Forests for storing carbon

One of the more annoying features of the climate change issue is the question of feedback, i.e. what are the consequences of what is inevitably going to happen? One important issue is whether we can fix carbon, at least temporarily, and the answer is, yes but . . .  The following illustrates some of the problems, based on a paper by McNicol et al. 2019. Environ. Res. Lett. 14 014004 .

We hear that forestry is a good place to store carbon. The first objection you hear will be that while the trees take carbon from the air, they eventually die and return the carbon to the air. Of course, if the forest is continuous, as the old trees die, new ones replace them, which means that if the trees are there, there is so much carbon dioxide taken from the atmosphere. New forests are net removers while they are growing; mature forests represent a constant fixed amount. Building things with the wood will add to the reduction of atmospheric carbon. Temperate rainforests can store up to 1500 t/ha of carbon, while something like 200 t/ha will commonly be stored in the top one meter of soil, particularly if there is plenty of rain. Peatlands store more carbon, as do deeper soils. Peatlands in the region can be up to six meters deep. The greatest concentration of organic carbon occurs where the ground is wettest, while slope is also important. To give some idea, the total mass of soil carbon calculated for the North Pacific coastal temperate rainforest was 4.5 billion tonnes of carbon. 

Soil carbon does not stay there. Soil is a rather remarkable mass of biological activity, the waste products of which return to the atmosphere as either methane or carbon dioxide. Increasing the temperature speeds this up, and an average increase of 1 degree Centigrade across the world could release 50 billion tonne of carbon into the atmosphere from this source alone by 2050. That is about five times as much as we produce annually through burning fossil fuels and through agricultural activities. On the other hand, if it rained more, an increase in water-saturated soil would lead to net storage. This is the issue of feedback I mentioned. Positive feedback would mean that as the temperature rose thanks to the carbon we have put in the air, the soil would put more there, and accelerate the heating. The negative feedback occurs where more rain falls in key places and holds more carbon in the soil. Which will it be?

The climate warming is inevitable, but what happens to the weather? One suggestion is that where it is already wet, it will get wetter, whereas where it is dry, it will get dryer. That makes Australia less of “a lucky country”, which it proclaims itself to be.

Of course, simple soil is not the only source of greenhouse gas. Most people will have heard of methane occluded in tundra that is gradually thawing. Something has to be done, but politicians prepared to do anything are thin on the ground, and those who have analysed and recognized what few schemes might actually work and make a significant contribution towards solving it are even thinner on the ground.  There are conflicting issues, thus to store carbon you want trees on flat land to store more in the soil, but that is where the food comes from. So maybe planting trees on hills is better, because that land is less useful for food. What would you do?

Book Discount

From January 23 – 30, my thriller, The Manganese Dilemma, will be discounted to 99c/99p on Amazon. 

The Russians did it; everyone is convinced of that. But just exactly what did they do? Charles Burrowes, a master hacker, is thrown into a ‘black op’ with the curvaceous Svetlana for company to validate new super stealth technology she has brought to the West. Some believe there is nothing there since their surveillance technology cannot show any evidence of it, but then it is “super stealth” so just maybe . . . Also, Svetlana’s father was shot dead as they made their escape. Can Burrowes provide what the CIA needs before Russian counterintelligence or a local criminal conspiracy blow the whole operation out of the water? The lives of many CIA agents in Russia will depend on how successful he is.

Scientific Journals Accused of Behaving Badly

I discussed peer review in my previous post, and immediately came across an article on “Predatory Publishing” (Science367, p 129). They report that six out of ten articles published in a sample of what they call “predatory” journals received no citations, i.e. nobody published a further paper referring to the work in these papers. The only reasonable inference that could be taken from what followed was that this work was very much worse than that published in more established journals. So, first, what are “predatory” journals, are they inherently bad, is the work described there seriously worse than in the established ones, or is this criticism more to defend the elite positions of some? I must immediately state I don’t know because the article did not give specific examples that I could analyse, neither science nor journals, although the chances are I would not have been able to read such journals. There are so many journals out there that libraries are generally restricted by finance on what they purchase.

Which gets to the first response. Maybe there are no citations because nobody is reading the articles because libraries do not buy the journals. There can, of course, be other good reasons why a paper is not cited, in that the subject may be of very narrow interest, but it was published to archive a fact. I have some papers that fit that description. For a while I had a contract to establish the chemical structures of polysaccharides from some New Zealand seaweeds and publish the results. If the end result is clearly correct, and if the polysaccharide was unique to that seaweed, which was restricted to being found in New Zealand and had no immediate use, why would anyone reference it? One can argue that the work ended up being not that interesting, but I did not know that before I started. Before starting I did not know; after completion I did, and by publishing, so will everyone else. If they never have any use, well, at least we know why. From my point of view, they were useful; I had a contract and I fulfilled it. When you are independent and do not have such things as secure salaries, contracts are valuable.

The article defined the “predatory” journal as (a) one that charged to publish (Page charges were well established in the main stream journals); (b) they used aggressive marketing tactics (so do the mainstream journals); and (c) they offered “little or no peer review” (I have no idea how they reached this conclusion because peer review is not open to examination). As an aside, the marketing tactics of the big conglomerates is not pretty either, but they have the advantage of being established, and libraries cannot usually bring themselves to stop using them, as it is an “all or nothing” subscription with a lot of journals involved, with at least one or two essential for a University.

