Paris Agreement 101

Shaina here –

On February 19, 2021 the United States officially rejoined the Paris Agreement. This is an important shift in US climate policy so let’s go over what it means and what the Paris Agreement is! 

What is the Paris Agreement?

It is an international agreement to address climate change under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The stated goal is to keep the rise in global mean surface temperature to below 2℃ and ideally below 1.5℃. The agreement was adopted in 2015 at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC and agreed to by 196 countries.

What is the history of the Paris Agreement?

The formal history within the UN began in 1992 with the creation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UNFCCC has established the vague goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent ‘dangerous anthropogenic interference’ (DAI) with the climate. Over the years there were many efforts that took place under the UNFCCC to achieve this, such as the 1997 Kyoto Protocol which called for binding emissions reductions for certain countries over a short time period. One of the main issues with trying to avoid DAI is that what defines danger has different meanings for different people in different places. This meant that finding a goal that diplomatic representatives from all involved countries could agree on was rather challenging. A long and meandering path led to the decision to adopt the 2℃ (and hopefully 1.5℃) temperature target, and eventually to the Paris Agreement.

The US involvement in the process that led to the Paris Agreement is very complex. As the world’s largest historic greenhouse gas emitter the US had a lot of power during negotiations. Any international action aimed at addressing climate change must have the involvement of large emitters in order to be successful, however large emitters became that way through reliance on fossil fuels— and relatedly slavery and colonialism— and thus have an interest in seeing the use of them as an energy source continue, despite the urgent need for production to decrease. US negotiators worked to ensure that rather than avoiding binding emissions reductions the agreement instead had self defined commitments, and also that it avoided requiring things like liability for loss and damage resulting from climate disasters.

How does it work?

The Paris Agreement does not require binding emissions reductions meaning that counties are not actually required to reduce emissions by a certain amount at a certain time, nor are they required to tie their plans to address climate change to their historic emissions. Rather countries are only bound to participate in the process outlined in the agreement. That process consists of several steps. First, countries each come up with their own individual plans, called Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for how they want to address climate change. These plans can be a combination of mitigation, adaptation, finance, and technology transfer. Then every 5 years they reassess and hopefully ramp up their action plans. Ideally each iteration brings them closer to net zero emissions by mid century (the term net here gives a ton of wiggle room for things like market mechanisms that may or may not actually lead to emissions reductions).

How is it working out?

To be honest, rather poorly so far. It has been five years since the Paris Agreement was ratified and during that time emissions, greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, and temperatures have continued to rise. While there was a slight decline in emissions in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic (Le Quéré et al 2020), that decline was not a result of countries taking action on climate change, but rather of the emergency lockdowns. The pledges countries have so far submitted would put us on track for around 3°C of warming by the end of the century. The annual COP meetings are where negotiations for Paris Agreement implementation happen, however the COP meeting that was supposed to take place at the end of 2020 was cancelled (youth held their own in its place). Countries were still required to submit updated NDCs by the end of 2020 and then negotiations will continue at COP26 in November.

What does the Paris Agreement say about climate justice?

To be honest with you, dear reader, this part irritates me. There is only one mention of climate justice in the Paris Agreement and it reads: “noting the importance for some of the concept of “climate justice”, when taking action to address climate change”. Climate justice is a term used to encapsulate the many ways that a changing climate is related to sociopolitical inequality across many scales- this can include the ways climate impacts disproportionately impact marginalized populations, the ways historic emitters have had an outsized contribution to creating the problem, and much more. In my opinion, and I am sure many of you would agree, justice is one of the most fundamental, if not the most fundamental, issue at play in the climate crisis. But it is only mentioned in passing here and as only being important “to some”. Many scholars have addressed shortcomings with the Agreement with respect to climate justice (I wrote a chapter of my own dissertation that will add to this body of knowledge), however despite its shortcomings and lack of robust consideration of justice the Agreement is currently the best hope we have for a coordinated international response. And we desperately need that. So this is where the general public can play a large role- we can advocate for policies in our countries and communities that will center justice as a way of bringing this concept to the forefront of the conversation.

What happens after the US rejoins?

The Biden administration will need to submit a new NDC with a renewed pledge. The pledge that was submitted under the Obama administration was considered ‘insufficient’. Then the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris Agreement (moving us into ‘critically insufficient’ territory) and worked to undermine climate action at every opportunity with numerous environmental policy rollbackss, deregulations, and anti-sciencee rhetoric. So Biden will need to submit something truly ambitious, and much stronger than what was done under the Obama administration. It will be important that they not only make an ambitious plan but that they show immediate progress towards justice centered emissions reductions. Their NDC will likely be based around Biden’s climate plan, which does look ambitious, and what they submit to the UNFCCC will need to be compatible with giving us the best possible chance of staying below 1.5℃ of warming in order to show that they are fully committed to justice and climate action. 

Rejoining the Paris Agreement is a necessary step for the US to get back on track with the international effort to address climate change. However we will need to watch closely over the next few months to see what the submitted NDC looks like and what concrete steps are being taken immediately to put those plans into action. 

For now, let’s celebrate this win and do all we can to ensure that this is successful!

References:
Le Quéré, C., Jackson, R.B., Jones, M.W. et al. Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement. Nat. Clim. Chang. 10, 647–653 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-020-0797-x

Will NASA’s Dragonfly Mission Encounter Dust Devils on Titan?

Dust Devils on Titan

Brian Jackson, Ralph D. Lorenz, Jason W. Barnes, and Michelle Szurgot

Summarized by Lisette Melendez

What data were used? In 2019, NASA announced a brand-new mission: Dragonfly. The objective? To visit Titan, the largest moon of Saturn and the only place in our universe (besides Earth) where distinct evidence of surface liquid has been discovered. Titan’s environment is very similar to that of very early Earth, with a nitrogen-rich atmosphere and volcanic activity. By studying Titan’s chemistry, scientists can discover more about the origin of life itself. It’s a very exciting mission, but it’s important for scientists to prepare for all the different obstacles the rotorcraft will encounter on Titan’s surface, including hazardous weather phenomena like dust devils.

