that we are warming the world with little real understanding of what the climate science is actually all about, and both of these opposing views are equally adamant. To most climate scientists it is accepted, after looking at all of the available data and modeling results, that we are warming the planet. Others believe that the data are inconclusive and maintain that we ought to be really certain of what the science tells us before we enact expensive and, in all likelihood, ineffective legislation. This is countered by saying that the resident time of CO2 in our atmosphere is long enough that even if we outright stop it today, the effects will be felt for decades, possibly centuries ahead. This is the third rail I didn’t want to touch in this blog. Ironically so too, because it is, after all, called Adventures in Climate Change and what could be more adventurous than touching the third rail?

By supreme coincidence, the very day my first blog came online, where I mentioned the Mann et al. Hockey Stick, the International Tree Ring Databank (ITRDB) internet forum erupted with a renewed and heated discussion about it, after quite a hiatus (at least on that forum, where participants don’t often delve into contentious issues). Global warming in general, and the Hockey Stick in particular, are interesting topics from the tree ring standpoint, since tree rings make up the bulk of the annually resolved proxy (indirect) temperature records for the past two millennia. The way these reconstructions are produced is, therefore, of great importance to this debate. The nasty, smear-filled debacle surrounding the so-called “Climategate”, however, took the place of intelligent discourse, and just about killed any chance for sensible dialogue across an unnecessary ideological divide. Between climate scientists we are having such discussions, as we work on ways to improve the methods to extract climate information from tree rings and other proxy sources, and we work on ways to improve our models. All proxy data have their limitations and their associated uncertainties, and it is important for people to be aware of them, and present them clearly and openly. But it is not valid to embellish and exaggerate them either. The unfair and horribly partisan hackery that has passed for dialog since Climategate has served to denigrate dendrochronology to the point where it risks becoming like that proverbial baby in the bathwater, and this is patently unfair. This is a discourse worth engaging in, and as much as I would like to avoid it in this blog, I find it unavoidable.

Regardless of what ensued following the meteoric rise in the Hockey Stick’s profile, it was in fact a cautiously presented reconstruction of temperature in many ways, and the error bars presented with the reconstruction illustrates its associated uncertainties. This aspect seldom gets mentioned, and I think this landmark work deserves a less emotional place in our collective thinking. But there is no turning back from where we are today, for better or worse.

hocky stick graph

The hockey stick graph as shown in the 2001 IPCC report. This chart shows the data from Mann et al. 1999. The blue lines are temperatures estimated from proxy indicators, red lines are temperatures from thermometers, and the gray shaded region represents estimated error bars.

We often find ourselves on “sides” of a debate, and we are often personally invested in identifying with believing in one side or the other, and we become staunchly entrenched as though our very lives will end if we give an inch to the “other side”. It is in our nature, and in many ways this is visceral and not based on reason. In the unfortunately polarized political environment we Americans currently find ourselves in, we have pretty clear divisions across the political divide between party and viewpoint on the global warming issue. This is unfortunate, because a truly honest discussion on the subject is warranted and I believe this divide is killing the discussion we need to be having. I meet expats all the time who, upon finding out what I do, roll their eyes and quote one of the “greatest hoax” diatribes, and I see that their minds are made up. This is discouraging because they don’t have a real basis for their belief in The Hoax, similar to the way many others just believe in global warming on some sort of faith. I read the comments sections of news articles these days and I am amazed by the raging and wholly ignorant name-calling sessions that pass for debate, and I am alarmed at the sheer numbers of believers in the Great Hoax (by the way, thanks for these commenter’s term “libtard” which I have readily gathered into my vocabulary).

Let me just say it, I believe we are warming the planet. But I don’t think that is the most salient point to argue. Through our activities we are damaging nearly all of our ecosystems in myriad ways, regardless of what the temperature does. Earth’s atmospheric chemistry has been substantially altered by our activities — there is no denying that — and we don’t fully comprehend what the consequences are. Waters are becoming more polluted with giant rafts of petro chemical-derived plastic garbage that roam the Pacific Ocean like ice floes. When we have big oil spills like the one we just had in the Gulf, it affects the food we all need to eat, and the livelihood of millions. I have witnessed air so foul in Delhi and Beijing that I thought I would suffocate on the spot. All of these things will cost us, each of us, directly in our own wallets, in our state of physical health, and in generally lower living standards. Is this not a better message? I truly don’t know how anyone believes we can continue on the course we are on without having some consequences, and perhaps a warming global climate may be among the least of these consequences. At the core of it all, there are just too many of us, and all 6 billion and counting of us, want a better, easier and more enriched life, and who can blame us? We don’t seem to be talking about this.

