News from the Center

by Larry Glass and Carrie Tully

Here are some of the issues we’ve been talking about.

Pacific Northwest Heat Storm

We were a little unnerved, but not surprised, to read lead scientist at Berkeley Earth, Dr. Robert Rohde’s postulation that we could be seeing unfamiliar climate dynamics because the climate system has changed at large scale in ways we don’t yet fully understand. The most striking thing to Rohde isn’t the headline numbers, it’s modeling which basically says the heatwave was statistically “impossible”.

He believes that the heat storm may have been a proverbial hurricane, e.g. a rare dynamical interaction that has always been possible, but so rare that in 70 years of data we never observed a weather pattern that was qualitatively similar.

Or, he says, we may be seeing unfamiliar dynamics because the climate system has changed at large scales in ways we don’t yet fully understand. I consider this the scarier option.

As of now, we don’t know the answer. In all likelihood, entire PhDs will be written about the Pacific Northwest heat storm. Nature has thrown us a scary curveball, and we’ll have to wait and see if this was just an exceedingly rare one-off or a sign of more to come.


Environmental Equity and Wildfires

According to a report by Zack Colman in Politico, while the U.S. as a whole may be facing its worst wildfire season in a century, one particular group is threatened more than others: the Latinx community. A new analysis of census data shows they are twice as likely to live in areas most threatened by wildfires relative to the overall U.S. population; the Latinx population makes up about 18% of the U.S. population but represents 37% of the people who live in the areas that are identified as facing the most extreme wildfire risks. As rich white people flee fire prone areas it drives up housing prices in the more fire safe areas, leaving the fire prone areas with more affordable housing. This points to a systemic flaw in our current form of unregulated capitalism. The game is rigged; it’s not a level playing field because wealthy white people always have the advantage.


Social Media’s Real-World Impacts on the Environment

Social media changed the way we receive information and restructured the way we communicate in an incredibly short period of time. While there are some social scientists, journalists, and activists that have been raising concerns about how this is affecting our democracy, mental health, and relationships, we have yet to see biologists and ecologists weighing in as much. That recently changed with a new paper published in the prestigious science journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), titled “Stewardship of global collective behavior.

In this paper, seventeen researchers who specialize in fields from climate science to philosophy, make the case that academics should treat the study of technology’s large-scale impact on society as a “crisis discipline.” A crisis discipline is a field in which scientists across different fields work quickly to address an urgent societal problem — like how conservation biology tries to protect endangered species or climate science research aims to stop global warming.

The paper argues that our lack of understanding about the collective behavioral effects of new technology is a danger to democracy and scientific progress. For example, the paper says that tech companies have “fumbled their way through the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, unable to stem the “infodemic” of misinformation” that has hindered widespread acceptance of masks and vaccines. The authors warn that if left misunderstood and unchecked, we could see unintended consequences of new technology contributing to phenomena such as “election tampering, disease, violent extremism, famine, racism, and war.”

There’s no reason to expect that truth and science will rise to the top of any of these social media ecosystems.

It’s a grave warning and call to action by an unusually diverse swath of scholars across disciplines — and their collaboration indicates how concerned they are.


Staff Happenings

With the relentless spread of the Delta Variant of Covid-19, we have made the tough decision to postpone our 50th Anniversary Celebration until a time we can safely gather in the manner we would like to celebrate this accomplishment. We need to do this without risking the health and well-being of our staff and members and we don’t feel that’s possible at this time.  If this health crisis does not subside in the near future, we will consider doing some kind of virtual event. We appreciate all of the thought and planning that has gone into this event and look forward to celebrating this milestone with you all once it’s safe to do so. 

With that being said…can you believe it’s almost September?! Time for Coastal Cleanup Month! Last year we made a COVID-friendly event and by stretching a one-day event throughout the month, and we really enjoyed it! Therefore, this year we are bringing you Coastal Cleanup Month once again. Here at the NEC, we believe that there shouldn’t just be a few select days to focus on marine debris. We advocate for a year-round cleanup mentality. This is precisely why we love the idea of making the whole month of September focused on marine debris removal. To sign up for a cleanup that is hosted by someone near you or at your favorite spot, or to create your own cleanup crew, check out our sign-up form at

Speaking of debris, we want to thank everyone who participated in the NEC’s first ever Craft for the Coast, marine debris art contest. We had some truly beautiful marine debris art submissions, proving that there is more that we can do with debris than just toss it into the landfill. We will announce the winners and share submission photos with you next month. 

Thank you for doing your part to keep our beaches and neighborhoods debris-free!