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Living Lab Radio: June 11, 2018

Living Lab Radio: Why You Should Try Wine From Less Common Grapes

Family finds a baby rabbit while harvesting grapes in Queensland, Australia (1949)
Kevin Begos suggests trying wine from lesser-known grapes.
State Library of Queensland
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Living Lab Radio: June 11, 2018

Tidal Flooding Outlook: The Moon Plays a Role
Massachusetts saw high tide flooding in dramatic style up and down the coastline during storms in January and March. In total, Boston saw a record-breaking 22 days of high tide flooding over the course of the past year, according to a new report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The lead author of the report, William Sweet, says the frequency of coastal flooding has doubled, and it’s a clear result of climate change.

“Due to sea level rise, the average trend in high tide flood frequency is now more than fifty percent higher than it was 20 years ago, and 100 percent higher than it was 30 years ago,” Sweet said.

In addition to rising sea level, New England faces a higher risk of tidal flooding due to winter storms. But another new analysis reveals that the height of our high tides is on an 18-year cycle.

We’ve just past the peak of one of these cycles, which helps explain some of the record-breaking high tides we’ve observed recently. It also means we may have a slight reprieve from accelerating sea level rise over the next decade – giving us a window to prepare for extra high tides in the 2030s.

Stefan Talke, an Assistant Professor at Portland State University, is the lead author of a new analysis of tide gauge data from Boston Harbor that reveals the 18-year tide cycle. He says that there’s about a 6-inch sea level increase due to this 18-year change in the cycle of the moon, and at its peak, it impacts the tide quite a bit. It starts the water at a higher baseline and creates more extreme flooding.

Add to that the fact that sea level has risen about a foot over the past century, and you’ve got potential for even more flooding in the future. But again, this higher baseline that we saw in 2018 is happening due to the 18-year cycle, so the coastline will at least be in a better starting point for the next 18 years.

Still, it’s important to realize that what we saw this year is quite significant. The winter storms that flooded the coast this year were only slightly less than some historically significant ones, like the Blizzard of 1978, the Minot's Ledge Storm in April 1851, and the Christmas Storm of 1909. The Blizzard of 1978 was near the peak of the cycle, the April 1851 storm was near the peak of the cycle as well, as was the 1909 Christmas storm. So although extreme flooding is always a potential, it’s worse when we're at the peak of that moon-driven cycle.

Why You Should Try Wine From Less Popular Grapes
Walk into a wine shop today and you’ll likely find hundreds of brands and vintages, but most of them will be made from a handful of grape varieties grown in a handful of wine-making hot spots, like France, Italy, California, and Australia.

One might think that's because those are the best wine grapes and the best places to grow them, but wine has been grown and made in a wide range of places for thousands of years.

There’s an emerging movement to preserve and recover local grape varieties and wine-making traditions that have been lost or even stamped out over the past few centuries. Kevin Begos explores the twisting evolution of grapes and wine in his new book Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor and the Search for the Origins of Wine.

"People have been tweaking grapes for 8,000 years," he said, citing an artifact found in the Republic of Georgia that dates back to that time. A small wine making facility was discovered in a cave in Armenia that dates to 6,000 years ago.

Wild grapes had hardly any fruit on them, and were mostly pits. So people started domesticating them and picking out the better tasting berries. The type of berry matters, but when it comes to making wine, but so do other factors: where it’s grown, how the winemaker treats it, and what yeast is used.

“Yeast is like a bass player in a rock band," Begos said. "It's absolutely vital but not at the front of the stage."

There are about 1,400 types of wine grapes but most of them aren’t widely used. In fact, it’s basically just a handful of grapes that are the big producers. That could be a problem as grapes become more and more inbred and more susceptible to disease.

“Some leading grape scientists say that by just focusing on five or six French grape varieties we’ve actually stopped those from evolving because they’re propagated by cutting and not seeds,” Begos said. “We’re loving them to death."

There is a movement to change that, however. People are starting to seek out and preserve local varieties that their grandparents may have grown.

“I think it’s the equivalent of the slow food movement finally coming to the wine world,” Begos said. "[The old grapes] often make very good wines -- wines that even critics recognize as very good."