An illustration of NASA’s Dragonfly rotorcraft-lander approaching the dunes on Saturn’s exotic moon: Titan. Credits: NASA/JHU-APL

We’ve learned more about weather patterns on Titan through NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which orbited Saturn from 2004 to 2017. This study focuses on how dust storms are identified on other celestial bodies and what implications they hold for the Dragonfly mission. Cassini identified three regional dust storms within the equator near the “Shangri-La” dune fields that were chosen as Dragonfly’s landing spot. The study of these dust storms in Titan’s unique environment (with clouds and rain of methane!) can help us learn more about how they operate and life dust in the first place. This study also draws from observations by the Huygens probe for information on Titan’s temperatures and atmosphere.

Methods: In order to determine the weather conditions necessary for a dust storm on Titan, scientists need data on various atmospheric circumstances, such as temperature, elevation, and pressure. By analyzing the images and observations collected by Cassini and Huygens and combining these findings with data collected by observing dust devils here on Earth, scientists were able to model the surface conditions that were suitable for dust devil formation as well as the size of these storms. The study focused on dust devils on the equator because that’s where we have the most data available about Titan’s weather conditions.

An illustration of the Cassini-Huygens space-research mission, which was a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Italian Space Agency (ISA) to study Saturn and its many moons. Credit: NASA/JPL

Results: Many of the atmosphere conditions identified on Titan are favorable for the formation of dust devils. On Earth, dust devils are generally hindered by the presence of liquid because the increased particle cohesion (i.e., how sticky the particles are to one another) prevents wind from being able to lift the dust particles. Observations show that the equator of Titan is very arid and dry, with methane downpours only occurring in areas once every 10 Earth years. By looking at surface humidity levels measured by Huygens, it shows that the surface is too dry for even cloud formation. The abundance of dunes and dust storms provides further evidence that Titan has the ideal environment for dust devils.

An image of a dust devil in Kansas. Credit: The Thunderbolts Project

However, there are some surface conditions on Titan that may reduce the occurrence of dust devils, including the possibility of insufficient wind speeds. Additional work is required to model typical speeds on Titan’s surface.

Why is this study important? This study is important because it helps predict the occurrence of dust devils on Titan when Dragonfly is scheduled to arrive in 2034. This study outlines what remains unknown about the formation of dust devils and how Dragonfly presents the opportunity to study wind-related phenomena in a novel environment.

The big picture: After analyzing the environment on the surface of Titan based on the data currently available, it is concluded that the dust devils will most likely not pose a threat to the Dragonfly rovercraft (since they are too slow in the given conditions). Nevertheless, the mission can provide crucial insight to the creation of dust devils and how frequently they occur on other celestial bodies. Dragonfly provides us the opportunity to learn so much more about extraterrestrial worlds, and we’re all very excited for its departure!

Citation: Jackson, B., Lorenz, R. D., Barnes, J.W., & Szurgot, M. (2020). Dust devils on Titan. Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, 125, e2019JE006238. https://doi.org/10.1029/2019JE006238

Virtual Paleontology Outreach

Adriane here–

The past year has been extremely hard for all of us, and has really stifled our abilities to do the things we love most. For me, one activity that I love doing but haven’t been able to do is outreach with K–12 students and the public. However, that all changed last week when I received an email from a second-grade teacher at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in Manhattan, New York.

An example of some brachiopod and trilobite fossils that I showed the students. All of these fossils were also found in New York!

These second-graders were learning about fossils and paleontology, and the teacher was reaching out to ask if I would speak to the students. I was thrilled, and quickly agreed. The teacher and I chatted over the phone before the Zoom talk with the students to be certain we were on the same page about what the students had learned and some topics that would be interesting and fun to touch on. From this chat, I made a quick PowerPoint with some images of topics that we wanted to touch on for the students.

The day of the chat with the students, I gathered a bunch of tools that geologists and paleontologists use in the field and in the lab. These tools included rock hammers, chisels, picks, a Brunton compass (a special compass that geoscientists use in the field), and of course the tools I most commonly use for my research, paintbrushes and a microscope. I also gathered some of my flashier, attention-grabbing fossils to show the students, such as an ammonite cast, a modern coral, an ancient coral for comparison to the modern, and my Mammoth tooth. I also gathered some smaller fossils, like brachiopods, trilobites, and shark teeth, to showcase some other commonly found fossils in New York and along the eastern coast.

When I logged into the Zoom chat, the teachers and I chatted while the students filtered in. While waiting, the teacher played the song ‘I Am A Paleontologist‘ (seriously, if you haven’t heard this song yet, check it out!). Once we began the short introduction, there were over 100 students and teachers on the Zoom call! This was incredibly cool, to be able to reach so many students at once.

I began by just introducing myself and telling the students about different types of fossils that paleontologists work on, and showcasing some of the fossils I had with me. I then showed them 3D models of the plankton fossils I work with, and explained how we get these tiny fossils. I quickly went over scientific ocean drilling, showing the students pictures of the drillship JOIDES Resolution, and explaining simply how drilling at sea works. I also discussed what type of research I did and where, and what I had learned from this research.

Mary Anning’s Ichthyosaur fossil, which is now displayed at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Image from https://oumnh.ox.ac.uk/mary-annings-ichthyosaur.

For the second half of the presentation, we opened the Zoom room to the students for questions. All of the questions were very good and thoughtful, and fun to answer! The students asked such questions like ‘What is your favorite fossil?’, ‘How many fossils do I have?’ (a hard one to answer, considering I have hundreds of jars of sediment samples that each contain thousands of fossil!), and ‘Tell me about one of your friends you sailed with’ (in which I talked about my friends I sailed with on the JOIDES Resolution in 2017). Someone also asked about marine dinosaurs, so I mentioned Ichthyosaurs, which were marine reptiles. I also alluded that the first skeleton of this ancient animal was found by a woman in the 1800’s, who lived in Europe. It turns out that the students knew exactly who I was talking about: Mary Anning!

