January 18 – Children Of The Sun

Today’s factismal: If you were born after 1977, you’ve never known a year that was cooler than average.

The climate numbers for 2016 are in and they are about what everyone expected; for the third year in a row, a new global temperature record was set. That makes 2016 the 40th year in a row that was warmer than average. Put another way, if you were born after 1977, the world has always been abnormally hot. Now part of those high temperatures in 2016 came from a lingering El Niño in the Pacific ocean, but El Niño comes and goes; it doesn’t last 40 years. And part of the high temperatures in 2016 came from a drop in volcanic activity which tends to lower temperature – but there have been some large eruptions in the past four decades. So why does the temperature keep going up?

The average global temperature has risen quite a bit in the past 136 years (Data courtesy NDC)

The average global temperature has risen quite a bit in the past 136 years; the blue line is the 20th century average global temperature
(Data courtesy NDC)

So why are we getting warmer? It is no secret; as a matter of fact, this very thing was predicted back in 1896 based on a discovery made in 1859. It is the CO2 that we are adding to the atmosphere. CO2 happens to block some of the “heat radiation” given off by the Earth. This is reabsorbed by the atmosphere, raising its temperature slightly. (Think of it as being like the interest given to you by a bank. You give them a dollar and every year they give you four cents more as interest. Over time, that interest builds up and so does your bank account.) Of course, lots of other factors come into play when you are talking about a planet , so the temperature change isn’t instantaneous and it has some wiggles in it. But overall, the pattern is clear: increasing CO2 increases temperature and changes climate.

The change from the 20th century average temperature. Blues are colder than average; oranges and reads are warmer than average. (Image courtesy NOAA)

The change from the 20th century average temperature. Blues are colder than average; oranges and reads are warmer than average.
(Image courtesy NOAA)

As a citizen scientist, there are two sets of things you can do. The first is to reduce the amount of energy you use; a nice benefit of this is that you also save money. For example, making sure that your tires are properly inflated will save you the equivalent of $0.10 per gallon and save the US the equivalent of 1.2 billion gallons of oil. Adding a layer of insulation to your water heater (like that blanket on your bed) will save you about $30 per year and save the US another 500 million gallons of oil. There are plenty of other way you can save money while saving the planet. But if you still want to do more, why not help record the changes that global warming is bringing to your neighborhood? Join iSeeChange and help them monitor how temperatures, weather, and other things are changing. To learn more, head to:
http://thealmanac.org/getinvolved.php

January 6 – Crack Of Doom

Today’s factismal: When the iceberg at the Larsen C Ice Shelf breaks off, it won’t directly raise sea levels.

By now, you have probably seen the news reports. There is an iceberg about the size of Delaware that is getting ready to break off of the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica.  Because the iceberg is already floating in the water, when it breaks off, it won’t raise the sea level. But it is still important because the same thing has already happened at Larsen B in 2002 and Larsen A in 1995 which tells us what will happen next – nothing good.

Glacier dynamics made simple

Glacier dynamics made simple

Ice shelves like Larsen C form when glaciers reach the sea and spread out. And glaciers form when snow piles up in the mountains and compresses into ice under its own weight. This compression creates ice so pure that it turns blue! The ice then slowly creeps downhill, like fudge sliding down the side of a scoop of ice cream. The ice actually moves in several layers, like sheets of paper sliding over each other; if you look at the top of a glacier, you can often see these layers in the lines of rocks that have fallen onto the ice. Once a glacier meets a deep enough body of water, it starts to float. The stress at the end of the glacier causes pieces to break off; this is called “calving” and the pieces are called “icebergs”. These bergs can range in size from smaller than a doghouse to larger than the state of Rhode Island! And when the bergs break off, another part of the glacier flows downhill to replace it, raising sea level just a little.

Larsen B breaks up after the loss of a large ice berg

Larsen B breaks up after the loss of a large ice berg
(Image courtesy NASA)

Right now, the Larsen C ice shelf is holding back the glaciers that are uphill. But when it breaks apart like Larsen B and Larsen A did, it will uncork enough ice to raise the sea level around the world by nearly a foot! If that doesn’t sound so bad, remember that the total sea level rise since 1870 was just seven inches. Of course, this won’t happen overnight; instead, it will take perhaps as much as twenty years. But while the sea level rise will be slow, it will also be unstoppable. Places such as New Orleans, New York City, and the Netherlands will all be challenged by rising sea levels.