We got to this point by using the incredible and abundant energy supplied by fossil fuel burning, and unfortunately it has unleashed some effects we actually did see coming, but ignored. For starters it allowed us to flourish, meaning even more of us to feed, house, clothe and educate. I am staggered to think about the rapidity in the rise of the global living standard over the past century, coincident with the ramp up in our use of fossil fuels. The green revolution was made possible because of the petrochemical fertilizers that allow us to grow abundant amounts of food on land that may have otherwise lain fallow. Isn’t this a good thing? The amazing advances in materials sciences allow us great comforts and conveniences in our lives. These are truly marvelous things we have done with our abundant energy production, and it all comes with a price.

I guess I don’t think that “global warming” is the best way to package our need to change the way we conduct ourselves on planet Earth, because to many it is too intellectually remote of a subject. We’ve got to toss out a more concrete set of reasons for the general population to see why they should change. The average person hears things like “well it was warm in the past without our help, so why do we think we are responsible for it now?” and that sounds like a pretty good point. It really was warm during the Medieval Warm Period, and we don’t know why. It was really warm 35 million years ago too and we weren’t even around, so what about that? The fact that these processes are completely unrelated to the anthropogenic warming debate is lost on people, and is used to smokescreen real discussion.

I met Steve McIntyre a few years ago at AGU in San Francisco (AGU is the American Geophysical Union’s annual fall meeting, always held at the horribly intimidating and agoraphobia-inducing Moscone Center). As much as Mike Mann’s hockey stick has drawn fire, Steve, best known for his no-holds-barred Climate Audit blog, is perhaps even more divisive a figure on the other side of the debate. I had a civilized discussion with Steve about tree rings and climate, and I liked him personally (my apologies to all of those offended by my admitting that). I don’t really know what motivates the anthropogenic-warming skeptics like Steve, but I do think much of it is sincerely believed. Personally, what I believe is that the evidence overall, and particularly our understanding of the atmospheric physics regarding heat-trapping gasses, is solidly in support of an anthropogenic influence over our global climate. Perhaps the “deniers” are as incredulous at my believing that as I am by their denial of it. And this is where the lines are drawn in the sand, and where the dirty politics of it all get warmed up.

I believe that, regardless of what his motivation may have been, McIntyre presented the tree ring community with what has become a missed opportunity by challenging us over the way we have reconstructed temperature from tree rings. Unfortunately as a community we were wholly unprepared to answer the challenge and the onslaught it would bring. Particularly galling because it came from such an outsider whose motivations were questioned from day one. We didn’t see it coming, and we were in effect “sucker punched” and the rest has become an ugly history to this point. And yet, I think most tree ring scientists would agree with me that there actually are some real potential issues with temperature-tree growth relationships, owing mostly to non-linearity in the relationship between temperature and photosynthesis (the reason for the relationship) and the linear scaling we use to reconstruct past climate, and also the methods we use for standardization of tree ring series. Many of the criticisms are fair, and many are not. Among the dendro community, things fell into disarray and even defensive posturing by some. Then there was the ugly pushback from those whose political and moneyed interests are threatened by the very idea of changing our fossil fuel driven economy to accommodate people that they see as obstructionists for progress, and the politicians ran with it on both sides. It was a kind of perfect storm scenario for ugliness. And it became a lot like the old longhaired hippy tree-huggers versus the redneck beer swillin’, Bambi killin’ logger debate (remember the snowy owl?). This kind of objectification of the other side as some villainous, agenda-driven sub-human species was never going to produce a real dialogue. It never does.

I never thought of myself as a “libtard”. My most liberal friends criticize my carbon footprint because I fly to Asia on gas consuming commercial jet airliners several times a year, I wear synthetic fiber fast drying travel clothing produced from a Vietnamese sweat shop, and I actually prefer Dunkin’ Donuts coffee (no, really!). They give me a very rigid formula for living a life devoid of using excessive energy, eating locally, crapping in a bucket and eating vegetarian (maybe not in that order). I remind them that I have no children and therefore my carbon footprint dies with me. I can pretty much do whatever the hell I want, because I have no real vested interest in tomorrow’s world. (I say this just to mess with them, because I do care.)  When I say things like this they think of me as a conservative, shorter version of Bill O’Reilley, in spite of the fact that I see myself as rather liberal in many regards, and mostly centrist to conservative in others. My conservative friends on the other hand, just think I am a libtard. So I don’t think we are having the right discussion about climate change. Not even close.