February 2 – Welcome To Spring!

Today’s factismal: The woodchuck, or groundhog as it is often known, is the largest member of the squirrel family in North America.

Happy groundhog day, everyone! As you’ve probably heard, the world’s second-most famous rodent crept out of his burrow today and saw his shadow, indicating another six weeks of winter (boo!). As you might guess, being awakened in the middle of a six month-long nap does very little to aid Punxsutawney Phil’s prognostications; he’s only been right about 39% of the time.

A groundhog is moved after predicting six more weeks of winter (Image courtesy USFWS)

A groundhog is moved after predicting six more weeks of winter
(Image courtesy USFWS)

But why would anyone consult a groundhog about the seasons? And why on February 2nd? It all goes back to the Romans. Back in the days of the early Roman kings (about 2,700 years ago), the calendar ran from late spring to early winter and then went silent for a couple of months. The Romans held various fertility and harvest festivals to celebrate the seasons, but the actual date when those were held slipped around a bit thanks to those missing two months. Traditionally, they would consult the auguries for the end of winter about this time every year. In the old days, they would slit the animals open and examine the entrails; today, we just see how sleepy they are.

Visitors to the National Cherry Blossom Festival (My camera)

We no longer use the blooming of trees to determine the seasons – or do we? (My camera)

It wasn’t until Julius Caesar fixed the calendar that we started seeing folks who could say with any authority (a legion of armed men is authority, right?) that Spring was officially over and Summer had begun on a specific date. The interesting thing is that, while the various Roman provinces didn’t like the Romans very much (after all, what had Rome done for them other than the aqueducts, sanitation, roads, education, and the wine?), they loved the calendar because it made it easier for them to observe their religious rites and mark their seasons. And one of the most influential (at least in Europe) set of seasons was the one that modern pagans call “the Wheel of the Year”, which divided the year into four seasons (Spring, Summer, Winter, and Fall) and arranged them so that the middle of each season happened on an astronomically significant date.  Winter would show up on November 1, Spring would start on February 2, Summer would begin on May 1, and Fall would roll in on August 1 . This method of timing the seasons lasted for more than 1,900 years; you can see its influence in things such as Shakespeare’s “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” which takes place on the Summer solstice.

But as we moved into the 20th century, we decided that those dates didn’t work well for us (mainly because there is nothing special to mark February first as the start of Spring). So we came up with a new system. Actually, we came up with two new systems. Around 1950, the meteorologists decided that the seasons would start on the first day of a specific month, so that each season was roughly the same length of time. Winter now started on December 1, Spring marched in on March 1, Summer commenced on June1,  and Fall began on September 1. (These seasons are generally referred to as “meteorological spring” etc.)

M42 (Orion Nebula) Over Virginia (My camera)

The stars don’t set our calendar either – or do they? (My camera)

At about the same time, the astronomers decided that they weren’t going to let no stinking pagans decide when the seasons started based on obsolete astrological superstitions; instead, they’d start the seasons based on the stars. So the astronomers decreed that Spring would begin on the Vernal Equinox, Summer would come in on the Summer Solstice, Fall would commence on the Autumnal Equinox, and Winter would hold sway beginning on the Winter Solstice. That this effectively shifted the seasons by half a wavelength was irrelevant; it just made more sense to the astronomers.(These seasons are generally referred to as “astronomical spring” etc.)

The three seasonal calendars in use today

The three seasonal calendars in use today

So, as a result, we now have three different dates to start each season. Of course, Mama Nature is famous for not reading calendars (as anyone who has been caught in a May snowstorm can attest); she starts her seasons when she wants and marks it by changes in the plants and animals. And it turns out that there are a lot of scientists who are more interested in reading her calendar than man’s. If you would like to help them do so by recording when the leaves change color or the butterflies leave or the buds blossom in your area, then why not write a few pages in Nature’s Notebook?

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:

January 11 – Humble Bumble

Today’s factismal: There are 250 different species of bumblebee.

