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Archive for February, 2011

What the Arctic may look like by the end of this century

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Imagine the vast, empty tundra in Alaska and Canada giving way to trees, shrubs and plants typical of more southerly climates. Imagine similar changes in large parts of Eastern Europe, northern Asia and Scandinavia, as needle-leaf and broadleaf forests push northward into areas once unable to support them. Imagine part of Greenland’s ice cover, once thought permanent, receding and leaving new tundra in its wake.

Those changes are part of a reorganization of Arctic climates anticipated to occur by the end of the 21st century, as projected by a team of University of Nebraska-Lincoln and South Korean climatologists.

In an article published in the scientific journal Climate Dynamics, the research team analyzed 16 global climate models from 1950 to 2099 and combined it with more than 100 years of observational data to evaluate what climate change might mean to the Arctic’s sensitive ecosystems by the dawn of the 22nd century.

The study is one of the first to apply a specific climate classification system to a comprehensive examination of climate changes throughout the Arctic by using both observations and a collection of projected future climate changes, said Song Feng, research assistant professor in UNL’s School of Natural Resources and the study’s lead author.

Based on the climate projections, the new study shows that the areas of the Arctic now dominated by polar and sub-polar climate types will decline and will be replaced by more temperate climates – changes that could affect a quarter to nearly half of the Arctic, depending on future greenhouse gas emission scenarios, by the year 2099.

Changes to Arctic vegetation will naturally follow shifts in the region’s climates: Tundra coverage would shrink by 33 to 44 percent by the end of the century, while temperate climate types that support coniferous forests and needle-leaf trees would push northward into the breach, the study shows.

“The expansion of forest may amplify global warming, because the newly forested areas can reduce the surface reflectivity, thereby further warming the Arctic,” Feng said. “The shrinkage of tundra and expansion of forest may also impact the habitat for wildlife and local residents.”

Also according to the study:

* By the end of the century, the annual average surface temperature in Arctic regions is projected to increase by 5.6 to 9.5 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the greenhouse gas emission scenarios.

* The warming, however, is not evenly distributed across the Arctic. The strongest warming in the winter (by 13 degrees Fahrenheit) will occur along the Arctic coast regions, with moderate warming (by 4 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit) along the North Atlantic rim.

* The projected redistributions of climate types differ regionally; in northern Europe and Alaska, the warming may cause more rapid expansion of temperate climate types than in other places.

* Tundra in Alaska and northern Canada would be reduced and replaced by boreal forests and shrubs by 2059. Within another 40 years, the tundra would be restricted to the northern coast and islands of the Arctic Ocean.

* The melting of snow and ice in Greenland following the warming will reduce the permanent ice cover, giving its territory up to tundra.

“The response of vegetation usually lags changes in climate. The plants don’t have legs, so it takes time for plant seed dispersal, germination and establishment of seedlings,” Feng said. Still, the shrub density in tundra regions has seen a rapid increase on decadal and shorter time scales, while the boreal forest expansion has seen a much slower response on century time scales.

Also, increasing drought conditions may help offset any potential benefits of warmer temperatures and reduce the overall vegetation growth in the Arctic regions, Feng said.

Non-climate factors – human activity, land use changes, permafrost thawing, pest outbreaks and wildfires, for example – may also locally affect the response of vegetation to temperature warming in the Arctic.

In addition to Feng, researchers on the project included climatologists Qi Hu and Robert Oglesby of UNL; Su-Jong Jeong and Chang-Hoi Ho of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Seoul National University; and Baek-Min Kim of the Korean Polar Research Institute in Incheon.

Local news sometimes = national news

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

Often, people pass on telling me about a campus story because they feel as if the story is too parochial, or too Nebraska-centric to make national news. There’s something inherently Nebraskan about that attitude — aw, gosh, I’m not doing anything all that special — when actually, yes, they are doing unique, nationally relevant work.

Sometimes a local story is just a local story — but more often than not, where there’s a will there’s a way in elevating local news to a national platform. Here are a couple of examples of recent efforts to take locally based stories and make them national news.

First, let’s look at some research done by UNL sociologist Lisa Kort-Butler. Her recent study, “Watching The Detectives: Crime Programming, Fear of Crme and Attitudes About the Criminal Justice System,” was a look at how Nebraskans felt about a range of criminal justice issues and how that related to the types of television shows they watched. The dataset that Kort-Butler used to come to her findings was NASIS — the Nebraska Annual Social Indicators Survey, through UNL’s Bureau of Sociological Research. NASIS asks Cornhusker State residents a range of questions every year, and that data is used by a number of UNL sociologists in their area of expertise.

We had decent success getting the story onto some national platforms; in addition to places like Glamour and LA Weekly, it ended up landing on Yahoo! News and MSNBC as well. This happened, in part, because we framed it as a study that examined the opinions of hundreds of adults, not hundreds of Nebraskans. Then we let the study’s findings do the rest. Those who read Kort-Butler’s findings found them interesting enough that they felt they spoke for the national population as a whole, not just some folks in the middle of the North American land mass (Notice that none of the headlines say “Nebraskans who fear crime often watch crime documentaries,” or “Here’s what Nebraska residents’ TV watching habits say about their fear of crime”). The lesson here is: A local story properly framed can become a national story very easily.

