Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Welcome

I'm a science journalist, living and working from my home in Pemberton, BC, Canada.

My academic background is in chemistry and oceanography, but I have written across all the physical sciences, from anthropology to quantum physics, with climate change and the environment in between. Click here for a list of my most recent work in Nature, Yale E360, Hakai magazine, the Pique newspaper, and SAPIENS.

Browse the site to find out more about my work as reporter, editor and teacher, and be in touch: nkjones(at)gmail.com

TED, 2019: The dangers of a noisy ocean
I post a selection of my favourite articles here as they are released, with some back story.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

How to deliver a covid vaccine to the world

Just as Pfizer announced a covid vaccine with great efficacy this week, a great piece I edited for Nature has been published about overcoming the hurdles to delivering such vaccines around the world.

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03134-2

The piece recommends 5 steps for the world to ensure equitable vaccine access. 

Particularly interesting is their point that many nations don't have ANY adult vaccination programmes at present (not every country routinely vaccinates for seasonal flu, for example, and in some nations the only vaccines that an adult might get is during pregnancy). For those nations, ramping up to deliver a covid vaccine will be particularly challenging; the authors recommend practising with the seasonal flu jab, which sounds like an excellent win-win strategy to me.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Marine Heatwaves Rising

I took a short dive into marine heatwaves--the phenomenon of extra-warm patches of water--and was worried by what I found. Read my feature for Yale e360 here:

https://e360.yale.edu/features/as-waters-warm-ocean-heatwaves-are-growing-more-severe

The condensed version:

1. A record-breaking Blob of warm water formed off the coast of North America this summer. It didn't get much press, perhaps eclipsed by wildfires and the pandemic. But it was (and still is) there!

2. There's an interesting debate about how to define marine heatwaves. Under the current definition, which is measured against an historic baseline, marine heatwaves are becoming more common (and indeed we will be in a "near permanent heatwave" by 2100) simply because the ocean is getting warmer overall... not because heatwaves in and of themselves are becoming more wavy, per se. Untangling the different ways of looking at heatwaves will be interesting!

3. No matter how you define heatwaves, the underlying problem of warming oceans is important. It shifts ecosystems for stationary creatures like kelps; moves fish into unfamiliar waters potentially causing fisheries conflicts; and, most interestingly, pushes species into each other to create novel ecosystem clashes. In 2016, warm water pushed whales closer to shore in search of anchovies, leading them right into a delayed crab fishery and a shipping lane. The result: whale entanglements and ship strikes.

Once again the solution is... slow the warming of the planet!! But also encourage dynamic fisheries management, so that new ecosystem clashes can be spotted, predicted and accounted for.



Thursday, October 8, 2020

How to write an essay

A big part of my work consists of editing essays and op-eds written by academics, for the science journal Nature, Sapiens (an awesome anthropology webzine), and the sustainability research umbrella institute Future Earth. Occasionally I have also been invited to teach sessions on writing commentaries for COMPASS, an organization that helps environmental scientists to step out of their ivory tower and "become agents of change".

This week I finally got the opportunity to publish a simple "how to" guide for essay writing. This piece is specifically aimed at anthropologists writing for Sapiens, but the vast majority of it applies to academics writing essays for any publication. I hope it's useful!

How to Write an Essay


Friday, September 18, 2020

Burning up

The skies outside my home near Whistler, BC, are blanketed in smoke from all the fires south of the border. With this constant reminder of forest fires hanging over our heads, I thought I would re-post this piece I co-wrote last year with Mike Flannigan, Director of Canada Wildfire at the University of Alberta, for the Our Future On Earth 2020 report... (to chase down the references, open the PDF linked here).


Burning Up

Fire on the planet today is different than it has
ever been before.16 Climate change is increasing
wildfire hazard over the majority of the planet,
while a growing human presence is creating more
sources of ignition and putting more infrastructure
in the path of flames. Policies of fire suppression
have made some forests more prone to larger
fires. And the intentional clearing of rainforests for
agriculture with fire is altering those landscapes
forever – and creating deadly smoke.

There isn’t necessarily more fire: wildfire activity
today is actually less than it was 100 years
ago. Nor is fire inherently bad. Fire is a natural
phenomenon in ecosystems from temperate
forests to grasslands; some pines require the
heat of a wildfire to melt their resin and open
their cones.

But fire becomes a concern when it burns
our homes, rapidly and dramatically shifts
ecosystems, or chokes the air we breathe. And it
is doing more of that. In 2019, a dramatic number
of fires in the Amazon – a region that saw little fire
before humans arrived – grabbed media headlines.
Indonesian skies turned red from intentionally
lit fires. Australia was ravaged by bush fires in
the midst of an unusual drought. And the Arctic
Circle saw unusually high occurrences of fire
from Siberia to Greenland. California’s 2018
Camp Fire was the costliest ever in the world
(at US$16.5 billion in total losses), and tragically
killed 85 people. Countries around the
Mediterranean Basin are under the stress
of catastrophic fires every summer.

Climate change has been identified as part of
the reason. Warmer air pulls moisture out of
vegetation – creating drier fuel – and feeds winds
to fan flames. Each degree of air warming is
thought to increase lightning strikes by about
12%.17 As mountain ice packs melt, there is less
water to feed landscapes over a long summer.
Globally, the length of the fire weather season
has increased by more than 18% between 1979
and 2013.18 The majority of the burned area
happens over a few short days of extreme fire
weather – extreme weather that is becoming
more common.