The next criticism was these upstarts were getting too much attention. And horrors, 40% of the articles drew at least one citation. You can’t win against this sort of critic: it is bad because articles are not cited, and bad because they are. I find citations are a bad iindication of importance. Many scientists in the West cite their friends frequently, irrespective of whether the article cited has any relevance because they know nobody checks, and the number of citations is important in the West for getting grants. You cite them, they cite you, everybody wins, except those not in the loop. This is a self-help game.

The next criticism of them is there are too many of them. Actually the same could be said of mainstream journals; take a look at the number of journals from Elsevier. Even worse, many of these come from Africa and Asia. How dare they challenge our established superiority! Another criticism – the articles are not cited in Wikipedia. As if citations in Wikipedia were important. So why do scientists in Africa and Asia publish in such journals? The article suggests an answer: publication is faster. Hmm, fancy going for better performance! So, if it is a problem, the answer would surely be to fix it with the “approved” journals, but that is not going to happen any time soon. Also, from the Africans’ perspective, their papers may well be more likely to be rejected in the peer review of Western journals because they are not using the most modern equipment, in part because they can’t afford it. The work may be less interesting to Western eyes, but is that relevant if it is interesting in Africa? I can’t help but think this article was more a sign of “protecting their turf” than of trying to improve the situation.

Peer Review – a Flawed Process for Science

Back from a Christmas break, and I hope all my readers had a happy and satisfying break. 2020 has arrived, more with a bang than a whimper, but while languishing in what has started off as a dreadful summer here, thanks to Australia (the heat over Central Australia has stirred up the Southern Ocean to give us cold air, while their bush fires have given us smoky air, even though we are about 2/3 the width of the Atlantic away) I have been thinking of how science progresses, or doesn’t. One of the thoughts that crossed my mind was the assertion that we must believe climate change is real because the data are published in peer-reviewed journals. Climate change is certainly real, Australia is certainly on fire, but what do you make of the reference to peer-reviewed journals? Does such publication mean it is right, and that peer review is some sort of gold standard?

Unfortunately, that is not necessarily so, and while the process filters out some abysmal rubbish it also lets through some fairly mediocre stuff, although we can live with that. If the work reports experimental observations we should have more faith in it, right? After all, it will have been looked at by experts in the field who use the same techniques and they will filter out errors. There are two reasons why that is not so. The first is that the modern scientific paper, written to save space, usually gives insufficient evidence to tell. The second is illustrated by climate change; there are a few outlets that are populated solely by deniers, in which another denier reviews the work, in other words, prejudice rules. 

Chemistry World reported a study carried out by the Royal Society of Chemistry that reviewed the performance of peer review, and came to the conclusion that peer review is sexist. Females as corresponding authors made up 23.9% of submissions, and 25.6% of the rejections without peer review. Only 22.9% of the papers accepted after peer review came from female corresponding authors. Female corresponding authors are less likely to receive an immediate “accept”, or “accept with minor revisions”, but interestingly, if the reviewer is female, the males are less likely to receive that. These figures come from 700,000 submissions, so although the percentages are not very big, the question remains: are they meaningful, and if so, what do they mean?

There is a danger in drawing conclusions from statistics because correlations do not mean cause. It may be nothing more than women are more likely to be younger, and hence being early in their careers are more likely to need help, or they are more likely to have sent the paper to a less than appropriate journal, since journals tend to publish only in very narrow fields. It could also indicate that style is more important than substance, because the only conceivable difference with a gender bias is the style used in presentation. It would be of greater interest to check out how status affects the decision. Is a paper from Harvard, say, more likely to be accepted than a paper from a minor college, or something non-academic, such as a patent office?

One of my Post-doc supervisors once advised me that a new idea will not get published, but publication is straightforward if you report the melting point of a new compound. Maybe he was a little bitter, but it raises the question, does peer review filter out critical material because it does not conform to the required degree of comfort and compliance with standard thinking? Is important material rejected simply because of the prejudices or incompetence of the reviewer? What happens if the reviewer is not a true peer? Irrespective of what the editor tells the author, is a paper that criticizes the current paradigm rejected on that ground? I have had some rather pathetic experiences, and I expect a number of others have too, but the counter to that is, maybe the papers had insufficient merit. That is the simple out, after all, who am I?

Accordingly, I shall end by citing someone else. This related to a paper about spacetime, which at its minimum is a useful trick for solving the equations of General Relativity. However, for some people, spacetime is actually a “thing”; you hear about the “fabric of spacetime” and in an attempt to quantize it, scientists have postulated that it exists in tiny lumps. In 1952 an essay was written that was against the prevailing view that spacetime is filled with fields that froth with “virtual particles”. I don’t know whether this was right or not because nobody would publish it, so it is not to be discussed in polite scientific society. It was probably rejected because it went totally against the prevailing view, and we must not challenge that. And no, it was no written by an ignorant fool, although it should have been judged on content and not the status of the person. The author was Albert Einstein, who could legitimately argue that he knew a thing or two about General Relativity, so nobody is immune to such rejection. If you want to see such prejudice in action, try arguing that quantum field theory is flawed in front of an advocate. You would be sent to the corner wearing a conical hat. The advocate will argue that the theory has calculated the magnetic moment of the electron and this is the most accurate calculation in physics. The counter is yes, but only through some rather questionable mathematics (like cancelling out infinities), while another calculation based on Einstein’s relativity gives an error in the cosmological constant of about 120 orders of magnitude (ten followed by 120 zeros), the worst error in all of physics. Oops!