Ice on the west side of Antarctica, where it is being lost in record amounts (My camera)

Ice on the west side of Antarctica, where it is being lost in record amounts
(My camera)

Today climatologists are working to puzzle out the climate changes that are caused by people (anthropogenic climate change) from those caused by other things (changes in the amount of sunlight, changes in the cloud cover, etc.). If you would like to help in this effort, then why not join Old Weather? You’ll read logs from sailing captains and help identify weather.
https://www.oldweather.org/

September 21 – The Heat Is On

Today’s factismal: This summer was the warmest since we started keeping records in 1880. The previous record-holder was last summer.

If you think that it was just too darn hot outside this summer, you aren’t alone. Meteorologically speaking, this summer (June, July, and August) was the warmest that we’ve ever recorded. Even more interesting is that the previous record holder was last summer. And even more interesting than that is that we’ve had fifteen months in a row of record warm temperatures, globally speaking. And even more interesting than that is the last time we had a global average temperature that was below average was back in December of 1984 – 32 years ago! And the last time we had a year that was cooler than average was in 1976 – 40 years ago!

The average global temperature has risen quite a bit in the past 136 years (Data courtesy NDC)

The average global temperature has risen quite a bit in the past 136 years; the blue line is the 20th century average global temperature
(Data courtesy NDC)

So why are we getting warmer? It is no secret; as a matter of fact, this very thing was predicted back in 1896 based on a discovery made in 1859. It is the CO2 that we are adding to the atmosphere. CO2 happens to block some of the “heat radiation” given off by the Earth. This is reabsorbed by the atmosphere, raising its temperature slightly. (Think of it as being like the interest given to you by a bank. You give them a dollar and every year they give you four cents more as interest. Over time, that interest builds up and so does your bank account.) Of course, lots of other factors come into play when you are talking about a planet , so the temperature change isn’t instantaneous and it has some wiggles in it. But overall, the pattern is clear: increasing CO2 increases temperature and changes climate.

The change from the 20th century average temperature. Blues are colder than average; oranges and reads are warmer than average. (Image courtesy NOAA)

The change from the 20th century average temperature. Blues are colder than average; oranges and reads are warmer than average.
(Image courtesy NOAA)

As a citizen scientist, there are two sets of things you can do. The first is to reduce the amount of energy you use; a nice benefit of this is that you also save money. For example, making sure that your tires are properly inflated will save you the equivalent of $0.10 per gallon and save the US the equivalent of 1.2 billion gallons of oil. Adding a layer of insulation to your water heater (like that blanket on your bed) will save you about $30 per year and save the US another 500 million gallons of oil. There are plenty of other way you can save money while saving the planet. But if you still want to do more, why not help record the changes that global warming is bringing to your neighborhood? Join the Citizen Weather Observer Program and help them monitor how temperatures, weather, and other things are changing. To learn more, head to:
http://www.wxqa.com/

 

August 26 – Well, Blow Me Down

Today’s factismal: The “Year Without A Summer” was not caused by the eruption of Krakatoa.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – way back when, there was a massive volcanic eruption that was so loud it was heard in Australia and put so much ash into the air that everything froze and we had a year without a summer. Great story, right? The only problem is that it isn’t; instead, it is two great stories.

The eruption of Mt Saint Helens was actually fairly small as such things go (Image courtesy USGS)

The eruption of Mt Saint Helens was actually fairly small as such things go
(Image courtesy USGS)

The first story is actually the last one. Back in 1815, Mount Tambora in Sumbawa exploded in the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history. It turned 24 cubic miles of rock into dust and debris and was loud enough to be heard for 1,200 miles. The eruption alone killed some 11,000 people. Worse, all of that dust in the air dropped the global temperature by a full degree below which was enough to kill crops and cause starvation in many areas; experts estimate that this killed another 60,000 people. (For comparison, the global temperature is now nearly two degrees above average this is not a good thing, either.)

