Stories tagged summer

Winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere
Winter solstice in the Northern HemisphereCourtesy Mark Ryan
The December solstice is upon us once again. That's when - due to the tilt of the Earth's axis in relation to to the plane of its orbit - the apparent path of the sun reaches its lowest point in the sky and begins its journey back the other way. It marks the Northern Hemisphere's longest night of the year (and shortest day) and the Southern Hemiphere's longest day. (and shortest night). This year - for all of us lucky enough to be living in the Central Standard Timezone, the turnaround moment happens at 11:11AM CST. The exact timing could possibly be significant. Or not.

Anyway, you can learn everything you want to know about the December solstice at Earthsky.org.

May
23
2011

Tibicen linnei: An annual cicada
Tibicen linnei: An annual cicadaCourtesy Bruce Marlin (via Wikipedia Creative Commons)
Summer is heading our way and soon the familiar buzzing of cicadas will fill the air. But for some, particularly in the southern and eastern United States, the buzz will become a loud symphony of sound. That's because, this year, the Great Southern Brood will (actually already has in some places) reappear and millions of the insects will soon be crawling out of the ground to overwhelm us with their vast numbers and cacaphonic chorus.

Relax. Last weekend's rapture was a bust (or was it?), and there’s nothing to worry about in the biblical sense. It’s merely the latest appearance of Magicicada neotredecim and M. tredecim, two closely related species of cicada that show up every 13 years in the United States to fill the treetops with their buzzing song.

The most common genus of cicadas in the US is Tibicen and unlike Magicicada, cicadas in the genus Tibicen appear annually, not periodically. After a 2-3 year stint as nymphs, Tibecen cicadas emerge into their adult stage. The full-grown insect measures about 1-2 inches in length with long translucent wings and distinctive green, brown, and black markings on the middle of its body. Generations overlap so they show up every year and can be heard in many areas, including Minnesota, during the hot and steamy Dog Days of summer buzzing to high heaven. It’s that shrill, grating noise that builds in the air and sounds like someone is cutting up cement blocks with a chainsaw. As deafening as it can be, I like the sound, in much the same way I like the smell of rotting leaves in the fall, it triggers memories.

But I’m not sure how I’d feel about Tibicen's cyclical cousins - those belonging to the Magicada genus - that show up all at once in mass periodical emergences and put on huge choruses of buzzing. There are seven species that do this in the US, three in 13-year cycles, and four in 17-year cycles. Periodical cicadas are categorized into broods numbered in Roman numerals from I to XXX. The thirteen-year cycles occupy XVIII–XXX; seventeen-year cycles number I–XVII. Only about 15 broods are still recognized. There are still only seven cyclical species but some species emerge happen at different times in different regions, hence the number of broods. This year it will be a 13-year cycle called Brood XIX , and it is the largest of the 13-year cycles in terms of geography.

The numbers involved in a periodical swarm are huge but, as Vanderbilt biologist Patrick Abbot explains, the vast numbers increase the possibility of available mates and serve as a way to overwhelm the cicadas many predators, which include birds, snakes, turtles, spiders and wasps, and even fungi. It’s interesting that the periodical emergences have evolved into separate prime number cycles. The reason is probably to reduce competition between broods.

“Say you have two populations, one which emerges every five years and one which emerges every 10 years. Then they would emerge simultaneously every 10 years," Abbot said. "Whereas the period between simultaneous emergences between populations with 13- and 17-year cycles is 221 years."

Occasionally, two cyclical broods have been known to emerge simultaneously but usually the overlap is minimal. For example two 13-year broods rising at the same time but in adjacent regions.

During a brood’s synchronized emergence the number of individuals can be daunting. Some emergences have been estimated to contain something like 1.5 million cicadas per acre of land. That amounts to 800 tons (!) of biomass busily buzzing within a square mile of forest. Think of that!

But despite the huge numbers involved in a cyclical emergence, cicadas are pretty harmless, and don’t voraciously eat up crops like locusts do, nor do they sting or bite. The most damage done is by females when they make “v”-shaped slits in the bark of a twig to lay their eggs (I suppose this could feel like a sting if she mistakes your arm for a tree branch). But, come on, even this is nothing compared to a plague of locusts wiping out the summer corn crop.

