Wetland carbon budgets

Historically, marshes, bogs, swamps and other soggy environments have been Earth’s major source of atmospheric methane, a heat-trapping gas 25 more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Today, cattle and rice cultivation are the primary sources of the gas, and the planet is so messed up that people are looking at wetlands in terms of their carbon-credit value.

I am so happy to just focus on the beauty of our natural world, and their value as habitat and home to birds and other animals, and let others do the carbon math.

Wetland carbon budgets.

Kid Do Your Math

Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos. Got the free download.

Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos.

My niece, 13, is creative, original and engaging. She is also flunking math (by one point) and will be repeating 7th grade if she doesn’t fix this.

Lots of kids don’t like math, I know, but it’s killing me because …  because … because … there are so many reasons, but I wasn’t expecting to find one expounded upon in gory detail by an economics professor in the current issue of the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This paper titled “Numerical ability predicts mortgage default” hits at my greatest fear for my niece (and all those out there like her) that kids who don’t master the basics early pay a high price the rest of their life.

The study, co-authored by Lorenz Goette with the University of Lausanne, shows (using statistics – that’s math, too) that people who are bad at math are at higher risk of defaulting on a home mortgage.

It’s almost obvious that this would be true but that scientists can see it in the data rigorously with all the “noise” of real life in there is striking.

Math books from another life. Credit: C. Johnson

Math books from another life. Credit: C. Johnson

Losing a job, the terms of the mortgage and strategic defaults were not the main “explainers” of the larger pattern observed, the scientists found. The big picture, what could best explain mortgage defaults for 339 subprime borrowers who took out loans in 2006 and 2007, was “poor numerical ability” (aka being bad at math).

I asked Lorenz what he would tell a 13-year-old about the dreaded subject and its importance, based on his research.

“Basic math is important to get many decisions right in life,” he said. “Keeping a budget, planning for long-term goals like going on a trip that you were looking forward, buying a house, etc.”

A mortgage calculator.

Math is so handy.

“Getting the math wrong can have really bad consequences,” he said. “If you get small calculations in your budget wrong every day, this can add up to a big mistake in the long-run and have very bad consequences. This is, in my view, what we see in our data: Home owners with poor math skills may lose control over their budget, run out of money and end up in a situation in which they are unable to make their mortgage payments. Our results show that they are at a much higher risk to default.”

“Of course, defaulting on your mortgage is a conscious decision and hence strategic at some level,” he said. “However, when you look at the data (as he and colleagues did in another paper in the NBER Macro Annual), it doesn’t look like individuals simply walk away from their homes in cold blood.”

We could argue all day about the policies that may or may not have contributed to the housing bubble, and the slick mortgage brokers and cheerful real estate agents who never get combat fatigue: “It’s always a good time to buy a house,” which is a lie if you can’t afford the house. But, why bother with the lame blame-game when it’s so much easier to learn basic math and become your own best ally.

If you don’t want to do math for math’s sake, be a warrior. Think of math as sword and shield to carry you forward in life – to battle back  the sharks who will always be out there.

There was a famous mathematician (I forget his name) who said that the lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math. So are mortgages you can’t afford. So is credit card debt.

Being at statistically higher risk of doing a lot of dumb things your entire adult life seems like an awfully high price to pay for not knuckling under NOW and doing your math homework.

I am sorry kid – you need to do your math and do it well. No excuses.

I will die if you become a statistic.


Brown pelicans on the OB Pier

Brown pelicans on the OB Pier

Juvenile brown pelicans – you can tell they are young by how brown they are. Adults have white and yellow heads. Brown pelicans were pushed to the brink of extinction by DDT (which thins their egg shells) and have recovered nicely since the pesticide was banned. Credit: S. Johnson

Saving seabirds

An adult incubates its eggs. Credit: D. Robinette

An adult CA least tern incubates its eggs. Credit: D. Robinette

California least terns are small seabirds that make their nests in the sand, at beaches and tidal flats. Their eggs are sand-colored and their chicks are perfectly adorable, and totally vulnerable on the ground at the beach. It’s no wonder the birds are endangered: the species basically tries to raise its chicks on our favorite playground.

Least tern chick. Credit: D. Robinette.

Least tern chick. Credit: D. Robinette.