All in all, this chat with so many bright young students over Zoom was so uplifting and refreshing. The experience really highlighted that even in a pandemic, we can successfully conduct outreach, with a major plus being able to talk to so many students at one time!

 

Dr. Fatin Izzati Minhat, Micropaleontologist

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
My favorite part about being a scientist is that you get to meet people and go places. My interest in becoming a scientist started with my curiosity about the stars and moon when I was ten years old. Back then, I wished to be an astronaut so that I can travel the universe and look at the stars and planets. I learned a lot by reading and going through atlas. However, since both of my parents were not from a scientific background, many of my questions were unanswered. Later during my high school years, I met a cool biology teacher that seems to know-it-all. I admired her so much that I aim that one day I would like to teach students and do research at the same time. This is when I made up my mind to become a scientist. During my university years, I was very curious about life in the oceans which led me to take a major degree in aquatic life. The fun part about science is, the more you know, the more questions you have. These questions are the one that drives and motivated me each year to be a better scientist.

What do you do?
My work focuses mostly on the tiny (microscopic) sea creature called foraminifera. Foraminifera are single cell organisms, closely related to amoeba, that own a shell-like structure to cover their cell. As a micropaleontologist, I document the different foraminifera species found around Malaysian waters and sometimes use their distribution pattern to understand the environment they live in. The best part about foraminifera is that when they are living, they represent the surrounding environment and archive chemical signals around them within their shell (test). Once the foraminifera died, most of them were preserved in the sediment and became a good environmental archive. I can then use their distribution as well as the chemistry signal in their shell (test) to indicate changes in the environment. 

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? 
One of my research goals is to understand the past climate change around Southeast Asia during the Quaternary period. I had been using foraminifera to infer the changes of sea level and the implication towards coastal areas around Malaysia. Scientists have agreed that sea level rise due to global warming is currently inevitable but the sea level rise is far from uniform. Which means, different regions will experience different timing and magnitude of the sea level rise. Local factors may either amplify or reduce the impact of local sea level rise. Hence we must be well prepared with mitigation plans that protect the economy and livelihood of the coastal community. Since all states in Malaysia are coastal states, the country must understand the future impact of sea level rise towards the coastal ecosystem and community. Through the understanding of sea level patterns in the past, I hope that I can educate the community and advise the stake holder for future mitigation plans. 

What are your data and how do you obtain them?
I collected data on foraminifera assemblages, sediment type data and environmental data (i.e., water depth, salinity, temperature, ph). These data is used to understand the foraminifera assemblages and their response towards the changes in their surrounding environment. Most of my early work uses benthic foraminifera assemblages to monitor the health of marine environment. My recent interest is to use both benthic and planktonic foraminifera as a proxy for sea level and temperature changes. With the help of colleagues in National Taiwan University, I aim to reconstruct the sea-level and temperature changes during the Holocene. Hopefully the reconstruction and validate the physical earth model and future sea level projection around South China Sea and Malacca Straits.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
My advice would be for them to continue pursuing their dream in their field of interest. It may be difficult at the beginning especially for countries with limited resources but with motivation, great research teams, collaborations between world laboratories, one can carry out world class science sooner or later.

Follow Fatin’s updates on their website by clicking here.

The projected timing of abrupt ecological disruption from climate change

The projected timing of abrupt ecological disruption from climate change

Christopher H. Trisos, Cory Merow & Alex L. Pigot

Summarized by Shaina Sadai

What data were used? The data used is a combination of climate model output and ecological data for 30,652 marine and terrestrial species. For each species they determine the climate conditions and spatial extents that a species is known to have existed in throughout history. The climate model output that was used were temperature and precipitation data from 22 different models and 3 emissions scenarios (RCP2.6, 4.5, 8.5).

Methods: The authors created species assemblages contained in 100km^2 grid cells. Using these they generated ‘horizon profiles’ which give the percentage species within each assemblage that would experience climate conditions exceeding those of their historic limits at a given time. They cross referenced when each species would be living for more than 5 years straight in an area where the temperature exceeded the maximum temperature they have been known to exist at through their history in order to quantify when a species crossed their ecological limit. By repeating this method across the planet they were able to construct horizon profiles at many locations, including sensitive ecosystems such as the Amazon Basin and Gobi Desert.

Results: One of the most striking results is how abrupt impacts to biodiversity could be. The profiles show that an average of over 70% of species in a given assemblage were exposed to conditions exceeding their limits within a single decade, regardless of climate model of emissions scenario. This was in part due to the species within a region evolving for similar temperature ranges. The abruptness of when ecological limits were breached was even higher for marine ecosystems than terrestrial ones. Tropical species are particularly vulnerable to having a higher percentage of species exposed to dangerous temperatures by the end of the century because they already exist in places where they are close to their temperature limits. Polar species were also highly vulnerable due to the rapid rate of changes occurring in these regions.

Under higher emissions scenarios (RCP8.5) temperature thresholds are exceeded sooner with some occurring even before 2030. The most vulnerable regions were the Amazon, Indian subcontinent, and Indo-Pacific regions where by 2100 over 90% of species in any assemblage were exposed to temperatures over their limits. In contrast the low emissions scenario (RCP2.6) delays the point at which vulnerable species are at risk by 60 years. If warming by the end of the century is kept below 2C only 2% of species assemblages will be exposed to abrupt exposure events.

Why is this study important? This study was able to use a combination of data on species’ ecological limits and climate model data to give a robust picture of when and where species assemblages may cross safe limits. It shows the potential for abrupt loss, particularly of biodiverse ecosystems, and can help inform policy efforts and future research needed to assess risk.  If emissions are decreased and the rate of temperature increase is slower it gives species more time to adapt.