The word cicada is Latin and means “buzzer” Very apropos, don’t you think? The males of the species spend a lot of time trying to get the attention of female cicadas by vibrating a membrane on their exoskeleton called tymbals. Each time the muscles contract or relax the tymbals they produce a click. Portions of the exoskeleton such as the abdomen or thorax help amplify the sound. The rapid vibration causes a shrill and (possibly annoying) buzzing, and each of the world’s estimated 2500-3000 species has its own distinct sound. The females, by comparison, make a rather boring click with their wings to attract males (I suppose the male cicadas don’t think it boring). You can replicate the female clicking by snapping your fingers in rapid succession a couple times.

When periodical cicada eggs hatch the nymphs drop down and burrow deep into the ground where they spend most of their lives sustaining themselves for several years ingesting fluids from tree roots and developing through five juvenile stages. Scientists suspect soil temperature triggers the emergence. When it reaches 64 degrees F., the nymphs head for the surface. It seems the likely catalyst since emergences in warmer, southern regions take place sooner than those farther north. Whatever the case, when they do emerge, the nymphs crawl up and attach themselves to nearby vegetation where they eventually molt out of their skins. They don’t begin adult activities until after their exoskeletons harden. So for the first 4 to 8 days after molting, they pass through a stage called teneral (meaning soft and tender) before the exoskeleton is complete. The adult stage of a cicada lasts anywhere from a couple weeks to a few months. Very short in comparison to their other life stages.

People eat cicadas in several areas of the world. And the females are meatier and more desired. I suppose the insect is a good source of protein but – there’s no way I’m ever doing that - I’d never eat one. Maybe I shouldn’t say “never”. Some Native American tribes supposedly survived times of famine by eating cicadas.

If you live in or are visiting an area that is or will soon be overrun by an invasion of the Great Southern Brood, rather than cowering in a corner and wailing and gnashing your teeth, head outside, go for a walk, and take in a symphony of cicada songs. While you’re out there enjoying the summer day, you can get even more involved by trying some of these neat cicada experiments. It will take your mind off the fact that you’re surrounded by 800 tons of buzzing biomass.

SOURCES and LINKS

Cicada Central
Magicicada.org
Vanderbilt release
Cicada Mania page

It's Friday, so it's time for a new Science Friday video. Science Friday
Science Friday
Courtesy Science Friday
"Lightning is one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the atmospheric sciences, researchers say. Scientists at the International Center for Lightning Research and Testing in Florida are inducing lightning to strike so they can understand it better. Though summer doesn't begin officially for a few weeks, one of the signature marks of summer may already be in the air near you -- the evening thunderstorm. Thousands of lightning strikes occur on the planet every minute, but the summer heat and humidity help to ramp up the number of lightning-producing thunderstorms. We'll talk about the science of lightning."
Learn more.
Sep
11
2009

Summertime, and the livin' is easy: Keeping cool this past summer was easier than expected.
Summertime, and the livin' is easy: Keeping cool this past summer was easier than expected.Courtesy tree & j hensdill

Well, summer is officially over. The Weather Service switched to fall on September 1. The rest of the country likes to wait until the day after Labor Day. (The folks who hold out for the equinox are delusional, and best ignored.) So, it's time to update our on-going study comparing summer temperatures to winter temperatures.

For those of you just joining us, last February Buzz blogger extraordinaire Candace noted that the winter of 2008-2009 had been unusually warm. She asked if this meant the following summer would also be warm.

Well, I went to the website of the National Space Science and Technology Center, which very conveniently records the temperature for each month going back to December 1978. I crunched the numbers and found that, yes, there was a connection. Though summer temps fluctuate year-to-year, about half of that fluctuation can be tied to changes in winter temps.

Armed with this information, we anxiously awaited the temperature record from summer 2009. The results are in, and...

...well, this was obviously part of the other half. The winter of 2008-2009 was the 4th warmest in the recording period. The summer of 2009, however, was dead smack in the middle -- 16th out of 31. So disparate were these results that they actually brought down the average for the entire study period: the impact of winter temps on summer temps is now down to just 45%.

Still, for something as complicated as weather, that's a huge impact. So, while the winter-summer connection can't predict what will happen in any given year, over the long run it does still hold true.

Tune in next year for another exciting update!

Feb
28
2009

The hounds of spring are on winter’s traces: It appears that winter and summer temperatures are yoked together.  (This photo is for you, Thor.  I'm a cat person myself. Title explained here.)
The hounds of spring are on winter’s traces: It appears that winter and summer temperatures are yoked together. (This photo is for you, Thor. I'm a cat person myself. Title explained here.)Courtesy sbpoet

Last week, Candace asked whether there’s a connection between winter temperatures and summer temperatures. She noted that the winter of 2007-08 was pretty cold by recent standards, and the following summer was cool as well. Is there something going on here?

