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

October 5 – How Low Can You Go?

Today’s factismal: The most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded was Wilma, with a low pressure in the eye of just 882 mbar.

If you are a meteorologist, then 2005 is probably your favorite year. Over the course of the year, there were so many tropical storms that they ran out of names and had to resort to using Greek letters. Of the 28 storms that developed, a record high of 15 would go on to become hurricanes and seven of those would become major hurricanes. And none of those was more major than Wilma.

Wilma at peak strength (Image courtesy NASA)

Wilma at peak strength
(Image courtesy NASA)

Wilma started as a tropical depression off of Jamaica on October 15. Two days later, she had become a tropical storm. By the 18th, she was a full-fledged hurricane and showing no signs of getting any weaker. Indeed, where most hurricanes are big, ungainly monsters with large eyewalls (which often indicates a weaker storm), Wilma had a fairly compact eyewall just two miles across (the smallest known) and peak winds of 185 mph! Those factors combined to give Wilma the lowest known pressure of any hurricane at just 882 mbar; to put that in perspective, remember that normal air pressure at sea level is 1013 mbar. In effect, the center of Wilma was at the same air pressure as Denver!

Naturally, a storm this intense caused lots of damage. Wilma killed at least 62 people (mostly through flooding and landslides) and caused $29 billion dollars in damage. Many of the deaths happened because Wilma’s path was unusually unpredictable; she changed directions several times, making it harder to know where she would hit. What the meteorologists needed was more observations in order to give better predictions. What they needed was people like the members of the Citizen Weather Observer Program who send in reports about severe weather (and the other kind, too) that is then used to make better predictions. If you think that you’ve got what it takes to be a CWOP member, head over to:
http://wxqa.com/

September 2 – An Ill Wind

Today’s factismal: The lightning in a Category 1 hurricane has enough power to run a house for more than 300 years.

If you read the news today, you know that Hurricane Hermine has come aground in Florida. This ended the long dry spell for hurricanes damaging the US mainland (though Sandy was a hurricane in 2012, it had been downgraded to tropical storm before it came ashore); it was the first time in eleven years that the US mainland was hit. Of course, you don’t have to get a hurricane to get lots of storm damage, just ask the folks who sat through Sandy or Allison. Although it is too early for firm estimates, experts think that the damage from this storm will end up costing the US at least $5 billion.

A satellite image of Hurricane Sandy showing the temperature differences in the clouds (Image courtesy NASA)

A satellite image of Sandy showing the temperature differences in the clouds
(Image courtesy NASA)

So what causes all of that damage? The short answer is “energy”. Hurricanes are nature’s way of taking heat from the equator (where it is hot) and moving it to the poles (where it is cold). They do that by using the heat to evaporate water, which forms clouds, which forms storms. Because that heat also causes the air to expand, it drives winds which can drive water in the form of storm surge. Add it all together and you’ve got a lot of energy moving around, looking for something to break – like Florida.

Hurricane Hermine making landfall in Florida (Image courtesy NOAA)

Hurricane Hermine making landfall in Florida
(Image courtesy NOAA)

But how much of the storms energy is released by the different parts of a hurricane’s life cycle? Scientists have run the numbers and found that a hurricane typically releases about 0.002% of its energy as lightning. Now that may sound like small potatoes, but for a Category 1 hurricane, it works out to be enough energy to run a typical household for 360 years or so. (The trick is catching the lightning.) Storm surge is what does most of the damage along the coast and yet it is just 0.02% of the total energy of the hurricane. The winds in a hurricane are what creates that lightning and tornadoes and other exciting side-effects. They are understandably much more powerful; they represent about 4% of the total energy in a hurricane. Interestingly, the sheer weight of the water falling from the sky as rain and hail releases about as much energy as the wind does. Thus far we’ve accounted for about 9% of the energy in a hurricane with the lightning and the storm surge and the winds and the rain. Where is the rest?

Some of the effects of a hurricane (Image courtesy NOAA)

Some of the effects of a hurricane
(Image courtesy NOAA)

It is released high in the sky as water vapor condenses into rain drops and is known among meteorology wonks as the latent heat of vaporization (which is just a fancy was of saying “the heat stored {latent} in vapor”). As the water vapor is carried higher into the atmosphere by the rising air currents, conditions change so that water vapor is no longer stable and water is; this is what forms clouds (which are just raindrops that are too small to fall). When the water condenses, it gives back some of the energy that was used to turn it into a gas; the rest of the energy has gone into raising the vapor high into the sky and powering all of the other special effects.