The big picture: We must prepare for significant impacts to ecosystems and biodiversity under a changing climate, and take steps to prevent serious ecological harm. Yet again we see that early mitigation is crucial to mitigate harm.

Citation:
Trisos, C.H., Merow, C. & Pigot, A.L. The projected timing of abrupt ecological disruption from climate change. Nature 580, 496–501 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2189-9

The Scientific Process: What is “Peer-Review”?

Kristina here –

Today, humans have access to more information than at any other time in human history, all at the tips of our fingers with a quick Google search, or a “Hey, [insert AI name here]”. While equal access to the internet and information technology is beyond the scope of this post, cell phones, tablets, and laptops, have made it easier than ever to quickly look up information. Yet with this technology has come a huge surge in wide-spread misinformation, making it difficult to know whether you can trust the information you find. Pretty much anyone can post whatever they want, and pass it off as “fact”. How then can the average person determine whether what they’re reading is actually credible and factual? Furthermore, if you see something that says “scientists disagree on X topic”, who should you believe? Contrary to what you might think, not all viewpoints are created equal, and both scientists and the average person can be guilty of confusing “opinion” and “fact”. This is where the “peer-review” process comes in to help.

So what is “peer-reviewing”?

Most people hearing “peer-review” assume it is a good thing (and this is certainly true) but what does “peer-review” mean? Essentially, peer-review is an integral part of the scientific process, and what helps separate “opinion” and “fact”. It is what scientists use to make sure that their research is as thorough, accurate, and factual as possible. In general, scientists do not consider something trustworthy or credible unless it has gone through some kind of peer-review process.

How does peer-review work?

A scientist or group of scientists will first go about conducting research. They will ideally do background reading to make sure they understand what is already known about the topic, and where there might be gaps in our knowledge. They will then design an experiment or test, collect data, and analyse that data. The ultimate goal of science is to try and refute a null hypothesis (e.g., all apples are red). We must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that something is different from the null (what has been previously determined) (e.g., some apples are green). If we can’t prove otherwise, and/or the more scientists that run their own tests and come to the same conclusion, the stronger our hypothesis is, or the closer it is to “the truth” (e.g., apples can be different colours).

Once scientists are finished collecting and analysing the data, and have come to a conclusion (e.g., refuted, or failed to refute a hypothesis), they will write a paper reporting their findings. See Sarah’s post on how to write a scientific paper here. The authors then submit the paper to a peer-reviewed journal, usually one that has been selected based on the topic or audience of the journal. The submitted paper is sent to an editor at that journal, who then decides if the paper is appropriate for their journal. If the paper “passes” this first test, the editor will then send it out to at least two experts in that topic.

How are the peer-reviewers selected?

Usually, journals request that authors include anywhere from 2 – 10 names of experts that know enough about the topic to provide sufficiently thorough critiques of the paper. Authors cannot include close colleagues or collaborators, as this could create bias (e.g., your friend is more likely to give you a pass, even if you don’t deserve it). Editors can opt to choose as many or as few people as they want from the authors’ list. Ideally, editors will also find at least one person not on the authors’ list that is an expert on the topic. Authors may also include a list of people they don’t want to review their papers, but they must have a good reason (e.g., “this person doesn’t agree with me” is not an acceptable reason as critical reviews are important to ensure scientific rigor. But, “this person has been openly hostile towards me” would be – some people can be jerks and block good science in peer-review). If you have too many people that you don’t want to review your paper, that sends up red flags to editors, however, so including people on a “no-review” list shouldn’t be taken lightly by authors, and should only be done when absolutely necessary.

The editor then sends the paper to at least two of these reviewers. If the reviewers accept, they then have about 2 – 4 weeks to evaluate the paper. It’s important to note that editors do not usually review the papers themselves (unless they happen to be an expert in that topic), because, especially for larger journals, the editor is unlikely to know enough about the topic to give sufficiently thorough feedback (e.g., a vertebrate palaeontologist won’t review an invertebrate palaeontology paper, and vice versa). 

Peer-reviewing a scientific paper

If you are the reviewer, your job is to go through the paper and evaluate the science independently. Your comments should stick to the science and presentation of the science, and you must refrain from unnecessary criticism of the authors. For example, “this is a poorly written paragraph” is not helpful or appropriate. Instead, you should point out where you didn’t understand what was written, and why. Reviewers typically read the paper over several times to make sure they understand what the authors are trying to test, then evaluate whether the experimental design, methods, and analyses of the data were sufficient to test the hypothesis. Often, reviewers will analyse the data themselves to make sure they find the same things as the authors. Sometimes, if the reviewer feels that the methods or analyses were insufficient, they will suggest that the authors try other analyses that will more accurately test their hypothesis. This is one of the most common types of reviewer feedback. 

If the methods and analyses all hold up to scrutiny, the reviewer will then make sure that the interpretation of the data (included in a paper’s “Discussion” and “Conclusions” sections) matches the results of the analyses. Another common type of feedback from reviewers occurs when authors overstate (or sometimes understate) their conclusions (e.g., the authors may claim their paper proves x, but their results might only be applicable under very specific circumstances). A good reviewer will make sure that all of the claims made by the authors are supported by the tests they perform, and should watch for speculation (speculation may be acceptable, so long as it is clearly stated that it is such).

