Stories tagged weather

Aug
11
2007

A computer error leads to bad climate data: The sudden jump in temperatures around January 2000 was caused by a faulty formula. New calculations show many years were actually cooler than previously thought.  (Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies)
A computer error leads to bad climate data: The sudden jump in temperatures around January 2000 was caused by a faulty formula. New calculations show many years were actually cooler than previously thought. (Source: NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies)

We here at Science Buzz have discussed global warming a time or two. And long-time readers know that I am The Science Museum’s resident global warming skeptic. Not a denier – I recognize that the Earth’s temperatures have been generally increasing over the last 25 to 30 years, and I’ll admit that human-produced carbon dioxide could well be a contributing factor. However, I am skeptical about claims that human activity is the sole or even primary cause of this warming; that there is a simple, direct correlation between our actions and global climate; or that the planet is headed toward some sort of ecological disaster in the next 10 years if we don’t do something drastic now.

Toward that end, I keep an eye on the various global warming threads, and try to temper the more intemperate comments made by those who hold different views. (And they do the same for me, of course.) So, in the course of a debate, if someone says “the Earth is warming,” I correct them by pointing out that the Earth has warmed: global temperatures rose in the 1980s and ‘90s, peaked in the US in 1998, and have held steady or dropped slightly since.

I have recently learned that this was wrong. As painful as it is for me to admit, I must set the record straight: temperatures in the US did not peak in 1998. They actually peaked in…

1934

In 1934, the world’s population was a fraction of what it is today. (One-sixth, more or less.) Manufacturing and industry were smaller. The number of cars and the miles traveled in them were far fewer. Commercial air travel – a huge producer of greenhouse gases – was in its infancy.

(1934 was also the year my mother was born and, in a coincidence science has thus far been unable to explain, the year Yoko Ono was born.)

And yet despite the lower levels of greenhouse gas, 1934 was warmer than any other year, before or since. And while global temperatures had been generally increasing since about 1890, they leveled off around 1940 and even took a slight dip in the 1970s. All of which indicates that record-high temperatures may not be the harbinger of doom so many assume them to be.

So, how could I have made such a drastic mistake? Well, I’m not the only one. Y’see, I was relying on a temperature chart produced by NASA scientists Reto Reudy and James Hansen. Their graph showed temperatures spiking in the late ‘90s, and staying near that peak.

Of course, other people were studying that chart, too. One of them, Steve McIntyre, thought it looked a little fishy. So he asked Hansen for the formula he used to produce his chart. Hansen, operating in the spirit of openness and transparency that is the hallmark of science and a requirement of the federal government…refused. (Other scientists have also accused some federal agencies of not sharing their data so it can be reviewed.) So McIntyre reverse-engineered the formula from the published data. And he found something interesting.

Temperature data from many reporting stations around the country suddenly jumped around the year 2000. After some digging, McIntyre found an error in the formula used to process the data. As a result, Reudy and Hansen reported many years as being warmer than they really were.

(Is this the same James Hansen who has accused the Bush administration of playing politics with science, trying to suppress views that contradict their positions and cherry-picking data that advances its agenda? Why, yes it is!)

NASA has recomputed the figures and issued a new set of corrected data. It now shows that five of the ten warmest years on record occurred before World War II, when global temps leveled off and later fell. Four of the years in our current decade which were supposed to have been near record highs were actually colder than 1900.

Minnesotans can be proud that their state played a role in uncovering this mistake. It was data at the Detroit Lakes station that first led McIntyre to believe something was amiss.

So, what lesson do we learn from all this? That I need to be more skeptical. I have to stop believing everything I read in the New York Times. I need to recognize that even rocket scientists can sometimes make mistakes.

So my promise to you, dear readers, is I will check my sources and do my best never to fall for this sort of mistake again.

Aug
10
2007

A wild tornado searches for prey: If only we could tame them!  (image courtesy of the NOAA photo library)
A wild tornado searches for prey: If only we could tame them! (image courtesy of the NOAA photo library)
Techno-magician Louis Michaud believes that he can summon a tornado, “tame” it, and use the entity to generate electricity. And he intends not to simply summon a miniature steam vortex, such as can be seen in the Science Museum of Magisota’s Experiment Gallery, but a full-sized wind monster, as featured in the documentary “Twister.”

As bizarre as the idea might seem, councils of air and wind magicians at learning institutions across the country say the theory is sound. It would simply require a sorcerer of the most audacious kind. Perhaps the wizard Michaud is just that person.

The idea is based on the simple and well-known principle that tornado beasts feed and grow off of warm air. Michaud proposes summoning the tornado into a “vortex engine” using a source of hot air such as the waste heat from a nearby nuclear generator (or even, depending on geography, heat from warm tropical water). The hot air would be directed up from the vortex engine’s base in a spinning motion, and would gather momentum as it rose, eventually becoming a tornado several kilometers high. The air sucked into the tornado would spin turbines and generate electricity. The normally chaotic and destructive tornado beast would be content to stay above the vortex engine, feeding off the hot air provided. The wizard Michaud also claims that the stationary, summoned tornados could have the added benefit of combating, in some small way, the powers of That-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named (Global Warming, as it likes to be called). The vortex engines would propel hot air high into the atmosphere, where it could more easily radiate energy back into space – an interesting idea, although it seems like there would have to be countless such tornado summoning stations to have any measurable effect. Who’s to say?