But here’s the odd thing. Even though we can use satellites to track hurricanes and help people get out of their way, we still don’t know how reliable our satellite images of the clouds that make up hurricanes are. And that’s where you come in. NASA has a citizen science program called S’COOL that asks for people like you and me to tell them what clouds are out there when the satellites pass by. To participate, float on over to:
http://scool.larc.nasa.gov/rover.html

 

 

June 17 – In A Fog

Today’s Factismal: Fog is not considered to be precipitation by meteorologists.

If you’ve taken a fifth grade science course, then you’ve probably learned about the water cycle (or, if it was in a fancy school district, the hydrologic cycle). In this cycle, water evaporates from ocean, rivers, and lakes, goes high into the air to form clouds, and comes back down as rain and snow. It is a beautiful, simple model. And like most such things, it is too simple and not nearly beautiful enough.

When you ask a meteorologist about the hydrologic cycle, then you’ll get the full, juicy story. Water doesn’t just evaporate from lakes, rivers, and oceans; oh, no! It also comes out of plants that have sucked water up from the ground (sometimes from several hundred feet underground), used it during photosynthesis and then sweat it out as part of their temperature regulation in a process known as transpiration. Over the course of a year, a single large oak tree can “sweat” out enough water to fill two swimming pools! Transpiration from plants and evaporation from the soil itself may account for as much as 67% of all precipitation.

This fog is not precipitation (My camera)

This fog is not precipitation
(My camera)

OK, you say; so the water sources are a bit more varied than we thought. But at least we know what precipitation is. However, this turns out to be another of those places where non-scientists and scientists use terms differently. To a meteorologist, it is only precipitation if the air becomes so saturated in water vapor that the water comes out and condenses around a small particle (that’s the “precipitate” part) and then (here’s the tricky part) falls under gravity. If the water drops are too small to fall, as they are in mists and fogs, then it technically isn’t precipitation even if it is on the ground (e.g., dew). But if it falls and evaporates on the way down, it is precipitation even though it stays in the air; meteorologists call this type of precipitation “virga”.

Virga falling from a cloud in Florida (My camera)

Virga falling from a cloud in Florida
(My camera)

And the hydrologic cycle gets more interesting still once we consider all of the types of precipitation that we can get. There’s virga and rain and hail and snow and sleet and graupel and drizzle, to name but the seven best known. And here’s the truly interesting part: meteorologists still have to rely on people on the ground to help them discover what kind of precipitation is falling where. Though some progress has been made in using radar to discriminate between the various types of precipitation, radars don’t see very well near the ground (all those pesky buildings get int he way). So they need observers to tell them what is falling where, be it thundersnow or nonaqueous rain.

The drizzle on Uluru is a form of precipitation (My camera)

The drizzle on Uluru is a form of precipitation
(My camera)

If you’d like to help, then why not download the National Severe Storms Laboratory’s free mPING (Meteorological Phenomena Identification Near the Ground) app? It is available on both Android and Apple devices. All you have to do is use the app to send a report whenever you see precipitation; the app will even help you decide what type of precipitation it is. To find out more, go to the National Severe Storms Laboratory mPING webpage:
http://mping.nssl.noaa.gov/

June 8 – Deep Blue

Today’s factismal: It is World Oceans Day – go hug a whale!

Today is World Oceans Day, an international celebration of all things briny. And as my part of the celebration, I present ten fast facts about the ocean and the critters that live in it:

"The Big Blue Marble" (Image courtesy NASA)

“The Big Blue Marble”
(Image courtesy NASA)

1. The oceans cover 70% of the Earth’s surface but only make up .023% of the Earth’s mass. Looked at from space, Earth is clearly not an earthy planet; it is a watery one. You could fit all seven continents into the areas covered by the oceans twice over and still have room left over for a few islands of your own. But the ocean is actually just a thin skin on the outside of the Earth. It is thinner than the skin of an apple but just as important.

Four tiny plankton; the largest is about the size of a grain of rice (Image courtesy John R. Dolan, NOAA)

Four tiny plankton; the largest is about the size of a grain of rice
(Image courtesy John R. Dolan, NOAA)

2. At least 90% of Earth’s life lives in the ocean! Being an air-breathing, formerly brachiating land-dweller, I tend to focus on things that are like me: chimpanzees, cats, and even earthworms. But it turns out that things that are like me are very rare indeed in the grand scheme of life on Earth. Instead, most of the life on Earth dwells in the ocean; somewhere between 90% and 99.7% of all life on earth likes its environment to be very wet indeed. And though the ocean holds the world’s largest creatures, mot of that life is in the form of tiny little organisms known as plankton. These tiny wonders are smaller than a grain of rice and yet they are responsible for most of the life on Earth.