Reviewers then provide a thorough report back to the editor, including specific comments/suggested edits from throughout the paper. Reviewers will provide a recommendation to the editor indicating whether they think the paper is in need of revisions (“major” or “minor” revisions), or if the paper should be rejected or accepted. Major and minor revisions are the most common reviewer recommendations – major often means further analyses are needed before the hypotheses have been sufficiently tested, minor usually means that the methods and results are sound, but the authors need to tweak a few paragraphs, interpretations, or graphs throughout the paper. Papers that are considered “accepted” are exceptionally well done, and the reviewer may only have small comments that need to be addressed, or possibly none. Papers that reviewers “reject” usually have insufficient evidence to accurately test the hypotheses proposed, may have critically flawed methods or analyses, or would require very extensive revisions that would take a long time to complete, or would end up testing a different hypothesis. Rejections do not always mean that the authors should abandon the paper – it could just mean that there is more work to do before the paper can be fully evaluated. Some journals even have a “reject and resubmit” option, which means that the paper is rejected for now, but that the authors are welcome to resubmit in the future if they are able to address the reviewer’s concerns. It is sort of like “very major revisions” and gives the authors a bit more time/flexibility to complete the revisions.

Revisions

Once the editor has received reviews back from all of the reviewers, they will go through all of them to see if the reviewers have picked out common flaws in the paper, and to make sure the reviews were sufficient. If the reviewers clearly disagreed on something, the editor will often send out the paper to at least one other reviewer for another opinion (this is helpful if a reviewer was unnecessarily harsh or lax). Based on all of the reviewer evaluations, the editor will provide the final recommendation for the paper (accept, reject, reject and resubmit, major/minor revisions). The editor then sends their recommendation and summary of the reviews, along with all of the reviewer comments, back to the authors. 

The authors must then revise the paper based on the reviewer feedback, and address every single comment made by the reviewers. It is the job of the authors to not be defensive about the comments (which can be hard when someone is criticizing your work), but it is important to remember that the reviewer’s job is to make your science better. Depending on the amount of revisions requested (major or minor), the authors are usually given at least 2 weeks (and sometimes several months) to provide their revisions, as addressing every single comment thoroughly takes time. The authors then resubmit their revised paper, as well as a list of their responses to all of the reviewer comments and the actions taken to address each comment. The editor uses both documents to determine if the authors have done due diligence with the reviewer’s feedback, or if further revisions are needed.

If necessary, the editor will send the paper back to the original reviewers or to new reviewers. The process will repeat until the paper becomes acceptable to reviewers, or the paper is rejected. Once the paper is considered acceptable by the reviewers and editor, the peer-review process is complete and the paper is ready to be formatted and published in the journal! It can take anywhere from weeks to years for a paper to become accepted! 

Responsibilities of reviewers

It is important to note that neither authors, nor reviewers are paid (editors at larger journals are sometimes paid positions). Instead, peer-reviewing is considered an “academic service” and authors should expect to review 1 – 2 papers for every paper they publish (i.e., for each review of your paper, you should return the favour by reviewing that many papers). While some people have strong opinions on monetary compensation for reviewers and editors, the current justification is that reviewing is a service and the lack of compensation should keep reviewers impartial. The peer-review process is a lot of work for everyone involved, but is the best way to ensure we have a system that produces sound, thorough, and accurate science.

Peer-review doesn’t just happen in journals, either. Scientific books, text books, theses, and government reports may also be considered peer-reviewed, as they are usually thoroughly reviewed by several experts, or scientific review panels. But the most common form, and the most acceptable form of citations or sources, are peer-reviewed journal articles. Peer-review also occurs for articles in other fields in academia, such as history and the arts.

So, how do you tell if what you’re reading (or what you’ve heard) is credible?

Has it been peer-reviewed?

Is the information coming from a reputable peer-reviewed journal?

Do they cite their sources when stating information/presenting facts?

Even if the information isn’t presented in a journal (e.g., a governmental report, book, or blog post), do they use citations to support their arguments? Are these sources credible (i.e., from peer-review sources, not some random internet link)?

Do the majority of scientists/experts in the topic agree with this opinion?

If you come across a “fact” that a scientist has stated, remember that not all “opinions” are created equal. If the majority of experts have come to a conclusion, yet one person disagrees, that person has most likely failed to properly refute a hypothesis (their conclusions do not match the majority of the evidence). This usually happens when a scientist fails to include all of the appropriate variables in their methods, meaning that the test they used to refute the hypothesis was flawed, even if their work has been published. For example, those that claim global warming has happened before and that therefore the global warming we are experiencing today is just natural variation are failing to include an important variable: the rate of change (which is much faster than any past “background” variation). 

Is the author an expert on the subject?

It takes several years to gain expertise in a topic, mostly by reading all of the peer-reviewed papers on that topic (hundreds or even thousands of papers), staying up-to-date on new research, conducting experiments, and going through the peer-review process. Google searches don’t cut it. Even if they are a scientist, if they normally work in a different topic, there is a greater chance that they might be missing something that is common knowledge to experts in that field. For example, I as a palaeontologist am not about to try and write a paper on black holes, even though I think they’re fascinating and have read lots about them. 

An imperfect system

The peer-review system is not infallible. Nowadays, scientists will often “publish” their work online outside or ahead of the peer-review process with things called pre-prints. Pre-prints allow scientists to share their work, especially large datasets, ahead of peer-review so that they can share their work more quickly and potentially get feedback from other researchers. Often, the data included in pre-prints will end up going through the peer-review process, but as the peer-review process can take a long time, pre-prints allow researchers to get their data out there and get feedback faster. While it may not seem as rigorous because it hasn’t gone through the peer-review process, it can actually end up being more transparent because it potentially allows more people to review the research. Essentially, pre-prints still go through “peer-review” in the actual sense of the word, just not necessarily through the traditional channels of journals.

Journal reviewers can also sometimes act inappropriately. For example, reviewers might make unhelpful comments that are not constructive or based on the science, or may even be downright abusive or derogatory – e.g., criticizing the author, not the work, or saying something unnecessarily rude. While these kinds of comments are not permissible in the peer-review process, and it is usually the responsibility of the editor to reject reviews that include inappropriate content, these kinds of things regularly slip through. It is then within the author’s right to ask the editor to step in and find an alternative reviewer or to ignore the comments when making their final decision. These kinds of checks and balances are what help the peer-review process to remain as impartial as possible – comments must be limited to the science and the presentation of material, and cannot include opinions or feelings about the work, even if it disagrees with your own.