When Pinatubo erupted in 1991, it cooled the planet by about 0.25 °

When Pinatubo erupted in 1991, it cooled the planet by about 0.25°

The second story happened nearly 68 years later at a spot nearly 900 miles away. On August 26, 1883, Mount Krakatoa erupted violently. The eruption wasn’t a surprise as the mountain had been spewing “fire fountains” into the air for months. What was a surprise was the size of the eruption; experts think that the neck of the magma chamber had become plugged with debris. Like holding your thumb over the neck of a soda bottle while shaking it, that allowed the pressure to build until it finally spewed out. That would have been bad enough, but the eruption created a caldera that went down below sea level. As the ocean water rushed in, it created a phreatic (steam) explosion, resulting in a sound so loud it could be heard 2,600 miles away and a tsunami that devastated coastlines across the Pacific and killed some 36,000 people. Because this was a smaller explosion than Tambora, only a few cubic miles of dust were tossed into the stratosphere and the weather was only made chilly instead of cold. As a result, there wasn’t the mass starvation of the previous eruption.

Exciting as the two eruptions were and interesting as the volcanology is, there is another facet to the two events that has a far more practical effect on us today: their effect on the weather. Since modern meteorological systems weren’t in place during the two eruptions (heck, meteorology hadn’t even been invented when Tambora blew!), climatologists must search for clues to their effects using old ship’s logs and diaries. And that’s where you come in. At Old Weather, you can look through the logs of sailing ships to discover what the weather and other things were like. By highlighting those entries, you help the folks who are trying to figure out what our new weather will do next. To learn more, blow on over to:
https://www.oldweather.org/

August 3 – Its A Gasser

Today’s factismal: John Tyndall was born 196 years ago today.

Ever since there have been toddlers, there’s been the question “Why is the sky blue?” And ever since John Tyndall, we’ve known the answer to that question. Born in Ireland to a family of moderate means, he was originally trained to be a surveyor. The mathematics of the job fascinated him, and he soon forsook the physical labor of surveying for the hallowed halls of the University of Marburg, where he studied under such luminaries as Robert Bunsen (of burner fame) and Gustav Magnus (of curveball fame). He soon graduated and went to work researching magnetism.

John Tyndall (Image courtesy Tyndall Institute)

John Tyndall
(Image courtesy Tyndall Institute)

At the time, light was just starting to be recognized as an electromagnetic phenomenon and it was a natural transition for him to start investigating the effects of “radiant energy” (the energy carried by light). Among his first experiments was a series of tests on nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide, looking to see how they would react to radiant energy. He thus performed the first experiment demonstrating what would come to be known as the greenhouse effect; as the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air increases, the temperature rises. His work was well-received and duplicated across the globe almost immediately after its publication in 1859, and led directly to the first prediction of how the Earth’s temperature would change as the CO2 increased.

Shortly after that, Tyndall became fascinated by the way that particles suspended in the air would scatter the light and change the color. He discovered that smoke (like that from a pipe or a coal stove) would appear slightly blue, and that the more particles there were in the smoke (i.e., the less complete the burning was), the bluer it seemed. He realized that the light was being bounced in all directions by the particles and that blue light was able to pass through more easily because it had the longer wavelength; in effect, it bounced off of fewer particles and so was less likely to be absorbed.

The mountain haze appears blue thanks to the Tyndall effect (My camera)

The mountain haze appears blue thanks to the Tyndall effect
(My camera)

Though many thought (and some still do) that he had answered the question of “Why is the sky blue?”, it turned out that he hadn’t. But what he had done was point the way toward the real answer, which was found just a few years later. (His answer was wrong because the particles in smoke are too big to scatter enough light to make the sky blue.) But he was happy to have helped move us closer to the answer.

And that’s what citizen scientists do. By collecting data, they help other researchers get a little closer to the day when we’ll be able to answer all of those other questions that a three year-old asks. Questions like “Why are there clouds?” (It turns out that is a harder question to answer than you might think.) If you’d like to help, then why not go back to S’COOL (Students’ Cloud Observations On-Line) Roving Observer?
http://science-edu.larc.nasa.gov/SCOOL/Rover/

July 18 – Cloud Control

Today’s factismal: Clouds both help keep the Earth warm and help cool it.