However, there is a price to pay for all this, as is always the case with magic. While universities have been experimenting with the summoning spell on a small scale – luring tornados not larger that a meter or two into this realm – the facilities for commercial-scale summoning would cost somewhere on the order of $60 million. This price would be offset somewhat if the generator were built in conjunction with a nuclear power station, as the station would no longer need a $20 million cooling tower. Michaud has formed the corporation AVEtec to seek investor funding. High wizards from Oxford, Cambridge, and MIT have joined AVEtec’s advisory board.

Those of you less experienced in the magical arts might be well served by this article, or this one, both of which offer a more scientific perspective.

Jul
14
2007

In hot water: These thermal imaging maps show the difference between normal surface water temperatures and El Nino surface water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administraion Photo Library)
In hot water: These thermal imaging maps show the difference between normal surface water temperatures and El Nino surface water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administraion Photo Library)
As if our TV meteorologists didn’t have enough warnings and ratings to rattle our cages with, here come two more.

The Climate Prediction Center as announced that it has created a rating scale to measure the impacts up oncoming El Nino or La Nina weather patterns. The new ratings will likely first be issued starting this fall.

Not only will the weather patterns carry a rating on their severity, but warnings and advisories will also be issued through the new program, much like we get thunder storm or tornado warnings or watches. Here are the details:

• A watch will be issued when conditions are ripe for the creation of El Nino or La Nino patterns within the ensuing three to six months.

• An advisory will be issued when the conditions are underway.

• The rating scale will go from 1 to 5 and be done to measure the impact of the El Nino or La Nina after it’s passed, much like the F-scale used to measure tornados.

The strength of the weather conditions is determined by the warmth or coolness of the surface waters in the South Pacific. The names were given to the weather conditions by fishermen from Peru who noticed fluctuations in their catches based on the changing water temperatures.

The new scale will have a bigger impact on allowing researchers to compare weather conditions after they’ve happened, not in predicting how severe new ones will be.

Strong El Ninos and La Ninas can impact weather conditions worldwide. You can learn more about them at the Science Museum of Minnesota's Science on a Sphere display.

Jun
21
2007

Tidal surge from the 1938 hurricane: Image courtesy NOAA/NWS Historic Collection.
Tidal surge from the 1938 hurricane: Image courtesy NOAA/NWS Historic Collection.
Over on our thread about a crazy catfish skull, "brandon" recently left a rather off topic, yet still intriguing question:

hi there! i was wondering if there was a hurricane in new york in 1930???????

Why, yes, there was. Technically, it happened in 1938, and it was quite the whopper. On Friday, September 16th, 1938, a Brazilian ship reported a huge storm in the Atlantic and weather forecasters expected it to make landfall near Miami. Luckily for Miami, the storm turned north and everyone expected it to head out to sea. Remember: this was long before satellite images allowed us to track these huge storms in real-time.

Unluckily for people who lived in New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, though, the storm had just temporarily headed out to sea and was about to make landfall in New England. On the 21st, with no warning, one of the fastest-moving hurricanes ever recorded slammed into the New England coast. It caused massive damage in Long Island, giving the storm the name "The Long Island Express." Nearly 600 people died by the time it was all over.

Can you imagine what a storm like that would do to this area today? In 1938, Long Island was still somewhat rural and undeveloped. Today it's a densely-packed urban area full of millions of people, homes, and businesses. And, quite honestly, I hadn't ever even heard of this storm until today. I often think of New York as immune to these sorts of major storms. But it's actually very likely that a major storm will affect this region again in the next 50 years.

1938 Hurricane Links

The Great Hurricane of 1938 - a very in-depth history of the storm.
History Reveals Hurricane Threat to New York City - A modern perspective on the risks to New York city.
The regional perspective on the 1938 hurricane - Lots of great pictures of the destruction in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Do you know anyone who remembers the 1938 hurricane? Do you live in this area and have a hurricane story? Share your stories.

Tornado trail seen from space: Tens of thousands of trees were leveled June 7, 2007 in Wisconsin.
Tornado trail seen from space: Tens of thousands of trees were leveled June 7, 2007 in Wisconsin.

A tornado left this scar in a forested region of Wisconsin on June 7, 2007. Click on the picture to get a little larger view or here is a link to the original NASA photo.

New Scientist has a great in-depth feature debunking 26 myths that regularly get in the way of discussing climate change. Its good to see a cohesive guide to this complex issue.

Apr
18
2007

Ever wanted to be a storm spotter? Now's your chance! The National Weather Service (NWS) relies on local SKYWARN storm spotters to confirm, from the ground, what meteorologists are seeing on radar. NWS storm spotters are not tornado chasers like the folks in the movie "Twister." Instead, they report wind gusts, hail size, rainfall, cloud formations, and the like to NWS and local emergency management agencies.

