Friday, May 12, 2006

Long Island Sound Might be in Better Shape this Summer. Or it Might be in Worse Shape. It's Hard to Tell. No, It's Impossible to Tell. We Think.

I’ve complained in the past that the quantity of coverage of environmental issues in general around here has been small and that the coverage of Long Island Sound’s water quality problems has been almost non-existent. So now the Greenwich Time finally gets around to writing about water quality and it makes me wonder if less coverage might be better.

See if you can figure out the point of this story.

To start, the reporter asserts:

Water quality in Long Island Sound could continue to improve if this summer follows the apparent cyclical trends that have been cataloged in the past. decade

But then, despite the cyclical trends (which he never refers to again), he hedges:

The factors that go into gauging water quality are complex enough that researchers find it difficult to make accurate predictions, said Matthew Lyman, an analyst with the state Department of Environmental Protection.

And he quotes Lyman as saying, quite reasonably, “…it's really impossible to predict…”

So in the first three paragraphs we learn that water quality could improve if the (mythical) cyclical trends continue but that it’s difficult to make accurate predictions. No wait, it’s not difficult, it’s impossible.

He continues:

Hypoxia levels during the past couple of summers have been relatively average …

So hypoxia in 2005 and 2004 was relatively average. Relatively average? Meaning what exactly? And then this:

The summers of 2001 and 2002 featured smaller areas of severe hypoxia, which came early but dissipated when it got unseasonably cold in August, Lyman said.

Except that the hypoxia maps (here and here), which Lyman compiles and which the reporter had easy access to via this webpage, don’t show any dissipation. In fact they show significant hypoxia in September 2001 and significant hypoxia in late august of 2002.

Next, we learn:

If cool temperatures persist, this summer could start with relatively good water quality conditions…

But (there’s always a but):

But some researchers, such as Alistair Dove, a professor at Stony Brook University in Long Island, predicted conditions will be worse this summer because of the mild temperatures in the winter.

“Some researchers” is a reporter’s euphemism for “I really only interviewed one person but other researchers probably agree with him and I need to make my story sound more authoritative.”

And finally, the conclusion:

Still, while a mild winter will likely give way to a warm summer, the weather in this area is known to change.

And the kicker quote:

"It's really a confluence of events that lead to these problems and make it real difficult to make robust predictions," Dove said.

So the Sound might be in good shape this summer or it might be in bad shape. It’s hard to tell. No, it’s impossible to tell.

Maybe instead of trying to predict the unpredictable, we should do something different: wait and see what happens, and then report it.


Blogger Sam said...

I had to laugh because I've been in the enviro business a long time and what you need is a crystal ball. You can also try Monte Carlo simulations using some software from

You know better ... there are three kinds of scientists working on the problem and each is radically underfunded, iften using free grad student help and some dwindling grant funds.

* The Inventory - this would be pounds or tons of emissions released, such as for nitrogen and phosphorus.

* The Monitoring - real time data is essential for developing time trends, currents, oxygen levels, and so forth.

* The Modelers - these folks take the inventory and the monitoring and based on those inputs, predict average, peak, duration, and area of influence (e.g., ppm-hours less than a given threshold). Those are where those maps come from - too bad they are based on small data sets.

* Imperfect, misreported, false, and delayed inventories
* Lack of density and calibration of real time monitoring stations
* Model imperfections because of the above two inputs.

So you see you need a unified group to work together rather than a few experts having almost no grad students with hew research grants. You call up a few in the know, as an enviro reporter, and they sound like "Duh?"

Perhaps that is because we don't have an integrated approach for handling the science in Long Island Sound, including New York, CT, and Rhode Island.

And then, even Dr. Gray is wrong about the hurricanes, so all predictions are couched in caveats and limitations. /Sam

4:07 PM  

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