If you’ve seen roped off areas at beaches – Tijuana River Estuary, for example – it’s often to protect these vulnerable ground nesters, and it’s working, amazingly, even with more than 25 million of us in coastal counties of California. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California least tern numbers have jumped more than 10-fold since the bird’s were listed in 1973. Nature has such amazing resilience sometimes.

Least tern parent and chick. Credit: D. Robinette

Least tern parent and chick. Credit: D. Robinette

Not every year, though, brings success to their recovery, and last year most of the chicks’ died.  Either disease or predation could theoretically explain the chicks’ high mortality rates, but that is probably not what happened, a scientist says.

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – The Purisima Point Least Tern Management Team created a fence line to protect the California Least Tern, an endangered species.  Credit: Airman 1st Class Angelina Drake/U.S. Air Force

The fence at the Vandenberg Air Force Base protects California least terns from human disturbance. Credit: Airman 1st Class Angelina Drake/U.S. Air Force

Dan Robinettte, an ornithologist at Point Blue Conservation Science, who has been collecting fecal pellets at the bird’s breeding colonies, is pretty sure that the chicks died of starvation or malnutrition. The adult birds, who deliver small fish one by one to their young, could not find enough 1-year-old Northern anchovy and young-of-the-year rockfishes to keep their chicks’ bellies full.

This does not mean we have overfished these fish species. Their abundances are linked to ocean cycles, as well as to fishing pressure. But, it is good reminder of how many animals, including seabirds, rely on the small fishes of the sea and why ecosystem-based management is important.

Read “Study: Seabird chick survival linked to diet.”


Friends in the neighborhood

Friends in the neighborhood

A snowy egret on the Ocean Beach pier. Credit: S. Johnson

California’s saltiest coastal creek

Going Native

Native coastal flowers. Credit: C. Johnson

Native coastal flowers. Credit: C. Johnson

Native coastal succulent.

Native coastal succulent. Credit: C. Johnson

People may say that “all the pretty plants” in Southern California are from somewhere else – that San Diego is a desert and beautiful because we water it. It’s not true. There are lots of beautiful, water-friendly native plants, and by planting them in your yard you can help preserve and protect our open spaces.

In fact, the line between landscaping and habitat restoration is becoming blurred as nurseries are now selling locally native species. By planting the right assemblages of species, you can literally recreate  valuable wildlife habitat in your yard. Granted the “wildlife” may be small – pollinators and butterflies, for example – but these animals are important to the whole ecosystem.

Yet another trend that is catching on is ocean-friendly gardening. The idea is simple: you design landscapes that capture and percolate runoff, instead of letting it flow straight into our beautiful ocean. The gardens are a favorite of mine because they often use lots of zen-garden-like rocks and have a minimalist feel.

Ocean-friendly gardening at the new NOAA fisheries science center in La Jolla. Credit: C. Johnson

Ocean-friendly gardening at the new NOAA fisheries science center in La Jolla. Credit: C. Johnson

If the ecological reasons for going native don’t resonate. There are yet other economic ones, like, I recently got my first water bill in a new home.  That lawn has got to go!

To learn more about the benefits of native plants and why invasive plant species are thwarting efforts to preserve and protect our last wild spaces, check out: Plant this …  not that! and Top 10 Native Plants in San Diego.

Daily Prompt: Bookworm

Daily Prompt: Bookworm.

Book Review: The Power of Habit

Maybe we all have more in common with reptiles than we all ever thought. Maybe most of what we do in life is auto-piloted by some oblong extension of the spinal cord that we share in common with old cold-blooded friends.

If Charles Duhigg’s book the Power of Habit is accurate – and it seems to be well referenced – our brain tries to optimize around the higher cognition that Homo sapien is so proud. It’s as if our biology recognizes what is new in our family tree and doesn’t consider it every-day wear. It saves the fancy brain wave functions for special occasions only.

I exaggerate, but not that much. The Power of Habit  has truly opened my eyes to how much of my life (and likely yours, too) is spent doing things without really thinking about what I am doing.  Like seals learning tricks, we put beach balls on our noses’ because we want fish.

Perhaps my favorite lesson from the book is that we can’t really fight our habits with discipline and will-power. The author explains why this is true and how people with bad habits – smoking, gambling and drinking, for example – break them. It’s not what you (or I) think and that is another reason I recommend this book.  You will feel better about yourself and understand why it’s so hard to change the things you wish you could.