Liza searched the Web but couldn’t find anything definitive. I (after pooh-poohing the idea that this has been a warm winter – if you want to pay my heating bill, you’re welcome to it!) decided to crunch the numbers.

First, I went to this site. It records monthly average temperatures going back to December 1978.

Actually, it records temperature anomalies – whether the observed temperature in a given month is higher or lower than the average. They use the 20 years of 1979-1998 as their baseline. A reading of 1.00 means the temperature was 1 degree Centigrade (1.8 °F) warmer than expected. (One degree may not sound like much, until you realize it means 1 degree of every minute of every hour of every day. It quickly adds up to a lot of heat.) A reading of -1.00 means it was 1 degree cooler.

Using temperature anomalies is good for this exercise, as it removes the effects of global warming. Because global temperatures rose during the period under study, a “warm” winter in the late ‘70s might be considered only “average” today. In fact, that’s exactly what happened last winter. It was almost perfectly average by historical standards, but because recent winters have been so much warmer, it felt cold to us.

Getting back to Candace’s question: does a warm winter predict a warm summer? To answer this question, we have to calculate my all-time favorite statistical formula, the coefficient of correlation!

It sounds like a mouthful, but it’s a pretty easy concept to grasp. The coefficient of correlation measures how tightly two sets of numbers go together. For example, if you surveyed 100 people, and asked each one what year they were born, and how old they were, you would find that every single person born in 1990 was the exact same age. The first number (year of birth) and the second number (age) are linked together 100%.

OTOH, if you asked those people for the last digit in their telephone number, you would find no relationship whatsoever. A person born in 1990 is just as likely to have a phone number ending in 9 as ending in any other number, and the same goes for people born in every year.

Calculating the coefficient of correlation (or “coco,” as I affectionately call her), requires wading through a truly horrific battery of equations all to arrive at a number between 0 and 1. A coefficient of 1 means the two sets of numbers are perfectly synched together; a coefficient of 0 means there is no connection whatsoever.

So, I went back to the temperature data. First, I defined “winter” the same way the weather bureau does: December, January and February, the three coldest months of the year. (None of that solstice-equinox nonsense here!) I defined “summer” as the three warmest months: June, July and August, again following weather bureau standards. Using the Northern Hemisphere Land figures (sorry, they didn’t have anything Minnesota-specific), I came up with an average anomaly for every winter and every summer. I crammed the numbers into the formula, turned the crank, and came up with a coefficient of…

(drum roll, please)

0.71

OK, now what does that mean?

Well, in general, a score below 0.30 is considered inconclusive. It’s too close to zero—the “relationship” could just be random. A score between 0.30 and 0.50 is generally considered moderate—there’s a connection there, but it’s somewhat weak. A score over 0.50 is generally considered strong—there’s definitely something important going on there.

(This is especially true in highly complex systems, like weather, where a lot of different factors can affect your results. In a very simple system, you’d probably want a result much closer to 1.)

It all boils down to this: we can be more than 99% certain that, yes, there is a connection between a warm winter and a warm summer, or a cold winter and a cool summer. How much of a connection? For that, we need another figure, the coefficient of determination.

This one is much easier. Just square the coefficient of correlation. 0.71 squared yields 0.5041. That means 50% of the variability in summer temperatures is determined by the winter temperatures.

And “variability” is the key. Like I said, weather is an extremely complex system. Lots of things can affect the temperature for a day, a week, even a season. The fact that this winter is warmer than last winter does not guarantee that this coming summer will be warmer than last summer. (For example, the winter of 2003-04 was one of the warmest on record, but the following summer was one of the coolest in the study period.)

What this number does mean is, that of all the factors that will affect next summer’s temperatures, half of them seem to be connected to winter temperatures. And this winter was warmer than last winter.

Just for fun, I also ran the calculations the other way, to see if a warm summer predicts a warm winter. The coefficient of correlation was 0.54, and the coefficient of determination was 0.29. So, again, there is a connection, but it seems to b a good deal weaker.