One of the fascinating things about science is how one thing can give two different effects depending on where it is. Ozone is a deadly gas at ground level but it protects us from ultraviolet radiation in the stratosphereA bull shark offshore Louisiana is no big deal but a bull shark offshore Chicago is pretty startling.  And low, puffy clouds cool the Earth while high, wispy ones warm it.  Even better, those differences can lead to honest controversies (unlike false ones, like the lie about the amount of CO2 put out by volcanoes) that then help advance the science.

A comparison of the CO2 emissions from various sources.

A comparison of the CO2 emissions from various sources.

And that is what has been going on in climatology right now. One group of climatologists, led by Roy Spencer, think that as the world warms there will be more clouds formed at low latitudes and at low altitudes. That will have the effect of cooling the planet because the low, puffy clouds will reflect incoming solar energy back into space before it has a chance to heat things up. Another group thinks that as the world warms, clouds will migrate higher in the atmosphere where they will thin and allow more energy to reach the Earth while still blocking energy that tries to escape.

Clouds both warm and cool the planet, depending on where they are

Clouds both warm and cool the planet, depending on where they are

Right now, it appears that the “clouds will warm us” group is more correct.  So it looks as if we will have more high, wispy clouds and, as an added bonus, expanding dry zones in the places where we grow most of our food. However, the results from the study are preliminary and could change with more data.

The colder air around the cloud has created a mass of ice crystals that refract the sunlight into a rainbow (My camera)

This cloud both warms and cools the planet
(My camera)

And that’s where you come in. You see, climatologists use satellites to measure clouds. But satellites don’t always see things the way that a person on the ground would.  And NASA would like your help and your school’s help to fix that. By becoming a NASA S’COOL Rover, you will look up when a satellite goes overhead and tell NASA what you see. Is it cloudy? Clear? Somewhere between? To learn more, drift on over to:
http://scool.larc.nasa.gov/rover.html

July 11 – What A Croc!

Today’s factismal: A female Nile crocodile determines the sex of her children by changing the temperature of the nest; too hot or too cold means more girls!

When Alice went to Wonderland, she recited a poem about Nile crocodiles; the poem praised their “shining scales” and “gently smiling jaws”. But what she should have praised was their ability to determine the gender of their children. As is the case with many other reptiles, the Nile crocodile can change the sex of its children simply by changing the temperature at which the eggs are incubated. If the eggs are kept between 89.1°F and 94.1°F, then the babies that hatch are male. But if the eggs stay too cold or too warm, then the babies that hatch are female.

A baby Nile crocodile hatching (Image courtesy Africa Wild Trails)

A baby Nile crocodile hatching
(Image courtesy Africa Wild Trails)

This would normally just be an interesting and somewhat puzzling phenomenon; biologists could (and have) argue for years over why such a mechanism for determining the sex of the offspring is necessary. But the world is currently undergoing something of a heat wave. The past fifteen years have been stuck on “hot” and the next few decades don’t look much better. And what that means is that the Nile crocodiles will have a harder time keeping their eggs in the temperature range needed for male hatchlings. In effect, the number of male Nile crocodiles will serve as a proxy for the temperature.

A baby American alligator. Cute little nipper, isn't he? (My camera)

A baby American alligator. Cute little nipper, isn’t he?
(My camera)

And Nile crocodiles are far from being the only critters that will change as the climate does. Trees will sprout further up on mountains, and butterflies will migrate earlier in the year. Flowers will bloom earlier or later. And even fish may change their spawning in response to changes in the climate.

The Washington Monument, peeking out from the cherry trees

How will global warming change the annual cherry tree festival?

Naturally, phenologists (scientists who study the timing of natural events) would love to record all of these changes. But Nature has the phenologists out-numbered eleventy billion to some. And that’s where you come in. If you would like to spend a little time each week observing the flowers in your backyard or the birds in your neighborhood or any other regular natural event, then the folks at the National Phenology Network would like you to become a Nature Observer! Just mark down your observations and add them to the easy-peasy web form and watch as the phenologists use your data!
https://www.usanpn.org/nn/become-observer