If you ask the average person what that strange critter buzzing around those flowers is, they’ll probably say “it’s a bee”. They’d probably be right but they’d also be wrong. That’s because there are over 20,000 different bee species on Earth. And even if they said it was a bumblebee (or a bumble bee – you can use either one), they’d still not be completely right because there are over 250 species of bumblebee buzzing about. In order to be perfectly right, they’d need to tell you what species it was, for example “Oh, that’s a Rusty Patched Bumblebee“.


A honeybee sipping nectar from a flower
(My camera)

And if they told you that it was one of those, you should be very happy because the Rusty Patched Bumblebee is a rare sight indeed. They used to be found everywhere from the plains of Illinois to the rose fields of Maine; more than 28 states had underground colonies of these cheerful little critters. But today they are only found in 13 states and have lost more than 90% of their population and 87% of their range thanks to a variety of factors such as changes in farming, pesticide use, and climate change. Because they are in such dire straights, they’ve been placed on the Endangered Species List joining their relatives from Hawai’i and other notable insects.


There are more than 250 different species of bumblebee!
(My camera)

So what can you do to help keep other bees from joining the list? First, plant native flowers around your home. Not only will those attract local wildlife such as bees, butterflies, and rabbits, but they’ll use less water and fertilizer making them better for the environment all around. Next, help biologists learn more about native bee species by joining Bee Germs. You’ll collect bees (it is easier than you think!) and send them in to be analyzed for germs that could be contributing to colony collapse and other problems. To learn more, buzz over to:

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.

December 28 – Stayin’ Alive

Today’s factismal: Sixteen species have been removed from the Endangered Species List in 2016.

It is no secret that animals go extinct. Sometimes we cheer when that happens (smallpox, anyone?) but more often we bemoan the loss (the Carolina parakeet, the Western Black Rhino). Fortunately for the animals (and ourselves), we do more than just weep, wail, and gnash our teeth; we also work to preserve species like the tapir and the tiger to keep them from joining their brethren in extinction. And one of the most powerful tools for preserving animals on the brink of extinction is the Endangered Species Act, which was became law on December 28, 1973.

“Extinction? Yech!”
(My camera)

Today, thanks to the Endangered Species Act,  forty-seven species have gone from being in danger of extinction to being plentiful enough to be taken off the list (though some of them are still protected under other laws); sixteen of them have been delisted in the past year alone! Sadly, ten other species have become extinct during the same time period. And the Act continues to work today, thanks to citizen scientists like you.

A rear view of a humpback's nose (My camera)

Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, this humpback whale is no longer endangered
(My camera)

One of the more interesting and useful parts of the act is the provision that allows any US citizen to petition to have a species listed if it meets any one of five different criteria:

  1. If its habitat or range is threatened with the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment. (Think: polar bears.)
  2. If too many of the species have been used for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes. (Think: whales.)
  3. If disease or predation is causing a decline in the species. (Think: song birds.)
  4. If existing regulatory mechanisms don’t do enough to protect the species.
  5. If other factors threaten to make it extinct (Think: dinosaurs).

If petitioning NOAA (for marine species) or the Fish and Wildlife Service (for land species) to add a species to the list seems like too much paperwork (and who could blame you), then there are other ways that a citizen scientist can contribute.

A bison grazing near the Great Salt Lake (My camera)

Bison were once critically endangered
(My camera)

The most obvious of these is by helping biologists discover which animals they’ve snapped pictures of in the wild. The Toledo Zoo Wild Shots team has planted cameras all over the world and needs volunteers like you to look at the pictures and let them know if there are any animals in them. To learn more (and see some pretty cool pictures), head over to:

December 5 – Smoke On The Water

Today’s factismal: Smog killed 4,000 people in London between December 5 and December 9, 1952.

John Carpenter once made a scary movie about a fog that envelops people and drives them mad. Little did he know that his art was imitating real life! In late November of 1952, London was gripped by a cold wave, forcing many to burn extra coal to keep warm. In addition, the many coal-fired power plants in the London area were going full blast, trying to keep up with the increased demand for electricity. Normally, the smoke created by the fireplaces and power plants would have just blown out to sea and out of mind. But this time, something else would intervene.