Finally, just because something gets published doesn’t mean it’s perfect. There are lots of bad papers out there that slip through the peer-review process. Editors and reviewers are people too. That is why scientists must always evaluate previous work for themselves. It is an inherent part of the scientific process – trying to independently reject that null hypothesis to see if you come to the same conclusion.

Building and Establishing the Tilly Edinger Travel Grant

Linda, Adriane, Kristina, Andy, and Jen here-

Dr. Otilie “Tilly” Edinger, Unknown author, sourced from trowelblazers.

Over the past year, members of the Time Scavengers team created a new travel grant for students and avocational/amateur scientists. These groups often lack funding to attend conferences, which are valuable experiences. Conferences not only provide the opportunity for students to receive feedback by experts other than their advisor or supervisor. Conferences are important networking opportunities as such many fruitful scientific collaborations started with two cups of coffee and a chat next to a student’s poster in a crowded conference venue. We hope that by sharing our motivation and structure, other organizations will consider funding opportunities similar to ours.

The travel grant is named after Dr. Otilie “Tilly” Edinger, a female, Jewish, deaf paleontologist. Dr. Edinger’s work started an entire subdiscipline: paleoneurology, a discipline that focuses on understand ancient brains. To learn more about Dr. Edinger’s history, work, and more head to the Time Scavengers page: Who is Dr. Tilly Edinger

The Motivation for a Grant

Studies show that the Geosciences are among the least diverse scientific disciplines in the US (Bernard & Cooperdock, 2018). In addition, we, as geoscientists, still don’t have a complete picture of how lacking we are with respect to diversity, as major surveys (e.g., through the National Science Foundation and Natural Environmental Research Council) do not capture LGBTQIA+, disability, neurodiversity, and other identities. Previous studies have shown that retention rate from student to professional membership in societies is quite low in terms of gender diversity (Plotnick et al. 2014), this likely spans across historically excluded groups. People with such underrepresented identities are less likely to participate in events, such as professional meetings, that require time and especially money, as financial strains can limit such participation. This inability to attend professional events thus hinders those students in the long-term. The motivation for establishing the Tilly Edinger Travel Grant was to support and encourage the participation of historically excluded individuals by helping to reduce the financial burden of conferences.

The current reimbursement system used by universities around the world is ill-suited to the situation faced by real students. There are currently several travel grants for geoscience students available through different societies, foundations, and organizations. However, the problem arises in that students are asked to pay for such conference costs up-front, and then are reimbursed at a later date for the conference travel. More often than not, reimbursement for conference expenses can take months to process, meaning if students paid for expenses on their credit card, they are accruing interest on those expenses. This reimbursement system greatly disadvantages students, especially those who are low-income and/or first generation, and do not have a steady stream of income. 

Avocational/amateur scientists are valuable contributors to science, but currently there are very few places where they can seek financial help to attend professional meetings and conferences, places where they too can share their science and meet new collaborators. Additionally, some of these scientists are retired or self employed, and just like students, may have a limited or unstable source of income to spend on such expensive networking opportunities. 

We therefore decided that all students and avocational scientists working in a relevant discipline are eligible to apply for the travel grant. Additionally, we would provide people who hold underrepresented identities priority. 

Establishing a Committee

The TETG committee in a virtual meeting. Clockwise from top left: Linda, Adriane, Jen, Kristina, Andy

Once we knew we wanted to create a new travel grant, the Time Scavengers team established the Tilly Edinger Travel Grant Committee. The job of the committee was to hammer out details related to the grant itself, who is eligible, who would get priority, creating a system for choosing awardees, fundraising for the grant, and creating impactful social media posts (on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) to garner support for the grant. As you can likely tell from that long list, there was a lot for us to do!

Jen and Adriane had already created an outline for the grant before the committee was formed, early in 2020. Therefore the first thing the committee did was refine this grant text, refine the grant example document, and create web pages on the Time Scavengers site for the grant and about Dr. Edinger. 

We held biweekly meetings to work through various aspects of the grant — primarily the application and rubric. Each meeting was about 1 hour in duration and coordinated across 4 time zones. We were really mindful to make a simple application that gathered the data we needed to properly evaluate and fund those that needed the support. We came up with a ranking system that does not rank people based on their prior scientific experience and success. Instead, this ranking system is based on the applicant’s need for financial support to a conference and historically excluded identities that they hold. 

The grant committee also discussed award amounts, as most grants provide a static monetary value (e.g. $500). However, no two conferences possess the same fee structure and a static amount is not equitable. We decided that the award amount will be flexible and we will support as many individuals as we can per application cycle. The first year we fundraised enough to support 3–5 individuals, depending on the conference expenses. As this is the first year of this grant, we decided that the goal would be to support only conference registration and abstract fees, with the hope to expand to broader support in the future.

Data Regarding the Impact of Conferences

Did attending your first conference spark any collaborations or extensions of your network?

Before we began a targeted campaign to raise funds we wanted to survey the community about the impact of attending conferences on their careers. This informal anonymous survey was disseminated via social media. In total, 64 people responded and 56.3% said that associated fees and lack of funding prevented conference attendance and a similar percentage paid for some amount of their first conference out of their own pocket. 57.8% of respondents suggested that there are not enough ample funding opportunities for students to help attend conferences. 64.1% of respondents indicated that being reimbursed for conference fees had a negative impact on their financial situation. Regardless of these hardships, 65.6% of respondents said that attending their first scientific conference extended their scientific network and/or led to collaborations. This clearly indicates conferences are both a financial burden and critical to progressing your career. 

You can read the full results and quotes from respondents here: Impact of Attending Conferences.