A sea bird caught in a tangled net off Canada (My camera)

A sea bird caught in a tangled net off Canada
(My camera)

3. Scientists  estimate that there are more than five trillion pieces of plastic trash in the ocean; that plastic trash weighs some 269,000 tons or about as much as 1,350 blue whales! That trash ranges in size from small beads used in “exfoliating” scrubs and body washes to giant fishing nets used to catch tuna and cod. The plastic trash can grab onto other stuff floating in the ocean to form “plastiglomerates” that dirty up our shorelines and threaten the habitats of sea creatures worldwide!

Cloudy water offshore Australia (My camera)

Cloudy water offshore Australia
(My camera)

4. All of that trash has helped to make the ocean 40% cloudier in the past fifty years.  That means that less light makes it through to small critters known as phytoplankton. As a result, there are fewer and smaller phytoplankton . And that means a decrease in both the amount of CO2 taken up and the number of fish that grow up.

Seagrass provides a home for many fish (My camera)

Seagrass provides a home for many fish
(My camera)

5. Seagrass in the ocean absorbs more CO2 than all of the rainforests on land combined. Seagrass lives in shallow water where it uses the abundant sunlight and nutrients to grow rapidly. And that rapid growth means that it also stores CO2 rapidly; some biologists estimate that seagrass absorbs more than twice as much CO2 per square foot than a rainforest would. All told, seagrass absorbs about 1/8th of the CO2 that goes into the ocean, making it one of the world’s greatest tools for fighting climate change and species loss.

The first rediscovered ceolacanth next to a picture of its discoverer (Image courtesy South African Institute for Aquatic Biology)

The first rediscovered ceolacanth next to a picture of its discoverer
(Image courtesy South African Institute for Aquatic Biology)

6. The most critically endangered animals on Earth lives in the ocean. Perhaps the most famous “living fossil” in the world, the coelacanth was discovered by accident at a fish market in Indonesia. Unfortunately, though the coelacanth has survived more than 400 million years, it may not last another century. That’s because it is frequently caught by accident as the local fishermen angle for oilfish. And it is because the coelacanth appears to be highly local for an ocean-dwelling fish; it is only found off of the east coast of African and near the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. Thanks to the high bycatch and limited distribution, the numbers of coelacanths have dropped to the point that both known species are considered to be endangered, making the coelacanth the most endangered animal in the world.

Wilma at peak strength (Image courtesy NASA)

Wilma at peak strength
(Image courtesy NASA)

7. The strongest storms on Earth start over the ocean. Every year, there are hurricanes in the ocean (though the ones in the Pacific part are typically called “typhoons”, they are the same type of storm). And every year, those storms do millions of dollars in damage and kill hundreds of people. But the most intense storm ever recorded happened in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma formed. At her worst, Wilma had an eyewall just two miles across (the smallest known) and peak winds of 185 mph! Those factors combined to give Wilma the lowest known pressure of any hurricane at just 882 mbar; to put that in perspective, remember that normal air pressure at sea level is 1013 mbar.  Wilma killed at least 62 people (mostly through flooding and landslides) and caused $29 billion dollars in damage.

Gill damage allows us to see the filter pads (Image courtesy ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library)

Gill damage allows us to see the filter pads
(Image courtesy ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identification Library)

8. The world’s largest fish eats plankton and gives live birth. At 32 ft long and 20,000 lbs heavy the whale shark is the largest living fish. They can dive to 4,200 ft in search of food, which is mainly plankton and small fish. But the most amazing thing about the whale shark is how it gives birth. Once the female mates, she produces baby sharks (known as pups) at a steady pace by fertilizing the eggs one by one and allowing them to hatch inside her body before giving birth in a process known as ovoviviparity (“egg live birth”). And what a process it is! A female whale shark caught off of Taiwan in 1995 had 304 pups inside, at stages ranging from just-fertilized to “ready to pop out”.

A blue whale call (Image courtesy NOAA)

A blue whale call
(Image courtesy NOAA)

9. The blue whale is the largest and loudest animal on the planet.  This mighty master of the ocean will call out to other blue whales with a cry that crosses the ocean. It sound is so loud that any fish nearby are stunned and may even be killed by the pressure wave it generates. The cry of the blue whale is used for echolocation, but it may have other uses such as long-distance communication and self-defense.

A scallop meets a lobster (Image courtesy NOAA)

A scallop meets a lobster
(Image courtesy NOAA)

10. Every year, more than one billion scallops off of New England are caught for food. But this wouldn’t have happened without the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996. In 1990, the annual scallop harvest had dropped to dangerous levels. Using data from fishermen, NOAA lobbied for stronger control of New England waters and Congress granted it to them. Thanks to their work, the number of scallops has grown by ten times, allowing for a larger and more sustainable harvest every year.

And now that you know everything there is to know about the ocean, go out and celebrate World Oceans Day – go hug a whale!

June 6 – Down To The Levee

Today’s Factismal: Tropical Storm Allison did $5,500,000,000 in damage, making it the costliest tropical storm in US history.