Tornado: This tornado, seen in its early stages of formation over Union City, Oklahoma (May 24, 1973), was the first one caught by the National Severe Storms Laboratory doppler radar and chase personnel. (Photo courtesy NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OA
Tornado: This tornado, seen in its early stages of formation over Union City, Oklahoma (May 24, 1973), was the first one caught by the National Severe Storms Laboratory doppler radar and chase personnel. (Photo courtesy NOAA Photo Library, NOAA Central Library; OA

New radar equipment is still not sensitive enough to determine the existence of an actual tornado. It can only predict where severe weather is likely to occur. So the NWS needs trained volunteers to verify actual severe weather.

With peak storm season just around the corner (mid-June here in the Upper Midwest), free, 2.5-hour classes are being offered to train new SkyWarn volunteers.

SkyWarn class schedule, greater Minnesota
SkyWarn class schedule, Twin Cities Metro area

Here's how you get started...

Apr
03
2007

The 2007 Atlantic hurricane season officially begins June 1 and runs through November 30.

Two hurricanes: This satellite image, captured 8/30/05, shows Hurricane Iris in the central Atlantic Ocean, with Tropical Storm Karen to the southeast. (The original image, from which this is cropped, also showed Hurricane Humberto moving northeast across the Atlantic.)
Two hurricanes: This satellite image, captured 8/30/05, shows Hurricane Iris in the central Atlantic Ocean, with Tropical Storm Karen to the southeast. (The original image, from which this is cropped, also showed Hurricane Humberto moving northeast across the Atlantic.)

Check back often for the latest predictions, forecasts, and discussion.

Mar
22
2007

Super size me: With more concentrated efforts on researching the topic, scientists now believe that super snowflakes do exist. They can measure between three and six inches in width and be the size of table plates.
Super size me: With more concentrated efforts on researching the topic, scientists now believe that super snowflakes do exist. They can measure between three and six inches in width and be the size of table plates.
Spring is finally here and what better topic to bring up than snow, right?

A story in the New York Times this week is providing more evidence about “super snowflakes.”

For ages artists and writers have waxed poetically about huge flakes of snow. Hollywood movie producers and Hallmark card creators have used those images to depict winter. But they’re just figments of our imagination, right?

Hard scientific data is now being collected about the size of snowflakes, the researchers doing that work have been pleasantly surprised. They’ve found that snowflakes measuring from 2 to 6 inches wide regularly fall around the world. Some reports about the “super flakes” say that they’re so large – the size of saucers or plates – that their edges turn up and centers sag due to their weight.

A snowflake expert from the California Institute of Technology points out that there’s scientific basis that limits the size of snowflakes. But, he points out, large snowflakes may often break apart due to the pressures from high winds hitting them as they fall to the Earth.

For ages, scientists had never really measured the size of snowflakes. But on some recent research trips, researchers have seen snow falling that measured two or three inches in size. That’s spurred on more interest – and research – into the size of snowflakes.

In the future, some of that research may be done from space. NASA will be launching a global satellite in 2013 that will monitor global precipitation patterns. That technology will be able to gauge the moisture in each rain or snow fall, along with the size of the flakes falling.

Jan
16
2007

It's cold this morning. Maybe the coldest morning of the season so far? Luckily, there's also a lot of sunshine, and almost no wind.

If it were windy, you'd hear the weather forecasters talking a lot not only about the air temperature (-6 degrees when I left the house), but also about the "wind chill." Wind chill is a way to describe how quickly heat is transferred from your body to the atmosphere when it's both cold and windy outside. As wind increases, more heat is drawn from your body, decreasing your skin temperature and eventually your internal body temperature. Wind chill makes it feel much colder than it actually is.

Last year, I overheard a woman in the Science Museum parking garage elevator talking about how she parks her car in a sheltered area to protect it from wind chill. She was worried that, if she left it in a more exposed area, it wouldn't start. I can't say anything about the state of her car battery, or condensation on her distributor, but I can say that wind chill has very little impact on cars or any other inanimate objects: wind will shorten the time it takes for an object to cool to the temperature of the surrounding air, but it won't get any colder than that no matter how much wind there is.

For humans and animals, though, wind chill affects how quickly hypothermia and frostbite can occur. Hypothermia is a condition in which core body temperature has fallen to the point where normal muscle and brain functions are interrupted. (Thor did a post about hypothermia a few weeks ago.) Frostnip/frostbite are conditions in which body tissues freeze. Knowing the wind chill helps us make decisions to avoid these and other cold weather dangers.

She's got the right idea: Bundle up! (Photo by Yann Richie)
She's got the right idea: Bundle up! (Photo by Yann Richie)

The best thing to do when there's a significant wind chill is to stay inside. But you can't stay at home on the sofa all winter. So what can you do? Dress right when you go outside. That means wearing several layers of loose-fitting, lightweight, warm clothing. (Trapped air between the layers will insulate you and keep you warm.) Stay dry. (Remove layers if need be to avoid sweating and later being wet and cold.) Wear a tightly woven, water repellent, hooded top layer. Cover your mouth to protect your lungs from the cold. Mittens, which allow your fingers to share warmth, are better than gloves. And your mom was right: wear a hat! Half your body heat can be lost from your head.