Crowdsourcing Funding for the Grant

We outlined a two week marketing campaign to promote and encourage donations to the travel fund. Each day we would release a social media post on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook with facts about Dr. Edinger, the grant details, why folks should donate, and data from the survey mentioned above. Our goal was to be as transparent as possible with our motivations behind the grant, while also demonstrating the need for such a grant to our potential donors with the survey data we had just collected. Committee members helped create graphics and text for the marketing campaign. 

Example graphics from our social media fundraising campaign.

Once we had a solid marketing outline, we started a crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe to gather the financial resources needed to start the grant. An advantage of crowdsourcing is that small donations from the community can add up quickly. Our average donation was $51.48 USD, with individual donations ranging from $1 – $200, with 55 separate donors. We surpassed our goal within just two weeks’ time! See all of our Tilly Edinger Grant Donations. The grant committee is blown away by the support and encouragement we received from the scientific community. We therefore launched the grant in November and have already received the first applications. The travel grant committee will meet again in February to assess the applications and announce the awardees shortly after.

Requirements of Awardees

Most grant awardees have some small requirements from the granting organization. We will ask all people who receive the travel grant to write a short blog post about their conference experience and a Meet the Scientist post so stay tuned for their reports! We will collect them all under the tag TravelWithTilly on the Time Scavengers website. 

Reflection

As this was our first round of fundraising, we expected that some adjustments might be needed for future fundraising cycles. Our initial focus of this pilot year was to cover the costs of registration and abstract fees for conferences. As the COVID-19 pandemic spread, all conferences switched to a virtual format for the foreseeable future. We hope to continue to grow our fundraising capabilities so we are able to fund as many people as possible when in-person conferences resume. Other areas of growth including improving our application, such as asking applicants for cost breakdowns of the conference they plan to attend, and incorporating community feedback. In the future, we hope to expand to cover airfare and other travel expenses.

References

Bernard, R. E., and Cooperdock, E. H. G. 2018. No progress on diversity in 40 years. Nature Geosciences , 11, 292–295. 

Plotnick, R. E., Stigall, A. L., & Stefanescu, I. 2014. Evolution of paleontology: Long-term gender trends in an earth-science discipline. GSA Today, 24(11).

 

How Eurypterids of the Finger Lakes, New York Lived and Died

Paleoecology and Taphonomy of Some Eurypterid-bearing Horizons in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State

Stephen M. Mayer

This news article was summarized by Alexander Favaro. Alexander Favaro is a first-generation student attending the University of South Florida, pursuing a B.S. in Geology. He hopes to follow his passion of being a paleobiologist. His interests have been broadly focused on paleoecology and understanding evolutionary trends. 

What data were used? The study used well-preserved fossils from the upper Silurian Fiddlers Green Formation in New York, the Lower Devonian Olney Member in Finger Lakes New York, Split Rock Quarry near Syracuse New York, and the Samuel J. Ciurca Eurypterid Collection at Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. These data were used to make interpretations of eurypterid lifestyles and processes of fossilization. 

Methods: Sedimentological variables and the body and trace fossils found within a rock unit were used to interpret the depositional environment (what type of environment the rocks were formed in) of a formation. Field collection was done at the Phelps Member and Cayuga Junction (which are located in the Fiddlers Green Formation), as well as Split Rock Quarry in Syracuse, New York. The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History was used to supplement eurypterid data through their collection. The position in which each eurypterid was found, as well as their size, was used to describe their age, ecology, and how they likely died.

Figure 1. Eurypterus remipes, which shows the U-shaped body posture. The metasoma (last 7-12 segments of the eurypterid) and telson (spine like protrusion at the end of the abdomen on the right of this image) were twisted 1260 in relation to the prosoma (head section) and mesosoma (first 1-6 segments of the eurypterid). This specimen was found in the Phelps Member, New York.

Results: Many eurypterid exuviae (shed exoskeleton) were found, while eurypterid bodies were less abundant. The most common eurypterid fossils found in Phelps were Eurypterus remipes. Cayuga Junction also possessed Eurypterus remipes but were far less common. At Split Rock Quarry, Erieopterus microphthalmus were found in localized calcareous (chalky limestone) bands. 

 The study found that between 61 carapaces, the average size of eurypterids in the Phelps Member fell between 15-25mm. The variations in size indicated that immature species and adults were living amongst each other. 

Since eurypterids were chelicerate arthropods (like arachnids, sea spiders, and horseshoe crabs), scientists have suggested that eurypterids would undergo a group spawning and then molt (shed their exoskeleton) together (similarly to a horseshoe crab). This would explain the high number of shed exuviae and variable size ranges found in the formations.

Fossil evidence indicated that eurypterid corpses were highly affected by currents, which would cause a variety of contortions in a carcass. The observed eurypterid corpse conditions were categorized as: a non-contorted corpse, an angular contortion up to 900, a U-shaped flexure of the body and tail (as seen in Figure 1), and a contortion where the body and tail flipped above or below the head (though this was rare). Aside from flexure of the body, some contortions were caused by sediment that anchored a section of the eurypterid while the un-covered portions moved freely due to current movement. Eurypterus remipes and Erieopterus microphthalmus both displayed similar contortions and so they were able to determine that the contortion patterns weren’t exclusive to one genus of eurypterid. 

Why is this study important? The study gave insight into the life and death of a once thriving taxon that has close relatives still alive today in the form of arachnids, sea spiders, and horseshoe crabs. Fossil evidence at Phelps suggested that eurypterids may have mass-molted, similarly to horseshoe crabs. The paleoecological evidence found gave a key insight into a behavior which has also been observed in modern, related organisms.

The big picture: The analysis performed on both trace fossils and carcasses gave both paleoecological and taphonomic (how an organism is fossilized after death) insight. Combined, taphonomy and paleoecology provides a more refined idea of how ancient organisms lived, died, and how their bodies would have been fossilized. 

Citation: Mayer, S. M. Paleoecology and Taphonomy of Some Eurypterid-Bearing Horizons in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State.