It is hurricane season again, and that means that a small disturbance over the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean might grow into larger one. And, if that disturbance is very, very lucky, then it can gain enough energy from the water evaporated by the ocean to grow into a tropical storm. And if it is luckier still, then it will turn into a hurricane. This year, experts believe that we’ll get a typical hurricane season. They expect between 11 and 16 named storms, fewer than eight of which will turn into hurricanes, and fewer than four major hurricanes (think Katrina).

An aerial view of flooded Houston (Image courtesy KHOU)

An aerial view of flooded Houston
(Image courtesy KHOU)

An aerial view of flooded Houston (Image courtesy KHOU)

An aerial view of flooded Houston
(Image courtesy KHOU)

But the storms don’t have to become hurricanes to do a lot of damage, as the people who are living in Texas right now can attest. Wet as it is right now, the current mess pales before Tropical Storm Allison in 2001. Though Allison never grew large enough or strong enough to form an “eye”, it was nevertheless the worst tropical storm ever to hit the continental United States. In some parts of Texas, Allison dropped 40 inches of rain in just two days. The storm caused widespread flooding, displacing some 30,000 people and doing more than $5.5 billion in damage (that’s $7.4 billion in current money). Unfortunately, Allison also killed some 41 people (23 in Texas alone); the total would have been much higher but for the warnings and other information put out by the National Weather Service.

Rafting down the main street in Houston after Allison (Image courtesy KHOU

Rafting down the main street in Houston after Allison
(Image courtesy KHOU)

However, the National Weather Service is only as good as their data. And they need more data and better data. And they’d like you to provide it. They have partnered with the Citizen Weather Observer Program, which is a group of citizen scientists like you who take regular readings of temperature, humidity, rainfall, and other weather-related measurements and then pass them onto the National Weather Service using free software (available on the website). If this sounds like something you’d like to do, then head on over to
http://wxqa.com/cwop_info.htm

May 2 – Islands In The Stream

Today’s Factismal: The Gulf Stream was “discovered” 231 years ago today.

What constitutes being “discovered”? Is is when someone, somewhere, first thinks of something? Or is it when the first bits of evidence that it might actually exist are found? Or is it that “Eureka!” moment when all of the pieces finally fall into place? Well, for scientists, the answer is “none of the above”. For us, something gets discovered when it first gets published. That’s why Brontosaurus lost its name and why Newton never got along with Leibniz; the “wrong” person published first.

And as far as the English were concerned, Benjamin Franklin was the wrong perons. Even though he was America’s first and foremost citizen scientist, the English didn’t like him and refused to listen to many of his ideas simply because they refused to trust any  group that would throw perfectly good English Tea into an American harbor. Unfortunately for the English, that intransigence would come back to bite them in the wallet.

That’s because Benjamin Franklin discovered a faster and safer way to move ships from Europe to America. Then as now, time was money. By using Franklin’s discovery, the American ship captains were able to save one and make the other while English captains refused to listen to the upstart. So what was this amazing discovery? Franklin charted Gulf Stream.

Benjamin Franklin's chart of the Gulf Stream

Benjamin Franklin’s chart of the Gulf Stream

What originally spurred Franklin’s curiosity was a complaint from his boss in England. Ships sailing from Cornwall to New York took much longer to arrive than ships sailing from London to Rhode Island, and his boss wanted to know why. So Franklin went to his brother-in-law, who was a whaler from Nantucket, and asked him. The answer, his brother explained, was because the ships sailing from London rode with a current that flowed from Europe to America while those sailing from Cornwall went against a current that flowed from America to Europe. The whalers knew about the current because it was also rich in fish and whales. This inspired Franklin and he named the putative current the “Gulf Stream” in 1762. For thirteen years, Franklin worked with his brother-in-law and other sea captains to produce a map of the current, which they then published in 1775, just one year before America would declare its independence. But, with typical British intransigence, the English sea captains decided to ignore the “Yankee map”.

Franklin’s interest in teh Gulf Stream lasted for his entire life. On every trip back and forth to Europe, he took careful measurements of everything from location to water temperature, salinity, color, and wildlife. During the last few trips, Franklin even brought along a weighted barrel fitted with valves so that he could capture water from several fathoms below the surface for measurement. He finally compiled all of his results and published them on May 2, 1785, putting the final flourish on work that had begun 23 years earlier.

But Franklin couldn’t have accomplished his work without the contributions of the ship captains who helped him chart the current. Today, scientists are attempting to learn more about severe weather using Doppler radar. And they need your help to refine their data, just as Franklin needed the ship captains. All you need to do is look outside the next time it rains or snows and tell the scientists at the PING network what conditions look like on the ground. To help, go to the PING project:
http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/projects/ping/