Friday, 18 November 2011

Why did the lemming cross the road?

Aww, cute. Apparently it's stuffed.
You might be surprised that some of the most entertaining press releases I get come from the Institute of Physics. I love them dearly, but just hearing the name 'Institute of Physics' you might think they're a bit po-faced. The reality is quite different, as reflected in the latest release, a doozy entitled Could lemmings be involved in regulating our climate?

According to a paper published in the IoP's Environmental Research Letters, the greening of the Arctic may not be down to global warming alone. Although lemmings eat grass and sedge, when they are present in an area these plants actually increase their hold. There are a number of suggestions why, but the important point is that a sudden burst of extra green cover isn't necessarily a sign of climate change if there are lemmings present.

I think this is quite fun, though they could have done better. The opening paragraph of the press release says:
The mention of lemmings usually evokes images of small rodents throwing themselves off the top of cliffs in acts of mass suicide; however, their reputations might no longer be determined by hearsay as a new report suggests they could be having an intricate effect on the Earth's climate.
There's a missed opportunity to point out that the throwing themselves off cliffs bit is generally considered to be an invention of a Walt Disney nature film where they were encouraged to do so to dramatic effect, rather than 'hearsay.'

You may be concerned that the story isn't about lemmings regulating the climate (I just love the idea of a horde of lemmings in a vast control room, pulling levers to control the Earth's climate) in some Gaia-like fashion. Rather it appears to be saying that a potential flag for climate change may be being corrupted by lemmings - but there is a section a bit later on that points out that if they increase the greenery they may be changing that area's ability to be a carbon sink, hence influencing climate change, though it's a bit tenuous.

Even so, I think we should pat the IoP on the back for the way lemmings have successfully drawn attention to what otherwise could have been a rather dull story.

P.S. Anyone else remember the computer game Lemmings? I loved it!


Photograph from Wikipedia
Post a Comment