How Climate Change in Serbia is Impacting the Rate of Cancer and Infectious Diseases

Assessment of climate change impact on the malaria vector Anopheles hyrcanus, West Nile disease, and incidence of melanoma in the Vojvodina Province (Serbia) using data from a regional climate model 

By: Dragutin T. Mihailović, Dusan Petrić, Tamas Petrović, Ivana Hrnjaković- Cvjetković, Vladimir Djurdjevic, Emilija Nikolić-Đoric, Ilija Arsenić, Mina PetrićID, Gordan Mimić, Aleksandra Ignjatović-Cupina 

Summarized by: Kailey McCain

What data were used? Researchers assessed climate change and UV radiation (UVR) and compared it to data collected over ten years from mosquito field collections at over 166 sites across Serbia. Additionally, public health records for the circulation of vector-borne disease (I.e., illnesses spread by mosquitoes and ticks), specifically the West Nile Virus, and the incidence of melanoma (i.e., a serious form of skin cancer) were collected and compared.

Methods: The climate change and UVR doses were collected by using EBU-POM model (a type of regional climate model) for the time periods: 1961-2000 and 2001-2030. As for the collection of the mosquito data, two different dry-ice baited traps (dry-ice is a solid form of carbon dioxide, which is a natural attractive substance for mosquitos) were used. The various sites were chosen by entomologists (i.e., scientists who study insects) to obtain a diverse data set. The mosquitoes collected were then anesthetised, separated by location, species, sex, and then tested for a specific RNA (I.e., a single stranded molecule) strand that would indicate the mosquito was carrying the West Nile Virus.

Furthermore, the researchers measured the rate of melanoma incidences in Serbia by using two different indicators: new number of cases versus time and number of new cases versus population size. The defined time period for data collection was 10 years (1995-2004). With this data, the researchers compared the rate of incidence to the climate data previously collected.

Fig 1: This diagram shows the linear trend in annual temperature fluctuations throughout Serbia from the time period 1990-2030; as well as depicts the mosquito prevalence found at the various collection sites.

Results: From the data collected via the regional climate model, a linear upwards trend in temperature in Serbia was recorded. The prevalence of mosquitoes was also found to increase linearly throughout the time period. The culmination of these results can be seen in figure 1.

As for the melanoma data, the researchers found a linear increase in UVR doses for the time period. This data was found to be correlated to an increase in melanoma incidences throughout Serbia and this data can be visualized in figure 2.

Why is this study important? Disease prevalence and distribution have always been difficult to predict due to the varying ecological factors that play important roles. Research like this is especially important because it allows scientists to simulate future spreads of vector-borne diseases within European countries. This can eventually lead to the development of public health surveillance technology and overall prevention.

Fig 2: Diagram (a) depicts the increased temperature rates throughout Serbia, and diagram (b) depicts the UV radiation doses on the various provinces throughout Serbia. Diagram (c) shows the linear relationship of UV doses versus the time period 1990-2030. The data shows a clear increase in “hot days” (HD) and “warm days” (WD) through time. Diagram (d) shows a linear relationship between UVR dose versus melanoma incidence rate from 1995-2004.

The big picture: This study aimed to correlate changes in temperature and UV radiation to the spread of diseases and cancer. With vector-borne diseases being the most sensitive to ecological conditions, researchers chose the West Nile Virus to act as a proxy to all mosquito transmitted diseases. As expected, the data supports the claim that increased temperatures trigger an enhanced risk for not only infectious diseases, but certain cancers as well.

Citation: Mihailović, D. T., Petrić, D., Petrović, T., Hrnjaković-Cvjetković, I., Djurdjevic, V., Nikolić-Đorić, E., Arsenić, I., Petrić, M., Mimić, G., & Ignjatović-Ćupina, A. (2020). Assessment of climate change impact on the malaria vector Anopheles hyrcanus, West Nile disease, and incidence of melanoma in the Vojvodina Province (Serbia) using data from a regional climate model. PLoS ONE, 15(1), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0227679

Molly Elizabeth Hunt, Paleontologist, Science Educator

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?

My favorite part about being a scientist is sharing my science with others! Whether it’s creating educational activities, writing blog or social media posts, visiting classrooms, designing museum exhibits or just talking to people I am always happiest when I get to be a part of someone’s scientific journey. 

I was first introduced to geology when I was 5 years old and my great grandmother gave me a box of rocks and minerals. From there I began to read and collect more and more. It was then in high school, that I decided I wanted to focus on paleontology because of the great role model I had in my teacher Mr. Mike Koenig who took me fossil hunting. These two events and many others in-between sparked a passionate for earth sciences that has put me on to a track to a professional career as a geologist and paleontologist. 

In laymen’s terms, what do you do? 

As an undergraduate student in the Calede Lab at Ohio State, I study body size evolution or change over time. By looking at the teeth preserved as fossil from Gophers that lived around 30-11 million years ago, we can determine what the size of those creatures and then compare them to gophers that are alive today. 

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? 

By observing changes to the size of animals during different times we can understand how climate, and environment affect mammal groups. This is especial critical now as we are facing global climate change. Paleontology can use the past to plan and prepare for the future. 

What are your data and how do you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.?

I am use measurements of the teeth (toothrow length) of fossil gophers as well as calculations developed from living rodent training sets to estimate the body mass of these extinct species. I take photos of the toothrows and skulls of specimens in museum collections, which are input into a software to calculate lengths then I determine means and standard deviations for each species studied. For modern species we use weight in grams that has been published in scientific literature. This data is also put through computer analyzes with the incredible help of my advisor Dr. Jonathan Calede that can evaluate the evolution of body size over time, over geographic location, and within the phylogenetic tree. 

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Never give up. Even if someone tells you that you will not make it, even if you have a bad day, even if you make a big mistake, even if you get a bad grade….YOU can do it. Believe in yourself and surround yourself with people who will always support you and work hard! 

Learn more about Molly on her website or follow her updates on Twitter and Instagram!