Another recent example: The Bureau of Business Research’s latest economic forecast for the state of Nebraska. This was, of course, going to be a well-read story covered closely by the local media. The day after we distributed a news release on the group’s forecast, the story appeared on the front pages of both the Omaha World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star. It also was picked up by the Omaha bureau of the Associated Press, which served it up for national audiences later that day. It’s an example of a local story that latches onto a national meta-story — in this case, the economy — and found its way into national circulation across dozens of media outlets around the country.

So, if you’ve got a project, some research or a story idea that might on the surface look to only be of local interest, don’t hesitate to think in broader terms. It might be a national news story waiting to trickle outside the state’s borders.

Democracy in Egypt: ‘It’s not up to us to direct or control’

Friday, February 11th, 2011

Hosni Mubarak resigned his post as president of Egypt on Friday following nearly three weeks of public protest, sending waves of jubilation throughout the country, while the world watched with caution and worry. What happens next in the key transcontinental, predominantly Muslim nation will have geopolitical ramifications for years to come. The question here at home is, What can — and what should — the United States do as this process unfolds?

Patrice McMahon, UNL associate professor of political science, studies democratization and civil society around the world. In a recent interview, McMahon said research into such movements can offer some insights on how the United States can best support peace and stability in Egypt and across the Middle East. Specifically, there are three things that the United States can do, she said.

First, it’s time to walk away from President Mubarak. We can no longer support and fund dictators,” she said. “A step away from Mubarak is a step toward the people of Egypt and a step toward the people of the Middle East.”

Second, the United States should take its democracy-promotion rhetoric and turn it into action and economic assistance. One-third of Egyptians are under 15, and two-thirds are under 30. So the problem with this is that 90 percent of the country’s unemployed is under 30. Two-thirds of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day — while most of protesters have political ambitions, most are simply poor and frustrated.”

Third, the United States should neither exaggerate its influence in the Middle East nor should it try to direct efforts there. It’s time for the United States to reach out to its allies to help support the efforts in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.

Democracy is a difficult business, but it’s up to the people of of Egypt and the people of the Middle East to do this. We can support them in their efforts, but it’s not up to us to direct or control.”

See McMahon discuss Egypt on N The Know, UNL’s video series that sits at the intersection of faculty expertise and current events. Contact McMahon at (402)472-3235 or

What your TV habits may say about your fear of crime

Monday, February 7th, 2011

What’s your favorite prime-time crime show? Do you enjoy the fictional world of “CSI” or “Law & Order,” or do you find real-life tales like “The First 48” or “Dateline” more engrossing? Your answers to those questions may say a lot about your fears and attitudes about crime, a new study finds.

University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologists surveyed hundreds of adults about how often they watched various kinds of crime TV – made-up dramas, documentary-style “real crime” programs, and local and national news. They found that how each type of program depicts crime was a factor in viewers’ opinions on everything from their fear of crime to their confidence in the justice system to their support of the death penalty.

“The results support the idea that program type really does matter when it comes to understanding people’s fear of crime and their attitudes about criminal justice,” said Lisa Kort-Butler, UNL assistant professor of sociology and the study’s lead author. “The audience appears to negatively evaluate the criminal justice system while also supporting its most punitive policy – which this study suggests is due to the types of shows people watch.”

Among the study’s findings:

* The more frequently people watched non-fiction crime documentaries like “The First 48” or “Dateline,” the more fearful they were of becoming a crime victim. They also were less supportive of and less confident in the criminal justice system and said they believed the national crime rate was climbing.

* Frequent viewers of fictional crime dramas were not affected by the programming to believe they would become crime victims, and their support of and confidence in the criminal justice system also was unaffected by their viewing habits. Interestingly, though, the more frequently they watched crime dramas, the more certain they were in their support of the death penalty.

* The more often people watched crime coverage on the local news, the more they believed that the local crime rate was increasing.

Why does watching different strains of crime TV result in such different feelings? While both crime dramas and non-fiction crime programs focus on serious and usually violent crimes, Kort-Butler said, the non-fiction programs offer more realism and may have more psychological impact than fictional dramas.

Non-fiction shows, she said, add more context than dramas – interviews with victims, families and friends can be used to point out how crime could happen to anyone and play on fear for dramatic impact. They also convey a sense of proximity: Fictional crime dramas are often set in big cities, but non-fiction documentary shows are often set in smaller cities or suburbia.

Non-fiction documentary shows also often delve into a criminal’s personal history to explain his or her behavior and highlight, for dramatic purposes, his or her ability to evade detection, indirectly casting doubt on law enforcers’ competence, Kort-Butler said.

“This narrative structure is nothing new to storytelling about crime, but it may lead to a heightened fear among viewers because it seems like such a crime could happen to them or their loved ones,” she said. “Because the criminal is often portrayed as one step ahead of the law, viewers may be less confident in the authorities’ ability to stop the crime before it’s too late.”

Crime dramas, meanwhile, are more straightforward, portraying offenders as evil and the criminal justice system as a moral authority, assuring that cops and prosecutors will protect the public and punish criminals.

“To the extent that crime dramas focus on the most serious crimes and criminals getting their just desserts, dramas may serve to reinforce viewers’ support for the death penalty,” Kort-Butler said.

The study, which appears in the current edition of The Sociological Quarterly, was authored by UNL’s Kort-Butler and Kelley Sittner Hartshorn.