How to Help Fireflies
If you go into the backyard after dusk this time of year, you may get treated to the greenish yellow flashes of the firefly. But what do the flashes mean?

"We are looking at the silent love songs of male fireflies," explained Sara Lewis, Professor of Evolutionary and Behavioral Ecology at Tufts University.

Lewis has written a new book called Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies.

If you think that there are fewer fireflies than there used to be, you're right. Both habitat loss and light pollution have decreased the number of fireflies, Lewis explained. She suggests letting your lawn grow longer to help firefly larvae survive. This allows the soil to retain more moisture, which the baby "glow worms" need to grow.

"Let some leaf litter accumulate and some decaying logs," she said. "That's the kind of place that firefly larvae like to hang out."

Lewis also recommends joining Firefly Watch, a citizen science project which allows you to join a network of volunteers by observing your own backyard. This helps scientists map fireflies and allows citizens to learn more about these nifty glowing bugs.

These Summer Reads Have Scientists At Their Heart
Summer is nearly here and it's time to pack your beach reading. We're getting a little help from Jenny Rohn, a cell biologist at University College London, founder of the science advocacy group Science is Vital, editor of LabLit.com, and a novelist in her own right.

Here is her selection of fun summer novels in which scientists are the main characters:

First we start with Jenny's new book that’s called Cat Zero. It’s a tale set in present-day England about an up-and-coming female scientist who has to deal with sexual harassment, but does so with a sense of humor. Her topic of research is an obscure cat virus and when cats start dropping dead, she gets thrown into the center of a mystery story and strange virus. It’s a detective story, a romance, and a thriller all in one, and at the heart of the novel it has some great science about viruses and why you should never underestimate them.

Here are some of Jenny Rohn’s other recommendations:

Chemistry by Weike Wang is set in present-day Boston. It’s about a graduate student who’s not coping well with the pressures of graduate school. The main character ends up dropping out of her PhD program and is dealing with mental health issues. Rohn admits it sounds like a downer, but it’s hilariously funny. It tackles issues within science, but also science itself.

The Devil’s Garden by Edward Docx is set in the Amazonian jungle. It’s “very summery” and “pure escapism,” according to Rohn. It’s about ant scientists in a field station in the middle of the jungle, and what’s going on all around them: corrupt militia, cocaine runners, exploitive oil companies and poor indigenous tribes stuck in the middle. The title refers to a scientific phenomenon -- a type of ant in the jungle that devours every single species of plant except the one they like to nest in. Their eating habits create giant circles in the jungle. It’s a “thriller, fun and exciting,” Rohn said.

The Night of the Mi’raj by Zoe Ferraris is set in Saudi Arabia, where the author spent a lot of time. The main character is a woman who is young and ambitious, and who wants to be a forensic scientist, but she’s frustrated by the challenges facing women in Saudi Arabia, and specifically her field of work. It’s a murder mystery, but has an added, eye-opening element of the hidden world of Saudi Arabia.

God is an Astronaut by Alyson Foster is a “love story gone wrong,” Rohn said. The main character is Jess, who’s a botanist in Michigan. She’s pining away for a colleague who moved away, but Jess is married. The entire novel is a series of emails to the colleague, Arthur, so you don’t get other people’s perspectives. Also present in the novel is the fact that she keeps digging a hole in her back garden for a greenhouse but she never finishes it. Rohn didn’t want to spoil it, but “it all culminates with her going into space,” she said.

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty is an example of a novel about a scientist that has nothing to do with science. It’s a typical thriller, a courtroom procedural that became quite popular in the United Kingdom. The main character is a scientist on trial for murder. She has a great life and one day she encounters a man and has an affair with him. From there “It spirals downward,” Rohn said.

Rohn's last recommendation is a “real beach read.” In Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier the main character is a Victorian fossil-hunter who spent a lot of time leading famous men around and showing them where to find fossils. The male scientists get all the credit and the woman who helps them doesn't get to write any papers herself. It’s a novelized biography, Rohn said. It’s one of several examples of historical "LabLit" fiction that is about a real-life person but has a lot of parts that are made up. For instance, there’s a romance in the story that didn’t actually happen.

For more recommendations, you can check out lab-lit dot com.

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