Just as November changed to December, a high pressure zone moved over London and settled in to stay. This created a temperature inversion. Normally, the air temperature goes down with altitude. But in an inversion, it goes up. This means that the smoke could only rise so far before being trapped against the warmer air above. In effect, London was under a giant dome with no way to get clean air. The final ingredient needed to make this a perfect anti-storm was the fog that soon developed below the inversion layer. The fog mixed with the smoke to form a noxious smog, rich in carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide and poor in oxygen.It created what Londoners soon called “the Big Smoke”.

Downtown London during the "Big Smoke" (Image courtesy N T Stobbs)

Downtown London during the “Big Smoke”
(Image courtesy N T Stobbs)

The smog soon became so thick that it soon became impossible to see more than a few yards away. Movie houses and restaurants closed because it was impossible for the audience to see the screen or the waiter to find the tables! All surface traffic – including emergency vehicles such as ambulances – was stopped, with only the London underground left as public transport. If you got ill, you had to find your own way to the hospital. And get sick they did, by the thousands. More than 100,000 people were made ill by the Big Smoke, and at least 4,000 people died. Most of those who died were either very old or very young or suffered from breathing problems such as asthma or emphysema. And later reviews of the death rates during the Big Smoke suggest that the actual toll may have been as high as 12,000 deaths!

Fortunately, the Big Smoke lasted just a few days. By December 9, the inversion layer had moved off of London and the Big Smoke was nothing more than a bad memory and a cause for action. England quickly passed a clean air bill that paid homeowners to convert their coal fireplaces to natural gas and that forced power plants to install pollution reduction controls. Thanks to the cleaned-up environment, London has seen just one other Big Smoke since then (in 1962, before all of the controls were in place).

Air pollution in Beijing isn't the world's worst (Image courtesy Discovery News)

London isn’t the only place with air pollution; this is downtown Beijing
(Image courtesy Discovery News)

Of course, London isn’t the only place that has an environment or pollution or people willing to work to preserve the former and get rid of the latter. And, as you might guess, there are plenty of citizen science opportunities working with the environment. One of my favorites is AirVisual. Using reports from meteorologists and people like you from around the world, they monitor air pollution in real time and share that information with scientists, policy makers, and people like you! To learn more, drift over to:

October 12 – It’s Full Of Stars

Today’s factismal: Some dinoflagellates use bioluminescence to attract big fish that eat the little fish that eat dinoflagellates.

Obi-wan said it best: “There’s always a bigger fish”. And he probably learned that from dinoflagellates. These tiny little critters have a whip at one end that they use for propulsion, a shell made out of cellulose, and a variety of lifestyles that ranges the gamut from photosynthesis to hunter. Then again, with more than 2,200 species of dinoflagellate, there is plenty of room for just about any oddity. But perhaps the oddest thing that any dinoflagellate species does is flash blue lights when startled or jostled.

A dinoflagellate (Image courtesy David Patterson and Bob Andersen)

A dinoflagellate
(Image courtesy David Patterson and Bob Andersen)

Interestingly, it was that blue flash that first attracted people to them; the very first paper written about dinoflagellates was called “Animalcules which cause the Sparkling Light in Sea Water” and it hit the popular press way back in 1753. Today, quite a bit is known about how and why they flash. The reaction is similar to that of the firefly (and uses some of the same chemicals) but it happens for much different reasons. Like the firefly, they flash only at night. However, the firefly flashes in order to attract his lady-love and the dinoflagellate flashes to attract big fish (partly because dinoflagellates don’t have lady-loves. Poor dinoflagellate.). The rapid motion of small fish causes a pressure wave which triggers the flash; this is why they often flash in the wake of boats at sea. And the light that they generate attracts big fish that come to dine on the little fish that are feasting on the dinoflagellate.

A bioluminescent dinoflagellate (Image courtesy Maria Faust)

A bioluminescent dinoflagellate
(Image courtesy Maria Faust)

Dinoflagellates aren’t the only critters that float around in the water. There are literally millions of different species of microscopic critters in sea water; the generic name for them is plankton (which is Greek for “little floaty thing”). And the interesting thing about plankton is that they are our greatest source of oxygen; about half of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere comes from these tiny critters! Scientists are still learning about plankton and they need your help to learn more. So why not float on over to the Plankton Portal and give them a hand?