A word of caution: one thing statisticians like to say is “correlation is not causation.” Partly because it’s fun to say, but mostly because it’s true. Just because two things are correlated does not mean one causes the other. We have not proven that warm winters cause warm summers. It could be that winter temps and summer temps are both boosted by some other factor – El Nino, perhaps. All we can say is that there is some sort of connection going on, and that it probably wouldn’t hurt to lay in some tanning cream now.

Jun
20
2008

Ho ho, Buzzers, get used to it: Because you'll be seeing a lot of this little star today. And pretty much every day.
Ho ho, Buzzers, get used to it: Because you'll be seeing a lot of this little star today. And pretty much every day.Courtesy Lykaestria
That’s right, folks! If you aren’t already up on your solstice news, it’s today! The north end up the Earth’s axis is at maximum tilt towards our yellow sun, and that means it’s the longest day of the year for those of us in the northern hemisphere. Yes!

Things to consider:

  • It’s vampire safety day! Sock it to the sun-fearing undead, and enjoy a super long day with no fear of attack by blood suckers (except, you know, mosquitos)!
  • You know that goofy, blue, photosensitive paper you can put keys and flowers and stuff on, and then develop it in your tub for a silhouette of keys and flowers and stuff? You can use that stuff for hours and hours today! Do it!
  • In Antarctica today (and for weeks and weeks to come!) they won’t see the sun at all! Enjoy that, scientists!
  • Your summer magic will be particularly potent today! Work on your spells, wizards!
  • If you’ve got a solar car, today is your day! Head for the mountains!
  • Exclamation points are free today!! Until sunset!!!! Use them all you want!!!
Jun
25
2006

Sunbathers: Soaking up the sun in the California desert. Courtesy Mark Ryan.
Sunbathers: Soaking up the sun in the California desert. Courtesy Mark Ryan.

Here’s a question for the start of summer: why does exposure to the sun darken our skin but lighten our hair?

First let’s take a look at our skin. Human skin is the body’s largest organ, and acts as a barrier between our inner organs and the outside world. It’s made up of essentially two parts the epidermis and the dermis. The epidermis is the outer section and is comprised of a layer of living cells, topped by a layer of dead cells. The dead cells are the skin we see.

Even though the upper epidermis is just a lot of dead cells, it contains keratin, a tough protein that also makes up our hair and fingernails, Keratin is thicker on the bottoms of our feet and the palms of our hands for added protection against abrasions and other intrusions from the outside world.

Inside the dermis is where all the skin’s functioning equipment is located, These include nerves, sweat glands, hair follicles, blood vessels and special cells called melanocytes, which produce melanin, the material responsible for skin pigmentation, hair and eye color. Most humans have about the same amount of melanocytes, some just produce more melanin than others. Albinos, however, produce no melanin at all.

When our skin gets exposed to sunlight (particularly ultraviolet rays) melanocytes begin producing melanin to help protect the dermis, and keep the skin cells from getting fried. The melanin acts as an absorbing agent. So over time, as exposure to the sun continues, more melanin is produced and subsequently the skin becomes darker.

The hair is a different story. Hair color is also determined by melanin, but hair cells are dead, so sunlight doesn’t initiate melanin production but rather begins to break down the melanin already in the hair, and the hair’s color begins to fade or lighten.

Sunglasses may not be so cool: Courtesy Mark Ryan
Sunglasses may not be so cool: Courtesy Mark Ryan

I thought this last part was strange. The pituitary gland is tied to your optic nerve and is sensitive to sunlight. When light enters your eyes, it triggers your pituitary gland to produce a melanocyte-stimulating hormone (MSH) that activates your melanocytes to produce melanin. This means that wearing sunglasses can actually cause sunburn.

Jun
13
2005

The summer solstice is approaching. June 21st is the longest day of the year, and the first day of summer for us in the United States. The summer solstice for the U.S. occurs at the time when the Earth is at a point in its orbit where the Northern Hemisphere is most tilted towards the sun.

Many cultural traditions are tied to the summer solstice, as well as the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes - the days in the spring and fall where the amount of day and night time are nearly the same. Some scientists believe that Stonehenge , in England, is part of a huge astronomical calendar because Stonehenge's axis is roughly pointed in the direction of sunrise at the summer and winter solstice.

In England and Ireland the solstices and equinoxes do not mark the start of a season, as they do in the United States; rather they occur at the midpoint of their seasons. Summer for these countries starts on May 1 and ends on July 31and the summer solstice is called mid-summer.

Gene posted an entry on March 4th about his feelings on when the seasons should start based on the average temperature .