Climate models predict that many dry areas
will get drier. And while increasing rain in some
regions might counteract fire hazard, that isn’t
always the case: more rain in winter and/or early
spring, for example, can create more vegetation
prone to burning in a later, drier summer.
Global models predict that, overall, more
regions will see an increased fire probability
than a decreased one.19

Fire management is another part of the
explanation for our current vulnerability. A kind
of “war against fire” was initiated in the early
20th century, predominantly in the United States:
authorities viewed wildfire as a blight and adopted
policies to stamp it out early. Decades of intensive
fire suppression changed some landscapes
dramatically, altering traditional patchworks of
different ages and types of vegetation to a more
uniform forest prone to larger conflagrations.
As a result of both climate and policy, the annual
burned area in the western United States
increased more than fivefold from 1985 to 2015.

Over the longer term, and globally, land use
change has been the dominant determinant of
fire regimes.20 Fire has remained relatively steady
over the past 1,000 years or so, with a dramatic
uptick from the 19th–20th century as farmers
and settlers used fire to clear land during the
Industrial Revolution. The total area burned then
declined in the first decades of the 21st century,
thanks to less-fire-prone agriculture taking
the place of tropical savannas and grasslands.

Models predict that climate change – in particular
increasing temperatures – could become
a prevailing force determining fire activity
in the coming decades.

The amount of carbon dioxide released by wildfires
can be striking. The summer 2019 Siberian
wildfires, which burned an area larger than
Denmark, produced more CO2 than tens of millions
of cars do over a year. If a forest regrows, over the
long run a wildfire can be carbon neutral. But in
Siberia and elsewhere the burning of peat – banked
carbon that has been accumulating for thousands
of years – or the thawing of permafrost leads to
a net release of greenhouse gases, upsetting
the balance. The replacement of rainforests with
agriculture also hinders the planet’s ability to store
carbon long term.

Despite some media reports, razing the Amazon
does not affect the “planet’s lungs”: vegetation
is neutral when it comes to oxygen, absorbing as
much as it emits. What it does do is affect human
lungs, through the production of soot and smoke.
Fire emissions are responsible for more than
300,000 premature deaths annually from poor air
quality.21 There are plenty of reasons to preserve
rainforest ecosystems; saving people from air
pollution is one of them.

A more sustainable planetary system will still
have fire, and plenty of it. Humans need to learn
to live with that, and to better manage the risk –
in part by dialling back climate change.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Homeschool

I contributed a little to this NY Times package on homeschooling, profiling an old acquaintance from Pemberton we used to know as "super mom". It doesn't get to the heart of if/how we should be homeschooling now, in the coming months... but it's still an interesting read.

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/18/parenting/homeschool-families.html

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Dead Must Be Counted

I don't post all the articles I edit here on this blog, but this one is particularly worth mentioning... Anthropologist Gabriella Soto writes a compelling piece comparing the unknown death count from COVID-19 to the unknown deaths from undocumented migration into the United States, along with the uncounted deaths from systemic racism and police violence. Such miscounts suffer from politics, bureaucracy, and the complex trail of social factors that lie behind the biological causes of death. Worth a read!

https://www.sapiens.org/culture/migrant-death-counts/

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Radiocarbon calibration papers are out!

Obviously I know you have all been waiting for this :)

The geek within me is thrilled to see that the new calibrations for radiocarbon dating are now out. Calibration might sound excessively technical, but suffice it to say this pushes back reliable dating of things like bones, sea shells, etc to 55,000 years ago (5000 years further back than previously possible). 

https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/recalibration-is-the-biggest-shake-up-in-the-carbon-dating-world-for-seven-years/4012241.article

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Noise updates

The pandemic is making our noisy planet quieter for a while... and here's some more notes about that (not written by me).

This paper shows that mankind's vibrations, from traffic to football games, has declined by as much as 50% in some spots from January to May:

And this report looks at the net impacts of the pandemic, from a reduction in ocean noise to an increase in disposable single-use plastics, on marine life:



Tuesday, July 21, 2020

How my TED talk collided with the pandemic

It has been exactly a year since I stood on stage in Edinburgh to give my TED talk. That talk, on ocean noise pollution, was released on 11 March 2020--the day the WHO declared a pandemic. Back then, this seemed like unfortunate timing. But now the two topics have collided.

Read my essay on Medium.

Monday, June 15, 2020

How STRANGE are your animals?

Happy to have helped edit this fascinating piece on bias in animal behaviour studies, in Nature today:
https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-01751-5

Ten years ago, researchers noted that social psychology experiments don't really tell us how people behave; they tell us how Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) people behave, because the vast majority of these studies have been done on WEIRD people from US universities.

Now a different set of researchers are highlighting the same problems in animal studies: the animals used in many such studies are STRANGE (see the full piece to get the acronym spelled out). Honeybees learn better in the morning, so how well they do depends on when you test them; pheasants, monkeys, mice, fish and crows may behave differently depending on their genetics, how they were raised, and even their personality (bolder animals may select themselves for study by stepping into traps or into experimental zones).

So... animal researchers: check your animals for strangeness before publishing your results.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

SAVE THE PANGOLIN

My daughter (aged 7) wanted to write an article with me this morning about the poor pangolin. Here it is!


SAVE  THE  PANGOLIN
By Freya Miller and Nicola Jones
14 June 2020

The pangolin is a very endangered species. It lives in forests and rain forests and deserts. And in China. They are all endangered.

People poach pangolins for medicine even though it’s not proven medicine. It might not make you better. It might make you worse.

Good news! Last week, China removed pangolin scales from its list of traditional medicines.